Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Reflection on Matthew 11:2-11

“Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?” John asks as he paces around his prison cell. Prison cells are terrible places if you want your sanity to remain intact. They are small, and cramped, and they cause you to think way too much. John, the great preacher of repentance in the wilderness, the prophet who would get in the faces of religious leaders and fearlessly point out the faults of secular rulers, the man described by Jesus as the greatest of all people born of women, is trapped, heart pacing, breath fast, wondering if a cramped space is his reward for his hard work for God? “Are you the one?” “Was it worth it?” “Where’s my reward?” “What did I ever do to you God, but serve you?” “Why won’t you recue me?” “Are you really the one, or should we wait for another?”

Every young Jewish boy had been taught about the Messiah. In fact, every young boy was celebrated because he had the potential to be the coming Messiah. John, was no different, except that he knew he was not the Messiah. He knew that he was not the one who would lead the Jewish people to freedom. He knew that he was not the one who would break the chains holding down the people of God. He knew that he was not the one who would come riding in the Jerusalem on a mighty horse to overthrow the Romans and rule with a just arm. He knew that he was not the one who would do any of this, but he thought that he had found the one that would. Now, he is not so sure. He, the greatest person ever born, is full of doubt.  John is not even being freed by the Messiah from a little prison cell; how is Jesus going to do something larger like freeing a people from an entire oppressive government? “Are you really the one?”

Today, a home owner looks up from the foreclosure notice after years of hard work on their home, and asks, “What did I ever do to deserve this? Jesus, are you the one, or should I search for another?” A woman is thrown out on the street by her former boyfriend after years of tender love and dedication, looks up to God and asks, “What did I ever do to deserve this? Jesus, are you the one or should I search for another?” A grandparent, after losing a grandchild in an accident and then soon after, a child to depression, looks up to God and asks, “What did I ever do to deserve this? Jesus, are you the one or should I search for another?”

About every three years or so I get a letter or an email from a former youth group member who is off at college. They all go something like this: “When I was in confirmation and youth group, I thought that I could see and understand God so well. Now I am not quite so sure. I don’t think I know who God is anymore. I am sorry if I disappoint you, but I am not so sure that I believe in God at all.”

I would like to say for the record that I am not ever disappointed when I get these letters or disappointed in the college student who send them. There is a time in everyone’s life when we discover that God is not who we expected God to be. Even the greatest person born of woman, John the Baptist, had these same questions.

Jesus answers John’s doubts by telling John’s disciples to "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." In other words, I am not who you expected me to be. You are right, your Messiah does not exist, but that does not mean the Messiah has not come. God is God, and will be who God wants to be, and God will appear where God chooses to appear. Blessed are the people who realize that.

In the Jewish tradition, God has a name, in fact God has many names, but you cannot say one of the most Holy of them all: YHWH. Spelled out, God’s name has only consonant letters, there are no vowels. As a child you may or may not have discovered that it is nearly impossible to say a word without using vowels. Try saying “sanctuary” without using any vowels, or try “Towanda." It is nearly impossible to say a word without somehow adding some sort of vowel sound. There is a point to this game; if God’s name only has consonant letters, then you cannot possibly say it. And, if you cannot say God’s name, then you cannot own God or say that God is this or God does that. And, if you cannot own God, then God is allowed to be God. And, if God is allowed to be God, then the only way to find out who God is and what God does is to be open to seeing God when God chooses to reveal those things to you.

“Are you the one?” John asks Jesus. The answer is “Yes, but I am not who you expect me to be.”

The Buddhist tradition holds an interesting concept, it goes something like this: if when following the Buddha’s ways toward enlightenment you see the Buddha; kill him. In other words, do not let your own concept of the Buddha get in the way of your journey. And, Jesus invites John to do a similar thing. If when following the Messiah you see him or think you know who he is and what he is about; kill the Messiah in your head. That Messiah is not real. Instead, follow the true Messiah, the true servant of God, and expect nothing in particular. Simply, be open to what the true Messiah has to offer.

I know that the remaining questions are huge questions. So, what is the true Messiah like? What is Jesus about? What is God like? I will not answer any of your questions today. Doing so may simply create another false God for you to carry around and be disappointed in. All I will say is: God is God. Follow where God takes you, and when you walk around in the world, expect to see God at work. Expect to see God at the accountant’s office, because God is there. Expect to see God on the street with the suffering, because God is there. Keep your eyes open, and follow where God leads. It may not be to where you expect, but it will be to a place of grace and salvation.

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.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Reflection on Romans 15:4-13

I love the season of Advent. I love the anticipation of it as we wait for Christmas. I love the calm tone of worship during Advent. Most of all, I like Advent’s color: blue. I love blue. As a child, it was the first crayon scribbled down to a tiny stub. I also used the color maroon a lot, but only because it went so well with blue. You see, blue is not only a color with a hue of amazing depth and beauty, but it is also the bridge between the deadly nature of black and the brilliant assurance of white. Deep in the hue of blue you can literally see blackness giving way to light. Of course, in the color blue, the light has not yet shown itself; but blue offers the hope that it will be coming soon. Like no other, blue is the color of hope. Advent is the season of hope, and blue is its color.

Blue is the color you search for in the darkness of the night when backpacking miles from anywhere in the wilderness. Have you even done that? It is a fearful experience. In the dark you hear all kinds of sounds. Squirrels scampering in leaves are easily hungry bears and a cricket flinging itself against the tent is easily a mountain lion carefully cutting its way toward its meal. In the fear of the darkness, you wait until you see the dark blue sky. It is not quite the assuring light of day, but it is the hope that the daylight will soon come.

In the same way, Mary stood at the tomb of Jesus, before the break of dawn, weeping because her Lord was gone. She was in the darkness…there was no hope. If only she would have looked up to the sky, she would have seen that it was not black, it was dark blue. The sun was about to rise on a new day, and the Son was rising to new life. The night was not black; it was blue and filled with great hope.

And though our lives may appear black, in truth they are not. Advent reminds us that they are blue, filled with hope; filled with the knowledge that God’s light will shine in our lives again.

You might remember that last week the scriptures led me to reflect on Jesus’ return and about Jesus’ judgment when he gets here. I reminded you that Jesus instructed us, his disciples, to do hard things such as loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, and loving our enemies. I went even further than that and told you that when Jesus comes back he actually expects to see you doing these things.

I know that many of you felt these words as words of judgment. The words felt black and created fear. But, if that was the only thing you felt as you finished that reflection, then you missed an important piece. It is a piece that I am going to offer you now: Jesus actually expects us to do these things because through you, God is able to transform the world of the neighbor for whom you cared, and the enemy whom you loved. Through you, God is able to transform those people's lives from a world of blackness into a world of hope; a world of blue.

Last year, while helping the high school theatre students with their scenery, I accidentally overheard a conversation in a dark corner of the stage. Alright, so I was eavesdropping, sue me! But I could not help it because one of the teens was sobbing. Apparently, her parents had a huge, violent fight, one of many, and it looked like the family was over…for good. “I don’t know how I’m going to go on, my world is gone” she sobbed.

The other girl sat and listened. Finally, she said carefully and delicately, “I just want to tell you that I am still here and have an OK life. You see, my parents got a divorce, and it was bad for a long time, but, things are better now...they aren't great, but they are better.”

And then, she said something that I would not have ever expected to hear from a teen’s mouth in today’s culture: “God made sure that things worked out somehow. I know God will do the same for you.” With those words and with an embrace of tears, the fearful teen’s black world turned blue. At that moment she was given hope that the light was somehow going to come. The light was not there yet, but she had hope.

Why does Jesus expect to see us taking seriously his call in the scriptures to love the neighbor and pray for our enemies? Because, it is only when we are together, joined with one another, that he has the power to turn the blackness of the world into blue; death into hope; darkness into hope for the light.

Consider any normal church. As Christians, we gather weekly to read the Holy Scriptures. This is not done just because it is something that we were told to do. It is because, when we read them to each other, we can see the color blue. The apostle Paul says that, “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” Paul further prays that the God of steadfastness and encouragement may “grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Ask any depressed person if they can make it through the tough times alone. Most will emphatically tell you “No.” The search for hope is not a journey that you can take alone. You will get lost in the darkness and fall into a pit. It is a journey that Jesus sends us on together.

Paul continues, “Therefore, welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” This welcome is not a quick greeting at the door just to say hello. This welcome is literally, “taking a person in” or “holding them close.” It is the type of welcome the one teen offered to the other. It is the type of welcome that pulls another person, a former enemy even, into your life so that their blackness may be turned to blue. It is the type of welcome that eventually leads you to sing together the praises of the name of the Lord who brings light to a dark world.

