Welcome to the October 2018 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.
A WORD FOR TODAY, October 2018
“For the word of God is living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and is able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart. There is no creature that is hidden from his sight, but all things are naked and laid open before the eyes of him to whom we must give an account. Having then a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold tightly to our confession. For we don’t have a high priest who can’t be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but one who has been in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with boldness to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace for help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:12-16, WEB
Children have very short memories when it comes to disagreements with their friends. Oh, they’ll get overdramatic and say “I never want to see you again,” stomping away in a huff. Sometimes they’ll even find a new friend as a playmate. Hurt feelings can lead to more hurt feelings. However, with children, those hurt feelings don’t last very long. Children usually overcome their drama and end up friends again. Two friends become three as everyone forgives and forgets whatever made them upset in the first place.
Unfortunately, in today’s world some children think that the best way to solve their problems is to react in a violent way. Children are using weapons of destruction, such as guns and knives, to bring so-called peace to their lives. It never really leads to peace, however.
I once visited the Oklahoma City Memorial and it had a powerful impact on me. Timothy McVeigh took his anger to another level. He used thousands of pounds of explosives to destroy a building when only a few hundred would level it. He took the lives of 168 people and destroyed the lives of thousands because he separated himself and became bitter and angry.
How often do we solve our problems by separating ourselves? When our friends hurt us, we break off the relationships. When we can’t handle our spouse, we get a divorce. When we see the human imperfections of our brethren at church, we decide we don’t need Christian fellowship to have a relationship with God so we leave the church and try to do it on our own. We separate ourselves from our relationships, but that separation does not bring us peace.
The one thing I learned at the Oklahoma City Memorial is that we cannot fix our problems from the outside. We have to stay inside our families, our friendships, our communities, our church to make things right and to find peace.
The writer of Hebrews gives us a place to start: within ourselves. When Adam and Eve first sinned in the Garden of Eden, God cast them out, not to separate them from Himself. He did not want them eating the fruit of the tree of life, thus being forever afraid of their Father. Death was a mercy. A lesser god might have made that separation complete, casting them out of His presence forever. Instead, our God stayed with His people from the beginning, even in our unfaithfulness, always providing a way out for us. He had a plan from the beginning for his rebellious people, to send His Son to dwell among us, to be tempted by the same things but remaining without sin. Jesus Christ knows what it is like to live like a human. He loved us so much that He died on the cross so that we would no longer be separated from Him. He changes us from within so that we will share His message and change our families, friendships and churches from within. Outside we know only anger, bitterness and strife. Inside, we can give love, peace and joy.
“Then the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph came near. These are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, at the door of the Tent of Meeting, saying, ‘Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against Yahweh in the company of Korah, but he died in his own sin. He had no sons. Why should the name of our father be taken away from among his family, because he had no son? Give to us a possession among the brothers of our father.’ Moses brought their cause before Yahweh. Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, ‘The daughters of Zelophehad speak right. You shall surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brothers. You shall cause the inheritance of their father to pass to them. You shall speak to the children of Israel, saying, “If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall cause his inheritance to pass to his daughter. If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. If his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his kinsman who is next to him of his family, and he shall possess it. This shall be a statute and ordinance for the children of Israel, as Yahweh commanded Moses.”’” Numbers 27:1-11, WEB
Matters of inheritance can be sticky. We’ve all heard stories of families that have fallen apart over who gets what when someone dies. I was very blessed because my brother and sister were supportive when I was executor of our father’s estate. Mom died seven years earlier and Daddy made sure everything was in place for us, but there were still decisions that had to be made. Bills had to be paid and people had to be notified. All the papers were signed and filed in a relatively brief period of time. The little that was left was divided and distributed among us. I was glad it was over, but I was particularly glad that there was no drama. In the end, everyone was satisfied.
The same can’t be said about many other families. I’ve heard horror stories of the fights that have occurred in the aftermath of a death. A recent move, although fictional, showed just one way families suffer. A woman died and left everything she had to her only relative and a caretaker. They were both deceased, so the inheritance when on to their closest relative. A woman inherited the relative’s half and a man inherited the caretaker’s half. They figured out how to share the inheritance, but after a time a third heir came forward. She was abroad and did not get the notification until well after the reading of the will. She arrived on the scene, insistent on her share. Since it was a building that the woman and man had restored into a bed and breakfast with their own money, there was no way to give her a third. She insisted on the value of her inheritance, an impossible figure for the man and woman to raise to end the battle.
That might be fiction, but it was probably based on someone’s story. I found a website where people can post their inheritance horror stories and some of them are amazing. In one case, a widow remarried a man who had a daughter. She had a son. The man lay dying in the hospital with his wife and step-son at his side. His daughter was at the bank emptying his bank accounts. In another story, the deceased had a fear of banks, and so had a fortune hidden around their house, with notes as to who should receive the money. Even before the body was cold, the son when into the house, found all the money and burned the notes, removing all evidence of the intensions of the deceased.
Money is certainly the cause of all this drama, but the fights revolve around property and stuff. These fights end relationships, cause rifts in families and cost too much money in lawyers’ fees and court costs. There might be value in the items for which people are fighting, but is anything worth broken relationships?
I wonder what happened when Moses told the people that the daughter’s deserved their father’s portion. Did someone fight because they thought they should get a larger portion since the man was gone? Did they think that the girls deserved nothing because they were girls? The girls boldly approached Moses for justice. Without it, those daughters would be at the mercy of people who might not be merciful. Where would they live? What would they eat? How would they survive the future? They would have to find a husband, which might be difficult because they had no dowry to take into the marriage.
God is just. He has provided in this story for the well-being of those who are left behind after a person dies. There are things we can and should do to prevent the inheritance horror stories that we have heard. Unfortunately, even if we have legal documents proving the intensions of the deceased, there are people willing to fight for every penny they think they deserve. We are reminded, however, that God is gracious and merciful and that He calls us to be the same. Are you dealing with relationships broken over uncertain inheritances? Are you fighting with others over stuff? Is there someone who has been left out that needs a portion to live? What would God have you do?
Scriptures for Sunday, October 7, 2018, Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 2:18-25; Psalm 128; Hebrews 2:1-13 (14-18); Mark 10:2-16
“Therefore we ought to pay greater attention to the things that were heard, lest perhaps we drift away.” Hebrews 2:1, WEB
There was a time when the world was perfect. It lasted about five minutes and then the serpent convinced Adam and Eve that they could be like God. Until that moment, God ruled their hearts, life was forever; Adam and Eve were innocent and happy. Then sin became part of their lives. Instead of being the people God created them to be, they were corrupted, changed in a way that would separate them from the Father who loved them.
First they were created good. I love the imagery in this second account of the creation. There are some who have suggested that the appearance of two different, supposedly conflicting accounts mean that the text had to be written by two different authors. However, it is far more likely that the different accounts simply served a different purpose. The first account, which addresses God with the name “Elohim” (which means “strength”) is given so that we will see God as the Creator of all things. The second account calls Him “Yahweh” which denotes the spiritual, moral authority of God. It shows God in relationship with His creation. That is certainly true when we read this story.
Have you ever thought about the names you hear and wonder, “How did someone come up with that?” Anyone who has had a pet or a child knows how difficult it is to come up with a name. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was absolutely certain that I was carrying a boy, and so I made Bruce think of a boy’s name and I didn’t bother. One night, just a week or so before she was born, Bruce said, “It could be a girl, you know.” I said, “I know. If it is a girl we will name her Victoria.” Since my firstborn is named Victoria, you can see that he was right. As I tell this story, it might seem as though I put no thought to her name. I didn’t, at that moment, but I’d been through the baby name books, considered family names, wondered about the person that child would grow up to be. Though I had never voiced the name before that moment, I think it had always been on the tip of my tongue.
Those of us who name animals and people today have a long history of names from which to choose. While we have to choose, we don’t have to come up with a name out of the blue. Of course, there are some people who do. They pick random letters from names or put together syllables in new ways, but most people use a word or name that already exists. I have recently learned that the Abcde (pronounced absidee) is a very popular name around San Antonio (and perhaps elsewhere.)
Adam had no names from which to choose. I’m not even sure where the creation of language falls chronologically in the history that underlies the biblical account, except that maybe naming the animals is a simplistic account of that aspect of human development. It doesn’t matter, really. What matters is that we look at this story from the point of view that this is an account of the way God calls His people to work with Him in the world. He called Adam to be a co-creator with Him, just as He continues to call us to be like Him in this way. While we will never be able to make something out of nothing, God has invited us to make many things from that which we have been given.
After God and Adam created and named all the animals, God realized that there was no creature truly compatible for Adam. He needed a helpmate, someone like him, a part of him, of the same flesh and blood. Now, there are those who are bothered by this story because the scientific truth is that men do not have one less rib than women. Though there are always exceptions to the rule, every human being has twelve pairs of ribs. So, we dismiss the story as just a story because our human logic demands it. However, there’s something about the word used in the Hebrew that might tell more of the story. Apparently it can also be translated “side.” Perhaps it was not just a rib that was used to create Eve, but Adam’s whole side? This is strengthened by Adam’s statement that she was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. This particular story of Adam and Eve shows us that they were created as one flesh, equal and complimentary, standing side by side together in God’s kingdom.
