Welcome to the July 2016 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, July 2016
July 1, 2016
"For none of us lives to himself, and none dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord. Or if we die, we die to the Lord. If therefore we live or die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died, rose, and lived again, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living." Romans 14:7-9, WEB
There is a century plant blooming at the entrance to a housing development down the road. Despite its name, the Agave Americana doesn't really last a hundred years. It blooms only once in its lifetime, usually between ten and thirty years. The bloom is spectacular. This particular plant has a stalk of at least fifteen feet and is huge with flower. It is beautiful, although at the base you can see the disadvantage of this type of plant. The awesome cactus leaves are already withering as the plant dies. There's no way to save it; once the flower pod appears the plant is already dying.
I'm not sure what the housing development will do once the flower is done blooming. They will have to remove the whole plant. The flower will drop seeds and there are shoots that have come from the mother plant, but this will change their landscaping. They are spectacular plants, but is it worth having something that will only last a decade or so? Is it worth having a plant whose sole purpose is to bloom once and die?
Of course it is. Think about all of God's creation. The grass withers. Some insects have a lifespan of days or even hours. Some people never really accomplish anything great. Are they of less value than those whose names are written on the sides of buildings or whose words are found in classic books? God has a purpose for everything that has life. The trees convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. Butterflies pollinate. The stay-at-home-mother seems to have accomplished nothing, and yet she has birthed and raised that child. Everything that has life will die; some will die quickly and some will take a very long time, but everything will die. Some will die after accomplishing many wonderful things and some will bloom just once, but each is created by God for His purpose.
Whatever we do, whether it is to bloom once and die or to accomplish many great things, we are called to do it to God's glory. Even in our death we can glorify God, as Jesus did on the cross. As a matter of fact, as Christians we are called to die to self so that we can live fully according to God's grace. It is sad to know that the century plant will die now that it has bloomed, but there is hope in the seed and in the shoots because it will live on, just as there is hope in the life we are promised. It might seem like nothing we do is of any real value, but even the most inconsequential accomplishments impact the world in some way. The smallest task, like giving a glass of water to someone who is thirsty, will make a difference when we do so in Jesus' name. So, let us live and die to the Lord because we are His and by His grace our lives will have value and purpose.
"'If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, and the holy of Yahweh honorable; and shall honor it, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words: then you shall delight yourself in Yahweh; and I will make you to ride on the high places of the earth; and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father:' for Yahweh’s mouth has spoken it." Isaiah 58:13-14, WEB
Bruce and I went away for the weekend. We spent a few days in a small town a couple hours north of where we live. It was nice to get away from work and phones; we didn't watch the news. We relaxed, did a few fun things and ate way too much. At least a few of our 'must do' activities involved food. We visited a few cool museums with buggies, planes and a fort. We went antiquing and spelunking. We sat on the balcony of our hotel and watched boats go by on the lake. In the evening we watched the fireworks shows that speckled the horizon. We ate pie at a famous cafe and drank beer from a new craft brewery. We swam in the pool and vegged out in our room. We didn't pay much attention to the clock. It was wonderful.
Sometimes you just have to get away. It is hard in today's world because we are constantly connected via our phones and social media. There are TVs everywhere. Bruce has a separate work phone and while he was good about ignoring it, I am sure he checked it occasionally. Luckily everyone else at work was enjoying the holiday weekend, so no major crises made him stress. He didn't even think about how crazy it would be when he went back to work (except when I asked him how crazy it would be!) I didn't worry about writing, knowing you wouldn't mind missing a day.
It is hard to get away, but I think it is something that we need to do once in a while. God gave us the Sabbath to rest; unfortunately most of us use that day to catch up on all things we don't get done during our working week. We schedule so many activities during our vacations that we come home exhausted. We can't even go out to a nice quiet dinner without glancing at the TV or our phones. The world follows us wherever we go, unless we make a point to leave it behind. The benefit is that time away renews us and gives us the strength to face whatever will come our way.
I suppose that's true with our Christianity, too. If we can't even spend an hour having an undistracted dinner with someone we love who is sitting right in front of us, how can we ever really think we are paying attention to the God who has saved us? By faith we are adopted into a new kingdom, we are no longer citizens of this world, but are rather aliens because we belong to our Father through Jesus Christ. But it is impossible for us to leave this world behind, and while we are in flesh we really can't because we have responsibilities. However, it has become very difficult for us to spend even a few minutes alone with our Father because of the distractions of this world.
The Sabbath was the seventh day, a day of rest. God set aside that day for the sake of His people because He knew that we would constantly pursue the things of this world. We need to be guided into a place of rest. Christians understand the Sabbath in a broader sense, that Jesus is our Sabbath rest. I suppose in some ways that has become an excuse not to rest on Saturday or on the Lord's Day (Sunday). We justify our busy-ness because we think we get our rest just by being God's child, but can we really live as God's child if we don't spend some time with Him? Can we really hear His voice if we are so busy looking at our phones? Can we grow in maturity if we don't study His Word with other Christians? It is hard to get away, but we must try because not matter how much we claim to love our God, He will get lost in the chaos of our world if we don't get away from this world and seek time with Him. Time in His presence will give us the strength to face the troubles that come our way.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 10, 2016, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: Leviticus (18:1-5) 19:9-19; Psalm 41; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
"Then Jesus said to him, 'Go and do likewise.'" Luke 10:37b, WEB
The Elementary school my kids attended in England had a list of rules. They didn't just list the things that the children should not do, they gave them a list of proper behavior. They understood that it isn't enough to tell kids not to do something, you have to teach them what is right. The rules were as follows: "Do be gentle -- Don't hurt anybody; Do be kind, helpful and respectful -- Don't hurt people's feelings; Do listen -- Don't interrupt or ignore directions; Do work hard -- Don't waste your time or other people's time; Do look after property -- Don't waste or damage it; Do be honest -- Don't cover up the truth." Do you see how it is better to give a positive for a child to follow rather than just a negative command?
Martin Luther understood the power of positive teaching. In his Small Catechism (and perhaps in others) Martin Luther does not just teach us the "Thou shall nots" as found in the Ten Commandments. He shows us how to live rightly in those laws in a positive way that helps our neighbor.
There were two tables of the Ten Commandments. The first table refers to the laws about how we should live in relation to God. The second table deals with our relationships with other people. Luther began the explanation of each of the Ten Commandments with the words "We are to fear and love God" because our relationships with one another begin and end in our relationship with God. The connection to Him gives us the strength to do what is right and good. It is a short path to disobedience when that connection is broken.
In the second table of commandments, Luther teaches that we are to fear and love God so that we do not harm others, but he takes it that step further, teaching us also do what is good for their sake. In response to the Fifth Commandment, "You shall not murder," Luther writes, "What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body but help and support him in every physical need." It isn't just about keeping our temper when we are angry, but about finding ways to make life better for those who cross our path.
Our lives as Christians are not just about being good, obeying the rules. They are about doing what is good and right and true. This means more than avoiding bad behavior; it means more than obeying the "Thou shall nots." We are called as Christians to do good works. We do this not to receive a reward for our goodness, but as a response to the goodness of God.
Good deeds will often lead to some sort of reward. I have at least one plaque praising my volunteer work. I have letters of thanks. Most volunteer organizations will tell you that your time and resources will be credited to you on job resumes or tax forms. Most good deeds certainly make us feel good in the end. We are happy to help people; we are glad when their lives are made better.
There was an episode of friends in which Joey told Phoebe that there was no such thing as a selfless good deed. Phoebe spent the rest of the show trying to prove Joey wrong. She did good deeds she didn't want to do, but Joey showed her how each of those good deeds were not really all that selfless. When she lets a bee sting her to make him look good to the other bees, Joey reminds her that the bee will die after losing its stinger. When she calls to make a donation to PBS, which she hates so it doesn't make her happy to donate, her donation ends up giving Joey air time which made her happy. In the end, she could not prove Joey wrong.
It was a funny show, but it doesn't really matter if a good deed is selfless or not. Now, that doesn't mean we should be doing selfish good deeds: good deeds that we do for our own benefit that just happen to benefit others. A selfish good deed might be that check we write at 11:59 on December 31st so that we can take it off our taxes, or that donation we give so that a building will be constructed in our honor. It is ok that these things happen, it is ok that a good deed makes us feel good; as a matter of fact, serving God by serving our neighbors is the source of great joy for us. The question here is more about motivation. Why are we doing this?