I pray that you can see the implications here? Whenever you see darkness and wrong and sin in the world, the solution is not to declare people evil and simply push them away. Every day I read in editorials and blogs words of hatred against individuals and even entire groups of people.  These editorials and blogs paint God’s good creation as being black and evil and wrong. But, we know such words are not the truth. We know that darkness is not permanent. We know that black is not the true color of the world. We know that the true color of the world is blue. It hopes for the light that has not yet come, yearns for the light that is just out of reach, and desires the assurance that blackness will give way to the light of God.

The world desires to have what you have: hope. And, we have it in abundance. We have so much hope that it spills over the lips of our souls. Do not be mistaken, this spilling is not loss of hope, it is sharing hope. Who in your life needs to have some hope spilled on them? Take a moment and actually answer that question, letting God in on the name. Who in your life lives in darkness because no one has told them to look up into the sky and see that it is not black, it is blue? As Paul declares, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

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.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Reflection on Matthew 24:36-44

I have a question for you (a quiz of sorts): beyond cooking your holiday meal, what is the second best use of your kitchen oven?

It is storage for your dirty dishes when unexpected company arrives, of course.

This was the remedy that my parents came up with one day when they saw the headlights of my grandma unexpectedly turning into the driveway. If grandma came in the door and saw the stack of dirty dishes, she would never let them forget it. They family was extremely busy, but that would not be a good excuse. They panicked, looking around the kitchen for a solution when my dad saw it; like in the movies, a beam of light fell on the oven and angels started to sing. It was a big space, it could hide many things, it was quick; it was perfect. By the time she drove up our drive, walked to the door, and entered into the house, all of the dishes had been transferred to their new, temporary home, and the counter even smelled of fresh cleaner. That night we had spaghetti, all of which could be made on the stovetop, nothing for the oven to heat. Then an oversight was brought to our attention; we had no garlic bread to go with the spaghetti.

“Well, I can just make you up some quick, just let me fire up the stove.” “No grandma!” we answered in fearful tandem. “Just sit here and relax for once, you deserve it grandma.”

We made it safely through the evening, and the experience changed our family’s ways. Though busy, we made it a priority to have the house clean; dishes done, floors vacuumed, and papers put away. Our house was always prepared for the unexpected arrival of grandma…for a couple of weeks at least. But, when she did not pop in unexpectedly for weeks in a row, we let our guard down and the oven trick had to be done again and again to cover up for the truth.

The truth was that we just were not who we wanted to show ourselves to be. The truth was that her unexpected visits created an interruption in our lives, but not a disruption. An interruption causes a temporary change in life for temporary circumstances. A disruption causes a complete change in life. An interruption is a mask that you put on to make other people think you are someone you are not. The oven trick is a mask that made it look as if we were as clean and organized as she was. But, you do not need a mask if in life a disruption has occurred. A disruption actually changes you for good. The truth is, in the end, her unexpected visits only caused an interruption, not a disruption. We lived a lie rather than changing our ways.

I wonder if our lives of faith are often the same way, masks of goodness, kindness, and justice, shaped by periodic interruptions, but ultimately unchanged at heart.

To those of us who have either put on Holy masks or simply just do not care to even do that, Jesus has a warning. He will be coming back to judge the world.

God is a God of love, mercy, and justice. But, because God is a God of love, mercy, and justice he actually expects his people to be those things also. The love your enemy stuff...God actually expects you to love your enemy. Jesus actually expects to see you actively loving your enemy when he returns. No, masks allowed. That stuff about pulling the log out of your own eye first before you point out the speck in another person’s eye. Jesus actually wants you to change yourself before you start bickering away and saying anything about others. God actually expects you to be merciful as God is merciful to you. No, masks allowed. The stuff about giving up your possessions, he was not just talking to fill up the dead space in the air. God actually wants you to give up your stuff and care more about people than things. What do your receipts say about who you are? No masks allowed.

If we trust in a God who actually loves the entire world, shows mercy on others (including those who sin terribly), and delivers justice to those put down by the powerful, than we better not be shocked when Jesus comes back and actually expects to see those ideals lived out by us, his followers.

Jesus will come at an unexpected time. Not even Jesus knows when the Father will send him. And, just in the days of Noah, when those who reveled in the pleasures of the world were swept away by the waters of the flood, do not be surprised when the thief breaks in and takes away those who do not live the life of love, mercy, and justice that God desires us to live. “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” “Keep awake!”

Luther tells us to “fear, love, and trust God.” I think this is what Luther is talking about when he speaks of fear of God. God does not play games with love. It is not for show. Love is radical. It is hard. It puts others first constantly. It does not allow you to judge without looking at yourself first. God does not play games with love. God is serious. And, it can strike a chord of fear.

I apologize if this reflection strikes fear rather than warming the heart. I am tempted to say that there is nothing to worry about if you are truly someone who is prepared. You will welcome the arrival of Jesus as your king and have nothing to fear regarding his rule and judgment. It will be a day of gladness for you.

However, I know the reality. Jesus’ return at an unexpected hour is unsettling for almost all people, “for no one knows the day or the hour.” His unexpected arrival exposes our true selves, and rips off the masks that we wear. I am not going to sugar coat things for you or myself this morning, though I am tempted to do so. I would love to tell you to go on your way and just be kind everywhere you go, God loves you. But, to do so would be a disfavor to you and a delusion for myself. God is a God of sacrificial love on the cross. Jesus does expect to see that same love in his kingdom. Perhaps, the words of God this morning will serve as a disruption to life rather than an interruption. Perhaps, the words of God this morning will, as The Reverend David Lose says, allow us to prepare for Christ, rather than preparing for Christmas. Perhaps, when Jesus comes again, he will find many whom he can proudly stand beside, those who truly strive to bring about peace on the earth. Consider yourselves disrupted.

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 23, 2010

Reflection on Luke 21:5-19

Did you hear? I know this may shock you, but experts in “end of the world-ish” sorts of things have announced that December 21, 2012 will not be the end of the world after-all. I was tipped off by a congregation member, thank you. Apparently, end-of-the-world Mayan experts have all failed us. They forgot to tell us that there are other Mayan stone tablets that have dates predicted far beyond December 21, 2012. This was no surprise to a Mayan elder who is sick and tired of crystal toting new agers seeking him out and asking him about how they should prepare for the end of the world. I love this quote from the captivating October 11, 2009 Telegraph, UK article that broke the story:

But most archaeologists, astronomers and Mayans say the only thing likely to hit Earth is a meteor shower…of New Age philosophy, pop astronomy, internet doomsday rumors and TV specials such as one on the History Channel which mixes "predictions" from Nostradamus and the Mayans and asks: "Is 2012 the year the cosmic clock finally winds down to zero days, zero hope?"

I imagine that your face exudes shock at this startling revelation. The fact that I even wrote the previous sentence was a prediction of my own that you have seen the end of the world come and go too many times to even care. How many of you built shelters to protect you from the destruction wrought by the millennium? That is what I thought; none of you. Every ten years…every decade or so…you see these end-time predictions come about. Most of you have lived through at least four predicted ends to the world.

I mention all of this for a reason. Since you already understand that most predictions of the end of the world are not worth the paper they are written on, and therefore, will in no way affect you, it will not be a stretch for you to learn that the words from Luke for today are not about you either. Jesus says:

When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately…Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. "But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.

These words appear to be end of the world language, and many people have used the recent perceived increase in hurricanes and surge in tornadoes as proof that Jesus was talking about us right here, and right now, and that the end of the world must be near, so go build yourself a shelter and hole yourself up for good. However, there is one important thing you must understand. Jesus was not talking about us.

Jesus was talking to his disciples. And, some time after his death, the temple in Jerusalem did fall. That was the Jews’ 911. It was big, and terrible, and horrible. The Romans slaughtered a bunch of people. And, there were earthquakes, and famines in their time, as there have always been earthquakes and famines. And, unfortunately, the early Christians were arrested, and persecuted, and brought to trial before kings and governors. All of these things did happen to the early Christians. Jesus was not talking about us.

I fear that people are so preoccupied with our own future and our own tragic demise that we miss the whole point of this biblical story in the first place. So, let us invite people to put away their mirrors for a second…to put away those things that cause them to stare at themselves and only themselves…and discover what Jesus does have to say.

The point is this, even though the early Christians went through these horrible persecutions for their faith, we are still gathering in the name of Jesus Christ today. Those persecuted Christians still told the story of Jesus. Were there people out there telling others that the end of the world was coming? Of course, and it did not matter. Jesus told them to share the good news anyway. And, they did. And, because they did, we know Jesus. Was the temple in ruins? Were there wars and earthquakes; and did they appear to be occurring more regularly? It did not matter. Jesus told them that the end will not follow immediately. More than that, Jesus told them that hard times are an opportunity to find God, they are not the time to give up. And, the disciples listened. And, because they did, we know Jesus.

