Welcome to the July 2024 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
    You are welcome to use these writings or pass them on. All we ask is that in all things you remember the Author and give Him the glory, and remember this vessel which He has used to bring them to you. Peggy Hoppes


Topics

Child-like

Encouragement

Prophet

Blessed

Trust

Perfection

Messiah

Hope

Relationship

Greater

Freedom

Kindness

Leadership

Jesus

Follow

Yes

Knowledge


A WORD FOR TODAY


Scripture on this page taken from the World English Bible which belongs to the public domain.



A WORD FOR TODAY, July 2024





July 1, 2024

“In that hour the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who then is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?’ Jesus called a little child to himself, and set him in the middle of them and said, ‘Most certainly I tell you, unless you turn and become as little children, you will in no way enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever therefore humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever receives one such little child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him if a huge millstone were hung around his neck and that he were sunk in the depths of the sea. ‘Woe to the world because of occasions of stumbling! For it must be that the occasions come, but woe to that person through whom the occasion comes!’” Matthew 18:1-7, WEB

Hundreds of young people from all over North America will be visiting our church this week for a Continental Youth Gathering. The theme is about belonging, not only to the church and community, but especially to God. We are His, and because we are His we are blessed to be a blessing. The week will be filled with worship and music, learning and bible study as well as fellowship opportunities. The youth and their sponsors will spend time serving our community and learning how to be kind and compassionate in several different mission opportunities. I’ve been seeing some posts online as churches are traveling to Texas to be part of this event. The youth and adults are really looking forward to the event.

We are excited about the event, too, and there are many ways we can be involved. I won’t be attending the whole event, but plan to go to help wherever possible at least some of the time. We don't know what to expect, since this is the first continental gathering for our denomination. It is going to be a hectic week, since they have things planned for nearly every hour of the day. There is some freedom to choose some of their activities, but it is our hope that they will take advantage of every moment. The workshops will be informative and formative; they are designed to help build their faith and practice of their faith. It is always our hope that the youth will return home anxious to share what they have learned with their congregation and community.

I have helped with other youth gatherings and one thing I enjoy is the child-like expression of faith we see from the youth. I laugh when I saw “child-like” because youth don’t think of their faith that way, after all they are nearly adults. My son once told me that I should not refer to teenagers as kids, “They don’t like it,” he said. “Kids are little children, and we aren’t little.”

But there is something very special about the way children express their faith. That includes youth. They have not been corrupted by the politics of church and they still see the stories as they did when they were small. Some may be uncertain, grappling with questions they do not really understand and answers that are even harder to understand. They may be questioning the whole idea of religion, the whole concept of faith. Yet, they listen with an open heart and an open mind. And they worship with a sense of freedom that most adults lost long ago.

I’m looking forward to this week. I am sure some of the adult sponsors are not looking forward to chasing those young adults all over town or trying to keep up with them for a few days. One friend who is coming with the youth of her church is not looking forward to grumbling about the heat of a Texas day, and she’s probably wondering how she will stay awake long into the night to ensure that they keep to their rooms when they should be there. There are other struggles when gathering in a large crowd like fighting crowds or finding seats. Youth are easily distracted by petty problems that can come up when so many people are sharing a space for such a long period of time.

However, all of that is meaningless compared to the joy we will see in their eyes and hear in their voices as they grow and learn and praise God together. They might be nearly adult, some are probably responsible, mature youth, but they will enjoy this week with genuine hearts as they grow in their faith. They will sing for joy and praise God with ease, unconcerned about time or what other people might think if they raise their hands or move to the music. They will enjoy their week because they still receive God's word like little children: humble, innocent and full of hope. We will enjoy their week because we will see faith lived out as God intends it to be lived, in freedom and His grace.

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July 2, 2024

“Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Judah, and entered into the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She called out with a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came into my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy! Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of the things which have been spoken to her from the Lord!’” Luke 1:40-45, WEB

God promised to send a deliverer to save His people. Over time they had been scattered and many lived away from Jerusalem; they had been conquered by many enemies and taken far away. By the time Jesus was born, the Israelites were living under the thumb of the Romans who had established puppet rulers in Israel. These were local people who had been trained by the Romans to rule for Rome’s best interest. They were incentivized to make Rome’s interests their own, and did the bidding of their masters even when it went against God’s intention for His people. The tax collectors were cheating the people. The rulers were basking in wealth while the people starved. The priests put heavy burdens on the people. The common men were poor and frustrated. They cried out to God, “Save us!” When the time was right, God answered their prayers.

Sometime around the year 4 BC, God sent the angel Gabriel to a young woman named Mary who was betrothed to a man named Joseph, a carpenter in the small town of Nazareth. Mary was probably no more than fifteen years old. The angel came with an incredible message, saying: “Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and shall name him ‘Jesus.’” (Luke 1:30b-31) Upon hearing the news of her miraculous pregnancy, Mary went to visit her older cousin Elizabeth, who the angel had told her was also with child (Luke 1:36). Greeted with joy, Mary burst into poetic praise. This was certainly a promise. But would it be a blessing? Only time would tell.

Mary was a young girl living in a very strict society facing this incredible blessing from God. When she was found to be pregnant, her fiancée wanted to cancel the marriage. The community would look down on her as a fallen woman, even as a prostitute. They were praying for the Messiah, but they did not believe her story. The news from the angel was not good news. Yet, Mary did not complain. In Luke 1:38 she answered, “I am the Lord's servant, may it be to me as you have said.”

Today is the day we remember the Visitation. This was an important moment in the life of Mary. Can you imagine being a fifteen-year-old girl, betrothed to a man, suddenly pregnant in an unbelievable way? Joseph, her betrothed, wanted to divorce her quietly, not to embarrass her, but to let her go. Mary must have doubted everything she experienced. She must have doubted whether she should continue to carry the child. We don’t often think about it, but abortion was an option for those who lived in ancient history. We have doctors and pills, but they had herbs that could stop a pregnancy. Despite her faith, Mary may have wondered what she should do.

God knew. He knows all our thoughts. The angel told Mary about her cousin Elizabeth for a reason: to give her confirmation that what had happened to her was real and was according to His good and perfect will. If God can make a barren elderly woman pregnant, He can certainly give her a child that would change the world. God can do the hard things; God does the hard things. By sending Mary to spend time with Elizabeth, God gave her the courage to continue with an impossible pregnancy even with the cruel response from her community. It was not until that moment when Elizabeth confirmed that Mary’s baby was a gift from God that Mary could praise Him with the Magnificat and continue on this frightening, strange, unbelievable, but incredibly beautiful journey He’d begun in her life.

Do you ever wonder about whether you are doing the right thing? Do you wonder if God is really calling you to do something? God knows. He knows all our thoughts. He will give you confirmation through other people. It might not be in such miraculous ways but listen when someone encourages you in what you believe God has called you to do. You’ll get lots of naysayers, too, people who will discourage, ridicule, or attack because it doesn’t make sense. They won’t see God’s grace in the opportunity; they won’t accept is as a gift. But God has a way of giving us the courage to face the struggle for His glory. Then, when you know without a shadow of a doubt, praise Him with all your heart, trusting in Him to get you through.

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July 3, 2024

Lectionary Scriptures for July 7, 2024, Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Ezekiel 2:1-5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10; Mark 6:1-13

“They, whether they will hear, or whether they will refuse, for they are a rebellious house, yet they will know that there has been a prophet among them.” Ezekiel 1:5, WEB

I have always been hesitant about telling others about some of my experiences with God. One of the reasons is because they sound strange and even unbelievable. They are beyond our human expectations and our comfort zones. I don’t want to sound crazy. But I also don’t want to sound boastful. I don’t want anyone to think I’m trying to be more than I am. I don’t my stories to make it seem that I am claiming authority that is not mine to claim.

I have met people, however, that will use anything to gain acceptance and credibility even if they are grasping at straws. Years ago, when I was doing online ministry in Christian chat rooms, I met many self-proclaimed prophets. They spoke forth “words” and demanded acceptance from those who heard. Those “words” were often accompanied by the proclamation, “Thus says the Lord,” as if this was supposed to give them credibility. Unfortunately, many of those “words” were not from God; they were often counter to what we read in the scriptures. They simply claimed it was a new revelation, but God does not contradict Himself. Some of these self-proclaimed prophets acted as if they were equal to God and demanded faith that they spoke for God.

Real prophets aren’t given any guarantees. In today’s passage, Ezekiel was told that the people who heard his message would probably not even listen. When it comes to God’s prophets, however, it doesn’t matter whether they are heard or received, God will cause His word to be known. The prophet won’t be popular or respected. As a matter of fact, the prophet will probably be spit upon, beaten and threatened. But God’s Word gets through, it is heard, even if the listeners do not realize it at the moment. In the end, God will prove His prophets to the world.

Teachers and parents are not like prophets, and yet what teacher or parent hasn’t experienced this refusal to be heard? Teachers and parents aren’t always right, but they do have important and valuable things to say. I have spent the past few days at a youth gathering for young people around the U.S. and Canada. My task has been to take photos of the event, to catch the young people and their sponsors interacting and learning about belonging. This means seeing them as they are, and while I have seen excitement and interest, I have also seen moments when they were withdrawn, distracted, uncertain, and even uninterested (youth and adult!).

What parent hasn’t seen that glazed look in the eyes of their teenager when trying to explain why they shouldn’t do something or why they should? What Sunday school teacher hasn’t wondered whether any of the Bible stories they’ve read made an impact in the lives of their students. We can’t always tell whether the lessons we teach have been learned or whether they will be remembered later in life.

I remember a day when I was teaching preschool that the students were not listening. We had been outside for play time, and it was a beautiful day. They were wiggling in their seats and very inattentive. We were constantly telling them to sit down and pay attention. It didn’t work. I continued to tell the stories even though I was uncertain whether they even heard me. A few days later, one of the students remembered those lessons. I was amazed but thought maybe the student’s mom had shared the same story with him. She told me she had not. He must have heard something on that crazy day.

I have often wondered whether my own kids heard the lessons I taught, but I have been very proud of them through the years. Though it seems like they haven’t listened, they have proven over and over again with simple words or actions that they really have heard. I have certainly not been perfect over the years, but I’ve seen them respond to their circumstances with wisdom and grace. Sometimes it has been because they took to heart what I said.

That’s what happens to God’s word when spoken by God’s chosen prophets. It may seem like no one is listening, but appropriate response is manifested as those words are remembered when it matters. The truth is made known. The self-proclaimed prophets try to force their words, but God’s Word works without our help. We are to speak and let God do the rest. Though it isn’t easy to be ignored and rejected, it isn’t about us, anyway. It is about God. We speak not to build up ourselves, to become popular or respected, but to give the world a revelation from the One who changes rebelliousness into faith.

It has been fun to be a part of the youth gathering. As “paparazzi” I haven’t had any responsibilities, so I have wandered where I wanted and interacted with many of the attendees. I have taken nearly two thousand photos so far and will probably take another thousand tomorrow. This isn’t unusual for me. I take a lot of photographs. Most photographers will tell you that a relatively small percentage of the pictures they take are actually good photographs. No matter how good the photographer and the equipment, there’s so many things that can ruin a photo. Bad lighting washes out the color. Movement causes blurriness. The photographer can easily miss a tiny detail that appears like a blatant mistake when the photo is printed. We often laugh at those news photos that have odd things sticking out of people’s heads or sides, but every photographer can make that mistake. I know I have!

With today’s digital cameras it is so much easier to get that perfect shot, simply because the photographer can afford to take as many pictures as necessary. When using film, the photographer has to consider the cost involved. Film is expensive and so is developing. I took multiple photographs of each speaker so that one would show the person in the best light. I took hundreds of photos of the group in worship. There have been so many opportunities to catch small groups in conversation, new friends enjoying fellowship, youth playing games together. I deleted a few that were unusable, and we won’t use every photo, but I’ve been pleased that so many of my photos from this week have captured the joy and excitement of the event.

