Monday, November 30, 2015

Devotion - Monday, November 30

An informal survey confirmed for me what I had feared - not that many of us were in worship yesterday.  (I was on vacation myself - taking advantage of the Thanksgiving Break.)  The rush to return to school, the putting away of Thanksgiving dishes, or the putting up of Christmas trees - for a variety of reasons, many of us missed yesterday's observance of Advent 1.

Advent is 4 Sundays long.  It ends with the announcement of the birth in Bethlehem.  It began yesterday.

These weeks are to be given over to preparing and anticipating; to looking for Messiah and looking for how Messiah might change our world.

Waiting and watching do not come easy to us.  Particularly in the world which swirls around us these days.

The acts of violence which have dominated our world have united us in some ways; divided us in others.  We are united in our disgust; divided on how to respond.  Christians are themselves divided.

Advent would encourage us to put off responding until we have reflected and envisioned the end toward which God is calling us.  Advent would remind us that our short-term goals should not be in conflict with the eternal vision of God for His creation.

Too few of us were in worship yesterday; too few of us are prepared for the discipline of Advent.  But we can get prepared, and ready, and we can make straight the pathway of Messiah.  We can.  Will we?

Monday, November 23, 2015

Devotion - Monday, November 23

All the excitement this weekend may have diverted our attention from the excitement of the Church Year Festival observed this Sunday.

Christ the King is the final Sunday of the church year.  It's presence on the Liturgical Calendar is to challenge us as to how we have responded to Jesus and his message.  Will we follow him?  Will we adopt the marks of his reign?  Will we pledge ourselves to carrying out his mission?

There is a tremendous need for those who answer "Yes" to those questions to live them.

Our world is being challenged by religiously justified violence.  Our world is being ripped apart by the misguided notion that God would ever sanction violence as a means of establishing His reign.  Those who have accepted the way of Jesus must speak up and speak against hatred and rejection.  

The bible tells us that Jesus came to set son against father, daughter against mother.  There will be divisions, even within our own families, over acceptance of his rule.  Those divisions are justification for killing;  those divisions fall along the lines of those who choose to advance themselves by dethroning others.  Such is not the way of Jesus.

Christ the King is the Sunday of the Church Year when we demonstrate that we have heard the message of Jesus and show that we are ready to put it into practice.  Let's do that - especially those parts of Jesus' message which forbid us from taking up swords.  We can never - never - advance the message of Jesus by spewing hate or by advocating violence.

Such are not the way of Christ's kingdom.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Devotion - Thursday, November 19

Even Kings get caught up in the moment and make bad decisions as a result.  In Matthew 14 we read of the beheading of John the Baptist.  Herod had placed John in prison, but his fear and respect would not allow him to bring further harm upon John.  However, when his step-daughter's dance pleased Herod's guests he offered her whatever she might ask.  She asks for the head of John.

We had discussed in our Tuesday Bible Study how important it is have accountability partners.  There is a tremendous gain to be had from having among our closest friends those who share our commitments and our convictions.  It is less likely that such persons are going to stand idly by while we get caught up on the moment and make bad decisions.

Jesus sent his disciples out two by two so they might have such a partner.  Who are the partners in your faith journey?  And have your spoken with them about the role you hope they will take on in your life?  We all find it way to east to get caught up in the moment;  we can all anticipate such moments and have in place safe-guards against destructive behaviors.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Devotion - Wednesday, November 18

My morning prayers include concerns and topics which have been shared with me; matters which have been shared in conversations or pastoral visits.  It is my hope that I honor each promise made to remember in my prayers these things.

This morning, as I was working my way through the list, I also prayed that those who had spoken to me had also confided in others.  I prayed that they had enlisted their roommates and friends and family in the cloud of witnesses who would bear them up through these days.

Too much of our world encourages us to go it alone.  Too many messages are given us about not appearing to be needy.  This is not the message we hear in scripture or at church.  There, we are reminded to bear one another burdens; there we are encouraged to share the burdens which we carry.

When we share Good News - Bad News at our Wednesday night gatherings we do so with the purest of intentions of hearing the concerns of those around us and of aiding them with our prayers and our care.  This is a sacred part of our life together.  It is an essential expression of who we are as God's people.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Devotion - Tuesday, November 17

Matthew 13:48ff contains the parable of the kingdom of heaven as a net cast into the sea.  This net catches fish of every kind.  All the fish are gathered - the good and the bad.

