Repent!

Posted 12/9/2018

Scripture: Luke 3:1-6

By now many of us are well into our preparations for Christmas. The Christmas tree is probably already up and decorated. The wreath is on the door. The Christmas cookies are in the process of being baked and other special “Christmas foods” may have been purchased or are being prepared. Perhaps for some of you even your Christmas gift shopping is completed! No matter how much may be left to be done, and even though we are only 9 days into December, we are probably in many ways well on our way to preparing for Christmas. 

Yet are we on our way to preparing for Christmas as Christians? These weeks of Advent are meant to give us time to prepare — to become ready to receive anew the good news of the gospel. And whether we like it or not, John the Baptism points out one aspect of that preparation — an aspect we often would prefer to ignore.

John appears out in the wilderness — the place where God had originally shaped the people of Israel into God’s people. The wilderness is where God taught — and tested — them after they left Egypt. It was also there, in the wilderness, that John called upon Israel to be once again shaped into the people of God. It was there in the wilderness that John insisted, as had the prophets before him, that the people needed to repent — to both turn and to return to God’s ways.

Now I suspect many of us resist the idea of repentance, especially during this time of year when all about us the world seems to be light and joy. We resist it simply because repentance seems so gloomy. We imagine repentance to be about beating our breasts and loudly proclaiming what miserable sinners we are. And certainly repentance does require us to recognize that we are sinners — that we have not always been God’s faithful people. That we have, as one of the classic confessions of sin puts it, “done that which we ought not to have done and left undone that which we ought to have done.” Yet repentance is, at its heart, something much deeper and more vibrant that simply proclaiming “I’m a sinner.”

Repentance means not just saying “I’m a sinner” but also accepting the forgiveness God offers to sinners. It means being willing to not only acknowledge that we haven’t always been God’s faithful people but also acknowledging that God has acted to remove the guilt and shame that results from our unfaithfulness. It means being willing to accept God’s gracious gift — the gift of a new start. It means accepting that God willingly places our sin out of his sight and forgets the evil we have done.

Now accepting forgiveness may sound easy, especially in our day when feelings of guilt and shame seem to be so much things of the past. Yet even in our supposedly guilt-free days many of us find ourselves honestly feeling guilty and ashamed. That is, we feel unaccepted by others and, even more to the point, unacceptable to ourselves. This feeling reveals that, in truth, we haven’t been able to accept the forgiveness God offers us. 

Now in saying we need to accept forgiveness I’m not trying to imply that we shouldn’t be striving to be better. What I am saying is there are still many of us who walk around every day with a deep-seated inability to accept that we are accepted just as we are — even if it is also true God doesn’t want to leave us as we are. Our inability to accept God’s forgiveness reflects the fact we are unable to believe God love us — the real “us”, not just the socially acceptable “us” we present to the world. 

As I said, repentance means accepting the forgiveness God offers. It means accepting God loves us just as we are, warts and all. But it also means accepting that God desires to change us. In biblical terms, it means allowing ourselves to be purified. 

In the Old Testament the priests offered sacrifices to purify themselves and the people so that they could come before God. In much the same way, in the New Testament purification is about what allows us to come before the holy God. But it means even more than that. It is about allowing our lives to be changed so that we more and more reflect the character and life of Jesus. Being purified means living in a moral way; but even more than that it means developing a heart and mind that reflect Jesus’ heart and mind. It means a change in our character, not just our actions.

Repentance means allowing God to change our character until the character of Christ shines in our lives. And that change in character means, among other things, that we must sort out our priorities. It means, as Paul puts it, learning to “determine what is best.” 

Sorting out our priorities means we must look closely at our lives and what we consider important. In saying “what we consider important” I don’t mean what we say we consider important, but what our actions say about what we actually consider important. The truth of our lives as humans is what we say and what we do often don’t match. The honesty with ourselves that repentance requires means we must look at our actions and what they say about what we really believe. We say we are loving — but do our actions reflect that? We say we are generous — but does our giving indicate that? We say we desire justice — but do our actions promote justice for all?

Repentance requires us to carefully look at what our actions say about what our real priorities are so that we can bring those priorities into line with what we say our priorities are. Repentance asks us to make our words and our actions match one another. Repentance invites us to re-order our priorities until they honestly, actually reflect the priorities of God. 

Advent is a time of preparation. And the first step in that preparation is to repent. That is, it is to acknowledge that we need God’s forgiveness and to accept that forgiveness. It is to allow our lives and characters to be changed until they are like Christ’s. It is to take the time to sort out our priorities so that our actions actually reflect the values God holds dear.  

Most of us are well on the way to preparing in the ways the world prepares to celebrate Christmas; but are we preparing as Christians to celebrate our Lord? Have we begun the serious work of preparing for the coming of Jesus? Are we doing the hard but necessary work of repentance, with a confidence that “the one who began a good work in us will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ”?

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Promises, Promises

Posted 12/2/2018

Scriptures: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36

December — the time of promise. The promise of Christmas coming as we hang our decorations and begin our Christmas shopping. The countdown — 23 more days until Christmas! The hopes and dreams — the perfect family gathering. The perfect dinner together. The delight of the perfect gift given. The ecstasy of the perfect gift received. Ah, the world is full of promise this time of year!

Despite all its bleakness and hopelessness that reigned as Israel faced the onslaught of the Babylonian empire, for Jeremiah the world was also full of promise. It was full of the promise of God, proclaimed by Jeremiah in the words read this morning. And what a promise this was! The coming of a righteous branch! 

What a promise! In the midst of a world where the leaders of Israel had become unfaithful, where they permitted injustice to rule, a righteous one would come. In the midst of a nation suffering God’s judgment under the military might of the Babylonian empire, one who could lead them back to God’s favor would arise. 

Yes, the world — Jeremiah’s and our’s — is filled with promise — the promises of God. The promise fulfilled in the coming of Jesus as a tiny baby in Bethlehem. The promise fulfilled in the gift of God’s Son — the gift of salvation. The promise fulfilled in Jesus.

Yet, if December is filled with promises, it is also a time filled with longing. It is filled with the longing for the hopes and dreams of Christmas to be fulfilled on Christmas Day. It is filled with the longing that this year will be different — this year will be the perfect Christmas celebration. It is filled with the longings for a Christmas like the Christmases we see in the Christmas specials which appear on our TVs year after year. Yes, the world is filled with longing this time of year.  