All of us have come to the faith because someone in our past did not decide to throw in the towel and hide in their Armageddon shelter. You are here because someone in your past has endured through the hard times and found something so vital about God and so important about Jesus that they just had to share it with you. You and your faith are the beneficiaries of persecutions and death. You and your faith are the beneficiaries of other’s struggles. You are the dividend for other people’s endurance. And, you are invited to be a part of the same story.

So, I was wrong a little bit. The story is about you. It is not about your tragic demise in an end of the world cataclysm. But, it is about your struggles. It is about your search to find God and trust Jesus in your struggles. And, it is about God giving you the opportunity to share the joys and wonders of faith carved into you through endurance.

Who are your beneficiaries? How will you make sure that God’s story does not end with you? What is your story going to be? What are you going to share? What will you testify?

“Do not worry,” Jesus says, “about what you will testify.” Simply trust him. Keep an eye out for God’s actions in the world and in people’s lives, and wait for Jesus to give you the words. “Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance,” Jesus says, “for I will give you words and wisdom…”

I am reminded of an eight year old girl. Her grandmother was in the kitchen, crying uncontrollably because she had just lost her husband. Seeing her eight year old granddaughter in the doorway, she tried to straighten up and be strong. Her eight year old granddaughter stepped up next to her, took her hand, laid her head on her shoulder and asked, “Are crying about missing Grandpa?” The grandmother said “Yes, honey, I am.” With tears in her eyes, the granddaughter said, “I miss him too. I think that I will miss him until God lets us see him again.”

The grandmother shared with me that those words were more valuable than those of her pastor, friends, and children all put together. In one simple statement, the granddaughter gave her permission to cry, and to trust God all at the same time. With wisdom beyond her years, the little girl was the embodiment of the words, “Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance, for I will give you words and wisdom…” You do not have to worry. Trust Jesus and, future generations will have faith because of you also.

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 8, 2010

Reflection on Luke 6:20-31

It was one of the strangest funerals I have ever done. I was called out by a family member to do a funeral on the property of their loved one’s hunting cabin. That aspect was not so strange, this is Pennsylvania after-all. It was the funeral itself that was strange. As I arrived, I walked toward a great tent, put up in a yard next to a stream and small cabin. Hiding away from the rain sat and stood family members who were talking, laughing, and jabbing one another, regarding me with sideways glances and slightly worn and stained, beer themed T-shirts. A stereo blared 80s hair music and an old outhouse stood next to the tent; its front wall and toilet removed; the whole covered by a sheet of plywood and a microphone replacing the wall.

A very nicely dressed woman in heels, sinking in the mud, greeted me with kind words, a nice smile, and the man’s baptism date…obviously somewhat out of place considering the surroundings. She pointed out her children who sat at the edge of the tent in their nice shoes, ties, and fine black jackets. They were dressed for a funeral…they obviously were not dressed for this funeral, but they were dressed for a funeral.

A man with a beer in his hand yelled, “Sis, let’s get this thing over with,” and with that I was handed the microphone and directed to stand on the only non-muddy surface around; that is right, in the outhouse. The toilet paper roll still clung to the wall, missing its estranged toilet friend. Settling into the dry, but cramped space, I mentioned into the microphone something about gathering together now to remember the life and death of the individual, and declaring as we always do, “the Lord be with you.” That gathering statement usually prompts a smile and response of “and also with you,” but this time around, it prompted a brief exodus of about half the congregation to the cooler in the back of the tent to grab a beer. I could see that they were settling in for the long haul. Pops and fizzes accented the words of the Prayer for the Day and people raised their beers high during the Prayers of the Church. A roasting hog stared at the congregation from behind me, representing either the saints who had gone before us and the sacrifice of Christ, or more likely representing the meal that was being held up by the pastor standing in the outhouse. At one point, a friend of the dead man wanted to share his remembrance, so he joined me, in the outhouse, pressed against me in one of the more awkward five minutes of my life.

After the service, the man walked up to me, looked me up and down in my cleric and nice dress and said, “You know, he would have never have wanted this,” pointing to me in particular. I said in return, “I’m pretty sure you are right, he probably would have never wanted this.”

However, I am not so sure that God did not want it this way. I looked over the crowd as we ate and this is what I saw: rich and poor, finely dressed and not, kind and gruff, young and old, outright sinners and refined righteous, all eating and talking together, drawn together under one tent as a community of the saints. It was a perfect image of the community of saints. The pretentions of moral perfection were not in attendance that day. Instead, it was a gathering of sinners. It was a gathering of those God cares about. It was a gathering of those who are blessed by God.

Yes, the poor were there, feasting in their torn beer stained T-shirts; blessed are the poor. Yes, the hungry were there as the two nicely dressed children were finally allowed nourishment, not being allowed to partake in the feast of drink during the service; blessed are the hungry. Yes, those who weep were there, an unshaven grown man cowering in a corner of the hunting cabin, being consoled by another man; blessed are those who weep. Yes, those who are hated, excluded, and reviled on account of the Son of Man were there; the sinners, the out-of-town righteous, and the out of place pastor. We were all there gathered together to remember the resurrection of the Lord; and to have a beer.

Do not get me wrong, I love regular funerals. Pulpits are nice, pulpits are very, very nice to stand in and preach in, but there was something very real about that funeral. That funeral conveyed a truth about God that you just cannot capture in the majesty of a church building. The saints of God are not exclusive to the cleaned up and righteous of the world. The admission price to sainthood is not moral perfection, or even the striving to get there. The admission price to sainthood is simply this: being loved by God. Are you poor, then you are a saint…blessed are you. Are you hungry, welcome…blessed are you. Do you weep? Are you excluded? Are you made fun of? Are you disliked? Well, rejoice and be glad because none of that matters; you are loved by God…blessed are you. You are a saint.

So, I ask, how do you respond to a yard full of mourners with beers in their hands? You respond the same way that you would respond to any other saint of God, with love. "Do to others and you would have them do to you," right? Saints of God, it is not in righteousness that we have been found. Saints of God, in grace we have been found.

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 Romans 3:19-28

“For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” Three images, three paintings flash through my head when I hear those words.

The first is a painting on the side of a huge brick wall. The painting was never completed, you cannot go and see it. However, I can use the strokes of words to splash the color and spirit of the painting in your minds. On this huge brick wall, a mountain is painted. It is a tall mountain, but not an imposing one. You would have to scramble up its slopes, you would have to work and put forth effort to reach the top, but you would not need to climb it with ropes. All around the base of this mountain are several patches of the world’s trees: a patch of umbrella shaped baobabs from Africa, a patch of scrubby looking ginkgo trees from Asia, the prominent Oaks of the Midwestern plains, the tall and strong long pole pines of the mountains…you get the idea. The trees would represent the world around the base of the mountain. And, from under the trees emerge the world’s people in all of their colorful differences, from all different parts of the world; climbing and struggling on their way to the top of the mountain. At the top of the mountain is the cross with the glowing resurrected Christ standing with arms open wide in front of the cross, waiting for the worlds people to arrive and become one in him. Rays of light stream down to all the ends of the earth, inviting people to their journey towards the light.

This painting was to be my first commission. I was asked to consider painting the bare wall of the uncompleted portion of Wartburg Theological Seminary, and this image is what I came up with. As I mentioned before, it was never painted. The idea was all mine. I loved the inclusivity of the image. I loved the rays of light from Christ spreading to all the world. I liked the idea that all the world could be united in Christ. I love sideways strokes of the baobab tree and could not wait to paint some. Yet, it was never painted. There was something not quite right with the image.

Over the years I have pondered this painting’s non-existence. It could have been my testament to the world for centuries. Perhaps, I would even get money for the painting. But, it never happened. Seeking God’s truth in the text for today, I have finally come to peace with the painting’s non-existence. “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” I have finally discovered why this painting was never completed: in the image, people had to struggle to get up the mountain to Jesus. People had to go up. People had to work to find God. But, Romans says something quite different: God comes down. We are made right by Christ. We trust in Christ who came down to us so that we would not have to work our way up to him.

I wonder how you paint Jesus coming down the mountain to the whole world?

The second image is a striking one of a fear stricken man, huddled in the corner of a small stone cell. His hands cling to the rough hewn stone wall, but the cold wall offers no solace. The man looks over his shoulder and stares up in fear, apparently staring up at God, fearful of what God may bring when God chooses to come down. The man is Luther and the image is one laced with guilt over past wrongs; the sense of being trapped in sin; a man who had tried and failed, tried and failed, tried and failed to make things right; and an inability to find love from above…fearful of the Lord.

I wonder about this image. I wonder how many people find themselves in that little cell, fearful of the Lord? I hear people joke off-handedly, “God is going to get you for that,” but I wonder how many people actually huddle in the corner of their bedroom cell with no hope? I wonder how many people do not come to church in fear that God would have harsh words for them when they walk in?

