Welcome to the September 2010 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.
    You are welcome to use these writings or pass them on. All we ask is that in all things you remember the Author and give Him the glory, and remember this vessel which He has used to bring them to you. Peggy Hoppes


Topics

Choice

Witness

Endings

Importance

Worthiness

Sinfulness

Fleeting

Family

Trust

Mentor

Work

Simple

Believe

Teacher

Distant

See

Praise

Love

Humility

Sabbath

Faith

Wisdom


A WORD FOR TODAY


Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.





A WORD FOR TODAY, September 2010





September 1, 2010

Scriptures for Sunday, September 5, 2010, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 23: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

"I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed; to love Jehovah thy God, to obey his voice, and to cleave unto him; for he is thy life, and the length of thy days; that thou mayest dwell in the land which Jehovah sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them." Deuteronomy 30:19-20, ASV

The order of the Biblical canon is a human construct. It isn't chronological. It isn't place in order of importance. As a matter of fact, sometimes the Bible seems like it is a library that is put together with little rhyme or reason. Oh, you have groupings of books: the history, the prophets, the Gospels and the Letters. But even then there is some question about whether a book belongs in one section or another. Were all the letters attributed historically to Paul really written by Paul? Is Job history, prophetic or poetry? The Psalms themselves cover so many topics that it falls into a category of its own.

The chapter and verse numbers are not part of the word of God; they were assigned throughout history by people that thought to make it easier for multiple people to find a reference. I'm glad it was done, because I don't think we'd do as well at Bible Study if we had to find the references without the numbers.

So, it is unlikely that God cares which Psalm is first or which is last. Psalm 23 is not beloved because it is the twenty-third, but because the words speak of God's loving care for His sheep. Psalm 100 is not popular because it has such a concise number but because it is a call to praise God. The book of Psalms is a hymnbook, filled with hymns of the people that praise God, cry out in lament and repentance, and seek God's help and grace.

But isn't it interesting that the book of Psalms begin with the words in today's lesson. "Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the wicked, Nor standeth in the way of sinners, Nor sitteth in the seat of scoffers: but his delight is in the law of Jehovah; And on his law doth he meditate day and night." (Psalm 1:1-2, ASV)

Now, it might seem odd that this Lutheran would begin to study these scriptures from the point of the Law, and yet isn't that where "we" begin? It isn't where the process begins, because we know that any salvation we have is from God first, through Christ and His work on the cross. But we can't possibly realize the gift we have in Christ until we realize how pathetic and wicked we are. The Law is a mirror in which we see our sinfulness and realize our need for a Savior. If we are perfect, or even if we are simply good, we do not need a Savior. We need to know our failure so that we can experience God's grace. So we look to the Law to understand how we do not, and can not, live up to the holiness of God.

So, who is the one who is blessed? In an age when we are so divided by our opinions, we have to wonder: who is the wicked? Who is the sinner? Who is the scoffer? What does it mean to delight in the law of Jehovah? We have our opinions about religion and politics, and those opinions are filled with every emotion. Those emotions even follow through on other parts of our lives. Have you ever seen Philadelphians fight over which cheesesteak is the best: Pat's or Geno's? Should we drink Coke or Pepsi? McDonald's or Burger King?

These things don't matter, but the issues facing us in the world today do matter. I personally don't have a preference on the sodas or the fast food, although as a former resident of the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, I prefer our way of serving cheesesteaks. I don't think I would destroy a relationship over the choice, however. It is harder when we are dealing with politics and religion because those topics have consequences. How we live our faith and how we run our country can make a difference today and tomorrow. How we understand our relationships with one another can change the future for our children.

The problem is that the voices we hear on every side are often the extremes. They all, whatever side they are on, know how to say what sounds good and right and true. Those who agree with them hear grace and mercy and Gospel in their words. Those who disagree only hear anger and wrath and law. It doesn't matter which "side" the speaker is on - the other side will find something negative to say. We can't live in the extremes. We have to find a way to discern which words, no matter which "side" is speaking them, are true. It is up to us to study God's word so that we can hear His voice in the cacophony of voices that surround us.

The scriptures give us both Law and Gospel, wrath and mercy, command and grace. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, "There is a season for everything." There are times when we have to face God's Law so that we'll see our need for Him, and times when the Gospel is the Word that will turn us around. There are times when we do have to suffer the consequences of our mistakes and other times when we will experience mercy. God's commands are His expectations of us, but He sees us through the work of Christ, the work we are called and gifted to continue through His grace. Christians don't worship an Old Testament God or a New Testament God: we worship the God who is revealed in a million different ways through the scriptures that have been handed down to us over the generations. We can't know everything about God, but we can delight in His Word, studying so that we'll recognize His voice when a prophet speaks to us today.

Sometimes it helps to look at the scriptures in different language, to better understand what the writer might have been saying. The Amplified Bible adds possible translations of the words so that the reader can see it from different perspectives. Here is Psalm 1:1-2 from the Amplified Bible, "BLESSED (HAPPY, fortunate, prosperous, and enviable) is the man who walks and lives not in the counsel of the ungodly [following their advice, their plans and purposes], nor stands [submissive and inactive] in the path where sinners walk, nor sits down [to relax and rest] where the scornful [and the mockers] gather. But his delight and desire are in the law of the Lord, and on His law (the precepts, the instructions, the teachings of God) he habitually meditates (ponders and studies) by day and by night."

In this amplified version, we see a progression of life amongst the wicked. At first the man walks along, following advice, but soon he are standing, submissive and inactive. Finally, those who follow the ways of the wicked sit down and relax, allowing the wickedness to pervade their world. This doesn't happen instantaneously. Day by day, idea by idea, the ungodly let go of God and cling to his or her own plans and purposes, forgetting the Word of God.

What makes it particularly hard is that we know that God is merciful and gracious, so some things we read in the scriptures don't make sense. Take, for instance, Jesus' call to the faithful to hate their mothers and fathers! How can He possibly mean we should hate them? After all, in the other gospels, Jesus rebukes the temple leaders for allowing the dishonoring of parents (Mark 7:11). So how could He mean that we should hate our parents?

The word "hate" is defined in Webster's as "intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury, extreme dislike or antipathy, loathing." If it is used as a verb it means, "To feel extreme enmity toward, have a strong aversion to, find very distasteful." It is because we define hate in this way that we are shocked by Jesus' words in today's Gospel lesson. Surely Jesus does not mean for us to have extreme dislike and loathing for our parents?

This is why it is important to understand how words were defined in the days they were spoken. Jesus did say that we are to hate our mothers and fathers, but he was not giving us permission to make them our enemies or treat them with dishonor. "Hate" as it is understood in ancient Israel has to do with our priorities. To hate something meant to turn your back on it, to separate yourself from it. Jacob loved Rachel but hated Leah. Obviously, he did not feel a strong aversion to her since they made several children together. The passage simply means that Jacob put Rachel first, turning his back on Leah for Rachel's sake. When Jesus calls us to hate our mothers and our fathers, our wives and our children, He is not telling us to abandon them or treat them poorly. He is simply calling us to put Him first, setting aside everything and everyone else for His sake.

Many of our choices have no real consequences. It doesn't matter if we drink Coke or Pepsi, or if we eat at Pat's or Geno's. It does matter how we live our life. It does matter if we believe God's Word or if we follow the words of others. It does matter if we obey the commandments of God or if we decide to walk another path. These choices mean the difference between good and evil, between life and death. The consequences we suffer are not as some might suggest "the wrath of God." He does not destroy those who are disobedient. In reality, we destroy ourselves by turning our hearts away from God. He does not leave us, we leave Him. Either we love Him or we hate Him. There is no in between. When Jesus calls us to hate everything, including our own lives, He is calling us to love God with our whole being.

Is God a Lutheran, and if He is, which type of Lutheran? I know what I'd like the answer to be, but I also know that He isn't any of the above. When we put our religious opinions ahead of God's Word, we are hating God and loving ourselves. We have to remember that God loves all who believe in Him, even if they see God differently. We must just be careful that we are devoting ourselves to the study of His word so we can know, without a doubt, when the voices we hear are leading us down that path of walking, standing and sitting with the wicked, the sinners and the scoffers.

See, that's what happens when we aren't willing to listen to others: we become scoffers. I know that right now, those who are reading my words who know my religious and political opinions are thinking, "Yeah, you should listen to what I say." But I have to ask, are you listening to me, too? I'm not right and you aren't right - right might just be somewhere in between. God is big enough to be both.

But we are so caught up in our own opinions that we do not hear what the others have to say. We might stop talking for a minute, but we don't listen. Worst of all, we don't listen to what God has to say. We don't look at it from the many sides of God, the Law side and the Gospel side. We'll use only that part of the Word of God that strengthens our point of view, ignoring the rest of God's Word. We reject what doesn't agree with our opinions without considering that we might need to understand the situation in a new way. That person on the other side of the table might just love God as much as you, and has to live according to the word of God as they believe it to be. We know we are on the wrong path when we become scoffers: when our words do nothing to elevate God but rather disgrace others.

So, Jesus doesn't tell us to hate our mothers and fathers or our life. He tells us to put God ahead of them, ahead of everything, even our own pursuits and opinions. It isn't easy to be a follower of God, to let go of societal expectations and do according to God's will rather than the will of those around us. But once we turn to God, we have to go all the way, because if we only half-heartedly serve God, we'll find ourselves wandering back to the path of the wicked.

In Deuteronomy we hear, "See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil." The kind of life we will live is dependent on the way we walk in this world. If we love God and walk in His ways, we will see the blessings of obedience which is life and prosperity. "But if thy heart turn away, and thou wilt not hear, but salt be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; I denounce unto you this day, that ye shall surely perish; ye shall not prolong your days in the land, whither thou passest over the Jordan to go in to possess it." If we turn away from God, in essence "hate" Him, we will suffer the consequences. If we hate everything and keep God first, then we�ll know life and prosperity. And we won't lose the things that truly matter.

What must it have been like for Philemon? And Onesimus? The difference between these brothers in Christ was not religion or politics, but societal expectations. Philemon was a master, Onesimus was a slave. We might want to take sides in this relationship, choosing to support Philemon's rights as master or Onesimus' rights as a human being. But Paul chooses not to take sides. He doesn't fight for Onesimus' freedom or demand that Philemon do what is right. He calls both the men to live in their relationship with God as the binding force. If there is a disagreement, Paul volunteers to pay the debt. He encourages Philemon to allow Onesimus to live his faith and share his gifts in a way that will glorify God. No matter what, Christ has changed the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus forever. Paul writes to encourage Philemon to see his slave in this new light.

The purpose of Christian faith is restoration and forgiveness. Philemon knew the power of God's forgiveness in his own life because he'd become a Christian. He knew the transforming power of the call of God in the lives of those who believe. Onesimus also learned about the forgiveness that comes from faith through the teaching and concern of his new friend Paul. Onesimus, though still a slave, was something new - a brother in Christ to all those who believed in Jesus, including his master, Philemon.

So, how do we dwell in this place between the voice of God and the voices of those who would have us follow their ways? Happy are they that delight in the Law of God, who meditate it on it night and day. As we study God's Word, searching to know and understand so that we can hear His voice in the cacophony of other noises we face. Following Jesus has a great cost: everything. Are we willing to put God ahead of our mothers and fathers, our opinions and our expectations of our neighbors? Are we willing to see our brothers and sisters in Christ through His eyes, to see how they are being obedient to the Word of God even if it is different than the way we understand it? And, are we willing to separate ourselves from the ungodly, those who are leading us down a path toward scoffing and mockery. Once we get there, we can no longer see God in our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we lose sight of God in their faces, we lose sight of God.

