Sunday, August 27, 2017

Reflection on Romans 12:1-8

Everything depends on love.

The apostle Paul has made the bold claim that the entire world has no choice but to trust in God’s love…in God’s mercy. No one is fit enough to stand toe to toe with God. We all depend on God’s mercy. All of us depend on God’s love. Therefore, that is where the Christian life starts: it starts with love.

That is where most people’s lives start, actually. When we are born, we are immediately put into the arms of our mothers and fathers who snuggle us close in acts of love. When we were infants and cried out in need, someone was right there to pick us up and feed us, change our diapers, and rock us back to sleep. In other words, we continued to learn that we were loved. And, as we got older, all of our scrapes and cuts were kissed better because we were loved.

Most of us do not even stop to consider all of this love that we get at the front end of life.

It is only when you encounter people who have not received this love as infants, and see the struggles they go through to trust anybody or anything, that you begin to see how essential this love at the front-end of things is.

God starts by giving us mercy at the front-end. God loved us into being. God lovingly forgave us through the power of the cross before we even committed an offense; indeed, before we were even a glimmer in our parent’s eyes. Love is at the foundation of our relationship with God.

We do not have faith in God because we are scared of God. We do not put our trust in God because we have accomplished a list of requirements in order to be in God’s presence. We trust God because, as a mother loves her newborn, God loved us first.

That love is where Paul starts in this reading from Romans. “I appeal to you, therefore, by the mercies of God…” Right away Paul reminds us to always keep God’s unending mercies ever before us, to write that down, tie it to our forehead, write it on the door frames of our houses, teach it to our children, talk about it all day long, and ponder it through the night (Deuteronomy 11:1-21).

In other words, do not forget that love is where it all starts, and that love is what it is all about.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and your neighbor as yourself” (Deuteronomy 6:5, 11:1, 13; Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30-1; Luke 10:27).

“Faith, hope, and love abide, and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).

“For God so loved the world …” (John 3:16).
“Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God … for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).

Alright, you get the idea. It all starts with love. I explained this point repeatedly to the point of death for a reason. We are about to talk about discipleship. We are going to talk about our actions, and I wanted to be certain that you understood that our actions do not gain us love from God, like some eternal child’s sticker system with a prize at the end. Rather, our actions come out of the love that was shown us in the first place.

That is why Paul wants you to keep God’s mercy at the forefront of your life, that way your life will be shaped by God’s love and not by your own insecurities and desperate need to make yourself acceptable.

Therefore, if you are ready to continue knowing that you are already accepted by God, let us delve into what Paul desires of us as Christian people. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice (or living offering), holy and acceptable to God.”

In the ancient world, people gave offerings to God all the time. Whether it be a dove, or a lamb, or a bundle of wheat, giving offerings to God was a regular occurrence. But, rather than sacrificing a dove, Paul proposes that Christians give our own bodies as an offering to God.

Imagine for a moment a gallery of paintings in which hang images of the moments of your life. The paintings are the body of your life’s work.

In one painting you see the time you gave your extra dollar to a nearby child. In another, you see yourself hugging your friend on a dark night of their life. In yet another, you are ashamed to see yourself walking by as someone cried out for help. It is a gallery of your life. It is the body of all your work.

Paul encourages you to keep God’s mercy ever before you so that you may never forget to show love. Paul hopes that as you walk through your gallery, that the paintings that consist of your body of work show mostly images of love.

Like the time you forgave your brother, even though he did not deserve it.

Or, the time you stood up for your co-worker after they were treated badly, and it cost you your job.

He wants you to be proud of the paintings hung in your gallery because they are paintings that were painted with strokes of love. He wants you to see events of your life that appear to be painted by God’s own hand.

Present yourself as a living offering to God in all that you do.

In order to do this though, you are going to need to be able to see the world beyond God’s community for what it often is: selfish, uncaring, and lacking compassion.

There will surely be paintings of times that you were conformed to this world such as one depicting you wasting money on stuff that you did not need, stuff which you still do not use. A painting could have been hung there instead showing you helping a neighbor with that same cash.

Maybe, a painting is there showing you putting the divisiveness of politics above caring for a friend.

See the outside world for what it is and do not follow it and do not be conformed to it. Instead, create more paintings that show you acting in ways of compassion.

“Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God … for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).

