Thursday, September 29, 2016

Devotion - Thursday, September 29

What a delight to have Pastor Dave Delany as our guest last night!  This is a leader and a scholar whom I have admired for years.  And his words furthered my appreciation for him.

One of the references he made was to "Moralistic therapeutic deism" - MTD for short.  One of the co-authors of the study which explored this taught at Clemson, Melinda Lundquist Denton.  MTD allows one to approach God as little more than the source (perhaps enforcer) of the rules and/or as the one who responds to and maybe heals our ills.  MTD ignores God as the one who looks to social change and as the one who calls us into active communities.

The appointed Gospel for today is Luke 4, where Jesus goes to synagogue and reads from the prophet - "God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.... release to the captives.... to set at liberty those who are oppressed."  While MTD would encourage us to see these acts as spiritual in nature, the remainder of the book of Luke gives a different witness.  Jesus is continually working to change the status quo, particularly when the status quo left the marginalized in the margins.  Jesus insists that real change happens in the world; change which made life better for all of us.

Moralistic therapeutic deism is preached in many houses of worship.  And this analysis is likely to offend some of you.  For that I am sorry, and do come and talk to me, rather than slipping away.  I will listen, but I will not slip away from my insistence that being a follower of Jesus doesn't stop with moral teachings and miraculous healing.  Jesus calls his followers into a community and he sends that community out in the world to proclaim good news to the poor.... release to the captives..... liberty to those who are oppressed.  Our faith must be active in bringing the good to the world which God intends for his children.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Devotion - Wednesday, September 28

I am a little bit worried about all of you.  Your conversations reveal that we are at that time in the semester when there are a number of exams and a lot of reports coming due.  It is true that every class seems to be on a similar schedule, and that all of them schedule stuff for the same weeks.

The theme for the fall retreat was intended to help you keep things in order, especially for weeks like these.  We referred to it as the 1-2-3-4; there are four roles you have, in order of preference, keep them in perspective.

#1 - never forget that your a loved child of God.  We studied Hosea at last night bible study.  This book is all about the depth and dependability of God's love for his children.  You are one of those children - never forget that.

#2 - you are a student.  That is your calling.  This is your job.  Set aside whatever else you must in order to give attention to your studies and your education.  Don't let other things get moved up in the order of priorities.

#3 - you belong to organizations (LCM included).  These are to bring you joy and happiness and to enrich your life.  But they are #3 on the list.  Make sure they are aiding you and feeding you and making it easier for you to remember and experience yourself as a child of God and to concentrate on your work as a student.

#4 - any and all leadership roles associated with #3.  Perhaps you have made commitments and there are folks depending on you.  It is honorable to do what you have promised and to live up to your expectations.  However, if you have taken on more than you should, it is essential for #1 and #2 and for your continued enjoyment of #3 that you turn to your fellows and admit that you need a bit of break.  I recommend you do this far enough in advance for the group to decide if the task must be completed and therefore another will step in to do it.  But walk away - if needed - in order to honor #1. #2, and #3.

You are not trapped in a hopeless and endless pile of work and deadlines.  You are a loved child of God and as such you have an Advocate and Helper ever by your side.  Remember this and recall this and draw strength from this.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Devotion - Tuesday, September 27

I continue to read through the Books of Acts.  What impressed me this morning are the names celebrated by the writer of Acts.  These are names which I know I have heard many times in my life, but I am not sure I have as quick a recall of them as I have for a few, select characters.  Too often I think of Acts as the story of Paul's missionary journeys.  Too seldom do I think of all the others who were also working to make known the Good News.

The same can be said for the work of the current-day Church.  We are quick to speak of a few select persons, while it is a much larger circle of servants who make possible the ministry.  

If we stop and think, we readily acknowledge this to be true.  But how often do we pause and ponder such questions.

It is the community of Christ which does Christ's work in the world.  It is the family of God which welcomes us and helps us to find rest for our souls.

The names included in the chapters of Acts are more than filler for the message of Paul.  They are the men and women who made the story Paul was telling real in the lives of others.  The same is true for our community.  

