Monday, August 29, 2016

Reflection on Luke 14:1, 7-14

Before the dinner guests began to choose their seats of honor at the banquet table; before the Jesus told them that it is better to choose seats of less honor and be asked to move up than to be asked to move down from a prestigious seat; before Jesus told the banquet host to instead invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind; before all of that, there was a man that Jesus noticed.

The man would have been hard to miss actually. The man had dropsy, what we call edema. The man’s body had filled with fluid and fashioned the look of a living, breathing water balloon.

It is the sort of sight that we are trained to ignore in order to not embarrass the person. It is the sort of situation where you initially glance at the bloated fellow, quickly turn away and say to yourself, “I’m not going to stare at the walking Goodyear Blimp… I’m not going to stare at the walking Goodyear Blimp.”

Eyes fixed straight ahead, you feel to tug of your three year old at your side who screams to your honor, “That guy is really fat!”

Agh!!! We are trained not to do this! We are trained to keep to ourselves. We are trained to ignore such things.

You bend down to your three year old and quietly recite, “If you can’t say something nice…don’t say anything at all.” Good people do not notice such things.

Of course, the flip side of that is that good people such as that man do not get noticed.

It is very lonely being different. People either make fun of you or they simply, do not notice you.

Jesus noticed. Jesus always notices.

These stories of Jesus loving and healing the lowly were always nice bible stories to hear while I was growing up. It was not until too long ago though, that a sudden realization…a sudden revelation about Jesus fell upon me. Jesus notices people like this man, not because they are freaks of nature, but because Jesus breathed life into each and every one of them.

They are his children.

This man is his child…his beloved child. Loving parents cannot look away when their child is hurting.

Jesus always notices.

I remember clearly the first time that I overheard another child picking on my granddaughter Trinity. When you love a child so much, there is no way that you do not hear those hurtful words, you cannot ignore them.

At first my heart sunk for her. How could anyone pick on such a lovely child? Then the rage set in.

There is this great viral video right now that shows the reaction every parent feels when their child is picked on. The man sees the terrible incident, and then proceeds to slap not only the offender, but also the offender’s parents, and the party guests, some guy who is just sitting at a nearby table listening to his music, and each and every police officer who are called in to stop him. Even the cat hiding in the tree is not exempt from the rage.

Now, Jesus and I do not promote the use of violence of course, but that is how you feel when your child is hurt, or left out, or struggling.

I have to imagine, that is how Jesus looks at us when we are hurt and go unnoticed by others; when we are left alone on the side of the dance floor with no one to take our hand.

Jesus always notices.

This past week was a good week for the police of Bradford County Pennsylvania. They caught and arrested 17 people who were dealing drugs and hurting our community. We give thanks for their service and hard work.

As I was reading through the names and looking at the pictures of the accused…these suspected thugs…I saw something that probably would have struck you also: most of these offending adults were pretty young.

On a whim I started looking at some of their Facebook accounts. You want to know what I saw? Well, a couple accounts were laden with swearing and drug residue, but to my shock, many looked the same as mine. They contained pictures taken with young nieces and nephews, had quotes of inspiration, and, of course, there were the loving comments of from devoted parents.

As glad as I am that these drug dealers are off of the streets and locked away, I could not help but think of the parents who look at their child's picture in the paper and feel the pain that only comes when you wish you could fix your child’s problems, but cannot. I could not help but think of Jesus looking at them with compassion, desiring a new life for them, not looking away and forgetting them as the jail doors are closed, but noticing.

Jesus always notices.

As a teenager attending a Christian rock concert, I once noticed someone who seemed to be one of those unnoticed people. She was a girl nearby who looked pretty from the back, but as you saw her face you could not help but see that she had the nose of a pig. The end of her nose was drawn against her face completely and her nostrils looked huge.

I do not intend to continue any of the certain horrors that this girl faced in her life, I just want you to have a clear picture in your head so that you understand just how blown away I was by what I saw of her later.

You have to understand that I could not concentrate on most of the concert because of my heartache for the type of life she must lead. But, my heart was surprisingly put at ease as soon as the concert was over when a crew of other girls her age flocked around her, desiring to what she thought of the concert.

The girl with the pig nose was the popular girl. She was the popular girl! How could that be?

Well, I imagine that it started out with a table of girls in middle school who saw her wandering the lunchroom, searching unsuccessfully for a place to sit, and inviting her over to sit and talk with them at their table.

"When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed…”

This command concerning how to fill out your dinner invitations is not simply a nice bible story to be smiled at. This command is exactly what Jesus does as he looks upon his own children and notices them.

In the church, Christ has a table where the thug, the deformed, the unhealthy, the poor, and the pig nosed are all invited to come and eat.

In God's kingdom, being invited to the table of grace, forgiveness, and healing can make all the difference.

At the Lord's table, lives can be transformed and new lives can be found. And, it is all because someone noticed and invited.

