Monday, August 27, 2018

Reflection on Ephesians 6:10-20

A number of years back, Tom, a pastor friend of mine, looked into becoming an active army chaplain.

Before you reach the age of assured dad-bods, pastors are enticed often by mail or by phone to join the ranks of the military. You get huge, glossy postcards from the navy showing a ship full of people saying, “It’s only you, and this floating city of souls who need a word of salvation.”

You get phone calls from army recruiters asking you to put your life on the line for the gospel the way the first Christians did, asking you to consider “preaching in green rather than white.”

It is all actually quite enticing for a pastor since you know that military service changes the lives of young people so drastically, and you, as a pastor, could help to shape that drastic change in a profound way.

Tom bit on the opportunity thrown out to him and was taken to the next level in the recruitment process. He talked with the recruiter about how chaplains do not start out at the bottom, but rather, start out as an officer. He talked about the requirements to enlisting in the army and heard about the basic training of an army chaplain. This was where the recruitment ended though, because Tom learned that as an army chaplain, you never get to touch a gun. Tom loved guns, so this was heartbreaking to him and he quickly lost interest. But, everything that the recruiter told him fascinated to me to no end.

The army realizes that chaplains have a different sort of weapon and a different sort of armor given by God. Chaplains never touch a gun while in training or in combat. They simply stand at attention during gun drills in basic training and are issued a body guard while on the front lines.

The army gives them no gun because God has already given them the word of God in the form of the sword of the spirit, the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the boots of peace, the helmet of salvation, and the shield of faith. The army acknowledges that soldiers are about fighting effective wars for national and political purposes, but chaplains are about the higher callings of love, salvation, and peace.

While Tom bemoaned not being able to play with guns, I was fascinated by how the chaplain clearly stands apart from the ways of war and stands apart from the ways of the world. I was fascinated at how the army’s vision of respect for the chaplain reflects respect for the image of the Christian soldier in Ephesians.

With no gun in hand, the chaplain stands, not for winning against the enemy, but stands for peace. He wears those boots of peace, and brings Christ’s peace with him as he trudges through the mud. She clutches a weapon of the spirit, the word of God held firmly in her hands. He protects himself with a shield of faith against the gunfire of hatred and worldly gain. She wears the bullet-proof vest of goodness and righteousness, a reflection of the ways of Christ even when the ways of the world try to overtake the soul. And, he wears salvation on his head; it is the main goal of life and as such God’s grace directs all that he does and says.

This armor of Christ is not reserved for army chaplains though. You are outfitted by Christ in the same way. The demons and powers of the world constantly attempt to persuade us away from ways of grace and peace.

“Grace and peace to you” the apostles call out to us, but power, riches, might, political ideology and the need to be right also call out to us, enticing us away from those ways of God.

Let us just stop for a second and consider what grace and peace really is. After-all, if grace and peace are important enough to warrant armor by God, then maybe we should have a clear understanding of what is so vital and different about grace and peace.

The gospel of peace does not find strength in winning wars with the might of armies, but the world-reconciling power of God embodied in the cross of Christ. The battle is won through Jesus’ willingness to sacrifice himself for the sake of the world on the cross.

Self-sacrifice, a desire to love and save both the neighbor and the enemy, is what transforms the world; not winning through slaughter on the battlefield or destroying lives through the war of words on Twitter or Facebook.

Grace and peace does not tear down, but rather, builds one another up. Grace and peace does not abandon others in a sea of sin and hopelessness, but attempts to rescue them in heroic ways, even going all the way to the cross for them.

Christians do put their necks on the line, not with guns in hand and intentions to destroy other’s integrity, but with words of truth, love, and forgiveness.

The world was given life as a gift, and Christians fight with grace and peace in their hearts so that all might have that life and have it abundantly.

We have a general…a commander…, Jesus Christ, who saved us with words of welcome, with words of forgiveness, and with words of truth, and so we seek with all our hearts…faulty as they may be…to do the same.