Too often we want to separate ourselves; we want to uphold some self-determined sense of purity.  Matthew 13 seems to warn us against such.  The kingdom gathers in all kinds.  It is only at the "close of the age" that any separating occurs.  Then, it is the angels who do the work.

The horrific events in Paris have led many to embark upon intense attempts to do our own sorting.  There are cries for excluding those whose only association with the perpetrators is having at one time lived in the same region of the world (the very reason these persons are fleeing!)  We all deserve and desire safety, but not at the expense of shutting the gates and leaving the innocent on the outside.

Jesus reminds his followers that choosing his way isn't always going to be easy.  One of the tough aspects of his way is refusing to hate and to blame and to retaliate.  If ever the followers of Jesus need to be more like Jesus, it is now.  In the face of the hatred and blame and violence unleashed in Paris, Jesus' followers must model Jesus' way.  It isn't going to be easy.  But easy isn't what was promised us.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Devotion - Monday, November 16

A verse from yesterday's readings has been bouncing around in my head ever since we shared it.  It is from Hebrews 10, verses 24-25:

And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another. 

The word "provoke" stuck with me first.  We hear folks speak of being "provoked," but the action attempting to be justified is usually an angry one or one that involved retaliation for an injustice.  Have you ever experienced someone being "provoked" to love and good deeds?  I hope that I will - soon and often.

The second part of these verses is the reference to "not neglecting to meet together."  It is the habit of some (many) to neglect meeting together.  I am not and never want to be the attendance police, but I will always encourage coming to Church and meeting with others at bible study or worship.  There, we can be provoked to love and good deeds.  Of course that meeting can't just be to watch TV or share a pizza.  It is a meeting, not a random gathering.

Let's be intentional in our meeting together and in our provoking one another.  Let's be certain that we offer encouragement, to do well in class but also to live out our Christian calling.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Devotion - Thursday, November 12

I continue reading from Matthew 13.  The disciples' question as to why Jesus teaches in parables is followed with an explanation to the parable of the sower, offered by Jesus.  (Verses 18-23)

This morning, my prayer time brought to memory the necessity of time for "fruit" to grow and mature.  We attempted to establish a community garden for the Habitat homeowners on Stephens Road.  Students worked on getting the soil ready and hauled loads of chicken mature to the site.  But all the planting and harvesting happened long after the students ended the term (one regular volunteer graduated).  They never saw the fruit of their labors.

I will go back to the image of the sower.  The sower distributes the seed in this parable without regard to the likelihood that the soil will be good soil.  The sower distributes the seed and then goes away - allowing the growth and the production to happen.

Our most faithful sowing of the seed is likely to be in situations where we will never see the growth.  We are nearest to God's ideal when we offer the good news and provide the right thing without hovering over the recipient to insist that the seed produce. 

Do good.  Be good.  Offer assistance.  Give encouragement.  These acts stand alone as the yield which brings joy to God's Kingdom.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Devotion - Wednesday, November 11

Matthew 13:10-17 addresses one of the questions all of us would like to have answered.  The disciples come to Jesus and say to him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?"

There are a few places in the Gospels where we are told "Jesus said this to them quite plainly."  But, for the most part, his instruction is in parables.  Why?

In Matthew 13 there is the hint that this is to reveal the truths to some, while keeping it veiled from others.  That doesn't seem fair.

One outcome of such an approach is an increased appreciation of faith itself as a gift from God.  Did we come to understand the things of God as a result of our reason or effort?  Or did we come to appreciate Jesus' sacrifice as a result of grace poured upon us abundantly?  Is it "I" who have done this; or is it Christ?

Martin Luther spoke of this as prevenient grace - it is the grace which is active in us before we become active in our faith.  It is the affirmation that "while we were yet sinners" God was at work within us.  It is in keeping with Paul's experience that "it is not I" but Christ who has accomplished all things.

Why does Jesus speak to them in parables?  Maybe it is to frustrate those who want to be able to package and distribute something which can only be received.  Faith is a relationship with Christ; not a set of tenants or a list of rules.

"Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear."

