Overwhelming gratitude…

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Psalm 107:1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.

Today is my 56th birthday. I’m writing this on a cruise ship somewhere in the Carribean Ocean. My family is doing really well. At my physical last week, my doctor declared me in very good health. Not only that, I am currently enjoying a three-month Sabbatical from the incredibly generous and faithful church I lead in suburban Dallas.

Today is also my 33rd wedding anniversary (anniversary and birthday on SAME DAY!). Above is a picture of me and Jana on a recent biking adventure in southern California. Hard to believe it was 33 years ago today we tied the knot! God has been very good to us.

I recently heard someone say, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” This is very true. I have battles. I live in the same tumultuous world as you, and I feel the uncertainty of it, the challenge of it, the heaviness of it.

But today what I mostly feel is gratitude. Monumental, overwhelming gratitude. There is no way I deserve the blessings I have been given by God thus far. And even if it all falls apart tomorrow I could not complain.

Finally I thank God for all of you, friends old and new, work colleagues, family members, church members, school friends. I am grateful for having known you, having learned from you, having shared a bit of life with you.

Love and blessings to all of you!

Grateful for abundance…

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Deuteronomy 6: (Moses said) Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe (God’s commandments) diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you. 

This morning the phrase “a land flowing with milk and honey” catches my eye. Of course, these words didn’t mean God’s people were going to find literal rivers of milk or honey in the Promised Land. It was a description of a place that had lots of everything – more than enough.

Many of you know that my wife, two daughters, and I are on a cruise ship right now. If you’ve ever been on a cruise ship you know that one of the defining characteristics is – food. LOTS of food which is available almost 24 hours a day. Today, as I read the words “a land flowing with milk and honey”, this is where my mind goes. If you know me well you know that I don’t mind starting a meal with dessert. How about this dessert picture above? Yes!

I don’t think God had a cruise ship in mind when he described a land flowing with milk and honey, but there is abundance here I am grateful for. Gracious God this morning I thank you for all the ways you provide as in “a land flowing with milk and honey”. It’s not just the “things” you give, but the love and grace you pour out. Through Jesus you have taken my abundant sin and given to me your even more abundant righteousness. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

You shall do no work…

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Numbers 29:7–11 (NRSV): 7 On the tenth day of this seventh month you shall have a holy convocation, and deny yourselves; you shall do no work. 8 You shall offer a burnt offering to the Lord, a pleasing odor: one young bull, one ram, seven male lambs a year old. They shall be without blemish. 9 Their grain offering shall be of choice flour mixed with oil, three-tenths of an ephah for the bull, two-tenths for the one ram, 10 one-tenth for each of the seven lambs; 11 with one male goat for a sin offering, in addition to the sin offering of atonement, and the regular burnt offering and its grain offering, and their drink offerings

These are God’s instructions for Israel to recognize a “day of atonement” in which they made sacrifices to God in recognition of their sin and in search of God’s mercy and forgiveness. This section of Numbers has already offered instructions for other festivals and will follow our passage with instructions for “festival of booths”. In each instance there are sacrifices and worship services and celebrations of various kinds.

What gets my attention this morning is v.7 “you shall do no work”. It’s a day off! Cool! For other festivals mentioned in this section we read again “you shall do no work” or perhaps “you shall not work at your occupations”. Same idea. These are to be Sabbath days to the Lord in addition to the regular weekly Sabbath.

Remember the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt a short time before these instructions were given. Scripture tells us that Pharaoh, the leader of Egypt, was continually anxious about having enough food for him, his family, and his nation. As a result he forced the Hebrew slaves to work EVERY DAY. No days off. Period. One of the greatest blessings God gave to Israel was the Sabbath day – a day of rest to start the week. How was this possible? Because God would be their provider so they didn’t have to fear not having what they needed. Even so, I imagine it seemed very strange to the recently freed Hebrews slaves to take this many days off. What an incredible gift!

I’m on Sabbatical right now – an extended time off from my duties as pastor of the church I lead in suburban Dallas. It began May 1 and goes to August 1, which is my return date. I’ll admit, having this much time away from my work life was very strange for the first couple of weeks. I think the last time I was away from work this long was when I returned from Army training before I returned to college. That was a LONG time ago.

That said, I can’t tell you what a gift it is to step away like this. Perhaps I’ll write more about it when it’s completed, but for now just know that it has been a great blessing on many levels. Yet it took the first 2-3 weeks to really get myself off of work mode mentally and emotionally. I’ll be starting the second half of Sabbatical soon and I’m pretty sure it will be better than the first half!

So this morning I don’t have some great lesson or commentary. Mostly I am feeling gratitude for this special time, special for me and for my family too. I pray that you find some time to “do no work” as Moses commanded the Israelites. Lord, let it be so. Amen.

