Monthly Archives: September 2015

Concrete Practices

“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have the pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” (James 5:13-14 NRSV)

The author of James closes his letter with a strong ending. Whether you’re suffering, happy, ill or feeling the effects of a sinful life, you can reach out. I find it interesting that James describes a two-way street. If you’re suffering, pray. But, he also tells us to call in the “prayer squad.” Let others know that you’re suffering and in need help.

This is another one of those counter-cultural issues I’ve mentioned in the past few posts. We live in a society that demands independence and individualism. Suffering? Suck it up and get through it. Everyone has problems so quit whining. Besides, you’re supposed to be happy. Suffering and long faces aren’t acceptable.

But, that’s not reality. Next time you’re with a group of friends, look around. Some are in a happy place. Many, if not most, are dealing with very difficult issues. And there may be a few who need to be called back from a life of poor choices. We can’t simply ignore this and move on.  Nor can we give them the quick fixes for their problems.  We need to be in prayer for all of these folk, regardless of our feelings for them.

Sing with rejoicing for those who are rejoicing. Share in the their joy. Give thanks. This is a time to celebrate, even if the joy appears to be small in your view.

Are you suffering or ill? Get help! Don’t simply suck it up and suffer in silence; reach out. Let those close to you hear what you’re going through. Let them know how they can pray for you. Seek courage from them through God to move forward in whatever direction you need to go.

Lone Rangers are good for TV. Not for life. We need each other. If you don’t have a place of worship, I encourage you to find one. Find a place where you can be a part of joy-filled, Spirit-filled worship, heart-felt prayer and fellowship that includes you. Find a place where you can be held up in authentic prayer when you need it and be in prayer for others.

Christians have spent the past 2,000 years trying to figure out what community is all about. James is only one of many who have tried to explain it. The problem is, we’re sinners living and worshiping beside sinners. Sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we hurt others they end up leaving the church and God forever.

Thanks be to God that we keep trying. We keep looking for a better way. We keep reading the Bible and studying with others and praying. And once in awhile we get it right and miracles happen.

Prayer is powerful. God is always with us. When we give thanks in prayer and singing, we can understand what we’ve learned through our suffering or illness or sinful condition to carry with us.

When we seek healing in suffering or illness, we can learn in prayer that God speaks to us and acts in our lives. I rejoice when my prayers for healing are answered with healing of body and soul. But, I also understand that some healing that I pray for doesn’t occur. What I learn, though, is that healing can come in other forms: healing of the spirit that gives courage to move forward with what Paul called, “the thorn in the side.” There’s a healing of the soul that understands that God is with me as I journey through this disease. There’s a healing that you come to understand that I must journey through this suffering and I need you to walk with me, even if it means that you’re carrying a sacrificial cross to do so.

There’s healing of all kinds. I can pray, but I can’t tell God how to do it. I can seek forgiveness, and know that I’m already forgiven. I seek relief from the hurt I see in those closest to me. In the end, though, I can’t do it alone.

I need God. And I need my faith family.

But, it’s up to me to tell my faith family what I need.

Perhaps this is the day that you step up and say, “Hey! I need help.  I need your presence to help me make it through today.”

Perhaps this is the day that you step up and say, “How can I help you?  I can be a presence to help you make it through this day?”

James is right.  It’s a two-way street.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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First and Last

“He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.'” (Mark 9:35 NRSV)

Jesus had asked his disciples about a conversation on the road. They couldn’t answer. Well, they could, but they didn’t want to.

“Who got into the cookie jar?” a parent would ask us.
“Not me,” we replied with cookie crumbs all over our shirt.

“What were you talking about back there?”
“Oh, nothing,” their heads bent, sandals scuffing nervously in the sand.

Jesus knew exactly what they’d been talking about. They were pondering who was the greatest among them. Sadly, this argument came on the heals of Jesus’ predicting his death and resurrection for the second time. It was a scary statement. Jesus would be betrayed into human hands.

No one wants to be put into human hands. David prayed that he would be poured into God’s hands where he would experience not only God’s judgement, but also God’s love and mercy. Here, Jesus will be at the mercy of humans.

The disciples were afraid to ask what that meant. And they must have entered into a sort of land of denial as evidenced by their argument about who would be the greatest among them. It seems heartless and selfish, to me. But, then how many times have I crucified my Lord with a heartless remark or a selfish thought, giving no consideration to repentance?

