Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Devotion - Wednesday, September 30

Scripture speaks of being in the world but not of the world.  I Corinthians, Chapter 2 uses the language of having received the spirit that is from God, rather than the spirit of the world.  What are such verses saying to us and the way we live our lives?

Certainly not to avoid the world.  I do not mean to slam those who chose to seclude themselves off in a cave; such a radical monasticism is for the very, very few.  Probably not for you or me.  Christ left behind the heavens in order to enter the world and it seems very clear that his hope is for us to remain active in the world.  We are never to avoid the world.

But we are not to allow the world's values to overshadow or dismiss the things which Christ came to make known.  The world would discourage us to think of others first.  The world would attempt to teach us to fear and even hate those who are different.  The world would question the decision to give our cloak and even our shirt to someone who asks for such aid.

The world could be understood to be all those messages we constantly hear about beating our competitors (seeing everyone else as a competitor), messages of seeking personal satisfaction above all else, messages which condone our discrimination against particular social or racial groups.

The world has a very well established system for driving these messages home and shaming those who will not fall in line.

We need, as followers of Christ, to make sure we are hearing other messages.  We need, as followers of Christ, to talk regularly and honestly about the life to which Christ calls us.  We need to surround ourselves with reminders of the spirit of God - which calls us to a new life, an eternal life, a life well lived.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Devotion - Tuesday, September 29

In Matthew 4:17 we learn that Jesus begins to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"

To "repent" is to turn our lives around.  To repent is to acknowledge the actions in our lives which may not be pleasing to God - and change them.  To repent is to follow more nearly the way of Jesus.

We would want to "repent," knowing that the kingdom is at hand.

But is that the only reason to repent?  Do we examine our lives and make the necessary changes only when we think the crucial visit is about to occur?

I remembered the sticker given to me some fifteen years ago which read, "Jesus is coming:  Look busy!"  Do we pretend or deceive or give the illusion of a repentance?  When in fact we are perfectly content with the way we are living our lives.

We cannot fool Jesus.  Our attempts to look busy will not mask a life devoted to the pursuits of worldly aims and objectives.  

The call to repent is constant and continuous.  Every day and every moment we are to look at the steps we are talking and evaluate whether they are moving us toward the kingdom or away from it.  The kingdom is at hand when we live in the reality of that kingdom and serve its objectives.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Devotion - Monday, September 28

Things have a way of lining up.  Our Tuesday night bible study is four chapters into I Corinthians, and today the Daily Lectionary has us starting I Corinthians.

The concern of the opening chapter of I Corinthians aligns perfectly with the Gospel lesson from yesterday (Mark 9) in its address of the heartbreak of divisions among God's people.  (I post my sermons and these devotions at

Particularly during the college years, a faithful follower of Jesus ought to experience a variety of expressions of Christian Community.  It is affirming when you chose to be a regular and active participate in LCM, but the availability of other campus ministry groups is an opportunity too valuable to miss.  Discern where God is calling you and in which ministry group you are able to hear the Word of God.

Paul's concern for the folks in Corinth is that some claimed Paul, others Apollos.   Paul reminds them they all belong to Christ.

There are theological differences between the various expressions of Christian community.  For the sake of clarifying our own faith stance, it is helpful to study and acknowledge these fine lines.  But nothing should ever lead to our denying the presence of Christ in those ministries or among those who assemble in other houses of prayer.

Sermon - Pentecost 18, Year B

18th Sunday after Pentecost  
Mark 9:38-50, Numbers 11:24-29 

No Territory Battles Allowed

This section of Mark’s Gospel might be sub-titled, “How many ways can you get it wrong?”  There is a good portion of additional material in these chapters, but a quick look back with over the past two weeks reveals how many times and how many ways Jesus’ followers have gotten it “wrong”.  Two weeks ago it was the confession of Peter.  A wonderful exchange.  But remember what happens immediately after Peter’s strong statement of faith.  He rejects Jesus’ insistence that Messiahship means crucifixion.  Remember Jesus telling Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”?

Last week, we had the argument among the disciples as to which of them was the greatest.  Jesus takes the little child, places the child in their midst, and tells them that if they want to approach true greatness they should be like this child.

Today, the disciples get into a territorial dispute.  They want to claim exclusive right to speaking for Jesus and in Jesus’ name.  Again, Jesus rebukes them, “Do not stop (the person casting out demons in my name);  for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us.”

How many ways can you get it wrong?  I don’t know.  There seems to be endless opportunities.

One thing I do know, we (God’s children) are nowhere near being done with our disputes over who is it that has the right to claim to speak God’s Word.  Nowhere near.  Not now, for sure.