Historically there have always been those who suggest that this creation story makes Eve inferior to Adam, but the reality is that God created Adam and Eve to live and work together with the Father in this perfect world He created. The relationship between Adam and Eve, the marriage relationship, is a vital relationship, the foundation of community. From marriage leads to children and the future. God’s intention was for people to join together and work together. No man, or woman, can stand alone. We need to be part of the larger community. The plan for God’s people begins with the family. But God did not intend for it to stop there. Families are part of the larger world and we join our families to work together for a common purpose, together we can accomplish God's work in the world.
This is why God used marriage as a parallel to His relationship with the Church. He marries us, binds us with Him in a way that can’t is eternal, never to be separated. We are His bride and will be forever. Sadly, we try to define our relationship with God in other ways. We call Him friend, teacher, Father. And while we can use these words to define our relationship with Him, they are relationships that in life are temporary. Friends can be separated. Teachers go away and students often surpass the teacher's knowledge. Even the father/child relationship is temporary. Eventually every child must leave home to follow their own life. But the relationship as husband and wife has been defined from the beginning as one that will never end.
The book of Mark compares and contrasts the kingdom of God with the kingdom of the world. Mark begins to show the conflict between Jesus and the leaders very early, within the first couple chapters. They begin plotting in chapter three. So, here we have the Pharisees coming to Jesus with a question. “What about divorce?” they ask. Still on the minds of so many people was the recent beheading of John the Baptist. John was beheaded not because he preached, but because the wife of Herod was offended by his preaching. Herod actually liked John and listened to him. Herod, however, was living with his brother’s wife; he divorced his own wife and stole Herodias to be his own. There was so much wrong with this relationship that it is no wonder that John the Baptist accused Herod of doing wrong.
So the question about divorce was not simply to question Jesus about His theological stance on relationships, but to get Him to say something that would make Herod and his wife angry enough to demand another head.
Jesus answered with a question, “What does the law say?” They answered that Moses allowed them to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her. In the Torah, Moses gave the people a law that said it was ok for a man to divorce his wife if she became displeasing to him. Divorce was legal, but the theologians in Jesus’ day disagreed about what that meant. What did it mean to displease the husband, what was considered indecent? Some thought it meant only marital unfaithfulness. Others interpreted this passage to mean anything that displeased the man. He could even divorce her if she just burned the toast.
Jesus answered the question through the prism of the creation story. The laws defined women as being inferior, as having no power or control, but God created man and woman to stand with one another. Jesus said that both the man and the woman have a responsibility to uphold the covenantal relationship of marriage and if they don’t, then they cause the spouse to sin. This, perhaps, took John’s admonition a step further. John told Herod that he should not be married to his brother’s wife. Jesus said that both the man and the woman who divorce their spouses cause the other to commit adultery. Herod and Herodias were equal partners in their own marriage, both sinfully breaking relationships for something new.
Adam and Eve were created and they lived in the garden with God. They were innocent and pure, loving the Father who loved them. Unfortunately, in the grand scheme of eternity, it took only a brief moment for Man and Woman to destroy the relationship they had with God. They fell for the lies of the adversary and turned from their God. Once the relationship with God was broken, all the others became vulnerable. As we look around the world today, we see so much suffering because sin builds walls and hardens hearts against those whom God has made for one another. Most of all, we suffer because we are not in fellowship with our Creator. The broken marriage mirrors the very consequence of the sin that became part of us, our broken relationship with God.
How it must have pained Jesus to see how broken His children had become, so broken that they needed laws to ensure that their brokenness would be handled in an orderly manner. But even the law could not restore relationships, particularly the one between God and His people. Jesus told the Pharisees that while they had the right, and perhaps even good reason, to divorce their wives, they were sinning against God by breaking the relationship. Jesus made it even clearer for the disciples: anyone who divorces and remarries commits adultery because they have broken what God has put together.
But that’s exactly why Jesus came to live amongst His people. He came to restore relationships by providing a means for forgiveness: first with God and then with each other. He came to make it possible for people to live in harmony with their Creator, with the creation, and with each other. We live in a broken world, and even after the cross we still have hard hearts against one another because we have not yet been made perfect. The sin that became part of our lives in Eden still plagues us today. We will still sin against God and one another, divorce will still happen. But while Jesus encourages us to do everything possible to maintain the relationships which God has given us, He has provided the forgiveness we need when we fail. He died on the cross to establish a new relationship with His people, a relationship based on faith rather than law.
God created us to be in relationship with Him, with His creation and with each other. Throughout our lives we sometimes fail to maintain those relationships that God has given to us. When we break the connections that link us to others and to all of God's creation, we not only sin against our brothers and sisters, but we sin against God. There is nothing we can do to fix the brokenness of this world, but Jesus can and did. He restored our relationship with God through forgiveness of our sins on the cross.
The psalmist shows us what life is like when our relationships are strong. “For you will eat the labor of your hands. You will be happy, and it will be well with you. Your wife will be as a fruitful vine, in the innermost parts of your house; your children like olive plants, around your table.” This blessed life begins with loving God. “Behold, thus is the man blessed who fears Yahweh.” Life lived in faith in the kingdom of the world mirrors the life God intends for us in kingdom of heaven.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that God spoke first through the prophets and then through the Son. The Son was not simply a man; He was the One through whom everything was created. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. Man is the image of God, but Jesus was more. He is the Word of God. This passage does not just define Jesus’ divinity; it also defines His humanity. Jesus was fully divine and He was fully human. He was not only the Son of God, but He came to be in relationship with us as the Son of Man. He came to form a bond that cannot be broken.
“What is man, that you think of him?” This is a great question. After all, when you consider the entire creation, human beings aren’t much. There are more than seven billion people living on earth at this moment. Best estimates say that there are probably about two hundred billion stars just in our galaxy, the Milky Way. There isn’t even a word to describe the number of stars in the entire universe. Someone has guessed that there are probably about a hundred trillion mosquitoes living on the earth at any one moment. There are about eighty-six million house cats living in the United States, but there is no estimate of how many cats (domestic and wild) might live on the earth. In other words, we are pretty rare in the whole scheme of creation. We are not the largest or the smallest. We aren’t the strongest, fastest or prettiest. We might even argue that we aren’t the smartest. But we were created uniquely in God’s image and charged with the care of all that God has made.
Though we have dominion over the rest of creation, we don’t have much to brag about, do we? Who are we that God would know us, not only as a species but as individuals? Who are we that God would care about each one of us personally? The answer is amazing: we are His, created in His image for a purpose. We are created to be part of a community, to be in relationship, not only with each other but also with the world and with our God. This is pretty amazing.
When the writer of Hebrews asks “What is man, that you think of him?” he is quoting a psalm with one particular human in mind: the new Adam, through whom all things were made. Men and women were given dominion over all creation, but we haven’t done a very good job. We have not been the best caretakers of all that God has given us. This is not simply an environmental concern or a question over the care of the animals. We fail with our human relationships, too. We use our power and resources in the wrong ways. We take advantage of others. We don’t share what we have with our neighbors. We are sad and broken people, in need of someone to show us how it should be done. But we need more than just a good example. We need a Savior.
Jesus, the new Adam, being an exact imprint of God’s being, a reflection of His glory, sustains all things by His powerful Word. He could have made the world perfect with a word, taking all fear and pain away by His grace. Yet, the plan to restore God’s people to one another, to the creation and to God required something more than a word. God established a new covenant, a covenant that we could not break, a covenant that was established in and through His own Son, Jesus the Christ, who was born among men to suffer and die for our sake. Then He was raised into new life to be the first of God’s children crowned in glory.
The world today is not Eden. We have not been returned to the paradise that existed in that heartbeat before sin entered our lives. We continue to fail to be the people God created us to be. However, we have hope in Jesus Christ, who has promised that one day we will live in the world that God intended, where we dwell together in His Kingdom forever unashamed and without reason to fear. Until that day we have to live together as best we can in His grace.
Adam and Eve had what we long to have. They did not need the Gospel of Jesus Christ because they were created according to God’s good and perfect will. It took only a heartbeat for them to destroy not only their innocence and holiness, but also every relationship that would follow, especially the relationship between God and His people. The writer of Hebrews reminds us, however, that we have reason to hope. We hope in the Gospel, the promise that God has and will restore everything as it was meant to be. “Therefore we ought to pay greater attention to the things that were heard, lest perhaps we drift away.” Let us never forget what God has done, Christ has done, and the Holy Spirit continues to do in our world. The Kingdom of God is a promise that exists today, now, here. Let us live in faith working with God in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
“Therefore Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” John 20:31, WEB I heard an interview about the problem with memory. We have an incredible capacity to remember things, but we often forget or remember wrongly. A study was done with people after the horrific events of September 11, 2001. They were asked to write down what they experienced immediately following the event. Sometime later they were asked to remember those moments again. When they reviewed the original stories, many of them were certain they were wrong. They couldn’t understand why they would lie in those moments, but their current memories were so different. They believed what they remembered now had to be right.