So, let us continue to meditate on God's Word, learning to hear His voice and to stay on the right path, for it is there we'll find life and prosperity. Let us choose life and do that which God has commanded us in His Law as we live in the grace of His Gospel.

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September 2, 2010

"Put on therefore, as God's elect, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving each other, if any man have a complaint against any; even as the Lord forgave you, so also do ye: and above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfectness." Colossians 3:12-14, ASV

Our kitty Delilah has a very sweet temperament. While the boys, Tigger and Sammy, will get rough in their play with each other and with the humans that live in our house, Delilah would much rather play quietly, without the roughhousing. They fit the stereotypical differences between boys and girls, where the boys like to get down and dirty while the girls play dolls. It's not that she can�t hold her own against the boys; she can beat up on them as easily as they beat up on her. She would just prefer that there be no beating up on anyone.

Sammy was in a mood last night, ready to play with anyone even if they weren't ready to play with him. He played with Tigger's tail, ran willy-nilly all over the house, suddenly stopping as if by a brick wall and then taking off again. He's funny to watch when he gets into one of those moods, but it is inevitable that he'll try to get one of the other cats to play when they don't want to. Delilah was his choice last night, and he kept chasing her all over the house.

Since she didn't want to play, she responded with growls and hissing. She hit back and ran to hide under furniture and in corners. Sammy wouldn't give up, and the more he chased the more upset she got. We finally had to intercede, to distract Sammy so that she could escape and calm down. She was no longer playing with Sammy, if she ever had been, she was fighting back to get him to stop.

Though my kitties are domesticated animals, they are animals, and they can respond to situations as a wild animal might. Wild animals tend to get violent when cornered, which is why it is never good to try to trap any animal that can harm you without knowing how to handle the situation. They will fight, and most wild animals are much stronger than the average human, able to do real harm. Human beings, though reasonable, are just animals, too. We can get violent when cornered, although we tend to react not with physical harm but verbal. We can fight like a wildcat when desperate.

I knew a woman who felt her ministry was to convince people on the Internet that their theology was not right. She hammered at people as if her life depended on it. We eventually learned that her life was on the line: she had a terminal illness and thought she needed to "save" as many people as possible before she died. In those last days, though she was sick (we learned from her husband later) she continued to visit chat rooms and send emails to those she thought were still in darkness. Many of the people with whom she was communicating thought she was playing a game, so they played back. But she interpreted their play as a fight, so she fought back. Her words were hurtful at times, though she was passionate about the love and mercy of Christ. She lost track of what that meant in her desperation.

We're going to get cornered as we share our faith and stand for our principles. Those who don't agree with our point of view or do not want to hear the Gospel will take everything we say as an attack. When they fight back, there is no need for us to get defensive. We have God's grace to uphold us. When we feel cornered, that is the very moment to manifest the love of God, to be meek and forgiving. We might get hurt, we might fail to get Gospel across to our adversary, but we'll reflect the very character of God when we do. And then, perhaps, God will speak His grace into their lives, transforming them by His love and mercy.

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September 3, 2010

"For I am already being offered, and the time of my departure is come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give to me at that day; and not to me only, but also to all them that have loved his appearing." 2 Timothy 4:6-8, ASV

I went to a website with a listing of today's historical events to find inspiration for today's devotional. September 3rd is not necessarily a well-known date, although in our family it is special because my husband's birthday is today. While that is an important date for us, it isn't very exciting when it comes to history. There's always something relating to war, or kings, or birthdays of famous people, but I can�t say that I found anything to inspire me about today.

What struck me, however, is how many of the listings had something to do with endings. Oliver Cromwell died (1658). The Revolutionary War between the U.S. and Great Britain ended with the Treaty of Paris (1783). Frederick Douglass escaped slavery (1838). The radio show "The Lone Ranger" broadcast its final episode (1954). "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" ended after fourteen years (1966). The TV show "What's my line" ended after 17 years (1967). Vince Lombardi died (1970). David Brinkley left NBC to join ABC after 38 years (1981).

I'm sure if I clicked the link, I'd find dozens of people who were born on this day. After all, there are only 365 days in a year, and there have been about 106 billion people born since the beginning of time. It would be very odd if any date had only one birth attributed to it! But I find it interesting that in this list of events, so many of them are endings. Sometimes the endings are as important as the beginnings.

Take, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr. I bet most of us could tell you the day he died, but how many know his birthday? It is easier to remember the date we totaled a car in a crash than the date we purchased the car. There may be things we'd rather not see end, but it is important to face the realities of finishing with grace. I suppose that is why so many people find ways to mark the passing of things. I don't know what they did when they stopped producing "The Lone Ranger," "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," or "What's my Line?" In recent years, televisions shows have made a big deal about those final moments, celebrating what was and looking forward to what will come after. Oprah Winfrey is beginning her show's final season soon, and she is likely planning a glorious retirement celebration for this season.

Some people have begun throwing divorce parties, sometime similar to a marriage but in reverse. Some churches that can no longer support the ministry they had begun are having special worship services to close down the congregation. These parties may seem very sad and improper, but it helps the people let go and move on to whatever is next.

Can you imagine how you might feel if you knew your time was coming to an end? Perhaps you've known someone who had a terminal illness, who willingly faced the reality of their ending without fear or bitterness. I think we will remember the three shows that ended this day, even if we weren't there when they were broadcast. What will be remembered of us when we come to the time of our leaving? Will we be able to say with conviction that we fought the good fight? Have we kept the faith? Are we as sure as Paul that there is a crown waiting for us for that day when we meet the Lord? We celebrate our birthdays every year, but are we willing to mark the endings? We face loss, undergo change and finish things on a regular basis. Can we face them with the same grace and courage as Paul?

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September 6, 2010

"O Jehovah, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all: The earth is full of thy riches. Yonder is the sea, great and wide, Wherein are things creeping innumerable, Both small and great beasts. There go the ships; There is leviathan, whom thou hast formed to play therein. These wait all for thee, That thou mayest give them their food in due season. Thou givest unto them, they gather; Thou openest thy hand, they are satisfied with good." Psalm 104:24-28, ASV

I�ve talked about my "job" as doorperson at Morgan's Wonderland, a volunteer position at the park which I do a few hours a week. The task could get hectic during the summer when large groups and many families were visiting. It is also hectic when the local schools plan field trips. At those times, I do more than open the door. I help the staff in the welcome center check in the guests and entertain those who are waiting. I answer questions and direct people to the places they need to go. The park is never really crowded, but there were some times when we were kept very busy.

Now that summer vacation is over and the school year is just beginning, we don't have many people or groups with reservations. The park was (unfortunately) nearly empty last week when I worked, and we had little to do. I didn't have to help the staff, because they were able to handle the visitors on their own. The guests arrived in good order, so few people had to wait. I was back to the simple task of opening the door, a position which was not much needed because there were not very many people going in and out.

So, I took every opportunity to open the door. It was the only work for me to do, and when you are standing for hours at a time, you want to find something to make the time pass quickly. At one point, one of the directors of the park and the park developer walked outside for the nth time. The director turned to me and said, "You don't have to do that every time, you make me feel like a king when you do!" I know I'm there to take care of the guests, and he probably feels bad that I�m working so hard for him. He knows that I am worthy of far more than a job being doorperson. But my point of view is that my purpose when I am at the park is to open the door, and I'm going to do the best job of it I can. That means opening the door for everyone.

I read this psalm this week and I was struck by verse 26b, "There is leviathan, whom thou hast formed to play therein." Leviathan was created to play; that is its purpose. It doesn't seem very important, and it certainly doesn't seem very productive, but that is its job. We often thing we need to have some important and productive work, but the reality is that God has created us for our purpose, whatever is, and it might not seem like a very big deal. We can't have a world filled with park directors; there also have to be people to open the door. Now, this is not to say that we are necessarily created to play, but we do have a purpose. We just have to realize that our purpose might not be something grand or significant. It might not be world changing or life saving. It might be something as simple as opening a door.

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September 7, 2010

"To which end we also pray always for you, that our God may count you worthy of your calling, and fulfil every desire of goodness and every work of faith, with power; that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and ye in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ." 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12, ASV

Delilah likes to climb inside things; to her, everything is a cave to be explored. Now, this often inconveniences me because she likes to try to climb "inside" me while I'm trying to sleep. Of course, there are no places to get "inside", but she nestles into my stomach or my underarm, hoping that she'll break through the barrier that has kept her from achieving her goal.

She, like most cats, love to play in grocery bags. We are still able to get the big paper grocery bags at the commissary, and they end up on the kitchen floor when the groceries are put away. The kitties hide in the bag, waiting patiently until one of the other kitties wanders by, and then they jump out and start a chase. At other times, a kitty settles in the bag for a nap but gets attacked from the outside as one of the other kitties jumps on top of the bag. Delilah also climbs into boxes, suitcases and purses. I've seen her wiggle her way into tight corners and under the couch to escape the roughhousing of her playmates or to take a nap.

Yesterday Delilah decided that she needed to climb inside Bruce's computer bag. The laptop was out of the bag, on the table as Bruce checked his email, and the bag was on the floor at his feet. I walked by just in time to see Delilah headed head first into the bag, tail in the air. The bag, though one with a sturdy bottom, was not stable enough to hold her weight. The bag fell over and she landed on her side. Her antics made me laugh, and she was none the worse for wear.

I wonder if God ever watches us when we do something silly like Delilah. Oh, I don't think that many of us are sticking trying to climb headfirst into a computer bag, but we do so many silly things. I was once visiting a friend's house (this was a long time ago) and I didn't notice that the screen door was closed. I ran right into it, broke the screen and fell through. This may have been an embarrassing moment for me, but the other visitors at my friend's house thought it was a funny moment. I'm sure we can all remember an embarrassing moment that made others laugh.

The funny thing is: we tend to remember those embarrassing moments and think those are the things that keep us from being worthy of doing God's work. We make excuses: I'm too clumsy; I'm not eloquent enough; I forget names; I'm just a fool who can't do anything right. But even though we are imperfect, God has a purpose for our lives. He laughs when we fall, and cries when we hurt. He has a place in His heart and in His kingdom for us, even if we do not think we are worthy. Our worthiness comes from the grace and righteousness of Jesus Christ. And every day, we try our best to do what is right and to do what we are called to do. Even when we do something silly, God sees our hearts and knows we are doing the best we can to live up to the calling to which He has called us.

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September 8, 2010

Scriptures for Sunday, September 12, 2010, Fifteenth Sunday in Pentecost: Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-10; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

"I thank him that enabled me, even Christ Jesus our Lord, for that he counted me faithful, appointing me to his service; though I was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: howbeit I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord abounded exceedingly with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus." 1 Timothy 1:12-14, ASV

Bruce and I play this game. When the kids are good, or when they accomplish something terrific, they are my kids. When the kids are bad or they do something that makes me mad, they are his. Of course, when Bruce plays the game, he plays it exactly the opposite: the good kids are his and the bad kids are mine. Since the kids are getting older, and our "children" are now the cats, we do the same thing with them. When Bruce comes home after a hard day at work and I say, "Do you know what your cats did today?" he knows that they did something wrong. He'll answer, "What did your cats do wrong today?" It is a fun little game, but we both know that the kids have inherited traits-good and bad-that belong to both of us. They are now, and always will be, our kids, not his or mine.

God is God, and while we can find human ways of describing Him, we know that there is nothing created that can compare to Him. That's what makes it particularly astounding to see images of God in the scriptures that are so human, so like us. In today's Old Testament lesson, God is dealing with a people who are much like a bunch of children, quick to follow their desires without thought to the consequences. In this case, the people of God were waiting at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Moses was long in coming back, and they became impatient. Some of the leaders took matters into their own hands, building golden idols for the people to worship and the people responded without reservation.