I also wonder what the image looked like when Luther discovered for himself these words, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” What does freedom from sin look like? What does freedom from trying to be perfect in God’s eyes look like? What colors and strokes of the brush would you use to create the image of trusting in a loving God, who makes things right again?

The third painting is of Jesus walking in the sand. In his arms, he carries a man who loosely and somewhat unconsciously clings to Jesus. And, over the top of the painting is that famous poem by Mary Stevenson:

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord.
Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.
In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand.
Sometimes there were two sets of footprints,
other times there were one set of footprints.

This bothered me because I noticed
that during the low periods of my life,
when I was suffering from
anguish, sorrow or defeat,
I could see only one set of footprints.

So I said to the Lord,
"You promised me Lord,
that if I followed you,
you would walk with me always.
But I have noticed that during
the most trying periods of my life
there have only been one
set of footprints in the sand.
Why, when I needed you most,
you have not been there for me?"

The Lord replied,
"The times when you have
seen only one set of footprints,
is when I carried you."

What does it look like when Jesus chooses to come down to you? What does it look like when a person trusts in the one who makes things right again? What would your painting look like if you were asked to paint the following words: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”?

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, October 18, 2010

Reflection On 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

“Hello Pastor, thank you for that sermon,” the man not so innocently said to me just minutes after the funeral had concluded. We were still by the graveside when it happened. We were standing under umbrellas in the cold rain when it happened. There were still people with tears in their eyes, comforting each other when it happened.

And what exactly was “it?” “It” was the sermon that the man launched into about how he doubted the man who had just died was “saved.” This was not a sermon meant to persuade me of the poor character of the man who had just been eulogized, rather it was the rapid firing of Bible verses intended to kill my own understanding of the faith and to make his own look great.

I looked around at the people in pain and could not believe what I was hearing as shots rang out and struck some nearby innocent bystanders. “Really?” I thought to myself? “This is the appropriate time to have a Bible battle?” Like a suicide sprinter in battle, intended to cause a diversion and draw the fire away from the innocent, I moved the man out of earshot of the grieving and allowed myself to be struck again and again with Bible ammo. I would not escape the accusations and condemnations, but at least others would escape to the safety of the funeral luncheon.

I am certain that you know how the conversation went because I am certain that you have been in this type of one-sided battle before. The man sprayed his shots wide, covering every conceivable topic he could in the half-hour, soaking rain monologue, from salvations texts, to hell, to Genesis and evolution, to an etymological history of the word “soul.” Disjointed Bible verses were fired in succession to prove each point as being “right.” And he defended his rightness because the Bible is “God’s inspired and inerrant word,” or as others might say, “God’s perfect word.”

His claims on scripture lead me to ask, "what exactly is scripture?" I ask this question, not because I am fearful that a bunch of Lutherans will go forth from here down to a funeral on a scripture shooting spree. I ask because these scripture shooting sprees often raise questions within our own minds. So, again, what exactly is scripture and what is it not? It might be good to ask this question of scripture itself. Go ahead and do something that is culturally un-Lutheran right now, take out your Bible, and take a look at 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5. In particular, take a look at 2 Timothy 3:16 and 17.

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

“All scripture is inspired by God.” The word “inspired” is there, and I will come back to that, but the first thing that I want to point out is a word that is missing in this text. In fact, this word never shows up in all of scripture, yet it is a word on the lips of many who make claims about the Bible: “inerrant.” The Bible never describes itself as “inerrant” or “perfect” as we might say. You might not believe me, but it truly, never does. Well, what does it mean that the Bible does not claim itself as “inerrant.” I do not know what that means, but if the scriptures are to guide us in the ways of truth, we know that one truth it does not claim is perfection.

Some will claim that the Greek words for “inspired,” literally “God breathed,” are a claim of biblical perfection. Maybe. But consider where else this concept is used. Creation itself is “God breathed,” created by God’s Spirit…by God’s Word. You are literally God breathed. Now, I do not intend to share any of your family secrets here, but am I spilling the beans and breaking pastoral confidentiality if I claim you are not perfect? Of course, you are not perfect, and neither am I, but we are God breathed. Does this mean that I am saying the Bible is not perfect? I do not know, are you perfect Bible? (Asking the Bible.) Might we consider for a moment that we are asking the Bible the wrong question in the first place.

Instead of asking the Bible questions that it cannot answer, because none of the authors ever thought to ask them, let us look at what the scripture is to be used for: “teaching,” “reproof,” “correction,” and “training.” Notice how active all of these words are! The scriptures are for the purpose of shaping and molding; guiding and changing the people of God. The scriptures talk to us and invite us into a pattern of living the gospel; living the good news of God. This is an invitation to relationship with God. This is an invitation to live in Christ and to live as Christ.

I think one of the biggest mistakes people make concerning the Bible is expecting the Bible to provide perfect answers to all of their questions, rather than expecting it shape and mold their lives. The Bible never claims to be God's answer book that answers all of the questions that we may throw. So, what about evolution? Is evolution true? I do not know, and the scriptures do not know either. The scriptures never ask such a modern scientific question in the first place. You must ask science to have such a scientific question answered. Nowhere in the Bible will you have this scientific question asked in the first place. But, in a similar way, science will never be able to tell you about your relationship with God and God’s relationship with you as a created being. That question is addressed by the Bible and that is a truth that can only be found in the Bible.  It would be silly to ask science such a question.

Do you see where 2 Timothy is leading you? The authors of the scriptures were people inspired by God, touched by God’s actions so profoundly that they just had to share that experience with you! These authors had God’s saving and creating breath touch them profoundly, and the authors want you to be touched and inspired also. The authors want their words to shape and mold you into the people of God that God intended you to be, and quite frankly, so does God. God’s breath moves through those words so that you might be moved to be God's people, showing in word and deed the goodness of the Lord.

Luther put it this way: the scriptures themselves are not the Christ Child, but they are the manger that hold the Christ child. They bear Christ to us so that we might be shaped and molded by God’s love. I guess you could say, “so that we might be inspired.” The scriptures are the primary way that God speaks to us and develops a relationship with us, but it does not answer all of our questions.

Take Luke 18:1-8, the story about the woman who continually begs the unjust judge to grant her justice.  It is a story that promises results if we pray continually. The question in the back reader’s mind when encountering this story is, “why do bad things happen and why, if God is so quick to answer prayer, has not God answered mine already?” The story from Luke does not answer this loaded question. Instead, it invites you to keep praying. God is there. God will deliver. When? Luke does not know, but keep praying anyway. Keep in a close relationship with God even when you are not sure what God is up to.

There are no answers here. Just the breath of the Spirit moving you to trust in God, even when things look bad, and God seems far away. This is a true, inspired word to us.

What the man at that rainy funeral never even considered was that the Bible was leading him to bless those who mourn. Through the scriptures, God was moving him to be with those who mourn. Care to them. They need to know that they are God’s children, and God does not forget them. Perhaps, next time God will move him to realize that the Bible is not an answer book, and it certainly is not a book to be quoted just so that you can be "right." If he remembers those things, maybe he will not miss the opportunity God has placed in front of him to breathe God’s spirit of new life on those people around him who are struggling with the reality of death. The Bible may not always answer our questions, but it provides something much more valuable than answers: through it, and through those people who share it, God is present with 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.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Reflection On Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Most prophets of the ancient world came to Israel with a word from God that went something like this: I have good news and some bad news. The bad news is that your life has been quite less than an inspiring example of what it is to be a child of God. In fact, you have forgotten how to be a child of God. You do not worship God. You have not cared for the land. You have forgotten to take care of the poor. You have forgotten to take care of the widows. You have forgotten to love the aliens in your land. In short, you have refused to care about the things that God cares about. Because of this, God is going to utterly destroy you. You will have the land you love taken away from you and you will be forced to live as an alien in another land. But, the good news is, God is forgiving and will restore your land really soon!

That right there, in short, is what many of the prophets declared to the Israelites. Jeremiah is slightly different. He too comes with a word of God that says, "I have good news and some bad news," he continues with a list of sins such as not worshipping God, forgetting about the land, etc., he too declairs that because of this, God will utterly destroy the people, they will have the land they love taken away from them, and they will be forced to live as an alien in another land. But, he continues, "The good news is, well there is no good news. God is not going to let you see your home again for generations, so you might as well file your papers, jump through your hoops, work through your red tape, and become a citizen of the land of which you are a part."

No more apartments for the people of God. They are a people who will not get their homes back for years. No more apartments. They might as well build new homes in their new land.

Now, some of the people of Israel did eventually get their homes back. But, others took God very seriously and never moved back to Israel. They had gotten rid of their apartments, bought some land, poured a good foundation, and never left their new home. I am not so certain that all Christians have followed God’s advice and put up their houses. It seems to me that a lot of Christians tend to live in spiritual apartments.