I admit have a hard time getting rid of any of my pictures, even the bad ones. I know there’s no reason to keep those fuzzy, dark photos with someone’s head cut off, but I often wonder if there might be a reason to keep it. There are lessons to be learned from our failures. When I look at my perfect shots from the Youth Gathering, I think maybe I’m a great photographer. When I look at those out of focus shots, I am reminded that I’m not perfect. Our failures are humbling, but in humility we are willing to learn and to accept the help of others.

Imagine what it must have been like to be Paul. He was incredible, a specially chosen man called to do an extraordinary task. He would have been right to hold his leadership and authority over the members of the congregations he established. He could have demanded payment for the work he did. He could have insisted that the Christians do as he said. He had the authority based on his experience. It was obvious that he was chosen by God. He was gifted and God’s grace was manifest in his life and work. He even had some remarkable things happen to him that serve as proof of God’s hand in his life.

The conversion on the road to Damascus was more than enough to establish Paul as God’s helper, but in today’s passage Paul tells another story. This was probably an important moment in Paul’s ministry because he was given a vision of Paradise and a message from God that he could not share. For many modern-day prophets, this type of experience is the center of their ministry. They demand respect, attention and obedience because they can make this claim; they use this text to justify their own boasting since Paul seems to do so.

However, Paul is humble; he refuses to be the center of the story, proclaiming it is about someone else. Paul reminded the congregation about his imperfection. He talked about his thorn, whatever that might be. I know that many try to insert their favorite cause or disability into this text, but whatever was wrong is not important. The point to this text is that Paul admitted that he is not perfect. Though he was gifted and blessed, called by God and given the most incredible spiritual experiences, he insisted that his authority is not based on his mountain top experiences or incredible gifts. His authority is based on God’s grace. The same is true for us. There might be visions or revelations we’ve received that prove to the world that we are chosen and called by God. But it is in our failures that we are humbled and reminded that we are nothing without God’s grace.

One of the reasons I wanted to be part of the Youth Gathering is because I know many of the people who have been involved in the planning or who have come with their youth groups. Most of them have not seen me in person for a few years and my recent health journey has given me a whole new look. They did not recognize me at first. Change is natural. We all change as we grow. We gain or lose weight, change our hairstyles, grow wrinkles. Sometimes the changes brought on by our jobs or health are extreme. I definitely look much different than I did even a year ago. Change doesn’t only happen on the outside. We change inwardly, too. This is one of the hopes we have for the youth who are at the gathering.

When we listen to those who are called to share God’s Word with us, we grow in knowledge and wisdom. We realize our failings and we repent. We get through difficulties and learn new ways of living. Sometimes we learn new skills, things we might never have been able to do before. We take up new habits or give up the old. Those who knew us in the past remember us as we were. The youth will return to their homes and congregations changed.

Change is sometimes dramatic, but most of the time it is gradual for us and for those around us. Those we see again after the change are often shocked. Sometimes the differences are so dramatic that it is hard to believe it is true, especially when the changes are inside. Can a chain-smoking, beer guzzling person really kick those habits? We have a hard time seeing them as anything other than that chain-smoking, beer guzzling person. We remember people as they were when we knew them best, and it is hard to believe that they have truly changed. One of the speakers at the gathering is a man who was a member of a gang, who spent time in prison. He met Jesus, became a pastor, and now ministers to the pagans who were part of his past life. I wonder how long it took for them to see him as he is now.

Jesus was different, at least to those who knew him best. His family and friends from his hometown knew Jesus the man. They knew the education he’d received. They knew the carpentry work He was taught by His earthly father. They knew his strengths and weaknesses. He wasn’t brought up to be a priest or rabbi or teacher. He was a carpenter, the son of a carpenter. They couldn’t believe that the kid they knew was there teaching and preaching. They remembered what he was and couldn’t see beyond the memories to what was standing in front of them. Our hope for at least some of the youth is that they would discover their own calling to serve God in ministry. Will their family and friends understand when they see the new direction of their life?

It is possible to overcome this bias. After all, Jesus’ mom was there with Him in the end and His brother James followed in his footsteps. I’m sure others in the community eventually believed in Jesus. It takes some work, but we can convince our old friends that we have changed. But this story stood as an example for the disciples.

Jesus sent the disciples out into the towns and villages to preach and heal. He sent them out without wallet or food; they were expected to trust in God’s grace as they shared the message of the Kingdom. It might not have been as hard as we think. They were probably heading into places where they had family and friends. They might knock on the door of a cousin and be received with open arms. Or would they? Would they find a welcome or would they be rejected just like Jesus. If Jesus was not believed by those who knew and loved Him most, how could they expect anything better?

My kids are grown, but I remember stories of when they were young. They did not always listen or respond to my words. Like all parents, I often repeated myself over and over again. “Clean your room.” “Put away the dishes.” “Finish your homework.” No matter how many times we remind them, they procrastinate and then simply forget. We have to remind them, hoping that one day they will remember. Even as they have grown, there are still things that they forget. Our occasional deafness is not unusual; it is typical human behavior. We hear what we want to hear and remember what we want to remember. We hear when it will be for our benefit and we do it when it is convenient. We all willingly jump into action when we will be rewarded for it.

We (believers) know that the Christian message is worth hearing and living. We know that it is freeing and that in it we find real peace and joy. However, those who do not believe find the message hard to accept. The idea of Christ on the cross, death for life, and sacrifice for mercy is ridiculous. It is foolishness. The idea of God is a myth. Spirituality is a delusion. What good is some far-off heaven when people are suffering in this world? There are so many questions and doubts that can get in the way of hearing the grace of God.

One of the worst barriers, of course, is the human vessel sent to take the message. We are hypocrites because we talk of righteousness while we fail. Those who know us know that we aren’t saints. We are rejected, ridiculed, and ignored. It isn’t easy. Every young mother thinks her child will be perfect, that she’ll do everything right so that her child will not willfully forget to listen and do what she asks. Yet, every child goes through that period of time (it lasts longer for some than for others) when they reject, ignore and ridicule the authority figures in their life. Even good kids manage to forget to do those things that they are expected to do.

In the texts for this week, we heard call stories about people who were promised that the people to whom they were sent would not listen. Ezekiel faced stubborn and impudent. The Corinthians were interested in those who were successful, thinking they must be right because they were powerful and charismatic. Paul reminded them that God’s grace is more powerful than human power, especially in the weakness of His chosen. Even Jesus faced rejection from His own people. Why should we expect to do any better? Yet we can live in the words of the psalmist, looking to God for our strength because while the world holds us in contempt, God has mercy on us.

The singer of today’s psalm must have known what it was like to be treated with derision. The scorners were proud and arrogant, wanting the Jews to fail because then they would have more power. However, the singer knew that their derision did not matter. He looked to the God who sits in the heavens. The singer was not humbled by the taunts of the enemy but by the graciousness of God who provides for His people like a master to a servant.

We may face similar taunts in our life, when we are trying to do work that others do not want us to accomplish or that others think we are incapable of doing. One of the things that the speakers have tried to instill in the youth has been the reality that their faith will not always be welcome with their peers and that they should always stand firm in Christ. They are called, as all of us are called, to share God’s Word with the world, but they won’t always be heard. We do not need to worry about the point of view of our neighbors, which is difficult for youth. We all want to be accepted and respected by the world, but we need only keep our eyes on the Lord our God who provides us with all we need. It may seem like the tasks are impossible to accomplish, but we can live at ease knowing that God will have mercy on us and is with us through it all.

This world has always been counter to that which God intends. This world will always battle against Christian faith. Jesus warned us that we would be hated as He was hated. He encouraged us not to be afraid, for He has overcome the world. Even when we are overwhelmed by what is happening, we must always have hope. God is in control; He won the war even though we are still fighting the battles. What we need to do is learn how to fight that battle with grace and mercy. We have been called to take God’s Word to our family, friends, neighbors, enemies, and the strangers in our midst. It might seem like it is an impossible task, but God promises that He will put His Word in our mouths and that His Word never comes back void.

Sadly, even when we do speak for God, many will not hear. The people didn’t hear Ezekiel. They didn’t believe the message because it wasn’t the message they wanted to hear. They wanted acceptance, peace and love, not a call to repentance. They wanted to do things their own way. The self-proclaimed prophets promised them good things; Ezekiel warned them what would happen if they continued to reject God. Which message would you rather hear? False prophets give the people what they want, that’s how they are successful, and they use their success as proof of their credibility. Yet, we learn over and over again in the scriptures that the true prophets of God face difficulty and that God will prove them true when His Word comes to fulfillment.

We are called to keep our eyes on the Lord our God who provides us with all we need, and though the tasks seem impossible to accomplish we can be obedient knowing that God is faithful. He has a purpose for each of our lives and it will be accomplished no matter what difficulties we face, for it is in our weakness, pain, need, persecution and distress for Christ’s sake that God does His best work. As Paul wrote, “For when I am weak, then am I strong.” God’s grace is sufficient, and we can trust that He will be glorified by the lives we live for Him.

Our power to preach the Gospel comes from God, not from our own abilities, experiences, or even our own desire to do so. God’s word is best shared by those who are humble before God, by those who trust in His grace. As we rejoice in our weaknesses God’s strength shines. People will reject, despise, persecute, insult and threaten us. They will believe the message that sounds better. They’ll chase after the warm fuzzies and ignore the calls to repentance. We can only hope that that one day they will know they have heard God’s Word. Until then, we’ll climb the steps of the Temple with our eyes on God, praising Him even in the midst of our suffering, for we know God’s strength will shine in our weakness and His Gospel will truly change the world.

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July 4, 2024

“Blessed is the nation whose God is Yahweh, the people whom he has chosen for his own inheritance. Yahweh looks from heaven. He sees all the sons of men. From the place of his habitation he looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, he who fashions all of their hearts; and he considers all of their works. There is no king saved by the multitude of an army. A mighty man is not delivered by great strength. A horse is a vain thing for safety, neither does he deliver any by his great power.” Psalm 33:12-17, WEB

The fourth of July is Independence Day in the United States of America. It is the day we celebrate the work of our founding fathers, the brave men who signed a declaration establishing this land as a free nation. There will be gatherings all around America. Families will host barbeques and swimming parties; towns will throw block parties and carnivals. In the evening, citizens will gather in stadiums and at lakes to watch large firework presentations. It is an exciting day for everyone to share in the spirit of patriotism and community. It is very easy, when considering the great many blessings we have in the United States, to think that we are something special in the eyes of God and the world. On the Fourth of July it seems like there’s nothing better than being an American.

We also struggle, because we know that the United States is not perfect. We have had difficult times; we are a divided nation. We can’t seem to work together to make things right, mostly because we disagree about what is right. We argue about everything, there is too much hate. The upcoming election seems to be making things even worse. Many people are afraid of the future, frustrated about the government and the economy. There are too many issues, and everyone has an opinion. Our nation has been considered a great nation, a superpower, a nation with strength, courage and abundant blessings. Unfortunately, it is easy for us to take our blessedness for granted.

Despite our division and troubles, the United States is a beautiful place. I have had the pleasure of driving across the continental United States of America several times. I have driven every mile of I-80 from coast to coast, and a good portion of most of the other interstate highways. I’ve seen the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve seen the Mississippi River and many others. I’ve stood on the shore of at least one of the great lakes and fished in my grandmother’s backyard pond. I have stood on the mountaintop in the Rockies, and marveled over the landscape at Mount St. Helen’s. I’ve seen the Redwood forests, magnificent waterfalls, and rainbows that seemed to stretch all the way across California.

