Genesis 2:1-3

August 26, 2016

“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” Genesis 2:1-3

People who study public education have noticed the remarkable advances that have occurred in the past twenty years in Finland. Finnish students have moved from the bottom to the top in assessments of academic improvement. The United States is stuck in the middle. Why? That is what everyone is trying to figure out. This is one paragraph from the above linked article:

“Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7. “We have no hurry,” said Louhivuori. “Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?”

How is it that children are learning better when they play more, when they are given very little homework, and when their formal education is delayed until they are more physiologically equipped to learn? How is it that teachers are more effective when they spend less time in the classroom, when they are freed from focusing on preparing students for standardized tests to spend more time giving individualized instruction?

The answer is the power of Sabbath rest.

Athletes are beginning to understand this. You don’t get stronger when you are lifting weights. Lifting weights, or any other type of athletic exertion, actually tears you down. The improvement comes when you are recovering. Eating the right foods and getting plenty of rest rebuilds your body and prepares you for the next period of exertion. Without such rest and nutrition, you quite literally burn yourself out. Rather than getting stronger, you get more brittle and injury prone.

Rest is holy activity. And when we rest, we need proper nutrition. Thus it is that we set one day aside to gather together in public worship, to be fed with the Word and the Meal. In this we connect to God, the Universal Power Source. Worship is not a sign of our weakness but of our strength. Worship rebuilds our communal connective tissues. It gives us resilience and courage. Doing yard work on Sunday morning does just the opposite – it binds us ever deeper into a world intent on appearances, keeping up with the Jones’, worrying about what the neighbors will think, and disconnecting us from the rest of the family.

Too harsh? I don’t think so. Not only does this creation story end with a day off, God cares enough about our need for rest that it made the list of the Ten Commandments. Check those out again – show me where getting high scores on standardized tests, winning football games, or getting a high paying white collar job are commanded of us?

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, thank you for the gift of rest. Every day and throughout the day, encourage us in setting aside time for play, for quiet, for pondering, for imagining, for recovery. I pray that everyone reading this will make time this weekend to attend a public gathering of people seeking to center the meaning of their lives around you, your Word, and your Meal. And in those gatherings, let your love guide us that we not miss the point of Sabbath rest which is your desire to give us salvation, healing, wholeness, and life. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Luke 6:1-11

August 25, 2016

“One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?”

 Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” 

Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” 

On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. 

Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.” Luke 6:1-11

When we watch the contentious interactions that Jesus had with religious leaders around the observance of the laws of the Sabbath we do well to remember that no one was trying to dishonor God, to destroy traditional practices, or to damage the faith of the faithful. Everyone was doing the best they could within their own sense of what counted as the “best”. That matters.

The Pharisees came at Jesus from a place of suspicion. They were “watching” him. They were watching him in the same way that journalists attend political rallies or listen to political speeches – they look for words, phrases, and ideas they can pounce on in order to attack the speaker. The attack is waged from the point of view of the journalist. That becomes the story. The Pharisees do the same thing.

So do we. We all carry our own sense of right and wrong that has been informed by our own particular education (both formal and informal), histories, life experiences, and prejudices. We “watch” each other, waiting for the other to slip up so we can pounce. We might not pounce physically or even obviously but we all carry an internal guest list and the capacity to cross names off.

Jesus also “watches” very carefully. But notice what he sees as he does so. He sees his disciples plucking the heads of grain to snack on as they walk. Such gleaning was completely accepted, and even expected. It was an ancient form of stopping at a convenience store on a long road trip. He saw hungry friends having something to chew on.

Jesus was well aware of the Sabbath restrictions on working. He just thought that extending those laws to prevent hungry people from eating missed the deeper, and defensible, point of the Sabbath.

Jesus also saw a man with a withered hand enter the synagogue. The Pharisees also saw the man. In their minds, his affliction was a sign of God’s punishment. In Jesus’ mind, there was good to be done and he did it. What better time than the Sabbath to restore a person to wholeness?

In the end, one man left that day rejoicing that God rescued him from the bondage of tying his sandals with one working hand. Another left with more work to be done. And still others left plotting how to punish Jesus.

Here’s the simple question for us – who is our Lord? Whose example will we follow in our lives? Who will we trust in the interpretation of the meaning of religious rules, practices, and traditions?

