Archive for September, 2016

2 Peter 3:8-13

September 16, 2016

“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” 2 Peter 3:8-13

I can’t ignore that first line in today’s reading. Here’s why:

In our middle school confirmation program we are spending the whole year doing an overview of the Bible. Which means, of course, that we start with Genesis and the two creation stories. This is big and important stuff for middle school kids (and their parents, which is why our parents re-take confirmation right along with their kids.) After I teach the big group we break up into smaller discussion groups. I meet with the parents.

As we were processing the first creation story last week I – as I always do – went right after the issue as it is commonly posed in our culture as science vs. theology or creation vs. evolution. I frankly don’t have much time for this debate. It is a modern invention, seldom engaged in a thoughtful manner, and always does injustice to both science and theology. But it is a BIG deal for middle school kids to process.

Very quickly in our parents’ discussion, two of our parents unknowingly went straight down the two most common rabbit holes. One, raised in China, was taught a very materialistic view of life and its origins, utterly devoid of the supernatural or theological. That view is always inclined toward the “God of the gaps theory” which, in trying to “defend” God, looks for the otherwise unexplainable, the holes in the science, and says, “THERE is God!”

Another, raised right here in good old Texas, also seeking to defend God (we were, after all, in church), offered the familiar “let’s harmonize our stories so they fit theory”. That one always begins with “Well, the Bible says that “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” Do you see how I got on this subject this morning?

I shot that one of the sky like a clay pigeon at a turkey trapshoot – I said, “The problem with that “we don’t know how long a day is for God theory” is that it still assumes that there is some kind of competition between the stories of Genesis and our modern scientific quest for insight and knowledge.” I love being part of our middle school confirmation program, even when the stuff we talk about rocks a few boats along the way.

Here’s where the rubber hits the road on this one. To say that God is Creator is not to say “once upon a time God created…”, it is rather to say that God is ALWAYS Creator. God’s creative work, into which we are invited as created co-creators, is God’s CONSTANT work. We are privileged to have that insight, and privileged to have the curiosity to learn as much as we possibly can about God’s creation. Theology is not anti-science. Theology encourages science just as theology encourages every human endeavor devoted to the common good.

To know that God is Creator also means that we are not only privileged, we are also responsible to assume our God-given role in creation. And as the writer of 2 Peter tells us today, that means we are responsible to leading lives of holiness and godliness, patiently waiting in hope as God continues to reveal Godself to us, toward God’s final restoration of a new heaven and new earth.

I don’t know what that means or what it looks like but it sounds good, doesn’t it?

Let us pray: Thank you, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, for your patience with us as you hold us in the palm of your hand. Give us patience as well, even patience with ourselves, as we surrender our lives into your care, your keeping, and your calling to us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Romans 5:1-11

September 15, 2016

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 

For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” Romans 5:1-11

Do you want to know what never ceases to amaze me? Our capacity to think that we are smarter than God – especially when it comes to who we believe that God truly loves.

I am always amazed at the startling reality that people can absolutely believe, to the depth of their being, that God loves everyone in the world….except them. In their own private heart of hearts, they think they are the only ones who are fundamentally unlovable.

Now, I clearly realize that there are lots of people who think just the opposite. They never question God’s love for them. They might even be quick to point out people that fall outside of God’s love. Strangely, they might be precisely the people who are quick to point our people that fall outside of God’s love….unless, of course, they get with the program and shape up. It isn’t that I know many people like this. I just don’t understand the reality that they exist.

Me? I count myself among that first group. I can think of lots of reasons why I wouldn’t be at all surprised if God has had enough of me. That might be exactly why I cling so fiercely to God’s grace. If I have any hope at all, it has to be that or I’m sunk.

I think about things like this a lot more often than most people would realize. I will never forget the people along the way who have said things to me like “I didn’t go forward for Holy Communion this morning because I just didn’t feel worthy” and I want to pull my hair out. Of course you are not worthy! It is not about being worthy! No one is worthy! That is the whole point of grace. Of God’s unconditional, undeserved, unearned love for unworthy sinners!

The problem there is the same old problem of thinking that we have more insight, or that we are smarter than God.