I drove across Kansas at night, where a single front porch light can be seen for twenty miles. I have driven on many roads in Texas, which is so big it takes days to get from one end to the other. I’ve driven, or been stuck in, New York City, Los Angeles, and dozens of other big city traffic jams. I’ve enjoyed the beauty of tiny country roads across this nation and eaten in the cafes of small-town America. I’ve seen the blooms of spring, the incredible force of nature in summer thunderstorms, and the many creatures that live in the diverse ecosystems from coast to coast. I always gasp at the beauty of the forests of the Blue Ridge Highway, the red rocks and cacti of the desert regions, and the corn fields of the mid-west.

The American landscape is certainly inspiring, and many writers have put their love of this land into song, poetry, and prose. I understand the feeling when I’ve witnessed the beauty of God’s creation all over the country. Katherine Lee Bates was in Colorado Springs to teach a brief summer course and she was deeply inspired by many things during her trip, including the beauty at the top of Pike’s Peak. It was at the top of the mountain that a poem came to her, bringing together her memories of the alabaster buildings at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the wheat fields of Kansas.

The poem, of course, eventually became a favorite patriotic hymn of many Americans. “America the Beautiful” was set to music by Samuel A. Ward. The poem and tune came together and was first published in 1910, although it was first used in 1904. Sadly, Samuel Ward died in 1903, so he never knew that his inspired tune became such a beloved part of American culture and patriotism. The Kennedy administration even tried to give “America the Beautiful” legal status as a national hymn or even as the national anthem.

America is certainly beautiful. Of course, in many ways the issues dividing us also make us seem horrific, ugly, sad, and disgusting. But that’s the reality of life in this world. America is made up of so many beautiful places, but it is also made up of human beings, all of which are all too human. We are sinners in need of a Savior. Katherine Lee Bates understood this reality, and in the poem, she appealed to God for His healing grace upon our nation. Despite our failures, we also have a heart for good. We respond immediately to disasters with our bodies and resources. We fight for justice. We stand for truth. We pray for our neighbors. We, or at least a large number of us, believe that we are blessed by God to be a blessing not only to one another but to the world. There might be some bad, but there is a lot of good, and for that reason I know that America really is beautiful.

Independence Day is a good time for us to revive Katherine’s appeal to God for His healing grace for our nation. There is still so much good we can do for one another and for the world. God blesses the people who look to Him, who trust in His provision, protection, and salvation. Despite our troubles, we are founded on the promises of God for all people. Jesus Christ did not die on the cross to make any specific nation special in the eyes of God, but so that all men might be saved from sin and death in His name.

It is fun to celebrate the Fourth of July, to watch the fireworks and enjoy burgers from the grill. Millions of Americans will enjoy the summer sun at parks or the seashore, attending parades, picnics and other festivities. It is wonderful that we can rejoice in our many blessings, most particularly our freedom. Yet, let us never forget that we are blessed to be a blessing. God has not chosen us especially to be His special people; however, He has given us a great many gifts and responsibilities, calling us to share our gifts with the world. We will do well to take time this Fourth of July to thank God and glorify Him as we serve others, looking to Him who is the true source of hope and peace.

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July 5, 2024

“But you brought me out of the womb. You made me trust while at my mother’s breasts. I was thrown on you from my mother’s womb. You are my God since my mother bore me. Don’t be far from me, for trouble is near. For there is no one to help.” Psalm 22:9-10, WEB

I started a journey about ten months ago, a journey that has ended (but will keep going) with a dramatic transformation. I had desperately bad teeth and my health was not as it should be. I’ve dealt with some health issues, and I have had tooth implants. Today was the day when I finally received my final teeth. I spent a couple hours in the dentist’s chair as he worked to make the prosthetics fit properly and look good. They have taken photos during the process to see the changes. At one point, I looked at their computer screen and realized that they had my first photo up on the screen. When the girl came back with my teeth, I said, “You can take down that picture, that woman doesn’t exist anymore.”

There is truth to that statement, but a friend reminded me today that I might look different on the outside, but I’m the same woman in heart, soul, and spirit. I am the person God created me to be. God gave me my body, and I am meant to take care of it because it is the temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells while I live in this world. Yet, my body is not my whole person. My teeth are not what God looks at when He considers my life and the work He is calling me to do. He looks at our hearts, the center of our being that He created from the moment when we were conceived.

It takes some people a long time to realize what David sang in Psalm 22. David’s story is typical of the people God chose to serve Him. He was the least of his many brothers, the smallest and least likely to be a warrior or leader of a nation. He was shepherd to his father’s flocks, and yet it was David that God chose to be anointed as king of Israel. It wasn’t David’s looks, but his heart that God saw. God knew that David, despite his many flaws, would always look to Him.

Psalm 22 is very familiar, and is part of “The Shepherd Psalm Trilogy,” which includes Psalms 22, 23, and 24. Though David sings these songs in response to his own life and reign, these psalms focus on Christ the King. We see Him as the Suffering Servant, the Loving Shepherd, and the Reigning King. It is a trilogy of the past, present and future of our Eternal King. Though the psalm points toward the suffering of Jesus, we read it with the faith that God is with His people from the very beginning and the hope that God is with them always, even into eternity. Though Psalm 22 sounds discouraging, the afflicted one is not forsaken. God has not hidden his face from him; God has heard his cry. Affliction is not the end of the story. The suffering one will eat and be satisfied.

We see affliction and a glimmer of hope in Psalm 22. We celebrate a victorious monarchy in Psalm 24. Psalm 23 comes right in the middle. Psalm 23 is the bridge between affliction and triumph, both for Jesus and for us. The pain of the afflicted one in Psalm 22 is translated into contentment and trust in Psalm 23. There is still pain. Real pain. Darkness surrounds the suffering one, but God is the rescuer. God is the Shepherd. He leads and restores. Even though the afflicted one walks through the valley of the shadow of death, God is there to guide and rescue and comfort.

David always trusted God, confessing his faith that God was with him from the beginning, and we are called to believe and trust Him, too. We will go through tough times, journeys of transformation that lead to something new. God is happy to see us fulfill what He intends for our bodies and our lives, but most of all He wants us to join in David’s confidence that God is at the heart of everything about us. It may take awhile before we realize just how involved God has been with us from our mother’s womb, but He has been there and will be there to help us always whenever we struggle with the troubles of this world because He created us and called us to be His.

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July 8, 2024

“Blessed be Yahweh, who has given rest to his people Israel, according to all that he promised. There has not failed one word of all his good promise, which he promised by Moses his servant. May Yahweh our God be with us, as he was with our fathers. Let him not leave us or forsake us; that he may incline our hearts to him, to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, and his statutes, and his ordinances, which he commanded our fathers. Let these my words, with which I have made supplication before Yahweh, be near to Yahweh our God day and night, that he may maintain the cause of his servant, and the cause of his people Israel, as every day requires; that all the peoples of the earth may know that Yahweh himself is God. There is no one else. Let your heart therefore be perfect with Yahweh our God, to walk in his statutes, and to keep his commandments, as it is today.” 1 Kings 8:56-61, WEB

The magazine “Architectural Digest” sends photographers into the homes of the rich and famous to show how they’ve decorated with style and taste. Some of the homes are exquisite. The furniture is expensive and beautiful, every accessory perfectly placed. Even the lighting coming through the windows is from the exact moment when it will create the most amazing look. The photographers are talented and carefully compose the shots to highlight the best features of the rooms and the personality of the owners.

I would love to have a house that is so beautiful. As I look at the pictures, I often think about the choices I would make for the space. Would I choose those antiques, or would I consider something modern? What picture would I put on that wall? Would I organize my trophy case in the same way, or would I use those shelves for something else? I wonder if I could create a space that would be worthy of having the photographers from “Architectural Digest” capture the beauty of my own choices.

However, I can’t help but wonder how comfortable they are living in such a pristine environment. The sofas have names like chaise longue or divan. I’d be afraid to put a cup of tea on the antique tables. The drapes and carpets take special cleaning. Would I feel like I could sprawl out on the couch in the living room to read a book or push aside the tchotchkes to put together a puzzle or play a game with my kids?

I don’t know about you, but even when my house is clean and organized there is always something that doesn’t belong. I always have a book or a craft project within handy reach. My desk is covered with mail and research that need my attention. The kitchen is clean, but there is usually a glass in the sink and a loaf of bread on the counter. My pantry is chaotic and don’t open any closet doors. It is likely you’ll find dust on the horizontal surfaces and dust bunnies under the bed. A pile of magazines is piled in the bathroom waiting to be read. My house isn’t perfect, but it is clean and comfortable. You are welcome to come to my door anytime, and though I might apologize that the floor hasn’t been vacuumed, I would be pleased by your visit. Would I rather have that picture perfect home, or a place that is real where I can live and love and do the things I enjoy?

When Solomon dedicated the Temple in today’s passage, he called the people to have hearts perfect with God, to walk in His statutes and keep His commandments. What does it mean to have perfect hearts? What does it mean to walk perfectly? What does it mean to be perfect as God desires us to be? Should we be like that perfect house, with everything in its place and not a grain of dust on the furniture? Or, should we be real, imperfect in flesh but perfect in heart, living and loving and enjoying everything God has gifted us to do? God wants us to be righteous, free from sin and the ugly realities of our human nature, but has God created a world where everything is in its perfect place?

A field of wildflowers is beautiful and perfect, but I know from experience that the flowers do not grow picture perfect. There is always a flower that is too tall or too short. There is often a dead bloom right in the middle of a gorgeous bunch. That’s the reality of our world: sometimes a tree grows crooked. That doesn’t make it any less perfect in God’s eyes. The same is true of us. We aren’t perfect, we can’t even strive for perfection. God calls us to be like Him, to be real, to live, love and enjoy the world He created. It might not always be beautiful, but it will be perfect in God’s eyes, because He sees the world in the light of grace.

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July 9, 2024

“As they went out from Jericho, a great multitude followed him. Behold, two blind men sitting by the road, when they heard that Jesus was passing by, cried out, ‘Lord, have mercy on us, you son of David!’ The multitude rebuked them, telling them that they should be quiet, but they cried out even more, ‘Lord, have mercy on us, you son of David!’ Jesus stood still and called them, and asked, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ They told him, ‘Lord, that our eyes may be opened.’ Jesus, being moved with compassion, touched their eyes; and immediately their eyes received their sight, and they followed him.” Matthew 20:29-34, WEB

Jesus did many miraculous things. He healed people. He brought the dead back to life. He cast out demons. He made the lame walk, the deaf hear and the blind see. The Gospels are filled with stories of the way Jesus changed people’s lives. Today’s story is just one of many that help us see that Jesus was indeed the One, to see that Jesus really did have authority over life and death and all of creation.

I think what strikes me most in today’s story is the response of the crowd to the cries of the two blind men. Why would they rebuke the men for asking Jesus for help? Why would they stop Jesus from performing yet another miraculous healing? After all, it seemed as though the people following Jesus wanted a show. They believed because Jesus was doing these great things.

That was the problem. They believed in the miracles, but not in Jesus. Matthew reported that Jesus described Himself as “the Son of Man,” identifying with the people He came to serve. In this story, though, the blind men cried out to Jesus as “the Son of David.” This was a Messianic term; suggesting that Jesus was the One for whom they were waiting. The men cried out to Jesus as King, but the Jews were not willing to accept that He was the Messiah. They wanted someone they could control. They wanted Jesus to do their bidding. A messiah would wreak havoc on their world, bringing the hand of the Romans down on them.