We don’t know why our memories might change over time. Our brains do not record these memories like movies that can’t be changed; they are edited over time. When we remember one moment in two very different ways, we think one must be a lie, but the reality is that our brains are imperfect and we can’t rely on our memories. It is odd that those people thought the original writings must have been lies; the closer we are to any moment, the closer we are to the real story. Think about mother giving birth. Ask her how she feels in the first few moments and she’ll tell you she’s exhausted, in pain, afraid and uncertain about the future. Ask that same mother about the birth of her child when he or she is about to graduate high school and she’ll tell you it was the most beautiful moment of her life. It was truly an exhausting, painful, fearful and uncertain moment, but she forgets all that to celebrate her beautiful child.
This is why we need more than our memories. I just finished reading a book about a German man and his family during World War II, his work behind the scenes in the secret fight against Adolf Hitler. The story was based on true story, shared by a woman’s husband’s family. She researched and found evidence that the stories they told were real and she wrote the book about the man. All too often those stories are lost because no one bothered to write them down. I’ve heard people say that they regret never recording their loved ones as they talked and shared their lives. Even more so, people regret not writing down their own memories.
The person interviewed above suggested that we should all be keeping diaries so that as time passes we can look back on our stories with confidence that we are remembering what happened as it happened. It is funny; I have to admit that I often look back on this writing to find ideas for today. After nearly twenty years, there doesn’t seem to be anything new for me to say. Yet, as I reread those posts from the past, I have trouble remembering the details. Who was that friend? Where was I going? I wonder if it really happened that way. I think I have a good memory, but like all of us, it is imperfect. At least I have twenty years of writing to remind me. The thing we have to remember is that we are far more accurate in the moment than we are twenty years later.
John wrote the stories of Jesus down so that we would believe. He said there were many other stories, and we hear a few of them in the other Gospel accounts. There are those today who make claims about the writings of the scriptures; they declare it couldn’t happen the way it was written. “They must have forgotten.” Who would be more accurate: the one writing or the one thinking about it two thousand years later? I always amazed that modern theologians will argue with the church fathers about whether John really is John or someone else named John.
Let us remember, too, that the stories in the scriptures are not just the remembrances of people. They are the story of God, and He is able to ensure that the story is told as He intends. There’s a purpose to our stories. We learn from them. The woman wrote down the story of the man in Germany so that we would remember and avoid another ruler like Hitler. We tell our own stories so that our offspring will learn from them. God told His story so that we would believe. Our human memories might be imperfect, but His is always faithful and true.
“For this cause, I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, that you may be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inward man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; to the end that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be strengthened to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and height and depth, and to know Christ’s love which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to him be the glory in the assembly and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:14-21, WEB
We have this ongoing joke with our pastors. It is typical when we get together outside the faith community, like when we invite them for dinner in our homes or at a restaurant, for everyone to look to the pastor for prayer. We look to them because they are our example. It is their job to pray. Our pastors have decided that since it is their job and this is a personal gathering that it isn’t up to them. “I get paid to pray,” they say. “This is your time.” That’s one way to encourage others into active prayer lives.
See, even though our pastors are paid to pray, that doesn’t mean it is something we should ignore. We tend to let those trained in spiritual matters do the spiritual things, ignoring our responsibility to do those very things. We let the pastors be evangelists, but we should be sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with our neighbors. We let our pastors read the Bible and explain it to us, but we should spend time in God’s Word every day. We look to our pastors to take care of the business of the church; that’s what we hired them for, right? (We don’t hire our pastors, God calls them into ministry, but that’s for another day.)
Here’s the thing: our pastors need us as much as we need them. Yes, they have certain duties and responsibilities that are given to them at the time they come to our church to become our pastor, but that doesn’t mean we can’t step in to help. We can visit the sick and imprisoned. We can teach Bible studies. We can invite our neighbors to church events.
Most of all, we can pray. Paul writes about how he prays for the Christians, in hopeful expectation of God’s blessing on their lives of faith. He prays that they will know God’s love for them. This is certainly what our pastors do for us. We need to remember, however, that our pastors are Christians just like us. They need prayer, too. They need us to pray that they know God’s love for them. They need us to pray in hopeful expectation of God’s blessing on their lives of faith. They probably need our prayers more than we need theirs because as ministers they face attacks and difficulties we’ll never understand. They might be paid to pray, but we are privileged to do so for them. October is Pastor Appreciation month. We can do lots of things to show our pastors we are thankful for their ministry among us, but let us give them what they need the most: our prayers.
“Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and saw how the multitude cast money into the treasury. Many who were rich cast in much. A poor widow came, and she cast in two small brass coins, which equal a quadrans coin. He called his disciples to himself, and said to them, ‘Most certainly I tell you, this poor widow gave more than all those who are giving into the treasury, for they all gave out of their abundance, but she, out of her poverty, gave all that she had to live on.’” Mark 12:41-44, WEB
A story is told about a wealthy man who was hosting an employee and the employee’s wife for a weekend at the boss’s family home. The employee and his wife were nervous because they were not familiar with the lifestyle of the rich and famous. The boss was very generous and they enjoyed indulging in the extravagance of the wealthy man’s bounteousness. They went out to eat one night to a very fancy restaurant. As they walked on the sidewalk, the boss stopped and looked intently at the ground. The woman was confused because there was nothing to see but a few cigarette butts and a penny. The boss bent over and picked up the penny with a smile on his face. He put it in his pocket.
The woman was bothered by this action; after all the man was incredibly wealthy. Why would he need to bother with a penny on the ground? After awhile she asked him if he had a coin collection and if the penny was valuable. “No,” he said. He handed the penny to the woman and told her to read it. Pennies are engraved with the words “The United States of America” and “One Cent,” but that is not what he wanted her to notice. “In God We Trust,” she read aloud. She still did not understand. He answered, “If I trust in God, the name of God is holy, even on a coin. Whenever I find a coin I see that inscription. It is written on every single United States coin, but we never seem to notice it! God drops a message right in front of me telling me to trust Him? Who am I to pass it by? When I see a coin, I pray, I stop to see if my trust IS in God at that moment. I pick the coin up as a response to God; that I do trust in Him. For a short time, at least, I cherish it as if it were gold. I think it is God’s way of starting a conversation with me. Lucky for me, God is patient and pennies are plentiful!”
The rich man picked up that penny not because he needed the money but because it reminded him to trust in God. The woman in today’s lesson might have picked up that penny because it would have doubled her possessions. She was extremely poor, and as a widow she may not even have had anyone to care for her. Her two small coins were everything she owned. Despite her poverty, the woman honored God by giving Him everything she had. She trusted that He would provide for her in the days to come.
We often compare this woman to the multitudes who gave out of their wealth into the coffers of the Temple. We look at the wealthy and think they are not as generous, but we should not assume that the multitudes were bad and the widow was good. We don’t really know how much they gave; we don’t know their hearts. Jesus lifts the woman because she has complete trust in God. She knew God would not leave or forsake her. She knew God would go with her wherever she had to go. She knew God’s heart and believed in Him.
It doesn’t matter if we are rich or poor in God’s eyes. What matters is whether we trust in Him. Do we recognize His presence in our lives? Do we look to Him for help in good times and in bad? Do we cherish the little reminders He sends so that we’ll know that He is walking by our side every moment of every day? Are we willing to give everything knowing that God will provide for us in the days to come? Do we spend time in conversation with the God who knows our hearts? Do we truly believe in Him? The rich man treasured the penny not because it increased his wealth but because God’s name made it sacred. Will we treasure even a penny because it reminds us of the Lord our God?
“You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being revealed that you are a letter of Christ, served by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tablets of stone, but in tablets that are hearts of flesh.” 2 Corinthians 3:2-3, WEB
A picture is going around on the Internet of sports fans sitting in a football stadium with snow falling around them. They are sitting in inches of the white stuff, their heavy winter coats covered in it. It is nearly impossible to see the field and I’m sure the football players are having a tough time playing the game as they slip and slide all over. The words on the picture wonder about those who can’t make it to church because of the weather, yet there they are for a game. It is a question of priorities.
I once knew a woman who wanted to be a Christian. She believed in Jesus, had even been involved in church at different times in her life. She wasn’t attending anywhere when we were neighbors, and I invited her several times to come with me. She always refused. Though curious about our church and glad to be in a relationship with someone who knew the Lord, she was not ready to make a commitment. She had many excuses. She did not think that she was good enough to be in the presence of God and all those Christians. She wanted to get right with God first, and then she might go to church. The people choosing football over church have their own excuses.
We had several conversations over the course of our relationship, but no matter how many times I explained to her that we can’t get right with God without being in His presence and in the company of other Christians, she was never ready. She never understood that Christianity is not a group of holy people, but a pack of forgiven sinners who gather to hear the Word preached and the Sacraments given so that we will know the love, mercy and grace of God through Jesus Christ His Son. She did not want to step into the presence of God until she found a way to hide her imperfections. Perhaps that’s why so many willingly let themselves get buried in snow instead of filled with God’s Holy Spirit.
Our church is currently focused on discipleship. Of course, the whole point of gathering together in worship and prayer, study and fellowship is to grow disciples. Yet, many Christians don’t take the call to follow Jesus very seriously. They’ll be in church when it is convenient. They might open their bibles occasionally. They’ll pray when there’s something they need. They love Jesus, but being a disciple is too hard. It is risky. It is awkward in a world in which football is followed religiously. Some people are better disciples of the game than of the Lord.