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, let us never lose sight of keeping the main thing the main thing. Of seeing that your love, poured out in Jesus, drives us to compassion and care rather than condemnation and criticism. May we also see those in need and do what we can to provide relief and release. May we never lose hope that you alone can restore us to wholeness. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Isaiah 58:6-14

August 24, 2016

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 58:6-14

Here is what I don’t like about many modern so-called “study Bibles.” I know that people love them and I know that they sell like hotcakes. But I worry that people put more trust in the notes on the bottom and the stuff on the sidebar that they ignore the plain and obvious words of the Bible itself. So there is that.

And that is also a danger I recognize in writing daily devotions. (Or just about daily devotions given that I didn’t write one on Monday this week) I worry that people skip over the Bible reading to get down to whatever I say. I hope that doesn’t happen. And I certainly hope that it doesn’t happen today.

Isaiah is a major book of the Jewish Bible. It is absolutely foundational in that it reflects the experience of Israel before, during, and after the Babylonian Exile. In that it captures the heart of the faith. It was incredibly important to the life and ministry of Jesus. It is quoted frequently in the New Testament. If it was the Word of God to Jesus then it certainly ought to be the Word of God to us.

Why do I point that out? Because when voices in the Christian church speak up against injustice, point out evils of oppression, argue on behalf of feeding the hungry, care about finding indoor spaces for homeless people to sleep, challenge Christians to begin every week in corporate worship, or questioning those who constantly apologize for the morality of looking out for our own self-interest – the church is not being political, it is being Christian! It is being who we are because of Whose we are.

That is what it means to be a “repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets to live in.” Israel had just come out of a horrible time in their history and the writer of Isaiah was self-reflective enough to ask “What was our part in what went wrong and how can we order our lives so it doesn’t happen again?” That stance is so much healthier and helpful than playing the blame game or the victim game or the vengeance game. It also works much better as a job description for the church and a prescription for what ails us in our common life in the world.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we pray for enough. Enough for all. Enough and not too much for anyone. We pray today, in the middle of the week, that we might have the grace to keep the main thing the main thing in our lives. To discern your voice, your still small voice, sounding forth through the din of the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Exodus 20:8-11

August 23, 2016

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” Exodus 20:8-11

There were two drugstores in my hometown. They took turns being open on Sunday. Virtually everything else was closed. As a kid, that officially made Sundays the most boring days of the week.

Most of the businesses on our main street closed at 5:00 PM. Except on Thursday nights when they were open until 9:00 PM. That made Thursday nights the best nights of the week.

Did those old blue laws (so named, according to Wikipedia, because the word blue was used in the 17th century as a disparaging reference to rigid moral codes and those who observed them) keep the Sabbath any holier? Was our country any less violent, racist, greedy, or materialistic back in the day?

The Thor was the first electric-powered washing machine. It was introduced in 1908 by the Hurley Machine Company of Chicago, Illinois. The Thor was a drum type washing machine with a galvanized tub and an electric motor. A patent was issued on August 9th 1910. The first washing machine I remember in our house wasn’t much more advanced. You had to wring the clothes out by hand. I once tested the wringer with my finger. The wringer won.

People used to wash their clothes when they were dirty. Maybe once a week for the clothes that sat next to the skin. Maybe never for sweaters and outerwear. Now we wear it once and wash it. (Actually I don’t and Kelley thinks that is disgusting but I grew up having to wash my own clothes and old habits die hard.) Are we any better off now when we wash everything immediately?

I remember one phone mounted on the kitchen wall. If no one was home, it didn’t get answered. Now I sleep with my cell phone as my alarm clock. Does this make me a better pastor?

Henry Ford was a revolutionary when he suggested a 40 hour work week, down from 48 hours. He wasn’t the first to recognize that productivity went down with too many work hours. No doubt those accustomed to 10-16 hours a day, six days a week, welcomed the change…and no doubt those who paid their workers resented the cost. Today I don’t know anyone who works 40 hours a week. Instead, I know people who get to the office at 6:00 AM in order to get something done so they can work until after 7:00 PM so the traffic dies down for their commute home. Has this added to our quality of life?

God creates us. God knows best. God knows that rest is as holy as work. And when we rest, God wants to have some time set aside to spend with each other around hearing God’s Word, being a part of the life of a community, and remembering what matters in life. Is that really too much to ask?

Just because the stores are open doesn’t mean we have to go shopping.

If you are too busy for worship on Sunday the problem isn’t Sunday.

And if a service that starts at 10:50 AM doesn’t leave room for you to sleep in, then you were out far too late on Saturday night.

I’m just saying….