They wanted to be free of Rome. They wanted to be a sovereign nation with their own king again, but they were afraid. They didn’t want their world to be thrown into chaos. They never understood what it meant for Jesus to be King or the Son of David. His purpose was something greater, eternal. In the passage before this story, Jesus said, “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” He came to redeem us, to be a sacrifice for our sin.

So, while the people were rebuking the blind men for speaking the words they were afraid to hear, Jesus showed them what it meant for Him to be the Son of David. He would never sit on an earthly throne and defeat the Romans in Israel. He came to serve us. Jesus listened to the blind men. Despite the rebuke of the crowd, Jesus heard their plea and responded with compassion. He healed them to show the people what it meant for Him to be the Messiah, a humble servant doing God’s work in the world.

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July 10, 2024

Lectionary Scriptures for July 14, 2024, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85:(1-7) 8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

“Surely his salvation is near those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land.” Psalm 85:9, WEB

One of my favorite villages in England was a place called Lavenham. Lavenham is a delightful little town, with picturesque buildings and an interesting history. It is known as the crookedest town in England, and it lives up to its reputation. You can almost imagine that Dr. Seuss was the architect. Lavenham was built so fast and with so little care taken for foundations that over the years the homes have settled into something almost too silly to be real. They are crooked and misshapen, though somehow still standing.

It was at the height of its importance during Tudor England as a place that produced wool. The buildings were built quickly to house the workers necessary to produce the cloth. They were built in the typical half-timber style that was popular during that time, with walls made of large timber beams that stood vertically with small horizontal crosspieces that were covered in a plaster made with horsehair. It is funny to look at modern American examples of “Tudor” houses, because they are built with solid walls and then pretty boards are nailed to the outside as a decorative enhancement, nothing like a real Tudor building.

While wandering through this quaint village, I wondered how the residents could even live in some of those buildings. There is one whose main floor beam is at a very steep incline. Though I could not see the inside, I wondered if the furniture constantly slid to the lower side of the room. After reading today’s Old Testament lesson, I can almost imagine God as a building inspector standing in the middle of Lavenham with his plumb line, shaking His head at how topsy-turvy the buildings have become.

A plumb line is a very simple tool, used for millennia, to find the vertical line. It is especially helpful for building walls because it helps to keep the walls straight. A plumb line is simply a weight tied to the end of a string. The string is held at the top of the vertical and the weight is allowed to swing free until it stops. At that point, the line points directly to the center of the earth. All lines established from the plumb line will be parallel and the wall will be straight. If a builder tries to line up a stack of bricks using only his own eyes, it is likely that some of the levels will be slightly askew, making the whole wall lean. It only takes a tiny fraction of an inch on each level of brick for the wall to eventually topple. Every wall is dependent on every other wall. Everything inside is dependent on the walls being straight. The windows and doors will not fit properly if the walls lean. A leaning wall will not stand very long. Isn’t it amazing that a cheap, simple tool can be so important?

Israel was no longer the nation God had built. They had settled into lives in and of the world; they were worshipping the gods of their neighbors and bowing down to the wrong ruler. Bethel was a high holy place, the place of the royal cults. Elijah and Elisha had both tried to turn God’s people toward the LORD but had failed. Amos was also given the word of the LORD to take to the people of Israel.

The king of Israel was surrounded by teachers and prophets that were well educated and highly respected in their positions, particularly by the king. Amos, however, was a nobody. Amos had words for the king that the king and the people did not want to hear. Their time was short. They’d disobeyed the Lord and He was about to take matters into His own hands. They were not in line with His Word. The Lord promised to send a plumb line to measure His people, to see how well they stood. The Lord could have chosen a powerful man, an educated man, a gifted man. Instead, He chose Amos, who tells us that he takes care of sheep and sycamore trees. What did he know about politics? What did he know about religion? What did he know about the future?

I had a friend who wanted to attend Bible study, but she was concerned about the teachers available. She didn’t believe that someone who was not ordained could properly lead or teach a study in God’s Word. Unfortunately, most pastors do not have the time to prepare and teach studies on a regular basis, particularly on Sunday morning. They rely on gifted teachers to provide opportunities as they lead worship and preach. My friend had plenty of options, classes that were interesting and beneficial, but she was concerned about their lack of training.

I agree that we need to be very careful about who we accept as our mentors and teachers of the faith. We need to make sure the words that the teacher is speaking lines up with the Word of God. Walk into any bookstore and you’ll find hundreds of books from authors claiming to have authority from God to guide people in the faith, many of which are written by false or questionable teachers. I am very careful when I recommend a book to the students in my class because I can see the falsehoods, but many are not familiar enough with the scriptures to know when something has been twisted.

I learned this lesson a few years ago when I recommended a book to a friend. She was very excited when she saw me after reading the book and had accepted what she read as equal to scriptures, even though it was only roughly based on the narrative of Christ and founded on one man’s vision of Jesus’ story. It was an interesting book, and unique perspective on the passion of Jesus, but it wasn’t scripture. Some reviewers even called it fiction. I shared another story with her that was similar in genre but interpreted the story of Jesus completely opposite of the first book. I reminded her that the foundation of our faith is not the books or visions of human beings, but the Word of God as found in the Bible.

The problem is that we need to be familiar enough with the scriptures so that we can discern between truth and the twist. The twist is what got us into the trouble in the first place. The serpent questioned Adam and Eve’s understanding of God’s words. “Did God really say...?” he asked. Eve then answered with her own thoughts on the matter, not with God’s true word. She was fooled into believing what the serpent wanted her to believe. False teachers can do the same. Satan even tested Jesus with that kind of twist during His wilderness wandering. “If you are the Son of God...” he said and then twisted the scriptures to meet the temptation. Jesus answered with the truth.

My friend was right to be concerned; she was not familiar enough with the Bible to be certain that she would avoid falling for the twists. However, she was foolish to think that only the ordained can be her teacher, because there are false teachers willing to twist God’s Word to make it fit their own agenda or ideology even among ministers.

How did Amos have the authority to speak God’s Word? He was just a simple shepherd, but that’s exactly why he was chosen to take this message to the king and God’s people. It was a message he really didn’t want to take. As a matter of fact, Amos argued with God about his calling, convincing God to relent from two previous visions. Finally, the Lord showed Amos a plumb line, which symbolized how Israel was out of whack. A leaning wall must be destroyed and rebuilt. Amos was that plumb line; he was the one sent to the people to warn them of what is to come.

Amos lived in the age of Jeroboam whose ideas were firmly ensconced in Israel. The high places had altars to other gods and were a part of the daily life of the people in Beth-el. The king supported the other gods, and the priest served them. Amaziah was not a prophet after God’s own heart but after his own power and position. He claimed that Amos was raising a conspiracy, but when the king did not do anything, he accused Amos of being a charlatan. Amos’s words were not easy to hear. His words threatened the end of their cozy regime.

Amos answered the exaggeration, the accusation and the condemnation with the truth. He did not go for the money or for the power as the other prophets would do. He went to Beth-el, the king’s sanctuary, to tell God’s people the truth. The message seems graceless; it was a message of destruction. Yet, the skewed wall had to go, it was separating God from His people. The plumb line would bring destruction of the wall that was in God’s way: the hard hearts of His people. God was about to destroy that which stood between He and His people.

The response to Amos’s prophecy is typical. “Don’t rock our boat, don’t say such horrible things about the king’s haven.” Amaziah told the king about the things Amos was saying and warned him that it wouldn’t be helpful for the people to hear about the king’s death and their exile. Then he told Amos to go prophesy somewhere else.

You can almost hear Amos laughing at the words of Amaziah. He answered, “I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was a herdsman, and a farmer of sycamore figs; and Yahweh took me from following the flock, and Yahweh said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” Amos didn’t have a choice about his audience or his message; God sent him to speak the truth. He couldn’t say whatever sounded good. Unfortunately, many of the false prophets gave the king warm fuzzies so that he’d feel good, and the people would feel secure. Amos had to tell them all that they were wrong. Amos was the plumb line showing God’s people that they were not lining up to God’s Word.

I can understand my friend’s reluctance to attend a study with someone she was not certain would teach god’s Word. It is so easy to get confused when there are conflicting ideas. Who should the king listen to - Amaziah or Amos? Amaziah made the king feel good and Amos threatened his life. We would rather hear the warm fuzzies any day, but we all need to hear the truth.

God’s Word acts as a plumb line for our lives, although most of us would rather just use our best judgment to make things straight. Unfortunately, we are no better at walking that straight line than we are at building a brick wall. We will veer our own way because we always think we know best. We don’t want to hear what God has to say, especially if it is different than our point of view.

John the Baptist did what God sent him to do. He preached to the people and called them to repentance. He told them they were sinners. He baptized the people for forgiveness of their sin. He is not the type you might expect to be speaking God’s Word. He lived a most unusual life; he was not concerned about the normal cares of the world. He ate odd food, wore strange clothing, and lived in the desert. I can imagine that John was like the odd transient who wanders the streets of the city mumbling to himself, engaging people who catch his eye with frightening images of doom. He was probably not the charismatic type, drawing people to himself because of the words he spoke or the impression he made. The description of John makes us uncomfortable because his appearance and ministry seem so frightening.

People flocked to him, though. And they listened. And they were baptized, but many were not being baptized because they believed what they heard. When John called the gathering crowds a brood of vipers, he knew that they were just following today’s trend. They were doing it because it was the in thing to do. After all, if the king is listening to John, he must have something to say. If a little water will make everything alright, why not get wet? This happens today, too, as people buy the latest, greatest book by the author that promises to give us all the answers. It is amazing how often those books are counted as equal to scripture,

Herodias, the villainess in this story, knows that John is far more dangerous than he appears. She knows that the word he is speaking is true, and she does not want him to be heard. She knows that her husband is listening. His heart was not yet changed, but her life would be ruined if the Word took root. Changes in his heart could mean changes for all of Israel; after all, he was the king. Would John’s preaching bring the wrath of Rome on their heads? Would she be set aside because their marriage came from sin? It is no wonder that she hated John. She knew the truth of what he was saying.

John’s story is ugly. He was not what we would describe as a superstar. He was rough, wild, and probably not beautiful. He preached wrath. He talked about sin. In his story, the truth is ugly. The truth is also ugly in Amos’s story. He warned the people that their sacred places would be destroyed and that the king would die by the sword. He also warned that the people would be sent into exile. No wonder Amos did not want to be a prophet. We do not see John rejecting his calling, but I doubt he enjoyed being a prophet of doom.

I certainly don’t want to be either Amos or John.

Despite the ugliness of the words from John and Amos, however, there is peace in them. How much better is our life when we live within the grace of God? John and Amos called God’s people back into a relationship. The destruction was meant to break the divide between God and His people. Exile might seem harsh, but during that time God’s people remembered and returned to Him. John’s words might have seemed harsh, but he was preparing the people for God’s grace to truly change the world. There is peace on the other side of repentance, because there we stand once again in the presence of God.

We deserve to hear the words of Amos and John because we are no different than the people in their days. If God held a plumb line to our lives, He would find us crooked. Unfortunately, the bricks of our life our not always placed along the plumb line of God’s Word. We make decisions based on our own agenda or opinion. We follow our hearts rather than the reality of God’s Word. We ignore the ugly truth and seek after the warm fuzzies that make us feel good. Sometimes we simply do what we think we have to do for our own selfish reasons. There are times when we do whatever we can to get our way, even if we have to sacrifice something or someone along the way. We throw tantrums, tell little white lies, manipulate the circumstances, and flaunt emotion. We make people feel guilty or try to convince them that our way is the only way and that if they disagree then there must be something wrong. We even hang salvation on our own human desires. This is why it is vital to constantly rely on the Holy Spirit and the scriptures to keep us on the right path. This is why it is important to find teachers who stand firm on God’s Word; not people who live up to our standards, but who are called and gifted to speak the truth.

