Monday, April 30, 2018

Reflection on John 15:1-8

“I think that we are withering.” The leader of the small, rural church was obviously speaking from her agricultural roots.

“It's like this little church isn’t rooted to Jesus anymore. And, I think that we are withering and dying because of it. We don’t have fellowship anymore. No one signs up to provide coffee and donuts. We don’t do any projects together for the community anymore. It’s like the entire congregation is depressed. It is like we aren’t getting fed. It’s like we are not attached to Jesus anymore.”

I’ve been there; “Unattached” to Jesus that is. There are times in life that are not that bad; where things not go your way, and you can just brush it off as a bad luck. Then there are times when life really, really, really does not go your way. There probably are not enough really in there.

Sometimes the troubles of life become like a snowball that just cannot stop as it descends down the hill.

It is during times like that when you create for yourself a little shell…a little tomb that can fit you and only you. It is lonely in that little tomb? Of course it is, but at least it feels safe.

The only problem with little tombs of protection is the simple fact that nothing can grow in a tomb. Without some huge intervention like someone rising from the dead, it is a one way ticket to complete death of the soul.

This death of the soul is not some sort of divine punishment either. When Jesus declares in John 15:2 that the vinegrower “removes every branch in me that bears no fruit,” it is possible to get the wrong idea that those ominous words are some sort of divine punishment for not being good people.

But, you do not need God’s hand directly smiting from above with brimstone and fire in order to come to a place of being unattached to God. Things just happen in life, and we become distanced from the one who created us. And, in the same way that branches are removed that cannot bear grapes because they have become unattached to the grape vine, so too we can fall away and thus fail to bear good, holy fruit when we become unattached.

This is just a reality of life. If you are not attached to the one who gives life, your will life will start to wither. This is nothing more than cause and effect. Branches do not live without vines and Christians do not live without their savior. No need for divine punishment here, the act of not being connected is punishment all of its own.

Do you know who I think was connected to the vine? I once heard of a young man who was a former member of an Amish community. After his mandatory year away from the community, he decided not to live with the Amish community. However, that did not mean that he was unattached to God. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

Now, before I explain, you have to understand that some Amish people have the tendency to read the bible very literally; so when this young man read in the bible about those who were commended by Jesus for offering water to a stranger and also those who were condemned because they had not, he read that literally to mean that he must provide water at all times.

So, the young man carried bottles of water in a small backpack wherever he went. And, whenever he saw someone who looked like they were even the least bit stressed or struggling, he would stop and give them a bottle of water.

“I am not an extraordinary person, this is just what Jesus said we should do,” he would explain. ‘When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink,” Jesus said (NRSV, Matthew 25:35).

But what the young man did not realize was that when he stopped and gave a bottle of water, people got much more than water. Whenever he gave a bottle of water, he would stop and give them some of his time. Whenever he gave a bottle of water, he would show that in this big world where we can feel so small and insignificant that someone actually sees us and cares.

Whenever he gave a bottle of water, he was connected to the vine. The vine of Jesus Christ who would go even to the point of death on the cross out of love for the world. The young man was a branch from that source of love that was bearing fruit through the simple gesture of providing water from his backpack.

Why did I share with you the story of this particular guy?

I guess that I wanted to be clear that being connected with our vine, Jesus Christ, is not some huge, insurmountable, mountain climbing task.

If you feel as if you are disconnected with God, it may be a clear sign that your vine has withered a little. Perhaps, your drooping leaves need to be pruned just a tad.

But pruning is not the same as cutting off. In fact, Jesus promises that you are not cut off. “Abide in me as I abide in you.” “As I abide in you.” In other words, “Live, because I already live in you." Jesus already abides in you. Jesus already lives in you. You are not cut off. The vine of Jesus’ love is already feeding you and giving you life. Shake off the withered leaves and allow new, fresh leaves to grow. Jesus chooses to give you new life.

Here's some practical advice for the week. Do something simple like offering someone the gift of water. Offer someone the gift of some of your time. Offer someone the gift of love. Love each other as Jesus has loved us. Be a branch that bears some fruit, and God will prune you and make certain that more fruit grows.