I once worked for a man who was talented and skilled in his field. Sadly, he had a poor self-esteem. He had been an all-state football player prior to entering World War II and he learned a hard lesson there: To be a winner, someone has to lose.

He kept that motto throughout his life. When we had a discussion over a course of action in my department, he had to be right. That translated to the expectation that I had to be wrong in order for him to be right. And with that “win” notched on his belt, he could strut his sense of “rightness” in front of the staff.

So sad. I’ve met people like him since then and I feel for them, because on the occasions when they are wrong, it’s harrowing for them. They can’t accept themselves or love themselves.  Caught in this endless loop, they go out to find another battle where they can win by making the other lose.

Jesus reminded the disciples that to be first, they must be last. He certainly modeled that many times: the healing of an impure woman, demoniac and the possessed. Dead girls brought back to life; those with disabilities healed.  He was servant of all.  He included those that society would exclude.  He fought against the status quo.  He purposely chose anonymity, though it rarely worked.  He told people not to tell others what he had done; his ministry was more important than him.

What does servant leadership look like today?  Servant leaders empathize and understand what their staff members may be experiencing.  They try to remove the road blocks.  Servant leaders are more interested in the worthy goal than the acclamation for themselves.  Servant leaders are strong and wise.

Servant leaders welcome children, Jesus says.  This reference to children isn’t what we might expect.  Today we believe that children are valuable and must be protected.  In the first century, children held little value because they could not do much towards the economic care of the family.  They were little better than women or chattel.

Jesus challenges us to care for these: those who live on the edges of society; those who others won’t touch; those with whom Jesus would dine and spend time.  When we serve these the least of all society has to offer, we are welcoming Jesus.  And when we welcome Jesus, we’re welcoming God.

Taken in that perspective, it’s freeing.  When we look to serve God and welcome God into our lives, the demands of egoism and stature in this world don’t matter.  We’re free to do the right thing.  Money takes it rightful place in the backseat of our lives.  Others aren’t hurt because of our need to get ahead.  And when we look in the mirror, we like what we see: a beloved child of God.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

 


Who Do You Say That I Am?

“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34 NRSV)

It’s been a busy, hectic, tiring ministry for Jesus. He has been all over Galilee and the Gentile territories preaching, healing, even feeding. He’s stood up to legalistic religious leaders and warned his disciples about yeast that corrupts what is good and just and generous about God.

Now he stands on the border between Galilee and Gentile territory. He knows that new ministry is ahead of him; he knows that it won’t be the same as before. And he knows that before we can move forward into the new, we must look back to see where we’ve been.

“Who do people say that I am?” The answer will tell the disciples not only who he is, but who they are and what this knowledge requires of them.

A couple of years ago, our church’s ruling board went through a discernment process of what our next ministry might look like. To do this, we had to look at our recent past. We saw ourselves as a church that loves and honors and nourishes children and families. The questions was raised, “What does the 21st century family church look like?”

We all knew that it would look different. And as we look around our sanctuary these days, we know that to be true. We are a family-style church with ages from each and every generation present: new-born, children, millennials, Generation X, Boomers, Silent, GI. Some of our children arrive at church with their parents; others without.  We are the marvelous blending.

So, Jesus looks back, as well, for the sake of his disciples. “Who do people say that I am?” The answers are numerous: John the Baptizer, Elijah, one of the prophets. All of these, in fact, are prophetic figures. Not in the sense of seeing into the far future, but in being able to recognize that actions in society have consequences and they can name the consequences, both good and not so good.

Peter, goes a step further, though. Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One of God.

Tell no one, Jesus says to them. It’s not time for you to share this, because you don’t understand what it means to be the Messiah. You don’t know the cost of being a disciple of the Messiah. Your identity is that of a rabbi’s disciple. You’re about to be much more and I have more to teach you.

Tell no one.

And then he begins to teach them. Not what’s he been teaching them in the past. This is a new beginning for them. They’re ready to learn at a deeper level. So he gives them the “end of the story” so to speak.

The Son of Man must suffer and be rejected by the elders and religious elite and be killed and three days later rise again.

Wow. That’s one packed sentence!