And our world is filled with the longing for the promises of God to be fulfilled. Much as the the little baby fulfills the promise, the promise remains yet unfulfilled. The promise of peace is mocked by rampant warfare and strife. The promise of hope seems laughable in the light of a world gone so terribly awry. The promise of love seems unreal in the face of hatred and bigotry. The promise of joy fades in front of the griefs and difficulties that fill our lives. Living in a world full of sorrows, we long for the promised peace, hope, love and joy that God promises his people.

And ultimately the promise of the fulfillment of peace, hope, love and joy was the promise Jeremiah proclaimed. Jeremiah’s promise is that the longing would be answered. The prayers of those who suffered under the injustices of his day would be answered. God was going to respond to the longings of the people for the day when the covenant would lead to God’s favor being shown in their midst. God had heard. God was faithful — even if the people had been unfaithful. Judah, threatened by Babylon, would be saved. Jerusalem would once again be filled with God’s presence.

God’s promise of a coming righteous branch fulfilled not only the longings of Judah, but the longings of all on earth. Longings for peace. Longings for justice. Longings for wholeness. Longings for the world we believe is possible, but always seems to be just beyond our reach. Longings that are embodied in our Christmas longings for peace, hope, love and joy— and yet longings that go so far beyond them….

Yes, for us, Advent is a time of promises. Promises made, promises remembered, promises fulfilled. 

Promises fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, the one who was born in a lowly stable, yet is the ruler of the world. Jesus, the one who is redeemer, who brings a salvation that is much richer, much more expansive, than we dared dream. Jesus, the one who is the righteous branch, leading us back into the ways of God. Promises of God’s kingdom in our midst.

Promises fulfilled — and yet not fulfilled. For we need not look far to realize the world hasn’t become the kingdom of God we long for. Violence continues. Hatred abounds. Peace seems elusive. Justice is still perverted. What we believe possible still remains beyond our reach.

And so it is that we hear not only the promises of a baby born in Bethlehem so many years ago during Advent, but the promise of Jesus coming again. We hear the promise that what was begun in the coming of Jesus — in his life, death, resurrection and ascension — will come to fulness in God’s time. That the one who reigns in a hidden way now will one day reign in a way that every eye will see. The promise that the one whom many scorn now will be the one whom all will behold in awe — the one to whom every knee will bow. 

Advent is a time of promise. The promises of God — fulfilled and yet to be fulfilled. And it is the mere fact that God has fulfilled his promises that leads us to believe God will fulfill his promises. And it is the fact that God will fulfill his promises that leads us to do what Jesus urged his disciples to do — to watch and hope. To stand on tiptoe, looking for the promise to come into our midst. To allow our longings to listen for the promises of God.

Advent is a time of longing, of waiting, of watching, of hoping. It is a time for all of those because it is a time of promise. The promise of God’s covenant fulfilled in the coming of the baby Jesus and the promise of the covenant yet to be fulfilled in his coming again.

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King of Truth

Posted 11/25/2018

Scriptures: John 18:33-37; Revelation 1:4b-8

Things aren’t always what they appear to be. That’s the basis for any number of optical illusions. For instance, if one line has <   >  on its ends and another has >    <; lines are the exact same length won’t appear to be the same. Or certain patterns can be drawn in a way that they appear to be moving, even when they clearly aren’t. We’ve all experienced optical illusions — experiences which clearly indicate to us things aren’t always what they appear to be.

Things aren’t always what they appear to be. That should be clear to anyone who spends any amount of time on the internet. Any number of spoofs, spams, fakes and false-hoods get passed along on the internet as truth, firmly believed by those who re-post them. Things aren’t always what they appear to be.

And then there are things like the relatively worthless and common mineral pyrite, that has a yellow hue enough like gold that it was given the name “fool’s gold.” Things aren’t always what they appear to be. 

Things aren’t always what they appear to be. And that was Pilate’s problem. Before him is a travel-worn man who looks like any other villager come to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem; yet the Jewish leaders had come to him accusing this plain, ordinary man of claiming to be a king. And to make matter even worse, when asked, the man himself says he has a “kingdom.” 

What is Pilate to make of all this? Certainly this man doesn’t look — or act — like any of the kings Pilate knows. And that’s where the problem comes in for Pilate — and for us. We assume we know what a king looks like. But things aren’t always what they appear to be.

Jesus declares he is a king — but he is equally clear in saying he is not a king of a kingdom of this world. Instead, he says, he is the king of truth. And living in a world where truth seems increasingly difficult to define or find agreement upon, we may, like Pilate, be tempted to respond to this king with the words, “What is truth?”

And yet, Jesus stands there in front of Pilate — and in front of us — claiming to be the King of truth. Claiming to be the king who is the truth and brings the truth. What are we to make of this odd claim to kingship?

In Revelation we read several other descriptions of Jesus; descriptions that help us make sense of his odd claim. Descriptions that help explain just what Jesus means when he says he is the king of truth.

In Revelation we read that Jesus is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the earth.  Each of these tell us something about what it means to say Jesus is the King of truth. 

Jesus is the faithful witness. Jesus is the king of truth who faithfully witnesses to who we are and what God has done for us. 

Jesus tells us the truth about ourselves. Throughout his ministry Jesus didn’t hesitate to confront sinners. Jesus didn’t mince words, he described us as we are. He talked openly about our greed, our lack of understanding of God’s will, or rebellion against God’s way. Jesus, in his words and by his life, didn’t just tell the truth about his contemporaries — he tells us the truth about ourselves. The truth that we are in need of repentance — a turning toward God. 

Jesus tells the truth about what God has done for us. He not only bears witness to God’s actions in the past, he shows us God. In his life and death, he witnesses to the grace of God that reaches out to a fallen world — to us. He embodies God’s gracious redemption, that doesn’t wait for us to get our act together, but rather comes to us while we are sinners. He shows us God’s desire to heal, to restore, to make whole. He shows us God’s love. 

Jesus is the king of truth who is the faithful witness to the truth about our own lives and the truth about what God has done for us.

