Ah, the Sabbath rest. There's nothing quite like a Sunday afternoon nap. Please note I said Sunday afternoon, not a “Sunday-morning-during-the-sermon” nap. I suspect that the idea of a Sabbath rest originally meant more than a leisurely nap. S.W. Duffield described Sundays as "quiet islands on the tossing seas of life." Sounds restful, indeed!
Of course, the original idea of Sabbath was sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. It didn't take long for those taking the Sabbath idea seriously to begin debating the trivially important issues: when does sunset really begin, what is work, what constitutes an "ox in the ditch." You get the idea. Many still take the Sabbath rest seriously. If you ever have any doubts, check out "Ask the Rabbi" (www.ohr.edu). Does playing Scrabble on the Sabbath violate the prohibition against writing (which equals work) on that day? If playing a game of chess on the Sabbath, is it permissible to use that little wind-up chess clock that keeps time for each player? And a not so friendly cut-throat game of Monopoly probably mimics business practices that certainly don't promote the proper Sabbath spirit!
For all those who might over scrutinize the Sabbath, there are those of us who never give it enough serious consideration. After all, isn’t taking a hike a refreshing experience? Getting in 18 holes on your favorite golf course can be invigorating (although it would entail more frustration for me). Isn’t being unconcerned about our activities just as problematic as overly analyzing everything we do? There must be a balance somewhere along the journey.
God rested, so it must be good for us. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). It sounds to me like a call for balance, but it does take some effort on our part. As finite beings, we do not have infinite energy. We are given the gift of Sabbath rest. So, what are you doing (or not doing) to find Sabbath rest? As we move into longer days of summer, please, please attend to your humanness created in the image of God. Stop. Breathe. Be. Listen. Savor. Discover life the way God intended.
How Radical is God's Love?
"This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." This is the grumbling of the religious elite expressed in Luke 15 toward Jesus, being the "fellow" in question. He responds with three stories. The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In all three stories, God is portrayed as a desperate, seeking shepherd, woman, and Father.
In the Prodigal Son story, the insults of the son upon the father are many. He wanted his inheritance in advance, affectively treating his father as if he was already dead. They would have had to sell of a portion of the land to raise the cash for the son and thereby diminishing the family's status in the community. The family is now going to be ridiculed. Can't you just hear them saying: "What kind of father would let his son run all over him like that?"
We know the rest of the story, don't we?. The younger brother takes off to a faraway land and lives it up. Then a famine hits the land, he runs out of money and is forced to work for a gentile pig farmer. Talk about adding insult to injury! The text then says that "he came to himself". Does this son's inner moral compass finally arrive? Does he finally get how much he wronged his family? Maybe, maybe not. Is he repentant? Is he just hungry? Well, the the Father, it doesn't matter. He's back. That is all that matters.
The Father is sees him from a ways off, implying that he has been keeping vigil, yearning for his lost son to return.
The Father hikes up his robes and does the undignified thing and runs out to embrace his lost son.
The Father lavishes affectionate kisses upon, more akin to the expectations of a mother for her lost son.
The Father interrupts the son's rehearsed speech about working as a hired hand to make a bunch of excited commands: get the best robe, get his signet ring conferring upon him his role as his son, put the slippers on his feet, this will not be a hired hand, get the fatted calf ready for a barbeque and don't forget to invite all those people who were ridiculing us for our brokenness, let them see we are together again!
This is a Father who leaves all honor, position, community standing behind.
This is a Father who makes no demands of repentance or oaths of loyalty.
This is an image of our Heavenly Father, who loves us radically and completely. Who longs to be in relationship with us.
This is an image of our Heavenly Father, who loves us unconditionally. In fact, that means that there is NOTHING we can do that will make God love us any less. God's love is absolute and full. God's love is that radical.
But, the story doesn't end there. We still have an angry elder brother for the Father to address. The elder brother is working out in the field and hears that his brother has returned and that the Father has wholeheartedly welcomed him back. He is angry. He points out the obvious betrayals of the younger brother to the Father.
