Archive for September, 2014

September 30, 2014

In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.

 

Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you from your own people a prophet like me. You must listen to whatever he tells you. And it will be that everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be utterly rooted out of the people.’ And all the prophets, as many as have spoken, from Samuel and those after him, also predicted these days. You are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you, to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” Acts 3:18-26

Peter just healed a lame beggar on the steps of the temple before launching into the sermon that includes our reading for today.  Now I am going to tell you an absolutely true story that happened just a couple of weeks ago in my office.

We have a job opening at our church for a Director of Youth and Family Ministry. A very nice young man applied for the job so I scheduled a conversation with him in my office. When he arrived he was so excited the words were just rushing out of his mouth.

He told me that he woke up that morning with a clear message from God that he should feed hungry people that very day. So he and a friend went to Wendy’s and bought 300 sandwiches, then brought them to downtown Houston to find homeless people to feed and to pray for. I’m not making this up.

At that point in my listening, I thought about how we send our high school kids downtown on the 3rd Sunday of the month to feed homeless people. I thought we might have a fit here with this guy.

Then he told me about how he found a guy who couldn’t stand up to get his sandwich. He had a painful problem with his lower leg that made walking difficult. So our job applicant asked if he could pray for his healing. The prayer happened and suddenly the guy with the bad leg jumped up and started dancing around. Our guy captured the moment with a video on his phone. He showed me the video.

I thought about how we envision ministry at Faith around the three foci of worship, learning, and healing. And yes, I also thought about how handy it would be to add a faith healer to our staff instead of just a run of the mill Director of Youth and Family Ministry.

This kid was PASSIONATE about the Christian faith. He wanted to give his entire life to helping other people discover the power and presence of God in their lives.

This is an absolutely true story.

No, he did not make it past that initial interview with me. He wasn’t going to fit at Faith. But I did pray with him and for him, that God continue to open doors and that God continue to use him to do good in the world. But not at Faith.

This morning I’m wondering if this story doesn’t have a whole lot to do with why so many people weren’t terribly convinced by Peter’s speech even though they saw a lame man dance just a few happy feet away.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we all have our own peculiar boxes that we like to keep you in. For some, you fit in the box of supernatural wonders and emotional hype; for others, in staid liturgy and decorum. We pray for our health but never for our money; we pray for our faraway enemies but not for that co-worker who drives us crazy. Today we pray for the grace that might blow our boxes wide open, leaving us open to the possibility of newness and resurrection in our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Hosea 14:1-3

September 29, 2014

“Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take words with you and return to the Lord; say to him, “Take away all guilt; accept that which is good, and we will offer the fruit of our lips. Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses; we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands. In you the orphan finds mercy.” Hosea 14:1-3

We’re going to begin this week by revisiting a very important word in the Christian vocabulary. Repentance.

This passage from Hosea begins with the words “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.” “Iniquity” basically means misbehavior. We can grab any of a host of adjectives to describe such misbehavior, ranging I suppose from “slight” to “gross” but the bottom line is that iniquity means we have messed up. Not just errors in our thinking but actual actions that have been hurtful to ourselves and others.

So what do we do with that information?

Our knee jerk reaction (OK, my own personal knee jerk reaction) when we mess up is either to cover it up or to blame someone else. We either want to keep it a secret and hope we don’t get caught, or, if we do get caught, we want to explain ourselves to justify our actions or to blame someone else for it. That knee jerk reaction reaches all the way back to Adam and Eve. It is the flight or fight mentality hardwired into our reptilian brain. And it doesn’t help.

Fight or flight might help us if we come across a bear in the woods but in the normal course of human events, fight or flight just makes things worse.

God’s alternative is called “repentance.” Repentance doesn’t fight, it confesses. It takes personal responsibility for our words and our actions, hurtful though they be. And repentance doesn’t “flight”, it stops, turns around, and faces up to what we have done.

Hosea says, “Return, O Israel [people of God, including us], to the Lord your God…” and as you do that, “Take words with you…” That’s repentance.

“I’m sorry. This is what I did that was hurtful. Please forgive me. I will work hard not to do that again.” That’s repentance.

I don’t know anything else in the world that holds the promise of restoration, reconciliation, and rebirth, as the power of repentance.

Let us pray: Thank you, Lord, that you don’t leave us wallowing in the pain that our rebelliousness and selfishness causes in our lives and the lives of others. Instead you invite us to get honest, to take the risk of our own vulnerability, and to make things right by facing the realities of our lives. Thank you for the invitation to return to you and the hope of forgiveness. Thank you for the gift of repentance. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

John 1:14-18

September 26, 2014

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. John 1:14-18

Years ago there was a series of videotaped interviews of famous theologians and religious thinkers that came to our church as a Sunday School curriculum. (If I could remember what the series was called I would have named it right there…that part doesn’t matter so much to me right now.)