It seems to be an age-old problem.  The readings from the Old Testament are selected as support for the Gospel reading.  The issue facing Jesus in Mark 9 was faced by Moses in Numbers 11.  Someone thought that somebody else was outstripping their pay-grade and doing something they were not supposed to do.  Eldad and Medad had not gone out to the tent meeting where the spirit had come to rest upon the selected seventy.  And yet, Eldad and Medad are in the camp, prophesying.  Moses is notified, with the expectation that he would call a halt to their actions.  Moses’ response is almost identical to Jesus:  “Are you jealous for my sake?  Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets.” 

Moses is not concerned that these two weren’t members of the selected seventy.  Jesus does not worry that the person casting out demons in his name has taken a somewhat different path than John and the twelve apostles.  “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me,” he tells his most faithful followers.

How many ways can they get it wrong?  The opportunities seem endless.

Of course, “getting it wrong” is what the debate is all about.  We would want to silence those who “get it wrong,” so that their testimony would not conflict with our own and confuse those whom we would prefer to be influenced by our concept of what it “right.”

“Getting it wrong” is the first step in heresy; and heresy results in death when the Church has the civil authority to carry out it’s decrees.

How are we to reconcile the danger of heresy as it stands over and against the nonchalant attitude of Jesus when he tells his disciples, “those who are not against us are for us?” 

The Congregational Council has a lot on its plate these days, but this past Thursday we engaged in the very important task of visiting with those about to present themselves for Confirmation.  Logan, Connor, and Garrett sat with the Council, and responded to a few of our questions.  Then, they asked us some questions.  One of those questions was about how we evaluate differences between seemingly conflicting interpretations of Jesus’ words.  I want to be careful using the word “seemingly,” because what may seem to be a difference to some is obviously a difference to others.  And the question had a lot of weight too.  It was centered on the question of who goes to heaven and who does not.

How do we settle such differences?  What do we do when we hear various prophets/preachers/theologians/Christians speaking – and their responses differ? 
It would seem prudent to respond in the way outlined by one Christian Pastor.  His call, for the church of this generation, is to respond with a generous orthodoxy.  We are never to stop asking questions regarding the minute details of our faith; but this does not mean that we get trapped in our own answers and fail to see the value and benefit of how others have answered the question.

We have more important battles to fight than those which seem to divide denominations.  The Church is under attack in that region of the world where Christianity took form.  Are we to ignore the pleas for help, because they come from Orthodox Christians rather than Lutherans? 

Most of us have watched news coverage of the U.S. visit of Pope Francis.  He has had many things to say, to American culture and American values.  Are we to dismiss these, because we are not Roman Catholics?

There will continue to be an endless number of ways in which we can get it wrong.  Let us stop pointing what is wrong in the messages of others and speak instead of what is right.

Jesus tells his closest followers, “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.”   It is clearly time for us to set aside our theological litmus tests and join with one another in serving those whom God came to save.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Devotion - Thursday, September 24

There is a heresy of the Christian Church known by the name of Arianism.  It started with a man named Arius who insisted that Christ was the Son of God, but that Christ was distinct from the God of the Old Testament.

We too often hear vestiges of Arianism in modern day talk.  Folks will make reference to "the God of the Old Testament" as one who was vengeful and cruel; while speaking of "the God of Jesus" as gracious and merciful.  

I am not writing of this in order to threaten you with excommunication for committing the hearsay of Arianism, rather to encourage you to trust the wisdom of the ancient Church in insisting that Jesus is the embodiment of the promises lifted up in the history and religious writings of Israel.  

While our Sunday readings are taken from Mark, the daily cycle of readings has us reading from Matthew.  This morning I read Matthew 2:13-23.  There are numerous references to Old Testament passages in these eleven verses.  There will be many more in the following chapters.  Maybe Matthew had already heard questions about the relationship between the God to whom Jesus witnesses and the God of which the prophets spoke. He certainly illustrates for us the ways in which those ancient writings speak of the current outpouring of God's desire to be among us and to receive us.

There is no break between the Testaments.  There are differing understandings of what must happen before Messiah can be said to have arrived.  Regardless, it is the same God who is glorified.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Devotion - Wednesday, September 23

Welcome to the first day of Fall!  As you mark this date in your heart, you might also note that this is also Yom Kippur (for our Jewish friends) and Eid al Adha (in the Islamic community.)  Jewish and Islamic "days" begin at sundown, so Yom Kippur and Eid will be over when the sun goes down today.  Our "First Day of Fall" will continue till midnight.

