Archive for September, 2016

Philippians 4:10-13

September 30, 2016

“I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:10-13

I’ve been away from my congregation all week. This past summer I made some new commitments, one of which was to make sure and schedule some personal revival time. One piece of that is to take a few days, a couple of days a year, to go on retreat. So I spent the first part of this week reading books, being quiet, a little dreaming, and a little writing.

For all the negative things that you will often hear people say – and for all the negative things that pastors only say to one another – it really is a privilege to serve as a pastor in a congregation. I often feel like that little lazy field mouse who spent the summer lounging around while all the other mice were busy storing up food for the winter. When winter came, the lazy field mouse had no food. So he went from home to home, telling the hard working field mice stories about the wonders of the summer that they missed. That’s my life.

The Apostle Paul sometimes gives us insights into the life that he led. He was raised in Tarsus, a Roman city of trade, culture, and learning. His family, though Jewish, were Roman citizens. I’ve often thought about whether that left Paul feeling a little bit like a square peg in a round hole. Later, when his family sent him off to boarding school in Jerusalem, to study under Rabbi Gamaliel, he might have felt the same way. An outsider. “He’s not from here…He’s Roman.”

So it comes as no surprise to me that Paul would later say that he studied harder than any of the other students. That is one response to feeling like you don’t fit in – you over achieve. The other response is often to give up. Paul was never one to give up.

But he did give up. When he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul gave up. He realized how wrong he had been to persecute the church. He realized how blind he had been as the light of Jesus struck him on the road. He was taken to shelter, Christian shelter, was baptized, and began a whole new life. He became a missionary for the Christian movement. Which eventually took him to Philippi. You can read about his time there in Acts 16:1-40.

Philippi was a mixed bag for Paul. He was blessed in meeting Lydia, a business woman. She came to faith, was baptized along with her family, and provided a place for Paul and Silas to stay. Later he freed a young woman who was possessed with the ability to tell the future…and thus the ability to make the men who owned her a lot of money. They got angry when they found out how Paul helped her. Paul was publicly beaten and thrown into prison. While there God opened the cell doors but Paul and Silas didn’t escape. When the jailer realized that he was amazed – and he wanted what Paul had. Before the night was over, the jailer and his family also came to faith and were baptized. You just don’t forget places and events like that.

So today, in this little piece of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we can see how much he appreciates the support he has received from the church in Philippi. And they know full well, after their own experience with Paul, how true his words are – . I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

All of this reminds me of how blessed I am to serve as a pastor to a wonderful congregation. We are carrying on the work started long ago. What a privilege for us all.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, thank you for finding a place for us to serve you and the world you love. Encourage us again with the promise that you are with us and that we can do all that you would have us do through the strength that you provide. In good times and bad times, hard times and easy times, may we never lose sight of our calling to be your children. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

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Revelation 3:14-22

September 29, 2016

“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. 

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Revelation 3:14-22

During the summer between my 6th and 7th grades my mom decided that it was time for our family to start going to church. She picked a white wooden old timey looking church building in the middle of the town. It was so like her. She wouldn’t have set foot in the big brick churches. So off we went.

It wasn’t our first experience with church. We had gone plenty of times along the way. But we never joined a church. When I asked my mom once why we didn’t become members, she told me that they didn’t want any divorced women. Was that right? Did she make that up? I was a kid. I didn’t ask those questions. I just believed her.

But the thought was firmly planted in my mind – there are certain people that the church doesn’t want. Our family was included in those people.

So we started going to church. Seriously. My mom jumped in with both feet. Worship and Sunday School on Sunday mornings. Prayer meeting and choir practice (which was pretty cool in that the choir was made up of families) on Sunday nights. Prayer meeting again on Wednesday. I signed up for Bible camp in the summer. We were in like Flynn. We had joined the club.

That was the first place I heard the Bible verses for today. About the letter to the lukewarm Laodiceans. We were NOT supposed to be like them! And it was the first time I heard the story of Jesus knocking at the door. We were told that was meant for us. We needed to open the door of our hearts and let Jesus in. Then we would get to go to heaven. The ultimate insiders! But if we kept that door locked, if we ignored his knocking, well, no heaven for us. All we would get would be H-E-double toothpicks. For eternity. And it would be awful.

So I opened that door as often as I could. I opened it in my bed at night. I opened it when the pastor preached on Sunday. I opened it several times a day when Bible camp came rolling around. I should have just propped it open because Jesus never seemed to cross the threshold.