Yet, he doesn't see it. He doesn't see that he has also distanced himself from his Father by defining their relationship in terms of slave labor, obedience and reward. These legalistic definitions of their relationship miss the point of God's creative act of creation. It's not about that, but about a relationship, a connection. The Father's love for you is that radical and so needed by all the prodigal and elder sons and daughters of this world. Jesus closes with this reminder to the elder brother and to those Pharisees and scribes who were grumbling about who he associated with: "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life: he was lost and has been found."
(The painting above is by John Macallan, called the "Prodigal Son", 1888).
Our Lenten Journey with Jesus
All of life is a spiritual journey but Lent, those 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, has a different quality. It reminds us of traveling on a back road instead of the interstate, a narrow, two-lane highway that zags and zigs with breathtaking views, little towns, farms, and huge drop offs that make you pay attention to where you are and where you are going.
We will be traveling with Jesus to Jerusalem this Lent. In Luke 9:51, it says, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” For the next ten chapters, Luke takes us along for the journey where Jesus instructs and confronts, where Jesus shapes the disciple’s faith, where he prepares them for the nightmare (his and theirs) of the crucifixion, where he motivates them for mission and changed their lives. So too can it change ours, if we are ready to go.
So, please join us for worship this Lenten season. We all need that place of rest and restoration. We all need Lent. We all need to remember, to reflect, to repent, and prepare ourselves for the journey of faith. We really like the season of Christmas but oh, how we need the Lenten journey.
Ann Weems wrote a wonderful collection of Lenten poems titled Kneeling in Jerusalem. Here is her call to the journey and the transition of seasons. We hope to see you along the way.
When Lent comes,
you have to put away the tinsel;
you have to take down your Christmas tree,
and stand out in the open … vulnerable.
You either are or you aren't.
You either believe or you don't.
You either will or you won't.
And, O Lord, how we love the stable and the star!
When Lent comes the angels' voices
begin their lamenting,
and we find ourselves in a courtyard
where we must answer
whether we know him or not.
Anxieties and Hope
The Grand Canyon ranges from one million years at the rim to 500 million years at the bottom. Wow. I’ve only been to the Grand Canyon once, at the Southern Rim, and it was jaw-droopingly impressive even from the top.
It’s easy to get caught up in the anxieties of the moment--and there are plenty these days.
Yet 500 million years--or even “just” a million years puts 2021, as challenging as it was, and 2022, as uncertain as it is, in a different light.
I’ve always liked that verse from II Peter, “...with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” (II Peter 3:8) It’s in the context of the second coming of Christ, but more broadly, over the years it has helped me remember that time is not always how it appears to me in the moment.
Paradoxically, keeping the long view can help you with the short term. That loooong perspective can take the pressure off today. It may not be quite as consequential as you think. It may be that we all need to heed the counsel of Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God!”
Knowing this God can lighten our burdens and remake our anxieties into hope! Remember, God works in mysterious ways. Often we don't know what God is doing until after the fact, so be patient and kind to yourself. God is up to something. Take the time to find out!
Stay on Mission
This past Sunday, I preached on a text I had never preached on before. The miracle of the "fishy coin". It's a strange little story found in Matthew 17. Jesus and his disciples are moving through Capernaum when the Temple tax collectors ask Peter, "Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?" The temple tax was about two days wages and helped to support the upkeep of the Temple. Interestingly, the religious leaders and scribes were exempt from this tax. Those who benefited the most from the tax didn't have to pay it! They were laying a trap for Jesus - will he claim that he does not need to pay? Jesus says to Peter, later, in order to not give offense, "... go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me."
Let's be clear, Jesus did not need to pay this tax. Spiritually, He is the true King and the true sacrificial lamb for whom all sins are forgiven. This tax is not necessary due to who Christ is. Socially, Jesus sees this tax as also unjust. It is not proper and puts an undue burden on the common people, while the religious elites don't have to pay.
