Welcome to the July 2022 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 2022
July 1, 2022
“He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. He who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. Whoever gives one of these little ones just a cup of cold water to drink in the name of a disciple, most certainly I tell you, he will in no way lose his reward.” Matthew 10:40-42, WEB
When we look at the world, the troubles we face are overwhelming. How can we solve the big issues when we are just one small cog in a very big machine? We want to do something, but don’t even know where to start. How do we feed the world? How do we stop violence? How do we deal with hatred? We want the big answer and when we can’t come up with it, we stop trying. However, we live in a world with many people who can make a little difference, and with every little difference we get closer to the big solution.
If you have ever been to Germany, you know that they love their flowers. The beautiful hand painted or half-timbered homes are decorated with flower boxes. The gardens are filled with bright blossoms. Even the cities have beautifully designed beds of flowers in the squares and near the important tourist sites. You might expect that since they are trying to put on the prettiest face for their visitors. But there’s more to it than just window dressing. Those flowers serve a purpose, and they have taken that purpose one step further.
As we have all heard, the bees are disappearing. Now, bees might be pesty sometimes, but they are vital to the world in which we live. Without bees, we’d have no plants. Without plants, there would be no food for the mammals, including us. Without food for our cattle and other animals, we would struggle to feed the billions of people in the world. It may be hard to believe that bees keep us alive, but they do. This is the way that God designed the world: tiny creatures are as important as the bigger ones. Some might suggest that they are even more important.
There are those who think we have to do something big to solve the problem of the disappearing bees, but in Germany I saw how the small thing can make a big difference. I saw beehives in a church yard that was allowed to go wild. Along side the beautifully designed flower beds were others that were filled with a hodge podge of wildflowers, which are much better for the bees. One lawn was well groomed except for a few patches they let go wild. These may seem insignificant, but those little things are the very things that will truly make a difference. We can do the same. Instead of keeping our yards perfectly manicured, perhaps we should consider allowing one section to be overrun by weeds. After all, weeds are just wildflowers in the wrong place. And wildflowers are the very thing that gives life and purpose to the bees who help us to live.
We stopped for a drink while we were waiting for our next activity to begin and a been flew into my glass of cola. We have all had that happen at some point or another. I confess that in the past I have simply allowed those bees to drown in the liquid. What else was I to do? This time, however, I poured the cola into a nearby potted plant. I didn’t know if it would help, but I hoped it would give the bee a chance. A few minutes later, I noticed it was gone. One more bee was saved for another day.
There might be big solutions that will help with the big problems we face in our world today, but we have to remember that even Jesus pointed us to the small acts we can do to make a difference. Even a cup of water to a man who is thirsty can change his world.
“Jesus said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.’” Matthew 22:37-40, WEB
On October 31, 1517, a monk named Martin Luther posted a paper of ideas on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany that changed the world. Early in the twenty-first century, the nation of Germany began making plans for the five hundredth anniversary of that momentous occasion. They built museums and renovated many of the spaces where the events of the Reformation took place. We visited many of those places during our vacation to Germany.
I suppose you might wonder what this has to do with the special day we are celebrating in the United States. It is Independence Day, a day we party poolside with burgers and hotdogs and fireworks. The day is important because of our history as it celebrates our freedom from the oppression of an overbearing monarch, excessive taxes, and overreaching restrictions on the freedoms of the people. The founding fathers sacrificed much to ensure a successful beginning to the nation we have become.
Of course, the truth is that we are not a perfect nation. We have failed to live up to the standards defined in our founding documents. The stains of slavery, racism, greed, and hubris have made modern youth question the validity of everything for which those founding fathers stood. They reject the United States as it has become and have turned to other ideas about government and how we should live. They are right about some things, but I don’t believe that we should throw “the baby out with the bath water.”
In Worms, Germany, we saw several signs that have been placed near the places associated with the Reformation in that city. It was there that Martin Luther was called before the Imperial Diet (Assembly) in Worms to renounce his teachings, which he refused to do. To the accusation of heresy, Martin Luther replied, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.” In the end, Martin Luther was condemned as an outlaw and he lived the rest of his life under the threat of death sanctioned by the Edict of Worms.
For Luther, the Gospel was about freedom, but not freedom to do whatever we please. We are made free by the grace of God to stand for God’s Word no matter what risks we might face for our obedience. Two quotes on the signs speak to this. “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” We are free to be the people God created and redeemed us to be. This means living according to God’s Word, especially the two great commandments to love God and our neighbors.
The second sign said simply, “Freedom in Bondage”. This is strange language to our modern ears, particularly in the United States. Most of us would never think of ourselves in bondage because our definition suggests that we are slaves, with no control over our own lives. This idea of Martin Luther’s seems to be an oxymoron to us. Yet, it is truly the definition of a Christian life. We free to be bound by grace to others, our neighbors and our enemies. We are free to do what is best for them, and by doing what is best for others we make the world a better place. Isn’t that truly what the founding fathers meant by the American Dream? We desire a world where everyone has the chance to be the best they can be. If we don’t, we should, because it is in that world that everyone finds peace and joy.
This is the love which Jesus taught, a love that begins in our relationship with God and is shared with the world. This is what the United States was designed to be, and though we have failed over the years, we are called by our faith to dwell in the forgiveness of God and try again and again. It starts with each of us standing on God’s Word, living in obedience to God’s commands, free to be what He has created and redeemed us to be, bound by His love and grace to do what He calls us to do. It might mean sacrifice, but we will be blessed as we live as God has designed us to live.
“I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from Yahweh, who made heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to be moved. He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. Yahweh is your keeper. Yahweh is your shade on your right hand. The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. Yahweh will keep you from all evil. He will keep your soul. Yahweh will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time forward, and forever more.Psalm 121, WEB
Our vacation to Germany was somewhat a pilgrimage for me. I am a lifelong Lutheran and I have studied the life and work of Martin Luther for many years. I looked forward to walking in his footsteps, to seeing the places where he lived, preached, and stood firm on the Word of God. We saw so many places in a just a couple of weeks, moved from town to town in a coach. It is hard to believe that Martin Luther walked to all those places. A trip that took us just a few hours took him days or even weeks. He evenwalked a thousand kilometers from Erfurt to Rome during the winter over the Alps. It wasn’t an easy pilgrimage.
I have read some historical novels that described the travels of pilgrims, particularly travel to the Holy Land. It was unlikely in those days for a common family to go on a vacation like we took this year. They rarely went farther than a day’s walk, perhaps to the closest village or neighboring farms. Pilgrimages to holy sites were often given to the repentant to prove their faithfulness. We saw a silver piece in Regensburg which had been a sign purchased as a “souvenir” to prove that they made the trek. Some made the trip to prove their love for God or to make up for some horrific sin. Some religions still require pilgrimage at least once in the believer’s life though I imagine the look of those trips are much different today than they were a thousand years ago. Imagine what it was like to go on the road, on foot, with only a backpack to carry everything needed. Those pilgrimages might take months or even years; to do it would mean giving up the normal life. Some never returned home again.
Today’s psalm is the song of a pilgrim. Pilgrimages were difficult. I’ve taken enough road trips to know how much trouble you can expect as you travel. I’ve had to deal with blown tires, construction, traffic jams, being lost, horrible hotels, dirty restrooms. I could go on. Sometimes it is necessary to drive long distances in one day to get to the destination. No matter how exhausted and frustrated we might become, our journeys are always much easier than it was for the pilgrims in times past.
The pilgrims in David’s day would have had to travel on foot. There were few hotel rooms available along the path. The roads were dangerous. Thieves and murderers waited around every bend for the perfect victim. The heat of the day and the cold of the night made for difficult travel. No gas stations with mini marts could be found along the way to offer a cool drink or a restroom. The wilderness is filled with wildlife; stinging insects and hungry predators provided yet another danger to the traveler. It is no wonder that the pilgrims sought some comfort from their faith in God. He was not far; He was watching them along the way. He cared, not like Santa who looks for obedience to laws, but because He always wants the best for His people of faith.
There was an inscription above the door of one building in Regensburg. It said, “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in,” just as we hear in today’s Psalm. It is the promise of God’s presence for those who entered and left that place. For those who had to walk through wilderness under the freezing temperatures of winter or who faced criminals around every corner, such a psalm would offer hope and peace in the journey. We may not be subjected to the same dangers of the road, but it does not make our need for God any less than it was for them. Even if we never leave our home, we can rest in the knowledge that God will never slumber, that He will keep us and guide us through our daily walk.
Lectionary Scriptures for July 10, 2022, Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: Leviticus (18:1-5) 19:9-19; Psalm 41; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” Luke 10:37b, WEB
The Elementary school my children attended in England had a list of rules, but it included more than just the things they should not do. The list described proper behavior first. It isn’t enough to tell children not to do the wrong things, we have to teach them what is right. The rules were as follows: “Do be gentle - Don’t hurt anybody; Do be kind, helpful and respectful - Don’t hurt people’s feelings; Do listen - Don’t interrupt or ignore directions; Do work hard - Don’t waste your time or other people’s time; Do look after property - Don’t waste or damage it; Do be honest - Don’t cover up the truth.” Do you see how it is better to give a positive for a child to follow rather than just a negative command?
Martin Luther understood the power of positive teaching. In his small catechism, Martin Luther did not just teach the “Thou shall nots” as found in the Ten Commandments; he showed 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 taught 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 wrote, “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 we act with goodness as a response to the goodness of God.
Good deeds will often lead to some sort of reward. I have plaque and letters of thanks praising my volunteer work. Most volunteer organizations will tell you that your time and resources will be credited to you on job resumes or tax forms. Most good deeds certainly make us feel good in the end. We like to be appreciated. We are happy to help people; we are glad when their lives are made better.
There was an episode of friends in which Joey told Phoebe that there was no such thing as a selfless good deed. Phoebe spent the rest of the show trying to prove Joey wrong. She did good deeds she didn’t want to do, but Joey showed her how each of those good deeds were not really all that selfless. When she let a bee sting her to make him look good to the other bees, Joey reminded her that the bee died after losing its stinger. When she called to make a donation to PBS, which she hated so it didn’t make her happy to donate, her donation gave Joey airtime which made her happy. In the end, she could not prove Joey wrong.
It was a funny show, but it doesn’t really matter if a good deed is selfless or not. That doesn’t mean we should only be doing good deeds that we do for our own benefit that just happen to benefit others. A selfish good deed might be that check we write at 11:59 on December 31st so that we can take it off our taxes, or that donation we give so that a building will be constructed in our honor. It is ok that these good deeds happen. It is ok that a good deed makes us feel good. As a matter of fact, serving God by serving our neighbors is meant to be a source of great joy for us. The question is more about motivation. Why are we doing these things?
