Faith and forgiveness…

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Luke 17: 1 Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! 2 It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. 3 Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4 And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” 5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

At first it’s not obvious to me Jesus’ directive to forgive with the apostles’ response, “Increase our faith!”. But looking at some commentaries on this passage it becomes fairly obvious. Jesus’ command to repeatedly forgive would have been extremely challenging. Left to their own inner strength it would have been impossible. So the apostles ask for faith/grace/strength from God to do what Jesus commands.

Forgiveness is hard. And it seems the closer we are to someone the harder it becomes. I’m asking the Lord to search my heart this morning for places where unforgiveness is present. Lord, increase my faith to forgive – as you have first forgiven me. Amen.

The rich man and Lazarus…

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Luke 17:19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.

Jesus tells this story that would have shocked the original hearers/readers. The expectation in ancient Israel was that poor people were poor as a result of their wicked ways. Conversely, it was assumed that rich people were rich as God’s reward for righteousness. The fact that the poor man, Lazarus, was “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham” (akin to what we might call “heaven”) would have blown their minds as would the rich man’s misfortune in Hades. Two things come to my mind:

First, I hear this story as a warning to those of us “rich” in things of this world. From a global perspective, that includes me and you. I don’t think Jesus had a beef with the rich man because he was rich. Having resources was not a sin. The problem was the rich man’s failure to help Lazarus who was starving just outside the gate of his home. His indifference to Lazarus’ suffering is what condemned him.

Second, the people of Jesus’ day thought they knew who would be included in God’s kingdom and who would not. They thought they could make assumptions based on things visible to the eye. They were wrong. I expect Jesus has more surprises up his sleeve, which we will see come judgment day.

Lord Jesus give us humble hearts when it comes to things of eternity. Forgive us when we judge others based on things visible to the eye, for only you can see inside the human heart. Lead us to follow after you in humility, mercy, and grace toward others. Even those we perceive to be “bad people”. Amen.

Dealing with judgment…

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Luke 15:1 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 

The spiritual authorities in Jesus’ day regularly criticized him for hanging out with the wrong people, “tax collectors and sinners”. To be fair, tax collectors were generally awful people. They collected taxes from their own Jewish people, sending some to Rome and keeping the rest. They were considered thieves. Yet Jesus welcomed those who responded to his teaching. Why? Because they were aware of their need to get right with God.

On the other hand, Pharisees and scribes simply judged people like tax collectors, wrote them off. Via the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin Jesus reminded his listeners this was NOT how God saw such people. They weren’t incorrigibles to be condemned, but persons to be pursued and offered repentance. Ironically, their judgmental ways revealed how the Pharisees and scribes were also in need of repentance, though this didn’t occur to them.

We too live in a culture that encourages us to judge people with whom we disagree or disapprove. This is especially true with regard to political/social differences. We’re conditioned to believe those who see things differently aren’t just of a different opinion, but are downright evil. It’s like a civil war of sorts in which violence is increasingly perceived to be an acceptable response. It scares me. Seriously. I keeping thinking people will stand down, but… not so much.

It’s a huge problem I feel powerless to address, but there is one thing I can do. I can admit my own faults and broken places because I certainly have them. And then, like Jesus, I can love on people – even when I want to judge them. Lord, let it be so. Amen.

A gift we struggle to receive…

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Luke 14:25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Wow. This is a massive level of challenge to those who were traveling with Jesus. Hate your own family members? Even life itself? And while Jesus had not yet been crucified, it’s likely his followers understood what he meant when he said they must “carry the cross”. Crucifixion was a widely known form of execution in the Roman world long before Jesus.

A key dimension of growing as a Christian is accepting increasing levels of challenge.

I’ve just recently returned from a three-month sabbatical, which was wonderful. During sabbatical I did some focused study of the seventh day “sabbath”. It’s the practice of resting from our labors one day per week, attending to our relationship with the Lord, enjoying peace with God and with other people. In fact, today (Monday) is my sabbath day.

Taking a day of rest is a gift. But the truth is many of us don’t know how to receive this gift, myself included. Few of us have role models to follow, so we have to figure it out. Despite the fact I’ve been focusing on this spiritual discipline for several years I still feel like a beginner. But that’s okay. Ours is a patient God.