Jesus always notices.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Reflection on Luke 12:32-40

“I feel disconnected from God,” he finally said after trying for minutes to describe his spiritual state. “It’s not that I don’t believe in God. It is just that I don’t sense God as being that important in my life at this point.”

It was a brutally honest statement from someone who was considering leaving the church.

In coming in to talk to the pastor, he wanted to be clear that he wasn’t leaving the church because of some sort of slight or disagreement. The people in the church were just fine.

The problem went much deeper, and in the same way that some couples just slowly lose connection with one another over time and end up divorcing, this man kind of felt like it was his time to separate with God. More to the point, he felt like the separation had already happened and he just now had mustered up the courage to tell someone.

“I’ve been there,” said the pastor. “Many, many times I’ve been there. Imagine having to write a sermon while feeling that way! It stinks.”

The man smiled and relaxed a little in his seat.

“What do you do when you feel that way pastor?” the man asked honestly.

To that question, the pastor suddenly stood up, reached into his pocket, dug something out, and smacked it down on the table. The man leaned forward to see what it was. The familiar green of the $20 bill was revealed upon closer inspection.

“I don’t get it. You pay God to come into your life again? Where would you even drop off the money?”

The pastor laughed. “Not quite.” Then he simply said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

You may not know where the pastor is headed with this, but I would like to tell you that there is some wisdom in where he’s leading this man. After-all, it is Jesus who first tells us, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” So it is not an ingenious invention of the pastor.

But, before we continue, let us pause for a second because I've come to realize that most of us understand this phrase backwards. I’ve even heard it spoken backwards from the pulpit.

Most of us understand this as saying: “The thing that is most special to us, that is where we will put our money.”

But New Testament scholar Mark Allen Powell points out that Jesus is not saying that. That idea is actually backwards to what Jesus is actually saying. How the power of money usually works, and advertisers know this very well, is that when we spend our money, we also put a little of our heart into that investment.

Take smart phones for an example. I’ve known people who sing the praises of their iPhones after they have purchased one. They love the ease of use. They love the features such as the fingerprint identification to access the phone; that way you don’t have to be typing in a pass code every time you use the phone. And, iPhone users will staunchly defend the quality of their phones in an argument against those evil and unenlightened Android smart phone users.

Of course, Android users will similarly go on and on about their phones and the virtual reality capabilities of their phones.

It is called brand loyalty. We use our money to buy a phone, and in return, the company gets part of our heart…part of our loyalty. Wherever you place your treasure, you will give away a little bit of your heart.

Whether its Apple vs. PC, Chevy vs. Ford,. Case International vs. John Deer, Pixar vs. Sony, salt vs. pepper, cat vs. dog…do not even get people started on the cat vs. dog one…each time we invest our money or time in something, we also invest some of our heart.

The thing is, part of this investment of heart makes us blind to the realities and shortcomings of the thing in which we have invested our money. No one wants to be the one who spends foolishly. So we defend our choices of iPhones and Androids, dogs and cats, and we refuse to mention the troubles and faults in our choices. Dogs make you get up early in the morning. Cats do not. Just saying for me that is an issue. Just saying dog people. Just saying.

You can see this sort of loyalty in a different way during the political season. When people invest their money in and attention toward a particular candidate, something amazing happens, that candidate becomes Jesus Christ! Not literally, but all the sudden, that candidate can do nothing wrong, even though an outside observer can see that they are human and obviously do things wrong.

But, that is how treasures work. Where you put your treasure, is where you your heart ends up. Where you spend your resources of money, time, and self is what you will end up treasuring like a gleaming gem.

This leads me to wonder, where does God spend God’s resources? Let us see.

In the beginning, God made a peaceful space in the chaos for us, the gem of God’s creation.

In Jesus, God chooses to spend time with us, especially if we are poor and trapped in sin.

In Jesus, God chooses to pay a life for a life on the cross. God chooses to pay for you…for us…to trade our sins for his peace. This is all done for our benefit. God so loved Apple Corp.? No, “God so loved the world…” We are where God spends God's resources.

The man picks up the $20, looks at it, and asks the pastor, “So, what am I supposed to do with this?”

“Spend it," the pastor replies.

“Spend it. On what?”

“Spend it on something that the Lord cares about. Spend it on something that Jesus would care passionately about. Spend it on the poor. Spend it on a special Olympic athlete. Spend it on someone’s medical care. Spend it on something that the Lord would spend it on.

You see, when we feel separated from God, it may be because we no longer participate in the same activities.

Just like sharing rounds of golf together has actually saved some marriages, sharing in the activities that God cares about just may provide what you are seeking.

‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,’ Jesus says.

So, invest some of your treasure into God. Just maybe your heart will follow and you won't be so disconnected.”

If you are reading this now, I invite you to do the same. Do you feel disconnected with God? Take some of your gifts this week, (and I really, actually mean it), and spend them on something that Jesus would care about.

