Monday, October 31, 2016

Reflection on Romans 3:19-28

One of the first things that I noticed when moving into Pennsylvania were all of the stone walls. If you have lived in Pennsylvania your whole life, or even for a very long time, you probably take them for granted. Most Pennsylvanians do not even thinking twice about seeing one. But, coming from the Midwest, where stone walls are a luxury of the upper-middle class and the rich, you cannot help but see them.

Stone walls are everywhere. They run through people’s yards. They run along roadsides. You can even find a stone wall, far from the roads, in the middle of the forest while hunting. It is hard to throw a rock in Pennsylvania without it helping to build up a stone wall!

All of this is to say that walls and fences, anything that separate us from our neighbors, have been on my mind for quite a long time.

In those early days of my moving to Pennsylvania, I saw a man who was repairing his stone wall. I was walking by and I took the opportunity to stop and chat for a moment.

While the man absentmindedly picked up fallen stones and stacked them on top, he mentioned that he was not getting along with his neighbor. Something about an apple tree…I do not quite remember.

What I do remember is that the man was the living embodiment of the old saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Or, in this man’s case, “Good two foot thick solid stone walls make for good neighbors.”

Walls and fences are built to keep “them” out and protect “us” within. They are a visible means of separating ourselves from our neighbors so that we do not have to care about them, or the rusty lawn mowers and broken lawn chairs littering the yard. Yeah, I noticed that too as I moved out here.

It is easy to take this notion of walls and apply them to the heavenly realms.

As a child I imaged heaven as having a long wall that stretched in both directions beyond the horizon, with a huge golden gate right there as the only entrance. Inside the walls of heaven it was green and lush, but outside it was a deserted wasteland of red shaded, parched dirt.

I, of course, was on the green side of the wall, safe from those evil-doers on the parched side. Ryan, the class bully was on the other side, of course.

We all instinctively know who is on the parched side of the wall.

The bullies, the cheats, the law breakers, the foreigners, the system abusers, the sexually immoral, the people voting for the other candidate in the presidential campaign; all of those idiots are over on the other side. We are safe in the green lushness of God’s heavenly realm. But, they miserably look through the gates, dust gritting in their teeth.

It is a natural sort of image to have in our heads. We, of course, are the ones who are right. It is so obvious that we are right. If only people could slip into my brain and understand just how right I am, the world would be a better place.

What I am trying to say is; we are the righteous and they are not. Those people, on the other side of the wall who have made all of the wrong choices in life, are the unrighteous. We deserve to be inside, and they do not.

Then the day came when the image of the wall began to crumble to the ground. It was the day that I learned a horrible truth: Ryan, the class bully, went to church also. He too was a baptized member of the body of Christ, and he, probably through some elicit, covert means, had made it into the lush, blessed part of heaven somehow.

I did not know how to handle that news. I even avoided bible camp one year, which I loved, because I heard he was going the same week that I was planning on going.

But, it was my pastor who took the last swing of the sledgehammer to my nicely constructed wall when he quoted from the pulpit these horrible words from Romans: “there is no distinction…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

If there is a heavenly wall with a gate, my pastor seemed to be insinuating that we all fall on the deserted, dusty side.

My pastor continued, “Not one person looks great and wonderful to God because of all the good works that they have done. Everyone sins, and not a single one of us deserves the green lushness of heaven.”

All of the words are right there in Romans, and the words were enough to shut me up. All of the complaining about other people…it ceased. We all sit on the deserted side of the wall, and there is nothing that we can do about it.

Let us just sit with that idea for awhile, because that means some astounding things.

For example, it means that there are no insiders and outsiders; we are all outsiders.

There are no countrymen and foreigners; we are all foreigners.

There are no morally upright and morally corrupt; we are all corrupt.

Even thinking that we are better than someone else makes us idolize ourselves, and that goes against commandment number one, “Thou shall have no other gods.”

You cannot get much worse than breaking the big number one! And you thought murder was bad! That is way down at number five on the list of commandments.

