Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Feast of All Saints Year C - Ephesians 1:11-23

Ephesians 1:11-23
When the living move beyond dying while they are still living they live in a different sort of way. By that I mean the inheritance of the future is meant to be spent in the present without draining the principal held in reserve for the future. Jesus in John said it this way, those who believe “have already passed from death to life.” (John 5:24) So if the eyes of our hearts have been enlightened our body follows suit and we love in such a way that the everyday issues we think are essential become secondary to the desire to live the future in the present. “Though you hide yourself behind the unattractive disguise of the irritable, the exacting, the unreasonable, may I still recognize you and say, "Jesus, my patient, how sweet it is to serve you." (Mother Teresa of Calcutta) The people who piss you off will off will be sitting next to you at the future feast. That means the hope to which we have been called in the future has a present purpose and we cannot be the church in the present without living out the hope of the future where all things conform to the grace of God in Jesus. Or as Paul will say later in the letter, “forgive as you have been forgiven.” (Ephesians 4:32)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Feast of All Saints Year C - Psalm 149

The singing, dancing, melody making, tambourine praise the Lord psalm was going along quite nicely until the people in whom the Lord takes pleasure picked up two edged swords to execute vengeance on people for whom the Lord presumably holds no affection. One minute they’re singing for joy on couches and the next they’re binding kings and nobles with fetters and chains, which by the way always involves collateral damage aka people like you and me just trying to mind our own business and stay out of the way. I understand the historical context of a humble people picked on wanting to be adorned with victory but I’m just going to say “No” to verses 6 – 9 of Psalm 149; no to religiously justified violence; no to exacting revenge; no to an image of God who delights in some people and despises the rest. And the reason I can say no to that image is because God provided another. “Put away your sword,” is what Jesus said to Peter when the mob surrounded the King of Kings and bound him with iron chains to execute the judgment decreed. Crucify him! So I think it best to end the psalm with verse 5, even if that means I’m a pacifist couch potato. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Feast of All Saints - Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
I've had troubling dreams that were just as terrifying as Daniel’s vision but I didn't write them down so I’m not so terrified by them today. Daniel’s dreams were not only written down but were carried forward into a future Daniel could have never dreamed and now have become a treasure trove of material for the end times industry that capitalizes on the fear of being left behind to suffer Daniel's terrifying dream come true. It does seem somewhat ironic that words written to an enslaved people in a foreign land would be wholeheartedly adopted by free and generally well off people in the most prosperous nation on the planet. It’s not that the promise cannot be for the comfortable as long as one recognizes it was not written to us in the first place and even if you live the illusion that Daniel was really talking to Christians the truth is this a word to Israel. So the terrifying vision is first a welcome word of victory to those who sat by the waters of Babylon and wept while their captors demanded they sing glad songs of Zion. (Psalm 137) It is a welcome word for us only so far as we have been grafted into the root of Israel. (Romans 11:17-18) There was a time in my life when I was an end time junkie and could not help myself from trying to connect all the dots of ancient prophecy with current events. I now believe focusing on escaping whatever terrifying dreams might be coming is a way of escaping the terrifying reality of our own time faced by people every day. I handed out my last two Calvary care packages (a bag of non-perishable food) to an old man in a wheelchair begging on a street corner in Dallas this morning and he tore into it like he hadn't eaten in week. Talk about a terrifying vision. Listen. The final future is secure even if getting there will be difficult. But in the here and now people are hungry and without shelter or community or friendship and you and I have the means to make their daily nightmare a little less terrifying with simple acts of kindness. That is what it means to holy ones of the Most High. Or if you like, saints.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Reformation - John 8:31-36

John 8:31-36
The truth that sets us free is true whether we believe it or not because it depends on “if the Son has set you free you will be free indeed” and the “if” has nothing to do with us. That was true for the tradition bound Jews who “believed in him” but couldn’t understand how the truth of Jesus trumped the tradition of Abraham. We do the same thing when we think freedom depends on something other than the Word that says you are free, period end of sentence. It might be that we prefer the comfort of conformity wherein we are securely bound by rules and regulations that order our religious universe. Or maybe we trust the pedigree of our denominational heritage, or ironically in this day and age, our lack of it. But if we let God be God and say God will do whatever God will do while at the same time filtering all our “whatever God will do” talk through what God actually did (aka die on the cross) then the “Son has set you free” takes on a new dimension. Freedom is not the permission to do whatever one likes but the opportunity to do whatever God desires. In a word. Love. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Reformation - Romans 3:19-28