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Devotion - Tuesday, November 10

It was during my college years that I heard a retelling of the parable in Matthew 13.  This is the one where the sower casts the seed and some falls on the path, some among thorns, some on rocky soil, and some on the good soil.  

In the typical interpretation, we are warned against being like the path (where birds come and snatch up the seed), or the rocky soil (with no depth of root), or like the thorns (which choke out the plants), but to be like the good soil.  We even sing a song to this effect - "Lord, let my heart be good soil....."

The alternate retelling which stuck with me was from someone who understood that a sower would know, before casting the seed, where that seed was going and the likely outcome of the seed being cast there.  While seed, cast in the wrong places is unlikely to yield much grain, the sower does not withhold the seed.

God's grace, God's goodness, God's gifts are freely given out to all.  There is a verse which reminds us that God sends the rain to benefit the fields of the just as well as to the fields of the unjust.  Whatever may befall those who abandon God, it does not befall them because God ceases to provide for them.

I pray that our hearts may be "good soil."  And at least part of the determination of ourselves as such is a full awareness that God loves us not because of our response.  It is because of God's unwavering love that our hearts respond with what goodness we can manage to offer.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Devotion - Monday, November 9

This morning's appointed Gospel text is Matthew 12:43-50.  Jesus speaks of something that we most often avoid or dismiss - unclean spirits.

For Jesus, "spirits" were the cause for many disorders and unexplained behaviors.  We may still speak of someone acting "as if they were possessed."  But we typically don't address their situation with exorcisms.  

But some behaviors or even personalities are so extreme "possession" might be a helpful description.  Some situations may be so troublesome that our approach would be aided by starting with a plea to God for intervention.

It is difficult not to loose hope, when we see enormity of some challenges.  The one who needs to be reflective isn't; there is a resistance to the help made available; our efforts seem so small in the face of all that is needed.  Where else ought we begin than with a prayer to God.  A prayer which acknowledges God's ability to accomplish that which we never could; a prayer which reminds us of God's continued presence and strength.

"Unclean spirits" lead many to hurtful and harmful behaviors.  Let us look to Jesus who drives out such spirits and restores to us the one whom we love.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Sermon - Pentecost 24

I Kings 17:8-16 & Mark 12:38-44     

Giving All That We Have

            They devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation. (Mark 12:40)  I have to tell you that this verse has stuck in my mind all week.  It is the kind of verse I hate hearing, let alone having to read in public and then preach on (or try preach around.)  “They will receive the greater condemnation.”   How is that possible anyway?  Isn’t condemnation condemnation?  What could Jesus possibly mean?

            Considering that the gospel moves immediately from Jesus’ announcement of the greater condemnation to story of the widow and her mite, I would sure be nervous if I hadn’t already figured out what my pledge was going to be for the coming year.  What if I give too much?  Putting me in the category of those who put on a great show and receive that greater condemnation?  What if I put in too little, thus failing to meet the standard established by this poor old widow?  These verses will no doubt be in the back of your mind as you complete your own estimate of giving.  And I would be really careful - if I were you.  Condemnation is bad enough - I hate to think what greater condemnation must be like.  Too much and you might be grouped with the showy scribes, who like to walk around in long robes.  Too little and you may fail the test of the widow’s mite, giving instead out of your abundance.

            Of course Jesus isn’t concerned with what we put down on a piece of paper.  He’s not actually concerned with the amount we put in the offering plate.  The thing which matters to Christ is what is etched into the fabric of our lives.  That is what he is observing, as he sits next to the temple treasury.  He sees, not the amount of the gifts placed in the pot, but what the gift says about the person who gives it.

            If you watch what people do, you can learn a lot about them.  Observing behaviors reveals to you what a person is made of, how they are put together, what they consider to be important.  Watching differs greatly from making assumptions.  We can make assumptions quickly, but watching takes time.  Observing behaviors over a period of time allows you to see folks commit not only one act but several. 

            We don’t want to jump to conclusions as to how we are to interpret this gospel lesson.  Jesus’ condemnation is not of rich folks.  Jesus is not saying that the wealthy should withhold their abundant gifts.  I have to point out - if for no other reason than the sake of my own livelihood - that much of what God hopes to accomplish in the world can only be accomplished when those of us in the wealthiest quarter of the human population give generously of what we have first received.  So don’t jump to the conclusion that Jesus is condemning all rich folks.

