Archive for September, 2009

Wednesday, August 30th John 20:24-25

September 30, 2009

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” John 20:24-25

Thomas didn’t believe it. Speaking for every single one of us who have ever found ourselves on the doubting side of faith, he said he wouldn’t believe it until he saw it. Until he touched the wounds. Until he saw Jesus for himself. He wasn’t going to believe.

I’m glad that John included this story in his gospel. I’m glad that Matthew also mentions, in the final passage where Jesus sent his disciples out to make new ones, that some gathered there doubted as well.

They wouldn’t have had to include either story. Neither changes the story. Had both passages been omitted, no one would have noticed. But they are there. They were there when written and they are there still today. One wonders how many scribes through the years were tempted to just drop those three words (but some doubted) from Matthew 28:17.

I suppose there might be people who assume that the church consists of “people who believe” and everyone else who is not connected to a Christian community consists of “people who doubt.” I frequently ride by a small country church called “Believers Baptist Church” and every time I pass by I wonder at that name. But my guess is that most people realize that faith and doubt are more of a living tension than two separate realities.

Lutherans understand what this doubt is all about. We expect that we will doubt; we can hardly imagine the alternative. Doubt about God’s goodness, doubt about God’s presence, doubt about God’s will, doubt about God period – all of this is to be expected in those of us who have been born into sin, into this radical separation from God that we join as one cell becomes two.

Ours isn’t a doubt generated by the Copernican Revolution, the Great Enlightenment, the rise of the modern science method or the various documentaries of the History or Discovery channels. It is instead a doubt as old as the first creation story and as recent as the last two year old who defiantly told her father, “I can do it by myself!”

We call it sin, pride, the “self curved in upon itself.” We might not like it, might not even wanting it, but our liking or wanting doesn’t seem to matter. Doubt just is. Doubt is to be expected.

Faith is the real miracle. Lutherans understand that too. Faith is a gift birthed in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. It isn’t a mind game but an inner transformation worked through the power of God’s love proclaimed into our rebellious ears.

So it is that the Church is born in that upper room where Jesus meets his disciples and later meets Thomas. The Church is born when Jesus includes those who doubt among those to whom he grants the Great Commission. The Church – the gathering of people around the proclamation of the saving grace of God expressed in the written and preached Word, poured out in the water of Baptism, drawn into our bodies in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, celebrated within a company of strangers.

A company of strangers who doubt and who believe; who sometimes doubt their faith and sometimes doubt their doubts. A company of strangers sharing a journey through life, still following the One who called them his own.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, yes we believe, help our unbelief. Soften our hearts toward those whose hearts seem hardened. Give us faith to follow when we can’t see the way ourselves. Continue to feed us and lead us, that we might stay the course. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Tuesday, September 29th John 20:19-23

September 29, 2009

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” John 20:19-23

What is the purpose of the church? What is the church good for? What is the church supposed to be about?

There are times….when we wonder.

How are we to answer that question?

Some might go back through the 2000 years and look at how the church actually functioned. They might point out the behaviors of the church in Acts 4 and argue that the church is to be a social service delivery center. It ought to be about feeding the poor and redistributing income. They might quote Matthew 25.

Others could argue that the church is to be a counter-point to the political powers of every age. They could tell stories of the rise of the papacy, the rise of the power and the influence of the church. Missionaries on board sailing ships, making sure that the church was planted on new soil just as soon as the flag of empire was. They would quote passages of scripture about claiming the promised land, maybe Elijah besting the best of the king and queen. Jesus, sitting at the right hand of God.

Still others would argue that the purpose of the church is to be the conscience and moral guide to community life. They would remind us of Jesus telling us that not a “jot or tittle” of the law is to be removed. They would teach children lessons about what they ought to do and ought not to do to be good little Christians. Certainly the stories of the separation of the sheep and the goats would be part of their message.

The truth is, the “church” as Christian community, even Christian beauracracy, has done and still does a whole lot of things. Not all are good. Some are quite ungodly.

Jesus might say that, no matter what we might do, someone will always be poor. Heaven and earth are not the same thing…not that that should hamper our efforts to see that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus might remind us that Caesar can make many claims on our lives but Caesar will never be our King of Kings. Our true home will always be elsewhere and our earthly homes will ever be sources of discontent and uneasiness.

Jesus might remind us of the log in our own eye and the splinter in our neighbors.

What is the purpose of the church? How do we answer that question?

I’m going to stick with this scene from the upper room. Jesus walks into the midst of his anxiety and fearful friends. He could scold them but he doesn’t. He could condemn them but he doesn’t. His first words are words of peace – the only power in the world that restores relationships. Then he gifts them with the same Holy Spirit through which God remains present and active in our lives today. And then he sends them forth to speak words of forgiveness.