Apartments are OK for a while, do not get me wrong. There are some wonderful apartments out there. You can decorate them quite nice with walls of kindness, tables of friendship, and an extra bed of peace and restoration. Some friends from seminary were very good at making apartments look amazing. They had no problems literally sinking thousands of dollars into a place that was not their own. New, modern lights hanging from the ceiling, new walls…away with the paneling, hello to drywall…, new paint to brighten up the place, new furniture to make the place home feeling; in essence, they would make the apartment look like they had decided to set their roots down for good. But, if you searched hard enough, there was always one room untouched. There was always one room, in the back, that was not repaired. It was the room that held the boxes. Stacked to the ceiling, this room held all of the boxes needed for moving. And, move they did. They still move quite often. They never did have a home, though it looked like one. In the end, it was just an apartment.

Though you can make apartments look great, the one problem is that you never get around to doing the things that home-owners do, living life right here, right now. When you live in apartments, it is hard to make a commitment to something or someone because, "who knows, I just may need to move."

Why care about the neighbors too intensely? You will just have to say “goodbye” eventually. So, in apartments you have “walls of kindness,” but you lack the walls of grace that would permit you to truly care and serve the neighbor.

Why make a deep connection to anyone? So you offer a “table of friendship” in your dining area, but it is not a nice oak welcome table that is able to seat friends and enemies alike.

How involved should I get in anything, when I will just have to quit soon anyway? So, you have a bed of peace and reconciliation for yourself, but it is one that does not need to be slept in very often. It is in the extra bedroom. You never get involved in anything so deeply in the first place to even need to use the bed of peace and reconciliation. You bought it just in case, other Christians have them after-all, but it still looks new. It has not been used.

The thing is, apartments are wonderful for the short term, but God asks you to go deeper. No longer live in apartments. Instead, God says,

"Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."

In other words, where-ever you are, make a home. Invest in the place where you are. Love the people. Actually, care to know those around. Welcome the stranger and enemy and invite them to your Oak table. Invest in the welfare of where you are making your home. Literally invest with money in those around you. Where you are right now is a gift from God also. God is not always in the excitement of the future; no boxes needed. Where you are right now is a gift from God.

Consider that Jesus’ home was where-ever he was. Jesus made deep roots where-ever he went. He invested in people’s health. He got in the middle of injustice and forgave the adulterous woman. He defended the tax collectors, and aliens, and sinners and ate with them at tables of grace. Jesus put the cross deep into the ground and gave grace to the world, right where he was. And, his followers have the same gift; the ability to make a true home right where they are. This is not easy though. I think that fear often motivates many Christians to live in their spiritual apartments, being nice and kind but not actually investing true grace into any place. This is not easy stuff. But, Christians are not wimps either. They have the grace of God with them. They have the Holy Spirit backing them. They have no reason to fear making a true home right where they are.

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 Luke 17:5-10

I followed the monk, stepping in the footsteps that he made in the snow as we made our way through the fleshly blanketed forest; small specks of snow showering lightly from the trees. The monk seemed at peace. He filled his lungs full of the fresh evergreen air, and a smile came to his face. He talked gently as we walked along, pointing out the beauty of the things God had made. If he were a Disney character, blue birds would have joined him as he sang and pranced through the snow. He was not a Disney character, but he did seem to be just as unrealistic as a cartoon. Are there really people this peaceful? Are there really people so at home with God?

I was in my early twenties and was anything but at peace. I was buried under piles of college homework, and multiple voices all turned and squeezed me to perform better and faster. We had little money and little time to work for more. The more I studied God, the more God became foreign and unintelligible to me. It was too much pressure.  I was not this monk.

This monk was at peace. This monk had time to enjoy the snow covered forest simply because God had created it. This monk had an understanding of God that was so simple, yet so deep. “This monk has lots of faith,” I thought. “If only I had faith like that guy! Lord, give me more faith;” as if faith was grape flavored syrup that could be spooned to a sick little boy from a bottle; as if faith were a Mustang GT that could perform faster if you simply pressed the pedal to the metal; as if faith were something that you could get in bulk from Sam’s Club on a nice Sunday afternoon.

“Increase our faith,” the disciples cry out to the Lord. They share the same desire to believe more, serve more, understand more, love more, and forgive more. Who here desires to be a better disciple? Who here wants to be more like that monk? Who here wants more faith? I know that I do! The disciples walk behind Jesus, amazed at his peace; amazed at his love; amazed at his ability to heal. How does he do that? How does he peer right into a person’s soul, discover the ill, and offer healing? How does he do that? We walk by most people and do not even see that there is an issue in the first place. Increase our faith!

Further, Jesus sits and eats with people who smell, and act nuts. And, the thing is, he truly cares about them. It is not the “Oh, I hope things get better…well I got to go. Bye,” kind of caring. He sits and eats with them as if they were beloved family. How does he do that? How does he literally stomach it? The smell alone would drive most people away. That is not even mentioning their bad habits and wasteful lifestyles.  Increase our faith!

And, most of all, Jesus says, “I forgive you,” not once, but over and over and over again even as you commit the same wrong repeatedly and ask for forgiveness again and again and again. This ability to forgive is not just amazing, but if I am honest with myself, and I allow myself to offer a critique of God, I might say, “Lord, that is just plain stupid. There are just some people that do unspeakable things that simply should not be forgiven. You are all omniscient, have you not looked down and seen what they have done? I hate to say it, but I will: Lord, you are wrong. They are evil and you will just let them step on you, beat you and kill you, won’t you…won’t you?”

The Lord and I disagree on this point. I would convince the Lord to be more like me. I would convince the Lord to embrace a bit of harshness and intolerance, because some people do not deserve forgiveness and love. They are monsters. Monsters deserve nothing. Of course, I am the one desiring more faith, aren’t I? I do not see Jesus nipping at a monk’s heals, hoping for just a scrap of faith. I am the student. I am the slave. I am willing to entertain the idea that my view of the world is not broad enough to understand. The slave does not dictate commands to the master.

To me, and those like me, the Lord says, “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”

The rebuking I can do, I am all over that. But, increase my faith to forgive.  Lord, increase my faith!

And, right after asking, the Lord gives me a magical battery that gives me the strength of faith to be like that monk, to be a strong person of faith, to be the everlasting forgiver who just keeps going and going and going.

Of course, the Lord gives nothing of the sort to me. What the Lord gives is exactly the opposite. Instead, the Lord says, if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you would be able to tell a mulberry tree to jump off a cliff, into the sea and be planted there, and the tree would do it.

When we reached the little forest chapel for which the monk is the caretaker, I took him aside and asked, “How did you get so much faith, because I am struggling.” A brief smile shot across his face and he looked slightly up in contemplation. “I am not without doubt. I am not without sin. I am not any different than you.” Looking at me he continued, “But, faith is not something for which you can collect a lot. You cannot get more of it by reading a many books, even if they contain lots of wisdom. Praying more will not even do it. Faith is just God being with you. It is a relationship, nothing more.”

On our way back, I stared down again, putting my footsteps in his, thinking about relationships. I guess you would never ask to have your relationship increased. That just does not make any sense. You just have a relationship. It may be good, it may be bad, it may be a little bit of both, but it is not something of which you have more or less. A relationship is a relationship. What I was seeing when I looked at the monk was not a man with lots and lots of faith. What I was seeing was a man who was simply spending time with God as he walked around the world.

“You do not have to understand anything,” Jesus says to us. “Just walk with me and trust that when I tell you to forgive over and over again that it is the right thing to do. Whether you think a person should be forgiven or not makes no difference. Just trust that I know what I am doing.”

I am reminded of a scene in the book, “The Shack.” As I recall the scene faintly, a man who is walking with God sees a sin being repeated again and again. He looks to God. Instead of seeing anger, he sees joy on God’s face. He questions God’s strange reaction, and God replies something to the effect that this person will only commit this sin 34 more times before they turn their life around. It is exciting to see them getting so close to the goal.

Maybe I do not understand things well enough to dictate to God. Without hearing forgiveness 34 more times, a person may stumble in their walk with God. Maybe, they would never arrive at the new life God wants to provide. This is very important to Jesus. He says, “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”

Maybe from now on, I will not try to get more faith. Maybe from now on I will not try to impose my desires and opinions upon God. Maybe from now on I will simply walk with Jesus, follow where he goes, and forgive others when he asks. I will do it, not because I agree, but because I was asked by my master and my friend. I guess this is what being in a relationship is all about. I guess this is what faith is all about.