See, what God wants from us is a natural response to His grace. He wants us to see the world through His eyes and to respond as He would respond. That's what the Good Samaritan did. He didn't think about whether his good deed would earn him anything, he's actually rather anonymous in this story. Yet, I suspect he walked out of that inn whistling a happy tune with a bounce in his step. Responding to God's grace gives us a joy we can't win or earn or claim for ourselves.
On first glance, today's Old Testament lesson seems to focus on one of the several times when the Ten Commandments are listed throughout the Old Testament. Moses is certainly telling God's people about the importance of following His ways rather than the ways of the world around them. "Do not do as the pagans do." Now, there is a message of obedience in this; God calls us to live a life that is moral and 'good.' We aren't supposed to murder or steal or cheat or lie. We aren't supposed to sleep with our neighbor's spouse or covet anything of theirs. "You shall therefore keep my statutes and my ordinances; which if a man does, he shall live in them. I am Yahweh." Being obedient will bring us a good life.
But there is more in this text, the positive encouragement that helps us live more fully in God's grace. Here God commands the people to leave a portion at the edge of the fields and vineyards for the poor and foreigners to glean so that they can survive. I'm not sure we quite understand this injunction. We tend to think it is better to gather all our leftovers in one place, like the government or the church, so that it can be handed out to those in need. Now, most of us don't have fields or vineyards on which we can leave scraps for strangers, but the point here is about responding to the need.
I am one of those people who tend to wander around the craft store. I can easily spend twenty minutes just looking at all the different types of paint brushes, touching each one and wondering what sort of strokes I could make. Some are smooth, others are hard. I tend to go for a specific type, but I've learned that there is a reason to like the others. The more I experiment, the more I learn.
I have been in that department on numerous visits when others were wandering around, too. One day I noticed a woman with a list. She was taking an art class, something she'd never done, and she really didn't even understand most of what was listed there. She seemed very confused so I asked if I could help. I showed her the different types of brushes and gave her suggestions about the other items. I even gave her one of my extra coupons so that she could save a few dollars on her sale. It wasn't really a very big deal; I simply responded to the need I saw.
We can do that every day. We probably all do without realizing it. Did you hold the door open for the poor mother with her hands full pushing a stroller? Did you pick up that piece of garbage you saw on the ground and throw it in a garbage can? Did you let that very impatient driver merge into the traffic ahead of you? These sound like such insignificant things, but these are the positive responses to God's commandments that He delights in seeing us do.
Paul writes, "For this cause, we also, since the day we heard this, don’t cease praying and making requests for you, that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will..." The question we are faced with every day is "What is God's will?" We wonder what God would have us do. We work diligently to plan the big project, to have the big impact. We work at putting together fundraisers to help with the work of different organizations. We make plans, put together programs, seek helpers and accomplish great things. We organize food pantries and clothing drives to care for the poor. These are all good things. I think, however, today's scriptures point to a different kind of service, the kind that happens without warning.
Sometimes we are so busy doing the "we shoulds" or worrying about the "we should nots" that we miss those moments when we can touch someone in one of those simple but life changing ways.
By the time Jesus lived, the religious leaders had twisted God's instructions into a set of rules that led them down a path further from God rather than closer to Him. In Leviticus, we are instructed to take care of the poor and the foreigner by ensuring that they receive a portion of the harvest. We should not steal, lie or swear. It is against God's purpose for our life to oppress our neighbor or cheat those who work for us. We should not take advantage of our neighbors, especially caring for those who are handicapped in some way whether physically or something else. We should not favor anyone, neither the poor nor the rich, but treat all people with justice and respect. We should not gossip or accuse an innocent neighbor.
The Leviticus text reminds us not to hate our neighbor. Hate, in the Jewish understanding, is not like it is defined in our world today. Hate has an angry or violent connotation, but in Hebrew the word means something perhaps even stronger. We should not separate ourselves from our neighbor, which is what we do when we ignore the poor or gossip about our neighbors. We separate from our neighbors when we treat them with unrighteousness.
It is easy to say this. It is easy to talk about loving our neighbor. When Jesus asks us what the scriptures say about how to inherit eternal life, we easily say, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself." But, like the lawyer, we want to justify our actions and we ask, "And who is my neighbor?"
According to the understanding of those religious leaders, there were people who they should hate, people from whom they should be separated: the sick, foreigners, the grieving, and women at certain times of the month. The rules set them apart to keep them clean, to make them right before God. If they touched someone who was unclean, then they could not do the work they were called to do. That's what was probably happening with the priest and Levite in Jesus' story.
The priest and the Levite did not do anything wrong according to the Law. As a matter of fact, they were doing exactly what they believed was commanded in the Law. It may have even been difficult for them to pass by, because I believe even the hardest hearts can have compassion. But, they were to remain clean and helping the beaten and dying man meant becoming unclean. They could not serve God if they became unclean. They did not pass by because they had no compassion. They passed by because they had interpreted God's Law to mean that they could not risk their holy position and the people of Israel for the sake of one dying man. Though it is possible they were looking at the situation from a self-concerned point of view, they might have even been thinking about the bigger picture. Mercy for the one would mean that they could not provide mercy for the masses.
It is hard sometimes to respond in the moment. Take, for instance, the people who stand on street corners begging for money. We all know at least some of them are cons. We've all seen the stories about these beggars leaving the scene in high dollar cars, driving to expensive homes. We've seen the reports that tell us that they are earning an incredible living on those street corners. Yet some are truly in need. How do we discern? How do we pick and choose those who will receive our kindness? We are meant to be generous, but also good stewards. How do we know?
That's why Paul talks about praying for the people of Colossae. He's heard of their faith. He knows that they want to do what is right, to glorify God in their works. He knows they want to be good stewards and to be obedient to God's calling. Paul goes on, "...that you may walk worthily of the Lord, to please him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to the might of his glory, for all endurance and perseverance with joy..." Joey is probably right: there is no selfless good deed because in the end, doing what is right according to God's Law will always lead us to joy.
As Christians we are called to lives of mercy. Mercy shows itself in many different ways. It shows itself in the way we deal with those who make us angry, with how we deal with difficult circumstances, with how to deal with our relationships. It is tempting to make God's Law into a long list of specific rules we have to obey so that we will be perfect in our actions. It is tempting to keep ourselves separated from those whom we deem unclean even when they need help. It is tempting to justify our actions based on our understanding of the words on the page. But like Martin Luther, we need to look beyond the "thou shall nots" to the "thou shalls" so that mercy is given where it is needed.
The lesson we learn from the Good Samaritan is that we are called to see the needs of those whom God has set before us, recognizing His presence in the pain and suffering in this world. The service we are called to render may not be special. It may not be big. It may not change the world. However, as we remain humble, dwelling in His love and mercy, obedience to His commands comes naturally and His mercy overflows into the world in which we live. It is there that lives are changed. The work that needs to be done might seem overwhelming, but we are called to take care of one person at a time.
We are called to humble ourselves before God, to dwell richly in God's Word which fills our hearts and the knowledge and wisdom which guides us on the right path. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, to go and do as the Good Samaritan, bearing fruit that meets needs of our neighbors. We are called to lives that do right not just by obeying the rules against bad behavior but by living in ways that will continually build our relationships with God and others. We are to fear and love God so that we will give Him thanks for the mercy and respond with joy.
"As they went on their way, he entered into a certain village, and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she came up to him, and said, 'Lord, don't you care that my sister left me to serve alone? Ask her therefore to help me.' Jesus answered her, 'Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the good part, which will not be taken away from her.'" Luke 10:38-42, WEB
I recently read a story about a photographer in Australia. He was shooting the wedding of a couple, but found it impossible to get the good shots because of all the people in the congregation who were standing in the aisle to get photos with their cell phones. Even the groom had difficulty watching his bride walk down the aisle because people were in the way. Some brides are choosing to make their wedding guests "unplug" so that they won't have this problem. Most guests are upset by this, however. How will they survive a few hours without it?
We went on a trip to Cornwall when we lived in England. One day we spent just driving around the tiny roads looking for historic monuments that were plotted on our map. We saw an ancient tin mine, villages, standing stones, beacons and quoits. We even found the ruins of a Christian church that was 1700 years old. We called the day, "Climb a hill and look at a rock day," because that's what we did. It was fun and interesting to see all those ancient sites. I was the navigator and every so often I would tell Bruce to turn. He would often say, "Are you sure? It doesn't look like a road." "Trust me," I answered. The road often led us to incredible sites.
At one point I decided that we needed to videotape driving on the road. I took a few pictures, but even they didn't do justice to the reality of these tiny roads. We were practically hitting the hedgerows that grew on both sides of the road. The scary part was that the hedgerows often hid stone walls that had been there much, much longer than the plants.