Romans 3:19-28
God is the one who is just and the one who justifies; period, end of sentence. So why do we work so hard for what is none of our business? I don’t mean sin, we don’t have to work very hard at disobedience or doubt or disregard for the needs of others or neglect of the planet or any of the ways we are guilty of being less than human. No, sin is all about us, which is why the just one who justifies the creation gone its own way enters the fray to contend with the inevitable consequence of human rebellion, death. Faith does not activate or complete what God has already done in entering the human story. Faith means we enter God’s story in the Christ and stop working for what is already ours because we no longer doubt what is beyond comprehension. We are already justified, made right with God, because God won’t have it any other way which means we are free to be fully human. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Reformation - Psalm 46

Psalm 46
No Fear. It is more than a bumper sticker declaration indicating one’s willingness to engage in reckless behavior. The “No Fear” of Psalm 46 is not found in bravado but in being still in the refuge and strength of God’s very present help. Be still when mountains tremble. Be still when waters roar and foam. Be still when nations collide and kingdoms totter. Be still when your place on the planet is less than secure, when troubles rise and unfortunate circumstances collide. The help that comes in the morning is available in the night when the Lord of Hosts with us stills us. Don’t get me wrong. There is plenty to fear and much to lament. But God in the midst of calamity makes glad the heart that trusts God will help in the time of need.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Reformation - Jeremiah 31:27-34

Jeremiah 31:27-34
Every now and then the prophet Jeremiah was given a good word to speak and that makes the promise of “the days are surely coming” noteworthy. Even so none of the people to whom these words were written saw the day that would surely come. They died in the land of their enemy sitting by the waters of Babylon weeping the songs of Zion. Or they were the remnant who returned home only to find ruins not easily rebuilt and vineyards destroyed that were difficult to replant. But because “the days are surely coming…” was believed despite sour grapes setting teeth on edge it was more than just a fairy tale ending for a people plucked up and broken down. Believing the promise was the difference between giving up or going on, between living in spite of or dying because of, and whether they knew it or not it is what it means to know the Lord. And so it is for us who endure hardship and persevere through difficult days knowing in part and seeing dimly all the while waiting for another day that will surely come, when we catch up with the least and the greatest who have gone on ahead of us and know the Lord fully for they see him face to face.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Pentecost 22 C - Luke 18:1-8

Luke 18:1-8
I've been driving to Baylor Medical Center in Dallas almost every day since October 3rd to pray persistently with the family of David Ball who will need a new heart at some point in the future. For now a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) is doing the heavy lifting while the Baylor ICU medical staff works around the clock to keep David in the land of the living and the family waits and prays in the land of the loving. The lesson learned in the roller coaster environment of an extended ICU stay is that persistent prayer is not consistent. There are moments when hope holds and confidence is high followed by times when fear creeps in to cast shadows of doubt followed by times of frustration with the antiseptic nature of medical language followed by times when one is too tired to pray at all. And then the cycle repeats itself and in some ways you become accustomed to the rhythm of this upended life even though you cannot imagine how. The widow goes before the uncaring judge again and again because there is nowhere else she can go in the same way one occupies a space in an ICU unit when just beyond the double doors the life you love hangs in the balance. The lesson learned is not that God requires perseverance before answering prayer but that persistent prayer, which is the ability to speak our need into that which is beyond our ability to control, is itself an answer to prayer. Listen. We all want prayer to be a magic wand that fixes everything with a flick of the wrist and an abracadabra but truth is there is nothing more powerful than the person who holds onto faith in the face of events that neither fear God nor respect people. So if the Son of Man returning were to look for faith on earth he’d find it in Sue Ball, a woman of enduring strength and remarkable courage who does what has to be done just because that is what you do when your husband needs a new heart.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Pentecost 22 C - 2 Timothy 3:14 - 4:5

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Timothy was gifted with a grandmother and mother who taught him the sacred writings when he was a child which is why the apostle Paul could encourage him to continue in what he had learned and firmly believed from childhood. We live in a time when a large portion of the population do not know the sacred writings but then in Timothy’s time he was the exception to the rule as well so our time is not so different from his. The good news is that the God breathed scripture that has been suffocated in the box of Biblical inerrancy and restrictive human determined doctrine might once again be free to engage those who don’t give a damn about the power structure of the church but care deeply about how mercy and grace might be at work in the world. So I hope the time that is coming has come and gone and the itchy ears that wandered away into the myth of the church vested in power and prestige has returned to the Lord who came to serve not to be served. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Pentecsot 22 C = Psalm 121