All have sinned and fall short. That means we are all stranded. If we are all stranded, that means there is no one who will be able to figure out how to save us from our deserted wasteland. If no one among us can save us…well…that is a slightly depressing state in which to live.

Most of you reading are Christians, so you know where this reflection is going. And, if you are not that strong of a Christian, at least you may have already read the text from which this reflection is being written, and have thus already heard what Paul says about all of this. So, I am under no delusion that I am going to proclaim something new and earth shattering at this very moment. You have heard it many times before.

We are made right…we are saved…by God’s “grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.”

We are not set right with God by anything we did, or will do. We are set right with God because Christ Jesus decided to rescue us from the deserted side of the wall, as a gift. We did not, and will never, earn this salvation. You are saved by God because God wanted to save you.

There is not much to boast about there.

“Hey, I’m the scum of the earth, and I needed someone to some save my sorry soul.”

Well, as I said, you have all heard this before a million times. But, I think that the part of the gospel message that we continually forget is that Jesus’ love erases all of the walls.

There are no insiders and outsiders in God’s kingdom.

There are no walls to separate us from our neighbors.

There are no walls.

That man who was rebuilding his stone wall to separate himself from neighbor was wasting his time.

Jesus prefers us to forgive our neighbor rather than to forget our neighbor.

Jesus prefers us to love our enemies rather than close them out.

Jesus prefers salvation to damnation.

Jesus prefers wall destruction because that sort of love is how the entire cosmos is pulled back together.

So, I have one question for you: With whom have you built a wall?

Do not be surprised to see Jesus taking your wall down, stone by stone, because that is what eternal love looks like.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Reflection on Luke 18:9-14

The guy is not as nasty as you may think. I am talking about that Pharisee who stands and declares how great he is in his prayer.

It is easy to look at him as he stands there declaring how great he is because he is not like the thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like the tax collector who is standing nearby, and say to yourself, “What a self-righteous hypocrite. There is no way he has gotten this far in life without sinning.” But, I actually believe the fellow.

I believe that the guy was righteous. He probably, honestly, did fast twice a week and give a tenth of all his income. He probably has never stolen, beaten anybody up, cheated on his wife, sided with the wrong kind of people or cheated anyone out of their money like the tax collectors were accused of doing.

The guy is not obviously nasty. He is quite the opposite.

He is probably the kind of guy that you hope your daughter would bring home from her date with his well-groomed hair, door opening abilities, and a little in the wallet so that she does not have to pay for a date that he set up. Am I right?

You do not want the scruffy, odd smelling, town cheat walking through the door, asking to whisk your daughter away. You want the righteous guy.

Yet, even with all of that wholesome goodness beaming through the door onto your daughter’s future, Jesus has a problem with the guy.

The problem is revealed in the conversations that he holds. A lot of his conversations at the dinner table go something like this: “Can you believe that woman who stumbles down the middle of the street, drunk every night? Sometimes you have to be thankful that you don’t have that kind of life.”

Or he’ll say, “Wow, I’m glad I’m not like my neighbor. He can’t even keep his lawn mowed, much less care for his family.”

Somehow, the guy has taken God’s rules, God’s laws, intended to be followed so that our neighbors might thrive, and be loved, and turned the the laws around to be used as a stick to beat the neighbor. He has taken the law that says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and rather than using it to love his neighbor, has used it as a weapon to say, “My neighbor doesn’t love enough.”

Somehow, righteousness (loving God and caring for the neighbor) has been misused and it has been turned into self-righteousness.

Self-righteousness is loving oneself and striving to make oneself perfect. Like so many before him, in the words of Dr. David Lose, the man has manipulated God’s law from “a device intended to help one’s neighbor to a standard by which to judge one’s neighbor.”

That is the real problem that Jesus sees in the righteous man: that he cares mainly about himself. He is a moral, thriving, self-made man who (despite his daily prayers) needs no one but himself. He is his own God. He is his own creation. He is the judge of his own world. He is righteous, but he is not justified.

His righteousness makes him well aware of the differences between he and his neighbor, and this awareness, this judging, moves him further from his neighbor rather than closer.