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 Luke 16:1-13

I still remember the pictures that we would color in that small church classroom with the small chairs and the small table.  The pictures were drawn with thick black ink lines that popped up from the page, so as to help guide the preschooler from creating a world outside of the person drawn on the page. The person we colored the most was Jesus: Jesus smiling at the world saying, “I love the world;” Jesus smiling at the children saying, “I love the children;” Jesus smiling at Judas saying, “I love Judas;” Jesus smiling at the cross saying, “I love the cross.” I think that you get the picture. In each of these colored creations Jesus was very appropriate…appropriate and direct with his message of love.

Nothing in my childhood therefore prepared me for this morning’s biblical text, because in it Jesus is neither appropriate nor direct. The text is about as direct as the path from anywhere in the United States to Manhattan. If Jesus were preaching to you today, I guarantee that you would give up and go to sleep. Maybe, the only thing that would save you from an embarrassing slumber would be his inappropriateness. I lived in Omaha during the attacks of September 11th and there was a preacher who must have modeled his appropriateness of sermonizing from Jesus.

Before I explain, you have to understand that right after the attacks, we pastors were deluged with emails from the synod and churchwide and various other church related organizations asking us to be firm in denouncing the attacks, but at the same time being careful not to stereotype all Muslims because Muslims are also our beloved neighbors, literally living next to us. And, it was at our pastor’s text study was when we found out that one of our colleagues apparently did not ever check his email.

No, do not jump the gun in your thoughts; he was not going to preach a word about the "evil nature of Muslims and their religion." No, in fact his plan was quite the opposite. He had decided that he was going to ignore the council to firmly denounce the attacks and he was going to preach about how his congregation should be much more like the terrorists! 

No, of course he was not saying that they should not go out and kill.  Rather, he stated, “At least the terrorists had the courage to stand up completely for their beliefs, unlike many of you and many Christians in the United States today.” There is nothing like a gentle message of “you stink” to help you through your shock and grief.

We all emphatically counseled him quote, “to reconsider the contextual nature of an event like this,” which in realms beyond the pastoral and theological worlds translates roughly into, “you’re an idiot.” With that being clearly stated in the meeting, another pastor and I stood around, kicked rocks, and talked honestly in the parking lot after the meeting. We secretly admitted that, though it was inappropriate, we were not sure that we disagreed with him. Of course, his sermon was an inappropriate sermon, but in the affluent, “I don’t care if it doesn’t affect me” attitude of the days before September 11th, it seemed like a sermon that did need to be preached at some point. At least they stood up for their beliefs. What if we Christians stood up as strongly for new life, forgiveness, justice, protecting the poor, and peace as much as these terrorists stood up for “death to infidels”? It was inappropriate, but that does not mean that it was not true.

Sometimes Jesus also failed to “reconsider the contextual nature of events” and gave inappropriate sermons. In the one for today, the manager of a business squanders the company owner’s money. He uses his access to the company’s money as a blank check for himself, and as usually happens, is caught. When confronted by the owner, the manager uses the little time that he has left to go to each of the wealthy people who still have outstanding debts to be paid back to the company and slashes their debt.  In doing so, he makes himself and the company look good, and secures a future for himself elsewhere. After this act of “good will” to the wealthy debtors, he will no doubt be able to land another job, or at least land a place to crash for the nights ahead and some food to eat.

In reaction to this sly, sneaky, scoundrel, Jesus preaches a sermon that he did not run by his text study group first, and he tells his disciples to be just like the dishonest manager. What? Excuse me? Be a sneaky scoundrel? Cheat people out of their money? What? This is not clear? What happened to the simple, Jesus loves everyone picture? This is not clear!

I assure you, just as the pastor did not want his congregations to get into planes and fly them into buildings for their faith, neither does Jesus want us to cheat people out of their money. But, in the same way that the preacher held up the conviction and faith of the terrorists, Jesus upholds the financial savvy of the dishonest manager. Plenty of people develop financial savvy, but as you know, not all of them put it to good use. In the same way that we asked, “What if we Christians stood up as strongly for new life, forgiveness, justice, protecting the poor, and peace as much as these terrorists stood up for ‘death to infidels,’” Jesus encourages us to ask, “what if the children of the light were as savvy with our money as the dishonest manager; how much more would we be able to advance the kingdom of God that seeks to build new life, promote forgiveness world-wide, secure true justice, protect the poor, and create peace”? What if we were able to find a savvy way to make our money serve us for the good, rather than allowing our money to control us and be wasted on things that do not matter? For we know that we cannot serve both money and God.

This parable may be confusing and inappropriate, but what the gospel writer, Luke, appears to be saying is that there are people out there who understand how money works in the real world. Those people are gifts. They are gifts to the church, and gifts to God’s world as long as one thing is true for them: money is not their God. These wise people exist for much more than providing funding for the church budget or a building project. They are gifted people who actually can figure out how to squeeze water from a stone. They are gifted people who know how to navigate the children of the light safely and directly through the confusing streets from here into Manhattan. In more direct words, they are gifted people who know how to use money fruitfully for the sake of God’s kingdom both in the church and out in the world.

I am not a financial genius, I am not one of these gifted people to the world, but I do know one when I see one. These financially savvy kingdom people (how would you like that title: “Hi, I’m a financially savvy kingdom person,” I would totally do business with them)…anyway, these financially savvy kingdom people look a little like the small business man who struggled recently with the health care costs of his employees. The high costs and low benefits were ruining the business and the high deductibles were ruining his employees. Using his financial savvy, he decided that he would only offer health care that covered the major medical events of life; cancer, heart attacks, etc. His business could afford that with some money to spare. “How is that a good example Pastor Jira?” Just hold on, I am getting there.

With that extra money to spare, he did not take a vacation. Money is not his God. God, the God of love, the God of caring for others is his God. He took the spare money and put it in tax free health accounts for his employees to use on their normal everyday medical events, physicals, flu, etc. In addition, he took the time to compare prices amongst the local medical providers, and created a list where his employees could get the best care for their dollar. Now, I am not promoting this as the end-all solution to the medical finance crisis. I am not that smart of a person. However, I know a financially savvy kingdom person when I see one, and this guy was one.

God has blessed us with gifted people who are like the dishonest manager; shrewd and savvy people. But, they are different in one way, they do not let money control their actions, rather, they allow God to control their money for the good of the kingdom. Rather than being pushed down and degraded for their involvement with money, may they be held up this day as gifts from a loving God.

Reflection On Philemon 1:1-21

Labor Day Sunday is one of the least attended Sundays of the year across the nation. Now, do not worry, I am fully aware that those of you who attended worship on Labor Day Sunday did not choose to come just so that you could hear the pastor’s moaning and complaining in the echoes of a half empty church. I only raise up the issue because Labor Day has the potential to become the quintessential Lutheran Sunday. Forget for a moment that it is a completely secular day, and look at the holiday’s intent. It is a day in which laborers rest and the nation celebrates the importance and contributions of the laborer and their unions to American society.

This should strike two loud notes of recognition on the part of Lutheran Christians: first, it is a day of rest. Each week the Sabbath is a day for rest and experiencing God.  Labor Day Sunday, therefore, should be the quintessential example of Sabbath.  The churches should be packed with all of those laborers who are not at work, but resting. Second, it is a day that celebrates the contributions of the laborer. Where in all of theology, will you find a stronger respect for laborers than in Lutheran theology which recognizes that it is through our vacations that God uses us the most. Labor Day Sunday should be a huge Sunday, with people stringing out the door, trying to see in, and the church blessing each and every person for the gift of their labor and their positive impact on all of creation.

But, enough with the “shoulds,” it is not huge. It is usually small…very small. It is usually only a handful of people who either do not own a tent or people who could not make it back up off of the ground if they somehow found themselves within a tent. Every once and a while you might see the odd church professional who is not allowed to play hooky on this day.

I wonder how much of this is the church’s own fault. For years, the church has successfully made itself into a weekly obligation. It is the place where we “should” be on Sunday, but often would rather not. Deciding to go to church is like deciding on the evening meal after a long, rough day at work; do I take the time to fix a healthy well balanced meal, making sure to cut fresh fruits and vegetables, or do I just eat extreme Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream? Do I sit through another worship service or do I go to Dorney Park and get one more ride in on the coasters? There is a disconnect between church and our daily lives, and I think that it is the church’s own fault. Church hasn’t necessarily been relevant to our daily lives in the past, and Chruch has made itself into the place where you should be rather than the place where we get to be! When church is just something that we need to get through, like a root canal (just sit there until the pain is over), then that is a problem.

But, properly, the church should not be an obligation, rather it should be the place where we get to rest and get to experience God. It is the place where God touches our lives; where God enters into our life and makes sense of the rest of the week. In the same way, Bible studies should not be something that we ought to do but do not ever get around to doing. Rather, they are opportunities that we look forward to; where we experience God and everything in our week seems to now make sense, or at least be a little less confusing. If you told most people that you know of an opportunity for them to experience God in all of God’s greatness, and that they would have the chance to share in God’s wisdom…the wisdom that they have longed for and somehow found elusive, would they not pay good money to go overseas and experience that? Is that not the bread and butter of today’s book industry? The Sabbath is the day that makes sense of the rest of your life. I am not certain that I am even convinced by that statement, so I will say it again: the Sabbath is the day that makes sense of the rest of your life.

