The High Way

Posted 3/24/2019

Scripture: Isaiah 55:1-9

Lent is a time of reflection, of soul-searching and taking stock of our lives. For thousands of years, religious people have made journeys of the heart as a way of gaining perspective and insight. During this Lenten season, we are taking a pilgrimage — talking about journeys, roads and pathways of life, as we make our “way” together through this season. Today we continue the journey as we ponder the high way.

This last Thanksgiving I had a rare delight. I got to host Thanksgiving dinner. Having lived most of my adult life at a great distance from family, it has been a very rare experience for me to host a holiday meal. Most holidays I have been invited to join someone else. But for the 3rd time in my life, I hosted family and/or friends for Thanksgiving. 

Now I will confess I’m not the best hostess. My culinary skills are passable — at least when it comes to the kinds of meals I eat on an every day basis. My dining room table is barely big enough for 2 — and not even for 2 if you try to put a bunch of serving dishes on it. And, in general I tend to be the kind of hostess who treats guests as family, showing them where to find things and then encouraging them to help themselves. 

Still, as a single person, I love having company for the holidays. Heck, I just plain love having company! One reason is it gets terribly boring eating all alone day after day, meal after meal. (No, my dog begging at the table doesn’t count as eating with someone!) 

As I tell the youth during confirmation, Scripture says we were made for companionship. We were created with a need for friendship; and there is something about the companionship that happens around a table when we are sharing food that is special. Shared meals are nourishment not only for our bodies, but also for our souls. 

Is it any wonder then, if God made us for companionship and companionship around the table is special, that Isaiah talks about God inviting us to “come, buy and eat”? Is it any wonder that God invites us to visit God’s marketplace and get for ourselves the food that really nourishes our souls? To discover the way of God that is higher than our ways?

One of the amazing things about the Gospels is the number of times they refer to Jesus eating with someone. Over and over they talk about Jesus being at a meal or Jesus going to someone’s house to eat. Jesus eats with the Pharisees. Jesus eats with the despised tax collector Zacchaeus. Jesus eats with prominent and respectable people; and Jesus eats with the sinners and outcasts. 

In fact, it seems Jesus is pretty unconcerned about just who he eats with. He gets chided by the religious leaders for eating with sinners, but doesn’t let that bother him. But then, Jesus has a habit of associating with not only the “right people”, but also the “wrong people.”

And, if eating with someone today has a special character around the companionship shared, that was perhaps even more true in Jesus’ day. Agreeing to sit down to a meal with someone was to establish a friendship. It was to acknowledge a commonality between you. It was to enter into an intimate relationship. With that in mind, is it any wonder the Pharisees objected to Jesus eating with sinners? After all, what righteous person would acknowledge that they shared a commonality with sinners? What righteous person would want to become intimate with a sinner?

Yet that is the way of God. God practices a radical hospitality. It is a hospitality that doesn’t check credentials or limit itself to inviting only the “right kind of people” to the table. It is the hospitality of grace.

And we see that great hospitality of God made visible at the Communion Table where all who put their trust in Jesus are invited to share in the feast. Here there are no tests of race or gender or respectability or success or even personal compatibility with the other guests. Rather, it is an open invitation to all — sinners and saints.

And this invitation is a reflection of the breadth of God’s grace offered in Jesus. Jesus, the one who insisted he came to save the lost and the sinner; yet also ate with the Pharisees. Jesus, the one who forgives sin; yet also engaged in table fellowship with the righteous. Jesus, the one who promises a thief on the cross next to him that today he will be in paradise; yet also invited the pious religious to follow him. 

And this same God invites us to practice radical hospitality too. Just as God has invited all to the table of grace without price, so we are to invited to embody this kind of hospitality to all whom we meet. We are invited to remember God shows no partiality — and neither should we. We are invited to welcome the least, the lost and the sinner as well as the respectable and “good”.

Such hospitality certainly needs to extend to those outside our church doors; but perhaps it is even more important that we learn to extend such radical hospitality to one another as Christians. How often do we look down upon or refuse to be friends with someone who disagrees with us on matters of faith? How often do we despise the theology of the liberal or conservative who differs with us? How often do we question the faith or faithfulness of someone whose life of faith doesn’t match our expectations? How often do we fail to practice hospitality toward a brother or sister in Christ just because they are different than us?

Hospitality is God’s way. Yes, in the gospels it is clear that Jesus extends a special kind of welcome to those who were not welcomed. It is clear he especially sought out the lost. It is clear he choose to spend much time with the outcast. Yes, Jesus clearly extended hospitality to those who were normally were not offered hospitality. Such hospitality is the way of God. But Jesus also extended hospitality to the scribes and Pharisees who were certain they were “in the right” in God’s eyes. 

And that kind of hospitality for all is the way God invites us to walk. It is the way of inviting all to come to the feast God prepares — the feast of God’s grace. It is the way of learning to think and act a bit more like God — to show God’s mercy and grace toward everyone. It is the way of the one family of God gathered together by God’s grace. It is the way that is the high way — the way that is not our way but God’s way.

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The Way Around

Posted 3/17/2019

Scripture: Luke 13:13-34

Lent is a time of reflection, of soul-searching and taking stock of our lives. For thousands of years, religious people have made journeys of the heart as a way of gaining perspective and insight. During this Lenten season, we are taking a pilgrimage — talking about the journeys, roads and pathways of life — as we make our “way” together through this season. Today we continue the journey as we ponder the way around.

As a part of seeking ordination in the Presbyterian Church, and early on in that process, I had to fill in paperwork that included questions about what my family and friends thought about my decision. I hadn’t specifically asked my family what they thought; so, with this question sitting there waiting to be answered, I did. My parents were non-committal. My aunt, however, had a very definite response. When I said something to her, she simply said “No!” and walked out of the house. No exactly a ringing endorsement of my decision….

Now you no doubt think my aunt’s lack of enthusiasm about my decision was unwelcome — and it certainly was. But it was more than simply unwelcome — it was problematic. You see, my aunt was a well-known Christian Educator in the denomination. Her lack of support was definitely going to raise some questions with the presbytery committee when they reviewed the paperwork. Her lack of enthusiasm about my decision would no doubt be read as actual opposition….

Lack of support, misunderstanding of our goals and dreams, even outright opposition are all things that happen. They are a part of life. Seldom does everyone about us enthusiastically support all our decisions. And often there are one or even two people who are important to us who at times strongly disagree with a direction we are taking in life. Life is full of such obstacles to our walking the path God intends for us.

Jesus knew this dynamic. At one point while he was still teaching and preaching in Galilee, his family members came to “take him home.” The terms used in describing the family’s intentions make it clear they didn’t support Jesus’ actions. They were embarrassed by him — probably even thinking he had lost his mind. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, it isn’t until after the resurrection that we find any indication that his family supported Jesus’ ministry.