How could Paul be any more clear with the Romans? “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Jesus didn’t wait around for the world to shape up before he died. It was actually just the opposite. It was the brokenness of the world that those broken leaders projected onto Jesus. It was THEIR woundedness that wounded Jesus. It was THEIR sin that he bore. Willlingly. Competely. Eternally.

It was OUR sin that put Jesus on the cross and it was Jesus’ love that let it happen. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

Don’t be a smarty pants. Don’t try to outthink God. Just let the good news sink deeply into your bones as you prepare for the rest of your day. You LIVE in God’s love and there isn’t a thing you can do to change that. Let it be. Let God be God. Let yourself be loved.

Let us pray: Oh Lord, the deepness, the completeness, the power of your love! While we were yet sinners…while we were enemies…while we stubbornly insisted and thought we knew a better way…that is right where you gave yourself over to us and suffered our death. But then, just when we thought you had us safely out of sight and out of mind, you rose from that tomb and you came to be among us. Where you are still among us. Open our hearts and minds to see you, to trust you, to follow you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

John 10:10-18

September 14, 2016

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. 

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” John 10:10-18

Not long ago I heard a presentation given by Rev. Dr. Rick Barger, now the President of Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, OH. Pastor Barger told a story that I have thought about every day since hearing it.

Back in 1979 he and his family were living in Teheran as the revolution happened that toppled the government of the Shah and included the capture of the American hostages. On Christmas Eve night, the Barger family and a guest from the US were in their living room, singing Christmas carols at the top of their lungs so their children would not be upset by the shouts of the crowds outside and the roar of the military vehicles passing down their street. He said that night reminded him of two competing, opposing, stories, only one of which could be true.

One story is the story of this fallen world. A story of conquest and violence and power. It is the story of the thief who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”

The other story is the one of the baby born of Mary, the Prince of Peace, the Good Shepherd, the one who “came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The good shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep.”

Two mutually exclusive stories. One true, the other an illusion. Which will it be? Who will we trust? Whose story will capture our imagination, guide our actions, motivate us to live our lives?

Will we trust violence, conquest, “gittin’ them before they git us?” Or the One who calls us to love our enemies, to do good to those who persecute us, and to turn the other cheek?

It seems crazy, doesn’t it?

These are two competing stories, both vying to capture our hearts and our minds. The thief and the Good Shepherd. One, the Father of Lies. The other, the Truth who sets us free.

Which will it be?

Let us pray: Dear Lord, this morning we trust that your story is the only path to peace, to justice, to the life that is truly life. We turn from the seductive voice of the thief to pray again using your words from the cross: Forgive us, Father, for we so often do not know what we are doing. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Judges 10:6-16

September 13, 2016

“The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, worshiping the Baals and the Astartes, the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines. Thus they abandoned the Lord, and did not worship him. So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the Ammonites, and they crushed and oppressed the Israelites that year.

For eighteen years they oppressed all the Israelites that were beyond the Jordan in the land of the Amorites, which is in Gilead. The Ammonites also crossed the Jordan to fight against Judah and against Benjamin and against the house of Ephraim; so that Israel was greatly distressed.

So the Israelites cried to the Lord, saying, “We have sinned against you, because we have abandoned our God and have worshiped the Baals.” 

And the Lord said to the Israelites, “Did I not deliver you from the Egyptians and from the Amorites, from the Ammonites and from the Philistines? The Sidonians also, and the Amalekites, and the Maonites, oppressed you; and you cried to me, and I delivered you out of their hand. Yet you have abandoned me and worshiped other gods; therefore I will deliver you no more. Go and cry to the gods whom you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress.” And the Israelites said to the Lord, “We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you; but deliver us this day!” 

So they put away the foreign gods from among them and worshiped the Lord; and he could no longer bear to see Israel suffer.” Judges 10:6-16

The book of Judges bridges the time between Joshua entering the Promised Land and the consolidation of the land of Israel under the first kings, Saul, David, and Solomon. It is a violent book as it tells story after story of the battles that the people of Israel fought with other tribes. It is also a story of the consequences of idolatry, of chasing after gods who are not gods.

