Sunday, March 24, 2019

Reflection on Luke 13:1-9

God is a God of second chances.

I just want to get that out there right away. Jesus is the type of Lord who forgives and lets you try again.

Jesus is the hired gardener who asks the upset fig tree owner if he can have the chance to nourish a failing fig tree for another year to see if it will grow and bear fruit. “The tree just needs some manure and attention,” Jesus says concerning our own growth and our own future.

It is as if Jesus believes that second chances are inherent to the way that God works. It is as if Jesus believes that resurrection can happen after the deadly consequence of a cross. It is as if Jesus does not desire to throw anyone away.

God is a God of second chances.

I just wanted to get that message out there right away because I am not sure that we are always on board with Jesus on that message of second chances.

For example, there was a fatal shooting in the news recently. It was a terrible situation. It should not have happened, but it did. Initially, people’s hearts poured out for the victim of the shooting. Questions of how this could happen swirled in the air (Why did God allow this to happen?), and people wrote notes of sympathy to the bewildered parents of this fallen individual. That is, until it was reported that the victim had a past containing drug use.

Amazingly, this one simple fact from the person’s past changed the entire story for many people. As if that one fact was all anyone needed to know, the story went from a story of tragic confusion, to one of simple clarity. Why did this bad thing happen? Well, it happened because the person was a druggie. In other words, why did this bad thing happen? Because they deserved it.

Please note that in the news story there was no correlation between the shooting and the drug use. It is not like the person was shot because of a drug transaction gone wrong.

It was like saying, “Why did Pastor Jira have to die from being shot is such a tragic way?”

“Well, you know that he did gain 20 pounds from eating Reese Peanut Butter Cups.”

“Oh, well, that explains a lot.”

No, no it does not! It does not explain anything. Just because I have a weakness in the chocolate and peanut butter universe does not mean that I deserve to get shot. Eating too much chocolate does not necessarily mean that I deserve a death sentence and having a drug problem (current or in the past) does not necessarily mean that someone deserves to be shot in the street.

What ever happened to second chances? What even happened to the nutrient rich manure and the caring for the failing fig tree? Why does everyone assume that when bad things happen to the tree it must mean that the tree needs to be cut down by the gardener? What if the tree was cut down by a greedy lumberjack before the gardener even had a chance to haul the manure over to the tree?

Sorry to all the lumberjacks out there. I am sure that not all lumberjacks are greedy; I am sure that there are probably some good ones out there too.

Do you see what I mean? For some reason it is easy to condemn people and forget that God is a God of second chances.

But, “what about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Jesus answered quite unequivocally, “No.”

But, what about “those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” “No,” Jesus answered.

“No, they were not worse. They did not deserve these terrible tragedies any more than anyone else. No.”

Sometimes we do it to ourselves. Toward the end of her once healthy and extremely active life, she became ill.

Before the question was even asked, I thought to myself, “This right here is, unfortunately, what happens when we get old. Like used cars, our body parts start to shut down. Can you drive without a heater? Yes, you can, but it won’t be a great ride in the winter. Well, the same thing is true for our bodies when we get old.”

Even with the obvious truth of old age in the room, as she lay in her hospital bed considering her condition, she asked me, “Why is this happening to me? What does God mean by this? What did I do to deserve all of this?”

For some reason she assumed that she somehow, in some way, deserved her condition. She forgot that God does not work that way. She forgot that God is a God of second chances and new life.

I do have to tell you, on my next visit to her hospital room she was in a much better place mentally. She was happy and was looking forward to the next days in life.

“What happened?” I asked. “I’m glad your spirits are looking up, but what caused the turn around?”

“You see pastor. I was laying here asking ‘Why God, why?’ And, then out of nowhere I heard my name. I was like Mary hearing her name in the garden. I heard my name, but no one was in the room. I heard my name and I knew that God still cares.”

“I heard my name and I knew that God still cares.” Of course, God still cares. God is a God of second chances. God is a God who would rather see you grow and flourish rather than simply cutting you down.