But the lesson for us, I think is that Jesus demonstrates the ability to prioritizes problems and challenges that he faces. Yes, the tax was wrong and Jesus could have said that He does not need to pay it, but then he would have brought a firestorm of controversy upon him that would have distracted Him from His mission of redemption. So it's almost humorous how flippant Jesus is about the issue. It's almost as if he said, Okay, Peter just go fishing and I am sure that you will find something that will satisfy the temple tax collectors."
We too can learn from Jesus response to distractions. Stay focused on the big picture and don't get bogged down in the lesser issues of importance. That is the tactic of people who do not care about the communal good, but only their rights and privileges. Jesus is telling us, the church today, to stay on mission! Don't let the little things get in your way. Jesus would send out his disciples into the world with the words "be wise and serpents and kind as doves." We too, should follow this path of true wisdom and love for others. This isn't to say that we are push overs and just let others walk over us, but when the essentials of faith are threatened, we speak and act boldly. Yet there are times when an issue just doesn't rise to that level and isn't worth derailing our mission.
Perhaps the Serenity Prayer is yet another reminder of this idea:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
Indeed, I pray that we can learn from the story of the "fishy coin" and know the difference!
Festival of Weeks: the Shavuot
At Easter we claimed that Christ is risen! Now, what do Easter people do for an encore? The Jewish tradition gives us a clue: take a road trip! Over the next seven weeks, we will take the journey that the first followers of the risen Jesus took to the next great Jewish pilgrimage feast: the Shavuot. Also known as the Festival of Weeks (see Leviticus 23:15-22), this celebration commemorates the Hebrew journey from slavery in Egypt (Passover) to God’s giving of the Torah to the people and formally consecrating their covenant relationship (think wedding) at Mount Sinai only fifty days later. We, as Christians, know this day from the Greek translation: Pentecost, meaning fifty days.
Join us, either in person for worship on Sundays at 10:00 AM, or on Facebook at 12:00 PM for the next seven Sundays as we take a road trip with our spiritual ancestors from slavery to covenant, from death to new life in with the risen Jesus and in the birthing of the church!
I know that we are all feeling exhausted and scared as we continue to navigate through the painful realities of this year in the midst of the surging COVID pandemic, all the economic repercussions that make people’s lives less certain, cries for racial justice in our streets, and a divisive election season that just does not seem to want to end. As we enter the winter months, beleaguered and COVID-fatigued, with the prospect of more “Zoom and Doom,” can we in the midst of all this find something to be thankful for?
One of my favorite hymns for this time a year is by Martin Rinkart: “Now Thank We All Our God.” The power of this song, for me, is the story behind it. Rinkart was an ordained Lutheran minister in the 17th century. At the age of thirty-one he was called to be the pastor in his native town of Eilenberg. He arrived just as the Thirty Years’ War began. As a walled city, Eilenberg became a refuge for political and military fugitives and through the years, waves of pestilence and famine swept through the city. The Rinkart home served as a sanctuary for the afflicted, even though he had difficulty providing food and clothing for his own family. The plague of 1637 was particularly severe. As it surged, Rinkart was the only remaining minister in the city, often conducting as many as forty funeral services a day, including his wife’s. And yet in the middle of all that, he composed one of the most beloved Thanksgiving hymns to date: “Now thank we all our God; with hearts and hands and voices; who wondrous things hath done; in whom this world rejoices. Who from our mother’s arms, has blessed us on our way, with countless gifts of love and still is ours today.”
In this season of Thanksgiving, with all that is happening in our communities and world today, my prayer is that you may find the grace and strength to sing your deepest thanks to God. We do have much to be thankful for as a church as well. This coming year will be our 150th year as a congregation. Our church is planning huge things for 2021: a year where we will “Remember our Past & Reshape our Future.” Perhaps you can take a few moments over this holiday weekend to savor the sacred memories of your past (your faith journey and those who helped form it in you) and let that help you reimagine and reshape your future (your hope in living out God’s desire for you).