As the story unfolds in Judges, God wants to help Israel. God wants to lead them to new lives in the Promised Land. But the people of Israel don’t always cooperate with God. Worse than that, as it says in today’s reading from the 10th chapter, “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord… they abandoned the Lord, and did not worship him.

God tried again and again to help Israel. God named a series of charismatic people, called “judges”, who were supposed to lead Israel is a right, godly, and faithful way. Yet again and again the judges were unable to keep Israel on track. Over and over this cycle repeats. God rescues the people, the people do OK for awhile until they fall back into idolatry yet again, God sees that they are punished, they cry out for help, God raises up a leader… Again and again.

What are we to make of these stories? We do well to understand that, although they look like historical stories, they were written long after the events they report. In fact, the book of Judges was carefully crafted and put together just as we have it for a very specific purpose. And that purpose was to warn subsequent generations that obedience and faithfulness to God was the key to the kind of life God wanted them to have. The lack of such obedience and faithfulness would always look like idolatry – that is, finding their security, identity, and purpose in something or someone other than God.

It didn’t matter who served as their leader – if the people as a whole proved rebellious, disobedient, and prone to idolatry, no leader had the power to turn them around. Their only hope was in trusting and following God.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, again and again we repeat the story of the Garden of Eden in our lives. Like your people of old, we always think we have a better idea, and that our better ideas will take us where we want to go. We are stubborn and full of pride. In Jesus you have shown us the best and only way to the lives you would have for us. Forgive us for going our own way and redirect us to follow as Jesus leads. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Psalm 51:1-10

September 12, 2016

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.

Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:1-10

Transgressions. Iniquity. Sin. There are several words in the Bible that describe what happens when our attitudes, our thoughts, and our behaviors flood our lives, and the lives of others, with destructive consequences.

Transgressions are actions that cross boundaries of relationships, that break rules, that break laws. Like cheating at school or lying about your taxes or stealing what isn’t yours.

Iniquities are moral violations like cheating on your wife, or looking at pornography on the Internet, or sexting with other kids at school. Racism and bigotry are attitudes that begin as iniquities and spill over to actions that are transgressions.

Sin is the overarching word that captures all of this. Sin with a capital “S” is best understood as an incurable disease that we are all born into – Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me – and sins with a small “s” are the symptoms of that disease that erupt through our attitudes, thoughts, and actions – Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

We all know what it feels like when we have sinned. We know the feelings of guilt and shame that we feel. We see the consequences of our actions, often in the eyes of the people we love the most. The psalmist wants us to realize that our sin runs much deeper than doing something naughty, and that the reason why it weighs so heavily on us is that God has created us for so much better. And that all of our sin, ultimately, is sin against God and God’s will for our lives. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.

So what are we to do with our sin? Our natural tendency is to lie, to hide, to pretend, to keep secrets, to justify ourselves. Why? Because we are afraid. We are afraid of being rejected, or being outed, ridiculed, humiliated. We want to escape the consequences. Our ego doesn’t want to admit to our brokenness and our limitations. So we hold it in…but it can’t and it spills over and it recycles and we dig ourselves into an even deeper hole.

What does the psalmist encourage us to do with our sin? Confess it. Speak the truth. Ask for forgiveness. All of this with the hope and promise that God can do major heart surgery on us and put us back in a better place – Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we hear every day about the big problems in the world “out there”, far beyond us, but the truth is that the most troubling parts of our lives are right here in front of our faces. Our sins separate us from you and from one another. They weigh us down, limit our lives, and fester deep within us. Forgive us for what we have done and left undone. Create in us clean hearts, and put a new and right spirit within us,that we might be freed to live lives that are truly alive. In Jesus’ name.

1 Peter 4:12-19

September 9, 2016

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker.

Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name. For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinners?” Therefore, let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good.” 1 Peter 4:12-19

So here I am, early on a Friday morning, and I’m reading a word of encouragement written to a group of 1st century Christians who are living through a period of persecution…and I’m wondering when the last time was that I suffered because of my faith.