When people have built small tombs of protection, and have closed themselves off to others, it is not uncommon for them to seek the advice of a pastor. The loneliness of such little tomb can be stifling. And, when asked what they should do when they feel stressed, lifeless, and alone, my prescription is always the same. It always sounds something like this: “Do at least one act of act of someone else today.”

After-all, the problem is not that they do not want to be a part of the vine. The problem is that they have simply forgotten what it feels like to be one of the branches. Go, do what a branch does, and you will realize that you were never cut off from the vine in the first place.

What, then, would the prescription be for that little, rural church that feels uprooted from Jesus? I would say, "Do something loving in your community."

God the Father is glorified when we bear much fruit. And, on top of that, we cannot live, unless we live in the vine. We cannot thrive unless Jesus thrives within us. So, go and do something loving, and in doing so the faith community will be reminded that we have this love of God pumping through our veins. It feeds our soul. It provides juicy fruit for all those around.

Sometimes we just forget that we were branches of a vine who loves us to the end.

“Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus reminds us. “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

Let us not do nothing. Let us do something that smells of God's love. We are branches of Jesus Christ after-all.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Reflection on John 10:11-18

They had done it a million times; eating with each other that is. So why did this time seem so foreign?

As he cut his steak, he tried to think of something to say. He tried to think about something to talk about. But, what had they not already talked about over the course of the last 32 years?

A young couple nearby in the restaurant, infatuation dripping from their lips, glanced over at the long married couple. They giggled at the “old” married couple who stared blankly at their food and ate in silence.

“You will get your turn,” the man thought when he caught their stares. "You will have your fun together, then you will have your children which will consume your entire life, then they will leave the house, and then you will eat steak together with nothing to say. Don’t giggle too loudly; you will get your turn.”

“How did we get here?” he thought.

“Do I really even know this person sitting across from me? I feel lost.”

“How’s your steak Honey?” he offered.

“Good” she replied.

They both returned to their own silent thoughts.

About a mile away, at the High School, she sat on the bleachers. A piece of formerly suspended, glittery ribbon was stuck to the heal of her shoe. As she picked it loose, she watched as other couples danced together.

“Am I really the only one who came to the prom without a date?” she questioned.

“I’m pretty. I have a great dress. What’s wrong with me?”

She took a swig of punch, determined to get up and search for a dance partner, but was deflated in motivation when the DJ took a quick break at that very moment.

“It is as if the world wants me alone,” she thought in the darkness.

Across the world from the young girl and many years previous there sat a man on the side of the road. He felt the familiar handle of the wooden cup, and lifted it up when he heard someone approach.

Sometimes he would feel lucky as he heard the sound of a coin plunk the bottom of the cup. Sometimes he would feel just as forgotten as always when he heard the feet walk past without recognition.

He used to call out to people as they passed by, but it did not seem to make a difference. Now, he just sat in silence with the cup; trapped by his own thoughts.

As the random thoughts swam through his head, a conversation nearby broke his mild-mannered concentration.

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

Then the man heard the sound of spitting and rubbing. Soon he felt the cool feel of mud on his eyes.

“Go, wash in the pool of Siloem,” the one who touched his face ordered.

As soon as the waters splashed his face, a bright…something, pierced through his eye lids. Light? Was that what light looks like?

He looked around and saw the world. He had never seen the world before: flowers, trees, people, birds, shovels, dirt, and that gooey, smelling stuff on the side of the road. Just what is…oh, never mind, we know what that is.

The man that had healed him was like a shepherd that he never realized he had. His new shepherd came, searching for him, sacrificed some time to care for him, and healed him.

Even after the religious leaders questioned him about his healing and drove him out of town because of their own fear, Jesus still came back and found him once again.

"I am the good shepherd.” Jesus explained. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.”

As Jesus continued talking, the man considered how shepherds would face wolves with staff in hand. Hired men would not do such a thing. They did not care about the sheep. They just cared about their paycheck, and would stand by watching as some of the sheep were slaughtered by sharp fangs.

Jesus was not one of those who just stood by, or walked on by in his case. Jesus was like a shepherd who actually took the time to care.

“I have other sheep,” Jesus continued, “that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

“Other sheep” he thought.

"Of course," he realized, "I am not the only one lost in the world. There are other sheep who need to know that someone would be willing to lay down their lives for them."