So, I took out the camera and began to roll. We went around a curve as I was looking through the one inch eyepiece and suddenly came upon a tractor coming in the opposite direction. I won't type what a said when I saw it! You can just imagine what it looked like through that eyepiece. There was no way we could get by one another, so one of the vehicles had to back up to one of the small turnouts along the way. Bruce did a good job getting out of the way and we continued our trip. I returned to videotaping the drive and we ran into another tractor at nearly the same place. We managed to get off that road without any other encounters and we've laughed about it ever since.
Here's the thing: sometimes we pay so much attention to recording the events around us that we miss what's happening. We worry so much about taking the pictures that we don't really hear the words being said. That's the big problem with cell phones at a wedding, or even at the dinner table. We should be more concerned with oo-ing and ah-ing over the bride and hearing the promises that the couple is making to one another than getting that perfect shot to share on Facebook. We should be watching the scenery rather than keeping our eye glued to the eyepiece. It is so easy to miss out on the beauty of the moment if we are too busy focusing on capturing a part of it on tape.
I'm as guilty as the guests at the wedding so caught up in taking pictures that I miss out on the experience. I'm also as guilty as Martha, so busy doing things for people but missing out on being with them. Jesus was not chiding her for being helpful or hospitable. I'm sure He appreciated the meal and the home where they gathered. However, she was so busy paying attention to the things that might make Jesus happy that she missed the best way to make Him rejoice -- to listen to Him.
A great many of us, I suspect, know exactly what Martha felt when she watched Mary sit at Jesus' feet because we've been there. We get so caught up in the busy-ness, even on a Sunday morning, that we can't stop and worship. Our work is good; it is important that we take care of our neighbors. However, we must find a way to put down everything and pay attention to the Lord, for it is in that we'll truly find the joy and peace He offers.
"Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor that which is evil. Cling to that which is good. In love of the brothers be tenderly affectionate to one another; in honor preferring one another; not lagging in diligence; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; enduring in troubles; continuing steadfastly in prayer; contributing to the needs of the saints; given to hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless, and don't curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind one toward another. Don't set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Don't be wise in your own conceits. Repay no one evil for evil. Respect what is honorable in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as it is up to you, be at peace with all men. Don't seek revenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to God’s wrath. For it is written, 'Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.' Therefore 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing so, you will heap coals of fire on his head.' Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Romans 12:9-21, WEB
I have seen and heard more and more people considering the place social media has in their lives. One person said that they were concerned about their mental well-being. Another was worried that they would be tempted to say something that they might regret. We are divided and we are vehement about our passions. We don't understand one another and we have forgotten how to listen. I have to admit that I don't pay much attention to much of my timeline, including people whose ideology is similar to mine.
While I believe in having an open mind, hearing the points of view of others, I have chosen to hide certain posts and posters. I have not yet thought that I should give up social media because I still see so many valuable and encouraging posts, but I have been more focused about that which I post, share, respond and even like because I want to keep my friends' timelines free of those things that might continue to divide us. I'm sure I've failed and that someone has probably been upset by something attached to my name, but I hope that my posts have been uplifting and inspiration rather than upsetting.
Bill Murray is one of my favorite comedians. His movies such as "Groundhog Day," "Caddyshack," and "What About Bob," always leaves me in stitches. His character Dr. Peter Venkman in the "Ghostbusters" is the perfect characterization of a paranormal researcher who is in it for all the wrong reasons. He chose ghost hunting because of the good grant money involved. He was always cynical, but faced some of the most hysterical confrontations with slimy ectoplasmic ghosts. The Ghostbusters somehow managed to free the city of the all the bad vibes that was causing trouble among the people.
In one scene in the second movie, the guys discovered a river of ooze flowing below the streets of New York. As they studied this strange slime in their lab, they realized that it was affected by the emotions around it. They shouted at it or played happy music, and they noticed that it bubbled with anger or danced to the rhythm. This knowledge helped the Ghostbusters solve the mystery behind the overabundance of ghosts in the city. At the end, they got the people to sing happy songs to calm the evil in the ooze and to save the city from destruction.
People feed off each other's emotions. There's a saying, "When Momma ain't happy, ain't noone's happy." We find it at home, in school and at work. When someone is in a bad mood, they take it out on everyone else. Then the whole group ends up cranky and argumentative. But if someone shows love, with hugs and laughs, then the whole group begins to turn around.
There might be good reason to get off social media for a time, especially if you are particularly tempted to respond with anger or hatred. There is equally good reason to stay on but to use our own gifts to post things that are encouraging and inspirational. Most of all, when we can use what we see to pray for those who need prayer, including those with whom we disagree. We must be careful, however, not to use those prayers to get our way with others, but to seek God's blessings for them. As Paul writes, it is up to us to feed and quench the thirst of our "enemies." It is up to us to bless those who persecute us.
When things seem a little tense in your home, school, work or social media, just say a little prayer for the people and bring some joy to their lives. It is our responsibility as Christians to be Christ-like in our communities, serving God in all things, including our attitudes and emotions. It may take some careful choices about what we see, avoiding the temptations and putting forth words that are hard at the moment. When things are down, bring them up with a word about love, hope, peace, and joy! Smile and laugh in the midst of everything, and share the gifts God has given you. Love, just as He first loved you, and that love will spread and calm the savage emotions that surround you.
"But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, 'You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off'; fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand." Isaiah 41:8-10, WEB
I was scheduled to read the lessons at our worship service yesterday. I wanted to do a particularly good job because we were meeting the man we hoped would become our new senior pastor. He was visiting to answer questions and to preach; worship was followed by a meeting so that we could vote. The congregation were filled with more people than usual, so I had plenty of reason to want to do well. Unfortunately, I became the public speaking cliche: my notes were out of order. Instead of beginning at the first lesson, I began by introducing the second. I realized quickly, smiled at the congregation, apologized and moved on. The rest of the reading went well.
We all make mistakes, and all too often those mistakes happen at exactly the worst time possible. Most of our mistakes, like mine yesterday, are really inconsequential. I suspect that if you paid very close attention to my writing, you'll find at least one typing mistake in every post. I try to edit, but I manage to miss something almost every day. Most of them are so minor that you don't even notice when you read, which is probably why I miss it in the first place. Most people skim the text and read it correctly even if letters or words are out of order.
Sometimes the mistakes are a little more significant. I have occasionally mistyped a word that was actually another word that changed the entire meaning of the sentence. I don't recall the specific example, but I do remember that once the mistake caused numerous readers to write, questioning whether I really meant what I said! I edited that mistake as quickly as possible and even sent an apology to the readers.
We don't really pay attention to most of the mistakes that our neighbors make, but we let them go quickly if we notice. That word slip, that typing error, those overcooked noodles are forgiven and quickly forgotten. The bigger mistakes often take a little extra time, especially if they make an impact on our lives. Even those, however, can be forgiven, although they do tend to linger a little longer.
Nothing we do to one another, no mistake is as unforgivable as our unfaithfulness to our God and Father. In the end, however, we discover through faith in Jesus Christ, that God remains faithful even when we aren't.
The book of Isaiah begins by warning God's people about their unfaithfulness and how God would leave them to suffer the consequences of turning their backs on Him. The end, however, offers a measure of hope. Even though they have turned their backs, God will not abandon them. He will save them from themselves. They will suffer, but He will be with them through it and bring them home. We continue to make the same mistake of turning our back on our God, no matter how much we know and love Him. We sin, sometimes by accident and sometimes willfully. We deserve whatever suffering and consequences we might experience. And yet, this promise is for us, too. When we turn our backs on God, He will not turn His on us. He will be with us through it; He will save us and take us home. We are weak, but He is strong and His strength will lift us up and get us moving in the right direction.
"Therefore exhort one another, and build each other up, even as you also do." 1 Thessalonians 5:11, WEB
We arrived at church Sunday morning at the end of the early service, just in time for a meet and greet with the man we hoped would become our new senior pastor. The call process is often long and contentious, especially when there are some people who have a much different idea about what they want for the church than the call committee. Done well, the process ends with a majority of people happy about the choice and ministry begins with renewed passion and joy. In the end there's usually someone who isn't happy, but we are brothers and sisters in Christ, so that's when the ministry really begins between one another.
As we arrived Sunday morning, a member came out of the sanctuary in tears. She happened to serve on the call committee and I asked, "What's wrong?" We'd all had an opportunity to view sermons on YouTube and read the man's biography. Most of the people I knew were excited and thrilled, and we all looked forward to hearing what he had to say in his sermon on Sunday. Her tears made me worry. "What's wrong," I asked again. "Nothing," she said, "I'm just so happy." I saw others who were equally filled with joy.