But, Jesus is about justifying. Jesus is about drawing people closer. He is about opening his arms wide on the cross to draw people, especially the sinful, together through forgiveness. Jesus is about “reconciling all things to himself” as Colossians 1:20 puts it. Jesus is not about driving creation apart.

Rather than requiring us to make ourselves right and noble and perfect, Jesus justifies us by the blood of the cross. Jesus makes us right through love and forgiveness.

Just in case we forgot, there is another man standing there praying. There is that tax collector who sides with the wrong people in society by collecting taxes for the Romans. On top of that horror, he probably takes too much off the top of his tax collecting for his own use.

He cannot even lift his eyes to God, but prays “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” That man, Jesus says, is “justified.”

As Dr. David Lose says:
“Justification, in contrast to righteousness, does not depend on our own efforts and, indeed, has nothing to do with them. We can take neither credit nor responsibility for our standing before God yet recognize that we are recipients of a profound gift. Looking around us, we see all others in a similar vein, people that God has created and loves and out of love has also justified.”

Love is what justification is all about. Think about your own relationships. You do not stay in relationships with people because they are perfect in all things. You do not base your relationships on perfect behavior. Rather, you base your relationships on love.

Do not forget, those who stick with you through life do not do so because of your amazing levels of perfection either. They stick with you because they love you. Love is a gift, and that gift of love draws us together.

Justification is about love and forgiveness, and that is what the second man has: love and forgiveness from God. The second man is not his own God. He is his not own perfect creation (far from it). He has no pedestal from which to judge the world. He is not righteous, but he is justified and loved dearly by God.

Though God smiles at all of the good things you do to love the neighbor, the volunteerism, the loving parenting, the caring friendships, the devoted citizenship, the devotion to the church, and all of the hard work for the sake of others, none of these things define your worth. Your worth comes from the fact that God loves you and decided to make you a part of God’s family as a gift. You do not need to do anything to deserve God’s love, it is something God wants to share with you.

That said, I do have to say that love does tend to be contagious, and love sprouts forth like a healthy weed as we do our best to be loving to people is all aspects of our lives.

Dr. Lose reminds us that "life is a gift to be treasured rather than accomplished."

Life is a living as a beloved person, rather than living as a self-made one. God holds you even now in a big pair of loving arms, and that is what makes all of the difference.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Reflection on Luke 18:1-8

What is the prayer you have not dared to pray?

What prayer seems so unlikely, so outlandish, that you have feared to pray it because you have the sneaking suspicion that prayer is not going to do a darn thing?

What is the prayer you have not dared to pray?

Maybe, it is a prayer that asks for a break financially: “Please God, just this one time.”

Maybe, it is a prayer that seeks an unlikely result on the medical front.

Maybe, it is a prayer that asks that a deeply ingrained human trait like hatred between people cease to exist.

Maybe, it is a prayer that you might finally, after years of living with girls, get a little boy!

What is the prayer you have not dared to pray?

There was a very bright 5 year old boy who once told his dad that he would like to have a baby brother and, along with his request, offered to do whatever he could to help.

His dad, a very bright 35 year old man, paused for a moment and then replied, "I'll tell you what, little guy, if you pray every day for two months for a baby brother, I guarantee that God will give you one!"

The boy responded eagerly to his dad's challenge and went to his bedroom early that night to start praying for a baby brother.

He prayed every night for a whole month, but after that time, he began to get skeptical. He checked around the neighborhood and found out that what he thought was going to happen, had never occurred in the history of the neighborhood.

You just do not pray for two months and then, whammo- a new baby brother.

So, the boy quit praying.

After another month, the boy's mother went to the hospital. When she came back home, the boy's parents called him into the bedroom.

He cautiously walked into the room, not expecting to find anything, and there was a little bundle lying right next to his mother. His dad pulled back the blanket and there was -- not one baby brother, but two!! His mother had twins!

The boy's dad looked down at him and said, "Now aren't you glad you prayed?"

The boy hesitated a little and then looked up at his dad and said, "Yes, but aren't you glad I quit when I did?"

I did not write the joke, so do not shoot me for the bad pulpit humor!

