Monday, November 26, 2018

Reflection on Matthew 6:25-33, The Eve of Thanksgiving

Her house was no bigger than four church folding tables put together. It also was not much taller than such folding tables. Yet, when the poor woman from India invited us off of our tour bus and into her home, she was so thankful to share with us all that she had.

She pointed to the beautiful print on a piece of fabric that helped to hold together her tarp and plywood walls. She proudly displayed the small propane stove (very similar to what I use to backpack) that she used daily to cook. She loved her home and was thankful for all that she had.

It was eye opening to say the least. The poor in the United States look like millionaires to a person like her (in the least many poor people in our area have a beat up car and a cell phone…wild luxuries in her eyes).

By all definitions of the word, she was poor, but somehow she failed to recognize that fact. Instead of focusing on what she did not have, she focused primarily on all that God had gifted her, and it brought her happiness.

How refreshing would that be, to have this woman feast at your Thanksgiving dinner table where this woman might genuinely comment on how wonderful the turkey is instead of Uncle Chuck’s yearly complaining about how the turkey, once again, has turned out too dry.

Thankfulness is not simply a spiritual task that we need to plod through every so often, or minimally once a year in order to satisfy our religious obligations to God. Rather, it is a response that springs right up from our souls when we genuinely realize all that God has done.

Do you have air to breath? Give thanks to God!

Do you have food for the day? Give thanks to God!

Were you able to stand up in the morning? Give thanks to God!

Do you have a savior who forgives you no matter how you stumble? Give thanks to God!

It can be argued that the opposite of thankfulness is worry.

If thankfulness is the recognition of how God has provided, then worry is the inability to see how God has provided. Worry consists of a chest pounding anxiety over what the future holds. There may be food for today, but will there be any for tomorrow? Will the future play out in your favor? Will your health hold out for another day? There are so many things about which to be worried and the worry is a sort of blinder on your eyes that does not allow you to see the gifts that surround you.

As worry and depression can be literally life-threatening as we have see in the horrible stories of suicide lately, Jesus has some very practical, life-saving advice for us.

Are you worried about clothing? Then go out into the field (or maybe a florist in the winter) and stare at some flowers. Do not just think about doing it, actually go out and do it. Stare at them. Meditate on them.

If God clothes these tiny life forms that are fixed to the soil so brilliantly, how much more will God cloth you with splendor. Maybe, God already has. Did you give thanks for the clothes you put on this morning? If not, take a look at it. It is a gift from God.

In the same way, birds do not clock in and out on a time clock. Yet, God gives them something to eat. Do you really think that God cares about you less than a little bird. Look at those birds chirping away out your windows in the morning. Listen to those birds. Actually do it and meditate on them.

Maybe you will realize the amount of delicious nourishment that God has provided. Even if it is not delicious, at least it is a gift of nourishment that keeps you alive…which is sometimes the greatest praise you can give some of our family cooks. Sorry, that is Uncle Chuck talking.

This invitation to pause, and look, and then truly see what God provides is a healing gift from Jesus that fights the demons of worry.

Pausing, looking, and seeing, leads to that amazing state of thankfulness in which that poor woman from India lived. Because of the gratitude that continually poured from her heart, nothing in life was closed off to her. She was not too poor to do anything. She was not too little to think big things. She was not too destitute to show off the gifts that she had been given. She lived a life free from the binding ropes of worry, and she shared that beautiful life with a bunch of young adults from the United States.

Take the time right now to enter into that gift from Jesus Christ, that invitation to pause, look, and see what God has provided. Pause right now, look at the gifts of your life, and see what God has done. Actually write them down down on a sticky note as a reminder for the coming days when the worry threatens. Hopefully you will think to look at it and remember once again that life is good and God is indeed good.

Reflection on John 18:33-37

The kingdom you live in is not of this world, and that is a good thing.

You see, the kingdoms of this world like to immortalize themselves in statues of stone and bronze. Those who live in the kingdoms of this world strive to be successful enough to cast themselves in an immortal pose that others can stare at years and years to come. Those who live in the kingdoms of this world look up at the stones of the huge temples and marvel at the skyscrapers that demonstrate the power and wealth of corporations, cities, and nation states.