What God wants from us is a natural response to His grace. He wants us to see the world through His eyes and to respond as He would respond. That’s what the Good Samaritan did. He didn’t think about whether his good deed would earn him anything, he was actually rather anonymous in this story. Yet, I suspect he walked out of that inn whistling a happy tune with a bounce in his step. Responding to God’s grace gives us a joy we can’t win or earn or claim for ourselves.
We know we can’t keep all God’s Law perfectly; this is why Jesus came for us in the first place. God’s grace is greater than our failure and the Good News is that He has provided for our forgiveness. Yet, we are given both Law and Gospel for a reason, and it is good to read texts that teach us about God’s commandments. The commands which we see in today’s Old Testament text have everything to do with loving our neighbor, and there’s no doubt that Jesus expected the same 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. And according to His Word. Sadly, the religious leaders in Jesus’ day had twisted God’s Word into a set of rules that led them down a path further from God rather than closer to Him.
In Leviticus, we are instructed to take care of the poor and the foreigner by ensuring that they receive a portion of the harvest. We should not steal, lie or swear. It is against God’s purpose for our life to oppress our neighbor or cheat those who work for us. We should not take advantage of our neighbors, especially caring for those who are handicapped in some way whether physically or something else. We should not favor anyone, neither the poor nor the rich, but treat all people with justice and respect. We should not gossip or accuse an innocent neighbor.
The Leviticus text reminds us not to hate our neighbor. Hate, in the Jewish understanding, is not like it is defined in our world today. Hate has an angry or violent connotation, but in Hebrew the word means something perhaps even stronger. We should not separate ourselves from our neighbor, which is what we do when we ignore the poor or gossip about our neighbors. We separate from our neighbors when we treat them with unrighteousness.
It is easy to talk about loving our neighbor, but I’m not sure it is quite so easy to live according to our words. 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; and your neighbor as yourself.” But, like the lawyer, we want to justify our actions and 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.
Jesus answered the lawyer, so He used this parable to describe that our neighbors are anyone 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 make 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 know at least some of them are cons. We’ve seen the news reports 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?
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, ignoring a neighbor in need. They missed the opportunity to live God’s commandments in a positive way.
That’s why Paul talked about praying for the people of Colossae. He’s heard of their faith. He knew that they wanted to do what is right, to glorify God in their works. He knew they wanted to be good stewards and to be obedient to God’s Word. Paul wrote, “...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 Word 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 easier 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 because we know what is expected of us. It is tempting to use those rules keep ourselves separated from those that don’t fit into our idea of neighbor. It is tempting to justify our actions based on our interpretation. But like Martin Luther, we need to look beyond the "thou shall nots" to the “thou shalls” so that mercy is given where it is needed.
The greatest example of the Good Samaritan is, of course, Jesus Christ. We are the ones who have been beaten and robbed, left on the side of the road to die. Our enemy is sin and the devil, but Jesus is willing to sacrifice everything to make us well. Unfortunately, we are not only those who are left on the side of the road. We are also those who pass by those in need. We ignore the needs of our neighbors.
The lesson we learn from the Good Samaritan is that we are called to see the needs of those whom God has set before us, recognizing His presence in the pain and suffering in this world. The service we are called to render may not be special. It may not be big. It may not change the world. However, as we remain humble, dwelling in His love and mercy, obedience to His commands comes naturally and His mercy overflows into the world in which we live. We do it because He did it for us first. It is in our response to God’s grace and Jesus’ willing sacrifice that lives are changed. The work that needs to be done might seem overwhelming, but we are called to take care of one person at a time.
We are called to humble ourselves before God, to dwell richly in God’s Word which fills our hearts and the knowledge and wisdom which guides us on the right path. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, to go and do as the Good Samaritan, bearing fruit that meets needs of our neighbors. We are called to lives that do right not just by obeying the rules against bad behavior but by living in ways that will continually build our relationships with God and others. We are to fear and love God so that we will give Him thanks for the mercy and respond with joy.
In the introduction to the Letter to the Christians in Colossae, Paul lifted up their faith. He reminded 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 lifted 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 thanked God for their faith, their love and their hope. He prayed that God would continue to fill them with knowledge of Christ and keep them worthy to walk with the Lord. He lifted 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.
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.
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.
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. We may be the one left to die at the side of the road. God doesn’t promise that our life will be happy all the time. He promises we will be blessed. 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 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 for all the wrong reasons 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 trust that God will faithfully provide everything He has promised.
“Daniel answered, ‘Blessed be the name of God forever and ever; for wisdom and might are his. He changes the times and the seasons. He removes kings and sets up kings. He gives wisdom to the wise, and knowledge to those who have understanding. He reveals the deep and secret things. He knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him. I thank you and praise you, O God of my fathers, who have given me wisdom and might, and have now made known to me what we desired of you; for you have made known to us the king’s matter.’” Daniel 2:20-23, WEB
We took two river cruises during our trip to German: one on the Rhine, one on the Danube. They were equally beautiful but much different. We got on our boat on the Rhine in Bingen and ended in St. Goar. The two-hour cruise went by more castles than we could count. Some of them are still in use, but most are little more than ruins. The Rhine Gorge is known for wine production, so the hillsides were covered with vineyards. Every castle controlled a small section of the river in ages past. When it became difficult for families to keep their properties, they sold to others who thought they could make it work. Unfortunately, the care and upkeep of ancient stone castles is expensive, and most people give up the nearly impossible task.
In the beginning of the golden age of these vineyards, ever man was the king of his castle. Perhaps not literally, but everyone had some sort of title, even if it was self-given. Germany was not a unified nation, there were some rulers who had control over large regions, but even there many people and towns held independent control. This was evident even in the language; the German dialects across the nation were diverse even to the point of Germans from different regions could not even understand one another.
Martin Luther could be credited in part to the beginning of unification. When he translated the Bible into German, he knew he could not translate it verbatim into German because there was no standard German language, he followed the language of the chancellery of Saxony. This translation was so popular that it was instrumental in the development of one German language. Luther wanted everyone to read the scriptures on their own, so he insisted on “listening to what people say” in order to use expressions that meant something to the people. Like Shakespeare with English, Luther’s works helped bring together the many languages of Germany into one tongue that everyone could understand; it was a refined language that was eventually embraced by all Germans.
The call for unification became louder during the nineteenth century. Our second cruise was shorter than the first; it went from Regensburg to a monument called Walhalla, which is a hall of fame for honorable and prestigious politicians, sovereigns, scientists and artists of the German tongue. It was created at a time when German unification was being encouraged as a way to bring together the several hundred kingdoms, principalities, duchies, bishoprics, fiefdoms and independent cities and towns. Building began in 1830 and was complete in 1842. There are 130 busts and 64 plaques on display. The first bust to be included was of Martin Luther. Others have been added over the years including Otto von Bismarck, Richard Wagner, Ludwig van Beethoven, Albert Einstein, Johannes Brahms, and Sophie Scholl, a Munich student and activist who was executed by the Nazis. A plaque dedicated to the German resistance against the Nazis was added in 2003. Others will continue to be added as people of note are nominated and approved.
Three wars in the nineteenth century ultimately led to unification in 1871.
As I have been going through my photos from our vacation, I’ve realized that there are so many connections in unexpected ways. Who would have thought that those thousand-year-old wine “kingdoms” on the Rhine might lead to a nineteenth century memorial on the Danube? Along the way a monk named Martin Luther impacted the language of the nation, making it possible for these smaller kingdoms, principalities, duchies, bishoprics, fiefdoms and independent cities and towns to come together in ways they may never have expected.
Was it coincidence? Is it natural for a nation to develop in this way? Daniel tells us that God has control over the lives of men. He has His hand in our history. Human beings are imperfect, and we know from the continued history that the unification of Germany was not always a good thing, yet God was still able to make incredible things happen in and through the people. We may not remember the names of all those who held land along the Rhine, but the people honored in Walhalla had an impact on the world. It was by God’s grace that they had the gifts and opportunities to do what they did. Though we may not see the connections we have to those particular moments in history, we are still guided by the hand of God to impact our world we ways we may never expect.
“Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor that which is evil. Cling to that which is good. In love of the brothers be tenderly affectionate to one another; in honor preferring one another; not lagging in diligence; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; enduring in troubles; continuing steadfastly in prayer; contributing to the needs of the saints; given to hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless, and don't curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind one toward another. Don't set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Don't be wise in your own conceits. Repay no one evil for evil. Respect what is honorable in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as it is up to you, be at peace with all men. Don't seek revenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to God’s wrath. For it is written, ‘Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.’ Therefore ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing so, you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:9-21, WEB
Bill Murray is one of my favorite comedians. His movies such as “Groundhog Day,” “Caddyshack,” and “What About Bob,” always leaves me in stitches. His character Dr. Peter Venkman in the “Ghostbusters” is the perfect characterization of a paranormal researcher who is in it for all the wrong reasons. He chose ghost hunting because of the good grant money involved. He was always cynical but faced some of the most hysterical confrontations with slimy ectoplasmic ghosts. The Ghostbusters somehow managed to free the city of the all the bad vibes that was causing trouble among the people.
In one scene in the second movie, the guys discovered a river of ooze flowing below the streets of New York. As they studied this strange slime in their lab, they realized that it was affected by the emotions around it. They shouted at it or played happy music, and they noticed that it bubbled with anger or danced to the rhythm. This knowledge helped the Ghostbusters solve the mystery behind the overabundance of ghosts in the city. At the end, they led the people in singing happy songs to calm the evil in the ooze and to save the city from destruction.
People feed off each other's emotions. There's a saying, “When Momma ain’t happy, ain’t noone’s happy.” We find it at home, in school and at work. When someone is in a bad mood, they take it out on everyone else. Then the whole group ends up cranky and argumentative. But if someone shows love, with hugs and laughs, then the attitude of the whole group begins to turn around.
When things seem a little tense in your home, school, work or social media, just say a little prayer for the people and bring some joy to their lives. It is our responsibility as Christians to be Christ-like in our communities, serving God in all things, including our attitudes and emotions. It may take some careful choices about what we see, avoiding the temptations and putting forth words that are hard at the moment. When things are down, bring them up with a word about love, hope, peace, and joy! Smile and laugh in the midst of everything and share the gifts God has given you. Love, just as He first loved you, and that love will spread and calm the savage emotions that surround you.