God is able to use the weak to accomplish great things. He is able to use even us. We might be crooked, but in His kingdom it doesn’t matter. Christian faith is not about us. It isn't about our desires. It isn’t even about our needs. It is about God’s faithfulness. He made promises that He will keep. The stories of Amos and John remind us that life in God’s kingdom is hard. Yet, there is peace in that harshness, in the ugliness we experience. Despite the ugliness, we live in hope, knowing that God is faithful. We live in peace knowing that God can and will accomplish amazing things even when it does not seem possible to us.

God’s grace seems hard to find in the texts this week. Amos’s message has no promise of forgiveness or salvation. They don't listen to him and try to send him away. John is imprisoned and beheaded for speaking God's Word. It really is not a pleasant thing to be a prophet for God. The only mention of Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson is an assumption by Herod that He was someone else.

The Psalmist has an answer to the question about God’s grace. “Surely his salvation is near those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land.” Israel had no fear of God. Jeroboam was more concerned about his false gods and his special city. Amaziah was afraid of Jeroboam and the people weren’t interested in bad news. Herod was more afraid of his wife, her daughter, the opinion of his guests, and his superstitions than God. And then he feared Jesus was a ghost. None of them cared what the prophets had to say. John came to point toward Jesus, and once John was in prison Jesus began to preach the kingdom of God to all who would hear.

The Psalm offers hope in the midst of these disturbing stories. God’s grace is there for those who will listen, “I will hear what God, Yahweh, will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, his saints; but let them not turn again to folly.”

Then the psalmist wrote, “Mercy and truth meet together. Righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth springs out of the earth. Righteousness has looked down from heaven.” I love the image in these two verses and how they describe our Lord Jesus. The fullness of all the good things in heaven and earth - mercy, truth, righteousness and peace - come together in Him. Some translations use the phrase “love and faithfulness meet together.” This is what Paul meant in Ephesians 1:10 when he wrote, “...to sum up all things in Christ, the things in the heavens and the things on the earth, in him.” Jesus is where heaven and earth meet, where love and faithfulness meet together. In Him all good things come together for the sake of those who listen. Jesus is God’s glory come to earth; He came to minister to the people, save them from themselves, and give them peace.

We are adopted as sons in the kingdom that Jesus preached, so Paul assures us that we are seen as holy and blameless in the eyes of God. We are given with every spiritual blessing through Jesus so that our lives will glorify God. We are saved, forgiven by the blood of Christ when we hear the words of those who speak the Word of God into our lives. Paul brings it all together with another promise: “In him you also, having heard the word of the truth, the Good News of your salvation - in whom, having also believed, you were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is a pledge of our inheritance, to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory.” This is the truth that will set us free to be all God is calling us to do, even when it seems ugly.

Truth is beautiful, even if the words do not seem so, because truth leads us to a right relationship with God. It is in that relationship that we truly find peace.

We have been adopted as sons and daughters of the King, given everything we need to do His work in the world. It won’t be easy; we might end up suffering for His sake. But we can do all things for His glory because we know that God has promised forgiveness and eternal life. And we know He is faithful. So, let us always live in the truth, repent when we fail, and stand with God even when it seems we must stand against the rest of the world to do so.

If God held his plumb line against each of us this day, He would easily find fault, so much so that it might seem like our lives and future are hopeless. The fate of the Israelites that refused to listen seemed hopeless; God offered no forgiveness through Amos. The fate of Herod seemed hopeless; he could not imagine forgiveness from John after beheading him.

We are blessed, though, because God’s plumb line for us is Jesus. He sees us through Jesus-colored glasses, and therefore does not see our crooked walls when we dwell in Christ. We are sealed with the Holy Spirit and guaranteed the inheritance He has promised. The Holy Spirit works constantly in our lives, conforming us to be like Jesus. In Christ we know God’s mercy and truth, for it has been revealed in the One who brought heaven and earth together, the one who redeemed us by His blood and made us sons and heirs to the Kingdom of God.

We may not want to be like John the Baptist or Amos. We may not want to speak those words of repentance and prophecy death and destruction. We would rather sing with the psalmist about peace. But grace is found in the truth of God’s word, and whatever words He puts in our mouth will be filled with grace and hope and peace. In those words, will be a promise of salvation to all who hear and respond in faith. And then God’s glory will shine throughout the land.

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July 11, 2024

“Hey! Come, everyone who thirsts, to the waters! Come, he who has no money, buy, and eat! Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which doesn’t satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in richness. Turn your ear, and come to me. Hear, and your soul will live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David.” Isaiah 55:1-3, WEB

I have had friends, I’m sure we all have, who only call us when they need something. The call to ask for a favor, or when they are lonely, or when they want to complain about someone who has hurt them. Then they are impossible to reach when the shoe is on the other foot. They can’t help with a favor or are too busy to do lunch when we are lonely and need someone to listen. It can be disheartening and frustrating, and eventually leads to anger and brokenness. We get tired of always being there for someone who doesn’t care enough to be there for us.

Relationships are meant to be two-way streets, and while we complain about those who have taken advantage of us over the years, we have to remember that we sometimes do the same thing to others. This is especially true of our relationship with God. Anthony Bloom in his book “Beginning to Pray,” argues that when we feel like God has abandoned us, we need to remember that we are much like our uncaring friends because we only turn to Him when we are in need.

Bloom wrote, “First of all, it is very important to remember that prayer is an encounter and a relationship, a relationship which is deep, and this relationship cannot be forced either on us or on God. The fact that God can make Himself present or can leave us with the sense of His absence is part of this live and real relationship. If we could mechanically draw Him into an encounter, force Him to meet us, simply because we have chosen this moment to meet Him, there would be no relationship and no encounter. We can do that with an image, with the imagination, or with the various idols we can put in front of us instead of God; we can do nothing of the sort with the living God, any more than we can do it with a living person.

“A relationship must begin and develop in mutual freedom. If you look at the relationship in terms of mutual relationship, you will see that God could complain about us a great deal more than we about Him. We complain that He does not make Himself present to us for the few minutes we reserve for Him, but what about the twenty-three and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door and we answer, ‘I am busy, I am sorry,’ or when we do not answer at all because we do not even hear the knock at the door of our heart, of our minds, of our conscience, of our life. So there is a situation in which we have no right to complain of the absence of God, because we are a great deal more absent than He ever is.”

Martin Luther taught that every Christian should commit themselves to a regular daily time of prayer and study. He recommends that we spend time with God every morning and evening. This way we begin the day with our eyes on Jesus and end the day in thanksgiving and praise for all God’s blessings. This time is not meant to be just a time of asking God for what we need, whether it is for ourselves or others. We are to spend time listening to Him, paying attention to Him, asking Him to show us His will every minute of every day.

In our busy world today, it is often difficult to find the time we need to spend alone with our Father. Even when we sit down to read our Bibles or pray, there is constantly something distracting us. Our minds wander as we consider our schedule for the day or something on the television catches our attention. We focus on a hundred different things, and it is hard to pay attention to our prayers. We end up saying a few quick petitions and then move on to our next project. Yet God comes to us in ways we don’t always realize. We often don’t pay attention, but we can see Him in creation, in our neighbors, in the friend who needs us without returning the favor. We know we see Him in the scriptures, worship, and fellowship with other Christians, but we spend most of our day ignoring the reality of His presence in our midst always.

The next time you pray, stop and listen. The next time you are walking through the grocery store, walk as if He is beside you, because He is. God does not always speak that we can hear, but He is always nearby. He wants to help with all our needs, and will answer our prayers according to His will, but He also wants us to return the favor, to do His work in the world, to listen as He talks, to experience His grace every moment of the day. Our life will be so much fuller when we embrace God as we are invited by Him through Isaiah because He has promised to fill us with every good and perfect thing.

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July 12, 2024

“Seek Yahweh while he may be found. Call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Let him return to Yahweh, and he will have mercy on him, to our God, for he will freely pardon. ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways,’ says Yahweh. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain comes down and the snow from the sky, and doesn’t return there, but waters the earth, and makes it grow and bud, and gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so is my word that goes out of my mouth: it will not return to me void, but it will accomplish that which I please, and it will prosper in the thing I sent it to do. For you shall go out with joy, and be led out with peace. The mountains and the hills will break out before you into singing; and all the trees of the fields will clap their hands. Instead of the thorn the cypress tree will come up; and instead of the brier the myrtle tree will come up. It will make a name for Yahweh, for an everlasting sign that will not be cut off.’” Isaiah 55:8-13, WEB

One of my favorite childhood picture books is called “The Cat in the Box.” It is a very simple story that begins with a picture of a cat in a box. As you go through the pages, the artist enlarges the view of the cat’s world as if a camera is pulling back from the cat. You see that the box is on a chair, in a room, in a house, in a neighborhood, in a city, in a state, in a country, in the world. When you are inside the box, you can only wonder about everything outside the box. With each page, you gain a greater understanding about the cat and its world.

I learned about this philosophy in college. We all live in boxes, though they are not cardboard like the one the cat lives in. The boxes are our homes, neighborhoods, schools, work, and churches. We live in boxes that are created by our gender, cultural understanding, education, financial position and politics. Some people are unable to physically leave their boxes, because of health or money. Others prefer to keep their boxes very small, by not traveling outside their city or seeking to learn about other ideas. Many people reject new people or ideas because they cannot make them fit into their box.

Unfortunately, we try to keep God in our own little boxes. We define Him according to our own understanding, based on the life we live. The Jews put God into a room in a Temple, defining Him by their history and religion. We try to put Him in our own little rooms, like our churches or our doctrinal understanding. Yet, God is much bigger than we can ever make His box.

In the story of the cat, we moved out of the box far enough to see the entire world, yet there is even more beyond that as we can see as we look at the galaxy and universe. It is the same with our understanding of God. We cannot even come close to understanding the fullness of His glory. Yet, we can seek to know Him more by prayer, study, and fellowship with those outside our box.

The text from Isaiah is familiar to us. We looked at the beginning of chapter 55 yesterday. It begins with the call for those who are thirsty to seek God: what He has He offers freely and abundantly. In today’s passage, we are reminded that everything that comes from God is fruitful. It is productive. God is actively involved in His creation, and He is faithful to His promises. His will shall be done, and He will make certain it is. Isaiah tells us in this passage of promise that instead of thorns, the earth will bear cypress and instead of briers the earth will bear myrtles. In other words, instead of plants that are useless and damaging, God will make the world productive and useful again.

God’s ways are not our ways. He does amazing and incredibly surprising things. He sent His Son to be born in flesh, to live and to die for our sake. We learn how to be children of God from Jesus Christ, and by His example we learn how to sacrifice ourselves by following Him and doing His work for the sake of others. We learn how to live lives of grace and love that will cause others to trust in God’s promises. If we could take our “camera” as far from our own little boxes as possible, we would see that by God’s grace we have received the greatest gift: eternal life that comes from faith in Jesus. Today, step outside your box for just a moment and see that there is more to God’s Kingdom and promises than you ever imagined.

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July 15, 2024

“For you, brothers, were called for freedom. Only don’t use your freedom for gain to the flesh, but through love be servants to one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, be careful that you don’t consume one another.” Galatians 5:13-15, WEB

Long before voice mail, and I had an answering machine to take any calls when I was not at home, which was often because I was single and worked long hours. As you might expect, I was very creative with the messages I used, making use of music and other fun ideas. I wrote scripts, often using quotes from favorite movies or people. There was one particular message that became problematic because it caused too much confusion: I spoke in French. Though I wasn’t fluent, I’d had several years of French in High school and still had enough resources to piece together a simple message with instructions for the caller. The message was short, but fairly accurate; I practiced several times before I hit record so that the words would flow off my tongue and sound authentic.