Have a Happy, Safe, and Meaningful Thanksgiving,
The High Risk Venture of Faith
I preached on Jesus’ parable of the “Talents” this past Sunday (Matthew 25:14-30). This is that famous story where “the Master” leaves town, but before he does, he gives over his “talents” (or large amounts of money) to three of his servants. One gets five talents, another gets two talents and the third gets one talent. After a long time, the master returns and inquiries about his talents that he entrusted to the servants. The first two have doubled their talents while the third servant had dug a hole and buried his talent to keep it safe and returned it back to the master. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Jesus is telling this story during his own high risk venture in the week leading up to his arrest, torture and execution. You see, he is the master of the story and is about to “leave”. He is imparting to his disciples his “talents” of a powerful and radical message of love and compassion, forgiveness and justice. The problem with the third servant’s response is that he didn’t share, invest, or take any risks with the talent he was given. Faith is a risk taking venture. He didn’t do that, he buried it similar to their burial of Jesus on that Friday.
The greatest risk, as it turns out in the parable and in the life of faith, is to not risk anything at all! What if the first two servants had lost their talents? Of course, Jesus doesn’t tell the story this way, but even if it was, I can’t imagine that the master would be angry with them – he might have even applauded their efforts. This parable is not about a prosperity gospel where God blesses people with wealth, but about what Jesus hopes and expects from his followers after he is gone from this world. He doesn’t want us to play it safe. He wants us to get out there and use the gifts we have already been given to invest in the reign of God in our world. Notice, we don’t know how the first two servants doubled their talents, but that is also instructive because there is no one way to participate in the Kingdom of God, but as many ways as there are people. We are freed to use our gifts and collaborate with the master to invest faithfully. Faith is a high risk venture, but incredibly liberating. This parable is inviting us to the high-risk adventure of being a servant of Christ. Let’s invest in God, together!
Jesus brought a revolution in the understanding of God. His life and message made it impossible to overstate the extravagance of God’s compassion and love. You are loved. This God on display in Christ is of a God who loves you no matter what you’ve done, said, or thought in your life. Everything else just falls flat, especially all those idolatrous views of God that see a lurking, menacing “one false move God” ready to pounce on you if you go astray and cast you into hell. Those projections also create a seemingly opposite Santa Claus type god, blessing us with material and spiritual gifts, betraying our idolatry and desires for what the world is selling.
In both of these idolatrous takes on the Divine, our failings are exposed, not God’s. In the first scenario of a lurking God waiting to pounce, this is more akin to the ancient’s view of a chaotic pantheon of gods, who would strike someone down without cause or reason. The only human response was to keep your head down, do your job, maintain the status quo, and make an annual sacrifice every now and then to appease the gods. Interestingly, the first time the word “sin” is in the bible, it doesn’t appear with Adam and Eve, but in a conversation between God and Cain right before he kills his brother, Abel –“If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:7) So, not surprisingly, we get who God is completely backwards! God is holy, not sin, but so many Christians hold onto such a mischaracterization of who God is.
The second view of God as a bestower of blessings or the Prosperity Gospel as a sign of faithfulness is equally off base. Especially when we consider the time when Jesus was tired and hungry in the wilderness and tempted by Satan. The three temptations were to make stones into bread, to cast himself down from the top of the temple and rule the nations of the world as a powerful empire. These temptations, lurking around Jesus were to manipulate his material world, create a spectacular sign that would create instant notoriety, and appeal to the desire for power. Jesus rejects all these temptations because they do not display the nature of God or for God’s creation. Jesus came to destroy those old views of what the gods were or represented.
