Thursday, February 28, 2019

Devotion - Thursday, February 28

I want to write again about Ruth.  Hopefully, some of you have decided to read this short book along with me.

Ruth returns to Israel with her mother-in-law out of love and devotion, out of the realization that without someone to care for her, Naomi would find it difficult to survive.  This decision then places Ruth in peril.

Without a husband and without any land, Ruth must scavenge.  Hebrew law required the owner of the field to let his oxen work without a muzzle and to leave the gleanings for the poor.  This was Ruth's fate.  While the owner of the land may respect Hebrew law, the laborers often abused and molested these women.

What a horrible situation!

But how different is Ruth's fate from so many in our society?  Are not the poor left to dig their own way out of poverty or discover solutions to their plight?  We talk of education, then structure the system in a way which continues to disadvantage the disadvantaged.  News broke last week regarding the owner of an NFL Team soliciting sex - the story expanded to include the horror of human trafficking.

To be one of God's people is to see in those ancient Hebrew laws God's care and concern for all His children.  To do the will of God is to recognize our excess and to make sure to leave some for those who have none.  Our "Christian" culture has placed to much emphasis on "believe in your heart and confess with your lips" and not enough attention to "when you saw me naked you clothed me."

Things will work out okay for Ruth.  Fortunately, there is another character in the book (Boaz) who follows the will and word of God.  But the happy ending should not catch our attention too soon.  Our celebration of her as one of the named ancestors of Jesus tells us something about his bloodline and about the story his life tells.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Devotion - Wednesday, February 27

There are often billboards encouraging folks to "get right with God."  In Matthew 5, Jesus tells us to "get right with one another."  

He says, "So, if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there and go, first be reconciled to your brother or sister."

The two are interconnected.  We can't be reconciled with the one without there being harmony with the other.  If we are looking for affirmation as to the health of our relationship with God we need look no further than our relationships with our sisters and our brothers.

Are we a friend to others?  Do we show compassion?  Are the marginalized further pushed aside by the way we live our lives?

Getting right with our sisters and brothers is on Jesus' list of things meriting our attention.  

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Devotion - Tuesday, February 26

My cycle of readings has brought me to Ruth.  I encourage you to read this book.  It explains how a Moabite becomes one of the two women listed in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5).

Ruth marries an Israelite; he dies.  As does her father-in-law, and her brother-in-law.  Ruth's mother-in-law, Naomi, returns to Israel and Ruth travels with her.  They come to the land of Naomi's relatives.  Ruth becomes the wife of Boaz.  

In the devotion Paula shared on the retreat in Chapel Hill, she mentioned that the law forbid anyone to marry outside the bloodlines of Israel.  The Moabites are particularly singled out as forbidden (Nehemiah 13:1).  And yet, here is a Moabite woman, whose story becomes one of the books of the Bible, and who is named in the listing of Jesus' ancestors.  

The story of Ruth needs to give us caution when we start to think of who is in and who is out; when we start to attempt to determine who is acceptable and who is to be kept outside.  There are rules and then there are rules.  The rules which supersede are those which bear witness to the love of God and the acceptability of those whom God calls "my child."

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Devotion - Thursday, February 21

What a delight it was to have John Wagner as our guest for LCM last night.  As he shared his faith journey, he spoke of a car wreck.  He fell asleep and went off the side of the interstate.  He wasn't injured - because of the exact spot where his car went off the road.  Two seconds earlier or two seconds later and it would have been a different story.

John shared that he credited God with the miraculous path taken by the car as he was asleep.  "I am not sure that to think about those who die in such wrecks.  I will turn to the Pastors."  (Pastor Jon and I were both there.)

Here is what I would say to John - and to all of you.

Such events in our lives strengthen our faith and our confidence in God.  (Read that sentence again.)

It is when we start to extrapolate that we usually get into theological hot water or make statements when call into question the significance of the affirmation brought to us by the event.  It is totally correct for John to speak of how he saw God's hand in the wreck; it would be questionable for John to muse why the car of others did not take a similar path.