Oh, I’m not talking about being inconvenienced. There are plenty of things about being a Christian that are not altogether convenient. Setting aside time for prayer or for serving as a volunteer in a worthy cause might get in the way of other things. Sunday mornings keep coming but surely getting up in the morning once a week to attend a corporate worship service that begins at 8:30 AM or 10:50 AM could hardly be classified as suffering.

Budgeting for charitable giving, most of which goes to my congregation, necessarily means that we do without that which we could have purchased…but I’ve never missed a meal. In fact, my problem isn’t that I have never missed a meal but that I eat a bit too much at all of my meals and far too much between them. That isn’t suffering either.

I’ve never been arrested, never been whipped, never been publicly humiliated. I’ve never worried about my church building being bombed as it happened not long ago in Pakistan or some death squad goons interrupting worship to gun me down at the altar as happened to Archbishop Romero. I’ve never been thrown into jail like Martin Luther King, Jr. or burned at the stake like John Huss.

There are places in the world where it is dangerous to be a Christian today. Places where missionaries get kidnapped and beheaded, women and girls get raped, and men and boys get the choice between dying or dying. Because they are Christians who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And there are people in such places who have gone there precisely because they are Christian and they went wanting, as 1 Peter says, “to do good.”

Here in the United States I will sometimes read about people who say that “Christianity is under attack” and I have no idea what they are talking about. All I know, from my own experience, is that the only time that I have any sense at all of being “attacked” is when I say things that I feel compelled to say because of what it means to me to be a follower of Jesus that other Christian people disagree with. Disagreeing with one another is hardly suffering. It doesn’t feel good but it won’t kill us.

Why were the earliest Christians persecuted? Because they were different. Because they gave their allegiance to a power higher than earthly government or other religious systems. Because they shared food with the poor and brought them hope. Because they crossed boundaries of race and gender and class when they gathered for worship. Because they posed a threat to earthly power structures.

Maybe the reason we suffer so little for the faith is because we spend so little time doing things like that.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you have assured us in your Word and by your own example that suffering for the sake of others is something that happens when we follow you. But far too often we take the easy way out. We keep our heads down. We keep our mouths shut. We go along to get along. We think faith in you is a path to success, comfort, and peace. We run from suffering. Forgive us and prepare us for opportunities to stand with, to stand for, and to stand up despite the consequences. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Philippians 3:7-16

September 8, 2016

“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.” Philippians 3:7-16

What is the difference between “knowing about Jesus” and “knowing Jesus”?

What is the difference between having a “righteousness of my own that comes from the law” and “one that comes through faith in Christ”?

For Paul, the difference is everything.

To “know about” Jesus means we might be able to say the right things, list the right doctrines, tell the same stories – and yet our lives remain unaffected. We don’t act any differently than any other self-centered person out to get what we can get while we can get it. We might defend Jesus or admire Jesus, but still not follow Jesus.

To “know” Jesus means that, day after day, we die to sin, selfishness, and arrogance and are raised to live humbly, honestly, with compassion toward others and the willingness to examine our own hearts and minds before judging the hearts and minds of others. To know Jesus is to not just see, but to experience, a power greater than ourselves doing through us what we cannot do ourselves. When Paul experienced that it completely turned his life around and set him on a brand new course that was more meaningful, more powerful, and more connected to reality than the life he knew before. That is the power of knowing Jesus.

A “righteousness of my own that comes from the law” means that we believe being in a right relationship with God (the meaning of righteousness) comes as the result of our following the rules and regulations of religious laws. Some of these laws, like the Ten Commandments, draw boundaries around our behavior toward our neighbors in good, right, and healthy ways. Others, like not eating pork, are trivial and make no difference other than lowering the profits of pig farmers and giving us the feel good idea that we are better than others because we follow the discipline of rejecting some great smelling bacon.

The problem with this kind of home-grown righteousness is that we are incapable of it. Sin has affected us to the core so that we pretty much don’t care about the law unless there is a good chance that we will get caught. We end up caring more about what the neighbors think than what God thinks. And even if we do get pretty good at rule following, we don’t end up holier, we just end up feeling “holier than someone else.” Home grown righteousness can’t help but become self-righteousness and that helps no one.

