Archive for August, 2017

Matthew 8:1-4

August 14, 2017

When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” Matthew 8:1-4

Imagine you are living in a world without any of the advances of modern science or modern medicine. You don’t know anything about germs or genes. You live on a subsistence level diet, one good drought away from starvation. Your life is about survival.

The community in which you live has a long list of social expectations and deeply held traditions that are adjudicated by your village elders and religious shamans. Rain falls when God wills it to rain. People suffer because God is punishing them. A woman can’t conceive a child because she is cursed. A child born with a birth defect is rejected. A person with a visible skin malady is viewed as dangerous to the health and well-being of the community so they are shunned and sent off to live apart from the whole.

Enter Jesus. All you know of Jesus has come via word of mouth. Another healer. Another possibility of hope against hope. So you give it a shot. You track him down. You see him at a distance. You ignore the crowds who avoid you like a plague and you approach him. Desperate, you don’t care about social decorum or right and wrong, you kneel before him. “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.

Without hesitation, without judgment, without shame, he simply says, “I do choose. Be made clean!” With that word, you are set free. Healed and whole, you are freed to be. You are restored to be fully yourself – comfortable within your own skin. Free to return to your community. A living sign of the God who heals.

No wonder great crowds followed Jesus. They wanted, needed, what he had to give.

We know much about germs and genes today. Yet we still have our own forms of social distinctions. People are still judged by the color of their skin. People are still susceptible to group think, divide and conquer, blame and shame. Bigotry and racism and hate remain a cancer in our community.

Jesus heals a leper and tells him to go show himself to the priest as a testimony to the community. What if, in that healing, Jesus was less about healing the man for the sake of the community, and more about healing the community for the sake of such men?

Let us pray: Dear Lord, our brokenness is seldom as visible as unsightly skin. In our age, in every age, we struggle with blame and shame. Draw us to you and your ways. Bring us near to the broken, in touch with our own brokenness, that we might soundly reject ideas which fan flames of hatred. Be our Healer. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Matthew 7:24-29

August 11, 2017

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” Matthew 7:24-29

New Orleans flooded again last weekend. Nine inches of rain in less than four hours overwhelmed the capacity of the various pumps and drains. Once again the city drowned under several feet of flood water that took over fourteen hours to drain away. Living in Houston, also prone to flash floods, I can appreciate how quickly such events wreak havoc with people’s lives. No matter what anyone does, it will happen again, and again, and again.

New Orleans was first settled in 1718. It has been around a long time. It has seen many floods through the years. Yet even in Katrina, the oldest parts of the city came out alright as that is the highest part of town. But the rest, some of which is seven feet below sea level, did not. And since the city was built on a delta, the underlying soil is largely organic which means that it collapses after water is pumped out of it. The city is sinking as much as 2 inches a year.

So why is it still there? Why do they still try to prop it up and pump it out? For the same reason it was founded in the first place – it is an important trade city, built where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico. It is the largest port in the United States, the third largest in the world.

New York is also a coastal city, a port city, built at the mouth of the Hudson River. But the skyscrapers of Manhattan are possible because the city is built on bedrock. Even that changes and shifts over time but nothing like a place like New Orleans.

The crazy thing is that none of this is news to anyone. This closing story in Jesus’ sermon on the mount is pure common sense. Everyone knows that it is wiser to build a house on solid rock than on sand. And everyone knows that no one can stop storms from coming, rain from falling, or wind from blowing. We all know the story of the Three Little Pigs!

Yet we still wander off the reservation. We still think we’ve “arrived” when we buy a house at the beach. We’re still surprised when storms reveal the sandy foundations upon which we have built our lives. We’re still shocked at how quickly the devastation happens, and how long the recovery process takes.

On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand, all other ground is shifting sand…

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, storms assail us and we suffer. Many of these storms are of our own making, our failure to take heed to your wisdom. We trade success for security and we suffer. Today we place our trust in you, in all things. May your words and your presence be the bedrock of our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 7:21-23

August 10, 2017

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’” Matthew 7:21-23

As we now approach the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount we might look back and notice again how many times Jesus has taught us that words matter. Jesus repeatedly reminds us how we commonly view morality and right behaviors toward others – You have heard it said …– and then Jesus intensifies and internalizes and amplifies his expectations – but I say to you…

Jesus reaches past the letter of the law to the spirit of the law. In doing this, we are able to see that cultivating and caring for relationships is the whole point, and we are driven to a place of humility when we realize how easily and often we fall short.

Words matter. Actions matter. We are called to love in both word and deed.

Whenever I read the words “kingdom of heaven” I try and remember that, at its heart, what Jesus is describing is a relationship, not a place. The kingdom of heaven is a relationship where God is the king and we are the “dom.” God is the Ruler, we are the ruled. While we could look at this as a hierarchy (as humans always do), with God “up there” while we are “down here”, I think that misses the point. It is much more helpful to see it as a partnership, as a team, wherein we accept the roles that God has given us. God holds the authority because God is the author of life. God gives us all we need so that we can do all that we need do.