God could see what was happening far below His meeting with Moses. He suddenly says to Moses, "Go, get thee down; for thy people, that thou broughtest up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves." Do you see it? God says to Moses, "Your people, who you brought out of Egypt." Just like Bruce and I, God does not want to take credit for these people who have turned from Him. If they want to worship other gods, then they can't possibly be His people.

But Moses plays the game, too. "Jehovah, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, that thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?" Moses reminds God that the people are His and that He was the one who brought them out of Egypt. He reminds God that if He abandons His people at this point, the world-especially the Egyptians-will see His salvation as something cruel and evil. "They will think you saved the people to destroy them!" he says.

I can understand God's point of view. I never wanted to be identified with my kids when they were throwing a tantrum in a store or when they had said something embarrassing to a neighbor. Oh, we all like our kids when they've done something for which we can be proud, but the true test of parenthood is loving our kids when they don't. If we love our kids anyway, how much more must God love us?

The gospel story shows us Jesus setting the example for us. He loves even the tax collectors and the sinners, so much so that He was willing to set aside societal expectations to have dinner with those who were set apart because they weren't "good" in the eyes of the Pharisees and the scribes. They thought they were the good kids, the ones God loved. They thought God did reject the kids that didn't do what they should. They forgot all the times that God relented, despite His people�s unfaithfulness, including this moment at the mountain. They suffered the consequences of their disobedience, but He did not destroy them. He came back over and over and over again: every time they failed, He redeemed. He is a God of mercy and forgiveness.

We just have to recognize that we aren't the good kids all the time. We need to realize that we are no different than the tax collectors and the sinners. We might not do the same things wrong, but we fail daily to live up to the expectations of this God who has chosen us to be His people. We sin by not doing the things we should do and by doing the things we shouldn't do. We sin by saying the things we shouldn�t say and not saying the things we should. We may not be building and worshipping golden calves at the foot of Mt. Sinai, but we do chase after our own gods, putting them before God.

The Pharisees and the scribes chased their own gods, the worst of which was their self-righteousness. They lost touch with the God who loved them, missed Him when He came to them in Jesus Christ. But that doesn't mean He rejected them, or wished to see them destroyed. Jesus loved them as He loved the tax collectors and the sinners. He ate with them. He sat in the Temple and discussed religion with them. He was blunt when they were wrong. He corrected their errors. But He longed for them to see Him as He is, to know Him and to love Him. Instead, they chose to reject Him and the work He was doing. They accused Him of doing what was wrong, but He showed them that the work He was doing was the Lord's work, to bring home those who were lost.

Jesus does not question their righteousness; He focuses on those that truly needs God's mercy-the lost sheep in the wilderness. What good is it for Jesus to sit around in the Temple chatting with the religiously mature believers when there are children of God who think they are worthless? The Pharisees do not understand that God is the God of mercy not sacrifice. He is the God of forgiveness not wrath. He is like the sheep owner that would leave the comfort of his warm home to go out in the wilderness to find the one lost sheep, not because there is any material value to the animal but out of love.

In the texts for this week, we are encouraged to see ourselves as God might see us: the good, the bad and the ugly. Jesus doesn't tell the Pharisees that the tax collectors and sinners were good, only that they were in need and that they were willing to listen. It was their willingness that Jesus commended: they had been lost and now they were found. He was rejoicing with them that they saw the reality of their failure and had turned to the only one who could grant them true forgiveness.

Paul, who was once a Pharisee, realized his failure when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. In his letters, he repeatedly tells us about his sinfulness and the mercy received from Jesus. In today's letter to Timothy, Paul says, "I am thankful that Jesus has given me so much despite my sinfulness." He openly admits his failure and embraces God's grace. God does not desert His people. While He might like to say, "Your child did this," to no one in particular, He does not reject us. He forgives. He teaches. He does sometimes rebuke and correct us, but He does so that we will be all we can be. He wants to draw us further and further into His heart so that we will not fail the next time.

So, like the psalmist, we are encouraged to sing a confession the faith, "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, And done that which is evil in thy sight; That thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, And be clear when thou judgest." This cry is a reminder to our Lord, like Moses did for the Israelites, that we are His. While we might hurt others, our sinfulness is truly against God. As our children might sometimes be a disappointment and embarrassment, so too are we a disappointment and embarrassment to our Father in heaven.

But we can humbly and prayerfully remind Him that we are His, beg His forgiveness and receive His grace. "Create in me a clean heart, O God; And renew a right spirit within me." These very familiar words are a cry to our God to make us new, to do for us as He did for the Israelites and Paul and those troublesome tax collectors and sinners. We can ask Him to change us, from the inside out so that we will be all that He wants us to be.

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September 9, 2010

Like as a father pitieth his children, So Jehovah pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust. As for man, his days are as grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; And the place thereof shall know it no more. But the lovingkindness of Jehovah is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, And his righteousness unto children's children; To such as keep his covenant, And to those that remember his precepts to do them. Psalm 103:13-18, ASV

We were prepared for the tropical storm Hermine before it arrived. We went to the grocery store and bought the things we might need so I wouldnt have to go out in the rainy weather. We rearranged the patio, pushing everything to the back so it wouldnt blow away. We took hanging baskets down to protect them from the wind and driving rain. By Monday night we were ready. The storm was not expected to be hurricane strength, so everyone went about their normal business. I was glad to stay home, out of the forty mile per hour wind and driving rain. We had eight inches over two days, and there was some damage to area trees and houses. All in all, it wasnt a bad storm.

I was outside early in the morning and noticed a single long-stemmed flower growing in our yard. This particular flower looked unfamiliar: it wasnt one I had ever seen in the yard. I know it wasnt there on Monday; I had walked by the spot where the flower grew, and didnt see it. Perhaps it had begun to grow, but it was certainly not tall or flowering before Tuesday morning. The flower looked so lonely in our yard, the only wildflower among the grass. I watched the flower all day, bent by the force of the wind. I knew the flower would not survive the storm; it was too delicate to stand up to the wind and driving rain. I lasted much longer than I ever expected, but by Wednesday morning it was gone.

As I watched the flower face the storm, I thought about this scripture. Though we last more than a day, our time is relatively short compared to the eternal existence of our Father in heaven. We spring up out of the dust, get blown and battered by the storms of life and eventually pass away. For a few brief moments we provide an image of beauty and grace, perhaps not as delicate as the flower but certainly as perishable. To think of life in this way could be very depressing.

Yet, we are reminded that Gods love and mercy is forever. Our lives may be fleeting, and we might be blown by the storms, but God is eternal. He has promised to share His eternal life with those who love Him and keep His covenant. He has guaranteed the promise through His Son, Jesus Christ, whose righteousness has become ours by faith. Even though our lives are fleeing, we will live forever. Though our time here is temporary, we have reason to rejoice! We may be born today and die tomorrow, but we will live forever with God. Alleluia!

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September 10, 2010

While he was yet speaking to the multitudes, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, seeking to speak to him. And one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, seeking to speak to thee. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand towards his disciples, and said, Behold, my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother. Matthew 12:46-50, ASV

Im very lucky to have a good relationship with my siblings. I have heard stories of families that are not so lucky. When parents pass away, some siblings fight over every dollar; they cant agree on how to divide the inheritance, or what to do with the worldly possessions. In one case, some of the children wanted to get some of their own personal property from the house before an auction, but the other children refused. Everything was put up for sale and the one who wanted it (childhood toys) had to purchase it. In another case, family members went to the house early, and took out their favorite things, leaving little for the rest of the family to choose. Items written into the wills disappeared before the wills could be read, with claims that the items were gone before the death.

My siblings are encouraging, excited when good things happen and prayerful when we face difficulty. They are willing to help when possible and are thankful when I do something for them. We worked together to settle the estates of our parents. Though there was not much to divide, we came to amicable agreements and everything was settled quickly and easily. It is sad and shocking to hear the stories of families who just cant get along, but they are more common than we might expect.

I like to watch the court shows that are on television weekday afternoons. It is unbelievable how often families get into these legal disputes over money and possessions. They end up fighting, making accusations and demanding punishment for perceived wrongs. Sometimes the fights are about incredibly small amounts of money or items worth very little. Can you imagine losing a sibling over a couch or a few hundred dollars? Ive even see mothers and daughters or fathers and sons at court fighting one another.

Anger, bitterness, jealousy and false pride find their way into our family relationships. We dont know exactly whats happening with Jesus mother and brothers. Perhaps they were worried about him. In Marks version of this story, they are afraid that hes insane. They want to take him home, take care of him, ensure that he is safe and happy. I dont have any doubt that they might be concerned. After all, he was doing things that went against the cultural and religious expectations of that society. Perhaps they were even suffering because of his actions.

Jesus is not necessarily rejecting them, after all, they are mentioned later in the story. Mary is there when Jesus is crucified and it is obvious he feels a great deal of love and concern for her. Jesus brothers and sisters are mentioned; James the brother of Jesus is an important character in the story of the early church. However, at that moment they did not know what they were doing. They were trying to stop Jesus from doing the work God sent; they couldnt see Gods will.

Jesus was concerned at that moment for those who were his mother and brothers in a different sense. As Christians, we join a different family, a spiritual family. Though this is never an excuse to treat our parents or siblings without love and mercy, we are reminded that there is a very special relationship between us and our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are to see Christ in them, to gather with them and to fulfill the will and purpose of God together. Most of all, there should never be anger, bitterness, jealousy and false pride in those relationships, only love and mercy and grace.

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September 13, 2010

Sing unto Jehovah with thanksgiving; Sing praises upon the harp unto our God, Who covereth the heavens with clouds, Who prepareth rain for the earth, Who maketh grass to grow upon the mountains. He giveth to the beast his food, And to the young ravens which cry. He delighteth not in the strength of the horse: He taketh no pleasure in the legs of a man. Jehovah taketh pleasure in them that fear him, In those that hope in his lovingkindness. Psalm 147:7-11, ASV

We like to feed the birds, and have several bird feeders around the yard. The kitties love to watch when the birds come to visit, often sitting in the window for hours, crouched and ready to pounce even though they will never get to the birds. It is especially frustrating when they are watching out the front window because the birds can come much closer. Some of the birds even perch on the window sill just inches from their noses, safely blocked by the window from any peril.

The birdfeeder we have in the front is just a hanging tray with a decorative stained glass flamingo. We put the feed in the tray and the birds sit on the edge enjoying the seed. Since the feeder is smaller than is necessary for the number of birds that come, some of the birds will kick seed onto the ground to share with the others. Sometimes those seeds fly onto the window sill, which is why the birds like to sit there so much.

Since the feeder is made of stained glass, I like to take it down from the hook when we are expecting severe weather. I hang it from a branch in the bush near the window, which protects it from the wind and from extreme rain. I never really worried about it getting wet: after all, it is just seed. Now, we had a severe storm, the remnants of Tropical Storm Hermine, last week, so we prepared the house in the usual way. I put that bird feeder down, into the bush and waited for the rain to come.

Now, I probably should have put the feeder into the garage because we ended up with eight inches of rain over two days. Then, I should have returned the feeder to the hook after the rain stopped, but I didnt think it would hurt to leave it in the bush. After all, the birds hang out in that bush, surely they would have found it if they wanted to eat some seed. I finally spent time yesterday restoring everything to its proper place, re-hanging my plants and birdfeeders.

