Not justice but grace…

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Matthew 20:“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Matthew includes this story directed to the early Christian community. There may have been some conflict between the Jewish Christians who were among the first believers and Gentile Christians who came later. Payday likely refers to the end days of judgment when all Christians alike, Jew and Gentile, will be received into God’s eternal Kingdom by grace.

V.12 gets at the heart of the conflict. The laborers who were first hired object to what they perceive to be an unfair pay practice. If those hired at the very end of the day get a full day’s wage shouldn’t those who worked longer get more? It’s hard to object to the logic here. But v.13-16 highlight the flaw in this way of thinking.

The point Jesus is trying to make via this illustration is that all people are saved by grace alone, whether they spent a lifetime as a Christian or a single moment. Doesn’t matter. The ones who complain about getting too little pay are thinking through the lens of justice. You get what you deserve. But salvation is a consequence of grace, not justice. If justice were the operative principal here ALL people would die an eternal death in our shared sinfulness.

If I’m honest I mostly think through the lens of justice rather than grace. And I expect that’s in large part because the world around us doesn’t generally function out of grace, but justice. No free lunch! You get what you deserve! No one owes you anything in this world! But the Kingdom of God doesn’t work like that – thankfully. We all stand together as broken sinners before the throne of grace. And because of God’s great love for us, most poignantly expressed by Jesus on the cross, we do NOT get what we deserve. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Power in desperation…

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Matthew 19:23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” 

In Jesus’ day, it was assumed that there was a correlation between one’s faithfulness to God and one’s material wealth. As such, the disciples hear this as a shocking statement by Jesus.

But it still begs the question why? Why do rich people have difficulty entering the Kingdom? I don’t believe it’s that Jesus doesn’t love people of means. Rather I think it may be connected to the issue of dependence. Dependence on God is a key to experience Gods kingdom at work. Desperate people are often the ones who experience kingdom breakthroughs.

This understanding would help make sense of Paul’s teaching that Gods power is made perfect, not in strength, but in weakness. It’s the reason why in Luke 10 Jesus sends the disciples out with no money or staff or food or extra clothes. They are to be completely dependent on God for everything. And in that state of complete dependence they are empowered to heal people in Jesus name.

Its in the desperate situation of thousands of hungry people that a few fish and loaves of bread are more than enough.

It helps explain what Jesus means when he says the first shall be last and the last shall be first in the kingdom of Cod. The first, with their wealth and status and power and privilege, don’t generally experience acute need in the way the least do. Hence the least are far more likely to inherent the kingdom of God because the kingdom of God is all they have.

It’s why Jesus, when asked by a pious but wealthy man, what more he must do to inherit eternal life Jesus challenges the man to sell his belongings. Why? Because without his vast resources he would enter a state of acute dependence on God and experience Gods power and provision in a new way. But the man refused to do so and left disappointed.

Now there are many other forms of desperation than financial: emotional, relational, spiritual, physical, professional, and so on. And people of means can – and do – experience dependence in these ways.

This morning I’m thinking about the professional desperation of change leadership. There was a time in my life when I was constantly entering leadership challenges that were far beyond my known competence: starting a church, ministering in the inner city as a suburban boy, confronting demons and spiritual forces of evil, preaching the gospel in places that are hostile to Christianity, learning to serve as a leader of other pastors, and more. It was scary as hell and difficult on multiple levels but it was also in that space that I saw Gods kingdom manifest most powerfully. What am I talking about?

I’ve seen God manifest great generosity among people living in poverty in the barrio of San Antonio. I’ve seen the Holy Spirit come over people so powerfully they could no longer stand up but fell to the ground. I’ve seen people freed from demons. Ive seen a young boy deaf from birth startled and crying, then laughing, when he heard his mother’s voice for the first time. I saw a man who was diagnosed as terminal get up and walk out of the hospital that same day. I’ve seen the Lord bring rain (within 30 minutes of prayer) to a Muslim village in which the people were experiencing drought. There’s more.

These are fond memories, but I also remember the pain of constantly being in over my head, unsure of what to do next, acutely aware of my incompetence. And to be honest that kind of leadership season is incredibly difficult. It’s not something anyone would seek out, but is the result of a call of God.

Today I’m asking the Lord how I’m being invited to choose desperation for the sake of the kingdom. Lord speak for your servant is listening. Amen.

Dependence and God’s Kingdom…

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Matthew 19:16 Then someone (a wealthy man) came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 

Jesus meets a man who has been diligent in keeping the law, which is a good thing. But since the man is interested in taking his faith to the next level Jesus offers a very different kind of challenge. Rather than giving him another rule to observe (he’s obviously good at following the rules) Jesus suggests he sell his possessions, thereby placing himself in complete dependence on God for his needs. The man would no longer be able to count on his wealth to sustain him. But instead of embracing the challenge the man “went away grieving, for he had many possessions”.

It would seem there’s something about complete dependence on God that activates the Kingdom of God in a unique way. When Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs in the gospel of Luke chapter he tells them to take no money or food or extra clothing, but that God would provide for them. It’s in this state of dependence and trust they are able to heal the sick they encounter along the way.