This woman remembered when Mary, the friend of Jesus, was distraught in the garden where he was buried. She did not know what happened to Jesus’ body. She did not understand why these terrible things were taking place.

Now, understand that God did not show up and explain the nature of suffering to her. God did not come and give a three point lecture explaining the reasons that these terrible things took place. But, Jesus did show up and say her name. “Mary.” Jesus had not forgotten his friend. Her confusion in the garden was not the end of the story.

God is a God of second chances.

And, God did not forget the woman in the hospital bed either. Jesus called her name, Jesus enriched her soil, and because of that care, she saw her life in a new way, even though it was actually not too different.

When Jesus addresses the tragic tower that fell and crushed people to death, and tells those listening that the tower did not fall in some sort of divine retribution, Jesus continues with the words, “But unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."

I actually do not hear those words as words of threat, though it is easy to hear them that way. Rather, I hear those words as words of invitation.

“You have a second chance! You do not have to be the victim of your circumstances. You have a second chance! You can live, and live well! You can live with God. You do not have to let your tragedies define you!”

No, you do not have to let your tragedies define you. Your past drug use does not define you. Your past Reese Peanut Butter Cup obsession does not define you. The bad things that happen to you do not define you. Rather God’s grace defines you.

God does not wish the worst for you. It is quite the opposite. God desires that you live a life free to follow Jesus. God desires that you live a true life; a life embedded in love and grace; a life that does not focus of death; a life that believes in second chances; a life that believes in the goodness of the Lord.

God is a God of second chances, and you brothers and sisters are people found in that grace.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Reflection on Luke 13:31-35

You might not have realized that there was a Jane Franklin. Of course, you have heard of her brother, Benjamin Franklin. The well traveled, well respected political dignitary of the early United States, who dabbled in inventing (including inventing bifocals) had a sister who was not as well traveled. In fact, her only travels were those that she imagined as she read her famous brother’s letters. She read about his trips to France and about all of the political shaping of our early nation while she took care of her 12 children, tended to a husband who could not hold down a job, and eventually took care of her parents. She was everything that Benjamin Franklin was not.

Benjamin Franklin writes in “A Private Life,” his autobiography, much about how he was able to go from rags to riches, much in the same way that our young nation did. Benjamin Franklin made himself out to be a self-made man, who poured himself into his work so that he might improve his standing in life. “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” was Benjamin’s motto.

But, Benjamin never quite realized that his own success was built upon the neglect of others. Though he loved her dearly, someone was not in the pages of Benjamin’s autobiography: Jane.

Jane was the one who stuck around and did the best for her family that she could. Jane was the one who cared for their parents, though she was poor. Her story was a story of rags to rags, but nowhere in her story did she forget or neglect those around her.

Benjamin Franklin set his mind to be a great businessman and a great statesman, and he certainly accomplished those goals. But, in his ambition, he forgot those around him, seemingly, even his own parents. His accomplishments were not only built on hard work, but also neglect of important work.

Jane probably did not reach any of her major goals in life, if she even had any major goals to begin with, but she never forgot to love and offer her life as a sacrifice for those near her.

Though there seems to be little space between the options of loving others and reaching your goals in the story of Jane and Benjamin Franklin, Jesus somehow navigates both for the sake of the world.

The goal for Jesus, of course, is Jerusalem. It is there that he will enter in glory and leave carrying a cross. It is there, on that cross where Jesus will spread his arms wide open and gather the entire world, as a hen gathers her chicks protectively under her wings. It is there that the salvation of the entire world will be proclaimed through his death and resurrection. It is toward Jerusalem where Jesus’ entire life points.

Jesus’ eyes are, indeed, set toward Jerusalem, yet they do not miss seeing people along his path.

There is a man with dropsy, or as we know it: edema. He has fluid excruciatingly gathering in his body, but Jesus does not pass him by. He is healed along the way to Jerusalem.

He takes the time to sit with sinners and eat with them. The lost will be found, he will not pass them by on his way to Jerusalem.

On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus teaches those around him about forgiveness and the importance of showing mercy.

Further down the road he heals 10 lepers; the kingdom of God becoming more real with every step.

