1 Timothy 6:6-12,17-19

September 23, 2016

“Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. 

But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses…

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” 1 Timothy 6:6-12,17-19

These are famous verses. The kind of Bible verses that float around in our culture. Even people who are very unfamiliar with the Bible have, at some point, heard the words “for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” But does that make any difference?

Sometimes such verses seem to me like being told to eat my vegetables. Here is what I know about eating vegetables. They are good for us in many ways. They provide nutrients and fiber that are great for our bodies. They keep us healthy and they help us not gain unnecessary weight. They are the first thing that we see when we walk into a grocery store. They are easy to prepare. They even taste pretty good.

So why do we struggle to eat our vegetables? Why is junk food so much more attractive?

Because there is in us something that we have chosen to call “sin.” This little word carries a lot of different meanings. Missing the mark. Rebelliousness. Selfishness. Pride. It captures the battle that often rages within us between what we know we ought to do and what we end up doing.

Sometimes we hit the mark. We do eat our vegetables. We are content with what we have. We don’t set our hopes on money and what it can buy us. But sometimes we fall off into the deep end of chasing dead ends.

It is a mystery why some people are able to consistently eat their vegetables, take good care of themselves, feel confident and content with life while others eat junk food meals and chase junk good lives.

Here is where the faith gets hard. Here is where we need God’s help to shun that which is destructive to us and fight for that which is worth fighting for, which is always better for us. Here is where we pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life…

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you see how fickle we are and how easily we fill our lives with junk. Here is where we need the power you alone can give to us to fight the good fight of the faith, to be content with what we have, to pursue love, endurance, gentleness and all that really matters in our lives. Give us that power, one day, one meal, one paycheck, at a time. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Ecclesiastes 5:10-12

September 22, 2016

“The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity. When goods increase, those who eat them increase; and what gain has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of laborers, whether they eat little or much; but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep.” Ecclesiastes 5:10-12

That first sentence is intriguing. The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. It raises the question of what it means to be satisfied and it reminds us that there is a great deal of value in feeling satisfied. But it says that neither money or wealth will get us there.

It reminds me of that famous quote from John D. Rockefeller, the wealthiest man in the history of the United States. When asked “How much money is enough money?”, he replied “Just a little bit more.” (Which, by the way, provided the title for a great book written by T. Carlos Anderson, a Lutheran pastor in Austin.)

I look back at my life and I see an endless procession of “if only I could have that I would never want another thing in my life…” It hasn’t ended yet and no thing, as in nothing, that could be bought, borrowed, or saved as provided any ultimate satisfaction in my life. There is always room for just a little bit more.

As it says in the Amazon description of Anderson’s book, “Is America a Christian Nation? According to author T. Carlos Anderson, the true religion of the land is the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. Anderson, defining religion as ultimate concern, claims our true devotion is found in material pursuits. It’s been a good religion; it has fed, clothed, sheltered, and employed millions of Americans. It can go too far, however. When these pursuits become excessive, the religion breaks bad and the common good suffers.”

Sound familiar?

The writer also tells us that “Sweet is the sleep of laborers, whether they eat little or much; but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep.” Ask any owner of a small business or an executive at a large company and they would tell you what sleepless nights feel like when things aren’t going so well. They feel the weight of responsibility, not only to their own families, but to all those they employ. The more one has to lose, the more one fears losing it.

So what does offer us ultimate satisfaction? Here is the Apostle Paul’s answer:

I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:11-13

I have learned to be content with whatever I have. Be content today.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, all that we have, and all that we are, comes from your hand as a generous gift. May we use your blessings to be a blessing. May we be good stewards of our lives. May we share what we have and share room for others to gain what they need. Strengthen us to do what you have called and set us aside to do. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

Psalm 62

September 21, 2016

“For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.

He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.

How long will you assail a person, will you batter your victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?

Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood; they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse.

For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.

He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.

On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.

Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.

Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath.

Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.

Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God,

and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord. For you repay to all according to their work.” Psalm 62

This is a great reading for a Wednesday. Middle of the week. Hump day. The news filled with horror and hyperbole. It feels good to be reminded that God is our rock and our fortress.

What in our lives can we entrust to God? Everything and anything. What in our lives are we willing to entrust to God? Now that is where it gets tricky.

