Sunday, January 21, 2018

Reflection on Mark 1:14-20

Think back to the beginning…the beginning of all beginnings.  “In the beginning, God created…” that is the beginning I mean.  I mean the one at the start of the Bible.  In that beginning, the Spirit of God hovers over the waters of chaotic nothingness. 

Have you even taken just a brief moment and considered the loneliness of that image?  In the beginning, there was nothing, other than the Spirit of God. 

It is an image that draws me to imagine a lonely boat on an unending expanse of sea.  There is no one else close by.  There is not even anyone else beyond the horizon.  It is just one boat floating, alone. 

It is not insignificant that God creates the universe to fill this void of nothingness.  God is not a God of loneliness.  No one should be alone.

Suddenly, there was light and dark, seas and land, plants and animals, a person and then a companion.  Suddenly, the universe went from a place of loneliness to a place filled with life and relationship.  Creation is the medicine for loneliness.

What Jesus does at the beginning of his ministry is no different.  The preacher out in the wilderness, John the Baptist, is arrested, and there is a void in the kingdom of God.  That void is quickly filled by Jesus.  And, one of Jesus' first acts in the kingdom of God is to draw people near.

“Hey you!” he cries out to Simon and Andrew who are casting a net out into the sea.  “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  They follow.  He does the same a little further down the shore, calling out to James and John.  Like Simon and Andrew, they drop their nets and follow. 

Suddenly, Jesus who was walking by the waters alone, has created out of nothing: a church.  Suddenly, the kingdom of God went from being a lonely place to a kingdom that has quadrupled in size.  Jesus is not a savior who enjoys loneliness.  No one should be alone.

And, we are not alone.  On a dark night of the soul, a dark, sleepless night during college where the weight of the world’s problems and the doubtfulness of the spirit were working, like a demon, to possess all my thoughts and take control of my life, I resolved to wander across the campus in the morning to the office of a trusted professor. 

In the cold morning air, the chaotic clouds of breath that swilled around my head conveyed the chaotic thoughts and fears held within. 

As soon as I walked up and stood in his office door, my professor took one look at me, put down his coffee and said, “We need to talk don’t we?”  And, with that, he clicked his laptop closed and turned his full attention my way.  He offered his ear and his heart.  It was enough.  God is not a God of loneliness.  No one should be alone.

When we consider our kingdom task of fishing for people, too often we think about it in terms of numbers.  Unintentionally, we often think about God like an accountant who keeps a running tally of followers until there is a final amount sufficient to declare profitability. 

“Fish for people.”  “Bring more people into the church.”  “Grow your church.”  “Grow the kingdom.”  “Evangelize.”  “Get out there and knock on doors”…and the like. 

Though God does care about every lost and wandering soul out there, God in no way sees us as a number in the church’s tally of saved souls.

Instead, God cares about each one of us being connected…being together. 

A woman who has been suffering alone from bleeding for years and years, will soon touch his cloak and be rewarded for her faith.  She will gain a savior.  She will gain a family.  Jesus is not a savior who enjoys loneliness.  No one should be alone.

A man who has been rendered alone in his blindness will soon call out to Jesus, believing that Jesus can save.  Jesus will heal the man’s sight and Bartimaeus will immediately become a follower.  He is no longer alone.  Jesus is not a savior who enjoys loneliness.  No one should be alone.

That is the good news of the kingdom of God this day.  The kingdom is not about "me," it is about "us."  It is about community. 

The kingdom is not a place that emphasizes individual belief and individual salvation.  It is not a place that understands the “me and my faith” sort of Christian talk that we Christians throw around from time to time.  The kingdom is not as lonely as that. 

The call to fish for people is much bigger.  Ancient people did not use fishing poles in order to draw individual fish into the boat one by one.  Instead, they used nets that, when cast into the air rightly, would spread out into a huge sheet of webbing that could draw a whole school of fish into the boat or onto the shore.  That is what the kingdom of God is like.  It is like gathering a whole school of fish together so that it can swim for the Lord. 

It is like choosing a bunch of people in order to create a rocking soccer team for the Lord. 

It is like gathering the entire crowd at the wedding to dance together the Macarena.  Is that example too 1990ish?  No matter, you get my point. 