Jesus is the king of truth who is the “firstborn of the dead.” As the firstborn, he indicates the truth about our future. 

In his life, Jesus shows us the life God desires to create in us. He shows us the new person we become through the power of the Spirit during this life. Jesus called everyone to a higher righteousness — a life rooted in God rather than our own goals and ambitions. A life rooted in vulnerability and dependence upon God rather than self-secure self-dependence. Jesus shows us who we become in this life through the power of the Spirit as we follow him. 

In his resurrection, Jesus shows us the life that is promised to us after our physical death. A life with God. A life that is so far beyond what we experience right now that Scripture struggles to find words and images that can even begin to describe it. A life that is as different as the seed is from the fully grown plant. As the firstborn for the dead, the resurrected Jesus shows us the life that is promised to us after our physical death. 

Jesus is the king of truth who is the firstborn from the dead, the one who shows us our future, both in this life and after our physical death.

Jesus is the king of truth, the ruler of the earth. Jesus doesn’t just tell us the truth about ourselves, he tells us the truth about all creation. 

Jesus tells us of God’s love for his entire creation. Jesus tells us of God’s desire that all creation be redeemed. Jesus tells us of the longing of creation for God’s presence and its groaning as it awaits God’s redemption. Jesus tells us of God’s work that makes not simply you and I new, but makes a new heaven and a new earth. 

Everything isn’t what it seems to be. Jesus, the unremarkable travel-worn Passover pilgrim is King. Oh, Jesus isn’t a king of this world, for he is the King of truth. This Sunday, when we celebrate Jesus, the King of truth, we are called upon to believe — and to live — the truth in our own lives.

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God's Power for Life

Posted 11/18/2018

Scripture: 1 Samuel 1:4-20, 2:1-10

It’s been said that we are dying from the moment we are born. No matter what we think of that saying, it is certainly true that death surrounds us and regularly fills our lives. Sure, we may not experience the “big deaths” — the ones that end all life — on a daily, or even weekly, basis. But there are many tiny deaths that happen to us almost every day. 

There are the deaths of our hopes and dreams. Dreams about our family and what our family life would look like. Dreams about the great job we would get. Dreams about how much money we would make. Dreams about the positive impact we’d make in the world. Dreams about what our retirement would look like. These are just a few of the kinds of hopes and dreams we may have had that died from a thousand little deaths of disappointment over the years.

There are deaths in the many relationships that make up our daily lives. The death of a marriage in divorce. The death of a friendship in a move to a distant location which caused the relationship to gradually wither away. The death of a summer romance at camp that ended with the return to school. Even the death of the safe kind of relationship a baby has with its mother while in the womb. These deaths in relationships, like the death of our dreams, often happen by means of a thousand little deaths composed of betrayals of trust, lack of communication or other stressors on our relationships.

Then there are the actual deaths. The death of a much beloved pet. The death of a family member. The deaths that fills the news: death in war, death from terrorist attacks, death resulting from simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. These deaths may hit suddenly or slowly, but they frequently leave us stunned and filled with grief.

There truly are many ways in which we experience dying, starting from the moment we are born. With all this death surrounding us, it can sometimes feel like death is winning and really living is a next to impossible feat.

That certainly was the way Hannah felt. There could be nothing worse that could happen to her in her culture than to be barren. A women without children — well that was to live in shame. That was to exist in a living death of failing to be the one thing she was expected to be — a mother. And, if that day by day death weren’t bad enough, every year when the family went to worship at Shiloh, her rival — her husband’s other wife, Peninnah — would rub her childlessness in with her taunts. 

No wonder Hannah is downcast and weeping. In truth, her life was little better than being dead, no matter how much love for her Elkinah might profess to have. 

And while at one level we may not seem to be like Hannah; the fact is we really are. The diagnosed depression rate in the US has reached 20%. In other words 1 out of every 5 of us is diagnosed as depressed — and who knows how many more there are who remain undiagnosed. Compare this with the fact that in the 1950’s and 1960’s, depression was almost unknown. 

Could it be that the constant experiences and reminders of death that surround us today is a factor — many a major factor — in this reality? Could it be that our constant access to news — filled as it is with reports of both actual deaths and dying hopes — contributes to the rate of depression these days?

And what are we to do in the midst of a world seemingly awash with experiences and reminders of death? Is there any hope in the face of all this deathly-ness? Or should we all simply face the reality of ever-present death in our lives and become depressed, like so many of our fellow Americans have already done?

Hannah indicates there is another option for us. There is the option of turning to the new life God gives. Notice how Hannah turns to God to ask for the gift of life — the gift of life in a tiny baby and the gift of new life within her world that the birth of such a child would give her. Yet, as she comes before the Lord, Hannah doesn’t deny the grief and pain of the death that fills her life. She weeps bitterly. But, even in her deep grief, she also knows it is the Lord who grants life — and who can grant her new life even in the face of the deathly-ness that surrounds her.

And we too can turn to God with both our tears of grief and pain over the deathly-ness that surrounds us and our longing for life. We too can pour out our hearts to God, weeping bitterly while also remaining confident that God is the one who is able to give us new life.

Now in saying that, I’m not suggesting that every experience we have of death will magically disappear if we only pray. Our prayers may not lead to the restoration of health for a dying loved one. And they probably won’t result in the end of all the terrorist attacks that are happening throughout the world. But they can make a difference in our lives. They can lead us from death to life. They can move us from hopelessness to hope. 

As we approach the beginning of Advent, where we are reminded once again of the hope that is the foundation of our lives as Christians, Hannah reminds us of the fact we can dare to hope even in the midst of deathly-ness. We can dare to believe God brings life, new life, even out of the midst of death and deep darkness. We can remember not only Jesus’ cross, but Jesus’ resurrection. We can remember the promise that Christ is coming again. We can remember the promise of Jesus to give new life — eternal life — to all who put their faith in him. 

And we can remember that even in the midst of the little (and big) daily deaths we face, God offers us new life and hope. The death of one relationship can lead to the birth of another. The death of a dream can lead to a new dream. As the saying goes, the closing of one door can mean the opening of another. Granted, this doesn’t always happen; but God’s power for life means it CAN happen. God’s power for life means death doesn’t have the last word. God’s power for life means we can dare to hope, both in the middle of the myriad little daily deaths and in the face of the big deaths we experience in life.