I love the story of the conversion of the early English knights to Christianity. Known as fierce warriors, they entered the water for their baptisms. As the priests submerged them the knights allowed everything but the hand with which they swung their swords. They entrusted everything to God…except that. That they held back.

What do you hold back?

Your worries and fears might be teaching you something about what you hold back from God. Your calendar and your weekly schedule might teach you something about what you hold back from God. Your attitudes and actions toward the people who you find troubling might be teaching you about what you hold back from God.

And then there is the old “sometimes.”

Sometimes I am able to entrust everything to God. But sometimes I go my own way, I trust my own solutions, I think I can handle everything quite nicely myself thank you very much.

The psalmist tells us “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.” Notice the preposition! It doesn’t say what we expect. It doesn’t say my hope is IN him, it says my hope is FROM him. Even hope itself is a gift from God. It is God being our rock, salvation, fortress, and deliverance.

So yes, today is a busy day in the midst of a busy week. But do take some time today to be quiet. To just show up for God. Even for a few minutes. Be quiet. Let God teach you about what you hold back and where you fall into “sometimes.”

The psalmist says “Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this…” Taking a little time to listen is a great strategy to actually hear something.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you are our rock, our fortress, our hope, our life. Teach us where we hold back and inspire us to let go and let you. We will do our part. We will do the best we can. But we are limited. Do for us what we cannot do for ourselves and in that teach us anew to put our trust in you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 19:16-30

September 20, 2016

“Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” 

Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”” Matthew 19:16-30

This is one of those Bible passages that reminds me that people have been wrestling with the words of Jesus for almost 2000 years. You just can’t pin Jesus down. He is relentlessly focused on following God wherever that takes him and that often leaves us spinning in place.

Today we hear again from the young man who shows up and asks Jesus what it will take for him to have eternal life. It is an important question. I notice immediately that, in the 10th chapter of Mark, the question comes out slightly differently. There the man asks what he has to do to “inherit” eternal life. (The same word is used in Luke 18:18 as Luke tells the same story.) Matthew, with a copy of Mark in front of him, changed the word from “inherit” to “have”. What does that tell us?

“Inherit” suggests that eternal life is something a person might receive off in the distant future. “Have” suggests that it is possible to live in eternal life now. Matthew sees eternal life as a certain quality of life available to us now, not merely a quantity of years on the other side of the grave. The gospel of John shares this same understanding.

The writer of 1 Timothy combines the teaching here about wealth and eternal life in 6:17-19, “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”

Eternal life has something to do with “the life that really is life.” Life like it is meant to be. Life as God intends it.

Whenever I read this passage I remember two things. I remember the commentators who try to explain some gate into the city of Jerusalem that was really narrow where a fully loaded camel couldn’t enter. I have no idea if that is true. And I think about the story of the monkey trap where a banana was placed in the bottom of a glass with a small opening at the top. The monkey would reach in, grab the banana, and then get stuck because getting his arm out required him to let go of the banana.

Maybe Jesus is saying the same thing here about our wealth, possessions, and eternal life.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we know the temptation of relying on our material success and all of our stuff to make us happy, to give us security, identity, and status. We hold on to all of this far too tightly. Help us to let go. To be generous. To live simply and to truly live. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 12:38-44

September 19, 2016

“As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 

Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Mark 12:38-44

The word “economy” means “the process or system by which goods and services are exchanged among people.” It comes from a Greek word which referred to the management of a household. At its root, it means how a community of people choose to cooperate with one another. Into this system comes the idea of money.

Gold is valuable because people decided at some point to put a high value on it. It is relatively rare and portable so it worked well in the exchange of goods and services. But it was heavy so at some point paper money became the means of exchange. Today, value passes between people via electronic data. But whatever the means of exchange, the underlying principle remains the same – people use their skills to produce goods and services that are “valued” in the marketplace and exchanged for other goods and services. That is how life worked in Jesus’ day too.

Alongside this central core of the economy comes two other uses of money. Taxes and charitable giving. Taxes, levied by every level of government, is coercive. That is you get into trouble if you don’t pay your taxes. Your only choice is to do what you are supposed to do or you will get punished for it. Charitable giving, what you give to the church or the Red Cross or any other helping organization, is entirely voluntary. The government, seeing the value that such organizations bring to life, encourages charitable giving by allowing for a small tax savings benefit, but charitable giving remains completely optional.