Psalm 121
Sometimes even lifting one’s eyes to the hills to ask the question, “from where is my help to come” is more than we can manage. Worn down and weary of weeping, abandoned by friends and surrounded by foes (real or imagined) the hope of help seems a cruel joke. But it is precisely when we cannot go on and maybe no longer even care that the promise is most present, whether we recognize it or not. That is because the promise does not depend on our asking or our recognition. It depends fully on God’s desire to deliver and the nature of the help that is God always present exists beyond the reality of our sorrow and suffering. That means when our ability to believe is passed out on the floor of doubt God is wide awake and preserving for us the life that endures forever.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pentecost 22 C - Genesis 32:22-31

Genesis 32:22-31
Jacob knows a thing or two about wrestling having held onto to Esau’s heel long enough to take away his brother’s birthright. And even if Laban thought he had a choke hold on his nephew it was Jacob who pulled a reverse and pinned Laban to the mat. Jacob is no stranger to struggle and so when he gets ready to meet an angry brother he may be more ready than most for the surprise cage match at the Jabbok. We tend to be more polite with God and even if we wrestle by rivers of own decision we cry “uncle” far too soon. So what does it mean to strive with God and not give up? Maybe it means we wrestle with our limited understanding of who God is for us in the face of our own fear and doubt and not let go of until we are blessed. Of course as with most “God things” it turns out the blessing is in the striving itself. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Pentecost 21 C - Luke 17:11-19

Luke 17:11-19
The ten lepers meet the Lord in the land between religiously unclean Samaria and racially unclean Galilee of the Gentiles. They are nine Jews and one Samaritan bound together by their disease for in leprosy there is neither Jew nor Samaritan for all are equally unclean. Keeping the required distance they cry out for mercy. Jesus does not disappoint, though “Go and show yourselves to the priests” must have seemed premature as they are not healed until they turn and do as they are told. The one who turns back is the hero, of course, the dirty foreigner more clean than the nine Jewish ex lepers and Jesus makes a point of it but not just as a reminder to be thankful and praise God. It has more to do with a plea for mercy when living lost in the land between. The faith that restored the one restored the nine as well because the cry for mercy from Jesus the master was the act of faith and the turning to go and show was obedience even before healing happened. But the turning back one knows it and the nine do not. The benefit in knowing is that even when skin is clean and health restored one can still live lost in the land between. So faith to be made well is not about skin condition but about the condition of one’s soul which is well when the mercy of God is recognized and praised. And when the soul is well the whole body is clean.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Pentecost 21 C - 2 Timothy 2:3-15

(Uncle Ernest at Peace Lutheran, Columbus, Nebraska)
2 Timothy 2:3-15
"Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus." (2 Timothy 2:3)
The only solider in our family that I know of is my mother's brother Ernest Smith who was a chaplain in Korea. Uncle Ernest gave me his army cap that had ear flaps because apparently you need ear flaps to suffer like a good solider through the Korean winter. Truth is I don’t know anything about what it means to be a solider but I know a thing or two about suffering and my guess is you do as well. Not that I like sharing it all that much and therein lies the problem for me and for you. We suffer stoically or silently or medicated rather than recognize that suffering is as much a part of life as celebration. But the heart of the Christian message is that the Christ entered fully into the suffering of human history so that we could share in the salvation that will happen when “gladness and joy overtake us and sorrow and sighing flee away”. (Isaiah 35:10) But you cannot have one without the other. No one likes to suffer, or share it for that matter, but if the choice is walk together or go it alone I’m thinking our shared sorrow might just make our ultimate joy more complete. So when life is cold put your ear flaps down by all means but keep your life open to those whose care and concern will keep you warm. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Pentecost 21 C - Psalm 111

Psalm 111
The last verse of Psalm 111 should come first as “the fear of the Lord” or better, the reverence of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. That is not to say it is unwise to be afraid of the Creator of the Universe only that the small g gods have the terror market cornered and truth is any two bit god can make a mortal tremble. But to reverence the Lord with a holy fear is to have a proper perspective on the order of things. God is God and you are not. So the wisdom that comes with reverence, as opposed to terror, is that God does not delight in our being fearful but rather desires us to be in right relationship which in a word is to be faithful. To be afraid of someone, be it God or anyone else for that matter, is not helpful or healthy. But when we stand in awe of the One who is “full of majesty” because the “power of his works” are “faithful, just and trustworthy” we live wisely. Jesus’ baby brother James will say it this way: “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” And that sort of wisdom “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” (James 3:13, 17) Fear of the Lord indeed. I hope I’m shaking in my shoes.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Pentecost 21 C - 2 Kings 5:1-15

She is a minor character, not even named; a little girl stolen from home and made a slave in the house of her enemy. But she has pity on her mighty master afflicted with a skin disease that diminishes all his accomplishments. At her bidding he goes to her little land with big gifts expecting to be greeted royally but the little girl’s prophet sends his servant to give instructions to the mighty man. Insulted, he would leave as he came but his servants convince him to do what he was told; wash and be clean in a dirty, little river. Humbled by his disease, desperate to be clean, he obeys and is made whole. The little girl sends the mighty man to a little country with a mighty prophet so the mighty man might regain the skin of a little boy. It is as Jesus said. “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." 

