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.
“Sing to Yahweh a new song, for he has done marvelous things! His right hand, and his holy arm, have worked salvation for him. Yahweh has made known his salvation. He has openly shown his righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his loving kindness and his faithfulness toward the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. Make a joyful noise to Yahweh, all the earth! Burst out and sing for joy, yes, sing praises! Sing praises to Yahweh with the harp, with the harp and the voice of melody. With trumpets and sound of the ram’s horn, make a joyful noise before the King, Yahweh. Let the sea roar with its fullness; the world, and those who dwell therein. Let the rivers clap their hands. Let the mountains sing for joy together. Let them sing before Yahweh, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.” Psalm 98, WEB
What comes to mind when you think about the Book of Revelation? The word “apocalypse” has come to be known for cataclysmic disaster, and the Book of Revelation is definitely an apocalyptic text. It is interpreted as a timeline for the end of everything. People are quick to mention the four horsemen, the beast, the army of locusts, the blood red moon, and predictions of future events. We think about the seven churches, although most people pay attention to the Church at Laodicea and its lukewarm heart.
Some Bible studies will focus on the fact that it is a book of hope, and this is very true, but most people have difficulty explaining how that might be. After all, it is definitely filled with visions of some pretty horrific things. It talks of the destruction of so much of the earth, so many people. We don’t really like to hear about even one person being thrown into a lake of fire. It is scary, and to many it is contrary to the lessons of Jesus. Many suggest that even Martin Luther rejected the book, but while he did question the authenticity of it in the early days (as did many of the early church fathers), he came to have a much more favorable attitude about it in the end.
I’ve been trying to write a book on Revelation for nearly twenty years, although I have not really given it the time needed to really understand until someone in my Sunday school classed asked to study it together. I have spent the last six months or so in intense study so that I can present the book in a way that we can truly understand it why it really is a book of hope. I struggled at first because I still had in my head the thoughts that have come out of a lifetime of listening to people’s opinions about the Revelation. I have read many books from different points of view. Though some of those books were definitely from points of view with which I disagree, I learned to look at it with new eyes.
The Apocalypse is not really about the cataclysmic disasters; the word is translated “revealing” hence the name “Revelation.” The book is a revealing from, concerning and of Jesus Christ. What surprised me the most, when I truly began reading it, is how much of the book is about worship. Revelation is the basis for many of our hymns and much of our liturgy. The more I studied the book, the more I changed the focus of my study. I encouraged the members of my class to listen carefully as they sang the liturgy and to pay attention as they read through the book. We will do the same as we walk verse by verse through the study. As a matter of fact, we are going to sing some of those hymns and liturgy in class.
Now, music is definitely not one of my gifts. When I sing, it is truly a joyful noise. I really enjoy listening to those who have been gifted with voices like those of the angels as they sing praises to God. Bruce does have the gift and is a member of our church choir. Thank goodness that several members of that choir attend my class so they can help to lead the singing. Others are more hesitant. They say, like me, “I can’t sing.” Even though my tongue grates on the ears of men, the song of joy in my heart is like sweet incense to God. We’ve all been given a song in our heart and we should not be afraid to sing out to Him in thanksgiving and praise. He has done, is doing and will continue to do great things for His creation.
It is surprising that I would chose to pay so much attention to the music, but I cannot help but raise my voice in praise when I think about God’s grace in the Apocalypse. See, the book of Revelation is the story of Christ’s final victory over everything that opposes God, but throughout the book God gives the unbelievers chance after chance after chance to return to Him. There are horrific images in the book, but they are preceded and followed by glorious acts of worship. We are invited to join with the angels, the martyred saints, all of creation and the multitudes of faithful in the new song praising God today as we wait to worship God forever and ever in eternity.
It is hard to find words when we are in God’s presence, but we can join in the hymns and God will hear. It doesn’t matter if you are making a joyful noise, God hears it as sweet incense. Do you ever find it difficult to talk to God? Do the images of the Apocalypse make you afraid for the future? Sing. Do not be concerned about pitch or tone, just sing. Do not be concerned if you can’t remember the words to your favorite songs, just sing. God has placed a song on your heart, one that will glorify Him. Do not hide it away, JUST SING! You will find peace in the mercy and grace that God promises to those who believe that He has won the victory.
“If it is possible, as much as it is up to you, be at peace with all men. Don’t seek revenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to God’s wrath. For it is written, ‘Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.’ Therefore ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing so, you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:18-21, WEB
I read an article by a woman who was mercilessly bullied as a child. The bully sat next to her in class, and when she asked to be moved because of the insults he was making, the teacher suggested that she would be a good example. The bully even picked on her outside of school because his mother was her coach. The girl’s mother was also bullied, a victim of domestic violence by a man she was dating. One day the girl’s bully saw an incident with her mother; the man pulled her out of a car and threw her to the ground. The next day, the bully reenacted the incident for their classmates, laughing as he pretended to be the mother sobbing on the ground. It was the first time that the girl realized her mother was also bullied.