“I have other sheep.”

Yes, there are other sheep. So, from that day forward, he sought to lay down his life for others, as Jesus had done for him. He sought to be a good shepherd who sacrifices out of love and sought to share the story of how Jesus had taken the time to save him.

“I have other sheep.”

The phrase echoes through time and around the world.

“I have other sheep.”

The phrase falls upon the heart of a young woman who looks over the shoulder of her date as they swung around of the dance floor. She sees a girl, one of her friends, sitting by herself in the darkness.

“I think we have room for one more person as we have fun tonight, don’t you.”

Her date turns his head and sees the girl, alone. “This is a big dance floor, and my car is plenty big to go to the party.”

The young couple stopped dancing, took notice, and sacrificed their plans for the night. It is not the inherent fate of the sheep to be lost or threatened. A good shepherd takes notice of troubled sheep, and does not run away.

Later that night, the sacrifice of our shepherd, Jesus falls upon the heart of one other person in the town.

Finishing his steak, the man makes up his mind and looks his wife straight in the eye.

“What? Why are you staring at me,” the wife spoke up.

“I’m going to need some yoga pants,” he said.

“That was random...and weird,” she says with an inquisitive smile. “You hate yoga. You read the paper, have coffee, and plan your next hunting trip during my yoga class.”

“Not any more,” he said. “From now on I am going to be doing some upward facing felines with you.”

“That’s downward facing dog honey,” she responded with a smirk.

“Whatever. It’s an animal facing some direction. At least we will be doing it together. If that is OK with you?”

The man could still surprise her. She felt like a sheep that, previously was not exactly lost, but was just unattended to. She felt like a sheep that needed some healing, and was just provided with some balm.

“Of course. I would love that.” she said, basking in the power of a sacrifice.

Our savior, Jesus Christ, is the author and Lord of loving sacrifice.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Reflection on Luke 24:36b-48

The resurrected life has a lot to do with hands and feet.

After saying “Peace be with you,” one of the first things that our resurrected Lord does each time he appears to his followers is show his hands and feet. Showing his hands and feet comes before eating fish to prove that he is not a ghost. It is of more significance than that. Showing hands and feet comes before any other post-resurrection wonder that he performs.

Do not let the significance of Jesus’ hands and feet float by as your mind begins to wander to shopping lists or to do lists at home. Stay with me here because the gospel writers are telling us that there is something essential to Christian faith in Jesus’ actions. It is as if you cannot possibly even think of calling yourself a follower of Jesus Christ unless you first look at and consider his hands and his feet.

What do the resurrected hands look like anyway?

Are they still moist and seeping blood from the nails of the cross? Is Jesus still actively suffering for our sake?

Do they have large scars; healed, but still holding a reminder of what struggles had been overcome in life?

Are they completely healed, all pain and torture completely taken care of…all sins thrown upon Jesus’ body completely wiped away?

Surprisingly, he Bible does not actually describe those hands and feet. But, do not let that dissuade you. Those hands and feet still play a central role in the resurrected life. Just what is it about those hands and feet that are so essential?

The hands and feet of Jesus, no matter their state of being healed or lack thereof, always remind us of the cross. Apparently, one of the things that Jesus never wants us to forget is the cross.

You may react, “Well duh, we are Christians. How could we forget the cross?” But, there are many ways that people who call themselves Christians engage the world without ever considering the cross.

Some who call themselves Christians only focus on the power of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. They see in his resurrection the complete and total power of God to do anything and everything. And, if God can defeat death in Jesus’ name, God can do it for you too. All you have to do is ask! Are you poor? Ask God with a pure heart and the money will come to you as a shower from heaven! Just send a tax deductible gift of at least $25 to the address listed below on the screen, and you too will feel the power of God in your life!

Sarcasm aside, most honest Christians too believe that in the resurrection Jesus destroyed the power of sin and death. Most honest Christians too believe in the new life that the resurrection brings.

What honest Christians do not forget, that others who call themselves Christians often do, is that it all came with a price. God’s grace is not free. It cost God something. It cost the life of his Son. It required a sacrifice of love on the part of Jesus.

God is not some magician that just waves a wand and makes anything happen. Just look at Jesus’ hands and feet. Those are hands and feet of love. Those are hands and feet that would go to the point of death on a cross for you.