But you, people of God, are not a part of the kingdoms of the world. The kingdom in which you live is not of the world, and that is a good thing.

The kingdoms of this world seek the truth. And, the worldly kingdoms usually find their truth in some sort of philosophical or political ideal to which people hold fast.

Some hold to the ideals of trickle-down economics, and others the shared nature of the ideal communist community; some to the tried and true values of rural life, and other the progressive, accepting nature of the urban life; some to the inherent constitutional rights of the 2nd amendment, and others to the protection of the innocent by good regulation; some to the stabilizing effects of strict parenting, and others to the creative formation in a child stemming from free-range parenting; some to the grit forming character of an individualistic “work hard” ethic, and others the community formation of the team mindset; some to the character that forms when much is expected, and others to the love that is formed when all are accepted; or a million other ideals and truths by which people strive to live in this life and hold dear to their hearts.

Those who live in the kingdoms of this world hold to these ideals as if they are the truths woven into the foundations of creation themselves. They will even stick to these ideals as “the gospel truth” even if they may not be found in any of the four gospels in the Bible. They will hold to these truths so tight that they may even give their lives defending them, but we have someone who gave his life for us.

You, people of God, are not a part of the kingdoms of the world. Your kingdom is not of this world. Your kingdom is not something that can be immortalized in stone. Your kingdom is not an ideal toward which you strive. Rather, your truth found in your kingdom died for you on the cross.

Your truth, your God, so loved the world that God gave God's only son so that all who trust in him will not perish but will have eternal life. In the kingdom in which you live, the truth is not an ideal to which you cling, rather in your otherworldly kingdom the truth is a person. Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, is the truth. And, when you follow the truth, you follow Jesus.

In other words, when the people of Jesus’ kingdom forgive someone who committed a great sin, it is not because they believe in the ideal of second chances, it is because Jesus forgave seventy times seven times.

Do you see the difference?

When the people of Jesus’ kingdom stand up to the powerful in order to protect the weak, it is not because they believe in the anarchy of rioting, it is because Jesus stood up to the powerful and called them out and it cost him his life.

Do you see the difference?

When the people of Jesus’ kingdom bless marriages it is not because they believe in the ideals of marriage, it is because Jesus blessed the wedding at Cana.

Do you see the difference?

When the people of Jesus’ kingdom strive to learn the sciences…strive to learn biology and the scientific method in order that disease might be cured, it is not because they believe in science, it is because Jesus healed the sick.

Do you see the difference?

When the people of Jesus’ kingdom say “Merry Christmas” it is not said in order to win the culture war over holiday words used in department stores, it is because God came down to us in Jesus, and that is a happy thing to share.

Do you see the difference?

The people of Jesus kingdom do not strive to follow worldly ideals, rather they strive to follow Jesus.

The great thing about following the truth rather than learning the truth is that you do not have to be smart to live in Jesus’ kingdom, though you might be. You do not have to be rich to live in Jesus’ kingdom, though you might be. You do not have to be literate to live in Jesus’ kingdom, though you might be. You do not have to have your life all put together to live in Jesus’ kingdom, though you might be. You do not have to be perfect to live in Jesus’ kingdom, though you might…no, no you are not perfect.

But, you do not need to be. You do not need any of these things. If Jesus claims you as one of his children, you are part of his kingdom and you listen to his voice. Jesus said outright, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

Notice that he did not say it the other way around. Jesus did not say, "Everyone who listens to my voice belongs to the turth." Rather, he said, "Everyone who belong to the truth listens to my voice." You have been made a child of God...a member of Jesus' kingdom because God chose you to be a part of that kingdom. That is not an accomplishment, that is a gift.

And, this kingdom in which you live is not of the world, and that is a good thing.

Take John for example. John was a plumber. John’s story is a true story by the way. John was a plumber and he loved being a plumber. He helped people out of tough situations because he was a plumber. He supported his family because he was a plumber. He worked long, hard hours away from those he loved because he was a plumber. You might be catching the drift of what’s going on here; John’s life was wrapped up in being “a plumber.” And, then he retired.

