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.”

If the importance of table placement is ingrained into our very being, it then makes sense why Jesus’ etiquette advice on table placement causes people to desire his 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 at the table 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 any other core belief. Tables are powerful things, and you are shaking our 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 placed my arms too firmly on the table, the table would shift and my plate would slide over to my brother. 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 too 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. If you invite the poor to your meal, then you will not even be tempted participate in the table game; plus, the poor will have food; it is 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, the world is not necessarily concerned about "us." The world is concerned about "them."  But, for her and for other Christians, it is 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.

Reflection On Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

During our four years of seminary there was only one place we were allowed to celebrate on the 4th of July; Kathy’s house. Kathy, her husband, and her two kids would welcome us over for a feast of brats, hamburgers, chips, potato salad, nice wine…you name it, it was there. An hour before, we would make a phone call and ask if we needed to bring anything over. The answer was always the same: “Bring nothing but yourselves.” We did not need to bring drinks, a dish to share, dip…we did not even need to bring fireworks. It was all there, and they were wonderful hosts who knew how to share in the enjoyment of a good evening with friends. There was one catch though, around 9:00pm Kathy would grab the guitar that no one in the house knew how to play, sit it in my lap, and we would start singing church camp songs. There is nothing like a beautiful evening, a full stomach, stars, fireworks, and song filling our souls. It was not in a stain glassed sanctuary, but it was church.

My first year of serving here, I was invited several times to a young couple’s house. The couple had children, were very busy in life, and were very poor. Yet they invited me over for a feast. I asked if I could bring anything, but they insisted that I was their guest. So, we would sit in the kitchen, eat a meal of Mac and Cheese and ham sandwiches, tell jokes, and simply enjoy each other’s company. There was one catch though, I was to teach a new, fun table grace to the children, and I was to bring over communion. So, we would pray before the meal in a fun way and after supper, sitting on the floor of the living room because there was limited furniture in the house, I would open the children’s Bible, share a Bible story with the kids, open the communion set and then share in the Lord’s meal. None of this happened around a beautiful stone altar, but it was church.

I love church buildings. In my home congregation, on the fourth of July, the cover of our bulletin always showed some sort of small church on top of some rolling hill with an American flag waving prominently outside. The small church was always simple, beautiful, peaceful, and full of inspiration. I love large churches also…the type that make you gasp at their tall vaulted ceilings and their beautiful stained glass windows that tell the story of God and God’s people in picture form. I love church buildings, but the buildings are not church. People are church.

In the gospel for today, Jesus turns completely up-side-down our concepts of church. First, when Jesus asks his disciples to do God’s work, he does not instruct his disciples to gather people into his own home so that he can teach and heal them. Instead, quite the opposite is instructed: “Go on your way…Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, "Peace to this house!' And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide…” For Jesus, church gathers not in beautiful buildings, but in people’s homes. Further, the disciples are not in control of the situation. They are subject to the host, to the host’s traditions, to whom the host gathers, and to the host’s food. And, for this wonderful hospitality, the disciples are only expected one thing, to offer the kingdom of God; to bring God’s stories and to bring healing where they can. In this up-side-down world of church, the disciples go out, the people do not gather in.

Now, I must admit that I have never been politically savvy, and I do realize that there is an inherent danger in preaching this during a building campaign. I warn you now, never vote me into public office, I will completely embarrass you. But, since we are in the middle of a building campaign, maybe we should take a look at what this up-side-down world of church looks like when you do have a building.

This puts us in the role of host rather than disciple. And, what do hosts do? They make sure that the place is clean. They make sure that people feel welcomed and cared for and that they have the best place to sit. Hosts sit with their guests. They converse with their guests. They feed their guests whenever they can. And, most importantly, they are listening close for the needs of their guest. A good host is able to anticipate their guests’ needs and find a way to provide for their needs so that they may experience God’s peace in the home. Oh, and one other thing, they expect that they will somehow, in some way, be enriched by the guest. The host does not dictate the gift that the guest will give, but anticipates receiving whatever gift to guest has to offer.

Christ’s church is an up-side-down world. It is a world in which the disciples go out rather than expecting people to come in, and it is a world in which the church is shaped by the needs of the guest rather than the desires of the host.

