Archive for October, 2011

Monday, October 31st. Ephesians 2:1-9

October 31, 2011

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

 

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ —by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Ephesians 2:1-9

 

I used to preach in a prison on Saturday nights, a few times a year.  You might think that it was a very different “crowd” than a normal Lutheran Sunday morning but it really wasn’t.  If anything, the lines were simply more apparent.

 

The front rows in the prison chapel were filled with the “prayer choir” types.  They were quick to hoot and holler for Jesus.  Lots of “amen” and “preach it” and “there you go”.  These were the Christian guys who hung out together, unashamed to be identified as Christian. They were fun. But it always bothered me, how quickly they took the front seats with “their own” instead of filling up the back rows first.

 

The back rows is where the guys who came to chapel only to “do business” sat.  They went to chapel to get out of their cells.  Church was a place to make deals, to exchange contraband, to get their edge.  I took great comfort when I was told that mostly the guys in the back row utterly ignored what was happening in front – except when I was there preaching.  Then they paid attention.  Sometimes you could hear a pin drop in that chapel. I always took that to mean that maybe the Holy Spirit was doing a little business in back too.

 

And then there was everybody else in the middle.  The great mysterious “what is going on in their lives?” middle. The ones in the middle were those who most reminded me of the Lutheran congregation I would speak to the following morning.  The ones who were quiet but almost always there.  The ones I couldn’t read.

 

The first time I preached at that prison, I stood before the guys and said, “It’s nice to be in a room where I know for sure that I’m not the only one who has done something wrong in my life.”  It was a nice line, got a big laugh.  But it went far deeper for me.

 

For the true glory of God is seen in Jesus dying on a cross for sinners.  The true mystery of faith is how the Holy Spirit works faith, when and where it pleases, in the lives of broken and breaking people.  That is, in the saint/sinner that we all are.

 

And while some of our sin is more publicly apparent, whether we were “born into a Christian family and raised in the faith” or whether the good news of God’s love finally sunk in sometime later in life and transformed us on the spot – at the end of the day we are all beggars before the throne of God’s grace.  By grace we have been saved through faith.

 

Now what will we do with that faith today?

 

Let us pray:  Dear Lord, worship yesterday was wonderful.  It was good to be with your people, singing the songs of our heritage, receiving you in bread and wine.  I hope you enjoyed it too for we were singing to your glory.  Now today we begin a new week.  May we do so as new people, newly claimed and shaped and useful for good works in the world. May we love as you have loved us.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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Friday, October 28th. 1 John 3:16-24

October 28, 2011

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

 

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us. 1 John 3:16-24

 

Christianity is a movement of people who are convinced that Jesus, a first century carpenter/teacher/mystic/healer/rabbi, who was raised in Nazareth, a small village in the hill country of Galilee, was the physical incarnation of God.  This is a great mystery to us, one we can never fully explain or understand, but we believe God took on human flesh so that God’s loving character might be revealed to the world.

 

We also believe that Jesus – although a well trained Jewish teacher, who never physically hurt a soul – represented a clear threat to the power base of the religious and political authorities of his day.  He was a victim of a conspiracy to silence him and end his influence upon people.  He was a disappointment to the crowds who expected him to be an earthly king.  Thus he stood alone when was arrested on trumped up charges and forced through a mockery of a trial that was more lynch mob than courtroom.  He was publicly beaten and crucified along with other common criminals as a visible example of the power and willingness of the Roman Empire to kill human beings in a most gruesome manner and thereby quell unrest and possible sedition.

 

But, on the third day, we believe God raised Jesus from the dead.  Jesus appeared alive again to his disciples and commissioned them to do as he did, to live as they saw him live, to treat people as they saw him treat people, to care for the needs of the poor and the broken as he did, and to tell the world the story that this whole thing is all about God’s love.

 

Cut through everything else about the Christian faith and that is what we are about.

 

We are living ambassadors for the King of Kings.  We are joined to Jesus in our baptisms, fed by Jesus in our worship life, and sent by Jesus to bring a qualitative difference to bear in our normal everyday lives.  We march to the beat of a different drummer.

 

We aren’t perfect in this.  Our track record sometimes isn’t good.  But we really are about loving, as we have been loved, about serving as we have been served, about sharing a life with others trusting that Jesus is still present in our midst.

 

When we are at our best, God uses us to make life better. 

 

There will always be those who argue that we are fooling ourselves, that we follow a fairy tale story, that we are weak-willed and weak-minded, that we use God as a crutch.  There will always be voices that point out our flaws, our failures, our hypocrisy, our short-sighted ways of using the faith to justify very ungodly decisions.

