Archive for October, 2014

Daniel 5:22-31

October 14, 2014

“And you, Belshazzar his son, have not humbled your heart, even though you knew all this! You have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven! The vessels of his temple have been brought in before you, and you and your lords, your wives and your concubines have been drinking wine from them. You have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know; but the God in whose power is your very breath, and to whom belong all your ways, you have not honored.“

“So from his presence the hand was sent and this writing was inscribed. And this is the writing that was inscribed: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN. This is the interpretation of the matter: MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” Then Belshazzar gave the command, and Daniel was clothed in purple, a chain of gold was put around his neck, and a proclamation was made concerning him that he should rank third in the kingdom.”

“That very night Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.” Daniel 5:22-31

Every Sunday we put an insert in our bulletin called “Taking Faith Home” which includes various activities that families can do at home that build upon what they hear in church that day, including a list of daily Bible readings for the coming week. (You can find this and other resources at www.vibrantfaithathome.org) I get the daily readings from these devotions from that resource; I don’t choose them on my own.

I say that to say this – even though our congregation is in the midst of 40 Days of Health, working on what Rick Warren titled “The Daniel Plan” – the fact that today’s reading comes from the book of Daniel is completely a coincidence.

Or is it?

What happens in this reading is that Daniel, no longer the young man eating his vegetables in the first chapter, is now an experienced advisor in the Babylonian court. He is called upon to interpret a dream of the son of the king who oversaw the destruction and deportation of Israel. Daniel doesn’t pull his punches. He clearly, directly, and courageously nails King Belshazzar with the bad news that his world is about to come crashing down around his ears.

Straight talk. We might not want to hear it but we are always better off if we have people in our lives who are willing to talk straight with us. To tell is like it really is, not what we want to hear just because we want to hear it.

We can’t grow without straight talk. We can live in reality without telling, hearing, or facing the truth about life.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, in Daniel we hear the story of a man who is held accountable for his pride and lack of reverence. We are often guilty of both. We chase idols, we ignore you, we abuse our freedoms. Come to us through the voices of people willing to mirror back to us the destructive and self-destructive nature of such behaviors. Give us the grace to really hear straight talk and the willingness to make changes that need to be made. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Luke 14:15-24

October 13, 2014

One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 

Then Jesus said to him, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master.

Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’” Luke 14:15-24

Yesterday afternoon I was sitting with a few of our middle school families waiting for the others to arrive for confirmation class. Our confirmation program gathers young people and their parents for weekly conversations about key aspects of our faith. Yesterday the topic turned to the first part of the Apostles’ Creed. We were going to be talking about our conceptions about God.

4:00 PM came but most of the class didn’t. It turned out they were in the parking lot, thinking that the door was locked. Those few minutes of waiting turned my mind toward thinking again about how life works for our middle school families. Their lives are crazy.

School for kids and work for parents are pressure packed with unrealistic expectations. Soccer, baseball, swimming, music lessons, tutoring – it is amazing how much time families are expected to devote to the things that are supposed to be fun. It is nothing for such activities to require, during the school year, two nights for games and two nights for practice, not to mention the leagues and tournaments on the weekends.

Call me old-fashioned but it amazes me that scheduling something at church between 4:00-5:30 PM requires families to choose – do we go to church or do we participate in this tournament?  I really do admire our families because they ARE committed to what we are trying to do and they DO make every effort to keep all the balls in the air while carving out time to be there for our learning time.  But why does that have to feel like such a struggle and sacrifice?

It isn’t just Christian community that finds itself marginalized in the business of busy-ness, it is also quiet dinners at home around the family table, quiet time in the morning for prayer and reflection, or simply just being still.

What drives all this incessant driving around to get to the next thing on time?

Everyone invited to the banquet in today’s reading had an excuse. At face value, they were all great excuses. All seemed like important stuff. But their excuses cost them their place at the table. Yet the table was full at the end because the doors were thrown open to those who otherwise were being passed over by life. Or maybe passed over by the life that just seemed like a life.

We ended up gathering around our tables in the fellowship hall having a great conversation about God. A conversation that continues next week.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, grant us the serenity to accept responsibility over our own stewardship of time and money, the courage to say no when we need to and yes when we want to, and the wisdom to keep our priorities straight. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Acts 14:1-7

October 10, 2014

The same thing occurred in Iconium, where Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace by granting signs and wonders to be done through them. But the residents of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. And when an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, the apostles learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country; and there they continued proclaiming the good news. Acts 14:1-7

At the beginning of the 13th chapter of Acts it says that “while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” It was on.

