Pastor Gary's Weekly Message
Message: Reclaiming Love for Love
Questions to consider this week:
In what ways do I "other" people?
How might overcome fears perpetuated by our society?
How might I more readily show Christ's love to all people?
Refer to Rule #1
The New Commandment:
A Church Divided
The Song we Sing:
Questions to consider this week:
How might I show love in a new way this week?
To whom might I show love that I haven't shown love?
How might I reconcile with someone who has wronged me?
How might I reconcile with someone I have wronged?
What are the words to my song of love?
Message: A Disciple’s Path -- Grace
A disciple's path is:
Questions to consider this week:
Where am I on the path of discipleship?
Is it where I thought I was?
What is my next faithful step?
Who can help me on the journey? Have I asked for help?
How can I help others on the journey?
Video message from September 23, 2018
09-23-18 Message: Inconceivable
Name Two Human Conditions.
Define the opposite of faith.
Have you loved today?
Questions to consider this week:
Does my cynicism prevent me from growing in faith?
What is one way I can be active in faith this week?
Have I "faithed" today?
What disciplines can I participate in that will help me to grow in my faith?
Video message from July 15, 2018
Video message from July 8, 2018
Listen to Pastor Gary's message from April 22, 2018:
Listen to Pastor Gary's message from April 15, 2018:
I Believe in God the Father (Creator) (from April 8, 2018)
What do you believe? This is a deep question. This is a question that often goes unasked within the context of an everyday conversation because of the social stigmas that are attached to such a statement. I was taught that one doesn’t talk about religion and politics in polite company. I think we would have been better served to learn how to have intelligent conversations about these topics instead of avoiding them – consider where we are in our society today. It seems that everyone wants to talk about politics these days (or so Facebook memes would lead me to believe) – talk but not listen. Talk about faith is almost non-existent, but for those brave souls who are willing to risk offending others.
I sometimes wonder as a Christian leader in today’s world if society has scared us so much into not talking about our beliefs that we have forgotten what it is that we believe in. Consider this: If you are a Christian, and someone asked you to articulate what it is you believe, could you do it?
It is important for us to share our faith stories with others – for this is the “why” for our belief. But after we share our stories, are we able to speak about the “what?” Do we even know what the “what” is anymore?
As a pastor, when I consider these questions, I am unsettled by the potential answers that might be given if people are being completely honest with me. I am unsettled because it means that myself and other Christian leaders have not clearly communicated or taught some of the most foundational beliefs of the church. I feel that I am very good and communicating concepts such as grace and forgiveness (these are very important things for us to know about and live into as Christians), but I don’t know that I take enough time from the pulpit, or maybe even in small groups to talk about what makes those concepts possible.
The thing that makes grace and forgiveness possible is faith. Faith in what, you might ask? Well, that brings me right back to my opening question – what do you believe? And if you do believe, a follow up question would be this; how do you understand God?
Those are really big questions! Where do we start when trying to answer? Well, maybe a good place to start is with the Apostle’s Creed. The Apostle’s Creed is a statement of faith that has been around in written form since the late 300s, and as an oral tradition as far back as the second century. This statement of faith provides with us a foundation, or starting point, for how we as Christians begin to understand God in the context of our humanness. Here is the ecumenical text of the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic* church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
*(catholic means universal, and is not to be confused the Roman Catholic Church)
This Creed was created based on the scriptures, and when broken down, may help us to explore what it is we believe and profess as Christians. It may even help us to articulate what it is we believe if someone asks. This week, I will focus primarily on the first sentence of the creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”
For, me the most important word in this sentence is “Creator.” Yes, the word “Father” is important, but in my mind this word can be a bit misleading. We use the word “father” to refer to God because Jesus used this word to refer to God. Yet isn’t Jesus also God? The word Jesus used was Abba – which better translates to “Daddy.” This is a word that denotes relationship. And whereas the word “Father” pigeonholes God into a particular gender, the word “Creator” does no such things. Let us remember that we are created in God’s image, and that we do not create God in our image.
With all of this said, let me refocus us on the word “Creator.” God is the Creator of all things. To help us move further into this discussion, I invite you to read John 1:1-5.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Again, we see the masculine language in the text – I would ask you to overlook that to see the important message here. Verse three is key – “All things came into being through God, and without God, not one thing came into being.” God is the creator of all things. In fact, the Gospel writer evokes the entirety of the creation story found in Genesis 1, when he starts of by saying, “In the beginning…”
Simply put, God created all things from the chaotic void that existed before…well…existence itself! Without God, nothing that is would be. In fact, God is “I AM who I AM” (This is what God says to Moses in response to his request for God’s name). This might be better translated to be “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE” – this strengthens the idea that God is the Creator who is constantly creating.
Yes, we are invited into the creative process, and we are made creators through this invitation. But let us not fool ourselves into thinking that we can take the place of God the Creator. There is only one God, and I ain’t it! I can’t stress enough the importance of this. For while we know the “what” – God is the Creator, we must also know the “why” – because God loves us. To help us understand this, I invite you to read Acts 14:8-18.
8 In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. 9 He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, 10 said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And the man sprang up and began to walk. 11 When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice. 14 When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, 15 “Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; 17 yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” 18 Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.
In this story, Paul and Barnabas healed a man. They healed this man because of his faith, and because of the love that God has for this individual (as God has for all individuals). It is important for us to understand here that healing is an act of creation. When the crowds saw that this healing took place, they instantly put Paul and Barnabas in the place of God.
How tempted were Paul and Barnabas in this moment? To take credit for this act, to accept the accolades, to feel important in the eyes of these people must have been a powerful lure for these “mortals.”
All of us feel the need to be important. The act of creation gives us a sense of power and importance. For if I create something, I have power over it. Think about parenthood for a moment. As a parent, I participated in the creation of my children. Without me, my children wouldn’t exist. Therefore, I have the right to exert my power over my children. Take a close look at that last sentence – “I have the right to exert my power over my children.”
Do you see a flaw in this statement? When I understand God as creator, I know that God is all powerful. And while God is all powerful, God did not create so that God could exert power over God’s creation – God created because God loves. In our humanness, we sometimes (maybe more often than not) forget that the Creator invites us into the act of creation, and that because we are created in God’s image, our acts of creation are meant to be in the image of God as well. God creates because of love – it has nothing to do with power! And if we claim power over that which we create (which cannot happen without God), we fall into sin.
Paul and Barnabas could easily have fallen into sin. But for these men, they knew the “what” and the “why” of God as creator. They understood that there is only one who can create (in this instance through healing), and that to claim that creation as their own would cause harm. They understood that this crowd did not know of God, and they were capable of articulating what they knew of God because they understood why God creates.
Paul and Barnabas were put in a position to bear witness to God. They explained to the crowd that God is Good. They shared the Good News of God’s love. They pointed away from themselves and to the One True God who loves all of creation.
Without this conviction of faith, Paul and Barnabas would surely have fallen into sin. In fact, even with this conviction, the crowds still wanted to offer sacrifices to them!
When we say, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth,” we point away from ourselves and to God with all things, regardless of how much the crowd wants to praise us. God is the creator of all things – God is the giver of all gifts and abilities. God creates not of the purposes of power, but rather for the purposes of love.
Do you believe this? Do you believe that God is the creator of all things? Do you believe that God creates everything for the purposes of love? Do you believe that God created you because God loves you? Do you believe that God creates others because God loves them?
I believe that God is the Almighty, and the Creator. I believe that God lives and moves within us, and that everything statement of belief in the Apostles’ Creed stems from the understanding that God creates because God loves – for nothing else makes sense if this isn’t true! I believe…I believe…I believe!
Changed Through Generosity (from March 11, 2018)
What are you watching? What do you have your eye on? I remember back in my college days, eBay was all the rage (it started in 1995 – that makes me feel old). I would often enter a particular item that I wanted in the search engine, scroll through all the items that matched and would click on the “watch” button so I could follow the bidding on those that I thought were most promising. Of course back in my college days I didn’t have much money, so it was more watching than buying…but thinking back on my practice of watching those wonderful items go to someone else for what I thought was a good price, especially given where I am in my life today, I wonder what Jesus would have to say to me regarding my practices (then and now).
If I really want to know what Jesus would say to me, I don’t really have to wait for him to come back riding the clouds to tell me. His message is timeless and consistent – and his teachings were recorded in the scriptures. As we continue through the teachings of Jesus as they were recorded in Matthew 5-7, Jesus presents us with an answer to my question above. I invite you to read with me from Matthew 6:19-24
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! 24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
I have read through this passage many times over the years. I have preached on it several times as well. But, for some reason verses 22-23 jumped out at me this time. At first glance, they seem to be out of place compared to the verses that surround it. Where as the other verses speak of earthly treasure and wealth, these two verses are about the human eye.
“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.
Why would Jesus use this imagery? How is the eye like a lamp? Well, the eye allows light into the body – without light, we cannot see. I get this…but what else does he mean?
As I did some research this week, I found that in his exposition on the Gospel of Matthew, George Buttrick states:
The fault in ourselves is not as complicated as often appears since life can be brought at last to one issue. Life is made for mastery; and fealty given either to God or to some form, crude or refined, of worldliness. That fealty is the optic nerve of the soul. The eye given to God is generous; the eye given to the world is niggardly. The eye turned Godward is sound; the eye turned earthward is diseased, as if by tumors or cataracts...”
As I read this, I was reminded of a phrase that is more commonly used but has a similar meaning as to what Jesus says in the sermon on the Mount as it is interpreted by Buttrick – “The eye is the window to the soul.”
The image of a window is a bit easier for me to understand within the context of this teaching. For while is light, a window allows in light. The difference may seem subtle within the overall teaching, but for me it provides a new way of looking at things.
A window unlike a lamp can allow in light – one can see out through the window, and others can see in through the window. If the eye is the window to the soul, what is it that I have my eye on, and what are others seeing in my soul because of it?
This is turn gives me greater reason to pause as I ponder what the image of the lamp that Jesus uses. The lamp represents light – the light that the body needs. What is the greatest source of light? Jesus! (I am the Light of the World – John 8:12) If our eye is on Jesus, the light flows purely into our souls. However, if that light is blocked by earthly things, that light becomes darkness because the lamp is unable to shine in our souls.
So again, I ask, what do you have your eye on? I remember a time from about 11 years ago, when the Nintendo Wii first came out. Nintendo gaming systems were all I ever used growing up, so I NEEDED a Wii! I was unable to purchase one for several months because as soon as they hit the shelves in the stores, they were purchased by others within minutes.
I remember checking the circular adds for any store that carried the Wii every week when the Sunday paper arrived in the morning. I would check online almost daily. I had no luck for several months. Finally, on Palm Sunday of 2007 I opened the adds, found that Best Buy (or maybe it was Target…the details have faded a bit with time) was advertising the Wii. I called the local store and found out that they had 5 in stock.
I had already sold my old gaming systems and many of the games that went along with them to save up the money for this. I had waited for months to get it! Of course, it had to be Sunday morning! I was the choir director at my church – I couldn’t get to the store and be to church on time to work with the choir before the service started. “Ummmmm…honey….can you go to the store for me?!?” My wife was thrilled (ummm…not so much…). But, because she loved me (and probably to get me to stop droning on and on about this game system, she took our infant daughter with her to the store and purchased the Nintendo Wii for me – and she arrived late to worship because of it. (Did I mention how much I love wife?)
Who does this? Who would do such a thing to their wife? I am ashamed of myself looking back on this memory. At that point in my life, even though I was an active member of the church, I don’t know that I would have considered myself a true Christian…my behavior that day certainly demonstrated what my priorities were.
I was much more interested in material things than I was my spiritual health. The material goods of the world were my master (or at least the Wii was) for that moment in time. And Jesus, in the midst of this teaching goes on to tell us that we cannot serve two masters. Thank God for grace! For without grace and forgiveness, I wouldn’t be in a position to share this story with you today!
I have grown so much in my faith since that time. I have learned so much about my walk with Christ since that time…and as I hold myself up to the standards that Jesus sets for us in this teaching, I find that I still have a long way to go! Again, I say, Thank God for GRACE!
So how do we go about following this teaching? How do we master our wealth instead of letting it become master over us?
I believe it starts by recognizing the True Master – The Lord Jesus Christ. For in the eternal scheme of things, Jesus is all that matters – all the other stuff is temporary. From there the rest is simple – not easy – but simple.
If I want to become master over my belongings, I simply need to give it all away. This is in line with the teaching of Jesus in this passage, which is a message that Jesus consistently preached to the people. In Luke 18, Jesus in response to the questioning of a young rich man tells him, “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Remember, Jesus in this teaching, isn’t worried so much with the outcome (though distribution of wealth to those truly in need is something Jesus would smile upon), he is more concerned with the status of the heart that leads us into life or sin. If we have no claim upon the material wealth that we are entrusted with, it cannot hold us captive. All that we have belongs to God – we are merely stewards called to use that with which we have been entrusted for the good of God’s Kingdom.
Now please hear me. It is o.k. to “own” things and to enjoy the material things that we have. This being said, if, like in my story about the Wii, these things take hold of us and distract us from the important things in our lives – especially our relationship with God, then we fall into the sin of idolatry.
God desires our whole heart. God knows where our hearts are…and God desires them wholly anyway! For when we give our hearts wholly to God, God makes them Holy! So, if our eye is the window to the soul, and our hearts reflect what we truly desire, I once again ask, what do you have your eye on?
As I close out this reflection, I invite you to look at the lyrics to the familiar hymn Be Thou My Vision. If you know the song, I invite you sing it…and to pray it. May this song speak to our hearts and our souls – that we might hear and live into the teaching of Jesus – For if he is our vision, then what we have our eye on will fill our hearts and souls with light and joy!
Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart; naught be all else to me, save that thou art. Thou my best thought, by day or by night, waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.
Be thou my wisdom, and thou my true word; I ever with thee and thou with me Lord; thou and thou only, first in my heart, great God of heaven, my treasure thou art.