What struck me about the joke though, other than the punch line of course, was the boy’s skepticism toward prayer. You do not just pray for baby brothers, and get one (or in this case two) in a couple of months. It usually just does not work that way, does it?

Well, no, it does not.

So, we do not even ask these unspeakable prayer requests in the first place, because they may seem impossible or ridiculous. This sort of hesitancy in prayer makes sense.

Though completely reasonable, the problem with such hesitancy in prayer is that when we choose not to pray, we are also choosing not to have a full relationship with God.

The widow in Luke’s story had no such hesitancy. She had a matter of justice that was not being corrected…or even heard.

Similar to the football players who still continue to kneel for the national anthem to raise awareness concerning racism in America, though public pressure has told them consistently to stop kneeling and stand, this woman keeps on hounding an unjust judge regarding the injustice she has been suffering. She just will not quit, and it is driving the unjust judge crazy!

The unjust judge who does not care about God, or anyone but himself for that matter, gives in and grants her justice just to stop her hounding.

So, if an unjust judge can grant this woman justice, how much more will our loving God listen, and maybe, hopefully, unbelievably, go further than listening and actually do something when we call out our prayers, no matter how ridiculous or unlikely they may be?

Jesus promises us that God will help when we cry out. that is what a loving parent does. That is what a loving God does.

Now, listen, I know. I know the “what ifs” and the “but what abouts” that cause you to even yet resist praying those prayers that you have not dared to speak aloud to God.

We are heirs of Jacob who wrestle with God and push back against God’s movements silhouetted all night by the light of the moon. But, notice one thing about Jacob: he shows up for the fight. He shows up for the wrestling match against God and does not hold back. Though he does not gain any headway against God through the night, at least he has one thing going for him; God is right there with him.

When we wrestle and struggle with God, we are not alone. God is right there.

What is the prayer you have not dared to pray? What prayer seems so unlikely, so outlandish, that you have feared to pray it because you have the sneaking suspicion that prayer isn’t going to do a darn thing?

How about you pray it anyway?

How about you bother God’s ear like the woman to the unjust judge, or you start a wrestling match with God like Jacob next to the waters of the Jabbok? Because here’s the thing: God is willing to hear. God is willing to be right there. Our faith may waver, but God’s faithfulness toward us does not.

As Martin Luther has been quoted as saying, “Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance. It is laying hold of God’s willingness.”

In other words, prayer is being open to hearing God's answer, no matter what the answer may be.

What is the prayer you have not dared to pray? I urge you to take a moment to pray that prayer right now.

It's quite all right to bother God!
That's better than a calm fa├žade,
Or resignation of your lot;
For Jesus says the one who's got
The gumption not to knuckle under
Exhibits real faith and wonder
That justice, always, God intends,
Although we may not comprehend
The schedule! Thus, the widow's might
Is in her cry the judge make right -
Which teaches us to fight despair
By voicing what becomes real prayer.

- Scott L. Barton

These words from Scott L. Barton make me think of a type of prayer that seems fitting for today. It is called a P.U.S.H prayer.

For the entire one of you reading this who loves acronyms, it stands for “Pray until something happens.”

It is living the story of the widow and the unjust judge. It is living the story of Jacob and his wrestling match. It is living a life of faith, where we do not know the results, but we are willing to pray anyway.

We pray and pray and pray some more, until something happens…until justice has been granted. We pray until we have seen the grace of God fall of us in some way.

God is right there with us, so we pray until something happens.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Reflection on Luke 17:11-19


Just the very utterance of the word can instantly excite the memory of a smell or a sight. Images of a house and the occurrences that took place within and outside of the house float past, and you feel as if you are "home" once again.

Well, most of us have this sort of nostalgic reaction to the word, “home.” But, some of us, myself included, have moved so many times throughout our lives that the word “home” brings no memories of houses and properties.

I have never lived anywhere long enough to ever consider it “home.” My Dad was the helping hand on multiple pig farms throughout the years, and we simply never stayed put for any amount of time.

I guess that you could call me homeless. I was not ever houseless, but, I have never had a “home.”