            Don’t make assumptions; don’t jump to conclusions.  Watch, watch and learn, and then comment on what is observed.  This is what Jesus does as he sits next to treasury in the temple.  He watches, he learns and he makes comments on what he sees.

            What he sees allows him to speak of the difference between those for whom God is a sideline or hobby and those for whom faith in God forms the core of their existence.  Jesus observes that many who come into the temple behave as if they could take or leave this whole God thing.  They make no sacrifice unto the Lord; they view their gifts as little more than charity, cast in the direction of the less fortunate. 

            As he is watching all this, Jesus sees the widow entering the temple.  She has a much different attitude.  She comes, bringing all that she has, and presents it to God.  For her, God is no sideline or hobby; God is the one upon whom she is utterly dependant.

            What would Jesus see, learn and comment on if he were to watch us as we make our way through a typical day, or week?  What would Jesus deduce were he to follow the ushers along each row and watched, as each envelope was placed in the offering plate?  It doesn’t bother us too much, to read what went on in some temple in ancient Israel.  But think of the risk of having him look over our shoulders here, today.

            This is not a legalistic question.  Jesus doesn’t watch to see what folks place in the treasury and then calculate whether that gift equals a tithe of one’s income.  Jesus merely watches, sees what we do, and comments on what the gifts say about the giver.  What do our gifts say - about us?

            The congregation’s ability to meet its budget is not the issue here.  At issue is the importance we are placing upon that which we proclaim to be at the core of our existence.
             What value do you place upon your faith?  Do you think of your church involvement as fire insurance?  When we take out a fire insurance policy we figure out the minimum coverage needed so as minimize our premium payment.  Do you think of your gifts to the church as a retainer, similar to that you would give a lawyer so you can have access to their services?  Only in this case we are retaining access to the church should we need a wedding, baptism, funeral or something of the sort? 

            Our relationship with God is not fire insurance.  Our offerings are not a retainer.  Our relationship with God forms the core of our existence or it is of little value.

            When Jesus watches the worshipers place their gifts in the treasury what he observes is the value each person places upon their relationship with God.  The widow’s two copper coins are a powerful statement about her attitude toward the one called Lord.

            I wonder if this widow had heard the story of the widow of Zarephath - the story that we read as our first lesson for today.  In that story the widow is sought out - Elijah goes looking for her.  When he finds her, she is gathering firewood in order to cook her last meal. 

            She does not resist Elijah’s request to feed him first. She obeys, even though she has no reason to trust his promise that the flour will never give out.  She makes him a cake first, and then she feeds herself and her son.

            We are not told how long Elijah stays with this widow - but for as long as he is there, the jar of meal was not emptied, and neither did the jug of oil fail.  So long as she was providing for Elijah, the woman was able to provide for herself and her son.

            The wonderful twist in this story is the way in which God takes care of this woman.  God provides for her by sending to her someone that she could care for.  She provides for Elijah.  She trusts that God will take care of her.  So long as she takes care of Elijah; God takes care of her.

            I think I am about to decide that the greater condemnation is being trapped in the fear that we have to take care of ourselves.  Might the greatest of all condemnations be being alone as we face a bleak future?  If we stand alone in our prosperity we will certainly feel alone in our distress. The widow of Zarephath did not face a very promising future, but she was willing to take on the burden of caring for another. I am about to decide that the greater condemnation is the fear which leads us to think that our primary task is to take care of ourselves.

            I love the post-communion prayer, included in the Now the Feast liturgy.  It reads, “Gracious Lord, give us courage to share our bread.”  It does take courage to share our bread.  It took a lot of courage for the widow to put her two coins in the treasury. 

I don’t intend to leave you with a guilty conscience this morning - what I really want is to persuade you to pray for courage, for the courage it takes to share.  I remain convinced that those with such courage never experience want.  Like the widow of Zarephath so long as we care for another we are also cared for.  Pray for this courage.  And I promise you that condemnation (the common everyday kind or the kind Jesus calls the greater condemnation) will never come into your life.


Thursday, November 5, 2015

Devotion - Thursday, November 5

Near the end of I Corinthians, Paul speaks of a "contribution for the saints."  He is speaking of an offering.  This is timely; UniLu will have our "Consecration Sunday" this Sunday, where we will ask persons to complete an estimate of giving card for 2016.