Monday, September 26, 2016

Devotion - Monday, September 26

The book of Esther is a wonderful treat.  It might be particularly meaningful for women.  Esther is placed in the King's court for all the wrong reasons - because of her beauty -  and not because of her wisdom or her convictions.  And yet she comes to use her greater gifts to defend and save her people.

Esther is from a Jewish family.  This seems not to be known by the King, or perhaps it didn't matter.  What does matter is that one of the King's advisers comes to despise Esther's Uncle and develops a plan to see him put to death.

Mordecai (the Uncle) warns Esther than the evil plot against him involves the destruction of all the Jews.  He warns her that even the palace of the King may not be enough to protect her.  He implores her to speak to the King.  And he says to her, "Who knows, perhaps you have come to the kingdom for a time such as this."

I love that question.  I am moved by its urgency.  Esther is challenged to consider whether this may be her moment to impact the world and to protect God's people.

How can we be sure that we are aware when our "moment" is at hand?  Do we look upon the events happening around us as a mere observer?  Or do we consider how we might impact the situation; how we might be the one who has the opportunity to bring the change which is necessary?

Perhaps you have come to the Kingdom for a time such as this.  Do not shy away from speaking up and do not avoid the invitation to action.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Devotion - Thursday, September 22

I am often asked to serve as a reference for students.  I am always honored, and it is a request that I take very seriously.  (I do need to warn you that if the request comes with a form to fill out and return, you need to keep after me till it is done - I am great at procrastinating.)

One of these came due this week, and I was writing up the letter yesterday.  The student is applying for graduate studies, in education.  

I found myself reflecting on this person and sharing what I observe in so many of you.  That is a dedication to knowledge, but also a desire for wisdom.  My interactions allow me to see the ways in which you are not only working to learn a particular body of information, but that you are also allowing what you learn to connect with other things you have learned and transform the way you see the world and live in it.

It is true that not every course does this, and not every conversation reveals such profound insights.  But it does happen, trust me, over the years that we share and through the many starts and stops of an academic career.  

Too few professors get to know you when you are in your first year, and then get to see you when you are about to graduate.  It is my joy to report to them the effects of their labors and to report to them what you have become.

All of this surfaced this morning, as I was finishing up my reading of the Book of Job.  Job ends with an acknowledgement that God alone is true wisdom.  We search and seek that wisdom, and the learned are those who apply it to their lives.  This is what I get to see.  This is what I experience.  This is why l love my life and my life's work.  Thank you for sharing your journey with me.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Devotion - Wednesday, September 21

Acts 16:16ff retells the story of a "slave girl" with a spirit of divination.  She follows Paul through the city, shouting about him to others.

Paul turns to her and commands that the spirit come out of her.  And she is made well.

The shouts that this girl kept repeating included comments as to who Paul really was.  She said of him, "These men are servants of the Most High God."  The spirit which had taken hold of her allowed her to perceive what others were slow to see.

While I have questions as to the particular ailment that gets labeled as a "spirit" in biblical times, the thing which entered my prayers this morning is notion that those who are not of God, and maybe even oppose God, are able to see what we are slow to perceive.  How is it that this girl knows what Paul must work so hard to help others to come to believe?

I remember the workshop title from an event I attended some 20 years ago - "Standing knee deep in water and dying of thirst."  How often we languish and struggle while all around us are the resources to attend to that which ails us.  Why are we so slow to turn to the One who holds the promises?

Maybe it takes a slave girl with a spirit to help us see what is within our grasp, but too often not taken into our lives.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Devotion - Tuesday, September 20

I wrote yesterday of the early divisions in the Church.  Paul and Barnabas decide to go their separate ways.  While division in the Church is always a cause for concern, it seems not to have hampered them.  Look at what the Church became in just a few short years!

Those verses and that division came to mind yesterday as I sat with a young woman from a Columbia area congregation.  Her home church has decided to continue its ministry with refugees, even given the realities of political life in South Carolina.  As a result of this congregation's actions, some have chosen to separate themselves.