I often forget that bird seed is seed. I know it is, because we often find unusual plants and grasses growing up in the yard beneath the birdfeeders. When the birds kick the seed to the ground for the other birds, the seeds often root and then sprout. But it never occurred to me that the wet seed in the feeder might sprout. The feeder looked odd when I picked it off the branch, but I never expected to see what I saw. The seed had sprouted right there in the tray, leaving me with a mess of new growth that looked like the sprouts you might find in the produce department of the grocery store. It didnt take anything but some water to cause these seeds to grow: they didnt need soil or even sunshine.

We scatter seeds of faith in the world whenever we talk about Jesus or serve our neighbor. We might water those seeds with Gods grace or shine His light in their lives. We dont always know whether or not the seeds end up in soil, or if they find a place to root, but we can witness for Christ with the knowledge that God makes the seeds sprout and grow. Everything we do is successful when we trust that God has the power to do miraculous things, even when we dont know what is possible. He loves us. He loves the world. He makes the seeds grow and takes pleasure in those who put their hope in Him. So, let us sow seeds, not knowing how those seeds will be used by God or what might grow, but faithfully trusting that God brings life.

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September 14, 2010

And Jesus came to them and spake unto them, saying, All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth. Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Matthew 28:18-20, ASV

Dawson Trotman, the founder of the Navigators, wrote an article called Born to Reproduce which instructs the Christian in our calling to be witnesses to Christs love and grace to those who are lost. We dont get saved to be stay the same or to keep Gods love for ourselves. Our salvation is meant to lead to a life of growth and sharing so that others will be saved. We are called to reproduce, to build the church with more disciples until all the world has heard the message and received faith in Christ.

Mr. Trotman tells the story of a time he ran into a young hitchhiker. He picked up the young man, but as he got into the car he cursed, taking the name of Jesus Christ in vain. Mr. Trotman picked up hitchhikers because it was an opportunity to witness, and this young man was as good a candidate as any, so he gave the young man a tract about Jesus. The young man looked at the tract and at Mr. Trotman and realized that they had met on another occasion. A year earlier they had the same conversation about taking the name of Jesus in vain. That day, the young man had learned about Jesus and accepted Jesus as his personal savior. Mr. Trotman dropped him off at the place he wanted to go, happy that he had done the work of the Lord.

So, a year later, they meet again and Mr. Trotman realized that this young man about whom he was so proud was no different than he had been at their last meeting. He might have made a commitment to Christ, but he didnt keep it. He wasnt changed. He hadnt grown into a disciple and was not even hanging on to the faith hed received that day. The encounter left Mr. Trotman disturbed, and so he sought out others whom he had saved only to discover that they were all the same as they had been before the met Jesus. Though he thought he was a successful witness for Christ, he realized that the work of evangelism takes far more than a brief encounter and a prayer. It takes much longer to lead a new Christian into a life of discipleship.

This quote says it well, A student learns what his teacher knows, but a disciple becomes what his master is. We can learn something in a short period of time. We can learn to speak enough words in a new a language to communicate in minutes but it takes years to be able to speak and listen fluently. We can learn a few knitting stitches in minutes, but it takes time to learn and master the more intricate patterns. We can learn to make macaroni and cheese by reading the back of the box, but it can take years of trial and error to become a great cook.

The same is true of our Christian walk. We can be saved in a heartbeat, just by hearing the incredible message of Jesus love and forgiveness and the redemption He won for us on the cross. But it takes a lifetime of learning to grow into confident and mature Christians who will be disciples rather than just students. We are quick to quote the command of Christ to go and make disciples, but Mr. Trotman learned that day in the car that the commission is about more than just saving souls. He was reminded that we are to then teach one another so that well become like Christ, not just know Him.

Part of the responsibility is ours: to pray and study and gather with other Christians so that we will grow and mature in our own faith. But our faith in Christ is given for a purpose: to share His grace with others, with both those who have yet to hear the message and those who have heard it so that the world will not only be saved by faith, but will grow into disciples of Christ, living as He lived and doing all the wonderful things that He did.

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September 15, 2010

Scriptures for Sunday, September 19, 2010, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 25: Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Luke 16:13, ASV

In a commentary about the book of Amos, James Luther Mays writes, The rise of urban culture under the monarchy led to the development of commerce and an economic upper class. As more and more small farmers were pressed off their land and forced to shift to service and labor, their dependence upon the market became acute. The urban merchants appear to have monopolized the market; they were able to sell to landless peasants at a high price. They had the resources for stockpiling grain, and in a time of poor crops were in a position to control the economy completely.

As I read this commentary, I thought to myself, Bigger is not necessarily better. In every area of life, we can see the disadvantages of a growing organization. Oh, yes, there are advantages, too. But sometimes those advantages are far outweighed by the disadvantages.

I was scanning through the channels on the television and found a new show on one of the food channels about a cupcake business. They had begun with just one shop, but eventually grew out of one location. It is impossible for one person, or even two, to run multiple locations, so they had to hire managers. The girls complained that the growth meant that they had to stop doing the things they loved to do the things that were necessary. I didnt watch the whole show, but as I switched channels, they were seeking advice from another entrepreneur who had dealt with similar problems. The key to their happiness and success was in finding the balance between doing what they love and doing what needed to be done.

The problem is, the bigger we get, the harder it is to keep that balance. We have to let go of the control and give the responsibility to others. In large families, Mom has to give some responsibility to the older children. In large corporations, levels of management are required to take care of every aspect of the business. In larger congregations, it is necessary to hire more staff, including separate ministers in charge of the different areas of ministry. This isnt good or bad, but it comes with its own set of challenges.

A chef opens a restaurant, which becomes very popular in the town. They cant keep up with the people who want to eat there, often turning people away because the crowds are too large. So, the chef opens a satellite restaurant, serving the same food and ambiance. He hires a chef and teaches him how to prepare his recipes, and hires a manager to give the customers the same service. As he continues to be successful, he opens new stores and hires more people; eventually the one store becomes a chain.

Now, I dont know about you, but when I go to chain restaurants, I go because I know the food and service will be consistent. I know Ill be able to get my favorite dish and that it will satisfy me the way it satisfied me every other time I ate it. I know that the menu will be the same if I go in Texas, or in Pennsylvania, or in California. There may be a few regional variations, but Im sure to be happy with the choices because I know every store is run by the same model. We go to that restaurant because weve seen the ad on the television and we want that sizzling dish exactly as they promised it would be.

But at what point does that first chef lose touch with his business. He has to hire directors to hire the rest of the employees. When do they stop hiring chefs and start hiring cooks who can prepare the food exactly according to the recipe? When do they begin hiring those four hundred pound store managers who fire waitresses because they dont look perfect in a pair of shorts two sizes too small or who forces the waitresses to play games to earn the right to go home at the end of the night?

Not only does the owner lose touch with the people who work for him, but they lose touch with him. On the television show Undercover Boss, we see how distant the leaders of a large corporation can become. I was always surprised at how the people could not recognize the boss with his silly disguise. I would hope that it would take more than a haircut and a change of clothes to make someone I know become unrecognizable. But thats the point: the employees dont know the boss because he is ensconced in a big office in a city far away. On the show with the CEO of Hooters, Coby Brooks was shocked to see his manger humiliating the waitresses. Thats not the way it was meant to be, and he made changes to the way he does business to be more hands-on and in control. Hopefully it wont happen again, but it probably will because it is not always better to be bigger.

In todays Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the story of a rich man who leaves his business in the hands of a manager. It is pretty clear from the story that the rich man did not care about how the business was handled, as long as his accounts were correct. It seems as though it wouldnt matter to him if the manager ensured his own wealth, as long as it didnt affect the bottom line. However, he had heard rumors that there was a problem. He called the manager and ordered him to give an accounting of the business.

The manager knew he had to do something; he was out of a job anyway so he decided to get in good standing with the community. He used the resources available to make friends for his future. He knew that he would be unable to support himself without a job, so he did what was necessary. He cut the debts and hoped that the people would feel a new debt to him when it was all over. He reduced the debts to make payment more manageable: a debt of a hundred jugs of oil was reduced to fifty, a hundred containers of wheat became eighty. Notice that the debt reduction is not equal, he seems to ask for as much as the debtor can pay. He shrewdly made decisions that benefited all parties: the debtor, the manager and the rich man. In the end the manager made a good accounting before the rich man, the rumors were put to rest and the rich man commended the manager for his shrewdness.

But this story doesnt make sense to us. Ive seen several pastors ask the question, Why does Jesus tell us this story? What does it mean for us? It doesnt make sense because the managers shrewdness seems dishonest. We are troubled that the manager would get away with it. Why is he commended? I think verse nine is probably the most troubling of all. Luke writes, Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when it shall fail, they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles. Is Jesus really telling us that if we use our wealth to make friends, well earn a place in heaven?

The problem with our questions is that we assume Jesus is telling us to earn the wealth dishonestly. But in reality, we see the master commending the manager for compensating those he had cheated by using his own wealth to make everything right. In the process, the man restored his relationship with the master and the community. The dishonesty in this story is not what the man did to escape the wrath of the master, but what he did before he repented. His act of repentance might have been poorly motivated by fear instead of remorse, but in the end he took his unrighteous wealth and made it right.

So, in this passage, Jesus is asking us to look at the wealth we have: how did we come by it? Did we do what was right or what was wrong? If we did what was wrong, how will we make it right? What will we do to restore the relationships we have with our master and our community that have been broken by our dishonest pursuit of wealth?

The Greek word used in this passage for dishonest can also be translated unrighteous. Unrighteousness is about broken relationships, about being in un-right in ones associations. The manager was not right in this relationship with the rich man, and not right in his relationship with the people. Unrighteousness means that we are not right in our relationship with God, but we also have other relationships in which things are not right. Dishonest pursuit of wealth might not just manifest as thievery. When we are lazy, we are not right with our boss. When we are incompetent, we are not right with our customers. When we are greedy, we are not right with the owners. Any wealth that comes from doing our job poorly is dishonest wealth.

It is so easy for us to look at the rich man with disdain because he is rich. Yet, this is not a parable about rich verses poor. It is a parable about doing our work well. We arent taught that we should take away the wealth of the rich and give it to the poor, but that we should do our work in a way that is good and right and true, because when we work faithfully with our gifts and resources, everyone will be blessed. That is what Amos is calling for us to do. As the world in which we live gets bigger, the opportunities to lose touch with our neighbors is greater. We also lose sight of the God who has given us the gifts and resources to use in the world.

It is so easy for us to go the wrong way, especially when get lost in something that has grown too big for its own good. Would Coby Brooks have ever discovered that one manager was humiliating the waitresses if he hadnt gone on the show Undercover Boss? Would the rich man have ever discovered the problem if he hadnt heard the charges against the manager? We fail to do what is right when we lose touch with the boss and with the community.

Thats why Paul encourages us to pray for those in power. They, of all people, have the best opportunity to abuse the gifts and resources they have been given. They, of all people, are more likely to earth unrighteous mammon, especially when they are lost in an organization that has gotten too big. Paul also reminds us that no matter how many rulers we have over uswhether it is a boss, a politician, a pastorthere is only One who is truly in charge. And when we keep our focus on Him, we are more likely to stay in good relationships with everyone else. So our prayers, for ourselves and our leaders, should be that they see God in all their resources, opportunities and those who are less, so that they will always do what is right.

We arent right with God or with one another. We are unrighteous people doing dishonest things with unrighteous mammon. We have never been very good stewards of the resources that God has given to us. We are wasteful, greedy and dishonest. We fail at using those resources in a way that will build up the kingdom and take care of the needs of those who do not have enough. We are so much like that unrighteous manager and God calls us to account. How will we make use of our resources to heal broken relationships? We are put in charge of earthly wealth for a time. Will we use that wealth in a way that makes us right with one another?

