Friday, December 26, 2008

Reflection on Luke 2:1-20

Mary pondered.

Here we have a scene where great and glorious things are taking place: Mary has been told that she is carrying God’s own Son, the Messiah, she and Joseph endure a long trip to Bethlehem, they search and find no place to stay but a stable, shepherds are visited by an angel and told to go see the child laying in a manger, they gather in the stable exclaiming with joy the things that are taking place, and with all of this great and glorious chaos of strange, rejoicing people and dirt, and barn animal smells, and cooing young child all swirling around her; Mary takes a breath and ponders.

What do you ponder on when you’ve just given birth to God’s son? What do you ponder when God has literally dwelled within you for nine months, and now stares at you, needing you to feed him, needing you to raise him. I guess you probably ponder how you are to raise him.

What would happen if you were to run dry of milk and could not feed him? What is the penalty for killing God’s son? What are you going to do when he brakes a plate on purpose, smiles at you while you approach in anger, and then snaps his fingers to put it right back together? Do you get after him? Did he do anything wrong? What do you say to him when as a teen he tells Joseph to his face, “You are not my father! I listen to only my father!” Do you send him to his room without food? Again, should you starve the son of God?

It is a lot to take in. It is a lot to think about. It is a lot to ponder for a fourteen year old girl who has never raised a child before and now is expected to raise the Son of God. Does the world come to an end just because you forget to clean your hands before feeding the Christ child and something tragic happens?

This night, while everyone else loudly dances around and rejoices and a Shepherd pretends to ride the goat across from the manger, the sound quickly falls away to silence as Mary ponders.

Who is she that God would choose her for such a task? She is young. She is inexperienced. To the outside world she appears to have slept around. She stares at her young hands and sees just how small her palms and fingers are. Their size betray her. They hide a secret greatness.

Great people are given great tasks by God. The surprising thing is that most people do not know that they are great. Most people do not know they have been chosen by God. Most people do not realize that the smile and handshake that they gave a stranger in K-Mart actually caused the stranger to go home and spend a great, loving day with their family, even though they lack the money this year to create a lavish holiday.

Most people do not realize that forgiving someone for saying something stupid about you may have little effect on your own life, you have big shoulders after-all, but it just may cause that person to feel good and decent once again.

Most people do not realize that God has made them great. Most people do not realize that God has chosen them. But, God has. God has chosen us to be his people.

As she sat there, Mary pondered on this wonderful truth just as she did nine months before when the angel told her that she would bear a Son. God has chosen her, a lowly one, a poor one, to be a servant through whom God might do great things. She did nothing to earn this privilege. God just chose to come to her in a very real way. God chose to dwell inside of her. God chose her to share God's love with all the world.

And, God also chooses to come to you. Christ chooses to dwell inside you in a very real way; with his very real love, his very real forgiveness, and his very real peace. The Christ child has chosen to dwell in you. This is something to ponder.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Reflection on John 1:6-8, 19-28

This morning as the light broke into the world, it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. As the light crested the edge of the world, it spilled through the trees, glimmering through the ice, spreading its light in a bright glow, making the trees look like God had just then created them, their life force beaming for all to see. It looked just as one imagines the tree of life did just on the verge of creation; beaming a light that touches all the world with God’s goodness.

I wish I had thought to grab a camera to show you. But, I was captivated, as I always am, when God paints the world with joy. I wish that you had been there to see it with me. Though, standing next to me, in my bathroom, staring out the window, probably would have been strange.

I wish I were a poet so that I could share it better; using eloquent words to effectively put you right there in the moment. But, I have done what I can. I have simply pointed to something beautiful and wonderful, and I hope that God will give you the chance to experience the same joy and awe. I cannot do any more than that. I cannot recreate it for you. I am not the light. I can only point to the light. I cannot do any more.

None of us can do any more. Not even John. People are flocking to this man John, out in the wilderness to experience something great and refreshing and new in their faith. They have been told that it is worth the journey. Out there, you will find great joy, peace, and hope. And so, the religious leaders send people to investigate.

“Who are you John. Are you saying you are the Messiah? Are you saying you are great? Who are you?”

“I’m sorry to disappoint," John says. "I know you have traveled a long way on foot, but I will share the same thing I share with everyone. I’m not the Messiah. I’m not Elijah. I’m not a prophet. I’m nothing at all. All I can do is this.”

And at that, he sticks out his finger and he points. He just stands there and points. He is a man, in the middle of the desert, sand swirling around him, pointing. To this day, that is all that John does. Look at any painting of him in any art gallery. He just stands there and points. Even as a baby, who cannot even lift his own head, cradled in the arms of Elizabeth, he lays limp, pointing at the baby Jesus next to him. That’s all we can do also. And, I find comfort in that.

As Christmas approaches, I find the pressure to create the best Christmas for those I love mounting. “This year, I will buy the present that will bring tears to her eyes." "I will discover the gifts that will bring joy that last for days to the little ones." "This year, I will create the dinner that all will remember; a time of laughter and healing for those who have been battered through the year." "This year, I will make all things great.”

I find it comforting to see a man in the middle of the desert pointing, and nothing more. He cannot save people from their hurts. He cannot bring joy that will heal all wounds. He can only do one thing, point to the one who can.

I cannot bring you the light of the world this morning. I cannot gather and carry its rays or devise some way or some contraption that will create its life giving light. I can only point.

Like all other years, we will not be able to heal any wounds. Aunt Anna will still hate Uncle Bill and she will let him know it at the Christmas dinner table as she always does by “accidentally” spilling gravy on him once again this year, and it will once again squash the little joy that a holiday ham can create. We cannot stop that. We cannot heal them. But, we know who can. And we can point to him, laying in the manger under the tree.

We cannot comfort Grandma as she once again misses not having her only love there to give her a gift and share a place by the warm fire. For her, it will be another cold time of year. We cannot stop that. We cannot take his place. We cannot give her the light that will warm her heart. But, we can point to the one who can. We can point to the lights on the tree and remind her of the light of the world; the light that is able to warm hearts and make life new.

Christmas itself is unable to bring light and peace to the world. Christmas comes every year. And every year, war and hate still continues. But, it is not celebrated for no reason. It points. It stands in the middle of our dark and deserted, wind blown lives and points to the one who will make it new.

None of us are worthy to untie the sandals of Christ, the light of the world. And, it is best if we do not even try. But, we can point. We can point when we see the light cresting the edge of the world and spilling its light on all. We can point when God’s love comes into our world. We can point, preparing the way, so that when love spills on the world, all are awake to see it glimmering on our skin, piercing our hearts, and warming our souls. Like John, we can point to Christ.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Reflection on Isaiah 40:1-11

Psychologists call them sneaky thoughts, and we have them all the time. They sound something like the following: Your elderly grandmother tells you that she has decided to take a cruise out of Florida to Costa Rica and then she is going to take a three mile hike through the rainforest, and before you know it you think these words to yourself, “Yeah right, if the flight down to Florida doesn’t rattle your bones apart first.”

Or, your wayward, brat of an adult daughter tells you that she is thinking of having another baby and the thought goes through your head, “Sure, because Satan certainly needs more demons running around.”

The thoughts just pop in there. They are sneaky thoughts. You would never even think of saying something like, “you can loose more weight if you think that a bag of sticks is sexy,” to your best friend. But your brain just pops the little evil comments up there. They are personal comments for you to savor alone. “That’s a great dress, for a prostitute.”

Everyone has them. No one really thinks too much about them except when they accidentally come out,

“Pastor, look at that stomach. It looks like you’re three months along.”

However, we do think of them as a big deal if they are spoken about God. God knows the heart after-all. God knows every word of the mind, and the fear is that these sneaky thoughts about God will come back to haunt us.

“Christ you think your so perfect, try being me for a while.”

“What if I don’t want to worship you, what you going to do? Give me a nice house and a nice car like my neighbors. Please don’t punish me.”

“A God of justice…pffff.”

Of course, God has big shoulders and can take it; but letting them slip into the mind still seems a little disturbing.

Isaiah lets a big one not only slip into his mind, but slip out of his mouth while talking to God. God promises that he is going to forgive and rebuild Israel. God was going to punish no longer. “Comfort, O comfort my people,” God gently promises. “Preach this good news Isaiah,” God says. And out of nowhere Isaiah lets it slip, “God, are you an idiot?”

OK, you can look in your Bibles and you will not find the words, “God, are you an idiot,” printed there. But Isaiah does basically say, “What’s the point. People are like grass that just turns brown and ugly. Then you restore them and then they just turn brown and ugly again. What is the point of preaching any good news to them? What is the point of telling them things will be better when they are just going to mess it up again.” “Oh, you just broke a crystal Christmas ornament by feeding it to the dog? Here have another.” “That’s just dumb.”