Paul says that the “righteousness that comes from faith in Christ” is a righteousness FROM God based on faith. It is pure gift. Unconditional, undeserved, unearned. Our relationship with God is made right because God, in Christ, has set us free from the bondage of our sin. God makes us righteous. Thus we place our trust in Jesus – that Jesus reveals God’s love, that Jesus is our Savior, that Jesus is our Lord. We place our trust IN Jesus, not even in our fickle ability to trust. Our trust level wavers but Jesus is the rock solid foundation of our lives. Game over.

This is the good news that God revealed to Paul on the road to Damascus in Acts 9. And it set his feet on a journey that lasted the rest of his life.  I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death…Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, work in our lives today that there might be less of me and more of you in all that I think, say, and do. Knowing your love for us, may our response be the willingness to let go and let you lead. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Acts 5:27-42

September 7, 2016

When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.”

But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.

But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”

They were convinced by him, and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. Acts 5:27-42

In the 5th chapter of Acts, Peter and the other apostles are in the temple courtyard helping people. Acts tells us that people are being healed and many are coming to faith in Jesus. In other words, they are doing things that make the religious leaders jealous. And angry. So the chief priest orders all of the apostles arrested and thrown into jail. But, in the night, an angel of the Lord unlocked the prison doors and the apostles head right back to do what they had gotten in trouble for doing. And once again, they were rounded up and brought before the authorities. That is where the verses for today pick up the story.

Peter tells the high priest why they are doing what they are doing – and in that, Peter tells us as well. “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things.”

That right there is a pretty good job description for a disciple of Jesus. And it just might get us into trouble once in awhile. As citizens we have a duty and an obligation to follow the laws of the land. But when following the laws of the land would run counter to God’s higher authority in our lives, we are free to resist the laws of the land. And to suffer the consequences of our resistance.

The trouble is, who is to say what laws are to be followed and what laws are to be resisted? I’m reminded of an attempt here in Houston to shut down the outdoor feeding stations where lots of congregations brought food to homeless people. Congregations vocally resisted and were willing to break whatever new rules were put in place. The city leaders changed their minds. Other Christians might have felt differently. In the end, we all have to make up our own minds about such matters.

But seldom are we put in the position where our resistance to the authorities might end up in our deaths – unlike Peter and the others. The religious leaders were so angry they wanted to kill them right then and there. But then came the voice of Gamaliel. He urged caution. If what they were doing was not of God, it would fail. If it was of God, no one could stop it. Gamaliel’s argument won the day. Good for Peter and the others and good for us.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, jealousy is a dangerous emotion for us. So is cowardice. Give us the courage to risk the consequences of standing up for what we believe is right and the humility to admit when we are wrong. Thank you for the brave witness of Peter and all those who have gone before us. Those who persevered in the face of all the forces of evil. You are always the highest authority in our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Philemon 1:8-16

September 6, 2016

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.

Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.

Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. Philemon 1:8-16

Philemon is a short little letter written by Paul to a slave owner. Onesimus, evidently a runaway slave who belonged to Philemon, had somehow ended up with Paul. With this letter Paul is encouraging Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as a beloved brother in Christ, not just as a slave. Paul is asking Philemon to be kind and understanding rather than angry and harsh.

In many ways, this is an uncomfortable little letter. It was written in a day when slavery was an accepted and very common practice. People were enslaved when their lands were defeated in battle. People were enslaved when they were captured to be sold. In those days, slavery was about social class, not race or skin color. The surprise in this text is that Paul encouraged Philemon, as a brother in Christ, to receive Onesimus back as a brother in Christ. The tragedy – at least from our point of view – is that Paul doesn’t question the idea of slavery itself.

So it is that there was a time in the United States that Philemon was used as an excuse to continue the inhumane practice of slavery. Many Christians, citing passages like this or the ending of the story of Noah and the ark, believed that there was nothing wrong with people owning people like people owned cattle. Some people, they argued, were designed by God to be slaves. It was their place in life, assigned in creation.