Throughout her young life, the girl heard repeatedly that karma would win, “The bully will get his comeuppance.” She looked for that vengeance, that point in their lives when she was successful and happy but he was unsuccessful and unhappy. When she had finally found her place, a good job and happy marriage, wonderful children, she looked up her bully. She discovered that not only was he not happy, he was not longer alive. He had become a drug dealer and murdered by some of his customers, including a childhood friend. He certainly got his comeuppance.
But knowing this did not make the girl, now a woman, happy. She realized that the vengeance she sought had paid too high a price. Now, she did not murder the young man. She didn’t even wish for his death. However, her desire for karma made her blind to the reality of her bully’s life. Most bullies are bullied themselves, often by a harsh father. The promises of karma and comeuppance are often true because the bullies end up in risky lives of drug abuse and other dangers. Even if they don’t die at the hands of angry customers, many bullies are unable to accomplish anything of substance, and so end up struggling to keep a job.
The lesson this woman has taken from her experience is that we need to realize that in the bully/bullied relationship, there are two victims. Both need help and mercy. She wonders if there was anything she could have done to make things come out differently. We certainly cannot change history, but she hopes that we’ll look more clearly at what is happening rather than ignoring the problem or hoping for vengeance. Perhaps we can save another bully from the same fate by giving him or her a meal or a cup of water. God will make things right in the end, of that we can be certain, but in this world it is up to us to be at peace. It might even take an unexpected turn and good will come out of the evil.
Scriptures for Sunday, October 28, 2018, Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost: Jeremiah 31:7-9; Psalm 126; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52
“Yahweh has done great things for us, and we are glad.” Psalm 126:3, WEB
It is not surprising that a congregation is centered around the clergy. They are the most visible people in the life of a church. They lead worship and preach God’s Word. They pray for us and visit us when we are sick. October has been Clergy Appreciation Month, a time to honor our pastors and thank them for all they do for us.
Sometimes they aren’t appreciated for the work they do. I recall hearing a story about a pastor who turned in a record of his work to the council president. They pastor listed prayer time as part of his work. The council president questioned him about this. “Shouldn’t you pray on your own time?” he asked. Many parishioners think the pastor only works for an hour a week. They don’t consider the hours of preparation for worship as part of their job. They think the pastor should fix the toilet and sweep the floor.
Others are overly appreciated for the work they do, to the point that a congregation has difficulty letting go. Too many churches go through a crisis when a pastor chooses to retire or move on to another congregation. “Woe is us,” they say, “how can we go on without our beloved pastor?” Unfortunately, members struggle with the change and many leave for other churches or even to follow their own path. They loved the pastor so much that they lose faith when there is a change. They rely too much on one man or woman and forget that the focus of our worship and our church work is the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is good that we love our pastors, but we have to remember that the men and women who serve us in that way are human. They are limited. They aren’t God. It is good that we thank them for the service among us as long as we remember to thank God for calling them to be in our midst. They are a gift, but God is the giver. We just need to remember that their life and ministry among us will not last forever.
I don’t know if the people loved their priests in the days of the Temple, but the work they were doing was no more eternal than the work of our clergy today. In their case, the change most often came with death. The writer of Hebrews tells us, “Many, indeed, have been made priests, because they are hindered from continuing by death.” Many were made priests because they had to be replaced when their human life ended.
Jesus was different; the work of Jesus was eternal. The writer of Hebrews tells us, “But he, because he lives forever, has his priesthood unchangeable.” Jesus the Messiah was the end of the line, the last priest, because He was the only one who could save anyone completely. The other priests could offer sacrifices, but they could not intervene forever because they were imperfect and perishable. But Jesus who is “holy, guiltless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and made higher than the heavens” is able to provide eternal intervention. His sacrifice was sufficient to restore us to God forever. Unlike the clergy who will one day move on to another place, whether it is through death or a transfer to another congregation, Jesus Christ is with us always.
Bartimaeus was a blind beggar. Today the blind can find many opportunities to be productive members of society, but in Jesus’ day they had no chance. It was difficult for them to earn a living, not only because there was little they could do without sight, but also because people would be hesitant to support their work. If they were blind, then they were rejected by God for some reason. They must have sinned to have to suffer in this way. In the case of Bartimaeus and others who are seen begging in the scriptures, unscrupulous people may have dumped them in a place where they could beg instead of taking care of them or helping them find something productive to do.
Bartimaeus was on the side of the road begging when he heard a commotion. We don’t know if he there by choice or was dumped by someone who didn’t want the responsibility. We do know that Bartimaeus knew about Jesus. He had probably heard stories of other healing, perhaps even stories about men who had been blind. He couldn’t run up to Jesus the way others who sought healing could do; it was dangerous for him to even try; he could trip over a rock or a child. He might make a fool of himself trying to find Jesus in the crowd. He couldn’t move out of fear.
However, faith is stronger than fear and Bartimaeus called to Jesus. “Son of David!” This is the only place in Mark’s Gospel where this title is used. It is interesting to note that it is unusual for the man to be named. We don’t hear the names of many of those who interact with Jesus. Even the rich young man is nameless. Yet in this particular story, we are given the blind man’s name: Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus.