“Moses said to God, ‘Behold, when I come to the children of Israel, and tell them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what should I tell them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM,’ and he said, ‘You shall tell the children of Israel this: “I AM has sent me to you.”’ God said moreover to Moses, ‘You shall tell the children of Israel this, “Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.”’ This is my name forever, and this is my memorial to all generations.” Exodus 3:13-15, WEB
Michael King, a pastor from Georgia made a trip of a lifetime: to Germany. While there, he was impressed by the impact of Martin Luther. I certain understand his response to the trip. I was already impressed with the life of Martin Luther, having read may books about and by the man. However, it is impossible to visit Germany and not see how much he touched the nation and the world. We followed Luther’s footsteps, so there was obviously museums and memorials in every town we visited. Michael King was so impressed that he changed his name and the name of his son, Martin Luther King. So much of what we know in today’s world was affected by Martin Luther, but who would have thought it affect even a man’s name? Even Martin Luther was named after another person, St. Martin of Tours.
In the play “Romeo and Juliet,” William Shakespeare wrote: “'Tis but thy name that is my enemy; thou art thyself, though not a Montague. What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man. O, be some other name! What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; so Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d, retain that dear perfection which he owes without that title. Romeo, doff thy name, and for that name which is no part of thee take all myself.”
Bill Bryson wrote a book called, “The mother tongue, English and how it got that way.” It is the story of the English language, how it came to be and why it is so odd. He wrote that it isn’t really as odd as we think it is, although we have all experienced the feeling that we have misspelled a word or that something just doesn’t look right, especially with names. Poor Zachary deals with this often, because we spell his nickname ‘Zack.’ Most people want to print ‘Zach’ because that’s how it is spelled in his full name. We create our own confusions.
I always have trouble typing Shakespeare. I want to add an extra ‘r,’ but as I’m typing I know that I’m doing it wrong. I’m learning to be better about this because my spell checker catches my mistake and corrects it for me, but I still think there should be two ‘r’s in the name. Interestingly, Mr. Bryson discusses this very issue; it is a problem for many. However, the problem is even worse than I expected: apparently even Shakespeare didn’t know how to spell his name.
Mr. Bryson wrote, “More than eighty spellings of Shakespeare’s name have been found, among them Shagspeare, Shakspere, and even Shakestaffe. Shakespeare himself did not spell the name the same way twice in any of his six known signatures and even spelled it two ways on one document, his will, which he signed Shakspere in one place and Shakspeare in another. Curiously, one spelling he never seemed to use himself was Shakespeare.” I guess a writer by any other name is still a classic!
Moses asked God, “What is your name?” God answered, “I AM THAT I AM.” Throughout the scriptures we discover a number of different names for God, each defining some aspect of the character and nature of God. He is Creator, Father, Redeemer and King. He is Jesus, Savior, Lamb and Lord of Lords. He is Comforter, Advocate, Counselor and Spirit. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Almighty, and the Good Shepherd. He is the Way, the Truth, the Light, the Bread, the Word, the Hope of Israel. He is Teacher, Rabbi, Rock, Righteousness, Refiner, and Refuge. I could go on with hundreds of words that can be used as the name of God. He isn’t named after another like Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, but He defines himself in many and various ways.
This is why He is “I AM THAT I AM” because He is all these things. He might not be all things to all people. He is sometimes all those things to some and only some of those things to others. He might be some of those names to you at different times of your life, in different situations. You’ll need a refuge one day, even if you don’t need Him as refuge today. You’ll need a teacher one day, even if you aren’t ready to learn today. He is what He is for us, named according to our needs. Do you need a gather? He is your Father. Do you need a friend? He is your friend. Do you need hope? He is Hope. He is everything you need, by whatever name you use. What’s in a name? His name is LORD, and He is that He is.
“Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison - that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” Colossians 4:2-6, WEB
One of the most fascinating things we saw during our adventures in Germany were the doors. That might seem like such a mundane thing, after all, we see and walk through doors every day of our lives. We even walk through some interesting doors. The entrance to a building provides a first impression, so businesses will often create a sense of welcome with their front door. Other businesses need the doorways, like in retail spaces, need to create a certain flow for people going in and out. Some doors are designed to make it easy for those who are carrying packages or for those who have mobility issues. Despite the special purpose and décor of our doors, most of us don’t really pay much attention.
During our tour of Germany, however, the doors stood out. Many of the buildings are hundreds of years old and great care was put into the entrances. Wooden doors were intricately carved, and the doorways included beautiful stonework. One door quoted Psalm 121:8a on the lintel: “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in.” One of our hotels, a sweet Bavarian Inn, had an entrance made of glass with brass decorations. That one was hard to photograph! Many of the doors are painted with bright colors, and I suppose that’s why I started noticing them. One door set in a gray stone building stood out because it was a bright, beautiful blue. Others were red. Some were green. Angels and animals were abundant as well as family crests. There were even a few with gargoyles, added to keep demons from inside.
Even the doors inside many of the buildings we visited were interesting. The old oak doors had hand wrought iron hinges and handles that had obviously been touched by many hands over the years. One door in Lutherhaus in Wittenberg has a chalk signature, graffiti from a visit by Peter the Great in October 1712. Doors often have cracks or holes left by insects which add character; some modern designers purposely distress new doors to make them look old. Some doors did not seem to have a purpose, like one at Neuschwanstein Castle. It was built high in the side of the castle wall with nothing outside. The first step out of the door was a doozy. The castle was meant to be larger and that door would have led to a new wing, but it was never built, but the door remained. Some of those ancient doors are no longer used, as new entrances have been built in those buildings, but they have remained because they remind us of the history and the beauty of those earlier people.
All those beautiful doors made me want to enter, to see what was hidden behind. We did go into many doors, like those at the churches and museums, but many were entrances into private homes or places where we did not have the time to visit. It was sometimes overwhelming because the doors were so large and heavy that they were difficult to open. Still, those open doors revealed stories and artifacts that took us back into the past, teaching us the lessons of faith, suffering, hope, sadness, joy, grief, repentance, compassion, peace, and many more that come from the people who dwelled or passed through those places.
Doors play an important role in our faith. The Psalmist often talks of waiting by the door for the coming of the King. Jesus says that He is the door through which we enter into heaven. He warns us that we enter through the narrow door. He told us to knock and the door would be opened for us. In today’s scripture Paul seeks prayer for the doors to be open for the preaching of the Good News of Christ. While we are to remember that the only door that truly matters is our Lord Jesus Christ, we are also to look at other doors as opportunities for mercy and grace, to share Christ with others, to invite them to enter into the greatest door, the door into eternal life through Jesus Christ.
Lectionary Scriptures for July 17, 2022, Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 18:1-10a; Psalm 27:(1-6) 7-14; Colossians 1:15-29; Luke 10:38-42
“When you said, ‘Seek my face,’ my heart said to you, ‘I will seek your face, Yahweh.’” Psalm 27:8, WEB
I have to confess: I was proud of myself during our trip to Germany. I’m not old, but my body has begun to feel the years and I was a little worried about the amount of walking we would have to do. We did walk a lot; I don’t wear one of those watches that counts the steps, but we walked miles some days and I did well. I kept up with the crowd, except when I lingered behind to take a few more pictures. The only day that was difficult was the day we visited Neuschwanstein Castle.
Though we took a bus partly up the hill to the castle, we still had to walk a bit to get to the entrance. Once inside, we climbed numerous flights of stairs, and then we climbed a few more. I have to admit that at one point my legs were shaky and my heart was pounding. I struggled each time we came to another flight, wondering if I could make it to the top. The climb down is always easier, but we went down far more stairs because they took us out a door at the base of the castle. At one point I wondered if they were going to abandon us in the dungeon. Eventually, after we passed through two gift shops, we came to the exit with relief. Then we had to walk down the hill to the town where our bus was parked. I was extremely happy to sit down and rest.
I have been trying to get healthier, and I suppose our trip shows that I have had some success. I am not yet a grandmother, but I think about the time when it will happen. Will I be able to keep up with grandchildren? Will I be able to chase them as they play? Will I be able to get down on the floor with a pile of Legos? All these things are harder for me to do today than when my own children were young.
Can you imagine what it must have been like for Sarah? I'm always taken by her statement, “After I have grown old will I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” This isn’t just about the process of giving birth. Sarah was around eighty-nine years old when the three visitors 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 when it was first given. Yet, these visitors told Abraham and Sarah that God would soon be faithful to that promise. 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 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 their 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 Old Testament 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.
Sarah overheard their conversation, and she 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?
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 prove His faithfulness. It was unbelievable; she let go of the promise long before that day.
Sarah laughed, but Abraham believed. Abraham honored the Lord with humble service; Sarah received the LORD with uncertainty and fear.
I wonder how many times we miss the opportunity to serve the Lord with joy and peace because we are so caught up in our own exhaustion, pain, depression, doubt, cynicism, expectations, fears, and sense of unworthiness.
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 visitors with a place to rest and a meal fit for a king. He jumped to his feet when he saw them to offer his 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?
I wonder if Mary and Martha knew that Jesus was coming or if He dropped in unexpectedly. Martha, like Abraham, set out to prepare a feast for her guests. Like Sarah, she was busy in the kitchen; she was trying to meet the physical needs of a large crowd. She knew it was her responsibility to provide hospitality to those who came through her door, and she went right to work. It was a daunting task; if you have ever tried to cook for more than a dozen people, you know that it is hectic and exhausting. There are a million things to do, and it all would get done so much better if there were more hands in the kitchen.
But Mary found a spot at the feet of Jesus, listening to His stories and learning about the Kingdom of God. I can identify with Martha; I have had my own martyr moments. That’s what I call those times when it seems like I’m doing all the work and everyone around me is ignoring my cries for help. What I don’t realize is that I don’t always ask for help. I get caught up in my aggravation and stress out over every little detail, convincing myself that if I don’t do it, it will never get done. At that point I have already convinced myself that it has to get done or the event won’t be perfect. That’s usually the problem: I put too much pressure on myself and worry about insignificant things. Like Martha, I forget that God provides in ways we might never expect.
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 perfect that she missed being in the presence of her Lord. 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. Sarah and Martha were both distracted by the cares of the world, and they did not see the LORD who was in their midst.
A few years ago, our pastor asked my daughter and I to help with the children’s sermon. We were supposed to be as much of a distraction as we could be. So, when he called the children up, we slipped into the front row. He asked the children to pay close attention to the story he was going to tell and then Vicki and I got started. I made a paper airplane which I threw toward the kids. Vicki and I discussed an article in our church magazine. I tore out a page, made a ball and threw it at the pastor. We called out to Zack who was the acolyte that day and who was trying to be as well behaved as possible. It is pretty hard when your mom and sister are being so silly.