God’s “will” defines how God would have us play the game. God has defined the boundaries and the rules of the game. God is the referee, the umpire, the judge. We are the players, free to play within the rules, bound to accept the consequences of taking the game into our own hands and doing our own thing despite what God wills.

Jesus seeks integrity between our words and our deeds. He speaks harshly toward empty words not backed up by loving actions, and equally harshly toward good deeds done for self-serving reasons with unloving results. How could we possibly read his words without feeling our stomachs fall, questioning whether or not we might be among those who think we’re on the right track only to discover that we’ve missed the boat?

Listening closely to what Jesus teaches us moves us beyond haughtiness to humility, beyond independence to interdependence, beyond self-sufficiency to mutuality, beyond legalism to love.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we do not want to be counted among those who give you lip service even as we mistreat or manipulate others in self-serving ways. We want to play well but we can’t do that on our own, without your help and your guidance. Lead us, use us, one day at a time, one moment at a time, that our thoughts, words, and actions come from a place of love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 7:15-20

August 8, 2017

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.” Matthew 7:15-20

Like most kids, my sisters and I grew up in a home with a list of personal behaviors that were absolutely forbidden. We knew we were supposed to obey and be respectful toward authority figures. We knew we weren’t supposed to swear, or smoke, or drink, or use drugs, or have sex outside of marriage. And, of course, whenever our mother would talk about those rules, there was always the reality that we were supposed to “do as I say, not as I do.” It didn’t work.

Later in life, when I learned that human communication depends only on about 10% of the words we use and 90% on our tone of voice, body language, inflection, and other non-verbal clues did I realize why “do as I say, not as I do” didn’t work. For better or worse, we learn by what we see modeled in the behaviors of others. Actions really do speak louder than words.

Simul ustus et peccator is a pretty central tenet of my theology. It means that we are all simultaneously both saint (fully forgiven by God’s grace) and sinner (fully broken by selfishness and self-centeredness.) There is a little bit of saint in the worst of us and a little bit of sinner in the best of us. Like Paul in Romans 7, we don’t understand our actions. We can will what is right but not do it, and know what is wrong and yet do it. This battle, this tension, within us can’t help but spill out in our behaviors.

This seems more complicated than the simplistic divide Jesus describes between good trees bearing good fruits and bad trees bearing bad fruits. We need not push his metaphor too far. I think we all know what he means.

If it is too good to be true, it probably is. False prophets peddle hope and deliver disappointment. They appeal to our aspirations and contribute to our disillusionment. They make us want to believe what we already want to believe, despite any and all evidence to the contrary. So why do we fall for it? Because we are fallen people. We want newer, better, cheaper, easier. We want to be on the top. We want that great big broad easy path and we eagerly follow those who promise to lead us there.

Jesus reminds us that words are cheap. Actions do speak louder than words. Pay attention to actions.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, integrity aligns our actions and our words. Protect us from those people, those ideas, those fantasies, that promise what they cannot deliver. The shiny idols that would steal our lives. Use us to model exemplary and caring behaviors. May the fruits of our lives be good fruit. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 7:12-14

August 7, 2017

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Matthew 7:12-14

Here it is – The Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Perhaps the most famous of Jesus’ teachings, right next to “Love one another as I have loved you,” it is echoed in every religious tradition, in every culture. It is short, sweet, simple, and to the point. It invites a life of altruism – doing the right thing by and for others because it is the right thing to do. And it is under assault in our culture today.

The most crass challenge plays with the words. “The Golden Rule means that those with the gold make the rules.” Largely, that is true. A high percentage of those serving in elected office are quite wealthy. Perhaps that is because their wealth has given them the means and the time to do all it takes to run and serve. Hopefully they are driven by a vision for the common good. Or perhaps they find themselves caught up in a self-perpetuating system of self-advancement and class protection.

A more subtle, yet quietly pervasive, assault on this idea of Jesus comes cloaked in the writings and philosophy of Ayn Rand. She argues that the kind of altruistic behavior demanded by the golden rule is the problem, not the solution, for many of the ills which befall us. She wrote, ““The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves. The relationship produces nothing but mutual corruption. It is impossible in concept. The nearest approach to it in reality — the man who lives to serve others — is the slave. If physical slavery is repulsive, how much more repulsive is the concept of servility of the spirit. The conquered slave has a vestige of honor. He has the merit of having resisted and of considering his condition evil. But the man who enslaves himself voluntarily in the name of love is the basest of creatures. He degrades the dignity of man, and he degrades the conception of love. But that is the essence of altruism.”

Rand’s vision of rugged individualism, every person out for themselves, flies in the face of the words of Jesus. Her philosophy undergirds a way of seeing the world that divides people into “makers” and “takers”, sees those who benefit from public subsidies as “parasites”, and opposes anything that would limit the freedom of people to live out of anything but their own rational self-interest.