This is the same sneaky thought that I have when I hear Jesus tell us that we need to forgive seventy times seven times (in other words, we always have to forgive). “What’s the point if they are just going to do it again?” I think to myself.

If we came to church based on the greatness of the people, I agree with Isaiah, “What’s the point of even coming and opening our mouths.” If we proclaimed from the pulpit how great a person becomes if they choose to be a Christian, I would step away right now. I would step away because I know that it is a lie. I would agree with the millions of people out there right now who choose to stay at home with their families rather than wasting time at church, listening to a bunch of hypocrites.

But, the church says nothing about how great people are. People do just wither up and die after getting a second and third and hundredth chance. They are like grass that will certainly just go brown.

We come to church to hear the Word that will not die. It is a Word that lasts forever. It is a Word that does not fade. It is God’s Word that says, “sure you guys are a mess, but you are still my people, and I am your God.”

We come to hear the words of a God who practices what is preached. God does forgive seventy times seven times. Christ does die for the sake of people who do not deserve it. The Lord promises to “feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

God is committed to mess-ups like us. “What’s the point? That’s idiotic isn’t it?” Maybe. But it is the way of our Lord. And we are an Advent people who do not forget it. We wait for God’s goodness to come. And it will. That is something to share.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Reflection of Mark 13:24-37

I hate to disrupt your life as you read this. Continue only if you dare. You see, I know that you have been busy with the excitement of buying Christmas presents and celebrating Thanksgiving with laughter and turkey. I know that excitement about the hunt is everywhere as the last days count down before buck and doe seasons. I just hate to ruin it in any way; but I will.

I have to because we are blindsided this week by apocalyptic words from the gospel of Mark:

the sun will be darkened,and the moon will not give its light,and the stars will be falling from heaven,and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven."

Nothing like end time visions to put a damper on growing Christmas cheer.

“Honey, you’ve got to go to church with me to help you get into the Christmas spirit!” a wife says.

“Oh the destruction of the world as we know it, thanks for bringing me honey, that was really helpful,” the husband responds.

To those who have no pain in their lives, hearing the words, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” probably is a holiday disruption. But to those who will not get to celebrate in 25 days with the one they want to the most, it is nice to know that grief will not get the last word. God’s word is the last word.

To those who look at themselves and see health and look at their family and see vibrancy, hearing the words, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” is probably a garble of background noise. But, to those who are swinging and punching a terrible illness head on and who feel they are loosing the fight; they are words that illness will not have the last word. God’s word is the last word.

To those who know their lives are perfectly put together and their clothes match with no wrinkles or stray hairs, the words, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” do not even register. But, they strike fear in the hearts of those of us who have hurt other around us and have violated God’s law of love of the neighbor. The heart wrenching fear over our terrible failures drives us to run in shame; to run into the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross, whose last words are words of forgiveness, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Jobs can be eliminated, family members can hate you, world economies can crash, terrorists can murder hundreds, nuclear weapons can devour whole people, the environment can fail and break under the stress of mismanagement, the sun can go dark, and the moon and stars can fail to give light, heaven and earth can fail to exist…all of these things can happen, but they cannot destroy God’s word, the final word, the word of Christ that says, “I love you, you are not forgotten, you are forgiven, you are my people and I am your God, nothing can separate you from my love.”

Listen. These words of hope reverberate throughout all of creation, and if we are carefully listening, we can hear it. If we listen carefully tomorrow while waiting for the prize buck to pass, we will hear God’s eternal word of love. If we listen carefully under the mumble of mall crowds, we will hear it whispered through the halls to all people. If we keep awake, we will hear the truth of God’s love all around us.

I think I know what causes the big problems of the world. I am fairly certain. They are caused by sleepiness. Truckers will certainly agree with that statement, but I mean more than just trying to keep your eyes open after fourteen hours of straight driving. Sleepiness causes us to miss opportunities for God’s love and care. I was just on facebook with a friend who just saw the most horrific thing that he will probably ever see in his life. He had just filled his plate with steak and salad at a Golden Coral Buffet, and was walking to his table to enjoy this feast when just twenty feet in front of him a car smashed through the wall of the eating establishment, hit a family who were sitting at the table right next to the wall, and had it’s windshield smashed by falling bricks which threatened the confused elderly driver inside.

The amazing thing was, this was not the most horrific thing he had ever seen in his life. The most horrific thing was what he saw when he looked back at the people in the restaurant. They just continued to walk up to the buffet, load their plates, and eat. The guy is prone to great depression, and he could not help but feel hopeless to see all of these people around him upright and walking, but completely asleep. They were asleep to people who needed them. They were asleep to compassion and love. They were asleep to God. And then the most horrifying thing of all, he looked at himself, just sitting there, judging others, and he saw that he too was asleep. Who was going to help the injured? Where they all asleep?

It is because of our sleepiness that we in the church celebrate the season of Advent before we even think of celebrating the joys of Christmas. During Advent, we put off the holiday cheer for a few weeks to allow God to shape us into people who are awake. While the rest of the world walks around asleep in dreams of presents and holiday carols and buffet tables, Christ is shaking us awake to a life of compassion and love, the life of being awake, the life that knows that everything in the world is simply here for a short time, then it is gone; but God’s word of love will last forever.

Christ, please wake us up. Let us be an Advent people who do not forget to search out your love. Let us be an Advent people who do not forget to show your love to all the world. Amen.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Reflection on Matthew 25:1-13

Wow, what a great day to read this reflection! This is the day when I get to pick out who of you out there are the foolish bridesmaids and who are the wise. You heard Jesus say at the end of the parable to "keep awake, for you neither know the day nor the hour of our Lord’s return." In other words, if you have a propensity to let your mind wander to sleep while reading my reflections, I guess you are not getting into the kingdom. Jesus just will not let you in. On the other hand, all of you who are currently or have been boy scouts will certainly make it into the kingdom; living by the motto “be prepared.” You would have made sure that your lamps were full of oil, you wise bridesmaids you. Plus, I like boy scouts, they go camping and carry cool Swiss Army Knives, so you are definitely in.

And, so it goes on, after hearing about these wise and foolish bridesmaids we pick and choose those who are wise and will be entering into the kingdom and those who are foolish and will not. “Melvin, yes you are in. Viola, no you dumb twit.” I suppose that this is natural. We all do it. But, if we were honest with ourselves, we would sense deep down that it is not right. There is only one judge in the parable, the groom; presumably Jesus. None of the bridesmaids did any judging. They could not. They all fell asleep on the job, waiting for the groom to arrive. They all fell short of the mark.

Disturbingly, the problem was not even that the foolish bridesmaids did not recognize the groom. All of us faithful people assume that we who know Jesus are the "in" crowd and those out there are the "out" crowd. The foolish bridesmaids knew the groom, shouting “Lord, Lord.” It was the groom who did not recognize them.

It is only the groom who recognizes and decides whether or not to let the bridesmaids in. Only the groom does the judging. Only the groom knows what is in the heart. Only the groom decides if you have enough oil in your lamps to light the evening wedding. We cannot do any judging this morning.

So I have to tell you that we really cannot pick out our favorite hated person and send them to hell based on this text, though many preachers and parishioners in the past have. We really do not know the heart of God. We really are not rummaging around in the mind of God, seeing the wisdom that only God sees. Some believe that they are, claiming things such as, “God is on our side.” They never expect God to respond, “I never knew you,” though God might.

So, what do we do with this parable if not symbolically slaughter people with it? What are we to think of the parable where the bridesmaids all bring enough oil for the evening wedding, but only some brought extra, on the chance that the groom might be late? What do we make of the love the bridesmaids have for one another. After-all the wise ones do send off the foolish to quickly get more oil and replenish their supply. And what do we make of the groom who judges so harshly? I don’t know.

There is one thing that I do know. Waiting for God can be very frustrating. God, when will you come and heal my cancer? God, when will you come and heal this divided, declining, and frustrating church? God, when will you come and stop the war? God, when will you come and make sure the hungry get food? God, when will you come and set my son free from jail? God, when will you come and put together our broken marriage? God, when will you set my children on the right path? God, when are you coming…when are you going to set things right…when will your light shine on the darkness of the world?

Waiting can be very frustrating. It can burn up all the oil in our lamps. It can cause us to care only for ourselves, or only for our small group of friends, or only for our small church and no one else. It is hard to keep the light of Christ shining in the darkness, as a beacon of hope to all around, when we allow our oil to burn up.

There are signs that one’s lamp has run dry of oil. No one intends this to be so. It just happens, because waiting for God to come and act is frustrating. But, there are signs.

If you no longer care about the poor, it is a sign that Christ cannot see his light reflected in you.

