Welcome to the July 2019 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, July 2019
July 1, 2019
“He entered and was passing through Jericho. There was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, and couldn’t because of the crowd, because he was short. He ran on ahead, and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and saw him, and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.’ He hurried, came down, and received him joyfully. When they saw it, they all murmured, saying, ‘He has gone in to lodge with a man who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor. If I have wrongfully exacted anything of anyone, I restore four times as much.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Today, salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.’” Luke 19:1-10, WEB
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see. And as the Savior passed that way He looked up in the tree and he said, ‘Zacchaeus you come down, for I’m going to your house today!’ For I’m going to your house today! Zacchaeus was a wee little man, but a happy man was he, for he had seen the Lord that day and a happy man was he; and a very happy man was he.”
I’m sure you sang this son as you read it, just as I did when I typed it. This childhood song has been a favorite at Vacation Bible School and in Sunday school for a long time. Zacchaeus, in the scriptures, is a short man. He is chief of the tax collectors, so he obviously is an adult and a powerful man. Yet many of the materials used on VBS and Sunday school show Zacchaeus as a boy. I suppose this helps children identify with the character, and it is probably why it is a favorite story. After all, what child hasn’t been in a situation where they could not see and needed a lift?
So, why did Zacchaeus want to see Jesus? Jesus was a bit of a rock star at that point in the story, and people were drawn to the excitement. Would Jesus heal someone? Would He do something to upset the authorities? Would He tell some captivating stories? The people who gathered to see Jesus that day had heard the stories about Him. Were they there because they were simply curious or were they seriously interested in what Jesus had to say? Was Zacchaeus drawn to see Jesus because he had heard a word of grace that reached deep into his soul, the word that saved?
Zacchaeus probably had no expectation about what might happen that day. Though he was a powerful man, he was absolutely unworthy to spend time in Jesus’ presence. He was, as is reported by the crowds, a sinner. There were many others in that crowd who deserved to meet the famous teacher. There were certainly people who were ill who needed Jesus’ touch. There were people who needed to hear more about God the Father and His kingdom. Why would Jesus pick someone like Zacchaeus to have dinner?
This story reminds us that there are not people who are more worthy to receive Jesus’ grace, or others who are less worthy. Jesus came to bring salvation to all who believe. He calls out to every man, offering forgiveness and peace no matter what our physical attributes and what we have done. He wants to go home with us, to abide with us. We might try to get His attention by climbing our own trees, but Jesus will find us wherever we are and call out to us. Let us follow the example of Zacchaeus and come down, receive Him with joy and restore that which we have also taken wrongly.
In this story, too, we see that Jesus chose Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a powerful man; he could have sent someone to invite Jesus to his house. He could have pushed to the front of the pack and approached Jesus, even with his small stature. Instead, Zacchaeus stayed in the background, using a tree to gain a view of this fascinating man.
Zacchaeus is changed by the encounter. He repents and promises to make amends for his sinful ways. Then Jesus said, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” Zacchaeus was not saved because he repented. Jesus is the salvation. He is the salvation of you and me. He went to the house of Zacchaeus even though he was a sinner. He did not go because Zacchaeus was willing to change or because he had done something amazing. Rather, Zacchaeus repented because salvation had entered his house. Jesus went to him and invited himself to his house. While there, Jesus shared the kingdom of God with Zacchaeus and his house. Hearing about the grace of God, Zacchaeus responded to the love and mercy found in the message of Christ.
It is a comfort to know that even in the world when we seem to get lost in the crowd, Jesus still sees us. He calls us out of our trees and comes into our lives bringing hope and peace and transformation no matter who we are. It must have been shocking to those who followed Jesus that he would take time to go be with a man like Zacchaeus, but that’s the way God is. He seeks out those who need Him and He makes Himself a part of their life.
“Therefore I tell you, don’t be anxious for your life: what you will eat, or what you will drink; nor yet for your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing? See the birds of the sky, that they don’t sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns. Your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you of much more value than they? Which of you, by being anxious, can add one moment to his lifespan? Why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin, yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his glory was not dressed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today exists, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t he much more clothe you, you of little faith? Therefore don’t be anxious, saying, ‘What will we eat?’, ‘What will we drink?’ or, ‘With what will we be clothed?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore don’t be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Each day’s own evil is sufficient.” Matthew 6:25-35, WEB
We have a couple of iron holders for flowers hanging above our deck, but we haven’t put any flowers into them this year. We don’t spend much time outside during the summer and it is hard to keep those flowers alive. We have had a broken watering can in one of them for some time.
The other day I walked through the room that is nearest to this holder and watering can. I noticed that one of our kitties was fascinated by what was happening there. Bruce had been working on the deck and all day we had been hearing the chirping of a couple of sparrows. I looked out the window toward the place where Delilah was staring and realized that the sparrows were at the watering can. I also noticed that they were building a nest inside. I did not see any eggs at that point, but I’m sure they were concerned about Bruce spending so much time on the deck, and that they had noticed the presence of our kitty. Bruce did not even realize they were there, and Delilah could not get to the bird because there was a window blocking her way, but the birds were obviously nervous all day.
I know that the birds are safe, but I understand why they might have been concerned about Bruce and Delilah. In the evening I went out with my camera to get a good picture of the work they were doing. I did not realize one of the sparrows was in the nest and I frightened her as I got too close. She flew out and loudly chirped a warning to her partner. There was good reason for her to be afraid. I was too close to her nest. She did not know that I would never hurt them so she did what she needed to do to protect herself.
While it seemed like the birds were anxious, it was not that they were worried about their daily needs, but were only concerned to stay safe and to protect their nest. The text today tells us not to be anxious, but I don’t think God would have us be indifferent for the dangers of this world. Like those birds, we should be very aware of those who would harm us. We need to be good stewards of the life God has given us, so it might be the best thing to chirp warnings all day or fly off when something gets to close.
It is very easy to say “don’t worry” when we aren’t in the midst of a troublesome time. It is not so easy to be without worry when things aren’t going so well. We are human, and worry is a natural response to the stressful events that surround our lives. We worry because we want control. We want to hold on to the power, even when we know we have none. God does not solve our problems by doing everything; we still need to be involved with the solution. If we are having financial problems, we should take care of our business. If we are having health issues, we need to see a doctor.
The scripture today, however, reminds us that we can’t make anything better by worrying. We won’t find power in anxiety. Rather than worry, God calls us to trust in Him. He does take care of us, even as we do what we need to do in this world. All we need to do is to live in faith daily, remembering His promises so that we can get through to tomorrow. We do not always understand the path by which God is carrying us, but when we are most in need, He is there with us making all things right. It may seem hard, it may seem like you are going in the wrong direction. But when you trust in God, He will get you through. Just like the birds of the air.
Lectionary Scriptures for Sunday, July 7, 2019, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 66:10-14; Psalm 66:1-7; Galatians 6:1-10, 14-18; Luke 10:1-20
“For Yahweh says, ‘Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you will nurse. You will be carried on her side, and will be dandled on her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you. You will be comforted in Jerusalem.’” Isaiah 66:12-13, WEB
There is a place off the coast of Cornwall, England called St. Michael’s Mount. Over the years the mount was used as a port for tin trade, a monastery, a military outpost and a private home. It is a strategic and important property over which many have fought. As with everything in England, the written history comes with a sense of mystery and myth. There are several ancient legends connected with this special place.
One story talks of a giant that lived on the island that could easily walk across the causeway to the mainland to steal sheep for his lunch. A boy went to the mount to fight the giant and tricked him into falling into a hole. This tale became the story we know called “Jack and the Beanstalk.” There are also legends about King Arthur and the Celtic saints. The mount is named after Michael the Archangel because some fishermen claimed that they saw him standing high above the sea on a rocky ledge as if he were guarding it. Michael the Archangel is described as a mighty warrior angel that fights the devil, as in today’s story from Daniel. Many churches and religious institutions that were located on the top of a hill or mountain took the name St. Michael in honor of his feats in the heavenly realm, so it is no wonder that the legendary place off the coast of England would be called St. Michael’s Mount.
We had to take a boat to the island because at high tide the causeway is covered with water and the island is completely cut off from the mainland. The climb to the top is difficult, but worth the struggle because the views are spectacular. The tide began to recede while we were visiting and it was interesting to watch the people as the water receded. It was difficult to see the causeway from high atop the mount even though it was only a few inches below the surface, so it appeared as though people were walking on water when they began to walk back to shore.
The psalmist writes, “He turned the sea into dry land. They went through the river on foot. There, we rejoiced in him.” The Israelites crossed the Red Sea. The scriptures are filled with other examples of people making it through water. Noah and his family survived the great flood. The Israelites went through the Jordan, as did Elijah and Elisha. Jesus calmed the storm for His disciples. The visitors crossing the causeway could see that there was a firm foundation a few inches below the surface of the water, but the Bible characters made it through because they trusted God to see them through.
We were amazed as we watched the people walk over the water to the shore, but as the tide continued to recede, we began to see the causeway from a distance. As we walk our journey of faith, we often find ourselves in situations that seem as though we are going to drown under the waters of life. Yet, in faith we continue to walk, knowing the God will see us through. He is truly an awesome God, there by our side, making a pathway for our walk, even when we don’t see Him. He is worthy to praised; let us join with all creation in worship. The psalmist write, “All the earth will worship you, and will sing to you; they will sing to your name.” His works are indeed great and we are called to tell the world about all He has done for us.
People who have been called to missionary service far from home are sharing the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in places like China. Unfortunately, there are many that are determined and willing to do anything to stop the Gospel. We hear too many stories these days about Christians around the world suffering persecution, even unto death. Unfortunately, there are even some who claim to be Christian persecuting other Christians.
There is a group in China called Eastern Lightning. In 2017, a member of the cult beat a woman to death in a McDonald’s because she refused to give him her phone number and claimed that she was a demon. These cultists believe that we are in a third era of time: the Old Testament is the first, the Age of Grace is the second, and the Age of the Kingdom is the third. They claim that a woman named Lightning Deng is the living host of Jesus Christ. They are deceiving other Christians by infiltrating their fellowships. After they’ve gained their trust, they seek the aid of leadership and convince them to go to other villages to share the Gospel. The separated missionaries are then kidnapped, beaten and killed, leaving the village churches without leadership. One story tells how four missionaries were drawn away from the fellowship and once in the new village they were convinced to split up to do more ministry. “If you each visit separate villages, more will hear the Gospel.” They are vulnerable when they are alone.
Jesus sent His disciples on mission trips in groups of two or more. The reason for this is two-fold. First of all, they would be safer with a friend. The dangers of the road were great for anyone traveling on foot. Even more importantly, two witnesses sharing the Gospel confirm what is spoken. Two disciples together provide the physical, spiritual and emotional support needed so that they can witness boldly for the Lord.
J. Hudson Taylor wrote of his own experiences in mission to China in the book “To China with Love.” When he heard the call from God, it made him sad because obedience would mean that he would need to leave his mentor and friend to respond to that call. He was rejecting the call until one day he heard the hymn “The Missionary Call” which speaks of giving up friends willingly for the sake of the Kingdom. With tears, Hudson shared his call and his unwillingness to go. His friend, Rev. William Burns, answered those tears with the joyful news that he too had been called to ministry in China and that he too regretted that they would have to part company. They went together and served the Lord.
There are many that feel so alone in this world, as if they are the only ones able to accomplish the work of the Lord. They are like islands in a sea. Yet, we know that no man is an island and that God does not send us to minister alone. We have the support of our brothers and sisters in Christ, through prayer, encouragement, and even correction. We have the protection of God our Father, but even Jesus warned the disciples to be careful as they traveled because those who seek to stop the expansion of the Kingdom of God might bring them harm.
I once had a visit from a vacuum salesman. He came to the door at a bad time in our life; we were financial strapped with no extra money for an expensive vacuum. I was honest with the guy from the beginning. I told him that it did not matter how wonderful his product was, I could not afford to buy one at that time. He assured me that he would not pressure me, but if he just showed me the machine it would help him win the contest. I reminded him that it would be a complete waste of time but I let him in. He was a sweet looking young man, only about twenty years old. He was very polite and very talkative.
Throughout the two hour demonstration, he told me all sorts of stories about his family and friends and how much they love their vacuums. He described his own pets and his daughter and how the vacuum keeps them healthy. He let me try to vacuum and told me that he was glad that it was so easy to maneuver because he didn’t want his girlfriend to work too hard. He showed so much concern for everyone and offered his vacuum as the solution to every worldly problem.
I repeatedly told him that I could not afford the machine, but he talked about the financial savings I would ultimately have, claiming that the vacuum would take care of my carpet so that I would not have to replace it in a few years. When I was obviously not falling for his sales pitch, he went a little deeper. With each swipe of the vacuum he came up with a pad filled with dust and cat hair. He wondered what I felt about all the dirt and then asked what my husband would think if he saw all those pads. Eventually, his boss came by to see how things were going. He asked many of the same questions, each one designed to guilt me into buying this amazing machine for the sake of my family. I could certainly find a few dollars a month, couldn’t I?
I held firm, my financial status was exactly as I had told them in the beginning: I could not afford even a few dollars a month for a two thousand dollar vacuum. Sure I wanted one, don’t we all want the best of everything? I was getting quite bored and disturbed by their “non-aggressive” sales pitch. It was obviously deceitful. At the end, the young man even tried to feed on my compassionate nature by thanking me for taking him one step closer to winning the contest. “I only need three hundred demos. Of course, fifteen sales would win it for me.” His boss was not quite so considerate. In the end I had to threaten to call the police to get them out of my house.
This kid and his boss were not evil. They were trying to do their job. However, their methodology was exactly the way Satan does his job in this world. They played on feelings, tried to make me seem uncaring, played on guilt and negative self image. I told the salesman he should not have wasted his time, but in his arrogance he was sure that he could convince me I needed this vacuum. Yet, ultimately it was his deceit that lost him a sale. I was going to ask for literature, to consider a purchase in a few months when things settled down financially. I have since learned that these vacuums are not as dependable as the salesman made it sound. They don’t last forever. They break down just like the cheaper ones. We need to be discerning in this world because deceit is not only bold-faced lies. Sometimes deceit is subtle, packaged as goodness.