We had a wonderful meet and greet, heard answers to our questions and listened to him preach at the second service. I understood my friends' tears. There are times in your life when you think things are going to work out, and there are times when you know God has been at work. This was one of those God times. We voted overwhelmingly in favor and the pastor and his wife happily accepted the call. They will be here in a few weeks so we can begin ministry together, hopefully for a very long time. We could see the joy on their faces when they said "Yes," and I suspect there were even more tears in the congregation.
Several of us were so excited that we posted the good news on Facebook. The pastor's former congregation knew that he was in the process and knew that there was a very good chance he would be leaving them quickly, but our posts were difficult for them to read. We were rejoicing while they will now have to face grief. They know that this is good for their beloved pastor and that we weren't stealing him away from them, but that doesn't make it any easier to say Good-bye. I realized, perhaps too late, that I should have been more conscious of those who might be hurting.
One of the hardest questions we ask ourselves is how we can be happy in a world so filled with suffering. I'm healthy, but know too many who are sick. I am married to a great guy, but know too many who are dealing with broken relationships. I have enough of everything I need, but know too many who struggle paying the bills. How can I be so happy when I know others are so sad? The key is this: to be compassionate as we rejoice. It is good to share our joy, but even more important that we do so in a manner that uplifts others. See, grieving when we have reason to rejoice will not make the world a better place, but joy in the face of suffering can shine the light of Christ to the world. Our joy can help build others, to help them see goodness and hope. Our joy can help them find peace.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 17, 2016, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 18:1-10a (10b-14); Psalm 27:(1-6) 7-14; Colossians 1:15-29; Luke 10:38-42
"Yahweh is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? Yahweh is the strength of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid?" Psalm 27:1, WEB
There's a cartoon commercial for a knee brace that shows a child asking her grandma to play with her. Grandma has trouble getting up because of her knees. She buys a set of knee braces that makes life and movement far easier. At the end of the commercial, the grandma is moving so fast that the child is having trouble keeping up.
I'm at the age when all my friends' children are beginning to have their own children. I suppose it will happen to me eventually, too. They post pictures of their grandchildren and tell stories of all the fun times they are having with them. Some groan a little about how hard it is to keep up with them. I know that for me, getting down on the floor with a pile of Legos will be more difficult than it was doing so with my children. So many of us have been working on becoming healthier so that we can be there to love those babies when they come.
Can you imagine what it must have been like for Sarah? I'm always taken by her statement, "After I have grown old will I have pleasure, my lord being old also?" This isn't just about the process of giving birth. Sarah was around eighty-nine years old when the three men came to their camp. She was eighty-nine years old when a twenty-five year old promise was renewed, a promise that was already past hope the first time it was given. Yet, here were these men, telling Abraham and Sarah that the promise would finally be fulfilled within a year. They would be ninety and a hundred years old. How could they possibly parent a child at such a great age? How could they live long enough to see that child become a man, find a wife and have children? How would they ever experience the joys of being grandparents? Sarah certainly can't go out and buy a set of knee braces so she can get down on the floor to play with her baby!
Yet, God made the promise and He is faithful. And He was a friend to Abraham.
Sarah laughed within herself when she heard the promise given. I think I would, too. It wasn't a hearty, joyful laugh. It was a laugh of cynicism; the promise was ridiculous. Even if her failed and failing body could finally bear a child, how could she ever really be a mother? How would she have the energy to keep up with a toddler? How would she live long enough to see him grown? She laughed within herself because it was too late. How could she ever enjoy being a mother at this late age?
Who were these men who would speak such ridiculous words to a tired old woman?
The passage begins, "The LORD appeared to Abraham." Did Abraham know it was the LORD?
Abraham and Sarah were semi-nomadic; they lived in temporary dwellings and moved with their livestock, spending limited time in one place during which they might plant and grow some crops. They were people of some means, but they had no home except the tents they carried from place to place. This lifestyle was more common in Abraham's day; it was a way of life that is different than what we experience today.
Hospitality was vital. The roads were dangerous, and there was not a McDonald's on every corner. Some travelers might go for days without being able to access fresh water or food. The nomads or semi-nomads settled, even briefly, in places where good water was available to take care of their own needs and the needs of their animals. Travelers passing by were always welcome into the camps, and received with grace and hospitality.
Hospitality was the cultural norm of the day, but Abraham was more than hospitable. He was willingly and willfully humble before his guests, extremely generous with his resources and patient with their visit. When he saw the three men he ran to them, bowing down before them to honor their presence at his tent. He met their needs as any good host would do. Yet, he did not simply welcome them to his table; he gave them his table and waited on them as a servant.
Abraham was a man of great wealth, power and authority despite his nomadic existence. After all, kings honored him. He had servants and herds so large that even when divided they were vast. Yet, when strangers came to his tent, Abraham ran to greet them. He invited them to rest and to wash their feet. Then he ran to prepare a feast, first asking Sarah to use the finest supplies to make bread and then choosing a fine calf to roast. The preparation for this feast would have been lengthy – it takes hours to prepare a meal like the one he served. Then, as they ate, Abraham stood nearby, as if waiting to serve their every need with just a word.
By these actions we might assume that Abraham knew that it was the LORD, but I think Abraham would have done the same for any visitor. It did not matter who they were; Abraham honored them because they were guests. The writer tells us that the LORD appeared to Abraham, but then goes on to say that Abraham saw three men. Human flesh cannot see God. God must reveal Himself in some way so that He can be seen, or heard, or experienced with our senses. When He reveals Himself, what do we see? Abraham saw three men. Was this because God manifested Himself as three men? Or is it because Abraham saw God through his own eyes and experiences?
There are many interpretations of this encounter. Some have suggested that this is an Old Testament vision of the Trinity -- that Abraham saw God in three persons. Others believe that this is a pre-incarnation visit of Christ who was accompanied by two angels. There are others who think that this story should be understood in more spiritual terms, not as three flesh and blood men but a vision or dream. However the encounter is interpreted, we know that God was in their midst. Whether or not he knew, Abraham saw strangers in need of food, drink and rest. He saw people due honor and respect, people whom he could serve.
Now, Sarah, might not have been quite so grace-filled. She made cakes just as Abraham asked, and probably did far more than that, and she was busy in the tent the whole time. We don’t see her in the presence of her guests. Abraham and Sarah were well beyond the normal lifespan of the time, and even old in our society. She was probably tired and she may have been depressed. After all, what did she have to show for her life? She had no children, no grandchildren. It is likely that the relationship between Hagar and Sarah was strained, and Ishmael’s presence was a constant reminder of her failure.
In his kindness, Abraham discovered that his guests were something special. I wonder how many times we miss the opportunity to serve the Lord because we are so caught up in our own exhaustion, pain, depression, doubt, cynicism, and sense of unworthiness.
It almost seemed cruel for the men to say such things about her, after she went to a lot of trouble to serve them. They seemed to respond to her hospitality with teasing. She was so caught off guard by the LORD's Word that she even denied laughing. God's Word is not cruel, but it doesn't always make sense, and so we often receive it with skepticism and doubt. Sarah's pain was so deep that she could not see that that Lord had come to reveal that she would see the promise of children fulfilled within the year. She laughed because it was unbelievable. She'd let go of the promise a long time ago. Sarah received the LORD with uncertainty and fear.
Martha saw the LORD, and yet she received Him in much the same manner as Sarah. Martha was worried and distracted by the preparations. Worry is a very self-centered attitude. Even if our worry is about someone else, it is self-centered. We worry because we are afraid. We get distracted because we are afraid. We are afraid that things will not go right, that our guests will not be satisfied. We are afraid that we'll make a bad impression. We get caught up in the preparations because we are afraid that we'll forget something.
Martha saw Jesus as someone to serve. While it might seem like she was humble before Jesus, she was seeing Him as someone in need. She thought He needed her food and her hospitality. She thought He needed her to meet His needs. Martha, like many people, forgot that God does not need anyone or anything we can give. God does not come to us because He needs us. We need Him, so He comes to us to give us what we need.
Mary recognized that Jesus had something to give. Martha forgot that Jesus can feed thousands of people from just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, an event that had happened less than a year before this encounter. Martha forgot that Jesus has the living water that quenches our real thirst. Martha forgot that Jesus could cast out demons and make miraculous things happen with just His word. She certainly had heard the stories. Perhaps she had even been present for some of them. When the Lord appeared to Martha, she did not see the Messiah, she saw a man who needed her gifts, talents and resources and she was afraid to fail in satisfying Him.