Obstacles and roadblocks. Life is full of them. One moment we may feel ourselves to be cruising down the highway of life. The next we see a sign that says “Road Closed Ahead.” What do we do when we are faced with such obstacles? What do we do when the road ahead seems to be closed?

I hate driving in Chicago, it’s suburban area or any part of its environs. My hatred of driving the Chicago area was especially strong during the years I lived in North Dakota. Highway construction meant the trip back to Pennsylvania always seemed to require that I go right into Chicago. There didn’t seem to be any way around it; I had to drive Chicago traffic. 

My more recent trips from here in Wisconsin, however, have been much more pleasant. As far as I’m concerned anyway, the by-pass really is a great improvement on having to drive right through the city. Chicago doesn’t seem like quite the obstacle to going to Pennsylvania that it used to be. 

Sometimes when we are faced with obstacles what we have to do is take the bypass. Sometimes the only thing we can do is to go around the obstacles others place in our path. Despite my aunt’s opposition to my decision to seek ordination, I had to press ahead. I had to go around her disapproval. I had to deal with the questions that the Presbytery committee inevitably asked and press on.

Jesus too had to go around those who would have him turn aside from the path God had for him. Herod, sure that Jesus was John the Baptist “reincarnated”, was anxious to see Jesus. But he wasn’t simply curious about Jesus — he undoubtably had plans to get rid of him. 

John the Baptist had been a pain — denouncing Herod for his marriage to his brother’s wife. Herod had taken care of that problem, like he did so many of his problems, by killing John. Now it was clear, whether or not Jesus was really John “reincarnated”, that Jesus was also a problem. And, just as he had done to most of the problem people in his life, Herod probably had some pretty definite plans to get rid of him. 

At least that’s what the warning from the Pharisees would indicate. Yet Jesus knows that God’s plan isn’t for him to die by Herod’s hand in Galilee. No, he is to die in Jerusalem — the city that kills the prophets. His path leads not to Herod’s throne room, but to a cross on Golgotha. Jesus can’t afford to let Herod’s hatred or his family concern turn him aside from the path he is to walk. He had to go around them, continuing on the path God intended.

How do we go around the obstacles that arise when we are following the path God intends for us? While the precise way we do this varies based on each situation, Jesus gives us one clear hint of what we need to do: We need to keep our eyes on God’s goal. 

When my aunt didn’t support my decision to seek ordination, it hurt me deeply. I respect her a lot. What she thought matters greatly to me. However, I knew I had to keep my eye on what God intended. I had to continue to seek ordination, even if she didn’t approve. I had to hope that maybe eventually she would come around; but whether she did or not, I knew I needed to press ahead. 

In much the same way when we face obstacles in the path God intends for us, we have to find ways to go around and press ahead toward the goal God has for us. Just as we have to find a way around a road closure, we have to find a way around the obstacles that seem to say the way ahead is closed.

I happened to be in Green Bay the other day when the pile up on I-43 on the bridge happened. I had been planning on crossing the river using the bridge; but when I got to the ramp, it was closed. I had to find another way around. I usually navigate in Green Bay by using my GPS; but it was of no help in this case. All it did was take me around the block, constantly trying to get me on I-43 at that closed ramp. I had to come up with a way around — and given the nature of the closure there clearly weren’t going to be any detour signs to help me!

Now one of the reason I use a GPS is I go to Green Bay so seldom I really don’t know the streets. So, in this case, I wound up stopping and asking directions. Having been given some directions that started me off in another way, I aimed at getting onto I-41 further south. Eventually my GPS “reset” the route and took me to I-41. It took a bit of time and effort — and the help of both others and my GPS — but I found a way around. 

In the same way, occasionally we may find signs to help us find our way around the obstacles that we find in life; but most of the time it’s going to be more like what happened to me with that accident. We are going to have to find the way around without the help of detour signs. In such situations, we may find we need the help of others to get us on track. We definitely are going to want the help of our “GPS” — prayer and scripture. But with those aids, we can find our way around. 

When life puts obstacles in the way of our following God’s path, we need to find a bypass — a detour — a way around. As we walk the path of Lent we are reminded sometimes the bypass — the way around — is the way we need to go.

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The Wandering Way

Posted 3/10/2019

Scripture: Luke 4:1-2

Lent is a time of reflection, of soul-searching and taking stock of our lives. For thousands of years, religious people have made journeys of the heart as a way of gaining perspective and insight. During this Lenten season, we are taking a pilgrimage — talking about journeys, roads and pathways of life, as we make our “way” together through this season. On Ash Wednesday we began our journey, looking at the way back. Today we continue is as we consider the wandering way.

In our Gospel lesson for today, we read about Jesus going into the wilderness and there encountering temptation to stray from the path God intended for him. The reality is, we all encounter temptations to stray from the path God has intended for us. We all find ourselves wandering in the wilderness — on a pilgrimage of sorts — at times in our life.

Consider for instance, the life of St. Augustine, one of the “fathers” of the early church, who was a great churchman and theologian. Born in northern Africa in 354, Augustine was the son of a pagan father and a devote Christian mother. Augustine’s mother, Monica, had a strong influence on the young Augustine. Despite this, the young Augustine left his Christian background as he sought what seemed to him to be more satisfying answers to the questions of life than he found in the church’s teachings. 

As a young man Augustine also fell in with friends who pursued pleasure in all its forms. In his late teens he developed a relationship with a young woman from Carthage, whom he never married although she bore him a son. Throughout this time in his life he indulged his appetite for pleasures. Yet he also felt uncomfortable with his lifestyle. As a young student in the prominent schools of his day Augustine developed an attracted to philosophy. Because of this he acknowledged the importance of being in control of his life, but he felt his desires for pleasure to be beyond his control.  And, despite his somewhat disquieted conscience, Augustine made little effort to change his ways. 

Trained as a teacher of rhetoric — or the skills of public speaking — Augustine eventually got a position teaching in the Imperial Court of Milan. There he was exposed to the preaching of Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. He also developed a friendship with Ambrose. Through exposure to Ambrose’s friendship, preaching and spirituality, Augustine developed a renewed interest in Christianity. 

In 386, Augustine made a formal conversion to Christianity. He was baptized by Ambrose in 388. In 391 he became the Bishop of Hippo and for the next 39 years he was an influential preacher, theologian and advocate for the Christian faith. He was one of the last great theologians before the Dark Ages. 