Paul writes, “Don’t be deceived. God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. 8 For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption. But he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” All too many people think they can fool God. They do good things, but their hearts are evil in. They do not live truth. Instead they try to manipulate the world around them to fit their own desires. Yet, in the end everything works for the good of those who love God. Deception pays off negatively, honesty will ultimately be rewarded. The salesman misread the situation. If he had given me a twenty minute spiel on the facts, I would have taken his literature and considered it for later. But he lost my interest because he took two hours of my time and tried to manipulate me into buying something I could not buy.
Those who try to fool God will be even more surprised. He knows the hearts of men and sees beyond the words and deeds they do. He knows our motivation, is familiar with our deepest lusts and needs. The things of the flesh will perish just like that expensive vacuum. But that which is of the Spirit is eternal, so that our life lived in faith will reap joyous blessings in Christ Jesus.
The disciples were sent out into the world to do something new. They were preaching a message that was built upon that which they knew, but it was different. There was talk of forgiveness and grace. It was a message for the whole world. At this point, however, it was given to the Jews. The Jews had been hearing this message for thousands of years, but forgiveness and grace was getting lost in the law. The Old Testament is not really different from the New Testament, because Jesus is on every page of the scriptures. Too many reject God as revealed in the Old because they prefer to worship a God of love, not wrath. They refuse to believe in a God that is not what they want Him to be. They forget that He still demands justice and righteousness, and that’s why we need Jesus.
God hasn’t changed. What has changed is that Jesus paid the price and we receive the benefit. We are saved by His blood. This was the promise that was given to God's people for thousands of years and was fulfilled in Jesus. The Old Testament people - the patriarchs, the judges, the kings and the prophets - all pointed to the coming of the Messiah. They planted the seeds of faith into God's people. They spoke about the promise to come. Those seeds had been growing in the hearts of God’s people even as the weeds of misunderstanding were developing. It was time to harvest those first fruits when Jesus came.
The seeds of faith were taking root; we see it in the crowds who followed Jesus. There were many who believed, although some of Jesus’ lessons were hard. In the end they were not ready for the cross. They were not ready to see the answer to their prayers hung from the tree and they abandoned Him, and yet those seeds eventually grew and the people truly began to believe. The stories of the early church show us that people were coming to faith as entire families and villages. Three thousand were added to their numbers at Pentecost! And more believed daily from then until today.
Jesus was just beginning to have an impact when He was alive. The twelve believed and left everything to follow. Seventy were sent out to share the Gospel message in today’s Gospel lesson. The field was ripe! Jesus was just one man and could not possibly speak to every single person. He needed help, so he sent the disciples and gave them the power to do what He had been doing. “There is so much to do and so few of you to do it.” They were sent to reap the harvest that had been planted for all those thousands of years.
We are just part of the process. Seeds are planted. Faith grows. People are saved. The Word transforms. We might be the one to plant the seeds, to help nourish and water the faith, to help other believers grow into the people God has called them to be. We are blessed to rejoice with them as they are adopted by our Father and become our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are part of this process, partners with God in the Gospel; even so, the workers are still few because the work is very, very hard.
Jesus told the disciples how to recognize if the fields are ready to be harvested. Jesus said, “Into whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house.’ If a son of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you.” It is almost as if the disciples could tangibly sense the coming and going of their peace. Can we really see peace rest on someone? I think we can. We’ve all known that person who has such a deep faith that they are not upset by anything. It isn’t that they deny the problems of the world, but they know that God is greater. They know that He is near and that He is in control. We can have peace even when we face difficult times.
Jesus never promised that it would be easy. He said, “But into whatever city you enter, and they don’t receive you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust from your city that clings to us, we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that God’s Kingdom has come near to you.’” The message of God’s nearness is meant for everyone. We are sent into the world to share that message so that they will begin to trust in God’s promises and benefit from His faithfulness.
Unfortunately, too many of us are too timid about sharing that message. We are afraid. We don’t want to offend; we don’t want to be rejected. We would rather live out our Christian faith quietly and privately, doing good deeds and letting God deal with hearts. It is His job to change those hearts, but He has chosen us to help. He has sent us to reap the harvest, to bring His people to His throne to worship Him forever. We can’t do that if we are too timid to share the Gospel.
Even if we do this work, we are reminded that it is not our power or words that save, but God’s alone. Paul writes, “But far be it from me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” The successes of our ministries do not give us reason to rejoice. We rejoice in the salvation that comes from faith in Jesus Christ. We rejoice that our names are written in His book. Our mission is to help others find their names there, too.
In the Old Testament lesson, we are confronted by the image of a ruined city. The people had been exiled for some time and were returning home. They remembered the glory of Jerusalem and expected to see gleaming stone and strong walls. God saved them, but when they got back to Jerusalem they discovered that it had been destroyed. Their hope for safety and peace in a strong, safe city was shattered; they found ruin.
Yet, the message from Isaiah offered hope to the people. “You will see it, and your heart shall rejoice, and your bones will flourish like the tender grass. Yahweh’s hand will be known among his servants; and he will have indignation against his enemies.” God will deal with those who rejected those whom He sends. God will provide His people with peace. “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you will nurse. You will be carried on her side, and will be dandled on her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you. You will be comforted in Jerusalem.” When we face rejection and worse, there is still hope. God is in control.
Isaiah promised that they would see the day when God’s promises would be fulfilled, there was no reason to feel hopeless. It is easy to feel like the whole world has fallen apart, especially when it seems like so much wants to do us harm. We know that we can’t overcome it on our own, and we don’t know why God isn’t doing everything we ask. We are witnesses to God’s incredible power, but we fall into a trap when we believe that we have something to do with it. The disciples thought the hope rested in their ability to overcome the devil.
Jesus reminded them that they would not overcome the devil in their flesh. They would suffer persecution. Yet, in Christ they have a greater hope. They have eternal life in Christ; His blood bought the salvation that would guarantee eternal life.
Instead of voicing our joy over our good works or exhibiting pride in our accomplishments, it would do us well to join the psalmist singing praise to God. “Make a joyful shout to God, all the earth! Sing to the glory of his name! Offer glory and praise!” There is plenty of work for us to do, and He is sending us out into the world to proclaim that He is near. With pen in hand, He’s ready to write more names in His book. Are we ready to use our gifts and opportunities to plant, nourish, water or harvest the seeds of grace in the hearts of those God is calling into His Kingdom? Are we ready to share His forgiveness with those who have been prepared to receive Him and His salvation?
“Blessed is the nation whose God is Yahweh, the people whom he has chosen for his own inheritance. Yahweh looks from heaven. He sees all the sons of men. From the place of his habitation he looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, he who fashions all of their hearts; and he considers all of their works. There is no king saved by the multitude of an army. A mighty man is not delivered by great strength. A horse is a vain thing for safety, neither does he deliver any by his great power.” Psalm 33:12-17, WEB
I have seen multiple memes or satirical articles about people looking for the scriptures that talk about the United States of America. It is very easy to think that we are special in the eyes of God because we are so incredibly blessed. We celebrate our national heritage and patriotism today, the Fourth of July, our Independence Day. People are waving their flags and communities are throwing huge parties with food, fun and fireworks. On this day, it seems like there’s nothing better than being an American.
The scriptures do not name the United States as being His chosen nation; only Israel can claim that designation. God made promises to her were for a very specific purpose. Israel was blessed to be a blessing. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were chosen to reveal God to the world. Though God always remains faithful to His promises to Israel, two thousand years ago He did a brand new thing. Through Israel, God sent His Son to bring mercy and grace, forgiveness and peace, eternal life to all who believe. Now the people who are blessed are not necessarily those who have material wealth and power, but those whose eyes are set on the Lord. God plays no favorites; Jesus Christ died for all men, not a specific nation.
Yes, we are blessed to live in this time and place, but it is arrogant and unwarranted for us to think that because we are better simply because we are Americans. The people God has chosen are those who look to Him in faith, trust in His Word and believe in Jesus. The real promise of God isn’t for land or an earthbound kingdom, but rather a place in His holy kingdom, which reaches from heaven and spreads to the four corners of the earth through those who love the Lord. Sadly, many Americans no longer trust in the one true God, faith is ridiculed and His Word is rejected. Like Israel did so many times throughout history, we have turned from the God who has given us the opportunity to bless the world.
God blesses the people who look to Him, who trust in His provision, protection and salvation. Despite those who have tried to rewrite history, the United States of American began under the grace of God as the founding fathers based our laws on His promises. We need to remember, though, that Jesus did not die on the cross to make any specific nation special in the eyes of God, but so that all men might be saved from sin and death in His name. We are blessed as people, and as part of a nation built on God’s grace, to be a blessing to the world. Have a happy Fourth of July, wherever you live in this world. Keep your eyes on the One who is your hope and your peace, the Lord God Almighty, and you will indeed be blessed.
“So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, WEB
We celebrate the Fourth of July as our day of Independence in the United States, but the signing of the Declaration of Independence was just the beginning of a lengthy war against Great Britain. There had been tension between the colonists and the home country for years, as the taxes on certain items had become overwhelming. Violence broke out long before the Continental Congress gathered to vote on the Declaration, and the war was in full swing by June 1776. Things did not go well for the Continental Army, and the war lasted for several years. The French eventually came to help the colonists and the war officially ended in a peace treaty signed in Paris in September 1783. Only then did Great Britain acknowledge the independence of the United States of America.
The Constitution was not written and signed until 1787, so even after the people of the United States had finally earned their freedom, it took several years to establish what that meant. The same was true for the state of Texas. Though they declared independence from Mexico after Santa Anna was defeated in 1836, the Republic of Texas struggled to become a viable independent nation. It was annexed by the United States in 1846, but war with Mexico continued until 1848. In both cases, and in many others, the declaration of freedom does not always come as easily as the words seem to make it. Those who continued to fight believed in the cause for which they were willing to sacrifice even their lives.
The same is true for our faith. We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, but for most of us, the life lived after our confession of faith is anything but easy. We continue to be harassed by the devil; we struggle with sin and death. We suffer the consequences of sin in our world, not only the consequences for our own faults, but the faults of others affect us. Sometimes life is even more difficult after we become a Christian; we fight our whole lives until the day we are truly and completely set free from the flesh to spend eternity with our Father in heaven. Just as the declarations established what would be one day, so too our confession of faith in Jesus Christ is just the beginning of a journey that will last a lifetime. That journey will be filled with joy and peace, but also with struggles. The key is to trust in the God in whom you believe and to be willing to sacrifice for His sake.
God sees the world much differently than the human eye. He sees it through love, mercy, and grace. We don’t understand why things can’t be perfect immediately, but God sees goodness in the midst of darkness. He sees potential where there seems to be none. He already knows what will be. In Christ we are given a vision of what God sees in us and in others. We are called to see the world through eyes of faith, to see it with love, mercy and grace and to act accordingly. In Christ we are to live as if we are in heaven on earth, being the tabernacle of God, where Christ dwells in this world so that His love, mercy and grace might be seen by others.
Seeing the world through faith is a gift, an incredible blessing because we can see a bit of eternity through the eyes of God in the midst of this world that is covered in sin and darkness. We long for Day when God will finish His work the so that we will finally inherit that which He has promised and no longer suffer the effects of sin. We can’t know the moment or the day when it will happen, but we can sing God’s praise and share the Gospel while we wait, even as we continue to fight the battles that have already set us free.
“Grace to you and peace be multiplied in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, seeing that his divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and virtue; by which he has granted to us his precious and exceedingly great promises; that through these you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world by lust. Yes, and for this very cause adding on your part all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence; and in moral excellence, knowledge; and in knowledge, self-control; and in self-control patience; and in patience godliness; and in godliness brotherly affection; and in brotherly affection, love. For if these things are yours and abound, they make you to be not idle nor unfruitful to the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is blind, seeing only what is near, having forgotten the cleansing from his old sins. Therefore, brothers, be more diligent to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never stumble. For thus you will be richly supplied with the entrance into the eternal Kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 1:2-11, WEB
C.S. Lewis once said, “Integrity is doing the right thing. Even when no one is watching.”
I heard a story on the radio this morning about Eddie Money. In an interview from years ago, he confessed that he took advantage of his time during tours to do and act any way he pleased. He ate junk food. He didn’t bother cleaning his hotel rooms because he knew that there were maids to do it. He admitted that he didn’t act very well, and it was particularly noticeable when he returned home. His wife expected so much more from him. He told the interviewer that she began nagging at him as soon as his bad habits began to show. She yelled at him for leaving his underwear on the floor and his dirty dishes in the sink. She was annoyed by his terrible eating habits.
As I heard the story, I thought about this quote from C.S. Lewis. Now, Eddie wasn’t acting badly in private; the others on his tour knew exactly how he was acting. They may have even been instrumental in making him act badly. At the very least, his freedom on the road established habits that were not normal when he is at home. His wife wasn’t there to nag, so he did whatever he wanted. He conformed to the world around him.
Some Christians live the same way in this world. The act one way when they are in their church on Sunday morning, but a completely different way when they go about their daily lives during the week. Just as Eddie Money is two different people, one on the road and the other at home, those Christians who leave their faith in church on Sunday are like two different people. Unfortunately, we have heard stories of people who have done horrible things while hiding under the guise of Christian faith. Most Christians aren’t like that, but they fall into the temptations of the world and follow the ways of those who do not believe. They conform to the world around them. It might not seem that bad to leave a mess or eat junk food, but ultimately all our actions affect those around us.
Peter tells us that God has given us everything good we need to live the life of faith and our calling in this world. But in this passage he reminds us to live daily in the grace of God so that we will not lose the good habits we gain as we grow in faith. The virtues of faith - goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, kindness and love - are given by God and made stronger through diligence. If these are not manifested in our life, if we are idle and unfruitful or conform to the world around us, then we have forgotten the great and wonderful thing our Lord Jesus Christ has done for us. We have no reason to question our salvation and wonder if we are really saved, but sometimes our lives don’t look like we are truly transformed by God’s grace. When we diligently live in the faith we have been given at church and in our daily lives, His light will shine in our lives and we will never doubt that we have received the promise of life in the eternal kingdom of God.