I do know and appreciate that the issue of welcoming refuges is divisive.  Please forgive me - but it ought not to be.  Forgive me, if this example hits too close to home for you.  The lesson I want to draw is to point out that following where Jesus leads us will sometimes lead to division.  Doing what Christ has put in our hearts will set us at odds.

When we divide, we should never belittle the other or attempt to shame them.  But we must speak up for the Word of God, active in our lives.  And when speaking causes us to move down differing paths, so be it.  As was true in Acts 15, not all such divisions mean a lessening of the witness to Jesus.  They may actually aid in the on going discussions of what it is that Christ is calling his servants to think and to do.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Devotion - Monday, September 19

Like most of you, I regret the divisions within the family of God.  It is surely confusing and sometimes offensive that the Lutherans and the Methodists and the Baptists insist on having their own church structures.

This morning, my often felt disappointment over such a state of affairs was eased.  I read in Acts 1:36-16:5 of what may have been the earliest division among Jesus' followers.  Paul and Barnabas are about to set out on a missionary journey.  They had a disagreement.  And decided to go separately.  

Whatever these earliest of Church leaders did, it worked.  The rapid expansion of folks who responded to the Good News is a marvel and a mystery to every historian who has studied the topic.  They carried the Word of Jesus to the world and the world was a better place because of their efforts.  It seems not to have been hampered by the division between Paul and Barnabas.  It may have (for all we know) been aided by their dividing.

We may bemoan the separations among us, but maybe the slight differences make it possible for even more persons to connect to the one body.  So long as we maintain our deep appreciation for the gifts which are present in each of the denominations, then persons considering Christ can see the smorgasbord  of options and be grateful that not everyone has to eat from the same platter.  Being different could be a great aid in showing the width of God's mercy and the far-flung reach of God's message.

So let's give thanks for Catholics and Church of God and Presbyterians.  And let's make sure that we speak of these as fellow denominations, and never refer to them as a different "church."  We are all one Church; we simply speak with different dialects or emphasizes.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sermon - 18th Sunday of Pentecost - Year C

Luke 16:1-13 
            This is one of the Gospel lessons most preachers would choose to ignore.  The last four verses will preach – preach nicely.  But the story which opens the reading is difficult.  And while those last four verses are chocked full of great moral lessons and teachable insights, does the story which opens the chapter really say the same thing?

            The name often given this story is “The dishonest manager,” or “The Unrighteous Servant.”  And yet, in the story, when the rich man enters the story for a second time, he does so in order to commend the dishonest manger. 

            You have heard this story before – so you tell me.  Why is this dishonest manager “commended”?

            Barbara Rossing teaches at my alma mater – Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.  And she says you can’t make sense of this story unless you are willing to first understand a few things about commerce in the time of Jesus.  I know some of you don’t like it when sermons turning into teaching moments, but I didn’t select this text, I only drew the short straw to have to apply it to our lives.

            The first thing to remember is the biblical prohibition on usury.  We all know what that is, right?  You cannot loan money to another member of the faith community and charge them interest.  Jews can’t charge interest to other Jews.  Christians can’t charge interest from other Christians.  That is part of the reason why Jewish bankers were welcomed into Christian Europe – so someone could loan money to aspiring business operators.  The rules prohibiting usury haven’t gone away; they are still in the bible.  It is just among the laws which we totally ignore.

            Now, you couldn’t loan money, but you could share.  You could offer some grain to your neighbor, let him plant the grain in his field, and at harvest time he would return to you your original amount of wheat, with a bit more as a thank you gift.  Because there were laws about usury, you couldn’t set the exact amount you would expect in return, but the person borrowing the seed could write you a note saying, “This is what I will give you.” 

            Managers, of the sort talked about in this story that Jesus tells, were responsible for keeping track of seed or oil shared with another.  The manager’s job was to keep up with what it was that the “grateful neighbor” had said they would give in return.  The books were a bit lose, to say the least.

            One more wrinkle.  Managers were not paid a salary.  They were entrusted with the books of their overlords and their task was to navigate the balance between what the master expected from the grateful neighbor and what the borrower would tolerate.  Add too much to the initial loan and the neighbor wasn’t happy.  Collect too little, and you could expect to be dismissed.  These managers worked on commission.  And this commission consisted of how much they could add to the original bill. 