Great God of heave, my victory won, may I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun! Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, still be my vision, O Ruler of all.
Changed through Reconciliation (from February 25, 2018)
How do you react when you are angry at someone? I know that is somewhat of an unfair question. I think that different situations bring about different responses from us. Given an especially egregious wrong-doing, one might lash out with physical violence. One might string together a number of “colorful metaphors” (I just quoted Star Trek IV….wow…I am such a nerd!) to express feelings of displeasure. One might make verbal threats. One might refrain from speaking at all, but under the surface, less than pure thoughts are racing through the mind.
Anger is a normal human response to negative situations, and when not channeled in the correct ways, it can make what is an already precarious situation worse. So what do we do when anger rears its ugly head, especially if, in its expression, that anger leads to broken relationships.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus delivers a “sermon” of sorts where he addresses many ethical issues. In the midst of this difficult teaching, he addresses the subjects of anger and retaliation. I invite you to read with me from Matthew 5:21-26, 38-42
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Let me ask you a question…and be honest with yourself in your answer…Have you ever had this thought; “I am so *&^%& angry right now, I could kill you!” Consider this in light of what Jesus teaches us about anger. Uh oh… I should probably be seeking forgiveness right about now!
Whereas the law, as handed down by Moses – which still holds sway over our judicial system today, seeks to punish based on the end of the process – the physical act, Jesus is more concerned with the motives and thoughts that begin the process. Where the law of Moses is concerned with the outward result, the teaching and ethics of Jesus is concerned with what is in our heart. Not only is this the basis for this teaching, but it is found consistently throughout the teaching of Jesus.
Anger in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. But, there is a difference between righteous indignation (righteous being defined within the context of the God’s will – lest we be to critical, for without grace and mercy we are all condemned to die in sin), and the heat that rises to thoughts and actions that break relationships in multiple ways.
Within this teaching, Jesus not only speaks against our getting carried away in our anger, but he also gives us sound teaching when it comes to repentance after our anger has gotten the better of us. He tells us that before we make our offering to God, we should first be reconciled to those who have something against us.
If I am in the wrong, and I know that I am in the wrong, why would I not seek to make things right? Understand that there is a big difference between an act that breaks relationship, and an act that changes relationship. Jesus isn’t telling us that we should never disagree. What Jesus is telling us is that we should avoid having personal anger lead to grudges, resentment, hate, and the such – for these are paths that lead to the dark side (I used a Star Trek reference earlier, so I had also pay homage to Star Wars!...like I said, I am a nerd!)
While Jesus doesn’t tell us to seek out those who have offended us, it may be a good spiritual practice in which to engage. I believe that in many cases we hold grudges or feelings of resentment toward a person who has no idea what they have done to create those feelings within us. If a behavior or situation is never brought to that person’s attention, how can a change in that behavior ever occur. There are many ways to approach these situations which can lessen the potential for unpleasant conflict, but if the fear of conflict makes us avoid the person, how can healing ever begin?
It is in this same vein of thinking that Jesus teaches about retaliation. There is a big difference between compensation and justice. Being compensated may restore you to the place where you were before the crime were committed, but even then, one may not feel that justice has been served. We must remember that God’s economy, especially when it relates to acts of grace, mercy, and forgiveness, is much different than our worldly way of interacting with one another. God’s will is that we find ways to live in peace and harmony – that we find ways to help one another in the task of discovering what that means.
Jesus instructs us not to retaliate in anger to the wrongs that are committed against us. He does instruct us to seek justice through the means of establishing an equal playing field – so that the offending party might understand where they have gone wrong - which usually starts with that individual holding themselves in higher regard than the person whom has been offended.
Instead of retaliating with anger when being struck on the right cheek, Jesus suggests that you turn the left cheek also. The reason for this isn’t to invite more of a beating, but rather to challenge the striker to treat you as an equal. For a person to strike you on the left cheek, she/he would have to use the right hand, which in the Hebrew tradition, was the hand used for doing ceremonial acts of purification. If the person were to use this hand it could potentially make the person “unclean”, which would mean they could not participate in some of the rites and rituals of the day.
Jesus also gives the example of carrying a pack for an additional mile. A Roman soldier by law could conscript an individual to carry his pack for one mile, but no further. By carrying it further, the soldier would have to accept you as an equal, or run the risk of being punished for breaking the law.
Jesus doesn’t teach us to become punching dolls or welcome mats – he teaches us to look for ways to build right and just relationships with others who offend us, especially if those others don’t understand how or why they are causing harm.
Our lives and our world will change through the act of reconciliation. Jesus urges us to be reconciled to our “brother” (or “sister”) before we leave or offering to God. Reconciliation is an act of love, and it is through such an act that we are saved.
Reconciliation requires two spiritual elements, and without both it remains incomplete. These two elements are repentance and forgiveness. When I repent of my sin or wrong-doing to God or a person, I begin the process by apologizing for my poor behavior, and from there other acts of atonement may be enacted if appropriate. Forgiveness comes when the person who was offended forgives the offender of the act.
When both of these elements happen together reconciliation is possible. The definition of reconciliation is the restoration of a relationship from one of hostility to one of peace. This act of possible between God and humanity (both individual and corporate), and between human beings, one with another.
We see evidence of this through the redemptive acts of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ died on a cross for us for the forgiveness of sins. He became the means by which our relationships are made right with God – and as none of us is without sin, we need the restorative work. Yet the act of reconciliation that is made possible through the forgiving work of Christ is not complete unless we acknowledge our need for it, repent of our sins, and seek to live in right relationship with God.
Indeed, repentance can happen without forgiveness occurring. Forgiveness can be granted without an act of repentance. In some earthly situations this happens and leads individuals to have more complete and right relationships with God. And while God desires for us to be in right relationship with the Divine, God also desires that we live in right relationship with one another.
As I close out my message this week, I will do so with the command that Jesus gave the disciples after he washed their feet. He said, “Love one another. as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
Christ is calling us to change through the act of reconciliation. Christ is calling us to be a changed people – for that is what a disciple is – a person changed by the Good News of Jesus Christ. It is my prayer for us that we live into this commandment of Christ to love one another, and that in doing so, we may learn to set anger aside as we seek to live with love, peace, and justice in all our relationships. God has shown us the way through the teaching, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the perfect example of love, and it is the example we are called to emulate. Glory to God for the redemption we experience through the reconciliation offered to us through Jesus – may we strive to experience that in our world – for in reconciliation comes the change from hostility to love.
Changed Through Blessing (from February 18, 2018)
In what ways are you blessed? Take a few minutes to think about this. Take a few minutes to create a list. I think we are blessed in many ways, but are often unaware of these many blessings because, well, we just take these blessings for granted. More on this in just a little bit.
This week marks the beginning of a new season in the church year, and also a new series of messages to reflect upon. During the season of Lent, the teachings of Jesus, known as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7), will be the basis for my messages, reflections, and for our worship services at the First United Methodist Church of Voorheesville. Not only will we celebrate and worship our Savior through the lens of these teachings, but we will also consider the ways in which God changes us when we strive to live into the heart of these teachings.
This brings me back to my opening question. In what ways are you blessed? Did you make a list? I hope that you did, and that you have it nearby. Did you know that Jesus made a list of blessings. His list wasn’t about the ways in which he was blessed (though this might be an interesting list to explore), but rather his list was about the ways in which God blesses us. I invite you to read this list with me…and then let us consider this against the lists that we have created for ourselves. Read with me From Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Before we get into comparing our list to the list that Jesus created for us, I think it would be good if we have a working definition of what a blessing is, at least within the context that Jesus uses the word here in his teaching. There are multiple ways to define the word, and different contexts would call for different and specific understandings. This being said, if I tried to understand the many forms of blessing, and apply each of them to every context, my head would explode trying to understand it all. So to keep it simple, let us focus on the understanding that best fits this context.
The word blessed in this passage is transliterated from the Greek word “Makarios.” Makarios and words that are a part of this word group describe a state of or status of being fortunate, happy, or privileged. Now go back to your list for a moment. Did the words that your listed fit with this understanding of blessing?
If my guesses are anywhere close to the words on your list, I am guessing that the following words probably showed up somewhere (in no particular order of priority): Family, finances, home, basic needs, love, material possessions, friends…the list could go on and on.
I think a list like this fits very well with the way that Jesus uses the word we understand to mean blessing in the passage of scripture we read. Now that we have a working understanding of blessing, let us take a closer look at the list Jesus provided for us.
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Blessed are those who mourn
Blessed are the meek
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
Blessed are the merciful
Blessed are pure in heart
Blessed are the peacemakers
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake
Blessed are those who are reviled on account of Christ
Did any of you include what Jesus wrote in your lists? Again, remember our working definition of blessing here – the state or status of being happy, fortunate, or privileged. I don’t know about you, but when I look at this list, I don’t see a whole lot to be happy about.
Consider this list in light of current events. Just this past week, on Valentine’s day there was mass shooting at a school in Florida, where seventeen people had their earthly lives taken from them in a senseless act of violence. And as events unfolded throughout the day, media coverage speculated here and there as to the reason. Media outlets stuck microphones into the faces of traumatized teenager looking to boost their ratings in the race to get the scoop of the year. As I read about the incident, all I could think about was the brokenness that exists in our world. And as I think about this brokenness, I can’t help but look back on the list of blessings that Jesus gave us.
The list that is recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, written according to the teaching of Christ, is a list of brokenness. So, I sit and ponder this question; how can such brokenness be a blessing? I look at this list, and I am almost brought to tears. I ponder this list in light of the many incidents of injustice and violence that this world continues to experience, and I am moved to tears (I am actively fighting them back as I am writing this message).
And the only things that even comes close to bringing me comfort is the one who made this list. Jesus, in the beginning of what can be argued as his most demanding teachings as they are recorded in the scriptures, starts with this list of blessings. And, in starting his teaching this way, he tells us that he understands the brokenness that is inherent in being human. He understands that we are not starting from a Godly place, but rather we are starting from a fall place in a fallen world.
And with each group that Jesus identifies as being blessed, he states the true nature or reason for the blessing. God doesn’t leave us deserted in our brokenness.
The poor in Spirit – theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Those who mourn – they will be comforted.
The meek – they will inherit the earth.
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake – they will be filled.
The merciful – they will be shown mercy.
The pure in heart – they will see God.
The peacemakers – they will be called children of God.
Those who are persecuted because of righteousness – theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Those who are persecuted because of Christ – Great is their reward in heaven.
Jesus flips our understanding of blessing so that we can be changed through such blessings. So that we can be changed from a brokenness to wholeness. So that we can be changed from Godless, to God-filled. So that we can be changed from death in the sinful nature of this world to the eternal life of grace and love promised to us through the saving grace of the one who calls us blessed.
Our true blessings, those things on our lists that make us happy in an earthly sense, well…most of those things are temporary. Material things can only bring me happiness for so long before they wear out, or until the world tells me that what I have isn’t enough to make me happy anymore.
The list Jesus provides – of those who are blessed, and the blessings that go with those situations – are a part of who we are, and with each blessing is the promise that we are not alone. But if we are to see God in the midst of the brokenness, we must seek God in the midst of the brokenness.
We are changed through the blessings of Jesus Christ. Jesus draws our attention to our reality, and from there, he works to change our state of brokenness to a state of wholeness through love and grace. That change is not easy, for it calls on us to seek healing – healing for a broken world.
It is my prayer that this week, we would hear Christ’s the message of blessing – that he understands our broken world, and that we are not abandoned to it. The promise of grace, love, and comfort is with us – and when we live into that promise, and seek to obey the teachings of Christ, we are transformed from brokenness to wholeness. We are indeed a blessed people – for our Joy is in Christ, even in world full of injustice and violence, and Christ continues to work to make our Joy complete.
May you all know the Blessings of Christ,
Change Through Repentance (from February 14 2018, Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day)
The season of Lent is upon us. The season begins with Ash Wednesday (which this year happened to fall on Valentine’s Day). I find this to be an interesting coincidence as the two celebrations are in essence based on the same purpose – Love.
This being said, the two celebrations celebrate love in very different ways. Valentines day is a day where we exchange overpriced cards (really…$7.59 for a card!) and celebrate romantic (eros) love. In many ways I wonder if we mistake this kind of love with lust, but that is a different message for a different time.
On Ash Wednesday, as the season of Lent begins, our focus is on a different understanding of love, or at least on a different relationship that is based in love. This relationship is the relationship we have with God. It is true that God’s love for us is unending and nothing can separate us from it. Can the same be said for our love of God?
Let us consider this question a bit more as we contemplate the scriptures. I invite you to read with me from Joel 2:1-2, 12-17.
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near— 2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. 12 Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. 14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God? 15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; 16gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. 17 Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”
When I read this passage, it seems very gloomy. What is this about an army coming in the darkness. It seems very ominous. What is the purpose of the looming judgement? We might consider this in relation to the story of Jonah and those who lived in Nineveh. God sent Jonah to Nineveh (after he tried to run away…again another story for another time) to deliver this message: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” The people of Nineveh believed God and responded with acts of repentance. God did not destroy the city. I don’t know that God ever intended to destroy the city…but God certainly did work to get the attention of those in Nineveh. I think the same is true here in this passage in Joel. God is working to get the attention of the people who have turned away from the God they profess to believe in. They turned away in word, deed, and intent. Yet God desires to have a right relationship with the people – so much so that the prophet was sent to share this message of warning. Yet the prophet shares not only a warning, but also words of hope – the hope that comes through a change of the heart…the hope that comes through repentance.
Joel urges the people to turn back to God. This is what repent means – to turn back. He urges the common people, the religious teachers, the priests and ministers. He urges them all to return their hearts to the one who loves them.
Repentance is an act of love. Consider this in light of the love we celebrate on Valentine’s Day. Many of us have experienced brokenness in our earthly relationships. I would love to say that I have the perfect marriage, but to do so would be to mislead those reading this reflection. Because I am human, and suffer from the selfishness that comes with sin, I do things that…well…let’s just say that they irritate my wife to no end…I would never begin to suggest that my wife does any such things!