We stopped going to that church after a year and a half. It didn’t end well. My mom felt rejected by the church when her life took a troubling turn. So we started going to the Methodist church that the farmer I worked for attended. They didn’t ask any embarrassing questions. They didn’t reject us. They also didn’t scare me. In fact, the pastor knew I needed money so he asked if I would start mowing his lawn and shoveling his walk. A realtor from the church became my confirmation sponsor and loaned me a tie for the occasion. He loaned me another tie when I needed one in high school. A lawyer from the church was there for me at a horrible time in my senior year and he ended up hosting my graduation party.

Part of the reason I probably became a pastor is because I care about people worried that God won’t accept them. I’ve come to believe that the problem isn’t that people won’t let Jesus in, it is that too many churches want to keep Jesus all to themselves, safely locked behind the door of their traditions, their prejudices, and their club. God wants better from us.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, forgive us for forgetting the power of your love which flows through us in such simple gestures as helping kids, welcoming single mothers, caring about the neglected, the marginalized, the forgotten. May that love fuel our passion to be loving. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Proverbs 29:11-14

September 28, 2016

“A fool gives full vent to anger, but the wise quietly holds it back.
If a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked.
The poor and the oppressor have this in common: the Lord gives light to the eyes of both.
If a king judges the poor with equity, his throne will be established forever.”
Proverbs 29:11-14

Imagine my surprise to see this passage of Proverbs assigned to today. How timely! Millions of people around the world watched Monday night’s presidential debate. Such debates have a long history and have been a staple throughout my lifetime. This one has left me baffled.

Everyone agrees about the importance of the office of the presidency. Most say it is the most important job in the country. I understand why we say that but Mondays are garbage days at our house and I don’t know where we would be if our garbage collectors took a few weeks off in a row. Every job is important in God’s economy.

But the stakes are certainly higher for the presidency.

Leadership is always a function of community. Teams need coaches to play their best. Someone has to bear the responsibility of leadership at every level of human life. Leaders emerge. But leaders without followers are just taking a walk. So Monday night’s debate gave us a chance to see two of the four people that our political system (read: the system that has evolved to help us get things done as a nation) has chosen, one of whom will be elected president.

At this point we do well to remember that, in the Old Testament, there came a time when the people of Israel demanded that God give them a king like everybody else had. It was a bit insulting to God and God warned them that it wasn’t going to work out as neatly as they imagined it would. You can read God’s thoughts on the matter in 1 Samuel 8:10-18. But full disclosure demands that we also note that theocracies aren’t all they are cracked up to be either.

The earliest democracies were those of Greece and Rome. They weren’t perfect systems then any more than ours today is a perfect system. Imperfect people cannot construct perfect systems.

Monarchies dominated Europe for a long long time. Various forms of authoritarian dictatorships have always been around. The democratic experiment of the United States of America truly was a revolutionary movement at the time; I trust we all feel fortunate that we are still working to keep it going now.

So today, again, we hear a few verses from Proverbs which offer some wisdom when it comes to governmental leadership. They offer some thoughts on the temperament issue that came up on Monday night: “A fool gives full vent to anger, but the wise quietly holds it back.”

They remind us that the people a potential leader surrounds him or herself with is very important to their capacity to lead: If a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked.
They remind us that how we look at things has much to do with the perspective we bring: The poor and the oppressor have this in common: the Lord gives light to the eyes of both.
And they remind us of those for whom the king bears special and unique responsibility: If a king judges the poor with equity, his throne will be established forever.

So it was the we saw two of the four people vying for the highest elective office in our land. And we, the followers, get to choose. Everybody gets one vote. The result will say as much about us as the leader we choose.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we pray for all people who are running for elected office this season. We pray for honesty, integrity, capacity, and devotion to a life of service from them all. We pray for wisdom and discernment among those who cast their ballots. And we pray that you help us follow well whomever is ultimately elected. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Proverbs 22:6-9, 16

September 27, 2016

Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.
The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.
Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail.
Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor…
Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself, and giving to the rich, will lead only to loss.”
Proverbs 22:6-9, 16

Many people are very familiar with the line “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.” but few realize that this line appears in a passage from Proverbs that largely addresses economic justice. Yet it is both true and wise to consider what we teach our children when it comes to how we handle our money and how money functions in the world.

Proverbs tells us that “The rich rule over the poor…” This is largely true. In both government and business, the poor are far more often the ruled than the rulers. We speak in hierarchical terms about this when we notice those who are “at the top” versus those who are “at the bottom.” Poor people seldom have the capital or the connections to gain the voice afforded to those in elected office. That makes them very vulnerable and it blunts the potential power of sheer people numbers. Do we teach our children to listen for the voices of poor people?