Part of the focus of our discipleship initiative is to get people into the Word of God. Everyone is familiar with John 3:16, but there is so much more to God than just His love. The Old Testament points forward to the coming of the Messiah and shows us why His life, death and resurrection were necessary. The Gospels tell us His story and proves that He is the only one who could restore our relationship with our Father. The rest of the New Testament show us how we are to live in that relationship, how to be disciples of Christ.
What does it mean to be a disciple? The first disciples knew Jesus personally. They followed Him and listened to His words. They were eyewitnesses to the God’s Word in the flesh. Following the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the number of disciples grew. The original disciples went out to preach and teach the Gospel, and many came to believe and follow Him through their eyewitness accounts. They gathered in each other’s homes and shared their personal testimony. The early believers listened to the Word and believed.
After a time, the apostles realized that the time might come when they would no longer be able to preach and teach, so they wrote their eyewitness testimony for future generations to read. We are the generation for Today, and we should be devoted to the apostle’s teaching just as the earliest Christians. We cannot sit at the feet of Jesus, as did Mary, or go to the synagogue to hear Paul preach. Yet, we can still experience Jesus Christ from eyewitness testimony. This happens through scripture, but it also happens through those who have believed before us.
As a Christian community, we are to be devoted to the study of God’s Word, and through our experiences with those who have had real encounters with the Living God. We are to become His disciple, a personal witness to His life. This will happen with Christian fellowship, diligent study and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Then we can pass the Gospel on to the next generation just as the first disciples did for us. We are God’s letter to the world, sharing His love and mercy and grace so that they, too, will realize that He is the priority and that He is the only one worthy of worship.
Scriptures for Sunday, October 14, 2018, Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 3:12-19; Mark 10:17-22
“Let the favor of the Lord our God be on us; establish the work of our hands for us; yes, establish the work of our hands.” Psalm 90:17, WEB
I was watching a show in which the host was interviewing an unusual couple. The woman was thirty; her boyfriend and the father of her son was just seventeen. They had been in a relationship since he was just fifteen; the relationship is illegal. They went on the show to prove that their love was real; they hoped it would keep the woman out of prison. The woman considers herself a victim in this and despite the advice she was getting, she was defiant. It wasn’t fair! She didn’t think she was a criminal! She was not a predator; they are in love and everyone should just leave them alone.
She claimed that she was set up. What she meant is that she thought the show was going to go a very different direction, and she became angry when she was told the reality of her situation. She could get fifteen years in prison. She was pointing her fingers at all the other guests. She claimed that it was their fault that she was in danger. She refused to see her own responsibility for the situation. Instead of admitting her own guilt, she attacked those who were trying to help make things right. She wanted to make herself look good and the others look bad. In the end justice will be served.
We might judge the woman harshly for her actions, but stories like this should cause us to think about our own actions. Don’t we fail to do what is right? Don’t we try to make ourselves look better than we really are? Don’t we claim to be victims even though our own actions are what brought on our difficulties?
I’m a pretty good person. I am certainly not without fault; I have not kept the commandments perfectly. Sin has crept into my life. I haven’t done anything criminal, I hope my failure has not done too much damage to my neighbors. I have been disobedient to a least a few of the Ten, if not according to the letter, then certainly according to the spirit. I have not committed adultery, but I have felt lust. I don’t think I’ve born false witness against my neighbor, but I admit that I’ve gossiped. I have taken a few things that are not mine and while none of it was of great worth, stealing even a nickel is a sin.
In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther talked about the Ten Commandments not only from the point of view of the “thou shall nots” but also as commands of how we should live. About the Eighth Commandment, Luther wrote, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. What does this mean? We should fear and love God, so that we do not lie about, betray or slander our neighbor, but excuse him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.” It isn’t enough to keep from telling a lie in court, but we should do our best to help uplift our neighbor's reputation. By pointing fingers at everyone else, the woman lost the chance to make things right in her little corner of the world, including for herself.
We like to point fingers, too, mostly because it takes the attention off our own faults. That is, if not in words, definitely in action, bearing false witness against a neighbor. Even more so, it is a rejection of the reality of our own sinfulness. If we do not admit our sin, we do not need a Savior. Then there is no need for faith in Jesus.
Now, there are many who prefer it that way. They prefer to ignore the reality of sin in our lives. They prefer to think of Jesus as a good friend, an excellent example, a teacher who showed us a good way. They reject that Jesus’ main purpose in coming out of heaven to earth was to atone for our sin. They are shocked and offended by the cross. They separate the wrath of God in the Old Testament from the love of God in the New, without seeing that both are not only true but necessary.
H. Richard Niebuhr said, “A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” This is a reminder the God that everyone would prefer cannot be the God we need. We would much rather ignore the God of the Old Testament and embrace the God that loves unconditionally. We want a God that has no expectations; we want a God that does not demand obedience. We want the warm fuzzies without the reality of our sin. The truth is that we could never have the warm fuzzies unless God got so angry at our sin that He decided to do what was necessary to make restore us to His Kingdom: kill His own Son.
It is shocking to hear it put so bluntly, isn’t it? The cross is God’s wrath fully revealed for our sake. We are sinners in need of a Savior. And yet it is so easy to think of ourselves as good. I am a pretty good person. I haven’t kept the commandments perfectly, but I’ve done fairly well in my nearly fifty-five years of life. I respond to the needs of my neighbors as I am able. I try to do what is right and to honor God with my life. And yet I fail. I try to seek God but sometimes the call of the world is much too loud. It is easy to justify some actions because they seem like the right thing to do at the time. It is easy to make excuses when I fail because it all seems like much, too much. It is easy to avoid responsibility by blaming others with pointed fingers.
In our Gospel lesson Jesus asked, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except one - God.” He knows we are going to fail and He identifies Himself with us. He takes on even our very nature as His own, despite the reality that He is truly good.
Jesus said these words to a rich young ruler that went to Jesus to ask a question. The man honored Jesus with the title “Good Teacher” and bowed down to Him. He wanted to know what was necessary for eternal life. Now, this particular man was wealthy. He had everything he could possibly need and more. It appears he came upon his wealth in a righteous way, for when Jesus asked if he followed the commandments, the man was happy to reply, “Yes.” We might call him a good man, if we hadn’t just heard Jesus say no one was good. The young man probably wanted Jesus to tell him he was good and that he’d done everything right. “You are going to heaven, my son. You did everything right.” Isn’t that what we all want Him to say to us? Yet, we know it isn’t true. We all fail. We all sin. We aren’t “good.” But we can do what is right and good by being obedient to God.
Jesus answered the man’s righteousness with a hard saying, “One thing you lack. Go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” The man was devastated; Jesus’ words were the last thing he wanted to hear. He grew up in a world where righteousness meant following the Law and if you did that well, you would go to heaven. Jesus told him that he had to give up his whole life. Which of us would respond any differently? Following Jesus means giving up everything; can you pay so high a price?
We might say, “I don’t have great wealth.” But the words are the same for you. Could you give up everything? Could you give up your selfish agenda and hard heart? Could you leave everything behind and follow Jesus? Do we believe in God like a child, completely dependent on Him and willing to trust without reserve?
Jesus knew the man’s heart, just as He knows ours. He knew the man would be devastated by His answer, but Jesus looking at him loved him. That’s why God forgives. He knows us better than ourselves. He knows we can’t do it on our own. He knows that we will constantly fail to live up to His expectation of our lives. He wants more from us and knows our life will be better if we follow Him.
The text from Amos shows us how life is made more difficult by those who do not do what is good and right with their resources. It tells us what happens when we put our own agendas or hearts ahead of God. We are to seek God first, to seek goodness so that we’ll experience life, not death. God does not call wealthy people to become paupers; He calls us to do what is good and right with our wealth. Unfortunately, those to whom Amos was talking were not seeking God or goodness. They turned justice to wormwood and cast righteousness to the earth. They trampled the poor in their work and in their pursuit for self-interest and pleasure. They took bribes rather than judged rightly and ignored the needs of their neighbors.
God calls us to a life in which we “Hate evil, love good, and establish justice in the courts.” We may not be good, but we can do good in God’s name. We can serve Him by using our resources for the sake of others. Jesus made the task impossible for the rich young man, but if he had only listened and followed, he would have discovered the incredible blessing that comes from putting God first in the world.
We are shocked when Jesus says, “Don’t call me good,” because if Jesus isn’t good, then how do we have any chance? But we are reminded by the writer of Hebrews that Jesus shared in our frailties. “For we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus knew how hard it was to be a human being; He was tested just like every other man. When we go to Him with our pain and frailties, He can sympathize. Yet, He was without sin and because of His own obedience to the will and word of God; we can trust what He says. There is one thing we all lack - God - because we have something that we hold in higher regard than Him. For the Israelites in Amos’s day, it was their twisted justice that trampled the poor and oppressed the righteous. For the rich young ruler, it was his wealth. What is it that Jesus is asking us to give up to follow Him? In what do we trust more than God?
When Jesus says, “one thing you lack” we are brought face to face with the truth that we too have failings that separate us from God. Even the most pious or righteous person can’t reach God’s expectations. That’s why we need Him. I wonder if the response would have been different if Jesus had said, “Give half your stuff to the poor.” The man would then have still had enough to survive in the world without relying on the charity of others. He would have had a place to hang his hat. He would have had finances to support the ministry he may have been willing to do. Jesus said, “Get rid of it all.” The young man wanted to know what he had to do to earn what God was giving for free, so Jesus made the payment beyond the young man’s ability to pay.