 

And to all of that we say, “Yeah, guilty of all the above. But God isn’t through with any of us yet and God loves you as much as we believe God loves us.”  And today we are going to give this thing called the Christian faith another go in our lives.  Because we want to.

 

Let us pray:  Gracious Lord, let’s keep things really simple today.  We want to follow you.  We want what you want.  We want to live as you have led the way.  We’re not always perfect in that but we trust that you are always perfect in your love, your forgiveness, and even in your trust in us to carry your message to the world.  We’ll do the best we can and we’ll trust you with the rest.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Thursday, October 27th. James 2:8-18

October 27, 2011

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. James 2:8-18

 

Words matter.  What we say, and how we say it, makes a difference.  When it comes to matters of faith, we use our words carefully.  But words only go so far.

 

At one point in his career, Martin Luther didn’t have much good to say about the book of James.  Luther’s whole understanding of God had been overhauled with the realization that grace is grace.  In Jesus God was reconciling the world to himself by grace, as a free gift, and we know that by trusting in Jesus who has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  Faith is a gift. 

 

Luther was convinced by the Bible that we aren’t saved by our good words; our good works are what we do in response to what God has already done for us.  Thus, Luther didn’t have much good to say about James’ question, “Can faith save you?”  “Of course it can!” Luther said.

 

Words matter.

 

But later in life, Luther came around.  For words can also be empty.  Words can be smokescreens.  We are saved by grace, not grammar.  God is good to us that we might be good to others and a well phrased sentence, regardless of good intentions, doesn’t fill a hungry belly on a cold winter morning.  Only food does that.

 

The Christian faith is very down to earth.  We trust the God who revealed himself to us by coming down to earth in Jesus.  God’s love became real in the person and the work of Jesus.  At the end of his ministry, Jesus charged his disciples to do, on the earth, what they had seen Jesus do – love, care, teach, heal.

 

So we say things like “God’s work, our hands.”  We realize that God has no hands, arms or feet but ours.  We are the body of Christ in the world, continuing to do what we think Jesus would have done.  Clearly words matter, but words only go so far.

 

In Jesus, we are free from the condemnation of the law.  In Jesus, we are free to be who God has created us to be.  In Jesus, we can live without fear about eternity.  We are free then to love others, to care for the needs of those we might never meet, to share what we have been given for the sake of others, to speak up on behalf of those who have no voice, to show mercy, to be gracious and grateful for life.

 

Let us pray:  Thank you, gracious Lord, that you have called us by name and claimed us as your own.  Ignite the fire of your love in our hearts, that we might live in response to that love in our dealings today with friends, with family, with students, with customers, with business partners.  Give us opportunities to be generous and keep us mindful of those who struggle in life.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 26th. Romans 13:8-14

October 26, 2011

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. Romans 13:8-14

 

Over the course of his life and ministry, the Apostle Paul came to understand that the “future” of life as he knew it was probably going to be longer than he first thought.  In his earliest writings, the “end” was just around the corner.  As he wrote to the Thessalonians (4:15-17):

 

“For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”

 

By the time he wrote to the Romans, while retaining a sense of urgency in the life of Christian community, he is clearly thinking more in terms of a long haul together.

 

The question remains – how do we make the most of the time that we have?  His answer?  We love, as God has first loved us in Jesus.

 

Thus the long history of God’s involvement with the people of Israel coalesced around a clear call to love God and to love neighbor.  The promise to Abraham – I will bless you and through you all the nations of the earth will be blessed – had found its fulfillment in Jesus.  And now the community that bore the name of Jesus would continue to live in that blessing, continuing to live a very different lifestyle of radical hospitality, inclusion, and care for the poor and dispossessed.

 

Here we are today.  Still living out that calling, still blessed to be a blessing to others.  Here we are, still tempted daily to lives of self-centeredness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy.  Still doing battle against the forces of evil both in and around us.

 

And still today, that battle is waged when we “put on the Lord Jesus”, when we remember Whose we are and what our lives are all about.  We still believe the end will come, even that the end is near, but our focus remains on what we do today.  Especially what we do today in relationships with those around us.  We love, as God first loved us.

 

Let us pray:  Dear Jesus, help us make the most of the opportunities we have every day to be signs of your presence through how we treat and how we love other people.  Keep our focus on you, your will for our lives and your kingdom now around us.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Tuesday, October 25th. Luke 10:25-37

October 25, 2011

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

 

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:25-37

 

This story of the Good Samaritan is one of those Bible stories that everyone knows.  We can’t remember when we first learned it.  Here too, familiarity breeds contempt.  Let’s listen to it with new ears.