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light: who in time past were no people, but now are God’s people, who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.” 1 Peter 2:9-10, WEB
I have been reading a biography about J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” His young life was not easy. He was born in South Africa, but moved to England with his mother and brother when he was young. His father died before he could return to England to be with his family. His mother died just a few years later, after struggling to give her boys a decent life despite extreme poverty. A priest raised him and his brother. Ronald (as he was called when he was young) was not the best student. He was highly intelligent, but focused only on the things that interested him. He was fascinated by language and philology, which is the study of the structure, history and relationship of a language or languages.
He dealt with the normal difficulties of youth. He had great friendships with others who held similar interests. He fought in World War I, but experienced trench fever which left him too ill to continue serving on the front lines. It saved his life; his entire company was killed during the war. Despite his struggles with school, he eventually got a job teaching and his experience led him back to Oxford.
Humphrey Carpenter wrote in a biography of Tolkien, “And after this, you might say, nothing else really happened... Tolkien came back to Oxford, was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon for twenty years, was then elected Merton Professor of English Language and Literature, went to live in a conventional Oxford suburb where he spent the first part of his retirement, moved to a nondescript seaside resort, came back to Oxford after his wife died, and himself died a peaceful death at the age of eighty-one. It was the ordinary unremarkable life led by countless other scholars; a life of academic brilliance, certainty, but only in a very narrow professional field that is really of little interest to laymen.” Then he concluded, “And that would be that, apart from the strange fact that during these years when ‘nothing happened’ he wrote two books which have become world best sellers.”
Tolkien was an ordinary man who did something extraordinary. “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” are not just any books. They are books that are listed at the top of every list, beloved by every generation since they were published in 1937 and 1954-1955.
As I read this biography, a follow up to another book I read about how Tolkien’s books are filled with references to his Christian faith, I’ve noted how much of his life is written on the pages of those fantasies. His characters are often fatherless, or motherless. His scenes are set in places where he’s been. His war remembrances appear in the way he wrote about the battles in Middle Earth. His studies in languages played a huge role in his creation of the people and places in his stories. His faith is not blatantly written into the stories; God is not mentioned, not things like faith or prayer. However, you can see his faith through the characters who experienced the same struggles that we face in this world. You can see the temptations, the ever guiding hand behind the adventures, the need to trust and the encouragement of companions. You can see the battle between good and evil, especially when characters like Bilbo Baggins had to make difficult decisions. Despite the poverty and upheaval of his life, he managed to eke out a decent life for himself and his family using his experiences to create a whole new world.
Tolkien may not have been an extraordinary man and his life may not have been all that exciting. He never thought his stories from Middle Earth would go anywhere, but with them he left a legacy for his family and the world. Few people will ever have such an incredible impact on the world. However, as Christians we are seen through a different light by our Father than by the world. We, too, are just ordinary people. Yet, in Christ we are extraordinary to our God. As Peter writes, we are chosen, royal, holy. We belong to God. We live in the light and in His mercy. We don’t look like much to the world, but we will live for eternity in the legacy that Jesus has prepared for us, eternal life in God’s Kingdom.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 14, 2019, Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: Leviticus (18:1-5) 19:9-19; Psalm 41; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
“He said, ‘He who showed mercy on him.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:37, WEB
We tend to shy away from the Old Testament Laws because we know that we cannot uphold that which God has commanded. We know that God’s grace is greater than our failure and that His Gospel has provided for our forgiveness. Yet, we are given both Law and Gospel for a reason, and it is good to read texts like this one from Leviticus once in a while. The commands which we see in the text have everything to do with loving our neighbor. And there’s no doubt that Jesus commanded that from us. These are laws by which the human race is called to live. We are to treat our neighbors with respect, doing to them only as we would want them to do to us. We are pretty good at living that way when others love us first, but when we are hurt, we are quick to forget what God expects from us.
The lessons of the Old Testament were not set aside or forgotten; they were built upon and surpassed by the words and actions of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we are called to be like Christ, to treat our neighbors with love and do what is best for them. Jesus said it wasn’t enough to keep from doing murder, we should not even be angry. It was not enough to keep from adultery; we should be faithful in every way, avoiding even lust. Though Jesus questioned the manner by which the leaders were enforcing the Law, He never made it easier for us to satisfy our flesh. He called His people to live as God intended: in His light, and love, and grace.
The Elementary school my kids attended in England had a list of rules. They didn't just list the things that the children should not do; they gave them a list of proper behavior. They understood that it isn’t enough to tell kids not to do something; you have to teach them what is right. The rules were as follows: “Do be gentle - Don’t hurt anybody; Do be kind, helpful and respectful - Don’t hurt people’s feelings; Do listen - Don’t interrupt or ignore directions; Do work hard - Don’t waste your time or other people’s time; Do look after property - Don’t waste or damage it; Do be honest - Don’t cover up the truth.” Do you see how it is better to give a positive for a child to follow rather than just a negative command?
Martin Luther understood the power of positive teaching. Martin Luther does not just teach us the “Thou shall nots” as found in the Ten Commandments; he shows us how to live rightly in those laws in a positive way that helps our neighbor.
There were two tables of the Ten Commandments. The first table refers to the laws about how we should live in relation to God. The second table deals with our relationships with other people. Luther began the explanation of each of the Ten Commandments with the words “We are to fear and love God” because our relationships with one another begin and end in our relationship with God. The connection to Him gives us the strength to do what is right and good. It is a short path to disobedience when that connection is broken.
In the second table of commandments, Luther teaches that we are to fear and love God so that we do not harm others, but he takes it that step further, teaching us also to do what is good for their sake. In response to the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not murder,” Luther writes, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body but help and support him in every physical need.” It isn’t just about keeping our temper when we are angry, but about finding ways to make life better for those who cross our path.
Our lives as Christians are not just about being good, obeying the rules. They are about doing what is good and right and true. This means more than avoiding bad behavior; it means more than obeying the “Thou shall nots.” We are called as Christians to do good works. We do this not to receive a reward for our goodness, but as a response to the goodness of God.
The religious leaders in Jesus’ day had twisted God’s instructions into a set of rules that led them down a path away from God. In Leviticus, we are instructed to take care of the poor and the foreigner by ensuring that they receive a portion of the harvest. We should not steal, lie or swear. It is against God’s purpose for our lives to oppress our neighbors or cheat those who work for us. We should not take advantage of our neighbors, especially caring for those who are handicapped in some way whether physically or something else. We should not favor anyone, neither the poor nor the rich, but treat all people with justice and respect. We should not gossip or accuse an innocent neighbor.
The Leviticus text reminds us not to hate our neighbor. Hate, in the Jewish understanding, is not like it is defined in our world today. Hate now has an angry or violent connotation, but in Hebrew the word indicates a separation. Hatred was less about an intense confrontational emotion and more about making choices to avoid physical or emotional pain. We should not separate ourselves from our neighbor, which is what we do when we ignore the poor or gossip about our neighbors. We separate from our neighbors when we treat them with unrighteousness.
It is easy to talk about loving our neighbor. When Jesus asks us what the scriptures say about how to inherit eternal life, we easily say, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind;[a] and your neighbor as yourself.” But, like the lawyer, we want to justify our actions so we ask, “Who is my neighbor?”
There were people that the Jews should hate according to the Law as it was defined in Jesus’ day. There were people from whom the religiously “righteous” should be separated: the sick, foreigners, the grieving, and women at certain times of the month. This was especially true for the leaders; the rules set them apart to keep them clean, to make them right before God. If they touched someone who was unclean, then they could not do the work they were called to do.
The lawyer wanted to justify himself and he thought he knew who God deemed his neighbor. The lawyer knew the law and knew that the law separated God’s people from foreigners and other outcasts. Jesus’ parable shows us just how much they had twisted God’s instructions into a set of rules that did not fulfill the intent of His Law. Jesus told the story using extremes to make a point that could not be disregarded. He chose the characters on purpose: a priest, a Levite and a Samaritan. The requirements for the priest and Levite to remain active in their jobs made it impossible for them to do any good for the beaten man and the Samaritan was as far from acceptable as Jesus could get. Jesus’ point was not to lift up the Samaritan and make it seem as if he were the better man, but to show the lawyer that God sees not the sacrifices but the mercy we share with those in need.
With this parable Jesus answered the lawyer, telling him that our neighbor is the one who is in need, no matter what it might mean for us. The Samaritan was willing to give above and beyond the call of duty, even to the point of making a covenant with an innkeeper so that the man would be treated with mercy.
The priest and the Levite did not do anything wrong according to the Law. As a matter of fact, they were doing exactly what they believed was commanded in the Law. It may have even been difficult for them to pass, because I believe even the hardest hearts can have compassion. But, they had to remain clean; helping the beaten and dying man would deem them unacceptable to do their work in the Temple. They could not serve God. They did not pass by because they had no compassion. They passed by because they had interpreted God’s Law to mean that they could not risk their holy position and the people of Israel for the sake of one dying man. Though it is possible they were looking at the situation from a self-concerned point of view, they might have been thinking about the bigger picture. Mercy for the one would mean that they could not provide mercy for the masses.
It is hard sometimes to respond in the moment. Take, for instance, the people who stand on street corners begging for money. We all know at least some of them are cons. We've all seen the stories about these beggars leaving the scene in high dollar cars, driving to expensive homes. We’ve seen the reports that tell us that they are making an above average living by begging. Yet some are truly in need. How do we discern? How do we pick and choose those who will receive our kindness? We are meant to be generous, but also good stewards. How do we know?
We are studying the Didache in our Sunday school class. The Didache is the earliest Christian catechism, dated from before even the Gospels were written. The first chapter of the document talks about being generous, giving to even those who might never return the favor. The point is to give out of love for neighbor, not for the reward. The document goes on to warn those who would take charity who do not need it. They will face judgment. We are reminded that God will take care of it in the end. We might never see “justice” as we deem suitable for those who take advantage of us, but we can trust that even if we give to someone who abuses our goodness, God will make things right.
The chapter ends with this line: “Let your alms sweat in your hands until you know to whom you are giving.” We are to be extremely generous, even sacrificial with our gifts and resources without worrying. But we are also encouraged to be discerning. I have learned that even the homeless have “stuff.” They will have a backpack, a sleeping bag, a suitcase, a shopping cart. They will have something besides the garbage from a fast food place, a bottle of water, and a well used cardboard sign. I saw one man a few weeks ago, obviously homeless because he had a pile of “stuff” nearby. I gave him as much as I might have given four or five others begging on the street corner. I let my alms sweat in my hands until the day I felt the Holy Spirit nudge me to give.
How do we know? We pray, and listen. God will answer. He will give us the courage to do what we should do. The priest and the Levite did not listen for God’s voice; they were too busy listening to their interpretation of the Law. They missed the opportunity to live God’s commandments in a positive way.
Put yourself into the story. Are you the lawyer, the priest or the Levite? What lessons can you learn from what Jesus is saying? Is God calling you to do everything right according to the traditions and practices of your religion, keeping from those things that might make you ‘unclean’? Or is He calling you to go into the places you fear, to cross the boundaries that keep you safe? I don’t think Jesus is necessarily telling us that our religious practices and responsibilities are wrong, but that we should choose mercy over sacrifice. God had a purpose for those rituals and liturgy in the days of Moses, and He has a purpose for the rituals and liturgy today. We are encouraged, however, to realize that there is one commandment that is greater than all others: to love God and turn to Him with all your heart and all your soul.
What if you were the dying man? How would you want your neighbor to treat you? The Golden Rule is still golden: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
In the introduction to the Letter to the Christians in Colossae, Paul lifts up their faith. He reminds them of the Word they heard and the lessons they learned about God’s kingdom. They believed as he had taught them, but others had joined their community with a different understanding and were teaching another Gospel. False teachings had become part of the message they were sharing. Ritualistic requirements, mandatory self-denial, angel worship, diminution of Christ, special knowledge and reliance on human wisdom (both Jewish and Gnostic) were becoming the norm in the congregation. Paul was concerned that the message of Christ was being lost to the fallible human message that was being integrated into the Gospel.
Paul’s letter lifts up the faith of the people in Colossae, but not by thanking them for being faithful. He gives all the credit to the One who deserves it—God. He thanks God for their faith, their love and their hope. He prays that God will continue to fill them with knowledge of Christ and keep them worthy to walk with the Lord. He lifts up Christ, reminding the people of Colossae that He is supreme and that it is by Him, through Him and for Him that we are saved. It is keeping this in mind that we live as we are truly called to live, loving God and neighbor. As we humbly remember that it is not our works that bring the world to Christ, but Christ who has come to the world, we recognize the opportunities He offers to join in His work in the world.
There may be good reason to remain ‘clean’ to do the work we are called to do in the Church and the world. Some things are right to be avoided. But the story of the Good Samaritan encourages us to consider all that we do in terms of God’s grace, crossing the boundaries when God will be glorified by our boldness. Martin Luther once said, “Sin boldly.” We might want to use this to justify our sinfulness, but perhaps it would be more appropriate to look at it in light of our Gospel text. The whole quote is as follows, “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” When we are faced with an opportunity to do good that will cause us to do what is wrong, then we sin boldly, trusting that God’s forgiveness is able to overcome our failing.
The lawyer saw in Jesus’ lesson that the true neighbor is the one who loves boldly, even if it means stepping out of the expectations of our world. The priest and the Levite knew that it would be wrong to touch the wounded man, but Jesus showed the lawyer that it was more wrong not to step out in faith. Loving God means responding to those opportunities He lays before us. God isn’t far away. He isn’t in heaven or on the other side of the sea. He is in our mouths and in our hearts; from there, with our hands, He provides relief for those suffering in the world.
It is hard sometimes to respond in the moment. Take, for instance, the people who stand on street corners begging for money. We all know at least some of them are cons. We've all seen the stories about these beggars leaving the scene in high dollar cars, driving to expensive homes. We've seen the reports that tell us that they are earning an incredible living on those street corners. Yet some are truly in need. How do we discern? How do we pick and choose those who will receive our kindness? We are meant to be generous, but also good stewards. How do we know?
That's why Paul talks about praying for the people of Colossae. He's heard of their faith. He knows that they want to do what is right, to glorify God in their works. He knows they want to be good stewards and to be obedient to God's calling. Paul goes on, "...that you may walk worthily of the Lord, to please him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to the might of his glory, for all endurance and perseverance with joy..." Joey is probably right: there is no selfless good deed because in the end, doing what is right according to God's Law will always lead us to joy.