Let us pray: Dear Lord, thank you for setting aside time in our lives for rest. Thank you for the holiness of rest and the holiness of work. Thank you for opportunities to remember that we are human beings, not human doings, and that we do have the freedom to manage our time with balance and care. And please forgive those of us who have to work on Sundays. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

 

Hebrews 10:23-25

August 19, 2016

“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:23-25

When we read a passage of scripture like this one I trust that we have the same reaction. We think, “Wow, the more things change, the more they stay the same.” This passage was written nearly two thousand years ago and yet it could have been written yesterday.

In the face of all of the bad news that constantly streams into our lives, all that we hear about terrorist attacks and natural disasters and economic uncertainty, the writer encourages us to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.

When Christian leaders wonder what the heart of the faith is, when even Christians seem so divided, when we look out into the culture and wonder where the faith fits, the writer reminds us to keep it simple. “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds…”

When we look at the life of a local congregation, what people actually do with their time, from Sunday worship to finding opportunities to bring people together in groups, the writer cautions us to “not neglecting to meet together…” Which is a challenge today just as much as it was already a challenge in the 1st century, “as is the habit of some…”

And still, to “encourage one another” which is very different from shaming and blaming.

All of this is so timely…until it gets to the idea of “all the more as you see the Day approaching.” And then you can almost hear the brakes squealing to a stop.

In the 1st century the work of the church felt like rushing someone to the emergency room because the End was right around the corner. There was no time to waste. There was a deep sense of urgency. No one wanted to be that lazy servant surprised when the master of the vineyard showed up. Clearly people like Paul expected Jesus to usher in the end of time before the end of their lifetimes. But it didn’t happen.

So it is that in large segments of the Christian church today it feels more like encouraging people to brush, floss, and remember their annual check-ups. Any sense of urgency feels like it is attached more to the survival of the “church as we know it” rather than urgency to do what followers of Jesus are called upon to do. Which is to do what Jesus did.

We will have a funeral this morning at Faith Lutheran Church. In this I am reminded yet again that life on this earth does not last forever. I am reminded, and I will remind those attending, of the hope of eternal life made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Of Paul’s words to the Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

But then he goes on to say, “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

There it is. A word from the Lord. Just what we need to hear, just when we need to hear it.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you have welcomed us into your life. We are your hands, feet, eyes, ears, and heart. Inspire us, not with fear or shame but with faith, hope, and love. Help each of us do our part and encourage us with the certainty of your promises. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

1 Corinthians 1:10-17

August 18, 2016

“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” 1 Corinthians 1:10-17

There were two campus pastors where I went to college. One was a live wire, the life of the party, the guy who wore a goofy hat at football games and got the crowd into the game. He also said my name when he gave me Holy Communion in chapel. The other was quiet, quoted poetry in his sermons, and was a little older. I was always a bit disappointed when the older pastor preached or when I found myself in his line for communion. I completely understand why the Corinthian church became divided amongst those who preferred one pastor over another. It is human nature. Fallen human nature. And it is dangerous.

It also is a door that swings both ways. Lots of Christian leaders are attracted to being the voice in the front of the room, the person who tilts every meeting in their own direction. Lots of Christian communities have been severely damaged by egotistical or narcissistic pastors desperate for the attention that comes with the job. Or two pastors vying for the hearts and minds of the congregation.

The truth is that there is a little humility and hubris in all of us. We seek relationships that work and that often means gravitating toward some while finding others grating. But pastors and parishioners do well to remember that it is not all about us and our needs, our preferences, or our positions.

Paul says that the antidote for over-doting is the power of the cross of Christ. The focus is on the Word, not on the one called to proclaim it or those gathered to hear. The power is in the gospel, the declaration of God’s love, the new found freedom and response-ability to follow, to serve, to heal, and to pass it on to the next person.

Whether it is divisions within our own congregation, personality conflicts amongst members, or divisions between denominations, the underlying unity of the church is the power and work of the Holy Spirit. We all do well to remember who we work for and Who works within and amongst us.

By the way, I once went to my favorite campus pastor to talk about a very painful issue in my life. His counsel was awful. He was a great guy but he didn’t know what he was talking about. And, when I was in the darkest moment of my years in college, it was the older pastor who rearranged his schedule to give me an hour. THAT conversation changed my life. And later he was the one I talked to while trying to decide between the seminary and law school. I guess we know how that turned out.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, it is natural for us to be inclined toward some leaders over others. And there are times when that is completely appropriate. But we recognize the danger when we find ourselves over identifying with human leaders over you. Forgive us for that and heal us from the inside out so that we can hear your Word regardless of who speaks it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Acts 14:1-7

August 17, 2016

“The same thing occurred in Iconium, where Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace by granting signs and wonders to be done through them. 