This naming of Bartimaeus is unusual, but it is even more unusual that Mark writes the name twice. Since “bar” means “son,” so Bartimaeus literally means son of Timaeus. Why did Mark tell us the same thing twice? The language used is a strange Semetic-Greek hybrid that might not have been understood by the earliest readers. It is also possible that this character has something to tell us about the philosophical understanding of the world in Jesus’ day.
As it turns out, one of Plato’s final dialogues was titled, “Timaeus.” The dialogue in this piece is between several philosophers including one named Timaeus who is the source of a lengthy monologue about the nature of the world, both physical and eternal. Timaeus seems to lay out Plato’s understanding of physics and the role of man in the world. That understanding includes the idea that sight is the foundation of knowledge.
The Greek philosophers, including Plato, have impacted Christian thought from the beginning. Is it good or bad? I can honestly say that I haven’t studied it enough to know for sure. We do not have time to debate the ancient Greek philosophers, but I wonder if the importance of Bartimaeus’ name has something to do with his understanding of the world. Was he someone who followed platonic philosophy? Did he see the world the way Timaeus does in the dialogue? And if so, does this brief encounter tell us more than just how Jesus healed him of his physical sight, but also how Jesus helped him see the world in a new way, to gain knowledge through God’s eyes?
Bartimaeus addressed Jesus as the “Son of David.” He saw Jesus as a savior, as the Messiah. This is not just about Jesus changing his life by giving him sight; it is about Jesus giving him the sight to see the reality of God. In verse 50, Mark tells us that when Jesus called Bartimaeus to Himself, Bartimaeus got up and “casting away his cloak” went to Jesus. Was that cloak a piece of clothing or might it have been his ideology and philosophy? In answering the call of Jesus, Bartimaeus not only went to Jesus in hope of being healed, but in humble recognition that he needed Jesus to help him gain knowledge by seeing God. Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus answered, “Rabbi,” identifying Jesus as a teacher, “I want to see.”
Jeremiah talks in the Old Testament passage about a remnant. Those who sew know that a remnant is a leftover piece of cloth, the end of a roll, often sold at a discount. The pieces are usually too small to make anything, certainly not a piece of clothing. I search the remnants for material to use for craft projects, and quilters can often use pieces for quilts they create. Usually, though, these pieces are worthless and unwanted. The word “remnant” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a usually small part, member, or trace remaining; a small surviving group -often used in plural.” The remnant of Israel was a small surviving group, a group with no power, no authority, and no position in the world.
In this case, the remnant includes those who turned to the Lord, who returned to the Lord. Israel had been lost, forgetting the works of God and turning to the nations for aid. The judgment they received for their unfaithfulness was exile in Assyria. But God did not send them into exile without a promise: they would be saved. In today’s passage, God called His people to praise Him. “Sing Hosanna” which means, “Save, O LORD, your people.” They were called to rejoice in what God has done and what He will do.
In this passage, He calls His people both “the chief of nations” and a remnant. This doesn’t make sense in our mind. How can a remnant be a chief? Then He says, “For I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my first-born.” The irony here is that Ephraim was the second son of Joseph who was the eleventh son of Jacob. He could not be the first born. The nation could not be chief. Israel was just a remnant. But God can do whatever He wants to do.
Jeremiah says, “Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the uttermost parts of the earth, along with the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her who travails with child together: a great company shall they return here.” God was not going to bring together the best of the best. He wasn’t going to gather the strong or handsome. He wasn’t seeking the smartest, richest or most powerful. He gathered together the weak. He restored the weak and the lame, the women at their most vulnerable. They were the ones that He promised to take home and He promised to protect them along the way.
The trip into exile did bring His people back into His heart. The remnant did turn back to Him and they were returned to their home. Jeremiah tells us that they would come with weeping. See, those who are weak recognize their need and weep because they see that there is someone who cares. The strong have no need of a savior; they can save themselves. But the weak need someone who is willing to do the unexpected. The weak need someone who is willing to turn the world upside down, to find value in imperfection and to lift up those who the world would rather throw away. God is the One who does this. They may have returned with weeping, but it was tears of humble thankfulness and joy.
The Psalm for today is a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s saving grace. The mouths of the congregation were filled with laughter and their tongues with singing. Can one weep and laugh at the same time? I know I have. “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.” There is a time for sorrow and a time for joy. Those who suffer are more readily available to receive God’s help. They look to Him. They trust in Him. They accept their own weakness and count on His strength. The tears of penitence and humility will be sowed into sheaves of bountiful blessings.
We can read the story of the blind man Bartimaeus as it plainly is: a healing story. He received his sight because he believed. His faith made him whole. He could see and he could become a productive member of society again because his blindness no longer forced him to beg. But the story might reveal far more than just the physical healing of the man. This is a story of one man recognizing the reality of Jesus, the first in Mark’s Gospel to publically identify Jesus as the Messiah, the Savior, the Eternal One manifest in human flesh. Whatever the Greek world thought about God, creation and the created order, Bartimaeus saw the truth.
Do we believe this? Are we willing to follow God with tears of sorrow, humbling ourselves before the only One who is able to make us truly see? Will we see ourselves as we truly are: imperfect and weak, requiring the grace of God to make us whole? Will we remember that those who serve us and Him are also imperfect, weak, requiring the grace of God to make them whole?