This also means that Yom Kippur and Eid had begun by the time we gathered last evening for our Tuesday Night Bible Study.  While our text for the evening was I Corinthians, the discussion which proved to be the most moving was our talk regarding God's attitude toward those of other faith traditions.

This is also an issue in current political debates, so I want to tread lightly and not seem partisan.

There is a wide range of responses to the question of how God views others.  And this short devotion will not settle the question, nor will it allow for sufficient sensitivity to the views of others.  But the coincidence of the calendar and last night's discussion compels me to encourage those of you with a wider understanding of God's family.  While some will condemn Jews or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists, that is not the position taken by the denomination of which I am a member (and many of you as well.)  Our deep, deep appreciation of God's grace makes it impossible for us to consider anyone as a non-recipient of God's gifts.

If you are of a mindset to do so, risk extending greetings to others on this Feast Day.  Ask a Jewish or Islamic classmate to tell you more about Yom Kippur or Eid al Adha (if you just say "Eid" they will know what you mean.)  Pray for all God's children, regardless of our religious tradition, that we might model the love, forgiveness, understanding, and compassion of which our sacred texts speak.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Devotion - Tuesday, September 22

Each of the Gospel accounts has unique features.  As time has passed, some of those distinct features have become muddled, or even altered.

The earliest versions of the Gospel of Mark end with the women who had gone to the tomb on Easter morning fleeing and saying nothing "for they were afraid."

Over time (we are talking centuries) there emerged additional verses, added to the end of the Gospel of Mark.  Some bibles include these, some place them in the footnotes, some merely refer to them.

These alternate endings seemed to be added in order to confirm, in writing, what the Church had come to believe about the empty tomb.

Perhaps this was done so that those who had not heard the story would know what the eventual outcome was.  Perhaps these verses were included in order to testify to what Jesus' followers experienced, once their fear gave way to faith.  And, if Mark was the only account we had, we would certainly appreciate the stories which Luke is able to tell in his second book.  (We are reasonably sure that the Book of Acts is a second book by the same author as Luke.)

In defense of the original ending to Mark, it leaves each of us to decide what we will make of these events.  It allows us to ponder on how fearful we are, and whether we will come to trust in the promises confirmed by the empty tomb.  If we remain dependent upon someone else to tell us what these things mean then the faith within us is surely a borrowed faith and not a faith of our own.

The women fled the tomb and said nothing.  What is our response?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Devotion - Monday, September 21

Today is the Feast Day of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist.  We know Matthew - better than many of the other Apostles - because of the Gospel which bears his name.  We know that Matthew considered it very important that Jesus be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesies, so he includes repeated references to them in his account of the life and ministry stories.

We know a lot about what he thought and said; we know much less about who he was as a person.

He was a tax collector; we get that in his call story (Matthew 9:9ff).  Most everything else is legend or tradition.  

I am grateful for his thoughts, but I wonder how much we might gain from knowing more of his own attempts to follow Jesus.

In a community where following Jesus defines us; how is it that we have become so concerned with thoughts and beliefs; often at the expense of paying attention to the art of following?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Devotion - Thursday, September 17

The cycle of appointed readings in the Daily Lectionary has us reading of the crucifixion in Mark's Gospel.  In Mark, Pilate is reluctant to condemn Jesus.  "Wishing to satisfy the crowd...." he releases Barabbas and condemns Jesus to die.  

The soldiers take Jesus away.  But before they take him to Golgotha, they lead him to the courtyard where they beat him and mock him.  Why do they do this?  Why do the writers of the Gospel accounts include this detail?

Those who study human behavior have noted that before we can do inhumane things to others we must find a way to distance ourselves from them.  We have to find a way to convince ourselves that they deserve the treatment we have decided to inflict on them.

The soldiers (perhaps) could not murder a man they had no reason to harm unless they first convinced themselves this was an acceptable thing to do.

What this story in Mark might encourage us to discern is how we get to the point of inhumanity against others.  Do we start to accept the mistreatment because we have first ignored the other as a child created and loved by the same God who loves and created us?  We are unlikely to mistreat others (most mistreatment is due to indifference) when we have not allowed ourselves to become indifferent in the first place.  We would put an end to cruel treatment (indifference) when we acknowledge our kinship and our oneness.  

It is John's Gospel account that Jesus' High Priestly Prayer includes the plea that "they might all be one."  What a difference it makes, when that oneness is achieved.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Devotion - Wednesday, Sept 16

One of the outcomes of being a Christian is an expansion of our world and our worldview.  We are no longer a Carolinian, or a Yankee, or Caucasian, or whatever.  We are a Christian, a follower of Jesus.  And this identity comes first in our list of self-descriptions.

It follows that we immediately establish a kinship with other Christians.  With all Christians.