Mary saw something different. She saw the source of joy and peace. She saw the teacher who would give her hope. She saw God's grace, recognized her own need and received that which Jesus had to give. She saw the Messiah, and stopped for a moment to linger in His presence. Jesus would have honored Martha's servant heart if she had not been so worried and distracted about her work. He honored Mary not because she was particularly prayerful or studious, but because she had her eyes on Him.
We have nothing to fear. We have no reason to worry. The world might be upside down. We might feel like we are doing everything alone. We might think that there's too much to accomplish and not enough time, but if we keep our eyes on Jesus we'll find that we can accomplish everything He has ordained for us to do. See, with our eyes on Jesus, we'll recognize what is important and what we can let go. With an attitude of peace we will know what really matters in every situation.
How do we receive the LORD when He comes into our presence? He doesn't want us to hide in the tent or in the kitchen. He doesn't want us to worry that everything isn't perfect. He wants us to give Him everything, especially our faith. He wants us to believe His Word and to live in His promises, knowing that He is faithful. We might identify with Sarah and Martha, responding to Him with fear and worry. There will be times when we have to work hard to honor Him, but He wants us to live every moment with an attitude of peace. Even when things are hectic and out of control, peace will keep us focused on what really matters. It will help us let go of that which really doesn't matter so that we will provide for the needs of the world grace and joy. Jesus doesn't need us to serve Him. He wants us to enjoy Him.
Every day we go out into the world in faith doing what God has called us to do: serve Him by loving our neighbor. However, sometimes our good works can become so self-centered because we think that we are the only ones who are doing anything. We set ourselves above those whom we are serving, acting as though the world would stop if we stopped. When we work with this attitude, however, we get burnt out and frustrated. We become distracted, forgetting that God does not need us to do these things, forgetting that He comes to us with gifts so that we will take His grace into the world for His glory.
Paul writes, "You, being in past times alienated and enemies in your mind in your evil deeds, yet now he has reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and without defect and blameless before him..." The reason many people avoid being in the presence of God is because they feel they are unworthy. They think that there is some reason that they do not belong there. Sarah hid in the tent because she was old and without hope. She worried that she was to blame for her barrenness. How could she ever show her face to the world? Yet the one who knew her heart was calling her into a relationship of faith.
Martha may not have felt unworthy to be with Jesus, but she saw her worth in her work. How could she stop serving and listen like Mary when there were still hungry people to feed and dishes to clean? We are all unworthy to be in God's presence. We should all be afraid. But God invites us into His presence and has made us welcome by the blood of Jesus Christ. He makes us worthy by covering us with His righteousness. The promises and the lessons of Christ are given for all: men and women, Jew and Gentile, young and old. We are all invited to sit at the feet of Jesus so that we will become strong in faith and encouraged in our work. As we grow closer to Him, we will face all our days with peace.
Can you imagine what it must have been like to be Paul? The letter to the Colossians was written from prison. Paul was being persecuted for his faith and for his bold proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He speaks of suffering; there are few who have suffered as much for the Church as Paul. And yet he continued in the work with an attitude of peace. He was happy to suffer if it meant that the Gospel would make a difference. Paul knew he was given a gift and a calling, and he was not only willing to share the Gospel, but he did so with peace in the good times as well as the bad times. He had his eyes on Jesus.
God calls us to look to Him. The psalmist writes, "When you said, 'Seek my face,' my heart said to you, “I will seek your face, Yahweh.'" Mary chose the good part. That doesn't make Mary better than Martha; it simply means that Mary has found peace in the presence of God. She has work to do, too, but she'll approach it without fear or worry because she's spent time at the feet of Jesus.
We believe in a God that is invisible. Perhaps that's why it is so hard to interpret what happened in Abraham's camp. We believe in the Christ who is physically beyond our grasp. He doesn't have a voice that we can hear with our ears, and if we say we do, people think we are crazy. We can't be entirely sure of our interpretation of the events and the words that have been given to us because we are biased by our own needs and desires. We are cynical, like Sarah, when we wait so long to see the fulfillment of God's promises. We "see" God through our own flesh and experiences. It is no wonder that so many people are atheist or agnostic. How can we be certain of something that we can't see? How can we trust someone that is invisible?
Yet, God has revealed Himself to us. Paul writes, "He is the image of the invisible God..." Paul tells us in today's epistle lesson that Jesus is supreme. “For by him all things were created, in the heavens and on the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things are held together." We would not exist without Christ; we certainly would not be saved or gifted for service in the Kingdom of God without Him. No matter what we do, as individuals or as the Church together, it is only done with Him as the center.
Paul writes, "He is the head of the body, the assembly, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence." He is our focus, the one thing we need wherever we go or whatever we do. With Him there is no reason for concern. With Christ comes a hope that reaches beyond the physical needs of our body. As we live in that hope, we are better able to discern the needs of those for whom we are sent to serve. There are indeed a great many people who need us and our gifts. Yet, we must remember at all times that God does not need us to do the work. He calls us to join with Him in humble service.
There is one thing that is needed: eyes that see the image of God in Christ Jesus. God has come to us. He has revealed Himself so that we might know and experience His grace. He is faithful and will fulfill His promises even when we have lost all hope. We can't chase after Him. We can't give Him anything He does not already have. He does not need us. He calls us to dwell in His tent, to share His grace and to live in the hope that keeps us from ever being shaken.
“When he finished praying in a certain place, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John also taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say, “Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy. May your Kingdom come. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us day by day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. Bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”’ He said to them, ‘Which of you, if you go to a friend at midnight, and tell him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him,” and he from within will answer and say, “Don’t bother me. The door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I can’t get up and give it to you”? I tell you, although he will not rise and give it to him because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence, he will get up and give him as many as he needs. I tell you, keep asking, and it will be given you. Keep seeking, and you will find. Keep knocking, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives. He who seeks finds. To him who knocks it will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he won’t give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? Or if he asks for an egg, he won’t give him a scorpion, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?’” Luke 11:1-13, WEB
Our Father... We read these words and are reminded of a prayer we have all said since we were children. While the youngest children can generally remember a brief table prayer and something about blessing everyone they love for bedtime, the Lord’s Prayer is the first thing little children who regularly go to church will remember. I have memories of my own children saying the Lord’s Prayer at church and even in play. Sometimes they stumbled over words, but it became a part of their lives very early. The Lord’s Prayer sticks with us well into adulthood, too, even if we do not spend time at church. My father was not a church-going man, but when we attended the renewal of vows together, he easily said the prayer with the rest of us.
There are those who are bothered by the regular use of this prayer by Christians. It is a biblical example of prayer, given to us by Jesus, they are concerned that it can become rote and ritualistic. This is possible; it can become a recitation of words that have little meaning to the speaker. I suppose that might be true of those children and elderly people who do not yet have, or have lost, the meaning of the words. It is true that there are Christians who are barely mindful as they pray the Lord’s Prayer, perhaps at times all of us are that way. That is why I do not think we should dismiss it quite so easily.
It is good to be spontaneous with our prayer, like calling a friend out of the blue to wish them well or say a good word, those impulsive moments are wonderful opportunities to draw deeper into the heart of God. However, reciting a beloved prayer that is written on our hearts from a very early age is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, how many times do we spontaneously confess our sinfulness to God and ask His mercy for our lives? Unfortunately, we are very good at asking God for everything that we need for our physical well-being and the well-being of others. We are even pretty good at praising God when things are going well for us. We fail in that we do not look to God to keep us from evil or ask His forgiveness when we fail.
The Lord’s Prayer brings us to our knees and reminds us every time we speak it that prayer is more than simply asking for stuff. We begin by praising God, but not just any god: He is our personal and intimate Father in heaven. We recognize that even God’s name is holy, as God is holy and that He deserves our worship. We are humbled by the fact that this God who is like a Father is also the Creator and Redeemer of the world. We ask that this world become all that God has created it to be, that His kingdom be visible and manifest in all that we do and say. We ask for the things that we need - food, shelter, clothing - but we are reminded that we only need things for this day, not for tomorrow, next week or next year. We confess that we are sinners in need of a Savior asking for the forgiveness that comes from Christ even while we recognize that we need God’s help in offering forgiveness to those who have sinned against us. We ask God to be with us, to guide us, to teach us the paths of righteousness.