Jesus came that we might see not only with our eyes but with our souls. It is easy to get caught up focusing our religious life in a human being we honor and respect or in the philosophies of our world, but Jesus came to save the world, and us, from ourselves. Our pastors deserve our thanks because they do so much for our spiritual lives, but they are limited and temporary. Jesus came to make an eternal mark on our lives, to restore us to the Father. We all have our weakness, our reason for sorrow and tears, but God calls us to Himself and He will turn our tears into joy with His bounteous blessings. He has done great things for us, let us be glad and sing!
“Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect; but I press on, if it is so that I may take hold of that for which also I was taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers, I don’t regard myself as yet having taken hold, but one thing I do. Forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, think this way. If in anything you think otherwise, God will also reveal that to you.” Philippians 3:12-15, WEB
I just finished a new painting. It is of a jaguar, based on a photo I took at the zoo a few years ago. The painting will be donated to the zoo for their fundraising gala in a few weeks. It is going to be difficult to give up because I think it is one of my favorite paintings. I realized as I put on the finishing touches, that painting is getting easier with each new project.
I’m not saying it was easy. I struggle with perfection. I want everything I do to be perfect, and I’ve never been able to succeed at it. I hated one of my paintings because no matter how hard I tried, I could not get something correct. I even covered some of it with fresh gesso (the foundation paint) so I could start that part over again. I was finally able to finish it, but I have to admit that it sat on the easel for months will I simmered over my inability to make it right. I didn’t have the same struggle with this painting. That’s not to say this one is perfect. I can point out all the mistakes and the places on the painting I could do better. I still love it; perhaps the lack of perfection is what truly makes it mine.
I have the same problem with this devotional. I want it to be perfect. I try to edit, but if you have done any editing you know that mistakes always slip through. We have a hard time seeing our own typos, that’s why it is good to have an editor. I usually find my errors long after I have posted a devotion or emailed it.
That happened to me just this week. I write a weekly post for my church and post it on Monday. The link to the devotion is sent on Tuesday. Though I’ve tried to edit before posting it, there is usually some silly mistake. I always click into the link and reread it with fresh eyes on Tuesday and if I find any mistakes, I fix them before (I hope) too many others read it. Unfortunately, I was late with my check this week; a letter from my pastor reminded me to do it. I was terribly embarrassed to discover that it was a mess! I repeated a whole section of the devotion.
My pastor’s letter didn’t have anything to do with my mistakes, but was a note of thanks for the message. I try to base that devotion on the sermon from the previous Sunday, and he struggled with the text for the week. It was a hard lesson to preach to the congregation, and he prayed that he could encourage us and give us with peace after hearing hard words. He simply did not want to “bum everyone out.” My take on the lesson was slightly different, but only enough to give another point of view. He was encouraged and thankful.
And I was embarrassed because the one time I knew my pastor read the devotion was a disaster. What’s interesting is that he didn’t write to tell me about my mistakes, but to thank me. I know it was riddled with errors, but if he noticed them he didn’t worry about it. He responded with grace and thanksgiving. I used to joke that I purposely leave errors in the writing to prove that I’m human. I even suggested I should give a prize to the first person who found my mistakes. Unfortunately, I would probably go broke giving prizes because there are always mistakes!
We are all imperfect. We make mistakes every day, some of which are obvious, some not so. We get angry, bitter, frightened, violent and hateful. We say things we do not mean and we forget to say the things that truly matter. We have good reason to confess regularly that we sin against God and our neighbors in thought, word and deed by what we have done and what we have not done. We separate ourselves from God and His mercy. It should not stop us from living. My errors can’t stop me from painting or writing. I will struggle, but in the end I hope that the imperfect things I produce will make a difference in the world. You, too, will struggle to be perfect, but God calls you to leave your mark on the world, and let it be one that shows the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The Spirit of God has marked you for a purpose, to make a difference in His creation.
“Be strong and courageous; for you shall cause this people to inherit the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous. Be careful to observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded you. Don’t turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success. Haven’t I commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be dismayed, for Yahweh your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:6-9, WEB
My desire for perfection often makes it difficult for me to finish my projects. I’ve had paintings on an easel for months, even years, because I don’t know what to do with it or I am afraid. I made one painting a long time ago of a lion. The lion came out beautifully, but it was way too small for the canvas. I was disappointed. I also knew that I could do something to the background to make it seem as though the lion were in the jungle. The idea terrified me because I knew I would hate whatever I tried to do. I was afraid I would ruin the good. I kept that painting hidden away for years.
In the meantime, I was finding new techniques for my work. I began making three dimensional paintings by adding silk flowers or other items to the canvas. Eventually it struck me: I didn’t have to paint the canvas, I could build a jungle around the lion. I found some silk leaves that I decoupaged onto a frame, leaving the center open so that you can see the lion. I like it. It certainly is not a masterpiece, definitely not perfect, but with time and practice I found a solution to the problem and finished the work.
I had another painting that I had begun, but I just could not make it work. It was of a macaw, which are very colorful tropical birds. Once again I painted the bird and it looked pretty cool, but the background was not. Unfortunately, I tried many ways to set that bird in an appropriate habitat, but I hated every one. Eventually my mistakes ruined the bird. I painted over it and started again. And again. That painting took years to complete, and the final piece didn’t look anything like the original. The more I grew in my knowledge of the materials and techniques, the more I was able to make a good painting happen.
