Sunday, March 30, 2014

Fourth Sunday in Lent

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

         Recently I found myself so busy trying to correct an issue which had arisen that I fixated on one solution. I instantly ran the list of reasons why no other option worked. Eventually, after several days of wearing out the heels of my shoes, I recognized that several options worked and would accomplish what we needed from the program. In today’s Scriptures, we see the Pharisees behaving much the same way. Their fixation with the letter of the law which they had translated into human-based systems blinded them to God’s working around them.

         The Pharisees were the ultimate rule-makers. They had interpretations and guidelines for every law in the Torah. Anyone who did not live exactly according to their standards faced discipline from this leadership body and possible exclusion from the synagogue. Jesus constantly confounded them, (they could not be brought to believe that they were quoting the law to The Word, The One who gave the law) for whenever they challenged him for breaking a rule, he educated them on the law. When Jesus healed a blind man on the Sabbath, he sparked debate and division with the sect as his action put rules in conflict.

He healed on the Sabbath = Sinner! = Not a Man of God.

He healed ≠Sinner! = Man of God.

         The conflict existed because Jesus was not one of them and did not adhere to their restrictions. Since he was not raised among them and openly flouted their legalism, their own “God-given” rules would not let them see God in him – yet he did things (healing) they never imagined they, the Godliest of all men, could do. The even seemed to recognize as much when the formerly-blind sinner challenged them because they refused to listen; they saw his response as “teaching,” and because of his low status drove him out.

         The Pharisees give us the perfect reason for seeking growth and improvement in the Lenten season. Our Christian education may be solid. We may be perfect in following the doctrine of our faith community. The example of the Pharisees shows just how blinding education and doctrine can be – especially when they are a closed system with one supporting the other. I have been confronting the ways my doctrine and theology blind me to the work going on through others in the world. During this season, we have the opportunity to pull back the blinders and see God at work in many unexpected people across the world. They just do it differently than we do. They are not us, but if we are willing to listen, we may learn something new – or at least rejoice at the work of God. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Third Sunday in Lent

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

Three weeks into the season of personal transformation as we seek a stronger connection with Christ and we find ourselves struggling with the resolutions we made to foster the transformation. We have maintained them about as long as we do our new year resolutions each January. Without noticing immediate results, we chalk it up as another fruitless effort. We want to be the redeemed in Romans, yet we find ourselves much like the wanderers in Exodus.

The newly freed Jews present a fascinating study in the adjustment from slave to free. After generations with no responsibility for themselves, the Jews found themselves with some control of their daily lives and personal circumstances. When they were slaves, if there was a shortage of any essential, the masters, those in power, were responsible; now in the desert, there was no pharaoh to blame. They transferred the responsibility to God and Moses.

The generations of enslavement removed the Jews from the close relationship with God and practice of their faith. Restoration to freedom did not immediately restore the close relationship. Despite the recent experience of the ten plagues and the miraculous rescue at the Red Sea, when confronted with a challenge, they immediately jumped to the most extreme outcome. There was no, “we are in the desert; we should conserve our water from point to point.” The first response was, “I’m thirsty. You’re killing us, God!” The entire people found themselves driven by fears in the new situation. They demanded an immediate solution to every challenge they encountered.

In contrast to the now-focused Jews in the desert, the future-focused Christian described in Romans 5 held a viewpoint that grace gives us the tools to endure any hardship now because of the promised reward. Paul three times uses the word, “boast,” to describe our response to the expected outcome. Paul, earlier in Romans, condemned those who boast, yet here treats it as an expectation upon our justification. The extended passage helps cement the future ideology as it describes the timing and purpose of Christ’s death: it happened then to save us now for our coming reward in Heaven. Past. Present. Future.

We know our reward will be in Heaven in the same way the wandering Jews knew their reward would come at the end of the journey from Egypt to The Promised Land. What we know, though, does not always govern our actions. Paul declares that we boast about, that we take pride in, our suffering. It is much easier to complain. It is much easier to change our behavior. Whatever brings immediate relief to the discomfort in our life is what we want.