If you can no longer be peaceful, but seek revenge or intend to hurt, it is a sign that Christ cannot see his light reflected in you.

If you do not know how to put up with people’s mistakes and can no longer forgive, it is a sign that Christ cannot see his light reflected in you.

If you no longer care that people are treated fairly, it is a sign that Christ cannot see his light reflected in you.

If you cannot mourn those who have been lost, it is a sign that Christ cannot see his light reflected in you.

If the only answer to your problems is division rather than finding a way to unite, it is a sign that Christ cannot see his light reflected in you.

I know that it is hard to wait. I know that our souls run dry. But, I urge you to not simply fall asleep in a dark corner with dry oil lamps; allowing the light of Christ to be extinguished. It does not have to be this way. Christ has some fresh, new oil for your lamps, and it sounds something like this:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
“Blessed are the meek (those who do not seek greatness), for they will inherit the earth."
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy."
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of all that is right and good, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

Do not allow your souls to run dry of oil. Do not allow yourselves to fall asleep in a dark corner of despair. Rather, take your rest in the Lord. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Allow Christ to keep your lamp filled with new oil. Let that oil burn brightly until Christ comes and makes all things right again.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Reflection of Matthew 5:1-12

The search for the kingdom of heaven is not difficult. It is surprisingly easy to find and there is not an application process which you must complete and pass in order to be accepted.

This is quite unlike finding a good golf course with well priced green’s fees. I love the laidback nature of golf. I love the peaceful walks on the well manicured lawns. It makes me pretend that I have found the kingdom of heaven.

In the continuing drama of Jira’s search for a place to golf, it has been hard to find this well manicured the kingdom of heaven. The Towanda course is great, but the green’s fees are too much and there is no way I could afford a membership. I searched some more and found a beautiful course in Dallas. It looked peaceful. It looked challenging. It looked like a golfer’s heaven. It looked like I may need to prove through a pay stub that I have a six digit income in order to join. I do not. My green kingdom seemed allusive.

“You can’t afford it. You aren’t of the correct social standing. You aren’t rich enough. You aren’t wearing a collared shirt. I don’t care if it is a nice sweater.”

You do realize that many people see churches in the same way?

“You aren’t rich enough. You aren’t of the right social standing. You don’t have the right clothes. You aren’t one of us.”

Oh, most people do not directly say it, but they know when these words are being spoken through sideways glances and whispers. Being rejected once again in life, many searching people look elsewhere for the kingdom of heaven. It obviously does not reside in the church, they conclude.

Not long ago, my son Aaron bought me a Father’s Day ticket into paradise. With the promise of a $20 Wednesday and unlimited play, we wandered our way up to Waverly. No sooner had we walked up to the club house and the chef greeted us with a smile and a golf cart ready to go. The chef greeted us!

“Play any hole you like for as long as you like,” he said.

The bartender gave us another additional $10 off just for the heck of it and wished us a good game. As we headed out onto the beautifully peaceful fairways, I couldn’t help but think that we were blessed. “Blessed are the golf starving pastors, for they will find a nice, green fairway.”
You did not have to be rich to play on Wednesday night. You did not have to have a high social standing to be greeted and served a cart by the chef. All you needed was a desire to play golf.

Neither do you need to fill out an application and be approved by your good standing to find the kingdom of heaven. The qualifications are easy and the burden is light.

-Is your spirit broken? Do you desire healing? The kingdom is yours.
-Is your heart stabbing with pain from loss? The green, peaceful kingdom is yours.
-Do you find that you are meek? You wish to neither control other people’s lives nor have a drama filled existence yourself? Then there is a spot for you.
-Do you hunger and thirst that things be made right and good? Welcome.
-Have you been accused of having a soft heart because you know you need forgiveness yourself? Have a seat, rest those weary legs, you are forgiven.
-Is your heart open to see God, not as you want God to look like, but as God truly is. Then open your eyes, and God will be right there.
-Are you searching for peace? Do you see peace as the answer to the problems of the world? Welcome to the family of God.
-Do people dismiss you because you don’t want to follow the ways of the world, but the ways of God? You have already stepped into the kingdom of heaven.

“Rejoice and be glad,” for you have found that which you desire. Your desire for more in life has landed you squarely in the green grass of the kingdom. No application filled with references and accomplishments required.

If that is all the kingdom of heaven is, how in the world does the kingdom of heaven start to look like a golf course that requires a six digit income? Why do people find churches to be anything but a place where the head chef pulls up a golf cart and prepares you for a great game?
I think it is because we forget. We simply forget; that is all. We forget that what brought us into the kingdom was not our high standards or good life or great moral fabric. What brought us in was our need for God to rescue us…the need for something better; nothing more. We forget so easily.

We forget that being brought into the kingdom is like the teenager who sits alone on the side of the dance floor who receives an unexpected hand stretched out for a dance. We forget that walking into the kingdom is like a coworker of someone who died, it was a person whom they loved, but they are not close enough to get a seat of honor, who in their loneliness has someone tap them on the shoulder and say, “I see you are going to miss him…I will too.” We forget that joining the kingdom of heaven is like the member of a dysfunctional family, who striving and failing to make things right, who gets an invitation from the neighbor to spend some time next door where they can ba a part of a loving family. We forget.

Living in the kingdom is not complicated.
-Kingdom people remain poor is spirit: trusting in God’s ability to make things right.
-Kingdom people do not forget to mourn life: trusting in God’s comfort.
-Kingdom people do not seek greatness: trusting that God’s greatness is enough.
-Kingdom people desire the world to be made right: watching God make it happen.
-Kingdom people grant mercy to other because they see they need it themselves.
-Kingdom people desire to see God, and they do.
-Kingdom people are peaceful, because God’s family is peaceful.
-Kingdom people find life in God, because that is the only place where it is found.

Blessed are you, for the kingdom of God is yours.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Reflection on Isaiah 45:1-7

This weekend I figured out who the Messiah is! I know...I know, you are thinking to yourself, “You’re a Christian pastor, shouldn’t you know?”

However, I could not believe it when I saw it right there is Isaiah. And, being the good bible scholars that you are, you are thinking to yourself, “But, Isaiah is in the Old Testament. Jesus is not in the Old Testament.”

But it was right there. It is the only place in the Old Testament where the name of the Messiah, the anointed one of Israel, is given. Isaiah himself tells the Israelites who it is. And, let me give you a hint: it is not Jesus.

And the Messiah is: King Cyrus of Persia, the conqueror of Babylon, the puff-headed, full of himself, “I am the greatest in the world,” "kiss my golden sandaled feet," “I will free the entire world from the Babylonian scourge because I am great,” Cyrus! In fact, “Cyrus” in the Hebrew language means “Messiah.” I assume that his parents were preemptively concerned about his self-esteem. The man did grow up, humbly baring the name, Messiah, on his chest in glowing neon with an “Oppressed? Turn Here” arrow flashing on and off. However, he did live up to his name, eventually unlocking the jail bars and freeing the Israelites from captivity in Babylon to their homeland to live happily ever after…or at least until the Romans conquered them.

But, we are getting ahead of ourselves. When the prophet Isaiah revealed the name of the Messiah to the Israelites, they had no idea that this foreign king would save them. I do not know much about Isaiah, where he was born, where he came from, how many wives he had, but I do know that the day he announced, "Cyrus as the Messiah," was the day the Israelites sent him to the old folks home for good. Telling them that a foreign king who did not know God, did not follow God’s commandments, and was not from the house of David was probably like telling Isaiah telling us that our economic crisis will be solved by none other than the economic genius, Osama Bin Laden. Despite how crazy it sounded, God chose to use Cyrus to be the Israelite's Messiah. Read what God had to say about it:

“I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.”

God gets God’s work done in any way that God can, and it is amazing. The Lord took a foreign king, used the fault of his arrogance as an advantage, and freed God’s people. God gets God’s work done in any way that God can, and it is amazing.

The Lord once took a nun who continually doubted God’s presence and goodness, put her on the streets with the leprous and starving, and created Mother Teresa. Thousands have been saved by God through this “ye of little faith” nun. The God gets God’s work done in any way that God can, and it is amazing.

Jesus once indicated that the destruction of Israel’s temple by no means signaled the destruction of God. “From these stones God can raise up descendants of Abraham.” God gets God’s work done in any way that God can, and it is amazing.

Since becoming a pastor, I have to say that the name, “Cyrus” has been running through my head constantly. It runs through my head every time that someone says, “I think God left me out of God’s purpose. I don’t know any gifts that God has given me.”

“You may not know your purpose, but God knows. Just take a look at Cyrus,” I think to myself.

“I just cannot stand _____ who sits over there. She is worthless.”

“You may not see any worth, but God does. Just take a look at Cyrus,” I think to myself.