Fortunately for me, my wife is a patient and forgiving individual. Yet without my repentance, her patience and forgiveness would be fruitless. If I continually ignored her needs, and consistently placed my own desires before her needs and the needs of my children, even if she forgives me, the brokenness remains. For the brokenness to begin to mend, I must turn away from my selfish ways and return to her with my whole heart. Simply buying flowers, candy, and overpriced cards doesn’t cut it.
It is the same with our relationship with God. As the Psalmist writes in Psalm 51:17, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” God does not desire that we experience brokenness, though brokenness occurs because of sin. What if we broke ourselves of our sinful behavior? This is the kind of brokenness that We need to experience – for in this brokenness, we discover wholeness. We begin to experience the change that leads to everlasting life through our act of turning back to God. But if our heart isn’t in it, it isn’t truly repentance. Read with me from Matthew as we look a bit deeper into the disciplines that help us to repent and to live in right relationship with God.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Jesus warns us in his teaching that if we falsely practice the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, and tithing for the purposes of personal gratification, then they do nothing to restore us to right relationship with God – in fact they move us further away from the one we claim to love.
Yet when I engage in these spiritual disciplines with my heart fully intent on being in right relationship with God, my acts of repentance are understood as acts of love, and in my brokenness, God will make me whole.
God desires that we would be changed – changed from our sinful ways and changed through the saving grace that is offered to us through the mighty acts of Jesus Christ. God has already done all the work! God has consistently shown love to you, to me, to all of creation…and all God asks from us in return is that we return that we accept and return that love.
As we enter into this Holy Season of Lent, may we do so with the intent to change through repentance. If we set our hearts fully on God – God will change us. “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.” (Matthew 7:7-8) – May we search with all our hearts, for without our hearts our actions are in vain.
Happy Valentines Day…and Holy Ash Wednesday – may we return our hearts to the true source of love.
The Hope of Promises (from January 21, 2018)
“Pinky Swear?” “I swear on my mother’s grave.” “Cross my heart, and hope to die…” Have you ever said these words in the act of making a promise or in maintaining something was absolutely true? I remember saying these phrases when I was a kid trying to convince my sister or brother about something. In all honesty, I never really gave these phrases much thought as a kid. I hadn’t really given these phrases much thought as an adult either…that is until I prepared for this reflection.
As I consider these seemingly harmless words of promise, I begin to realize that they are fraught with problems. Here is the thing – making promises or oaths is a dangerous thing to do. The problem is this; I am fallible. Even if I do not purposely lead others astray by “crossing my heart” (and I may or may not have led my siblings astray in my youth), even with my best intentions, when making promises or claims that certain things are true, well, at times I fall short of the reality that is. This brings me to another idiom; “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
As I did a bit or research about these phrases, I found some interesting things. In enacting a pinky swear, in its original form, the one who broke the promise was supposed to cut off his/her pinky -OUCH! I found that the phrase “Cross your heart and hope to die” had religious foundations and first appeared in a poem dating to the early 1900’s (author unknown). “Cross my heart” suggests the invocation of the Lord’s name into the conversation – it is also likely that the speaker of the words would trace the sign of the cross upon his/her chest as the words were uttered. This amounts to saying something like, “I swear by the name of Jesus that what I say is true”. “Hope to die,” well, this means that if what I say is wrong, well then God smite me!
As I spoke those words as a child, I never thought about the religious implications, nor the consequences of what I spoke if what I said was in any way not in line with reality. Looking back on it, I give thanks for God’s grace – for I called on God to smite me many, many times! And if it wasn’t “cross my heart,” it was, “I swear on my mother’s grave.” Oh, my poor mother! I am glad that she came to no harm because of the curse I placed on her amid telling untruths!
Jesus knew the dangers of making promises and swearing oaths. Before we discuss this in more detail, let us turn our attention to the scriptures. I invite you to read Matthew 5:33-37
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Reading this considering the phrase I spoke as a boy really makes me thankful for God’s grace! Jesus knows that in our humanness, we are imperfect. Jesus knows that as humans, we cannot deal in absolutes – for while we might intend something to be so, and while we might believe that we have the ability to make those things so, ultimately, we have no control.
Jesus essentially tells us not to make oath’s or promises because of likely hood that at some point our promises will fail. As I pondered this, I began to think the promises we make in our marriage vows. When I consider the amount of marriages that end in divorce in our nation – I can understand why Jesus would tell us not to make promises. This isn’t to lessen the power of the vows we make during our marriage rites – if it weren’t for the words, “What God has put together, let no one put asunder” I would be at a loss for why we continue to observe this tradition. Of course, if God isn’t truly invited into the promises, well, I can see why it is fallible. This is a different message for a different time – sorry for following the rabbit down the hole!
Now while promises are fraught with problems, they also have immense power. In fact, it is this power that leads to potential problems. This power that I speak of is hope. In fact, the very purpose of a promise is to provide hope. If I make a promise to someone, the promise I make gives that individual hope that what I promises will come to pass. This hope is a powerful force. Yet, if in my humanness, I am unable to deliver on my promise, that hope is dashed and can lead despair, loss of trust, and broken relationships.
My ability to keep promises is not absolute, yet the promises God makes through our Savior Jesus Christ are eternal and unfailing. To help us consider this a bit more, I invite you to read Hebrews 10:19-25
19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
The key verse for me in this passage is verse 23 – Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised if faithful. The “he” in this passage is Jesus. It is by the promises of Jesus that we find true hope – for God is faithful to every promise that was made. God is Good and is working for the good in all situations – even when we go astray, and our broken promises lead to trouble.
Why is it that people put their hope in temporary and worldly things? Consider how many promises were made by the candidates during the last presidential election. Many people are swayed by these words and the ideals that are behind them – but all too often, regardless of political party, the promises made go unfulfilled at best, and were outright lies at worst. We dupe ourselves time and time again seeking hope in the wrong places.
I have placed my hope in the promises of politicians only to be burned. I have placed my hope in the promises of those who have greater influence than I, and those who have overseen my work (both before ministry and during my time in ministry) and have been burned. I have placed my hope in the promises of my friends and have been burned. I have placed my hope in family member and have been burned. Others have placed their hope in promises I have made and have been burned.
The teaching we find in the scriptures included in this reflection remind us that there is only One who can truly make promises…and there is only One source of true hope. So, let us place our hope in the One who makes all hope possible – for the who has promised is indeed faithful!
Consider for a moment the words that are spoken during the sacrament of communion that are found in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 26:25-28
26 While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
In this passage we see the word covenant. A covenant, as it is understood in a biblical sense, is a promise initiated by God that includes humankind. Because the promise is initiated by God – it can never be broken by God – even if we in our humanness screw things up. The covenant made here by Jesus (who is God) is the promise of forgiveness and eternal life! Praise God for this promise – for what greater hope could we have?!?
As I close out my message this week, I encourage you to listen to the song “You’ve Got a Friend” written by Carol King and performed by James Taylor. As you listen to the song – consider the “friend” in the song to be Jesus. Where others have let us down where they have promised to do otherwise – especially in some of our most desperate moments, Jesus will never let us down.
The promises of God that have been made known to us through Jesus Christ are unfailing and never ending. To God be all praise and Glory, and may God always be the source of our hope. I encourage you to accept the promises that we experience through Jesus Christ, and I encourage you to live into the promises of Jesus Christ – for we are not only saved from something (sin and death), but also to something (an eternal life of love). Let us live into that life of love and share the love of Christ with the world.
Why Christmas? – A perspective from the Heavens (from December 24, 2017)
As we come together to celebrate the birth of our Savior in worship, I think it is very easy for us to get lost in the familiar. For many of us, we come together and sing the Christmas hymns and carols that we have become fond of over the years. We enjoy the setting of the worship spaces as they are decorated with lights and poinsettias. We find comfort in hearing the story of Jesus being born in the manger, and the shepherds being told of the messiah by the angels.
As I consider the Christmas eve services I have planned with the help of my worship team, all of these elements are present. In fact, the beginning portion of my message begins with the very passage that I mention above. I invite you to read with me from the Gospel of Luke 2:1-20
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
As I read through this familiar passage, I read about the “how”. This passage tells the story about how Jesus came into being, but it doesn’t really get at the “why”. Why Christmas? Why Jesus? Why did God become human? The closest thing that resembles an answer to this question is found in the Angel’s message, “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Though even here, I don’t know that they “why” is answered. Why do we need a Savior? The Angels didn’t say. What is meant by Messiah? The Angels didn’t say?
I can’t help but wonder what God’s perspective was. What did God see from above that precipitated the events of Christmas. Why did God enter our world in such a humble way? Why? Why? Why?
As I said earlier, I think the “why” is lost amid of the familiar. I sometimes wonder if we ever really stop to think about it. Why did God come into the world? Imagine for a moment that you have the “top-down” eternal view that God has of the world. What would you see, and what might you do based on what you see? If we consider these questions, I think we can begin to answer the “Why” of Christmas.
While the books and stories of the Old Testament are told through the point of view of, and for the purposes of the ancient Hebrew people, we today (even those of us who are not Jewish) can see that the world was broken. For even in these stories, we see that those who understood themselves to be chosen people of God continually fell away from their relationship with God because of sin.
We can look at our world today, understanding that God’s chosen people is all of us – Again I point to the message of the Angel in Luke’s Gospel; “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people,” and see that we still need intervention to help us overcome the sin in the world. We, still today, fall away from our relationship with God because of sin.
Is it because of the brokenness of the world that God entered it as an infant born in a manger? Is this the reason why? Well, maybe we should consider another passage of scripture to help us find an answer. Read with me from John 3:16-17
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
This passage isn’t related to the Christmas story in Luke. It comes on the heels of John’s record of a conversation between a Jewish elder named Nicodemus and Jesus. Most scholars believe that verse 16, and that which follows is not a part of this conversation, but rather it is the Gospel writer expounding on his thoughts of new life in Christ. This being said, when I read this passage through the lens of the Christmas story, I begin to understand the “why” of Christmas. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…” The giving of Jesus started in the meager setting of a stable, and continued through the death on the cross and the resurrection. We cannot have the manger without the cross…and we cannot experience the fullness of God’s love without Christ! About this passage, Arthur John Gossip writes:
How God can love us as he does, or indeed at all – he being what he is, we being what we are, why he does not shrink back from us in shuddering loathing, or blast us into annihilation as an affront he cannot have in the same universe with himself…The divine is all upon that absolutely superhuman scale. God’s power is not power but almightiness; that we can see. God’s wisdom is not wisdom, as we know it, but omniscience; that we have proved. Yet these things are only his attributes. But God himself is love: a love that utterly breaks through our human conceptions of what love means and is; and runs out to lengths that sound incredible to our human ears, because no man could do it….How does God prove this love of his? Not by a weak indulgence which passes over what should not be as if it were not there, or which pretends it does not gravely matter even if it is. That were not love at all; but by doing all that even God can do, and giving all that even God can give to help us; stretching even divine self-sacrifice to the uttermost, and holding back nothing.
This is the diving “why” of Christmas. God when looking down at God’s creation before the divine moments that led to the birth of Christ saw a world that was a mess. God being God could have done away with all of us. God could have unmade the world. Yet God did not act in this way. God instead, acted in accordance with love. As Gossip stated above, God is love. And it is for this reason that God entered our world.
And if entering our world, into the fallenness and brokenness of our world weren’t sacrifice enough, God held nothing back from us. God made Godself vulnerable throughout the life of Christ, from the beginning where because he was born in a manger instead of the warmth of a home (According to Luke) to the point of death on a cross for the benefit of all God’s people.
It is no wonder that the heavens opened and the whole host of heaven rejoiced upon the birth of Christ. God set something so magnificent in motion on that day that the beings of heaven couldn’t contain the excitement of the Glory of God, and all that this glory means for God’s creation. So, the angels told the shepherds, and the shepherds worshiped and bore witness to the power of God.
The “why” of Christmas has always been God’s love for humankind. The why of Christmas isn’t about the baby. It isn’t about the shepherds or angels. It isn’t about any of our traditions. It is about God’s very essence of love, and how that Gift of love changes our world.
While we celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas, we should also celebrate something even greater – the true reason for the season – God’s love for us…a love that moved God to do something that no human could ever do. God became human, setting into motion all that would follow through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – all for God’s love of the world.
It is my prayer for all who read this, or who hear God’s message of love this Christmas in some other way, would fully experience God’s love - not only through the birth of a baby, but also through the saving grace of the Savior that he is. God is love – a love that never ends, and the love that our world so desperately still needs today.
The Innkeeper (from December 17, 2017)
What is the first thing that comes to mind when I say the word Innkeeper? One might think of a business person, or an attendant who cares for a hotel-like establishment. Another possibility given this time of year might be based in Christian tradition. One might think of the individual who turned away Joseph and his pregnant wife after their long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
Before I get to far into the reflection this week, I would like to ask you a question…and I would like you to respond. Before reading on through the rest of this message, I invite you to answer the following question with one word (feel free to give your answer in the comments section if you follow me on Facebook, or just write it down on a piece of paper): If you had one word to describe the Innkeeper from the Christmas Story, what would it be?
I am truly curious as to what your feelings about this person are. My guess is that they are probably in line with my feelings, or at least what my feelings about him/her were before I began my research for this reflection on God’s word. I found that my preconceived notions may not have been entirely accurate (imagine that…). To help you understand a bit more of what I mean, let us turn our attention to the scriptures. I invite you to read with me from Luke 2:1-7
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
If you read the passage closely, you will notice that just as there was no mention of the Donkey that Mary rode (see my reflection from a couple weeks ago), there is no mention of the innkeeper. I think it is safe to assume that given that the story speaks of an inn, there was most definitely an innkeeper.