God seeks the “lowly”…

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Luke 1: 46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 

This morning I’m drawn to the word “lowliness” in v.48. This is a word Mary attributes to herself as a contrast to the great blessing and honor done to her by God the Father in choosing her to be the mother of Jesus the Son. The Greek word translated as “lowliness” can also be translated as “humility” or even “unworthiness”. In other words, Mary is acknowledging the fact there is nothing special about her that would make her worthy of being chosen. See the verses below (also in Luke chapter 1) in which we are introduced to Mary:

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

We are told she is a virgin engaged to Joseph and that her name is Mary. That’s it. Note the contrast with the introduction of Elizabeth and Zechariah (the parents of John the Baptist) who are described in v.6 of this same chapter:

Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.

We’re talking about the mother of the Son of God here. One would expect she was at least as righteous and worthy as Elizabeth and Zechariah, but that’s not what the scripture indicates. She was an ordinary young woman chosen to do God’s extraordinary will. We will see this again as Jesus chooses his ordinary, lowly, unremarkable disciples – who go on to change the world. Why does the Lord do this over and over in scripture?

My first thought is that when God acts through ordinary people, it is God who gets credit. My second thought is that, by using ordinary people to do his extraordinary will, God opens our hearts to the possibility he might actually do the same with… you and me.

A mentor of mine once told me “It’s amazing what God can do with someone who is simply willing to say ‘yes’ “. Mary is a great example of this, but this includes you and me. Seriously. I’m going to go out on a limb for a moment and suggest something about you, dear reader.

The Lord is inviting you, right now, to act on his behalf in some way you think you’re not ready for.

We all can’t be the mother of God, but we can all follow Mary’s example of saying yes to the Lord’s invitation to be used for God’s purposes. Will you say yes? Are you willing to suspend disbelief long enough to see God’s hand, God’s heart, God’s spirit move through you for the sake of someone else?

Lord, let it be so. Amen.

…until I went into the sanctuary of God…

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Psalm 73:

12      Such are the wicked; 
always at ease, they increase in riches. 
13      All in vain I have kept my heart clean 
and washed my hands in innocence. 
14      For all day long I have been plagued, 
and am punished every morning. 
15      If I had said, “I will talk on in this way,” 
I would have been untrue to the circle of your children. 
16      But when I thought how to understand this, 
it seemed to me a wearisome task, 
17      until I went into the sanctuary of God; 
then I perceived their end. 
18      Truly you set them in slippery places; 
you make them fall to ruin. 
19      How they are destroyed in a moment, 
swept away utterly by terrors! 

The psalmist is frustrated, confused, even angry with God. The psalmist writes of his faithfulness to God’s will and ways and yet he struggles – while wicked people who defy God are the ones who prosper. It’s not right. What gets my attention is how the writer responds to this time of internal crisis. Instead of walking further away from the Lord the psalmist draws near via worship.

When I’m in a hard place in life, my temptation is to put distance between me and God: to stop reading scripture or praying or worshipping or whatever. The Lord always brings me back, but there are times when I respond to adversity by having something of a pity party. And I find when I do, the voices of doubt get louder.

I love the way the psalmist flips this. Instead of walking away from God he “went into the sanctuary of God” (v.17). And when he did, the Lord not only received him but revealed to him an entire reality he couldn’t see on his own. The voices of doubt faded into the background. Turns out the prosperity of the wicked was fleeting. In time the wicked reap what they sow.

Lord come to the aid of those struggling today. Give us grace to draw closer to you when we want to run away instead. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Failure doesn’t have to be the last word…

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Mark 14:66 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. 67 When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” 68 But he denied it, saying, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. 69 And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” 70 But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” 71 But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” 72 At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept. 

Peter had just told Jesus he would stand by him, no matter what. This passage reveals the opposite. Not only did Peter abandon Jesus in his hour of need, he denied knowing Jesus altogether. Remembering how Jesus had predicted this, Peter “broke down and wept”. One can only imagine his guilt and shame in failing Jesus – and himself – so miserably.

Unless you’ve been completely ignoring the news, you’ve heard about the awful shooting last week at a Uvalde, Texas elementary school in which 19 children and 2 teachers were killed by a local teenager. You’ve also likely heard that the on-scene police commander waited almost an hour before allowing law enforcement personnel to break in and take down the shooter.

Can you imagine what it’s like to be that guy today?

I’ve never done what Peter did in our passage, or what the police chief did in Uvalde, but I have definitely let myself and others down in my lifetime. I’m betting you have too. Why? Because personal growth and failure are often two halves of the same coin. This was certainly true of Peter. His denial of Jesus wasn’t the end of his story, not by a long shot. Peter would ultimately become the leader of all the apostles and key founding leader of the early church.

Today marks for me the one-month mark of my three-month sabbatical. In this time I’ve completely stepped away from leadership of Rejoice Lutheran Church, entrusting leadership to other staff and volunteer leaders. I’ve learned from painful experience how important it is for a church to be able to function well without me. Some years ago I planted a church that did really well – until I left. A few years later things fell apart. In hindsight I see there were things I could have done differently which may have led to a different outcome. It perhaps goes without saying that I do not want a repeat when I ultimately move on from Rejoice (some years from now).