Each of us are on a faith journey which is our own.  We should speak (practice speaking to others) of the path this journey is taking.  And, we should not shy away from those events in our lives which strengthen our faith and our confidence in God.  Give thanks for them, and know them as significant milestones in our journey - without trying to arrive at universal statements about them.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Devotion - Tuesday, February 19

In Mark 11 we have one of the instances where Jesus speaks of what can be accomplished by asking God.  "Truly I say to you, whoever says to the mountains, 'Be taken up and cast into the sea,' and does not doubt in their heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.  Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe and you will receive it, and it will be yours."

How do you apply this verse in your life?

Obviously, none of us would use prayer in order to cast the mountains into the sea.  We are also mature enough not to use prayer as a way to approach the exam for which we need to study.  But what of other prayer requests?  

February 19 is the anniversary of my sister's death.  Her death still disturbs my faith.  She was only 69; and a deeply loving and caring person.

This devotion is not going to end with a perfect conclusion.  But it will be my attempt to share what I have learned from others.  And by "others," I don't mean my professors at seminary or the Bishops who have given lectures or sermons.  I mean the 90 year old persons, and those like my sister whose struggle with diseases such as cancer made them wise.

A faith which does not lift to God our petitions and prayers is useless.  We cannot receive the grace of God unless we go to God with our greatest heartaches.  It is essential that we ask for mountains to be thrown into the sea.  Those who pray with such confidence bear witness to the results of such prayer.  They speak of how God returned to them and brought them peace.

It is a matter of faith.  And while faith does not insist upon our setting aside logic, this aspect of faith is not logical.  It is much more profound and true than any argument which could be pieced together using our reason or knowledge.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Devotion - Monday, February 18

Another of the "stories you ought to know," is Jesus' entry to Jerusalem.  This morning I was reading this story from Mark 11.

In Mark, Jesus sends his disciples into town to get a "colt, on which no one has ever sat."  This is a clue to the significance of what comes next.

As Jesus rides the colt into town, his followers place their coats on the ground, in front of the colt.  Those who have no coats, cut palm branches from the trees.

When a new ruler enters the city for coronation, there would be built a new road, on which no one had walked.  Jesus' followers create such a road, for him.

The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is presented as an invitation prepare the way for entry into our lives and into our world.  How are we welcoming and honoring the one whom is our king and lord?

One of the downsides to the often repeated (and totally true) affirmation that Jesus never abandons us is the opportunity this creates for us to ignore preparations to welcome him into our midst.  We too often fail to make ready and to honor.  

The story in Mark 11 is one we should know, and understand, and apply to our lives.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Devotion - Thursday, February 14

It is in the 10th chapter of Mark's gospel that we get the encounter between Jesus and the young man who wanted to justify himself.  This is the encounter in which he asks what he must do to inherit eternal life.  When the young man insists he has kept the commandments from his youth, Jesus tells him he only lacks one thing:  "Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor."

This, the young man, cannot do.

For 2,000 years, followers of Jesus have struggled with how this encounter applies to their lives.  Are we also asked (instructed) to sell all we have?  The favored answer is, "No.  It was only in this young man's life that his possessions stood between him and Jesus."

Obviously, I have not sold all my possessions.  

But we do need to be made uncomfortable by this story.  We need to ask the difficult questions of whether we depend on  God or if we rest on our accumulations.  Where is it that we find our source of strength, and comfort, and hope?

In a discussion yesterday, I heard the affirmation of placing confidence in Jesus.  In response to my asking what brought them back to church so often they replied, "It is my safe space."  For this person, as with me, there is no where else that I find the unwavering affirmation and universal acceptance.

The young man in Mark 10 lacked the experience of finding the peace of God.  His peace was found elsewhere.  Ths is why he went away from Jesus, sorrowful.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Devotion - Thursday, February 13

I read from Mark this morning the encounter where Jesus makes a small child the example to emulate.  He says, "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it".  This is great for kids, but what does it say to adults?