He even takes the time to stop all of his healing and teaching in order to bless the little children that were brought to him.

The poor are given good news and the blind receive their sight all along the way to Jerusalem.

In every way, Jesus is the good Samaritan, on the road to somewhere but not forgetting the beaten and bloody along the way.

You can have both. You can reach toward a goal and reach toward those who need you. It is not one or the other.

You cannot believe how important this message is to a world and nation that is so divided. I know of families that have been divided because they have set their sights on political ideals, but in doing so have forgotten to love and care for one another.

I know of individuals who strive to be the best self that they can be, but forget to bring their own children along of the ride.

I know of churches who seek to grow and grow, yet are willing to cut away anyone who does not yet understand the path.

None of this happens with Jesus. Jesus sets his sight on his goal, and is still caring toward those on the path toward his goal. Maybe, that is because, for Jesus, the two are one and the same. His goal in Jerusalem is the forgiveness and salvation of the world. And so, he spreads forgiveness and salvation to all those he encounters along his way.

Jane was not a self-made woman. She did not set out to make a name for herself. But, maybe that was not her goal. Maybe, her goal did not consist of working hard so that she might be rich and famous.

Maybe, her goal was loving those around her who needed loving. Maybe, her goal was caring for those around her who God had given into her care. Maybe, Jane did achieve her goal; it just was not the grand goal of shaping a nation's history. Maybe, instead of following the path to stardom, Jane followed Jesus along the path of mercy and forgiveness.

In a world full of self-made role models, I would like to suggest one that is a little different: Jesus Christ. He is the one who seeks to gather chicks together rather than scatter. He is the one who heals rather than cuts away. He is the one who sits and eats with the sinner rather than chastising and dismissing. He is the one who forgives from the cross rather than condemning the ones who put him there. Jesus Christ is the one who chooses to save rather than condemn.

Jesus Christ is our model and our goal. Jesus is our Lord and our Savior. As the citizens and saints of God's kingdom we will follow Jesus.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Reflection on Luke 4:1-13

They were secret tests that I gave to anyone with whom I had a date. They were not quizzes or tasks that needed completion. Rather, both tests required only observation.

The first test consisted of this: when my date and I were in a restaurant, I would simply take note if my date would smile at children or not. Would they smile at the baby trying to make faces, or would they ignore them as background noise?

The second test was similar: when eating, I would take note if my date smiled at the wait staff or not.

Of course, I knew that my date would be focused on me. That was a given. (I do not intend that to be as incredibly self-absorbed as it sounds.) What I did not know is if my date was self-absorbed. Were they selfish? Did they notice or care about others?

Caring about others was important to me as I considered the people that I wanted to spend a great deal of time around; therefore, I implemented the child and wait staff test. It was a test that got right to the question of the person’s identity. Just who do they think they are? Are they compassionate and empathetic.

Just so you know, my wife, Randele, passed with flying colors.

So too, the tests from Satan are tests of Jesus’ identity. Does he care about God or himself? What values might he be willing to abandon to get what he wants? How will he use his divine power? Did God choose well in sending Jesus?

And so, during Jesus’ 40 days of fasting, when he was filled with the Spirit yet was at his weakest and most vulnerable physically, Satan approached Jesus with some temptations. It was a test.

"Since you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread," Satan tempts.

Will Jesus trust in God’s provision, or will he provide for himself?

I want you to note just how insidious this temptation is. Jesus is tempted with a value that many people hold very high: self-accomplishment. "Help yourself." "You want it to happen? Make it happen!" He could do it after-all; make the stone a loaf of bread. And, if you throw in a little of the “but you actually need this to survive” into the temptation, it is a very compelling temptation indeed.

But, Jesus knows that it is God who provides. It is God who gives life. Bread feeds for a few hours, God provides for life, and beyond. “One does not live by bread alone,” Jesus answers. Jesus knows who he is and whose he is. He will not be so easily shaken.