In the life of Augustine, like the lives of so many great Christians, we discover one who traveled the wandering way. Although he was brought up under the influence of his devoutly Christian mother, Augustine wandered away from the Christian faith for a number of years. In his later years, as a Bishop, Augustine would reflect on his years of wandering — years in which, according to Augustine he surrendered to temptations that drew him away from God and the path God would have him lead. His reflections on this time in his life are recorded in his famous work “The Confessions.” Many Christians have drawn hope and inspiration from Augustine’s account of his life and his coming to God despite years spent wandering in what he would call a life of worthless pleasures.

Yet it is not only Jesus and great Christians who face temptations to stray from the path God intends. Each and every one of us face such temptations — often at many points in our lives. 

I was finishing my Junior year in college before I even sensed a call to ministry. Initially I was excited about God’s call to serve, but it didn’t take long for temptations to wander from following this path arose. You see, one of the first things I did after sharing the news with a few friends was to go to the library to check out seminary catalogues. I checked entrance requirements and recommended majors and classes for those entering seminary. Much to my dismay (although it should be to no one’s shock) I discovered that my agricultural major meant I didn’t have even one of the  recommended courses for entry into seminary. I quickly went from joyful obedience to God’s call to questioning God about whether he hadn’t misdialed and reached a wrong number.

This temptation to turn aside from God’s intended path didn’t end with my enrollment in seminary, however. During my first term, I struggled with classes like Hebrew and theology. I repeatedly said to God, “I’ll show you I don’t belong here — I’m going to flunk out!”… I didn’t.

Even then, I continued to argue with God about the path God intended. This has been true for me not simply through seminary, but even during my years of ministry. At various points in my ministry when I have been struggling — when I have felt myself wandering in the wilderness — I have questioned God’s call again. 

At this point in my life, I am aware the possibility of the temptation to forsake God’s call is in many ways a constant one. I recognize it is something that will probably never completely disappear from my life. The reality is just as the devil “departed from Jesus until an opportune time;” so the devil is always awaiting an opportune time in my life to renew the temptation to go another way than the way God intends.

That reality of the temptation to wander from the path God intends for us that Jesus experienced, that Augustine experienced and that I have experienced is a temptation that exists for all Christians. As we travel through life we find ourselves facing those times when we feel ourselves to be wandering in the wilderness — when our lives feel dry or we feel lost. We have those times that leave us somewhat spiritually disoriented, questioning and doubting. We have those times when we find ourselves faced with temptations to stray from the path God intends for us.

Yet the good news is that not all who wander are lost. One image of this truth, used in the church, is that of the maze. Walking a spiritual maze isn’t about solving a puzzle — like the maze puzzles we may have done as youth. Rather, spiritual mazes are designed in such a way that the only one path is available to you — a winding path that leads to the center. Such spiritual mazes embody our recognition that even if it is a twisted path we follow, we still come to the center — to God. 

The good news is that Jesus himself wandered in the wilderness and faced temptation. As a result, those who wander in the wilderness and face temptation can trust they can experience the presence of Jesus with them. The good news is that even when it is by a wandering way, we can come home to God. In the end, even if by a wandering way, we can walk the path God intends for us and arrive safely at home. 

 

 

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Transformed by Glory

Posted 3/3/2019

Scriptures: Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36

Back when I first started in ministry, clown services were becoming popular. As a result, and out of curiosity, I took a class on clowning at Synod School. One of the first things we were taught in that class was how to put on clown white and create our own clown face. There is one thing our instructor said when teaching us to put on the clown white that has stuck with me through all the years since that day. It was simply this: as you put on your clown white, you disappear and your clown character begins to emerge. With those words in my ears, I discovered the truth of what the instructor said: as I put on my clown white, I was transformed into another person. That is true even today. Putting on clown white transforms me into a different person.

In our Scripture lessons for today, it isn’t clown white that transforms people. It is the glory of God. We read about Moses being transformed by being in God’s presence so that his face shone even after he left God’s presence. We read about Jesus, transfigured so that God’s glory shines in and through him. And we read Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed.…”

All these passages remind us of God’s glory. A glory that is so often portrayed in Scripture as bright light and a shining presence — a cloud of fire and glory. Yet they don’t simply remind us of God’s glory. They reminds us that God’s glory transforms human lives. To have an encounter with God — with God’s glory — is to be transformed. 

Thus it is that Moses goes into God’s glorious presence and there, unbeknownst to him, is transformed by being in the presence of God’s shining glory. He is transformed in such a way that his face also begins to shine. His face reflects the glory of God, in whose presence he has been. 

However, we read, this reflection of God’s glory frightens the Israelites when they see it. The Israelites know both from personal experience both the power and the danger of God’s glorious presence. It is because of their fear that Exodus reports something that sounds somewhat strange. It speaks of Moses leaving his face uncovered when he delivers God’s message to the Israelites — thus clearly showing he is God’s messenger — yet covering his face during his normal daily life lest the reflected glory of God frighten the Israelites. 

It is in the light of this understanding of God’s glory made present — reflected — in the life of a human that Paul in turn remarks that we are “being transformed … from one degree of glory to another.” For if the glory of God revealed to Moses — a glory which always remained separated from the Israelites — was awe-inspiring; how much more the glory of God which has become human in Jesus? Here we see God’s glory revealed not in fire and a cloud, but in the life of one who is like us. Here we see not reflected glory, as we see on Moses’ face, but the glory that properly belongs to Jesus.

 It is this glory, the glory of God that properly belongs to Jesus, that the disciples saw on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured. It is this glory that left Peter in a state that he doesn’t know what he is saying. And it is this glory — the glory of God that has come to live among us in Jesus — that our own lives reflect as disciples of Jesus. 

It is this image of God’s glory shown in the life of Christ into which Paul insists our lives are being transformed. In other words, as Christians, we are those who reflect God’s glory revealed in Jesus. But we are not simply those who reflect God’s glory; we are those in whom God’s glory resides through the presence of the Holy Spirit. 

This is the reason Paul speaks of Moses covering his face to conceal “the glory that was being set aside.” The glory that shown in Moses’ face was strictly a reflected glory. It was not a glory that come from the abiding of the Spirit within him, but simply from his being in God’s presence. Christians, however, not only come into God’s presence, we have, as it were, to glory of God abiding in us through the Spirit, transforming our lives from within. 

Just as God’s glory transformed Moses’ face, so the glory of God transforms our lives. It is a glory that makes us more and more like Jesus. It is a glory that enables us to forgive those who have hurt us, to love our enemies, to care for the least and seek the lost. It is a glory that enables us to willingly rest without anxiety upon God’s care and provision for our lives. It is a glory that leads us to rejoice in God’s gift of salvation. It is a glory that opens our hearts to share all the good gifts that God pours out into our lives.

Here at this Table we come to meet our Lord Jesus. Here at this Table we come, seeing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the glory of God revealed. Here at this Table we come to be transformed by the presence of the glory of God in Christ. We come to be transformed by the power of the Spirit. We come to be transformed from glory into glory. We come to be transformed from glory to glory by the glory of God embodied in Jesus Christ, our Lord, until we too reflect the wonder of God’s glory in and through our lives.