I got a high number of hang-ups with that message, though my friends usually realized it was my phone when they heard my name. The funniest confusion was when Bruce tried to call. It was the early days of our relationship, and he was living in England. He was sure that he dialed the right number, but when he got this message in French, he wondered if he had dialed the wrong international dialing code! He got the same message when he redialed the number, so he left a message. My silliness cost him financially because international calls were very expensive.

I decided to change the message when I realized how much confusion and inconvenience it was causing. The worst call came from a doctor’s office for a woman named Mrs. Johnson. They left several messages for her about test results and appointments, but never left a number to return the call. I was unable to inform them that they were using the wrong number and that their patient never got their information. I loved that message, but I realized I was hurting others.

As I have grown older, I have become far more aware of how all my actions affect the world in which we live. I have given examples of this so many times over the years. The cart I leave in the middle of the parking lot can damage someone’s car. Cutting off a man in a scooter at the grocery store can make him angry. Keeping the extra quarter in my change can cause a cashier to lose her job. These may seem like insignificant things, but they are actions that can cause others trouble. Even worse, they can cause others to sin. We are not bound by sin because Jesus Christ has made free, but we are not freed to live however we like. We are freed to live according to the goodness and mercy of God. In that freedom, we must be careful not to harm others with our actions.

As we walk in the light of our Lord Jesus, we must always consider our neighbor and how our actions will affect them. Will what we do make another sin? Will we make them angry or cause them bitterness? Will we make them feel guilty for doing something they think is wrong? Will we cause them to overindulge? We can all be easily led astray, we just don’t have the strength or willpower to control ourselves. Someone who is hurt may not be able to control his or her temper. One drop of liquor can cause an alcoholic to overindulge. In all things, we are called to be certain that your actions show your love for your neighbor and concern for their well-being. Though you have the freedom to do what you want, even those things that feel right, do not do anything that will cause another to stumble in thought, word or deed. Love your neighbor as yourself.

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July 16, 2024

“Ruth said, ‘Don’t urge me to leave you, and to return from following you, for where you go, I will go; and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May Yahweh do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me.’” Ruth 1:16-17, WEB

One of my favorite Bible stories is that of Ruth. Ruth, who is listed among Jesus’ descendants, was a woman from the country of Moab. They Moabites were not friends of the Jews; they worshipped different gods, but they were not always enemies. The story of Ruth takes place during a time of peace. It was, however, also a time of famine and suffering. Elimelech was a man from Bethlehem who decided to take his wife Naomi and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion out of the land of Judah to the land of Moab where they might find food to survive. Their sons married Orpah and Ruth, daughters of Moab, and they were all content. Then Elimelech died. Soon his two sons also died, leaving Naomi and her daughters-in-law widows.

Naomi grieved her losses and decided to return to the land of her ancestors. Everything she loved had been taken from her; she needed to go home. She set Orpah and Ruth, her two daughters-in-law, free to go back to their homes to have new lives with new husbands who could care for them. After some argument, Orpah agreed. Orpah is an obscure figure from scriptures. We are familiar with her story, but she gets lost in the telling of Ruth’s story. We talk about Naomi, her troubles and her bitterness. We talk about Ruth, her generosity and courage. We barely mention Orpah, the one who went home. I suppose we see her as the opposite of Ruth, selfish, because despite her love for her mother-in-law she returned to her old world to begin a new life.

And yet, Orpah did not do anything wrong. As a matter of fact, she was obedient to her mother-in-law’s wishes. Naomi was a widow with no sons and no means of support. She wanted to return to her homeland where she might find generous relatives who would take her into their home. It wouldn’t be right for her to demand the girls go with her or to demand relatives take more mouths to feed. It didn’t help that the girls were Moabites; it would have been difficult for them to find husbands in Judah where marriage to foreign women was firmly denounced, even if they are from a friendly nation. Naomi was being kind and generous by telling them to go home to find a new life. Orpah wept in grief about leaving, but she did so out of respect for the woman she’d grown to love.

Ruth insisted on returning to Bethlehem with Ruth. “Wherever you go, I will go. Your people will be my people, your God my God.” So, Ruth left everything, even her god, to go to Bethlehem with Naomi to take care of her. She gleaned the fields so they would have food to eat. A man named Boaz, who was one of Naomi’s kinsmen, learned that Ruth was caring for Naomi.

Boaz saw Ruth’s good works toward Naomi and offered a blessing of thanksgiving that she might be rewarded for her efforts. He took special care of the women; he provided food and rest to Ruth and peace to Naomi who had suffered so much. He married Ruth and they had a son named Obed, through whom Ruth became the great-grandmother of David and an ancestor of Jesus. If Boaz, a mere man, is able to be a redeemer that brings hope and comfort to his kinsmen, how much more will our God bring to us?

It could not have been easy for either Naomi or Ruth, but Ruth’s bold act of kindness led to hope and comfort for Naomi. Ruth cared for her mother-in-law and her kindness was blessed by marriage to a new husband from Naomi’s family. She went out of her way to take care of someone she loved and despite the difficulties she faced, she found peace.

Today is the day we remember Ruth on the Church calendar, so it is a good day to realize how even simple acts of kindness can change someone’s life in ways that we may never really know. This is the way God works in this world: through the kindness of people who believe in Him. Keep an eye out. You may not find yourself leaving everything behind to travel to a new and strange place, but there just might be someone waiting around the corner who needs you to help them find comfort and hope.

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July 17, 2024

Lectionary Scriptures for July 21, 2024, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-44

“So then you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and of the household of God, being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone; in whom the whole building, fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together for a habitation of God in the Spirit.” Ephesians 2:19-22, WEB

What does it mean to be a leader? Unfortunately, many leaders are more focused on power and position than on God’s will. Many leaders have brilliant ideas but refuse to do any of the work to make those ideas come to fruition. Many leaders are so busy with all the wrong work that they miss the opportunities to do what they should be doing. None of us are perfect, but I suspect many of us have been hurt and disappointed by someone in leadership that has done a poor job.

What is leadership? This is a question for all time, but it seems to be particularly pertinent for our time. Corporations have fallen apart because of poor leadership. Politicians of every stripe are questioned about their decisions in their public and private lives. It even happens in churches and families. What is the right way to lead a group of people? What is the best thing to do for the sake of the group and for those group serves or encounters? Are our leaders truly concerned about the people they are meant to serve? Many leaders forget that they are not the king of the hill. A good leader is the one who realizes that the burden is on his or her shoulder. When the leaders take care of those people who are in their care, then those people will do everything they can to make the leader successful.

The apostles were meant to be preaching and teaching the scriptures, praying and establishing God’s Word in Christ’s Church, but they were caught in the business of organizing and administration, distracted by work that others could do. Luke tells us in Acts 6 that they chose men to do that work so that they could focus on prayer and ministry of the word. The work was necessary, and they most likely didn’t mind serving their neighbors, but it was keeping them from doing what they were called to do. There was no reason for this, since there were others in the body of believers who were gifted and capable of doing it.

There are times when it is necessary to attend to the distractions. I was a retail manager and my job was to run the store. I had a very specific job description that included jobs that were beyond the scope of the employees. They were not responsible for the financial aspects of the store or for hiring new employees. They did not have the authority to fire other employees or assign them work. While the job descriptions of those in our retail store were somewhat flexible (a cashier might be asked to stock shelves), they generally had their own work and stuck to it.

There were times, however, when it was necessary for me to jump in and help. I jumped onto a cash register if we had a sudden influx of customers. I unloaded trucks when our warehouse manager was on vacation. I stocked shelves when we ran out of a popular item. Though it was not part of my job, I did what was necessary in an emergency. It was important that I didn’t let it disrupt my own work. I could not be on the register if I had to receive an order of change from the armored truck driver. I could not be hiding in the warehouse during a busy time in the store; I had to be available to handle problems. I could not let the employees’ tasks keep me from doing my own job.

The same is true of pastoral leadership. A lay person can represent the church and pastor by visiting the sick, but a pastor needs to be at the bedside of someone nearing death who wants to confess, receive absolution and communion. A church staff and council can make decisions about the business of the church, but the pastor is responsible for leading everyone in a direction that glorifies God. There may be times when the pastor needs to jump in to solve a problem, but he or she should never let those tasks stop the work of shepherding the people.

This is what seemed to be happening in the early church. The apostles did not think those tasks were beneath them, but “waiting on tables” had gotten in the way of ministering the word. They needed to give those responsibilities to others so that they could do what they were called to do.

I’m sure there are many pastors out there who wish their congregations would understand this passage a little better. After all, how many pastors are viewed as the Johnny-do-it-all for of the church? How many pastors change the toilet paper or produce the bulletins? How many attend every meeting and get involved in every project? How many members expect those pastors to be available every minute of every day, and yet think that pastor only works an hour a week? Do they even know how much time it takes to do ministry of the Word, writing sermons and bible studies, and planning the worship and liturgy every week? They, we, often think, “He’s just reading.” “He’s just surfing the internet.” “He’s just writing some notes.” “He’s just praying.”

We often put a very low priority on prayer and yet it is a vital part of ministry. Unfortunately, I think too many pastors are left with too little time to pray because they are jumping in to do the work that needs to be done, work that belongs to the lay people in the church.

Our scriptures for this week do not focus on the wearied pastor, but on the leader who has lost touch with what it means to care for the sheep in his or her care. They focus on other things. They choose to be on every committee so that they can have control of every event. They jump in and do the work not because there is no one to do it but because they want it done their way. Instead of being a shepherd who cares for the sheep, he becomes a shepherd who destroys and scatters the sheep. Instead of pursuing their vocation as a shepherd of the people, they think they are a ruler. They are more interested in power than in service. They are more interested in making the world in their image than in caring for God’s sheep. Pastors that step in to change toilet paper or organize an event are not necessarily harmful, but they take away opportunities for the people to serve God. It is the pastors that see themselves as rulers, however, that are very dangerous. They turn Christians to a false Gospel. They lead them down a path that glorifies men rather than God. They cause people to turn their focus from God’s work to their own.

The shepherds in Jeremiah’s day were not leading God’s people. In Jeremiah’s day, the shepherds were the kings. They were not meant to lord over the people, but to care for them. The king was called to ensure the wellbeing of God’s people, to protect them from enemies, and guide them in the right path. For God’s chosen kings, that right path was faith in Him. However, Judah (and Israel) often followed other gods. They turned to allies rather than relying on God. They were drawn into the ways of the world rather than living according to God’s commands.

In today’s Old Testament passage from Jeremiah, God warned Judah’s rulers that they had failed and that they would no longer have His blessing. They had failed to care for God’s people, and He was ready to take over. He promised to take care of everyone, but He called the leaders to account. They would experience the same measure of care they gave to those they were called to lead. In other words, they would suffer the same lack of compassion as the sheep they were given.

God never warns His people without offering a promise. The promise is not meant to ease the burden on the guilty, but rather so that the godly will not despair in the midst of the suffering they will experience. God promised to gather a remnant and bring them home where they would be fruitful. Times would be tough, but there hope beyond this day and its problem. The fulfillment of this promise would be long in coming. The passage ultimately points to the coming of the great Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ. The promise of a Messiah gave hope to many generations in their darkest of days: one day the evil and unfaithful kings would be set aside for a perfect and righteous rule.

The king to come would be a true shepherd, like the shepherd we hear about in today’s Psalm. The words of the psalmist is a song of trust in God, but we see them through Jesus colored glasses, recognizing in Him the fulfillment of all God’s promises. Jesus is the promised Messiah. He is the Shepherd King. He is the One who will take care of us. Psalm 23 offers us a glimpse of God’s concern for our whole beings. The Lord makes us rest in green pastures where there is plenty of food and clean water. He keeps us from evil and protects us from our enemies. He meets our physical and emotional needs. He gives us a home, a family and everything we need to survive. He gives us our identity.