This isn’t about money, it is about letting go of the very things that keep us from trusting and obeying God. What is keeping you from following Jesus fully? Your job? Your family? Sports or other leisure activities? Politics? Your biases? Your opinions? None of these particularly bad, but we need to consider if any of these things are standing in the way of our relationship with God. Is Jesus asking you to give up something that seems impossible? It is. It is meant to be. We can’t live up to these expectations, we’ll fail. That’s why we need Jesus.
What Jesus was trying to get across to the young man and those who overheard the conversation is that it is not about what we can do to earn our place in the kingdom, but rather what God can do and what God has done. Amos calls the people to live in a relationship with God. He shows them their faults and their frailties. He points out their injustices. Most of all, he shows them that they are no longer in a relationship with their Creator. They have turned away from Him. He was calling them to live a life of justice and peace, but that life was too hard. They focused on their wealth, and the keeping of their wealth. Amos told them to seek something better: the Lord. It might seem like a burden to turn around and follow, but it is there that the true blessing is found. It is there we will find rest.
We can’t do this alone. We are all so easily tempted by the world. The excuses are right on the tips of our tongues. What harm is there in taking the reward when the boring work is probably pointless? Who is really harmed when I keep that nickel the cashier accidentally gave me in my change? The woman on today’s show is not necessarily a bad person, but she’s caught up in a situation of her own making. The truth is we really do harm our neighbors when we do not live according to God’s Word.
So, we need to help each other. The writer of Hebrews said, “Beware, brothers, lest perhaps there be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God; but exhort one another day by day, so long as it is called ‘today’; lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm to the end: while it is said, ‘Today if you will hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts, as in the rebellion.” It took just one voiced doubt in the desert to turn the entire nation of Israel against God. It takes just one moment of disobedience to set us on a wrong path. We need to encourage one another to be obedient so that we will all be blessed with the promise.
The Psalm is a song of repentance. The first verses speak of God’s greatness and honor Him for being the everlasting Creator. Then the psalmist confesses his frailty and humbles himself before the Lord. He recognizes how unworthy we are to stand before the Lord, and how God’s light reveals everything about ourselves. Then the psalmist seeks forgiveness and asks the Lord’s presence in this life.
Repentance is no guarantee. The passage from Amos says, “It may be that Yahweh, the God of Armies, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” Repentance, saying “I’m sorry,” is not a magic formula for getting God’s grace. God looks to hearts, not mouths. He looks at actions, not words. Repentance is more than an apology, it is about turning from our old ways, to live as God intends.
The Psalmist knew that salvation must come from the Lord. He cried out to God for mercy. “Satisfy us in the morning with your loving kindness, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” God’s grace, the unmerited favor He grants to those who seek Him, is the only way we will receive eternal life. The rich young ruler did not give Jesus the chance to reveal the grace of God. He heard only the Law and went away sad because it was an impossible request.
Christians have a great advantage over the psalmist. We have seen the fulfillment of this prayer. The Lord had compassion on us; He sent His Son to take His wrath upon Himself. He has proven His unfailing love through the blood of Jesus Christ our Lord. He has favored us with His Holy Spirit through whom He establishes the work of our hands for His glory. Let us praise God for His greatness, His mercy and His love.
We can’t do it ourselves, but Jesus makes it possible for us to approach the throne of grace with confidence and to receive that which God gives so freely. At His throne, we find mercy and forgiveness. It is there that God takes away our burdens and makes us free. It is there He helps us through all our trials and suffering. We get to the throne through the cross because it is there that we see that God does know our suffering and that He can overcome anything we bring before Him.
It is all about grace. We can’t live up to the expectations of God’s commandments, but God is with us through it all. He looks on us with love; He provides the way for us to go. He calls us to follow Him so that we will experience the blessings He desires for our lives. We can confidently sing with the psalmist, “Let the favor of the Lord our God be on us; establish the work of our hands for us; yes, establish the work of our hands,” because God is faithful to all His promises.
“This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardening of their hearts; who having become callous gave themselves up to lust, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But you did not learn Christ that way; if indeed you heard him, and were taught in him, even as truth is in Jesus: that you put away, as concerning your former way of life, the old man, that grows corrupt after the lusts of deceit; and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man, who in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of truth.” Ephesians 4:17-24, WEB
I am having an art show this weekend in our home. I plan it for the same weekend as the neighborhood yard sale, hoping that the people who are already in the area searching for treasures will stop and see if there is anything at my house. Of course, I don’t sell at yard sale prices, but I do get a few people to stop by and even sell a piece or two.
I don’t set up outside, especially when there is a risk of rain, so I have been moving furniture around to make room to display as many pieces as possible in my dining room and living room. I had to move a small table I keep by the front door. I use the table for mail and a few decorative pieces, including a bowl full of marbles that I sometimes use for cut flowers that I kept on the bottom shelf. I didn’t remove the decorative pieces; I wasn’t moving the table very far and I thought I could do it. I got within a few feet of the new place when I heard and felt the bowl slip. I stopped, but it seemed fine and I only had a few more inches to go, so I continued. I thought my legs would catch it, but I was wrong. Fortunately the bowl fell onto carpeting, but the marbles still caused it to shatter. The marbles went everywhere. A task that should have taken a minute or two ended up taking an hour to clean up.
The whole scene made me think about sin as I was picking up those marbles and sweeping up that shattered glass. It wasn’t devastating; it was a cheap bowl. Yet, even the smallest sin can have a big impact. Cleaning up my mess took time I could have used to accomplish other tasks. The worst part is that it never had to happen. If I had stopped, set down the table and removed the bowl before it fell, it would not have broken. It would have been work to deal with it, but it was far more work to deal with the brokenness.
How often do we begin to do something and realize that it is going astray but think that we can just get it finished and everything will be fine only to find that something will be shattered in the end? A little white lie seems like it won’t do much harm, but when discovered it breaks trust with someone you love. For the Ephesians, the struggle was living in a world that was much different than the expectations of the Lord. Could they be faithful while also conforming to the world in which they lived? What harm could it do to eat the meat sold in the market that had been sacrificed to the Greek gods? What harm was there in joining the local guild? Even though those guilds had religious functions, they also made for good business. The old ways weren’t that bad; we didn’t lie, cheat, steal or murder. What harm is there in continuing to be me after I’ve been saved?
The harm is that God has made you new for a purpose, to glorify Him. He is a jealous God. If we continue in our old ways, our pagan ways, we prove to be unfaithful. God calls us to put away the old man and live according to His Word. It isn’t easy. We think we are doing what is best but we slip. If only we would stop and think about the path we are taking. Is it good? Is it right? Is it the way God wants me to go? Am I truly following His Word or am I about to shatter something into a million pieces. Sometimes it just takes a moment and a small push in the right direction to keep from disaster. We have been changed by grace and we can with God’s help live a holy and righteous life in this world.
“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
Sheila Cassidy wrote in her book “Pilgrims: A Book about Prayer for Ordinary People.” “One of the break-throughs that I have experienced in the understanding of prayer is the significance of ‘wasting’ time. One day I was working at a boring job and a friend came to join me. He loitered about for nearly an hour, perched on the edge of the table, smoking a cigarette and talking occasionally of nothing in particular. When he had gone, I was filled with a special joy because I realized that he had deliberately wasted an hour with me; it was not that we were discussing something of importance or that I needed consoling: it was a pure and unsolicited gift of time. If we think about it, for busy people time is often the most precious thing they have to give. Doctors, priests, those who counsel, will always ‘spend’ time with those in need. They may sit up all night with someone who is distressed; they may pass long hours listening to problems, or in giving advice; but this is all time deliberately spent. We only deliberately waste time with those we love - it is the purest sign that we love someone if we choose to spend time idly in their presence when we could be doing something more ‘constructive.’ And so it is with prayer: there is a very real sense in which prayer is a waste of time. God does not need our prayers and, more often than not, we will be unaware that we have ‘received’ anything from the time we have spent in prayer. It is because prayer is so often boring and unrewarding that it is the purest sign of our love for God that we are prepared to ‘waste’ our time with him; and it is only by wasting time in this way that we shall learn that it is not God who needs us but we who cannot live without him.”
That’s a long quote, but it really spoke to me when I read it this morning. How many of us actually waste time to linger with our Lord? Most of us manage to find a few minutes a day for prayer or we do a lot of our praying when we are busy with other things. I like to pray when I drive. I often pray when I do the dishes. I shoot off quick prayers when I’m on Facebook or doing research for this writing. There is never a bad time to pray, but how much better would it be for us to stop whatever we are doing and actually focus on our conversation with God?
Think about this: you are out to lunch with a friend. Do you put your phone away or do you check it for notifications or messages? Unfortunately most of us, myself included, can’t seem to focus only and entirely on the person with whom we are having lunch. We are so distracted, perhaps for good reason. Business people need to stay connected so that they don’t miss an important phone call. Mothers need to keep it close in case there’s a problem with their children. We struggle because a leisurely lunch seems like a waste of time, so we stay connected in case something more important comes along.