Friday, October 4, 2013

Pentecost 20 C - Luke 17:5-10

Luke 17:1-10
“Increase our faith” is a reasonable request and in the asking the disciples are obviously hoping for an answer in the affirmative. Instead Jesus appears to rebuke them. If you would use the faith you have you wouldn't ask for more. The mulberry tree uprooted and planted in the sea means even the smallest amount of faith can accomplish what otherwise appears impossible, or even foolish, for who would plant a tree in the sea? Luke doesn't record the disciple’s response but I imagine they were disappointed by Jesus’ answer and maybe a little confused as to what Jesus meant by commanding trees to be uprooted and planted in places that trees are not meant to be. Years later with mustard seed faith they would understand that doing what they were commanded to do was not so much about faith as obedience. Speaking the truth by the command of Christ their mustard seed faith would move an empire to be planted in the faith it once tried to uproot. So what might this mean for those of us who are accustomed to compliments for faithful service? It might mean that increasing in faith is not a prerequisite for using what we have and that in the exercise of mustard seed faith we are uprooted from the familiar and safe places and planted in the sea. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Pentecost 20 C - 2 Timothy 1:1-14

2 Timothy 1:1-14
The sincere faith that first lived in Lois and Eunice might not be the best thing to rekindle in Timothy given the suffering Paul is experiencing. But something about that faith was so compelling that a presumably loving grandmother and mother believed Timothy would be better off confessing the faith even though it might lead to imprisonment or death. The spirit of power and of love and of self discipline was not for cowards in the first century. According to church tradition Timothy was beaten, dragged through the streets of Ephesus and stoned to death for preaching what Lois and Eunice and Paul persuaded him was sound teaching of which one should not be ashamed. In twenty-first century America participation in the sound teaching of faith and love carries no threat of persecution and yet according to a decade worth of polls is in serious decline among those in both the Eunice and Timothy age demographic. A whole generation has been lost to the holy calling of God’s purpose and grace and Lois is wondering why. It could be that the most dangerous threat to the faith was to neuter it by making it mainstream until a majority of people could claim to be Christian without practicing or participating in any communal expression of it. So what do we do? We do what Paul preached to his beloved child Timothy - rekindle the gift of God, the sound teaching of the faith and love that is in Christ Jesus. Move out of the mainstream and into the marketplace. Do not be ashamed to give a reason for the hope that you have and with gentleness and respect be people of persuasion for the good treasure entrusted to us is worth sharing.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Pentecost 20 C - Psalm 37:1-9

Psalm 37:1-9
Waiting patiently for the Lord generally takes more time than we are willing to commit which is why we invest so much effort in fretting. Go figure. Maybe it is because fretting gives us something to do even if we know pacing back and forth is not an effective form of exercise for the body or the soul. It should also be obvious to us that fretting doesn’t fast forward the Lord’s clock or make any difference to anyone unless they happen to live with us in which case it leads to more fretting. But if our soul takes a deep breath before the Lord we might begin to delight in the desire of the kind of heart that longs for the things that do not disappoint. I know the psalm equates that with material things like living in the land and security and while I hesitate to dispute with King David I think the desire that does not disappoint is a rich relationship with the God who prospers us with the peace that passes the world’s understanding. The apostle Paul will say it this way. “The present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory to be revealed…” (Romans 8:18) Or as Jesus said in his sermon on the hill, “Do not worry…” 

Pentecost 20 C - Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Habakkuk cries out his complaint into the silence of God and wonders “what’s the point?” I wonder the same thing when evil events paint a cruel caricature of the human race. But the truth is I know more decent people than the depraved ones that dominate the news and even though good people do not make the headlines they make the world a better place simply by being in it. Even so Habakkuk’s complaint is that God is not doing enough to see that the wicked are diminished and the decent flourish. God’s response is to give Habakkuk something to do. “Write a vision on tablets a runner can see.” Our “make a sign a runner can see” means we speak God’s “wait and see” in the face of all that troubles us and put all our effort and energy into transforming this world to look more like the world God promises is coming. In that way we act out the hope that God’s deliverance does not delay whenever decent people act decently.