As Christians we are called to lives of mercy. Mercy shows itself in many different ways. It shows itself in the way we deal with those who make us angry, with how we deal with difficult circumstances, with how to deal with our relationships. It is tempting to make God’s Law into a long list of specific rules we have to obey so that we will be perfect in our actions. It is tempting to keep ourselves separated from those whom we deem unclean even when they need help. It is tempting to justify our actions based on our understanding of the words on the page. But like Martin Luther, we need to look beyond the “thou shall nots” to the “thou shalls” so that mercy is given where it is needed.
We are called to humble ourselves before God, to dwell richly in God’s Word which fills us with the knowledge and wisdom which guides us on the right path. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, to go and do as the Good Samaritan, bearing fruit that meets needs of our neighbors. We are called to lives that do right not just by obeying the rules against bad behavior but by living in ways that will continually build our relationships with God and others. We are to fear and love God so that we will give Him thanks for the mercy and respond with joy.
Which pleased God in today’s story? Was it the priest and Levite who walked away from someone in need to keep themselves clean according to the Law? Or was it the Samaritan who sacrificed his time and his resources for the sake of someone in need? Our works will never save the world; Christ came to save us. But He saved us for a purpose, and that is to continue His work in the world. That means living like we love God and love our neighbor. It is not enough to say we do, our lives should manifest that love in tangible ways that make a difference in the lives of those we meet. That life will not only help our neighbor, but we’ll find that we are blessed by it.
The psalmist writes, “Blessed is he who considers the poor. Yahweh will deliver him in the day of evil.” We like the sound of that, but we know that it doesn’t mean that we will never suffer. We will get sick. We will be hurt by other people. We will experience hardship. God doesn’t promise that our life will be happy all the time. He promises we will be blessed.
I like the way The Message has translated the first few verses of this psalm. “Dignify those who are down on their luck; you’ll feel good—that’s what God does. God looks after us all, makes us robust with life—Lucky to be in the land, we’re free from enemy worries. Whenever we’re sick and in bed, God becomes our nurse, nurses us back to health.” I tend to shy away from the “warm fuzzies” of faith, but only because our feelings, good and bad, should never be our motivation. Our motivation is to glorify God. But the icing on the cake, so to speak, is that we do feel good when we help someone in need. We are blessed to be a blessing, and then we are blessed when we are a blessing.
The lawyer knew what it took to live as God intended human beings to live. He knew that all the laws were summarized in just two: love God and love neighbor. What he didn’t really want to know is that our neighbor is anyone who needs our help. He wanted to be able to offer good excuses for ignoring the needs of those neighbors who do not fit into his world. He wanted Jesus to justify his failure to respond with mercy and grace.
How many opportunities do we miss because we are caught up in our own selfish pursuits? How often do we justify our failure because we think that helping will make us unable to serve God as we think is right? Do we walk to the other side of the street because we are afraid of being made unclean, even though God has provided us an opportunity to show mercy despite the cost? We shouldn’t ignore those opportunities, in them we will find great blessing.
The lawyer seemed to understand and Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” This is the godly life we are called to lead: humble before God and merciful to our neighbor. This is the life that is lived doing what is right according to God’s Word, trusting that God is faithful even though perfection in our lives is impossible. We might have to get our hands dirty, or cross the road to reach out to others. We might have to trust a stranger will return to repay the debts we acquire taking care of their business. We might have to tell others what it means to love God and neighbor. We might just be the one suffering, experiencing the grace of God through the mercy and love of others. Whoever we are in the story, and however we manage to get along in it, let us always remain humble, trusting that God will faithfully provide everything He has promised.
“To you, Yahweh, do I lift up my soul. My God, I have trusted in you. Don’t let me be shamed. Don’t let my enemies triumph over me. Yes, no one who waits for you shall be shamed. They shall be shamed who deal treacherously without cause. Show me your ways, Yahweh. Teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth, and teach me, For you are the God of my salvation, I wait for you all day long. Yahweh, remember your tender mercies and your loving kindness, for they are from old times. Don’t remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions. Remember me according to your loving kindness, for your goodness’ sake, Yahweh. Good and upright is Yahweh, therefore he will instruct sinners in the way. He will guide the humble in justice. He will teach the humble his way. All the paths of Yahweh are loving kindness and truth to such as keep his covenant and his testimonies.” Psalm 25:1-10, WEB
St. Gregory wrote about St. Benedict of Nursia, “He gave over his books and, forsaking his father's house and wealth, with his mind only to serve God, he sought for some place where he might achieve his holy purpose; and in this wisdom he departed, instructed with learned ignorance and furnished with unlearned wisdom.” Benedict was in his mid to late teens when he made the decision to leave his family and turn his back on the world for the sake of the kingdom of God.
After about seven years at the monastery his nurse accidentally broke a clay sieve and was devastated over the incident. It is said that Benedict prayed to comfort her and while he was praying the sieve was miraculously restored. This incident gave Benedict attention that he did not desire. He had opted to live a simple, quiet life of faith serving the God that he loved. The miracle brought notoriety and Benedict fled to a hermit-like existence at Subiaco.
Benedict established an enhanced a way of life for those who desired a closer and simpler walk with God at Subiaco. Benedictine life was not meant to separate adherents from the world, but was designed to put God in the middle of it all. The monks at Subiaco and at the other monasteries founded on the rule of St. Benedict worked with their hands and got dirty with the work of daily living. St. Benedict said, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul.”
Prayer at a Benedictine monastery came after work. Benedict believed that humility was the first and most important form of prayer, humility in recognizing God’s presence in the ordinary. Thus, a person who works with his hands knowing that God is present in the activity is praying. Public prayer is next in importance; corporate prayer was the center of the common life they lived together. Least in importance was private prayer and was dependent on the individual’s gifts. Benedict wrote, “If anyone wishes to pray in private, let him go quietly into the oratory and pray, not with a loud voice, but with tears and fervor of heart. Our prayer ought to be short and with purity of heart, except it be perchance prolonged by the inspiration of divine grace.” That was all he had to say about personal prayer, except that he believed it was a natural response to the observance of a godly life. A person who lived well in the everyday would easily grow in grace and maturity of faith.
As St. Benedict said in the rule of his order, prayer begins with humility, humbling ourselves before God and recognizing His presence in the ordinary. The psalmist for this week writes, “To you, Yahweh, do I lift up my soul.” The psalmist also writes, “He will guide the humble in justice. He will teach the humble his way.” This is the godly life we are called to lead: humble before God and merciful to our neighbor.
Benedict knew that the miraculous power of God was not something that should be used for his own benefit. He left when it seemed as though the people were focusing on him rather than Christ. He was afraid they might want to make him a saint, so he went to another place where he could live the simple life of faith working with his hands for the glory of God. His rule and the monastic order that bears his name continue to help the ordinary person, the average Christian like you and I, live a life that will glorify God and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.
The Benedictines did not separate themselves from the world in which they lived or reject the things of the flesh. They did not sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice. They did not try to solve the world’s problems in big or miraculous ways. They met the needs of those who crossed their path, giving of themselves as they saw the opportunity. They shared the love and mercy of Christ with those who were suffering in their world. They learned to live for one another, to love God and their neighbor with their whole hearts. Most of all, they lifted their souls to God, humbly His presence in every aspect of their lives.
“Some of the Sadducees came to him, those who deny that there is a resurrection. They asked him, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote to us that if a man’s brother dies having a wife, and he is childless, his brother should take the wife, and raise up children for his brother. There were therefore seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died childless. The second took her as wife, and he died childless. The third took her, and likewise the seven all left no children, and died. Afterward the woman also died. Therefore in the resurrection whose wife of them will she be? For the seven had her as a wife.’ Jesus said to them, ‘The children of this age marry, and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage. For they can’t die any more, for they are like the angels, and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed at the bush, when he called the Lord “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Now he is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all are alive to him.’” Luke 20:27-38 (ASV)
Everyone on Facebook knows what it is like to watch friends and families post articles or memes with which we agree and disagree. We all have some friend who reposts everything from that political commentator that they love that drives you crazy. It is fascinating, though, when they post something with which we agree. We wonder how they could possibly post it, and we realize that we don’t always disagree with everything they think. I don’t know about you, but I am very careful about how I respond to the posts, both those with which we agree and those with which we disagree. Clicking the “like” button can give others a false impression of our ideology. After all, even one click can make strangers assume something about you that is not true.
This is a lesson I learned when I was hanging out in Christian online chat rooms. I became very careful about saying “Amen” when someone said something with which I agreed, unless I truly knew where they stood on the issues. I have, more than once, been grouped with people who’ve said something with which I have agreed, only to find later that their entire belief system is far from my own. I have found myself engaged in debate with people based simply on the assumption that I am like that other person in all my thoughts. Even the one with whom I agreed sees me as an ally until we find some disagreement.
When Jesus was ministering in Jerusalem, the teachers of the law, the priests and other Jewish authorities were desperate to find a way to stop Jesus. He was getting the people worked up about God and faith. It was not necessarily that Jesus was disagreeing about everything they taught, but he was making the crowds anxious and there was a constant threat of a mob. The Jewish authorities had a good working relationship with Rome and any sort of civil unrest would cause the Romans to take away some of the freedoms they allowed the Jews. They tried to trick Jesus, to make Him say things that would cause Him trouble with the crowds or with the Romans so that He would go away. Sometimes they were surprised by His answers.
The Pharisees were thrilled with his answer about resurrection because they believed in life after death. The Sadducees did not believe in eternal life, and their question was meant to show the ridiculousness of the concept. How could a man be married seven times in that afterlife? Jesus proved through scripture that there is indeed an afterlife, but He also showed that their imaginings about the resurrection are wrong. It won’t be a world like the one in which we live now.
I can almost see the Pharisees doing high fives after this answer. It made Jesus seem like he was one of them. “Way to go, Jesus, you got that right!” Yet, the next passage in Luke shows that Jesus is not a Pharisee. He addressed the crowd and said, “Beware of them, they like to look important but they don’t live the godly life.” Jesus refused to be identified with their ways just because they agreed on one thing. We should also be careful not to let outsiders assume we are something we are not. Speak the Gospel clearly so that there will be no misunderstanding and be careful to agree with the only One who has all truth: our Lord Jesus Christ.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? If you only greet your friends, what more do you do than others? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.’” Matthew 5:43-48, WEB
One of the favorite Texas fast food chains was recently sold to a large company from Chicago. This has caused much lamenting in the state. “How could they let a Yankee take over the company?” “What will happen to our beloved burgers?” There is an expectation that the food will somehow be different, that the much loved product will be harmed by foreign hands. If you read the conversations, there are some who adamantly insist they’ll never buy another burger. Others are willing to give the company a chance. Yet others do not think it will make a difference. There are some, even some Texans, who doing understand why anyone even cares. They don’t think those burgers are very good, anyway. “So and so is even better.” Them’s fightin’ words!
Of course, when it comes to certain products, people are extremely loyal. Those who prefer one soda wouldn’t be found with another type in their hand. Car lovers will battle over one brand or another, with jokes about how certain vehicles die the minute they leave the car lot. People will argue over which ice cream tastes best, which cola is most satisfying, which video game system offers the best graphics. Those who have a favorite are viciously loyal, even thinking that those who like the opposing brands are foolish, perhaps even enemies.
We do the same thing at times with our brethren of faith who disagree about issues of faith. The lengthy discussions often lead to challenges and battles, leaving people hurt. It is inevitable for one or another to call their opponent foolish, or even question their Christian faith. At times we look at brothers or sisters in Christ as our enemy.
Who is your enemy in this life? Is it someone who prefers a different kind of fast food? Is it a person at your workplace or neighborhood with whom you have butted heads? Do you get into tangles about politics or religion? Jesus tells us that the rain falls on us all. God, our Father, created us all and we should love everyone, including our enemy. The company from Chicago is not evil and they might make some positive things happen in the fast food chain. Those who are adamant about their brand, whether it is fast food or faith choices, should consider what their opinion is doing to their neighbors. Though you may disagree with someone, always treat him or her with kindness and respect, calmly sharing the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. It may seem impossible for us to be perfect in love, yet we can grow each day in Christ Jesus so that His love will be made perfect in us.
”For if I would desire to boast, I will not be foolish; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, so that no man may think more of me than that which he sees in me, or hears from me. By reason of the exceeding greatness of the revelations, that I should not be exalted excessively, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, that I should not be exalted excessively. Concerning this thing, I begged the Lord three times that it might depart from me. He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Most gladly therefore I will rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest on me.” 2 Corinthians 12:6-9, WEB
The last verse of yesterday’s text is a difficult one. Jesus said, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” This is an impossible expectation. I am not perfect. I could never be perfect. We may strive toward perfection every day, especially those of us who are being transformed by the grace and Spirit of God by faith, but we believers know we will never be perfect like our heavenly Father is perfect. We define perfection as being with any flaws, but even perfect “10’s” have some sort of deficiency. They may be hidden, or under the surface, but they are there. A gymnast who receives a perfect score will still critique their routine and know there is something that they need to do better the next time. What is the point of continuing if there is nowhere for us to grow?
The bible does not define perfection as we do. Jesus is not saying that we should be without flaws. He knows that we are imperfect; He knew that we were so imperfect that we’d need Him to make us right with our Father. This word which is translated “perfect” comes from a root word that speaks to making us complete, suggesting that there is nothing necessary to be fully developed. Jesus is not saying we should be without flaw, but that we should be full grown, mature in our faith. This, too, won’t happen in this life because we will always have somewhere to go and grow, and yet it is complete because we believe.
Paul reports that God comforted him with the truth that His grace is sufficient. “My power is made perfect in weakness.” The command by Jesus to become perfect is not a call to become a “ten” or accomplish a “ten,” but to allow God’s perfection to shine through our lives. Paul certainly had reason to boast; according to the expectations of the world, he was as good as you can get. Yet, Paul also knew that he was not perfect. As a matter of fact, he complained in this text of some thorn in his side. There are a lot of theories about what this thorn might have been. Was he ill? Did he have some sort of physical disability? Did he struggle with impatience and anger? Martin Luther and others have suggested that Paul was tempted by unbelief. Whatever it was, Paul was definitely not without flaw, but God promised that He would use Paul’s weakness to make him perfect.