Lastly, do not forget that your gallery of Christian life is but one in a whole museum of galleries. Do not become overwhelmed by the weight of the whole world as if you are the only one to solve the world's problems. Do not create paintings that show you standing by doing nothing because the problems of the world are too much.

Instead, know who you are.

Are you a prophet who sees the world as it is and helps others see the possibilities?

Do you care for others and hope that their needs are ministered to?

Do you have a gift of knowledge to teach, either about things in the world or things above concerning God?

Are you a good speaker…a good persuader?

Are you a generous giver, or a leader, or a compassionate person who lets your cheerfulness and humor lift up others?

Who has God made you to be?

How can you use your gifts to create works of art that display love of God and neighbor?

Listen, if you are not a teacher, no problem. God does not expect those paintings in your gallery in the first place if that is not your gift. Those paintings hang in the galleries next door or across the hall. Someone else has got that covered.

Simply be who God created you to be, and create beautiful works of art throughout your life that demonstrate that particular gift of love given to you by God.

There will be no acts of accounting and wise business management hanging in my gallery. I will not even try to create them because that is not my gift. But, others of you know how to manage money in a Godly and compassionate way. Others of you know how to make money reflect the will of God.

There are as many different gifts as there are people, but put them all together into one place and you will see the love of Jesus Christ everywhere you look.

In the same way that Paul did, I urge you, out of the love that God provides, to present your bodies as a living offering to God. That is your daily, spiritual worship. May those be the images that fill your gallery of life.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Reflection on Matthew 15:10-28

I quite frankly do not remember if it was the Yuengling family of Yuengling beer fame or the Busch family of Budweiser fame (or some other brew master family), but what I do remember is the family tradition. It goes something like this: as soon as a baby is born into the family, the patriarch of the family gathers everyone around the bed where the mother and baby are resting, dips his finger into some of the family beer, and puts it into the baby’s mouth so that the first taste the baby has is not mother’s milk, but family tradition.

This is who the family is. This is what the family does. This family consists of generations of proud brew masters, and with an introduction like that into the family pride and the family business, it most certainly will continue. This whole hospital bedside event is an initiation into an identity.

Christians have a similar sort of identity-shaping and identity conferring event that occurs to every new Christian whether they be infants or adults; it is baptism. As the waters run down the forehead and drip into the font, the Christian community gathers around knowing that it has just witnessed the birth of a new Christian.

In the waters we are given forgiveness of sins. In the waters we are given the promise of eternal life. And, in the waters we are given a new family, the family of God. We are made part of the body of Christ.

Just as a taste of beer confers the identity of a brew master upon the child of the legacy beer family, the waters confers the identity of Jesus Christ upon us.

After the waters, we are a people who have been forgiven and we are a people who forgive.

After the waters, we are a people who have eternal life and who seek to give life to others through acts of love.

After the waters, we are a people who are the hands of feet of Jesus Christ, and we have the heart of Jesus Christ.

That heart part is the most important thing, because in the end, we are not who we are because of the ritual things we do externally. We are not God’s people because we tasted beer as a child, or refused to eat pork as the Jewish people, or inhaled as certain type of smoke as a tribal member. Even the waters for us is an external sign and symbol which is an external promise from God that we will never be unloved or forgotten by God.

But, as Jesus proclaimed, it is not what comes from the outside of the body that makes someone evil or righteous, rather, it is what comes from the heart that shows the person’s true colors.

No one feels belittled because I eat or drink some bread or some wine, or because I dip in the baptismal waters. But, someone can most certainly feel belittled by the words of hate that can spew from my mouth.

“Do you not see,” Jesus says, ‘that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile."

So, in the context of a week of Nazis and KKK members feeling as if they can sway the masses with their hate-filled rhetoric, may I clearly state what you already know. For Jesus, it is not what is on the outside that is important. The color of one’s skin is not what is important. What someone does or does not eat is not what is important. As you already know, there is no test of color, or blood, or culture that defines who is in or who is out of God’s kingdom. Jesus died for all. And, that all is a big all.

So, that is why it is puzzling that Jesus refuses to heal the Canaanite’s woman’s daughter. If the kingdom of God is for all, why did she have to fight so hard to get it?

