Archive for February, 2021

Luke 7:36-39

February 24, 2021

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table.

And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Luke 7:36-39

Evidently not all Pharisees were as close-minded toward Jesus as others. At least one of them was willing to give Jesus a chance. He invited Jesus over for dinner.

Who do you think stands to lose the most regarding the guest list at this particular dinner party? The Pharisee, risking becoming the target of gossip amongst his neighbors? Or Jesus, given that his followers already realize the extent to which the Pharisees see him as a threat?

You know the answer. We all think that it is the Pharisee who is taking the biggest risk. Why? Maybe because, in our minds at least, we think the Pharisee has the most to lose. The Pharisee has power.

We hear much talk these days about the social divisiveness in our country. Where is that divisiveness coming from? Just yesterday politicians in Tennessee raised objections to a basketball team kneeling during the playing of the national anthem. The politicians said their actions disgraced the flag, and those in uniform who have fought for our freedom. The players said it was to generate a deeper conversation about the pervasiveness of racism.

What is a bigger problem in our country? A lack of respect for our flag/military or racism?

Just yesterday, the North Dakota legislature heard a motion to repeal the state’s decision in 1975 to support the Equal Rights Amendment. Is that really, given all that is going on today, such a hot button topic? And why would they consider repealing it? Who wins on that one?

Yes, those last two paragraphs were “political.” So was the Pharisee’s decision to invite Jesus over for dinner!

But what no one expected was the intrusion of a woman with her jar of ointment, her hair, and her tears, honoring Jesus. Or the way that Jesus welcomed her touch.

Because then the true colors flew! The Pharisee was morally APPALLED to see such behavior. SURELY Jesus must have known “what kind of woman that was.” (We can only wonder how HE already knew who she was even as he thought that Jesus ought to have known.)

We’ll give the Pharisee credit for trying but our reading only reveals what kind of hypocrite he proved to be. Why? To protect his own power and privilege. It is always about that, isn’t it?

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, you were twice honored that day. A dinner invitation from a Pharisee and the devotion shown by a woman. You welcomed them both. The breadth of your love has room for all of us. May we never fall prey to the temptation to reject people in order to preserve power. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Luke 7:31-35

February 23, 2021

“To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.’

For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’

Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” Luke 7:31-35

Jesus says that sometimes, some people just don’t get it. They don’t understand. They can’t understand. Maybe they refuse to understand. And nothing can get through to turn their thinking around.

The trouble is, we don’t know who we are. “Am I one of those people who just doesn’t get it?” is a question we probably ought to ask ourselves with some regularity. Is my focus on seeking the truth or is my focus on defending my own point of view?

The unwillingness to seriously ask that question of ourselves is childish. We become, as Jesus says, “like children sitting in the marketplace.” Mature people are self-reflective, open to reason, willing to change their minds. Able to see reality for what it is.

But how do we know the difference?

There is a word that I don’t remember hearing in public much until several years ago. That word is “whataboutism.” I clearly remember getting into trouble for one thing or another as a child and then seeking to defend myself by changing the subject, changing the focus – “Yeah, but what about Billy? Did you see what he did? That was a lot worse than anything I did.” (Understand that you need to imagine a certain whine in my voice in reading that sentence.)

But whataboutism is something Jesus surfaces in those who reject what God is up to in both John and Jesus.

To those who would defend John’s work, his opponents say “He has a demon.” What about that?

To those who would defend Jesus’ work, his opponents say “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” What about that?

Either way, they don’t see that they just don’t get it. They can’t see reality staring them in the face. All they are doing is defending themselves and all that they think is true, all they cling to. They just don’t get it.

How do we tell the difference? The proof of the pudding is in the eating. What are the real life implications for real life people in my point of view? Does my understanding of Jesus take me to a place of love or a place where I feel personally justified in separating the sheep from the goats?”

How about today we all take a little time to ask the question, “Do I, or don’t I, get it? What am I seeking – the truth, or defending my own point of view?”

Dear Jesus, open our minds to ourselves. Help us more clearly hear ourselves, that we might be more open to clearly hearing your call to dance. Help us, in all things, to seek the truth and do the next right thing. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Luke 7:24-30

February 22, 2021

When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’

I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

(And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.) Luke 7:24-30

No matter how hard we try… No matter how often we hear that “you are no better than anyone else, and no one else is better than you”… No matter how much we want to believe that – before God – there is no hierarchical pecking order of human merit… We can’t pull it off.

Martin Luther said that “we are all beggars at the foot of the cross.” Does that sound good or does that sound bad? Does that sound right or does that sound wrong?