 

 

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Happiness Is

Posted 2/17/2019

Scriptures: Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; Luke 6:17-26

“…Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The pursuit of happiness … for many people that is the very essence of living. The value we put on happiness can be found, among other things, in the many popular quotes about happiness:

True happiness is … to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future.

Happiness, true happiness is an inner quality. It is a state of mind. If your mind is at peace, you are happy. 

True happiness comes from the joy of deeds well done, the zest of creating things new. 

True happiness involves the full use of one’s power and talents.

In my life I’ve learned that true happiness comes from giving. 

True happiness arises, in the first place, from the enjoyment of one’s self, and in the next, from the friendship and conversation of a few select companions. 

True success, true happiness lies in freedom and fulfillment.

Just staying healthy, that is true wealth and true happiness. 

True happiness comes from integration … of work, family, self and community. 

These quotes indicate just some of the ways people pursue happiness. Happiness may be pursued through wealth and the possession of lots of “toys.”… If I only had a new car, I’d be happy. …If I only could spend the winters in Florida, I’d be happy. Those are just a couple of the things those who pursue happiness in wealth and the possession of lots of toys might say. 

Happiness may be sought in the enjoyment of lots of pleasures. …If I could only eat like this every night, I’d be in heaven! …If I could only afford to have a massage every week, I’d be happy. Those are a couple of the things those who seek happiness in the pursuit of pleasures might say.

Happiness may be equated with success. …If I only had that promotion, I’d be happy. …If I only were able to be the head of my own company, I’d be happy. Those are a couple of the things those who seek happiness in success might say.

Or it may be understood as having enough power to be able to do whatever you want. …If I only could go fishing whenever I wanted, I’d be happy. …If only I could bring about world peace, I’d be happy. Those are a couple of things hose who seek happiness in power might say. (Ok, probably no one really says that last one, but you get the point!)

The fact is happiness is often sought in the pursuit of more — more wealth, more possessions, more enjoyments, more success, more power. However, it can also be sought in less. It can be sought in simplifying one’s life. Or in the simple enjoyment of what you already have. Whether through the pursuit of more, the pursuit of less or the simply enjoyment of what we already have, however, we Americans are pretty committed to pursuing our own happiness. 

In the light of how much all of us desire happiness, spend our time thinking about obtaining happiness, and this wide variety in the understanding of what it is that can make us happy, is it any wonder that a whole self-help industry designed to instruct us in how to find happiness has developed? In fact, pretty much the whole self-help industry is designed to teach us how to finally attain our dream of happiness, however we might define happiness.  

The problem is, every one of these understandings of what will make us happy eventually leaves us feeling less than truly satisfied. This is true even if we achieve what we set out to obtain. The problem is there is alway more to be had — more things, more pleasures, more success, more power. And even if we aren’t searching for more, there is always the risk of losing what we have — our riches, our success, our status, our health… So how are we to find true happiness? Just what is true happiness?

One of the kinds of literature found in the Scriptures is called “wisdom literature.” The goal of the writers of wisdom literature was to teach people how to live the good life — that is, how to find true happiness or blessedness. Three of our 4 Scripture lessons for today come from this kind of literature. And what do these Scriptures tell us about the source and the nature of true happiness?

First, they tell us true happiness is found in trust in God. As I’ve already indicated, there is always more than we currently have, and we always run the risk of losing what we do have. Yet God’s faithful love means we never run the risk of “losing” God. God is always there — and God always gives us of his fullness. That is not to say we can’t decide to ignore God or walk away from God. Nor is it to say we can’t come to a fuller understanding of God. Saying we can’t “lose” God is saying God isn’t going to “walk away from us” or stop looking for us to return when we wander. It is also to say God doesn’t “hold back” from giving himself to us. In fact, we see the extent to which God gives himself to us in the amazing gift of his son, Jesus! To trust in God means to trust that God is faithful, that we can never “lose” God.

This trust in God is, at its heart, also a reliance upon God. It is the willingness to believe that God will give us the good we need. It is a trust that God will provide us with enough. It is a confidence that God will care for us, no matter what the circumstances of life. It is the willingness to trust that God is enough for our lives; that we don’t need to be always chasing after something more.

Jeremiah uses a vivid image to describe the life of those who trust in God — they are “like a tree planted by water.” They discover, even in the most severe drought, the water that is necessary to sustain them. They find, even in the most difficult of circumstances, the life-giving power of God at work in their lives. 

We experience this live-giving power of God at work in our lives through Jesus Christ. This is why Jesus says that even when people hate, exclude or defame us, we should rejoice. Jesus’ beatitudes aren’t a suggestion we go out looking for “troubles.” Nor are they suggesting that “trouble” in itself is good. Rather, Jesus’ beatitudes tell us the apparent difficulties of this world are not the last word. The beatitudes proclaim that even in the midst of difficult times we can experience the reality of the presence of the kingdom of God in and through Christ. 

That leads to thing to notice something all 3 of our wisdom passages say. There is no pretense in these passages that the happy life is free from struggles and difficulties. According to Jeremiah (and the psalmist) the “tree planted by water” experiences the heat and drought that are a part of life lived in a desert. Although the tree is planted by a stream, and so supported by its waters, the tree isn’t removed from its wilderness environment. It still lives in a land of little water. And according to Jesus the happy experience poverty, hunger and weeping. Their lives are ones of uninterrupted pleasure.

These passages all serve to remind us true happiness doesn’t pretend all is well. It doesn’t expect life will be pleasant all the time. It expects to find thorns with the roses and times of drought in the desert. It knows life is filled with both “ups” and “downs,” and that trust in God doesn’t remove the reality of our experiencing the “downs” in life.

Rather true happiness is found in a deep, life-giving connection with the source of life — God. This is the “secret” that the wisdom literature points toward. When we remain connected to God, the source of life, we will discover happiness. When we trust in God, the one who gives generously to everyone, we discover the source of what we need in life (although not necessarily what we want). When we rely upon God, we are relying upon the only One who gives both life and new life. 

What is true happiness? What is the source of happiness that endures? True, enduring happiness is to be found only in God. 

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Leaning on God

Posted 2/3/2019

Scripture: Psalm 71:1-6

We all experience adversity in life; but the kind of adversity we experience may vary widely. There are any number of little adversities we encounter as a part of the regular routines of life. It may be finding your team struggling to win a ballgame that you really should have won easily. Or it may be that your TV reception goes out in the middle of teh big game. Or, perhaps a bit more of an issue, you arrive at work only to discover the co-worker you really don’t care for that much is the one who has been promoted to your manager. Life is, in many ways, a matter of handling a series of more or less small adversities such as these.