It maybe was no surprise that the disciples tried to shoo her away when she sought healing for her daughter. The disciples are always getting this kingdom stuff wrong, but for Jesus to get it wrong, that is big.

Is the kingdom for all, except the Canaanite’s? Is there an exception to the rule?

If you could exclude some vile person from the kingdom who would you choose? Maybe, there is an exception. Maybe, you can rightfully exclude someone from the kingdom. Maybe, Jesus’ words are only for “us” and not for “them.” Maybe, being a Canaanite is a deal breaker. Maybe, “they” really are dogs who deserve no food handed to them from the table.

“Yet, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." The Canaanite woman’s words echo clearly.

Even the family pet gets food. Even the family pet is shown mercy. Even the family pet is loved.

Maybe, just maybe, someone like her can receive mercy too. Maybe, just maybe, someone like her can be loved. Maybe, just maybe, someone like you can be acceptable even though someone may have told you that you are unlovable. Maybe, just maybe.

Jesus changes his mind.

God does that you know. God changes God’s mind all the time in order to show mercy. God changes God’s mind with Adam and Eve and lets them live. God does the same with God’s complaining people wandering around in the wilderness after the exodus. It happens.

I do not know if Jesus' change of heart toward the Canaanite woman was an act for the disciples to witness, or if it really was a change of heart that Jesus actually had to go through, but it does not matter, the message is clear. Even a Canaanite deserves love. Even a Canaanite deserves mercy. “Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”

Jesus is not worried about saving face here. Jesus is not worried about needing to be right and needing to double down on a bad idea in order to prove everyone else wrong. Jesus, in the end, is only worried about showing mercy.

Therefore, if Jesus changes his mind about excluding people from the kingdom, then maybe his disciples should also. Students are not greater than their masters after-all. They simply do as the master does.

If a brew master finds a better way to manage the yeast so the beer tastes better, he will not double down and continue with his horrible tasting old ways! Rather, he will teach that new way to his children.

So, it is with Jesus. If Jesus discovers that no one is to be viewed as lesser than, then we too will be taught that lesson.

Once again, Jesus died for the whole world, not just for the believers and not just for those who look like us.

Let us look again at the water. It does not distinguish between the good and the bad. It does not care about the color of skin or the culture to which you belong. It simply washes clean. And, it provides life to anyone who dares takes a sip. The water shows the heart of God, who is loving to all who are touched by the love of Jesus Christ our Lord. And, in case I have not been clear enough, that includes the entire world.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Reflection on Matthew 14:22-33

Why does Peter sink? 

When Peter steps out of the boat, initially all is good.  As he moves toward Jesus, walking on the water with the waves and the wind all around him, all is fine.  So, why does Peter sink?  Or maybe I could ask: why, when you have been making it through the struggles of life, do you suddenly sink?

It was an easy enough summer bible camp exercise.  It was called a "trust walk," and as we campers moved toward the remote area of the "trust walk" just before midnight, our flashlights revealed a rope tied to a tree. 

“This is the trust walk,” our camp counselor announced.  “It is simple.  All you have to do is grab onto the rope and walk forward into the darkness, blindfolded.”  Because, as an eleven year old, simply walking into the darkness of the deep woods was not enough…we needed blindfolds.

“Where does it go?” we asked nervously.

“You will find out.  Just trust that it goes to the right spot,” our counselor assured.

And, so we did.  We trusted as we fashioned the blindfolds around our eyes and one by one took steps out into the darkness, following the rope with our hand. 

All is well the first hundred feet or so.  You can still hear the giggling of the other campers waiting their turn at that point.  But, soon, as you follow the rope, feeling yourself slip further and further into the deep woods, a familiar feeling starts to creep in. 

It is the same feeling that creeps in when you have started a time sensitive task confidently, with your reputation on the line, but run into something worse than a simple snag. 

It is the same feeling that creeps in when you stand up for what you believe, but others surround you with torches and shouts of hatred. 

It is the same feeling that creeps in when the world that used to seem secure and safe suddenly becomes chaotic and on the brink of war. 

It is the feeling that creeps in and makes you imagine the worst; that a bear is about to devour you as you follow the line.  Or perhaps, the long lost camper of bible camp lore, with his crooked leg and flaking flesh, will find you, blindfolded, vulnerable, and alone, and murder you.

