Archive for August, 2009

Monday, August 31st Proverbs 22:1-2

August 31, 2009

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all. Proverbs 22:1-2

Two women immediately come to mind as I read these verses. Marie Antoinette, queen of France during the French Revolution who reportedly said, upon hearing that people were starving because there was no bread for them to eat, “Then let them eat cake.”

And my mother. Once, when visiting me in the seminary, I took her on the tour of the 36,000 sq. ft. James J. Hill house in St. Paul. As the tour guide explained the intricacies of the magnificent main staircase which had been built by hand in Europe, my mom reached over and whispered, “Yeah, and they probably made a few pennies per hour.”

And here I am in the middle. On the one hand, I am vastly wealthy compared to ½ of the world’s population that lives on less than $2 a day; and, on the other, I remain a child of American-style poverty, intimidated by and mistrustful of the wealthy.

So these verses are helpful in the sense that they are a great leveler of the playing field. As coaches say around the world, “They put their pants on one leg at a time just like you do.” (Assuming they have pants to put on.)

According to the Christian faith (and we ought never forget how revolutionary this idea was from the beginning of the Christian movement) there is no particular righteousness in being rich, nor is there any particular curse inherent to being poor. People find themselves on either end of the rich/poor continuum for all sorts of reasons from choosing the right parents or being born in the right country to dreaming up something brand new that accrues great value.

The spiritual significance lies not in the end but in the means and then, in the end, what we do with our means.

We so often get this wrong. We think, for instance, that the goal of business is making money for owners, shareholders and employees. But that is merely a by-product of the goal of doing business. The godly goal of business is to provide needed goods and services to others through harnessing the gifts and hard work of those creating those goods and services. It is about being useful, helpful, for the sake of the world. About trading what I have and can do for what I need that I cannot gain on my own.

The real Christian values inherent in our economic life are things like hard work, ingenuity, courage, ambition, creativity, honesty, doing our best and concern for the effects of our actions on others. Those are measures of character, not numbers in a bank account or balance sheet.

The writer of Proverbs knew that a long time ago. We would do well to learn it again.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you have planted us in a world uniquely designed to make life possible, abundant with all the resources necessary to sustain our lives. And yet there are great and ever-growing divides between those who have too much and those who have too little. Keep us mindful of our blessings and teach us to be good stewards of your gifts. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Friday, August 28th Mark 7:17-23

August 28, 2009

When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” Mark 7:17-23

This is one of those moments that appear throughout the gospels that we often read so quickly that we miss their magic. Mark, in writing the Jesus story, moves us from Jesus “in public” with the crowds (some for him and most against him) to Jesus “in private” with his closest friends. As readers, we join Jesus in both places.

In other words, we too get invited into this private conversation with Jesus. Once here, we very quickly realize that, even though we have lots of information that simply wasn’t available at the time to the initial disciples, we aren’t much different than they are.

We also fail to understand. We also tend to twist our insider status into a personal achievement rather than a gracious invitation. And yet we too learn at the feet of Jesus.

He tells us that which truly defiles, dirties, corrupts and breaks our relationship with God and with one another. The words, even presented in a list, trigger memories of past experiences, fantasies and realities, that scar our lives: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. A long list, but clearly not long enough to fully capture the brokenness of life.

This is who we are, and this is how we are. Nevertheless, this is who Jesus is now spending time with. This is who Jesus loved and loves. These are the character defects of a fallen people who would raise Jesus up to a cross. And this is who Jesus would rise back to and beyond in his resurrection. This is who Jesus promised, by his grace, to one day welcome home.

Later this morning I will begin spending the day with a crowd of other pastors and leaders in our church. There will be plenty of time, over lunch and during our breaks, for idle chit chat. People will ask one another, “How are you?” (It is the socially accepted ice breaker and invitation to further conversation.) And the customary response then is, “I’m fine. How are you?”

And maybe, at some point, we are fine. But the deeper reality is that, lurking beneath the surface, there is a war going on. Evil intentions, always threatening to win the day, yet tempered by what we have learned at Jesus’ feet – our brokenness can be redeemed, has been redeemed, and need not win the day. We have been, and are being, healed, cleansed and restored by love.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you know the evil that lies within each and every one of us. You know how quick we can be to give up and give in and tear apart that which you lovingly seek to build – a community of grace for the sake of the world. Keep working on us, in us and through us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, August 27th Mark 7:14-15

August 27, 2009

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Mark 7:14-15

I’m having trouble with these verses this morning.

Their meaning is pretty obvious – Jesus is drawing a sharp distinction between what truly makes someone ceremonially unclean (the technical meaning of the Greek word translated “defile.”) It isn’t what lies outside of us that makes us unclean (casual contact with Gentiles or other ceremonially unclean people in the marketplace, therefore requiring ritual washing before we eat) but what is already inside of us that we carried with us into the marketplace in the first place.