In verses five through eight, Jesus tells us a story of persistence. Now, we can take this to mean that we should keep asking for God’s blessings, over and over again until He provides what we are asking. Yet, I wonder if we can look at this in a slightly different way. What if persistence means saying - reciting - the same prayer over and over again? Using the words of the prayer which Jesus taught, not only regularly but daily, knowing that God hears and answers. There are some things that we ask that God cannot or will not give us, not because it is out of His ability to do so, but because it is out of line with what He knows we need. How many of us ask for things that are simply not good for us? God has something better. Though He does listen to our specific prayers and desires, sometimes He has a different answer than we would like to hear. Sometimes He says, “Wait.” Sometimes He says, “No.” But when He does not provide what we want, He provides more than we could ever imagine.
Even as the Lord’s Prayer seems to limit our prayers, the reality is that it opens us up to even bigger and better things. By seeking God’s will, rather than asking God to satisfy ours, we find a greater freedom and a bigger kingdom than we could ever imagine.
“Trust in Yahweh with all your heart, and don’t lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight..” Proverbs 3:5-6, WEB
I regularly attend a retreat at a center that has a labyrinth. A labyrinth is used as a tool for prayer and meditation; it was originally created to act as a way for people to take pilgrimages who were unable to travel long distances. Labyrinths present the pilgrims with many of the same problems as a lengthy pilgrimage.
A labyrinth may appear to be a maze, but there is a significant difference between the two. A maze is designed to cause confusion, offering choices that lead to mistaken paths and dead ends. Most mazes have a trick, such as one we visited that could easily be solved if you always took the choice to the right. Of course, that takes away some of the fun of a maze, which is getting lost in the journey. Sometimes the dead ends have something worth seeing. You go to a maze to have fun, and if you take young children, you are bound to have hours worth of fun.
A labyrinth, however, has only one path. You follow it to the center and then come back by the same path on the way out. During the “journey,” if you are walking it with others, you pass fellow travelers along the way. Sometimes you come to someone walking more slowly. Sometimes others are walking faster and you have to let them pass. Sometimes the others are already on their way back to the beginning. Just like a real journey, these encounters teach us lessons and remind us that we aren’t lonely pilgrims. It isn’t always an easy path; sometimes we’ll get frustrated and tired. But we’ll also be uplifted and have moments of joy.
The labyrinth at the retreat center is built into the natural landscape with trees growing in the way and rocks along the path. I’ve tripped and had to bend to get past a crooked old oak tree. I’ve been annoyed by buzzy insects and watched lizards dart across the path. The time in a labyrinth helps us to pray and to listen for God’s voice in our lives, to consider how the obstacles are similar to the obstacles that we face during our real life journey of life.
I went on a sort of pilgrimage during my vacation last week. Since I was in Denver, Colorado, I knew that I needed to take a trip into the mountains. I planned to visit a small mountain town, to walk Main Street and visit the shops. I was going to have a nice leisurely lunch, do a little people watching and perhaps find a museum or two. I discovered during my research that there was a mountaintop to visit.
Mt. Evans is a mountain that stands over 14,000 feet and is accessible by the highest paved road in North America. The road rises 4000 feet in just 14 miles and travels around lots of twists and turns. The final few miles were hairpin turns with roads barely wide enough for two cars. The cars on the outside were inches from careening down a cliff and the ones on the inside risked scraping the side of their car on the tall mountain walls.
It was an amazing choice. I didn’t have the time to shop or eat in town, but the hours of climbing and photography was so worthwhile. It was too crowded, but it was still fun. The key is remembering that we are all on the same journey, facing the same obstacles and ending in the same place even if we do so in different ways. Some will be patient, while others will be less patient, anxious toget to the top and back down so they can go on to the next adventure. Some, like me, will stop at every opportunity to take pictures and bask in the majesty of God’s creation. Some will make connections; I asked others to take my photo and had conversations about what we were seeing. A young family pointed out a herd of mountain sheep at one lonely spot and we all complained about the long line at the restrooms and the cold wind that blew.
The trip can take as little as an hour, but it took me five hours. I suppose some of the time was taken because of the heavy traffic. It was difficult to find parking places and it was slow getting past the bicyclists and hikers that were sharing the road. For me, however, the time was spent staring at the mountain peaks that seem to go on forever and searching the tundra for wildflowers. I must have spent twenty minutes watching the mountain sheep graze just a few feet from me. At another spot, I spent time searching the hillside for marmots that I could hear but not see. I stopped to make a snowball and listen to the water running down the hill from a melting snow field.
The difference between the road up the mountain and the Texas roads I traveled along the way is striking. Texas is big and flat, and the roads are straight. You can drive fourteen miles in a matter of minutes rather than miles. This is good when you want to get to where you want to go, but sometimes the joy is found in the journey rather than the destination.
We are certainly comforted by the words of the Solomon in today’s Proverb. We want to trust God and His Word so that our paths will be made straight. It is easier and faster to travel on those Texas roads, but the climb to the top of the mountain offered so many wonderful opportunities. Just as a labyrinth provides us a chance to God promises to make our paths straight when we trust in Him, but lets not forget the blessings we will receive when we take our time on the journey, making connections with His people and creation. You never know what lessons you might learn along the way as we face frustration and exhaustion but also the moments of joy that lift us to new heights.
“And to the angel of the assembly in Sardis write: ‘He who has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars says these things: I know your works, that you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and keep the things that remain, which you were about to throw away, for I have found no works of yours perfected before my God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If therefore you won’t watch, I will come as a thief, and you won’t know what hour I will come upon you. Nevertheless you have a few names in Sardis that did not defile their garments. They will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will be arrayed in white garments, and I will in no way blot his name out of the book of life, and I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the assemblies.” Revelation 3:1-6, WEB
The road I drove to the top of Mt. Evans does not lead anywhere except to the top of the mountain. That is how it is like a labyrinth: you follow the path in and then out again, without the kind of choices we usually have in life. I was as amazed by the lack of anything to see but mountains from every scenic stop. There were no lovely little farms or ranches in the valleys, not quaint cabins along the lakes. The landscape was covered with trees to the treeline and then tundra flora at the higher elevations. There was life; I saw a herd of mountain sheep and heard marmots on a hillside. And, of course, there were cars and people along the road.
There is a reason why people don’t live in those valleys or by those mountain lakes: the landscape is intolerable for human habitation for most of the year. The road I drove is only open from the end of May to the beginning of October. The top five miles is closed much earlier in the year. It can snow in July in those upper elevations, although the deeper snow doesn’t fall until wintertime. The annual precipitation can be anywhere from twenty to fifty inches, which can equal close to twenty to fifty feet in snow. The roads at the highest altitudes are impassible for most of the year. There are no ranches because people simply can’t live for most of the year in total isolation buried under so much snow.
Yet life exists in this seemingly unlivable place. The trees and other plants survive the bitter temperatures and extreme precipitation. Even the animals manage to live in those places where humans cannot. Now, there are a few hearty souls who manage to hike those high peaks, even in the deepest winter, although the smart hikers research the options and choose the safest. The most experienced hikers can run into deadly trouble on those paths in the middle of winter.
The climb to the top of Mt. Evans made me think about life, perhaps as much because of the seemingly lack of life I saw. And yet, I spent hours photographing the abundant wildflowers that colored my path even above the treeline. The mountain lake at 12,000 feet was surrounded by lush, green grasses. The herd of mountain goats, including the incredibly adorable baby, proves that there is life on those hillsides. The sound of the marmots was like music in the air even though I could never see the animals who were singing. I imagine the lakes were full of fish and that the forests were full of elk, moose, all sorts of bears, deer and wildcats. Smaller animals and birds also live there.
We might think there is no life in a place that seems lifeless, but we are reminded that life can be found in the most seemingly desolate places. I have heard, much too often, that a church is ‘dead’ and that there is no life found within. What does that mean? What is life? Those who say this are looking for something specific, like ranches and farms in the valleys and cabins by the lakes, but they forget that there is flora and fauna that were created by God and that survive well in those places, we just have to look to see it. And when we do, rejoice in what God has been doing in that place.
See, God is at work in the hearts of Christians even in the most lifeless places and He will bring life in due season. Perhaps those places that seem lifeless just need the warmth of summer to melt the ice, to bring forth beauty of the wildflowers and the new birth that comes with spring. Instead of rejecting those places that seem lifeless, perhaps we need to be like those winter hikers, willing to go into the desolate places at the worst of times to take the love and light of Christ that will melt the hardest hearts. I doubt that I’ll ever climb to the top of a 14er (what they call the 14,000 foot peaks) in the middle of winter, but I can look for life wherever I happen to be, to see the possibilities in God’s creation and trust that He will bring life out of the cold winter.