There is no doubt about it, death and deathly-ness surrounds us from the moment of our birth. We really are, in a way, dying from the moment we are born. We can allow that deathly-ness to overwhelm us, filling us with hopelessness and bitterness. Or we can turn to God, the one who is able to give new life and hope, even in the face of death. We can turn to Jesus, the one who is the assurance of new life, having risen from the grave. We can turn to God, and discover in Jesus a new hope and a new life that is beyond all we ever dared to dream or imagine.

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Giving as God Gives

Posted 10/28/2018

Scriptures: Luke 12:13-21; Ephesians 4:25-5:1

Every year, once I know what to expect my income for the year will be, I sit down and once again make a decision about how much I will give to the church. For me, that normally means planning to give at least a tithe. But I also have a confession to make. There have been lots of times when I have given a tithe not so much because I WANTED to do so, but because I felt I really SHOULD do so.

I share this information about my own giving patterns because I think it points to two important dynamics when it comes to good Christian stewardship. Just thinking about the HOW and the WHY we make our stewardship decisions provides us with important insights into our own stewardship patterns and habits.

The first thing I’d like us to think about is the simple fact of regularly reconsidering how much we give. This morning’s gospel lesson included the story of a farmer. In Jesus’s day, and in the earlier days of our nation, many people were farmers. They were folk who received the bulk of their income at one, or maybe two, points in the year. Like the farmer in Jesus’ story, they would automatically be faced with the decision about how they would manage the year’s income when the crops came in. And, in some of the rural congregations I’ve served that pattern still held true to the extent that the church knew the bulk of its income would come during October and November, after the fall harvest was in.

But the fact is, few of us live a lifestyle where the bulk of our income comes in at one or two points in the year. Whether employed or retired, most of us receive our income on a regular schedule. Furthermore, most of us know how much we will be getting each “pay period.” Our income isn’t something that fluctuates wildly based on the vagaries of this year’s weather and crop growth. Most of us have a real degree of stability and predictability in our annual income.

But that stability and predictability in income also means we find it much easier to let the stewardship decisions of yesterday ride along unchanged — and not even reconsidered — year after year. As a result, what was once a generous gift can, over time, become something that is much less generous just because we never thought again about how much we will give, much less thought about growing our stewardship. Just as the farmer in today’s lesson needed to come up with a plan to manage his bumper crop, we need to reconsider at least every year how we will manage the wealth God has given to us — including how much we will give in our church stewardship.

A second aspect of stewardship, one that is reflected in my confession, is the importance of our attitude in giving. Scripture talks about God loving our giving when we give cheerfully. Now don’t get me wrong. God wants us to give, and being humans who respond to expectations in predictable ways, there truly is a degree of “should” that will probably always be a part of being a good steward. But when the “should” overrides the joy of giving, then there is a problem with our stewardship. 

And I think that problem is seen in both Jesus’ parable and in one little line out of Paul’s admonitions in Ephesians. That problem is a belief we have that tends to make giving into a “should” with very little joy about it. The problem is we see making ourselves economically secure as not only our main responsibility in our financial life, but also the end of our responsibilities when it comes to our finances. 

Notice that the farmer in Jesus’ parable is called a “fool.” But why is he called a fool? We are told it is because he has gathered great riches on earth, but hasn’t gathered riches before God. In Jewish tradition — in the mind of Jesus and those who were listening to him — gathering riches before God was primarily about one’s almsgiving and providing for those who were in need. We see this stress on providing for those who are in need continued in the life of the early church. Thus, when we read about the life of the early church as described in Acts we are told that the Christians shared what they had and so no one among them was found to be in need.

In Scripture, wealth — and especially great wealth — isn’t given to us to simply make our own economic life more and more secure. It is given to us to enable us to develop active compassion. It is given to us to allow us to help those in need.

And that’s why I say there is one little line in our Ephesians reading that helps us with this. Notice how instruction is given that thieves are to give up stealing and do honest work. Unfortunately, I’m afraid many of us stop reading the passage at this point. But we need to notice why thieves are urged to work — not so they can care for themselves, but “so as to have something to share with the needy.” Yes, just as elsewhere in Scripture, here we find the instruction that we are to engage in honest work —that we are to earn a living. But the point of our earning this living is clearly spelled out. It isn’t to simply accumulate more and more for ourselves. It isn’t to simply become more and more financially secure. It is to be able to provide more and more help to others who are in need.

And that’s where the foolishness of our farmer in Jesus’ parable comes to the fore. Here was a man with enough; he wasn’t in great need before this bumper harvest came in. He had barns. (Remember, Jesus said barns, not a barn!) To all appearances, he had been regularly filling them with grain. He was already financially secure. He wasn’t living hand to mouth, much less living on the street. Yet when he has a bumper year, does he even consider using this sudden increase in wealth to help his neighbors who might not be as financially secure? Does he consider helping the widow or the orphan who have little or no income? No, he plans only for his own future and his own enjoyment. He hoards it all for himself. He builds more barns to store all the bounty he has received. He starts making plans about all the ways he will sit back and enjoy himself for the rest of his life. 

And there is where it comes in — the hard word of Scripture. Our desire to have more and more — our tightly holding on to every little bit we get to make ourselves ever more financially secure — all that is, according to what Jesus says, simply greed. Jesus tells his parable as a warning against greed. Jesus tells this parable to remind us God gives to us, not so we can become more and more sure of our own financial future; but so we can become like God — generous, giving people who share with those in need. In this story Jesus reminds us that what we are given, we are given so that we might share, sharing even with those who “don’t deserve it.” (Remember Jesus elsewhere saying God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust?) 

Our working and earning shouldn’t be simply about ourselves. It should be about discovering the joy of generosity, a generosity like God’s generosity. We are invited to share in the joy that truly is like God’s joy as we share what we have with others who are in need.

Considering how we give and why we give can tell us a lot about our stewardship. 

Do we give with thoughtful planning? Do we consider our giving pattern with regularity? Or do we simply continue to give what we have given last year, the year before and who knows for how many years? 