Luke is somewhat masterful in his storytelling here. He essentially sets up the entirety of his Gospel by showing the meager setting in which Jesus comes into the world. Yet in doing so, and because of the limits of language and translation, the innkeeper, whether inadvertently or intentionally, has become a villain in the story. Consider for a moment the word that you used to describe the innkeeper. My guess is that is was most likely a negative word. Think about it, how could we think anything positive of a person who turns away a pregnant woman who is dilated to 8.5 centimeters upon arrival? Talk about heartless! If you were waiting for my word, you know have it! Heartless!
Having three children of my own, if my wife were in that kind of need during that moment in time, I can’t help but think that I would have been pretty ticked off. Yet when we read the passage, there isn’t any mention of Joseph going door to door asking feverishly asking for help. There is no account of an argument with the Innkeeper. Heck, there isn’t any mention of the Innkeeper at all. I think the vilification of the innkeeper has come about over time, and is partly due to our understanding of the word inn.
What is an inn? Given my current context (Western culture in USA during the year 2017), I imagine a small hotel – a place with many rooms and many people coming and going from the breakfast nook. Does that match up with your understanding of the word. Well upon my research this week, I found some information that shifted my understanding of the story, and how I view the innkeeper…it may shift yours as well.
Seeing as the innkeeper isn’t described at all, it might help us to consider the inn to get some picture of who the innkeeper is and how he/she greeted the Holy Family. The word inn, as it is found in the passage above is transliterated from the Greek word Kataluma. This word can be understood in a few different ways. In another place in scriptures (right within Luke’s Gospel 22:11), the word is used to denote a guestroom. Another more basic understanding of the word would be a place for lodging.
If we understand the word inn to denote a guestroom, this gives us a very different picture of the innkeeper. Instead of this being a place of business in the midst of a bustling town, we now understand it as a personal residence. This would fit with the story. Joseph and Mary are traveling to their hometown to be registered for the census by the Roman government. Maybe they went to a relative’s home seeking shelter. Unfortunately, every one of his other distant relatives did the same thing, only they beat Joseph and Mary to room.
While this image may still evoke negative feelings toward innkeeper, it may soften things a bit – from completely heartless to overwhelmed and indifferent. It bears saying that many of the homes during this time were two levels – the main level or “upper room” was the living space, and the lower level was the housing for the animals. This arrangement had two benefits. One, it kept the animals a safe place out of the elements, and two because heat rises, it provided residual heat for the inhabitants of the upper room.
While it is highly unlikely that Joseph and Mary traveled during the cold months (understanding that the climate in Bethlehem is temperate to warm with the lows being around 45 and the highs being in the 70s during the winter), having the shelter of the lower room among the animals would have provided some warmth against the cool night air. And while it is not explicitly mentioned in the narrative, we can assume that the stable area was offered to Joseph and Mary, and that they were not turned away altogether. Given the circumstances – this arrangement may have provided Mary with more privacy than she otherwise would have had if she were in the house with other relatives.
Let us for a moment consider that the word inn could be understood as a lodging place. Given the circumstances, and if Mary and Joseph were not staying with family, this opens some other possibilities. Maybe the lodging place was more of a campground than a hotel. It is possible that many people had pitched tents for the night on this parcel of land.
In this case, the innkeeper, who is a shrewd business person, could have offered the Holy Family a secluded cave on the property, one where (s)he housed some of the animals as a place away from all the other travelers. In this way of thinking, the stable would be somewhat of an upgrade. This thought is not out of line with biblical scholarship or Christian tradition. As early as the year 150, it is mentioned that Jesus was born in a cave, and during the early forth century, the Emperor Constantine had a basilica built on that site.
As I mentioned above, Luke was a master storyteller. Within that one simple sentence, we are provided almost no information and too much information to consider all at once. Whatever the innkeeper was or wasn’t, the focus of the story was not on the innkeeper, but rather it was on Christ. So, given what we know and don’t know about the innkeeper, what might we come to gain from looking at the Christmas story though his/her eyes?
For this, I might bring us back to our modern conception of the inn, and our first thoughts about the innkeeper. Let us, just for this moment, consider that the innkeeper turned Mary and Joseph away. The innkeeper just had to many people in the house/hotel that (s)he didn’t have the patience for a pregnant woman in the establishment.
How many times in our lives have we been consumed by “too much” that if anything else comes along, it will just make us want to explode? Think about that given our current season, and how busy we are. At some point, we need to say no to something. If we are being honest, sometimes the thing that we turn away is God. “I don’t have time for worship this week.” “I wish I had more time to pray…I am just to busy…” “I would love to be a part of that mission, but I am up to my ears in work.”
The Innkeeper becomes a metaphor for our lives that are filled with busyness. But I think that that Innkeeper also provides us with a character who is redeemable. Luke sets up the entirety of his Gospel with the meager beginnings of Jesus. We have come to assume that Mary and Joseph were turned away. If this is true, I can only imagine how the recounting of that experience to Jesus has he grew had an impact on his life. Consider this in light of his ministry. I invite you to read with me from Luke 9:10-17
10 On their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done. He took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida. 11 When the crowds found out about it, they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured. 12 The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.” 13 But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” 14 For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15 They did so and made them all sit down. 16 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. 17 And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.
The disciples wanted to send the crowd away. This crowd was most likely made up of the people in society that were of the lower class. These people had needs, and some of them may not have known where their next meal was coming from. And while the disciples wanted to send them away, Jesus instead invited the crowd for dinner.
Imagine for a moment, that in that crowd was the innkeeper from so many years ago. Maybe it is a distant family member. Maybe it a business person who recalled the story about a boy being born to Joseph and Mary from Nazareth. Whatever the case, imagine that the innkeeper is in the crowd.
The innkeeper had an experience with Christ earlier in his/her life that (s)he didn’t understand. How true is that for us? I know it is true for me. Yet given time and maturity, that earlier experience has come to mean something because of the current experience. Where the innkeeper once turned away Christ, Christ in return has welcomed the innkeeper.
Talk about redemption! What a powerful image! What an all-to-true image for us today. For while we have pushed Jesus from our lives because we didn’t know he was coming, or because we were just to busy, Jesus welcomes us still.
We are like the innkeeper, and just as the innkeeper was worthy of being in the presence of Jesus, so too are we. But are we willing to see the innkeeper as redeemed? I believe that in seeing his/her redemption, we see God’s power to redeem us as well. Where we say we have no room, Jesus says that in his house there are many rooms…
Jesus is coming – is there room for him in your heart this Christmas? Know and trust in the hope, peace, joy and love that is offered to you because there is room in his heart for you.
Joseph (from December 10, 2017)
As we continue our faith journey through this season of Advent, this week, I will turn my attention to the earthly father of Jesus. Joseph is somewhat of a mystery. Not much is known about him. He is only mentioned a few times by name in the scriptures, and in a few others, he is mentioned in combination with Mary as the parents of Jesus.
None of these passages reveal to us the kind of “father” Joseph was to Jesus. We are left guessing much about his personality, his habits, and his motives. This being said, I believe there is enough to help us gain a perspective on how the promise of Jesus impacted him. And from that perspective, we might glean something about how we might grow in our relationships with God still today.
As I sit here and write this message, I can’t help but wonder how is it that Joseph, who must have been such a prominent figure in the early earthly life of our Savior, became a footnote in God’s story of salvation. I suspect the primary reason for this is to put the focus on Jesus as the Son of God, and not the Son of Joseph. By removing the earthly father from the story, the focus on the “Father” (this term being used because of our gender norms, and not because God should be identified as male…Mary is the mother, so God must be the father…) can be emphasized in the Gospel accounts of Jesus.
So what do we know about Joseph? We know that he was a carpenter. According to a passage of scripture in Matthew’s Gospel where the people of Nazareth question the authority of Jesus upon his return to the town during his ministry, the people say, “Where did this man get his wisdom and these miraculous powers?” “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” (Matthew 13:54-55)
Aside from this passage, the only other place where we can begin to piece together a picture of his character is from the birth narrative found in first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. I invite you to read with me from Matthew 1:18-25.
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
What does this passage tell us of Joseph? Well, it doesn’t tell us his age. It doesn’t give a physical description. It doesn’t tell us how he and Mary met, nor how he came to be interested in her as a marital partner. Many scholars would argue that the intent of the passage isn’t so much to tell us about Joseph, but rather to solidify the lineage of Jesus through the line of David (which goes through Joseph). This is important as it is the fulfillment of the scriptures recorded in the prophets.
This passage, whether intended or not, does reveal something of Joseph’s character. We see this within the text, and even more so when we read a bit deeper into the text…between the lines so to speak…
Imagine for a moment what the conversation between Mary and Joseph must have been like as she revealed her situation to him. Keep in mind that in Matthew’s Gospel, there is no account of Mary going to visit Elizabeth. Maybe it went something like this: Mary calls to Joseph and asks that they take a walk together, away from the village and all the people scurrying about. During their stolen moment, where he is most likely thinking of other things entirely, Mary tells him of the angel, the Will of God, and her pregnancy.
What must have gone through his mind in those moments? Did he believe all that she said? He knew the baby wasn’t his…it couldn’t have been for he hadn’t had sex with her.
I can only imagine the internal struggle that he dealt with after finding out. Again, we can only guess at that conversation, for the scriptures do not reveal to us anything about how he came to know about Mary and the baby. But we do learn something about his character based on how he responded to the situation.
The scripture tells us that Joseph was a “righteous” man. When the term “righteous” or just is used to describe a person in the scriptures, it carries with it the understanding that this righteousness is demonstrated by that individual’s commitment to God through the observance of the Law. Interestingly, Joseph while considered a righteous man in this regard did something that other men of his time wouldn’t have done. While other men would have followed the letter of the law, Joseph followed the heart of the law. He could have had Mary stoned to death for the sin of adultery, but instead he planned to divorce her quietly, so as not to place any further shame on her or her family.
Another supporting factor to Joseph being a righteous man can be seen in the openness to receive and react positively to the dream that he had that evening. While he had planned to divorce her quietly, his heart and mind were changed by God through this dream, and the promise of the child to come.
I believe that there is something that we can learn from Joseph and the change that he underwent in the midst of that trying day. Because he was open to God’s guidance, God continued to guide him throughout his journey as a parent. We see evidence of this in Matthew 2:13-15
13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
Many scholars suggest that this passage is included in the Gospel, because the Gospel writer intended to show Jesus as the “New Moses” by having the young Jesus flee from the harm of a king…and the mention of Egypt only adds to the power and mystery of the message. There are other places where Matthew’s Gospel connects Jesus to Moses in this way. However, if I only read the passage from this perspective, I overlook the continuation of Joseph’s relationship with God, and his family.
We see evidence in this passage that Joseph is the one whom God relates to in this situation. God could have spoken this message through Mary. I am sure that Joseph would have heeded her words. I believe that this guidance that Joseph receives is in large part a result of his faithfulness.
I can’t help but consider this in my own life of faith. I can’t say that I have dreams of angels…but I can say that as I continue to live and grow in my faith, I have had experiences (many of them) where I can see the hand of God guiding me. I see this even more when I look back at the places I have been, and how I have come through some difficult times. Joseph demonstrates faithfulness for us.
I would love to know what kind of father he was. I can only guess. As I consider my own life as a father, and the example I try to set for my children, I can only imagine the immense pressure that Joseph felt knowing that Jesus wasn’t an ordinary child. But then again, when I think about the faithfulness that he showed through the few scripture accounts in which is story (albeit an incomplete story) is contained, I can’t imagine anything but a man who loved his child more than life – I can’t imagine him being much different than I am in the love that I have for my children.
I think it is important for us to think about what we can gain from looking at the Christmas story through Joseph’s eyes. First, I believe we can learn something of justice through the example of Joseph and his actions toward Mary. Justice isn’t just about what is fair or what is right, but it is (or should be) understood and experienced with human love and compassion. When I look at our world today, and see the brokenness that has come about because of our sinful choices, when I look through the eyes of Joseph, I see hope and reconciliation.
A second thing I feel is important for us to look at is the openness of Joseph to the word of God. I can’t help but think that there is a meaningful message here for us. Joseph faced two difficult situations that we know of based on the scriptures (and I suspect that he faced countless others throughout his life as a husband and father), didn’t react purely on emotion, nor did he follow the current ways of society. Joseph faithfully followed the leading of God. Just imagine if more people did that in our world today! The scriptures tell us that he was a righteous man, so we know that he observed a life of faith, and we can assume from there that he was a prayerful man. What is especially important for us to see through the life of Joseph is that prayer is much more than just speaking to God – it also involves being open to God’s response and following with obedience the way that God places before us.
A third thing that I think is important for us to consider is his role as the earthly father of Jesus. The scriptures don’t overtly reveal anything to us about his parenting skills (unless we consider that he and Mary didn’t realize that Jesus stayed behind at the temple when he was 12…oops…). But based on how Jesus acts and reacts to the many situations that he encounters throughout his ministry, one can safely assume that the example of his mother Mary, and his earthly father Joseph, had a profound impact on how he came to live into his relationship with his heavenly Father, and all the children of God.
When it comes to the character of Joseph, George Buttrick writes:
Too little attention has been given to Joseph’s part in the gospel story. Reading these lines and between the lines we can see the manner of the man. He was just, a word which in Matthew implies both religious scruple and obedience to the will of God. Here the word may also mean sympathy and kindness. He was sensitive to divine visitation – as in his dream – and quick to heed of the luminous moment. There is cause to assume that he was devoted to Mary and the children of his household. The word “Father” as an ascription for God had been used in the Old Testament, but the word was fairly infrequent, and it implied national perhaps more than individual relationship. But Jesus used it in ways most intimate, and taught us in the Lord’s Prayer so to use it. The fact is partially, though not ultimately, a tribute to Joseph’s care for his household – all the tribute one man need desire. It is fait to assume that Joseph was the human channel through which Jesus drew some of his incomparable wisdom.
As I close out this reflection, I am going to invite you to just for a moment imagine you are Joseph. You have been called upon to stay in relationship with someone even when that relationship confronts difficult situations. And more importantly, you have been called upon to nurture Jesus, to raise him up in your life so that his ministry can be brought into the world.