But, what if you could shape the world? What if you had been given the power to feed all the hungry, seek justice for those who have been trampled, and heal all the wounded? What would you trade in life so that those things might be accomplished in the world? How about just accomplished your own town? What if a mob boss said that you could control the entire town and do all the good that you wanted with unlimited funds as long as you trusted him to provide your protection. Is it a deal?

When Jesus is presented with power over the world, Jesus answers Satan, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

Again, Jesus identity is rooted in God. He puts his treasure and trust in heaven…in God. Therefore, that is where his heart remains. Jesus will not be swayed.

But, what if everyone could see what Jesus knew to be true? He is God’s Son. Would not his mission to bring good news to the poor and to free the captive be that much easier?

So, Satan brings Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem and tempts Jesus to jump off. After-all, God promises in Psalm 91 that God’s people will be protected and that God’s angels will “guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”

What a spectacular sight that would be to the people gathered there: Jesus jumping in faith and angels coming to his rescue. What an incredible sign of divine favor upon Jesus, especially in the eyes of the temple elite, if God’s angels swooped in to save him from his fall.

But, that dream of an easy ministry and an easy life without pain and strife does not come to pass. Instead, when Jesus is raised up high, it is on a cross. Those same leaders that might have been impressed by such a temple feat, scoff at Jesus saying, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is God’s Son.” Jesus does not succumb to this last minute temptation of saving himself from the cross either, because he knows who he is and whose he is.

Jesus will not let anyone tempt him away from who he is and what he cares about. Jesus is true to God, Jesus is true to God’s plan for him, and Jesus is true to us. Though he could have, though he was tempted to, Jesus does not escape his death on the cross. His love of us was greater than his love for himself. His desire that we have hope that sin and death can be overcome was greater than anything else. Jesus would have passed my restaurant test with flying colors.

Satan did not have to use these temptations, of course: bread, power, and public recognition mingled with safety. Satan could have tempted with beauty, wealth, and security. Satan could have deluged Jesus with ads on television that tried to convince that him was not good enough, secure enough, smart enough, or handsome enough…that he needs to be more than God created him to be…that he needs to trust in skin cream rather than God, or that he needs to trust in a politician rather than the almighty.

But, Jesus is good enough, and smart enough, and looks just as God created him to look; handsome or not. Jesus does not fall for it and Satan walks away. Jesus knows who he is and whose he is. Jesus is God’s Son, the beloved. He does not forget that fact.

Sometimes we do. Sometimes we forget that we are good enough. God did create us and call us good after-all, we just forget. That is why we keep coming to church, I think, because, we need to be reminded every week that we are God’s people. We are the people who Jesus chose to redeem. We are the people who are loved by God no matter what. We are the people who have been saved by Grace, oh “how sweet the sound.” We are the people who have been given a mission of love and healing and freeing those who are bound up. We are a people who have a purpose given to us by God. We are God’s people.

As God's people, we come to church so that we do not forget under the barrage of messages that tempt us away from God and tempt us to trust something or someone else.

We come to be reminded of the waters splashed on our bodies…the waters of baptism that claim us and hold us in God’s love forever. We come so that we might remind each other to put our trust in the one who saved us, Jesus Christ our Lord.

You are enough. You are a child of God. Trust that. Temptation need not make you think otherwise. Trust in God.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Reflection on Luke 9:28-43

The vision is meant for you.

Well, actually it was meant for Peter, John, and James, but since, at some point, they opened up about what they saw on the mountain that day with Jesus; the vision is meant for you.

There is a reason that Jesus wants you to see his Godliness underneath the clothing of everyday life. There is a reason that Jesus wants you to overhear him speaking with Moses and Elijah about his impending exodus from the world. There is a reason that God demands you to “Listen to him.”

The vision is meant for you. But, what does it mean?

Peter does not know what it means. If you are confused, you are in good company. Peter, Jesus’ right hand man, the one who declares that Jesus is the Messiah, and the one who should understand all things is, in the end, befuddled by all of Jesus' shiny glory on the mountain that day.

That is why he offers to pitch some tents for everyone; a practice of the Israelite people from the Festival of Booths where they reside in temporary tents waiting for answers from God.