This is one of those times when Jesus turns the world upside down. “I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

The world as we know it simply can’t handle a truth like that. It flies in the face of everything that we are taught, everything we see modeled in the world, from our earliest days. We set up pecking orders for everything. We pride ourselves on our achievements or we carry resentments against those who have achieved more.

We’re not taught to have an open, honest, authentic, loving relationship with the Jones’. We’re taught to keep up with them.

Everything for us needs to be bigger and better. We’re supposed to move UP in the world rather than finding ourselves DOWN on our luck or BENEATH other people. We get educations so we can climb corporate ladders. We look DOWN on those who we decide are at the BOTTOM.

None of that works anymore if our standard of humanity looks like “we’re all beggars at the foot of the cross.” But it looks GREAT if we still think that building the Tower of Babel – maybe even putting our name at the top in great big neon letters – is a worthwhile human pursuit.

Imagine that tax collector who climbed down in the river to be baptized by John. He knew full well that his success came at the cost of propping up a corrupt system of political power. He knew he was despised by many. And he knew how empty that left him. In his decision to be baptized, he knew what he was leaving behind and what he was receiving. Forgiveness. Acceptance. Restoration. Reconciliation. Mercy. Justice.

Now consider the lawyers and Pharisees who refused to be baptized. Luke tells us “But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.” But what did they gain? They retained their earthly power, their privilege, their influence over others. They retained the illusion that they were better than those beneath them.

Sure, they might not have used that language. They might not have even been conscious of their own privilege. Certainly they believed that everything about their lives was godly and good. Obviously, they thought their place in life was worth preserving – which is why they went after Jesus. Why wouldn’t they when he said stuff like this: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, thank you for the gift of life, for the gift of every person you have crafted in your own image. Forgive us for clinging so strongly to our Towers of Babel and all of the systems that prop up our twisted thinking. Teach us anew that we are all beggars at the foot of the cross. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Luke 7:18-23

February 15, 2021

The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind.

And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Luke 7:18-23

“I worked hard to climb the ladder of success only to learn that it was leaned up against the wrong building.”

There are many variations on this old saying but they all communicate the same thing. None of us want to waste our time, our talents, our energy. None of us want to be caught in the act of backing the wrong horse. None of us appreciate discovering that we’re on the wrong track.

But we ought to. And the sooner the better.

It is actually very reassuring to me to read about John the Baptizer – we assume speaking from the prison cell which Herod had thrown him into – was having second thoughts about whether or not he (John) had done the right thing. I imagine that sitting in prison often conjures up such thoughts. So John wanted reassurance. He sent two friends to check on Jesus.

We do remember, don’t we, why John was in prison? He spoke his mind. He spoke truth to power. He criticized the king for his moral failure, his abuse of power, for stealing his brother’s wife. None of us would defend Herod for that, would we? But for that alone, for speaking truth, John was stuck in a cell to shut him up.

Notice how Jesus answers the disciples’ question. He could have simply said, “Yes, I’m the one.” But he doesn’t. Instead, he points out the good that is happening in the lives of people when he shows up. The lives of sick people, disabled people, grieving people, and poor people. Those are the people who set the standards for the ministry of Jesus.

Now imagine those two friends returning to John with the good news. Such news wouldn’t free John from prison or change his ultimate fate, but we have to believe it would comfort his heart to know he did the right thing.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you continue to challenge our sense of success, of purpose, in our lives. You continue to remind us where your priorities lie, and where ours often don’t. Bless and encourage those who need reassurance that they are doing the right thing, even in the face of opposition. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Luke 7:11-17

February 12, 2021

Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town.

When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.

Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. Luke 7:11-17

How far does your conception of “family” reach?

It is hard for me to imagine the world before Social Security was created in 1935. In fact, throughout history, people have always had to grapple with the needs of the poor, the elderly, and the disabled. You can read an interesting article about the evolution of public assistance by clicking here. But, in Jesus’ day, if you didn’t come from a wealthy, landowning, family, you worked until you were incapable of working and then you depended on the assistance of your immediate family.

After a long life of suffering, you continued to suffer.

Children were your retirement plan. So, when Jesus happened to stumble upon a funeral procession as he approached Nain, the grief wasn’t limited to the loss of a widow’s only son, it was grief at the loss of her future.

There is no question that the Bible describes, not only God’s commitment to seeing to the needs of the powerless (widows, orphans, strangers, outcasts), but God’s challenge to the powerful to see that actually happens. The prophets who railed against the injustice in their society ultimately blamed their downfall, not on the military power of their conqueror’s, but on the internal moral rot, and the particular refusal to address the needs of the powerless.