It should say to set aside our continual desire to understand and know all things.  It should say it is okay to allow ourselves to experience something good without dissecting it.  

A child finds themselves happily playing and soaking up life.  A child is not bothered with how this came their way or if it will remain.  A child lives in the moment and rejoices when the moment is good.

There are times and places when we have to be adults.  There are decisions to be made and courses of action to be taken.  Jesus warns us against thinking this is necessary in every moment and every situation.  Sometimes it is okay to simply find ourselves in a good place and to give God thanks for it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Devotion - Tuesday, February 12

Isaiah 58 speaks of the fast desired by God.  

I probably ought to start with a few comments about fasting.  This is a spiritual practice which has fallen out of popularity among us.  We hear of it, but rarely do we offer a fast.

Which may serve us well, when we read Isaiah 58.

The prophet reveals how those who fast had turned this into a show of their own piety.  They put on sackcloth and ashes on their heads.  The prophet asks, "Is this the fast God desires?"

This is the reply:
Is not this the fast I choose:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
It is not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh

Monday, February 11, 2019

Devotion - Monday, February 11

Paul suffered with some sort of an ailment.  We have tried to figure out what it was, but there are not enough clues to finally decide.  The most common assumption is epilepsy.  

In the closing verses of Galatians, we find one of the hints.  The book contains these words:  "See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand."

Paul's illness or disability is rarely apparent.  He does his work and he carries forth his message.  This is a deeper lessen than "press on through the pain."  It is an acknowledgement that the limitations of our bodies do not define us or our usefulness.  We can learn from Paul not to let obstacles prevent us from doing what God has called us to do.

We also learn much about Paul's talk of God and grace and prayer.  In another place, Paul says he prayed this ailment might be taken from him - but it isn't.  He does not dwell on why God fails to do this.  If God heals as a result of any measure of faithfulness, we would think Paul close to the top of the list, right?  In Paul's life story we learn not to associate the granting of what we want with the presence and prominence of God.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Sermon - 5th Sunday of Epiphany

Luke 5:1-11   


I am going to ask you to make a decision this morning.  I want you to weigh the crisis associated with having too little against the crisis of having too much.  Crises of both types occur in the short story which serves as today’s Gospel reading.  There is a crisis of too little, and there is a crisis of too much.  And I am going to ask you to decide which is the most threatening.

The first crisis is upon the fishermen.  When Jesus enters the picture, they are washing their nets.  We learn later in the story that Simon, James and John are washing their nets because they have no fish to sell.  They tell Jesus, “we worked all night and caught nothing.”  We can’t say for sure whether these fishermen lived paycheck to paycheck, but we could be reasonably sure that it wasn’t a good thing to report “we worked all night and caught nothing.”

We can’t say for sure whether these fishermen were willing to let Jesus hop into their boat and row a little away from the shore because they were hoping for a few coins for their efforts.  But this is a possibility.  Their inability to sell fish and thus earn their wage may have been more than an inconvenience.  Certainly, they can’t endure endless days of work and nothing to show for it.

It was not a good thing – this crisis of having nothing to show for ones labors.  It is in the midst of this crisis that Jesus shows up.

Jesus starts to talk.  The crowd seems to listen.  When Jesus is finished he tells Simon to put out into the deep and let down his nets.  Simon’s response was the biblical era equivalent of “stay in your own lane, bro.”  What could this traveling preacher tell Simon about fishing?  Whether Jesus was insistent, or whether Peter thought “I’ll show you”, the nets are let down.  And then another crisis develops.  This time the crisis is of abundance.  There are too many fish!  The nets are beginning to break!  A second boat is summoned – and then both boats start to sink!  There is a crisis at hand!  A crisis of abundance.

Now.  This is where you get to make a decision.  Here is where I would like to get your opinion.  Which is worse?  The crisis of sacristy?  Or the crisis of abundance?