Paul tries to make this connect for his friend Philemon. Somehow, while in jail, Paul has made a friend in Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, and it is time for Onesimus to go back to his master Philemon.  Normally, the slave would return to the master, and everyday operations between master and slave would go forward.  There is one problem though, Onesimus is now a bother in Christ.  Onesimus is no longer just a slave to Philemon.  What does that mean, to be both a slave and a brother?  How should Onesimus be treated from now on?

In raising the issue and rasing the questions, Paul urges Onesimus to connect his daily life of business and his life of faith in Jesus Christ.  Somehow, Philemon needs to reconcile the fact that Onesimus is both a slave and a brother. Philemon must consider which is more important, his economic reality or God’s reality? Do his finances outweigh his faith or the other way around? Which is more important, the “real world” or the Kingdom of God?

I will not offer the answers to Philemon's economic and interpersonal quandry.  But, I will invite you to venture into the same questions in your own life.  How do you connect the Sabbath with your daily life?

For Jesus there was no disconnect between the Sabbath and his daily life. Everywhere he went, in everything that he did, Jesus lived as he were living in the kingdom of God. For Jesus the real world was the Kingdom of God. What we refer to as the “real world” is actually not real. It is a fantasy. It is a human construction. It is a reality shaped by the opinions and desires of the created, rather than being shaped by the opinions and desires of the creator.  When one lives a life shaped by the opinions and desires of the creator, they have stepped into the reality of the kingdom of God.

The only problem with living in God’s kingdom, it does not conform to the rules of the “real” world, where money is the primary god. It may not make economic sense. It may mean you lose a slave. It may mean that you lose your Father, or your Mother, or your sister, etc. It may mean that you lose your life on a cross. But, do not be fooled, God’s kingdom is the real world.

How do I treat grumpy people in the kingdom of God?

How are slaves or employees to be treated in the kingdom of God?

How is your own labor important in God’s kingdom?

Again, I will not provide answers.  However, I will assumre you that your labor can be essential to God's kingdom. Being a mother, volunteer, manager, independent business owner, mailroom clerk, etc.  can be essential in God’s kingdom.  What does your own labor look like if it is not just a job, but an essential in God's kingdom?

Reflection On Luke 14:1, 7-14

“On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.” They were watching him intently. They were watching his every move. They wanted to see where he would seat himself. They wanted to see what he thought of himself; how important he thought he may be. They wanted to see if this man of God was just like the rest of us and would get an obvious chunk of spinach stuck in his teeth while he talked endlessly about the weather.

Do you not hate it when "they" watch you so close? It is impossible to get anything done when “they” are watching. What if you choose the wrong seat? What if you suddenly notice that each chew of your food makes a disgusting crunching sound? Can “they” hear that? What will they think? They were watching Jesus’ every move.

But, they made a mistake. Eyes can peer both ways and Jesus’ eyes are set on them. Where would they seat themselves at the table? Where would they expect him to sit? What does their seating choice and seating arrangement say about them?

Table arrangements say a lot more than you think. You may be surprised to learn that the table arrangement of the evening meal was one of the first things that we chaplains would ask about when evaluating a mentally ill patient. Taking a sheet of paper with a square drawn in the center, we would ask where all of the chairs in there home were placed, and then have the patients draw and label where each person sat at their evening meal.

“Charles, why is your Dad at the head of the table?”
“Because he controls all of us, he wants to keep an eye on us.”

“Katie, why are your Mom and Dad at opposite sides of the table?”
“I guess they don’t like each other. They never have really. I sit next to my Mom because she doesn’t hold a grudge.”

“Tom, why isn’t there anyone at your table? What’s wrong, why don’t you want to participate today?”
“I am participating. My family sits in front of the TV. We don’t talk. Leave me alone.”

“Lexie, why is only your Dad at the table? And, what is next to him on the table?”
“That’s his computer. He eats at the table with his computer. We are over here by the TV. He doesn’t like to be disturbed while he works.”

“Mary, why did you draw your husband and your kids so big and you so small at the table?”
Mary just stares forward with tears in her eyes.

Tables are powerful things; where a person is seated or not seated matters. Tables can be used to bring all creation together in one unifying meal, and they can be used to divide and put people in their place. The productivity of a meeting between national leaders can be predicted by their seating at the table. Are they equals, sitting across from one another the short length of the table, or is the deck stacked, the inferior leader being placed to the side and the superior at the head?

Tables are powerful things. My High School drama teacher pointed out frequently that even King Arthur’s round table was not an equitable arrangement. Those who were more important would sit nearer to the King, and those opposed would sit opposite. He said during this lesson about staging that, “even at a round table, the audience will know that the one across the table will be the enemy. They also will know that the one close to the king, but facing the king during discussion with the enemy rather facing the enemy will be the one to betray the king. You do not need to say this, the audience already knows it. It is ingrained in our being.”

Only if this is true, that the table is engrained into our very being, does it makes sense why Jesus’ etiquette advice on table placement sends him down a deadly path toward crucifixion. People’s foundations are shaken when they are told that they should not sit where they are comfortable or where it may be advantageous to sit. How would you like to be the one told to choose the side corner of the table, where you will be forgotten? Of course, the host may invite you to sit closer and you would be honored, but more likely, you will simply be forgotten.

And, the nerve of Jesus to tell the host who he or she can and cannot invite. Who you eat with and who you refuse to eat with and where they are placed means everything. It means family harmony. It means grooming the one to come next in line. It means spending time with those who interest and intrigue. It means everything! Jesus says, “Don’t invite your friends and family to your dinner party.” Jesus, you might as well be telling us not to participate in capitalism or not participate in holding a core belief. Tables are powerful things, and you are shaking my foundations Jesus! People who shake the foundations are the ones who are crucified.

We used to have a lime green metal kitchen table when I was younger. It was the ugliest thing that had even been created; plus, the screws holding it together where so loose that if I place my arms on the table, the table would shift and my brother would end up with my burger. After loosing my meal to my brother too many times, I told my parents that the table had to go. It had served its purpose, but it was no longer a good foundation for a meal. And, Jesus invites us to remove our assumptions about tables and who sits where and why, so that when the table is removed we can see that our true foundation is below our feet. It is a firm foundation. And, inscribed in the foundation are the words, “you are mine.” But, you will also see those very words inscribed below the feet of the person next to you, and down at the feet of the person in the far corner of the table you read the same words, “you are mine.”

In Jesus’ kingdom, the power of the table is completely circumvented. Invite the poor to your meal, then you will not even participate in the table game; plus, the poor will have food; it’s a win-win. When at the table, consider the low. Serve the lowest. Think about sitting low. In Jesus’ kingdom, what is low will become great, and what is great will become low.

I once asked a six year old why she drew herself at the far end of the table and her sister up near her parents. I expected to uncover the secret pain of her childhood, but she looked at me as if I were the stupidest person in the world and said, “because she is too young to eat by herself. Mom and Dad need to help her. I have fed myself since I was two.”

As this six year old already knows, it is not about "us." It is about "them;" but not about evaluating and judging "them." It is about watching closely for their need. There are places of honor at God’s table, and they are reserved for those who need them. Sometimes we will be invited up, and after we are healed, we will lead the next guest forward to the place of honor. Christ's table is a different kind of table.

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 Luke 13:10-17

It is hard to worship.  I will fully admit that right now.  It is hard to worship.  We are bound by so many things that restrict our ability to move toward God in any meaningful way.

I think of a man who talked to me one day.  He regularly attends church, but he does not worship.  You must understand that early on in his marriage, he and his wife were excitedly expecting a son.  They painted a room, they bought the clothes, and they talked to their son while still in the womb.  Not too long before the due date came, something terrible happened; his wife miscarried.  She was devistated and he was stricken.  He told me that “After that, I do not worship.  Pastor, you will see me in church, but hear me clearly, I do not worship.”

It is so hard to worship.

The woman in this gospel story had such a hard time worshipping.  From her bent-over position she could hardly see, she could hardly look you in the eye and talk, and there was no way that she could lift up her arms in praise to God.

It is so hard to worship.

Even some of our church's own rites and rituals get in the way.  Take the rite of confirmation, this should be a wonderful day of initiation into the adult life of faith.  Unfortunately, the idea of confirmation has become more of a “graduation from church,” rather than the beginning of an adult relationship with God.

It is difficult to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  There are so many things that restrict our ability to move toward God.  There are so many things that restrict our ability to even be moved by God and God’s word.