So it was the Jesus saw rich people putting large sums of money into the temple treasury and he didn’t have much good to say about them. But, when a poor widow put in all she had to live on, he praises her.  Why? Because she is totally relying on God to take care of her and her life. She doesn’t have anything else. But the rich people are free to still trust in their wealth since all they gave was a little extra.

This old story still invites us to think more deeply about how we use our money. Very few of those of you reading this will ever get “down to your last penny” in your lives. None of you are forced to give any of your money to the church or any other charity. Some of you are very wealthy. The question this story asks of us is this – Rich, poor, or somewhere in the middle, what place does giving generously fit into the management of our households?

And when we give, are we giving out of trust and gratitude, are we just following our tax strategy, or do we just keep everything for ourselves? If we could sit down with Jesus for a conversation about how we use our money, given that he sees everything, what might he say to us?

Let us pray: Dear Lord, thank you for the generosity that you have implanted into the hearts of people who provide the resources that free charitable organizations to do their work. Thank you for the privilege of using our money to be helpful in ways and places where we cannot go. Thank you for the witness of this poor widow. May her example encourage each of us to give from our hearts, trusting that you will take care of our needs. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

2 Peter 3:8-13

September 16, 2016

“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” 2 Peter 3:8-13

I can’t ignore that first line in today’s reading. Here’s why:

In our middle school confirmation program we are spending the whole year doing an overview of the Bible. Which means, of course, that we start with Genesis and the two creation stories. This is big and important stuff for middle school kids (and their parents, which is why our parents re-take confirmation right along with their kids.) After I teach the big group we break up into smaller discussion groups. I meet with the parents.

As we were processing the first creation story last week I – as I always do – went right after the issue as it is commonly posed in our culture as science vs. theology or creation vs. evolution. I frankly don’t have much time for this debate. It is a modern invention, seldom engaged in a thoughtful manner, and always does injustice to both science and theology. But it is a BIG deal for middle school kids to process.

Very quickly in our parents’ discussion, two of our parents unknowingly went straight down the two most common rabbit holes. One, raised in China, was taught a very materialistic view of life and its origins, utterly devoid of the supernatural or theological. That view is always inclined toward the “God of the gaps theory” which, in trying to “defend” God, looks for the otherwise unexplainable, the holes in the science, and says, “THERE is God!”

Another, raised right here in good old Texas, also seeking to defend God (we were, after all, in church), offered the familiar “let’s harmonize our stories so they fit theory”. That one always begins with “Well, the Bible says that “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” Do you see how I got on this subject this morning?

I shot that one of the sky like a clay pigeon at a turkey trapshoot – I said, “The problem with that “we don’t know how long a day is for God theory” is that it still assumes that there is some kind of competition between the stories of Genesis and our modern scientific quest for insight and knowledge.” I love being part of our middle school confirmation program, even when the stuff we talk about rocks a few boats along the way.

Here’s where the rubber hits the road on this one. To say that God is Creator is not to say “once upon a time God created…”, it is rather to say that God is ALWAYS Creator. God’s creative work, into which we are invited as created co-creators, is God’s CONSTANT work. We are privileged to have that insight, and privileged to have the curiosity to learn as much as we possibly can about God’s creation. Theology is not anti-science. Theology encourages science just as theology encourages every human endeavor devoted to the common good.

To know that God is Creator also means that we are not only privileged, we are also responsible to assume our God-given role in creation. And as the writer of 2 Peter tells us today, that means we are responsible to leading lives of holiness and godliness, patiently waiting in hope as God continues to reveal Godself to us, toward God’s final restoration of a new heaven and new earth.

I don’t know what that means or what it looks like but it sounds good, doesn’t it?

Let us pray: Thank you, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, for your patience with us as you hold us in the palm of your hand. Give us patience as well, even patience with ourselves, as we surrender our lives into your care, your keeping, and your calling to us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Romans 5:1-11

September 15, 2016

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 

For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” Romans 5:1-11

Do you want to know what never ceases to amaze me? Our capacity to think that we are smarter than God – especially when it comes to who we believe that God truly loves.

I am always amazed at the startling reality that people can absolutely believe, to the depth of their being, that God loves everyone in the world….except them. In their own private heart of hearts, they think they are the only ones who are fundamentally unlovable.