The interesting thing about being “homeless” in this way is that your sense of home has nothing to do with location, and everything to do with people. When I hear the word “home,” I think of my Mom, my Dad, my Brothers, and even my extended family…cousins and such. Home, is where the people are.

Now, I can only imagine that those 10 lepers became “home” to one another over the years.

In a similar way to how child predators in today’s age must live a certain distance from schools, parks, and churches, giving them in some communities only a very small area in which they are permitted to live (in one community, the only place that fits that bill is living in a tent underneath the bridge), these lepers were also required to keep a certain distance away from healthy people so that their contagious skin disease might not spread.

Luke imagines that these ten have been relegated to a village in the borderlands of Samaria and Galilee.

All ten have been banished from their actual homes…their houses and families, and now they have a home that consists of each other. This little “homeless” family, in the traditional sense of the word, consists of 9 Jews and 1 Samaritan.

It is an odd sort of family with that Samaritan thrown in the mix, but when common struggle and common illness is in play, racial hatred tends to diminish. And, for years they have lived together, eaten together, begged together, and weathered all of the storms together. They are each other’s “home.”

Then the day comes when salvation walks their way. Jesus Christ comes their way, and keeping their appropriate distance, they ask him to show them mercy.

“Go, show yourselves to the priests,” Jesus responds.

As each of one turns to head toward their own respective priest, they see that their skin diseases have all been healed. The priests will surely declare them to be healed and welcome them back “home” to their houses, to their families, and to their lives.

Nine will gain their childhood “homes” once again, but one has just lost his. One just stares as the members of his home walk away.

The Samaritan, who cannot safely follow into the lands of hatred and racism has now become truly “homeless” in all senses of the word.

Ever been there? Ever felt as if you were the one left out? Ever felt truly alone?

Just yesterday, I heard the true tale of a small child, around age 4, who had just had his first experience of a neighborhood friend abandoning him.

Jack comes running home and tells his mom, “My friend told me to go home because I was laughing at him! He didn’t understand when I told him it was joyful laughter.”

The mother responds, “OK, tell me what happened.”

“I started laughing, and my friend said ‘What are you laughing at?’ I said, ‘Your face.’

“Yes,” the mother said, “I can understand how that might have been misinterpreted.”

It is a funny little story that skirts around the edges of something much deeper, the experience of being abandoned by others; being relegated to the sidelines of life, not feeling valued, not feeling understood, not feeling like you have a “home.”

It does not matter what has caused you to be relegated to the sidelines of life, whether it be an illness, the color of your skin, a disagreement, a situation of bullying, a sin that you have committed, or any host of deserved or undeserved separation from others; Jesus has a place for you.

The other 9 lepers go “home” because they can, but the one who is left out finds a home in the one who saved him. The tenth leper comes to Jesus, and Jesus welcomes the man to his true home, his savior.

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling—
Calling for you and for me;
Patiently Jesus is waiting and watching—
Watching for you and for me!

Come home! come home!
Ye who are weary, come home!
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!

Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

The man was already healed of the skin disease. What does Jesus mean by, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”?

It is quite simple really. As we have been saying all along; the 10th Leper’s faith has given him a home. Now that he has a home, he has finally been made well.

And, Jesus continues to make the world well by welcoming all of us home to his table. None of the distinctions of life that separate us from others, the clothes we wear, the color of our skin, the level of sin in our lives, are enough to turn us away from Jesus’ table. At Jesus' table we are at home, because our true home is Jesus Christ.

And, the nice thing about this home, Jesus Christ, is that He follows you wherever you go. This home will not forget those who reside within, Jesus does not forget.