My latest painting was so much less frustrating because I was able to take the lessons I have learned over the years and apply them to this project. The most important, I suppose, is that I worked out in my head what I would do with the background before I got too far with the jaguar. Though I had to do a little touch up around the edges, the background was completed first, then I could focus on the subject without worrying that I would ruin the painting in the end.
It took practice, dedication and perseverance to have the confidence to make this painting. Each time I had a failing painting, I didn’t believe I could be an artist. I wanted to give up. I suppose in some ways I have given up, like with that macaw painting, because I gave up trying to fix what I started. But I didn’t let one failure keep me from continuing to try and in the end I managed to be happy with it when it was finished.
Some people are incredibly good at talking about the scriptures. They have a bit of God’s Word on their tongue for every circumstance. They can quote encouraging texts to help others through struggles and to praise God in times of blessing. They didn’t get that way overnight. They know the scriptures because they have been written on their hearts. Now, while God is in the middle of this process, we can’t assume that He’s just going to write His Word without our involvement.
When I was in high school and college, I used to joke that I studied for tests by putting the textbooks under my pillow at night so I could learn the material by osmosis. It doesn’t work that way. It takes diligent study to get good grades in school. The same is true of the scriptures. God’s Word is written on our hearts when we meditate on it day and night. We will be ready to give an answer to those who ask if we spend time in the scriptures every day. This means reading it, but it also means taking the time to ponder what it means for our lives. It means studying it regularly. It even means repeating it over and over again (memorizing) the texts so that they are right on the tips of our tongues when we need it. God will be with us and He will put His Word in our mouths when we need it, but with practice, dedication and perseverance we will have the confidence to talking about the scriptures with people who need to hear God’s promises and be saved.
“If you call on him as Father, who without respect of persons judges according to each man’s work, pass the time of your living as foreigners here in reverent fear: knowing that you were redeemed, not with corruptible things, with silver or gold, from the useless way of life handed down from your fathers, but with precious blood, as of a faultless and pure lamb, the blood of Christ; who was foreknown indeed before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of times for your sake, who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead, and gave him glory; so that your faith and hope might be in God. Seeing you have purified your souls in your obedience to the truth through the Spirit in sincere brotherly affection, love one another from the heart fervently: having been born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, through the word of God, which lives and remains forever. For, ‘All flesh is like grass, and all of man’s glory like the flower in the grass. The grass withers, and its flower falls; but the Lord’s word endures forever.’ This is the word of Good News which was preached to you.” 1 Peter 1:17-25, WEB
The movie “Shrek” was a modern day fairy tale. The main character Shrek was an ogre, an extremely ugly and rude character who described himself as an onion, with many different layers. The other fairy tale characters were evicted from their homes and ended up in his swamp. Shrek loved his privacy, so he went to the evil Lord Farquaad to demand that he let the other characters go back to their homes. Shrek won the opportunity to rescue a princess so that she could marry Farquaad. If he succeeded, Farquaad promised to get the creatures out of his swamp. Shrek and his buddy Donkey traveled to the foreign land to save Fiona.
Fiona was a beautiful princess, trapped in the tower of a castle protected by a large dragon. After some perilous adventures, the three began their journey home. Fiona had some definite ideas about how her fairy tale was supposed to end, and an ogre was not part of it. She reluctantly went with Shrek and Donkey, but during the journey a relationship bloomed. Fiona was not completely honest; she hid herself at night because she had a deep dark secret. She became an ugly ogre at night, but she was sure that when she married Lord Farquaad and kissed him with love’s first kiss the spell would be broken and she would live forever as a beautiful princess. Unfortunately, the three friends have a misunderstanding and though she had come to love Shrek, she went with the evil Farquaad to be married.
In the end, Shrek’s true heart was revealed and the two kiss. Fiona’s wish comes true, but they both realized that true love is not necessarily as we expect. It is something much deeper and more real. Fiona thought she had to give up the ugly ogre for find true love, but she really was giving up the real love for something evil. When Shrek and Fionna shared true love’s first kiss, her secret was revealed and she became the most beautiful ogre her beloved Shrek had ever seen.
The Jews had an expectation of what the Messiah would look like and how he would fulfill the promises of God. They followed false messiahs looking for an earthly answer to their problems. When Jesus arrived, they missed Him completely because He did not fit into their expectations. Yet, He was the answer to all their prayers, sharing a deeper love than anything they could even imagine. Even today we tend to miss the truth and love of our Lord because we are looking for the fairy tale ending. In our Christian walk, we often seek love in the wrong places like the law or in the perishable things of this world. However, true love is found in the cross of Jesus Christ, the twist of the fairy tale. Jesus died so that we might have life. In His death we are resurrected to be something very beautiful, a beauty that will live forever. We are transformed into the person He created and redeemed us to be. With His life in us, we love as He does, sincerely and deeply, from our hearts.