Listen to the words of Amos, “Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.” (Amos 6:4-7)

Or Isaiah, “How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her— but now murderers! Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.” (Isaiah 1:21-23)

Many would argue that the primary reason that the fledgling Christian community was so compelling to people in the first centuries of the church was how inclusive they were, and how responsive they were to the needs of the powerless, the sick, and the poorest of the poor.

Jesus raised the widow’s son from the dead. He could do that. But what he couldn’t do was immediately change the structures of society so that the poorest of the poor would be able to live with some measure of security and some hope of bettering their lot. That one is up to us.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you have given us this story of a widow whose son is restored to life. Today we pray for all of those parents who have lost children who have not been restored to life in this world. We pray for widows, orphans, the destitute, the poorest of the poor. Help us continue to build a society where justice, mercy, and compassion drive our vision for how life ought to be. Help us extend our sense of family to include the entire human family. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Luke 7:1-10

February 11, 2021

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave.

When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”

And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.”

When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. Luke 7:1-10

Sometimes it is helpful for us to remember that none of the Bible was written with chapters and verses, carefully edited for publication, or designed to earn a living for its authors. (And the the Old Testament was written with little space between the words, no punctuation, and no vowels.)

I say this because, as we now turn to Chapter 7, we do well to remember the verses we heard yesterday. Jesus began by saying, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” That is the context that Luke would have us see as he tells us the story of the Roman centurion with the sick enslaved person.

The next thing we need to notice is how this story describes close social relationships. If we were to look at the characters as members of a “tribe” it is impossible to imagine the level of mutual respect and interdependence we see between a Roman centurion and the village elders. Yes, the Roman army was an occupying army. Yes, they could be brutal and oppressive. But here in this village they found a way to get along. The centurion built their synagogue. He reached out to the elders for help. They reached out to Jesus on his behalf. This is what working together – even among people with very different belief systems and agendas – looks like.

And then notice the humility and the respect that the centurion shows toward Jesus. A centurion was the leader of a group of 60-80 soldiers. More senior centurion would lead several groups like that. Bottom line, he was the boss. He knew what it was like to lead – and, like the best of leaders, he knew what it took to follow. He submitted himself to Jesus.

The story ends well. The servant is healed. The village, including the powerful among them, had seen Jesus in action. Let this be a reminder to us of the good that happens when we transcend tribal divisions and work together, each doing out part toward the common good.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, again today we realize the danger of paying lip service to what we believe without making that real in the relationships of our lives. Help us see through and beyond what divides us that we are able to preserve and protect the relationships that help all of us do better. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Luke 6:46-49

February 10, 2021

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.

But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.” Luke 6:46-49

Until I moved to Houston I never heard of anyone spending thousands of dollars on repairing the foundation of their house. But Houston is different than where I grew up. I grew up on the banks of a river but the ground underneath was solid. Houston was built in marshland. We actually have to water our houses. Like many others, when the doors no longer closed and the cracks appeared in the bedroom walls, I also had to spend thousands of dollars on foundation repairs.

Foundations matter.

What are the foundations of the solid rock life that comes with truly following Jesus? He tells us. “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them.”

What are the words that he tells us? We could quickly summarize them as Jesus does – to love God and to love our neighbor. Fleshing out what that means takes many forms. Tell the truth. Act justly. Do your best. Be generous. Be merciful. Forgive as you have been forgiven. Reject violence, vengeance, and vindictiveness. Feed the hungry. Help the hurting. Seek the common good. The list could go on and on. We know this.

To follow Jesus is to do more than to give lip service. Words matter but words have consequences because words lead to action. Or inaction. But the love that Jesus speaks of runs much deeper than our feelings or emotions – Jesus speaks of agape love, the choice to love, the decision to love, regardless of personal cost or consequence. This love would take him to the cross.

And what about a life built on shifting sands? A life built without a solid foundation? This too could take many forms but it starts by putting ourselves at the center of the universe. Everything becomes about me – what I want, what I need, what’s in it for me? It is a life of idolatry, of falling prey to personality cults and tribalism. It is a life that seeks little beyond fame, fortune, and whatever other worldly standards allow us to “feel good about ourselves.”

Fixing the foundation of a house is a difficult, costly, endeavor. It means drilling holes throughout the interior. Digging deeply along the exterior. It means shoring up the weak areas and reestablishing a new level. Then it means fixing all the cosmetic damage that the repair itself has created.

I firmly believe that Jesus always wants the best for us, and the best from us. To come in faith to Jesus, to pay close attention to what he said and what he did, to discern what that means for us in our own lives, and then to act in ways that demonstrate the leadership of Jesus – this is the foundation for our best possible lives. As individuals, as families, as citizens.

We need some foundation work. That starts by admitting that the cracks we see reach far deeper than a few cosmetic repairs.