Lord give us grace to remember your sabbath. Help us to receive this incredible gift. Amen.

Songs which stand the test of time…

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Psalm 92:1 It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; 2 to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night, 3 to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre. 4 For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy. 

We are told this is psalm is considered “a song for the Sabbath”. You probably already know that the psalms were originally songs. The book of psalms was something like a hymnbook for Israel, songs to be sung in the temple. Unfortunately the melodies/music to the words have been lost to history.

This is a psalm of praise and thanksgiving to God.

This coming Sunday I’ll be returning to lead worship at the church where I serve as pastor. I’ve been gone since May 1st when I started a three-month sabbatical – which was a wonderful gift of time. That said, I have missed my church family and look forward to singing and prayer and scripture reading and reflection and, of course, the eucharist. I visited some very nice churches during sabbatical, but there truly is no place like home!

Lord you are worthy to be praised. Thank you for the composers who wrote these beautiful hymns/psalms thousands of years ago. They still resonate in my spirit today. Call us again this coming weekend to gather with your people and celebrate life in the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

A radical change in God’s nature?

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Joshua 10:1 When King Adoni-zedek of Jerusalem (before the city belonged to Israel) heard how Joshua (leader of the Israelites) had taken Ai, and had utterly destroyed it, doing to Ai and its king as he had done to Jericho and its king, and how the inhabitants of Gibeon had made peace with Israel and were among them, he became greatly frightened, because Gibeon was a large city, like one of the royal cities, and was larger than Ai, and all its men were warriors. So King Adoni-zedek of Jerusalem sent a message to King Hoham of Hebron, to King Piram of Jarmuth, to King Japhia of Lachish, and to King Debir of Eglon, saying, “Come up and help me, and let us attack Gibeon; for it has made peace with Joshua and with the Israelites.” Then the five kings of the Amorites—the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon—gathered their forces, and went up with all their armies and camped against Gibeon, and made war against it. And the Gibeonites sent to Joshua at the camp in Gilgal, saying, “Do not abandon your servants; come up to us quickly, and save us, and help us; for all the kings of the Amorites who live in the hill country are gathered against us.”

In the preceding chapter the leaders of the city of Gibeon (located within the land of Canaan) had tricked Joshua. The Lord had told Joshua to lead the Israelites into the land of Canaan… and to put to death all of the inhabitants – man, woman, and child. Why? Because Israel would be tempted to adopt the spiritual practices of the native peoples which God calls “idolatry”. Only after Joshua agreed to a covenant with Gibeon did he find out the Gibeonites were not from a distant land after all, but were native to Canaan. Yet Joshua had made a promise and was bound to keep it. Therefore, Joshua did NOT put the Gibeonites to death as God had commanded but helped them overcome the attack from the kings of the Amorites.

When I read this section of Joshua I find myself glad the people of Gibeon were not wiped out. I mean, call it what you will, but God’s directive to put the native peoples to death can be rightly described as “genocide”. Aaron’s act of mercy for Gibeon may have been a mistake, but it’s one I tend to support as a 21st century Christian reader. And yet – the act of mercy would ultimately be Israel’s downfall. The Israelites did adopt the pagan ways of the Canaanites, leading to the withdrawal of God’s protection from Israel and their defeat at the hands of the Babylonians.

So how do we square the God of the Old Testament who commands “genocide” with the God of the New Testament who is most fully revealed in the “Prince of Peace” we know as our Lord Jesus Christ? Why the radical change in nature? It’s one of the enduring questions I expect to take to the grave. Lord, have mercy on me. Amen.

God’s presence within us…

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Psalm 91: 1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. 

This psalm is attributed to Moses, the one who accompanied the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and led them through the wilderness for 40 years – on their way to the Promised Land. In Moses’ day there was no temple in Jerusalem yet. Instead God had accompanied them as a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. And yet, even before Moses, God had accompanied Moses’ ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In all of those years, from generation to generation, God had no permanent “place”. His place was among the people and their place was with their God.

I am pastor of a local church which has a street location with buildings and such. When we gather together in the name of Jesus we understand the Lord to dwell there with us. But that’s not the only place. By the Holy Spirit, the presence of God doesn’t just dwell “with” us but also “within” us. That’s a gift even Moses did not have.