“Honor your father and your mother, as Yahweh your God commanded you; that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you, in the land which Yahweh your God gives you.” Deuteronomy 5:16, WEB
A young man was talking with his mentor about his life. He described his father who had been an orphan. The young man’s father was not the best parent, often responding with anger if he was even paying attention. The young man felt ignored and abused. One day the father had an embarrassing loss of temper and he put his hands over his face in shame and said desperately, “Son, you do not understand. I never had a father. I never saw how fathers do it. I feel totally helpless. I don’t know how to be a parent, but I don’t know how. Help me!” The young man told his mentor that he hugged his dad and wept with him. That moment was the beginning of a whole new relationship.
It is not always easy to love our parents. It is particularly difficult in the teen years when children are testing their independence and becoming mature. Unfortunately, it is also a time when children believe that they know better. They have a little bit of knowledge but not nearly enough experience so they argue with their parents about everything. I had my own moments of rebellion in those years, but like most children, I eventually remembered how much my parents had done for me. I made more than one phone call to my mother when Victoria was young that began, “Mom, I’m sorry.” My mom always asked, “What did Victoria do now?” I saw my rebellion in my daughter and realized how often I had not honored my parents when I was young.
This commandment is fairly easy when children have the perfect parents, although I’m not sure they even exist. We are all human; we all make mistakes, even our parents. The command to honor them has nothing to do with what great parents they are or the wonderful things they do for us. The commandment from God charges us to honor our parents even when they do not live up to our expectations. The relationship between a parent and child is a reflection of the relationship between God and His people. While our parents will never be as God, they are given His authority to guide and direct us in this life. They have made sacrifices we do not realize until we are parents of our own children.
Now, God has given this great responsibility to imperfect human beings who will fail. Like the father in the story, they will make mistakes. Notice, however, that their relationship changed when the father finally admitted his failure to his son. “I can’t do it. Help me,” he said. The best parents are not those who appear to be perfect, but who teach their children how to be humble. God commands us to honor them no matter what, but He also puts a heavy burden on our fathers and mothers. He expects parents to follow His example.
This commandment is the first to come with a promise. God tells us that our days will be long and things will go right with us. The reason for this promise is not that our parents will make our lives easier or better, but because they stand as a tangible reminder of God’s grace. He knows that if we can’t honor the authority figure closest to us, then we will never be able to truly honor Him. We can say we love God until we are blue in the face, but if we are not obedient to those whom God has put into our lives to guide and direct us in this life, how will we ever be obedient to Him who can’t be experienced tangibly? But, if we honor our parents, we will also honor our Father in heaven, and in that relationship we will truly be blessed.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 4, 2018, All Saints' Sunday: Revelation 7:(2-8) 9-17; Psalm 149; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
“Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven.” Matthew 5:12a, WEB
I have changed my view on Halloween a dozen different times in this writing. Sometimes I have looked at it from the point of view as good clean fun. As a matter of fact, there was a time when Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. I had such fun dressing up in costume, over-decorating the house, and giving candy to the multitudes of children that visited our home. At other times I have taken a less positive perspective. There are things about Halloween that is not acceptable in our Christian life.
In his letter to Galatia, Paul talks about the deeds of the flesh: adultery, sexual immorality, uncleanness, lustfulness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, strife, jealousies, outbursts of anger, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. Of course, our children don’t partake in some of these, but how many costumes these days are called “sexy whatever.” The kids might not be getting drunk, but how many adults will over-imbibe today to celebrate? The Greek word for “debauchery” means “lack of self restraint.” How many times have we watched children push each other out of the way to get to be the first one at the next door?
“Hatred” means “hostility, in opposition, or hateful.” We spend Halloween dressing up as evil characters, doing nasty things to one another, bringing people to a state of fear. Even in good humor, this is a hateful thing to do. And what does Paul mean by “and things like these?” The list of sinful acts that could be drawn from this term is extensive. Paul doesn’t leave a loophole for those who want to do things against the nature we are given in Christ. During Halloween celebrations we see gluttony. The children stuff their faces with candy. Greed is rampant. “Just one more house, Mom, please?” We cannot forget pride. “My costume is better than yours.”
I haven’t really participated in Halloween festivities much since my kids have grown. Our neighborhood gets a lot of children, and it is frustrating to see the traffic jam at our corner as parents from distant places drop off their kids because they think we are rich. Our neighbor told us they gave candy to over three hundred children last year. Despite this, we decided we would turn on our lights and open our doors. I’ve purchased tons of candy and plenty of non-food treats for the kids who have allergies. Unfortunately, severe weather is threatening the fun and we may not see the hundreds of children for which we have prepared.
Now, this talk of Halloween really has nothing to do with the topic of this week’s Midweek Oasis. And yet, it has everything to do with it. Halloween has become a holiday about death with ghosts and zombies. Yet, there’s another way of looking at this night. It is All Hallow’s Eve, a night that leads us into All Saints’ Day which is a time when we should remember the saints who have passed through this life into life eternal. Unfortunately, the world has added the icons of evil and death and has made this a holiday that brings out the worst in people. As we recall the memories of those we love, let us make this night about fun, laughter and sharing instead.