For the next year no one in the community heard from John or saw John. No, he was not in the Caribbean relaxing after all of his years of hard labor.

Sadly, John had locked himself away in his home because he did not know how to live a life outside of being a plumber.

His kingdom was of this world. It was the plumbing kingdom. Unfortunately, because of his retirement, his kingdom no longer needed him. Jon no longer had a kingdom. John did not survive beyond a year of retirement.

Why relate such a sad story? Because the kingdom in which we place ourselves matters. If we live in a kingdom of this world, we will die by the kingdom of this world. But, if Jesus sets us free to live in his eternal kingdom, we will be free indeed.

You, people of God, are a part of Jesus kingdom. As Jesus told Pilate, Jesus’ kingdom is “not of this world.”

You do not need to cause bloodshed or enter into a spiteful war of words in order to defend Jesus and his kingdom; it is not of this world.

But, we do belong to it none-the-less. We do belong to Jesus’ kingdom, and because Jesus placed us in his kingdom, we listen to his voice.

Jesus is the truth, and it is a true gift to follow the ways of the truth.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Reflection on Mark 13:1-8

“What large stones and what large buildings!” The disciples are impressed by the grandeur of the temple as they walk away from where they saw the widow offer her last two coins.

I confess that I am often impressed by the grandeur of all that humanity has built. I am not the first person to run into a sign on the streets of New York City as I stared up at the buildings, right? Right? Not just me?

But, for these you men, you have to understand how much more impressed they would have been than even we. After-all, there were no mechanical cranes back then. These young men, from the backwaters of the world, have not seen buildings constructed with stones any bigger than a man can lift. Maybe, they have seen larger cornerstones that have been drug by mule, but that is it. So, when they see stones that are higher than they are tall stacked upon one another, they are simply blown away by the accomplishment.

I confess that I too am a person who is swayed by the bigger is better mentality. I have marveled at the height and artistry of the National Cathedral in Washington DC. I have been impressed by the size of mega-churches with thousands gathering to worship on a Sunday. I have been in awe of the power and sound while participating in a choir of teens numbering over a thousand. Bigger is better.

It reminds me of a joke from years ago.

A guy visited Texas for the first time and ate at the restaurant housed in his hotel. The steak that he got was huge…it was the size of the plate. He commented on the size to the waitress and she responded, “Well, everything is bigger in Texas.”

Similarly, he commented on the size of the toast that came with the steak, it was bigger than both of his hands. The waitress responded, “Well, everything is bigger in Texas.”

And, when she came with his beer, it came in something that was the size of a small barrel. “Wow!” he shouted out loud. “Well, everything is bigger in Texas,” the waitress repeated.

Having to go to the bathroom after all that beer, the guy ventured out of the restaurant and just happened to slip and fall into the hotel’s pool on the way past. Dripping wet, he walked back into the restaurant he exclaimed to the waitress, “Make sure you watch out for the toilet.”

O.K. did I wait years for this Sunday’s text to come around just so that I could tell that second grade joke? Yes, yes I did. I was hoping that it would be a huge joke!

Because bigger is better! It is better to write a massive book than a pamphlet. It is better to sell thousands of boxes of Girl Scout cookies than twelve. It is better to fill the tables at the restaurant than to have a hand full of customers. It is better to fill the pews than to preach to five people. It is better to get the huge gift under the Christmas tree than to get the one consisting of a small box.

I confess.

I confess to thinking that success is all about numbers rather than caring about individuals.

I confess to exiting the temple and being overwhelmed by the size of the buildings, and completely missing the widows who have lost everything sitting by my feet below.

I confess to desiring greatness rather than focusing on God’s greatness.

I confess to desiring massive success rather than holy sacrifice.

I confess to desiring the golden gates of heaven and ignoring the pain of the cross.

I confess to completely missing the kingdom of God because I am too busy looking up.

"Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down," Jesus declares.

For Jesus, grandeur is not a goal. Greatness is not what he seeks. His power is not found in the earthquakes, great famines, and world-wide wars of the earth; though some claim that his workings may be found there.