 

We start with the initial question.  The lawyer (read: scholar of Jewish law, not pin striped graduate of Harvard) comes to Jesus with a simple question.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt so we will imagine this to be a question posed without guile.  He isn’t looking to trick or trap Jesus.  He really wants to know the answer.

 

But it IS a tricky question.  It comes out of a set of very common preconceived ideas. 1) There really is something called “eternal life.”  2) There is something we have to do to earn it.

 

Those are common ideas.  People wrestle with such questions all the time.  They are questions that lurk back in the dark recesses of life.  They emerge when life gets difficult or one hears of tragedy or gets bad news from the doctor.  People look around and wonder, “Is this all there is?”

 

Equally common is the idea that you get what you work for.  Even when it comes to spirituality or eternal life.  No one gets a free lunch.  (Actually, lots of people get free lunches.  The thing is, if you are wealthy and the free lunch is on someone else’s expense account, we think that is pretty cool.  But if you’re a kid from a poor family and your free lunch comes at the hands of taxpayers, that is shameful. So it goes…)

 

We bring those ideas with us wherever we go.  So this lawyer brings them to Jesus.  Jesus answers him – life is found in loving God and neighbor.  Jesus’ answer isn’t new or revolutionary.  It isn’t even particularly spiritual.  It is more like common sense.  A religious scholar like this lawyer would clearly have already learned that lesson.  It is pretty basic, reaching back to the very beginnings of the Hebrew faith.

 

But then the lawyer exposes himself, he is looking for a loophole – And who is my neighbor?

 

This is what we will always do if we live our lives with the idea that eternal life is something to be earned by our following the rules – we will conveniently ignore the day-to-day on the ground realities of our lives as think about “spiritual matters” and we will constantly seek loopholes that make it easier for us to “win”.

 

Then along comes Jesus.  He is the end of our spiritual striving to gain God’s favor just as he is the end of our rebellion against God.  The question of eternal life has now been answered – Jesus has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  Eternal life is a qualitatively different existence that begins now and continues on the other side of the grave.

 

Our attention is thus free to turn to the daily realities of life.  Which would include going out of our way to attend to the needs of those who need help.

 

Let us pray:  Dear Jesus, remind us this morning of the times in our lives when people have gone out of their way to be helpful to us, when people have come around us in times of great need.  Remind us this morning that we love you as we love our neighbors in practical, down to earth ways.  Thank you for the gift and the promise of eternal life and the freedom we have to be who you have created and called us to be.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen. 

Monday, October 24th. Deuteronomy 6:1-9

October 24, 2011

Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the LORD your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the LORD your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

 

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:1-9

 

I have played, not well, many different sports through the years.  The one common denominator in all of them, from basketball to golf, is the notion of fundamentals.  Every sport includes some basic elements of how you use and position your body to achieve the best results.  While there might be certain players who excel despite poor fundamentals, they are rare and they don’t last long.

 

We would do well to understand God’s commandments as fundamentals for living in human community.  They are not a list of petty injunctions from an insecure despot.  The commandments are an invitation to a life well lived, in relationship both with God and with our neighbors.

 

I was a tall kid.  It was inevitable that one day I would discover basketball.  It happened in the 4th grade.  Ron Eilers worked down at the local bank and he volunteered as the coach for the elementary basketball program.  He was the first one to teach me some fundamentals – dribbling with my fingertips, how to cradle the ball when shooting, what my hand should look like when I followed through.  I was born with some measure of innate ability, but it took an adult to help me channel that ability by learning the fundamentals.

 

So it is that Deuteronomy exhorts parents to teach their children the commandments of God.  Parents are God’s plan for unwrapping the gifts of their children.  More and more I am convinced that the church exists to help parents do just that – to talk about the faith in very natural “on the run” kinds of ways, “when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.”

 

Let us pray:  Gracious Lord, thank you for the voices who have shaped our lives and taught us the connections between your commandments and our lives.  Bless parents who seek to instill healthy spirituality in the lives of their children.  Guide your church to be a safe place for people to discover a faith that honors you and serves people.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Thursday, October 20 Romans 13:1-7

October 20, 2011

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Romans 13:1-7

 

The letter to the Romans is for the Apostle Paul what Charlotte’s web was to the spider, his magnum opus.  His last and greatest letter and perhaps the single most influential book in the New Testament in guiding the development of Christian thought since the beginning.