Imagine how incredible it must have been for the disciples. They saw the power of God at work through their lives. They were excited when they returned to Jesus, telling Him everything they had done. I can almost see the chaos as James and John wouldn’t let the either get a word in edgewise before interrupting with his own version, Andrew praising God for the lives changed and Peter trying to get things organized in some way. What about Judas? He must have cast out demons and healed the sick just like the rest of them.

They didn’t even have time to rest before the people came looking for them. They weren’t just seeking Jesus now because they knew that the disciples also had this power to change lives. Jesus was concerned for their health: physical as well as emotional and spiritual. He took them away so that they could rest and eat, but they also needed time away from the admiration of the crowd. It would have been so easy to become proud of their accomplishments and to forget that it was God’s power that made the good things happen.

They slipped away by boat, but the people saw where they were headed and ran to meet them on the shore. Jesus saw the people, who needed so much, and He had mercy on them. They were like the sheep that had been scattered and they needed shepherds who could meet their needs. All their needs.

If you were Jesus, what would you do? He was faced with a difficult decision. The apostles needed to rest, but the people chasing them needed a shepherd. It might seem like Jesus was shirking His duties as their shepherd by turning to help the crowds. In this text, however, we see how Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise in Jeremiah. He was the shepherd who would care for the flock that the leaders ignored. He stepped in where He was needed and did what He needed to do. He took care of the sheep who were desperate to find a shepherd. Wherever Jesus went the people needed Him, not just to do the miracles but to be the fulfillment of the promise. They needed the Messiah. We all need the Messiah.

We live in a world where individuals will always have differences of opinion, even when it comes to God’s grace. An orphan will understand the idea of our Father in a much different way than someone who grew up in a strong family or someone who experienced abuse. That doesn’t change God at all. God is God. He is I AM. We see Him through the eyes of our own experiences and our own little corner of the world, but our common denominator Jesus Christ gives us new eyes and a new attitude. We love those imperfect leaders and fellow workers because that is God’s will for us. We can’t see God through their eyes, and we can’t expect that they will see Him through ours. We can only dwell together and love each other as children of the God who is big enough to reach us all. We are all sinners in need of a Savior, and that the Savior came to break down the barriers that we create between one another.

The healthiest Christian congregations are those who have a good leader and people who can live together despite any differences. We don’t all agree on politics. Not everyone will like a certain hymn. Potlucks are filled with food from many different traditions, some of which might not satisfy every palate. We may even have disagreements about certain doctrines, but the healthy community learns to find unity in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the One who can break down all the barriers between us. We don’t have to be the same to belong to God and to do His work in the world. We need others to share their experiences so that we know that God is truly greater than we can ever imagine. Do we really want to worship a God who fits into our tiny little boxes?

Paul wrote to the Ephesians about the differences between Gentile and Jew, but we have our own borders and walls that are broken down by the love of Christ. We separate ourselves for a multitude of reasons like age, gender, race, nationality, intelligence, class, ideology, politics... the list goes on. We also separate ourselves based on petty or trivial reasons. How many congregations live in tension between groups that disagree about the insignificant aspects of church life? How many congregations are made up of different groups that can’t seem to work together? Some folk think the mission of the church is to feed the poor and that we should focus on social justice and political issues. Others think that our mission is to take God’s Word into the world. Yet others think church is to feed and care for the believers. To embrace one and ignore the others is to reject the full measure of God’s calling for our lives. Jesus took care of the physical, mental, and spiritual needs of His disciples even while caring for the physical, mental and spiritual needs of others. In just a few short lines in today’s Gospel story, Jesus did it all.

We are called to do it all, too. This is impossible, but God will gift us with whatever we need to accomplish His work. He gives part to one and another part to another and builds us into one body that is meant to work together for His glory. It isn’t easy to overcome our differences, but when we trust Christ and see each other through His eyes, we can do the impossible.

Reese Witherspoon played a very blonde sorority girl named Elle Woods who was madly in love with an aspiring lawyer and politician in the movie “Legally Blonde.” Warner dumped Elle when they graduated because he thought he needed a more appropriate woman to be his partner in life. He went on to Harvard Law School, renewed a relationship with his old girlfriend Vivian, who fit the mold of a politician’s serious wife perfectly. Meanwhile, Elle was not willing to give up so easily, so despite her supposed lack of intelligence, she was accepted to Harvard Law School where she began to pursue a new career while she pursued Warner.

Needless to say, Vivian did not like Elle at all because she was competition for Warner’s heart and life. They were completely different women. Elle was a happy, enthusiastic woman who was interested in fashion, parties, and celebrity. Vivian was more serious, the daughter of a powerful northeastern family who understood propriety and power. The conflicts between the two women were funny as east met west in stereotypical ways.

The two women eventually found a common denominator, which happened to be the very thing that had originally kept them apart. As Elle discovered that she could succeed and thrive in law, Vivian began to see her as a peer rather than a competitor. In one scene, they were discussing a case when they began to talk about Warner. Elle was a compassionate listener who offered insight into Warner’s past and personality. They laughed about his failures together. By the end of the movie, Warner realized that Elle was the serious and powerful woman that he really wanted, but she refused him. Meanwhile, Vivian realized that Warner was not the man for her. The two women became the best of friends.

Have you ever had a similar experience, particularly among fellow Christians that don’t seem to fit your expectations? At first it seems you have nothing in common. As a matter of fact, though the relationship does not begin with conflict, we do not see them as potential friends. We wonder if we could even spend time with them. Once we find something in common, however, they become our friends. We just have to find the common denominator.

The Jews and the pagan Christians had nothing in common. They came from very different backgrounds and had very different ideas about life and the world. The Jews even had rules that kept them from relationships with the pagans in the land where they lived. However, Jesus Christ offered something new: a common denominator between very different people. In Christ both the Jews and the pagan Christians were part of the same family. They became citizens of the same kingdom. Despite their differences, they had something greater that could bond them together: the blood of Christ. This is very good news for those of us who were once strangers to the mercy of God. We are given by grace the joy and peace and hope found in Christ, joined together with everyone who has also heard and believed in Jesus Christ as one body despite our differences.

We have that same common denominator with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Sadly, we often reject those who are too different from us. Those who are focused on social justice don’t want to have anything to do with those who are more concerned with making disciples. We don’t understand that we need to be disciples to feed the poor and that God calls us as disciples to feed the poor. We need each other. We need to do both. The disciple maker needs to encourage the social justice warrior and the social justice warrior needs to embrace the teaching of the disciple maker so that they will grow in God’s grace and love. It is our tendency to want to be “the king” that keeps us from seeing the value of the other.

Jesus never worried about His power and position. As a matter of fact, He rejected the crowd’s desire for Him to be an earthly king. His concern was for the people, to ensure that they received the kind of care that God desired for them. He was in a right relationship with both those who were under His care and His Father in Heaven. That’s what makes good leadership, an understanding that although one is the Master, He is also the Servant. Perhaps we could use more leaders like that in our world today, in corporate leadership and politics and the church and in our homes. This is certainly what Jesus wants from us in whatever work we are called to do, whether we are leaders or working to support our leaders.

We can’t do the work of the Kingdom alone. That is why God calls us into community; we are one body made up of people from all sorts of different backgrounds with different gifts and passions. We can’t do what we are called to do it if we hold each other and our idea of mission against one another. We have a common bond: Jesus Christ. It is by His blood that we are reconciled to God and drawn together as one body. Most of all, we need to follow the greatest leader, our Good Shepherd, who will always lead us in the right path. With Him we can be the shepherds who continue His work, doing the amazing things He has called and sent us into the world to do.

This week’s texts are filled with so many wonderful images. There is the Old Testament promise that though the shepherds abandon their flock, God will provide a Good Shepherd. We are comforted by Psalm 23, especially when we are dealing with the valleys of our lives. We see the community of believers through the eyes of Paul who notes that all believers were once far from God, but God draws us together. The Gospel lesson show us the compassion of Christ as found in His love for the disciples and the crowds. The Word of God was drawing people to the community of believers that Jesus created. He is the center, but He was building the disciples into one body, and He continues to build us into that Temple, His Temple. In Christ we are bound together as one.

It is not always easy living in that temple. Unfortunately, the differences that separate us often lead us into places we would rather not go. There are dark valleys even in the heart of the church, as the differences between people are magnified by the passions of those called to serve. Sometimes it seems impossible to find rest. We are reminded of something in today’s texts, though. God is with us through it all. He has never promised to make it easy, but He has promised to be there.

Our leaders will fail. We will still get thirsty, hungry, tired, lost, hurt and lonely, but we can rest in the knowledge that He is our Good Shepherd. Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise. He is the Messiah. He has forgiven us and made us part of the Kingdom so we can walk in faith and do the work He has called us to do together. As we trust Him, and walk by faith, we will see that He can do extraordinary things in the world, and He will do them through us.

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July 18, 2024

“‘Don’t let your heart be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many homes. If it weren’t so, I would have told you. I am going to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and will receive you to myself; that where I am, you may be there also. You know where I go, and you know the way.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on, you know him, and have seen him.’” John 14:1-7, WEB

People often use Facebook to post cryptic messages. Once a friend posted that he was waiting for an answer to a question he didn’t even know he had. We never learned the question or the answer or how it would impact his life. We simply knew that there was a question and an answer, and it was important enough for him to make a comment on Facebook. It isn’t unusual. Most people post comments that aren’t very important. I like to post pictures of new and unusual things I see when I am shopping. I have even posted, “I should go to the grocery store.” I don’t think there is anyone who really cares. I usually try to be witty or inspiring. I try to post things that will make my friends think or laugh or invite me to lunch. I like to post statuses that will bring a little hope or joy to those who read, maybe brighten the day of someone who is struggling. The grocery store status was so out of character and so totally mundane that one friend answered with a simple “Ok.”

I love Facebook because it has reconnected me with people who I have not seen for decades. I’m friends with relatives I never get to see. I’ve reconnected with people I knew in High school, and it is fun to see how their lives have turned out. I’m friends with people locally, and Facebook helps me see what’s going on in their everyday lives when I don’t get to see them enough. Sometimes the posts are interesting. Sometimes they are upsetting. We love to hear that our friends are celebrating the birth of another grandchild, but not so much that their mother is in hospice care. I like knowing the good and bad things that are going on in people’s lives so that I can pray with them. It is good to have this connection.

It isn’t always good, however. Studies have shown that Facebook can have a negative impact. An article from the New Yorker a few years ago reported about a study that showed how Facebook makes people unhappy. There are multiple reasons for this. One reason is the lack of interaction. After all, it seems like if you have four hundred friends, then at least one of them should like and/or comment on your witty or insightful posts, right? Sometimes posts seem unread because no one reacts. There is also the problem of friends who post negatively about something you’ve said. There is also the temptation to envy one another when we read good news. It can be hard for a childless widow to hear about how her friends’ bouncing new grandbabies. The guy who can’t find a job must go crazy every time a friend complains about a boss or a co-worker. A lonely person can’t help but be jealous every time a friend posts a picture of another night out with friends.

It is interesting, though, that a different study found that Facebook can make us happier. That study found that we are “wired” in our brains to connect to people, which online social networking helps us do. We are happy when we share thoughts and ideas that help others. There is a psychological and physiological rush that comes when we post something that has an impact on the lives of others. We are happy when someone likes an article we repost or a photo we share. We are happy when someone thanks us because our thoughts made a difference in their day.