The same thing happens in prayer. We spend time. We call out to God, not only in supplication but in worship, praise and thanksgiving. We intercede for those we love. Yet, do we linger as if we are hanging out with someone we love? Do we set aside all thought that we might miss something more important? Do we waste time with God? Mary knew what mattered: Jesus. Martha was probably listening from the kitchen, but she was so busy she wasn’t really paying attention. Mary lingered. She listened. She gave Jesus her all. Are we willing to give God our full and undivided attention, to show Him how much we love Him by wasting an hour in His presence?
“I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13, WEB
St. Teresa of Avila once said, “Just being a woman is enough for my wings to fall off.” The social conventions of her day clipped the wings of women so that they could not fly on their own, but Teresa did not let that stop her. She knew how to get what she wanted, and that was to glorify God. We celebrate her life today.
When Teresa was a young girl, she was fascinated by the lives of the saints. She was born in the early sixteenth century which was a time of religious superstition. The faithful took pilgrimages to see the relics of the saints, earning for themselves indulgences. The stories of the saints were used in schools. The churches were named after those who had suffered for their faith and the Church. Teresa wanted to be sainted like the martyrs, and as a child she tried to speed up the process. She convinced her younger brother to go with her to be captured by the Moors so that they would bleed for Jesus and see God. They were found before anything tragic could happen, but the story shows that she was a determined young woman, a characteristic that would be both a positive and negative trait throughout the rest of her life.
She went through a period of rebellion as a teenager, influenced by cousins to be vain and flirtatious. Her father sent her to a convent to get her on the right path, but she continued to write to her admirers secretly. She hated the religious life at first, but eventually came to love it and even decided to take the veil, much to her father’s disappointment. She was not healthy, having suffered from malaria. She was paralyzed for a time, and never fully recovered. She was faithful during her times of illness, but she belonged to a lenient order and she returned to her worldly ways during the times when she was well. One day, however, Teresa had a vision of Jesus who commanded her to change her ways. She studied the works of St. Augustine and took stock in her life, discovering a new fervor for spiritual life. She worked toward reform in her order, founded new convents and recorded her numerous mystical experiences as a witness to God’s power.
She struggled with prayer. She believed herself to be unworthy of prayer because she thought she was too great a sinner. She used her sickness as an excuse, but she would later say, “Prayer is an act of love, words are not needed. Even if sickness distracts from thoughts, all that is needed is the will to love.” She sympathized with those who had difficulty praying, particularly those who were easily distracted like her. “This intellect is so wild that it doesn't seem to be anything else than a frantic madman no one can tie down. All the trials we endure cannot be compared to these interior battles.”
She did learn to pray and experienced incredible acts of God’s grace. We may not completely understand her spiritual experiences; even she was embarrassed when they happened in the presence of others. She asked God not to give her these “favors” in public. It is said that when she felt that she would levitate, she would lay on the ground and ask her sisters to sit on her. It is interesting that in her scientific mind, and her humble understanding of her sinfulness, she thought these experiences were not gifts but rather chastisements. Some in her day thought the experiences came from the devil, but she believed they were from God. Teresa believed they came from God because they gave her peace, inspiration, and encouragement. “If these effects are not present I would greatly doubt that the raptures come from God; on the contrary I would fear lest they be caused by rabies.” Her books about prayer helped others to grow in their own prayer lives.
Her determination showed in the way she lived her youth, but even more in the way she lived her life of faith. Despite the male dominance of her age, Teresa accomplished things that woman were not supposed to accomplish. She taught the women in her convents independence and how to think on their own. She was closely watched because some thought that she was guilty of heresy, but they were never able to find anything but faithful obedience to God in her life. In 1970, St. Teresa of Avila was called a Doctor of the Church because of the impact she had on the world. She was, perhaps, the female saint with the greatest influence on the world.
Teresa lived a life of faith. She said, “If Christ Jesus dwells in a man as his friend and noble leader, that man can endure all things, for Christ helps and strengthens us and never abandons us. He is a true friend. And I clearly see that if we expect to please him and receive an abundance of his graces, God desires that these graces must come to us from the hands of Christ, through his most sacred humanity, in which God takes delight.” May God bless us all with such strength.
“The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge; but the foolish despise wisdom and instruction. My son, listen to your father’s instruction, and don’t forsake your mother’s teaching: for they will be a garland to grace your head, and chains around your neck. My son, if sinners entice you, don’t consent. If they say, ‘Come with us, Let’s lay in wait for blood; let’s lurk secretly for the innocent without cause; let’s swallow them up alive like Sheol, and whole, like those who go down into the pit. We’ll find all valuable wealth. We’ll fill our houses with plunder. You shall cast your lot among us. We’ll all have one purse.’ My son, don’t walk on the path with them. Keep your foot from their path, for their feet run to evil. They hurry to shed blood. For in vain is the net spread in the sight of any bird: but these lay wait for their own blood. They lurk secretly for their own lives. So are the ways of everyone who is greedy for gain. It takes away the life of its owners.” Proverbs 1:7-19, WEB
We all know that computers are both wonderful and horrible. They are great when everything is working well, but can cause a great deal of trouble when something goes wrong. I was listening to a commercial about a car that has all sorts of bells and whistles, computer chips that do this, that, and the other thing. The problem with modern cars is that the repairs are much more difficult when something goes wrong with one of those computer chips. It takes more work to find the problem. It takes more work to fix it. It takes more money to replace the parts that have gone bad.
I remember a story a few years ago when a computer glitch caused a great deal of trouble for many people. It was in a computer that distributes food benefits to people in several states. The corporation which runs the computer program was doing a system test when the system failed. There were connectivity issues for hours, making it impossible for users to buy food. Stores around the country announced the problem, and shoppers abandoned their carts in the aisles because they could not afford to buy the food they needed without those benefits. Even when the system was back, some users found it difficult to buy the things they needed. It was understandably frightening for those parents who could not afford milk for their kids and who did not know when the system would work again.
Later that day another glitch caused a much different problem. The EBT (electronic benefits transfer) food stamp debit cards in two stores in Louisiana were showing that the money available on all the cards was unlimited. People started buying hundreds of dollars of food over and above their approved amount, emptying the store shelves and filling their carts to overflowing. There were reports that shoppers were calling their friends, telling them about the opportunity, and the stores were filled with people who normally would not be shopping during those hours. Some even called friends and family to help them get as much as possible. One woman who was at the register when the system was restored had just $0.49 left on her card and she had a shopping cart filled with $700 worth of food.
It took about two hours to fix the problem. When the store announced that everything was as it should be, the hundreds of people looting the stores abandoned their carts, leaving behind an incredible mess which the employees of the stores had to clean. The frenzy cost the taxpayers who support the program, but it also cost the store in ways that were reported. How many of those abandoned carts were filled with frozen or perishable foods that will have to be thrown out because they were too defrosted to sell? How many hours of overtime were paid to those employees who had to restock the shelves with battered packages? How many honest mothers who really need to use those debit cards that did not take advantage of the glitch were seen with critical eyes by those who follow them in the check-out line?
There are those who justified the frenzy as typical of human nature and an acceptable response to the fear of hunger. If that were true, why was the banana rack full but the chip aisle empty? Why were those carts filled with cases of soda and unhealthy frozen snack food? This was not an example of desperation but greed.
We often talk about greed in relation to the rich. We say the rich are greedy because they have more than their neighbor. “If they weren’t so greedy, they would share what they have.” They are blamed for all the poverty of the world, even though there are many rich people who are extremely generous. It is often said that the family who owns the store chain affected by the glitch on Saturday are greedy, and yet despite knowing it could turn into a frenzy, they continued to allow the use of the EBT cards so as not to cause discomfort for those who needed the food. It may have been a foolish business decision, but it was the compassionate choice. Is that greed?
Merriam-Webster defines greed as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something than is needed.” It is often used in terms of money, but can also refer to other aspects of life. We can be greedy for fame, for attention, and for power. We can even be greedy for food. Sitcoms often use the greed for food as fodder for a humorous scene. They show a character standing before a buffet filled with delicious food. They take a plate and fill it to overflowing with so much food that can’t possibly eat it all. When the plate can’t hold any more, they start filling their pockets or purse. It’s all there for the taking, after all, shouldn’t they take advantage of the opportunity? In one show, the character took only the shrimp, laughing at the other guests at their foolishness; they were filling up their plates with the cheap stuff like salad and bread.
The greedy are those who, as the proverb describes, “…lay in wait for blood.” They take more than they need without consideration for those who will be hurt by their selfishness. Even if we ignore the affects the frenzy had on the big greedy company and the taxpayers who pay for the program, we can’t ignore the reality that some poor mother arrived in the store after the frenzy to buy milk for her children but could not because the shelves were empty and the milk was rotting in shopping carts that were blocking the aisles.
Yes, greed is a sin that is most often attributed to the rich because some do take advantage of their situation at the expense of others to get even richer. But it is a sin about which we should all beware, because it doesn’t matter if we are rich or poor, we affect our neighbors by our sinful desire to have more than we need. As a matter of fact, it is likely that we have all taken advantage of circumstances in ways that have harmed others. So, the next time we are faced with the opportunity to take more than we need, let’s consider how our actions will affect another and refuse to “fill our houses with spoil.” Let us not go along with the crowd, but do what is right. It is in choosing to refrain from the frenzy that we’ll find true life.