God continues to do incredible things in the world today, touching His children personally and speaking to them of His love, mercy and grace. These experiences are not meant to put us on a pedestal, but to reveal Himself to us. Like Paul, we may have good reason to boast. God’s blessing is not something Paul was certainly chosen by God for a very special purpose. Yet, his blessedness carried a huge weight of responsibility. To balance Paul’s life and keep him from this dangerous arrogance, God have him something which would keep him humble. May we all learn from him and realize that God’s blessings are not something which are given to glorify our lives, but to bring us to our knees to worship Him. As we live in humility, God will continue to bless the world throughout lives.
There is no need for us to boast of our experiences, and though we should always strive to be the best we can be, we must remember that we will never be flawless. We need not fear, however, that we can’t obey Jesus’ command to be perfect, because His grace is truly sufficient for us.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 21, 2019, Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 18:1-10a (10b-14); Psalm 27:(1-6) 7-14; Colossians 1:15-29; Luke 10:38-42
“One thing I have asked of Yahweh, that I will seek after, that I may dwell in Yahweh’s house all the days of my life, to see Yahweh’s beauty, and to inquire in his temple.” Psalm 27:4, WEB
I like to entertain. I like to plan and prepare for parties or smaller gatherings and I think I’m a pretty good hostess. No one leaves my home hungry; I usually have a refrigerator full of leftovers. They rarely leave empty-handed, as I usually have some sort of favor to give away and many are sent home with food. Overnight guests are greeted with a comfortable room and a vase full of fresh flowers. I go a little crazy getting things ready for my guests, but I try to do as much as possible before they arrive so that I can focus on them rather than on the task of serving them.
However, it is impossible to be ready for unexpected guests! I like to say that my door is always open, but I have to admit that my house isn’t always perfectly ready for guests. My floor usually needs to be vacuumed and the furniture dusted. I doubt I could come up with a hearty snack. I certainly could not be as good a hostess and Abraham and Sarah would be to their unexpected guests. I would invite them to join us for dinner, but I have to admit that sometimes I even forget to offer my unexpected guests a drink. It was second nature to the people in Abraham’s day. Abraham and Sarah were semi-nomadic; they lived in temporary dwellings and moved with their livestock. They didn’t stay in one place for very long.
Hospitality was vital in their world. The roads were dangerous, and there was not a McDonalds on every corner. Some travelers might go for days without access to fresh water or food. The nomads or semi-nomads settled, even briefly, in places where good water was available to take care of their own needs and the needs of their animals. Travelers passing by were always welcome into the camps, and they were received with grace and hospitality.
Hospitality was the cultural norm of the day, but Abraham was more than hospitable. He was willingly and willfully humble before his guests, extremely generous with his resources and patient with their visit. Abraham was a man of great wealth, power and authority despite his nomadic existence. After all, kings honored him. He had servants and herds so large that even when divided they were vast. Yet, when strangers came to his tent, Abraham ran to greet them, bowing down before them to honor their presence at his tent. He invited them to rest and to wash their feet. Then he ran to prepare a feast, first asking Sarah to use the finest supplies to make bread and then choosing a fine calf to roast. This meal must have taken hours to prepare. Then, as they ate, Abraham stood nearby, as if waiting to serve their every need with just a word. Abraham would not let the men leave until he served them a meal.
The passage begins, “Yahweh appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day.” Abraham recognized the LORD and gave Him the honor and attention He was due.
Where was Sarah? Sarah was quite so grace-filled. She worked hard to prepare the meal that Abraham served his guests, but she didn’t even greet them. Abraham and Sarah were old even by our standards today. She was probably tired and depressed; she thought she had nothing to show for her life. She had no children, no grandchildren. She had a strained relationship with Hagar and Ishmael’s presence was a constant reminder of her failure. She had no reason to be happy. She worried that she was to blame for her troubles. She had no hope. How could she ever show her face to the world? It is no wonder she hid in the tent staying busy with the meal.
She did overhear their conversation, though. Sarah was around eighty-nine years old when the three men came to their camp. She was eighty-nine years old when a twenty-five year old promise was renewed, a promise that was already past hope the first time it was given. Yet, these men told Abraham and Sarah that the promise would finally be fulfilled within a year. They would be ninety and a hundred years old. How could they possibly parent a child at such a great age? How could they live long enough to see that child become a man, find a wife and have children? How would they ever experience the joys of being grandparents?
Abraham believed. Sarah laughed.
Sarah laughed within herself when she heard the promise given. I think I would, too. It wasn’t a hearty, joyful laugh. It was a laugh of cynicism; the promise was ridiculous. Even if her failed and failing body could finally bear a child, how could she ever really be a mother? How would she have the energy to keep up with a toddler? How would she live long enough to see him grown? She laughed within herself because it was too late. How could she ever enjoy being a mother at this late age?
Who were these men who would speak such ridiculous words to a tired old woman?
It was almost cruel for the men to say such things, to respond to her hospitality with teasing. She was so caught off guard by the LORD’s Word that she even denied laughing. God’s Word is not cruel, but it doesn’t always make sense, and so we often receive it with skepticism and doubt. Sarah’s pain was so deep that she could not see that that Lord had come to reveal that His promise would be fulfilled within the year. she would see the promise of children fulfilled within the year. It was unbelievable; she let go of the promise long before that day. Abraham honored the Lord with humble service; Sarah received the LORD with uncertainty and fear.
The juxtaposition of the Abraham story and the Martha story in today’s lectionary is interesting. Abraham is lifted up for being a servant to his guests in the Old Testament lesson. He is praised for honoring those strangers with a place to rest and a meal fit for a king. He jumped to his feet when he saw the visitors, offering them hospitality. He stood nearby as they ate, as if waiting to meet their every desire. Isn’t that what Martha was doing? Wasn’t she trying to provide the best hospitality to their friend and teacher, trying to meet His every need? What is the difference between the story of Abraham and the story of Martha? Why is service seemingly approved in one text and disapproved in the other?
The problem was not that Martha was actively serving Jesus and the disciples. The problem was that she was worried. She was so concerned about doing everything right, making everything perfect that she missed being in the presence of their Lord. Sarah and Martha were both distracted by the cares of the world and they did not see the LORD who was in their midst.
Martha received Jesus in much the same manner as Sarah. She hid in the kitchen, busy with the work of serving Jesus and the disciples. Their busy-ness was different: Sarah was uncertain and fearful, Martha was worried and distracted.
Martha thought that Jesus needed her. Yes, Jesus honors our gifts and our works, but Martha forgot that Jesus can feed thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. Martha forgot that Jesus has the living water that quenches our real thirst. Martha forgot that Jesus could cast out demons and make miraculous things happen with just His word. She focused on her works rather than on being in the presence of the Messiah. God does not come to us because He needs us. We need Him, so He comes to us to give us what we need.
Mary saw something different. She saw the source of joy and peace. She saw the teacher who would give her hope. She saw God’s grace, recognized her own need and received that which Jesus had to give. She saw the Messiah, and stopped for a moment to linger in His presence. Jesus would have honored Martha’s servant heart if she had not been so worried and distracted about her work. He honored Mary not because she was particularly prayerful or studious, but because she had her eyes on Him. Martha is focused on works, but Mary is focused on faith.
Every day we go out into the world in faith doing what God has called us to do: serve Him by loving our neighbor. However, sometimes our good works can become so self-centered because we think that we are the only ones who are doing anything. We set ourselves above those whom we are serving, acting as though the world would stop if we stopped. When we work with this attitude, however, we get burnt out and frustrated. We become distracted, forgetting that God does not need us to do these things, forgetting that He comes to us with gifts so that we will take His grace into the world for His glory.
God calls us to look to Him. The psalmist writes, “When you said, ‘Seek my face,’ my heart said to you, ‘I will seek your face, Yahweh.’” Mary chose the good part. That doesn’t make Mary better than Martha; it simply means that Mary has found peace in the presence of God. She has work to do, too, but she'll approach it without fear or worry because she’s spent time at the feet of Jesus and her eyes are on Him.
We believe in a God that is invisible and a Christ who is now beyond our grasp. We can’t see Him with our eyes or hear Him with our ears, and if we claim we can then people think we are crazy. We even doubt what we see and hear and struggle when things don’t go as we expect. Like Sarah, we lose faith because it seems like we have to wait so long for the fulfillment of God’s promises. We “see” God through our flesh and experiences. It is no wonder that so many people are atheist or agnostic. How can we be certain of something that we can’t see? How can we trust someone that is invisible?
Yet, God has revealed Himself to us. Paul writes, “He is the image of the invisible God...” Jesus is supreme. “For by him all things were created, in the heavens and on the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things are held together.”
When scientists first discovered the atom and were learning about the miniscule parts, they found that there is an unknown force that holds it all together. We see an atom drawn on a piece of paper with lines and walls and we think that’s how it really looks. Actually the atom just seems to ‘magically’ hold itself together. Scientists named that ‘magical force’ the “Colossians force” based on this passage. We would not exist without Christ; we certainly would not be saved or gifted for service in the Kingdom of God without Him. No matter what we do, it is only done by His power. He is the center of our life of faith and He holds it all together.
Paul writes, “He is the head of the body, the assembly, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.” Abraham gave his attention to the Lord He is our focus, the one thing we need wherever we go or whatever we do. With Him there is no reason for concern. With Christ comes a hope that reaches beyond the physical needs of our body. As we live in that hope, we are better able to discern the needs of those for whom we are sent to serve. There are indeed a great many people who need us and our gifts. Yet, we must remember at all times that God does not need us to do the work. He calls us to join with Him in humble service.
There is one thing that is needed: eyes that see the image of God in Christ Jesus. God has come to us. He has revealed Himself so that we might know and experience His grace. He is faithful and will fulfill His promises even when we have lost all hope. We can't chase after Him. We can't give Him anything He does not already have. He does not need us. He calls us to sit at His feet, to share His grace and to live in the hope that keeps us from ever being shaken.
This week’s lessons remind us to become more aware of the presence of God. We are encouraged to listen to His voice and to pay attention to His Word. Abraham received the LORD with humble faith and Mary sat at Jesus’ feet as He proclaimed the Gospel. God is not physically present for us, but we do have Him in our hearts and in the scriptures. We may have moments like Sarah and Martha, distracted by the cares of the world, but we should not worry or be afraid. God calls us to seek Him, that we might dwell in His house forever. As we live in faith and the hope of Christ, we will not be worried or fearful, but will go to do His work in joy and peace.
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to walk worthily of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and humility, with patience, bearing with one another in love; being eager to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you also were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in us all. But to each one of us was the grace given according to the measure of the gift of Christ.” Ephesians 4:1-7, WEB
Pastor Jack Hayford was once quoted as saying, “Yes, we are all a part of the whole body of Christ, but as Israel camped around the Tabernacle in tribes, so we need to, every once in a while, be with our tribe and accept the ministry given to our tribes.” The tribes of Israel began with the sons of Jacob. In Genesis 49, Jacob blessed his sons, a speech that defined the unique character and fate of each tribe. As the story of Israel unfolded in the Bible, we see these blessings fulfilled, most notably is the rule of Judah from whom “the scepter will not depart.”
Each tribe had a purpose and was given the gifts and personality to fulfill God’s will for them. Together, Israel was complete but in the later years, the nation was divided into two kingdoms and two kings. God’s people were attacked, exiled and dispersed, never to be whole again. The people turned from God, and were left with the consequences of their sin. However, God our Father is merciful and filled with such love that He sent our Lord Jesus Christ to draw His people back to Him. Jesus brought forgiveness and reconciliation that was not possible through the blood of animals sacrificed in the temple.
The Jews, in the days of Jesus, were looking for a worldly Messiah, a king who would reunite the Israelites and make them a whole nation once again. However, God’s intent had nothing to do with worldly rule. He desired His people to be reunited with Him, whole and holy as He created them to be. For this purpose, Jesus suffered death on the cross, taking upon Himself the sins of the whole world. He was the perfect sacrificial lamb. This was not enough to complete the redemptive process. God desired that we have more than just a life in this world forgiven of our sin. He wanted us to have a personal relationship with Him, not just for today but for eternity. So, our Lord Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and we are given the hope of eternal life by faith in Him. God our Father, who loves us with a love that is beyond our comprehension, binds us together by this gift.
The Israelites were bound together by the promise of God in the days of our forefathers. Christians are also bound together by a promise. Their promise was for the Promised Land, ours is eternal life. They had the hope that one day they would be one nation under God. Our hope is in Christ.
Each tribe of Israel was unique and God used their individuality for His Glory. Christians also have unique personalities and purposes, not only as individuals but also as churches and denominations. Will we follow the path of Israel and separate by choosing to follow earthly kings or will we rejoice together as we follow the King of Glory? Today, let us share in that one hope we all confess: the hope of eternal life in Christ. Be at peace with one another and bear with each other in love. Do all things for the glory of the One who loved you so much that He gave everything so that you might have every blessing He desires to give.
“If there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassion, make my joy full, by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doing nothing through rivalry or through conceit, but in humility, each counting others better than himself; each of you not just looking to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others. Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:1-11, WEB
One of the most popular advertising campaigns in the history of television was a song written for the Coca Cola Company. Many will remember humming along to the New Seekers as they sang about loving the world. “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. I’d like to buy the world a coke and keep it company.” This seems like an impossible ideal, especially as we watch the hate and violence that occurs around the world daily.
There is an interesting story behind the song. Coke gathered several people together to write the music when they decided to do a new compaign. Bill Backer, the creative director for the advertising agency, was on his way to London to meet with the song writers Billy Davis and Robert Cook. His plane was diverted because of fog and landed in Ireland. Conditions were uncomfortable and many of the passengers were angry with the disruption to their plans. The next morning, Bill joined the others in a coffee shop to wait for clearance. He noticed that many of the travelers that were irate the night before were laughing and telling stories over bottles of coke. He saw that there was more to the product than just a liquid to drink. Coke could draw people together, bring them through difficult times and give them something common even if they have many differences.
I grew up in the haven of a local church, of a flock of believers who agreed about many things. Our basic doctrine was the same, we enjoyed the same type of worship and we practiced our faith in much the same way. It was not that we were brainwashed or unable to think for ourselves. We had our disagreements, sometimes about the silliest things. However, in general we were of one mind and we lived together in harmony.