I sometimes wonder if I should give it up. I confess that I often get angry with posts or comments I see. I sometimes feel unhappiness or envy. We need to consider how we use social media as a tool. It can be extremely addicting. I know from experience. I check Facebook first thing in the morning and multiple times during the day. I even do it when I am out because I have access on my phone. I am often distracted during the day, turning to the computer instead of the writing or painting or reading I should be doing when I hear the ding that informs me that someone has commented on one of my posts. One of the studies referenced in the New Yorker article reported that it was better to be actively engaged in Facebook rather than just scrolling through the timeline. It is the engagement that makes us feel good and the passivity which leads to boredom, which makes us unhappy.

That brings me back to my friend’s answer to the unknown question yesterday. I posted a response to my friend’s status: “The answer is always Jesus.” Everyone who works with youth and children in the church knows that the answer to every question is “Jesus,” but the joke is completely lost on most people who are not Christian. My answer didn’t quite bring the lighthearted laughter that I expected. The responses were thankfully not anti-Christian, but the joke was completely lost on many of the readers. The experience could have been upsetting; I have to admit that I’ve made unashamedly Christian comments on posts and have been brutally (virtually) attacked for my faith. I wasn’t so happy on those days.

I do wonder sometimes why I bother to continue to post on Facebook, to engage with others who might not receive the faith I share. Then I think about all the times I’ve been able to share Jesus with people who really need to meet Him. I think about the comments that uplift my friends who are feeling down. I think about the prayers that I’ve been able to pray. I think about the ministry God has guided me to do in this strange and wonderful and addicting medium. I couldn’t give it up because I know that the moments of happiness far outweigh those moments that make me angry, hurt, or sad. I continue to pop onto my computer between chores or while I’m waiting for the paint on a canvas to dry because I trust that God can use even the virtual world of Facebook to share the only answer that really matters: Jesus.

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July 19, 2024

“The man bowed his head, and worshiped Yahweh. He said, ‘Blessed be Yahweh, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his loving kindness and his truth toward my master. As for me, Yahweh has led me on the way to the house of my master’s relatives.’” Genesis 24:26-27, WEB

There is a joke in Texas that every road that leads to anywhere I want to go is under construction. They say that jokes are funniest when there is an element of truth. Well, this is true of the joke about Texas construction right now. Every road has orange cones or closed lanes. A major highway intersection we drive through regularly is often closed completely on weekends, chasing traffic onto frontage road detours that add time to the trip. I’ve found many of my own detours, backroads that might not save a lot of time, but do save some frustration.

I also run my GPS almost every time I get in my car, even if it is a place I visit regularly, to see how traffic is doing at any given moment so I can make decisions about how to avoid the frustrations of all this construction. I was headed for church the other day, and decided not to follow its instruction, to take my favorite back road because I just don’t like the traffic at that time of day. Unfortunately, I discovered that the road was closed, too! This meant I had to find another way. GPS gave me choices, but I went my own way, often discovering that they were not the best choice. A trip that should have taken me thirty minutes ended up taking forty-five, and I was nearly late for my meeting.

I didn’t believe the GPS and though I was given good instruction, I thought that I knew a better way. Isn’t that how it often is with our journey of faith? God blesses us with guidance from others, yet we often wonder if there is a better way. When we do this, we find ourselves wandering, lost, and confused. I have learned over the years that GPS is not always correct, but I do know that God does not direct us into confusion. He leads us through this world according to His love and mercy. His way is the best way.

As Abraham grew old, he called his chief servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. He was very specific with his direction. “But you shall go to my country, and to my relatives, and take a wife for my son Isaac.” The servant was concerned that he would not be able to convince a young woman from a distant land to return to marry a stranger. Abraham trusted in God’s promises and assured the servant of His faithfulness. He then told the servant if the girl were unwilling to come, he would be released from the vow.

When the servant arrived in the town of Nahor, he called to the God of his master and asked for a sign so that he would know of the LORD’s faithfulness. Rebecca was the answer to his prayer. The servant did not know the God of Abraham but trusted his master’s word and set out on the journey. When he arrived and found everything as Abraham expected, he realized that the LORD is faithful.

Rebecca’s family wanted time to think about the situation, but the servant answered, “Don’t hinder me, since Yahweh has prospered my way. Send me away that I may go to my master.” The servant left his master and went to the strange land unsure if he would be successful, but when he got there, he followed the word of his master and trusted in the faithfulness of God and His promises. From there, God guided his footsteps into a successful outcome. The servant could have easily followed his own ideas. Abraham was old, near death. If Isaac were not married before he died, he would never know the outcome of the journey. Yet, he was obedient and honored his master’s wishes. In Nahor, he found the LORD to be faithful and succeeded in his task.

Even though I know every road in my path is under construction, I refused to believe that the instructions from GPS because I thought I knew a better way. We often do the same with our spiritual journey. We turn to pastors, teachers, and other faithful servants of God to hear what they have to say; yet we go on our own way. In our own faith journey, God often provides signs to help us along the way. He does not leave us frustrated, confused and wandering. We simply must trust in His promises and seek His guidance along the way. He will prove to be faithful every time.

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July 22, 2024

“In you, Yahweh, I take refuge. Never let me be disappointed. Deliver me in your righteousness, and rescue me. Turn your ear to me, and save me. Be to me a rock of refuge to which I may always go. Give the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress. Rescue me, my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the hand of the unrighteous and cruel man. For you are my hope, Lord Yahweh, my confidence from my youth. I have relied on you from the womb. You are he who took me out of my mother’s womb. I will always praise you.” Psalm 71:1-6, WEB

Imagine that you are the newly hired mail person at a large company with a huge hierarchy of people, from office assistants to department heads to Vice Presidents. The CEO comes to you one day and says, “I am going to put you in charge of everything.” He explains that there are a bunch of incompetent people who have done something wrong that nearly destroyed the company, and he is assigning you the job of firing them. The list of people includes a couple of Vice Presidents and your own supervisor. How do you respond? I would probably say, “But Sir, I’m a nobody. They won’t listen to me. I just deliver the mail.”

I certainly would not want the job. After all, I probably did not even know there was a problem. I deliver mail; I don’t read balance sheets or know what goes on in corporate offices. I would not have any credibility with any of those on the list to be fired. “Who are you to do this?” they would ask. This is especially true of those who have been with the company for a long time, and those who are high up on the corporate ladder. They would not listen to me.

Of course, in this situation you would not be given any real control. You wouldn’t choose which employees to fire. The decisions would be made by the CEO. He would give the orders; he would instruct you how to do the task. It is his word that would give you the credibility needed. It would not be your work, but his work done through you. He would not be far away, but it would still be hard work. Who wants to be the one to deliver bad news, particularly to those who have authority over you?

God often chose people to do exactly that type of work. Take, for example, Jeremiah. The titles and circumstances are different, but God called young Jeremiah to tell the people of Judah some bad news. He was preparing to pronounce judgment on Judah for their faithlessness. They willingly submitted to foreign gods and turned their back on Him. Jeremiah was called to speak a word of warning to the people: Babylonia was coming to rule over Judah. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want either job. Like my response to the CEO, Jeremiah answered God by telling Him that he was a nobody. He was too young and too inexperienced to stand against the rulers of Judah. Yet, God assured Jeremiah that He would be nearby. “I will be with you. I will give you my word in your mouth. I will protect you. They will not overcome you with me at your side.”

Would you answer “Yes” if you had that kind of assurance? Would you step forth, trusting that the CEO would protect you as you carried out his work? It doesn’t matter how young or how old we are: sometimes the things we are asked to do seem to be outside our ability to do it. How many of us would be willing to preach a sermon if our pastor asked us to step up and do so? How many of us would be willing to go to the city council to demand help with an issue the church is experiencing? How many of us would tell a president or king or ruler that they are doing something against God’s will? We think we are nobody, and we don’t think we can get anything accomplished. We would rather not do it.

But if God asks you to do it, will you do it? Will you trust that God provides us with all we need to do His work no matter what?

The psalmist writes, “In you, Yahweh, I take refuge. Never let me be disappointed.” We take refuge knowing that God is with us and we do what He calls us to do from that point of view. It won’t be pretty. Like Jeremiah, they will not want to hear what we have to say. Quite frankly, I don’t really want to say what God sends me to say. As we dwell in God’s grace, we trust that God knows what is best, and that He is working to do what is right. We are not sent into the world to judge the sins of our neighbors, or to force them to be or do what we think they should be or do. God will not give us words to harm another, though we may have to rebuke, or correct, or reprove, but we are never to doubt God s love for any of His people.

We might be afraid, and we might not want to say “Yes,” but we can rest in the assurance that God has promised to be our refuge and we can live in praise and thanksgiving for His mercy and grace, no matter what we face doing His work in the world. May we all stand firm in the knowledge that God is our rock and our fortress; even when we face difficulties in this world, we can trust that God is faithful to His promises.

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July 23, 2024

“Yahweh reigns! Let the peoples tremble. He sits enthroned among the cherubim. Let the earth be moved. Yahweh is great in Zion. He is high above all the peoples. Let them praise your great and awesome name. He is Holy! The King’s strength also loves justice. You establish equity. You execute justice and righteousness in Jacob. Exalt Yahweh our God. Worship at his footstool. He is Holy! Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel was among those who call on his name. They called on Yahweh, and he answered them. He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud. They kept his testimonies, the statute that he gave them. You answered them, Yahweh our God. You are a God who forgave them, although you took vengeance for their doings. Exalt Yahweh, our God. Worship at his holy hill, for Yahweh, our God, is holy!” Psalm 99, WEB

Have you ever really considered the amount of knowledge that can be found in one library? My own bookshelves are covered with hundreds of books, from children's stories to novels to reference materials. I have books about Christmas, faith, health, history and language. I can’t count the number of books about prayer or the books I haven’t read yet. I always have a pile of books I intend to read soon. Somehow the pile just gets bigger. That doesn’t even count the books that I have on my e-reader.

I have a general idea of what is available in my library. If someone asks to borrow a book about grace, I know which ones would be good for them to read. If I’m looking for a poem or a certain person’s perspective, I can certainly find it. However, I can't imagine knowing or remembering everything that is available in the books on my bookshelves. Magnify that by thousands and you have a public library. Just look at one section like history or science and the thought of knowing so much is overwhelming. Can anyone ever really know everything in those books?

It is even worse when you consider knowledge of God. A.W. Tozer, in his book “The Knowledge of the Holy” wrote, “Neither the writer nor the reader of these words is qualified to appreciate the holiness of God. Quite literally a new channel must be cut through the desert of our minds to allow the sweet waters of truth that will heal our great sickness to flow in. We cannot grasp the true meaning of the divine holiness by thinking of someone or something very pure and then raising the concept to the highest degree we are capable of. God’s holiness is not simply the best we know infinitely bettered. We know nothing like the divine holiness. It stands apart, unique, unapproachable, incomprehensible and unattainable. The natural man is blind to it. He may fear God’s power and admire his wisdom, but his holiness he cannot even imagine.”

No one can know everything in every book ever written. It would be impossible for anyone to even read every book, let alone remember all the details. A librarian would have more knowledge than most people. At least she would know where to find a book on the subject. She might even be able to suggest the right book. The volumes found in a law library would be overwhelming to someone who has not studied law. Even the lawyers do not know everything found in those books. The best they can do is know where they might find the information we need.

The same is true when it comes to the holiness of God. We can study God, know the history of His people, learn and follow His law. We can try to live according to His wisdom and His love. However, there is no way we can possibly even imagine the holiness of God. His ways, His thoughts, His purposes are higher than human flesh can attain. The best we can do is to know Jesus Christ because in Him we see the holiness in flesh and through Him we have a glimpse of what we will one day know in eternity.

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July 24, 2024

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