Not catching any fish was not a good thing.  And if that happened for a number of days in a row, these fishermen might be faced with the thought of selling their nets, and/or their boats, and looking for another like of work.  It is a crisis, to experience sacristy.

But when the abundance came, it is not as if they are no longer in danger.  What if the nets did break?  And fall to the bottom of the sea?  Or what would they do were their boats to sink?  What would happen to them then?

Let’s think about our earlier voting.  Which is the greater crisis?  Too little?  Or too much?

For the most part, those of us gathered here this morning face the latter of these crisis.  We have so much.  We live in the crisis of how to handle abundance.  I do not wish to minimize the struggles and stresses of those who suffer from a crisis of sacristy.  If I were preaching in their midst, I am sure God would have put a different message in my mouth.  But today I am talking to y’all – and to myself – and we are those who live in a crisis of abundance.  And it is a crisis.  No less than the fishermen in our story this abundance it a threat.  Our nets can rip and fall to the bottom of the sea, and our boats could sink.

A campus pastor at a different university spoke this week about the crisis of abundance seen in the lives of the involved students.  These students are bright and gifted and talented and capable of so many things.  If they were not so bright and gifted and talented and capable they would face fewer options as they looked to their future.  But being all those things means they can choose, it means they have to choose – and the enormity of options becomes overwhelming. 

What if I choose the wrong major?  Work in the wrong lab?  Take the lesser internship?  Accept a job which won’t bring me happiness? - - The weight of abundance can rip and sink.

A weird and destructive aspect of abundance is the way it fools us into looking for the one place where abundance is not as apparent.  We have plenty of most things, but we perceive ourselves as lacking in this other thing.  Forgetting huge piles and vast resources, we start to fixate on that which we worry might run short. 

Not always, but often this is money.  My grandmother used to say, “If money can fix your problems, you don’t have real problems.”  She said that from a certain level of abundance – she owned an 80-acre farm, and had five healthy children.  But her point is good to take to heart.

We live in abundance.  And our very abundance too often becomes our crisis. 

In order to protect what we have amassed we develop elaborate protections.  We seek ways to safeguard what is ours.  Added to the monthly expenses is a security system or remote cameras.  When we fill up our houses we rent storage units.  When we can’t keep our huge house clean we hire a cleaning service - but of course keep an eye on the workers that they don’t pocket our pretty, expensive trinkets. 

We live in abundance.  And our very abundance too often becomes our crisis. 

We sometimes refer to our abundance as “our way of life,” and it is.  The way of life most commonly lived by us and our peers is one of plenty and obesity and excess. 

This crisis of abundance is threatening.  This crisis of excess is oppressive.  We are so fearful of a crisis of scarcity that we have failed to see the crisis of having too much.

The pivot point in this story, between the two crisis, is when Jesus shows up.  It is the presence of Jesus which moves the disciples from one end of the spectrum to the other.  There is – of course – something theological to be said about this.  When Jesus comes, abundance is sure to follow.  In this story, that abundance even includes fish.  In other stories, it might include restoring of sight, or the ability to walk.  Sometimes the abundance which Jesus brings is the ability to see ourselves as loved and lovable – as is the case of the woman at the well or wee little Zachaeus who climbs up into a tree.

Where Jesus is, there is abundance.  We can feed and house and provide medical care for every man, woman, and child – if only we were to stop wars and building weapons of war and engaging in disputes about who should be in control.

We should not miss the point in this story when Simon and James and John walk away from their huge haul of fish.  Their crisis of abundance is solved by just leaving their earthly loot behind.
Remember your vote this morning.  And muse throughout the week about the crisis which abundance brings.  Pray for those experiencing sacristy, and do something to address their crisis.  Doing so might even begin to reorder your life so as to ease the stress of having too much.


Thursday, February 7, 2019

Devotion - Thursday, February 7

On the list of bible stories you ought to know is The Confession of Peter.  I read it this morning, from Mark 8:27-9:1.

Jesus asks the disciples who "people" say he is, then he asks "Who do you say that I am?"  Peter replies, "You are the Christ."