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, we sing of you as the solid rock on which we stand. Be more than that for us. We need, not only your guidance, we need your leadership. We need the power of your Spirit working in us that we might have the humility and the courage to back up what we say with what we do. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Luke 6:43-45

February 9, 2021

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.

The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks. Luke 6:43-45

If we have learned anything in the past several years, we have learned that words matter. Leadership matters. Today Jesus reminds us that our words reveal our character. And that our character flows forth in our actions. But, while we have always known that, we don’t always remember it.

We look back at our own lives and we see how deeply we have been impacted by the words and actions of others, for both good and ill. From our personal lives (the families, teachers, coaches, friends) who shaped us, to our public lives (the impact of elected leaders), we become the people we are.

It seems particularly timely that today’s reading comes on the first day of the second impeachment trial of our former president. He has been accused of inciting the storming of the United States capital building on January 6th even as the electoral votes were tallied for our new president. Five people died that day. Will he be held accountable or will he be protected?

Jesus says that “it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” Because of Twitter and YouTube, we have heard more words spoken by our former president than any other president in our lifetimes. Than any other president in history. While I can appreciate how many people applauded him for being plain-spoken, for “telling it like it is”, the simple fact of the matter is that he didn’t tell it like it is. He lied constantly and increasingly. Even his much spouted laundry list of accomplishments was largely hyperbole and exaggeration.

We all learned in Parenting 101 that it isn’t helpful to tell our children, “Do as I say, not as I do.” It just doesn’t work that way. We teach, and children learn, by modeling, based both on what we say and what we do. Our words, and subsequently our actions, reveal who we are.

It is clear that Jesus wants to set us up for success in our lives. In his entire Sermon on the Plain, he lifts up what it looks like to be good people for ourselves and for others. He lifts up a value system, and a way of being, that is deeply at odds with what people could characterize as “just the way the world really works.”

Jesus isn’t interested in apologizing for the world, he seeks to transform it. And that starts with winning hearts and minds over to a different sense of the common good.

When Jesus changes our hearts, our words and actions change as well. Bottom line – they will know we are Christians by our love.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you know our hearts. You know how easy it is for us to say one thing yet do another. Continue to hold up the mirror of your way of being to our own lives. Help us align our words and actions to more clearly reveal your love to the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Luke 6:39-42

February 8, 2021

He also told them a parable: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher.

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, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log 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. Luke 6:39-42

I got stuck when we got to this passage. I’ve had to think long and hard about what to say. It is a timeless message but has never been as timely than it is in this moment of our history.

Clearly, Jesus’ question is rhetorical. The obvious answers are, “No, a blind person cannot guide another blind person. Yes, both will fall into the pit.” Therefore, and here’s the point, we all need to see clearly, with open eyes, noticing, before anything else, how our own personal vision is distorted. Only then can we see clearly enough to guide others, even to remove the speck we might see in their eyes.

Having said that, there is a big difference between someone who is blind (which comes via birth, a disease, or a horrible accident) and someone who refuses to see. There might not be a difference in degree – whether blind or obstinately keeping your eyes closed – you still fall into the pit. But there is certainly a difference in kind – we can open our eyes anytime we want to.

I wonder, in the age in which we now live, if people are at all conscious about how tightly they keep their eyes shut.

The breathtaking changes we have seen in the last 40 years – the birth, then utter dominance, of the internet, the ubiquity of talk radio, tribal television, changing moral norms, increased diversity, increased gap between the richest of the rich and everybody else, constant war, the fading influence of mainline Christianity and the rise of partisan Christianity – have blinded us. We feel their corrosive effects not only in labeling and name calling, tribalism, fake news, alternative facts, and whataboutism, but in the full-throated insistence from far too many people to protect and defend those who profit from such corrosion.

We seem to have arrived at a point in time that has rendered so many of us with the inability, or the stubborn refusal, to engage in the kind of healthy self-reflection which is required if we have any hope of seeing the log in our own eyes. Our civil discourse has sunk to such childish depths that it is no wonder that all that divides us appears to be winning the day.

Jesus’ admonition to check the log in our own eye is the absolute opposite of the “whataboutism” that has characterized our public lives for the past several years. When any effort to hold someone accountable is met with “Yeah, but what about…..”, there is only offensive defensiveness and continued blindness.

What does it look like to check the log in our own eyes? Read the 2nd chapter of Philippians – seriously, look it up today and read the whole thing. We can pray until the cows come home that Jesus heal our blindness, but only we can open our own eyes.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, grant us the courage, the wisdom, and the willingness to seek truth in ourselves, in our lives, in our world, lest we fall into pits that we should have seen coming. In Jesus’ name. Amen.