After-all, it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Follow God's example and share some of that kingdom of mercy, and maybe…just maybe...your own eyes will be opened to the mercies of God in your life.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Reflection on Luke 12:13-21

"Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me," the man implores Jesus.

There is pain behind those words. It would be easy to dismiss the guy with an accusation of greediness saying, “He just wants to be rich, and he’s trying to get someone with power to side with him.” But, that ignores the reality that lie behind most inheritance disputes: memories.

“I don’t care about anything else in the house. The only thing that I want is Dad’s violin,” the woman said. The need in her eyes revealed a yearning for the days of dancing in the living room while her father sang, eyes on her, from behind the rhythmically vibrating strings.

Memories…those shared connections with those we love are what truly lie behind these inheritance disputes. When the man says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me,” he is really saying, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the memories. Tell my brother to share my Dad with me.”

That is what happens in death. We scream to the sky because we lost someone so special. And, since we cannot hold to them for comfort, we hold to their things to provide the peace we seek. This is a normal response to death.

The problems come when everyone desires to hold onto the same things. When that happens, relationships with things start to become more important than relationships with people. I know of too many brothers and sisters who have gained lots of violins, cast iron skillets, smoking pipes, and sewing machines, but lost each other.

That is the real problem with the rich man in Jesus’ parable after-all. The problem is not so much that he gained a lot of wealth due to the bounty of the earth that year, but that he amasses all of this stuff, alone.

Read closely the words of the man:

“I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'”

Did you notice the amount of times that the man says “I”? More than that, did you notice that there was only one person in his life whom he could have a conversation about this bountiful year? Himself! His own soul is the one with whom he chooses to talk!

The problem is not that the guy was given the gift of a bountiful harvest. The problem is that the guy does not have anyone else with whom to share those possessions. His love is pent up in himself, and his possessions are a symptom of the much larger problem of trading possessions for people; trading things for relationships.

If Luke has any message to give us, it is that God does not forget us or our neighbors. And, in the kingdom of God, love of God and neighbor prevails. In that kingdom, we do not seek build up barns, rather we build up our neighbor. In that kingdom, we do not become so wrapped up in ourselves that God’s love is forgotten.

Churches can have these same issues with possessions. Some hold onto the gift of their property for only their own use. In the same way, some church will also hold tight to the much less tangible gifts given to them such as baptism and ordination. Churches still decide who gets to be baptized and who does not. Some churches still decide that half of the population does not deserve to share their gifts from the pulpit or break bread with those gathered in Christ’s name.

We all have a way of taking the gifts given to us from God, and keeping them for ourselves. There are any number of reasons for this, but some of the most powerful reasons are the ones that surround memories of past times, past ways, and a past people.

This whole preservation of memory thing is a hard one. I have no problem giving up an old laptop that I used for work for a new one. Slaving away over the keyboard late at night is not the type of memory that I would like to keep and share with my great grandchildren.

But, I would have a problem giving up the first little purple dress that I bought for my granddaughter Trinity, even though there is no way she or either of the other girls in our family could now wear it. Those sort of memories are special, so the items also are special.

But, if your life is being asked of you this very night, and you have no one with whom to share those memories, of what use is the building up of barns or sheds or Rubbermaid containers to store the memories?

You see, the value of anything is not in the preservation of the past, but the value is in the potential for relationships now and in the future. The value is in their inherent “giftedness.”

Everything we have is a gift from God for the sake of the world.

Even Jesus’ very life ended up being a gift to redeem people, the whole word in fact. Jesus not only gave up all he had, but he gave his very self for us. The value Jesus saw in his life was in the potential for others to have a relationship with him then and in the future.

In the same way, all that we have from God, even our very lives, are gifts for our neighbor in some way. And, since we've been given the gift of Jesus, he too is a gift not only for us, but also for our neighbor. No hording allowed. No building of barns allowed. No loneliness allowed. No loneliness for the people of God. Jesus cannot be horded. All that we have from God, Jesus, our things, even our very lives, are gifts for our neighbor in some way.

My granddaughter Trinity is five now. Last Christmas she wanted to give our baby a gift. Of course, we take her shopping and she chooses Christmas gifts for the children in the family that we then buy on her behalf, but this year she was old enough to want to give something herself.

She had in her room one prized miniature doll, Elsa from the movie Frozen. Elsa came with two of those magic clip dresses that easily slip right onto the doll. As Trinity looked around her room at all of the gifts she had been given, she spotted that Elsa. She brought this prized possession out of her room and carefully put her in the gift wrapped box for the baby marked, “Ember.”

You see, the value of anything is not in the preservation of the past. The value is in the potential for future relationships.

In this case, a gift first shared with Trinity kept on giving in her new relationship with Ember. That new relationship was much more important than even the most prized possession that she had.

"Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me," the man implores Jesus. That, of course, is the wrong question.

“Teacher, help me draw closer to my brother and to you now that our Dad is gone,” asks the one who is rich toward God.