We did our task well and the pastor finally had to stop telling the story and ask us to stop. Then he talked to the children about how distracted we can be by the things around us when we should be paying attention to more important things, like God’s word. When the service was over, several people suggested that perhaps I was having way too much fun being a distraction this morning, all in good humor of course.
It is really interesting that this Gospel passage is so short. It seems to me that we spend a great deal of time on this story, particularly in women’s studies. We always ask the same question: Are you a “Mary” or a “Martha”? And then spend our study time comparing the two women and their actions in this story. Conversations about this text inevitably end up commiserating with Martha.
We hostess types understand. We identify with her. We know that the work has to be done. I often hear, “What would those men say if there was no food for dinner?” We laugh and we always focus on the reality that Martha must work if they will eat. But what I have noticed in this text is that Jesus doesn’t tell her she shouldn’t feed them, but that she shouldn’t worry about so many things. After all, the scriptures show us that Jesus was happy to eat a few kernels of wheat walking through a field; He didn’t need a feast with ironed linens and favors. After all, He can do amazing things with a few loaves of bread and some fish.
And though we tend to focus on women when studying this scripture, men struggle with it too. Their focus might different, but many men miss spending time with the LORD because they are too busy with other things.
“Jesus answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the good part, which will not be taken away from her.’” Martha’s problem was not that she needs help getting everything done. She needs peace. We should never justify ignoring the needs of our guests, after all Abraham was ready at all moments to serve the three visitors. It is about setting priorities. Abraham kept his eyes on the LORD, Martha kept herself busy with the things she thought needed to be done. Martha was anxious and worried; Jesus welcomed her service but wanted her to enjoy being present with those in her home.
What Martha was doing was not a bad thing. She was taking care of her houseguests, meeting their physical needs. However, she was worried and distracted by the work so much so that she was focused on herself. She wanted everything to be perfect. She was concerned about the image that her family was portraying in front of Jesus. Mary appeared lazy. Without Mary’s help, the meal might not be satisfactory. She was afraid that Jesus would be disappointed. Her service was not centered on Jesus’ needs, even though she thought it did.
Martha thought that Jesus needed her. Yes, Jesus honors our gifts and our works, but Martha forgot that Jesus could feed thousands of people with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. Martha forgot that Jesus is the living water that quenches our true 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; this is what Jesus wanted her to see.
God does not come to us because He needs us. We need Him, so He comes to us to give us what we need. Martha’s service was self-centered, focused on her need to please and her fear of failure. It was not a humble approach to hospitality, but a demanding and vain attitude. Jesus did not berate her for making lunch or doing the work of hospitality. He told her to stop letting the distractions of this world make her miss out on the greater thing: being in God’s presence and hearing His Word.
Whenever we hear this story, we are tempted to think Jesus is lifting Mary above Martha and teaching us to be like her. The reality of this story, however, is not that we should spend all our time sitting at the feet of our Lord, but that we should not worry and fuss over the distractions that keep us from hearing Him. A balanced life of being Mary and Martha, a life of listening and doing, is the way Christ calls us to live. We can’t know God’s will if we don’t hear His voice, and once we hear His voice, we can’t help but go out and do His will.
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 was focused on works, but Mary was focused on faith.
God calls us to look to Him. The psalmist wrote, “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 had found peace in the presence of God. She had work to do, too, but she knew to approach it without fear or worry because she spent time at the feet of Jesus with her eyes 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 sometimes doubt what we see and hear, and we often 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 wrote, “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 magic 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 wrote, “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 worry or fear. 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. As we keep our eyes on Jesus, we realize that we don’t have to be perfect or to worry about failing. God does not need us to do this work, He calls us to join Him in humble service to those who will benefit from the gifts we have been given.
Sarah hid in the tent because she let go of hope and Martha busied herself because she forgot that all Jesus wanted was for her to believe. Neither trusted that God would provide everything they needed if only they believed. Abraham and Mary kept their eyes on the LORD and they dwelt in hope and peace.
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.
We don’t always know what to expect. God’s promises do not always come to us when we think they should. Sometimes He shows up in places and at times that surprise us. I may not be as young as I used to be, but I know that I will enjoy spending time with grandchildren when they come. They key will be to give them my best and remember that they are a gift from God to enjoy. Sarah did not know how she would be a mother, but Abraham trusted that God would ensure that they would have everything to need to accomplish His will for their son.
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 Good News. 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.
“The Lord is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation. The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tents of the righteous; the right hand of the Lord does valiantly. The right hand of the Lord is exalted; the right hand of the Lord does valiantly. I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord. The Lord has chastened me severely, but He has not given me over to death. Open to me the gates of righteousness; I will go through them, and I will praise the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord, through which the righteous shall enter. I will praise You, for You have answered me, and have become my salvation. The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” Psalm 118:14-24, WEB
Jasper Fforde is a writer who has a series of books that I really enjoy. The first book in the series was called “The Eyre Affair.” The genre is identified as comic fantasy, alternate history mystery novels. The author describes a parallel universe that revolves around literature; it is a silly story with bizarre plot twists and interesting literary references.
One of the main characters is a superhuman mastermind criminal who seems to be indestructible. He is involved with the theft of a rare first edition copy of Charles Dickens' “Martin Chuzzlewit” which has led to murder and mayhem. The main character, our heroine named Thursday Next, became involved with the investigation despite the fact that she is absolutely unqualified to be a hero. Her family is kidnapped, her friends are murdered and just to keep it light we see her face the humiliations of her past.
The criminal, Acheron Hades, says, “But you forgot murderer. Forty-two times a murderer, my friend. The first one is the always the hardest. After that it doesn’t really matter, they can only hang you once. It’s a bit like eating a packet of shortbread; you can never just have one piece.”
Sin begins small but builds, as it takes more and more to fulfill the desire, drawing us ever deeper into the sinful behavior. Take gambling, for instance. It usually begins rather innocently, a successful trip to a casino or a night of bingo catches our attention. It doesn’t hurt to buy just one lottery ticket and how fun it is to win! So, the gambler goes back to play again, certain that luck is on her side or that he is destined to get rich. So certain are they of their promise, they go back time and again, even when they lose, expecting the next trip will be the winner.
The consequences of sin are not too bad in the beginning. As a matter of fact, there is usually some pay-off: the occasional win for the gambler, the buzz for the alcoholic, the excitement and intimacy of promiscuous sexual behavior. Ten bucks that pays five hundred in a few hours is a mesmerizing concept. Rather than give up when they don’t win, they go more and more. A weekly trip to the bingo hall becomes a daily ritual. Ten dollars becomes hundreds. The family is pushed aside so that the gambler can feed this desire to win, always hoping to recoup what has been lost. Eventually the money for food, rent and clothes is gone and the family is left desolate. Relationships break and the gambler is left with nothing but this need to gamble. Most hit rock bottom before they ever realize they have a problem. This is true for gambling and for other addictions. After a while the money runs out, one drink is never enough, and promiscuous sex leads to disease or pregnancy. At that point there seems to be no way out, no hope for the addicted.
Yet, even in the face of such overwhelming sin, there is always hope. When salvation seemed impossible, God saved sinners from death and the grave. We all suffer the effects of sin in our lives; we are all tempted, and we fall into that temptation. We may not be a gambler, drunk or minx, but we are sinners just the same. We are drawn so deeply into our sin that we know no way out. But there is always a way - God. He is our victory over the things of this world that threaten to destroy our lives. Even when nothing is left, there is hope in the salvation of our Lord. We have been saved from eternal death by His mercy and grace. In that grace God’s transforming Spirit makes us new and gives us the strength to face the things that threaten to destroy us.
Acheron Hades died at the end of that book, he got his due. The story continued with Thursday Next for six more novels, and other criminal masterminds. She often messed up, but always overcame her weaknesses to stop whatever criminal she faced. She reached low points, even hit rock bottom before she rose to save the day. In the end there was always reason to rejoice. Sounds a little like the savior in today’s Psalm: the stone the builders rejected became the capstone. Sounds a lot like Jesus, who willingly went rock bottom for the sake of the world. This is reason for us to rejoice.
“But to us, God revealed them through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For who among men knows the things of a man, except the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so, no one knows the things of God, except God’s Spirit. But we received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might know the things that were freely given to us by God. We also speak these things, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual things. Now the natural man doesn’t receive the things of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to him, and he can’t know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual discerns all things, and he himself is judged by no one. ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct him?’ But we have Christ’s mind.” 1 Corinthians 2:10-16, WEB
Our vacation in Germany was part of an organized tour. We had a tour host, a pastor who was able to share his knowledge about Martin Luther and the reformation. He also led devotions. We also had a tour manager, a native German who dealt with the business aspects of the trip. She communicated with the hotels and the places we visited and organized the trip with the bus driver who spoke very little English. She dealt with the problems that inevitably occur when you try to keep twenty people on a schedule. She was incredible at times overcoming situations that could have really caused us problems. It was nice to be able to relax knowing that others were there to deal with the stress.
The disadvantage of that type of tour is that you are limited by their plan. We were constantly told what time to be where, and it was often a ridiculously brief amount of time. We would often arrive at a place and be given the instruction that we should return to the bus in an hour, with the expectation that we would see what we wanted to see and grab a bit of lunch or do some shopping along the way. It was never enough time. We stopped at one church and had twenty minutes to see what should have taken hours, and that included walking from the bus to the church and back. It was also the most convenient spot to use the rest room.
Unfortunately, this meant that I missed a lot that I should have seen. I didn’t take the time to read the signs in the museums, so I often had no idea what I was seeing. It wasn’t until after we got home and I started processing my photos that I realized how much I missed. We purchased books about the places we visited because I want to make sure that the information I remember is true. I also searched the Internet. After all, we covered hundreds of miles and dozens of places in a short period of time, facts can become muddled. Unfortunately, I was sitting at my computer more than five thousand miles away as I processed my photos, and it was too late to see the things that I missed. It just makes me want to go again, but if I do I think I’ll take the risks of traveling with my own plan.
Have you ever had the experience of hearing something from the Bible and thinking, “Why have I never heard that before?” Even after decades of study and writing, there are still times when the scriptures surprise me. I have read the Bible cover to cover several times, and yet sometimes a passage is read, or a message preached that I don’t remember. It is startling, but also humbling.