The kingdom is a place where all people are called and gathered so that they do not need to go through this thing called life alone.  The kingdom is a place where all are drawn through faith to find belonging.  It is a new creation.  It is a new family.  It is a place of Holy Relationship.  It is the realm of God where no one is alone.  God is not a God of loneliness.  No one should be alone.

There once was a man, true story, who lost his young son to the heat of a van in the middle of the summer.  Somehow, the son had wandered out into the van during nap time, closed the door, and overheated.  The man was distraught.  He questioned why.  He questioned where God was at that moment.  He questioned life in general. 

In other words, he felt alone.  He felt alone without his son.  He felt alone in his grief.  He felt alone, like no one actually understood; not even God.  He was alone. 

Not knowing how to cope, the man reached out to a pastor, shared his story, shared his loneliness, and shared most of all that he felt like God did not care, was not listening, or simply did not understand his situation. 

The pastor quietly heard the man’s pain and then shared one simple thought with the distraught man:

“One day, God lost his son too.” 

The man was not alone after-all.  God is not a God of loneliness.  No one should be alone.

We are a people who have been given a holy task; to fish for people.  But it is not about the numbers or the size of your church.  Rather, it is about the family of God.  It is about the holy connections that we make with the people that we gather into this place.  It is about walking together in faith.  It is about reaching out to a world of loneliness that is alone despite being connected constantly through our smart-phones. 

We are a people who have been given the task of exorcism of loneliness.  After-all, God is not a God of loneliness.  No one should be alone.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Reflection on 1 Samuel 3:1-20 and John 1:43-51

Had little Samuel lived in my house, I am quite certain that God’s call would have gone somewhat differently.  It would have started the same. 

“Samuel” God would call out. 

Samuel would come out of the bedroom and similar to Eli I would say, “Go back to bed.” 

Here is where the story would start to part ways.  The second time that God calls and Samuel comes out of the bedroom, I am sure my second response would sound less like Eli’s calm “lie down again,” and sound more like,  “I thought I told you to go lay down!  Now, go get in your bed, 1, 2, if you are not in your bed by three I swear…” 

And, the third time Samuel comes out of his room, I am certain that a heavenly visitor showing up in his bedroom would not even cross my mind. 

Rather, words that sounds a little bit like this would fly from my mouth: “For the love of…what the heck are you doing up again…I thought I told you to go to bed!  Now, you can go to a time-out.  No, don’t say anything to me, we don’t speak during our time out, I don’t care what you heard.  Now, be quiet and sit in your time out!”

Needless to say, God’s message would have been completely ignored had this all occurred in my house.  But, that does cause me to wonder, maybe God’s message has been ignored in my house from time to time. 

My children certainly are not sleeping in the Holy of Holies as Samuel was, next to the arc of the covenant, where God might rightly be expected to show up some night.  Samuel is in God’s bedroom in the temple.  God should be expected to pop by every once and a while. 

But, does that not make it even harder for me?  Do I even expect that God is going show up in my children’s bedroom, speak to them, and direct them in their paths?  Or, am I distracted so much by the day to day chaos of raising children that all the divine stuff might completely go over my head. 

It is quite possible, or even likely, that I will miss my opportunity to guide my children back to bed and tell them, as Eli did, to listen carefully to what God is saying.  Do I expect God to call out to them?  Do I even expect God to call out to me?  How about you?

What if one of your friends were to come up to you and tell you that he has found the savior of the world. 

“He’s from Nazareth.  Come with me and talk to him,” the friend says. 

I wonder if we would be open to it?  I would probably just respond sarcastically the way that Nathaniel does, “Can anything good come out of a junk hole like Nazareth?” and start researching mental health facilities for my friend.

And, that likely reaction leads me to wonder if we carry too much baggage?  And, yes, I mean baggage in the most negative of senses. 

Have you ever seen those amazing women from Africa who carry those huge loads on their heads and shoulders for miles.  Well, sometimes I wonder if we are like them, only not in an amazing and helpful way, but in a detrimental way. 

I wonder if we sometimes carry too many preconceived notions about other people, carry too much pain, carry too many unfulfilled dreams from the past, carry too much daily distraction, too much uncertainly, too much grief, too much school, too much work, too much of whatever is on our minds that it blocks our view of God and plugs our ears to God’s words.

When I allow myself the time to daydream, do you know what I think might sometimes be nice?  Just starting over…having a fresh start in certain areas of my life.  Would that not be nice? 