Will we pray like the psalmist, praising God for His mercy and grace and keeping Him in His rightful place? He is above all rulers, all hierarchies, all bureaucracies, no matter how big they become. He sees our work, and how we go about doing our work, and He calls us to task when we do not do it rightly. He shows when our wealth is dishonest and calls us to use it to do what is right, restoring all relationships, including the one we have with Him.

We find it difficult to understand how Jesus could use the parable of the unrighteous steward. There are so many lessons we could learn, but many of them seem contrary to what we expect Jesus to teach. It seems wrong for Jesus to encourage the type of behavior we hear about in the parable; the manager was dishonest in his dealing with the people and the rich man gave him a pat on the back for doing what seems so wrong. Yet there is so much about Gods kingdom that is a mystery to us. The psalmist asks, Who is like Jehovah? There is none like Him.

He is a knowable God who has been revealed throughout the ages, but in this age came to dwell amongst us. Yet, even to us who live by faith He is still a mystery. God is the Creator of heaven and earth. He is the Deliverer who brought His people out of slavery in Egypt. He is the Redeemer who set His people free from the burden of their sin. He is as living and active in our world today as He was in the beginning when He brought light out of darkness and order out of chaos. He still creates and recreates the world, guiding His people in His ways and gifting us with all we need to join Him in the work of creation and redemption. That is the greatest mystery. Why would the Creator, Deliverer and Redeemer of the world give authority and power to people like you and I to help with His work in the world. We who have so often squandered the resources He has so graciously given have been chosen to share Gods grace with the world.

And so, it is up to us to keep everything in its right place. Jesus says, No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. The final, but perhaps most important question we ask ourselves is, Which is most important: God or mammon? When the answer is mammon, we might prosper, but well destroy our relationships with God and our community in the process. When the answer is God, well do our work well and hear the commendation of our own Master, who will be pleased to entrust us with the true riches. /

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September 16, 2010

Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou the teacher of Israel, and understandest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I told you earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you heavenly things? And no one hath ascended into heaven, but he that descended out of heaven, even the Son of man, who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him. He that believeth on him is not judged: he that believeth not hath been judged already, because he hath not believed on the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, lest his works should be reproved. But he that doeth the truth cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, that they have been wrought in God. John 3:10-21, ASV

I used to watch a television chef that worked from the point of view that good food could be made without recipes. He often talked about going into the pantry, pulling a few cans and mixing them together to make a soup or stew or casserole. He offered advice for single men, bachelors, to give them the confidence to cook more than TV dinners. He gave me the confidence to move beyond the recipe book and into the adventure of creating dishes on my own. The problem with this type of cooking is that it is very difficult to recreate.

They key is choosing simple items to add to the pot. Ive recently come up with a delicious combination of tomatoes and chicken broth that makes a lovely soup. I add some vegetables, fresh or frozen, and perhaps meatballs or chunks of chicken. It works with beef broth, too, but not quite as well. Sometimes I add some noodles, to make it a hearty meal. It is amazing how satisfying a few cans poured into a pot and heated can be.

On the show MasterChef which just celebrated its finale, the last two contestants were opposite in their techniques. The show took amateur chefs, people who had never worked in the food industry in any way, and helped them develop into professionals. One of the finalists was a young girl, a college student, who had very little experience. She had a gift, however, of making simple food extraordinary. In her final meal, she made a cake out of grits as part of the dish, which was startling when you realize that she was presenting the food to culinary giants. They expect gourmet food, not southern hometown fare.

The other finalist gave them the complicated, gourmet meal they expected to see. His food was excellent, and very satisfying. Yet, at the end of the show, the winner was the girl who was able to take simple food and elevate it to something wonderful. The judges said the decision was very difficult, and we shouldnt take this story as reason to reject fancy or complicated food. We learn from this story that everything doesnt have to be extraordinary. Sometimes simple is enough.

Nicodemus was a teacher. He probably spent hours studying the scriptures, trying to understand the intricacies of Gods Word. It is easy to spend time delving deeply into the Bible, trying to understand the parables and to interpret the prophecies. Sometimes we get so deep into Gods Word that we miss the real message: God loves the world and has given Jesus Christ for our sake. He died and was raised to overcome the darkness in the world and in our hearts, so that we might live in the light and be the light to others. It is good for us to continue to delve into the mysteries of God, just like it is good to eat a fabulous meal once in a while. But let us always remember the simple message of Gods love and the salvation we have received through faith in Christ.

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September 17, 2010

What time I am afraid, I will put my trust in thee. In God (I will praise his word), In God have I put my trust, I will not be afraid; What can flesh do unto me? Psalm 56:3-4, ASV

I come from a church that uses a lectionary, which is a list of prescribed scriptures that are used in worship. The list includes readings from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Epistles and the Gospels for each Sunday and readings for other special days during the year. The Revised Common Lectionary is divided into three years, and designed to follow the church year. In most cases the four scriptures are connected in some to each other and to the feasts and festivals on the calendar. Over the three years, we hear a large portion of the Bible and experience the entire story of God and His relationship with His people throughout history.

In three years we dont hear the whole bible. After all, there are sixty books, nearly two thousand chapters, more than thirty thousand verses and approximately eight hundred thousand words. Though it is possible to read the entire bible in a year, and even possible to study the whole thing in a few years, it is impracticable to try to cover every word in the context of our worship, since that time together is for more than Bible study. In our hour (or more) we pray, share the sacraments and worship God together. Hearing the Word from the Bible is just a fraction of what we do when we assemble together as the church.

It is up to us to read the scriptures on our own, to see the stories in another setting, to study them with others and to seek Gods wisdom. Unfortunately, many people rely on those Sunday morning readings to hear Gods Word for them. They only hear the stories that have been set aside to enhance our worship experience. They only hear them explained from the point of view of the preacher. When we use a scripture that is not found in the lectionary, some people are surprised it is actually in the scriptures. If we dont want to read the bible from cover to cover, there are plenty of good Bible reading programs, including a daily lectionary, which will help give us some direction.

The other problem that comes from relying on Sunday morning readings is that we often miss the subtleties that are found in the story when read in context. I just noticed one of these the other day when I was reading the book of John. We always hear John 13 during Holy Week, as we follow the Passion of Jesus. In the last verse of that chapter, Peter hears Jesus say, Wilt thou lay down thy life for me? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice. (John 13:38, ASV)

How would that make you feel if you were Peter, being left with such a humbling truth? We are so often left with the feeling of fear and uncertainty. Peter might have continued to argue about his virtue, but Jesus was honest: Peter, you will fail. I would certainly have been upset for the rest of the night, concerned that Jesus would think so poorly of my faith and courage. It is no wonder that we go into Good Friday with a sense of anxiety!

Yet, if you continue to read the scriptures, the disciples were left with a word of hope. Jesus says, Let not your heart be troubled: believe in God, believe also in me. (John 14:1, ASV) He wanted them to know that no matter what happened to Him and to them in the coming days, they had something on which to hold: Him. It was going to be hard, just as it is hard for us to remember that God is in control when we face the troubles of life. Jesus doesnt promise them that they wont face it; as a matter of fact He boldly tells Peter that he will fail. But He goes on to say, Believe.

He says the same to us. We will fail. Well face hard times. But we have these words of hope on which to cling: Let not your heart be troubled. Trust in God. Trust in Jesus. No matter what we face, whether it is from the actions of others or our own failures, God has promised to get us through. Believe in this and you will know peace.

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September 20, 2010

These are they who are hidden rocks in your love-feasts when they feast with you, shepherds that without fear feed themselves; clouds without water, carried along by winds; autumn leaves without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots; wild waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the blackness of darkness hath been reserved forever. Jude 1:12-13, ASV*

Victoria and I have this joke. Once, when we were going somewhere together, I noticed a nasty looking cloud in the sky; it looked like it would definitely rain. I said to her, That cloud looks very wet. She answered, Mom, all clouds are wet.

Of course they are. Clouds are evaporated water that is forming in a way that will eventually return to earth in the form of precipitation. But we have all seen clouds that could not possible drop any water on the earth. Those fluffy white clouds dancing across the sky, the kind we like to search on a sunny day for shapes, are not wet enough to rain. My original statement, that cloud looks very wet, was a prediction of incoming rain. I said it so that we would be aware of the weather as we traveled that day. It has since become a running joke. When I see a cloud I think might burst forth with rain, I tell Victoria that the cloud is wet. She just sighs and looks at me, and then we laugh.

Those waterless clouds are often pretty, fun to watch and they can offer a brief respite from the heat of the sun on a hot day. But otherwise, they are not very useful. They dont provide the beneficial rain necessary for plant and animal growth. Those who are, or have been, suffering in drought conditions, do not appreciate the white fluffy clouds because they need the ones that are so wet that they cant hold on to the moisture.

Jude tells us that some of the leaders in the early church were like clouds without water, carried along by the winds. I dont think things are much different today. There are still, among the people in our own churches, people who are like clouds without water, preaching a gospel that is not really good news. He was concerned that there were teachers among the Christians who were teaching that Gods grace meant that they had a license to follow their own earthly desires because Gods grace guaranteed His forgiveness. They have nothing to offer to the hearer that will help them grow in grace and faith. As a matter of fact, chasing after earthbound desires will lead us farther and farther away from God.

Though it is fun to watch those waterless clouds drifting by on a lazy summer afternoon, we should always be careful which teachers we follow. Jude goes on to tell us that in each generation there will be those who scoff, who chase after their physical needs without recognizing the spiritual truths, but he encourages us to continue in faith, to chase after God and to keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. He calls us to be merciful to those who are foolish, but to correct those who are being led astray and to avoid falling into the same traps. And finally, in all things, let us always give the glory to God, for He is the one who can keep us on the right paths so that we will lead the life for which we have been saved.

*Read the entire book of Jude today. It is only one chapter with twenty-five verses and is far more powerful to hear the whole context of Judes thoughts.

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September 21, 2010

Jehovah is merciful and gracious, Slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness. He will not always chide; Neither will he keep his anger for ever. He hath not dealt with us after our sins, Nor rewarded us after our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, So great is his lovingkindness toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, So far hath he removed our transgressions from us. Psalm 103:8-12, ASV

The International Space Station flew over our town the other night. The meteorologists on our favorite news program reported the information so that everyone could go out and see it fly overhead. Some people gathered for ISS watching parties, with telescopes and binoculars. We didnt go out this time, but we were able to see it when we were attending a star party at the McDonald Observatory in West Texas. It is a streaking light that looks much like an airplane as it passes overhead.

It is definitely not an airplane, though. An airplane flies about eight miles above the earth and can only go for a few hours before it has to stop and refuel. The ISS is in permanent orbit around the earth at about two hundred and thirty six miles. Airplanes land on the ground for loading and unloading of passengers, a trip that might cost the travelers a few hundred dollars. The astronauts who are living on the ISS have to get there by space shuttle, and the cost of sending the shuttle into space is much, much more.

It takes about an hour for an airplane to fly from San Antonio, Texas to Dallas Texas, a distance of about two hundred and seventy three miles. What I find absolutely fascinating about the ISS is that it orbits at only about two hundred and thirty six miles. In other words, when the ISS is overhead, it is closer than Dallas. Yet, I can easily travel to Dallas and it is unlikely that Ill ever be able to travel to the ISS. Though it is closer, it is out of reach for the average person. Even an airplane in flight is impossible for us to approach, even though it is only about eight miles away. An average person can walk that far in just a few hours, but you cant walk eight miles into the sky. You cant even drive there. The only way to get to that airplane is to wait until it lands again.