But sometimes we are faced with a much bigger experience of adversity. Perhaps it is a devastating diagnosis. Or maybe it is the sudden, senseless death of a loved one. Or it could be that you are fired unexpectedly from a job you both loved doing and were convinced you were doing well. For most of us at least one experience of truly significant adversity enters our lives before we die; and for many of us life provides a whole lot more than one experience of significant adversity.

Whatever it is, life throws us curves and adversity comes our way. At such times we can find ourselves wondering where God is. We may ask, “Why has God let this happen?” Perhaps our experience of serious adversity penetrates so deeply in our souls that we wonder if God really does love us or even question if God really exists. The fact is, in when we are faced with significant adversity, it can become hard for us to feel we are still being held safely in the hands of a loving God. 

In today’s psalm, the psalmist was face-to-face with significant adversity.  While we don’t know exactly what was happening, it is clear the psalmist was facing serious opposition in his life. In fact, he describes his experience as being like being ripped from God’s hands by the strong grasp of the wicked. 

Yet, in the midst of these difficulties, the psalmist is able to look back on his life and remember God’s claim upon him. He recognizes this claim as one that endures. He knows God claim upon him is a lifelong one. It is not a claim that is for the moment only. God is steadfast, the psalmist proclaims — and that means God’s claim upon us is sure and enduring. 

We too can look back, much as the Psalmist did, to God’s faithfulness to us in the past. We too can recall in that remembering the lifelong claim God has laid upon our lives. In other words, as Christians we can “remember our baptism.”

Pretty much every Sunday, as I pour the water into the baptismal fount, I invite us to “remember your baptism and rejoice.” This is an invitation for each of us to remember, not the actual event of our baptism — that is, not the moment when the pastor placed water on our heads, but the simple fact that we are baptized. It is also the invitation to remember that in our baptism we receive the assurance of God’s lifelong claim upon our lives. It is this claim upon our lives that is the reason Presbyterians practice infant baptism. Like Jeremiah, we recognize the claim God has placed upon us, even before we were born. We are invited each week to remember that in our baptism God claims us as his own, making us his forever.

It is in the context of such a life-long claim that the psalmist has experienced in God’s covenant with Israel that the psalmist  calls upon God in his time of adversity. The psalmists prayer is a simple one — calling upon God to continue his faithfulness. While the translation into English tends to leave the opening verses of this Psalm sounding rather tame, the language the Psalmist uses is truly vivid and  powerful. He asks that God tear him from his enemies grasp, “tear” being a more literal translation of the request God “deliver” him. Just as the Psalmist is faced with serious opposition that grasps him and tears at his life, he asks God to tear him from his enemy’s hands and to grasp him in an ever-tighter embrace. 

It is in the light of his confidence in the life-long claim God has placed upon his life that the Psalmist is able to draw hope and to feel confident that adversity will not ultimately overcome him. The Psalmist rests his confidence for his future upon God’s faithfulness ,not upon his own ability to overcome the blows and adversities of life. The Psalmist trusts in God’s ability to keep him safe. It is God, not his own strength or coping ability, that serves as his refuge. The psalmist leans not on his own strength, abilities, and wits, but on God’s faithfulness

In the same way we can lean upon God in our times of adversity. We can trust God’s faithfulness continues. We can lean upon God. Such trust and leaning upon God doesn’t mean we won’t face adversity. What it means is we know God can and will provide a way though the adversities that enter our lives. Our sudden job loss may lead us to another job — perhaps even one we love more than the one we lost. Our devastating diagnosis may open up channels of communication within our family and provide for reconciliation we had given up dreaming was ever possible.

Yet even if these kinds of “fairy tale” endings don’t happen, we can continue to lean upon God, for we know that God is our only true hope in the midst of the overwhelming difficulties and myriad adversities of life. We know it is God, and God alone, who can give us both the strength and the hope to persevere. We know God holds us in his grasp, even in those times where evil seems to have a firm grip on our lives. We know this, because we know God is faithful and God has claimed us as his own. 

The Psalmist has confidence and hope because he knows — and has taken the time to make sure he remembers — God’s faithfulness. We too are invited to remember God’s faithfulness as we hear the words “Remember your baptism.” We are invited to remember God’s faithfulness as we gather about the Table and remember God’s love for us and God’s victory over sin and death in Jesus. In those moments we are invited to join the Psalmist in remembering that we might lean upon God in the good times and especially in the bad times of life.

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Hearing God

Posted 1/27/2019

Scriptures: Nehemiah 8:1-10, Psalm 19

Every Saturday morning I call my Aunt Agnes. We seldom talk long, but there is something about just hearing her voice every week that is so very important to me. Yet Aunt Agnes isn’t the only one whose voice has been important to me. Right off the top of my head I can think of several family members and friends who have died whose voices I wish I could hear again. 

There are those people in our lives whose voices we long to hear. Yet it isn’t just family and friends whose voice we cherish and long to hear. Many of us long to hear God talking to us. That weekly call helps keep my Aunt and I connected when we can’t be together physically, and so I carefully nurture that relationship through my phone calls. In the same way we may wish we knew a way to nurture our relationship with God.

Our Old Testament lessons for today point to the importance of hearing God speak. In Nehemiah we hear how Ezra gathered all the Israelites in Jerusalem and read the Law to them. In the Psalter lesson we hear extensive praise of God’s word. Both of these Scriptures remind us just how important it is to hear what God says. Yet how do we go about hearing God? How does God speaks to us? This morning we’re going to take a bit of time to reflect on those two questions.

Our Psalter lesson begins with a reminder one way we can “hear God” is through God’s creation. The Psalmist declares, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” He goes on to talk about the way in which creation “speaks” about God — even if there are no words spoken. 

Probably most of us have experience at one time or another this kind of “speaking.” We see a beautiful sunset, and it speaks to us of the beauty of God’s handiwork. We see the relentless waves of the ocean or experience a powerful thunderstorm, and it reminds us of God’s power. We see a mother’s love for her baby, and we find ourselves thinking of God’s love for us. These are just a few of the ways in which God may “speak” to us through his creation. Since God is the Creator of all these things, there is a way in which these are, in one sense, actually God’s words to us.

As we continue to read what the psalmist has to say about God’s speaking, however, we find he does something that initially may seem to be a sharp turn in thought at this point. The Psalmist begins to praise God’s Law. Yet, if we understand that all of this psalm is praising the fact and act of God speaks to us, this “turn” doesn’t seem nearly so sharp. 