A forgiven community, living into the wholeness of God, sent out to speak and live that forgiveness for the sake of others, making God real by incarnating God’s love. Whatever the purpose of the church, surely that lies at the heart of the matter.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, cut through the smoke and mirrors that cloud our lives as your children. Bring us to the heart of the matter – living and sharing the good news that all is well in your love for broken and rebellious, fearful and anxious, people like us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, September 4th Proverbs 22:22-23

September 4, 2009

Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the LORD pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them. Proverbs 22:22-23

You cannot read the Old Testament, particularly the prophets, without coming away with an awareness that God is ever mindful of the needs of those who find themselves on the edges of the community. Widows, children, the poor, the stranger, the outcast. From the blessing given to Abraham (you will be blessed that you might be a blessing to all people), to Joshua’s speech upon entering the Promised Land, to Solomon’s prayer at the Temple, again and again the people are reminded of the need to care for those falling through the cracks.

There are very good reasons for this. Consider that initial blessing to Abraham.

God tells Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) that Abraham and his people will be greatly blessed in order that they become a blessing to all the nations, all the people, of the world. Now suppose that God keeps that promise and Abraham finds himself with vast and fertile land holdings, huge flocks of sheep and more material blessings than he could shake Moses’ rod at. Those blessings put him at a crossroads.

He can take credit for himself for all of it. Which isn’t true and therefore isn’t satisfying and thus leads only to the hunger to acquire more. Or he can remember that he is nothing but an instrument of God’s blessings and therefore he has been put in a position to bless others and thus becomes a blessing to the entire community. That is the crossroads.

We are all blessed with our own gifts, passions, abilities, abundance so that we can bring glory to God and good to God’s people by being good to and for God’s people. That is God’s economy. Like electricity, everything flows to us that it might flow through us back to its Source.

The trouble is, some people get left out on the front of the equation. Jesus said that we would always have poor people among us. Human nature is such, and life is such, that there will always be those on the fringes, on the margins, at the edges. Our calling is not to ignore their plight but to respond to it.

Far too often our response is benign neglect. Or even worse. We seldom notice when the poor are exploited and used. There are reasons why wealthy people risk driving into the “poor side of town” late at night and none of them are good. There are reasons why police officers are welcomed as they pass through the suburbs but feared even by the innocent when they patrol the ghetto. We ought not be surprised that it is people with good health insurance who want to protect what they have like the system just like it is while the voiceless poor suffer.

We don’t see it. The freeways rush us by. We don’t sit in the administrative offices of underfunded schools on the poor side of town. We don’t talk to the three families crowded into a two bedroom apartment to get by in life. We don’t realize how many homeless children make their way to school each day. We don’t know what it is like for a single mother unable to feed her children.

We don’t. But we could. And God tells us that we ought to.

Let us pray: Lord, you are the source of our lives. Your creation abundantly provides for the needs of your children. Yet there are vast discrepancies among us. Some are hungry while others struggle to lose weight. So many are just lost and ignored. Never let us rest content with our blessings. Fill us with a holy discontent, that we might strive to do your will, and bring your Kingdom, on earth now as you will in Heaven later. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, September 3rd Proverbs 22:13

September 3, 2009

The lazy person says, “There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!” Proverbs 22:13

Lazy: (adj.) Disinclined to activity or exertion, not energetic or vigorous

The Bible does cut much slack for slackers. Laziness is not a Christian virtue.

God gave each of us gifts which all came with a string attached: Use as intended. Daily work, using our gifts, is God’s plan for daily bread. A healthy life is a balance of work, rest and play. Paul himself tells the Thessalonians, worried about how to deal with the laziness of some members of the community:

Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right. 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Proverbs captures well the justifications of those prone to laziness – excuse after excuse after excuse.

I well remember hearing my mom say two things. If she ever caught us sitting on the couch during a weekend day, she would say, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” She never ran out of suggestions of what needed to be done.

And I remember once seeing the Morris the Cat TV commercial, the finicky cat who was picky about its cat food – Mom saw that and said, “Don’t feed the %#!* cat for a couple of weeks and see what it eats then!” She had no idea she was quoting the Apostle Paul.

One word of caution: Unemployed does not equal lazy. There are millions of hard working people who have lost their jobs due to circumstances beyond their control. There are millions who live in pockets of economic inactivity where daily work is very difficult to find.

In fact, the depression and pain felt by the unemployed is about more than just the difficulty or impossibility of paying their bills. It is also fueled by their own God-given desire to use their gifts, make a difference, and be useful.

Clearly there is a big difference between our time and Paul’s. We’re long past the days of raising our own food and living off the land. It is hard to recreate a barter economy or just apply a skill and make a living. Hard…but not impossible. And far more likely for those who truly apply themselves and work hard.

Don’t just sit there. Do something.

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, you saw Joseph hard at work as a carpenter. You learned at his side the value of hard work. We pray today for those who want to work but are still looking for jobs. We pray with gratitude for those who work hard creating businesses that employ others. Help us find the balance between rest and laziness and help us use well the gifts you have given us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, September 2nd Proverbs 22:8-9

September 2, 2009

Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail. Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor. Proverbs 22:8-9

I was taught to play to win. I was also taught to play fair. There’s a fine line between the two. Knowing the difference between the two is the key.