Instead, his power is found in the little things, like the healing of those who are blind. Jesus’ power is found in making the mute to speak and the deaf to hear. Jesus’ power is found in welcoming the foreigner and healing the ill. Jesus’ power is found in humble acts of love, not the grand acts of armies. Jesus’ influence is found shaping twelve men and a handful of women and is not found in the thousands who pay him lip service and then turn on him at the last moment. Jesus’ power is found on a cross, the death sentence of a criminal, and is not found on the throne of a king.

In Jesus, all of that grand stuff is thrown down and love is given birth.

Sometimes, we build our grandeur so tall that God cannot even be seen. Sometimes, the stones need to be thrown down for God to be revealed. Sometimes, death needs to occur before something holy and pure and full of Godly life can be reborn.

Sometimes we need to stop and confess before we can go and live. Sometimes we need to let all that we built in the past to crumble away before new life can be born. Sometimes we need to let go of the grand visions and embrace the meekness of love.
Let us confess:
For obsessing over greatness
we confess.
For desiring great numbers rather than great love
we confess.
For focusing our attention on those in power rather than those who have none
we confess.
For being impressed by the great stones rather than the small acts
we confess.
For desiring a large church rather than a faithful church
we confess.
For seeing success in terms of money and things rather than love shown
we confess.
For seeking thrones rather than crosses
we confess.
For wanting to be served rather than serving
we confess.
For desiring forgiveness rather than forgiving first
we confess.
For all that we have done, and all that we have failed to do
we confess.

Holy God, forgive us our failures, knock down our stones of accomplishment, and give us a new birth in you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Reflection on Mark 12:38-44

Jesus notices her. No one else does, but Jesus sees her. Jesus always notices the lowly.

You know who is easily noticed? The scribes; the famous religious leaders of the time. Jesus describes their actions this way:

“[The scribes] like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.”

Not only that, those with high standing such as they (and the rich in general) love to enter into the temple and dump buckets of money into the metal collection horns in the temple. The clang of the money echoes their greatness. The clang of the money echoes their blessedness. The clang of the money echoes the level of respect due to them in society.

The clang of her two coins did not even register a fraction of a decibel against the noise of the rich. No one noticed her two coins. No one noticed that she, the poor widow, had given away the last of her money.

She trusted completely that either God would take care of her or that she would die…one of the two.

No one noticed…well, almost no one noticed. Jesus noticed. Jesus always notices the lowly.

You know who gets noticed in our society? The rich; Hollywood actors; sports stars; politicians; even some preachers; they all get noticed and get plenty of airtime. They are the ones who get invited onto the talk shows and asked their opinions, though I do not know why staring on a television show makes someone’s opinion on the horrors happening in Yemen any greater than anyone else’s. That is the power of stardom, I guess.

They are the ones who get the best seats and are invited to the parties and banquets. They are the ones who have the nice houses and no one fears diving down their streets. Quite to the contrary, people pay money to take tours down the streets containing their houses with their impressive gates, gardens, and grand entrances.

No one pays to take a tour of a poor neighborhood. No one trusts that they will be safe in the neighborhood of the unlucky in life. No one wants to even drive through the poor sections of the city.

If you think too hard about this, it might occur to you how ridiculous this reality is. In many countries, it is the rich with their nice lawns who are able to hire hit-men to do their murderous deeds. In these countries, it is the rich who are the dangerous, self-absorbed, do anything to get ahead members of society.

Yet, across the world, the rich are automatically ascribed wisdom and morality and the poor are automatically ascribed stupidity, laziness, and threat.

No one tours the poor parts of the city. No one even considers going. The lowly are easily overlooked. No one notices. Well, almost no one notices. Jesus notices. Jesus always notices the lowly.

What might you see if you looked closely, the way Jesus does? What might you see if you took the time to listen to the subtle clanks of those two coins from the hand of the widow?

What Jesus sees is sacrifice. He sees that this poor woman has given it all, while the rich have given only a small fraction. But, this sermon is not going where you expect that it might typically go. I am not going to start into monologue about how you should be like the poor woman rather than the rich people and how you should give it all to God and to the church. I am not going to say that you must give it all the ministry of the church because I know that you are not going to, and neither am I. That was not Jesus’ point in any case.