As one of my fellow campers followed the rope, about 200 feet in he started to scream.  We heard one of the counselors bolt through the weeds nervously to come to the rescue.  As we listened carefully, we were relieved to hear that all was fine; the camper had simply been overcome by fear.

“Simply” is too gentle of a word when it comes to fear though.  Fear can completely derail us from whatever we are doing and derail us from the values that we hold, causing us to run away or ball up on the ground in self-protection. 

Fear is the great paralyzer. 

It can take a confident Peter, who is amazingly walking across his turbulent waters just fine, and cause him to doubt and sink. 

“Help me!” the camper screamed. 

“Lord, save me!” Peter cried out. 

“We just can’t do this…it is too much!” we cry out in the face of our own uncertain and fear-filled futures.

Now, I fully understand, that fear can be a good thing.  If a bear had crept upon the camper, fear for his life might have saved his life.  Fear allows us to retreat into safety.  Fear can keep us alive.  Those humans of the past who had no fear as the saber-toothed tiger approached them while they were weaponless never had the chance to have children.  We are the children of all those who were easily motivated by fear who ran for their lives, fought back, or played dead.

But, here is the thing about fear.  Fear of someone can easily turn into anger. 

Nazis and bigots who fear that Jews and blacks are disrupting and endangering their own livelihoods have developed an anger toward those groups of people. 

Jesus tells us outright not to harbor or continue in anger, because a well tended anger can develop into a full blown hatred.  And, the destruction that hatred can cause has no bounds. 

Hatred can lead one to think that it is right and even righteous to plow a car into a group of peaceful protesters. 

Hatred can lead to the annihilation of a whole group of people for nothing more than the color of their skin, the configuration of their genes, or the makeup of their culture. 

Fear is inherently selfish.  It thinks only of the self.  It only seeks to protect the self.  Fear disrupts the movements of love for other people in the kingdom of God.

So, how does Jesus respond when his people sink into fear? 

“Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.  But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, 'Lord, save me!'  Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.” 

Immediately, Jesus reached out to save Peter from the mess that his fear had caused.  After-all, the answer to fear is not more fear or the anger and hatred that can follow, rather the answer to fear is love.  Jesus looks upon Peter with love and pulls him free so that he can once again be the disciple he was meant to be. 

“Have no fear.”  “Love your enemies.”  “Pray for those who persecute you.”  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  These are all invitations from Jesus to live out of love rather than fear.

1 John 4:18 states: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” 

In Jesus there is no fear.  In Jesus we find only love.  In Jesus we see someone who took to the cross, not with a sense of fear, but with a sense of love.  And, that love saved the whole world.  When the world is sinking, Jesus responds with love.  That is the way of the kingdom of God.

One of the most striking images for me from the weekend of hate down in Charlottesville is one that was sent to me by a pastor friend.  It shows a pastor, in full liturgical garb, reaching out in kindness to an armed militiaman.  It is an image of stepping from the boat into the lake of fear.  It is an image of trust in a Lord who does not allow us to sink.  It is an image of love in the face of fear and hatred.  It is an image of loving your enemy.  It is an image of love in the kingdom of God.  It is an image that reveals the heart of Jesus, our Lord and Savior who reaches out a hand in love so that we might be saved from our fear.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Reflection on Matthew 14:13-21

“You give them something to eat,” Jesus demands of his disciples when the hour is late and the 5,000 men plus women and children…so around 25,000 people… become hungry.

“You give them something to eat.”

I worked at a hospital as a chaplain for a summer, and I remember a sweltering day when a couple of women came into the office and asked for the chaplain on duty.

“How can I help you?” I asked, noticing that one of the women was barefoot.

“We jumped into the car when we heard our sister was sick and drove right up,” they began their story. “We weren’t thinking. We didn’t grab our purses, and I didn’t even think to grab my shoes. Now we are here, 200 miles from home with no money for gas or food, no money for a hotel, and I can’t even buy a cheap pair of flip flops. Can you help us?”

You have to understand that the hospital had given no money to the chaplaincy department for such things, and what I got paid as a chaplain for the entire summer was in the low hundreds of dollars, not the thousands. Thoughts of how stupid these women could possibly be raced through my head.

“Why is your stupidity my emergency?” I pondered, staring at the bare feet on the invisibly germ infested hospital floor.