But the residents of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. And when an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, the apostles learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country; and there they continued proclaiming the good news.” Acts 14:1-7

Today is August 17th. I have no idea how many shopping days we have until Christmas but I’m willing to bet right now that the Christmas season will once again feature a ridiculous outcry against some practice that strident voices will see as an attack against Christianity. Last year it was red coffee cups. Seriously.

Christian leaders in many places across the world are arrested, tortured, and killed. Christian communities in Africa and the Middle East are targeted for burning, raping, and killing. People die for their faith every day. I’ve read that a Christian is killed because they are Christian once every five minutes. And we get bent out of shape over red coffee cups?

When a politician in the United States says that Christianity is “under attack” they could very well be right. But that attack is not being waged by laws protecting the interests of minorities (which quite rightly are exactly the sort of care for the oppressed that Jesus calls us to), it is being waged by Christians themselves who deny the cross by choosing comfort, convenience, and control over sacrifice, service, and sanctity.

Paul and Barnabas went to Iconium because it was a large, cosmopolitan, and important city. Then they went to the synagogue to tell the story of Jesus. The result? Some came to believe, others began to plot the beating they wanted to give to the men they accused of stirring up trouble. NOTICE it was those who stood in opposition to the faith who resorted to violence to shut those faithful voices up.

History has proven that earthly opposition cannot stop the Christian movement. It is not violence directed toward Christians that compromises Christian mission but violence done by Christians that does. How many times have we heard voices that reject Christianity run down the long litany of heinous Christian wars and abuses? Perhaps not enough. Because if we did we might come to more quickly recognize when we are doing it again.

Christianity is exploding in China. The spiritual vacuum that has been created by growing awareness of the hollow promises of communism is being filled by Christians who are more than willing to bear the cross of sharing the good news with friends and family, gathering in small home churches, risking the oppression and dangerous consequences that entails.

In the United States? Our church properties don’t pay property taxes. Clergy get a nice deal by not having to pay income tax on their housing allowances. Church members get to deduct their charitable contributions from their income taxes. The police come to our property when we call them to help us, they don’t show up to harass or arrest us. Parents bring children to be baptized with no intention whatsoever to actually raise them in the faith. And the average Lutheran invites a friend to church once every 16 years.

Have we lost the ability to recognize the difference between being privileged and persecuted? Christianity “under attack” in America? Please.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we are always tempted to look for the easy way out, to close our eyes to that which we don’t want to see, and to portray ourselves as victims when in fact we are just the opposite. We want the crown without the cross. Today we pray for those who are willing to lose their lives in order to find them, for those who remain faithful in the face of dreadful and terrifying oppression. May their witness light a fire in us, that together we might reflect your love as the light of the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

John 9:13-22

August 16, 2016

“They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.

So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”

His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” John 9:13-22

The Pharisees were divided. We can relate to that. We understand division. But do we understand how valuable it can potentially be? Only, I believe, if we take note of the obvious and then look for the issue behind the issue. The issues we are often blind to ourselves.

Some of the Pharisees were skeptical that Jesus was an instrument of God in making a blind man see. From their point of view, given that the miracle happened on the Sabbath day, Jesus could not possibly be God’s agent. They thought of God as perfect and the law as a perfect reflection of God. They were certain that Jesus could not be of God. Common sense would tell them that Jesus could only be an agent of the devil, the anti-god. Thus, they were blinded by their prior assumptions.

Other Pharisees were not so sure. They shared the same assumptions but were drawn to a different conclusion. They were…unsure. They were, after all, Pharisees. And as Pharisees, they were already considered heretics or at least “moderns” by the Sadducees, the most powerful branch of Judaism. Rather than limiting God’s revelation to strict observance of the Torah (as the Sadducees did,) the Pharisees also drew inspiration from the wisdom literature and the writings of the prophets. But they too couldn’t see clearly as they missed the Messiah standing in their midst.

In the absence of easy answers, the divided Pharisees sought more information. That was a wonderful step on their part. They talked again to the man and then to his parents. The only problem was that the man could only witness to his limited understanding and the parents were afraid to speak freely because of what that might cost them. Even fact checking can be wrong.

Meanwhile, Jesus is already off doing his Jesus thing and a man is still looking with wonder at the world that has suddenly opened up before him.