A classmate of mine was invited by a four-year-old to play in the sandbox. So, she went, taking nothing with her. She ate sand pies. She drank sand coffee. She even lived in a sand castle. After some time, the classmate offered her own gift: she took some water, made the sand damp and shaped the form of Jesus out of the sand. She then told the story of Jesus welcoming the children to the four-year-old. Her preaching did not come from the pulpit, nor was it directed towards adults, but it was church.

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 Galatians 5:1, 13-25

“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. Everywhere I go, I’m going to let it shine. Jesus gave it to me, I’m going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” In 1935, song recorder Horace Clarence Boyer, heard and recorded on paper this simple, yet strong piece of African American music. Many of us grew up learning this song as a children’s hymn, with actions and with extra verses about not letting the light blow out, but this song was not always a children’s hymn. Though the song probably does not go earlier than 1865, when slavery was abolished, and into the fields of labor on southern plantations, it certainly comes from the heart of someone who has found themselves less than free.

It is no surprise that it was one of the primary songs of the civil rights movement, because its simple message conveys a strong reality: “I’ve got a light, you cannot keep me from shining it, nor can you take it away because it was not given by you, but it was given by Jesus. This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine, and there is nothing that you can do about it! You can keep me from eating at the same counter as you, but you cannot blow out the light of God. You can keep me from using the same bathroom as you, but Jesus’ light will shine in right through the cracks in the stall doors. You can pretend that I am your slave. Perhaps, I am a slave, but I am not a slave to you; I am a slave of the one who set me free, Jesus Christ my Lord!”

It is because of this reason that I find it interesting that we teach this thing to children. Who else in our society feels more like slaves than they do? Wash the dishes, mow the lawn, clean your room. The last thing parents want to hear when giving their childen chores are their vocal chords piping up with an African American freedom spiritual! Or, maybe we do. We are a nation of freedom after-all. Maybe, we secretly want our children to rebel…a little. Maybe, we want them to know in their hearts that they have a light and no one is going to put it out. Maybe there is a little secret sense of pride when they rebel and set out on their own, eating celery but not carrots. We parents cannot let it go too far mind you. But, they are free, and they need to know that no one: not you or me, or their teachers, or their future employers, or the government, or even their own parents are going to put out the light of Christ, because they are free. In the same way that Paul declares to us in Galatians, we want them to know in their hearts that in Christ they have been set free. They are not slaves, nor will they become slaves; in Christ they are free.

Of course, we joked about wanting our children to have only a “little” sense of freedom; but not too much. Paul toys with us in the same way also. Yes, you have been made free by Christ, but do not think that your freedom means you can do whatever you want!

…do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

As many multi-million dollar lottery winners will tell you, freedom from whatever held you in slavery before (employers, bill collectors, overbearing parents, out of control expenses) will not make you free from yourself. As many of these winners will remind you, freedom from every financial burden only allows you the opportunity to over-indulge and ruin yourself.

So, freedom from everything is not the point either. Because, when you are free from everything else, you still are slave to yourself. You still are slave to your passions and vices, and who will free you from that kind of slavery?

This is the wisdom that is found in African American Spirituals like “This Little Light of Mine.” This little light of mine was given to me by Jesus. It is not “my” light after-all. Nor do I sit there and just shine it all over myself. “Everywhere I go, I’m going to let it shine.” Look at my light. I am not slave to you, or to other people’s dictations or expectations of me, or to the law, I am not owned by any of you; I have my own light. But, it was given to me by someone else. I am a slave to the one who gave it to me, Jesus Christ. Not only that, but I choose to be a slave to you, sharing the light, loving you the same way that I love myself. My light allows me the freedom to “love my neighbor as myself.” I am free, I am free, to love you, and not only you but everyone I meet everywhere I go.

We are free to live in the love of Christ and the love of everyone around us. We are free to live in a bath of Jesus’ light as his light shines on us from every direction from every person. We are free to be a slave of love rather than a slave of oppression or self-indulgence. We are free!

And, so we sing spirituals like “This Little Light of Mine,” to remind us that we are free. It may not seem so when we look at our lives, but, that does not make it any less true. We are always free to love one another. “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. Everywhere I go, I’m going to let it shine. Jesus gave it to me, I’m going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.”

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.