The bible warns that there will be dead churches, but there is also hope. There is life in those lifeless places because the Spirit of God dwells there in the Word and in the hearts of those who do believe. It is up to us to shine the light of Christ, to reveal God’s grace and to those whose hearts are frozen. God can melt the hardest heart and bring life to the most barren places. He can transform the bleakest winters into the most beautiful springtimes.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 31, 2016, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-26; Psalm 100; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
“There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God.” Ecclesiastes 2:24, WEB
I cleaned some of my carpet yesterday. I didn’t do the whole house. I didn’t even do an entire room. I spot cleaned the places that were high traffic areas and that had stains from kids and cats. It took me a couple hours and didn’t look perfect, but the work made a difference. It made a difference for a moment. Oh, no one has managed to stain it yet, but I’m expecting to find a trail of soda dribbles or gifts left by the cats any day now. A stain appeared within twenty-four hours the last time I cleaned the carpet. Why bother?
Have you ever noticed that you can never truly be finished with the dishes and the laundry? There’s always a cup in the sink and clothes in the hamper because as soon as the dirty dishes are washed, someone is searching for a drink and I don’t do my laundry naked, so the clothes on my back will need to be washed tomorrow. Why bother?
I am sure you can think of a number of tasks that frustrate you and make you wonder why you bother to do them. The bed will be messed up, the grass will grow and the car will just get dirty again. We do these things because we know that it will be harder if we let them go. How much easier is it to do a handful of dishes than a whole sinkful when we run out of clean glasses? How much easier is it to do a couple loads of laundry rather than a day’s worth when we have nothing clean to wear? It seems pointless, but in the end it is better to do what we can at the moment rather than wait until it is unavoidable.
I am an artist, but I have to admit that I haven’t spent much time in my studio over the past couple of months. I have a painting that has been on the easel for so long I can’t remember the last time I added paint. I have other projects spread out on every flat surface. I have my Christmas ornaments planned and the materials purchased, but it is all stored away for the moment that I get around to working on the project. I know I need to prepare for an upcoming show, but I have to admit that sometimes it seems meaningless. I have dozens of finished paintings stored that no one seems to want. Why bother to paint anymore?
Oh, I’ll get back in the studio and I’ll love every minute. Even if the paintings end up as gifts or donations to charities, I’ll find a way to use them. I work in my studio not just for the finished product, however. It is also about the process. It is a way to share my gifts, but also to bask in them, for I find myself in prayer and wonderment as I put color on canvas. Perhaps, someday, my work will be lasting and will mean something to someone somewhere for a very long time.
Our earthly pursuits, while important to us today, are ultimately meaningless. The sink fills with dishes and the carpet becomes stained, but our life is better for having done the work along the way. We will find that our other earthly pursuits will also be meaningless to us, for we can’t take it with us after we die. Even the things we love, like our traditions, die as new ones are created. Our hobbies come and go as new ones are revealed; our interests change with the trends of the day. Knowledge grows as new discoveries are made. Language evolves so that old literature seems outdated and irrelevant to modern generations. Even our human relationships change as we move on to new places and people. Though a few people may achieve a sort of immortality as they are remembered for some great accomplishment, most of us will end up as little more than a footnote in a family Bible or a gravestone in a cemetery.
The text from Ecclesiastes is somewhat depressing. It is so hard for us to think that everything we do has no meaning at all. At least my painting, and writing, leaves something behind. But what about all the people who do work that leaves no tangible mark? What about the store clerk who checks groceries all day or the accountant whose work involves columns of numbers that will change with the wind?
We work many hours a day, week and month to accomplish our goals in life. We do it to feed our families and ensure that we have a nice place to live and a comfortable existence. We practice our hobbies so that we can be good at them. We read books to gain knowledge, follow the news to stay informed. We create friendships so that we will not be lonely, but will be happy and satisfied. We don’t think any of this is meaningless. It means something to us. Even our clean dishes and clothes mean something even though they will be dirty again tomorrow.
So, we ask the question, “If everything is meaningless, why bother?” Why do we have to live in this world and do what we do? What is the ultimate purpose of our existence? Unfortunately, we tend to think of success in terms of what we have collected. We are intelligent when we have collected enough knowledge. We are wealthy when we have collected enough money. We are happy when we have collected plenty of beautiful things. But are we? Are we wise when we know the formula for determining the speed of light? Are we rich when we have millions tucked away on CDs? Are the happy people those who have the newest sports car in their driveway?
Vanities of vanities, all is vanity. At times it seems like this is true. The passage from Ecclesiastes seems to be without any hope at all. Yet, as we are reminded of the truth that our pursuits are meaningless in the greater scheme of things, we are also reminded that there is an even greater scheme. Though our toil is in vain and will be forgotten someday, our hope rests in something much greater than ourselves. In knowing, and living, this truth, we will see that God’s purposes and pursuits are not so meaningless. There is truth in the statement from Ecclesiastes. Everything is meaningless. Life is vanity when it is lived for the sake of perishable things.
The problem is that we get so caught up in the quest to do this work that we forget the source of our blessings. Solomon writes, “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God.” There are few people throughout the span of history who can claim to be as blessed as Solomon. He was given wisdom and wealth and every good thing, but in the end he knew it was not his to hoard. God blessed Solomon to be a blessing. He blessed us to do the same.
St. Basil the Great writes about today’s Gospel lesson: “You who have wealth, recognize who has given you the gifts you have received. Consider yourself, who you are, what has been committed to your charge, from whom you have received it, why you have been preferred to most other people. You’re the servant of the good God, a steward on behalf of your fellow servants. Do not imagine that everything has been provided for your own stomach. Take decisions regarding your property as thought it belonged to another. Possessions give you pleasure for a short time, but then they will slip through your fingers and be gone, and you will be required to give an account of them.”
St. Basil talks about how the rich man in today’s text doesn’t know what to do with all his stuff. He has so much from this harvest and previous harvests that he decides to build a bigger barn. And yet, we are reminded, that his life could be taken at any minute. What good is all that grain wasting away in a barn? And what will the next person do with it?
How much better would it have been to give some of that grain to feed the hungry? The rich man was given excess not so that he could hoard it in bigger and better barns but so that he could provide for those who had less. If he recognized that his blessing came from God, belonged to someone else, he might have done something completely different with his excess.
Paul writes in our epistle lesson for today, “Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth.” The earthbound attitude is one of self-centeredness; when we chase after the things of this world we lose sight of the things that truly matter. We eat, drink and be merry, not in celebration of God’s grace, but in boastful merriment of our own accomplishments, building bigger barns to hold all our stuff.
We are called to live a life that rejects the attitudes and actions that are earthly like “sexual immorality, uncleanness, depraved passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Paul reminds us that we are a new creation; though we were once like the rest of the human race, tempted and weak against the ways of the world, we have put on Christ and we live for Him. Paul writes, “...and have put on the new man, who is being renewed in knowledge after the image of his Creator.” This is why we were created; this is our reason for life. We were created to become like Jesus, to live as He lived and share everything God has put into our care so that all will come to know His love and mercy.
Our human nature is like that of the man in Jesus’ parable. We tend to think of ourselves and what we can do to make our lives better. We work and save; we hoard our blessings and think that those things will save us. We look to our financial independence as our security and we put our leftovers in bank accounts for tomorrow. We are like the man who says, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years. Take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.” It is about us.
Jesus calls us to be rich toward God. Our life is not meaningless, but our striving after things is vanity. We do that work that makes us wonder why we bother because we know it will make life better for others. We do the dishes and clean the carpet so that our home is clean and comfortable for those we love. God created us for a purpose even if the purpose doesn’t seem very lasting. He has given us many gifts to use for His glory. We are a new creation in Christ and in Christ we are called to manifest His grace to the world. Paul writes in our epistle lesson for today, “Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth.”
The teacher writes, “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God.” Despite the seemingly cynical attitude of most of the passage from Ecclesiastes, the teacher also knows that there is value in the work we do according to God’s will and purpose. When we use our gifts and respond to our calling, we’ll find true joy in our work. It will not be toil or a striving after the wind. It will not be vanity. It will have power and purpose, and we’ll really know what it means to be satisfied and happy.
The psalmist writes, “Shout for joy to Yahweh, all you lands! Serve Yahweh with gladness. Come before his presence with singing. Know that Yahweh, he is God. It is he who has made us, and we are his. We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, and bless his name. For Yahweh is good. His loving kindness endures forever, his faithfulness to all generations.