Proverbs tells us that “the borrower is the slave of the lender.” Slavery is a pretty loaded term but there is little doubt of the crippling effect of carrying too much debt. Far too many families struggle under debt loads that limit their lives. Sometimes debt accrues through catastrophic events but, far more often, it creeps up and up and up over time until the mountain seems too high to climb. Many young people today begin their careers knowing that they will be making what amounts to a mortgage payment in repaying student loans. Debt is so easy to get and so hard to get rid of. Do we teach our children that sometimes we just don’t have enough money to do what they want or get what they want? Do we teach our children to save and to wait?

Proverbs tells us that “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity…” Injustice here means the failure to deal fairly and honestly with people. It means taking advantage of people and oppressing people. Proverbs warns us that this will not end well. Do we teach our children to be fair, to be considerate, to resist the temptation to gang up against those less powerful?

Proverbs tells us “Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor…” Do we teach our children to be generous? Do we encourage generosity from the moment we first begin entrusting them with the care of their own money? Do we teach our children to share?

Proverbs tells us “Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself, and giving to the rich, will lead only to loss.” Children are able to understand the consequences of their actions the more closely the consequences are to the actions. If they touch a hot stove they burn their finger. Lesson learned. But the “oppression of the poor” seems a hard concept to teach children. They won’t understand real estate redlining or the exorbitant interest charged to pay day loans, or the practice of flipping used cars, or the lack of affordable grocery stores in low income areas. That will only make sense to them later in life if they are taught along the way to notice how it is that powerful people will sometimes take advantage of powerless people and that it is wrong.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, help us be wise stewards of the money that comes into our lives. Teach us patience and delayed gratification. Teach us to be fair, to be generous, and to be mindful of the needs and abilities of those who have less than they need in their lives. Teach us the values of hard work, of careful stewardship, of integrity in our dealings with others. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

1 Timothy 6:13-16

September 26, 2016

In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. 1 Timothy 6:13-16

The last devotion I wrote, for September 23, was based on the verses before and after today’s reading. I cut them out on Friday because the reading seemed too long for a blog entry and because cutting them out still provided a seamless flow in the meaning of the surrounding verses. Today we will listen to them.

When I was a kid I was like most other kids. If my mom told me to do something, and if I spoke back without worrying too much about the consequences, I would ask her “Why?” Most of the time I was just making the first move toward getting out of doing it but sometimes I was just curious. “Why?”

I think that is how these verses function within the 6th chapter of 1 Timothy.

The 6th chapter is the closing chapter of this letter. It wraps up the instructions that the writer is passing down to Timothy, a young leader in the church. It talks about money, about wealth, about how much trust we put in money, and about our responsibilities to use our money in responsible ways. Since money is such an important part of life, guidance in matters of money is also an important subject in mentoring young leaders. But there is more at stake than that.

Earlier, in 6:5, the writer offers harsh criticism of those who ignore the teachings of Jesus. Rather than aligning their lives with what they know of Jesus, they use the faith in “imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” That is dangerous to the spirituality of all involved. And now comes the old question, “Why?”

Because either Jesus is worth following or he is not. Either he is “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” or he is not. Either we will follow Jesus as we come to know Jesus through the Bible, and serve Jesus’ purposes in our lives, OR we will make up our own version of Jesus that fits more easily into our own selfish and self-centered view of the world, and then use Jesus to serve our own selfish purposes. Doubly dangerous if we, like Timothy, are leaders in the church. Not only do we go down but we take lots of other people with us. That’s why.

I fully realize that “what’s in it FOR me?” is the easiest question in the world for us to ask. The entire economy seems to revolve around answering that question for us in every slick marketing campaign showered upon us…but it isn’t the Jesus question. The BETTER question will ever and always be, “What’s in it THROUGH me?”

Let us pray: Dear Lord, thank you for naming and claiming us as your own, for all the good gifts in our lives. Use us as you will, always to your glory, and the welfare and common good of the world around us. You are Lord of lords and lord of our lives. May we always seek direction from you, not to gain some kind of competitive edge over others, but to more fully participate in your mission to love the world back to wholeness. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

1 Timothy 6:6-12,17-19

September 23, 2016

“Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. 

But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses…

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 6:6-12,17-19

These are famous verses. The kind of Bible verses that float around in our culture. Even people who are very unfamiliar with the Bible have, at some point, heard the words “for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” But does that make any difference?

Sometimes such verses seem to me like being told to eat my vegetables. Here is what I know about eating vegetables. They are good for us in many ways. They provide nutrients and fiber that are great for our bodies. They keep us healthy and they help us not gain unnecessary weight. They are the first thing that we see when we walk into a grocery store. They are easy to prepare. They even taste pretty good.

