Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Reflection on Matthew 24:36-44

In the days of Noah, the man had just finished the wedding feast, and now he was carrying his bride to the tent. The rain had not dampened the festivities in the least. In fact, dancing in the mud seemed to heighten the excitement of the evening. But, the time for dancing was done, at least for the groom. As the party guests continued their celebrating, he grabbed his new wife, raised her up into the air, and strode off into the night.

Little did he know that within moments, he would be carrying her in order to keep her above the continually deepening flood waters.

Little did he know that the marriage would end in just a few moments as the current swept her from his arms as he stumbled to keep upright in the flow of the water and rubbish.

Little did he know that his wedding night would also be the night of his funeral.

Little did he know.

Life is uncertain and unpredictable.

Today is no different than the days of Noah in that respect. Two of you can be working on a project together, and one of you will get cancer. Within months one of you will be swept away in gut-wrenching treatments, and then death. Life is uncertain and unpredictable.

Two of you can be out hunting together, and one of you loses your footing and gets swept down the side of the mountain; the fatal blow occurring when the rock meets the head. Life is uncertain and unpredictable.

Two of you might have had weddings in the same summer, and one of you watches helplessly as the other couple gets swept away in petty fights and an eventual divorce. Life is uncertain and unpredictable.

Two of you enter the class on the same day, but one of you gets swept away in a sea of bullying while the other does not, and passes the class without any issues. Life is uncertain and unpredictable.

We like to think that we are in control of our lives. We like to think that we shape our own destinies. And, this may be true to some degree.

The one who boldly chooses to go through the eight to ten grueling years of schooling to become a lawyer will have a better income than the one who chooses to stay at home after graduation and farm. That is, assuming a car accident does not sweep away the good life of the lawyer shortly after she establishes her career.

We do not have as much control over our lives as we would like to think. Life is uncertain and unpredictable.

The people of Matthew’s time were coming to grips with this reality as they waited longer and longer for Jesus’ return. Jesus was supposed to come back and save them all from the horrors of government oppression and death to the mouths of lions. Jesus was supposed to come back and make the world right again, with justice and peace prevailing. Jesus was supposed to come back, and he did not.

It is said that the only things that are certain in life are death and taxes. It seems to be proving true.

OK, that is a little bit of an exaggeration; there are other things that are true in life. I am learning that poop jokes will always be funny to two year olds. That is a certainty.

There are other certainties: the earth goes around the sun; the sun will blind you at the very moment you need to see the road clearly; the roads will get potholes the size of Texas and do damage to your tires; and everything in Texas will always be bigger…including their fish stories (as we learned from Vicar from Texas last year). There are some things in life that are certain. But, the movements of God are not one of them.

There is a reason that C.S. Lewis chose to represent God as a lion in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lions are powerful, but they can also be tender and caring, licking the dirt off of their young. The same is true for God. But, above all, lions are wild and unpredictable. Just as it is impossible to control a wild lion without some sort of gun and drugs, it too is impossible to control God. You cannot fit God into a box. You cannot predict what God is going to do or what God is going to decide. We cannot control God. We are not in control.

And, there it is, the truth of the day: we are not in control.

We do not control God.

Heck, we even have trouble even controlling ourselves.

We certainly do not know what the future holds. We do not know when Jesus will come again (not even Jesus knows that…only God the Father). And, we do not know when the waters will come and sweep us away. We are not in control.

But, I do have one thing to say about that. The fact that we are not in control changes nothing.

You can still love when you are dying of cancer. Unpredictability changes nothing.

You can still love others even when your job is taken out from under you. Uncertainty changes nothing.

You can still forgive as soldiers nail you to the cross. Unpredictability changes nothing.

Even death could not keep love buried under the ground.

You do not need to be certain of anything to have a life full of the gifts of love and forgiveness given to you by your Lord and savior Jesus the Christ.

You can let that forgiveness spill all over as they drag you to the lions, or even to the ambulance. You do not need to live a life in which you are asleep to those around you, allowing the thief of apathy and hatred to break into your house. You do not need to go through life asleep.

You can stay awake when it has to do with love. Love is poured on you constantly throughout your life by God, keeping you awake. Let that love spill everywhere. May it never stop, especially when life seems uncertain and unpredictable for your neighbor.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Reflection on Luke 23:33-43

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Memory has never been one of my strong points. The Bible says that God will not forget even one hair of our heads. I cannot even remember all of my hair styles throughout the years, much less remember each and every hair.

If it were up to me to save the entire world, or even those with whom I am acquainted, I am pretty certain that my book of life would have a serious lack of names, and would be more of a listing of traits: Guy with goatee and glasses; Five-ish aged boy with purple shoes; Lady with microphone headed hair.