When God looked at Cyrus, God did not turn away when he saw the faults of arrogance or distance from the faith. No, God saw someone through whom salvation could occur.

Whenever, Mother Teresa looked into the face of a pealing, blood pustuled, leprous person, she did not see the disgusting, she saw someone whom Christ had died for. If Christ could die for him, then she could also. Seeing Christ in everyone was the basis of her ministry. And she is honored for it.

And, whenever God looks into any of our faces, it is not the mistakes and terrible faults that God sees there. Whenever God look into our faces, God sees someone worth dying for; God sees someone who is precious; God sees someone who is worthy being called a minister of the Kingdom of God; God sees someone through whom great things may happen. God gets God’s work done in any way that God can, through anyone whom God chooses, even your enemies, even you, and it is amazing.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Reflection on Isaiah 25:1-9

It was the alien ideas that did it.
Ideas alien to God that is.
The ideas are far from alien to us.

In fact, many of us hold these alien ideas precious to our hearts. The alien ideas go something like this: if you work long and hard you will be rewarded with a great feast that will allow to build your dream home, buy your dream car, get dream electronic gadgets to make your life better, take dream vacations, and enjoy it all with your dream family. The dream seems harmless enough. How could having a nice home and enjoying the pleasures of life with your family be harmful?

Yet, this drive to “get the nice things in life” is what sent men and women of the banking industry down the road of selling bad loans to people (without any regard as to whether or not the loan would eventually ruin that person’s life). It was an easy sell, because the person seeking the loan had the same dream of a great feast and all the fine things in life. And, as long as the sale of the loan could buy me a nice sports car, it couldn’t be all that bad could it? This idea of ambition and personal prosperity is foreign to God and always has been.

We are not the first country in the world to wreck on the road of ambition and personal prosperity. And we will not be the last either. If only we would have looked to history before speeding off. If only we would have just opened our Bibles to Isaiah, we would have recognized ourselves in the story.

If we had done so, we would have seen a city, Jerusalem, with great ambition and personal prosperity. We would have seen a ruling, wealthy class, driving itself toward something great; a great downfall. We would have read of their alien notions of personal wealth and enjoyment and we would have seen how God allowed them to be completely ruined because they failed to speak the same language of God. They spoke this alien language of personal prosperity, allowed it to pervade their whole city, and in response God made “the palace of aliens…a city no more, it will never be rebuilt.”

These people, leading an alien life, were warned of course. Isaiah warned them to start speaking the same language as God and the city will not be turned into ruins. But, the allure of the alien language of personal prosperity and greatness was much too loud. They wanted the feast for themselves.

Is the economic downturn we are currently in our own version of Jerusalem’s final ruin, or is it just the Prophet Isaiah coming to tell us to turn ourselves around before it is too late? Is the threat of global warming our own version of Jerusalem’s final ruin, or is it just the Prophet Isaiah standing in the doorway of the church shouting out to the world to listen and to start speaking God’s language which cares for all of God’s creation?

The language of personal gain and prosperity is extremely familiar to us, but it is not God’s language. If we were to talk to God in God’s language it would go something like this:

“O Lord…you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat…On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth…” (NRSV, Isaiah 25:4,6-8)

Apparently, when Jerusalem had forgotten to care for “the poor” and “the needy” of “all peoples” and “all nations” they had forgotten how to speak the language of God. How had they forgotten to speak God’s language? How has our culture forgotten to speak God’s language when we have the example of Christ living out God’s language coming at us from our pulpits and televisions all the time? We regularly hear how Christ fed the poor, healed the blind, took concern for the children, ate with the sinner, healed the broken-hearted, refused the alien notion of personal prosperity as he turned away the young rich man, and sacrificed his life on the cross for the sake of all. How easy it is to ignore God’s language of grace for the world.

Perhaps this is not the end. Perhaps, this is the prophet Isaiah shouting at us to start speaking the language of God.

I do know that the language is being spoken out there. Christ is at work out there. If you have been watching the travel channel the last two weeks you just might have seen an amazing commercial. The commercial starts out with waiters dressed in white smoothing the wrinkles out of fine table clothes and precisely setting the tables with fine china and crystal glasses. The head waiter signals the guests to come into the exquisite dining area and soon you see a group of poor and homeless individuals and families enter in to start their meal. In the soup bowl of the first course set before them, the bread make the shape of a cross and these words appear: "First course, dignity.” Click Here to see the add: Watch the ads. It is a commercial for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is not a pie in the sky representation of what we hope to be. It is a real ministry of a real church in Bismark, North Dakota who has not forgotten how to speak the language of God. This church serves dignity for all. This church is filled with the language of Christ and knows in its heart that the feast is for all.

I hope and pray that the language of God’s grace and care for all permeate all of our churches. I hope and pray that the language is so strong that it spills out of our doors and starts to drown out the alien language of prosperity. I hope and pray that our nation be filled with this language so that it spills out onto the world. God, may it be so.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Reflection on Matthew 21:33-46

Some parables are fun. The “Good Samaritan” is a fun parable that shows us who our neighbor is and what it is to be a good neighbor. The parable challenges us, yes, but it does not raise any fear. It is fun and refreshing. The parable from Matthew 21:33-46 is not fun. Are we not encouraged to read the Bible all the time by our pastors? And, if I am going to listen and invest some precious time into doing it, should it not be fun and refreshing? It should be a holistic experience that draws together the body and soul into one healed whole. It should cause you to walk away feeling good that you took the time to do it. Reading this parable is the opposite of that.

Discussing wicked tenants who are given control of a landowner’s vineyard does not appear to begin a fun and healing parable. Why should we care whether or not they try to steal the produce for themselves because they were put “in control” of it? Who wants to talk about tenants staining red the soil of the vineyard with the blood of the slaves and the son of the vineyard owner? There is nothing fun about the vineyard owner coming in and slaughtering the bad tenants to make room for good tenants. There is nothing fun about this parable at all in fact. I believe that this parable was probably skipped in most Sunday Schools because of its bloody and quite frankly un-fun nature. Perhaps, we should do the same and focus on some nice Biblical texts.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Those are nice texts are they not? They are so healing…so full of hope. Everyone who suffers and hungers will be healed and fed by God. Surely those are the texts that God wants us to focus on.

I do this with myself quite often; I choose to read the Bible texts that make me feel good; the ones that do not poke at me and cause me to evaluate myself. The bad thing about a lectionary (the three year cycle of Biblical texts that we read in church) is that I am forced to look at texts I do not like. And, you are forced to read texts that you just may choose to skip over when opening the Bible. Of course, you still have the option to just close out this blog and ignore them altogether. I do not have that option.

What I do and you do when we choose to not read things we do not like is what I call selective blindness. We choose to remain blind when we start to read something we would rather not. We choose to remain blind when what we are reading starts to pry into our lives and wrench things loose. An example of this selective blindness is to take this parable and interpret the parable to be talking only to the Pharisees of Jesus’ time. “They are the bad tenants who horde the power and wealth given them by God and we are the good Christians to whom God has now given the kingdom of God.” Selective blindness would stop right there.

Selective blindness would not venture to ask the question, “Well, if we are the new tenants, are we doing any better with what God has given us? Are we sharing all that the Lord has entrusted to us or are we hording it? Do we share God’s possessions or do we convince ourselves that God's possessions are our own to do with however we please? Do we share the good news that says, the sick are made well, sinners are restored to the community, and God is praised because it is all God’s doing,” or do we like to keep those hope filled biblical texts to ourselves? Are they just treasures that we keep hidden on our bedside night table for personal encouragement only? Selective blindness does not allow us to ask those questions because it fears the answers.

Fear from questions such as, “But, if I share it, what will I do if something happens to me?” penetrate us. It enters into our veins and muscles and allows us to ignore Christ. It allows us to want blessings for the poor in spirit but does not allow us to participate in making that happen. Not only that; this fear does not allow us to trust that Christ will find a way to provide for us.

What if we did get the courage to offer some of our wealth to our poor neighbor and something did happen to us? Is the only option that we will die because we cannot care for yourselves? Do we really trust Christ so little? Do we really need to steal God’s possessions and direct them only to ourselves in order to feel secure?

We and the Pharisees do not knowingly reject Christ and his wondrous kingdom where the blind see, the hungry are fed, and the sinful are forgiven. All we know is that we are scared. We do not understand how fear causes us to loose sight of what God’s will for the world really is. We cannot see unless we allow these uncomfortable, not fun texts to encounter us and unsettle us.

If selective blindness had not hidden this parable from those involved with sub-prime mortgages (those who handed out mortgages to people who could not possibly afford them) would our nation be in trouble now? They only saw the money from the sales of those mortgages that would make them personally secure.