You are more like Joseph than you might realize, for today, all who follow Christ are called upon to act as Joseph acted. We are all called upon to hold Jesus close to our hearts so that we release that love into the world. Joseph did this…and so can we.
The Donkey (from December 3, 2017)
As we begin the Advent season, I am going to challenge us to consider the Christmas story from a variety of perspectives. I think it is safe to say that most people have at least a general understanding of the Christmas narrative. Yet, in the midst of our general understanding, I believe that we gloss over some of the finer details, and in so doing, we miss the opportunity to consider the story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus from potentially fresh and insightful perspectives.
Before I get into the scriptures, let me start with this question. If you were crafting a play about the birth narrative of Jesus Christ, what would the setting and characters be? If you paused to write down your answers, you probably came up with a list that looks something like this:
Traveling on the Road
Bethlehem – Inn and Stable at Night with a Star
Does your list look like this? Did I miss anything? No, good…then we can continue! For this first week of Advent, I would like us to consider the Christmas Story through the life experience and perspective of the donkey.
What is another term for donkey? Did you say ass? Yep, I just typed ass. A donkey is also known as an ass. Now consider for a moment how we reference a donkey (ass) when we use it in the way we describe others. “He is such a dumbass.” “She is a smartass.” “Don’t be such a wiseass!” “Why do you have to be such a stubborn ass?”
Would we classify any of these statements as terms of endearment? It seems that in all the situations where we use the example of the donkey to describe a person, it has a negative tone. Now consider the life and purpose of a donkey. A donkey is a humble beast that is taken for granted. Throughout history, it is an animal that is overworked and underappreciated. If a donkey could sing, it would probably sing a song of woe. It would sing a song of feeling unworthy. If a donkey could talk, it would probably tell a story of how it is mistreated even when it is doing what it is expected to do.
Did you know that the Bible contains a story about a talking donkey? Believe it or not, it does. Now that donkey isn’t as humorous as the donkey in Shrek, but nonetheless, it is a story that brings a smile to my face. I invite you to ready with me from Numbers 22:22-35
22 God’s anger was kindled because he (Balaam) was going, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the road as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23 The donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; so the donkey turned off the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn it back onto the road. 24 Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. 25 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, it scraped against the wall, and scraped Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck it again. 26 Then the angel of the LORD went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. 27 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. 28 Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” 29 Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!” 30 But the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” And he said, “No.”
31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down, falling on his face. 32 The angel of the LORD said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perverse before me. 33 The donkey saw me, and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let it live.” 34 Then Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now therefore, if it is displeasing to you, I will return home.” 35 The angel of the LORD said to Balaam, “Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak.” So Balaam went on with the officials of Balak.
Consider for a moment the Donkey in this story. The donkey is misunderstood by its rider. Because it is misunderstood, it is mistreated. On top of the already difficult life that this poor beast of burden endures, it is now facing the wrath of its owner who couldn’t see God’s truth which was right in front of him. It is the donkey’s sight of the simple truth before it which spares the one who is riding it. In this story, God lifts the beast of burden above the man who is riding it. The animal that is most often associated with being dumb or stubborn has been recognized by a power much greater than any human could ever be.
Now let us consider the donkey in the birth narrative of Jesus. I invite you to read with me from the Gospel of Luke 2:1-5
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
Now the Donkey in this passage is the one carrying Mary…. what’s that you say? What donkey? You mean to tell me that there is no donkey mentioned in the story? HOW CAN THAT BE? There is always a donkey! In every play about the holy family, Mary rides a donkey! In the movies I have seen, Mary rides a donkey! HOW CAN THERE NOT BE A DONKEY?!?
Okay…now that I got that out of my system, let me point out that neither the birth narrative in Luke, nor the birth narrative found in the Gospel of Matthew contains a donkey. Wow, talk about the finer details! So where did the donkey come from? Well, consider the age-old art of story-telling. To make a story more compelling and/or more believable, story-tellers often make inferences and add elements to the story – not to change the truth of the story, but to lend credence to the truth of the story.
If Joseph and Mary (who was 8+ months pregnant) made the trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register for the census, it is highly likely that a donkey accompanied them to carry their supplies and or Mary throughout parts of their journey. The distance as the crow flies between the two towns is roughly 70 miles. For travelers today (who don’t have to wait at the Israeli checkpoints for hours on end), the trip can be made by automobile in about 90 minutes.
There are two possible routes that the family could have taken, the shorter and less likely route would have taken them through considerably hilly terrain, and along the Samaritan trade routes. Given these two factors, it is more likely that the couple traveled a longer, safer, and route that took them through the Jordan river valley. This route was at least 20 miles longer.
When scholars consider the journey, the shortest amount of time it would have taken to complete the journey was 4 days. Most scholars place the length of time that the journey took to be somewhere in the neighborhood of a week. In order to carry the supplies needed for that long a journey, it is easy to infer that a beast of burden was employed during the trip.
AHHHHHHHH, we have our donkey back! Feels good doesn’t it…I mean what is Christmas without the donkey? Wow, I never thought I would type those words! Well, now that I ask that question, let us consider Christmas from the point of view of the donkey! If the particular donkey in this story could have spoken, and was able to record its story, what might it have said?
A talking donkey isn’t without biblical precedent, so I feel that I am on firm theological ground to follow this line of questioning. This lowly animal has been taken from its home – one of the few comforts it had, and is being asked to travel 90 plus miles carrying supplies or a pregnant human. It is almost as if the poor animal had gone from bad to worse.
But what if the donkey knew what was being asked of it? What if the donkey understood the purpose of God as it related to that journey. What if in the midst of its feelings of woe and unworthiness, God lifted that donkey. Even donkeys have gifts and abilities. In the midst of that donkey’s feelings of unworthiness, God may have opened its eyes to a greater truth, just as it was with Balaam’s donkey.
This, I feel, offers us with a fresh perspective to the Christmas story. And as we progress through this season of Advent, the season of preparation and expectation, this perspective may help us to explore the truths that are already in front of us. Mary’s donkey (through my speculation), came to understand that while its gifts and abilities were overlooked and unappreciated by many, God created the donkey with the right set of gifts for the right moment.
Imagine for a moment, that God revealed to you that all the gifts you have were given to you for a purpose, and that God has revealed that purpose to you. If that were to happen to me (once I overcame the initial feeling of shock and fear at being in the presence of God…DO NOT BE AFRAID!), I suspect that my feelings of woe and unworthiness would be completely dismissed – at least for that moment, and very likely for the remainder of my life.
This poor, humble, misunderstood, taken for granted animal has been incorporated into the most important story of all time! Even though the donkey isn’t mentioned in the scripture, it is a part of the story that has stood the test of time. God didn’t overlook the worthiness of the donkey. And if God didn’t overlook the worthiness of the donkey, it only follows that God does not overlook that worthiness that is in each of us.
God gave us gifts, each of us, for a purpose. God is constantly working to reveal that purpose to us throughout every moment of our lives. The donkey’s purpose was to carry that which the holy family needed, or even the holy family itself in its hour of need. God made the donkey for such a moment, and gave it the gifts it needed to carry (literally) the will of God out in the world.
You, like the donkey (in the most positive way that anyone has ever considered a donkey), have a purpose. You like the donkey are worthy because God made you the way you are. It is very easy to feel like you aren’t enough – in fact the world around us often makes us feel that way.
You are who you are because God made you that way! We were not created into sin, though we have fallen. Before we ever sinned, we were created in the image of God, and God created us in, by, for, and through love. God created you with love in His heart, and for a purpose – that of love. I will leave you this week with a quote and a question.
"People are created for relationship with God for specific purposes. Foundationally, individuals are created to reflect the image of God...The intent of God has not changed with the passage of time. We are still created to reveal the image of God, as was His design before we yielded to temptations of sin. As those redeemed from sin, God desires His image to be imprinted upon His followers. They are to live as He lives, love what He loves, and pursue that which is on His heart. His church is to bear His image to a world that has not seen Him." - Mildred Minatera.
The donkey’s purpose was to use its gift to bear loads, to bear the will of God. What is your purpose as an individual, and what is our purpose as God’s church?
Prepare and keep watch (from November 26, 2017)
As we are now past the holiday of Thanksgiving, most of the Christian world turns its attention to the next big holiday of the season – Christmas. Most department stores are playing Christmas music, Christmas decorations and displays are lighting up neighborhoods around our nation. It always seems to me that we are in a rush to get to Christmas. So let me ask you, what do you do to prepare for Christmas?
As I ask this question, I don’t ask what is on your “to do” list when it comes to shopping for gifts or food. I am not asking about when you put up your Christmas tree. I am talking about something that is much deeply important in the eternal scheme of things. What are you doing to prepare for the coming of Christ?
I know this question seems a bit out of place in our day and age…I mean…hasn’t Jesus already come. Well, the simple answer to that is yes. But as anyone who lives with a life of faith knows, our faith and our understanding of God is seldom easy. While Jesus was and is, and is to come, we, as Christians find ourselves in a duality of reality (I think I should coin that phrase – it rolls of the tongue rather nicely). We live in an “already” and “not yet” existence. The already of Jesus being present in our lives, and the not yet of totality of God’s reign being fully realized in our lives. We find ourselves in a constant state of preparation.
When I consider this, I consider the true meaning of the Advent season. This year, it starts a bit later than usual because Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday (the 4th Sunday of the season)…so I am getting a bit of a head start on the season this year. Advent is a season of preparation and expectation. It is a season of watching and waiting. It is a season of holiness and preparation. So again I ask you, what are you doing to prepare for the coming of the King?
It might be helpful to consider this season through the scriptures. I invite you to read with me from Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” 4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
As we read the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, we see that the story does not begin with Jesus, or any account of Mary, Joseph, or angels or shepherds. Mark starts his Gospel account with the message of John the Baptist (who is quoting the prophet Isaiah), “Prepare the way of the Lord…”
The message of John the Baptist is a message ordained and commissioned by God. This message carried significant importance because God had not spoken through a prophet in this way in close to 400 years leading up to the time of John preaching his message of preparation. People were coming to hear him speak, and upon hearing his message, they were indeed preparing themselves for a right relationship with God.
John understood who he was, and what his purpose was. He preached a message that would point others to the Messiah. He was a man of humble means who lived in the wilderness and survived on that which God provided for him. John was looking at a world that desperately needed a savior…a world that was severely unprepared for the one to come.
Those who heard John preach and were moved to prepare did so not be going out to buy presents, or by stringing up Christmas lights on their meager homes. They did so by preparing their hearts. They received a baptism of repentance which was an outward sign of the commitment they were making to God – to be more holy in their lives.
John knew that even this baptism was incomplete in preparing the people for the Messiah, but if was a first step toward the acceptance of what was to come, as unexpected as the end of the story was for the people of that time. For even with this act of holiness, the people didn’t know what to watch for, nor did they see Jesus for what he is – the Savior of the world for all time.
The people that responded to the message of John were hoping and praying for the miracle of Jesus, but many weren’t watching the events around them that proclaimed that the Messiah was indeed present. Just as in our world today, the world distracted them from seeing what was plainly before them, that Jesus Christ is Lord.
How about us today? Are we watching for Jesus? Do we know what to look for? Would we recognize Jesus if we saw him, and if so, what would we do about it?
Throughout the history of the Israelite people, the good and bad times that are recounted in the books of the Old Testament, the people struggled to see God’s work in their lives. They often missed it altogether, or discovered it too late. Yet throughout all the ages, God was present, and God made promises through each prophetic voice that was lifted. And many of these prophets spoke a similar message to that of John the Baptist. In fact, if we imagine that all the prophets of the Old Testament as musicians, that would make John the Baptist, the greatest cover artist of all time!
On a more serious note (did you see what I did there…music…note…ok, I will get back on topic), The message of keeping watch and being prepared can be found throughout the scriptures. Read with me an example of this from Isaiah 52:7-12
7 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” 8 Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the LORD to Zion. 9 Break forth together into singing you ruins of Jerusalem; for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. 10 The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. 11 Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of it, purify yourselves, you who carry the vessels of the LORD. 12 For you shall not go out in haste, and you shall not go in flight; for the LORD will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.
In this passage, we read of the return of God to Zion – a particularly powerful message to a people who had experienced exile! In the text, we read words of excitement and joy, but these words can only be proclaimed and shared by those who are prepared to share them. Consider the word “sentinels” as it is found in verse 8. A sentinel is a watchman. The sentinel was charged with keeping watch so that those within the keep or guarded area could respond to any situation that might arise. A sentinel that is unprepared to do his/her duty is of no good to the rest of the population. What would happen if a sentinel didn’t announce what he/she had seen? Worst case scenario, total destruction of the people.
In the passage above, the sentinels lifted their voices in praise announcing the return of the LORD to Zion. They can only do this if they are prepared. They can only do this if they are looking, and know what to look for. And once the people heard the message, they were to depart to purify themselves (sounds a lot like baptism of repentance to me) in preparation.
Thanksgiving (from November 19, 2017)
What does it mean to be thankful…and why is it so important? As we approach the Thanksgiving celebration in our nation, and as I conclude the series I have done on Stewardship, I think it is a fitting time to be thankful for thankfulness.
Some families have a tradition where around the thanksgiving table, before they dig in to the big feast, each person names one thing they are thankful for. I have seen this done as a guest of a dinner before (though this is not a part of our family traditions) and, if I am being honest, thinking back to that time many years ago, I kind of find it distasteful.
The sentiment behind the tradition is a beautiful one, and some of those gathered gave thanks for their families and friends, for many of those gathered, the thanksgiving was a bit shallow. Some gave thanks for food and the meal they were about to eat. And some gave thanks for the privilege they enjoyed (though not named as such). And thinking back on that meal, there was no outward connection with God during their “thanksgiving”.
Now to be fair to those who were present at this gathering (it was many years ago – even before I would have considered myself a follower of Jesus), the people there were not a religious group. As I think back to that meal and the merriment we enjoyed, I can’t help but feel a bit guilty about how thankless I was…and as I consider this, I wonder how much of our society is represented by this kind of thankfulness (or lack of it). I speculate that in many cases, the more privilege one has, the less thankfulness one gives.