What can this story teach us in this divided age of ours? It can teach us the divisions can teach us something. There just might be a kernel of truth in another perspective that is only available to us if we quit protecting our prior assumptions and remain open to new information. It can teach us to look more closely at ourselves when our knee jerk reaction is to oppose another point of view. And it can teach us that sometimes we are dead wrong about things we are steadfastly convinced does not fit with our prior understanding of God.

This story can also teach us that when Jesus shows up, good things happen in real ways in the real lives of real people. We do well to listen to their witness.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, often we are blind to our own blindness. We don’t know what we don’t know and we forget that what we think we know just might be wrong. Open eyes and open ears bring new information to open minds that can then open hearts. Keep us open today. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

August 15, 2016

“By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was throne of God. set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Have you ever considered how privileged you are to have the life that you have? It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, employed or unemployed, sick or healthy. Every day that God wakes you up on the top side of the grass is a day when you will have the privilege of being a blessing in the life of someone else. Do you realize that?

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we are not alone. We are not alone today and we weren’t alone yesterday. We are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” There is nothing we will go through that many of our teammates have not already been through. There is nothing we will do that no one else has done before. But in THAT moment, when YOU take action – reaching out in compassion, greeting a stranger, letting a car merge in front of you, going the extra mile at work – you are creating history.

The world today is full of terrible news. Floods in Louisiana, riots in Milwaukee, Olympic swimmers robbed at gunpoint, captive girls on video, men shot on the way home from prayer, yet another death by drug overdose. The constant kaleidoscope of news reports and twenty second sound bites seldom capture the rest of the story – the compassionate response of those standing by to render aid, to listen with empathy, to stand with the victimized, and to cry out for justice.

Read the above passage again from Hebrews. This time notice again how those who went through so much were not able to see the fruits of their sacrifices, the harvest of their hopes. That is what it means to live by faith. It is also why our own recognition of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand is so important. We now carry the baton of life that has been handed down by those who have gone before us. WE are now the answer to prayers long past.

Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…

Let us pray: Dear Lord, two of the most grievous temptations in our lives is to fall prey to a sense of meaninglessness or to self-define our lives behind a wall of loneliness. Both of these deny your promises and ignore your presence. Give us opportunities today to be a blessing in someone else’s life and the courage to do the right thing. And in those moments, make us mindful of the golden thread of your love which weaves all people together. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Hebrews 11:1-3,6-8

August 12, 2016

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible…

And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. Hebrews 11:1-3,6-8

Like many seminarians, I had a favorite professor. I took every class he taught. Semester after semester, there I would be, sitting in the back row, waiting for him to teach the same stuff that he taught in every class, no matter the name of the class. Call it intuition or the work of the Holy Spirit guiding my education, all I knew was that I wanted to master what he had to teach. I never had a personal or friendly relationship with him; mostly I felt like an irritant. Maybe because he could sense that I was on to his habit of teaching the same things over and over again.

There were times when I asked questions that he took seriously. But there was one time that I challenged him and he completely blew off my question. I said something along the lines of, “Everything you teach is predicated on the prior assumption that there really is a God. How can we engage people who are steadfastly convinced that God is a figment of our imaginations? A childish myth that has long ago lost its usefulness?” He wouldn’t even take up the question. I came away feeling silly for having asked it.

A few years ago I was with him again at a continuing education event. This time I caught him after hours over a beer. I took a shot and asked him the question again. This time he responded with something along the lines of “The longer I live, the more it seems to me that the only rational explanation of what happens in the world is the providence and presence of a loving God in, with, and under, it all.” I’m still chewing on that one.

I have never had an appreciation for the words “blind faith.” You will never hear me use those words in a sermon or a devotion. In my reading, Jesus healed blind people. Blind faith, to me at least, is a euphemism for wishful thinking. God doesn’t invite us into wishful thinking. God invites us into a relationship grounded in faith.

Hebrews says that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Cutting out the qualifying words means faith is about assurance and conviction. Faith is about confidence, loyalty, fidelity. Grounded in what? Grounded in the story that captured the reality of God revealed in Jesus and trusted, never perfectly, by millions of faithful people upon whose shoulders we stand.

This faith, says Hebrews, is what pleases God. And the rewards it provides are built into the behaviors such faith leads us into. Faith is action. Not blind action but real action, in real life, by real people, for real people. There is nothing blind about that. And there is little room for playing it safe.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, may our lives be a pleasing sacrifice to you today. In our words, in our thoughts, in our decisions, even when doing the right thing might be judged by the world as crazy, we want to follow as you lead the way. Let our confidence in you carry us as surely as the ground we walk on holds us up. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


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