When I think about the International Space Station, or even an airplane in flight, I think of them as being very far away. They are, since they are too far away for me to grasp. And yet, they are relatively close. Eight miles is not very far at all. I drive to the mall which is about eight miles away on a regular basis. Ive driven much farther than Dallas for just a few days vacation and Ive flown across the country for just a few nights. The particular two hundred and thirty six miles to the ISS seem out of my reach. Yet, we are reminded whenever the ISS travels overhead, that they arent impossible.

Sometimes God seems out of reach. Have you ever felt that your sin is too great for even God to forgive? Have you ever felt like it is impossible to be loved by Jehovah? We are reminded in this psalm that God is merciful and that His love extends far beyond our ability to travel. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his lovingkindness toward them that fear him. Equally comforting is As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.

Oh, our sins might orbit overhead occasionally, reminding us of our failure to live up to the expectations of our God and the world. But God has taken them away, by the blood of Christ, and made us clean so that we can live in His glory. He is merciful. We may think forgiveness is out of reach, but nothing is impossible for God. If human beings can build a city two hundred and thirty six miles above the face of the earth, God can reach down from Heaven with His love and mercy and grace.

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September 22, 2010

Scriptures for Sunday, September 26, 2010, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 26: Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, Whose hope is in Jehovah his God Psalm 146:5, ASV

I think one of the most shocking political stories of the year is the reports of corruption in the tiny Los Angeles suburb of Bell City, where the officials were being paid exorbitant salaries and taking money designated for city programs. The city manager alone was earning an $800,000 salary, plus taking other funds for his personal use. City manager Robert Rizzo, Mayor Oscar Hernandez and six others were arrested for misappropriating $5.5 million dollars of public monies. This happened in a town where about seventeen percent of the population is living below the poverty level.

Dan Nelson, in his study notes for todays Old Testament lesson from Amos says, In this woe-saying Amos sketches the well-being enjoyed by the upper classes in the capital cities, the splendid society that was built on the misery of the weak and poor. Both Samaria and Zion (Jerusalem) were royal cities whose history was directly linked with the monarchy in Israel and Judah. Neither had a tradition of identity with the people and their past. As I read this, I thought about Washington, D.C.

Now, I rarely talk about politics because I know that my list is ready by people from every part of the political and religious spectrum. But I think well all agree that it often seems like those who are making our laws and spending our money do not really know or understand the people they are meant to serve. Like those kings and rulers in Samaria and Jerusalem, the political class loses touch with the people once they get ensconced in that ivory covered world. It doesnt matter which party or ideology. They (perhaps not all, but purposely a very broad they) work to please themselves, to keep their jobs, to do what they think is good. I dont think that anyone in Washington is lying on beds of ivory, and I dont know if anyone has personally benefited from misappropriation of funds like the leaders of Bell City, but Im sure that many are at ease in Washington, feeling secure.

They rest on the hard work of the people, poor and not so poor, taking advantage of the power and access to money that they have in the capitol city. Oh, they do it under the guise of serving the people, but too often they get so caught up in the benefits of their position that they lose sight of the reality in the world outside. Obviously this does not just happen in Washington; the story from Bell City shows us that even local officials can get lost in the promise of their power. But it doesnt happen just in government, either. It happens in the church, in our schools, in our work and in our leisure activities. It isnt just about that broad they in Washington, but also about all those who lock themselves in their cushy world, ignoring the world outside. It might just be about us, too.

The passage from Luke makes this warning from Amos far more personal. The rich man is not necessarily someone in power, although his wealth almost guarantees that he was held in high regard among those in his community. The problem with the rich man is not that he had wealth, or even that he liked to party, but that he ignored the needs that were right under his nose. He was blinded by his ease and feelings of security. We do not see Lazarus asking for help in this story; we dont see him rejecting Lazarus in any way. But, there is no way that the rich man could have missed the poor, sick man by his gate. It is likely that the rich man passed Lazarus regularly, perhaps even having to step over his prone body. Lazarus would have settled for anything, even crumbs, but the rich man gave nothing from his table to this beggar. I wonder how long it took for Lazarus to become nothing but a blob by the gate, no longer a person, just an annoyance.

Amos warns the rich man that he will end up in exile. Now, there werent threats from Assyria or Babylon in Jesus day, but exile can happen in many other ways. The city leaders of Bell City will be exiled to prison. It is likely that a number of those Washington politicians will be exiled to their hometowns. The rich man in todays Gospel was exiled to Hades, far from the bosom of Abraham. If we miss others in the quest to satisfy our own needs and desires, where will be exiled to? Fired from our jobs? Divorced from our spouse? Out of our childrens lives as they try to get as far away as they can?

Now, it is easy to look at the politicians in Bell City or Washington and see them as the recipients of the warnings in todays Old Testament and Gospel lessons, but it is not up to us to judge ourselves better or closer to God because we arent like them. We are to look at these scriptures through the lens of our own lives and ask ourselves what God is saying to us. Are we to point fingers or are we to see ourselves in the mirror? How are we failing to see those outside our own palaces that need a few crumbs of what we have to offer? We may not have much, but theres always something, and it doesnt have to be material. Do we have a gift or talent, the time or the physical energy to do something for another? Our neighbor may not ask for help, but when we see the need, it is up to us to step forward and share what we have to meet that need. It doesnt matter if we are rich or poor. It doesnt matter if we have power or not. What we, as Christians, are reminded in these scriptures is that God has called us to be His hands in a world full of people who need something we can offer. We just have to see them, and then act.

I think our problem is that we just stop seeing. I gave a donation to an organization a year or so ago; it was a sponsorship for someone who was doing a walk or a run or a marathon of some type. I dont even remember. It was a one time donation, given as much to support the good works of my loved one as a desire to support that particular organization. I have certain groups I support regularly, but I was not looking at having a long term relationship with this one. Unfortunately, once they had my name, address and email, I became their best friend. I started receiving daily emails and snail mail on a regular basis. I recycled the mail and deleted the email for awhile, but it became overwhelming. I finally clicked the link to ask to be removed from all mail, but even after weeks Im still receiving requests for money.

It is no wonder we start ignoring the mail that comes to us. Dont we feel that way about the commercials we see on television about the sick children in third world countries? How about the guy that is on the freeway corner looking for a handout? We have become so cynical about so many things that we are sure that the organization using those kids on TV are keeping 90% of the funds for themselves and the guy on the corner is not really homeless.

It is true that some charities abuse the trust of the public and some homeless guys are really crooks. Yet, in our cynicism we have stopped seeing pain and suffering and we have forgotten Gods call to compassion and mercy. The rich man was probably sick of seeing Lazarus lying at his gate. How did Lazarus get there? Where were his family and friends? Did they dump him on the doorstep of the rich man so that they would not have to be responsible? This doesnt justify the rich mans lack of compassion, and it doesnt justify our own failure to see the suffering in the world outside our own little corner of the world.

We dont see outside because we are so focused on whats happening inside. We tend to live in the hope of all the wrong things. We hope we will get a raise. We hope we will win the lottery. We hope our investments will do well. These arent hopes, they are wishes and dreams. Hope is the expectation of Gods faithfulness. The psalmist calls us to live in the hope of Gods promises. Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, Whose hope is in Jehovah his God: Who made heaven and earth, The sea, and all that in them is; Who keepeth truth for ever; Who executeth justice for the oppressed; Who giveth food to the hungry. Jehovah looseth the prisoners; Jehovah openeth the eyes of the blind; Jehovah raiseth up them that are bowed down; Jehovah loveth the righteous; Jehovah preserveth the sojourners; He upholdeth the fatherless and widow; But the way of the wicked he turneth upside down. Jehovah will reign for ever, Thy God, O Zion, unto all generations. Praise ye Jehovah.

When we praise God, we see the world through His point of view. We notice the Lazarus who is on our doorstep. We realize that our selfishness is affecting others in a negative way. We hear His voice as He calls us to be His hands and we share what we have with those we see through Gods eyes. We might not feel we have enough to share, or that we dont have anything our neighbor might need. But God gives us the opportunities to share ourselves with others and in faith we trust that God will provide all we need to take care of those needs. We fail when, for whatever reason, we do not see those whom God sends our way.

We may not be like those politicians in Bell City or Washington, D.C. who ignore the needs of those outside to pursue their own desires. We may not be like the rich in the days of Amos, lying on beds of ivory. But if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we chase after the wrong things, seeking material goods and physical satisfaction instead of trusting in God. We seek help from men and rely on earthly answers, happy to live in our own world without following God into His.

But Paul tells Timothy that we are better off following Christ rather than chasing after material things. When our focus is on gaining more or keeping what we have, we lose sight of the reality of wealth: it is perishable. Nothing we have will last forever. Ultimately the only thing on which we have to cling is faith in God. Pauls charges us to be content with what we have, to shun the pursuit of wealth and the lifestyle that blinds us to the reality of the world outside our gates. The scriptures call us to a life of contentment, and command us to see the opportunities God has given us to share what we have with the world. That might mean giving up something we have, not only material, but also our ideology, our desires and our wishes. But when we keep God in focus, praising Him for His grace and following His Word

Our problem is not that we are too rich or even that we dont share our wealth. I imagine every one of us can list the things we have done recently for someonethe money we have given to charities, the time we have given to the church and other ministries, the kindnesses we have done for our neighbors. Perhaps we are right when we claim that we cant do it all. However, we are called to a life of compassion and mercy, a life in which we look for the one whom God has sent our way to share our life and resources with. Lazarus may just have been sent to the rich man in life to bridge the gap between them in eternal life. If only the rich man had shared some bread and some drink with the man named Lazarus who lay at the gate of his home, perhaps the chasm between them in eternal life would have also been bridged.

Have we created gaps in eternity in our failure to share those crumbs from our tables? Those are the very gaps we can bridge today, by being a blessing to others, restoring relationships, and sharing Gods grace. This means turning away from the things that distract us; it means keeping our priorities right. It means keeping God in focus and remembering that He is the Lord of heaven and earth. We need food, shelter and clothing, but our pursuit of these things should not blind us to the opportunities God presents to us.

Our prayers of confession not only bring us to a place where we are forgiven, but also to the heart of God where we can overcome our failure. It might seem like lying on the ivory couch is the choice life, but the reality is true contentment comes when we live in faith, trusting in God. As we live that life of prayerful praise, we will see the ones who are right in front of us that need something we can give. Contentment gives us the freedom to take our crumbs to the gate and share it with whoever might be waiting.

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September 23, 2010

O Jehovah, our Lord, How excellent is thy name in all the earth, Who hast set thy glory upon the heavens! Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou established strength, Because of thine adversaries, That thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger. When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, The moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him but little lower than God, And crownest him with glory and honor. Thou makest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; Thou hast put all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, Yea, and the beasts of the field, The birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, Whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas. O Jehovah, our Lord, How excellent is thy name in all the earth! Psalm 8, ASV

Did you see the moon last night? We have had a nearly constant stream of clouds and scattered showers for days, but the system fell apart just as the moon began to rise over the horizon last night. The moon was bright and beautiful, and seemed unusually large. As it turns out, last night was what they call the super harvest moon, a full moon that falls in conjunction with the autumnal equinox. The harvest moon, which for millennia has been the signal for farmers to begin the harvest, is the full moon closest to the equinox. The full moon only falls on the day of the equinox about every twenty years. When it does, they call it super.