The line wasn’t hard to find when we were children playing games. You run hard into second base to break up a double play, but you don’t bribe the umpire making the call. Playing fair means you don’t cheat. You tackle the runner as hard as you can but you don’t grab his facemask. Playing fair means you don’t break the rules.

It was easier then because the games were well-defined and keeping score was simple. Each game produced a winner. Eventually there would be another game and you could try again.

But then we moved out into the bigger world. Games became a hobby and then mostly a memory. We moved into a world of getting an education, getting a job, finding a partner, creating a family. We moved into the world of business and government, of social programs and safety nets, of a world economy in an information age. Yet even as life got more and more complicated, the basics didn’t go away.

We still play to win. But what does winning mean? We still expect ourselves and others to play fair – but fair by whose rules? How do we play fair if others play as if there are no rules? And what is fair if no one is looking our way?

Proverbs says “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fall.” What goes around comes around. Dr. King said that “the universe bends toward justice.” Cheaters never prosper. At the end of the day, truth and justice will emerge victorious as God brings the game to its final end. But do we listen to that? Do we have ears to hear? Will that season our play, will it drive us to persistence and patience?

The game isn’t about getting rich or avoiding poverty. The game is about maximizing our potential, using our gifts, seeing the whole and doing our part. So it is that “generosity” emerges as a godly gift and a holy moment in the game. Few are the winners if the point of the game is to accumulate the most stuff, but everyone can play, and everyone can win, in generosity.

If we fall prey to the temptation of believing that we will never have enough, we will never win. But if the game is about generosity, about sharing with others, we never have too little that we can’t share what we have with someone else.

There is one more piece to this puzzle that matters. As children, we divided into teams. Us against them. But today, in the real world, all of humanity is one team and the “them” we’re fighting against bear names like hunger, disease, war, slavery, racism, poverty, and all that separates us from one another. So it is that Jesus has given us the ministry of reconciliation and has called us to play hard, to play to win, and to play fair.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, thank you for all of the gifts that you give to us each day: life, family and friends, daily work, an abundant creation, and great opportunities to do good in your name. May we ever play as you have taught us, for the good of all. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, September 1st Proverbs 22:6-7

September 1, 2009

Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray. The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender. Proverbs 22:6-7

I’ll bet you never noticed before how those two verses stand immediately next to each other…me either. We’ve all heard the first one…and most have ignored the second.

If you asked my son for some of his favorite memories of his childhood – I know this because I have – he will tell you about the day that I suddenly pulled off the freeway, drove into the Target parking lot, and bought him a new video game player that he really wanted but I couldn’t afford. He will tell you of the excitement he had over getting something new in a totally uncharacteristic and surprising way. I will tell you about what it feels like to get over your head in credit card debt.

Welcome to our brave new world.

While we were worrying about teaching our children right and wrong, bringing them to Sunday School and church, paying close attention to their friends and their behaviors and what they were watching on TV…they were watching us.

They saw us buy things we couldn’t afford. They saw how credit cards lied to us with their sleek promises of “have a great time today…you’ll have plenty of time to pay me later.” Plenty of time is right. If you pay $300 each month on a $20,000 credit card debt at 12% interest it will take you over 9 years to pay it off.

Proverbs is right. The borrower is the slave of the lender.

But the past year has also taught us that that door swings both ways. Because if the borrower is unable, or unwilling, to pay off the lender, then the lender – or whoever ultimately ends up holding the debt – ends up holding thin air and multiplied debts of their own. It is a vicious circle that creates a vicious world.

The sad truth is that it isn’t merely foolish purchases on credit that gets us into trouble. It is very difficult to live a middle class life without accumulating debt. When we start our adult life by borrowing a house-worth of money to get an education, we start off in a hole. We borrow money for homes, cars, appliances, vacations and toys. We get behind and we start borrowing money to fix our homes, fix our cars and replace our appliances.

If a serious health crisis or some other big ticket time comes up in our lives, we’re sunk. We get so deep into a hole that we no longer feel whole.

And our children are watching us.

My son is a sophomore in college now. Last year he wanted a different car. The hand-me-down Ford he was driving was having some problems. I told him, in no uncertain terms, do not borrow unnecessary money in college. Do not start building debt before you even begin building your life. Don’t start in a hole. Don’t do what I did. And no, I’m not going to enable it. I’m not going to co-sign for anything.

He is still driving his Ford. He doesn’t have a credit card. He still has a chance to do it right.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you promise daily bread but we want a 24 smorgasbord. We keep trying to fill the holes in our lives with stuff when all we truly need is you, your will, your guidance, your love. Draw near to those who live in fear, on the edge, and help them take one step at a time to a new place of peace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.