Sunday, February 24, 2019

Reflection on Luke 6:27-38

I heard it once again this week. It is a continual mantra coming from those who have no idea how to handle the world these days. The words have come from many, many mouths, but they all sound the same: “I don’t know what is happening with the world these days. The world definitely isn’t what it used to be. What do we do?”

They are not bad questions. “What do we do with this world of ours? What do we do with a world that is mired in addiction? What do we do with a world that is so divided philosophically and politically? What do we do with a world where people take out their personal problems on classrooms of children or workplaces full of friends with deadly effect? What do we do with a world where people are abused and exploited and there is little to be done to fix the problem? What do we do with a world so full of corruption and chaos?

What do we do?

Unlike so many faith questions that we have Jesus actually has an answer to this one, but we might not trust it. Jesus actually knows how to create some order from the chaos in the world around us, but we might not believe in the power of his solution.

Can I make a deal with you? Will you at least hear him out? Will you at least listen to Jesus’ solution to counter all the chaos in the world, and will you at least give it a try?

If you do give it a try, maybe, just maybe, the chaos of your own life will start to resemble some semblance of order and peace.

Jesus' solution has worked before, after-all. Before the world even existed, in the beginning so they say, all that existed was an ocean of chaos. And God’s Spirit moved over these deep and angry waters of chaos, and the Word of God spoke words of love.

They were words of love that wanted something more than nothing. They were words of love that wanted order and not disaster. They were words of love that created good things, including you and me. They were words of love that said, “I would rather have you than have than have all of this deep chaos.” In other words, “I choose you over chaos.”

“I choose you over chaos.”

When you have sinned deeply, and created a world of chaos around you (because, you know as well as I do that sin creates a mess all around), instead of banishing you to the darkness Jesus says, “I choose you over chaos.” “I choose you over your sin.” “I choose you over the punishment that you deserve.” On the cross, he died so that chaos might die once and for all, so that you and I might live. And, he did all of this out of "love."

So, if you are willing to try, Jesus suggests that in the face of a chaotic world that maybe we should try "love." But, it is not just the love that produces morning snuggles and romantic evenings. It is a daring, and even dangerous sort of love. It is a love that sounds exactly like:

"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you" (NRSV, Luke 6:27-38).

In other words, Jesus is encouraging his followers to love the unlovable. How to you create order out of chaos? How do you counter the evils of this present world? Why not try love?

You could try retaliation, but violence almost always doubles the amount of violence in the world.

You could try hate, but hate almost always doubles the amount of hate in the world.

You could also try doing nothing. This is my personal favorite course of action. I like to just sit back and let things go the way they will go. It is easy. Doing this reduces the chance of a target being painted on my chest. I do not have to be in the middle of anything.

But, this too allows the chaos of the world to increase. If you do nothing in the face of chaos, the chaos will just continue to grow. Standing around, watching, and lamenting the chaos of the world does nothing to create order. You and I would not be here if God had chosen to just sit and hover over the waters of chaos for eternity without ever taking action.

So, Jesus has this suggestion for us. Try loving. After-all, love created a world of order. Love saved creation. Love saved you. Try loving...even the unlovable.

There was this one day when I was young that my brothers did something unforgivable to me. It was so terrible, so horrible, so life altering that to this day I do not have a clue what they did. Despite this, I decided on that day that I would not forgive my brothers. I would not even talk to them.

During lunch, I ate in silence. When they invited me to play outside with them, I stayed inside. When they decided to play with Legos while watching cartoons, I went to my room.

By around 4:00 in the afternoon, I had a few things happen to me. First, I had a headache that was tormenting me. Hatred is hard work! Second, I had not had any fun during the day. And finally, by the afternoon I already had no clue why I was mad at my brothers.

So, I tried what Jesus suggests. I decided to show mercy. I decided to love them, even though they were unlovable. And, most importantly, I decided to play.

Instantly, all was better.