Consider the Old Testament Scriptures for a moment. As I began my preparation for this message, in my research I found a somewhat startling fact. Throughout much of the early books of the Old Testament, thanksgiving is conspicuously absent. Within the first five books of the Bible, the books that contain the Patriarchal and Matriarchal stories of our faith traditions, the word “thanksgiving appears only once (Lev 7:12-15) and it is understood in the context of fellowship and is given for deliverance from Peril…and even here, words such as “may” and “if” surround the text making it seem as though it is not an important undertaking.
Now to be fair to the text of these books, these stories were meant to share the faith traditions that stemmed from obedience to God, and because of this, strict presentation of the laws and practices of the people, thankfulness was not the focus. Though let me ask a question here…if people operate strictly from a sense of obedience, and there is no understanding of the gracious nature of God, where would this lead the people?
The reality is that God, from the very beginning, has always been a gracious God. Consider the act of creation itself. Without God, there would be no life. Consider the act of giving the Israelites manna, quail, and water in the wilderness when the people complained. Now that I think about thankfulness, the lack of it in that story is somewhat startling!
When I consider the early books of our compilation of scripture (known to us as the Bible), and come to the realization that thankfulness was not a strong practice of the people in ancient times, I can begin to understand why their civilization fell into chaos and exile. In fact, it wasn’t until the time of the psalmists and prophets that thanksgiving became a common practice.
It might be good to stop here for a moment and give a clear working definition of thanksgiving. When I speak of thanksgiving through the lens of the Christian faith, I understand Thanksgiving to mean “a response of grateful people toward a gracious God. All our thanksgiving stems first from our thankfulness to God. Therefore, all our acts of stewardship are acts of thankfulness.
To get an idea of how our stewardship is directly related to our thankfulness, let us consider a couple passages of scripture. I first invite you to read with me, Psalm 116:12-19.
12 What shall I return to the LORD for all his bounty to me? 13 I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD, 14 I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people. 15 Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones. 16 O LORD, I am your servant; I am your servant, the child of your serving girl. You have loosed my bonds. 17 I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the LORD. 18 I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people, 19 in the courts of the house of the LORD, in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the LORD!
This psalm is one of praise, and is a means of giving thanks for a recovery from illness. Within the handful of verses that you have read, where can you find evidence of the psalmist’s thankfulness being expressed through his/her intended stewardship?
IN the first line, the psalmist asks, “what shall I return to the Lord?” the word returning tells me that the psalmist understands that his being made well was not of his own doing. She/He understands that God is the one who creates, and is therefor the owner. One can only return something if one understands that the thing to be returned does not belong to him/her.
There is evidence of witness. “I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people. There is evidence of giving – the offering of a thanksgiving sacrifice.
In all of this, I have come to understand something important about thanksgiving as a biblical principal and practice. Thanksgiving is a public act. And because thanksgiving is a public act, it is a form of witness and a form of stewardship. Let us consider this in light of another passage of scripture. I invite you to read with me from Matthew 15:32-39.
32 Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” 33 The disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” 34 Jesus asked them, “How many loaves have you?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” 35 Then ordering the crowd to sit down on the ground, 36 he took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 37 And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 38 Those who had eaten were four thousand men, besides women and children. 39 After sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.
This passage of scripture recounts the feeding of the 4000 people. Notice in this passage, that before Jesus broke the meager offering of food that was present to be shared with the multitude gathered, he first gave thanks. Why would he do this? I think the primary reason for this is to set the example for all those who are present that thanksgiving is an important act of worship.
Jesus himself is fully human and fully God. Jesus doesn’t need to offer thanks to himself. That would be like me thanking myself for taking myself out for dinner… “Thanks Gary… Oh you’re welcome Gary”…who does that?
Just as in everything else that Jesus says and does, he provides for us an example. Just as Jesus teaches us to pray, teaches us to serve, he also teaches us to give thanks.
The act of giving thanks is an act of witness. And directly following this act of witness, Jesus provides for others out of the meager offering with which he started. Where the disciples showed doubt, Jesus gave thanks!
So here I find myself at the end of this series on stewardship. And as I look to the end, I find myself looking at the beginning. For all our acts of stewardship start with the act of thanksgiving. We first give thanks to God for all that has been provided to us. In this act of humility, we embrace the idea that what has been provided is not ours to own, but rather it is ours to use for the benefit of the Kingdom of God.
When we truly give thanks, we move beyond ourselves, and move into an authentic act of worship and praise. When is the last time that you truly gave thanks? As we move toward the holiday of thanksgiving, I challenge you to truly give thanks this week – not for the temporal things in our lives, but rather for the things that lead us and others to eternal life. Thanksgiving isn’t about what we have, or the meal we plan to eat. Thanksgiving is an act of praise, worship, Christian witness, and stewardship. May we continue to be good stewards of all that God has entrusted us with thankfulness in our hearts.
Stewardship of Money (from November 12, 2017)
“Money, money, money, mo----ney, money.” Did you sing it? The song by the O’Jays…I just grooved to it as I sat and began writing this reflection. I have been familiar with the song for years, but I hadn’t ever really looked at the lyrics of the song that closely until this morning (I just liked grooving to the beat…and what about that bassline?!)
The song speaks about how the love of money drives people to do some bad stuff. I find that there is some truth to this, and the greater the love for money is, the more likely it will be for those that love it to turn away from God. There are some that say that money is the root of all evil, but to say this is to misquote the scriptures. 1Timothy 6:10 tells us “ For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
Money itself is not a bad thing. Like many other things, it is a tool by which we can grow in our faith and help others to grow in their faith as well. But as another passage of scripture says, one cannot serve two masters…Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Over the past few weeks, I have been writing about and preaching on the topic of stewardship. In the first message from this series, I pointed out that often when people hear the word stewardship, money is the first thing that comes to their minds. This is because the institution that is the church has yoked the two together in such a way that people have forgotten that stewardship isn’t about the collection plate and the budget of the church, but rather it is about acknowledging the Lordship of God over all things. God is the creator and owner of all things, and God entrusts us with all that we have with the hope (yes, God hopes!) that we will use it in the best interest of God.
While Stewardship isn’t solely about money, one would be remiss not to speak of money in relation to stewardship. The scriptures have plenty to say about money, its influences, and how we are called to use it, but there may not be any better example of the stewardship of money in the scriptures than that which is found in Mark 12:41-44
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
If we understand that God owns all things, we understand that this includes our material wealth. In the capitalist society in which we live, our wealth is a means of power, control, and comfort – all things that we enjoy. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that we should not enjoy that which God has gifted us, but I am saying that if we are not careful, our love for comfort could grow larger than our love for God…and if this happens…we end up serving the wrong master.
The widow in the passage above understands that even in her meekness, she has been blessed by God. She understands that she is not the owner of her “wealth,” but rather she has been entrusted with all that she has, and is called to share what she has with others. She understands that the treasure that she has in God’s love is much greater than any earthly treasure will ever be, and if sharing the earthly treasure in such a way as to share God’s love, than that is exactly what she will do.
The others in the story, while they give of their abundance, do not even come close to the idea of being stewards – even if they are giving the tithe that is required of the law. Stewardship is about ownership. Stewardship is about the heart. To give a better picture of this, let me share an example from Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University.
In one of the video segments, Dave calls a couple members of the “audience” to the front to help in a demonstration. He gives the first man 10 $100 bills (I know…right!?!) Now this man is the “owner” of the money. Now if you have a large amount of money that you aren’t planning on spending for a while, where do you go? You guessed it…the Bank. The second person that Dave called to the front is the banker. The first person gives all the money to the second person. Who owns the money? Is it the man who had the money, or is it the banker? Possession isn’t ownership.
Imagine for a moment that this $1000 is your money, and upon going to the bank, you find out that the banker mismanaged your money, and used it for his/her own personal gain. The banker is enjoying a new couch, but you are out your $1000. How do you feel? You entrusted your money to the bank without question believing that it would be cared for only to find that what is yours has been misused.
Now let us place God into this scenario. In the example that Dave Ramsey gave, he points out that we often put ourselves in the place of the first man – claiming ownership, when in actuality we are more like the banker. Just as the banker was entrusted with the money of the “owner”, we are entrusted with all things by God. If I get upset about the misuse of my money when it is entrusted to someone else, I can only imagine how God must feel…Thank You Lord for Forgiveness!
Just like all other things, the money that we have is a gift or blessing that doesn’t belong to us. If we hold on too tight, we lay claim to something that isn’t ours. Consider the advice Jesus gave to the rich man who longed to be perfect. Read with me from Matthew 19:16-22.
16 Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Unlike the woman in the previous passage of scripture, the young man in this story has claimed that which has been entrusted to him as his own. He is willing to follow the letter of the law, but his heart is far from it. How much easier would it have been to part with his material wealth if he understood that he wasn’t the owner?
Time and time again in the scriptures, we are reminded that God will provide for us. God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 16). God provided for Elijah and the widow at Zarephath (1Kings 17). Jesus teaches us that we shouldn’t be worried about anything, that God loves us so much that God will provide for us (Matthew 6).
We need not hold on so tight – For if we trust in God, and if we trust that God will provide all that we need, the offering that we return to God through our gifts of wealth will not be a sacrifice, but rather the offering will be a celebration.
As we continue on our journeys of faith, as individuals and as a congregation, it is the hope and vision of God that we will become less like the young rich man we read about in Matthew’s Gospel, and become more like the widow we read about in Mark’s Gospel.
Stewardship is heart work. When our compassion for God overcomes our perception of personal need, we are able to let go and let God. Are we willing to let go and let God? Does our giving start with God, or does God get our leftovers?
I am not the owner…I am the steward – entrusted to use what God has given me for the glory of God’s kingdom. In other words, all I have is God’s. Our call is to be disciples who make disciples. God has given us all the tools we need to do this work. God has all the money – but it is our pockets – we have been entrusted with what God has given us, and God has given us the mission and vision with the expectation that all that we have will be used for Good (capital G because all that is Good comes from God!) So Let us use what God has given as a sign of our faith and trust, and more importantly, as a means to bring others into a committed relationship with Jesus Christ. All we have God is Yours!
Stewardship of Witness (from November 5, 2017)
As a person of faith, if someone asked you to describe God, what would you say? If you only had one word, what would it be? Many words come to my mind, but I am not sure that any one word would be helpful to the person asking . . . and truth be told, these descriptive words probably aren’t what the person asking the question is looking for.
I have found in my time as a Christian (including the years before I became a pastor) that when people asked me questions about God, they weren’t really looking for a description, but rather they were looking for a reason to believe. If I took all their questions and boiled them down to one question, it would look something like this: “Why is God/Jesus so important to you?”
What would you say if someone asked you this question? Would you be prepared with a response? Would you be able to articulate your faith? I think we all have an answer to this question, but I also think that many of us, even though we have an answer, may not be prepared to share it if asked.
Here is the Truth – our Christian witness is a form of Stewardship. Think about it this way – the story of God is God’s story. You . . . me . . . we . . . separately and together we are parts of God’s story, and we have important parts. Your own personal story is a testament or witness to the greater story which belongs to God, and God desires that your story be known so that others will come to know God through you.
Think about this question for a moment; what is the purpose of the Gospels? Well, let me share with you a couple of verses from John’s Gospel to help us answer this question. Read with me from John 20:30-31
30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
As I read these words, I understand that John’s purpose in recording all that is present in his Gospel is to bear witness to the glory of God. When John and the other Gospel writers wrote their stories, they did so because they desired to share their experiences with God with other people so that they also could have experiences with God.
Consider this in light of the Great Commission that is found in the last chapter of Matthew’s Gospel – “To go and make disciples of all the nations.” How can one make disciples if without bearing witness? As I wrote above, it isn’t my story, it is God’s story!
Consider the work of Paul as he went on his journeys. What did he do? He witnessed the power of God. He told his story, and as people began to have their own experiences, he wrote letters to encourage and teach them about what it means to live lives of faith. He witnessed, and then he continued to witness. Consider this as you read from 1Thessolonians 2:1-8.
You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, 2 but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. 3 For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, 4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. 5 As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; 6 nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, 7 though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8 So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
As I read this passage as it bears witness to the power and purpose of witness, the concluding verse clearly stands out. “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.”
I have come to find in my own experiences that the Gospel of God, while written down and found in the scriptures is also living within the hearts of all who believe. My own life is a testament to the Gospel – the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Sometimes I wonder if we get to caught up in the “book” answer, that we forget that the Good News is more than this. Yes, we need to know the scriptures and how those stories have impacted the lives of people since the beginning of time, but if these stories become sterile because there is no life or relevance to those who seek God today, our faith and our ability to witness suffers because of it.
But when we share our faith stories, God’s story that is happening in and through us, the scriptures come to life, and bear witness to the power of God in the world today. You have a story, and it matters! Your story can be the means by which others come into a meaningful relationship with Christ. Are you willing to share it?
You might be reading this and wondering, how do I tell my story? I’m not a pastor. I haven’t been trained to talk about my faith like that. If you are thinking these questions, I dare say you are overthinking it.
I am reminded of the acronym KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid. I am not calling anyone her other than myself stupid, so please do not be offended. What I am trying to say here is this – One doesn’t have to be a learned theologian to tell their story. You can tell your story in about three minutes and that three minutes, while simple can be the most profound things someone may ever here.
Here is the simple formula for creating a profound witness that can change a person’s life in around three minutes. 1) In a minute or so, speak to what life was like before you encountered Christ. 2) In a minute or so, speak to what it was that brought you into relationship with Christ. 3) In a minute or so, speak to what has become different in your life because of Christ.
That is it. Simple isn’t it? I believe you can do it. I know that God desires for all of us to share our stories because they are the most powerful tools that we have to witness to God’s power and to honor the commission of Christ to make disciples.
Our witness is more powerful than anything we can share from a book because it is authentic, inspirational, intimate, and is born of God’s love for us and for those who listen to us. Again, I turn to the concluding verse from the passage above. Paul writes, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.”