Now, I clearly realize that there are lots of people who think just the opposite. They never question God’s love for them. They might even be quick to point out people that fall outside of God’s love. Strangely, they might be precisely the people who are quick to point our people that fall outside of God’s love….unless, of course, they get with the program and shape up. It isn’t that I know many people like this. I just don’t understand the reality that they exist.

Me? I count myself among that first group. I can think of lots of reasons why I wouldn’t be at all surprised if God has had enough of me. That might be exactly why I cling so fiercely to God’s grace. If I have any hope at all, it has to be that or I’m sunk.

I think about things like this a lot more often than most people would realize. I will never forget the people along the way who have said things to me like “I didn’t go forward for Holy Communion this morning because I just didn’t feel worthy” and I want to pull my hair out. Of course you are not worthy! It is not about being worthy! No one is worthy! That is the whole point of grace. Of God’s unconditional, undeserved, unearned love for unworthy sinners!

The problem there is the same old problem of thinking that we have more insight, or that we are smarter than God.

How could Paul be any more clear with the Romans? “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Jesus didn’t wait around for the world to shape up before he died. It was actually just the opposite. It was the brokenness of the world that those broken leaders projected onto Jesus. It was THEIR woundedness that wounded Jesus. It was THEIR sin that he bore. Willlingly. Competely. Eternally.

It was OUR sin that put Jesus on the cross and it was Jesus’ love that let it happen. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

Don’t be a smarty pants. Don’t try to outthink God. Just let the good news sink deeply into your bones as you prepare for the rest of your day. You LIVE in God’s love and there isn’t a thing you can do to change that. Let it be. Let God be God. Let yourself be loved.

Let us pray: Oh Lord, the deepness, the completeness, the power of your love! While we were yet sinners…while we were enemies…while we stubbornly insisted and thought we knew a better way…that is right where you gave yourself over to us and suffered our death. But then, just when we thought you had us safely out of sight and out of mind, you rose from that tomb and you came to be among us. Where you are still among us. Open our hearts and minds to see you, to trust you, to follow you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

John 10:10-18

September 14, 2016

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. 

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” John 10:10-18

Not long ago I heard a presentation given by Rev. Dr. Rick Barger, now the President of Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, OH. Pastor Barger told a story that I have thought about every day since hearing it.

Back in 1979 he and his family were living in Teheran as the revolution happened that toppled the government of the Shah and included the capture of the American hostages. On Christmas Eve night, the Barger family and a guest from the US were in their living room, singing Christmas carols at the top of their lungs so their children would not be upset by the shouts of the crowds outside and the roar of the military vehicles passing down their street. He said that night reminded him of two competing, opposing, stories, only one of which could be true.

One story is the story of this fallen world. A story of conquest and violence and power. It is the story of the thief who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”

The other story is the one of the baby born of Mary, the Prince of Peace, the Good Shepherd, the one who “came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The good shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep.”

Two mutually exclusive stories. One true, the other an illusion. Which will it be? Who will we trust? Whose story will capture our imagination, guide our actions, motivate us to live our lives?

Will we trust violence, conquest, “gittin’ them before they git us?” Or the One who calls us to love our enemies, to do good to those who persecute us, and to turn the other cheek?

It seems crazy, doesn’t it?

These are two competing stories, both vying to capture our hearts and our minds. The thief and the Good Shepherd. One, the Father of Lies. The other, the Truth who sets us free.

Which will it be?

Let us pray: Dear Lord, this morning we trust that your story is the only path to peace, to justice, to the life that is truly life. We turn from the seductive voice of the thief to pray again using your words from the cross: Forgive us, Father, for we so often do not know what we are doing. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Judges 10:6-16

September 13, 2016

“The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, worshiping the Baals and the Astartes, the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines. Thus they abandoned the Lord, and did not worship him. So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the Ammonites, and they crushed and oppressed the Israelites that year.

For eighteen years they oppressed all the Israelites that were beyond the Jordan in the land of the Amorites, which is in Gilead. The Ammonites also crossed the Jordan to fight against Judah and against Benjamin and against the house of Ephraim; so that Israel was greatly distressed.

So the Israelites cried to the Lord, saying, “We have sinned against you, because we have abandoned our God and have worshiped the Baals.” 