Just as chaplains on the battlefield look different with bibles instead of guns in hand, so we too look different to the world. On the streets of racial tension a year ago, one young woman’s world was changed dramatically by a person of faith.

The young woman had been raised to believe that those whose skin color was not white were inferior. So ingrained was the belief that she knew it to be true to her very core. She stood on one side of the street next to her father (who raised her with love, but also with prejudice) in protest of those people of color who threatened her power and her privilege…those who threatened her prejudice.

But, during those sometimes violent protests, she saw something that peeked her attention. She saw a woman who was with a church group. They often gave hugs and food to those who were protesting on the other side of the street. But, one woman in the group started crossing the street and offering food and water also to them. She would give a hug and say, “It is hot out here, have some water to quench your body and soul.”

The church woman would even take a little time toi ask about the young woman's life and the young woman's struggles.

The church woman was an enigma to the young lady. She did not wear the uniform of either side arguing in the streets, but she clearly loved both.

It was this woman, this enigma in a war of word flung across the street that caused her to question many, many things. If this woman could love both sets of people on those city streets, maybe she could also? Maybe, this is not about "them" and "us"? Maybe this is about loving all…and by all, she meant all…no matter the color of their skin?

It was not long before the young woman took that church woman by the hand and walked with her, away from her father, over to the other side of the street. She still loved her father, but she no longer loved the hate and prejudice. She was changed, not through the winning of a war, but through the love and peace of one who wore the unlikely armor of God. She was changed by the grace and peace of Christ.

That is who we are. We are a people who do walk in the ways of the world. We wear the unlikely armor of God. We clutch to things such as truth and love. We are guided by words of forgiveness and hope. We are let by Jesus Christ who chose to sacrifice himself rather than slaughter the enemy.

We are an enigma to the world that seeks to be right in the ways of the world and to align with the right people in power.

We are a people who wear the boots of peace; a peace given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Reflection on John 6:51-58

The past few days have really been challenging.  I will not go into all of it, because there is a lot, but one could sum it up with one picture.  It is the picture of one person, standing alone in a basement of muddy water just staring, not knowing even where to begin.  It is hard to feel alone.

Of course, I am not alone, and I will get to that…do not worry, but there were times this week that I felt I was.  How do you even begin to start the process of cleaning out a flooded home?  There is so much to do.  There is so much lost.  There is just so much.  And, no one else is around. 

The wife and kids are still away, and the grandkids are at their dad’s for their own safety as the clean-up of muck starts.  It is all for the best, of course, the kids do not need to be in the middle of this loss right now, and there are very real issues of health and safety after a flood fills your living space with two feet of water, but it still makes one feel…well… unconnected.

It has been said that ancient Galileans felt a similar way when they came to the temple to make sacrifices.  The thing that would make you feel connected with God in the ancient Jerusalem temple would be the ability to bring a goat that you have raised from birth to the temple and handing it directly to the priest who would look you directly in the eye, then offer it to God on your behalf in front of your presence.  That sort of image, ancient as it may be, is one with connection.  It is one that has a connection with the animal, with the priest, with the temple, with the sacrifice, and with God.  It would be a ritual full of holy community.

But, some scholars have pointed out that such connection ceased happening in the ancient temple as it became more and more of an institution.  The more typical temple experience was not being allowed to bring your own animal, but rather being required to bring Roman money, which you exchanged for temple money for a fee, and to finally buy your animal at the temple.  But, the animal did not really seem like your animal.  You see, you would hand your money over to the seller who would then turn around and tell one of his fellow workers to dispatch an animal to the priests.  The person offering the sacrifice did not get to touch the animal or bring it forward to the priest.  I am not sure if they even really got to see the sacrifice or to know which animal being sacrificed was theirs.  They just walked away, alone, trusting that what needed to be done had been done, but feeling alone and unconnected to the sacrifice and alone and unconnected to God.

What if you learned that God was not so distant and unconnected?  What if someone came and stood with you, looking at all the muck and mud in the basement of your flooded home and said, “This is bad, this is really bad, but we got this.”?