It sometimes seems a bit weird when we do this, given that those front three rows are occupied by students.  What are you to do, while all this is happening?

Well, hopefully, you will reflect on the same question being asked of the congregation - "How will you make use of the gifts that God has given you?"

I am not suggesting that you take out additional student loans in order to be a regular "contributor for the saints."  But you should look at your spending habits and ask if there might be choices which would allow you to be financially helpful.

Among the patterns you are setting in your life is the pattern of giving.  Now is the time to establish habits for your life.  Sharing and caring ought to be one of those habits.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Devotion - Wednesday, November 4

I wrote to you on Monday about Sabbath.  That reflections was to encourage you to observe Sabbath, in the sense of slowing down and turning your attention to those aspects of our lives that make life meaningful.

In Matthew 12, Jesus struggles to help us understand Sabbath and how to observe it without turning it into an additional burden.

The religious culture of Jesus' day had developed all sorts of rules for what observing Sabbath meant.  No work or labor was to be allowed.  This resulted in condemnation when Jesus' disciples plucked grains from the stalks as they walked through the grain fields.  Jesus tries to help the legalistic minded folks see that their rules were distracting folks from the purpose of Sabbath.

Rules are necessary for children.  A child may not be able to discern what is right or helpful.  But as adults we come to see that practically every rule will met a situation in which it misguides us.

The Sabbath is an opportunity to reflect on God's Word, to appreciate God's instructions, and to discern how we will follow.  The Sabbath is the invitation to develop the relationship with God in which rules are replaced by a willingness to see and act in accordance with God's hope for the world.  As we observe Sabbath we become less needful of rules.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Devotion - Tuesday, November 3

The appointed daily readings have been dovetailing well with our Tuesday night study of I Corinthians.  This morning I was directed to I Corinthians 15:41-50.

Questions have arose regarding the resurrection.  Remember that most early followers of Jesus thought they would not see death before Jesus' return.  When some died, there was worry as to what this would mean.  Paul's letter assures them that the promise of Christ will not be impeded, simply because they happen to die before Christ returned.

Paul also helps them to see that life in the resurrection will be different from life as they now know it.  Dr. Sittler, one of my teachers, mused just before his own death that life had been so wonderful he could not image that the resurrection would be disappointing - BUT, he admitted he had no idea what that resurrected life would be like.  He would tell us that as much as some would like to claim otherwise, there is no precise picture given of what life is like for us on the other side of resurrection.

I do not write these words in order to challenge images of eternal life rooted in your heart or mind.  Rather I offer these reflections for the sake of those who are unsure or questioning or worried.  I would also acknowledge those who have not had such a wonderful life, perhaps even been the victim of abuse.  My prayer this morning is that any anxiety about what happens at death might be eased.  Paul tells us that there can be no heavenly body till the earthly body is ended.  We will need to turn lose of this one, to get the next.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Devotion - Monday, November 2

The room where I have set up my desk is in a part of the house were the sound of the rain is the most pronounced.  I am not sure when it started raining; I recall waking a few times to hear it during the night.  When my alarm went off, I definitely heard it; as I read my bible and said my prayers, I heard it; and now, it is almost lulling me back to my bed and more sleep.

Let me insert an important note: The flooding last month reminded us that raindrops become swollen rivers.  I do not want to seem insensitive to that.

But the sound of rain coming down does tend to calm us and permit (if not encourage) us to stay in our pajamas and away from the wet and chill.

Observance of The Sabbath has fallen off in our culture.  Part of that is a good thing - Christians should not get to rule how others will spend their Sunday any more than Jews should shut down Saturday football or Muslims would halt Friday afternoon activities.  But this loss of Sabbath means we too seldom take our rest and allow ourselves to be restored and refreshed.  

God is the Creator of the Sabbath.  And it was not created for selfish reasons.  God knows how essential it is that we take our rest; that we give attention to the things that are close at hand but too often passed over in the midst of rushed lives; and that we learn to listen for the messages when can only come when we have pushed aside the noise of the world.

You may not have the luxury of staying at home in your pj's, but take a bit of a rest - you owe it to yourself, it is a gift God wants to give you.