I get frustrated by the continuous work necessary to keep my house clean and comfortable, but doing these tasks also gives me joy because I know it will benefit my family. I get disappointed when yet another painting I’ve created gets stored in a closet gathering dust, yet I find such joy in the moments when I can share my paintings in some way whether it is as a gift or donation. The key to the joy is to remember that our gifts and resources are not ours to keep, but have been given to us by God to be used for His glory. We are blessed to be a blessing. It is meaningless to build bigger barns to hold more grain when there is a world of people who can share in the excess that God has given to us, but there is nothing better for us than to eat and drink, and make our souls enjoy good in our labor because this is also from the hand of God.
“But ask the animals, now, and they shall teach you; the birds of the sky, and they shall tell you. Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach you. The fish of the sea shall declare to you. Who doesn’t know that in all these, Yahweh’s hand has done this, in whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind? Doesn’t the ear try words, even as the palate tastes its food? With aged men is wisdom, in length of days understanding.” Job 12:7-12, WEB
I love to take road trips, but it can get very frustrating to find something on the radio. The radio is especially important when you are traveling alone, because it provides a sense of companionship. The radio in my new car is not very good; I need a booster or something that will help extend the range I can pick up my favorite stations. Even at that, the best stations will be lost eventually and it is difficult to find new ones, particularly along the lonely roads of the West. The perfect solution is to listen to CDs; even better is to listen to books on CD. I managed to get through 4 books during my last trip and have discovered that the readers often make wonderful companions on those long, lonely roads.
One book I heard was called “Following Atticus” by Tom Ryan. The story is about the life-changing relationship between a man and his dog. Tom was a bit of a loner, a man who had trouble building relationships and who really didn’t want the responsibility of taking care of anyone or anything. He ran an independent newspaper in a small town in New England, a paper that took on the powers of the town. He was equally loved and hated, and was often threatened for the stories he was writing about the corruption. One day he learned that there was a dog that was unloved and unwanted. Regretting it even as he volunteered, Tom adopted Max. Max was a miniature schnauzer, exactly the type of dog Tom would not like. In the eighteen months that they lived together, Max made an impact on Tom.
Max died, leaving a hole in Tom’s life, so he found a breeder who sold him another miniature schnauzer which he named Atticus M. Finch. Atticus became part of Tom’s work, going with him everywhere as he did his research for his paper. Tom was not in the best of shape, but having a dog meant going on walks. They eventually started hiking the trails of the White Mountains National Park in New Hampshire. There are forty-eight 4000 foot peaks and they rather quickly hiked all forty-eight, earning a place in the four thousand foot club. One day Tom decided that they should do the winter hikes, too. There is an even more exclusive club for those who hike to the top of all forty-eight peaks twice in a season, meaning that they do ninety-six peaks in the ninety days between the winter solstice and vernal equinox.
People thought he was crazy. He was barely in good enough shape to hike the mountains, let alone trying it in the snow covered winter months. Even worse was the fact that he was putting a miniature schnauzer through the same challenges. He was repeatedly told, “You can’t take that dog up there,” but Atticus not only survived the adventure, he flourished in it. Tom was always careful to let Atticus lead the way and if the dog was not comfortable with a hike, they didn’t go. Unfortunately, though they tried for two seasons to hike the ninety-six in ninety, they didn’t quite make it either year. Still, they did more than I could ever have done and they did it together.
Tom and Atticus went through many other struggles. Besides facing the threats of those who were not happy with Tom’s newspaper, Atticus became ill with cataracts and cancer. Tom could not afford to deal with the doctor bills but refused to let Atticus suffer. Thankfully, many of Tom’s friends helped with donations. Many hikers who followed Tom’s adventures on the mountain trails also helped. The doctors did an amazing job and after it was over, Atticus was healthy enough to go back onto his mountains. Atticus lived for fourteen years and taught Tom lessons about patience, perseverance and love. They faced every challenge together.
While I disagree with Tom’s ideas about politics and religion, I learned lessons from his stories, too. I recalled so much of it as I drove (not hiked!) to the top of my own mountain. I imagined little Atticus looking over the views with me, pointing with his concentration at the serenity of the endless peaks. I wondered at how he managed to climb the steep trails and how he didn’t get tired as he bounded along trail after trail. I shivered in the cold wind and chilly temperatures, marveling at how both Tom and Atticus could have survived through winter storms. And I realized, even though Tom did not really believe in God, that God could us both Tom and Atticus to reveal Himself to those who are willing to listen.
I can’t climb to the top of the mountain and wonder at God’s marvelous grace. He made it. He made those mountains, He planted the seeds of every tree and wildflower and He gave life and breath to the animals that live there. His hands were in it all. Job knew this, despite the difficulties that he was facing. Job knew that God was in the midst of it all and that we can see and hear Him through all God’s creation. He governs all life and we who will see can find wisdom even in the actions of a miniature schnauzer.
“When they had come to Capernaum, those who collected the didrachma coins came to Peter, and said, ‘Doesn’t your teacher pay the didrachma?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ When he came into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth receive toll or tribute? From their children, or from strangers?’ Peter said to him, ‘From strangers.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Therefore the children are exempt. But, lest we cause them to stumble, go to the sea, cast a hook, and take up the first fish that comes up. When you have opened its mouth, you will find a stater coin. Take that, and give it to them for me and you.’” Matthew 17:24-27, WEB
God will provide. As I researched today’s passage from Matthew, I found a number of different interpretations of what this story means. One suggested that the particular coin despised by the Jews because it had the face of a false God, and that it was worse because it was unclean having come out of the fish. The interpreter thought that the incident was Jesus’ way of showing the disciples how unholy it was that sons of the Father had to pay a tax to the Father’s house. Others made references to the disciples being called to be fishers of men. Yet others talked about how Matthew the tax collector was the only one who mentioned this particular miracle. Though he didn’t collect the Temple tax, Matthew was interested in how Jesus dealt with the Christian’s relationship to the world.
I’m sure if I spent enough time I could find many deep and inspiring interpretations of this story. This is the most unusual miracle of all because it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with healing or even with proving the authority of Jesus Christ. Who saw this miracle? Matthew knew about it, but it seems to benefit only Jesus, Peter and the Temple. Why would Jesus go to so much trouble to pay a tax that He taught is not necessary?
Peter didn’t really understand; he wanted Jesus to be right according to the ways of the laws. He didn’t want Jesus to appear an insincere Jew. He wanted Jesus to appear law-abiding and committed to the Jewish faith. “Of course Jesus does what is right,” he told the tax collector. Jesus asked him, however, “What is right?” In this case, it isn’t right for the Son of God to pay a tax to God’s own house, but Jesus used this as an opportunity to teach Peter and the disciples yet another lesson. Sometimes it is necessary to do what we do so as not to offend others, and when we do so, we can trust that God will provide us with what we need. This is not just about avoiding offense, but about drawing people to God.
We live in a difficult time. It isn’t any more difficult that other eras throughout human history, but for us today, it is a time of frustration and confusion. We are so divided, even among the Christian Church. We don’t agree about how to deal with the world around us. We argue about which candidate for President is best for our nation, I’ve even heard people on both sides suggest that the supporters of an opponent can’t possibly be Christian. We can’t agree on which programs will serve God best. We even argue about the Gospel: what is it and what does it mean?
Jesus told Peter he was confused, but added that they would pay the tax so that the others would have nothing to hold against them. Then Jesus told Peter where to get the coin. “Do not worry about it,” Jesus said, “God will provide.” God paid the tax. This is, of course, a foreshadowing of what Jesus would pay for our sin on the cross. There will always be times when we have to do something so as not to offend that is not according to God’s Word, but we are reminded that when we do fail to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, Jesus paid the price. The coin Peter found was not just enough to pay for Jesus’ tax, but also for Peter’s. God provided for His Son and for His adopted son. On the cross Jesus paid the price ultimately for everyone.
There are, of course, times when we have to stand up for truth, to risk everything to be obedient to God rather than the world. However, Jesus reminds us that sometimes we should do what will not offend so as to not give the world reason to reject our God. Sometimes it is necessary to pay the unnecessary tax knowing that God will provide. He will provide us the strength and the courage and ultimately the forgiveness to do what we must to glorify Him in this world.
The end of this very difficult time will mean that half the Christians will be disappointed with the selection of President. The other half will believe that God was on their side. Whatever happens, whoever is President, let us always remember that God is in control. He has a purpose and He calls us to live in trust that He will provide what we need. It is always hard to support ‘the other’ but it may just be in that opportunity that we can best glorify God.