No matter where you are in life or where you are in the world, you are at home in the eternal love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Welcome home. Welcome home. Rejoice and be glad, for you are home.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Reflection on Luke 17:5-10

He looked as if he had been beat up, but he had not. The stress of the situation was getting to him. 
“Pastor, do you want to know how many times I have had to forgive my sister? 
Ever since she got her first dollar, she knew how to blow it. 
She has drained my elderly parents dry! I don’t know why they keep helping her. 
I’ve told her over and over again that she needs to get a handle on her spending, and over and over again she says she is sorry, and over and over again she just blows it all. 
If it was just her money that she was blowing, I really wouldn’t care. She doesn’t have anyone other than herself to worry about. But, it’s our parent’s retirement money!” 
The man looked lost. He did not know how to help his sister. All of the nagging and chiding over the years had done nothing. 
“Pastor, do I need to keep forgiving her? I think I need a little more faith.” 
And, there is was: the statement that has been echoing throughout the ages ever since the apostles first uttered the words. They ask for more faith after being challenged in a similar way by Jesus to forgive each time they rebuke someone and hear words "I'm sorry, forgive me" in response. 
This request is no small request! Jesus tells them that they must forgive even if the sin happens seven times a day. Seven times a day! 
“Jesus, that is a steep order, I think we need a little more faith!” 
But, it is not just the difficulty found in forgiving people that drives us to utter a desire to have more faith.

There is just so much in the world going on that needs to be solved from school shootings, to black lives and police relations, to election day fears, to unspeakable suffering in Syria, to young girls being raped trying to escape central America, to…well, as I said, it is too much.

And, that does not even start to talk to issues closer to home such as drugs that place stress on our families, elderly parents who are faltering, and even the shrinking of churches all over the place. Could it be that this generation of believers will let the faith disappear? How do we turn all of these things around?

The needs of the world are so great that we join with the apostles as they look to Jesus and say, “I think we need a little more faith!”

We request this as if faith were a commodity that could be measured out and increased like flour in baking a pie or gasoline in powering a automobile.
Now, you would think that Jesus would love all of these requests for more faith. I mean, is that not the point of Christianity; for lots of people to have lots of faith?

Instead, Jesus seems a little perturbed by the apostles' request.

He says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.’”

Apparently, the apostles do not have faith even the size of a tiny seed. Or, maybe, the apostles are allowing something other than faith to control their thoughts. Maybe, their fear has negated their faith.
Way back in the beginning of the biblical story, we have a world with practically no followers of God, except for Abraham and Sarah, or Abram and Sarai as they were know at that point in the story.

The two followed God. But, there was one problem, they could not have children. Knowledge of the Lord was potentially just two people away from extinction in those early days. As menopause overtook Sarai, it seemed that knowledge of the Lord would disappear for good. Except for one tiny hope.
One night, the Lord took Abram outside and told him to look at the stars.

“Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.”

Then God said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”

It was a promise.

Though their situation in life seemed so unlikely and impossible to fix, and there was nothing that Abram could do about it, God had given Abram a promise. Though it is a small, almost minuscule response, Abram trusted God's promise. That is faith.
Sometimes, we forget that our Heavenly Father is an actor on the stage of the world.

Sometimes we become so overcome by the insurmountable, that we forget the one who created the world out of nothing and brought Jesus Christ back from the dead is still present with us through the Holy Spirit. 
The Father of us all is here, we do not face these challenges alone.
The pastor looked at the Man and said, “It might be wise to make sure that the rest of your parent’s money is made safe. That being said, as ridiculous as it sounds, just keep forgiving your sister. I don’t know for certain that the forgiveness will do anything, but Jesus seems certain that it is the way that things are healed.

I know, it seem ridiculous. But, just like employees simply do what they are told, and don’t necessarily know the reasoning behind it, we simply forgive and trust that Jesus will take care of the rest.
Maybe, just maybe, a little act such as forgiveness will sprout from a small seed and bloom into a huge bush that provides life to birds and squirrels. But, whether or not that happens is not up to us. That is up to God.

We might not be able to change race relations in our nation, but we can love our neighbor and listen to their struggles, no matter the color of their skin. Maybe, that simple act of love will sprout into something great, but that is up to God. 
Our job is to simply love our neighbor.

We might not be able to prevent all school shootings, or war, or hatred, but we can love and forgive others. 
We might not understand how this will help, but, Jesus thinks it is the way to bring new life to the world. He staked his life on it on the cross.

If that is what our Lord thinks, we are free to have trust the size of a mustard seed, and leave the growth up to God.