Three weeks into the Lenten season marks a turning point. Are we able to persevere through this period of doubt? New practices have not become habit and denied habits have become uncomfortable. Going back to the way we were on Fat Tuesday suddenly seems highly desirable. It is time to reflect on the reason we made the decisions we did and rededicate ourselves to growth through the entirety of Lent. Growth comes in its season and we are ready for the warmth.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Second Sunday in Lent

Genesis 12:1-4
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Matthew 17:1-9

Timing is everything. Timing is rarely what we want it to be. We have our ideas about when crucial events should play out in our lives and how it is all going to work, but rarely do our plans match those of God. In one passage today, God tells Abram, “now,” and in another Jesus tells some of the Apostles, “wait.” Neither command was particularly convenient for those receiving the directive (especially Peter), but they were right for God’s purposes.

In Genesis, God tells a 75-year-old Abram to pack up, leave the land he had settled with his father and move to a land he will be shown. The Lord promised the heretofore childless Abram that for following his directions he would make him the father of a nation and a blessing to all on the earth. The history does not give any account of whether Abram thought about it, only that he packed up all belongings and set off as directed. What prior interactions God and Abram had were not recorded as this passage marks the call of Abram into service with God.

At 75, Abram was a middle-aged man (his father lived to 205), apparently prosperous as a herder and settled into the land. This sounds like middle-age in our time: progressing in a career and settled down with family. Packing up everything and everyone and moving to a yet unseen location (on a “trust me, it’s going to be good”) would give most of us pause before accepting or rejecting the idea. Centuries later the writer of Romans cites Abram for his faith. God asked; Abram did. Neither Abram nor his immediate descendants saw the completion of the promise, yet God fulfilled the promise.

In Matthew, Jesus takes three of the Apostles with him on a private hike up a high mountain. Upon arriving, Jesus’s “God side” showed itself. His face and clothes shone. Just as suddenly as there was the change in Jesus, Moses and Elijah appeared and began talking with Jesus. Ever impulsive, Peter jumps in with the suggestion that he build tents so they can all stay there together. God jumps in, stopping Peter, and for the second time identifying Jesus as his son and giving the command that they listen to him.

When God spoke, the Apostles fell down in fear. When Jesus told them not to be afraid, they discovered that Jesus was back to normal and Moses and Elijah were gone. As they were leaving, Jesus directed them to tell no one of this encounter until after his resurrection (one of many times he mentioned that it would happen). I know that if I had been one of the Apostles with him, I would have been much like Peter, “This is the greatest thing ever, We’ve got to tell everyone!” But Jesus, knowing the plans for his earthly ministry, knew it was not time for him to be proclaimed as the Son of God. The time would come, but there was more left to do.

At 75, many would consider Abram to be past the time when God would begin to use him. The zeal of the Apostles at experiencing a transfigured Jesus, the historical figures Moses and Elijah, and the voice of God would seem to be the perfect time for Jesus to turn them loose and let them start spreading his gospel. In God’s time, it was time for Abram to begin his work. In God’s time, it was not time for the Apostles to reveal the encounter and identity of Jesus. We too, must be attuned to God’s time in our lives. When his direction comes, it will be exactly when needed.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Lenten Prayer - Elder Generations

In Hebrews we read of the “great cloud of witnesses,” and are encouraged in our work. Many of us have also been motivated by the guidance of elder generations. For the wise guides in our lives, Lord, we give thanks.

We are blessed to have these grandparents, neighbors, or church members who act as a living cloud. For their willingness to share their experience and their faith, and for the support they provide, we ask blessings for them.

Thank you, Lord, for the many ways you care for us.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Lenten Prayer - Conflict

Every newscast reminds us of the often horrific events happening around the world, in a bordering state, and down the street. Conflict makes for a great story with its victims, violence, and volume. Whether the battle happens in a nation halfway around the world with a scope so big we cannot imagine or in a living room halfway down the block with friends so close we do not imagine, conflict moves us because of its intensely human aspect.

Lord, we know you did not make us for conflict, but for communion with you and all mankind. When we brought conflict into the world, you responded with a guide. You told us exactly how to connect with you and with others through the law. We could not even agree on the rules you gave us, so Jesus simplified it to two imperative sentences: 1) Love God. 2) Love your neighbor.

We know how to avoid conflict and yet the headlines are filled with it. There is a difference between knowing and doing. Lord, we ask you to give us the courage to resist conflict, and even more, wisdom and peace to navigate the conflicts that do come our way – globally or relationally. And when the conflicts do come, we also ask for the grace to reflect our connection with you because you led by example in the time you walked among us.

We thank you for showing us it can be done.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Lenten Prayer - Peacemakers


The cacophony of conflict surrounds us, drowning out the melodies of order we long to hear. The combatants’ volume keeps the attention focused on them, but present even there are the peacekeepers. We thank you, Lord, for those who seek the heart of the hostility when others flee any contact.