Do we give with the joy of sharing? Are we like the farmer in Jesus’ parable, who thinks only about his own economic future? Or are we like God, who generously shares with all who are in need?

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We Give What You Gave

Posted 10/21/2018

Scriptures: 1 Chronicles 29:10-15, Mk 8:34-9:1

The little girl’s Mom gave her $10 earlier that day and now she was in the store with her Aunt shopping for the perfect Christmas gift for Dad. She was so excited she could hardly contain herself as she ran through the store looking for the perfect gift. 

What should she get Dad? Ideas ran through her head — along with the suggestions given by her Mom and her Aunt. What should she get? A tool? A shirt or a tie? What should it be? Maybe a toy? It had to be just right — after all, this was the first time Mom had let her go shopping for her own present for Dad. What should she get? 

I think we can all identify with the excitement that a young child feels the first time they get to pick out their own present for Dad or Mom. I find myself wondering, however, if we ever feel that kind of excitement about giving a “present” to our heavenly Father….

For most of us thoughts of stewardship evoke a kind of resistance. We dislike talking about stewardship. Perhaps we even become more unwilling to give when we hear talk of being good stewards.

Yet the fact is, Jesus talks a lot about money and possessions. He speaks about it more than he does any other topic. And if we take seriously the scriptural affirmation that ALL we have and ALL we are comes from God, we really can’t avoid thinking and talking about stewardship. After all, it all comes to us as a gift.

And there is where the first rub comes in when we begin to think and talk about stewardship. That little girl may call the $10 she got from her Mom to go shopping for a gift for Dad “hers;” but the truth is the $10 came from her parents. It isn’t something she “earned.” It was first of all, a gift Mom gave her. It is a gift given in order that she might herself give a gift.

And that is an image of what God does for us. God gives us life and health and the wealth we have — everything we have and are. And God gives them to us with the intention that we will spend at least some of that on gifts for others — gifts for God and gifts for other humans who are in need. 

It’s easy to imagine that little girl being entranced by the toys in the store. It’s easy to envision her wanting to buy Dad a gift that really is more a gift for herself than one for Dad. That’s what little children do. They can’t imagine anyone really being interested in the things adults want or need. After all, they are all (or almost all) so boring and uninteresting to little boys and girls. They are certainly not things they would like to get! 

It’s also not hard to imagine that little girl wanting to spend part of that $10 on something she really wants and using only what is left over to purchase a gift for Dad. After all, how often do little children get to spend money on what they have picked out?

Those are some of the reasons a adult usually accompanies and helps a child buy gifts for Mom and Dad, Grandpa and Grandma. Children need some guidance in giving the right kind of gift. They also often need guidance in using the money they have been given to actually purchase a gift instead of spending it all on what they want. 

That is one of the reasons Scripture talks so much about both how much we should give and to whom we should give. The truth is, we are all too much like little children. We get excited about having our own — our own money, our own “toys,” our own enjoyments. We have trouble remembering that God has given so much to us so that we can give to others. We have trouble remembering God wants us to give out of what God has given to us. 

As I said, our tendency to want to call God’s gifts our own is the first rub that often comes in when we begin to talk about stewardship. Another rub that comes in is, because we feel like it is all ours, we feel like we are “losing” when we give. We only notice that things we can’t do or have because we are giving some of “our” money away. We feel like our giving makes our life less — less full, less fun, less enjoyable — not more. 

But Jesus reminds us that things — possessions and wealth — really aren’t the most important part of life. He reminds us that when we spend all our time trying to “save our life” — trying to make ourselves secure and happy — we actually wind up losing our lives. Jesus doesn’t go along with the popular saying that the one with the most toys wins. Instead Jesus says the one who is most willing to share — to give up their possessions for the sake of Jesus himself and to help others in need — is the one who “wins.” 

Sure, giving can mean we have less to use for our own enjoyment. But is it only our enjoyment in this world that counts? The Westminster Shorter Catechism reminds us that there are more important things than things when it says, “The chief end [or purpose] of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” We were made not to find our fulfillment in enjoying things, but in enjoying God!

And part of enjoying God is to live in communion with God by being the kind of people God has called us to be — kind, generous people. People who share and care.

The truth is, God has given us everything we have and made us who we are. None of it is really ours — it has all come to us as gift. The question is, what are we going to do with the gift we have received? Are we going to spend it all on our own enjoyment, or are we going to buy gifts for others — sharing our blessings with those who need to receive a blessing? 

You’ve received the gift. God has given to each of us with generosity. Now the question is, what are you going to do with the gift you’ve received?

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Who Can Be Saved?

Posted 10/14/2018

Scripture: Mark 10:17-31

Each year as New Year’s approaches we take stock of our lives and make resolutions for the new year. A poll indicated that in 2018 the most popular resolution wasn’t the expected something like to exercise more but “being a better person.” (Which did come in at a tie with the ever popular “losing weight.) It seems we are thinking more about how what we do matters in the wider world these days. 

However, what does it mean to actually be “good?” The evidence says we seem to see eye to eye on the big stuff. We believe it is good to be kind, fair and just; it is bad to cheat, murder and steal. Yet when it comes to the details — when it comes to the particulars of exactly what good people do in a given situation — we often disagree.

Clearly, the man who ran up to Jesus in our Gospel lesson felt he was a good person. He had faithfully kept the Law from his youth. He hadn’t cheated, he hadn’t committed murder, he hadn’t stolen. He was someone everyone would call morally upright. He was a good citizen and a faithfully religious person. He was the kind who showed up for all the community benefits and was at church every Sunday morning. He was a person one could call “all around good.”

And, he was sure all this counted for something. Who knows, his moral uprightness and general “goodness” might even be THE definition of one who was saved. However, he wasn’t positive if his outstanding moral record was enough. Was he missing something? Was being moral and being “good” all it took? 

He was certain he was both moral and a “good person”; but when it came to the details of exactly what was required for salvation, well, there he wasn’t so certain. Perhaps his uncertainly even came in part from disagreements among the people of his day about what it meant to be “good.” Was simply being a good citizen enough? Did it also require one to be religious? How about outstanding morality? Just how much, and what all, was involved in being a “good” person?