Of course, it is easy to point fingers at others and showcase how fear and the resulting greed can ruin everything. What is hard to think about is how your own blindness has unknowingly hurt someone else. Trust me, it has. I have done it, and you have done it. This may be a fearful placed to trod. You might hate me for bringing it up just as the caretakers hated the son. But, do we really want to be the selfish, wicked caretakers? I thought not. It is time for some truth seeking and some truth telling; for the sake of ourselves, for the sake of our communities, for the sake of the nation, and for the sake of the world. Christ's light shines most brightly when the truth is close by.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Reflection on Philippians 2:1-13

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
Did not regard equality with God
As something to be exploited,
But emptied himself…”

A recent trend in American culture has started us down a path of health. Remember how, through the 90s, we were convinced that if a half pound hamburger was good, a one pound burger with a healthy barrel of fries and a tanker of coke would be better? Bigger was better in the super-size me culture of the fast-food world. Playing on primal fears that less food means certain death, many of us were taken in while out pants sizes had to be let out.

However, notice that the super-sized language has stared to fall away from the fast-food industry and portion sizes can now fit within your vehicle. Something happened. A number of reports on American health and children’s health in particular (which told us that the majority of our grade school children were now obese) came out and shook us into reasonableness. The film “Super-size Me” came out and reinforced the idea as we watched a man slowly killing himself while eating only a diet of McDonalds. We learned that more is not better. There is something to be said about emptying.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
Did not regard equality with God
As something to be exploited,
But emptied himself…”

Our awareness of healthy eathing aside, I am not so certain that we have completely convinced ourselves of the wisdom of emptying. If you are a parent or a grandparent now raising a child as if you were the parent, you now know that there is a lot of pressure on you. There is a lot of expectation on you. In the past, to be a good parent meant baking cookies periodically, letting your children run around outside for hours on end, showing love by reading stories, sending them to their room when they were bad, and kissing a lot. Doesn’t that sound nice? Doesn’t that sound semi-relaxed? Doesn’t that sound completely foreign today?

To be a good parent today you have to fill your children up with lots of good things. You have to not only cook them the correct things, but you also have to make sure they are in a sport to build up self-confidence and team spirit, you have to get them to the zoo so that they learn about caring for animals, you have to get them to a museum so that they are not culturally stupid, you have to make sure they play an instrument, you have to make sure they are connected to their friends with cell phones so that they are not social outcasts, you have to make sure they are not down about themselves, you have to tell them they are doing good even if they are not, you have to make sure they visit everyone in the family at least four times a month, you have to get them to church, eat your vegetables, eat your vitamins, take your medications, they cannot watch too much TV but they need to watch some educational TV but only certain ones that come on a 8:30, 9:30, 10:00, and 11:15. Is it possible for the TV power button to go bad? Did I mention that you have to do all of this in the three hours that you are not working your job, cooking, or sleeping? In other words, we are still caught in the supersized mentality that says we need to be filled up in order to be great people.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
Did not regard equality with God
As something to be exploited,
But emptied himself…”

I am not certain that even Christians have seen the wisdom in emptying. Don’t we feel like we need to be doing more in order to be the true people of God. To be great people we need to read the Bible more, get out and serve the poor more, get out and visit the sick more, make some more food for more church dinners, pray more, get together more, worship more, give more, give more, give more, love more, more, more, more…and if you fill yourself up with doing all of these tasks along with the normal everyday stuff, you will be worthy to stand before God and say, "Boy, wasn't I great."

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
Did not regard equality with God
As something to be exploited,
But emptied himself…”

I find it interesting that Jesus saved the world through his death on the cross, not by filling himself up, doing more, and making himself great, but by emptying himself. Somehow, in having your life cleared out, you will find life. Somehow, in trying to do less and love less, you will actually love more. God’s love is not a task. It is who we are. It is what is left when we allow Christ to clean out our lives.

There is a great difference in accomplishing tasks of love on top of everything else you have to do in the day and being love no matter where you are. Jesus walked the earth not to fill himself up by accomplishing lots of tasks. He simply gave of himself wherever he went; a healing here when asked, and shared meal there, freeing the spirit troubled prisoner who stumbled up to him. Christ emptied himself. Everywhere he went he was love; he was God.

Sacrificial love is not a task. Sacrificial love is who you are. You were made that way in your baptism, when Christ splashed sacrificial love upon you. Allow Christ to continue to use that baptismal water to clear out all of the expectations on you. Allow love and forgiveness to cleanse you. And if we are successful as a Christian community, we will have an empty congregation. Of course it will not be one that is physically empty, but it will be one that is ready to love.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Reflection on Romans 13:8-14

Peering through the clouds, using a sideways glare, I tried to see if God was watching. I was worried sick and running scared because I thought I had been caught. I do not recall in the least what I had done. Perhaps, I had punched my younger brother. That seemed to be a regular, enjoyable sin of mine. Perhaps, had looked at a girl with lustful intent. All the sudden girls were all around and I could not help but look. Or perhaps, it was the huge, enormous sin of not changing the toilet paper roll after using the last sheet. Whichever it was, I was certain that God peered around the clouds and saw what I did. I was waiting for retribution to fall from the sky in the form a falling piano or flying tractor trailer. I do not know exactly where I got the idea, but it never, never crossed my mind that God just might choose mercy instead of retribution.

It is strange that I had this vengeful conception of God, because my pastor was a great Lutheran preacher, so good was he that he is soon to become bishop in Minnesota in the next couple of years I am certain, and he preached God’s grace all the time. He made the love of Jesus Christ very real, even for a small child, using examples of parents and loving dogs. For some reason, after listening to him I knew that my dog Sparky loved me no matter what, he slobbered up my face after-all, but I was not convinced concerning God.

How we see God is so important, because we will follow the God we hold in our hearts. There is the phrase, “be careful what you do, your children are watching.” And, I think that this is true for God also, except I am not certain that we watch God all that closely. We will strive to be like the God we hold in our hearts. If we hold to a God of vengeance, not only will we worry about whether or not we are being perfect, we will also likely worry about whether or not everyone around us is being perfect. If they are not, they will deserve to be punished, and we will make certain that happens. I am not saying that justice is not important and that God does not care about justice, but I suspect that giving out vengeance because God has been personally hurt by what we did is not usually God’s way.

It is going to be hard to follow the advice of Paul in Romans to “Love your neighbor as yourself” if we never believe that God actually ever followed by that same rule. We will be judges if we are certain the God is only a judge. However, by the same token, we will put our lives on the line for another person if we are convinced that God has done the same for us.

Fast-forward a year or two when I was in the Jr. High locker room and a classmate was being pushed around in the shower. Stepping in between the classmate and the bully, I took a shove, slid across the floor on a nice film of soap, and ended up on my rear-end in the gutter of the shower. Laughter ensued of course, it is Jr. High after-all, but the laughter was now on me and my classmate was able to slip away safely. This really was no doing of my own, it was God. At some point, someone allowed me the grace to stop running from God and understand that Jesus Christ stuck his neck out for me in a big way. It was more than his neck. He stuck his whole body out for me on the cross. I learned what it meant to “be loved,” and it made a difference for that classmate.

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” These words of Paul make no sense if we don’t believe God acts the same way. But life is different when we understand that Jesus Christ loved all of his neighbors (the whole world) as much as himself; dying for everyone’s sake on the cross. Life is different when you are told that you are loved.

Instead, of running away from a God who was going to drop a piano on my head, I would have used that same amount of time to go and pick flowers for my neighbor (she was a cute golden-haired girl, just a year younger than myself). Or I could have gathered more of those violets and shared them with the cute girl’s great grandmother. Life would have been different if I would have known that God loved instead of despised.

You are loved by God, more than God loves Godself. That is the message of the cross. You are loved. And, it makes a difference in how we see the world, in how we see other sinful people like us walking around, and how we act towards them individually and as a church. But, that will be the subject of next week’s reflection. Just know today that God is a God of mercy. You are loved. Allow yourself to “be loved.”

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Reflection on Romans 12:9-21

You are loved by God and there is nothing you can do about it. You can work your whole life doing great things, and none of those things will earn you that love. You can be the most spiritual person in the world, connected with nature and other people, with niceness and wisdom oozing from your pours and still you will not have earned that love. You are loved by God, because God chose to love you. As a loving parent cradles their crying child, so too God loves you and forgives your annoying shouts and fits through the forgiveness of Jesus the Christ.

So you are in a family of love. The grace of Jesus Christ fills your entire being and surely you will allow some of it to spill out. And this is the point that Paul is at in his letter to the Romans. He has explained God’s grace, how we do nothing to deserve it, and now we have these love filed bodies. What do we do with them?