Imagine my shock when I got into a more ecumenical experience. There was a time when it became difficult for us to find a church home, so we attended a military chapel. The community of believers was made up of people from every point on the spectrum of Christianity. The disagreements about doctrine and practice were so immense that it was often as if we were from completely different religions. About the same time I became active with Internet conversations, both in chat rooms and via email. Many of the discussions became heated and angry. It was difficult to believe that we had anything in common. There was little harmony in those relationships.
The people on the airplane that was grounded in Ireland found something in common; the coke brought them together and they found some peace and joy in each other’s company. As I have grown older, I have realized the idea of a perfect church - a church where no one argues about anything - is an impossible ideal. We are unique individuals that have unique perspectives about issues that face our churches. Sometimes our arguments are about ridiculously small stuff and sometimes our disagreements are about important issues.
No matter what it is we are discussing, we are called to love one another. This was manifested at the church of my youth; the members loved one another despite the disagreements they had about the issues that faced our congregation. We run into difficulty when we hold ourselves higher than our brothers and sisters, when we consider ourselves wiser than anyone else.
Living in love, the love of Christ that binds us together, Paul encourages us to be of one mind. Does that mean we have to agree about every question? No, it means that we are to find a way to live in harmony in the foundation of the faith that we have in common. We have all confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord. Now we have to find a way to live together in love, according to His Word.
“But Mary was standing outside at the tomb weeping. So, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb, and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. They told her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’She said to them, ‘Because they have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, and didn’t know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?’She, supposing him to be the gardener, said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him, ‘Rabboni!’ which is to say, ‘Teacher!’ Jesus said to her, ‘Don’t hold me, for I haven’t yet ascended to my Father; but go to my brothers, and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had said these things to her.” John 20:11-18, WEB
We had a pastor once who was incredible at remembering people. I met him once, just as we were beginning a mission congregation, and he never forgot my name. The day we met was a bit chaotic, with lots of new faces. We barely spoke; there was too much going on. Yet, on the next occasion that we met, and every occasion thereafter, he remembered not only my name, but also where he met me.
I do not have this gift. I have to confess that it takes me a long time, and many meetings, for me to remember a person’s name. We had a surprise visitor at our Christmas party last December, and I have to confess that I could not place the face at first. I knew Diana and her husband when we lived in California. They were like family. Now, granted, we had not seen them for more than two decades and she was nowhere near where I would expect her to be on that day. She and her husband decided to drive 1800 miles to attend our party. I stood at the door, desperately trying to find her name. She looked familiar and I knew I should know her. I even thought that she must be someone from Bruce’s work that I’d met only a time or two. Bruce knew them immediately. It is terribly embarrassing, after all, knowledge of a person’s name shows how much you value that person’s identity.
I’d like to think that if I had been Mary, and if I had run into Jesus in the garden at the tomb, that I would have known immediately that it was Him. After all, Jesus was more than family to Mary and the disciples. He was their Lord. They were with Him constantly for several years. They loved Him. Yet, He was not where they expected Him to be. Did she recognize the two in the tomb as angels? Nothing was as it should be. The body was gone. There were strangers sitting in the place. When she turned away from the tomb the man appeared to be nothing but a gardener to her. We like to think we would have reacted differently than the disciples, but the reality is that we would not have recognized Him until He fully revealed Himself to us. We would not recognize Him until He called us by name.
I’m not sure we like that God knows our name. God the Father is too intimate an image. We have nowhere to run or hide from a God that knows every hair on our head and every thought in our heart. This is why false gods, including atheism, are so popular. It is much easier to live under the care of a being that will only bother you if you want something from them. The other gods can be ignored because they aren’t real, but we can feel spiritual when we call to them for help. Mary Magdalene knew the God that knew her name. He valued her even if the world did not.
Imagine how many people had heard Jesus speak in those three years He ministered in flesh. Mary was indeed one of His closest friends, but she was not terribly important to the story of His life. She was one among many who traveled with Jesus and learned from His teaching, though many in our world today try to make her more than she was to Jesus. Yet, her story is so much more powerful if we see her as one among many. After all, she was just a woman and even the disciples were unsure whether or not to believe her when she took the message of Jesus to them. In Mary we can see that Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, has a personal and intimate relationship with His people. He knew her name and He knows every one of our names. Though we are just one among many, we can rest in the knowledge that we are of value to the God of the universe. He loves and cares for every one of us, no matter who we are.
Today is the church festival honoring Mary Magdalene. As we look at her story we are given a midsummer glimpse of the Easter miracle when Jesus was raised from the dead. Even more so, we see the tender-loving relationship which Christ has with His people, each one made worthy to be an heir of the kingdom of God by His grace.
“Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king. Servants, be in subjection to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the wicked. For it is commendable if someone endures pain, suffering unjustly, because of conscience toward God. For what glory is it if, when you sin, you patiently endure beating? But if, when you do well, you patiently endure suffering, this is commendable with God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example, that you should follow his steps, who did not sin, ‘neither was deceit found in his mouth.’ Who, when he was cursed, didn’t curse back. When he suffered, didn’t threaten, but committed himself to him who judges righteously; who his own self bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live to righteousness; by whose stripes you were healed. For you were going astray like sheep; but now have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” 1 Peter 2:17-25, WEB
I was driving home the other day when I noticed a trio of motorcyclists traveling in the lane beside me. It was a city, two lane road, with a left turning lane in the middle. At one point, the third cyclist moved into the turning lane as if planning to turn into the side road. The other cyclists kept going. The third cyclist waved and then honked his horn, but the others just kept going. They went for nearly a mile when the one behind signaled the one in front and they moved into the turning lane at a shopping center. The other cyclist was still nowhere to be seen. I didn’t see what happened because I kept going on my way, but it seems those two had to turn around to go back as if they’d missed their turn. I don’t know exactly what happened, but my thought was that you can’t lead from behind.
You can’t follow from in front either. Have you ever been hiking or walking with someone and though you are ‘leading’ because you know the way, they walk faster and end up in front? They don’t see when it is time to turn; they don’t know where they are going, so they pass by the destination and have to turn around. People with children experience this all the time. The children know they should be following their parents, but they get excited and run off ahead. Then time is wasted gathering them so that the group can go where they meant to go.
Jesus says, “Follow me,” but sometimes we think we know better than He does where we should go. We try to follow from in front and we miss the turns where He wants us to go. Then we have to turn around. It is interesting to note that the word “repentance” means “to turn around.” Unfortunately, the path that Jesus calls us to take is not always what we want. It is frightening to think that He wants us to follow Him into a life of persecution and perhaps even martyrdom. We would rather the world love us, but we are reminded that the world did not love Him and He was perfect. Yet, despite the rejection, Jesus always loved and did what was right. He took upon Himself the sin of the world to set us free to be the kind of people that God created us to be.
He says, “Follow me.” While we can’t die for the sake of others, we can die to self and follow Him without wasting time as we try to go our own way. He knows what’s best, so let us truly follow, watching Him at all times so that we will not miss the turns in the road where He wants us to go. As Peter says, let us follow the Good Shepherd because He will take us where we will be blessed and a blessing to the world.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 28, 2019, Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 18:(17-19) 20-33; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:6-15 [16-19]; Luke 11:1-13
“I tell you, keep asking, and it will be given you. Keep seeking, and you will find. Keep knocking, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives. He who seeks finds. To him who knocks it will be opened.” Luke 11:9-10, WEB
An outcry is when an abused child or person finally reaches out for help; it is when they tell the truth about what is happening so that something will change. This is not how all abusers get caught. The abused is often too frightened to tell the truth, so it takes others in their lives to notice that something is not right. Unfortunately, most people don’t want to get involved. They don’t want to falsely accuse someone, or they don’t want to get caught up in the situation. Sometimes, however, the crime is so blatant that it is obvious. The crime itself cries out, demanding justice for the victims.
The Jews in Nazi Germany could not cry out, but the crimes against them certainly did. It took time, perhaps too much time, for people to realize that what was happening was not right. Many who survived that time are still hesitant to talk about it. We look back on the history today and wonder how it was able to go so far, but the attitudes still exist and as much as we deem it impossible, it could happen again. Though there was no outcry from the victims, God heard the cry of the Holocaust and will make all things right.
Last week we heard the beginning of this encounter between God and Abraham. After serving the LORD and the angels dinner, the Lord wondered if He should reveal to Abraham what was on His mind. He had heard the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah; He was going there to see firsthand the sins of the city. Their sins were great enough to warrant God’s attention, whether the cries came from victims or were simply too blatant to ignore. God revealed his plan to Abraham, inviting Abraham to intercede with God for the sake of the cities.
We wonder about this, after all, God is omni-everything. He knows, so why does He have to go to see? This is actually very comforting because we see that God is merciful. We see that He won’t destroy a city without ensuring that what He is doing is good, right and true. “I will know” He said; He makes decisions based on His knowledge, on His mercy, on His grace.
Unfortunately, we aren’t so gracious these days. We take the word of others without really looking at the situation fully. We hear gossip and we believe it. We take early reports on the news and we think they have all the information. By the time the whole story is revealed, we have made a decision to condemn someone even though they are not guilty. It is comforting to know that God is not going to believe an enemy without first seeing for Himself whether their cries are true. And we should consider His example as we listen to gossip and uninformed reports before we make a judgment.
Abraham knew that his nephew Lot was in that city, and though he has most likely heard the stories about Sodom and Gomorrah’s sinfulness, too, he also knew that there are at least a few people that did not deserve to be destroyed. “Will you consume the righteous with the wicked?”
There are unintended consequences that come with our prayers. We may have every reason to ask God to sweep away our enemies. We’ve been hurt; we have suffered. We know that God will take vengeance on those who harm His people. We want to ask Him to deal with them, and perhaps God will answer that prayer. However, we do not always know how our desires will impact others. Even our enemies have families. They have spouses and children. They have people who rely on them. They have daily responsibilities. They have debts that need to be paid. Wiping our enemies off the face of the earth might solve one problem, but how will it destroy the lives of innocents?
And so, we are cautioned when praying for justice to ask, “Will you consume the righteous with the wicked?” Abraham is not trying to make a deal with God, or test the waters, or brazenly diminish the need for justice. He wanted to understand the boundaries of God’s justice and the limits of His mercy. “Will you spare the cities for fifty? For forty? For thirty?” What impudence! God agreed that if there can be found even ten righteous men in the city, He would not destroy it.
However, ten were not found to be righteous. Only Lot, Lot’s wife and his daughters were found righteous. Even the sons-in-law, those promised to his daughters, thought that Lot was kidding when he predicted the destruction of the cities. He tried to get them to repent, to respond to God’s cry for justice. They refused and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were lost. However, God is forever merciful. Though He could not save the cities for the sake of the few, He did save the few before He destroyed the cities. God’s justice prevailed, but so did His mercy.
God heard his plea. We might be shocked at Abraham’s boldness. Yet, we have seen in this story that God is a friend to Abraham and that He has encouraged Abraham to become involved. God sought Abraham’s council. Abraham approached God humbly. He knew he was nothing. He knew he was just dust and ashes. But he knew God would listen. “Oh don’t let the Lord be angry, and I will speak just once more.” Unfortunately for Sodom and Gomorrah, the LORD did not find even ten righteous people in the cities. He helped Lot and his family escape and then sent the brimstone to burn it to the ground. In this story we see how God is willing to listen to our prayers and perhaps even change His mind if we are cheeky enough to ask.
Jesus told the disciples a parable in today’s Gospel text. “Imagine that visitors arrive at your door in the middle of the night and you have nothing to give them.” Remember last week that we learned how important it was to provide hospitality in those days? The people who were listening would have identified with this story. Jesus continued, “So, you go to your neighbor and knock on his door, begging for something to give your guests because you don’t even have a loaf of bread in your house.” He told them that even though the neighbor would not get up to give you a loaf of bread because you are his friend, he would do so because you are cheeky enough to interrupt his sleep.
In this Jesus is saying, “Go ahead. Be cheeky. Call God Daddy and seek His grace. It’s ok. God will answer the door.”
While we might not have the opportunity or need to pray for the deliverance of cities, God calls us into a relationship with Himself, inviting us to intercede for those whom His mercy is the only salvation. We can boldly approach God with the question of where to draw the line between justice and mercy. We will discover that God knew all along the state of those for whom justice has been promised. It might seem shocking that justice would include the destruction of two cities and all the people within, including children, animals and others who may be innocent. Yet, we do not know what God knows or see all that God sees. Sometimes mercy means ending the self-destruction of wickedness.
As we continue through this Pentecost season, learning what it means to follow Jesus, we are reminded that prayer is a vital part of our relationship with God.
A 2014 Pew Forum survey suggests that we aren’t spending very much time in prayer. According to the survey, 24 percent of Americans, whatever the religious affiliation, spend little or no time in prayer. The other 76 percent pray at least monthly, with about 55 percent praying daily. You might think that the number is so low because the non-Christians weighted it heavily against prayer, but the reality is that Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics report only 55-59 percent pray daily. Evangelical Protestants are higher, with 79 percent praying daily. Historically Black Protestants are the highest among Christians with 80 percent praying daily. What is particularly interesting is that 39 percent of the unaffiliated (no religion) actually report praying at least monthly.
I began making prayer beads about fifteen years ago. I sell a few, but mostly use them as gifts. I have sent some to friends who learn they have cancer in the hope that they will find comfort in having something tangible to help them pray as they struggle with their dis-ease. It is a ministry for me, even when I’m selling them at a craft fair, because I take the opportunity to talk to my customers about prayer and their devotional life.
This ministry wasn’t received well the first time I took my beads to a church craft fair. Some of the ladies were offended by them. “We don’t do that.” “We don’t need those.” Despite coming from the same religious background, the ladies rejected me outright, not only refusing to buy the prayer beads, but also ignoring the other products I had for sale. They did not want to listen as I talked about ways to grow closer to God through prayer.
Those of us who pray regularly have out patterns and practices. Most families talk about prayer at dinner and bedtime. Many spend time praying as they drive their cars and do their dishes. Some people report that they pray all day long, constantly talking to the God who is always near. Wherever it happens, we use our prayer times to honor God with thanksgiving, to worship and praise Him for His faithfulness. We use that time to raise our needs and concerns to Him. This is good.