            So this particular manager is about to be relieved of his post.  We are told that the rich man was of the opinion that he has “squandered (the rich man’s) property.”  Whatever these charges were, is seems unlikely that it was the same sort of thing which are described in the next couple of verses.  But it is not beyond the realm of possibilities that this “squandering” may have involved acts of charity toward the poor or disadvantaged.  We shouldn’t assume that the manager was doing something of which we would all disapprove.  We only know that the rich master was not happy.

            We do tend to make that assumption – don’t we?  The assumption that the manager was doing something inappropriate.  Jesus is the one who tells the story, but in Jesus’ story the criticism of the manger is in words spoken by the rich man.  Even in verse 8, the labeling of the man as a “dishonest manager”, is deeply tied to the perspective of the master. 

            Dr. Rossing points out that in our day we look positively toward those who have accumulated wealth.  But this was not the case in Jesus’ day. 

            When he realizes he is about to lose his position, the action which this manger takes is to use his position and his possessions in order to make friends for himself.  Previously, he didn’t need to worry about who he trampled on or who he offended with his business practices.  He had an income and a position.  What did he need with “friends”?  He had money.

            Of course it was the kind of money that could be burned in a house fire or destroyed with a severe draught.  It was the kind of wealth which could be taken away, by robbers or by a fellow manager who was even more shrewd.  But, hey – he was doing okay.  Or so he thought.  Until the rich man comes and tells him that is going to be relieved of his livelihood.  He thought things were fine, till he looked around and began to wonder if his life amounted to anything or if anyone really, truly cared about him.

            And, so, he sets out on a course of action which makes him rich in the eyes of his neighbors.  He chooses a path for himself which will assure him that as the temporary state of affairs changes, he will have something which lasts.

            Rossing also raises the question of how the rich man reacts to what he sees.  The actions on the part of this manager deserve to be commended – perhaps – because even the master realizes the wisdom of what the manager has done.  He commends the manager for doing the right thing – maybe this means the master begins to reflect on his own ill placed sense of security.  Maybe, just maybe, the actions of the dishonest manger exposed to the rich master how he had used his wealth selfishly and to the detriment of others.

            The manager realized that while he may have had possessions he didn’t have what he needed the most.  He acts shrewdly in order to correct the situation.  The master commends him, for using that which was at his disposal in order to acquire that which would never be taken away.

            And then we get to those preach-able lessons, in the final four verses.

            “Whoever is faithful in very little is faithful also in much.”  Jesus isn’t talking about we manage $20 as opposed to how we manage $2 million.  The “very little” is any and all of those things which are fleeting and easily stripped away from us.  The “much” is our standing before God and the way we care for and use the image of God imprinted upon us at creation.

            In this way of seeing the story, being faithful with “dishonest wealth” is a reference to any material possessions.  “True riches” are the gifts of God, for the people of God. 

            Have we been faithful?  With that which belongs to another?  We were given and bear the image of God.  How we handle that which has been given to us surely ought to be taken into consideration when the possibility comes of giving us that image of resurrected and heavenly beings.

            You cannot serve two masters…..  I don’t even want to read the final verse….. you read it yourself.


Thursday, September 15, 2016

Devotion - Thursday, September 15

Acts 15 is one of the chapters in the Bible which we should be able to call forth from our memory.  It is the account of the meeting in Jerusalem where the leaders of the newly forming Church discuss whether Gentile converts must also be expected to follow the Law of Moses.

Verse 10 is where I would like to call particular attention.  Peter says, "Now, therefore why do you make a trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?"  The Laws of Moses are too much to bear.  At Sunday's Confirmation Ministry class, we spoke of why Martin Luther put the 10 commandments first in the Small Catechism, followed by the Apostles' Creed.  Even those 10 commands make us aware of our in ability to do all that the Law would require.  We are driven to look to the mercy of God who creates, redeems and sanctifies.