I have to admit, love isn’t an easy thing to let spill all over. God’s love certainly spilled everywhere; “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” but we have been taught to be careful with our cups. We have been taught from childhood to pour carefully rather than to spill. When you pour, you have control over where it is going. When you pour love, you are certain that it goes in the intended direction and not behind you where it just may land on your worst enemy. What a waste that would be. When you "pour" your love, you are seen as nice. The correct people will rejoice in your niceness and will appreciate your niceness. However, niceness never travels beyond a small group of people. Niceness does not spill love on the whole world as God’s grace did. One of the worst things your church could be called is “nice.” Niceness does not transform lives; grace does.

We have been taught to pour, but Jesus the Christ appreciates the spilling action of grace. Jesus has no problem with the child who takes the cup of love and wings a nice streak of love all across the room, marking the dog, soaking grandma, filling the $2,000 curtains, and finding its way through the screen door, onto the neighbor who cut down your tree just because it was blocking the sun.

Jesus appreciates having fellow spillers to share God’s word of grace. But, spilling is hard to do. It is hard to live messy lives. Things will not always be logical in a love spilled world. People who should not be honored and blessed will be, and people who should be blessed will be expected to do the work of doing the honoring. You do not get any awards for your great wisdom or your peaceful nature in a world of spilled love. Instead, in a world of spilled love people’s lives are changed by God (people you would never expect to turn their lives around have their lives turned around), and you get no recognition. This kind of world makes little sense; it certainly not come naturally; but it is the way of God. So, like the Olympic runner who reminds themselves of specific things in order to continue running a gold metal race, “Keep your fingers loose and floppy…glide don’t bounce,” Paul reminds us of specific things that will make certain we are sharing love and not just being nice.

Hate doing evil, and embrace good.

Outdo each other in showing appreciation for each other.

Have hope, God is not far away.

Be patient…even when suffering…be patient, God is not far away.

Help the poor…those who are forgotten or hated for being lazy.

Talk to the stranger and welcome them with everything that is yours. Don’t just stare at them.

Bless those who hate you. In fact, pray for them that they may turn from their ways. Do not say bad things about them or wish them to die. Encourage the goodness that they do have.

Spend time with others: rejoice and weep with them. In hard times, do not leave those who weep alone.

Spend time with the lowly, those whom no one else spends time.

Be yourself. Who you are is good enough. Do not claim to be better or more wise.

Do not seek revenge. God showed love on the cross, not revenge. God will deal with evil people the way God wants to. Your only job is to love.

Be peaceful. Do not stir up trouble. Be a peacemaker.

When it comes to love, there is no difference between your friends and your enemies: feed them, give them drink, provide them with shelter.

Spill your love on even enemies and hot refiners coals will shower on them, the evil will burn away, and what will remain in them is God’s grace.

You are an athlete for God. Practice spilling grace. Hopefully, when someone visits the church community they will not say, “They were really nice.” Instead, they will say, “When I went there, I found what it means to be loved by God.” Practice spilling grace.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Reflection on Matthew 14:13-21

The wilderness is where you go when struggling in life. Setting out into lonely, deserted places is what we do when struggling with faith, with life in general, and with grief in particular. It is where we go to cry, to shout, to get lost, and to search for answers.

After hearing about John the Baptist’s death, Jesus sets out for the wilderness. Getting into a boat by himself, he rows toward a deserted place with the memories of his friend…his earthly mentor…on his mind. He rows across the lake to a deserted place to have time to think.

When a close friend of mine discovered that his wife was cheating on him, he set out for the woods; for the wilderness. When my grandma discovered that she had cancer, she closed herself away in her room; the wilderness. And, when I discovered that I would be the only one left with the memories of fishing out on the lake with my grandfather, such as the time the fish spit my hook out and the combined force of the spit and my tugging sent the lure sailing dangerously close to giving my grandfather a pierced lip, I took a long walk in to nowhere in particular; the wilderness.

Lots of people search for answers in the wilderness. Perhaps, that is why when Jesus gets ashore he finds in his deserted wilderness 5000 men plus women and children wandering around and searching also. The wilderness is sometimes a popular place. Perhaps it is because in the wilderness we are certain that we will get our answers. We have a good reason to think this also. God wrestles Jacob in the wilderness and God gives him a blessing. God feeds the Israelites manna in the wilderness. Jesus is tested and given a purpose in life while in the wilderness. And the five thousand plus will also have their hunger satisfied.

Jesus, God on earth, sees their need and hears their cries. He shares healing and hope and feeds everyone with bread and fish. Everyone who wandered into the wilderness was filled. No one walked away without being filled.

The world normally assumes that God is present most, and at work the most, when great things in life are happening. There are preachers who live and breathe this type of understanding of God. They fly into deserted, hungry places with their helicopters, proclaim that if only people believed hard enough they too would have a great and rich life, and then they fly out again like angels who have found the good life. They teach that God is found in the great things. But, I find it interesting that the people of those deserted villages are provided actual food and given knowledge of how to farm not by these preachers, but by actual people who are willing to come into the wilderness, live there with the people, struggle there with the people, and discover God there with the people. The helicopter preachers have discovered the great and powerful god of wealth. The villagers have found the true and humble God of the wilderness. The true God sends people to live among them, struggle with them, and show grace to them.

God does not require big things to be present. God is always present in the little things. God is found in the deserted places, where we cannot depend on ourselves, and we need to trust. God is most present when we struggle and find ourselves in the wilderness. God’s love was found on the cross, the most deserted place of them all. Do you feel lost? Do you feel hurt? Are you lonely? Are you in the wilderness? You could not possibly be closer to God and God’s love.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Reflection on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

We’ve all heard this parable before and we know the moral: be the seed rooted in good soil not the seed rooted on the path or on the rocks or in the thorns. Plant yourselves in good soil, do good things, yada, yada, yada, be loving like Jesus was loving, Amen. Short reflection today; time to venture forth from the computer and enjoy our summer afternoon at the mall, or at home in front of the tube, or playing games in a family member’s home.

Leaving everything right there does not feel right does it? Do not get me wrong, some part of us wishes I was not joking, because there are much more interesting things to be doing out there than sitting here reading a sermon. There are malls to be explored, great scary theme park rides to be enjoyed, beautiful gardens to plant, unexplored mountains to hike, and fish packed lakes to be emptied. I know that part of you probably has that desire pulling you out the door, but there is that equally piercing gut feeling that tells you such an attitude towards God’s house is like a skin piercing vine of thorns that will painfully snag you as it grows past, and haul you far away from the good soil.

Let us be honest, do we not come to websites like this expecting to find the presence of Christ, expecting to find good, rich, dark, soil in which we can sink our roots deeply? Do we not hope, each time we read reflections like this, to soak up a word that is full of water and minerals? Many times we do not get what we desire, but do we not wish that we could?

I will tell you the truth, I am not quite sure how this sowing the seed thing works. I am certain that a lot of people come and read with the expectation of meeting Christ and do not feel as if they have. I am honestly not certain that some people are ever given the chance at sinking their roots into dark, rich soil. It seems that lots of people are just sown in the wrong places from the very beginning.

I have known lots of people who are thrown onto heavily traveled paths where they do not even have a chance because they are picked at or trampled on right away. Others are cast into the shallow soil on top of rock where they have little hope to spread their roots and get firmly established. Usually, they are blown away with the gentlest of breezes. Others are always winding up in the thorns, and I think we all know what life is like when the thorns are trying to tear you away from your good soil. There are all these people that I know who are good people, but they just can not seem to get a break. Why did God cast them into such rough conditions?

Yet, at the same time, there are those who seem to find the good soil anywhere they go. They get thrown on the path, and somehow they find the middle of the path where they will not get trampled. They actually thrive being in the conflict of the path. You know these people. Others are thrown onto rock and somehow they find the crack in which they can send their root deeply. They use the rock to their advantage, hooking the bottom of the rock with their root. You have met this person. They are probably sitting nearby. And much rarer, but still out there are those who find a way not to be choked or pulled out by the thorns. Somehow these people are able to make the worst situation great.

But, those people are not the rule. I am not sure that there is really anyone to blame here. People cannot be expected to be put into terrible positions and come out with deep roots in rich, good soil. To expect such a thing is just unfair.

I am not even sure that God can be blamed. God could be blamed for being a terrible farmer. No one throws away their precious seed on the path or on rocky ground, or in the thorns. That is just bad economics. But, I do not think it is evil. I think that God means it for good.

God does choose to be a terrible farmer. God chooses to cast us with the Word in our hearts all over the place.

That leads me to think one thing. It seems to me that since some people find the good soil in the worst of places; that God casts us everywhere, even the worst places, so that every place can have the chance to experience Christ’s love and forgiveness. I mean, look at the yield that God can produce out of just a little good soil in between two huge rocks: a great yield is four fold, but God’s yield is a hundred fold, or sixty, or thirty. It is amazing what God can do with just a little good soil.