But what do we do with this insight? That’s the problem.

When I was a kid, the Christian faith was all about “thou shalt not’s.” If talk of Christianity came up at all it was usually in the context of explaining why someone shouldn’t lie, swear, drink, smoke, use drugs, listen to rock and roll music or chase girls. Good Christians, in other words, didn’t do those things. They were bad. They would corrupt you. They would ruin your life.

Along the way, I did them all. Thus, according to those rules, I was unclean. Dirty. Corrupt. I also stayed away from church and pretended my way through my occasional visits.

So at first glance, especially again in the context of going after the Pharisees, Jesus seems to be opening the door to all of the things that were so fascinating to a young boy and still troubling to a middle aged man. But that doesn’t sound right nor does it feel right. Something else is going on here.

When I preach at the prison where I volunteer as a chaplain I invariably run into “holiness people.” I know there is a bit of irony in that but it is true. In my normal life I spend most of my time with Christians you might call “all things in moderation” sort of people. But the holiness people aren’t like that – they watch me like a hawk when I preach. They come up to me after worship and point out verses that I didn’t quote perfectly, or tell me about edgy words that I used that might have “opened the door for the devil’s toe hold.”

At first those folks kind of freaked me out. I came to dread in particular one guy who would catch me stumbling every time. He has a lot more time to study the Bible than I do and he would always yank out a verse or two to “correct” me. Mostly, he was right.

But then I began to notice something. It was obvious that the holiness crowd sat in the front of the room while the guys who just showed up in chapel to “do business” sat in the back. But what I learned over time was that their separation wasn’t limited just to chapel – that separation continued throughout the week. The “clean” sat in the front. The “dirty” sat in the back.

So one night I challenged those in the front to sit in the back the next week. They still haven’t taken me up on it…and I get far fewer Bible verses quoted to me after the sermon.

And that, I think, is the key to these verses. They aren’t about moral purity (not that there is anything wrong with that) but about the corrosive effects on human community of separatist religiosity that reduces the world to insiders and outsiders, clean and unclean.

The bottom line is that Jesus didn’t just show up for the good people but for all people. And my personal sense is that he would have hung with the guys in the back of the room.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, help us to discern what is good and right and helpful in how we live our lives in community with others. Help us find our way. Forgive us for judging ourselves or others with the wrong measuring stick. Keep us mindful of that which we so often simply do not see. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, August 26th Mark 7:9-13

August 26, 2009

Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.” Mark 7:9-13

There are three ways that Jesus figured out that the Pharisees he was talking to were withholding financial support from their parents in order to give those gifts to God. (In other words, to accrue the personal prestige that goes with being a ‘big giver’ at church.)

He might have had insider information – a Pharisee who came to him to talk about the practice. Highly unlikely.

He might have used his Superman-like x-ray vision into their hearts. I suppose that would be a viable option should you opt to go that route.

Or, the practice could have been so widespread among the religious leaders that Jesus could just assume it was a common practice among his audience that day as well. Bingo! Jesus helps us see this is the answer in his words – “thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on.”

Justifying ourselves, building a case for what we want rather than what God wants, even using key Bible passages to build the case, is as old as the story of eating the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. Even there, the man is so intent on justifying himself that he even includes God in his self justifying explanation – the woman whom YOU GAVE TO ME…

Remember the days of listening to music on vinyl records? No matter how hard you would try to take good care of your records, no matter whether you always kept them in their sleeves, brushed them before and after every play, replaced the needle more often than necessary, they would still get scratched. And once scratched, every time you would like to that particular song it would skip or hiss or crackle.

My friends, we have all been scratched. We are all sinners. We are all given to the temptation to justify ourselves, our actions, our attitudes, our practices, both corporately and individually. We are blind and lame. We are broken. The best of us are no different than the rest of us.

So God comes among us in Jesus. And Jesus becomes for us both Law and Gospel. His words and actions hold a mirror in front of us that expose us where we are most unloving and most likely to fall short of God’s intentions. He, by talking straight to a group of religious leaders, is the Law of God in their lives, not some dusty rulebook that can be twisted and manipulated and swallowed up by ever evolving human traditions.

And Jesus is the Gospel. The one calling us still to honor our parents, still to receive our daily bread with thanks, whether or not we wash our hands before eating. For Jesus came, not to ridicule, belittle or reduce the Pharisees to ashes, but to love them (and us) to the very end.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, a great price is paid when we seek to justify that within and among us that fall short of your loving intentions for people. Forgive us for twisting life around to conform to our image of it, rather than embracing our calling and responsibility to be reflections of your image. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, August 25th Mark 7:6-8

August 25, 2009

He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Mark 7:6-8

These are harsh words and easily delivered in a harsh manner. Jesus has indicted, not only the Pharisees who are complaining about the lackadaisical manner in which the disciples of Jesus ignore the rules around ritual washing, but each and every one of us who have experienced our lips mouthing the words of the liturgy while our hearts were harboring memories and plans far short of God’s good intentions for our lives.