For the peacekeepers, whether they navigate fronts of wars or the fences of neighbors, we ask for their safety because every dispute carries risk. We ask that they also have clear hearing to know what each side says and the wisdom to discern what each side means. And Lord, we ask you to give them patience for they begin at a place where little or no hope is seen and lead those involved to a point where all find some reason to hope.

Though they so often go unrecognized, we recognize them and give thanks for peacemakers.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lenten Prayer - Unconditional Love


You summarized the entire volume of scripture when you told us to “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” The purpose behind all the instruction (law) given through history tell us how to love. You blessed us with a faith driven without conditions by care and consideration for all people. You gave us, Lord, the opportunity to enrich and be enriched with every human interaction.

But Lord, you gave this gift to humankind. You gave it to sinners. You gave it to people who struggle with the unconditional, unlimited nature of your love for your creation. Everything else in our life comes with conditions and limits. We struggle with generosity.

Some respond to your commandment to love by imposing so many rules they find fault in all people and special judgment for others. They write rules that restrict your love to their select and deny your love to everyone else. They transform holy love into an aggressive tool for persecution.  They dwell on limits and restrictions; they find comfort in that which can be measured.

Lord, we ask for strength to resist imposing our rules on those who believe differently than we do, for even those of us who proclaim justice can be drawn into imposing our own standards, our own limits of who is Christian. We are as guilty of limiting your love as those who do it to control your kingdom. And we ask for healing of hearts so broken they can only imagine limits to your grace.

As painful as it is to see the harm caused by those who choose to judge for you, Lord, whom you can love, responding in judgment only compounds the pain. In this conditional world we inhabit, help us grow an understanding of your infinite being. The better we understand that, the better we will be able to accept that the love you have for another does not diminish the love you have for us. When we finally, deeply, fully understand that your love for the rest of creation does not limit the love you have for us, we may finally begin to follow the intent of your laws and accept the blessing of loving every person in creation.


Monday, March 10, 2014

Lenten Prayer - Farmers


In a world where our food comes from a box, our sustenance from a sack, let us pause to give thanks for the farmers who still connect with the land. We benefit from the labors of many workers on a daily basis, but few would be missed as quickly as the farmer's.

As spring (in my part of the world) peeks over the horizon, farmers work the empty fields preparing the soil to yield its best. Whether by planting, in tending, at harvest, or through the fallow, farmers remain stewards of the earth, and understand what you meant in directing humankind to watch over your creation. While most of us remain far removed from their daily toil, help us to learn from them to be better caretakers of the creation in our daily experience.

We ask blessings for the farmers and their labors in the growing season and we give thanks for their dedication. May we have the same devotion to our ministry as farmers do to theirs.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

From earliest childhood we have been taught that we are sinners; we are not perfect; we are less than. Even after salvation, we still remain focused on sin. The tale of Adam and Eve establishes the first separation of humankind from God. We were created for perfect fellowship with God. Through the grace of Christ we return to a state for perfect fellowship with God, yet our minds, once introduced to sin cannot completely forget that experience. Adam and Eve were permanently changed by the knowledge they gained. We, too, at least as long as we live are permanently shaped by our experiences.

In Romans, the author seeks to help us put the difference between the power of sin and grace and convince us of the superiority of grace. Sin came through the behavior of one. Grace came through the behavior of One. The behavior of one caused every death recorded in history. The behavior of One overcame every sin in history and ended the inevitability of death.

Mathematically speaking:

One > one.

Grace > sin.

Modern Christianity generally does not involve fasting to the extent as other religions, so the idea of abstaining from food seems quite foreign to most from the protestant faiths. Biblically, abstaining from food is only one form of fast, and fasting served many purposes. Through the history of Israel, fasting evolved from being an act of penance for a wrong to an act of focus for bringing one closer to God. The progression of the fast as a means of coming closer to God came through the prophets as they sought to help the people understand that right (legal) behavior came from being in the relationship with God for which he created us; it did not come from legalistically adhering to every mark in the Torah.

The Gospel passage in Matthew takes us to the end of Jesus’s forty day and forty night fast as he communed with God, drawing closer to him and preparing for his earthly ministry. Satan, the tempter, saw Jesus’s hunger as a weakness to be exploited. Given the nature of the fast, Satan’s timing could not have been more wrong. I had never read the passage with that idea in mind, but after some recent reading on fasts, I found the attempted temptation to be a comedy of errors on Satan’s part. He saw Jesus as gaunt, unshaven, and tired. He heard his stomach growling. He missed the aura, determination, and purpose. He ignored the power of his heartbeat.