The first Commandment given to Moses was: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3) So the question for us becomes, what are the other gods we put before the God of the Bible in our lives? Do these other gods become our “golden calves” instead of the real thing? Does our pursuit of wealth, the latest gadgets, admiration, being right, being connected to the right people, being entitled to more than others, or holding the right degrees or position, distort our view of God? Perhaps, instead of acknowledging that we are made in the image of God, we are actively making God over into our image? Idolatry is not a new thing, but one of the oldest things. It is a thing we can easily slip into and that’s probably why it is addressed twice in the first two of the Ten Commandments where worship of other gods was forbidden as well as making any images of God.
To pray to any god other than the One who finds sheer delight in reconciliation is an illusion or projection. The life and message of Jesus smashes every idol that we have made for God, for good. God loves you and you can do nothing to make God love you any less. For me, this is true because God’s fullest self-revelation is witnessed in the person of Jesus. So lay down those secret, outdated, menacing/enabling gods without any power or vitality down at the feet of Jesus and see what happens next. I imagine there will be some smashing and hugging!
Why Is Love the Greatest?
“… faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.”
This is probably the most famous line written by Paul, found in 1 Corinthians 13:13. It was the source for my sermon on Sunday and has been a source of inspiration for thousands of years. It is probably the most popular scripture read at weddings and although it is not inappropriate to put an emphasis on love at a wedding, Paul is not talking about romantic love. Paul is writing to a church at Corinth that has an “economic problem.” Not only was there discrepancies in the socio-economic status of its fellowship (see the example of the abuses at the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor. 11:17-22, where the rich got drunk and the poor went away hungry), but there was also discrepancies in their perception of their “spiritual-economic status.” You see, some of them were saying that their having the spiritual gifts of tongues, prophetic insights, strong faith, and acts of piety demonstrated their superiority in Christ. Paul will have none of it and says that he can have all these things, but “do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2) or “I gain nothing.” (1Cor. 13:3).
Love is the source because God is love (1 John 4:16 – “So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”) Paul is quick not to dismiss faith and hope, but when compared to love, they pale in comparison because they both simply point to and support the mission and nature of love, God’s self.
Trying to organize my time and priories as a pastor is challenging. Given the ministries and the physical plant of our campus, there is a lot going on in the background that I have to keep an eye on. Faith is like that, in the background of where we are today. It tells the story of where we came from and why God is trustworthy. Faith looks back upon generations of faithful people endeavoring to grow be the salt and light of the world and build upon their faith.
I also need to focus on the foreground of my vocation, the hopes and dreams that I believe God has in store for our congregation and community. I spend a few hours each week, dreaming and re-imaging the possibilities and opportunities that God is setting before us. Hope is also in the foreground of our lives. Hope looks forward to a time of reunion with God. Hope also looks forward to enacting this reality in the here and now as the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven. Hopeful are the people of faith.
But the most important thing a pastor does is being on the ground, with their congregation, sharing in their joys and sorrows – that’s love. That’s right now. Love is not some romantic or sentimental notion, but grounded in the caring for the needs (physical and spiritual) of my neighbor. Love is, as they say: a verb. Love is in motion. My goal is not for you to remember my sermons word for word for theological nuance, but where you can leave the service feeling encouraged and inspired to step further into a real and ready relationship with the Creator of all things! Messages offered from these ancient texts should come alive and be relevant, awakening us in the midst of our daily routines, life pressures, and COVID fatigue to new possibilities of God’s dreams for us. When we feel like the Valley of Dry Bones, in Ezekiel 37, God’s creative love and compassion can fill us with a new breath and a new life. That is love. That is God. That is the greatest of all things. So remember:
Faith is our background.
Hope is in our foreground
But Love is being on the ground
Check out the sermon here!
I'm a follower of Christ, husband, father, friend, pastor, story teller, asker of questions, inspired by biblical narratives, social justice advocate, sports enthusiast, drinker of over priced coffee and general seeker of God's redemptive possibilities. Yeah, that about covers it. (If you discover something else, let me know!)