Immediately Paul and Barnabas set about the work of telling the Jesus story in both words and acts of healing love. Immediately they learned that, if you are truly following in Jesus’ footsteps, you are going to step into a highly charged, reactive, environment.

Some will be interested, some incensed. Some will receive the word with great joy and some will look for rocks to throw. Some will become partners in the Gospel and some with seek to tear everything you do apart.

No one said it would be easy.

Why do we think that, when God invites us to follow him, he will be ushering us down Easy Street?

Doesn’t it usually boil down to some aspect of self-centeredness, pride, or fear? We want what we want when we want it and we are always looking for an edge, an inside tip, a magical solution, to get it. We want the God who agrees with us, who is on our side, who makes everything better, who gives us what we want.

We want the god we want; instead we get the God we need. Sometimes we welcome that news, other times we reject it. But God never gives us in chasing us down. Paul and Barnabas, following in those nail-scarred footsteps, wouldn’t give up either.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, it seems so simple. You create us, redeem us, love us, yet we are so quick to reject you and any claims you might make on our lives. We want to do our own thing, go our own way. Sometimes we reject the ones you send our way or we stir up others to hide our own fears. But sometimes we get it. Sometimes we are so grasped by the wonders of your love that we are willing to do anything it takes. May your Spirit have free rein in our lives, taking us wherever you see that we need to be. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

John 7:40-52

October 9, 2014

When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, “This is really the prophet.” Others said, “This is the Messiah.” But some asked, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” So there was a division in the crowd because of him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him. 

Then the temple police went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, “Why did you not arrest him?” The police answered, “Never has anyone spoken like this!” Then the Pharisees replied, “Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law—they are accursed.” Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” They replied, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” John 7:40-52

Just who is this Jesus?

Once again the Bible takes us into stories of flesh and blood people trying to figure out just who Jesus is and what he is all about. Today’s reading is full of characters all wrestling with that question. Characters we recognize even though our lives are so far removed from ancient Israel.

We understand “temple police” as the protectors and enforcers for those who protect and enforce religious ritual laws and practices. Just seeing the words “temple police”, even without understanding anything about their roles or identities, is surprising to us as all we have known is a Christianity that is free from coercion.

We see “the chief priests and Pharisees” and again we recognize people who have dedicated themselves to protecting the tradition (and their powerful and privileged positions within it) while forgetting what that tradition is all about.

We hear the questioning voices of the “crowd”, all busy with the business of their daily lives, all wondering just who Jesus is and what he is about. So divided between themselves – do we arrest Jesus or follow him? Is he or isn’t he?

And then we hear from Nicodemus. Perhaps he is closest to us. Intrigued by Jesus but afraid of what his friends would think. Willing to defend Jesus without being unduly offensive to others. Reaching back into the tradition for help, even as the one whom he is helping seems intent on turning the whole system upside down.

Just who is Jesus? Who is Jesus to you?

Let us pray: Dear Lord, still the voices clamor and argue about who you were and who you are.   Still voices want to drown out your voice lest your words upset what they want. We hear those voices. Sometimes they are our voices. Today we recognize you. You are our Savior, our Redeemer, our Friend, our deepest hope, our most challenging leader. May our lives bear witness to your Lordship. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Luke 13:6-9

October 8, 2014

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” Luke 13:6-9

Yesterday I talked about living in the hope of things in our lives getting better. Today’s reading makes the same point.

You can read this parable as referring to Israel. Initially given the promise of God that God would bless them, and through them, bless the whole world, the parable says that, in Jesus, Israel is being given another opportunity to remember who they are and what they are about in the world.

You can read the parable as referring to the Christian movement down through the ages. We have forgotten who we are time and time again. History is littered with examples of Christians acting in very un-Christ-like fashion and the damage that has done both to people and to the Christian witness. Yet God is patient, even with the Church, and God is ever willing to accept our repentance and guide us toward fruitfulness that matters.

Or you can read it personally, as I am doing this morning.

I can’t tell you how many promises I have made through my lifetime that I would make this change or that change or do this or do that, and how many of those promises that I have made to God, myself, and others, that I have miserably failed in keeping. But God isn’t giving up on me. I get another chance. Things can get better.

My personal goals right now are very simple. Every day I want to pray and ask God for help and guidance, be the best husband and father my wife and children deserve, do my job as well as I can, drink a lot of water, make time to have fun with exercise, and depend on other people to help me. That is about it. That’s what I can do.

I will very likely fail at one or more of those at some point during the day – but such failure is not inevitable. God gives me the power to make choices and act on them. And even if I do fail, God will be patient with me as God is patient with all of us.