And super it is. I think it might have been even more awe inspiring because we have had so much rain and cloudy skies lately. This super harvest moon appearing from behind the cloud cover was one of those moments when you simply stop and praise God because only He could create something so incredible. We have certainly enjoyed the rain. In a desert-like environment like ours, every raindrop helps. The aquifer is filling, the plants are taking in the vital moisture and everything just seems fresh and clean. Plus, weve been lucky that rain has come in spurts, rather than the amount of rainfall coming down along the coast. But even so, there comes a time when you just want to see the sky again, to see the stars and moon, the sun and the blue. That moon in a cloudless sky held the promise of drier weather for us.

We see that same moon night after night after night. Yet, there was something special about that super harvest moon that caught my attention. It caught other peoples attention, too, because it was discussed on the news. Several websites have pages describing the harvest moon and what makes the super harvest moon special. Even the scientists do not understand why the moon might look a little bigger and brighter on that night, even though it is not any different than any other full moon. It is no wonder that the moon, the sun and the stars were used by historic people to establish their calendars.

We dont necessarily need the moon, sun and stars to know the time or date because we have technology to help us measure time and set our schedules. Sometimes we do not even notice the heavens or the earth anymore. When was the last time you stopped to smell the roses? When was the last time you praised God for the green rolling hills? It is humbling to think that we even matter to the God who could design something so magnificent as the super harvest moon. But He not only knows every hair on our head and loves us despite our failure; He has even called us to be a part of His work on earth. So, let us begin by giving Him the praise and glory He is due, and then let us go out together to praise His name and shine the light of grace on all of creation so that everyone will appreciate all that God has done.

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September 24, 2010

But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak: for God is not unrighteous to forget your work and the love which ye showed toward his name, in that ye ministered unto the saints, and still do minister. And we desire that each one of you may show the same diligence unto the fulness of hope even to the end: that ye be not sluggish, but imitators of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises. Hebrews 6:9-12

The cats each have their own way of showing their love for me. Tigger has to be nearby. When Im in the den, he sleeps on the desk just a few feet away. When I move to the living room, he sleeps on the coffee table, just a few feet away. He follows me upstairs and stays nearby when Im painting or doing something in my room. He shows his love by being close. Now, he doesnt appreciate it very much if I take advantage of his closeness by actually petting him. But even then he stays close, though hell often move out of reach.

Sammie shows his love in a much different way. He likes to rub against my legs, weaving in and out even when Im walking. If I dont pay attention, he nibbles at my ankles. He doesnt like to be held, but he does like when I pet him, purring so loudly that I think it might be heard by the neighbors. At night he likes to take over my side of the bed, which might be how he shows his love to Bruce, but I know that he enjoys the attention I give him when trying to find a few inches of space to lie down.

Delilah is far more expressive with her love. She actually climbs on my lap, makes herself comfortable and purrs while I pet her. She usually does this at the most inconvenient moment, like when I need to cook dinner or answer the phone. But sometimes the timing works out and she lays on me while I lay on the couch to watch some television or take a nap. I really enjoy those moments, comforted by the closeness and the hum of her purring.

Each cat is unique. It might seem like Tigger is a little standoffish because he doesnt like to be touched, but I know hes sharing his love when he follows me around the house. Sammie might seem mean when he nibbles at my ankles, but I know thats who he tells me he loves me. Delilah might be a little annoying when she chooses the wrong moments to sit on my lap, but I know that she does it because she loves me. Each cat has their own way of showing they care.

How do you show your love to God and your neighbor? It is easy for us to look at others and think that they dont do a very good job at loving, but have you ever thought about the fact that our neighbors might have a different way of doing so? You might show your love by working at a food bank or putting a few hours a week in at the church office. When you dont see those other faces actively involved in those ministries, you wonder if they really care. They may seem standoffish or mean or annoying, and it is tempting to think that they simply do not love. But, perhaps they have a different way of showing it.

It is not up to us to decide for our neighbor how they are going to share the love of Christ with the world. Some may do so by being actively involved in politics. Others will volunteer with youth. Yet others will purposely stay behind the scenes, sharing resources in a way that is not visible to others. The point is that we are to live our faith, loving God by ministering to the needs of others. Like my cats, we each have unique gifts and personalities. It is up to us to find a way to use our resources of time, talent and wealth to serve God by serving one another, encouraging our neighbor to follow their calling from God.

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September 27, 2010

Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. In love of the brethren be tenderly affectioned one to another; in honor preferring one another; in diligence not slothful; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing stedfastly in prayer; communicating to the necessities of the saints; given to hospitality. Bless them that persecute you; bless, and curse not. Rejoice with them that rejoice; weep with them that weep. Be of the same mind one toward another. Set not your mind on high things, but condescend to things that are lowly. Be not wise in your own conceits. Render to no man evil for evil. Take thought for things honorable in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as in you lieth, be at peace with all men. Avenge not yourselves, beloved, but give place unto the wrath of God: for it is written, Vengeance belongeth unto me; I will recompense, saith the Lord. But if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him to drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

The new season of Amazing Race began last night, with eleven teams chasing clues and each other in England. Now, Ive watched the show during previous seasons, but I often felt as lost as the contestants as they tried to find their way through foreign lands. I dont think I could really identify with the confusion and fear because I was sitting safely on my couch in my house in a neighborhood I knew. I had to laugh last night, however, as they were trying to get around the countryside in England because Ive been there and done that.

I had my share of afternoons lost in the English countryside. My first driving experience was a comedy of errors. We were in England for about a month when we got the call that the car we had shipped was waiting for us at the port. I was a little nervous about driving in England, but since we could not find anyone else to go with us the day we went to pick up the car, I agreed I could do it. I mean, how hard could it be to drive on the wrong side of the road?

It was actually easier than I expected. My only real problem occurred when I followed the wrong car out of a roundabout. I thought I was following Bruce, but I quickly realized that I had lost him. It was good, then, that the road system in England is very convenient, because there is a roundabout every few miles. Every roundabout leads somewhere, and at the next roundabout I found a sign directing me toward the village where we lived. I took the wrong exits off a couple more roundabouts, but was able to get going the right direction at the next roundabout, eventually making it home. In the meantime, I saw some beautiful countryside, noticed a few places that would be great to visit and learned how to deal with driving an American (left-hand-drive) car in a country where they drive on the left hand side of the road.

I had an advantage over the competitors on last nights Amazing Race because we had been in the country a month when I first started to drive. The contestants were sent to England, handed a car and they had to immediately find their way to the place described in their clue. Not only did they have to learn to drive on the wrong side of the road, but they had to learn to drive a right-hand-drive car! I knew what I was doing and had some idea where I needed to go, but they had to deal with everything cold.

It was fun to watch the race last night, to remember my own adventures around England. I could imagine what it must have been like to hear the strange words and visit those strange places. We dont have castles in the U.S. and we dont generally have knights riding horses on the lawn. It caused confusion for at least a few of the competitors. We certainly dont shoot suits of armor with watermelon slingshots. It was easier for me to understand what they were doing because I had been there. I had similar experiences. I knew what it was like to get lost on a difficult roundabout.

It is much easier to have sympathy with people who are going through similar experiences. I cant possible know what it is like to be lost in Japan or Kenya or Jamaica, but I do know what it is like to get lost in England. So, too, it is easier to have sympathy with people who are dealing with the same types of problems we have. Yet, we are called to live a life of compassion, identifying with even those who are our enemies so that we will understand the world from their point of view. We may not always agree, and we may suffer at their hands, but God is in control. By remaining humble toward God and neighbor, loving with grace and courage, we will see blessing in even those moments when it seems like we are lost.

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September 28, 2010

"Let us fear therefore, lest haply, a promise being left of entering into his rest, any one of you should seem to have come short of it. For indeed we have had good tidings preached unto us, even as also they: but the word of hearing did not profit them, because it was not united by faith with them that heard. For we who have believed do enter into that rest; even as he hath said, As I sware in my wrath, They shall not enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he hath said somewhere of the seventh day on this wise, And God rested on the seventh day from all his works; and in this place again, They shall not enter into my rest. Seeing therefore it remaineth that some should enter thereinto, and they to whom the good tidings were before preached failed to enter in because of disobedience, he again defineth a certain day, To-day, saying in David so long a time afterward (even as hath been said before), To-day if ye shall hear his voice, Harden not your hearts. For if Joshua had given them rest, he would not have spoken afterward of another day. There remaineth therefore a sabbath rest for the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest hath himself also rested from his works, as God did from his. Let us therefore give diligence to enter into that rest, that no man fall after the same example of disobedience." Hebrews 4:1-11, ASV

I discovered a problem with my website yesterday. It is nothing that can't be fixed, and the company where I host my site is working on the problem from their end. Unfortunately, it means that some of my webpages look odd and I need to go in and make some changes so that it will look correct again. Now, as you might know, I have a lot of text on each page and the work ahead is going to be long and tedious. It doesn't help that editing that much coded text can be difficult, so I might be spending hours at the computer with my nose in html code.

I started the process last night and I managed to stay up way too late working on it. I didn't go to be until well after midnight. The house was already silent, even the kitties were trying to settle down for a night's rest. Despite the fact that I had nowhere to go this morning, I couldn't stay in bed as late as I would have liked. There is just too much to do. I feel fine this morning, but I'm not sure that I am as rested as I should be. As long as I don't stay up too late too many nights in a row, I should be fine. The real tiredness comes when we go too long without real rest. And then we are no good to anyone. We get sick, and our ability to work suffers.

God understands this, which is why He has commanded His people to take a Sabbath, a day of rest. Even God took a Sabbath rest after He created everything, how can we expect to need less? If we work hard day after day, we need to stop for a moment, to rejuvenate our bodies and our spirits. The Sabbath does both, because it is not only a day for rest, but also a day for experiencing God's Word in worship and study. If we take that day of rest, we might just find that Monday is easier and our work is better.

Our bodies certainly do need rest, but the writer of Hebrews was talking about another kind of rest in today's passage. The Israelites were saved from Egypt so that they might find peace and goodness in the Promised Land. They would, after so many years in slavery, find rest. Unfortunately, the people rebelled against God and He refused to give them the rest. They would have to wander in the wilderness until the last of their generation died, so that their offspring might receive the promise and find rest.

We learn, however, that entering the Promised Land is not the end of the promise. It isn't about the land. It isn't about the place. It is about resting in God's grace. That was the promise all along, even from the foundation of the world. That's the Gospel message. That is the rest that comes from faith. We can get as much sleep as we need. We can take Sunday off and spend time in worship and study. We can keep our bodies healthy and our spirits fresh, but we will never get real rest without faith in Christ Jesus. He is our true Sabbath. He is the fulfillment of the promise.

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September 29, 2010

Scriptures for Sunday, October 3, 2010, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 27: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 37:1-9; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

"And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye would say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou rooted up, and be thou planted in the sea; and it would obey you." Luke 17:6, ASV

If you go to www.newseum.org/todaysfrontpages, you can see the front page of daily newspapers from cities all over the nation and world. Click into a few of those pages and you'll find certain subjects are repeated over and over again. Nearly every page I checked had some front page story about money. Either local income was down or poverty was up, government or businesses were having a hard time making ends meet, people were finding it difficult to affordable housing, etc.

Another typical subject has to do with politics. With elections just around the corner, candidates are making their stands, having debates and slinging mud at one another. Several front pages had stories about scandals in local, state and federal government. One recurring story described how the $1.5 billion dollars the U.S. government promised to Haiti after the earthquake nine months ago is still tied up in Washington.

The papers on the East Coast filled their headlines with stories about the tropical storm headed north from the Caribbean. While some places, including my hometown of Allentown, Pennsylvania, could use the water, I'm not so sure that six inches in two days is good news. Other papers had pictures and stories about the mudslide in Oaxaca, Mexico. The death and destruction in that region from the seemingly constant stream of storms this month is heartbreaking.