It is good to be prayerful throughout our day. God is always with us, so it makes sense to have conversations in those moments when our hands our moving but our mind is not engaged. Some of my best conversations with God have happened behind the wheel or at the kitchen sink. I have to admit that those prayers are often for safety, since it seems everyone on the roads these days are insane (I’m being a bit facetious!) but those are also quiet moments when I think about the world and my neighbor. I’m reminded of the sick every time I pass a hospital and about specific people when I see stores that sell things they like. I pray when I see emergency vehicles and school buses. A trip to the grocery store can be an awesome adventure in intercession as I see the needs of so many in the passing world. It is good to pray this way.
But is this enough? Is it enough to be in constant conversation with God, knowing that He is right beside us the whole way? While there are some people who find time away from the hustle and bustle of the world to spend time in quiet prayer and contemplation, most people pray on the go. We are too busy and we think that it is enough to recognize God’s daily presence in our lives and talk to Him as a friend who never leaves our side. We think it is ok to raise up a million prayers at the spur of every moment during our day. And yet, Jesus, who was God in flesh, managed to find time alone to pray. He knew He needed that time to focus solely and completely on the work of prayer. He knew that He had to stop doing so that He could not only speak to God, but also hear what God has to say. Why do we think we can pray any better than Jesus?
And here’s something else to consider. If it is enough to be in constant conversation with the God who walks with us, why did the disciples, who truly did constantly walk and talk with Immanuel, ask Him to “teach us to pray.” Jesus knew, and the disciples knew, that a powerful prayer life was more than conversation with a friend who is by our side. It is a time to stop, to worship, to praise, to thank, to intercede, to listen, and to contemplate God’s Word. We might be able to do all that at the kitchen sink or behind the wheel of our automobile, but is that really the kind of relationship we want to build with our Father? Doesn’t He deserve our undivided attention for at least a few minutes of our day?
And so we are encouraged to set aside time specifically for prayer. Make an appointment. Establish a place. Turn off any distractions. Use tools that help you keep focused. Prayer beads are just one type of tool that we can use during our prayer time to help us. I don’t know about you, but I have to admit that my mind often wanders when I’m praying. I begin focused and with a list of things I want to talk about with God, and I get a good start until I hear the ticking clock or the phone rings. I remember that I need to make a shopping list for later that afternoon and remind myself that I need to buy milk. I think about my kids and say a prayer for them, but then I think about how I haven’t heard from them in a few days. I hear a siren in the distance and I wonder what’s going on. That reminds me that I need to go to the post office. You see how it goes? Does any of this happen to you?
There may be no way of avoiding some of these mind wanderings, but we can use all the tools available to us to help keep us focused. It is said that the more of your body you get involved in any activity, the better you are able to focus and to retain what you’ve experienced. This is as true about prayer as it is any other activity. This is why prayer altars include candles and incense, beads, music, icons. Engaging all our senses helps us keep our focus on the task at hand: prayer.
And so, I encourage people to use something like prayer beads to enhance their prayer life. Of course, there are many who do not want to use such tools because they’ve seen others who have used them in a way that has no value. They become a crutch, the prayers become rote. That is not the fault of the beads; it is the person praying who must use these tools properly.
The Lord’s Prayer is another tool. Like the prayer beads, many refuse to use the prayer because it has become too familiar. “I’d rather speak to God from my heart.” They don’t want their prayers to be heartless. Sadly, the Lord’s Prayer can become rote. It can become heartless. It can become empty words without understanding. This, again, is not a problem with the words as Jesus taught us, but with our own focus and attention on the conversation.
It is a useful tool for us to use because Jesus is giving us the themes of our prayers. We begin with God, first recognizing Him and submitting ourselves to His will. We ask God for what we need, and in this Jesus reminds us that we do not need anything beyond today. We ask for forgiveness and then we commit ourselves to living as forgiven people. Forgiven people understand that our sins against God are far worse than anything anyone has done to us and if God can forgive our debts, then we certainly can forgive the debts of others. Finally, we ask God to give us the strength to avoid the temptations of this world.
If our prayer time is limited, then these words help us to focus our prayers on the things that truly matter. There are a million particulars that we can pray about, and God certainly wants us to ask, but Jesus teaches us to pray about the root of faithful living: praise and thanksgiving, supplication, confession and absolution, sanctification.
God is willing to listen to our prayers and has given us this prayer to help us develop a pattern of conversation with Him. Like Abraham, God reveals His plans to us and invites us to interceded with Him for the sake of others. We might even change His mind if we are cheeky enough to ask.
“I tell you, keep asking, and it will be given you. Keep seeking, and you will find. Keep knocking, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives. He who seeks finds. To him who knocks it will be opened.” There is great responsibility in this statement. Do we cry out against the sins of our neighbors knowing that God will deal with them? Or do we, like Abraham, consider those who may be destroyed and beg God for mercy on their behalf? If we use the Lord’s Prayer as the foundation of our prayer life, our prayers will be focused on doing what is good and right and true, not what will satisfy our fleshly desires.
God knows what is right. Jesus made one more point in the Gospel lesson. “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he won’t give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? Or if he asks for an egg, he won’t give him a scorpion, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” God has promised to give us good gifts; He will always give us what we need most.
The psalmist understands our need to pray without distraction. When we focus our hearts, minds and bodies on God, we are more likely to hear His voice and recognize with great joy the touch of His hand. We’ll learn to pray rightly so that we’ll ask His will not our own. It doesn’t matter what helps us focus; we will see and hear and experience Him fully as we use our senses, hearts and minds. The psalmist writes, “In the day that I called, you answered me. You encouraged me with strength in my soul.” With these words, the writer recognizes the incredible grace of God in this world. He does answer our prayers. He seeks to do the right thing. He searches the truth and accomplishes what is best for His Kingdom. He has taught us to ask, to be persistent, to be cheeky. He encourages us to seek and to knock and has promised that He’ll be there to open the door. He will, as the psalmist writes, “Yahweh will fulfill that which concerns me; your loving kindness, Yahweh, endures forever.” His love endures forever and He will complete His work in our lives.
“Your testimonies are wonderful, therefore my soul keeps them. The entrance of your words gives light. It gives understanding to the simple. I opened my mouth wide and panted, for I longed for your commandments. Turn to me, and have mercy on me, as you always do to those who love your name. Establish my footsteps in your word. Don’t let any iniquity have dominion over me. Redeem me from the oppression of man, so I will observe your precepts. Make your face shine on your servant. Teach me your statutes. Streams of tears run down my eyes, because they don’t observe your law.” Psalm 119:129-136, WEB
A television commercial showed a mother who was fanatical about every aspect of caring for her child. She would’t let anyone else hold the baby or do anything to help. Then she discovered a certain brand of diapers and willingly let go. The implication is that she was afraid the child’s diaper would leak, but once the child was well protected it was ok to let her go.
However, most mothers are that obsessive about their children for other reasons. This is particularly true with the first child. They sterilize everything. The temperature of food and drink, bathwater and even the air in every room must be perfect. The diaper bag is filled with extra clothes suitable for every situation. Mothers are often afraid of letting even experienced caregivers hold their children. Such a mother might hand over a child for a brief moment, but will hover close by and take him back immediately if there is any sign of discomfort from the child. She keeps a book on childcare close at hand and follows every rule to make sure she is doing everything perfectly. One of the reasons for this obsessive behavior is fear. She has been given an incredible gift: a new life to nurture. She doesn’t want anything to happen that might hurt her baby. Another reason is pride or arrogance because she thinks she is the only one who can do right by her child. Yet another reason is doubt. She thinks to herself, “I just can’t do this.”
By the time a second or third child is born, this obsessive behavior is long gone. The mother has realized that there is more to life than standing with a thermometer in the bathtub or washing sheets in just the right detergent. She doesn’t give up on the important things; the child is loved and cared for, given good food, a warm home, clean clothes and a comfortable bed. All that is missing is an obsession for rules.
The Jews in Jesus’ day had an obsession for rules. The books of Moses listed hundreds of specific laws: ceremonial, social, hygienic, agricultural, governmental and dietary. Each rule was to be obeyed perfectly. If someone sinned, there were consequences to be paid, sacrifices to be made. Though obedience is a good thing, for God’s laws were given for a reason, but the people became obsessed with the rules and lost sight of the Law.
Psalm 119 is the longest book of the bible, with one hundred and seventy six verses that speak about the writer’s love for God’s Law. It is filled with words such as statutes, decrees, precepts, commands and laws. It is easy to see how someone might get lost in the obsession of following the rules. The Jews lost sight of the purpose of God’s Word, which is to reveal God’s love and mercy to His people, and they made it a burden that no man could bear. They used the words to make outcasts of those who did not do as they expected and oppressed the common man with threats of punishment.
The new mother who is afraid, proud, arrogant or doubtful makes things far more difficult for herself and loses sight of what is really important, which is the love she gives to her child. As time passes, most mothers realize their mistakes and do things well without trying to be perfect. They quickly find that when they focus on love, everything is as it should be naturally. The same is true of God’s Word. When we remember His love and mercy, living according to His statutes, decrees, precepts, commands and laws is as natural as breathing the air.
“Not to us, Yahweh, not to us, but to your name give glory, for your loving kindness, and for your truth’s sake. Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God, now?’ But our God is in the heavens. He does whatever he pleases.” Psalm 115:1-3, WEB
A read a story about a doctor that served in the Vietnam war. He was only in theater for a month when he faced an incredible decision. There was a Huey that was working to evacuate the crew of chopper that had been shot down in the jungle. The Huey was stuck by a rocket and crash landed. One soldier was critically injured and rushed to the hospital. He was in terrible shape. His legs were mangled, one was barely hanging on by a thin thread of skin. His arms were broken and he was missing a finger. He was bleeding from his eye and brain trama. If circumstances had been different, he would have been set aside while the medical team worked on soldiers who were more likely to survive their injuries.
At the time, however, the team was not busy, so they were able to give the time and resources to save the soldier. The soldier was in extreme pain. Every doctor worked on their area of expertise, doing amputations, surgery and other medical procedures. It took eight hours, and the man was not close to being put back together. He was blind, missing body parts and ended up addicted to morphine because the pain was so extreme. He was sent home to undergo more surgeries and therapy, but he knew his former life was gone forever. It took months for the soldier to even try the simplest tasks, but after six months he realized that there was hope. He worked at rehabilitation and was released from the hospital thirteen months after he was injured.
The day after the doctors worked so hard to save the soldier in Vietnam, the doctor’s supervisor told him that the other doctors questioned the wisdom of saving a man who was in such terrible shape. He wondered, then, whether his actions had been a terrible mistake. What kind of life could that soldier live with so much damage to his body? It weighed on his mind for a long time. The soldier could have responded to his saved life the way Lieutenant Dan responded to Forrest Gump’s incredible actions. He was angry that he had to live the rest of his life damaged. However, the soldier in this story had a much different reaction. He recovered and learned how to live with his injuries. He got married and had children. He even went to college. Things weren’t always good; though he managed to overcome his physical injuries, he suffered from psychological issues.
The doctor never forgot the soldier he saved that day and often wondered about the soldier, but he didn’t do anything to discover what happened to him. One day he was interviewed by a journalist who asked if he ever made mistakes, and the doctor admitted that he still questioned the wisdom of his work on that day. Together the doctor and journalist worked to find the soldier. It took two years, but the soldier was willing to meet the doctor. They met and became good friends. The meeting led to the greatest healing for the soldier, who always wondered about the doctor who saved his life. He wanted to know the details that were lost in his memory, and hearing them helped him get beyond his past. The psychological issues declined dramatically. The doctor also found healing in knowing that despite the questions he’d had for more than twenty years, he had made the right decision that day in the hospital in Vietnam.
In the end, the doctor refused to take credit for the man’s life. “The older you get, the more you realize how little doctors contribute to patient outcome. The miracles of modern medicine usually are not man-made. Doctors are 5 percent. God and the patient are the rest.” There are lessons to be learned in this story, but I was most impressed when I read the doctor’s words. He worried and wondered for decades about the decisions he made that day in Vietnam, but he finally realized that whatever happened to the soldier, it was up to God. This story ended in a miracle, but all those soldiers whose lives did not turn out so well are in God’s hands, too.
We all probably second guess decisions we’ve made over our lives. Perhaps our choices have not been life or death like the doctor, but we should not spend our lives worrying over our mistakes. We can trust that God will make things right, even when we make mistakes. Most importantly, let us always remember to give God the glory when things turn out better than we expect.
“Where could I go from your Spirit? Or where could I flee from your presence? If I ascend up into heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, you are there! If I take the wings of the dawn, and settle in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there your hand will lead me, and your right hand will hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will overwhelm me; the light around me will be night’; even the darkness doesn’t hide from you, but the night shines as the day. The darkness is like light to you.” Psalm 139:7-12, WEB
I love to visit zoos and aquariums. I can spend hours watching the animals. I have often noticed how the animals have personalities, much like human beings. I see characteristics that remind me of people I know. I remember one exhibit I visited that was like a coral reef. The exhibit was a very large tank, with hundreds of different fish and many different corals. There was even a shark tank close-by, though the sharks were separated by a glass wall. Close up you could see the wonderful colors of each fish, identify them and see their habitat. A few steps in either direction gave a whole new habitat and group of fish, even though they were all in the same tank.
I briefly looked at the tank close-up, but then I moved to the seat against the far wall and I sat to watch the whole view. It was like watching rush hour in New York City. Schools of fish moved along paths in one direction, stopped and then moved in another. Individual fish went this way and that, somehow always fitting into the flow. Some fish were quite unusual, such as the one that just kept swimming in a circle, up and down, up and down, even upside down. Some were very dignified; others were playful. While I watched the whole tank, I realized that though there seemed to be a division between the different types of creatures they were really all dwelling in one world.
As I sat there watching, I thought about how God sees the world. He is most certainly a personal God, having intimate relationships with each of us. He knows our every thought, counts the hair on our head, but He also sees the world from a much broader perspective. He sees us as we interact with others. Are we like the fish that kept swimming in circles, unaware of the others around him? Are we like the ones who swim in schools? Are we like the individuals who swim in and out of the coral so that we are always safe? Are we like the ones who hover by the sharks, risking life on the edge of danger? Yet, no matter who we are, we are never far from our Maker.