The only interview that struck me deeply enough to be memorable was of Rabbi Harold Kushner of “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?” fame. He was asked to describe God. In classic Jewish fashion, he said something along the lines of “We know God by what God calls us to do.

I might have totally messed up what he actually said but that is the line that caught me. The only way I know God is through what God calls us to do with and among our neighbors.

It was a marvelous line. It captured so well the heart of Judaism reaching all the way back to the promise to Abraham, “I will bless you and through you all the people of the earth will be blessed.”

But I also had a sense, deep inside, that God had revealed far more of Godself than a set of moral rules and regulations governing human behavior. Even as I listened to Rabbi Kushner’s eloquent thoughtfulness, my mind drifted back to these words from John: And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

 

God did more than show us, God showed up for us. In the flesh. Among us.

Sometimes I joke with my wife. I tell her that “I thought about buying a special gift for you today.” If she bites and asks what it was, then I say “Well, I didn’t actually buy it. I just thought about it. But it’s the thought that counts, isn’t it?” (OK, maybe she fell for it once but you get my point…)

The thought is nice but it is the gift that counts. Because the gift is real. Actual. Fleshly. Earthy. Not a figment of our imagination but a figure in our midst.

So we come back to the question. What do we know of God? We look first to Jesus and through that lens we see all of life anew.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we don’t know who first told us about you. We can’t remember the first time that we heard the stories of Jesus. But we thank you for whoever it was who took us into their confidence and shared the good news of your love. We know they learned from someone and we know that lines stretches all the way back to John and to Jesus. May the story not stop with us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Romans 11:33-36

September 25, 2014

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen. Romans 11:33-36

Thank God for Wikipedia. I just clicked there to discover that Sir Francis Bacon is usually credited with the line “knowledge is power”. It also says that: “Bacon has been called the father of empiricism. His works established and popularized inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry, often called the Baconian method, or simply the scientific method. His demand for a planned procedure of investigating all things natural marked a new turn in the rhetorical and theoretical framework for science, much of which still surrounds conceptions of proper methodology today.”

(Ironically, as smart as he obviously was, it also says that “He famously died by contracting pneumonia while studying the effects of freezing on the preservation of meat.”)

Bacon’s scientific method has certainly proven to be a blessing in humanity’s ongoing calling to cultivate the garden of life yet in this fallen world, the curse follows closely behind. I don’t think a tape measure can adequately capture what happens when, in our quest to be All-Knowing, regardless of method, we end up too big for our britches.

Paul isn’t seeking to capture, or even to understand, the “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God.” He is simply praising God, standing in awe of God, letting God be God.

We can’t and won’t figure God out. As much as we seek to learn and to grow, limits are limits and some things are simply unknowable. Yet that doesn’t mean they are non-existent or powerless. We know what we know about God because God has chosen to reveal Godself to us. In God’s time. In God’s ways.

I don’t understand electricity or the internet but I’m using both of them this morning. I can’t measure my wife’s love for me nor can I adequately demonstrate in a repeatable experiment the depth of my love for her. All we have is our word to one another and the invitation to trust it. That is all we need and more than we could possibly wish for at the same time.

God loves you today. That is all you need to know.

Oh, and dress warmly the next time you want to study the effects of freezing on the preservation of meat.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, since we were children we have been asking questions.   Who? What? Where? Why? When? We’ve wanted to know “how long until we’re there?” since the first road trip of our lives. Thank you for these inquisitive and curious minds that you have given us. Thank you for scientists who seek to unravel the mysteries of life. Thank you for not answering all of our questions. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Ephesians 1:3-8

September 24, 2014

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. Ephesians 1:3-8

Wednesday is Hump Day. By now we have come to grips with the fact that a new week is fully upon us and we still have three more days to go. When it comes to my job, it is usually the most productive day of my week.

It is nice to begin a Wednesday with a reminder of how blessed we are.

I am one of those “eldest children” in the family who can do the math. I realize that the American ideal is that two kids go to college, get great jobs, get established in their careers, begin to build up a bit of a nest egg, find a great person, date an appropriate length of time so they fully know what they are getting into, get married, move out of “their” places into “their” place, and finally decide they are ready to bring a child into the world.

It didn’t work that way with me. I was an accident. My mom once pointed out the gravel road where I was conceived. It was my fault that my mom dropped out of high school. I was the reason that my parents got married; a marriage that was doomed from the start even though it produced three more children before it ended.