What about you? Where are you learning from the mistakes of your past? No one likes to fail, but failure doesn’t have to be the last word. It can be a building block to a better future – and a better you. Jesus is all about picking us up when we fail and moving us forward for his glory. Lord let it be so. Amen.

She CHOSE to depend completely on the Lord…

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Mark 12:41 (Jesus) sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” 

This passage always challenges me and reveals something new to me each time I read it. Today it takes me back to the story in Luke chapter 9 in which Jesus sends the 12 disciples out in pairs to minister in surrounding towns and villages to “proclaim the Kingdom of God and to heal”. Yet as he sends them he tells them they can take nothing with them – no extra clothes, food, money, nothing. They had to be completely dependent on God the Father as part of their ministry.

As they took nothing, God provided everything.

I believe the widow in this story knows this truth. She’s described as a “poor widow” who would typically have been dependent on her children, family, or friends for support. That was the custom. But when she drops everything she has (which isn’t much) into the offering plate we understand the truth. She’s not depending on other people, but on God alone for her support. Not only that, in her complete dependence on God she would have activated something powerful in the Kingdom of God. Maybe she was a healer. Maybe she cast out demons. Maybe she proclaimed God’s Kingdom, we don’t know. But the fact she CHOSE to depend on God means all of these things were possible.

Like many of you, I’ve been watching as our world is in turmoil: war in Ukraine, stock markets in free-fall, inflation making everything more expensive. It’s in times like this my dependence on things of this world is exposed. I place too much trust in things that are temporary rather than eternal. So this morning I’m asking the Lord to give me grace to lean more fully into dependence on God, who is ultimately the only One we can depend upon. Lord let it be so. Amen.

It all belongs to God…

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Mark 12:13 Then they sent to (Jesus) some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15 Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” 16 And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him. 

First there is an attempt to kiss up to Jesus in v.14. Of course, they’re trying to set him up to say the wrong thing and discredit him in front of his disciples. But Jesus isn’t playing that game and calls them out, “Why are you putting me to the test?” A close friend and colleague Louise Johnson wrote an insightful (and brief) comment on this story which I’ll share below:

“In a way, Jesus sidesteps the question about paying the tax. It is a small question in light of his earlier commands to give everything (lose your life for the sake of the kingdom). Discipleship does not get lost in this kind of debate. It is the wrong question and the answer is that it all belongs to God.”

Lord forgive us when we spend our time arguing over details and lose sight of our mission to make disciples. Amen.

Lord we believe, help our unbelief…

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Mark 11: 20 In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. 24 So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”

This is a fascinating and difficult passage. Jesus commands a fig tree to wither, which it does. Jesus then points out to Peter this is no big deal. One with great faith can do much more than wither a fig tree, “if you say to this mountain…”. The key is “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours”. This highlights the difficult part.

Jesus suggests the faith of the one praying determines whether a prayer is answered or not.

A family in the congregation I serve lost their young adult son recently. They are devastated, as you can imagine. I know that many people, myself included, prayed for their son’s healing and recovery. Yet it did not happen. If this passage is taken literally it means all the people praying the young man were deficient in their faith or he would have been healed. I can’t believe that’s what this passage means.

Lord Jesus the truth is that most of us Christians believe, yet also doubt at some level. We don’t have perfect faith. If perfect faith is what’s required, then we’re all in trouble. Lord we believe, help our unbelief. Amen.

Faithful and flexible…

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Mark 10:1 He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them. Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” 

Jesus is the rock star in this scene and the Pharisees (religious officials responsible for teaching the rules of faith to Israel) want to bring him down a notch. So they ask him a question to test him. They’re hoping Jesus will answer incorrectly (not according to the inherited tradition) so they can discredit him. After all, with his healing ministry and miracles and such there are thousands who follow him. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The “correct”” answer is “yes”. The law of Moses made allowance for divorce, which had been the practice of the Jews for many centuries. Jesus doesn’t deny that divorce is permitted, only that divorce is a reality reflecting human frailty and brokenness in relationships.

Jesus took the rules as he received them and interpreted them in his own time and culture.

Throughout our history, the church’s teaching and practice has evolved, adjusting to a changing world. I am personally grateful for this. The church is being challenged again by the “hybrid” nature of our ministry, occurring both in-person and on-line. Most of our churches didn’t have a digital expression until two years ago when the pandemic shut us down. We’re still in the very early stages of learning what it means to be a hybrid church, but we all agree on-line ministry is here to stay.

I expect over time some of our inherited practices will be challenged. Some already have. We share communion with people who aren’t physically in the same space. That didn’t used to happen, but it does now every Sunday. We have on-line church members and even our first on-line church council member. But these are baby steps really. We haven’t yet figured out the most effective ways of including our on-line people, but we will. And as was the case with Jesus, I have no doubt we will have to set aside some important traditions and teachings to do so. Lord give us grace to be faithful and flexible at the same time. Amen.