As we consider this man, maybe he wasn’t all that different than those of us who are sure we are a “good person.” We too tend to think that being good certainly has to count for something when it comes to salvation. But we may also have a little nagging doubt about whether, good as we may be, we’ve done enough. Just how much of what kind of goodness is enough?

Whatever this man’s doubts about the adequacy of his “goodness,” here was his golden opportunity to ask if he was truly “on the right track.” This was his chance to settle the question about his goodness and his salvation once and for all. Here was his prospect of not only settling the questions, but perhaps even of shining in the eyes of others given his ever so unimpeachable morality. Yes, now was the moment to get all his questions answered. Now he had the possibility of finding out what really are the indications that one truly is a saint. At the very least, he could find which one of the various definitions of “goodness” that the people of his day may have given was THE definition of being a saint.

The fact is, there are a variety of definitions from which we too choose when it comes to deciding who is a “good person.” We, in our day, have our own ideas of what is necessary — or at least indications — of being saved; and those definitions don’t all agree. Some of us think those who are “good citizens” are the “good people” who have achieved salvation. Some, like this man seems to have thought, feel that those who live a life that is morally beyond reproach are the ones who are “in.” Others make their judgment based on who is “blessed,” which usually means by the wealth they have amassed. (After all, isn’t that wealth a sign of God’s blessing?) While still others, like the disciples apparently believed, say it is the one who has left everything behind — the one who is uninterested in gaining wealth, power or position in this world — who is the true saint. 

The fact is, our definitions of who is “in” when it comes to salvation differ, and so we often come to radically different evaluations of people. Like the disciples in our Scripture lesson, we may find ourselves wondering just what it takes to be saved.

And, throughout the years preachers have taken this passage and used it to define exactly what one must do for salvation. However, like other efforts at defining who is saved, they haven’t all agreed. 

And there is one portion of Jesus answer to the man that has been interpreted in very different — even contradictory — ways. That is Jesus’ instructions to the man to give all he possess away in various ways. Some have said this is a demand is to be understood literally; thus, for instance, Christians have taken vows of poverty. Others have insisted this command is to be understood as our removing from our lives anything that keeps us from following Jesus. 

What is less often stressed, however, is that simple statement of Jesus that the man is to “come and follow me.” It seems to me that this is the core Jesus’ response, not some statement about the money. Yes, money and possessions aren’t unimportant in this passage, but it seems to me that “follow me” is what this entire passage is about.

Salvation is about following Jesus. Now I know that we have just about as much disagreement over what it means to follow Jesus as we do over what it means in particular to be “good.” Yet, I can’t help be believe it is following Jesus that matters most.

And I think that what it means to follow Jesus isn’t the same for everyone. One of the emphases of the Reformation was that people followed Jesus in their lives when they followed Jesus in the life they were currently living. One didn’t have to become a “religious” (monk, nun or priest) to really follow Jesus. One could follow Jesus just as much as a farmer as one could as a priest. Or as a father as one could as a monk. Or as a baker as one could as a nun. And I think the Reformation insight that following Jesus doesn’t mean — or have to mean — the same thing to everyone still holds true today.

In other words, for some of us, our calling is to be a teacher — and following Jesus means things like being a teacher who cares about all our students and practices fairness in the classroom. Some of us are called to follow Jesus as farmers — and following Jesus means things like caring for the land and livestock God has entrusted into our stewardship. Some of us have been called to be a trucker — and following Jesus means things like driving as safely as we can. And many of us have been called to follow Jesus as a parent and/or grandparent — and following Jesus means helping the next generation to know God’s love and grace. 

Sure there are some common things we all are called to do in following Jesus — things like putting loyalty to Jesus before any other loyalty, showing love and compassion toward others, and caring for those in need. Yet following Jesus doesn’t have to mean the exact same thing to everyone. And in fact, the differences in our lives is one source of the differences we have about the particulars of following Jesus. We are each called to follow Jesus in specific ways that are a reflection of the specific life we are called to live as parents, teachers, farmers, truckers, nurses or any one of the great number of roles we may have in our own particular life. And in fact, our various roles may actually overlap in any number of ways, making the specifics of our following Jesus even more varied.

The man who approached Jesus that day had an important question: “What must I do to be saved?” It is one we too may ask. Jesus had an answer for the man that is the answer for all of us — follow me. It is in following Jesus that we discover our salvation. It is in following Jesus that we discover what it means to be a Christian in our daily lives. And because each one of our lives is unique, different from the lives of others, following Jesus doesn’t mean the exact same thing for each of us. We aren’t all called to be and do the exact same thing. There is only one thing Jesus calls each and every one of us to do in our lives; and that is to follow him in whatever ways are appropriate to our own particular life roles and responsibilities.

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The Mystery of Suffering

Posted 10/7/2018

Scriptures: Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12

Children killed in a school shooting. Shoppers in the market killed by a terrorist attack. Women, children and the elderly killed by the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets. These are just a few examples of events that can leave us wondering “Where is God? How can God allow the innocent (or at least relatively innocent) suffer so?” 

Yet it is not simply these news headline events that leave us wondering. There are also the events of our own lives that leave us wondering. We might have say or may say to ourselves, “I have been a good and reliable employee. How could God allow me to be fired?” or “I have been a good spouse and parent. How could God allow my spouse to file for divorce after all these years?” or “I have been a faithful church member, how could God allow me to have a terminal illness?”

How could God allow it? Where is the justice in the suffering of innocents? Even more to the point, where is God?! 

There is perhaps no other book of the Bible that can stir up the puzzlement that Job does. As we read the story of Job, we are almost inevitably led to wonder why in the world righteous Job must suffer so. When even God calls Job righteous, why doesn’t God deliver him? What in the world is going on in this frankly rather troubling story?

And, in fact, if we read through the entirety of Job, we will find little solace, and no answer, to these kind of questions about Job’s suffering. No explanation — or at least no explanation that is satisfactory from Job’s perspective — is given to Job for his suffering. There are long speeches — speeches that form the bulk of the book — that assert God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Yet if this is true, why is the righteous Job suffering so? Why does God remain silent? The book of Job never answers those questions. 