There’s a lot to take in here. Slow down, Jesus. You’re going to be killed? And then rise again?

This statement turns his disciples upside down. This isn’t what God’s anointed does. When God anointed Saul and David, they fought and defended the land. When God anointed Solomon, he entered into huge building projects.  God’s chosen weren’t under the iron hand of Rome.

Peter takes a step forward. He’s got to do damage control before Jesus says anything else. He puts himself in the position of Jesus’ patron rather than his disciple. “Slow down Jesus. You’re scaring them! We’re going to lose members! We’re going to lose money! This isn’t good! Stay the line.”

He speaks to Jesus privately. Jesus speaks openly so that everyone can hear him. “Get behind me Satan!”

This is like the temptation in the wilderness that we read about in Matthew and Luke. The anointed of God can turn stones into bread and save their own lives and can rule over every kingdom on earth.

But, this isn’t what Jesus came to do. “Get behind me Satan!” Don’t think in terms of earthly kingdoms and magic powers. Think in God’s terms. Think in terms of eternal things; things that last; things that don’t rust or get eaten away at. And don’t even think about redefining who I am and what I came to do!

God’s rule is eternal and Jesus called his disciples to reach out to others with this new way of living and being. He called them to reach out and point us to eternity.

And though they’ve had to take in a lot of information, Jesus still calls the crowds together to give them even more to think about:

If you want to follow me, deny yourselves. Denying yourself means that you have to take up your own cross. They know what that cross is: they see them all over the Roman lands with people hanging from them taking days to die. They know how easy it is to find themselves carrying a cross to their own crucifixion.

And it’s the very cross that Jesus has committed to carrying.

How do we deny ourselves? Not through self-hate. We don’t reject ourselves. Rather, we deny the side of us that would grasp at earthly treasures and values. We deny ourselves when we understand the definition of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

When we carry the cross, it’s not so much the burdens of life. It’s more than that. We carry the cross when we take on the painful task of helping others find redemption.

We help the poor find redemption when we actively struggle side-by-side with them to make their lives a bit easier. We help the mentally ill find redemption when we support our culture in finding solutions to their homelessness. We help our children out of abusive situations when we serve as therapeutic foster parents.

Jesus says we must deny ourselves. But, there’s more. We must lose our lives. We must give up our egos. Jesus’ call isn’t to piety that is really cheap grace. This call to take up the cross is gritty and difficult. Yet, when we take up that cross we know that it’s all we can do; that we can do nothing else.

We can’t rule our lives. John Calvin said it best: “We are not out own; therefore neither our reason nor our will should predominate in our deliberations and actions. We are not on our own: therefore let us not propose it as our end, to seek what may be expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own; therefore let us, as far as possible, forget ourselves and things that are ours.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion III,7)

We value our lives when we direct our gifts and talents to serving God every day. We de-value our lives when we make decisions based on what’s in it for me.

We value our lives when we submit our will to God and take on God’s will to serve, in all areas of our lives. We de-value our lives when we ignore God in search of the next big thrill.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat in Hitler’s prison, he wrote, “Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Letters and Papers from Prison” Chapter 6.  As cited in “Interpretation” by Lamar Williamson, Jr. Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1983  page156)

“Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


Breaking Barriers

27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir,[b] even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” (Mark 6:27-29 NRSV)

I don’t know about you, but this story makes me cringe in embarrassment. Jesus has put his foot in it this time. No matter how you look at it, the Son of God has behaved badly.

People have tried to understand this scripture and have come at it from different points of view.

1. She’s a Gentile Woman. Even Mark makes it very clear that she is not Jewish. And maybe Jesus is tired of the Gentiles lording wealth and fortune over the sidelined Jews.
2. Perhaps Jesus is testing her. Could this be a teaching moment for either her or his disciples?
3. Maybe Mark put this story in here as a message to the early church that whether they like it or not, the Gentiles are a part of gospel proclamation.
4. On the other hand, maybe Jesus didn’t mean to be, well, mean. Perhaps he was simply saying, “Charity begins at home.”
I can’t buy this. He called her a dog: lowly and despised. Some have argued that Jesus was a part of his culture. This woman was being bold by stepping out of her cultural norms to address a man. He was putting her back in her place.

Maybe these answers speak to you. And, if they do, that’s fine. But, they don’t satisfy me.