The resurrected life has something to do with those hands and feet. The resurrected life has something to do with Jesus’ sacrifice of love on the cross that cannot ever be forgotten.

By the way, in case you have never realized it, you live in the resurrected life of Jesus right now. This is not just some promise of heaven for the future when you die.

Jesus showed his hands and his feet to the disciples while they were still living.

As one of his disciples, you too are invited to consider his hands and feet in your life right now. You too live a resurrected life right now. You live a life that trusts in the resurrection, and does not forget that sacrifice is essential to that life. Teresa of Avila put it this way:

“Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands,
yours are the feet,
yours are the eyes,
you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

The reason that Jesus shows his hands and his feet immediately to the disciples is because he wants to remind all who call on him as Lord that love is about sacrifice.

A number of years back, the bluegrass band “Nickel Creek” which is headed by Chris Thile of Prairie Home Companion (Love from Here) fame, performed a song written by one of its members (Sean Watkins) called “The Hand Song.” The song talks about sacrifice. The lyrics go like this:

The boy only wanted to give mother something
And all of her roses had bloomed
Looking at him as he came rushing in with them
Knowing her roses were doomed
All she could see were some thorns buried deep
And the tears that he cried as she tended his wounds

But she knew it was love
It was one she could understand
He was showing his love
And that's how he hurt his hands

He still remembered that night as a child
On his mother's knee
She held him close as she opened the bible
And quietly started to read
Then seeing a picture of Jesus he cried out
Momma, he's got some scars just like me

And he knew it was love
It was one he could understand
He was showing his love
And that's how he hurt his hands

Now the boy's grown and moved out on his own
When Uncle Sam comes along
A foreign affair, but our young men were there
And luck had his number drawn
It wasn't that long till our hero was gone
He gave to a friend what he learned from the cross

Well they knew it was love
It was one they could understand
He was showing his love
And that's how he hurt his hands
It was one they could understand
He was showing his love
And that's how he hurt his hands

Wounded hands. That is something we can understand. Jesus wounded his hands for us, and that is love. Little boys wound their hands to give their mothers roses, and that is love. Soldiers learn the lesson of the cross and give their lives, and that is love.

You can tell a lot about somebody by looking at their hands.

If they are smudged with grease, they are a mechanic.

If they are crusted with dirt, they are a farmer.

If they bear the marks of nails, they are Jesus.

If they bear the love of Christ, they are a follower of Jesus.

As one who calls yourself a Christian, what stories do your hands tell?

Here is what I hope. I hope that they tell the tale of Jesus’ sacrificial love…in their own way. May they tell the tale of one who would sacrifice time, money, home, food, and even life itself for the sake of another. May your hands and feet resemble the hands and feet of Christ who gave his life for the sake of the world, and for you.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Reflection on John 20:19-31

“It feels like I am completely lost,” a student once told me after one of his parents had died from cancer.

“It feels like I am just walking around, going through the motions; going to class and walking down the hall to the next class, but I’m not really there. It feels like I am completely lost.”

I suppose it would.

What if the grounding force of your life had simply just vanished? What if the one who fixed your breakfast, drove you to school, loved you when friends hurt you, and gave you a kiss at night simply disappeared in an instant?

In a moment’s time you would have to learn how to live a completely new life. You would have to cook your own eggs, climb onto the bus (which you have never done before), suck it up when there is trouble at school, and go to bed alone. Or, less dramatically, these things would come from elsewhere. In either case, it is an upset to your world that would send you into uncharted territory. You would feel lost.

Speaking of lost; just where is Thomas wandering about on that first Sunday when Jesus appears to the disciples? He is not there in that locked room with the other disciples to hear the words, “Peace be with you.” He is not there to see the scars where the nails drove through Jesus’ hands or feel the slash where the spear pierced Jesus’ side.

I can only assume that he is lost. Like any of us would be when the guiding force in our lives just disappears, he is wandering aimlessly in life from one place to the next, just trying to get by.

The disciples try to cheer up the guy. After-all, they had seen the Lord! They try to make their experience of resurrection his experience of resurrection. But, it just does not work.