Verse 11 of Acts 15 is Peter saying the same thing:  "But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will."

We don't need to enforce the Law, in order to appreciate that Christ has set us free from the Law's burden.  We don't need to hold ourselves accountable to the Law, in order to move to a different criteria of what it means to be a disciple.

Acts 15.  Very important in the history of our Church.  Very important theology.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Devotion - Wednesday, September 14

John 11 contains the story of the resurrection of Lazarus.  Jesus is told that Lazarus is ill, yet he lingers two days longer before heading over to Bethany.  This will figure into the story again later, when the sister of Lazarus asks why Jesus had not come before Lazarus dies.

This delay, on the part of Jesus, surely communicates that we should not become so self-centered or self-absorbed that we think our lives and our needs are the only thing which matters.  This delay does not prevent Jesus from attending to Lazarus, in the end.  But for the two days in between, Lazarus had to wonder where Jesus was and if he would come.

We all should learn patience.  Everyone one of us could increase our ability to trust that Jesus will come, when the time is right.  But waiting is lonely and painful and sometimes discouraging.  Let's be honest about that; honest about it in our prayers and honest about it in our conversations with one another.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Devotion - Tuesday, September 13

One of the reports I am asked to complete each year asked "How does the ministry reach out to students?"  After a few sentences, I found myself writing of the exchanges I overhear.  Sitting in my office, I am privileged to listen in on the discussions happening in the LCM Lounge.  Sometimes these are mundane; quite often they impress me with their depth of care and compassion.

Jesus calls us as followers so that we might share in the building up and care of one another.  Jesus sends out his disciples in pairs so they will have a companion and a confidant.  Life is too difficult to face it alone.

I am aware that there are many who will read these words who have never spent an afternoon using the LCM Lounge to study, or visit.  My prayer is that you have such a place that you return to often.  A place where you can accidentally discover the willingness of a sister or brother's eagerness to journey with you.  A place where you can be assured that you are not facing the day alone.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Devotion - Monday, September 12

In the interim, I have taken on a few more parish duties at UniLu. One of these was to teach yesterday's final session of Confirmation Ministry.  We were considering the Small Catechism.  

One of the students asked about predestination.  

Her question included what I want to say first - that within the Christian family, some hold a firm commitment to predestination.  Among us Christians, there is a variety of ways of speaking of such things.

This morning, the appointed Bible readings brought me back to this topic.  First, from Acts 13:44-52 I read of the reaction to the preaching of Paul and Barnabas.  The text says, "As many as were ordained to eternal life believed."  This sure seems to support the notion that some were set aside (perhaps from the beginning of time, maybe from the day of their birth) to be counted among the faithful.  My reluctance to think that our salvation is predestined is challenged by these verses.

We should be careful in allowing a verse in a book of the Bible to be interpreted by a verse in another book of the Bible, but I was also directed this morning to John 10:19-30.  In verse 30 I find a thought which does inform my thinking about Acts 13.

Jesus is speaking, and he says, "no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand."

What if the assurance that those who are "ordained to eternal life" is a way of acknowledging that those who are among Christ's followers are safe and secure and can never be snatched away?  What if, from the beginning of time, even before the name of Jesus was spoken, God had previously determined that no one would be left in the dark and separated from the joy of knowing the Christ?

Many hold to a notion of predestination that I find uncomfortable.  I cannot fathom some being destined to damnation.  However, I pray that I will not let my discomfort blind me from the wisdom and truth of scripture.  And I hope that I am not doing incredible mental gymnastics to twist my way around all of this.  But I do not find it possible to think that anyone is outside the reach of God's forgiveness and salvation.  I do find it absolutely true that God's protection of me prevents me from being snatched away, lured away from God's Word and the community with bears God's name.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Devotion - Thursday, September 8

The Gospel of John differs significantly from the other three.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke each have a particular perspective on the story of Jesus.  There is a reason why they wrote their own accounts.  We are reasonably sure that Matthew and Luke had access to Mark's gospel as they were writing.

As John tells the Jesus story, he continually inserts his perspective.  John unabashedly includes in his account what these events mean.  