Love can restore. Love can create good. Love can give order in a world of chaos.

I understand completely that this example from my childhood is not very profound. There have been many deeper instances where loving the unlovable fixes all that has been made wrong. But, I find that the simplicity of life that children teach us is able to motivate me in a way that the complexities of the adult world cannot even hope to attempt.

So, give it a try. It works for children; maybe it will work for you. Instead, of being overwhelmed by the chaos of the world, try loving the unlovable. Try the way of the cross. Try the way of Jesus Christ. Try the way of God.

Go ahead and start right now. What in the world troubles you? Who in the world troubles you? Go ahead and take one of Jesus' suggestions seriously. Pray for your enemy...for the unlovable...right now. Love the unlovable and see how God transforms your world.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Reflection on Luke 6:17-26

When I was a little kid, I was taught that one of the best places that you could give your money was to the church. "The church is where your money should go so that those who need help might be helped," I was told.

This teaching was supported by some cultural cues to the same effect. In Disney’s “Robin Hood” the church has a “poor box.” The money from that “poor box,” indeed, went to the poor, and the monk, Little John, praised the mice for caring enough to put in a coin.

It was not just Disney cartoons that led me to trust this assumption though. During a stretch of my own family’s financial struggle, the door on our apartment produced a loud knock. We opened the door to reveal a member of our church giving us a box with an entire turkey feast stuffed inside. This unexpected meal lasted us a week.  Quite frankly, we needed a meal that could last us a week, and the church of Jesus Christ provided it.

So, you have to understand my shock when, as a late teen, I started to understand how to read church budgets. I was shocked to see that the new church that I attended had no line item that contained money for those where were down on their luck. I had been taught that one of the primary reasons for giving to the church was that it would help the poor, the hungry, those struck by grief, and those who are, otherwise, excluded.

I was further shocked when, around the same time, I heard the ruminations of a TV pastor who regularly asked for large sums of money from the television audience, but preached that the best help you can give a poor person is to preach belief in Jesus Christ. In no way was I doubting that the poor need Jesus, but I certainly doubted that this pastor needed another mansion while the poor in the midst of his ministry were only getting cheap, paperback bibles.

This television pastor was happy to sit on the mountain of success and look down with gospel proclamations on those below his feet. The church without a line in their budget for helping those down on their luck was happy to build a high seat upon which they could sit and hear the word of God, but not have to suffer or share a struggle with those below their seats who had very little.

One could claim that the image of a church that helps the poor so directly, as seen in the Robin Hood movie, is just an ideal. The argument goes: "There are financial realities that have to be considered when you grow up enough to understand such things."

Maybe. But, I’m pretty certain that there is more to the faith than meeting monthly expenses.

Today’s gospel story tells us that Jesus came down from praying on the mountain in order to stand on a level place “with” a great crowd of people in need.


It is a very short word, yet it is so powerful: “with.” This word carries the possibility that those who suffer might not be excluded. “With.”

This word holds the potential that those who find themselves alone will not be left in dark with no one. “With.”

Jesus came down to a level place to be “with” those who needed him.

The church of my childhood ideals was one of level places. It was a place where believers found themselves “with” those who struggled in life. It was living on the same plain with them, ministering to them, and they, in return, ministering back in their own way.

On the plain, there is no place for grandstanding or acting righteous. There is just compassion. There is just healing. There is just blessedness.

The level place is the only place in the world where we clearly see that God cares about the poor. “Blessed are the poor.”

Only on the level place, with others, can you find out that God cares about those who are starving. “Blessed are the hungry.”

Only when you live on the level place can you know for certain that God cares about the tear inducing struggles of life. “Blessed are you who weep now.”

Only on the level place will you find Jesus, who cares whenever you are excluded, or reviled, or defamed, or called a “snowflake” on social media for caring and following in the ways of Jesus’ love.