So why do we struggle to eat our vegetables? Why is junk food so much more attractive?

Because there is in us something that we have chosen to call “sin.” This little word carries a lot of different meanings. Missing the mark. Rebelliousness. Selfishness. Pride. It captures the battle that often rages within us between what we know we ought to do and what we end up doing.

Sometimes we hit the mark. We do eat our vegetables. We are content with what we have. We don’t set our hopes on money and what it can buy us. But sometimes we fall off into the deep end of chasing dead ends.

It is a mystery why some people are able to consistently eat their vegetables, take good care of themselves, feel confident and content with life while others eat junk food meals and chase junk good lives.

Here is where the faith gets hard. Here is where we need God’s help to shun that which is destructive to us and fight for that which is worth fighting for, which is always better for us. Here is where we pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life…

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you see how fickle we are and how easily we fill our lives with junk. Here is where we need the power you alone can give to us to fight the good fight of the faith, to be content with what we have, to pursue love, endurance, gentleness and all that really matters in our lives. Give us that power, one day, one meal, one paycheck, at a time. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Ecclesiastes 5:10-12

September 22, 2016

“The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity. When goods increase, those who eat them increase; and what gain has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of laborers, whether they eat little or much; but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep.” Ecclesiastes 5:10-12

That first sentence is intriguing. The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. It raises the question of what it means to be satisfied and it reminds us that there is a great deal of value in feeling satisfied. But it says that neither money or wealth will get us there.

It reminds me of that famous quote from John D. Rockefeller, the wealthiest man in the history of the United States. When asked “How much money is enough money?”, he replied “Just a little bit more.” (Which, by the way, provided the title for a great book written by T. Carlos Anderson, a Lutheran pastor in Austin.)

I look back at my life and I see an endless procession of “if only I could have that I would never want another thing in my life…” It hasn’t ended yet and no thing, as in nothing, that could be bought, borrowed, or saved as provided any ultimate satisfaction in my life. There is always room for just a little bit more.

As it says in the Amazon description of Anderson’s book, “Is America a Christian Nation? According to author T. Carlos Anderson, the true religion of the land is the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. Anderson, defining religion as ultimate concern, claims our true devotion is found in material pursuits. It’s been a good religion; it has fed, clothed, sheltered, and employed millions of Americans. It can go too far, however. When these pursuits become excessive, the religion breaks bad and the common good suffers.”

Sound familiar?

The writer also tells us that “Sweet is the sleep of laborers, whether they eat little or much; but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep.” Ask any owner of a small business or an executive at a large company and they would tell you what sleepless nights feel like when things aren’t going so well. They feel the weight of responsibility, not only to their own families, but to all those they employ. The more one has to lose, the more one fears losing it.

So what does offer us ultimate satisfaction? Here is the Apostle Paul’s answer:

I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:11-13

I have learned to be content with whatever I have. Be content today.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, all that we have, and all that we are, comes from your hand as a generous gift. May we use your blessings to be a blessing. May we be good stewards of our lives. May we share what we have and share room for others to gain what they need. Strengthen us to do what you have called and set us aside to do. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

Psalm 62

September 21, 2016

“For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.

He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.

How long will you assail a person, will you batter your victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?

Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood; they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse.

For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.

He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.

On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.

Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.

Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath.

Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.

Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God,

and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord. For you repay to all according to their work.” Psalm 62

This is a great reading for a Wednesday. Middle of the week. Hump day. The news filled with horror and hyperbole. It feels good to be reminded that God is our rock and our fortress.

What in our lives can we entrust to God? Everything and anything. What in our lives are we willing to entrust to God? Now that is where it gets tricky.

I love the story of the conversion of the early English knights to Christianity. Known as fierce warriors, they entered the water for their baptisms. As the priests submerged them the knights allowed everything but the hand with which they swung their swords. They entrusted everything to God…except that. That they held back.

What do you hold back?

Your worries and fears might be teaching you something about what you hold back from God. Your calendar and your weekly schedule might teach you something about what you hold back from God. Your attitudes and actions toward the people who you find troubling might be teaching you about what you hold back from God.

And then there is the old “sometimes.”

Sometimes I am able to entrust everything to God. But sometimes I go my own way, I trust my own solutions, I think I can handle everything quite nicely myself thank you very much.

The psalmist tells us “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.” Notice the preposition! It doesn’t say what we expect. It doesn’t say my hope is IN him, it says my hope is FROM him. Even hope itself is a gift from God. It is God being our rock, salvation, fortress, and deliverance.