For many, the focus on death is not only frightful, it is depressing. Too many have had to face the loss of people they have loved over the past year. Even if there is no recent deaths in our families, All Saints’ Day reminds us of those whom we continue to miss. My mom has been gone for twenty years and my dad thirteen, but I still think of them often. I know others who are the same. On nearly a daily basis I see one of my Facebook friends post a candle or a rose for those in heaven who are celebrating an earthly or heavenly birthday.
Jesus tells us “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” We are comforted by the Word of God that tells us this life is only a momentary journey on our way to an eternity in heaven. We believe and we are blessed. We find comfort in the promise that our mourning will one day come to an end forever as God Himself wipes away our tears.
The greatest blessing is that the kingdom of heaven is not just a future hope. The Gospel lesson is a list of blessings - beatitudes - that are hard for us to understand. Where is the blessedness in poverty, mourning, meekness or hunger? In a world that seeks wealth, fame and power it is hard to accept mercy, purity of heart and peacemaking as the way to succeed. These are not seen as strengths, but weaknesses. Finally, it is impossible to rejoice in persecution. Yet, Jesus says, “Blessed are they...” They are the blessed ones, the ones who are receiving the mercy and grace of God.
The hope of faith is framed in this passage by the assurance of God’s presence. In verse three, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” In verse ten He says, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Notice that in these two verses, the gift is present: theirs is the kingdom of heaven. IS. In verses four through nine the gift is future. Jesus tells us that the blessed will be comforted, will inherit the earth, will be filled, will receive mercy, will see God, will be called sons of God. A time will come when all our suffering will cease and we will be with God for eternity, but we are assured that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the blessed of God now.
Living in the promises of God is never easy. There will always be those who oppose Him and seek to destroy His people. Persecution is always a possibility when we follow in Jesus’ footsteps. He was spot-free Lamb, sinless and innocent. Yet He suffered the cruelest torture and death imaginable. We are baptized into His life and His death, called to persevere through this life until we see the fulfillment of His promises.
John writes about those who make it through tribulation, “These are those who came out of the great tribulation. They washed their robes, and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. Therefore they are before the throne of God, they serve him day and night in his temple. He who sits on the throne will spread his tabernacle over them. They will never be hungry, neither thirsty any more; neither will the sun beat on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the middle of the throne shepherds them, and leads them to springs of waters of life. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” John gives us hope to live our faith in Jesus Christ in this world today sure of the knowledge that one day we will live in a place with no hunger, thirst or pain. Someday we will live in the very presence of God for eternity, with nothing to separate us from the fullness of His glory. This is not ours by our works, but by God’s grace. This leads us to a life of worship and joy, not evil and death.
In the passage from Revelation, John describes an incredible number of worshipers. The book of Revelation has been widely interpreted, and misinterpreted, since John wrote it nearly two thousand years ago. Read a dozen commentaries and you’ll find a dozen different explanations for the symbolism of the images and the numbers. First there is a list of the tribes, twelve thousand from each who are sealed by God. The number 144,000 is not literal; it is twelve times twelve tribes times a thousand which was the largest number understood by man at the time representing the fullness of the Jewish people. John then follows with a description of a great multitude that no one could number. The first group is made of Jews and the second of the nations; worship in heaven will include all believers, both Jew and Gentile.
The multitude cries out, “Salvation be to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” This is a moment of worship, of thanksgiving, of witness to the work of God in Jesus Christ. He is being praised for saving God’s people, bringing them through the tribulation and making them right so that they can stand before the throne. The angels see this praise and join in with the faithful, singing a doxology of praise. Whatever the numbers, every one of the faithful, both angelic and human, are part of the eternal worship that will glorify Christ forever. This is our eternal hope; this is the life the saints will live according to God’s promises. This is the hope that God has fulfilled through Jesus Christ, washing our righteousness with His blood so that we can stand before Him in praise and thanksgiving; it is the hope that we will never suffer again.
All Saints Day is not really a day for mourning; it is a day to celebrate the promises of God. For a Christian, death is just the passing from this world into new life in Christ where we receive the blessings promised by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We weep over the loss of those we love, for they will never again join us in the laughter and pain of this world. Even Jesus wept, for in death we see the reality of sin and the grave. It is separation from those we love, an end to the blessings of life in this world. When someone we love dies, we mourn because we feel the loss, but we know that there is hope beyond the grave. Jesus made it possible.
Those who believe in Jesus will receive blessing from the Lord, salvation from our Savior. We will see the day when mourning is turned to joy. We will feast at the victory table. Jesus overcomes even time and space by drawing all the saints - past, present and future - into one body. All Saints Day is sad as we remember those whose lives have slipped from our grasp, but it is also a joyous event as we remember that they are still with us as part of Christ’s body. Jesus is the resurrection; He is our hope and life. He has overcome death and the grave and in Him alone is our hope for salvation. Those who seek after Him and believe in His name will receive the blessings of the Lord.
The apocalyptic text gives us a picture of what life will be when everything has been fulfilled. That multitude represents all those who have believed in Jesus throughout time and space. We stand somewhere in that multitude. We are part of those who have washed our robes in Christ’s blood and who will spend eternity worshiping God. We are the children of God. We are the saints. Thanks to God’s grace we are blessed with this future, but that doesn’t mean that our present will be without pain. We will suffer. We will get sick. And yes, we will die. In the scene from Revelation we are assured that God is faithful. He is worthy of our praise and we are called join with all the heavenly host in worship even today while we still wait to join the multitude.