There is no rational reason why I should have assumed responsibility for all of that given that the fault began accruing when I was an embryo. But I did. So have millions of other children. We are victim to the false belief that we are unwanted accidents.

So it is wonderful on Wednesday to be reminded that God works in mysterious ways, that God can redeem anything, even a festive night on the town that ends on a furtive gravel road. Regardless of how we came into the world, God “destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”

Through the years I have spent many hours revisiting my origins and the effects it has had on my life. I’m grateful for all the listening ears through the years who have helped me. I’m grateful that I have eyes to read and ears to hear the good news that comes to me through the real source of my being: In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.

Happy Wednesday!

Let us pray: Dear Lord, before the foundations of the world were laid in place you imagined us and the significance we would play in your grand design. You heal our brokenness, forgive our fallenness, redeem our purposes, and bless our identity. Thank you for adopting us into the family of your love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

1 Timothy 6:17-19

September 23, 2014

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

This text begins with two warnings and one invitation to those who are rich. To help us best hear this text, let’s make sure that we include ourselves among those who are rich in this present age. (Because, face it, we might not be Warren Buffett or Bill Gates but if we are middle class or above and live in the United States we are among the richest people in the world.)

We are not to be “haughty” nor are we to set our hopes on our balance sheets. We are invited to set our hopes on God. Here is what that looks like for us:

A quick check on the definition of “haughty” says it means “arrogantly superior and disdainful.” We are in serious trouble if our self worth is a function of our net worth. Just because we have more toys doesn’t mean we are better people. As a matter of fact, just like when we were kids in the neighborhood, the kid with the most toys who also happened to have the most friends sometimes learned that his “friends” were far more interested in playing with his toys than with him and that stunk.

Our self worth begins with God who thought us worthy enough to die for us, and therefore declared us priceless. Think about that the next time you drive down the highway – from God’s point of view, every vehicle you see is only as valuable as the people in the seats.

As for setting our hopes on our balance sheets… Accountants use the words “balance sheet” to refer to a report that shows how our debits equal our credits.   But isn’t there much more involved in a well-balanced life than that? What adds more value to a parent’s life – chasing kids or chasing dollars? Work and play, rest and worship, adventure and contemplation, service given and received. There is so much more to life than bank accounts.   And none of us, NONE of us, really believe that those numbers have anything at all to do with what we will be talking about when giving a final accounting of our lives.

“That they may take hold of the life that really is life…”

Here’s the deal: We are where we are in our lives because that is where God wants us to be. We have what we have in order to be a blessing to others. We will discover the life that really is life when we “do good, are rich in good works, generous, and ready to share…”

Let us pray: Thank you, Gracious Lord, for the gift of my life and the gift of each day. Use me today to be a blessing to someone else. Give me an opportunity to do good and I’ll do it, to be generous and I’ll give, to share and I’ll share. May I treat everyone I meet today with the respect and honor they deserve, not because of their position in life but because of their position in your love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Titus 3:3-7

September 22, 2014

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. Titus 3:3-7

My weekends end on Sunday nights at about 9:00 PM. The last two things that I get to do before going home are leading our weekly recovery worship service, which we call 6TEN and then spending time with teenagers. Last night, the teenagers who gathered were boys who live in a local group home for drug addicts in recovery.

These boys show up for 6TEN whenever their weekend caregivers are willing to pack up the van and drive them over. They come voluntarily, willingly, even eagerly. They think it is cool to go to a worship service that doesn’t feel like “church”. They even come up to be anointed with oil and encouraged with prayer. They like the food we serve after worship. They think it is awesome that we can play basketball afterwards.

I believe that God is calling our congregation to be a center for healing. More and more, I believe healing is salvation. I believe God wants to pour the healing power of grace into every crack of human brokenness and God uses people to do that.

Sometimes that brokenness is as IN YOUR FACE as addictive illnesses or co-addictive behaviors. Sometimes it is as simple as grief and loneliness or as common as trying to raise healthy kids, enjoy our marriages or dating relationships, and maintaining our sanity in our daily work in the world.

There are broad cracks in human community due to race, class, and culture. God’s grace is healing balm there as well. And God uses people there too.

So I read these words from Titus and I realize that its description of life without God describes me and just about everyone I know – foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another – but I know we aren’t stuck there. God doesn’t leave us there. God comes to us to bring us to a new place, a new way of life, a new way of being that is healthy, holy, and the hope of the world.

All by God’s grace and mercy. All by the willingness to show up, let go, and let God. I WANT that in my life!