As the incarnate Son of God, Jesus may have never been closer to God than he was in these moments at the completion of the fast. What Satan perceived as a moment of vulnerability was perhaps Jesus’s moment of invincibility. In Lent we follow his example for the same purpose. We open ourselves, by whatever means work best for us, to draw closer to God, and prepare ourselves for the work to which he calls us.

One > one.

Grace > sin.

Christ worked it out for us; we just need to accept it. That is part of the purpose of Lent and when we get close enough to him we will understand it.

Lenten Prayer - Grieving


Everywhere we turn we find stories of people plunged into grief from violence, tragedy, and life. It is painful, personal, and universal. It touches us all.

There is so much grief to be found that it overwhelms one’s ability to comprehend it. There is more grief than any of us can understand or address. And no matter how much we want to make it better for those who suffer, there is little we are able to do.

Grief is a process, not a state. Help us to be the comforters for those who grieve – a shoulder, an ear, an empathetic countenance. Give us the wisdom to accept our limits to ending grief, but also expand our compassion. Grant us patience. Build in us attention. Remind us that you are there with us when it surpasses our human capacities.

For grief and the grieving, Lord, we ask your comfort and your peace. And we seek your guidance.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Lenten Prayer - Dreary Days


As I look out my window at the sky colored solid gray by thick clouds, the steady fine mist of drizzle wetting the ground and barren limbs of trees with buds waiting to burst out with spring’s new life, I thank you for the dreary days.

These days of calm.

These days of refreshment.

Every day has a purpose. Help us remember that we have one too – on our bright days and on our dreary days.


Thursday, March 6, 2014

Lenten Prayer - Spiritual Leaders


During the Lenten season we seek to know you better by sharing your experience. We put away objects and habits we cherish. Likewise we adopt habits that challenge us. We groan and we grow. We struggle and we seek.

We (should be) step(ping) out of our comfort zone.

In this time we need our spiritual leaders. Please grant them patience in this time. We are difficult enough to love the rest of the year, how difficult we must be when we step out of our comfort zone.

And not just now, but always, we ask blessings on those who have accepted the call to lead your flock. We thank you for them and their ability to reflect your love to us.  Help them recognize our gratitude even when we fail to express it ourselves.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Lenten Prayer - The Suffering


You know suffering – a human experience that is both universal and distinctly individual. You became flesh and experienced it in the same way we do.

For this season some of us invent suffering, we force it, by denying ourselves some things we most enjoy.

Meanwhile we are surrounded by those who suffer more than we will ever understand. Not only do they lack comforts, they live without essentials and feel pain we may never know. Sometimes their suffering is so intense we become blind to it.

Open our eyes that we may recognize the circumstances of those around us and move us to serve as you would have us. Help us not be overwhelmed by the scope of suffering, but focused on the ways we can impact it. The scope of suffering is great, but you, Lord, are greater.

In this season when we focus on suffering and even seek it, help us find ways to bring comfort to those who know suffering too well.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 51
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

During Lent we Christians often reinforce the solemnity of the season by reciting the sacrifices we make in our effort to join Christ in the forty days of fasting he underwent prior to beginning his ministry.  Concealing any discomfort may seem to be one of the greatest challenges of our time, but we see from the scriptures leading us into Lent that whining has been with people for all time. Today’s scriptures guide us in putting our actions in perspective and gaining the most from our active involvement in God’s kingdom.

Isaiah challenges us to consider why we do the things we do. The prophet addresses the people who publicly make a show of their fast. Are they doing it to argue over who is doing a better job at being miserable – rising in the hierarchy of humility? Instead of giving up comfort to magnify their misery, the prophet reminds them that it is not what they are giving up, but what they share that matters.

Just as the prophet of Isaiah called the public behavior of the people into question, Jesus challenges the public worship of the people. We leave God out whenever our piety, generosity, or verbosity becomes the focus of the worship. The next six weeks give us the opportunity to practice putting God in focus through quiet sacrifice – and quiet service.

The fast is about stopping and starting. Stop sinning and start serving.

Lent is about giving-up and taking-up. Give up a comfort and take up a cause.

Above all, Lent is making God the focus of our actions.