Purpose in the later years of life…

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Psalm 90: 3 You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” 4 For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. 5 You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning… 6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. 10 The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. 

This psalm is attributed to Moses. In the passage above Moses reflects on how quickly life passes from birth to death. Two thoughts come to mind for me here.

First is the recognition of how quickly time passes as we get older. Today I am returning from a three-month Sabbatical, which was wonderful. Today also begins my 10th year as pastor of Rejoice Lutheran Church. My 10th year! Seems just yesterday my family and I were driving from Charlotte, NC to suburban Dallas to start a new life here. Time really does fly.

Second is the fact that Moses was 80 years old when he was called by God to help free the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. V.10 suggests one might normally expect a person to be ending their life at 80 years, but not so with Moses. In fact, the most significant chapters of his life began at age 80. He then led Israel through the wilderness for 40 years before dying at age 120.

As we get older it’s tempting to think the most important or significant or productive years of our lives are behind us. God begs to differ. So let me ask you a question. How are you investing the years you have left? What are devoting yourself to? How is God giving you a chance to make a difference at your age and station of life? What opportunities are you missing because you’re assuming your best days are behind you?

Lord open our eyes to see where we might serve you at whatever age we may be. Amen.

Sabbatical comes to an end…

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Deuteronomy 5:12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. 

In Deuteronomy chapter 5 Moses reminds Israel of the commandments which formed the foundation of their covenant with God. It’s essentially a repeat of what is written in the book of Exodus, but with some important additional language in v.15:

15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”

The Sabbath wasn’t just about resting one day per week, though that was important. It was also a reminder to Israel of their new life as free people, no longer slaves. It wasn’t just a practice, but an element of their identity. They were God’s chosen people and they could trust God to provide for their needs. They would not suffer or miss out by taking Sabbath rest each week.

Today is my final day of Sabbatical, which has run from May 1st – August 1st. I cannot tell you how wonderful it has been to step away from my work to be renewed, refreshed, and to deepen my capacity to lead our congregation. I especially took time to focus on the topic of Sabbath rest, which seemed appropriate given I was away on Sabbatical. Over the weeks to come, beginning August 7th, I’ll be preaching a sermon series on the topic of Sabbath to share a bit of what I have learned.

But for today, I simply rest in gratitude. I’m grateful to my congregation, Rejoice Lutheran Church, for giving me the liberty of taking Sabbatical. I’m grateful for the wonderful staff and lay leaders of Rejoice who stepped up in my absence. I’m grateful for my pastor colleagues who joined me in studying the topic of Sabbath. I’m grateful to my wife Jana and our three children who shared Sabbatical with me. And most of all I’m grateful to God for establishing the Sabbath, which is such a tremendous gift to those of us living in an over-scheduled, over-worked world.

Thank you Lord. Thank you. Amen.

To give or not to give…

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Luke 6: 27 (Jesus said) “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. 

This is such a challenging passage, particularly the part that reads, “Give to everyone who begs from you…”. Anyone besides me every feel awkward at a street light where a person is asking for money? My response to such persons has varied over the years. Sometimes I’ve been as generous as I could be. Other times I’ve told myself I’m probably just putting money into the hands of someone who is likely to use that money in sub-optimal ways. I’ve given food instead of money when I was prepared to do so. I’m sure there are other examples, but my point is that I haven’t been consistent in my practice.

Jesus offers a simple, focused direction here. Give to EVERYONE who begs from you. Everyone. There’s a part of me that rebels against this. If I’m giving money to someone who’s going to use that money to buy alcohol or drugs or whatever, aren’t I part of the problem? The obvious, logical answer is “yes”. I am enabling addictive behavior. But the sense I get from our passage for today is the command to give to those in need – and leave it to the Lord to deal with the rest. The situation is not mine to control. My job is to give when I have the ability to do so. That’s it.

Lord I have to admit this command still doesn’t quite sit right with me. I don’t want to enable addictive behavior if I can avoid it. But of course, in most cases, I have no way of knowing what a person will do with what I give them. I gather from this passage that I don’t need to worry about that, but simply to obey. Lord give me grace to do so. Amen.