Dear Lord, thank you for all the ways that you open new doors to a new way of living. Thank you for the wonders of your love and mercy and the ways that you bring those gifts into our lives through people willing to show up for one another. May your healing Spirit rest on and work in our lives today. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Acts 6:8-15

September 19, 2014

Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.”

They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. Acts 6:8-15

The stoning of Stephen feels like a biblical car accident. You are tooling along, reading the book of Acts, following the growing Christian movement, when you are shocked at the disaster that strikes.

Stephen was a quiet hero. He did wonderful things without much acclaim. Yet Jesus was alive in him. To the very end. Stephen’s final speech, in the face of his accusers, is one of the longest in the New Testament. It is the speech of a person who knows who he is and Who he belongs to. He has connected the dots of God’s presence in the world through his relationship with his chosen people. Stephen has discovered the truth and the truth has set him free.

When the end comes, Saul – who would become Paul – witnesses the stoning. He helps by holding the cloaks of those who killed an innocent man. The memory would haunt him but it wouldn’t stop him. Only God could do that.

The news media tells us of courageous Christians who suffer for their faith. Missionaries locked up or killed in North Korea. Thousands of Christians killed in Syria, Iraq, and various places in Africa. By sheer numbers, Christianity remains the most persecuted faith in the world. We also number among the highest persecutors.

But I’m never persecuted for my faith. At most, I might make a few people uncomfortable in my presence. Especially when I’m wearing the black shirt with the white power strip firmly installed. Something inside me tells me that, if put in a horrific position, I would boldly stand up for my faith. Easy to say as it is unlikely to happen.

The real problem for me, and perhaps for many of us, is how often I just keep quiet and fall down without a fight when there is no right around me. How quiet I can be. How I can live in denial and ignorance of the evil and injustice in our world. I am not Stephen, nor am I Paul. I throw no rocks at people. Instead, I hide back in the crowd. Quiet. Anonymous. And far too self-satisfied.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, the bold witness of Stephen strikes us. His willingness to tell his truth despite the consequences. The rage in the crowd around him. The senselessness of his death. This story tears at us, tugs at us. Today we pray that it might also encourage us toward boldness, and discourage us against our own complicity in the suffering and oppression of those who challenge us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

1 Samuel 26:1-6

September 18, 2014

Then David said to Ahimelech the Hittite, and to Joab’s brother Abishai son of Zeruiah, “Who will go down with me into the camp to Saul?” Abishai said, “I will go down with you.” So David and Abishai went to the army by night; there Saul lay sleeping within the encampment, with his spear stuck in the ground at his head; and Abner and the army lay around him.

Abishai said to David, “God has given your enemy into your hand today; now therefore let me pin him to the ground with one stroke of the spear; I will not strike him twice.”

But David said to Abishai, “Do not destroy him; for who can raise his hand against the Lord’s anointed, and be guiltless?” David said, “As the Lord lives, the Lord will strike him down; or his day will come to die; or he will go down into battle and perish. The Lord forbid that I should raise my hand against the Lord’s anointed; but now take the spear that is at his head, and the water jar, and let us go.”

So David took the spear that was at Saul’s head and the water jar, and they went away. No one saw it, or knew it, nor did anyone awake; for they were all asleep, because a deep sleep from the Lord had fallen upon them. 1 Samuel 26:6-12

Saul was after David. He was literally chasing him down. David had done absolutely nothing wrong. Saul was just jealous and paranoid. But David was in trouble. That is what makes this story so surprising – David finally had Saul in a place where David could end his own troubles by ending Saul’s life.

But he doesn’t do it.

He holds back, not because he loves Saul, but because he fears and respects God. Saul was God’s choice for king and David trusted that God would and could take care of Saul.

Oh those are juicy moments when we have the goods on someone else, especially someone in a position to affect our lives. We feel powerful, finally on top. We can taste the temptation to fire back, to lash out, to take our revenge.

Smart people say that resentment is the kind of poison that we take and expect someone else to die. In the end, we get hurt.

God gave David pause that night. God intervened that night. David’s dark side lost the battle that night. There would be more battles to come and his dark side would not always lose but this time, it did. And rather than remembering David as a godly soldier and king who respected God and spared Saul, he would have been just another power hungry and bloodthirsty tyrant out to get his.

Who do we want to be? What swords do we do well to put down?

Let us pray: Dear Lord, so often we are tempted to take our frustrations and pain out on other people, especially those against whom we have long held resentments. Come to us in those moments, helping us remember that following you takes us down roads of forgiveness, understanding, and restraint. In Jesus’ name. Amen.