Have you ever dreamed of dropping everything, dumping all of your baggage, and just starting over?  On some days, would that not be amazing? 

Only this time, you would dump everything that stresses you for a purpose.  You would dump all your baggage so that you could better see and hear and follow Jesus like those first disciples.

Do you want to know who just dropped their baggage in an amazing way?  Eli.  After-all, he actually entertains the notion that Samuel has something important to say when he gets out of bed that third time. 

Even more than that, when Eli hears the message that God tells Samuel, mainly that Eli’s family’s time of running the temple is over because of their sin, Eli responds, “Let it be as God sees fit.” 

What?  No fits of rage?  No sending Samuel to his room?  I am pretty sure that my child telling me that I deserve to suffer destruction would not go over well in my home. 

But, Eli takes it all in stride. 

Now, that is a guy without baggage.  That is a guy who is open to whatever and wherever God is leading.  That is a guy who has been found by God, and is secure in his relationship with the divine. 

Jesus echoes the same sentiment in the garden of Gethsemane as he prays to have his cup of devastation taken away from him.  Jesus follows his prayer of distress with, “yet, not as I will, but as you will.”  Those are the words of someone who has dropped their baggage and allowed God to speak and to lead.

But, that sort of freedom of the soul does not just come out of nowhere.  It just is not possible to simply let the baggage of your life, all that you have learned and clung to for security, fall to the ground if you have not first been given the security that comes with being seen by God.

Being seen.  When Nathaniel spouts off his sarcastic Nazareth comment Jesus’ first response is not to rebuke Nathaniel, but rather to see him.  Jesus sees Nathaniel for who he is.  Jesus values Nathaniel enough to pay attention to him.  And, Jesus promises that Nathaniel will see far greater things.  Nathaniel is seen, and it makes all the difference. 

Only when he is truly seen by God does he trust he is a child of God.  Only then can he drop his baggage, and follow, and then be.  When he is seen, he can finally be the child of God he was created to be.  When he is seen, he is free from the distractions. 

Nathaniel is seen by Jesus, and so are you.

The good news is that we are not stuck with our baggage.  The good news is that we can be more than our distracted selves.  The good news is that God is not done with us and never gives up calling to us, and inviting us to be God’s children. 

You are seen, you are free, and you can now be. 

Be what God has called you to be.  Be the person that the world needs.  Be the person that your family and friends need!  Be the beloved child of God who is not distracted, but does in fact hear the voice of God calling in the night. 

Be the child of God who says “Here I am Lord.”

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Reflection on Matthew 2:1-12

When you look at the three kings making their way to the Christ child, crowns of gold and gems on their heads and rich gifts in their hands, it is easy to assume that their lives are full and rich.

Following a divine star to their destination, it is easy to assume that the kings are special, with a divine appointment for this royal task of delivering gifts to the savior of the world.

But, if you would take the time to look closely, underneath the distracting shine of the crowns, you would see a different truth. If you looked closely at their faces, you would see the dark circles under their eyes and the struggles of life in the creases of their wrinkled foreheads.

You see, the moment the first king was summoned by the star to travel to Bethlehem, he was sitting all alone in his castle. The light of the star fell upon him as he sat eating alone.

Most days he ate alone, slept alone, and kept his own company. Even his kingdom rarely appealed to him for guidance. He was a lonely king, surrounded by the cold company of his gold.

As he gathered his things to travel to the newborn king, he took some of the gold as a gift in one hand, and carried his loneliness in the other.

Miles away from the first king was the second king who also held a secret underneath the gleaming riches of his crown. The secret had something to do with that crown that shined upon his head. For, when the star shown on him, directing him to travel to see the newborn king, his brow furrowed in worry about the cost of such an expedition.

You see, the truth was that the king had almost no riches, aside from that gilded crown on his head. He was as poor as his people, but he was expected to represent the nation as a rich and powerful leader. How many times had he given up his own dinner completely in order to impress a royal guest?

Giving up the valuable frankincense that was once gifted to him, and giving it to the newborn king was both an honor and a terrible sacrifice.  He gathered together some pride and left.

Still, many miles further was the third king. His kingdom flourished, and he was beloved by his people. All was well. Except that when the star shown on him to lead him to the Christ child, he did not see it. He did not see anything for that matter. He was blind. It was a servant who told the blind king that the star had appeared and summoned him.