If God speaks to us through nature, the Psalmist says, God speaks to us as well in the words of the Law. Now we are often inclined to think of the Law as something that is burdensome, but as the Psalmist and as our reading from Nehemiah indicates, for Israel the Law was something to celebrate. That is because in the Law Israel heard God speaking to them. The Law wasn’t so much a list of “do’s and don’ts” — as we tend to think of them being — as it was God’s sharing with Israel the nature of their relationship. For them the Law was God’s “here is what our friendship with one another means,” not a burdensome list of demands and commands.

Furthermore, the “Law” was not just those portions of Scripture we call “commandments”,or even just the first 5 books of the Old Testament. For Jews, the Law was (and is) all of Scripture. In fact, it even includes the rabbinic interpretations of Scripture! In other words, the Law consists of all the record of the guidance God had given and all the stories of the relationship God had with them as a people — including those that interpret what we call the Old Testament. We see this inclusion of the “interpretation” of what we are inclined to think of as God’s word as being a part of God’s speaking in our Nehemiah passage. We see it in the way Nehemiah points out that Ezra didn’t just read the Law to the gathered people, but provision was made for it to be “interpreted” so they would understand it. 

So we see here another important source of God’s speaking. God speaks through the Scriptures, including the help we can get in understanding Scripture from the way the church has interpreted Scripture over the generations. 

Finally, we hear God speaking to us in a uniquely personal way in Jesus Christ, who John describes as “the Word.” In Jesus God’s word to us becomes flesh. In Jesus God speaks to us only only personally but as a real flesh-and-blood person. 

So if these are the ways God speaks to us, how do we go about cultivating our ability to hear?

First we spend time with Scripture. We do this in 2 different ways:

We study Scripture. We read both Scripture and devotionals, commentaries or other literature that can help us grow into a deeper knowledge of what Scripture says and how the Church has and does understand the Scripture message. Such studying of Scripture includes our taking time to become familiar with the Scripture we are studying. In fact, we may become so familiar with it we discover that we have memorized it! And certainly, there is a role for simple intentional memorization of Scripture as a part of studying Scripture. 

The other way we spend time with Scripture is to pray the Scriptures. Here we don’t so much try to analyze what Scripture is saying as we simply allow ourselves to be washed over by the Scriptures themselves. One ancient form of praying the Scriptures is to simply read a brief passage over slowly, noting what words or phrases stand out to you as you read. As you read the passage several times, you pause to take time after each reading to also reflect on those words or phrases that stood out to you. Why might it have stood out to you right now? What is going on in your life that these words seem important to you? What might they be saying to you?

Besides reading Scripture we cultivate hearing God speaking to us as we spend time in prayer and meditation. I think we all know that “classic” definition of prayer as simply “talking to God” but some of us may be uncertain of what meditation is. Or perhaps we even feel that the idea of meditation is somehow un-Christian. 

Yes, there are forms of meditation that are parts of other religions and can be “un-Christian.” However, many Christians over the centuries have practiced the discipline of meditation. Put in very simple terms, meditation is simply “listening for God,” and there certainly is nothing “un-Christian” about that! In other words, if we talk to God in prayer, we also need to take time to be quiet and listen for God’s answer! That is meditation!

What do we meditate on? What can guide us as we listen? As I’ve already indicated, we can meditate on a brief passage of Scripture. Or we may meditate on some particular event in Jesus’ life. Or we might meditate on the names of Christ. There are numerous ways in which we can “structure” our meditation. On the other hand, we can also simply remain in silence at the end of our normal time of prayer, opening our hearts and minds to hear what God might be saying in response. In such silence we might hear the “still, small voice” of God speaking.

We long to hear God speaking because hearing God speak is so important. And the fact is we can hear God speak. That is the good news of Scripture — God has spoken to us — in nature, in Scripture and in his Son. The question is — are we listening?

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Gifted

Posted 1/20/2019

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

I’m guessing that not all that long ago, at Christmas time, all of us found gifts under the Christmas tree. Getting at least one gift for Christmas is so important in our society that we tend to gather gifts for those who might not be able to afford them. We want to be sure everyone can receive at least one gift at the holiday time. One part of the reason we want to make sure everyone has at least one gift is the joy we get in giving. Another part of our joy in giving is knowing the joy we get in getting gifts — the joy of feeling a part of a group, loved and welcomed.

Yet the fact is there are many kinds of gifts we may receive. Let’s focus for just a moment on Christmas gifts I received this year. Two of them I started using almost the instant they were unwrapped. Others I began to use within the next few days. One gift I’m still waiting for the “right time” to use it. But there is one gift I received that I’m still trying to figure out exactly why I received this particular gift. To give you an idea of how confused I am about this gift, the description of the gift that the giver included with the gift doesn’t seem to match what the gift actually is — or at least it doesn’t seem to match in my mind. 

It wasn’t Christmas-time with all the variety of Christmas gifts we might receive, but the members of the Corinthian church were fascinated with various gifts they’d received. In their case however, it wasn’t wrapped gifts found under a tree but spiritual gifts. Like my experience, there were some gifts that they put to use immediately and seemed to them to be quite useful. But others, well, they didn’t seem so useful. Sort of like my gift that I’m still wondering about, the Corinthians saw certain gifts as being of at best questionable value.

So, while there might be a variety of gifts within their congregation, in their minds there were some gifts that seemed to obviously be the most important ones to have received. There were some gifts they knew exactly how to use and they put them to use immediately. To have received one of these gifts, in their thinking, was clearly to be more “favored” and more “important.” These were the “valuable gifts,” unlike those other gifts of more questionable use which were clearly of less value.

It was to this congregation, with all its focus on spiritual gifts, that Paul wrote trying to help them correctly understand the whole variety of gifts they had received. He wanted them to understand all the gifts they had received, not just the ones they valued so highly. In doing this, Paul puts forth at least three important things we need to remember about spiritual gifts.

First, everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord is gifted by the Spirit. In fact, Paul would say that simply confessing Jesus is a gift! But more to the point, Paul says that everyone in the church has some kind of gift, given by the Spirit.

This is important because the fact is I’ve almost always found at least one person in every congregation who feels they have no gift. They can’t sing or play an instrument. They aren’t good teachers. They can’t speak in public. And on and on goes the list they recite of the things they can’t do. 

But the truth is every one of us has certainly things that we can’t do. I am terrible at arithmetic and so I really shouldn’t be a treasurer — especially since I can’t even keep my own checkbook balanced with a computer bookkeeping program! Or consider the fact I not only have respiratory allergies of varying degrees to the variety of evergreens, I have contact allergies to all of them. That means I really can’t help decorate a live Christmas tree. Those are just a couple of the things I can’t do — and trust me there are plenty more!

And then there is another whole long list of things I don’t do very well. Like I’m not exactly a good baker, so I’m not the best person to ask to make a pie or cookies for a bake sale. (That is, unless you want frozen pre-mades that I bake!) Or I really can’t draw all that well so having me draw a heart for a craft may not result in the best looking heart in the world. 