 

So let’s ask a simple question:  Did he really mean this stuff about being subject to governing authorities, about such authorities being instituted by God?  Was he serious in suggesting that Caesar – bloodthirsty, egocentric, self proclaimed “divine son of god” – was God’s servant for good?

 

Or did Paul just write that to make sure and keep the authorities off his back so he could do the “building the church” thing without undue pressure?

 

Paul meant it.  Paul meant every word.

 

Paul understood that God cares about our lives, that God cares about human community.  The law, represented and upheld by earthly rulers, establishes boundaries to behavior that enables community life to flourish. 

 

Later Augustine would further develop those ideas in “The City of God”, arguing that God had always worked through earthly authorities, even through pagan Rome, in developing the very virtues which held Rome together.  Luther would further develop this idea in the doctrine of the two kingdoms – God’s rule of justice through the work of earthly authorities and God’s rule of righteousness through the work of the church.

 

Nothing human is perfect.  No human power is perfect, no church is perfect.  There is and will always be tension and the difficult dynamics of doing life, working out what it means to live in both “separateness” and “togetherness”.  But the far greater damage is done when the tension gives way to the crumbling of one way of being into the other.  Whether it is communistic “state without religion” or theocratic “religion without state”, either will diminish life.

 

When I was a kid growing up in North Dakota we were taught about civic virtues.  We were taught to honor our authorities.  Like him or not, once Richard Nixon became president, he became OUR president.  But such honor is always a two way street and thus the tension.  For those in honored positions are set aside to act in honorable ways.

 

There is a reason why the most first stories we learned about George Washington was his honesty in admitting to chopping down a cherry tree, or Abe Lincoln going out of his way to return a few pennies to a woman he accidentally overcharged while working as a clerk.  Those stories carry corporate values, civic values, the undergird our common life.

 

Are such ideas, even Paul’s ideas, too quaint and old-fashioned for the 24 hour news cycle?  Or are “we the people” drifting horribly off course?

 

Let us pray:  Dear Lord, thank you for drawing us together in human communities that allow life to happen.  Thank you for roads and bridges and rules that govern our common life.  Thank you for people willing to serve the common good in elected office.  There is so much we take for granted, and there is so much personal responsibility that we avoid by blaming others.  Forgive us for that and fill us with resolve to do our part in making whole the fabric of life.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 19 Daniel 1:3-21

October 19, 2011

In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. The Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God. These he brought to the land of Shinar, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his gods.

 

Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king assigned them a daily portion of the royal rations of food and wine. They were to be educated for three years, so that at the end of that time they could be stationed in the king’s court. Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the tribe of Judah.

 

The palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.

 

But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine; so he asked the palace master to allow him not to defile himself. Now God allowed Daniel to receive favor and compassion from the palace master. The palace master said to Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king; he has appointed your food and your drink. If he should see you in poorer condition than the other young men of your own age, you would endanger my head with the king.” Then Daniel asked the guard whom the palace master had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: “Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. You can then compare our appearance with the appearance of the young men who eat the royal rations, and deal with your servants according to what you observe.” So he agreed to this proposal and tested them for ten days.

 

At the end of ten days it was observed that they appeared better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations. So the guard continued to withdraw their royal rations and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables. To these four young men God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom; Daniel also had insight into all visions and dreams.

 

At the end of the time that the king had set for them to be brought in, the palace master brought them into the presence of Nebuchadnezzar, and the king spoke with them. And among them all, no one was found to compare with Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah; therefore they were stationed in the king’s court.

 

In every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. And Daniel continued there until the first year of King Cyrus.  Daniel 1:3-21

 

This is a long reading with a simple message. In terms of the book of Daniel, this opening scene sets Daniel up as a special envoy of God, kind of a holy secret agent, a spy in the Babylonian king’s court.  Written long after the Babylonian exile, probably during the earliest days of the conquest of Israel by Alexander the Great, the book of Daniel functions much like Esther.  God will find a way when there seems to be no way.

 

But for us today, there is another message that has to do with our willingness to stand out, to be distinctive, to march to the tune of a different drummer.  From our earliest days, we are expected, even pressured, to conform, to fit in, to find our place.  But, like Daniel, there is another voice that speaks into our ears.  Perhaps it is a whisper, almost but not quite drowned out by the rushing shouts of popular culture, but still it speaks:

 

“I am the Lord your God.  I have created and redeemed you.  I love you and I have a purpose for your life.  Be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you might know and do what is right and acceptable and good for all.  Be strong and courageous.  You are mine and I will never leave you.”