How long had it been since the king had seen the faces of his family? How long had it been since he could see his brothers? “Too many years to count,” the king thought to himself. He did not even know where his family was any longer.

Grabbing some myrrh as a gift for the newborn king, and with help from an assistant, he mounted his camel with sadness in his heart and blindness in his eyes.

Now you know the truth of the king's lives.  Now you know not to be distracted by the crowns of gold and gems on these foreign king's heads, or the rich gifts in their hands as they arrive and make their way through the door to honor the new king.

The first king bows bearing a gift of gold and loneliness. The second king arrives next to the first, bowing and bearing a gift of frankincense and poverty. The third king is helped to his position by the servant, and he bears his gift in the wrong direction, his blindness no secret to anyone in the room.

The child king coos at the sight, and is briefly distracted by the gleam of the gems on the walls. But, soon the child toddles over to the first king, pushes the gold aside and gives the lonely man a hug. It is his first hug in years. The king’s heart melts, and for the first time in years the king feels a strange and beautiful sense of joy, and belonging.

Soon, the child takes the bag of gold, pulls and scoots the bag the short distance to the second king and says, “You take, you take.”

The other two kings assume it is the crazy antics of a small child, but the second king knows better.  It is a gift for him. The child knows him.

The child takes the frankincense and sets it next to the bag of gold. “Yours,” he giggles. Then the child’s smile fades as he looks straight into the king’s eyes and says “For you.” Never had the king been given such a gift.

Wandering off toward the third of his kingly visitors, the child relieves the king’s tiring arms of the dangling myrrh and pushes it toward the second king.

The third king soon feels the Christ child playing with his face; first his lips, then his cheeks, then his nose, and finally the child playfully, and gently, tugs at his eye lids.

Opening one eye lid, the child whispers, “peekaboo,” and the blind king sees the child’s lips say the words.

The king sees the child’s lips!

The king can see!

For the first time in years, the king can see!

They had each traveled to bear gifts to the child king, but what they had never expected was that they would be the ones to receive a gift. And, they certainly had never expected the last gift the child had in store.

The small child whispered to the once blind man, “Brothers” and pointed to the other two kings. The now seeing king focused his new eyes on the other two men, searching beyond the gleam of their crowns and beyond their dark circled eyes and wrinkles.

Seeing clearly, he recognized two faces that he remembered from his youth.  Almost simultaneously, the first king’s lonely eyes focused on the other two men in recognition. 

The child’s last gift was the gift of brothers being drawn together.

The Christ Child had brought them all together once again. And, as they rejoiced, the star above their heads shone brighter and gave light to the world.

This story is most rightly considered a legend of course.

Anyone who has studied their bibles knows that the men who visited the Christ child were not kings, but were magi, or men of wisdom. They were probably astrologers.

They also would note that the bible does not say how many of them visited. There may have been three, there may have been fifty three.  The bible certainly does not say anything about any ailments each one had, nor does it report of any healing that occurred because of the Christ child. As I said, the story is best considered a legend.

But, that does not mean there is no truth in the story.

Who we know Jesus to be is the same one presented in the legend.  He is the one who welcomes the foreigner.  He is the one who gives the blind their sight.  He is the one who gives good news to the poor, and he is the one who draws together those who have drifted apart. 

Wherever the blind (whether physically or spiritually blind) are given sight, Jesus is there.

Wherever lonely people who have been distanced from others are restored back to community, Jesus is there.

Wherever the poor are made whole and made to feel equal with all others, Jesus is there.

Wherever the stranger is welcomed rather than ignored or cast away, Jesus is there.

The story you just heard may be a legend, but it is full of the truth of Jesus. It tells the truth, that we do not bear gifts to Jesus, rather Jesus is our gift and Jesus bears gifts to us.

If the powers of the world ever threaten and force you to retreat, holding Christ safe in your heart in the same way Joseph retreated to Egypt to keep Jesus safe from Herod, do not stay hidden away in Egypt for long.  Return and share in the work of Jesus’ kingdom.   

As you follow in his path, your work might look something like teaching someone a trade (the blind see), supporting the recovery of amputee soldier (the lame will walk), opening the heart of someone who is closed off by hate, (the deaf hear), sitting with those who have lost everything (the dead are raised), and giving a job to a single mom (the poor have good news brought to them).

All of those things are signs of the kingdom of God. And, in all those things and more, Jesus is there.

Jesus is there.