And the Lord said to the Israelites, “Did I not deliver you from the Egyptians and from the Amorites, from the Ammonites and from the Philistines? The Sidonians also, and the Amalekites, and the Maonites, oppressed you; and you cried to me, and I delivered you out of their hand. Yet you have abandoned me and worshiped other gods; therefore I will deliver you no more. Go and cry to the gods whom you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress.” And the Israelites said to the Lord, “We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you; but deliver us this day!” 

So they put away the foreign gods from among them and worshiped the Lord; and he could no longer bear to see Israel suffer.” Judges 10:6-16

The book of Judges bridges the time between Joshua entering the Promised Land and the consolidation of the land of Israel under the first kings, Saul, David, and Solomon. It is a violent book as it tells story after story of the battles that the people of Israel fought with other tribes. It is also a story of the consequences of idolatry, of chasing after gods who are not gods.

As the story unfolds in Judges, God wants to help Israel. God wants to lead them to new lives in the Promised Land. But the people of Israel don’t always cooperate with God. Worse than that, as it says in today’s reading from the 10th chapter, “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord… they abandoned the Lord, and did not worship him.

God tried again and again to help Israel. God named a series of charismatic people, called “judges”, who were supposed to lead Israel is a right, godly, and faithful way. Yet again and again the judges were unable to keep Israel on track. Over and over this cycle repeats. God rescues the people, the people do OK for awhile until they fall back into idolatry yet again, God sees that they are punished, they cry out for help, God raises up a leader… Again and again.

What are we to make of these stories? We do well to understand that, although they look like historical stories, they were written long after the events they report. In fact, the book of Judges was carefully crafted and put together just as we have it for a very specific purpose. And that purpose was to warn subsequent generations that obedience and faithfulness to God was the key to the kind of life God wanted them to have. The lack of such obedience and faithfulness would always look like idolatry – that is, finding their security, identity, and purpose in something or someone other than God.

It didn’t matter who served as their leader – if the people as a whole proved rebellious, disobedient, and prone to idolatry, no leader had the power to turn them around. Their only hope was in trusting and following God.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, again and again we repeat the story of the Garden of Eden in our lives. Like your people of old, we always think we have a better idea, and that our better ideas will take us where we want to go. We are stubborn and full of pride. In Jesus you have shown us the best and only way to the lives you would have for us. Forgive us for going our own way and redirect us to follow as Jesus leads. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Psalm 51:1-10

September 12, 2016

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.

Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:1-10

Transgressions. Iniquity. Sin. There are several words in the Bible that describe what happens when our attitudes, our thoughts, and our behaviors flood our lives, and the lives of others, with destructive consequences.

Transgressions are actions that cross boundaries of relationships, that break rules, that break laws. Like cheating at school or lying about your taxes or stealing what isn’t yours.

Iniquities are moral violations like cheating on your wife, or looking at pornography on the Internet, or sexting with other kids at school. Racism and bigotry are attitudes that begin as iniquities and spill over to actions that are transgressions.

Sin is the overarching word that captures all of this. Sin with a capital “S” is best understood as an incurable disease that we are all born into – Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me – and sins with a small “s” are the symptoms of that disease that erupt through our attitudes, thoughts, and actions – Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

We all know what it feels like when we have sinned. We know the feelings of guilt and shame that we feel. We see the consequences of our actions, often in the eyes of the people we love the most. The psalmist wants us to realize that our sin runs much deeper than doing something naughty, and that the reason why it weighs so heavily on us is that God has created us for so much better. And that all of our sin, ultimately, is sin against God and God’s will for our lives. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.

So what are we to do with our sin? Our natural tendency is to lie, to hide, to pretend, to keep secrets, to justify ourselves. Why? Because we are afraid. We are afraid of being rejected, or being outed, ridiculed, humiliated. We want to escape the consequences. Our ego doesn’t want to admit to our brokenness and our limitations. So we hold it in…but it can’t and it spills over and it recycles and we dig ourselves into an even deeper hole.

What does the psalmist encourage us to do with our sin? Confess it. Speak the truth. Ask for forgiveness. All of this with the hope and promise that God can do major heart surgery on us and put us back in a better place – Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we hear every day about the big problems in the world “out there”, far beyond us, but the truth is that the most troubling parts of our lives are right here in front of our faces. Our sins separate us from you and from one another. They weigh us down, limit our lives, and fester deep within us. Forgive us for what we have done and left undone. Create in us clean hearts, and put a new and right spirit within us,that we might be freed to live lives that are truly alive. In Jesus’ name.