“Amen! Blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might, be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” This sevenfold blessing is a doxology, praising God in every way. It begins with the word “Amen,” which we usually use to end a prayer. Here it calls us to listen. John uses the word “amen” often throughout his writings, particularly in his Gospel to indicate that Jesus is about to say something very important. “Amen, amen lego humin” is Greek for “Truly, truly, I say to you.” When John writes that Jesus said “Amen, amen” we should listen. So, too, both the “amens” in this passage call us to hear the words of the angels that define God’s character and establish the reason for our praise. We praise God because His is the blessing, His is the glory, His is the wisdom, and He deserves the thanksgiving because His is the honor, His is the power and His is the might.
When we think of blessedness, pain never enters our mind. To us, blessed are those who are healthy, wealthy and popular. We equate blessedness with being comfortable, contentment with satisfaction. We would never consider the poor, hungry or sick to be blessed, for they are suffering in a world that God made good. However, the danger comes when we are too comfortable. We do not see that we need help; we do not look to God for His grace.
Jesus had a way of turning our world upside down, and He certainly did so in today’s Gospel message. The Beatitudes go against everything we expect. We would much rather be comfortable and happy. We would much prefer a life of wealth, health and popularity. However, Jesus never promised us a rose garden. He promised Himself. We can find blessedness in poverty and in mourning, not because there is anything good about these things but because it is in suffering that we turn to grace. Physical blessedness is found in pain because the pain makes us look to the one who can heal us. Spiritual blessedness is found in suffering because it makes us look to God.
The saints are those who trust in God no matter their circumstances. When you read the stories of the Saints, you see horrific tales of beatings, torture, and murder. Many were burned to death or beheaded. They were thrown in prison and forgotten. They were ripped from the people they loved and forced to serve as slaves. Through it all they never wavered in their faith. They accepted the pain and suffering, and even sang God’s praises while their world fell apart. They were witnesses, even unto death, of the Gospel and God’s grace. They have learned to live in faith from those experiences, and they have passed those lessons on to us.
A story is told of a young boy and a trip to a cathedral with his grandmother. As they wandered the aisles of the church looking at the windows, the woman asked her young grandson, “Do you know who the saints are?” She was referring to the figures in the windows and their stories. The young boy answered, “They are the people who the light shines through.” He knew that there was more to their life than just their story. They were saints because God shines His light in their lives.
It is interesting to think about the light through stained glass. I love to walk through a church on a sunny day. It is wonderful for those who are on the inside because the light shines through and we can see the glass in all its beauty and study its message. But what happens when it is dark outside? The windows look lifeless and dark from inside. And yet, as the light shines on the inside, that is the very moment when people on the outside can see the story.
The light comes from inside us and it shines for the world to see. We can complain about the darkness, death and evil all around us, but it is when the light shines out to the world through our lives that we actually have an impact. When we focus on life rather than death and light rather than darkness, the world will see God and know He is real.
John writes, “See how great a love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God! For this cause the world doesn’t know us, because it didn’t know him.” We are the saints, the children of God. It is the love of God that gives us this grand and glorious title; by His mercy we are adopted into His family and we will inherit His kingdom one day, just as those faithful ones we have loved and lost have already received their inheritance. We live in the hope of faith that one day we will join them to dwell forever in the presence of God. For now we have to deal with the reality that we are blessed though we are ravaged by the world. Sometimes the blessing is in the suffering, as with those martyrs of old whose robes were washed with their own real blood; they were blessed because though they passed through death into the bosom of God for eternity by the blood of Jesus Christ.
The closest we will come to experiencing the future kingdom of heaven in this life is at the at the communion table when we share the Lord’s Supper. In some forms of the liturgy we hear words like these: “Join our prayers with those of your servants of every time and every place and unite them with the ceaseless petitions of our great high priest until he comes as victorious Lord of all.” Our worship is timeless and the fellowship numbers in the multitudes.
They say that the veil between this world and the next is very thin on Halloween. That’s why there is such a focus on ghosts and zombies. Some of other religions even performing rituals to draw near to that other world. On All Saints Sunday, we are reminded that it is true that the veil is thin, but in a very different way. While there aren’t ghosts kneeling with us as we receive the body and blood of Christ, the Church Triumphant is there amongst us, sharing in the same feast and worshipping the same Lord. They already have what we only know through hope: eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven that God has promised to those who believe in Him. While we still have to wait to see that hope fulfilled, the Kingdom of Heaven is ours today because God is faithful.
Isn’t it amazing how we laugh at the darkness and death of Halloween, but we mourn at the celebration of the saints? This All Saints Day, even as we remember those who have been lost, let’s do so with rejoicing. There is pain in the death of those we love because they will no longer be with us. But there is also joy because we know that they are now among the multitude who are praising God forever. Let us sing for joy, just as the psalmist, knowing that we too will join them one day. “Praise Yahweh! Sing to Yahweh a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints.”