It’s tough being a pastor in the 21st century. Recent research indicates the following:
• 1,500 pastors leave the ministry permanently each month in America.
• 80% of pastors feel discouraged in their roles.
• 70% of pastors do not have a close friend, confidant, or mentor.
• 71% of pastors stated they were burned out, and they battle depression beyond fatigue on a weekly and even a daily basis.
• One out of every ten ministers will actually retire as a minister.  (Research compiled from The Barna Group, Focus on the Family, Fuller Seminary, and the Institute of Church Leadership Development. Cited from: Lance Witt, “Replenish: Leading from a Healthy Soul (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Books, 2011) 

Let’s look at what Mark has been telling us in his Gospel up to this point.
• Jesus heals and teaches.
• The more he accomplishes, the greater his success and the larger the crowds.
• He tries to retreat. The crowds find him. He heals and teaches.
• He returns home, possibly for a break. He’s rejected.
• His friend/cousin/mentor, John the Baptizer, is killed because of a lusty dance and a drunken despotic king.
• He tries to retreat. The crowds find him. He heals and teaches. And then he provides food for them. His success is mounting and with it exhaustion.
• His success comes to the attention of the scribes and Pharisees. In their desperate attempt to remain under Rome’s radar, they push back on Jesus’ teachings. But, he’s seen too much pain and suffering and too many of his people have been sidelined. So he pushes back on the religious leaders. And that doesn’t go well.

Why do we find him in the region of Tyre, so far from home? Mark answers that question: “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet, he could not escape notice.” He couldn’t be hidden.

He’s tired. He’s worn out. There’s nothing left inside. He needs a vacation; a retreat; time alone with his thoughts and to pray.

What do you do when you’re worn out, burnt out and can’t catch a break? Do you tend to respond poorly to others’ needs? Have you been known to say things you later regret?

Yet, we want, we even expect Jesus to rise above his fatigue. We want him to be better than this. After all, this is the Messiah, God’s son. He’s supposed to be divine; perfect. We want him to be more like the Christ of John’s Gospel: always in charge, knowing what he’s doing, always knowing what’s coming next. In John, he transforms water and reads Samaritan women’s minds.

But, Mark’s Jesus is grittier. He’s human and divine: fully human, fully divine.

We need that humanity. We need the assurance from the author of Hebrews: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are…” (Hebrews 4:15 NRSV)

This is the man who suffered on the cross. He felt fatigue and anger and sadness. Luke reminds us that he grew in wisdom and stature. He was fully human as well as fully divine.

So, when in extreme exhaustion, he says something shameful. Just like us humans would do. We’re no more immune from hurting others and name-calling and fatigue-induced hurtful words.

I love this woman. She’s bold and courageous; witty and intelligent. She could have responded to Jesus any number of ways. But, there’s a lot at stake here: the life of a child: her child. And who would blame her if she made an equally offensive remark, or defended her position? Instead, she moves deeper into the conversation. Just like Jesus did at times.

“I may not be able to sit at the table, but I’m still a part of the household,” she reminds him. (Jill Duffield, “Looking into the Lectionary: 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (September 6) The Presbyterian Outlook: pres-outlook.org)

Can’t you hear the stunned silence? Jesus gets it. The gospel is for all; no one is to be left out.

We are all entitled to be fed and obligated to feed.

We are called to teach and to be taught.

The barriers are broken. This woman’s daughter is healed from a distance. And she managed to change Jesus’ mind.

What do we read next? Jesus returns. But, he doesn’t take a direct route. He heads north through more Gentile territory, makes an arc and enters the Decapolis: again, Gentile territory.

This time he heals by touching. And he does it in private. A man is able to speak clearly and listen with care.

Jesus has had time to rest and pray and consider his ministry. He remains in Gentile territory in order to live out God’s call to heal all those who cross his path. He gets to know them, not as “those others” who aren’t like him, but as children of God.

Jesus heals this man of his deafness and his speech impediment. And I can’t help but wonder:
• Where are the Gentiles in our community and our world?
• How are we deaf to their needs?
• How can our tongues be loosed up to speak the gospel loudly and with clarity?

What barriers do we live with that we can’t even see anymore? Do they belong there or do we have the courage to break them down and meet the Syrophoenician Woman on the other side?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 


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