Other Christians, of course, came to deeply despise slavery. They quoted other passages in the Bible – Jesus saying he came to free the imprisoned and the oppressed, Paul saying that, In Christ, there is no longer slave or free. These Christians argued that slavery should be abolished and that all people should be free to make their own way in life.

After years of political wrangling, the institution of slavery, and the right to own slaves, finally led to the Civil War. That war officially ended the practice of slavery as a legal institution. But the underlying idea – that God designed some people to be free and others for lives of servitude – lived on in the hearts and minds of people for a long long time. Today few people, if any, would want to return to the days of slavery. But some people still believe that some people are better than others, based on their race, the color of their skin.

This is the world in which we now read Philemon.

Martin Luther King used to say that “the universe bends towards justice.” By that he meant that the Holy Spirit was constantly at work, gently and sometimes not so gently, opening peoples’ hearts and minds to see injustice in the world and then strive to do something about it. Love was God’s tool for encouraging justice. I think this has everything to do with what Paul was saying to Philemon.

Paul wanted Philemon to see Onesimus as a beloved brother in Christ more than seeing him as a slave. When we come at life through love, when we see someone first as a brother or sister, that changes everything. I don’t want to see my brothers or sisters mistreated. I don’t want to see them put down. I don’t want to see their opportunities in life be limited by anything other than their own gifts, abilities, desires, and willingness to work.

If Paul were alive today, he would be amazed to see how life has changed in so many ways. And he would see as well that we still have a long way to go.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you love us into being and you call us into love. As Paul sought reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus, use us to seek reconciliation between people who have become divided from one another. Open our eyes to injustice that we might follow you in seeking freedom and justice for all. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Luke 14:15-23

September 2, 2016

“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.”  Luke 14:15-23

Is there a difference between an excuse and a reason? What does a dictionary.com say?

Reason: a basis or cause, as for some belief, action, fact, event, etc.

Excuse: an explanation offered as a reason for being excused

To the invited guests, buying land, buying oxen, and getting married were all reasons for not attending the banquet. To the host of the dinner, they were excuses. And the owner was not at all pleased. So who is right on this one?

Maybe it isn’t about being right or wrong. Maybe it isn’t about excuses or reasons. Maybe instead this is a story about the status of the relationship between the host and the invited guests. The host made an assumption – that attending a dinner at his house would be high on the priority list of his guests. They had all invited. It seems they all accepted the invitation to attend. In effect, they promised to be there. So the host planned the meal accordingly. Then they didn’t show. They thought of themselves and their own needs first rather than their relationship with the host.

In the end, it turns out that their relationship was more of an acquaintance than a friendship. Friends don’t stand each other up. Friends show up for one another. Friends are there for one another. Friends prioritize their time together. If they were really friends of the owner, they would have postponed their own plans and attended the dinner.

But the host had all that food! What was he going to do? Let it spoil? No, he wanted to throw a great dinner. So he sent his slaves out to gather people who were not invited to anyone’s dinner. The poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame, and anyone else they could find who were hungry and might appreciate a great meal.

When children are baptized, their parents promise God that they will bring them to worship, teach them to pray, to read the Bible, to seek justice, and be servants. The invitation was given long ago, the promises said at a baptism say “I accept. I’ll do it. You can count on me. I’ll be there.”

No Christian decides to attend worship on Sunday morning. That decision was already made in the promises of their baptism. The decision is never “Are we going to worship today?”, it is always only “Are we going to keep the promises of our baptism today or not?”

After the recent flooding in Louisiana, St. Paul Lutheran Church in Baton Rouge decided to invite hungry people in for an evening meal. They weren’t ready. They didn’t have enough food. But they issued the invitation anyway and soon people started showing up. And food started pouring in. Night after night people showed up to eat. One night last week they served dinner to over 300 people. This, by the way, is a congregation with an average worship attendance of 90.

Maybe Jesus in on to something here.

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, by the power of your Holy Spirit, drive this story into our hearts. Not only that we might look closely at the differences between reasons and excuses in our own lives, but that we might become willing to invite as many hungry people as we can to the great dinner you throw every weekend in the building where we worship. Thank you again for those who invited us, and those who held us to the promises of our own baptisms. In Jesus’ name. Amen.