That last one was a member of a former church that I attended. Her hair was a perfect, huge, black ball on top of her head. Thus, from behind she looked like a microphone. We called her microphone lady. Thus, that is how she would be listed.

All of this is to say that I am not the savior of the world, and you should be thankful for that.

I am not certain that I should even be trusted with choosing our nation’s leaders. At least half of you, if you had the chance, would look at the ballot that I cast recently and agree. But, beyond the vote that I cast recently, I am talking a little more in general.

I usually prefer my leaders to be intelligent, decisive, and powerful, with a distinct sense of justice – giving the criminal no leeway while rewarding the law abiding citizen.

If you were to choose a piece of furniture to represent the type of leader that I tend to lead toward, it would probably look a little like a throne. Sure, I believe in democracy, but I also like my leaders to have the ability to get things done.

Whether or not they have a throne to sit on, there is one thing that I know for certain, the furniture that the leader of my natural inclinations would choose probably would not be a cross.

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus’ kingship has something to do with memory and crosses.

Jesus’ type of leadership has to do with remembering even those despicable people who we would rather forget. Memory.

Jesus’ type of leadership has to do with identifying with the lowest of the low in society. The Cross.

Jesus’ leadership looks a lot like an innocent man, nailed to a cross, uttering the words “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” over those who would seek to destroy him. It looks a lot like the man who would choose to forgive a criminal who rightly deserved execution on a cross, but, in an act of contrition, says, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

“Love your enemies.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Blessed are the poor.” “Rejoice, for the lost has been found.” “Forgive, even if they sin against you seven times a day.”

These are the values of the king that we have.

They are not the values held by most strong civic leaders for whom we might vote. However, they are the values of a king…and a heaven Father…who does not wish that even one of us would be lost. They are the values of the one who is able to remember every hair on your head. They are the values of the savior we have been given by God.

And, these eternal values are probably a good thing. If we are honest with ourselves (and I am asking you to do that right now), we all have aspects about ourselves that probably should be forgotten and left behind.
All of us have sins that we hope would never come to the surface. All of us have acted out of fear rather than love. All of us have chosen to hate someone and call them an enemy rather than forgive.

All of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, as the Apostle Paul says.

There is no one who does good, not even one, declares Psalm 14.

All of us are the criminal, hanging on the cross next to Jesus; every single one of us.

And, if you are sitting there saying to yourself, “Well, that does not describe me,” then you especially are the one hanging there…guilty of making yourself god and violating the first commandment; “You shall have no other gods.”

All of us hang there, guilty as charged, next to the king who seeks a different way. His way is a way of mercy. His way is a way of love. His way is the way that refuses to forget.

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

The words pour from our mouths as words of hope. They fall at the foot of the cross as we seek a merciful king. Thankfully, for us, the king who hears our words replies, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

 Yes, even you are not forgotten. Jesus does not forget you; not one of you.

Monday, November 14, 2016

A Reflection on Luke 21:5-19

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her king;
let ev'ry heart prepare him room
and heav'n and nature sing,
and heav'n and nature sing,
and heav'n, and heav'n and nature sing.

No, I am not crazy in making you reflect on this hymn! I am not taking my lead from the Walmarts and K-Marts of the world and decorating your screen with church music before Thanksgiving has even arrived.

I made you reflect on it because there is something about this hymn that you do not know. This hymn is not a Christmas hymn.

Isaac Watts, the author, did not have Christmas in mind when he wrote the words, “the Lord is come,” but rather, wanted us to voice images of Christ’s second coming; “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her king; let ev'ry heart prepare him room and heav'n and nature sing…”

Mr. Watts wanted us to find hope in Christ’s return in power to a world that is struggling.

And, our world is struggling. Though some are relieved by the outcome of the election, some of your neighbors are scared. And, that divide between us as a nation helps to reinforce the reality that our world is struggling.

But, let us lay politics aside for the rest of this reflection because you do not need politics to know that the world is struggling.

We see images on the news of people trapped in the hopelessness of war. We see images of people who have lost loved ones to tragedy. We see images of hate between nations and people.

Heck, we do not even need the news. We experience all of these horrible things in our own lives. The earth quakes, the rivers flood, our families are divided, our jobs are insecure as are our livelihoods; I do not need to go on. You already know that life can be a struggle.

And, it does not help that you read Jesus' words upon which this reflection is based and have your anxiety raised once again with words such as:

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

If look to the Bible to find an everlasting peace in a hectic world, might I suggest that you never choose the readings appointed in the middle of November on the Sunday before Christ the King Sunday. It is always this talk of destruction and gloom.