Tonight, we will have as our guest a young man who spent a year with the Christians in Palestine.  He will share with us how that year expanded his world.  He will invite us to benefit from his experience.

Yesterday, I shared lunch with a member of the Orthodox Christian community.  His emotions regarding the death and destruction in the Syrian Orthodox Churches reminded me of the need to pray and advocate for this part of our Christian family.

This Saturday, Abel Baptist Church is hosting a community fun day.  This is an opportunity to share Christian fellowship with neighbors we don't often notice or visit.

Being a Christian is an opportunity to expand our world and our worldview.  God is the creator of all things.  God is the Father of all the world's children.  Our prayers, or conversations, and our actions ought to reflect the enormity of God's realm.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Devotion - Tuesday, September 15

Since I started talking about the Book of James yesterday, I seem to have little choice but to continue today.  Honestly, I would rather avoid James 2:14-26.  This is the section where the writer lifts up the absolute necessity of "works."  

He writes:  "You see that one is is justified by works and not by faith alone."

This challenges my experience of God - that God saves me while I am yet a sinner, and that God is the one who makes salvation happen.  So, I tend to get uneasy when someone starts to talk about "works."

I do not want to dismiss James' words, or pretend they are not in the Bible.  Truth be told, I agree with James, that faith without works is a dead faith.  How can one receive the gift of faith and not respond with a whole host of good words?  Impossible.  Faith without works is a dead faith.

I will not insist, philosophically, which comes first - faith or works.  I will report that I share the experience of the beloved "Amazing Grace" hymn which states "Was Grace that taught my heart to fear...."  It was not me who found Christ, but Christ found me.  Having been found, my gratitude leads me to work - sometimes work too many hours and on too many fronts.  That is my experience.  Others may have a differing experience.  They may have worked their way in to their relationship with God.

Another possibility worth pondering is the meaning or definition of these words in the context when James wrote them.  But we can save that for another time.

For this morning, it is important to me to call attention to a section of a book in the bible that I typically won't give a lot of attention.  I don't want you to be uninformed, because of my theological tendencies.  And I certainly don't want to encourage any to drift into a dead faith.  Do good works.  Insist on good works.  Discern for yourself how it is that God lays claim on your life.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Devotion - Monday, September 14

The Book of James has been our Sunday morning reading for the past couple of Sundays.  Yesterday, in worship, we read from the third chapter about the challenge of taming the tongue.  James is also in the cycle of daily readings.  This morning we read from James 2.

The writer warns against giving preference to the rich over the poor.  

Giving such preferential treatment is difficult to avoid.  It is so built into our culture that we do it without even realizing we have done it.  Sometimes it happens because we simply don't know how to interact with those who are a differing social class than our own.  

There is a compounding factor in this village.  If you look at a map of economic disadvantage (such maps are regularly updated by the Clemson City Planning Office - in order to address issues of social importance) you will see that those maps overlay way too neatly with maps showing racial divide.  In Clemson, as in too much of SC, the poor are also those will dark skin tone.

For the most part, Lutherans are a rather subtle lot.  We allow our faith to ooze out of us rather than proclaim it loudly or boldly.  This is one area where we cannot not do that.  We can't go along with the flow and wait to see if there are subtle opportunities to insert a suggestion or two.  It is essential for the health of the community and the health of the planet that we become bold in overcoming our mistreatment of the poor.

I ask you to read James 2:1-13 today.  Keep its words on your mind and apply them to your life.  Take 5 minutes and have a conversation with someone who you might otherwise tend to overlook or ignore.  It might be the person cleaning your classroom or the lady handing out tickets in the parking lot.  How about the folks who ride the CAT Bus to get to work?  Or one of the guys putting out mulch on campus.

We fall into routines.  And those routines become patterns.  And those patterns all too often allow us or even encourage us to offer preferential treatment.  James warns us about this.  Appropriately so.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sermon - Pentecost 16

Mark 8:27-38

But Who Do You Say That I Am?

It isn’t real clear whether Jesus set out to ask two questions of his disciples.  Did he intend to find out what the crowds were saying about him, and then find out what the disciples thought?  Or does he ask the second question when he realizes that the first question didn’t generate the response he was hoping for?  He wanted to know what these twelve people thought of him.  They seemed to what to disguise their answers by attempting to blend into the crowd.

Of course, as readers of Mark’s Gospel, we are already aware of the tension between what they ought to know and what they seem prepared to acknowledge.  We are in the 8th chapter of Mark’s Gospel, and Jesus is getting them to fill in the blanks with information we have known from the beginning.   Someone read for us the very first verse from Mark.  ……. Mark 1:1 reads:  The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  When Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” you and I are not going to gain any new information – what we will learn is whether Jesus’ identity has been accepted by his disciples.