If I listen closely enough to the truth of that last sentence, there is a very good chance that I can also be patient with myself, even as I seek God’s help in doing what I can.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you are so patient with us. You are the God of the second chance, the seventy seven times seven, chance. Like fertilizer slowly makes it healing ways through the plants that it feeds, may your Spirit slowly and steadily continue to lead, guide, empower, and encourage us, toward lives of love and fruitfulness. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Amos 9:11-15

October 7, 2014

On that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name, says the Lord who does this. 

The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the Lord your God. Amos 9:11-15

It will get better.

How many times in our lives have we assured other people, or have other people assured us, that things will get better? Usually, eventually, they do. Maybe not better in the ways that we want or expect, but better nonetheless.

Never does anything get better by magic. Magic is not real. Magic is just wishful thinking. Magic is an illusion.

The key here is to see who is going to take the initial responsibility for things improving. “The time is surely coming, says the Lord…” The promise here is that God is the one promising better times ahead. But notice also that God always works through people.

“I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.”

 God provides the vision of a better future. God provides the spiritual encouragement and power to take up our mats and walk. It is up to people to grasp that vision, to believe it before they see it, and then get about the daily work it takes to get there.

As our congregation kicked off a six-week emphasis on seeking a healthier lifestyle, we had a motivational speaker/personal trainer come and talk to us. He was exceptional. He painted a compelling picture of a healthier lifestyle and encouraged us in taking the small daily steps that would get us there. He channeled God’s vision of holistic health but he couldn’t do it for us.

It will get better. God will provide the power to help us do what needs to be done to see that vision take on flesh and blood reality.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, in every age we live in the tension of current painful realities and the vision of a brighter future. Today we worry about war in the Middle East and disease spreading unchecked. We worry about unemployment and underemployment, about paying the bills and saving for the future. We struggle with and against all of the “ism’s” that divide people from one another. Help us take steps, even halting baby steps, empowered by your Spirit, to go beyond wishing things would get better to actually doing what we can to make things better, in our lives and in the wider world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Ezekiel 19:10-14

October 6, 2014

Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard transplanted by the water, fruitful and full of branches from abundant water. Its strongest stem became a ruler’s scepter; it towered aloft among the thick boughs; it stood out in its height with its mass of branches. But it was plucked up in fury, cast down to the ground; the east wind dried it up; its fruit was stripped off, its strong stem was withered; the fire consumed it. Now it is transplanted into the wilderness, into a dry and thirsty land. And fire has gone out from its stem, has consumed its branches and fruit, so that there remains in it no strong stem, no scepter for ruling. This is a lamentation, and it is used as a lamentation. Ezekiel 19:10-14

This rather obscure passage is a poetic remembrance of one of the worst memories in the history of ancient Israel, their defeat at the hands of the Babylonians and subsequent captivity for a generation in Babylon.

It is a lament, a cry of pain.

To remember the “good old days” seems ingrained in us. The normal pattern is to remember portions of those days as “good”, even “better”, but always “hard.” We usually miss the irony of how it is that the days we remember as so “good” were populated at the same time by another generation of people who saw the same days as evidence that everything was falling apart.

Perspective matters. How we look at things matters.

There is no sugar coating the Babylonian exile any more than one could put a positive spin on the Holocaust or the civil/religious wars in Africa. Ugly is ugly. Loss is loss. Death is death. In the midst of such times, all that matters is finding something worth hanging on to and surviving.

Which is what the people of Israel did in Babylon. As bad as those times were, they held on to the stories and the practices and the promises of their faith in God. They looked at their circumstances from a spiritual point of view with the openness to see their part in it. Rather than writing off God, they began to write down the stories which would become big chunks of the Bibles we now treasure.

Even the worst moments in our lives can give birth to the best yet to come.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, sometimes we are down so deep into the pain circumstances of our lives that we feel hopeless. We remember times that were better and wonder if we will ever see them again. Teach us anew that the past is past yet always present to be our teacher. May we learn the lessons there for us and never give up our hope in the future you are preparing for us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

James 1:19-25

October 3, 2014

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. James 1:19-25

This is a tough passage for me. When it comes to talking, I’ve always been a “Ready, FIRE, Aim” kind of guy. I’ve learned along the way that, when I’m listening to others, I really need to focus to actually hear what they are saying instead of just loading up with whatever I’m going to say next. Sometimes I can do that. Sometimes, not so much.

“Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”

In this text, James reminds us to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” This is actually a double reminder. A reminder of the importance of action on our part, for it is only our actions, our behaviors, that impact the world.  And a reminder that mere hearing without action is a quick path to self-deception.