God enjoys the relationships with His children, one on one. He gets up close and studies everything about us so that He knows us better than we know ourselves. He not only watches from the other side of the glass, but He gets right inside the tank with us. He also sees the world from a distance. He knows every interaction, every habitat and how we fit together. He sees the lonely, the scared, the tired and the weak. And He loves every one of us. We might never leave our little corner of the tank, but God knows there is someone in our world who needs His love. Perhaps He will call you to be the one to go forth and share the Good News.
There is a much bigger world than just what we see at any one moment, but God sees it all. He is so close that He knows my deepest thoughts, but He is also far enough away to see the world around me. This is such a comfort, because this means I can rest in the knowledge that God is in control.
“Therefore those who were scattered abroad went around preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and proclaimed to them the Christ. The multitudes listened with one accord to the things that were spoken by Philip, when they heard and saw the signs which he did. For unclean spirits came out of many of those who had them. They came out, crying with a loud voice. Many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed. There was great joy in that city.” Acts 8:4-8, WEB
A natural response for persecution is often to run away and hide. Whether we are embarrassed or afraid, we do not want to deal with someone who seems to hate us. However, we must be careful that we realize that negative experiences are not necessarily persecution. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.” If only more people today would say the same thing. To persecute means “to harass in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict; specifically: to cause to suffer because of belief.” It seems we are living in a time when everyone feels persecuted, even though most of that is little more than disagreement.
The Apostles work to do even though their lives were threatened daily. Their persecution came from several angles; the Jews and the Romans both feared the affects of faith in Jesus Christ. They were more powerful than the early church so the believers were scattered. Philip did not allow the persecution to stop him from doing God’s work in the world. He went out and preached the Gospel despite the threats to his own life. He was scattered like the rest, but he used that as an opportunity to share Christ with a new group of people. He even approached strangers. Later in the eighth chapter of Acts, we hear the story of Philip and the Ethiopian. On God’s word, Philip went into the desert to find an Ethiopian caravan. He approached the most important official in that group; this was a dangerous thing to do. In the end he was able to explain the prophesies of Isaiah as they related to Jesus Christ and the Ethiopian was saved.
We may perceive that we are being persecuted and scatter under fear or uncertainty, there is even a possibility that our perception is a justified response to what is happening in our own little corner of the world. There really is true persecution of faith in the world today. Should we run and hide because someone has threatened our faith? Or should we keep walking in faith, living the Gospel of Christ and sharing His love with the world?
The Apostles never wavered even as they were being stoned, beheaded, crucified or dragged through the streets, preaching the Gospel with their last breath. Philip was not concerned about what might happen; he went on preaching the Good News of Christ to the world and many were saved. What would have happened if they had remained silent? Where would we be today? Where will the future generations be if we do not preach the Gospel despite our own persecution? We can walk in faith knowing the God is with us even in the midst of the most horrifying experiences. Like Phillip and the Apostles, we can use every opportunity to live out our faith in a way that glorifies God.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 4, 2019, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-26; Psalm 100; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
“Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, and bless his name.” Psalm 100:4, WEB
We have three cats, which means dealing with the litter box is a constant challenge. It doesn’t help that the box is in a room that has (very old and ugly) carpeting. This means I can’t just sweep up the litter that escapes, I have to vacuum regularly. We keep the box on a large rubber pad, but I think the cats pretend they are playing golf with their balls in a sand trap at night because the little ends up everywhere. Unfortunately, when I do vacuum, it seems that within minutes the cats are spreading the litter again.
I grumble equally about tasks like the dishes and the laundry, which never seems to be done. I am sure you can think of a number of tasks that frustrate you and make you wonder why you bother to do them. The bed will be messed up, the grass will grow and the car will just get dirty again. We do these things because we know that it will be harder if we ignore. How much easier is it to do a couple loads of laundry rather than a day’s worth when we have nothing clean to wear? How much easier is it to do a handful of dishes than a whole sink full when we run out of clean glasses? The room would become terribly messy if I didn’t vacuum that kitty litter often. It seems pointless, but in the end it is better to do what we can at the moment rather than wait until it is unavoidable.
The text from Ecclesiastes doesn’t begin with much hope. “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher; ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’” In the NIV, the first verse is translated “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” It is so hard for us to think that everything we do has no meaning at all. We work many hours a day, week and month to accomplish our goals in life. We do it to feed our families and ensure that we have a nice place to live and a comfortable existence. We practice our hobbies so that we can be good at them. We read books to gain knowledge, follow the news to stay informed. We create friendships so that we will not be lonely, but will be happy and satisfied. We don’t think any of this is meaningless. It means something to us.
We are reminded by this text that everything comes to an end. We retire from our jobs and others take our place. Our families grow up, our children move to new places. Though we hope that they will retain some of the things we have given to them, they do not hold on to everything. Our traditions die because they create new traditions. Sometimes they see the world from a different point of view and they take a path we would not take. Our hobbies come and go as our interests change with the trends of the day. Our memories fade and knowledge changes as researchers find other possibilities. Even our friendships end as we move on to other places or people.
As we continue to listen to the teach, we see that he laments the fact that everything he has done in this life will be left behind to another when he passes into death. He does not know if his heirs will ever appreciate what they inherit or if they will even be good stewards of the gifts. He does not know if they will be wise men or fools. Like the teacher, when we die all that we have worked hard to accumulate will be beyond our grasp.
Some people try to take it with them. They have items that they want to have placed in their coffins. There is a joke about a man who made his wife promise to bury him with all his money. She made the promise, and at the funeral she walked to the coffin just as it was being closed and placed within it a cardboard box. A friend asked, “You didn’t really put all his money in that coffin?” She answered, “I made a promise and kept it. I collected all his money into my bank account and wrote him a check.” That’s one check that will never be cashed.
Think about the Egyptian practice of burying the pharaoh with a household of good things for his afterlife. Pets, servants, food and everything they would need were provided in their tomb for their journey as if it would be useful to their dead flesh. This practice was not limited to those with wealth, power and authority or only in Egypt. In many societies the common man was buried with important implements of their life. The farmer was given a plow, the doctor his tools. A grave of a Saxon warrior was unearthed in England while we lived there. He was buried with his horse and his sword. We benefit from these practices because we learn so much about the culture when we study what was buried with the dead, but they do nothing for the people after they have passed.
These practices are meaningless. What good are a dead horse and a sword for a dead man? The food in the pharaoh’s tomb spoiled, his earthly goods were stolen by grave robbers. The lives of the servants and pets were wasted. None of these things are eternal and even if those of those other faiths have a possibility of eternal life beyond the grave, the perishable will never become imperishable. We don’t need worldly goods when we die, so why do we chase after them while we are alive?
The teacher in Ecclesiastes asks what we are working so hard to accomplish. “For all his days are sorrows, and his travail is grief; yes, even in the night his heart takes no rest. This also is vanity.” We worry and rush about doing many things that are nothing but vanity. Again we ask, what is vanity? It is self-centeredness. It is focusing on the wrong things. It is making sure that we have everything we want, everything we think we need. It is a rushing after many things, hoarding of our blessings. It is like the man who saved all his money to take it into the grave.
Vanities of vanities, all is vanity. At times it seems like this is true. The passage seems without any hope at all. Yet, as we are reminded of the truth that our pursuits are meaningless in the greater scheme of things, we are also reminded that there is a greater scheme. We look beyond ourselves, our points of view, our passions and we see that there is hope. Though our toil is in vain, our days are full of pain and everything we do in this life will either pass away or be given to another generation to waste or ruin, our hope rests in something much greater than ourselves. In knowing, and living, this truth, we will see that His purposes and pursuits are not so meaningless.
Unfortunately, families are often broken because the members fight for worldly possessions that they feel belong to them for one reason or another. These cases are often very complicated because the wishes of the deceased were never properly documented or the papers were not legally acceptable. There was once a story about a famous heir. She had taken the wealth into which she was born and wasted it, chasing after worldly pleasures and abusing the advantages she had been given. Her troubles have been widely reported, with days’ worth of commentary about her actions and the consequences of her actions. She was even imprisoned for her crimes, illegal behavior that was a danger to herself and others. This is the way of life for many young ladies who have been given the benefit of great wealth and they are ruining their lives by chasing after their hedonistic obsessions. Unfortunately, the wealthy, young socialite learned that her behavior had yet another consequence; her inheritance was taken away from her and given to a charity that is more worthy to receive the money.
In modern times, an estate is normally divided equally between all the children in a family. However, in ancient times, the estate of a man was typically divided between his sons, with the eldest son receiving a double portion. This meant that in a family with two sons, the first born would be given two thirds of the estate and the younger just a third.
In the story from today’s Gospel, two brothers approached Jesus about an inheritance situation. This was not an unusual thing for them to do; the rabbis were authorized to judge cases like this. A man went to Jesus because he saw Him as a rabbi and he wanted an official verdict to their dispute. Jesus answered the brother, “Man, who made me a judge or an arbitrator over you?” Jesus was not interested in becoming involved with their dispute, but he did not leave the question open. He used the question as an opportunity to give the crowd a lesson in greed.
It might seem like no one should be happier than the man in today’s Gospel lesson. After all, he has so much grain that it won’t even fit in his barns. He decided to tear down the old barn and build a bigger one. And then he said, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years. Take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.” This is the mistake we make, thinking that our stuff is eternal. Our souls do not need bigger barns and higher piles of grain. Our souls do not need faster cars or bigger houses. Our souls do not even need water and bread. Our souls need God.
I think it is interesting that we see similar language in the verses from Ecclesiastes and Luke. Both talk about eating, drinking and being merry. The difference is that the teacher knows that his enjoyment comes from doing God’s work. The man thinks he deserves to eat and drink and be merry because of his own accomplishments. Which attitude leads to eternal life?
“But God said to him, ‘You foolish one, tonight your soul is required of you. The things which you have prepared—whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Here’s the hard part for us: our hard work and toil is not always outwardly selfish. Who among us hasn’t worked hard to make life better for our kids? We scrimp so that they can go to college. We pay for lessons and books and materials so that they can become all they have been created to be. We provide them with a place to live, food to eat and clothes for their backs. This is not selfish. We even save so that when we die, we can leave them with something that will make their lives easier. We buy insurance so that they will not be left with debts they cannot pay. We invest so that they will receive an inheritance. This is neither selfish nor self-centered.
I think it is interesting, though, that the man in the story is storing grain. He has more than he can possibly ever use. What will happen to that grain? Will it benefit his children if it is left inside a barn? Will it feed anyone if it becomes moldy or infested with insects? The man’s desire to keep all his grain in a barn was vanity because hoarding it would make it worthless. How much better is it to take the excess, which is a gift of God, and share it with others? Perhaps the man knows what he will do with that grain, but what will happen when he dies? Will his heirs know what to do with it? Will they use it properly? Or will it go to waste?
St. Basil the Great wrote about today’s Gospel lesson: “You who have wealth, recognize who has given you the gifts you have received. Consider yourself, who you are, what has been committed to your charge, from whom you have received it, why you have been preferred to most other people. You’re the servant of the good God, a steward on behalf of your fellow servants. Do not imagine that everything has been provided for your own stomach. Take decisions regarding your property as thought it belonged to another. Possessions give you pleasure for a short time, but then they will slip through your fingers and be gone, and you will be required to give an account of them.”
St. Basil talked about how the rich man in today’s text didn’t know what to do with all his stuff. He has so much from this harvest and previous harvests that he decided to build a bigger barn. And yet we are reminded that his life could be taken at any minute. What good is all that grain wasting away in a barn? And what will the next person do with it? How much better would it have been to give some of that grain to feed the hungry? The rich man was given excess not so that he could hoard it in bigger and better barns but so that he could provide for those who had less. If he recognized that his blessing came from God, belonged to someone else, he might have done something completely different with his excess.
Paul writes in our epistle lesson for today, “Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth.” The earthbound attitude is one of self-centeredness; when we chase after the things of this world we lose sight of the things that truly matter. We eat, drink and be merry, not in celebration of God’s grace, but in boastful merriment of our own accomplishments, building bigger barns to hold all our stuff.
Paul lists the ways our self-centeredness manifests in this world and it is not a pretty sight. He encourages us to put those attitudes away, to be the new creation we are in Christ Jesus and live for Him. He reminds us that we are not alone in this, that all those who believe, no matter who they are, become part of Christ and will share in His glory. Paul writes, “...and have put on the new man, who is being renewed in knowledge after the image of his Creator, where there can’t be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondservant, freeman; but Christ is all, and in all.” This is why we were created; this is our reason for life. Our time on earth might sometimes seem meaningless, but nothing done for God’s glory is ever in vain.
The fruit of our toil, when used solely for ourselves, is meaningless and vanity. Yet, money itself is not bad. When we are rich toward God, we give the fruit of our labor to honor Him. The same is true of our time and talents. The life lived well is the one that is lived for Him. “When Christ, our life, is revealed, then you will also be revealed with him in glory.” Instead of rushing through life filling our barns with grain that will eventually spoil, joy is found when we go forth in faith and do God’s work in the world. This is our purpose, the reason for our blessings.
“‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher; ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’” It doesn’t have to be. The life lived in praise and thanksgiving of God is the life that experiences true joy. The psalmist writes, “Shout for joy to Yahweh, all you lands! Serve Yahweh with gladness. Come before his presence with singing.” We all know that our work is not toil when we are doing something we love with an attitude of joy. So let us all praise God every moment of every day, living and working for His glory. This is not vanity or a striving after wind; it is a gift from God’s own hand.
The greatest blessings are those in which we see the hand of God working for our sake. God is active in our world today, continually creating and recreating the world for His glory. God manifests His love for us in tangible ways we can see and experience with joy. Sometimes the frustrations of life hang over us, threatening our peace and hope. Sometimes we think everything is meaningless.
I get frustrated by the continuous work necessary to keep my house clean and comfortable, but doing these tasks also gives me joy because I know they will benefit my family. The key to joy is to remember that our gifts and resources are not ours to keep, but have been given to us by God to be used for His glory. We are blessed to be a blessing. It is meaningless to build bigger barns to hold more grain when there is a world full of people who need to share in the excess that God has given to us. Using our money, time and talent to glorify ourselves is meaningless. Using our money, time and talents to glorify God is not. We have reason to rejoice; we have something to look forward to. After a life of faithful obedience, we will share in His glory forever.