Of course, we need to remember that not every new thing is a good thing. From the beginning of time people have tried to make the Bible say what they want it to say. So, when we hear a new thing we should prayerfully check the scriptures to ensure that what we are hearing is true. This happened recently when a preacher used a relatively unknown story from the Old Testament. We found it, and it opened to us some new thoughts about God.
I wanted to see and experience everything in Germany, but it was impossible with the time constraints of our tour, and it is equally impossible for us to know everything there is to know about God and the Bible. We need to remember that God is bigger than we can imagine; a million lifetimes would never be enough to see and know everything. Yet, God invites us to know Him, to search the deep things, to be in an intimate relationship with Him. We can’t do it on our own, so He even gives us His own Spirit so that we might know Him. Do we need to know everything about Him? I might have missed some things on my vacation, but I had a wonderful time and saw so much more than I ever expected and perhaps one day I will be able to go again to see the things I missed. I am sure there are still stories in the scriptures that will surprise me, but isn’t that how it should be? A life of faith is meant to include daily growth in our knowledge and relationship with God, and God helps us grow by surprising us with new things every day.
“Beloved, don’t be astonished at the fiery trial which has come upon you to test you, as though a strange thing happened to you. But because you are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, rejoice, that at the revelation of his glory you also may rejoice with exceeding joy. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed; because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. On their part he is blasphemed, but on your part he is glorified. For let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or an evil doer, or a meddler in other men’s matters. But if one of you suffers for being a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God in this matter. For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God. If it begins first with us, what will happen to those who don’t obey the Good News of God? ‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will happen to the ungodly and the sinner?’ Therefore let them also who suffer according to the will of God in doing good entrust their souls to him, as to a faithful Creator.” 1 Peter 4:12-19, WEB
I recently heard someone say, “I really hate cold and snow, but after this unusually hot summer, I’m beginning to look forward to winter.” I’m not there yet, but have to admit that I’ve changed some of my habits. I tend to wait until after lunch to go out to run my errands, but lately I’ve gone out early so that I can beat the heat. Thank goodness for air conditioning. Though we know there’s nothing we can do about it, I think we all at some point complain about the weather. If it is too cold, we want it to be warm. If it is too warm, we want it to be cooler. If it is raining, we wish it would stop even though we know we need the rain. We all have a favorite weather circumstance we wish it would be all the time, but none of us seem to live there.
A few years ago we were in the midst of a time of drought when it finally rained. Unfortunately, it rained when we planned to go out to dinner and on the way we rain into a downpour. The rain fell so hard that it was difficult to see out of our windshield and the roads were covered with minor flooding. We even sat in the car for a few minutes because we would have been soaked to the bone if we had tried to get inside during that downpour. Unfortunately, it slowed down only briefly and we still got wet as we ran into the restaurant. We were laughing and dripping wet as we told the hostess, “We’d like a table on the patio, please!”
It was not the ideal situation. Even though we desperately needed the rain it would have been better to receive a slow, drenching shower than a bunch of hard, brief downpours. Yet, every drop makes a difference to our aquifer and for our landscape. We tend to complain about those extremes in weather, yet even they are a natural part of life in this world and are vital to the earth. Freezing temperatures are necessary for certain plant growth, blowing winds carry seeds to barren lands and floodwaters cleanse the earth. Fire removes scrub growth and prepares the soil for new trees. Unfortunately, these extremes can be dangerous also. People get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is not the will or purpose of God, but by our human freedom we can find ourselves in the midst of suffering that makes no sense against the loving and merciful character of God.
Rain is natural, even pouring rain. Unfortunately, we sometimes get caught up in the flood waters and can suffer from the experience. At the very least, we might get wet. Yet, we can see the positive in the midst of it all, even if it is not the kind of rain we’d hoped for, it provides for the cleansing and watering of the earth.
God does not cause the suffering of His people, but there are things in this world that are bound to happen. We might get caught up in the midst of the evil or even face aspects of human life that are unwanted but natural. It is not God’s will that we should have pain, but through the pain we can rest assured that God is present with us. Peter reminds us that we can rejoice in our suffering because no matter what we face, we are joined with Christ through His love and grace. When we suffer, we partake in that which Christ has done for us. We can see the positive, we can find God’s mercy because the Holy Spirit gives us the strength and courage to see beyond the pain. We don’t suffer because we have done something to deserve some punishment, but as Christians we can take our suffering because we know that beyond it will we will see Christ’s glory.
“Do good to your servant. I will live and I will obey your word. Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things out of your law. I am a stranger on the earth. Don’t hide your commandments from me. My soul is consumed with longing for your ordinances at all times. You have rebuked the proud who are cursed, who wander from your commandments. Take reproach and contempt away from me, for I have kept your statutes. Though princes sit and slander me, your servant will meditate on your statutes. Indeed your statutes are my delight, and my counselors.” Psalm 119:17-24, WEB
One of the reasons why we went to Germany last month was to see the Passion Play in Oberammergau. This play has been put on by the village for nearly four hundred years. It happened early in the seventh century that the plague was ravaging Europe. The people of Oberammergau promised God that they would perform the Passion of Christ if He spared them from the suffering. None died afterwards. They did the play every year from 1634 to 1680, and then every ten years following. In the beginning the play was done for the villagers but it eventually grew until they were performing for international crowds.
The site has changed from the village church to the graveyard of the church where those who had died from the plague were buried. Eventually it became too big for that small space, and by 1815 they built a special stage. In 1890 they built a permanent theater. It has been renovated, but they still use it. It fits four thousand visitors. The seating is covered but the stage is open air, although since the year 2000 there has been a retractable glass roof to keep the actors dry should there be rain. It was a nice, although rather warm, day when we saw the play. I think the next upgrade should we some huge fans!
As for the play, all I could say when it was over was “Wow.” It was five hours of incredible music and acting. The story line, which has not much changed over the past four hundred years, walks us through the Passion of Christ from the triumphant entry to the final moments when they discover the empty tomb and rejoice in God’s salvation through Jesus. It doesn’t match the biblical text perfectly, because interwoven into the script are tableaux and music about Old Testament stories that foretold the work of Christ, as well as many of the stories and sayings of Jesus.
The play, of course, is entirely in German. Some might ask, “How did you understand what was going on?” Well, it is a lot like opera, of course, which is often sung in a foreign language like Italian. The viewer experiences the emotions of the story through the music and body language. We could tell what was happening on stage in the same way, although the play is more words than music. We all boasted, “Well, I know the story.” This is true, we know the story so well because we hear it year after year. We knew when Jesus entered Jerusalem triumphantly because he came on stage on a donkey to singing crowds and happy children. We knew he was in the marketplace when he set a basketful of doves free and broke a clay pot. We recognized the last supper and other key moments of the passion story.
We would have missed a lot, however, but we were given a copy of the script in English. It helped us to identify the characters, and we were able to see how they were creating a big picture story. The passion was certainly the most significant moment in Jesus’ life, but He had so much to teach us along the way. The script has undergone some transformations over the years, unfortunately sometimes it was adapted to the ways of the world. Hitler insisted on some changes, which we see today as horribly unchristian. Thankfully the script has been restored as it was four hundred years ago, with just a few changes to keep it up to date with language and modern biblical scholarship.
I confess that the Passion Play was not the priority for me for this trip, but I was so glad we were able to attend. It helped me see the story of Jesus in a whole new way. Sometimes we become so familiar with something that we become almost unaffected by it. It is good to see the stories of Christ through new eyes, and in new ways, to make it new. It helps us realize there is so much about God that we don’t know and so much more about Him we can learn. We should always do what we can to keep our relationship with God fresh. That might be taking the trip of a lifetime, or it might be reading the scriptures in a different version. It might be taking on a new Bible study or working with a new group of people. How can you see the old beloved stories through new eyes?
Lectionary Scriptures for July 24, 2022, Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 18:(17-19) 20-33; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:6-15 [16-19]; Luke 11:1-13
“Yahweh will fulfill that which concerns me. Your loving kindness, Yahweh, endures forever. Don’t forsake the works of your own hands.” Psalm 138:8, WEB
The disciples watched Jesus. They were with Him for about three years and saw Him do amazing things. They watched as He interacted with other people, as He provided healing and forgiveness. They watched as Jesus lived out His relationship with His Father. They watched Him pray and they asked Him to teach them to pray. He sat with them and gave them an outline of prayer that they could use.
We use that prayer today, particularly when we are praying in communion with others because it gives us common words and unifies us. It is a good way to teach our children to pray. The Lord’s Prayer is not the only way we can approach our Father, but it is a good place to start. We can even use the outline and add our own words and ideas. Jesus encouraged us with this prayer to honor and worship God, to seek His will, to ask Him to provide all we need, to forgive us and to give us the mercy to forgive others, and to help us remain faithful to Him, worshipping Him with a doxology of praise and thanksgiving for His grace.
But prayer can be more than an established prayer or an outline of certain ideas. In conversations about prayer, I’ve heard many people talk about how they talk to God all day long as if He is walking beside us. I do the same, for sure, especially when I’m driving my car or doing busy work around the house. 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 at the kitchen sink or behind the wheel. Those prayers are often for safety, 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. 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. A walk through my neighborhood brings to mind friends and family not only in the houses on my street but also those far away. God is with us and He has a way of reminding us in those quiet moments about the needs of our neighbors so that we will talk to Him about them. Jesus certainly lived a life of walking with His Father, and the disciples saw how close He was to God.
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 and never far from His Father, 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 could also hear what He has to say. Why do we think we can pray any better than Jesus?
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, 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. I make two different types of prayer beads that I sell or give away, but 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. Something 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 we can use in our prayer life. 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 is not a problem with the words Jesus taught us, but with our own focus and attention on the conversation.
The Lord’s Prayer can become a heartless repetition of the same old thing. Many feel it is better to pray from the heart, sharing with God the immediate needs and praise as they appear. It is good to be spontaneous. Like calling a friend out of the blue to wish them well or say a good word, those impulsive moments are wonderful opportunities to draw deeper into the heart of God. However, reciting a beloved prayer that is memorized from birth is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, how many times do we spontaneously confess our sinfulness to God and ask for His mercy? We are pretty good at asking God for everything that we need for our physical well-being and the well-being of others. We are even pretty good at praising God when things are going well for us. We fail in that we do not look to God to keep us from evil or ask His forgiveness when we fail.