When we take the action of slowing down, of active listening, of noticing the anger welling up inside of us, curious to where it is coming from, our best self emerges. When we take care of what smart people call “our side of the street” we are much more capable of being with and for others in a positive way.

Such self-reflection is a healthy alternative to the kind of “quick look in the mirror” that James warns against. “Hearers of the word” look into the mirror seeking self justification. “Doers of the word” look into what James calls “the perfect law, the law of liberty”, that is love.

It leads to questions like: What, in this very moment, does it look like to love my neighbor as I love myself? What is God up to in this moment? What does following Jesus in my life look like right now – and how do I best respond?

James also reminds us that we have been given the gift of “the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” We are not alone and we are not without guidance. The Spirit will work in and through us…we are free to pause when agitated and seek direction. Direction that will come.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we don’t want to be hearer only. We really do want to be doers of the word. We recognize though how quickly that desire can disappear when we find ourselves in the heat of the moment. Continue to shape us into people who are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

John 15:9-17

October 2, 2014

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. John 15:9-17

“Abide” is not a word that we use in normal conversation. I doubt I have ever used the word in either written or oral communication. In that, it is a “special” word. If I hear it, I will automatically think of these images from the gospel of John and the hymn, “Abide With Me”.

The word could be translated as “wait in” or “stay in” or “remain in” or even “continue in”, but the NRSV uses “abide.” I like it. Abide is a special word. If we slow down upon reading it, we have to think about its meaning. If we would have started our reading with John 15:1 we would have passed through John 15:5, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

Read that verse slowly to and some new insights begin to emerge.

We are always quick to turn the Christian faith into something that we HAVE TO DO, or some way that we HAVE TO BE (whether or not we ever get around to actually so doing or being). This is so ingrained in us that we come away from today’s reading thinking that all Jesus is really saying is commanding us to love one another.

If we only go there, we miss the heart of the matter.

Jesus tells us here that we are as connected to him as a vine to its branches. He tells us that he loves us. That he has chosen us. That we can consider ourselves his friends. He wants us to know joy, not just to give us a job. And he assures us that we will bear fruit that will last. Not because of our innate fruit-bearing capacities but solely as we channel his love into the world around us.

This text is full of promise. Let’s its words sink into our souls today. Let them come back to us again and again and again through the moments of our day. Live in that connection and celebrate the fruit that emerges. Abide in it. (There, I used the word.)

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, you are the vine, we are the branches. We love because you first loved us. You chose us, we did not choose you. You have called us friends and so we are. You are the potter, we are the clay. May we keep this straight today. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Isaiah 55:6-7

October 1, 2014

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. Isaiah 55:6-7

Starting Sunday our congregation is going to spend six weeks doing The Daniel Plan. Basically, it is a clarion call to be more mindful of the stewardship of our own bodies. From Sunday messages to small group meetings to reading the material, we are going to be invited to try on some new behaviors and rely on God in new ways.

Lord knows I need that!

There are many areas of my life where I warmly welcome God’s presence and guidance. But then there are key areas where I hold back and try to do it on my own. Even as I type these words, I want to go back and delete them. Admitting that I hold back key areas of life from God’s influence on me isn’t a very nice “pastorly” thing to say. But it is true.

It isn’t always easy but I consistently seek God’s guidance and support at work and in many areas of my home life. I pray for my wife and our children. I ask for God’s action and intervention in lots of different places and situations around the world. But when it comes to the more personal things – like what I eat and how much I exercise and the bad habits that I like – I prefer to drive my own bus. So following The Daniel Plan will be an interesting adventure for me.

With this in mind, I welcome the Bible reading for today: “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.” This seems to be much more than poetic words written long ago by Isaiah. This feels very close to God’s heart and God’s intentions for our lives. This reflects a God who is both personal and available in practical, down to earth, ways.

And yet in the back of my mind I hear the whispers of that voice that doesn’t even want to try anything different because it is already certain of failure. That is the voice of fear. It masquerades as self doubt but really it is prideful self-sufficiency. It isn’t that I don’t believe that God CAN help, instead, it is about my own stubborn refusal to ask for help. That two year old “I want to do it myself!” is still alive and kicking in me.

Again God shows up. “…Let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” God shows up, not with condemnation and “I told you so!” but with mercy and pardon. God doesn’t require perfection, but God does invite us to count on God’s presence and seek God’s help.

This will be a great adventure in faith.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you are as close to us as our next breath. Yet we push you away, we turn our backs to you, we ignore you even as you stand right next to us. Soften our hearts and still our fears, that we might turn to you in all things, in all areas of our lives, seeking your will and your guidance. Do for us what we cannot do for ourselves and free us to do what we can. In Jesus’ name. Amen.