The words make us wonder if recent wars and natural disasters are proof that Jesus was talking about us right here, and right now. It makes us wonder if the end of the world is near.

And if it is, shall we go build ourselves shelters, storing away our Campbell’s Noodle Soup, and holing ourselves up for good?

Of course, there is one important thing we must remember on this day. Jesus was not talking about us.

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

I fear that we become so preoccupied with our own future and our own tragic demise that we miss the whole point of this biblical story in the first place.

And, the point is this: even though the early Christians went through these horrible persecutions for their faith, we still gather in the name of Jesus Christ even today. Those persecuted Christians still told the story of the new life that is found in Jesus.

Were there people out there telling their neighbors that the end of the world was near? Of course, but it did not matter.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first.” Then Jesus assures the disciples, “the end will not follow immediately.”

Despite the horrors of life, Jesus encouraged the disciples not to dwell on the horror. Instead, they were encouraged to share the good news.

Even when the world is falling apart, followers of Christ share the good news. Especially when the world is falling apart, followers of Christ share the good news of resurrection and new life, because the horrors of the cross were not the last word.

Jesus’ ability to bring life out of death is the last word. Love is the last word. Love is coming to rule the world. Joy to the world.

And, guess what? The disciples did abandon their fears, and they did share the good news. And, because they did, all of the faithful who exist today know Jesus Christ our savior.

Was the temple in ruins? Yes. Were there wars and earthquakes; and did they appear to be occurring more regularly? Yes. It did not matter. Jesus told them that the end will not follow immediately.

More than that, Jesus told them that hard times are an opportunity to find God. They are not the time to give up. And, the disciples listened. And, because they did, we know Jesus today.

He rules the world with truth and grace
and makes the nations prove
the glories of his righteousness
and wonders of his love,
and wonders of his love,
and wonders, wonders of his love.

All of us have come to the faith because someone in our past decided not to throw in the towel and hide in their Armageddon shelter. You are here because someone in your past believed that Jesus really does rule the world. You are here because people took this promise and endured through the hard times; finding something so vital about God and Jesus that they just had to share it with you.

You and your faith are the beneficiaries of persecutions and death. You and your faith are the beneficiaries of other people's struggles. You are the dividend for other people’s endurance. And, you are invited to be a part of the same story.

So, I was wrong a little bit. The story is about you.

But, it is not about your tragic demise in an end of the world cataclysm.

It is about Jesus giving you faith even when your world has fallen apart. And, it is about God giving you the opportunity to share the joys and wonders of faith carved into you through endurance.

So, I ask, “How will you make sure that God’s story does not end with you?” “What story are you going to tell, and to whom will you tell it?” In other words, “What will you testify?”

“Do not worry,” Jesus says, “about what you will testify.” Simply trust. Jesus has brought you this far in life, and Jesus will give you the words.

“Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance,” Jesus says, “for I will give you words and wisdom…”

I am reminded of the wisdom Jesus gave an eight year old girl. Her grandmother’s world had just fallen apart after she lost her husband. The grandmother had been crying uncontrollably in the kitchen for days.

The morning before the funeral, her eight year old granddaughter stepped into the doorway.

The grandmother unsuccessfully tried to straighten up and be strong as her granddaughter stepped up next to her. The granddaughter looked at her stricken face, laid her head on her shoulder and asked,

“Are crying about missing Grandpa?”

The grandmother said “Yes, honey, I am.”

Tears gathered in the granddaughter’s eyes. Then the eight year old granddaughter said,

“I miss grandpa too. I will cry a little until God comes and lets us see him again.”

“Those words were more valuable than those of my friends, and children all put together,” the grandmother told me after the funeral.

In one simple statement, the granddaughter gave her permission to let her world fall apart, but at the same time to trust God.

With wisdom beyond her years, the little girl was the embodiment of Jesus’ words, don’t worry, “for I will give you words and wisdom…”

And, your words make a difference too. Trust that. Know that. Live that.

We live in a world of fear, but we are not a people of fear. Do not worry about the horrors of the world or the end of the world. Ignore all of that.

Rather, trust in the new life found in Jesus. When we do, future generations will have faith because of us also.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Reflection on Luke 6:20-31

It was the shoes that finally gave it away.

For the most part, you could not tell that my family was poor. For the most part, we passed ourselves off as middle class Americans who enjoyed going to the movies and treating ourselves to meals at restaurants. But, we were not middle class.

During gym class, my gym teacher pointed down to my shoes and told me that I was not allowed to come back to gym class wearing those shoes.

You see, the soul had started to come off of the right shoe, and I fixed that problem with the miracle of all miracles: duct tape. I had put duct tape around the entire shoe, and I was good to go. Well, this fix was unacceptable to the teacher.