Scriptures for Sunday, October 21, 2018, Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost: Ecclesiastes 5:10-20; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 4:1-13 (14-16); Mark 10:23-31
“For we who have believed do enter into that rest, even as he has said, ‘As I swore in my wrath, they will not enter into my rest’; although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.” Hebrews 4:3, WEB
God created the world in six days, and then He rested. He did not rest because He was tired, but because His work was done. The gift of the Sabbath, given from God to mankind, is a moment in time when we can stop and rest, knowing our work is done. But it seems like our work is never done. We take time on the weekends from whatever job pays our bills, but then we must mow the lawn or do the laundry. We have to go grocery shopping or change the oil in the car. We need to do our work at church, preparing the things for worship, singing in the choir or teaching Sunday School. The rest of Sunday is spent doing the work that didn’t get done on Saturday. By Monday morning, we begin again without ever really finishing.
So many of our commitments are good things; we volunteer at church or in our neighborhoods, giving ourselves sacrificially to other people. At times, however, these responsibilities become burdens. We no longer want to do these tasks, but rather we “have to” do them. We grumble and moan when we need to attend yet another meeting. Our work is never done, and we get very tired of it all. Too often, we fear that if we don’t do everything that comes our way, we will disappoint our Father. We think we are righteous by what we do, so we feel we need to do more and more to be right with God. We never enter His rest.
Moms never get any rest. She has her hands full of the usual paraphernalia that moms carry - diaper bag, purse, carrier and baby. She also carries a phone. Each item has its place on her shoulder or under her arm. She is burdened with so much baggage and yet she somehow manages to take care of all her tasks. Moms just seem to gain a few hands during those early days of childhood; they become Octopus Mom. But there are times when even a mom needs help.
Doors provide a difficult obstacle, particularly when the need to be pulled open. At times it is necessary to put down the burdens we carry to be able to get through the door. It really is a joy when there is when we have someone who will help us by opening the door, although we sometimes think we have to do all it all ourselves, as if we are Supermom defeating the door with our own strength. Unfortunately, that attitude appears in other aspects of life. Even as Christians, we tend to carry our own pain, unwilling to burden our family or friends. We try to be SuperChristians, defeating the greatest evil with our own power.
Last week we heard about the rich young man who met Jesus and wanted to know what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus questioned him and the young man ecstatically declared that he had kept the Law for his entire life. Then Jesus told him to sell everything he had, give it to the poor and follow Him. The young man was greatly distressed at this answer. Perhaps he was looking for Jesus to tell him how great he was for having followed the Law so diligently. He wanted to receive praise for his goodness and encouragement to continue to live the life he was living. However, Jesus challenged him to give everything to God, including his very life.
It is hard for moms to enter into a building or a car, carrying so many things. Yet, when we put down our burdens, we find it much easier to accomplish the task. In this story, Jesus references a gate called “the eye of the needle,” which was a tiny gate that led into Jerusalem. It was convenient to the trading routes, but was so small that a fully loaded camel could not fit through. It was not impossible - but the merchant needed to unload the camel, lead him through, and then reload the things onto his back.
Jesus invites us to unburden ourselves of everything that keeps us from walking through the gate. For the rich young man, it was his wealth. Our burdens are our own, but none are so great for God to carry. We just need to give everything to Him, the good things as well as the pain. We need to give Him our families, our wealth, our bodies, and most of all our hearts. Jesus tells His disciples in the following verses that because they have given up their very lives for Him, they will receive blessings far greater than they left behind. The same is true for us, we will be blessed for our submission. Our treasure will be in heaven.
The young man was heartbroken because he had collected a lot of things. How do you get rid of everything you own? I often ask this question when I see stories of those people who have chosen to live in tiny houses. My art supplies would never fit into such a small space, let alone my whole life. As a matter of fact, my husband and I did not downsize when we bought our latest house, as many do when they reach the age of the (nearly) empty nest. We bought a larger house so that I’d have room to work. This is the first house we’ve had since we were married that doesn’t have furniture pushed against every wall. There is room to move, a place for the cats to run, storage space for my junk. I can’t imagine every getting rid of everything to move into a house that is just two hundred square feet.
Don’t get me wrong: I do know how to purge. We took truckloads of things to Goodwill and to our church to sell when we moved to this house. They could have filled a store with the amount of old clothes, toys, and household items we gave away. I eventually went through all my craft and art supplies and donated boxes to camps and other arts organizations. I gave sets of dishes to my children. I threw a lot of old papers into the recycling bin. I even purged my bookshelves.
I also purchased a china cabinet so I could finally display the dishes I inherited from my mother. I found room on the walls to display some of my art. I continue to purchase books (even though I do most of my reading on an e-reader.) I still buy stuff. I buy fun little souvenirs every time I go on vacation. They are pointless, nothing more than dust-catchers, but they make me smile when I remember the trip. So, while I do know what it is like to rid myself of too much stuff, I still like having it around. Could I sell it all live in a two-hundred square foot house for Jesus’ sake?
I must confess that I have been buying tickets for the lottery with the huge jackpot. Who couldn’t find a way to use hundreds of millions of dollars? I have promised to donate vast sums to charities I support, planned buildings to build, and thought about how I could gift some of the money to people I love. I doubt I will win, but it is fun to dream, isn’t it? I’ve been joking for months that I want to call Chip and Joanna Gaines to remodel my house when I have the money.
It seems silly to have dreams like that; after all with so much money I could buy or build any house I wanted. I could even buy George Strait’s home! There’s a show on television called “My Lottery Dream Home.” I have not watched, but the commercials show the host pointing out the spectacular features we could have if we bought a home with lottery winnings: marble stairs, gold plated fixtures, a private theater. Would I even want to keep this humble home if I could use my money to buy something bigger and better? Besides, I would probably want to move to a gated neighborhood with more protection. Others will want my stuff as much as I do.
It seems the more we have, the more we want. Isn’t that what Solomon is saying in the passage from Ecclesiastes? This reading is a little uncomfortable for us who love our stuff. The writer writes, “He who loves silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he who loves abundance, with increase: this also is vanity.” When we have a little, we always want more. You can’t eat just one potato chip. It is hard to collect just one porcelain figurine. I don’t have just one pair of sneakers, I have a pair in every color so that I can match my shoes to my clothes. I also have socks to match. I can’t go to the kitty store without buying our babies more toys, even though there are so many in the house they can’t possibly play with them all.
The writer of Ecclesiastes goes on to talk about the vanity of collecting stuff; after all, we can’t take it with us. We labor for everything we have. We not only chase after that next piece to our collection, but we labor to earn the money to purchase and we labor to keep the dust from it. We even labor at holding on to it against those who want to take it from us. Our focus is on our stuff and we lose sight of other things. A man pays more attention to his car than his girlfriend. The woman is more concerned about which pair of shoes to wear. Children don’t like to share because they don’t want a sibling to ruin their toy. We lose sight of the joy because we are too worried about what will happen to our stuff.
As the writer says, “As he came out of his mother’s womb, naked shall he go again as he came, and shall take nothing for his labor, which he may carry away in his hand.” There is a joke about a man who was near death. He had spent his life working hard for his possessions and he prayed that he might take some of it with him to heaven. An angel heard him, and though the angel told him that he could not take anything, the man implored the angel to ask God. After a time, the angel reappeared and told him he was allowed to take one suitcase. He died and went to heaven. At the pearly gates, St. Peter stopped him and said that he couldn’t bring the suitcase. He retold the story of the angel’s visit and after St. Peter checks it out, he returns and says, “Ok, but I have to see what is in there.” St. Peter opens the suitcase to find bricks of pure gold stacked neatly inside. He said, “Pavement? Why did you bring pavement?” We love our things, but we have to remember the value of it in terms of our eternal destiny. We don’t need to take gold to heaven because the sidewalks are paved with it. Everything in eternity will be better than anything we have on earth.
The message of Ecclesiastes isn’t all bad news. The writer goes on to say, “Behold, that which I have seen to be good and proper is for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy good in all his labor, in which he labors under the sun, all the days of his life which God has given him; for this is his portion.” God wants us to enjoy our life on this earth, not to the point that our possessions are our focus, but in thanksgiving for the God who has made all good things possible. “Every man also to whom God has given riches and wealth, and has given him power to eat of it, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labor - this is the gift of God.” We are called to a life in which God is our focus. Our stuff is meaningless in terms of eternal destiny, but they are blessings to be enjoyed.
The key here is to remember the priorities of life. The Ecclesiastes passage for today ends, “For he shall not often reflect on the days of his life; because God occupies him with the joy of his heart.” We don’t need to worry about today or about our stuff because our hearts are filled with real joy in knowing that our God is gracious.
We chase after righteousness and we chase after stuff, but God offers us something even better: rest. We exhaust ourselves with the work, even though everything we accomplish in this life will be left behind. God says, “You don’t have to exhaust yourself over all this; put me first and you'll have enough. You will have even more in the Promised Land. Rest in me, for in Me is the true blessing.”
Some people, even Christians, never really experience the rest that comes with faith in Christ. This is not a rest that means we do nothing with our lives. God calls us to work. He calls us to produce. He calls us to be witnesses and to serve others. He calls us to be good stewards of all we have been given. He calls us to enjoy the blessings that He has given us. He might even call us to rid ourselves of everything to follow Him completely. This is a call to trust that God is faithful to His promises and the blessings of this world are simply a foretaste of that which is to come in Heaven.