There is something more we are to learn from this exchange.  As we read this ancient account, we have the opportunity to discern our response.  Will we/do we treat this piece of information as merely that – as a piece of information?  Maybe it is a creed we acknowledge, perhaps even confess.  What might be learned, this morning, by re-reading this ancient story is whether we are prepared to understand what these words mean.

Let’s make sure you didn’t get distracted with the children’s sermon, or begin to think other thoughts as we sang the hymn.  Jesus is “on his way back” from the region of Caesarea Philippi and he starts to talk to his disciples.

Jesus first asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”  The answers which come are good answers – answers which are still very fitting and frightfully close to the way many, many “Christians” interact with Jesus.  While some align readily with Jesus as Messiah, there are a lot of folks who turn his message back into John the Baptist’s call to repentance; or to Elijah’s insistence that the rulers of the nation capitulate to the customs and traditions of religious teachings; or even those who want Jesus to be “one of the prophets” who exposes how far we have drifted from the way of God and how God is therefore prepared to smite us.

“Who do people say that I am?”  Many still want to say he was John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets.  These are really good answers.

But not answer which Jesus hopes for.  Finally, it is Peter who confesses, “You are the Messiah.”
Whew!!!  They finally get it.  We have been wondering ever since the first verse of Mark’s Gospel when those in the closest relationship with Jesus will realize what has been so obvious all along.

 That moment seems to have arrived.  Or has it?

Jesus becomes direct, and hides nothing from them.  He continues to insist that others not be “told”, perhaps to allow them time to come to where the disciples (seem) to have so slowly arrived.  But he tells them what this piece of information will mean; what it will mean for him, and for those who follow him.

There is not a third question asked, it is implied.  This final and most significant of all questions is whether they are willing and prepared to apply this new-found piece of information to the way they will live their lives.  It seems they re not.

Peter didn’t want to hear anything which would disrupt his lovely picture of what it would be like, once Messiah came.  Peter wanted more of everything he liked the best.  He is totally unprepared to accept that Messiah might call us into a way of service and sacrifice and death.

But Jesus does.  Jesus still does.  Jesus always does.

I am about to get on my high horse again.  (Did you think that whole thing about the bridle was merely for the children?)  And those of you who were around in June will remember I got a pretty high horse back then and started slinging some pretty stinky stuff around.  I have looked for a way to publicly apologize for the offense taken by that sermon, and it is a sincere apology.  I never want me or my person to become the flash point.  And I definitely don’t want to offend or insult or belittle.
I don’t want to.  But the same cannot be said for the Gospel.  It continually irritates and unsettles and disrupts.  Today’s appointed text is a prime example.  “Who do you say that I am?” is not a request for a piece of information.  It is a plumb line set in our midst.

Maybe it is true for some, but it has never been true for me.  As I read my Bible I am continually coming up against the goodness of God and the enormity of God’s grace and then seeing my weak response.  I get frustrated, at myself, and I lash out and try to follow.  And just when I start to think I am integrating those pieces of information into my life, I turn the page and there is yet another story in my bible which exposes how much more there is for me to learn and apply and do.

We will never know whether Jesus intended from the start to ask two questions of the disciples, or if he only asked the second when he realized they didn’t know what he was asking.  What we can be pretty sure of, is that neither of these questions are the one for which he really sought an answer.  The question which he wanted answered is more along the lines of “Who is prepared to follow where this Messiah will lead?”

We cannot pick and choose the parts of Jesus we like.  And, the claim Jesus makes on our lives is one which brings unimaginable grace.  Do you remember the memory verse from four weeks ago?  See if you can still repeat it with me, “Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  There is nowhere else we can turn, or should turn, or would even consider turning.  But turning to Jesus, and following Jesus means turning to Jesus and following Jesus.  And we know the place to which Jesus is headed.

Okay.  This week’s memory verse.  And it might surprise you a bit.  It isn’t the confession of Peter nor the rebuke by Jesus.  It is more of a question.  And ask you repeat the verse during the week, I hope it will lead to your searching for your answer.  I want you to remember and repeat the middle phrase of Verse 34.  Got a pencil to circle it?  “If any want to become my followers….”   That’s it.  Will you remember it?  Repeat it with me - ‘If any want to become my followers.....”  That is enough.  The question for us isn’t do we know who Jesus is, the question is whether we will accept what that identity means.

Say it one more time - “If any want to become my followers….”

After you say it, you can meditate on what following means for you.  We can all pray for the strength to follow more closely.