I know that all of us have people in our lives that we deeply care for. Are we determined to share the fullness of ourselves with them so as to show them the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I once told one of my closest friends that I was a selfish person. I said this because I told him that I loved him so much, that when our time came and our earthly bodies were no more, that I wanted him to be with me in eternity. This is why I share the Good News with him (and continue to do so time and time again)…Because of the love I have for him which is born of God through Christ.
My story isn’t my story – it is God’s story told through the lens that is me. God is looking to share God’s story of love in as many ways as possible to all of God’s creation. You have a story. You have something important to share. You are not a footnote in that story! You might be the only Jesus that someone ever sees – so share your story with confidence and honor, even the parts that seem less than honorable, for God had done, and continues to do magnificent things in you and through you. I challenge you though to become more than a vessel. Become an agent for God, through whom God’s story can be shared for the world to see and hear.
Tithing your Gifts (from October 29, 2017)
What is it that makes a gift a gift? The word gift is defined as follows: A thing given willingly to someone without condition or payment, or an ability or talent.
So here is my question, can a gift be a gift if it is not given willingly? When I receive a gift, I then have ownership of that item. For example, if my friend were to give me the gift of an autographed picture of Jesus (hmmmm . . . I wonder if I should get this authenticated . . . ), without conditions or payment, the picture now belongs to me.
When a gift is an object, ownership changes. The one who gives or offers the gift no longer has any claim to the object. But how does this work when we consider the word gift as it relates to ability or talent. Let me muddy the waters a bit more. Is there a difference between following two statements? I am good at singing. I am a gifted singer. Can I be good at singing without that ability being a gift? If so, what is the difference? I now return to my earlier question, can a gift be a gift if it is not given willingly?
When it comes to abilities and talents, I think the word gift is often misused, or at the very least, misunderstood. Just because a person is good at something does not necessarily mean that that ability or talent is a gift. I might be good at singing, but if my ability to sing is not willingly offered to someone else without condition or payment, it remains an ability and is not a gift. Do you see the distinction here? My abilities are not gifts unless they are offered to others without conditions or price. Before I speak to this a bit more, I invite you to read with me from 1Corinthians 2:10-16
10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. 13 And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. 14 Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. 16 “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
I believe this passage gets to the heart of the answer I am looking for when I consider what the difference is between a talent/ability or a gift. My ability to sing is just an ability if it is not offered to others willingly . . . and even then it may still be perceived as an ability if the intention behind it is not love . . . but here I am getting a bit ahead of myself.
When it comes to our talents and abilities, especially if we consider them to be gifts, where is it that they come from? If we understand that a gift cannot be a gift without being given, the only logical conclusion that I can come to is that these gifts (talents and abilities) are given to me by the One who created me. The origin of my gifts is God, and even then they might only be considered gifts if they are discerned as such through the Spirit (which is also a gift). Without this discernment, as Paul points out in the passage above, my ability is merely an ability. A gift that is bestowed upon me by God has a greater purpose – for that gift isn’t meant just for me, but for all of God’s creation.
As I was researching this week in preparation for this message, I came across the following statement in Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary:
On a fundamental level, gift giving has its origin in the factious nature of God. God is the giver of all good gifts (James 1:17). God gives children to mothers (Gen. 30:20). A good life and reward for work are also gifts from God (Eccles. 3:13; 5:19). Jesus describes himself as a gift of God (John 4:10). Likewise, the Holy Spirit is God’s gift (Acts 1:4; 2”38: 11:17) and cannot be purchased with money. This gift of the Holy Spirit is given to Jew and Gentile alike.
Both grace and salvation are gifts from God. Finally, spiritual gifts are part of God’s good gifts. These gifts are meant to help the church so that nothing needed for ministry is lacking in the body of Christ. Spiritual gifts are all governed by the greatest gift, that of love (1Cor. 13:2; 14:1).
Ref: Temper Longman III. The Baker Illustrated Bible Dictionary. (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2013), 668.
In reading this statement, I find that God is the gift giver. Some of these gifts are given to us as individuals. The gifts of forgiveness, grace, and salvation are offered to all of us as individuals through the mighty works of Jesus Christ. God offers me these gifts, just as God offers these gifts to you. These gifts do not cost me anything, the only thing required of me is to accept the gifts offered. And when I accept the gifts of grace, mercy, forgiveness and salvation, they are mine in the sense that I am assured of these things – yet I can never claim them as something that I did, for they were offered to me through the one who saves.
These gifts are important, for without them, I would be lost. Yet upon accepting these gifts, The Spirit that Paul writes about in the second chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth is also gifted to me. Yet this gift is not given to me as an individual, but rather it is given to me as one part of a greater body, and as such is not owned by me.
When an individual accepts Christ and the gift of salvation, one also becomes part of the body of Christ. The body of Christ (the Church) is called to a life of love and service – to do the work of Christ in the world today. I am not called to do this work alone, but rather I am called to work with others for the glory of God. And it is because of this work that I have been given (maybe a better way to think about this would be entrusted) gifts as one part of the greater body. These gifts aren’t mine – they belong to Christ. This being said, they have been entrusted to me as a steward of the Kingdom, and as a part of the body of Christ, I am called upon to use them in the best interest of my Lord.
This again points back to what Paul wrote about spiritual discernment. All of us have abilities, but are they merely abilities, or are they meant to be used as (or as a means to) connect with God and with others for the glory of God.
Again, I turn to my singing example. I might have the ability to sing well, but if that ability is never used intentionally and willingly for the benefit of others, it is not a gift. If however, I offer this ability willingly as an act of love with the intention of drawing others into relationship with Christ, the ability is a spiritual gift of the body of Christ.
As Christians, when we accepted the gift of Salvation, we also accepted the gift of the Spirit as we entered into the body of Christ. We all have spiritual gifts, even if we aren’t aware of them – but without discernment, how can we offer these gifts back to God? What do these gifts look like? Read with me from 1Corinthians 12:4-11.
4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
We are called to use the gifts that have been allotted to us through the Spirit for the glory of God – otherwise, they are not gifts. I alone am not the totality of the body of Christ, therefore, the spiritual gifts that have bestowed upon me do not belong only to me – they belong to the collective body. Yet I have the choice to use those gifts, just as a steward has the choice to use the belongings of the master (See Matthew 25:14-30).
Do you know what your spiritual gifts are? If not, I strongly urge you to complete a spiritual gifts inventory. This will help you to discern what those gifts are, and may help you to begin exploring ways within the body of Christ to use them effectively. Our purpose in using these gifts is the purpose of the one who has given them to us – love. We are called to share the love of Christ with all people in all places. Love is the greatest gift that we can share. We most effectively share this love as the body of Christ when our collective gifts are working in harmony for the glory of God.
As I close out this reflection, I once again urge you to learn more about your spiritual gifts. It may be that your talents and your abilities are parts of a greater gift that God has given you as a member of the body of Christ. We are called to show God’s love. The mission statement of our congregation is to develop deeply committed Christians by sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with everyone. Love can be shown in many ways – if only we are using our gifts for the glory of God to show it!
I invite you to listen to the song, Show You Love by Jars of Clay. As you listen to the song, consider the many different ways there are to show love. I can’t show God’s love to everyone in the way that each individual needs to experience it. I have gifts to show it is a few ways, and I am called to use those gifts to the best of my ability in the best interest of my Lord. I am a steward…but I am not the only one. You have gifts that you are called to use as a part of the body of Christ. Your gifts are different than mine. Your gifts are different than the gifts of the person sitting next to you. We are gifted as the body of Christ, of which Christ is the head. Christ chooses to use these gifts for the purposes of love. How about us? Together, if we discern, know, and intentionally use our gifts for the glory of God, we can show love in every language to those who have never known the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ.
Tithe of Time (from October 22, 2017)
As I sit and prayerfully reflect on what God is calling me to speak about this week, I once again find myself being challenged by a “church” word. It seems the only time this word is used is in a church context, and even then, I think the word is misunderstood. The word I am wrestling with this week is tithe.
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word tithe? If I had to guess your answer, I would guess that the word that came to your mind was money. While the practice of tithing may include money, the word tithe is not defined by money. A good working definition of the word tithe would be as follows: An offering of a tenth of the whole.
Notice that the definition that I provided does not specify money. It doesn’t specify anything. As I think ponder this definition, I understand that a tithe is a unit of measurement in relation to the desire to offer something to someone else. From a religious standpoint (which is a good place to start as the word is most commonly found in the scriptures) the offering in the definition is an offering to God. Another understanding that I glean from this definition is that the offering is a tenth of the whole.
What is the whole? The whole what? Well, let me step back in time for a moment to my reflection from last week. God is the creator of all. God is the owner of all. God entrusts all this is God’s to God’s creation (aka us!). The whole is everything that is God’s. The practice of tithing isn’t solely about money. In fact, when I consider the fullness of the definition I understand that the practice of tithing is a practice of stewardship, and stewardship is not about money – it is about the heart.
As people of faith, a system by which we practice our stewardship is the tithe. The practice of tithing is found throughout the Old Testament and is evidenced by the patriarchs and matriarchs of scriptures. The Jewish law requires tithing…and while it is required by the law found in the scriptures, Jesus reminds us that to tithe is something that comes about as a result of love and compassion and is not merely a legalistic duty.
Let us for a moment consider the concept of a tithe from a different perspective than what we are accustomed. Let us consider the idea of tithing our time. All of us, regardless of gender, race, economic status, or any other characteristic are gifted with the same number of minutes in a day. What are we doing with our time? How much of it do we devote to our relationship with God? How much of it do we devote to a Godly relationship with others?
The reality is, giving our time to God is a struggle…it was for the disciples as well. To speak to this, I invite you to read with me from Mark 14:32-42
32 They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. 34 And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” 35 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” 37 He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? 38 Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 39 And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40 And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. 41 He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42 Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
In this passage, we read about the agonizing and prayer of Christ in the moments before Jesus is betrayed, tried, and crucified. Yet this passage is also about being in relationship with God – which requires time.
Let us look a bit closer at the passage. What does Jesus ask of the disciples before he goes to pray? He asks them to “sit here.” He doesn’t require anything more of them then their presence and companionship. Essentially, he is asking them for their time. How did they respond? They fell asleep. When Jesus looks over his shoulder and sees them asleep, he walks back over to them, wakes the up, and again asks that they remain alert, that they be with him. Yet now, he asks them to spend some time in prayer. Again after returning to his own prayer, he looks back and finds the disciples sleeping. He wakes them again, and as they awoke, none of them had a valid reason as to why they fell asleep. All Jesus asked them for was their time and presence, which in this situation was no more than an hour our two at the most, and the disciples struggled…and ultimately failed to do.
It is in this passage that we find the oft quoted adage, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Another way of thinking about this would be to do so using another adage, “you talk the talk, but do you walk, the walk?”
Here is the reality; we are easily distracted (look, a squirrel…) and despite our best intentions, without discipline, a plan, and accountability to that plan, we struggle or fail just as the disciples did when it comes to using our time to be in relationship with Christ.
Consider what Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica. Read with me from 1Thessalonians 5:12-22
12 But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 13 esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets,[c] 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.
We can find evidence of God’s desire for us to use our time to be in loving relationship with God and with one another. In verse 17 we read pray without ceasing. This is all about using your time to be with God in all situations – something that, if we are honest with ourselves, we aren’t really good at doing. In some of the earlier verses, Paul speaks of the importance of this relationship and how it requires our time. Paul even knows the struggles that many people will have. He speaks to this when he writes in verse 14, “And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.”
Ultimately, it is hard for us to “pray without ceasing”. It is hard to devote everything we have and do to God. But what if we consider the concept of the tithe, the biblical principal that has guided, from a practical point of view, our stewardship practices. Can we give a tenth of our time to God?
I believe that we are all capable of doing this…but it is nearly impossible without a plan, discipline, and accountability. So what does a plan look like? It might be good to start by determining exactly how much time we are talking about each day. Each day contains 1440 minutes. If we take this number, one tenth of this would be 144 minutes. Can we devote 144 minutes to God each day? “The spirit is willing, and the flesh is weak.” We are busy people…a little over two hours a day seems like a lot of time to devote to God. What if we knock off the time that we are asleep from the day. If we take the idea of 8 hours of sleep each night, let us subtract 480 minutes from the 1440 that encompass an entire day, leaving us with 960 minutes. One tenth of this would be 96 minutes, or about 1.5 hours.
96 minutes might still seem like a tall order…but keep in mind, you don’t have to do it all in one sitting. Remember, the disciples struggled to stay away for that amount of time when called upon to do it all at once. What if we break it up? This is where having a plan – a disciplined routine, and someone or a small group of people to hold you accountable is key.
A daily routine might look something like this:
5 minutes of prayer first thing in the morning (maybe before you even get out of bed). 20 minutes of devotional time (this could include reading a passage of scripture, journaling, and/or using a source such as the “upper room”).
5 minutes of prayer at lunch time
30 minutes of Christian conversation during the day with family or friends (a good meal time activity) during dinner 20 minutes of study – intentional learning – faith based magazines, books, music, etc… many book are available as audio books.
5 minutes of prayer time before bed
11 minutes of random breath prayers throughout the day (intentionally stopping to invite God into each situation throughout the day)
Having a plan is key! Working the plan with discipline is a must! Having people to hold you accountable in necessary. It takes nearly a month to establish a routine as habit. It might be difficult to get started, but if one sticks to the plan, it will become natural, and from there, you can up the times to reflect a true tithe as you grow in your faith and practices.
Ultimately, because tithing is a form of stewardship, or maybe better stated, a practice that reflects our understanding of what stewardship is, the practice of tithing our time to be in direct relationship with God reflects what is in our heart. Stewardship is “Heart-work.”
Each day that we have…each minute that we experience is a gift from God. While God is beyond the concept of time, all time belongs to God. If time belongs to God, and we are stewards of that time, entrusted to use the gift of time we have for the glory of God, we must understand that if we do not use at least some of that time to strengthen our relationship with God, we run the risk of misusing all of our time.