Now, I might have added in that snowflake bit. That probably is not in the Bible, but I am tired of that term being used to describe people who love others. I am tired of people being looked down upon for caring about other people's struggle.

We are not a people who are called to live on the lofty heights of judgment, but rather on the plains of equity and love, alongside our God who calls us to gather there.

Now Jesus does say, “blessed are you when you are reviled on account of the Son of Man.” So, I guess it is going to happen; I guess we will be called names for actually caring about others. But, that does not mean that we abandon the level places.  It is on the level places where the healing and the blessing coming from Jesus happens.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we are a people of level places. We are a people of healing and blessing. Just as Jesus heals and blesses, so we also heal and we bless.

We heal and we bless.

Remember a couple of years ago that pastor who was sent to jail because he violated a city code by feeding the poor in the city park?

You do not think that people will persecute you for doing the right thing? You do not think that you will be persecuted for hanging out with the needy?

But, it did not matter to him. As soon as he was released from jail, he went back and did the exact same thing in that same park because we are the people of Jesus Christ. We are a people who heal and bless. So, he went right back and blessed the poor with his presence. He went right back and healed the hungry with food. And, I guarantee that Jesus was already in that park doing the same thing. That pastor was just following whatever Jesus was doing; healing and blessing, healing and blessing, healing and blessing over and over again.

We are a people who heal and bless, because we are a people who live on the level places. We live on Jesus’ flat plain of equality for all God’s children. We live on Jesus’ flat plain of equity (or equal opportunity) for all God’s children. We live on Jesus’ plain where those who suffer and those who love are in the same spot. We live on Jesus plain where we gather “with” others. We do not gather over them. We do not gather apart from them. We are right where Jesus is, “with” the poor and the broken.

Quite frankly, we are there "with" them because we are one of them. We too are poor and broken. We too need Jesus’ forgiveness and healing. We have already lived on the plain for a long time. Any notions we might have had of mountain living were facades in the first place. We too require the love, care, and forgiveness of Jesus’ cross, where Jesus died for a world in need.

We live on Jesus’ level plain, and as followers of Jesus, as disciples of Christ on that level plain, we heal and we bless.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Reflection on Luke 5:1-11

So many times when we talk about discipleship (when we talk about following Jesus) we talk a lot about what we do. What I mean to point out is that the focus is on us and how we need to be more Christ-like, and how we need to sharpen up our kingdom skills.

But, in all of our talk about discipleship, I would like to take just a moment…even an entire sermon…to talk about what I love about Jesus. Actually, I will talk about what I love about Jesus in just this short little story from Luke about fishing.

I love that while Jesus is teaching by the sea, his words are so engaging that he is literally running out of space to stand on the lake shore. I love that image because God's Word is like that to me; it is something that excites me and sucks me in. I always want to know more and explore more when engaging with God's Word. Every Bible story is so rich, so I press in to hear more and more and more. Sorry, Jesus, if I have even pushed you into the sea, but I love your scriptures.

I also love Jesus’ solution to the problem of losing ground. He looks around, sees Simon Peter’s boat, and just decides to get in and use it so that he can continue teaching. I like the brashness of that action because it is what God does all the time.

God does not ask our permission to enter into our lives. Jesus does not ask our permission to die for us. Jesus does not ask our permission to use us in amazing and graceful ways. No, he just gets into our boat and starts using it. He just jumps into our lives and just assumes that we are good enough vessels for his use.

You are good enough for Jesus. I love that.

I also love that Jesus just does not care at all about how much we have failed. Jesus tells Simon Peter to set out in his boat and put down the nets after he and his crew failed to catch anything all night.

"Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing,” Peter responds.

But, Jesus does not care. He does not let things like an entire night’s worth of effort, resulting in failure, get in the way. Jesus simply instructs Simon Peter to get back into the boat and put the nets down into the waters.