What if the author of all life peered into your “aloneness,” peered into your pain and said something like, “I am the bread that gives life.  Just eat and you will be filled with me.  Just eat and I will be with you forever.  There is no need to feel alone.  The loving sacrifice that I make does not happen far away behind some wall.  My love and my sacrifice is within you.  I am right there.  My love is right there.”

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” 

If we move beyond the disturbingly cannibalistic sounding tones of those words and simply think about eating, then we start to see a word of hope.  You see, plants and animals are sacrificed at every one of your meals so that you might have life.  We cannot live without eating, that is a plain fact.  When we do eat…when the sacrifice of a plant or animal is made…we can continue on for another day.  Eating life in order to have live is the way that the world works.

So, I ask, what if you could feast on love?  What if you could chew on God’s presence and have God be a part of you?  What if God could be as close as the food that fills your every cell with nutrients?  What if you could put in your precious body, not junk food that sits in your belly and around your hips and waits for use in some distant day (if that day ever comes), but rather feast on the active, living presence of God?  What if you were not alone?  What if Jesus was right there?

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

This week, I experienced what it is to be surrounded by people who have feasted on the love of Jesus Christ.  When I looked up from the lonely vision of our muddy house, I saw someone standing there with me.  The friend looked at me and said, “This is bad, this is really bad, but we got this.”  And, he bent down and started sorting the items into a small pile of trash and another pile of items that could be saved.  That man had feasted on love, and it made all the difference for me.

Soon, the house was filled with those people who had feasted on the love of Jesus.  Some offered me their hands, some offered me some food, some offered me an ear, and all offered me their heart.  As we cleaned together, the energy that can only come from a diet of love was very real, and Christ was there.

I needed that.  I needed someone to be there, and they were.  I needed Christ to be present, and he was.  And, I highly suspect that you need that too.

This eternal life that you feast on is not just a hope for an eternal future in heaven, though it is part that (Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day;”), but this eternal life is the very real, living presence of the one who is eternal, right here, right now.  “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me (right now), and I in them (right now).” 

May the presence of the living Christ fill you up.  May your "aloneness" be transformed into a living presence.  May the God of love fill your every cell.  May you be filled with Christ’s love and Christ’s peace, especially when the mud and muck of life threatens to overtake.  May the love of Christ be the last word in your life, because it is.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Reflection on John 6:24-35

Looking out the tent opening, all she saw was a vast expanse of…well…nothing. How long had they been stuck out in the wilderness?

As she nursed her baby in the first hints of light on yet another day that would be meager wilderness wandering, she feared that she had little nourishment to provide the child. She could already see her own bones. This wilderness had proved to be something quite short of bountiful as far as food was concerned. Looking at her child, she wondered who would take care of him after she died from starvation. Would he survive?

There were grumblings from others in the group that maybe everyone should turn back and return to Egypt. At least slaves got a regular meal. Others wished that they would have just died while in slavery. Those people slept on their deliberations while she exhaustively struggled to think clearly early in the morning as she nursed her child.

She did not know what to think or have an idea about what they should do. All she knew was that she loved her little boy, and she wanted to protect him; but when there is no food, there is no food. Zero plus zero equals zero. That is really pretty simple math.

That very moment is when she saw the first flake. She might have mistaken it for an insect flying by, but she soon saw another and another. She was the first to see the grace of God, though she did not yet know that. She was the first to witness the gift that would save them all.

Reaching out of the tent opening in curiosity, she picked up one of the accumulating flakes. “What is it?” she whispered…in her language the question sounded like, “Manna?” She smelled it. It smelled like bread; bread falling from heaven. She tasted it and her stomach jumped with delight. The nursing session was cut short as she gathered a handful and put some in her baby’s mouth. The Lord had provided them bread from heaven.

The manna was a gift of bread for the stomach, that is true, but it was also a gift of trust. If you remember the story from Sunday School, or have read it recently, you will remember that the bread from heaven only lasted for a single day. It spoiled if you tried to keep it for the next. But, there was no need to keep it for the next because God continually provided more the next day.