This is the danger of religion. This is the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, temptation to get the rites right while ignoring the deeper implications of our beliefs, our attitudes and our actions. An hour a week, a few bucks in the plate, and we’ve bought God off for another week. Isaiah is right to call us on this and Jesus is right to bring it back up.

Now comes the harder part: How can we tell when we’re doing it?

It is one thing to hear “teaching human precepts as doctrines”, the harder work is telling the difference between the two. In the real world of our faith, the difference emerges less as a matter of applying the letter of the law as it does in mutual conversation. The work of theologians today (and scribes and Pharisees then) was to engage in a lifetime of listening to the law and then reasoning out its implications for life. Always with a measure of humility and awareness of the temptation to justify ourselves.

Tomorrow Jesus will give us an example of how we can ignore the commandment of God to suit ourselves. Later in the week he will help us see what is so close to us that we are often blinded from seeing it. But for today we do well simply to be reminded that there is a difference between “human traditions” and the “commandments of God.”

What might be absolute common sense to us (human tradition), might be very incompatible with the “commandments of God.” What seems crystal clear to us (thou shalt not kill) can suddenly get very cloudy in the midst of questions around self defense, war, the justice system or medical decisions.

Sadly, we don’t always get these distinctions right. The critics of the Christian faith are quick to point out all of the ways through the years that the church has operated in very unloving, unjust ways. Guilty as charged. But the game isn’t over yet. We haven’t quit playing and trying our best to be faithful in the face of the challenges of life, with our own sin whistling in our ears.

What keeps us honest along the way, or at least striving to be so, are reminders like this from Jesus – we aren’t fooling God.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, keep stirring up the right questions within and among us. Keep pushing us toward greater honesty, deeper faithfulness, and more integrity in our life with you and one another. Forgive us for the times we give you lip service and encourage us to serve you and others in righteousness. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, August 24, Mark 7:1-5

August 24, 2009

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Mark 7:1-5

The devotions are starting back up a week later than I originally planned. A lot of things have happened over the past month that weren’t in my original plans. My plan began with a long anticipated motorcycle vacation bracketed by preaching at the Woyatan mission in Rapid City, a short visit with my mother in Minnesota and my 30th high school class reunion in my hometown of Wahpeton, North Dakota.

Unanticipated, those plans came to include emergency trips to Minnesota to transition my mom from an assisted living apartment to a nursing home, another trip as her condition worsened, and then learning, four hours after returning to Houston, that she had died. Another trip to Minnesota and all that is involved in emptying an apartment, planning a funeral, gathering with family, and saying our thanks and goodbyes.

While I was gone, a mission pastor in our synod (the father of the receptionist in our office) suffered a massive heart attack and remains in the hospital. Another assistant to the bishop, a friend and co-worker since my first parish, collapsed while walking due to a blood clot in his lung. He’s home now and recuperating. And then our bishop, who drove over from our national assembly in Minneapolis to help with my mother’s funeral, learned the next morning that his father-in-law in Ohio who was also in the hospital since July, had taken a turn for the worse. He died the next day.

I got home last week after my mom’s funeral to a pretty quiet schedule that allowed me to spend a good share of Thursday and all day Friday watching the ELCA national assembly live on the internet. (Modern technology is amazing.) I listened to hours of the long anticipated debate about ministry recommendations regarding homosexual clergy. It was, to say the least, painful. At the same time, the debate was handled with extraordinary care by our presiding bishop, conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect and prayer, and ultimately came down to a vote that opened the door to a new day of integrity and truthfulness in our church.

I say all of this both to bring you up to date on why the devotions are beginning a week later than planned…and to reflect on matters of life and death that truly matter. The verses above are the opening verses of the gospel reading appointed for this Sunday. No one “cooked the books” on this. The New Revised Common Lectionary has been in place for many years. And yet I still find the narrow mindedness of the scribes and Pharisees breath taking. Given all of the challenges faced by the people of God, living under the thumb of the occupying Romans, taxed to the teeth to keep the machinery of Israel churning, caught in the matrix of competing religious leadership, they are worried about hungry disciples failing to wash their hands correctly before eating.

Let’s listen to Jesus this week and see what he has to say.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, sometimes the chances, changes and challenges of life are overwhelming to us. And yet, day after day, one day at a time, you give us the daily bread that keeps us going. Continue to lead us, to make provision for us, that we might remain steadfast and faithful to those things which truly matter. In Jesus’ name. Amen.