 

Let us pray:  In every age, O Lord, you raise up champions of the faith, people who encourage and inspire and serve with whole-hearted devotion to your cause. Number us among those whom you have set apart, that we might live to your glory and the welfare of your people.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Tuesday, October 18th Jeremiah 29:1-7

October 18, 2011

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  Jeremiah 29:1-7

 

Robert Schuller was one of the most innovative and effective pastors our country has ever known.  He was much more than a “TV preacher.”  He was a visionary – one of the first to start a new congregation based more on what it would take to actually help people than simply building another denominational franchise.

 

He had the courage and the creativity to begin his ministry by preaching from the top of a drive-in movie concession stand, with the cars parked backwards, Schuller’s words broadcast over the car speakers.  People turned on their headlights if they wanted to receive Holy Communion. 

 

We could call all of that silly but it was a central theme that carried over to the building of their first sanctuary – Schuller built a parking lot with humps and loudspeakers for those who still preferred drive-in worship.  He carried the same idea to the next sanctuary – the Crystal Cathedral – with glass walls so that he could still see the cars in the parking lot.

 

Instead of bemoaning his lot to be working in pagan Southern California, Schuller dreamt of what it would take to connect people with faith.  He rethought basic theology, turning “original sin” into “low self esteem”.  Then he became the first ministry with a national reach and reputation to share his ideas with thousands upon thousands of pastors in his annual evangelism conference.  Again, we can differ over the fine points but Schuller one who did just as Jeremiah counseled the Israelites in bondage in Babylon to do – make the best of it, for their welfare was intrinsically tied up in the welfare of the land to which they had been sent.

 

Today, the Crystal Cathedral is bankrupt.  Poor leadership and poor planning failed to adapt to the changing realities of life.  First they lost their vision and their purpose and then they lost their influence.

 

John Maxwell says, “When you fall down, pick something up.”  People in recovery pray, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

 

Life can take all kinds of quirky and painful detours away from the way we thought things were supposed to work.  Exile can take many forms.  Thus we pray that the Holy Spirit breathe inspiration and guidance into our lives, regardless of our circumstances.  We pray for a vision of the path down which we ought to walk, and the courage to stay the course.

 

Let us pray:  Gracious Lord, life often surprises us with painful detours and dead ends.  So we pray that you would guide us that we might see your possibilities rather than our impossibilities.  Be our vision and our light.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Monday, October 17th. Matthew 17:24-27

October 17, 2011

When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.” Matthew 17:24-27

Right next door to our church is a conservative Jewish synagogue. One thing I have learned from them is that every family in the synagogue are assessed, and expected to pay, annual dues. This is very matter of fact. Everyone is expected to pay. No one slides by year after year while allowing others to support them.

On the one hand, it seems coercive and inappropriate. On the other, there are costs associated with a synagogue – what’s the problem if that is how the community chooses to fund itself? (Don’t send me emails on that…I know what the problem is…) Just know this, at the end of the day, someone has to foot the bills.

The “temple tax” referred to in this passage was a practice dating back all the way to Moses (Exodus 20:11-16) who declared that all Jewish males above the age of 20 should pay a half shekel tax every time that a census was taken. The money collected would be used to pay for the cost of the meeting place…later, for the costs associated with the Jewish temple.

This would have been thought of as a normal practice, the cost of doing business as the people of God. But the puzzling thing is that Jesus then asks Peter about the taxation practices of the “kings of the earth.” What do these have to do with each other? Then, strangely, Jesus tells Peter to catch a fish and in it he will find a coin that will pay both of their taxes.

The turning point in the passage is Jesus’ declaration, “Then the children are free.”

Ben Franklin usually gets credit for the saying, “The only sure things in life are death and taxes.” Whether or not he said it first, the fact that it is attributed to him suggests that this is an idea that has been around a long time. Now we know it reaches as far back as Moses.

Human nature doesn’t change much. Someone still has to pay the bills. It is still easier to spend other people’s money. This is the great tension and it plays itself out in families where children demand what their parents can’t afford; in religious communities where some give generously and others don’t give at all; and in the political arena where promises come with price tags and it is always easier to pay tomorrow for what we want today.

Into this mix, Jesus declares, “Then the children are free.” He can only mean one thing.

The temple tax was one source of the funds undergirding the entire Jewish sacrificial system. The day would soon come when the one sacrifice to end all sacrifices would be made. On that day, the children of God would be free forever.

So it is that death and taxes remain certainties in our lives. But they aren’t the only sure things. So too is the love of God – and it will remain long after death and taxes are done forever.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, as we move now into a new week, we pray that you would bless us in our daily work. We pray for those who steward the resources of others, that their work might be done with justice and diligence. In Jesus’ name. Amen.