Perhaps, you know what it is like to be sown on a busy and conflicted path? Have you had troubles setting your roots deep? Have you been sown among the thorns? Consider that God has provided you a small patch of good, rich, dark soil anyway. Perhaps, God intended you to fall among the thorns, not to harm you, but so that good soil might start to sprout life even there. What a great, green glimmer of hope you may be to someone who finds themselves cast into the shadows of the thorns.

What a gracious God we have, who provides good soil, even in the most unlikely of places. What a gracious God we have, who desires Christ’s grace and forgiveness to land everywhere, for everyone to touch and experience.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Reflection on Romans 7:15-25a

The 1st Commandment: “I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods.”

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“Oh bender ball, you are absolutely wonderful. You give me hope. You promise me a great body and a changed life. For only $9.99, you are a small, plastic, pop the side open and blow up miracle. I give my breath to you, oh bender ball.”

“I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods.”

“I’m sorry God, I’ll do better next time.”

Ped Egg

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Two high quality emery buffing pads are included for the ultimate finishing touch. The unique “egg” shape of the PedEgg™ not only looks great, but is ergonomically designed to fit perfectly into the palm of your hand for easy and convenient use. Best of all, PedEgg™ has been designed to collect all the skin shavings in a convenient storage compartment allowing you to use it anywhere with no mess. You and your feet will love the new PedEgg™!

"Oh Ped Egg, you are my new hero. Though no one studies the soles of my feet, I am sure that without you I would be a complete outcast. Rough skin is the death of me. Without you I am nothing. I am simply a bumpy, cracked, not soft-to-the-touch foot horror. I give my feet to you Ped Egg."

“I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods.”

“I’m sorry God, I really, really promise that I will not do it again.”

Family comes first.
Families matter most.
Families are number one.
Have you forgotten your family?
Everyone who is a healthy adult had a healthy family.
Focus your full attention on your family.
Focus on the family.

“Oh family, how could I neglect you for even a second? There are hundreds of people who could help their neighbor, but only I can help my family. I will devote myself to you 100%. I will never forget you. I will never put anything first, before you. You are my whole life, my family. You are what keeps me alive. You are what sustains me through every trial.”

“I am the Lord your God you shall have no other gods.”

“I’m sorry God. I didn’t even know I was doing it this time. I really, really, really, really promise that I will not do it again.”

America The Beautiful (Second Verse)

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassion'd stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness.
America! America!
God mend thine ev'ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

“Oh America, thank you for keeping me safe. Mold me by your law. Keep me safe in your law. Shape me into a better person. American, imprint your law and your freedom in my heart so that it may never fade and your ideals may never falter in my life.”

“I am the Lord your God you shall have no other gods.”

“I’m sorry God. I really didn’t know I was doing it this time. I try and I try and I try, but I just cannot follow your law. I want to follow your law; I truly want to. I pray that I might finally be able to, but each time I try, something else distracts me. Sin is so hard to see working until it is too late. I keep getting distracted. Who will help me? I can’t do it! Who will save me?”

“Oh God, I keep failing. I am captive to sin and I can’t do anything about it. Save me God. Come to my rescue and save me from myself. I do not understand my own actions, for I do the very thing that I hate to do. Believe me God, though my actions do not say it, I have not forgotten your goodness and forgiveness. May your goodness and forgiveness touch me once again. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Reflection on John 21:15-19

Peter was following close behind Jesus, hidden in the shadows, as Jesus was drug off to the High Priests for questioning. His love for Jesus was great enough to care about what happened to Jesus, but was it great enough to stand with him to the end? A woman saw Peter standing nearby in the courtyard.

“The woman said to Peter, ‘You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?’

He said, ‘I am not.’”

Strike One.

In the courtyard were many court slaves and police, talking and waiting for the result of the case so that they may get back to work.

“Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing round it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself. As Simon Peter was standing and warming himself, they asked him, ‘You are not also one of his disciples, are you?’

He denied it and said, ‘I am not.’”

Strike Two.

“One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked,

‘Did I not see you in the garden with him?’

Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.”

Strike Three.

Three strikes, Peter is out. Peter’s love for Jesus has failed. Does he love Jesus more than himself? Absolutely not! He has been put up to bat, he has had three attempts at the swing, and he has absolutely failed. It is time to move him to the dugout and forget about him.

Three strikes is about all that people can handle. If one misstep is taken, it can easily be dismissed as a fluke; as a sign of human vulnerability. The person will know better next time. Once a second, identical, misstep it taken, things start to get serious. “Why did you do that? You knew it wasn’t right. Why don’t you just stop?” Forgiveness too comes with the second misstep, but it is often with hesitancy and a clear warning that it should not be done again. And, as an almost universal human law, the third misstep is the last straw. You can visit any country or any culture and you will find this to be the case. The third time, the person knowingly did the misdeed and obviously intended the harm. This cannot be tolerated. It is time to say goodbye. Three strikes and you are out.

That being the case, it is amazing to me that Peter shows up in the story again.

Given an unprecedented fourth chance, Jesus asks Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" Peter said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." The question is asked two more times, “Do you love me?” two more times Peter says "yes," and two more times Jesus gives him responsibility over his sheep, to tend and to feed them.

Is Jesus stupid? Has Jesus learned nothing? It is very simple Jesus, Peter cannot be trusted. He will not go to the cross with you. He will not stick around through the sludge of life and care for your lambs. The guy has proven that he will simply run when things get tough. It is time to learn Jesus. It is time to wizen up. Or, perhaps, we are the ones with something to learn.

Forgiveness can be powerful stuff. Everyone forgives the first time. Most people forgive the second time. No one expects anyone to forgive the third time. The third time that a friend did something to destroy the relationship between he and his wife, all of his friends, including myself, told his wife to leave him. She should not allow herself to go through any more of his nonsense. Three strikes and you are out.

She did not leave him. We were not happy with this decision, but she apparently knew something that Christ knew, those who are forgiven much love much. The forth time, the unexpected opportunity at forgiveness, turned him around. There is something powerful about the unexpected opportunity at forgiveness. It can be powerful. It can be life transforming. It can keep a couple together so that their children can have an intact and happy home. It can start the amazing healing ministry of an apostle who knows he is only walking to his death.

Unexpected forgiveness, unexpected grace, can do amazing things. Unexpected grace leads to salvation. Perhaps, Jesus and his cross have something to teach us. Grace is the most powerful force in all creation. It has the power to break sin and death each time. Perhaps, Jesus and his cross have something to teach us.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Baccalaureate Reflection on 1 Timothy 4

To The Class Of 2008 - Towanda PA

If I were a great preacher, I would have silver streaked hair and I would stand here and talk to you about how you are the future of the world. I would say something like, “Go forth into the world like Joshua, blow your horn, and take the world by storm, decimating the walls that divide people throughout the world. Instead of walls, construct a new heavens and a new earth where all will live in peace and harmony, and where we will preferably all make $100,000 a year. I just threw that last part in. A great preacher would not say that. But, I thought that those leaving High School and going into the theatre would really like that last part. They desperately desire to land a role other than, waiter. “Would you like some pepper with that sir?”

If I were a great preacher I would stir in your souls a vision of the athlete who works and works and works until their body is sculpted into perfect shape. I would instruct you in the ways of exercising your soul so that in time, in the future, when you really matter to society, you will be able to move mountains with your faith. But, not yet, now is the time to exercise. And, if I were super great, I would do it all with an amazing PowerPoint presentation of futuristic mountains shifting and morphing.

I would also use cyber lights. Oh how I wish we had cyber lights. They, of course, are the cool moving concert lights that automatically twist and turn and change color and shape. As they beam their light intensely on me I would say, “Now go forth, grow in your faith, and be the mountain shapers of the future.” And, the cyber lights would all move simultaneously to the back of the auditorium blasting open the doors and spilling their powerful light out into the world as if the children of God were just born and were soon going to conquer the earth.

That would be awesome. But, you didn’t get a great preacher, you just got me. I was cheap. Like, I cost nothing. Typically you get what you pay for.

Really, I am too young to preach something good to you. That is what I have been told anyway. I remember vividly the first time that I stood up to lead a worship service. I walked in front of the congregation, and just as I was about to open my mouth, a lady whispered pointing to me, “Isn’t that kid supposed to be lighting the candles?”

Another time I walked into a hospital room, offering to assist in any way that I could, “Hi, how are you today? How are you and God getting along?”

“When is the pastor coming in?” he replied.

When I told him that I was the pastor, he just laughed. He thought I cracked a great joke. He looked around the corner for the real pastor who was pulling his leg.