Maybe, he is too hurt. Maybe, he feels too lost. Maybe, he just does not want to do that thing once again where he puts his whole heart and soul into someone only to be deserted and destroyed through grief once again.

"Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” Thomas fires back at the exuberant disciples.

You know what would help? Jesus actually being there for Thomas on that day.

The boy who lost a parent told me about how a friend had assured him that his mother still loved him and watched out for him from heaven. The good intention of the friend was not helpful.

“You know what would help me right now? If Mom was right here to give me a hug. That is what would help,” he shouted just a little too loudly. "I do not want her loving me from heaven. I want her loving me right here, right now, and it’s not going to happen, is it pastor?”

It is one thing to be told that you are loved. It is another thing to actually be loved with a warm embrace.

When Thomas missed Jesus’ visit to the disciples, he missed another thing. It is an essential thing, I think. We might simply gloss over the words because they seem to be out of place, but they are not. Thomas misses hearing the words, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

Thomas misses hearing these words of promise from verses 22 and 23. But, they promise more than you might think at first glance.

Therefore, I want to take a moment to have some good old fashioned bible study right here and right now, because there is something important in these words that we are not able to see from the English translation.

Go ahead and pull out a bible and look up John 20:23.

The traditional way to translate this text is the way that the New Revised Standard Edition of the Bible translates:

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.
If you retain [the sins] of any, they are retained.”

Take note of those brackets that I placed around “the sins” in the second phrase. Those words are not actually in the Greek text, which may have some relevance as to how we should appropriately translate this passage.

Before we look close at that, I would also like to point out that this phrase is not conditional when read in the Greek. By that I mean that there is no “if” in there. That is important to note because this is not a phrase that is intended to say, “Only if you do this, then something great will happen, but if you do not, you will miss out.” That is not the intention of the phrase.

Let’s go back to “the sins” that are non-existent in the second phrase. Translators put the words, “the sins” in the second phrase because the first phrase and second phrase are in the genitive clause. Me telling you that probably just put to sleep 98% of you who were never interested in taking a language class.

But, to get you back on board, you should know that most genitives are possessive. I could say that his paper sitting in front of me “is the paper of me.” In other words, “This is my paper.”

Since the second phrase is in the genitive state, it would seem to need something to posses. Seeing nothing in the immediate area, they assume that the object of possession is “the sins” from the former phrase.

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.
If you retain [the sins] of any, they are retained.”

However, biblical scholar Dr. Sandra Schneiders smartly points out that you do not need to be throwing in extra words that are not there in the first place because a word in the genitive state does not have to be possessive. It can just stand on its own and be a subject in and of itself.

This changes the meaning a little bit. Her rough translation would read:

“Of whomever (possessive genitive plural) you forgive the sins, they (the sins) are forgiven to them;
whomever (objective genitive plural) you hold fast [or embrace], they are held fast.”

If you want that put into English that you can actually understand, it says:

“The sins of whoever you forgive, they are forgiven;
whoever you embrace, they are embraced.”

In the gospel of John, it makes sense that the disciples would not be able to hold back, or retain the sins that were already forgiven by Jesus through the cross. After-all, it is John’s gospel that says, “For God so loved the world…”

But, more to the point of Thomas' story in which he is lost in grief, we hear of a God who embraces. “No one will snatch them out of my hand,” Jesus says in John 10:28. And, here Jesus promises the same. Thomas may be wandering in his grief, but the whole time, he is embraced by Jesus.

The very next Sunday, Jesus appears to Thomas, and Thomas gets to see and feel for himself. He gets the warm embrace that is longed for when we are lost in grief. Thomas learns that he was held fast and embraced the entire time.

So are you.

You are embraced by our Lord, Jesus Christ, no matter the wandering, the doubting, or the “lostness” of your soul.

You may feel as if you are forgotten, but you are not. You are embraced forever. Hopefully, one day in your wandering, Jesus will come to you and allow you to see that truth.

Or, maybe, just maybe, one of Jesus’ followers, who have been empowered by the Holy Spirit, will embrace you. After-all, Jesus promises them, “Whoever you embrace, they are embraced.”

Now, that is the power of God.

Who knew a hug could have so much eternal power? Who knew that a hug could heal? Hug a lot this week, and do not stop! It has the power to embrace a life for life.