John 9 is the text for today.  What might in other accounts be a simple story of healing, in John there are numerous back and forth exchanges.  The particulars are important.  The one who is healed in this story is blind from birth.

At one point in the story, John makes clear his reasons for spending so much time telling this story.  While many who are blind are healed, none of them were blind from birth.  Giving sight to one who had never been able to see means that Jesus does not merely fix something that is broken - he creates that which has never existed.  

While we may tend to lump all healing stories together, John reminds us in the 9th chapter that Jesus is more than a soothsayer - of which there were many during Jesus' lifetime.  While we may brush over the incredible act described in these verses, John wants to make sure we not only know what happened but understand its significance.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Devotion - Wednesday, September 7

This morning I was reading John 8:47-59.  Jesus is engaged in another of what seems like unending disputes with the religious leaders.  

At least part of this confrontation is rooted in identity.  The exchange includes claims that Jesus is "a Samaritan"; that he has "a demon."  Jesus tells them they are not "of God."

Our identity can be labeled according to our genetic makeup.  It can also be linked to our interests (you are a Tiger fan....)  The link which is on display in these verses is where our hearts find a home.  The identity at issue in John 8 is whether we will be defined by our devotion to God.

When someone asks, "Who are you?", what is your first response?  Your name?  Your hometown?  It would be strange, but perhaps very effective, to begin our self-introduction by saying "I am a child of God", or "I am a follower of Jesus."  There may have been a time when we could assume such things about others, but this is no longer the case.  While being a follower of Jesus remains somewhat of a social norm, it is far from being a universal experience.  Of course, we would never want to introduce ourselves this way in order to shame or challenge others.  But if offered with the humility for which Christians are to be known, it sets a tone for us and for our future interactions.

These verses provide an opportunity for us to reflect on what makes us who we are.  They encourage us to understand that who we are is determined by that which is larger than ourselves.  Our identity is found in Christ.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Devotion - Tuesday, September 6

In one of the sessions at this weekend's retreat, I tried to speak of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo.  I feel confident that I got the information correct, but I think I got his name somewhat confused.  As it happened, on Sunday afternoon, I found myself once more speaking of the writings of this fourth century teacher.  This morning, my devotional guide contained a sample of his writings.  So, it seems appropriate that I share a bit of what Augustine taught.

One of Augustine's contributions to Christian thought is his understanding of free will.  His personal story involves a lot of exercise of his own free will - use of free will which drew him away from the way of Christ.  Then, something brought him around.  Augustine insisted that we are enslaved to our godless ways, until such time as Christ sets us free from that bondage.  Any claim that we have set ourselves free is "foolish pride of boasting."

The retreat discussion which led to my speaking of Augustine was focused on our identity as children of God.  A child does not chose to be born. This decision is made by another.  So it is with our identity as God's childre.  God is the one who chooses.  When we develop our ability to reason we come to understand our identity.  We look to the ones who selflessly fed and clothed us, who provided for us and gave us their name.  It is their love of us, when were incapable of finding nourishment for ourselves, which leads us to love them in return.

So it is with God.  We see God's majesty; we experience God's goodness.  How can we fail to respond?  How can we cease to return our thanks?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Devotion - Thursday, Sept 1

I understand why Clemson University does not observe Labor Day.  Taking a Monday off throws off the routine of classes, particularly labs.  We will have a Monday off due to Fall Break; so there is already one of the sixteen weeks to adjust for. How would we recover if there were two?

But it is unfortunate that we miss the opportunity to draw the connection between "Labor" and academic work.

Being a student isn't merely a way station.  It is your occupation.  Having this mindset will alter the way you approach classes, the information you have the opportunity to learn, and the outcomes of each course you take.  You are doing more that clicking off credits, you are establishing patterns for how you will approach assignments, work with others, keep the end product in mind, and use the resources at your disposal to move toward that end.

You will not have the luxury of a day to reflect on these things.  But squeeze in a few moments to do so now.  Be serious about your studies; and be thankful that you have the opportunity to make full use of the intellect and problem solving skills God has given you.