Rather than focusing on yourself and worrying about your level of giving at this moment, Jesus instead wants you to focus outside of yourself and take notice.

He wants his disciples to notice the one who is forgotten.

He wants you to notice that the old woman has given it all…she has nothing more to live on.

He wants you to notice that she is now in peril.

He wants you to notice that she trusts that God and the temple will do something about her plight.

He wants you to notice that the temple will not do anything because they are too busy with their long robes and their fame.

He wants you to notice that the widow exists. She is right there. She is a child of God and is no less important than anyone else in existence.

Jesus wants you to notice, because he notices. Jesus always notices the lowly.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus notices the lowly and heals. Jesus notices them and multiplies the loaves and the fishes. Jesus notices and forgives the sins that burden. Jesus takes the time to look below the flash and the glamour. Jesus takes the tour of the back alley neighborhood. Jesus notices the lowly, and invites you to take a wander through the dark alley also.

This woman need not be in peril. If only the temple were doing its job…what it was supposed to be doing as charged by God…and caring for the poor, the widow, and the orphan. If only God’s people would be less concerned about their own comfort, and were, rather, focused on looking out for the struggle of those around them. If only the disciples could have the eyes that notice.

The temple is not going to notice this widow. She is probably too proud to speak up and the temple probably would not care all that much anyway. There are banquets on the daily schedule after-all. But, Jesus notices. He takes the time to sit down and watch. God does not forget God’s own children.

There is a lot in the news this morning. Big stuff. Of course, there are presidential tweets. Jeff Sessions is out of a presidential cabinet job. There are races for senate and races for governors to be recounted and settled. Elvis is being given the Presidential Metal of Freedom, and of course the fires in California and the loss of lives there are still on the front page. Raw turkey caused a salmonella outbreak and Meghan Markle’s personal royal assistant has turned in her resignation just 6 months after the royal wedding. No one knows why!

And, in all of this news of the rich and powerful there is no mention of the widow. None. Not one story this morning talks about her. Even the stories of devastation from the California fires which certainly are full of the stories of the widows are focusing instead on Trump’s tweeted responses and the loss of rich people’s mansions. The lowly are noted in passing…but usually as a number: 23 have died so far. But, to Jesus the lowly are not a number. You are not a number. We are all God’s children, and as children of God, we are not forgotten.

This week, I ask you to do one simple thing: notice. Notice as Jesus notices. Notice those who are often forgotten. Take notice and point them out to others. Take notice and care. Follow the lead of our savoir Jesus Christ our Lord and be the church that God created us to be. Be the church that takes notice.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Reflection on John 11:32-44

Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."

There is a great freedom in Jesus. In Jesus there is new life! It is a life that is free from the burdens and strangulation that life has wrapped around you. It is a life that is free from the fears of this world…even free from the fear of death. In Jesus you can find life even after the tomb has enclosed you and the darkness has sealed you in. In Jesus, all that binds you and holds you back from being who God has created you to be is cut off and drops away. In Jesus there is life! There is a great freedom in Jesus.

There is a lot of hope in that promise of unbinding, but the hope does not stop there. There is a lot more hope in this Bible story.

We can hope in the resurrection, or at least the resuscitation, of Lazarus. We have hope that death cannot have the last word. We hope that death does not have an eternal hold on those who we have grieved at solemn funerals, and who we still grieve today.

We have hope that because Jesus was able to open the tomb for Lazarus, maybe Jesus can open up all of our other tombs. Maybe, drugs do not have the last word. Jesus can overcome that tomb. Maybe, rotten, abusive relationships are not the final scene. Jesus can overcome that tomb also. Maybe, the intense pain of the loss of the one you loved is not the last emotion you will ever feel. In Jesus, new life can be breathed into all of that. In Jesus anything is possible.