We have a basic need, similar to the dead Lazarus, who was bound with the trappings of funeral cloth.  Jesus raised him up and gave him a new life so he may praise God.  People ran up to him and “unbound” him.  The people literally unwrapped him, and we have the same basic need to be unbound from the things that keep us from worshipping God and loving the neighbor. There are so many things that bind us and hinder God’s ability to touch our lives: obsession with stuff, disagreement and hatred (hatred binds the heart so tight that it can barely pump any life-giving blood), and how about other “harmless” interests that simply pull our attention away from God and God’s day of rest.

I have been told by many people that they can worship God on the golf course just as easily as they can in the worshipping community. And, they are correct, a group of players can worship God on the golf course just as easily as they can in church…but they won’t.

To each bent over and out of touch person, Jesus offers healing. With a simple touch of Sabbath healing, Jesus will restore us to an upright position, and we will again see God, worshipping God with thanks for all that God has done, even after eighteen or more years of being worship-impaired.

Ever since God inscribed the commandment to “remember the Sabbath Day and keep it Holy” people have been testing its limits. It is a command after-all, and like a teenager who needs to see just how far away from the house they can get without their parents noticing or caring, we see how far we can get from God's command.

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
The interesting thing about the Sabbath command is that following it brings its own reward and violating it brings its own punishment. Following does not put you on the fast track into heaven, and violating it does not put you on a fast track to hell.  Failing to follow the command is its own punishment.

When you are tired, burned out, cranky, and cannot think straight, you know you have violated God’s command to rest and remember. When you bind other people with your selfishness and anger, and find yourself alone because your friends have left, you know you have violated God’s command to rest and remember.  And, when you have no idea who God is or what God is up to in your life, you know you have violated God’s command to rest and remember.

Rest and remember: Share in God’s nap, remember God’s good work. The whole process looks like this: work the week, then share in God’s nap all while remembering God’s good works. Repeat again and again.

That is not to say that you will find a nice garden of Eden whenever you enter the sanctuary of the Lord with a cot just waiting for you. People have told me that sometimes going to church is more stressful than shopping in Wal-mart on Christmas Eve. This was certainly true for the bent-over woman. The poor lady just wanted to go to the sanctuary of the Lord and find rest. She did not want a controversy! And, Jesus did not seek out an argument in the house of the Lord. He was simply trying to help a woman rest by remembering the will of God and performing the work of God by unbinding her.  Jesus simply wanted to free her so that she could worship.
Now, I must admit that the leader who complained that Jesus worked on the Sabbath was not wrong. Jesus did work. The leader was right in a sense.  After-all, you need to guard against violating the Sabbath, or you will find yourself bound. He was right to demand that Jesus and the woman rest. But, he had forgotten one thing: he had forgotten to “remember.” He did not remember that the Sabbath is a day for freedom. It is a day to be unbound from the hindrances and influences of life. It is a day when freedom from all that keeps you enslaved is celebrated.

Is it possible to be “right” and still get everything wrong? Of course it is. He remembered to rest, but he had forgotten that resting sometimes requires unbinding. Most people cannot take off their own burial cloth. Most of the time we need help. The Sabbath is a day when the community helps each other to unbind, just as Jesus freed the woman. There, it does matter if you are not present.  Maybe you are rested and do not need the Sabbath, but that does not mean someone else will not need your help to unwrap the burial cloth that binds them from loving and worshipping.
One Sunday I saw a new face in the rear pew.  It was a woman who was obviously holding back tears.  After worship, I approached her asked what was up.  She bust out tears of anguish, sobbing that her husband had just left her.  The husband had always done all of the bills and made all of the purchases.  She did even know how to drive.  "I don’t even know the first thing about living," she cried.  And, as she spoke and as we worked together on where to go from here, I saw Jesus unwrap the bindings from her soul, and she slowly began to realize that she was free.  “I don’t know what I would have done without you," she said.  Frankly, I did nothing but be there.  I had remembered the Sabbath day, and God used that as an opportunity.

Rest and remember. Rest and remember.  Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it Holy.

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 Luke 12:49-56

The human state is one of walking on ice. Any distraction in concentration, any slight step to the left or stumble to the right will cause your feet to slip and will cause your entire being to stumble. Your footing is tenuous and it is difficult to keep fully upright. But there are many distractions. The distractions tell you to buy more, fill your lives with more, take pleasure in more, Build yourself up in life by disregarding more. Disregard God’s creation, disregard your neighbor, disregard your own family, simply strive your what you want, the distraction yell out to you. The ice is slippery and you start to waver, you start to fall.

It does not help that God’s fire is close by. For Christ did not come to bring peace to the earth. No, Christ came to bring division and fire. The fire is ablaze and it is making the ice even glossier to the eye, and slippery to the touch. Knobs of ice melt into fine shimmers and foothold disappear into a level glaze. The distractions are too much, you step toward one of them, thinking that it is the way you should go, enticed by what you see and you fall. You fall fast expecting the impact of the ice, but find yourself in the hands of God who now holds you above the fire, the fire that Christ has brought.

The fire burns in a pit and its heat comes up from below. You look into God’s eyes and are unsure of what you see. Do you see peace for your future? Do you see division? The heat from below is hot on your hands. You look close and see that God is trying to decide, about you. You start to plead about your good works. But it is of no use. God’s eyes do not change. Good works do not keep you out of the fire, nor do bad works put you in. All people walk the slippery line, and it is only by God’s good will and through God’s good grace in Jesus Christ that God does not allow Satan to pull us into the fire below.

You have learned from a lifetime of religion that for those who believe the promise of Christ, the promise is true. But what about those who linger in doubt, even if ever so slight? Do you think that God misses to slightest of thoughts? No. Further, you know from everything that you have heard that for those of you out there who have doubts, God neither has to keep to the promise, nor needs to cast you in. God is bent toward mercy, but is not held to it.

Held by the hands of God over the pit, Satan sends up tendrils of flame, tendrils that snap at your soul through God’s fingers. You look down and horror overcomes your heart. It strikes fear in you when you see that from your own hands you have left a smear. You realize how we are dirtying God’s hands and how easy it would be for God to clear the filth away. And who is to save us from God’s decision? Is there an intermediary to come to our defense? But, some of you doubt Jesus Christ, therefore the fires of hell burn hot and bright below.

Your wickedness makes your body heavy as lead. You slide in God’s hands from your own greasy life. A spider’s web would not be able to save you as you fall, your sin weighs so heavy. You have used this life to satisfy lusts, to drink until happy, to buy and to consume, to put down others while you build yourself up, and you have forgotten the poor, those who have been treated unfairly, and those who struggle because they have lost the person close to them who they need.

The words of Mary’s song ring again through the air. “God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” You had forgotten. You knew the words but you had forgotten.

God looks down at you and anger fills God’s eyes. The clouds move in from behind. You grasp onto God’s fingers. The fire burns brighter from your sin and the winds from the storm of God’s anger starts to push you toward the edge.

You make a case to God again about your goodness, grasping at straws, but God knows the truth. None of us are good. None of us are great. You strive to abate the winds, you strive to show yourself in the best possible light, but God’s furry at your inability to come clean about your life grows, and the waters break forth from the storm to wash you away in a torrent of water to meet your steamy end.

God is not mean. God is righteously angry. You cannot blame God, for God is fair and you will not suffer beyond what strict justice requires; fair punishment for every wrong. But, neither shall anything be withheld, because it is so hard for you to bear. Ezek. 8:18. "Therefore will I also deal in fury: mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity; and though they cry in mine ears with a loud voice, yet I will not hear them.” How awful are those words, and these from, Isa. 63:3, which are the words of the great God. "I will tread them in mine anger, and will trample them in my fury, and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment."

You stare down at the misery in the fire. You stare down at the end that is waiting for you because of your own wickedness and your own sin.

Now, at this point in a traditional fire and brimstone sermon I would shout out loudly that all who need to trust in our Lord Jesus Christ to save us from such destruction to please come forward...or at least email me so that I can lead you in a prayer that will allow you to trust in Jesus so that he might turn to you and save you.

But, I am a Lutheran preacher, so I will not go there.  You get something else instead.

God slowly lowers you into the fire. The fire burns hot.  The searing heat is almost unbearable.  The fire indeed hurts, but yet you look down to see that you are still there.  The fire does not completely destroy you.  It has definitely left its mark.  It has definitely burned you to the core, but you do not look hideous.  Instead, the fire burned away your sin, your doubt, and your pain. You are relieved as you are raised from the fire and you look up and see Jesus holding you. Behind him the storm couds bursts forth.  The water pours down on you and washes you clean instead of washing you away. You cling to Jesus' wide open arms.  As you cling, you see that the grime you had left on his arm before is washed into the fires of the pit below. Jesus arms remain wide open wide open there-after, always waiting for you cling to his goodness and righteousness again and again.