But the fact is, there are also things I can do, and some that I do not only quite well. In fact, a few of them I do rather easily. 

Paul insists that every single one of us has things we can do — some of them we do very well, and perhaps even easily. None of us is totally without some kind of gift.  To use another image, none of us is left with nothing under the Christmas tree. Paul urges us to stop looking at what we can’t do and look for what we can do.

Now that said, I need to say one more thing about each of us having gifts. I also understand that as we age, things we once could do easily become difficult or even impossible for us. I get that, and I get how that can make us feel we no longer have any gifts. But if we look, we will discover there is still at least one thing we still can do. For example, we might realize we can write notes of encouragement. Or we can pray. Or we can make phone calls to others who might be lonely. 

The first thing Paul wants us to understand about spiritual gifts is each and every Christian has at least one gift — no exceptions.

The second thing Paul wants us to understand about spiritual gifts is they are given to be used for the good of the whole church. The Spirit doesn’t give us gifts so we can “look good” or seem important. The Spirit gives us gifts so we can be a part of the church, Christ’s body, and use those gifts to strengthen the faith and faithfulness of the church. Our gifts are given to us to help the church in its ministry and mission. 

Certainly, since our gifts are given to help the church in its mission, there are times when we use our gifts for the good of the wider community, not just the church as such. Our gift of being able to work with young people may find expression in our being a public school teacher, not just in our teaching within the church. Our ability to speak in public may find expression in our being a community leader, not just in being a leader in the church. Our skill in fixing things may find expression in our working in maintenance at the local plant, not just in helping make repairs at church. 

But no matter where or how we express our gifts we have received, the fact remains our gifts are given to us to build up everyone — not just to build up our own reputations and status.

Finally, Paul says all gifts — not matter what kind of gift it is — are “activated by the same Spirit.” In other words, all our gifts come from the same source which means no gift is ultimately more important than another. It isn’t that one gift is somehow more “spiritual” than another — they all come from the same Spirit and so all of them are equally “spiritual.” Each and every one of them is given to us by the Spirit of God. 

Furthermore, all of them are needed. All of them are necessary for a church to be a healthy body. The person who does the “behind the scenes” helping is just as important as the leader who stands in front of everyone. The youth who gives generously out of their allowance is just as important as the adult who gives generously out of their comparatively large salary. Paul points to this truth by saying in another place in 1 Corinthians that all members of the body are worthy of honor — even, and perhaps even especially, the ones we consider “inferior.”

The Corinthians had one thing right — spiritual gifts are important. But it isn’t that some spiritual gifts are more important than others. It is that each and every gift is needed for us to be the body of Christ — to be the people God has called us to be and do what God has called us to do. And none of us is without some kind of gift — each of us is gifted and so is needed. So let’s look for our gifts, open them up, and use them for the good of the whole body of Christ.

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No Need to Fear

Posted 1/13/2019

Scripture: Isaiah 43:1-7

The world can seem a frightening place. It feels like we hear of yet another terrorist attack somewhere in the world every week. School shootings are happening way to frequently. Reports of this or that building going into lock-down because of a shooter or other danger have become common. To use a Biblical phrase, Our world seems to be “filled with wars and rumors of wars”…Yes, there certainly seems to be lots to fear in our world.

But more to the point for me is the fact I hear a lot of people who are Christian who are fearful. This fearfulness doesn’t seem to be limited to those of one side or the other of the divides that seem to characterize our life together in this time.

Christians on the “right” fear that all traditional morality is being thrown out the door. They worry about what is happening to “family values.” It is not uncommon to hear such “conservatives” express feelings of being marginalized in church and in society. They are afraid of losing all their religious liberties. They are fearful of the many changes that have happened in our society over the past 30 years. Such fears leave them feeling threatened and that fear often leads to a certain kind of political advocacy on their part.

On the other hand, I am increasingly hearing Christians on the “left” expressing some of the same kinds of concerns. Especially in the light of recent times, “liberals” wonder where the church and world are headed. Fearful of losing all they felt they have gained in the last 30 years, “liberals” are also feeling threatened. Changing currents, especially political currents, seem to threaten them with being marginalized. Their fear often leads the to an equally adamant, but totally different, kind of political advocacy. 

Perhaps the thing that strikes me the most about these responses of both the “right” and the “left” is each of them feel their fear is reasonable. In their eyes their fear is totally justified and the only sensible response to what they see happening in the world around them . Each of them feel that without their actions — including and perhaps especially their political advocacy — the Christian faith is threatened, perhaps to the point of going out of existence in our nation. And at times at least subtle charges of “heresy” are voiced by each in regards to those on “the other side”. Each feels they are living in a hostile environment and that they MUST act — and act right now — to save the truth.

In the light of so much fear among Christians of every stripe, what are we to do? How do we live as faithful Christians in the midst of what really can, at least at times, can feel to us like a threat-filled world? What should be our responses to trends in the church and in politics that don’t match our faith convictions, whether our own convictions are “conservative” or “liberal”?

Perhaps the first thing we need to do as people of faith is to recognize our situation is far from unique. This is far from the first time that the faithful have struggled with the realities of the world about them. It is far from the first time the people of God have lived in a threatening situation and felt their very continued existence was at stake.

The words of Isaiah that we read this morning were written in one such fear-filled time. The Jews had been taken into Exile. There, in the midst of a foreign culture, as cultural, religious and political “outsiders” in Babylon and Assyria, they struggled to maintain their distinctiveness as Jews and to pass on their faith to the younger generations. Surrounded by those who worshipped the Babylonian and Assyrian gods — and living in a world where such worship was a key to getting ahead — how could they keep their young people faithful to the God of Israel? 

And even more basic, how could they understand the fact that the God of Israel had seemed unable to protect them from the Assyrian and Babylonian armies? Was it possible that the gods of Babylon and Assyria truly are more powerful than the God of Israel?

In these, and other more subtle ways, their future as a people of faith seemed to be threatened. The changes they were experiencing certainly weren’t ones they had chosen — and they all seemed to threaten their faith and faithfulness. Yes, for the faithful of Isaiah’s day there was a lot to fear.

And then there were the problems that arose even when they were able to return to Jerusalem where they dreamed of rebuilding their lives as Jews. As they began to rebuild the city and the Temple, they faced serious opposition from the local peoples. Opposition so severe that Ezra, who was leading the re-building efforts, tells them to go about the task of re-building with a building trowel in one hand and a sword in the other hand! This was not some possible threat they faced. It was a real threat — and it was a real threat to their very lives!

Yes, there was a lot for the faithful of Isaiah’s day to fear. Their world had changed drastically and it truly was a frightening, and even virulently hostile, place. 