We can even find hope in Jesus’ tears. On those lonely nights of the soul, when we cry to God out of a sense of loneliness and hopelessness, echoing the cries of Mary, “Don’t you care, if you have been here, none of this would have happened!” we can still find hope. Our cries of anger to God do not elicit wrath and fire from on high. Rather, they elicit a rain of heavenly tears.

Tears only come when one shares in the pain of another, and when Mary cries out to Jesus over Lazarus, he shares her tears. Our pain is not ours alone. We have a savior who cries with us and shares the burden of the pain.

There is a great freedom in Jesus. In Jesus there is new life! It is a life that is free from the burdens and strangulation that life has wrapped around you. It is a life that is free from the fears of this world…even free from the fear of death. As the darkness surrounds you and the tombs threaten to encase you, Jesus walks up to the tomb and shouts out in a loud voice, “Come out!” New life is on the way.

Go ahead, cling to that hope! Cling to that promise of new life, because it is a gift from God to us all.

There are some promises that are not in this story. What I mean is that there are beliefs to which we sometimes hold that actually are not true.

First of all, following Jesus does not guarantee that nothing bad will happen. Lazarus did die. It actually happened and Jesus did not stop it. Mary and Martha did truly grieve. The tears and heartbreak were real and Jesus did nothing to put that painful reality under wraps. Bad things do happen and God does not promise that we will never suffer from those bad things.

In fact, the new life that Lazarus is given by Jesus does not result in a long, suffering-free life afterward. Quite the opposite, the miracle prompts the creation of a death sentence upon both Jesus and Lazarus from those who oppose Jesus’ ministry.

Life has suffering. That is the plain truth. Life is filled with streams of tears flowing from the faithful and unfaithful alike.

Jesus does not promise that bad things will never happen, even to the faithful. He does not even promise a good life for himself. Jesus ends up dying on a ancient device of torture: a cross. Life has suffering.

What Jesus does demonstrate though is that he will be there to share in the tears. What Jesus does promise is that he will walk up to the our graves of pain and darkness and call in a loud voice, “Come out!” And, we will. In Jesus there is new life! There is a great freedom in Jesus.

When I was a child, I once declared my hate for the class bully. And, yes, I did use the word “hate.” I was not lying, I did actually “hate” him. So did the rest of the class. I did not ever want him to cross the path of my life ever again. Of course, the next day of classes always came and our class’ dreams of being free from him never came to pass.

When the world “hate” came from my lips, my grandmother stopped me in my tracks. “We do not hate people,” she declared. “We can dislike people. We can dislike what people do, but we cannot hate. When we hate people we are saying that God is unable to fix things. When we hate, we are saying that God does not have the power to heal. We do not hate people.”

Well...I hated the guy.

Sorry grandma.

For years and years I hated the guy. For years and years, I did not care a lick about what happened to the man.

Then, one day, he popped up as a friend suggestion on Facebook. Another fact in life, Facebook is terrible at suggesting friends.

Even though I never cared if I ever saw the guy again, I clicked on his profile to see what was up in his life. The guy had not thought to place any security settings on his profile, big surprise there. I could see the guy's entire life. And, what I saw shocked me.

After a stint of alcohol abuse (no shocker there) he became a family man. But, not just any family man; he became the father to lots and lots of foster children who had lost their own sense of family. On his Facebook wall were continual expressions of gratitude for his devotion and love from each of these children.

The guy even went to church! Who knew?

I never realized that the guy had an ounce of love within, but he did. Somehow, Jesus had walked up to that guy’s musty tomb, called out to him in a loud voice, and the guy actually came out. The bands of whatever was strangling him in life and creating his evil actions somehow fell from his body and the love of God that was there the entire time was exposed. Somehow, in some way, he was made into a saint: one who has been loved and redeemed by Jesus.

Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."

There is a great freedom in Jesus. In Jesus there is new life! It is a life that is free from the burdens and strangulation that life has wrapped around you. It is a life that is free from the fears of this world…even free from the fear of death. In Jesus you can find life even after the tomb has enclosed you and the darkness has sealed you in. In Jesus, all that binds you and holds you back from being who God has created you to be is cut off and drops away. In Jesus there is life! There is a great freedom in Jesus.

It is the freedom of the saints of God.