Peter needs some more answers. He needs a clearer direction. He needs God to be a little more direct in what all this means.

Sound familiar? Have you ever needed more answers? Have the answers you have gotten from God only brought more questions? Have you ever been confused by Jesus’ purpose for your life? Has Jesus ever performed the miraculous, but you do not know why?

I cannot tell you the amount of times that I have sat by the hospital beds of people who have been brought back from the point of death only to admit: “It obviously was not my time. Jesus needed me around a little longer, but I have no idea why.” Welcome to Peter’s world.

You may not understand the reason, but the vision is for you.

Maybe we are seeking the profound when we really should be seeking the simple. Maybe we expect the truly great, when what is actually being revealed to us is rather ordinary. What I mean to say is that sometimes we are so wrapped up in the mysteries of Jesus’ glory…in his shiny Godliness…that we do not see him in the plain clothes right in front of us.

Let us take a look at what Jesus did immediately after the vision. Jesus came down the mountain and set a child free from a terrible spirit that had completely overtaken the child. The child convulsed on the ground, unable to get up, unable to be the good son that his father desired, and simply unable to live. The boy was imprisoned, and Jesus set him free.

Jesus could have just sat on the mountain in all his glory. He could have just lived on the lofty heights as the Son of God, basking in that divine greatness. Yet, Jesus covers up his glory once again in some ordinary clothes so that he might come down off of the mountain and set a child free. Jesus is not a savior who desires glory. Jesus is a savior who desires exodus.

Exodus is the movement from a place of slavery and imprisonment, through the dangerous waters of the red sea, to a place of freedom.

Jesus is a savior who desires exodus.

Think about it; Jesus will soon in the story overcome death on a cross. He will overcome the permanence of the tomb. He will set himself free from the ultimate in imprisonment: death and burial.

Jesus is a savior who desires exodus!

Exodus is precisely what he is talking about with Moses and Elijah on the mountain that day. Exodus is what Jesus' mission is all about. And, if we are commanded by God to listen to Jesus, which we are, then maybe what we are to take away from this mountaintop experience is that we are a people of exodus. We are a people who seek to follow Jesus, setting people free from all that binds.

This vision of exodus is for you. This mission of following Jesus and setting people free is for you to hear today.

This vision of exodus was precisely what the recently empty-nested mother heard from Jesus when she first encountered the young woman in her 20s. The young woman was in an obviously controlling and abusive relationship. Sightings of the couple having loud and aggressive parking lot disputes was not uncommon in the small town. Often the young woman’s significant other would be seen, with arms wrapped around her, literally trying to control through force and anger where she went and what she did. The tomb-like nature of the situation was so obvious to all those around, yet no one knew what to do.

The empty-nested mother saw Jesus' vision for the situation though. She saw that this young woman could be free; free to live a life without all of the abuse; free to live a life of growth; and free to live a life where there is love instead of control.

The empty-nested mother looked around her home and saw two empty rooms. They were rooms of grief. The sadness of her two children moving on in life was still raw. Do not misunderstand, their family was a happy, loving family. There was nothing wrong. The children grew up happy and then moved away as should have happened.

Perhaps, the joy of raising her family made the kid's growing up even more painful for the mother.

However, in those grief filled rooms the empty-nested mother saw the potential for new life. She saw rooms of freedom. She saw at least one room that could be the new home of a woman trapped in life.

The next day, the empty-nested mother offered a room, and some motherly love, to the young woman in the abusive relationship. Within two hours the young woman was moved in and being served her first slice of warm, homemade banana bread.

The young woman was on the path to freedom, and it was all due to the empty-nested mother who saw the vision of Jesus and listened to his voice. She followed him down the mountain and understood the freedom that is found in his name. In scripture, she saw her savior setting free the young boy and in the story found a purpose for life even after her role of mother was over. She decided to follow Jesus and be a person of the exodus.

Jesus is a savior who desires exodus, and we listen to him. Ever found yourself searching for purpose? You have found your answer. You are a follower of Jesus and a person of the exodus. The vision was meant for you.