The story continues.  It moves immediately into talk of what it means to make such a statement.  Jesus is very clear - it means living (and dying if necessary) in order to be God's agent in the world.  This is more than Peter is ready to hear.

The gospel story tells us that Peter did encounter repeated hurdles as he shared what he had learned at the feet of Jesus.  He was imprisoned, he was beaten, he was told to keep silent.  The way of Jesus is a way which runs contrary to the ways of the world around us.

Peter knew this, eventually.  He came to embrace this, over time.  And he felt it in his own body.

Yet, he never regretted the hardships which being faithful brought on him.  He had come to experience the joy of knowing God's love and the happiness of sharing that good news with others.

The world is no less hostile to the way of Jesus.  Listen to the talk about our sisters and brothers approaching that imaginary line some call a border for some temporary thing called a nation.  Listen to the messages about storing up riches for tomorrow even if that means ignoring the suffering of neighbors today.  The way of Jesus is the way of joy and happiness, but the path leads us through a way which is too often angry and vile.

The Confession of Peter.  Mark 8.  Read it for yourself.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Devotion - Thursday, February 6

I like the story in Mark 8:20-26 where it takes Jesus two attempts to heal a blind man.  He makes the first attempt, asks the man "Do you see anything?" and the man replies, "I see men; but they look like trees, walking."  So Jesus tries again.

How quick we are to assume that the way of God is easy, quick, simple.  We are too often schooled to think when God gets involved everything simply falls into place.  We no longer expect effort to be necessary.

Do not confuse this with talk of God's grace.  That does "come" to us; fall in our laps.

But also don't mistake the gift of God's grace as the end of the story.  There are repercussions of that grace - we are sent into the world.  Our going will involve effort and multiple attempts to achieve our ends.

I am not entirely sure of the motivation for including the story of Jesus' double healing efforts in the Gospel narrative, but I am glad it is there.  It prevents me from being too critical of myself when it takes me a second try to get things right.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Devotion - Tuesday, February 5

I continue to read from Galatians.   This morning chapter 4, verses 12-20.

In this section, Paul is thanking them for their care of him.  He is also acknowledging there has been some uncomfortable exchanges.  He asks them "Have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?"

There are few tasks as difficult for a pastor than to tell the truth.  Our culture teaches us to "mind our own business," and to "let folks make their own decisions".  Those well learned lessons don't sit well with telling the truth about some behaviors or words or beliefs.  

Too often we ignore those things in the lives of others which impede their ability to show forth Christ.  Too often we remain silent even when we become aware of that which runs contrary to the word and will of God.  It is as if we are more fearful of becoming another's enemy than leaving them in their sin.

The followers of Jesus are to admonish one another.  This is an important task.  It is how we assist one another in their witness.  Rather than become angry, we are to be thankful that another cared enough to point out to us what we had failed to see.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Devotion - Monday, February 4

This morning I was directed to Galatians 4:1-10.  It was verses 8-9 which became the focus of my reflection and the basis of my prayer petitions:

Formerly when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods.  Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits?

The phrase which stood out is the one I emphasized.  "or rather to be known by God."  The faith of the Church, the way of faith spoken of by Jesus, the faith of Jesus is passive.  We do not work in order to achieve something; we come to understand that something has happened to us!  We are known by God.

Forget for the moment what that says about the possibility that this wording might imply that there are some who are not known by God.  That is a topic for another time.  What the writer of Galatians tells us is we need no longer be on the treadmill of searching and seeking and fear and worry.  The writer almost throws this in as an afterthought.  The phrase is inserted into an otherwise complete sentence.  It seems that lest we forget something assumed to be at the core of our relationship with God, he makes quick reference to one of the foundations on which his current illustration is based.

And yet, we forget this foundation.  We forget and we once again fall prey to the fallacy that we might not have done what we ought or thought what we must.  We turn back to the weak and beggarly spirits.

You are known by God!  Life with that assurance and with the confidence it gives.