The Lord’s Prayer brings us to our knees and reminds us that prayer is more than simply asking for stuff. We begin by praising God, but not just any God, a personal and intimate Father in heaven. We recognize that even God’s name is holy, as God is holy and that He deserves our worship. We are humbled by the fact that this God who is like a Father is also the Creator and Redeemer of the world. We ask that this world become all that God has created it to be, that His kingdom be visible and manifest in all that we do and say. We ask for the things that we need like food, shelter, clothing but we are reminded that we only need things for this day, not for tomorrow. We confess that we are sinners in need of a Savior asking for the forgiveness that comes from Christ even while we recognize that we need God’s help in offering forgiveness to those who have sinned against us. We ask God to be with us, to guide us, to teach us the paths of righteousness.
Jesus follows this lesson with a story of persistence. Now, we can take this to mean that we should keep asking for God’s blessings, over and over again until He provides what we are asking. Yet, I wonder if we can look at this in a slightly different way. What if persistence means saying the same prayer over and over again? Using the words of the prayer which Jesus taught, not only regularly but daily, God hears and answers. There are some things that we ask that God cannot or will not give us, not because it is out of His ability to do so, but because it is out of line with what He knows we need. How many of us ask for things that are simply not good for us? God has something better. Though He does listen to our specific prayers and desires, sometimes He has a different answer than we would like to hear. Sometimes He says, “Wait.” Sometimes He says, “No.” But when He does not provide what we want, He provides more than we could ever imagine. But He encourages us to keep asking. Perhaps the right time is not now, but will be later.
The Lord’s Prayer may seem to limit our prayers, but the reality is that it opens us up to even bigger and better things. By seeking God’s will, rather than asking God to satisfy ours, we find a greater freedom and a bigger kingdom than we could ever imagine.
Persistence also means boldness. Jesus encourages us to ask even if it seems impossible.
Boldness is what we see in today’s Old Testament passage. 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. God revealed his plan to Abraham, inviting Abraham to intercede for the sake of the cities.
Abraham knew that his nephew Lot was in that city, and though he had most likely heard the stories about Sodom and Gomorrah’s sinfulness, 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. The psalms are filled with imprecatory prayers. 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 was 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 heard the plea of Abraham. We might be shocked at Abraham’s boldness in dealing with this situation with God. Yet, we have seen in this story that God is a friend to Abraham and that God has invited Abraham into this situation. God sought Abraham’s council and agreed that if there could be found even ten righteous men in the city, He would not destroy it.
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.
We might not have the opportunity or need to pray for the deliverance of cities, but God calls us into a relationship with Himself and invites 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 other apparently innocent people. Yet, we do not know what God knows or see all that God sees. Sometimes mercy means ending the self-destruction of wickedness.
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 bold enough to ask.
In the parable Jesus told the disciples we are reminded how important hospitality was in those days. “Imagine that visitors arrive at your door in the middle of the night and you have nothing to give them.” 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 bold 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.” 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, and that God has promised to listen to our prayers. He has given us the Lord’s Prayer to help us develop a pattern of conversation with Him. Like Abraham, God reveals His plans to us and invites us to intercede with Him for the sake of others. We might even change His mind if we are bold 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.” This is a statement of promise, but also responsibility. Do we curse our neighbors because of their sins because we know 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. The more we pray His words, the more our prayers will line up with His will.
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.
Today’s lessons are simultaneously lessons in boldness and humility. It might seem strange to put those two together since they seem to be so far apart. When one is bold, he or she seems presumptuous, stepping out in confidence that gives the impression of pride. There is an assertiveness that is not present in someone who is humble. Humility is exactly the opposite, a meekness that shows no pride or arrogance. Yet, boldness is not always a negative trait and humility is not always true.
Paul reminds us in today’s epistle to keep Jesus Christ as the center of our spiritual and religious life. It is too easy to get caught up in the philosophies of men or to lose sight of Jesus as we follow their words. It is easy to get caught up in using the prayer tools in all the wrong ways. Yet, with Christ as our focus, we can take advantage of these earthly gifts to keep us connected to our divine Father and Lord. We have been buried with Him and by His grace we can triumph over anything or anyone that would lead us astray.
The Bible is given to us by God to draw us ever nearer to Him, to guide us in the right way and to build our lives on a solid foundation. Just as the disciples watched Jesus as they walked with Him, we can watch Him as we spend time in the scriptures, learning how to live lives of faithful obedience and lives full of all sorts of prayer. The greater gift is the Holy Spirit, whom God gives to help us keep our hearts on Jesus.
There are so many ways we can pray, and Jesus gives us a strong foundation with the Lord’s Prayer as we grow in our faith and discipleship. It is good to pray throughout the day as we go about our work, but 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 with the help of the Holy Spirit.
The psalmist wrote, “In the day that I called, you answered me. You encouraged me with strength in my soul.” With these words, the writer recognized the incredible grace of God in this world. He does answer our prayers. He does 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. 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. His love is forever, He won’t let us down.
“When Yahweh brought back those who returned to Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing. Then they said among the nations, ‘Yahweh has done great things for them.’ Yahweh has done great things for us, and we are glad. Restore our fortunes again, Yahweh, like the streams in the Negev. Those who sow in tears will reap in joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed for sowing, will certainly come again with joy, carrying his sheaves.” Psalm 126, WEB
When was the last time you laughed? I don’t mean a giggle or even a guffaw at the humor in a television show or the antics of a toddler. I mean a belly aching hearty laugh, a laugh that you will remember for a lifetime. I have laughed, certainly, but I don’t think I’ve had one of those for some time, not like a couple incidents I still remember from my youth.
One happened when I was a young adult. I went to a conference in West Virginia with a group of my friends; my mom acted as a chaperone. Mom and I shared our hotel room with one of my best friends. One evening we were tired from the day’s activities and one of us said something silly. I don’t even remember what started it off, but we all began to giggle. The giggling turned into laughter. After a while we were out of control, laughing for no known reason. Everything made us laugh harder, our bellies hurt from the laughter. It was a ridiculously silly time, but it was a moment I will never forget.
I was once chatting with a friend, and she admitted that she was jealous of my life. I laughed and said, “I’m jealous of you!” Together we realized that God gave us what He intended for us and we should never be jealous of another person’s gifts or opportunities. If we had not shared our envy with one another, the jealousy may have simmered and destroyed our friendship. However, God used that moment, a tender moment of joy and laughter, for us to learn an important lesson.
God has a sense of humor. Jesus often joked when he preached about God’s Kingdom, though the humor is often lost as we study and try to understand the scriptures. Jesus and the disciples are often found around a table with a meal. These were social events with friends. I’m sure they often laughed and enjoyed each other’s company, perhaps even had some of those belly aching moments.
There are several places in the scriptures that suggest that in our sin we should not laugh, but rather mourn. The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us, “Sorrow is better than laughter; for by the sadness of the face the heart is made good. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” (7:3-4) Laughter is seen in a negative light, so many Christians go about taking life too seriously. However, throughout the scriptures, we also hear about the joy of God’s deliverance. When the Israelites made it across the Red Sea, Miriam danced. When the Ark of the Covenant arrived in Jerusalem, David danced. It is very difficult to dance in celebration and joy without laughing!
I know several people who have gone through difficult times, and the best thing they did to help them through was to find sitcoms that made them laugh. is said that laughter is the best medicine. I think that may be true, but even more so, joyful laughter shows the world the condition of your heart. I don’t think I’ve had one of those belly aching laughs lately, perhaps it is time to remember that I should be dancing with joy and celebration, laughing at the wonderful things God has done for me. Joy comes from God, and when we know He loves us, we feel the joy of His salvation. When we know the joy of the Lord, it is impossible not to laugh. When we do, the world sees that God has done great things for us.
“All night long on my bed I looked for the one my heart loves; I looked for him but did not find him. I will get up now and go about the city, through its streets and squares; I will search for the one my heart loves. So I looked for him but did not find him. The watchmen found me as they made their rounds in the city. ‘Have you seen the one my heart loves?’ Scarcely had I passed them when I found the one my heart loves.” Song of Songs 3:1-4a, WEB
In Luke 8:2, we are told that along with the Twelve, Jesus as followed by a group of women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities. The women served Jesus and the disciples from their own possessions, in thankfulness for God’s grace. Among those women was Mary “who was called Magdalene.” Mary was a close friend of Jesus, with Him throughout His ministry. All four Gospels tell us that she was at the foot of the cross and in the synoptic Gospels she was at the tomb when He was buried. She was also among the first to witness Jesus’ resurrection, alone or with other women according to the accounts. She is often called “apostle to the apostles” because she reported Jesus’ appearance to her in the Garden, joyfully telling them that she had seen the Lord.
They didn’t believe her. We’d like to judge them for their lack of faith, but it was unbelievable, wasn’t it? It didn’t help that Mary was a woman, and perhaps a fallen woman. Some have suggested in the past that Mary was a prostitute; other think this is an insult to limit the importance of Mary in the story of Christ. We don’t see her very much in the canonical scriptures, though she plays a much larger roll in some of the later texts. Her appearances in the Gospels always seems to be a critical moments, showing us of her importance no matter her past. In a way it makes her presence even more important because she is an example, like the tax collector Zacchaeus, of a life completely transformed.
Of course, there are some who want to give Mary an even greater role in the life of Jesus, some of which come from the unreliable Gnostic texts. They claim she was married to Jesus and that her womb served as the incubator for His offspring. Some popular fiction claims that she was Holy Grail. These are just stories, and I think they reduce to reality of her relationship with Jesus to something earthly and ordinary. Jesus loved her with a heavenly love, and she loved Him with gratitude and hope. Sometimes she’s confused with other women in the scriptures, so it is hard to know more about her life except the places she is identified as Magdalene.”
Her encounter with the risen Jesus is one of the most beautiful scenes in the Gospels. In John’s Gospel Mary saw the open tomb and ran to tell the disciples. Peter and John ran to the Garden and saw the body was missing. John believed when he saw the empty tomb, but we don’t know if he believed Jesus had been raised or whether he just believed her report. Peter and John left in confusion and uncertainty. Mary was at the tomb weeping and stooped to look in the tomb. She saw two angels that asked her why she was crying. She told them that someone had taken her Lord. She didn’t wait for their answer, but turned and saw Jesus. She didn’t know it was Jesus, but thought it was a gardener. “If you know where He is, please tell me!”
Jesus answered, “Mary.” Jesus knew her by name. She knew Him when He called her by name. This was a very intimate moment between the two, not as between a husband and wife, but as between a gracious God and one of His people. In Mary we see that Jesus Christ the risen and living Lord has a personal relations with His people. 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. The text for today is one of the lectionary scriptures for her feast. It is a song of love, a song we can imagine Mary singing as she looks for her Lord. As we look at her story we are given a midsummer glimpse of the Easter miracle when Jesus was raised from the dead and called her by name. 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 including you and I.