So yes, today is a busy day in the midst of a busy week. But do take some time today to be quiet. To just show up for God. Even for a few minutes. Be quiet. Let God teach you about what you hold back and where you fall into “sometimes.”

The psalmist says “Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this…” Taking a little time to listen is a great strategy to actually hear something.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you are our rock, our fortress, our hope, our life. Teach us where we hold back and inspire us to let go and let you. We will do our part. We will do the best we can. But we are limited. Do for us what we cannot do for ourselves and in that teach us anew to put our trust in you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 19:16-30

September 20, 2016

“Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” 

Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”” Matthew 19:16-30

This is one of those Bible passages that reminds me that people have been wrestling with the words of Jesus for almost 2000 years. You just can’t pin Jesus down. He is relentlessly focused on following God wherever that takes him and that often leaves us spinning in place.

Today we hear again from the young man who shows up and asks Jesus what it will take for him to have eternal life. It is an important question. I notice immediately that, in the 10th chapter of Mark, the question comes out slightly differently. There the man asks what he has to do to “inherit” eternal life. (The same word is used in Luke 18:18 as Luke tells the same story.) Matthew, with a copy of Mark in front of him, changed the word from “inherit” to “have”. What does that tell us?

“Inherit” suggests that eternal life is something a person might receive off in the distant future. “Have” suggests that it is possible to live in eternal life now. Matthew sees eternal life as a certain quality of life available to us now, not merely a quantity of years on the other side of the grave. The gospel of John shares this same understanding.

The writer of 1 Timothy combines the teaching here about wealth and eternal life in 6:17-19, “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.”

Eternal life has something to do with “the life that really is life.” Life like it is meant to be. Life as God intends it.

Whenever I read this passage I remember two things. I remember the commentators who try to explain some gate into the city of Jerusalem that was really narrow where a fully loaded camel couldn’t enter. I have no idea if that is true. And I think about the story of the monkey trap where a banana was placed in the bottom of a glass with a small opening at the top. The monkey would reach in, grab the banana, and then get stuck because getting his arm out required him to let go of the banana.

Maybe Jesus is saying the same thing here about our wealth, possessions, and eternal life.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we know the temptation of relying on our material success and all of our stuff to make us happy, to give us security, identity, and status. We hold on to all of this far too tightly. Help us to let go. To be generous. To live simply and to truly live. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 12:38-44

September 19, 2016

“As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 

Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Mark 12:38-44

The word “economy” means “the process or system by which goods and services are exchanged among people.” It comes from a Greek word which referred to the management of a household. At its root, it means how a community of people choose to cooperate with one another. Into this system comes the idea of money.

Gold is valuable because people decided at some point to put a high value on it. It is relatively rare and portable so it worked well in the exchange of goods and services. But it was heavy so at some point paper money became the means of exchange. Today, value passes between people via electronic data. But whatever the means of exchange, the underlying principle remains the same – people use their skills to produce goods and services that are “valued” in the marketplace and exchanged for other goods and services. That is how life worked in Jesus’ day too.

Alongside this central core of the economy comes two other uses of money. Taxes and charitable giving. Taxes, levied by every level of government, is coercive. That is you get into trouble if you don’t pay your taxes. Your only choice is to do what you are supposed to do or you will get punished for it. Charitable giving, what you give to the church or the Red Cross or any other helping organization, is entirely voluntary. The government, seeing the value that such organizations bring to life, encourages charitable giving by allowing for a small tax savings benefit, but charitable giving remains completely optional.

So it was the Jesus saw rich people putting large sums of money into the temple treasury and he didn’t have much good to say about them. But, when a poor widow put in all she had to live on, he praises her.  Why? Because she is totally relying on God to take care of her and her life. She doesn’t have anything else. But the rich people are free to still trust in their wealth since all they gave was a little extra.

This old story still invites us to think more deeply about how we use our money. Very few of those of you reading this will ever get “down to your last penny” in your lives. None of you are forced to give any of your money to the church or any other charity. Some of you are very wealthy. The question this story asks of us is this – Rich, poor, or somewhere in the middle, what place does giving generously fit into the management of our households?

And when we give, are we giving out of trust and gratitude, are we just following our tax strategy, or do we just keep everything for ourselves? If we could sit down with Jesus for a conversation about how we use our money, given that he sees everything, what might he say to us?

Let us pray: Dear Lord, thank you for the generosity that you have implanted into the hearts of people who provide the resources that free charitable organizations to do their work. Thank you for the privilege of using our money to be helpful in ways and places where we cannot go. Thank you for the witness of this poor widow. May her example encourage each of us to give from our hearts, trusting that you will take care of our needs. In Jesus’ name. Amen.