In order for us to give our time to God – each and every moment to God, we first must offer our hearts to God. As I close out this reflection, I encourage you to give, first your heart, and then your time to God. There is no more valuable gift we can give than our time, and the time we spend with Christ is a treasure beyond compare.
If you have a few minutes, I invite you to listen to the song, I Give You My Heart by Reuben Morgan. As you listen to the song, consider what it means to give your heart to Christ. I challenge you this week to make a plan that will help you to use your time in the most valuable way that you can – to use it to strengthen your relationship with God. Jesus desires your presence. Jesus wants to hang out with you. Find a way to make it happen – for you will never regret spending your time with Christ!
It Isn’t Mine (from October 15, 2017)
As I sit to prepare for worship, and I read and ponder the scriptures, I am once again convicted by the fact that I assume that people understand the scriptures. Now please don’t misunderstand me. What I mean is this: there are times when words and images that are used in the Bible are foreign to our time and society that we don’t fully appreciate the teachings that are presented to us through the scriptures.
Take the word “Lord” for example. Aside from in a church setting, how often do we use that word in our common speech? I can’t think of a time where I have called anyone Lord. It just isn’t a part of our culture or society. Yet this is a word that appears in the Bible over and over again. Do we really know what it means?
It might be good for us to look at this for a moment before I delve into the message for this week. The word LORD as it appears in the Old Testament scriptures is almost always fully capitalized. Translated from the Hebrew YHWH (they didn’t use vowels in their writing) we understand this to mean God the Creator. It originates from “I AM” as we understand it in the conversation that God has with Moses at the burning bush.
Now when we read the scriptures in the New Testament, the word Lord appears in a different form. This is because the function of the word is different. In this context, the word is not fully spelled in capital letters, but rather just the first letter is capitalized. This is derived from the Greek word Kyrios. Kyrios was used in both religious and nonreligious settings and denoted at the very least a person of superior status, and at the most, Deity (“Every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Philippians 2:11).
Jesus was called Lord by those who understood him to be Divine (though this didn’t really happen until after the resurrection) and Jesus was called Lord by those who saw him as superior to them, even if they didn’t understand the fullness of the term that they used. Jesus used the word in his teaching to convey a message to those who understood the term given their context.
For us today, if someone says the word Lord, our first inclination is that the word has a religious context. But for the people of Jesus’ time the word carried a different meaning because of the culture and society in which they lived. The social structure was somewhat of a cast system (though not as well defined as that which existed in Europe during the middle ages). The word Lord could refer to a master or someone in a position of power. I think it is important to consider this as we look at the scriptures, especially when Jesus uses this word or imagery to teach a lesson. To help us with this, I invite you to read with me from Matthew 25:14-30.
14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents,[f] to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Pop quiz: How many talents did each of the slaves (or servants depending on the translation) own in the parable above?
If you answered 5, 2 and 1, you would be incorrect. Each slave was entrusted with a number of talents based on his abilities, but the ownership of the talents never changed from the master (or Lord) in the story.
When Matthew recounts this teaching of Jesus, it is important for us to understand that the teaching isn’t about money (at least not directly), nor is it about being rewarded. The message is about stewardship. As Raymond Brown points out about this passage in his book, An Introduction to the New Testament: The message for Matthew’s readers is not one of meriting reward but of dedicated and fruitful response by the Christians to God’s gift in and through Jesus.
In keeping with the idea of what a Lord was in that society, the slaves in this story become stewards.
Steward is another word that isn’t commonly used in our culture today, and is frequently misunderstood because of this. When you hear the words steward or stewardship, what is the first thing pops into your mind? You probably said one of two answers; church or money. Or maybe both…this is how the church raises its money. This is a common misconception that is bred from this concept not being commonplace in our culture today.
In our culture, we operate under the concept of personal ownership. I own my car. I own my home. I own my_____________ (fill in the blank here). Because I “earn” money through my labor, that which I purchase with said money becomes my personal possession…in other words, I own it!
This was not how the economy worked in the days of Jesus. Those who owned materials were the wealthiest of people. And while many people had regular interactions with many possessions, those possessions were not necessarily theirs, but rather they often belonged to the Lord of that region. Again, think feudal system. The Lord of the realm had dominion over the land and everything in it (often this included the people). Those who lived off the land owned little or nothing, yet they were entrusted (for better or worse) with land or possession based on what the Lord of the realm desired. We wouldn’t consider this a fair way of life based on our experiences today, but this kind of oppressive system was the reality for the people of that time.
A Steward is not a person who oversees the needs of a traveler on a plane (though I think they are called flight-attendants now). A Steward is an individual who is entrusted with another’s property, and is called upon to use said property in the best interests of the owner.
Now consider this. Who is the creator of all things? If you are a person of faith, you probably answered this question with one word. God. Consider God as LORD or Lord as we experience both understandings as explained at the beginning of this reflection. If I understand that “It isn’t mine” and that everything that I am and everything I “possess” is only because God has entrusted it to me, does my understanding of why and how I use what I have change? IT SHOULD!
There is an old expression that goes something like this; “You can’t take it with you when you go.” A truer statement has never been spoken. There is a reason for this. I can’t take it with me because it isn’t mine to take! Nothing is truly mine. My money isn’t mine. My time isn’t mine. My intellect isn’t mine. My talents and gifts, they aren’t mine. All of these things belong to God and have been entrusted to me. It is my prayer that don’t hold fast to these things fearing that if I use them as God desires they will no longer be mine. It is my prayer that I remember that all things are God’s and all things should be used for the glory of God. If I choose to hoard what I have, or use what I have for my own benefit, I misuse what God has entrusted me with.
Consider this powerful thought – God trusts you! God has entrusted me, you, all of us with many gifts, and God trusts us to use them in the best interest of God. When I remember that it isn’t mine, and it all belongs to God, I am awed by the trust that God has in me. I am awed by how much God loves me, and how much God loves others through me. I hope and pray that when I come before my Lord, Jesus Christ, that I can say, it isn’t mine…it has always been yours! And I hope to hear the words, well done my good and faithful servant!
As I close out this reflection, I invite you to listen to the song All Yours by Chris Tomlin. As you listen to the song, take a moment to reflect on what it means to say that Jesus Christ is Lord. Consider what God has entrusted to you, and that God trusts you to use what you have for the Kingdom. What are you going to do with that trust? It isn’t mine God, it is all Yours!
Perspective (from October 8, 2017)
Have you ever heard the expression (or something like it…), “If you can’t see God, God isn’t the one who moved?” Well, I would like to take some time to reflect on this for a bit in my message this week.
Interestingly (at least to me) I have always thought about phrases like this in a negative way. I always likened my movement to those kinds of things that move me away from God…Yet as I have been pondering the places where we find God, and some of the reasons that we sometimes lose sight of God, I began to realize that as I draw closer to God, if I don’t change my perspective, I can lose sight of God as well.
Let me give you an example. As I take the nearly 4 hour drive down the thruway on my way to visit my family in Rochester, I often play little games with land marks to pass the time. I might try to figure out how far something is away from me as soon as I see it on the horizon. I can recall a time when I saw a very tall silo on the horizon as it appeared directly in front of me (I guessed it was about 2 miles away). As I continued down the road, drawing closer to the silo it changed position compared to my car. By the time I got to the place where the silo was, or rather where it appeared to be when it first appeared on the horizon, it was several hundred yards to the right of the road. If I hadn’t been looking for it, I probably wouldn’t have seen it. I certainly would have missed it if I continued to look straight ahead, even though I was closer to it than I was a couple miles back.
The point I am trying to make is this, if God is a constant and I am the one who moves, regardless of what direction I move, if I don’t change my perspective I run the risk of losing sight of God. As I contemplate this from a spiritual sense, I am realizing that as I grow in my faith (as I draw closer to God) my perspective of God must change because my understanding of God and what God desires and requires of me changes. As I draw closer, I am more blessed, and as I draw closer, more is expected…and if I don’t change my perspective – If I get stuck in one way of thinking or practicing, I will lose sight of God in a spiritual sense as well. To examine this idea a bit further, I would like to share a familiar scripture with you, and afterward find God in the passage. I invite you to read with me the Parable of the Good Samaritan found in Luke 10:25-37
25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.
Where is God in this story? From an objective standpoint, we could probably come up with a few different answers…but what if I am not asking for “learning” answer. I am looking for a different kind of answer. If there is only one way to see God in this story, what would it be? To answer that question, you must first pick a perspective. Maybe a better question to ask is this, where is God in relation to you in this story?
So, let us for a moment put ourselves in the place of some of the characters in the story. First, put yourself in the place of the man who was beaten and left on the side of the road. Where do you see God in the story from that perspective?
You have been beaten and left nearly lifeless on the side of the road. From your limp body, you see at two different instances two different “holy” men walk by, and you can barely make a sound let alone call out for help. You know that they saw you, but they continued their way. Do you see God in either of them? Consider for a moment how people outside the church might view the church in this same way from this perspective – for them it isn’t about where they see God, but rather where they do not see God.
A little while later, a third man walks by, but instead of continuing his way, he stops to help you. As he is lifting you on to his pack-mule you notice that he doesn’t look like you. His skin color is different, he speaks with a different accent, and his clothing style isn’t what you typically see. He brings you to an inn, cares for you, and even though you haven’t fully recovered, before he leaves he pays for your room and food for the next few days so that you can continue your recovery without further risk to yourself.
Do you see God in this person? I have read various sources on this parable, and discussed this both in seminary classes and in other small groups. In my learning, I have found that when reading the parable from the perspective of the man who was injured, we find that in our own lives, we are beaten down by sin and the ways of the world, and we need someone very different from ourselves (Jesus Christ) to care for us.
The reality is that all of us at one time or another have been down and out in some way, shape, or form. In a life of faith, this might be a “first experience” on the road to a life with Jesus. And if this is where you are in your faith right now, this is how you connect and find God in the scripture.
This is not the only perspective from which the parable can be understood…and it may not even have been the intended perspective of Jesus. Consider this question, why did Jesus tell the story in the first place? Jesus shared the parable as a direct response to a scribe of the Jewish law. Based on this, one can conclude that the one questioning Jesus already knows what God desires based on what is contained in the law. In other words, this is a person who has supposedly “drawn closer to God” than others in the society at that time. So, to get at what Jesus is saying directly to this individual, we need to look at the story from a different perspective.
I have already (though briefly) mentioned the two holy men who walked by, and in truth, I could write a series of messages based on the actions or inaction of those men alone as to how we identify as the church today…but chasing the white rabbit down the hole would not be very helpful for us right now. Let us turn our attention to Good Samaritan. If you are the Good Samaritan in the story, where do you see God?
This is a very different perspective than looking for God when you are the one beaten. When you are down and looking up, it seems easier to identify God – God is the in the one who helps you. But this is not the situation for the Samaritan.
The Samaritan represents somewhat of an enigma for us. First off, Samaritans were not regular travelers between Jerusalem and Jericho. Often, they would travel by different roads because of the strained tensions with the Jews. Now to make this person even more of a mystery, he was on good enough terms with a Jewish innkeeper that he was allowed to stay at the inn. And thirdly, we might assume that this Samaritan man was somewhat wealthy as he had the money not only to stay at the inn and pay for the injured man also, but he also promised to pay any additional charges upon his return. For a person that far down on the social ladder, these things just don’t seem to make a lot of sense – yet as we read the story, the third man, the one who stops is a Samaritan. Where does he see God, and if we place ourselves in his position, where do we see God?
Given the way the story reads, we see that this individual, as unlikely as it seems give the social norms of the time, is not down and out, but rather is in an unexpected position of power and influence. He isn’t down and looking up, but rather he is up and looking down at the man who is laying injured on the side of the road.
Given his social status as a Samaritan, we might assume that at one point in his life he was down and looking up, but his circumstances have changed, and because of this, his perspective has changed. As I read the story and consider the Samaritan man, we call him “Good” because of where he saw God. He understood something about himself and about the “other” who was on the side of the road. He saw God in himself for sure (for that is what empowered him to act) but he also saw God in the man who was hurting on the road. In fact, I believe that it was perspective that led the man to find God in himself. For the kind of love and compassion he showed not only for a stranger, but for a person who us unlike himself in almost every way, can only be born of the love and compassion that God has first for us.
If we assume that the Samaritan was once down in his life, and through his faith experiences had a change in understanding of who God is, and where to see God, what does this passage say to us as people of faith today?
I consider this question in light of the question that Jesus asks the scribe of the law at the end of the story – “Who was a neighbor to the man that fell into the hands of robbers?” The question is one of perspective. The man who initially asked the question about who his neighbor was had a perspective that was altogether different than the conclusion that Jesus led him to through the parable.
Now consider the last statement of Jesus. He gives a commission to the man who asked the question. He said, “Go and do likewise.” The words “go” and “do” are words of action. In order for this man to act as the Samaritan man in the story acted, he first needs to change his perspective. The scribe of the law needs to recognize God in new and different places. And as he draws closer to God, he is being called to change his perspective (and maybe change himself) over and over again so that God will remain in his field of vision throughout his life.
This is the challenge to us as Christians today. We are called to draw closer to Christ. As we draw closer to Christ, if we do not change our perspective, we run the risk of losing sight of Jesus. We can’t just look up for the transcendent God – we must also look inward and outward in all directions for God’s presence. If we go through our lives of faith never changing our perspective, we run the risk of losing sight of the One in whom we direct our faith. And if we continue to walk the path that we set for ourselves and not the path that Christ blazes for us, one could argue that our faith would be lost.
I can’t help but go back to the last phrase that Jesus speaks, “Go and do likewise.” Just as the man in the scripture was challenged to change his perspective, so too are we. We are called to look in different places for God – starting within ourselves and then moving outward to the people and world that surround us. God is in the midst of everything…and if we value God above all else, we will be empowered to “Go and do likewise.” And in the midst of our work, not only will we see God from a new perspective, so will those in the world around us – for they will see God in us.