Jesus follows his summary of the teachings of his faith – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – with a metaphor of divergent gates. A narrow, hard way, and a broad easy way. Clearly his intention is to help us see that the Jesus way of being is the hard, narrow, way. The hard way is the best way…but it probably won’t get you elected.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, thank you for your words which challenge us in our selfishness and complacency. Thank you for guiding us into lives of compassion and self-giving, following in your footsteps. This is a hard path and yet, trusting in you, we trust that we can do hard things. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 7:7-11

August 4, 2017

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” Matthew 7:7-11

Many years ago I visited a friend of mine in Washington, DC, where he was doing his pastoral internship. He ran an afterschool program for local kids. Poor kids. Mostly African American kids. When I was there visiting it just so happened that he was teaching this passage to the children.

He later told me that, as soon as he finished reading, one of the little boys piped up, “My Daddy would do something like that.” Just as serious as he could be. That little boy was caught between the promises of his Heavenly Father and the limitations of his earthly father. Maybe his story is more dramatic than some but all of us struggle with this. It is the problem inherent in thinking about God in gender limiting relational terms.

Thinking of God as “father” is intended to draw us closer, more intimately, to God. But that becomes less than helpful when we immediately associate the dark sides of human power imbalances and connect those to God. It can mess us up spiritually.

Jesus is encouraging us to pray. He is inviting us to bring our wants, desires, wishes, hopes, to God. He is inviting us to ask for help. For some, that comes naturally and easily. For others, never encouraged to ask for help as we grew up, it is hard. We would no sooner ask God for help than stop along the way to ask for directions at a gas station. We can DO IT BY OURSELVES screams our inner two year. (Or maybe we can’t and we’re just too ashamed that someone will find that out about us.)

Through the years I have noticed that people at church don’t hesitate to ask for prayers about health concerns. We see God as the source of our healing and it helps to know that we are being prayed for when we’re sick. But think about that for a minute. What about all the other aspects of our lives that matter? What about everything else?

I love my wife. I love knowing that we do our lives together. I know I can ask her for anything. I can tell her anything. She will listen and she will do whatever she can to help me. I trust her. But still I hold back. I don’t want to bother her. I don’t want to make her go out of her way. So I don’t ask for much. And even as I type these words, knowing she will likely read them as soon as they show up in her inbox, she is going to ask me why I still have a hard time asking her for help. I won’t have a good answer.

God is saying the very same thing to us now. I’m here for you, and I’m here with you. Ask me. Seek me. Knock, and I’ll answer. You might not get what you want but you will get what you need. Maybe not when you want but largely just in time. Why don’t you give me a try? Ask, seek, knock. Trust me. I’m here.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we trust that you know us. We trust that you hear us. Yet far too often we keep our worries and concerns and hopes to ourselves. We want to do things on our own. We forget to ask, or to seek, or to knock. Inspire us anew to cast all of our troubles on you. To seek your direction, your will, in all things. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 7:1-6

August 3, 2017

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” Matthew 7:1-6

A big story in the news this week is a book written by Arizona Senator Jeff Flake. He wrote the book because he believes that he and his political party have strayed from the core principles that have long guided them. It is both self-reflection and scathing indictment. It marks a huge political risk that could elevate his personal stature or see to his defeat. I bought the book but haven’t read it yet. I thought of it this morning in the context of Jesus’ words about logs and splinters.

The Christian movement has long been criticized for being too “judgmental.” I get that. I feel that. I do that. I doubt, however, that this lies at the core of Christianity. It seems to me that comparing ourselves to others, looking down at others, viewing others harshly, is more about being a broken human than about being a faithful Christian. We like short-cuts and easy roads and if that requires you losing so that we can win, so be it. This doesn’t help anyone in the long run. It is corrosive to human community.

We not only judge others, we take it upon ourselves to set the standards by which we offer our judgments. Our standards become shifting sands rather than trustworthy bedrock. If we can rally a few folks to our point of view, then we can gang up on others. Hubris crowds out humility and everything becomes a power play.

Once again the wisdom of the recovery movement offers us an insight into hearing Jesus well this morning. The first step is admitting personal powerlessness. From there a person is led to a new place of seeking God’s direction and support because no one can do surgery on themselves. Then comes some honest self-reflection and a humble admission of reality. Only then is a person prepared to mend relationships, make right what can be made right, and move forward.

This is hard. It is terrifying. It means letting go. It means coming to terms with the reality that, as harshly as we might judge others, deep down inside, most of us judge ourselves far more harshly, and far more quickly, than anyone else might judge us.

When we let Jesus be our only judge, we are on a path toward freedom. His standard will always be love. Discovering what that means and how that works is the point of our lives. It is the measure of holiness. The pearl of great price.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we feel the pressure of judgement in our lives. We quickly evaluate others and are slow to do the same to ourselves. We can’t clearly see. Slow us down. Open our eyes. Forgive our pride and grant us the humility that sets us free. In Jesus’ name. Amen.