In fact, it is only toward the end of Job that God speaks. And then God’s words are far from a satisfactory answer to our questions about the innocent suffering.  In essence, God seems to put Job on the spot, asking why Job would even dare to question God. God points out that his knowledge and power are beyond Job’s — so far beyond that Job can’t even begin to grasp them. God basically says to Job, “Just who do you think you are?” Not exactly the kind of answer we are hoping to hear.

Yet if Job is troubling when we read it this way, there is one thing that is clear. Job tells us the answer to suffering isn’t an easy one. We can’t simply equate suffering with wickedness and prosperity with righteousness. The world simply doesn’t work that way. Suffering remains a mystery — beyond our ability to explain in a satisfactory way.

Yet, that doesn’t mean we are without hope in our suffering. The conversations between the satan and God in the beginning of Job may seem strange to us, yet there is at least one thing to be noticed about them. God places limits on the suffering Job experiences. Even when we can’t understand why we suffer, we can trust that God remains God. It is God who establishes the limits of what we are to suffer.

However, even this is meager comfort in the midst of intense, unmerited suffering such as that which Job experienced. This is why what the author to the Hebrews says is so important as we think about the mystery of suffering.

In Hebrews we are confronted with the suffering of Jesus. Jesus, the one who is truly innocent, suffers death on the cross. Jesus becomes, as the author says elsewhere, like us in everything but sin. That is, if anyone is truly suffering innocently, it is Jesus. Yet he suffers. He knows personally, intimately what it means to suffer — to suffer profoundly. He knows what it means to suffer to the depths of his soul, having even sweat blood as he prayed in Gethsemane. He knows what if means to suffer betrayal, having been betrayed by Judas. He knows what it means to suffer rejection, having been rejected by the leaders of his own people. He knows what it means to suffer excruciating physical pain, having died on a cross.

We may not have an answer to the why of the mystery of suffering. But we do have an answer. We have the answer that Jesus gives. We have the answer that we are not alone in our suffering. We have the answer that Jesus himself suffered — for us. We have the answer that in Jesus, God become man, God himself takes on our suffering and in his mysterious way redeems even our suffering in His love. 

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Experiencing Grace

Posted 9/30/2018

Scriptures: Psalm 124; Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22

Sometimes things look pretty bleak. Like the Psalmist, we feel like we are drowning in a flood of troubles. We feel trapped, like a bird in a snare. We feel there is no future, there is hope.

In our Old Testament story for today, things looked bleak for Esther and her people, the Jews. Our passages come from the middle and near the end of the story. To understand their significance, we need to know the beginning of the story.

The story begins with Esther becoming Queen because the current Queen, Vashti, had displeased the king by not obeying him. Esther was an orphan, and her cousin, Mordecai, has raised her. Even after Esther was made Queen, Mordecai continued to be in contact with Esther. 

As the story develops, Mordecai refuses to show Haman, a court official, the honor Haman feels is his due. Haman decides to seek revenge — and what a revenge he decides to take! He knows Mordecai is a Jew. He determines to take revenge not only on Mordecai, but on all the Jews.  So he maneuvers the king into signing a decree that ordered the destruction — the slaughter — of all Jews. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the king, Esther, his Queen, is a Jew. 

It couldn’t get much worse. Esther and the Jews were truly “caught in a snare.” The floodwaters were about to sweep over them. Hope seemed far away. There seemed to be no future. Their destruction seemed certain. 

Yet the Psalmist knows that it is in this kind of situation that God is our help. When all other help is useless, the Psalmist declares, we can turn to God for help. When the waters rise over our heads, when we seem to be caught in a trap, God is the one — the only one — to whom we can turn for help. 

And that is exactly what Mordecai and Esther did. Mordecai got word to Esther of the decree. He urges Esther to act. Perhaps, he say, this is the very reason she has become Queen — to save the Jewish people from this evil plot. 

But there is a problem. The King hasn’t invited Esther to join him at all for a whole month. Esther determines she will take her life into her hands (literally) and go to the King. She knows that under the law for her to appear before the King without his invitation means her death — unless the King chooses to extend her mercy. 

As Esther plans to go to the King and appeal to him on behalf of her people, she asks Mordecai — and through Mordecai the Jews of the city — to pray for her. She knows that in this desperate situation it is only the mercy God which can assure her of receiving mercy from the King. 

Thus, in the midst of an impending total disaster, Esther and her people do the one thing that seems utterly useless — they turn to God in prayer. How in the world could prayer change their reality? Of what use is prayer in the face of a certain death edict? Of all the things they could do, prayer seems the most useless.

And yet the story witnesses that prayer does change reality. God, although not named in the book of Esther, acts to deliver. God grants Esther favor in the sight of the King when she approaches him. Esther invites the King and Mordecai to banquets she prepares on successive nights. She tells the King what has happened. And while the King can’t revoke his previous decree; he issues another one. This one allows the Jews to defend themselves. Thus on the day that was to be the day of their destruction, the Jews gathered together to defend themselves. As a result, they win a great victory over their enemies. The day that had been meant to be the day of their destruction becomes the day of their delivery and victory.

The story of Esther is an inspiring one, telling as it does of God’s deliverance from certain death. Yet it isn’t just in this situation that God’s people had experienced God’s deliverance from trying — even desperate — times. 

When they were oppressed slaves in Egypt, God had acted to free them. God sent Moses to lead them out of their slavery and to the Promised Land. 

When they were exiled captives in Babylon, God had raised up the Persian King, Darius, who granted the Jews permission to return to their homeland. God sent them Nehemiah and Ezra to lead them in the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

When they were opposed by the neighboring peoples when they sought to re-build Jerusalem, God gave them favor in the eyes of the Persian rulers. He opened the door for them not only to be protected from harassment by the neighboring peoples but also enabled them to receive government money to assist in their re-building projects. 

And it is not just in the Bible that we see God’s deliverance. We can see it in our lives as well. Pressed to the limit, we turn to God; and God delivers us. Sometimes, like the examples I’ve cited, the deliverance is wonderful, complete, beyond all we could ever have hoped for. Sometimes, however, it is a mere “escaping from the snare.” It is more like a simple continuing to survive than a miraculous turning of a day of destruction into a day of victory. But either way, in that deliverance we experience the wonder of God’s grace.