“James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came near to him, saying, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we will ask.’ He said to them, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ They said to him, ‘Grant to us that we may sit, one at your right hand, and one at your left hand, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You don’t know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ Jesus said to them, ‘You shall indeed drink the cup that I drink, and you shall be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; but to sit at my right hand and at my left hand is not mine to give, but for whom it has been prepared.’ When the ten heard it, they began to be indignant toward James and John. Jesus summoned them, and said to them, ‘You know that they who are recognized as rulers over the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you, but whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant. Whoever of you wants to become first among you, shall be bondservant of all. For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” Mark 10:35-45, WEB
The Bible teaches us simultaneously about being bold and humble. It might seem strange to put those two together since they seem to be so far apart. When one is bold, he or she seems presumptuous, stepping out in confidence that gives the impression of pride. There is an assertiveness that is not present in someone who is humble. Humility is exactly the opposite, a meekness that shows no pride or arrogance.
Yet, boldness is not always a negative trait and humility is not always true. I hesitate to share my website with people because I do not want to seem too presumptuous or proud. I don’t want to force my gifts on others and often sit back and wait, expecting that God will open the right doors for me to share. This is a mock humility. God blesses us with gifts to be a blessing to others and we sin against God by hiding them under a false meekness.
So, as we look at the stories of God’s people throughout the Bible, we see both stories of boldness and stories of humility, some of which are quite shocking. Recall the story of Abraham from the lectionary these past few weeks. Abraham humbly offered hospitality to the LORD in the desert, and then boldly stood before the LORD to plead for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. This boldness is shocking, but it is the very attitude that Jesus teaches us about prayer. Ask, seek, and knock, Jesus said. Not only that, Jesus encouraged us to expect and answer from God.
Today we celebrate St. James the Elder, the son of Zebedee and brother of John. In the Gospel lesson for today we see another story of boldness. James and John went to the Lord Jesus and asked Him boldly to make them his right- and left-hand men. They wanted positions of authority in the Kingdom of God, positions of honor. They really did not know what they were asking. They thought that the seats of honor were to be in an earthly kingdom, that they would be rulers along with Him in an Israel free from Roman rule. However, the cup Jesus would drink and the baptism He would undergo was for a kingdom much greater.
Jesus told them that they would indeed suffer for the sake of the kingdom, but He could not give them the seats of power. Only God had the authority to offer such honor and Jesus would not assume such authority.
The other disciples were upset that James and John would be so bold. This request was definitely not done in humble submission to God’s will and was quite presumptuous in the eyes of their friends. Yet, Jesus took this opportunity to teach them a lesson in true humility and right boldness. ‘But it shall not be so among you, but whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant.’ The one who will be great in the kingdom of God is the one who will humbly step forth in boldness of faith for the sake of others.
John did not suffer the same end as his brother James. The two were also the disciples who wanted to call down fire upon a Samaritan town. They were always among the inner circle of Jesus. They went with Jesus to the mountain of Transfiguration. Jesus responded to their request with a promise that they would drink the cup Jesus would drink. John lived a long life, but was persecuted and imprisoned. James, however, was executed by Herod the king (Agrippa), the first apostle to be martyred (Acts 12). The death of James gave Herod the boldness to arrest Peter, too.
It may have seened bold for James to seek a place by the side of Jesus’ throne, but like all the apostles, James was human and made mistakes. He was foolish in his understanding when he walked with Jesus, but he grew in faith. He was so faithful that he willingly stood against the powers of the world for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. James is the patron saint of Spain; some suggest that he went to Spain to spread the Gospel. It is said that his body was returned to Spain after his martyrdom. He may have been bold, but he was humble, too. His bold humility led to growth in the Kingdom of God, and that’s what being a faithful Christian is all about. We might make mistakes, even false assumptions, but God’s forgiveness always grants us second chances. Like Jesus chose James despite being one of the Sons of Thunder, Jesus chooses us despite our imperfect qualities and helps us to grow into a faith that can change the world with God’s grace.
“He weakened my strength along the course. He shortened my days. I said, ‘My God, don’t take me away in the middle of my days. Your years are throughout all generations. Of old, you laid the foundation of the earth. The heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you will endure. Yes, all of them will wear out like a garment. You will change them like a cloak, and they will be changed. But you are the same. Your years will have no end. The children of your servants will continue. Their offspring will be established before you.” Psalm 102:23-28, WEB
I don’t know about you, but when I have a sleepless night it us usually because something during the day triggered a memory. It is usually a memory of something foolish I did and never got over the embarrassment, or it is of some hurt or pain I experienced in the past. I run through these memories and try to think of ways I could have avoided the experiences, or I wonder what I should do now to bring closure to it so that I won’t have another sleepless night.
I recent read a couple of quotes about the past and the future. One said, “Keep life moving forward, looking backwards is only for time travelers.” The other said, “Inhale the future, exhale the past.” The author of both quotes is unknown. There is certainly truth in both these quotes, as noted by my late night struggles with memories. I need to learn to put the past where it belongs so I can get a good night sleep.
Yet, the quotes are not quite true because there are good reasons to look backwards. On a personal level, there are many happy memories we should remember. I like to think about good times with friends, family vacations, those important moments in my life like my wedding and the birth of my children. I love remembering impactful moments, even if they aren’t always the happiest. It is those moments when I grew in grace and hope and peace. As a people, looking back on the past helps us learn the lessons from their mistakes, hopefully living a better life because of their failures. I recently heard another quote that said, “History is not there for you to like or dislike. It is there for you to learn from. And if it offends you even better, because you are less likely to repeat it.”
I know there are good reasons to forget the past. There are things from our national history that were hurtful to many. There are things from the history of Christianity that were hurtful. There were things from my own faith heritage that were hurtful. Yet, if we forget those things, as we are wont to do, we’ll repeat them. This has happened over and over again. Look at the stories of the kings of Israel from the Old Testament. The cycle begins with a good king. The son is never quite as good. By the fourth generation, the son is evil in the eyes of God. Then, thankfully, the next king sees the failures of the former generation and turns back to God. The way they see those failures is by looking back. What went wrong? What can we learn? What should we do differently?
There are many Christians who would rather ignore the Old Testament. As a matter of fact, they think the God of the Old Testament is different than the God of the Gospels and the New Testament. He’s not different. He is the same. It isn’t even that the people are different; after all, we fail as badly as those stories we read about the people. We make mistakes like patriarchs. We turn from God. We forget Him and go our own way. The difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament is that we know have the guarantee of grace through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, even in the Old Testament, the promise of Jesus was already spoken. Though we might see the God of wrath in the Old Testament, we also see His mercy. Though we see the God of grace in the New Testament, we are also warned about His justice.
We look to the stories of the people in the past, our past, our nation’s past, and our Christian past, to learn the lessons of their failures and to celebrate the mercy of God and His salvation. We wouldn’t even know Jesus Christ if we didn’t look to the past. God laid the foundation of His answer to our failures long before we were born, and we do look to the future Kingdom that He has promised. He has not changed, and He is always faithful to His promises, no matter what we do right or wrong. The best thing we can do is to listen to and follow God’s Word, holding onto the promise of His grace that we see in all the words of the Bible, even those parts that seem out of character for the God we have come to love and understand through Jesus Christ.
Scriptures for July 31, 2022, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-26; Psalm 100; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
“There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God.” Ecclesiastes 2:24, WEB
Isn’t it interesting that in today’s Old Testament passage, the teacher laments that everything he has worked for will be given to the next generation that did not earn it, and yet so many of us have worked our lives so that we have something to leave to our children. Right now I am dealing with the collection of my mother-in-law’s jewelry. I’ve shown pictures to all the granddaughters, and they have asked for certain pieces. There are many pieces they just don’t want. I don’t know what I will do with them.
We have learned that our children’s generation are not really interested in having the things that we loved and collected over the years. They don’t want antiques. They don’t want collections. They don’t want superfluous stuff. This attitude of theirs made me think about what I have in the house. Those porcelain figures we collected as investments are not worth what we paid for them, and they are now not much more than dust catchers. We think we are leaving jewels to the next generation, but they’ll probably put them out in an estate sale or yard sale and get a dollar for them despite the value we think they have.
I have been thankful about two things as I have dealt with this jewelry. First of all, the girls do want a piece of their grandmother’s life to remember her. Second, they have been kind and respectful about sharing these pieces. It helps that they seem to have much different taste, but also that they are thinking about the wants of their cousins. This is not always true when dealing with inheritance. Families have divided over the stuff left behind, arguing over every piece. These cases are often very complicated because the wishes were not properly documented, or the papers were not legally acceptable. They can go on for years.
The teacher fears that everything he has worked for will be squandered away by those to whom it is left. This happens all too often. There was a story about an heiress who took the wealth into which she was born and wasted it, chasing after worldly pleasures and abusing the advantages she had been given. Her troubles were widely reported, with constant commentary about her actions and the consequences of her actions. She was even imprisoned for illegal behavior that was a danger to herself and others. This is the way of life for many who have been given the benefit of great wealth; they ruin lives by chasing after their hedonistic obsessions. Unfortunately, the wealthy, young socialite learned that her behavior will have yet another consequence: her inheritance was taken away and given to a charity that was more worthy to receive the money.
In modern times, the 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. The 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 it as an opportunity to give the crowd a lesson in greed.
Jesus warned the crowd to be careful about greed, “for a man’s life doesn’t consist of the abundance of the things which he possesses.” The parable tells of a man who had more than he could ever need. He had more than he could even store. He decided to build bigger barns to hold it all. Then he felt that he could relax, eat, drink and be merry. Jesus said that God spoke to the man, telling him that it was that day that he would die. “The things which you have prepared - whose will they be?” We do not always know what will happen to our worldly goods when we die. Certainly, there are those who might do battle over every penny. How many parents would want to leave wealth to their children if they knew it would destroy the family?
I still think we should leave good things behind for those who follow. I also know that it is up to them what to do with those things when I die. Our scriptures for this week teach us that the material possessions for which we work so hard are perishable and it is meaningless for us to put all our energy and focus into building up these things. We are called to ask ourselves, “Where will I store these things?” Will we hide our grain and goods in a bigger barn, or will we dedicate it to God and for His use in this world? In this way we will store up treasures in heaven, treasures that will last.
Imagine the world in which that man lived if he’d shared that grain with his neighbors rather than hiding it in a barn to ensure his security for tomorrow?
“‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher; ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’” Some translations suggest the Hebrew word here, which is “hebel” should be translated meaningless. It is actually given a number of different translations throughout the Old Testament: breath, delusion, emptiness, fleeting, futility, idol, useless, vain, vapor, worthless. We would have to read the word in context to understand the meaning of that particular writer, but this list helps us to see more what the word might have meant to the writer of Ecclesiastes.
The word vanity has a connotation in today’s world of selfish pride or admiration of ones appearance and accomplishments. Yet, as we look at those translations, we see that it is something a little different. It is like grasping at the wind. We can see vapor, but we can’t catch it. In more modern terms, what we have is never enough. We buy a house and fill it with things and then realize we need more space, so we buy a bigger house. Then we realize we have room and buy more things. We work hard to have these things and to pay for the costs of having those things. We need to pay for utilities, and anyone who has had a house knows that the maintenance is ongoing. Something is always breaking. Something always needs to be painted. Something always needs to be replaced.
We want the perfect home, but isn’t it like vapor? Isn’t it always beyond our reach? We are never satisfied, so our constant work toward that perfect home is as someone described, “Unsatisfying, endless repetition of old things that nobody will remember; nothing you do will last, and at the end you die. And you can’t fix it.” This does not seem very hopeful, does it?
It is so hard for us to acknowledge that everything we do has no meaning. We work hard to accomplish our goals in life. We do it to feed our families and ensure that we have a nice place to live. 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. We don’t think any of this is meaningless. It means something to us.
Yet, everything comes to an end. We retire from our jobs and others take our place. Our families grow up, our children move on. 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 look at the pursuits of others, we wonder why they work so hard at chasing all the wrong things. However, we too are caught up in the pursuit of meaninglessness. In the end, we learn that it was all meaningless, even our own passions.
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.
I heard someone say recently, “The only thing we can take to heaven is what is stored in our hearts.” The greatest treasures stored in our hearts are the things we do for the glory of God. These are the treasures that will last.
The teacher 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.
In Egypt, the pharaoh was given 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 cultures even the common man was buried with important implements of their life. The farmer was given a plow, the doctor his tools. The 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 did 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 or the man who torn down one barn to build a bigger one. We do not find peace in the accumulation of things, even if they are things that we need. As a matter of fact, the accumulation of stuff often makes our lives more complicated.
A woman died. When her husband was going through her personal belongings, he came across a special box with a beautiful new night gown. It still had the receipt and had been purchased long before her death. She was waiting for a special occasion to wear the nightgown, but she died before she found that perfect moment.
We do not know when we will die and everything we accumulate will be given to the next generation. Why do we waste so much time chasing after things that are meaningless? We buy bigger houses and work hard to keep them just to store all the things we have gathered. In the end we can’t take it with us, and in our quest to gain more and more we often lose sight of what is really important.
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 in the parable thinks he deserves to eat and drink and be merry because of his own accomplishments. Which attitude leads to eternal life?
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 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 God reminds him 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 wrote in the 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, buying bigger houses to hold all our stuff.
Paul listed the ways our self-centeredness manifests in this world, and it is not a pretty sight. He encouraged us to put those attitudes away, to be the new creation we are in Christ Jesus and live for Him. He reminded 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 wrote, “...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.
When John Wesley was still an atheist, he was aboard a ship that encountered a fierce storm. It was so terrible that the wind split the mast and it broke in half. He was terrified. Aboard the ship was a group of Moravians from Germany who showed no fear. Instead, they gathered together to sing hymns. They sang so loud that they could be heard above the wind. Wesley later asked one of the Moravians, “Weren't you afraid?” The man replied, “Thank God, no.” Wesley was so impressed by their faith and confidence that he gave his life over to Christ at a Moravian meeting house.
Music is a powerful way to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Moravians onboard that ship worshipped God in the midst of their trouble. This worship not only gave them comfort, but it also planted a seed of faith in the heart of John Wesley. It is no wonder that music became the center of John Wesley’s ministry. Some of our tangible things can bring us joy, but there is something special about singing a joyful noise unto the Lord, especially in our times of difficulty. You never know who might overhear and meet Christ in the midst of their own storm.
Martin Luther once said, “Next to the word of God, music deserves the highest praise.” This is true because music is a powerful way to share a message and it is often through music that the message is best remembered. He firmly believed in the power of music. He wrote, “I wish to compose sacred hymns so that the Word of God may dwell among the people also by means of songs.” The songs we love become treasures in our hearts.
The life lived in praise and thanksgiving of God is the life that experiences true joy. The psalmist wrote, “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. This is not vanity or a striving after wind; it is a gift from God’s own hand.
We chase after so many things, too many of them are nothing but vapors out of our reach, meaningless and vanity. But God wants us to live a life filled with the good things that bring us joy. The greatest blessings, of course, are those in which we see God’s hand. He is active in our world today, continually creating and recreating the world for His glory, manifesting His love for us in tangible ways that will not last forever as well as ways that are written on our hearts for us to take into eternity.
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 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 or buying bigger and bigger houses, joy is found when we go forth in faith and do God’s work in the world. This is our purpose, the reason why God has blessed us. So instead of chasing after that which is nothing but vanity, let us all praise God every moment of every day, living and working for His glory, dwelling in the joy that will last forever and ever.
“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 aquariums. Most zoos have a specific building with aquatic exhibits, but I have also visited places that are all about fish like the aquarium in Baltimore, Corpus Christi, and Scripps in San Diego. I also love visiting places like Sea World that shows the larger aquatic animals as well as themed rides for the visitors. Sea World even has a water park so the people can be aquatic animals, too.
It is fun to stand up close, to see the fish as they swim by. I often wonder if they can see me, too, and what they think of those eyes peering at them. It is always fun to get a close up look at the fish, particularly since the movie “Finding Nemo” created such an interest in coral reefs. Even now all these years later, I’m sure the young children get excited when they see fish they recognize as Nemo, Marlin, Dory and the other characters from the movie. Close up you can 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 there’s something about watching those large aquariums from far away, seeing the whole “world” from a distance. One of my favorite things to do is to find a place to sit across the room from the exhibit to watch. It was like watching rush hour in New York City. Schools of fish move along paths in one direction, stop and then move another way. Individual fish go this way and that, somehow always fitting into the flow. Some fish are quite unusual, like one type of fish that just swims in a circle, up and down, up and down, even upside down. Others are very dignified. Others are playful. Even though it seems like there are different areas when you are standing near the exhibit, from a distance you can see that it is a whole little world where everything works together in unexpected ways.
It makes me wonder how God sees the world. He is most certainly a personal God, having intimate relationships with each one of us. He knows our every thought, counts the hair on our head. Yet, He also looks at the world from a much broader perspective. He sees us as we interact with others in this world. 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 hovered near the shark tank, seemingly risking life on the edge of danger? No matter who we are, we are never far from our Maker.
God enjoys the one on one relationships with His children. He gets up close and studies everything about us so that He knows us better than ourselves. He not only watches from the other side of the glass, but He gets right inside the tank with us. Yet, He also sees our 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 on the other side who needs His love. Perhaps He will call us to be the one to go forth and share the Good News.
In “Finding Nemo”, the fish went far beyond their own little world and saw it from a new perspective. What I see while I watch the world of fish in aquariums like the coral reef is that there is a much bigger world out there than just what we see at any one moment, and that God sees it all. Knowing that He is with me, so close as to know my deepest thoughts, but also far enough away to see the world around me, is such a comfort, for I can rest in the knowledge that God is in control.
“Two things I have asked of you. Don’t deny me before I die. Remove far from me falsehood and lies. Give me neither poverty nor riches. Feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full, deny you, and say, ‘Who is Yahweh?’ or lest I be poor, and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” Proverbs 30:7-9, WEB
I almost bought a lottery ticket yesterday. It would be the first lottery ticket I have bought for nearly four years. I was never a regular purchaser of lottery tickets, but I did buy them when the jackpot was extremely high. The possible jackpot for the lottery this week is over a billion dollars, which is quite a temptation. I can remember the last time I bought a ticket. It was in October 2018, the jackpot was creeping up but had not yet hit a billion dollars. I was reading “God's Wisdom for Navigating Life: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Book of Proverbs” by Timothy Keller as my daily devotional. The focus of the texts the week that someone had the $1.5 billion winning ticket was on money. I can’t quote exactly what I read that week, but I was convicted that I should not be chasing after “free money” or “sudden windfalls.” I haven’t bought a ticket since.
In another book, Keller wrote, “Money can become much more than money. It can become a powerful life-altering, culture-shaping god, an idol that breaks the hearts of its worshippers.” (Counterfeit Gods) Despite the warnings in scripture against chasing after the false god of wealth, the temptation to spend a few dollars on just one ticket is great. Think about what you could do with all that money.
As a matter of fact, I’ve noticed many people are asking one particular question, “What would you do if you won?” I read through the comments on a post and the answers are almost always well intentioned. Some begin with a practical note; they say they will find a lawyer. I would suggest also seeking a financial advisor. That amount of money will require legal assistance. Most of the people mentioned paying off bills and taking care of family and friends. One response to that offer was “Hey long lost third cousin twice removed!” That kind of money does not change the person who receives it, it changes everything and everyone around them.
Many of the commenters had good ideas about what they would do with the money. I always promised God that I would use that sudden windfall for good. I even have several charities who would benefit immensely if I won. I think most of the people who are buying tickets today have similar aims. They want to use it for good, to help others. I think many, if not most, even want to use whatever they win to glorify God.
The problem is not the money. The problem is never really the money, it is the attitude changes that happen when we have the money. As Paul reminds us, the love of money is the root of all evil. We go into a win with all sorts of benevolent ideas, but it doesn’t take very long before we are inundated with people demanding that we give them their share, whatever that means. One commenter noted that he would change his name and move if he won. Others suggested that they wouldn’t tell anyone. Would it help? Probably not. Those who have had large lottery wins struggle with trust. Relationships change. Sadly, many winners discover that the don’t have nearly as much money as they thought they would have; no matter the abundance, we always seem to want more.
This is why Solomon sought God’s grace in his finances in today’s passage. Solomon knew not to ask for more, but to ask for enough. Give us this day our daily bread. Feed me with enough. Clothe me with enough. Cover my head with a roof that is enough. Enough means we won’t chase after the things we don’t need which can lead to a sense of self-sufficiency, and enough means we won’t find ways to fulfill our needs that will dishonor God. It isn’t necessarily wrong to buy a lottery ticket today, and it is good to have plans that will glorify God if He so blesses you. I confess that I’m still tempted to buy one today. Always remember, however, that enough is truly enough. Be satisfied with what God has given and share any surplus with your neighbor, no matter how big or small it might be.