Now, I hate to say this but, don’t hate me just because I am beautiful and young.

If you have not heard it already, you will hear very soon, “Aren’t you a little young to be a doctor? Aren’t you a too young to be a lawyer? Don’t you need to be seasoned more to play in a professional orchestra?” “Do you really know enough or have enough experience to be guiding us in any meaningful way?” “You can’t really be 21; show me your ID.” And the grandest one of them all, are you ready, “you are the future.” If I am the future, what am I now? Dead air? “You are the future.” It seems like a nice sentiment at first, but if you really think about it, it sounds very much like, “Take a seat until it is your turn.” And, these words can zap the energy right out of you.

They were obviously zapping the energy right out of young Timothy as he tried to correct a Christian community which was driving itself off of a cliff. They were forgetting simple things like, “it’s OK to love each other and to even get married,” and “all things are acceptable to God, both food and people. Nothing and no one is trash to God.” Timothy knew these simple truths, but how do you do anything when you are simply a future and not a now? It is tempting to just say “whatever” and walk away.

“Don’t just walk away,” Timothy is encouraged in this letter to him. If you just walk away, you are doing the very thing that everyone else is trying to do to you, abandoning your God given gift. Christ chose you. “Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders.” Christ chose you. “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”

So, I am not the greatest preacher in the world, but Christ has given me something to say, and I am saying it. And, you are not great either. But, who cares? That means nothing. Christ has claimed you in love and has given you a unique gift also. Forget the dismissive words that a parent said to you in anger that one day, "You can't do anything right." Forget what a teacher said on a bad day or a frustrated coach one evening. You are a gift, and you have something to share now. You are not the future, you are the now. Hey, I think I just coined a great new catch phrase, “I am the now.” Alright, maybe it is not that great. “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example.”

In the end, I chose not to dismiss the woman or the man or the countless others who tried to brush me off as being too young. I wanted to; believe me. But, I took a chance that Christ actually gave me a gift to offer these people. So, I stood up straight and preached to the woman, and I asked the man in the hospital bed a second time how things between him and God were going. Soon after the worship service was over, the woman met me and said, “Thank you, Pastor.” And at the end of the hospital visit the man said to me, “Make sure you come back preacher kid.” Take the chance and use your gift. Christ gave it to you to be used. “Let no one despise your youth, but be an example.”

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Reflection on Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

Jesus has been spotted walking around with an interesting crowd of people, and it is causing people to ask you questions. Last night, a woman from a church just up the street told you that Jesus was spotted walking into the tavern with a couple of guys whose every skin pour reeked of whiskey. They had apparently gotten their fill of heavenly love constantly saying, “You’re great, I love you man.”

She badgered you saying, “These men haven’t spent a night with their family in weeks. And now, I saw Jesus’ hands with the telltale orange tint to them."

That is right, he had sat down with them at the bar and had some buffalo wings with them.

“Why does you teacher eat with slobs like that?” she asked?

Immediately, a man taps you on the shoulder with a somewhat perturbed look on his face. His lower lip quivers with barely concealed anger as he informs you that your teacher was seen on the television a couple of nights ago. Jesus was seen kneeling in a cell in Guantanamo Bay, praying beside a known terrorist and then laughing with the guy as he shared a simple meal.

“That guy hasn’t turned from his ways. What kind of teacher do you have?” He asked with disgust. “Do he and you support terrorists? Why does your teacher eat with terrorists?”

The question put to you is the same question that has been put to Jesus’ followers since the beginning. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

A politician Jesus is not. Jesus is always eating with the wrong crowd. And, because of the fierce anger on their faces, you hesitantly give these two your answer, “My teacher eats with those who are sick, not hose who are healthy. You are right, those people probably haven’t turned from their ways. But, you have to understand, my teacher shows mercy. He doesn’t require anything to sit and eat with him; no money, no promises, not even repentance. My teacher believes in being merciful. Maybe you should give it a try.”

You move to walk away, but the guy grabs your attention once more, “If that is true, I saw your teacher eating with your pastor the other day.” You simply reply, “My teacher eats with sinners, with those who are sick.”

I assume that Jesus eats with you also. I assume that you welcome Jesus to your table and that Jesus joins you, eats with you, and mercifully accepts you as an eating companion, warts, sins and all. Too many people have the wrong impression of the church. Too many people have the sense that the church is a gathering of the righteous. I suppose that those of us who gather together may have contributed to that vast misconception, fancying ourselves as faithful and good, and presenting ourselves that way. But, the truth is; Jesus only eats with those who need him. We come to Christ’s table, because we are hurt, we have fallen short, and we have we sinned. We are not great. But, our lack of greatness leads us to understand a great many things; leading us to say the weirdest things.

This week, Brandon, Pastor Randele’s brother who lost his left foot because of a hit and run motorcyle and car accident, said the weirdest thing, “I’m not mad at the guy. I can understand how when you’ve made a huge mistake all you can think of doing is running. He didn’t have insurance. He probably felt trapped.”

For Brandon, there was no question that this man deserves a chance at mercy. This is the man whose carelessness changed Brandon's life forever. But, that is what eating with Jesus does, it changes us. We feed our fill of mercy and we cannot help but allow that mercy to spill out again.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Reflection on Matthew 7:21-29

As I listened in on the conversation, I knew that the Christian community that I was visiting was different. Certainly, it appeared very different. The congregation met in a warehouse with couches for pews and home-created artwork hung all around us on the walls. A band played self created hymns quietly in the background. And while people ripped off huge chunks of communion bread from deliciously seasoned and baked loaves, with a glass of wine in hand, they talked. For a good fifteen to twenty minutes they talked. During Holy Communion, they talked. It could almost be considered rude to God if the talk were small talk. But, there was no mention of the mall, or where people are going for vacation this summer.

Instead, the talk seemed much more "holy." This was hard to believe as most people there were dressed in ripped jeans, t-shirts, and well worn sneakers. One kid literally had his skateboard leaning against one of the couches. I guess that was his transportation to church. Yet, the conversation was holy and I was soon convinced that somehow this small community of Christians has built their house upon solid rock.

As I walked around the Holy Feast…it was more than a feast, it felt more like an adult party…as I walked around this Christian party I heard words that rung of the Sermon on the Mount. I heard, “I am soooooo sorry, I just wasn’t thinking” come from the mouth of a young woman with a bandana tied to her head. Bandana girl had not yet taken any bread or wine, as if she were living out the words of Christ, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” The woman she was addressing gave her a hug and I could not help but think that the hug spoke the words, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

And older couple walked up to the pastor and told him that they were willing to trek overseas and help cradle and rock orphans in a dangerous and hostile land (earlier in the service this opportunity was brought up). They were willing to give up a summer of golf and grandchildren, and go into enemy lands to walk the extra mile for children of the enemy. Christ’s words, “love your enemy,” and “go also the second mile” seemed to be imprinted on their souls.

On one couch a young guy patted the back of another. I walked nearby. At this point, I admit that I was prying. I did not care because I was fascinated by this community. A quick listen revealed them talking about a rocky marriage. Again, words from the Sermon on the Mount on lust, divorce, and forgiveness entered my mind as the man doing the back patting gave sage advice to his friend on that couch.

I do not know how they had done it, but this community had somehow figured out a way to live Christ’s teachings from his Sermon on the Mount in that warehouse. Many houses of worship appear to be blessed by God with fine towers of stone, huge choirs that reverberate down the street, and flawless worship. But, are they really? I cannot actually make that judgment myself. Perhaps, there is wondrous and amazing examples of the kingdom of God at work beneath the grand fa├žade. However, I fear that sometimes there is not, and the stone steeples of that church will quickly topple as its foundation washes away, because it has not yet discovered the wonderful gift of Christ and his Sermon on the Mount. This foundation…this teaching is already laid. It is rock solid. It is free. It is a gift. All are invited to build upon it.

The sermon is a wonderful gift that, if actually attempted, bolts the Christian community to a rock, serving to keep it strongly held together, forgiving of all, at peace with itself, loving of perceived enemies, and living God’s vision for the kingdom.

The power of that small community was not from its grand worship or its powerful presence in town. The power of that community came from its willingness to accept the gift of Christ’s teachings, and from its willingness to give them a try. They were a kingdom community, and people could sense that from the minute they stepped in the door. You could not help but be drawn into this kingdom living. It was powerful. It was strong. It was as if life were built on a rock, and it was. They were a kingdom community and I pray that more and more churches become kingdom communities. The world of suffering and chaos need us to stand strong and be who we are called to be: kingdom communities who do not ever forget Christ’s peace, Christ’s love of all, and Christ’s forgiveness.

God, help us stay away from foolishness. Help us stay away from building on sandy ground. Point the way to your rocky ground, that we may continue to build there. Amen.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.