The big news story in our local papers in Texas is about the shooting on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin. This event was truly shocking and tragic. A young man, for reasons so far unknown, took an AK-47 and shot about ten shots outside the library, then went inside to the sixth floor and killed himself. We followed the news story on television and radio all day yesterday, and the newspapers reported the event after the fact this morning. In the end, the only death was to the gunman, and no one was injured. It was surely a frightening day for the students and teachers who were locked down for a number of hours while the investigators tried to find another possible gunman and while they tried to discover the young man's reasons.

We know now, and have since yesterday afternoon, that this tragedy was limited to one man, and that the University of Texas has an excellent plan for emergency response. Though the rest of the students may have had some moments of fear yesterday afternoon, today they are thankful for their own safety and the safety of their friends. The only question that remains is "why?" and we may never be able to answer that one.

Despite the good news that came out of the day, some of the headlines focused on the terror and tragedy. One paper posted in big, bold letters, "Terror grips UT as student opens fire." I don't mean to diminish the reality of the story, but is that headline appropriate or necessary? The Austin American Statesman, Austin's daily paper, didn't even focus on the terror. They looked at the story from today's perspective: "Looking for Answers." They even included headlines about the successes of the day. This is pretty amazing considering their readers are the ones who were "terrorized" by the gunman.

They say that bad news sells, and a 2007 Pew Research Study seems to prove it. Of the top topics listed in the survey, people were most interested in war, weather, disaster, money and crime. So, it is understandable that the newspapers would paste headlines that would catch people's attention and make them want to buy the paper. The study came to the conclusion that bad news sells particularly well in times of stress and fear, as people seek to know what's happening so that they feel like they have some power and control over their lives.

I think bad news sells in the church, too. We can see that in the popularity of end times literature, both fiction and non-fiction. We don't mind hearing about someone else's bad news as long as we are certain that it will be good news for us. Those reading the end times fiction generally think they will be the blessed ones, not the ones who have to undergo suffering. Churches that preach hellfire and damnation for sinners are often busting at the seams. The people who like to hear that type of preaching don't think of themselves as sinners: the hellfire and damnation is for the others, just as the war, weather, disaster, money and crime stories generally affect someone else.

I suppose part of the problem is that it is easier to see the negative than the positive. We don't pray when we are happy, but we pray at length when we are sick. We become far more religious in times of stress and apathetic when we are comfortable. We look to God when we are in the foxhole, but forget Him when we are at peace. We look for the bad news in the headlines because we want to control our own fortune.

Habakkuk had reason to complain. Everywhere he looked he saw nothing but bad news. He saw violence and sin and misery all around him. He looked to God for an answer, "When will you make everything right? When will you save me?" Don't we all feel that way, sometimes?

We do not hear the whole conversation between God and Habakkuk in today's reading. In verses 5-11, God replies to Habakkuk's complaint that He's sending the Babylonians. In verse 11, God says, "Then shall he sweep by as a wind, and shall pass over, and be guilty, even he whose might is his god." He pronounces the guilt of those whom He raised up to conquer the world. Habakkuk adds a second complaint, asking if God intends to destroy His people. He accepts God's justice, but asks God whether He will be silent as the wicked overcome His righteous people.

Habakkuk then says, "I'll wait on the watchtower for your answer." God tells Habakkuk to write the message in bold letters, to make it the headline. "Behold, his soul is puffed up, it is not upright in him; but the righteous shall live by his faith." Those who live by their own power and strength will fail. The answer to the bad news is to live in faith. This is the message that we should boldly proclaim. This is the news that we should shout out loud. We may be suffering, we may be living in stressful times, but God is faithful to those who live in a right relationship with Him.

I like the way the writer put this: make it plain so that a runner might read it. The newspaper headlines are designed to catch our attention. When the words "TERROR" are in big, bold letters, we reach for the paper out of curiosity and concern. What's wrong now? What am I supposed to fear? Would we reach as quickly if the word on the front page were "FAITH"? Would we care to read, "You have nothing to fear"?

Yet, how much better would our world be if we only keep the words of the psalmist in front of us daily. He writes, "Do not be afraid. God will take care of things." In Habakkuk's oracle, God says, " though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not delay." It might not seem like God is doing much, but He is always in control. It might not seem like His Will is winning, but He has the power to overcome all our difficulties. We need not be afraid, even if we face pain and suffering, because the righteous that live in faith will see the promise fulfilled.

It seems impossible, perhaps as impossible as a mulberry tree uprooting and planting itself in the sea. But Jesus says, "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you'll see the impossible happen. The point of this passage is not that you only need a little faith to do the miraculous: it is that faith can't be measured. Two weeks ago we learned that we can't serve God and mammon at the same time. We also can't trust in ourselves and God at the same time. Either you live in faith or you don't. Either you trust in God or you trust in yourself. God did use the Babylonians to get His people's attention, and they might have been blessed for their obedience to God's Will. However, they didn't trust in God, they trusted in their own strength and in the end their power was taken away.

It is interesting that our Gospel passage immediately follows a lesson in forgiveness. Jesus tells His disciples, "If your brother sins against you, tell him and if he repents, forgive him. Do this over and over and over again, as necessary." I can imagine how they must have responded to this statement. "No way, Jesus, how can I do this?" Then they asked, "Increase our faith." He answered their request with the impossible idea that a tiny bit of faith could do the miraculous. He answered their appeal with the command to do what they are called to do, to be His servants.

We are called to His servants, and in the end, when we've done the work, we are to remember that we have nothing about which we can boast. We've done our duty. We might think that because we have faith and because we have done good things in His name, then we deserve to receive nothing but good things.

Can any of us expect anything better than the Apostle Paul? Who deserves more good things for the work they do for Christ and the Gospel than him? Yet, Paul suffered frequently for his faith. He was beaten and imprisoned numerous times. In the end, he was martyred. In the meantime, he took the Gospel to thousands of people, traveled thousands of miles and planted many churches. He trained others in ministry, and his writing has encouraged Christian faith and service for millennia. If his life wasn't blessed with good things, how could we expect anything better?

Yet, Paul was very blessed. Even in his suffering he trusted in God. In the passage from the second letter to Timothy, Paul talks about his circumstances. He was imprisoned, not for the first time, under the rule of Emperor Nero. This particular imprisonment was truly horrid, in a cold dungeon instead of a 'rented house' when he wrote the first letter. He lived in chains and his friends had a hard to finding where he was being held. It is no wonder that the Christians and others might consider him cursed. They might have asked the question, "Should we follow the words of a man who is suffering such a horrid circumstance? Couldn't Paul, who had the power of God behind him, find a way to escape? This letter was probably written near the end of his life, shortly before he was beheaded by the Emperor Nero.

But Paul writes to encourage Timothy and the Ephesian church. "Be not ashamed therefore of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner" We may be surrounded by violence and sin and misery, and there may not seem to be much good news for us to hear. But the good news is that God is in control, and even when it seems like it is impossible, God will take care of everything. Paul knew this. He trusted that even if he was facing the last moments of his life, even if he was about to lose his head, that God was in control.

We are called to holy service, sharing the love and forgiveness of Christ with the world. The news we have may not sell, but it is Good News. Most people don't want to hear that they should forgive others. They simply want to know that their enemies will suffer for their sin. They forget that they are sinners, too, in need of the love and mercy of God. But we are given God's grace through Jesus Christ so that we will boldly proclaim that God will make everything right, even when it seems impossible.

Who told you about Jesus? Timothy heard the good news from Paul, and from his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois. They gave him that flicker of a flame; they shared the word that planted that mustard seed of faith. Paul wrote to Timothy, "stir up the gift of God." It says in the NIV, "fan into flame the gift of God." Someone boldly proclaimed the Word to us, planting within us the gift. But God's grace is not given to sit idle in our hearts. We are called to live in faith, trusting in God's mercy and sharing His grace. We are called to boldly proclaim the good news of God's forgiveness and to forgive those who have harmed us, knowing that God is our Savior. It might seem like the promise is taking forever to be fulfilled, but be patient. God is in control and He is faithful. There is hope in our crazy mixed up world. Though the headlines are filled with bad news, we have good news that will always prevail. Stir up the gift, fan the flames, and you'll do the impossible. Trust in God, and that mulberry tree will be moved.

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September 30, 2010

"And when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon, she came to prove Solomon with hard questions at Jerusalem, with a very great train, and camels that bare spices, and gold in abundance, and precious stones: and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart. And Solomon told her all her questions; and there was not anything hid from Solomon which he told her not. And when the queen of Sheba had seen the wisdom of Solomon, and the house that he had built, and the food of his table, and the sitting of his servants, and the attendance of his ministers, and their apparel, his cupbearers also, and their apparel, and his ascent by which he went up unto the house of Jehovah; there was no more spirit in her. And she said to the king, It was a true report that I heard in mine own land of thine acts, and of thy wisdom. Howbeit I believed not their words, until I came, and mine eyes had seen it; and, behold, the half of the greatness of thy wisdom was not told me: thou exceedest the fame that I heard. Happy are thy men, and happy are these thy servants, that stand continually before thee, and hear thy wisdom. Blessed be Jehovah thy God, who delighted in thee, to set thee on his throne, to be king for Jehovah thy God: because thy God loved Israel, to establish them for ever, therefore made he thee king over them, to do justice and righteousness." 2 Chronicles 9:1-8, ASV

The queen of Sheba was obviously a very powerful woman; she came to Jerusalem with an entourage of many, gifts of great wealth and questions meant to test Solomon's wisdom. She was probably intelligent and well educated, also. So, it makes me wonder about the types of questions she might have asked. Did she want to know more about the Jewish faith? Did she ask about building techniques or military strategy? Was she interested in the transcendent questions of life?

He obviously impressed her with his knowledge. The NIV translates verse two, "Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for him to explain to her." Solomon didn't just have the answers to the questions; he had the wisdom to explain them in a way she could understand. I know a lot of things, but I'm not always able to explain my knowledge to others that they might understand. I know what I believe, but I'm not always capable of sharing that faith in a way another person can receive.

Solomon received the queen of Sheba with grace and encouragement. He didn't just lecture her; they talked about everything that was on her heart. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall at this meeting; it would have been a fascinating conversation to witness. I can imagine that she went into the meeting with an attitude of overconfidence, thinking that she had the questions that would trip him up. But I'm sure he quickly made her comfortable and engaged her intellect and her heart. One question would lead to another; one answer would open up a whole new train of thought. She may have gone to Solomon with the intend of proving him to be unworthy of his fame, but in the end she gained insight and a friend.

She also realized that Solomon is truly blessed, not just with wealth and power, but with everything he needs to be a good king. He set the standard in the world for his time, which is possibly why there was peace. He didn't rule over people even though he was king; he ruled for them, taking care of their needs and serving them well. He wasn't perfect, by any means, but he did rule during a golden age and the world was blessed.

I think the most powerful statement in this passage is, "Blessed be Jehovah thy God, who delighted in thee." How wonderful is that? How wonderful would it be to hear that the God of our forefathers delighted in us? We might not ever be made king, but we can certainly meet those who come to us with the wisdom of God, sharing in His grace and mercy so that they too might know Him. It doesn't take anything special, just a willingness to meet the challengers to our faith with grace. Though we might not think we have the ability to explain everything to them, we can trust that God will guide our words and their hearts, so that they might hear and understand. This will only happen, though, if we are willing to sit down and talk with them, to engage them in the conversation and seek God's answers to their questions.

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