And that truly is what God’s grace is. It is the reality of God not only with us but also for us. The reality of God who not only became flesh in Jesus and lived with and among us; but also the reality of Jesus who died on the cross for us. It is the reality of Jesus, who reigns in heaven for us. It is the reality of Jesus who even now prays for us. And this is the good news of the gospel.

For you see, the gospel isn’t simply about our being delivered from sin — it is also about our deliverance from death. A deliverance from death into eternal life — here and now and at the time of our physical death. It is the opening up of the gates of heaven — the opening up of the possibility of true, abundant life in the here and now as well as in the future. For when we have experienced the grace of God — when we have experienced God’s deliverance — we can do nothing less than join the Psalmist in singing the praises of the one who is our help. We can do nothing else than praise the Lord who is the creator of heaven and earth. We can do nothing else than witness to the Lord who comes among us, dies for us, is raised from the dead and reigns for us. 

The fact is, each of us has experienced, or undoubtably will experience, at least one time in our life when things are desperate. When the future looks bleak. When all we can see ahead of us is a dead end. Yet the witness of Scripture, the witness of our Christian lives, is that in such moments we can turn to God for deliverance. And the good news of the gospel is that God does deliver! The wonder of God’s grace is that God is both with us and for us. That God doesn’t leave us alone to face the rising waters. That God frees us from the snare. 

That good news of God’s deliverance is why the  Psalmist sings. It is why he reminds us when we are at the end of our rope, it is God, and God alone, who is our help. 

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Life Together

Posted 9/9/2018

Scripture: James 2:1-17

I’ve never met a church that didn’t say it was friendly. Yet when you look more closely there are many churches where their life just may not bear that out. For example, more than once I’ve done a little experiment with church members. I ask them to begin talking with one another like they might do after (or before) worship. They immediately gather in small groups, cheerfully chatting away. I then approach each group, each of which is gathered in a rough circle. Most often not a single one of the groups opens up their circle to include me. I then ask them to think about this question: If they won’t move to include me, their pastor, how likely is it that they will move to include a visitor who is a stranger?

Today’s lesson from James challenges us to think about how we include or exclude people in our church gatherings. In James’ day and among his church community the biggest problem was how the church responded differently to those who were wealthy and those who were poor. Much like the society around them, they were likely to show great respect, and give great honor, to those who were of higher status in the surrounding society. We may find this to be true in our churches, but just as often our divisions are based more on who does how much for the church and our own personal friendships. 

Now I’m not saying personal friendships are wrong. What I am saying is in the church we need to make a real, conscious effort to be sure to include everyone. And without a doubt, the respect a member of the church receives shouldn’t be based on either their standing in the community or how much they do for the church.

The story is told of a congregation that was eagerly awaiting the arrival of their new pastor. On that Sunday morning a shabbily dressed, somewhat dirty and smelly man showed up before the service began. The ushers were embarrassed by the presence of this man who was clearly a bum. Why did he have to come on the day they were to celebrate the arrival of their new pastor? They suggested the man might be more comfortable going to the Rescue Mission service, but he insisted on worshiping with them. So, they seated him in the very back, in a dark corner where they hoped no one, and especially not their new pastor, would notice him. 

The service began, with great fanfare. Everyone was awaiting the arrival of their new pastor. At the appointed hour, the worship leader began the service, even though the pastor hadn’t been spotted yet. As they came to the point in the service where the new pastor would preach for the first time, the worship leader hopefully called out the pastor’s name. The congregation was alive with excitement and began clapping.

At that moment, the bum got up from his seat in the corner, moved to the center aisle and walked up to the pulpit. Every eye in the sanctuary was on him. Many heads were shaking and everyone in the congregation was clearly embarrassed at this man’s behavior. 

When the bum arrived at the pulpit, he simply recited Jesus parable:

 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

'The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

He then told them all what he had experienced that morning. Many in the congregation suddenly felt ashamed. 

While this is a story, not a true account, it vividly points out how we in the church today often treat others. If they don’t look like they “fit” in our congregation, we are inclined to ignore them, exclude them or even potentially suggest somewhere else they might go where they would be more “comfortable.” 

Yet it isn’t just those who are markedly different from us who may find it hard to enter our fellowships. Having served mostly small churches, I am well aware we tend to think of ourselves as families. In some ways that is both a Biblical image of the church and a very good description of the congregation. There is one problem, however, with our thinking of ourselves as a family: there are only 2 ways to enter a family — be adopted into it or marry into it.

So how do we, as small churches which are really like families, go about including others? How do we begin to break down the barriers — often barriers we aren’t really conscious of even being there — that can exclude others?

The first and main thing we must do is make an effort to include others. In this day of bullying and school shootings it is not uncommon to hear advice given to children that they say “Hi” to the kid that doesn’t seem to fit in or go sit with the child who is sitting all alone at lunch. But do we adults take our own advice? How often do we approach someone who isn’t part of “our circle” to have a real conversation with them? How often do we say more than a brief “hello” to people who might come into our congregation? How often do we go sit with the person who is sitting all alone in the pews or at fellowship time? Do we make a real effort to include those who may seem to be excluded by the group? The first thing we must do is to begin to make an effort as individuals to include others, especially watching for those who may be “excluded.”

The second thing is to begin as a congregation to “adopt” others into our groups. In one of my congregations, a session member was a township road commissioner. That meant he often was aware of people who moved into the community within a week or two of their arrival. He’d stop to visit any newcomers, introducing himself, telling them he was their road commissioner, and inviting them to let him know of any road issues they might notice. He also, before the conversation was over, would invite them to his small, very much family-like church. In fact, he would stress that they were a family — but at the same time assure the newcomers that they would become a member of the family on the first day they attended. 

And the fact was, that was exactly what that congregation, as a congregation, did. When a young family with children showed up, several older members would immediately begin to adopt them as their own grandchildren. They would begin to bring a piece of candy that the children would get after worship if they had been “good.” When the family had a number of children, one or two of the younger couples would offer to have one of the children sit with them during worship so Mom and Dad didn’t have as many kids to try to handle. 

It is easy for us to become comfortable in our own social circles here at church. But James reminds us that we need to stretch ourselves out to include those who are not a part of our circle. We need to be aware, so that no one is excluded. We need to not simply say we welcome everyone; we need to be a community that truly does welcome everyone.

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