We get caught up in our failures. We get stuck in the disappointments. We get mired in the struggles. We complain about how we tried and tried and we failed each time. It is "we" who care about all of that failure, but it does not even register on Jesus’ radar. I like that my failures do not hold Jesus back in any way.

I also love Peter’s response. It is incredible actually if you consider what is happening in the story. I love that despite having just cleaned up his nets after a hard night’s work for no reward, he just gets into the boat and lowers those freshly cleaned nets back into the sea when all he probably wants is to just go home, eat some food, relax with his wife, and sleep part of the day away.

I love that he is just willing to trust Jesus, even though he’s beyond tired. And, I love that Jesus decides to use a tired out guy like Peter. Again, our own internal state of affairs…our own current emotional state…our own level of tiredness has no bearing on Jesus’ impression of us as someone who he can use for great things.

After-all, in just moments Peter will be pulling up a net so full of fish that he cannot even get it into the boat. And, that leads me to another thing that I love about Jesus: Jesus makes sure there is another boat around to help us.

This thing that we call faith is not a solo endeavor. It is not up to me to be great. It is not up to me to have all the strength. It is not up to me alone to be the hands and feet of Jesus and save the entire world. There is another boat that comes over and helps pull up the bounty that God has provided.

And, what I really, really love about this story is the very next part. I love Jesus’ response to Peter. You see, after the bountiful load of fish are pulled out of the water, Peter falls down at Jesus’ feet and says over and over again, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"

Peter does not feel worthy to receive such grace from God. Peter does not feel in any way, shape, or form that he is an appropriate choice for such a gift. He knows who he is. He knows all that he has done. He is a rotten fish in a sea of clean, fresh water.

Yet, Jesus’ response is not, “It’s OK Peter, you are forgiven. Try harder next time.” Instead, Jesus’ response to Peter is, “Do not be afraid…”

“Do not be afraid.” I love that phrase. It is the resoundingly prevalent message of the entire gospel of Luke. The angels come to both Mary and the shepherds with the words, “Do not be afraid.” Over and over again the people of God are reminded to not be afraid.

Do not be afraid of your past. Do not let the sins of the past hold you up. Do not be afraid.

Do not be afraid of how people have characterized you in the past or tried to put your round body into a square hole. Do not let what others have said about you, “You are too fat,” “You are too stupid,” “You are too old,” “Your are too young,” “You are too caring,” “You are too stubborn,” “You are too…whatever!” You fill in the blank. None of that past matters. Do not be afraid.

You are good enough. You are God’s child, a brother or sister of Jesus, and you are good enough to hear these words: "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people."

You are good enough to be given a purpose from God.

Do not be afraid, God has chosen you. Yes, even you. Do not be afraid.

And, I love that Jesus' encounter with the fishermen causes them to simply drop their things and follow him. They just let it all go. Like Jesus, they just let the past go. Like Jesus, they just let the fear go. Like Jesus, they just let their tiredness go. Like Jesus, they just let their sinfulness go. They just let it all go and they follow.

That causes me to wonder: what is it that you need to let go?

What is it that holds you back from Jesus’ call?

What is it that stubbornly gets in the way of you being who God created you to be?

Jesus says to you today, “Do not be afraid.” Go ahead, let go of whatever holds you back. Leave it for good and follow your Savior.

You know what else I love? I love that that we can actually just let go and follow Jesus. That is absolutely lovely.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Reflection on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

It all started with a tree stump right on the property line. For years the apple tree marked the line between the two neighbor’s property, making it easy to know whose lawn was whose. However, one tragic winter ice storm brought down the apple tree and all that was left was the stump.

Most reasonable people would have just left the stump, a further indication of the property line, but these neighbors were far from reasonable. An argument that lasted for months ensued about who should pay for the stump’s removal. It got ugly. It got very ugly.

Then one of the neighbors bumped into the other neighbor’s pastor in the grocery store, and told their side of the story.