The people of God in the wilderness had no choice but to trust that the Lord would provide. The manna provided the gift of trust in God during a time of struggle in the wilderness.

We still hear the voices of people struggling in the wilderness, people who could use that gift of trust in God.

They are people close to us. They are neighbors who struggle to get by in life financially. They are family members who struggle with the affects of addiction. They are friends whose lives have been upended by unforeseen events. They are us when we fail to see a glimmer of hope in the future. They are people who look at the clock and see dust collecting on the hands, as if there is no turning…as if there is no future.

Would it not be nice to see a little manna falling from outside the tent door? Would it not be nice to be given a little bit of that trust that God has everything under control?

But, the problem with struggle is that it is sometimes hard to see the provision of God while in the middle of the struggle. It is as if we are walking around with telescopes attached to our eyes, and all we can see it what is directly in front of us. This telescopic or tunnel vision does not allow us to see all that God is up to around us because we are too focused on our own worries and struggles.

This seemed to be the case with those 5000 people who ate their fill from the five loaves of bread and two fish that Jesus handed to them with his own hands. Even after that glorious event of bread from heaven, they still asked if they could have a sign from God. This may seem ridiculous to us; one of the greatest miracles ever to occur on the face of the earth just happened, and they ask for a sign? But, that is how tunnel vision works.

It reminds me of a great Red Skelton joke. It goes something like this:

A flood surrounded a man’s house and the waters had reached the edge of the porch. A rescuer came in a row boat and said, “Climb on in!” but the devout man said, “Oh no, the good Lord will take care of me.” The water continued to rise to the level of the porch roof and a rescuer in another row boat came by and said, “Climb on in!” but the devout man said, “Oh no, the good Lord will take care of me.” Soon the man found himself on the roof of the second story and a rescuer came by in a helicopter and said, “We can pull you up!” but the devout man said, “Oh no, the good Lord will take care of me.” Well, the man died you see, and when he got up to heaven he asked God, “What happened?” “I don’t know what happened,” God responded, “I sent two row boats and a helicopter for you!”

The people who ate their fill were like that man. They had tunnel vision. They were not able to see God’s provision happening right around them. Sure they were amazed and ate their fill of the loaves, but they only received the gift of bread. They failed to receive the gift of trust.

Jesus seemed to know that though. He does not chastise them for failing to believe. He does not chastise them for continuing to worry as they wander in their own personal wilderness seeking nourishment. He does not chastise them for wanting more bread. Jesus is not in the business of kicking people while they are down.

Instead, Jesus offers them the gift that will get the hands on the clock moving again, knocking off the collecting dust. He offers them the gift that will give them hope for the next day, just as God did long ago for that mother out in the wilderness who had her fill of manna from heaven. Jesus offers us the gift of trust in him. Jesus offers the gift of himself.

"I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Weather warnings have become a thing in our household lately. There was one day recently that tornado warning blared from our phones; and, so, the kids all learned how to go down into the basement and take shelter. They also learned how to fear the sound of the weather warning.

Now, whenever a weather warning in issued and the sound blares from our phones, the fear level raises to somewhat inappropriate levels in our house. Granted, part of my childhood was spent in Nebraska where tornado warnings are regular enough that they are not a cause of seeking shelter but pulling out the lawn chairs in order to sit and watch. So, I guess levels of inappropriateness are probably a subjective thing.

However, when the flood warning came blaring from our phones the other day, one of our young girls gave a sweet gift in the face of a weather warning that created fear throughout the children of the house. “Remember, Jesus is always there for us.” That is the gift of trust.

"I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Are you struggling to find your way forward in life? Then come to Jesus and eat the bread of life.

Are you wandering in your own wilderness of suffering? Then come to Jesus and eat the bread that gives life to the world.

Today, Jesus provides you with the words of promise that can open up for you that precious and vital gift of trust:

"I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”