One thing the rich young man, and many others, lack is complete trust in God and the joy of knowing that God is the center of our blessedness.
Our salvation is never dependent upon our works. God created the world and on the seventh day He rested because His work was finished and it was good. The Sabbath was given to man so he could celebrate the finished work of God with joy. In Christ the Sabbath is no longer one day a week: it is Today, every moment we rest in the salvation won for us at the cross. Though God’s work was complete from the beginning, it is in the work of Jesus Christ that we receive the true rest of God. In Christ, our work is no longer a burden, but a joy. Our righteousness is founded in His love and His work on the cross, not in a schedule filled with commitments. Today, when you hear His voice, know that the work is complete and rest in Him, then your thoughts, words and actions will truly glorify Him. Don’t try to find your rest in an hour of worship once a week; find it in Jesus.
The psalmist asks how a young man can be pure. Each verse in today’s Psalm refers to something different: the spoken Word of God, the obligations of faith, the promise, the teachings, the rules, the judgment, the rituals and the authority each have a place in our life and as we are obedient in all ways we will find a life blessed by God's graciousness. None of that will earn us eternal life in Heaven, but it will help us to live a life that glorifies God in this world as we wait for the promise He has won for us.
The answer to the psalmist’s question is to obey God’s divine spoken Word. We can look for Him in our religious obligations. We must keep His promise close to our heart so that we won’t turn from Him and do what is wrong. We can seek God’s teaching on how to live properly and according to His rules. We can accept God’s judgment when we do wrong and rejoice through our worship practices. We can, and must, focus on God’s authority over our life and there we will find rest.
I hope that if the time ever came for me to choose between God and the world that I will make the right decision. I hope I can walk away from everything: the obligations to which I have committed and the stuff I have collected. I know, however, that Jesus loves me even when I fail. He understands the draw of the world and the bobbles that it promises. He sees my heart and He sees the flicker of faith that is at the center of my being, the faith that He has given by His grace.
Day by day, Today even, I find I can let go more and more as He fills me with Himself. One day I will have to give it all up; one day I'll die and stand at those pearly gates. I don’t have any pavement to take with me, but I hope that I won’t feel the need to beg God to let me take a few of my favorite things. I hope that my little faith will be enough to keep my focus on the Lord now so that I won’t worry day by day what will happen because the joy in my heart is from God. For now, I pray that God will help me remember that the meaningless dust-catchers I will have to give up in this world will be replaced with so much more: eternal rest and joy and peace, not because I have earned it by my works, but because He promised it through Jesus Christ.
“Rejoice in Yahweh, you righteous! Praise is fitting for the upright. Give thanks to Yahweh with the lyre. Sing praises to him with the harp of ten strings. Sing to him a new song. Play skillfully with a shout of joy! For Yahweh’s word is right. All his work is done in faithfulness. He loves righteousness and justice. The earth is full of the loving kindness of Yahweh. By Yahweh’s word, the heavens were made; all their army by the breath of his mouth. He gathers the waters of the sea together as a heap. He lays up the deeps in storehouses. Let all the earth fear Yahweh. Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. For he spoke, and it was done. He commanded, and it stood firm.” Psalm 33:1-9, WEB
I’ve become a bit of a weather geek. Not so much that I study the science of it all, but I do follow the weather reports so that I know what’s coming. Of course, we all want to know what coat to wear in the morning and whether or not we need to carry an umbrella, but I take it a little further. I check the radar several times a day when rain is forecast and I pay attention to the watches and warnings. I even watch the weather in other parts of the nation, partly because I pray for those who are in the way. I follow several storm chaser pages on Facebook as well as the National Weather Service. The only reason I even turn on the local news these days is for the weather.
We always think our weather is pretty interesting, but it is rarely interesting enough to make it to the national news. As a matter of fact, we had a rain event at the same time as Hurricane Florence that killed several people in Texas. Record rainfall fell on San Antonio in September, with some places getting a foot of rain in one day. We’ve had a few sunny days in October, but it is raining again. This weather event has caused a great deal of trouble; you’ve probably heard about the flooding. We are fine, but we have friends who are directly affected.
Texas weather is like this: it is feast or famine, flood or drought. We might go for years with barely enough to flush our toilets, but then when it begins to rain it never seems to stop. I said to a friend where it was raining during one of our drought times, “Send us some.” He responded, “I don’t think Texans appreciate the rain when it comes.” The reason is that when it begins to rain, it doesn’t seem to stop. I don’t like to complain about the rain, but I have to admit that I could use a few days of sunshine right now.
What amazes me is how quickly it can take over your attitude. My friend might be right. We had wonderful sunshine for months, but it only took a few days for people to become grumpy. Now that we’ve had nearly two months of this weather, we act as if we have completely forgotten that the sun exists as soon as it disappears behind a cloud. The sad part is that we didn’t appreciate the sun during the warm summer, either. We take the weather for granted and complain when it becomes inconvenient.
Sounds much like our relationship with God, doesn’t it? We are happy and thankful for His presence during the good times, but we quickly begin to take Him for granted. Even though He is shining bright all around us, we don’t notice Him because we don’t need Him. We have everything we want and need, so we forget that He is the one who has given us everything. Yet, the minute the storm clouds seem to hide Him from our sight, we become lost and filled with doubt. He has not gone anywhere. He just there behind the clouds, but we are blinded by the storm.
We might not be able to see the sunshine, but we know it is there. We can convince ourselves that the wet weather is vital to the life of the earth, watering the flowers and grass and giving us much needed water for our own lives. We struggle during those times when we have an overabundance of water, knowing that people are suffering even though we desperately needed it to overcome a drought just a month ago. Texas weather is flood or drought; it is the way it always has been. We know the rain should bring us joy because we could go for years without it; we should celebrate that the earth is working as it should. Instead, we forget that the sun will come again and that soon enough we will complain that there is not enough water to flush our toilets.
This is also how it is with our relationship with God. We know He is there behind the storm clouds we face, but in our hearts we feel that He has abandoned us. We might even intelligently be able to say that God is doing something good, but in our hearts we wonder how good could ever come out of it and we mourn a loss - a missing piece of our life with God hiding from our face. When we get to such a point, it would be good for us to sing songs of praise because God is faithful and never far away. We will find peace as we remember God’s goodness by praying scriptures like today’s Psalm, seeing Him by faith even when it seems like He is missing from our lives.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the farmer. Every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, he takes away. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already pruned clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I in you. As the branch can’t bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain in me. I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man doesn’t remain in me, he is thrown out as a branch, and is withered; and they gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, you will ask whatever you desire, and it will be done for you.” John 15:1-8, WEB
I twirled baton when I was a kid. Eventually I extended my twirling skills to the rifle. I was part of the band front in Junior High and High School. When I was a kid, I was rarely without something in my hand, whether it was my baton or rifle. Even if I was walking down the street to a friend’s house, you might see me twirling. Such constant use meant that the baton became a part of my body, another appendage. I wasn’t perfect at twirling and many were able to do much harder tricks, but my twirling was smooth, graceful and very natural.
I haven’t practiced in years. There was a brief period when Victoria twirled that I played with my batons, but never really got make the smooth grace of my youth. I might get back most of the skills I had back then if I tried again, but I don’t have the time or the inclination. I have responsibilities; I can't walk around with a baton in my hand every waking hour. There are other things that are far more important to accomplish, which I can’t do while I’m twirling a baton.
We make all sorts of excuses about our devotional lives. I saw a comic strip this morning in which the character talking to Jesus said, “I don’t feel like praying today.” The punch line was Jesus saying, “You are talking to me now.” This is true; any time we think about Jesus, we are engaging in prayer. Yet, too many of us think that’s enough. We don’t set aside time every day to pray or read the bible. When we are faithful to these practices, they become natural, a part of our day. We miss it if something gets in the way. It takes practice and discipline to get there, though. Most of us are not so faithful. We get caught up in the daily grind, think we don’t have even five minutes to give specifically to devotions. We pray on the run, eat the scriptures like we eat fast food. When we practice the daily routine of our devotional time, it is a natural extension of our being and we find our days go better. When we stop, for even a few days, it gets harder to keep up the practice and things in our life get out of control. Our devotional time, or lack of it, becomes visible to the world around us.
Ignace Jan Paderewski, a polish pianist, once said, “When I miss a day of practice, I can always tell it. If I miss two days, the critics will pick it up. If I miss three days, the audience will notice it.” The same is true about everything we do. Daily time spent doing the things we love will be manifest in the world, even if we do it behind closed doors. With baton twirling, my daily habit of twirling showed in the grace with which I walked and in the way I could move my body. When I stopped, I lost much of the elasticity in my muscles that came from the practice.
Though our devotional time is private, our time spent with God is obvious to the world around us. We go forth in faith, with joy and love, to do all that God would have us do. When we stop spending that time with the Lord, we lose touch with the source of our strength and faith. It does not take long before it becomes difficult for us to even find a few moments alone with God. We claim a lack of time and we try to go at it on our own. We find, all too quickly, that it is only with God’s help that our world is really under control. It is not enough to cry out to God occasionally in passing. It takes practice to develop a good pattern of devotional time, but it is well worth the trouble. For our daily time with God will help us to live more closely in His heart and kingdom.