Yet in the midst of such threats to their faith — and even their lives — Isaiah has a message that addresses their fears. Isaiah says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” 

“Do not fear…I will be with you.” In the midst of all the threats they faced, Isaiah has what may seem like a totally impractical word — Don’t fear, don’t worry, I, God, am enough.

I’m going to put what I hear Isaiah saying to us in our age a bit bluntly. In a time when so many of us are so concerned about the future of the Christian faith, I hear God saying “I’m big enough to handle whatever happens.” It is in the light of that kind of statement that I find the anxiety of so many Christians disturbing. 

The truth is God doesn’t need us to save him — or even to save His Church. It is we who need God to save us. It isn’t our actions which guarantee the church will endure; is God who guarantees a faithful people will remain.

God is big enough. God doesn’t need us to defend him, as if he somehow could be “overcome.” No matter what the appearances, God wasn’t defeated by the Babylonian gods — and God can’t be defeated by any “hostile” trends today.

Now I’m not saying we should just sit back and do nothing. We DO need to express our faith — including discerning how we can faithfully express our faith in the political realm. Our faith commitments SHOULD have an impact on our political convictions. 

What I am saying is NO particular way of being church and NO specific political system can save us. Only God can. Whether it is conservatives or liberals “in power” in the church, or in our society, neither of them can save us. Only God can do that. And that means our commitments are always relative commitments compared to our commitment to God.

The truth is God is with us — and God is enough. It is God, and God alone, who guarantees the future of the church. It is God and God alone who directs the future of the world. It is God and God alone who can bring us through the waters and the flame. Remembering that God is with us and is more than big enough for whatever comes, we need not fear.

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The Reach of Grace

Posted 1/6/2019

Scriptures: Matthew 2:1-12, Ephesians 3:1-12

The early church had a big problem. There were people who “weren’t like us” who were becoming members of the church. They were even acting like they were just as good as those who had been God’s people for generations — the Jews.

Yes, the early church had a problem. Originally consisting of Jewish believers — until persecution sent the church out into the wider world and then worsened when Paul began an intentional ministry to non-Jews — the church was increasingly finding itself made up of Gentiles. The problem with all this? Everyone knew that it was the Jews who were God’s chosen people. So let these Gentiles become Jews if they wanted to be among God’s chosen! The attitude among many Jewish believers in Jesus was one of “Let them become like us if they want to be considered part of God’s people.”

Or so many Jewish followers of Jesus thought and felt. But there was just one problem. A problem that, according to Matthew, seems to stretch back almost to the beginning of Jesus’ life. A problem that can be seen in our Gospel lesson for today.

That problem? It was Gentile “magi” not the Jewish leaders who sought out the child Jesus and worshiped him! Yes, here in this gospel lesson we see Gentiles, not the people of God, coming to recognize and worship the one who is “King of the Jews.” Furthermore, these Gentiles come, not as Jewish converts — not even as those who are attracted to the Jewish faith — but as “magi,” Gentile astrologers or magicians.

And Paul, writing to the Ephesians, says what happened when those magi came to see Jesus is exactly the mystery of the Gospel: Those who were not God’s people — the Gentiles — are now part of God’s people. But more than that, they are part of God’s people not as converts to Judaism or even as those attracted to the Jewish faith, but as Gentiles! That is, they are now part of God’s people as exactly who they are!

How could this be? After all, everyone knew Gentiles were generally immoral, unlike the Jews. Gentiles didn’t keep themselves pure, unlike the Jews. In other words, Gentiles just weren’t like Jews, God’s chosen people! So how in the world could they be God’s people and stay Gentiles? It  just made no sense. God’s people just weren’t like Gentiles!

But it hasn’t been only in the early church that this “not like us” concern has been a problem. Even in recent times the church has had to struggle with how can those who are so different than us be Christians just like us? Can a Pakistani be Christian and still hold to traditional Pakistani practices? Can an African be Christian and still cling to African communal values? Just how much like “us” does a convert have to become to be truly Christian?

And if this has been a problem in the larger church as we have wrestled with questions of evangelism and missions in foreign places, it has, in all truth, also been a question in our own local churches.

Just how much does someone have to be like us to be accepted as a member of the church? 

Do they have to wear clothing like we wear? What if they come dressed more casually? Or worse yet, dressed in ragged cloths that stink? Can — will — we find a way to include them? Can — will — we accept them as “one of us”?

Do they have to like the same kind of music we like? What if they find traditional hymns don’t speak to their soul like they may speak to us? What if they like to listen to Hip Hop or Reggae or Grunge at home not Country Music or music of the ’70's? Can — will — we find a way to include them? Can — will — we accept them as “one of us”?

What if they aren’t the same ethnicity as us? What if they don’t speak English — or at least only with great difficulty? What if they bring “strange” foods to the potluck? Can — will — we find a way to include them? Can — will — we accept them as “one of us”?

What if they don’t live up to our moral standards? What if they don’t come to church every week? What if they don’t discipline their children the way we think they should? What if, like the Gentiles of Paul’s day, they seem to have a very lax understanding of morality? What if their moral beliefs don’t match ours? Can — will — we find a way to include them? Can — will — we accept them as “one of us”?

The truth is, we all tend to have all kinds of “standards” we use to decide if someone is enough “like us” to be a member of “our” church. Yet the truth Paul points out so clearly in our lesson for today, the truth we see in the story of the magi coming to worship the baby Jesus, is that the mystery of the Gospel is all those boundaries and borders we put up mean nothing to God! Socio-economic boundaries, ethnic boundaries, national boundaries, even “political boundaries” such as exist in our polarized political American culture — all of those mean nothing when it comes to God and who God chooses to call as his own! People on all sides of the boundaries are part of God’s people — and they are part of God’s people just as the people they are. The truth is, they don’t have to become “like us” for God to include them. Poor and rich, Anglo and Hispanic, American and Honduran, Republican and Democrat — all of us have been brought into the people of God through the reconciling work of Christ which breaks down all the walls of division we erect.

But will we live that way? Just who is it that we consider to be an “outsider” whom might God be calling an “insider”? Just who is it that we might think has to become more like us to be part of God’s people? Who might it be that God is accepting, despite our hesitations and reservations? Just who might God be including that we would rather exclude? Just who is it that isn’t “like us” that God desires us to include in our church?

The mystery of the Gospel is that God invites and includes everyone. The question is can we see that? Will we continue to cling to our belief that others need to be “like us” to be included? Or will we rejoice in the good news that in Christ the walls of division have been torn down? That God’s mystery is the gospel provides for the inclusion of even those who aren’t like us? That the good news of the gospel is all of us are called as the people of God — Jew, Gentile; rich, poor; American, foreigner…. All of us together.

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