This morning I’m wondering where the Lord may be inviting me to grow in my dependence on him. And I’m wondering how this dependence might increase my capacity to serve the Kingdom of God. Lord speak for your servant is listening. Amen.

I will be with you…

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Exodus 3:7 Then the LORD said to Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” 

This story describes the call of Moses to be a tool for God to set the Hebrews free from slavery in Egypt. V.7 says “I have observed the misery of my people…” so God is going to do something about that – through Moses. But Moses is reluctant. The entire idea sounds absurd. After all, Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s household. He knows how much the Egyptians depend on slave labor to produce what the country and its people need. For the Hebrews to leave Egypt would be devastating. NO WAY Pharaoh would let that happen. Period. End of story. And he’s right, of course. So how is Moses, one man, supposed to pull this off? The answer appears in v.12:

God says, “I will be with you…”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve responded to God like Moses – full of doubt because of my acute awareness of my shortcomings and limitations – which are many. Nevertheless as I’ve stumbled along with the Lord I’ve learned that God doesn’t tap people on the shoulder because they are fully qualified. God taps people on the shoulder who are willing to say “yes”, who are willing to be used by God to do things for the glory of God. In fact I’m pretty sure God often chooses people who are so obviously under-qualified so that, when they succeed, God gets all the glory. It’s as the apostle Paul wrote in the New Testament:

“God’s power is made perfect through weakness.”

Lord let it be so. Amen.

Drawing on the well of forgiveness…

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Matthew 18:23 Jesus said “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

These stories connected to the practice of forgiveness always get my attention. Jesus paints a picture of someone who has received complete forgiveness from a mountain of debt, yet refuses to forgive someone else a trifling amount. The disparity is ridiculous and terribly unjust. The King of the Kingdom then holds the unjust person accountable.

I’ve been a pastor for over 20 years now and have seen many things that keep us from living the life God intends for us. At the top of the list has to be unforgiveness – the inability to let go of the pain, anger, and resentment arising from another’s actions. I was talking with a woman recently who has struggled for much of her life from the fallout of being sexually abused as a young girl. For many years she turned to drugs and alcohol as a means of dealing with this unresolved pain. There is more to the story but you get the idea. How do you forgive someone for this kind of devastating abuse, especially since the offender, her own father, is now deceased? I’m not sure it’s humanly possible. Truly.

Nevertheless we prayed together about this. We prayed that she would draw on the well of forgiveness God has extended to her through Jesus Christ. We asked the Lord to give her grace to forgive her father, to release the pain and grief and anger to the Lord who will hold her father to account one day. I’m not sure what happens now with this woman. Pain that deep is hard to release in the time it takes to say such a prayer, but this morning I’m praying that the Lord will complete this work in her, finally setting her free on the inside.

Lord let it be so. Amen.

Love and fear God…

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Psalm 29:3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters. 4 The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.

There is deep wonder and awe for the God Almighty in these words of the psalmist, which is an interesting contrast to the previous psalm and its language of love, affection, and intimacy with God. Both psalms are attributed to the same person – King David. As such what we have in Psalm 28 and 29 are two dimensions of the same relationship.

Writings of the church reformer Martin Luther often included a phrase inviting us to both “love and fear God”, which is what psalms 28 an 29 are getting at. I find that I live in this tension of being drawn near to God by his love and mercy and standing apart from God as I acknowledge his “otherness”, his holiness and my sinfulness.

My tendency is to want to draw near to God in my hour of need, when I’m feeling desperate or alone in my struggles. But then when things are going well and I see God’s blessings I am filled with awe and wonder for God and his goodness. I think what I want to lean into these days is more intimacy with God, sensing God’s presence in the everyday. Lord let it be so. Amen.

Lavish love for the Lord…

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Psalm 28:1 To you, O LORD, I call; my rock, do not refuse to hear me, for if you are silent to me, I shall be like those who go down to the Pit. 2 Hear the voice of my supplication, as I cry to you for help, as I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary… 6 Blessed be the LORD, for he has heard the sound of my pleadings. 7 The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts; so I am helped, and my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.

You’ll notice that v.1-2 describe David’s need for help from the Lord while v.6-7 describe resolution to the threat/problem, which leads me to believe that David may have written this psalm in two stages with some time in between. I can’t be sure of this, but it’s interesting. I’ve always assumed the psalms were started and completed in a short time-frame. This psalm suggests perhaps not.

But what I appreciate most about this passage is David’s sense of connectedness and intimacy with God, “…in him my heart trusts… my heart exults” (v.7). David may have had a solid intellectual understanding of God as well, but for David life with God was a heart-centered thing, a feeling thing, a love thing. David was passionate about the Lord and wasn’t afraid to express his love for God in word or deed. Even when his own wife laughed at him and mocked him for his exuberant dancing before the Lord he didn’t care. He loved the Lord deeply… and the Lord loved him back.

Like David I’m more of a heart person than a head person. It’s not that I can’t think, but feeling comes first for me. I see in David someone who is deeply committed to spending time with the Lord, worshipping the Lord, praying to the Lord, whether times are good or bad. That kind of faith is very attractive to me. Lord give me grace to lavish worship and praise upon you like David. Fill my heart as you filled David’s heart. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.