“How much intelligence do you need to at least put on a pair of shoes before you embark on a journey of over 200 miles?"

Maybe it was all a scam for some drug cash?” I thought.

Yet, the command from Jesus echoed through my head, “You give them something to eat.”

Here’s the thing: about 25,000 people were so enamored by and in need of Jesus that they followed him far into a deserted place without even considering bringing what they would need once they got there. There were 25,000 stupid people.

And, on top of that, if you consider that 2.5 percent on average of a population has a prison history, that means that 625 of those people are probably criminals of some sort.

.5 percent, or 125 of those people are probably just plain old beggars who do not even want to try to work.

And, 1 percent, so 125 of those people, are most likely immoral prostitutes who have simply hitched a ride to make a profit off of the crowd.

So, there is all of that to consider before any help should be given. Maybe, the disciples needed an intake form to sort it all out. Forget that. You know hat would be easiest? How about the disciples just send them all into town to buy some food for themselves? That way they are not morally culpable for helping sinners.

Yet, even with all of that, Jesus demands, “You give them something to eat.”

That sounds great and noble Jesus, but there is the simple reality that we are just not enough. The world is huge. The hurt and need is huge. And, we are just little.

I only had a few hundred dollars to live on for the entire summer, the disciples only had 5 loaves and 2 fish, and we just are not enough to even make a dent in all the pain in the world. We simply are not.

It is not out of a sense of cruelty that we turn them away, it is just plain logic. The 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish (that we wisely packed for ourselves I should note) just is not enough. So, why even try?

Yet, Jesus demands, “You give them something to eat.”

Here’s the thing: none of these excuses matter. When Jesus looks at someone, he does not see a stupid idiot, or a criminal, or a societal leach, or a prostitute. He sees a brother or sister who God molded and shaped, as if from soft clay, with God’s very hands. When Jesus looks at the crowds, he sees siblings in need.

Speaking of siblings, my younger brother could be an idiot sometimes. Once we went on a trip out west on vacation, but before we went my parents gave us a list of things to pack that definitely included underwear. It was listed three separate times, just in case we might have missed it. But, as we traveled and the inevitable stomach cramps hit my younger brother, guess what he did not have. His underwear of course!

Now you tell me; when he had nothing to change into after the underwear blowout, did our parents just say to him, “You were supposed to pack them. Tough luck kid!”? Of course, not!

After the required scolding, they had compassion and bought the underwear, not because he deserved it, but because he needed it.

That is the way God is. Jesus has compassion on us, not because we deserve it, but because we need it.

We need Jesus’ grace. We need Jesus’ mercy. We need to be saved from ourselves. We need the new life that comes after crosses and death. We need second chances. And, sometimes we simply need something to eat.

“You give them something to eat.”

There is still the notion that we do not have enough and that we are not enough.

“Jesus, I hear you. I am the one who has been given the job to feed. I hear you. But, that still does not help the fact that I only have 5 loaves and two fish. It does not help the fact that I am only me and we together here are only we. I am not enough. We are not enough.”

To that notion, Jesus said, "’Give the little bit that you have to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.”

“Give the little bit that you have to me,” Jesus says to us.

And, so I did. I reached in my wallet metaphorically, gave the two women a meal in the cafeteria, paid for their gas, and even gave a few dollars for some cheap flip-flops. It was not much, but it was enough. And, minutes later I got a call from a friend that he wanted to take a group of us out to lunch. His treat.

I am not saying that the phone call was a miracle just for me. It was probably just a coincidence that would have happened anyway. But, I am saying that Jesus provides enough.

We may not trust that we…our lowly selves…can make a difference, but Jesus provides enough. We may not think that our little churches…our little Christian communities...can make an impact on anything, but Jesus provides enough.

When we give it over to Jesus to bless and share, there will be enough.

I know, that trust thing is hard. I am certain that the disciples felt inadequate and a little crazy as they took their baskets of bread and fish scraps around to the people. But, they did because Jesus said they should. And, with Jesus, there was enough.

You see, where we and the disciples see limitations, Jesus sees possibilities. Jesus takes what there is, gives thanks, and then trusts that God will make it enough. His compassion allows him to never lose hope for anyone.

So, you too should not lose hope because Jesus will take what you have, give thanks for it, and make it more than enough. You are more than enough because of God.