“You cannot believe the things that they say to me in the morning, terrible things, things that I cannot repeat in your presence pastor, all because of a tree stump! They were the ones who took the apples over the years. I was the one who had to pay for the tree’s cleanup because it fell in my yard. The least they can do is take care of it,” the neighbor pleaded.

The pastor replied simply, “I’ll take care of it. Don’t you worry.”

And, that was it. That was the end.

The next week, the stump was gone and the once hostile neighbors flung smiles rather than insults across the property line. It all seemed like things were completely right in the world.

Except, not to be too picky about good things happening, the smiles seemed to be a little more 1950s sitcom neighborly smiles rather than reflecting the smile of Jesus.

Eventually, the entire story came out. The neighbor's pastor reminded the couple that Jesus gave his life for them; the least they could do was take up a stump for their neighbor. That was not bad pastoral counsel. It was the next part to which I took exception when the story came my way. The pastor then told the couple, “And, if you don’t do this and be Christ to your neighbor, you can no longer be a part of this church.”

It got the job a way. The tree stump was removed. However, I’m not certain that the deep rooted hatred was ripped out with it. It seems to me, rather, that the hatred was hastily painted with an eternal smile. Joy without the love.

I was approached about this border dispute in the manner of gossip; the way we find out about most things. I have to admit that I was disappointed in the gossiper (beyond the act of gossiping which was bad enough). I was disappointed because week after week we preach about love and grace, but what this person saw in this situation as admirable was how tough and unrelenting the pastor decided to be.

“Now that is how the church should be…standing up for what is right and being brave enough to provide a stiff consequence whenever someone is in the wrong.”

To be certain, reproach is most certainly one aspect of ministry. Jesus reproaches the self-righteous throughout the gospels constantly all while lifting up the sinner with love.

Paul certainly is not shy about pointing out the problems in his communities so that they may turn to a more godly way.

It was not the reproach that was disappointing, it was the threat. Love based in fear is not love.

Love is patient with the sinner.

Love is kind to the sinner.

Love is not boastful and does not insist on its own way.

Love does not make ultimatums, rather love dies for the sake of another.

As great as reproach may be, love is a still more excellent way.

As powerful as the prophet may be to a person who needs to see the truth, if they have no love, they are nothing.

As faithful as a person may be to the ideals of Jesus Christ, if they do not have love they are nothing but a paper cutout of a Christian.

Love “does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (NRSV, 1 Cor. 13:5-7).

I was disappointed in the gossiper because they held up reproach and insistence and coercion as the ideal of faith when the scriptures are clear that love is the highest anyone can strive for in the life of faith.

It was love that was raised up high on the cross. It was love that died for a world of sin. It was love that said to the criminal, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” It is Jesus’ love that even today we hang on our walls and wear around our necks. It Jesus’ love that we hold close to our hearts. It is love binds us to God. Heavenly love is the object that Christians desire.

Love is the greatest gift. Paul wants us to realize that all of the other gifts that God has given you serve the purpose of love, not the other way around.

There was a time when Paul did not believe this. There was a time when Paul was named Saul, and he oversaw the slaughter of those who did not profess the faith the way he saw fit. There was a time when he saw wrong as right and upheld torture as goodness. But, Paul says that during that time in his life he was but a child. “I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (NRSV, 1 Cor. 13:11).

We do not sing:
“They will know we are Christians
by our unwavering political and social stances,
social stances.
They will know we are Christians
by our unwavering political and social stances.”

Of course not. We sing:

“They will know we are Christians
by our love,
by our love.
They will know we are Christians by our love.”

Are you stuck in the faith? Have you lost a sense of what the life of faith is all about?

It is OK to be stuck in the faith, by the way. It happens. It happens all the time.

But, Paul would like to remind you that if you have somehow become lost in the faith, you most certainly will be found again through love.

Jesus loves you to the end, and when that love of Jesus starts to shine through you, you will know with certainty that you have found your home in Christ.