I went home and told my parents that I needed new shoes. They gave me the bad news that even though they both worked full-time jobs, buying new shoes would be impossible right at that moment.

The next day I came to gym class, and my teacher yelled for all to hear, “I thought I told you to come with better shoes. Go sit on the sidelines!”

I answered back, “I told my parents I needed new shoes, but they said we didn’t have any money.”

And, there it was, out in the open.

As the other kids began to mock me for being poor, I clearly remember the teacher’s face as she looked at the mocking kids, looked at me, looked again at the mocking kids, and then completely melted as she realized what she had done.

She had revealed the part of my life that was vulnerable, that was hidden, and exposed it for all to see. She had expected me to rise up, and was alarmed when I could not.

Sometimes, when you are down, you are simply down. That is it. And when that happens, we try to keep our vulnerabilities from being revealed.

We hold lots of secrets, lots of vulnerabilities, under the mask of “doing well” so as not to reveal our brokenness to others. There are other types of vulnerabilities other than being poor.

Grief is one that is often kept under wraps. Of course, it is fine to grieve out loud at the funeral of someone you loved, but people are less accommodating when grief wells up from out of nowhere in the middle of the grocery store. So, we bottle it up under the guise of “I’m doing fine,” even when we are not.

Then, there is little that is worse than being hated by others. Being hated by someone, and not being able to do anything about it, can tear your heart right out of its chest. This is the secret of all secrets. How many of you openly share the names of those who you know to hate you? No one. That is what I thought.

So, we take our vulnerabilities, wrap duct tape around them, and hope that no one looks down and notices. It usually works too. People do not want to wade around in the muck of your vulnerabilities with you, so they willfully keep their eyes up, so as not to notice.

They say things like, “Just work a little harder” or “Life always gets better” hoping to stuff your vulnerabilities back into the darkness for you. They want you to climb the mountain out of the muck, even if you cannot. Exposed vulnerabilities are a little too uncomfortable.

You want to know something interesting? In Luke Jesus does not teach his followers from the top of a mountain like in Matthew.

There is no mountain climbing in Luke to be done by those who desire a savior. Rather, Jesus starts on a mountain in prayer, and then comes down the mountain, onto a flat plain and meets his people there.

Jesus willingly comes down from the heights to teach his people, to touch the disgustingly sick, and to comfort those who are uncomfortably troubled.

He says things like, “Blessed are you who are poor,” “Blessed are you who are hungry now,” "Blessed are you who weep now,” and “Blessed are you when people hate you…” Jesus comes down to us, to join us in the most vulnerable parts of our lives in order to say, “You are not forgotten, you are blessed by God.”

These words are so important because the world is so willing to put you in your place and push your vulnerabilities onto the floor like they are yesterday’s garbage. But, they are not yesterday's garbage. You are not yesterday’s garbage, and Jesus comes down from the heights to meet in you at your lowest point and raise you up.

Woe to those who are high and would keep you low. Woe to those who would dismiss you and tell you to climb up. Woe to those who would hide you with their noses. Woe to them because you are not easily forgotten, you are a child of God.

You are forever joined to Christ, never to be lost no matter how low life takes you. Jesus comes down and finds you every single time and provides for you a blessing.

I will tell you one more thing: God still sends God’s saints do the same thing in Jesus' name.

Once, my classmates were talking in a mixed crowd of youth and adults about a class trip that they were going on. Notice that I said, "they." I was present during the conversation, but was not a part of the conversation because there was no way that my family was going to be able to afford for me to go.

I held my vulnerability silent throughout the conversation, and thought that no one had noticed. For the most part, no one had my vulnerability, except for one person. One saint of God (who I do not know to this day) noticed my silence…noticed my vulnerability. The next I day received a call from my church telling me that some money had been left in my name so that I could pay for the class trip. Someone with the eyes of Jesus had come down to the plain, saw me in my loneliness and my vulnerability, and gave a gift of love.

The act in the end was a little thing, but it meant a lot.

That being said, there are saints whom God sends down from the heights in order to do even bolder acts of love in the name of Jesus Christ such as, loving their enemies, doing good to those who hate them, blessing those who curse them, and praying for those who abuse them. Each of these acts of extraordinary love do change the world.

And so, we take time in the early part of November each year to honor those saints who continue to show God’s love and to give thanks to those saints who have shown God’s love to us before their deaths.

On All Saints Sunday, vulnerabilities do not need to be taped up.

On All Saints Sunday we need not fear our showing our vulnerabilities so that we might be fully embraced by God’s love and forgiveness.

On All Saints Sunday we are reminded that God never forgets us; his saints.