Monthly Archives: November 2018

Hold Fast!

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’[a] and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.  (Mark 13:1-8 NRSV)

April 19, 1995.  A day that lives in infamy for Oklahoman’s.

The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building wasn’t the biggest or tallest building ever built.  However, it was large and lovely and imposing.  It spoke of permanency.  It felt solid.  No one ever dreamed that this building would some day be a pile of rubble.

We spent weeks watching our televisions.  The rescue attempts were followed by the search for the dead.  The rescue dogs became depressed because they had been trained to find live people and they found too many dead bodies.  The fire fighter who held a tiny child’s body in his arms is a picture we’ll never forget.  The endless interviews with the victims’ families and the ribbons and flowers on the fence surrounding the plaza.

For years we mourned the loss.  We watched the trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.  When the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial was opened, we toured it with sadness, reliving that awful day, once again.  There’s an empty chair for each victim of the bombing.  Too many of the chairs represented the children.

The Murrah building wasn’t a patch on the temple in Jerusalem.   The Temple was a splendid structure, one of the greatest achievements of Herod the Great.  Its enormous marble stones were adorned with gold.  It wasn’t a mere building, but a sprawling structure of walkways, porches, balconies and grand stairways.  Herod built it to impress the wealthy and powerful leaders of the day.  He exceeded his own expectations.

There was no way that this building could come down.  Yet, Jesus vowed that it would be utterly flattened.  While the disciples gaze on it and feel its permanence and strength and security, Jesus sees it gone.  And it would come to pass in 70 C.E.

Later, only a few disciples come to him with the big question.  “When?”

Jesus doesn’t really answer that question.  He tells them what to look for:  False Messiahs, wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, the rise and fall of empires, famines.

Nothing new about that.  I’ve lived through several wars and “police actions.”  I’ve witnessed threats of wars.  I can’t count the number of major weather events including Tsunami’s, hurricanes and super storms.  I’ve rejoiced at the fall of Berlin Wall.

And I know enough about history to understand what the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote when he said, “”A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” (1:4)  There’s nothing new under the sun.

So, thank you, Jesus.  But that wasn’t helpful.  Can’t you give us something clearer so we’ll know what to look for?

His answer is, “No.”

Oh.  What are we to do?

Hold fast.  Keep your eye on me, not on the downed building.  Keep your eye on God’s activity in history.

A few months after the Murrah Building bombing, I read and listened to stories shared.  One story resonates with me today, thanks to a book entitled, “Where Was God at 9:02 AM?” (by Robin Jones, Sandy Dengler [Thomas Nelson Publishers; October 1, 1995])

There was to be a convention of restaurateurs at the nearby convention center.  The exposition had brought in chefs and cooks to display their latest equipment and serve food samples.  After the bombing, these competitors teamed up and used their equipment and food to feed the victims and responders.

Hold fast.  Keep your eye on Jesus.

Even later, I learned that, after the clean-up, the emergency managers met with leaders from across the country to share what went well and what could have gone better.  For example, they discovered that cell phones weren’t a good way to communicate with the rescue teams because the cell towers were so jammed up.  Emergency plans were updated across the country and were in place on September 11, 2001.  Yes, the Murrah Building Bombing helped us respond more effectively on 9/11.

Keep your eyes on me, says Jesus.  View the wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes as the beginning of the birth pangs.  We’re still in the beginning.  We’re still in the yet and not yet of the kingdom of God.

We’re a global community.  That means we hear more news from the around the world than ever in the past.  We can literally watch war taking place on our TV’s.  Every bad thing going on in the world is available thanks to cable news, podcasts, network television and radio.  Instead of turning on the 5:00 news, we listen all day long.  Some reporters try to provide information as factually as possible, while others spice it up with spin and doom and gloom.

I grew up in Southern California.  A Saturday treat was a trip to beach.  One of our favorite games was watching the waves roll in and see how close they would come to our feet without touching them.  We’d step closer to the water and then jump back, giggling and laughing.  The waves were powerful.  Sometimes they were tall and we weren’t allowed to go swimming in them.  These waves would arrive taller than an average adult and pound on the shore as if angry at the shore for some unknown reason.  Yet, we believed that the ocean would only rise so far and would remain within its watery boundaries.  We trusted that the powerful waves could be treacherous but if we left them be no one would be hurt.

Than I learned about tsunamis.  A wall of water that couldn’t be stopped that moved on land like a beast.  People were killed and bodies lost.  Rebuilding takes years.  When we see the ocean today we know that it can leave its bounds and can do great and horrific harm.  And our trust level diminishes.  We’re fearful and wonder, Where is God?

For Oklahoman’s, God was present before, during and after.  I learned that big buildings can be brought down, just like the Temple in 70 C.E.  I learned that what humanity can do is pretty awesome and I also learned that God is even bigger than all this.

Most of all, I’ve come to understand that “God hasn’t called the Church to be spectators of global chaos.  Rather, we’re all called to be agents of love, healing, hope and justice over and against forces of evil and destruction.”

Bad things are happening.  Good people will make a difference.  God will have the final victory.  Until then, I choose to get back to work, trying to make my corner of the world a better place.  Will I succeed?  Not always.  Not everywhere.  I’ll fall short lots of times.  But, God doesn’t call us to be successful.  God calls us to be faithful.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


We Are An Offering

Jesus Denounces the Scribes

38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

The Widow’s Offering

41 He 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.”

( Mark 12:38-44 NRSV)

What was she thinking?

What was the widow thinking when she put her last two cents into the temple treasury?  What did she plan to eat for dinner this evening?  Or breakfast tomorrow?

What was Jesus thinking?

He was living on borrowed time.  The shadow of the cross hung heavy over his head.  He cut down the scribes for being pompous and greedy.  We understand that he spoke truth.  And he also knew the cost of truth-telling.

When he watched the nameless widow donate the last of her money, he was in awe.  And angry.  How dare the wealthy prey on the poor!  Yet, her pittance stopped Jesus in his tracks in terms of her faithfulness.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: money.  Dollars and cents.  Paper and plastic.  Money.

How do we view money?

One view of money is a discussion of Capitalism vs. Socialism.  The problem with that is that it leaves out human nature.  We could talk about individualism in America.  It’s up to me to (fill in the blank.)  That view turns us into “spending units.”  Where’s the Christian reflection in being a mere unit?

Or, we can examine our relationship with money.  Money is neutral, but we give it power.  More powerful than we recognize.  Money has the power to corrupt.  Don’t think so?  Then take out your wallet and give it to the next stranger you see.

Let’s see what the Bible says.

Some Christians would argue that money is a blessing.  If we give enough, love enough, are faithful enough, God will provide in abundance.  The Old Testament often connects blessing with faithfulness, but it’s not that simple or direct.  Talk with Job.  He lost everything because of his faith and righteousness.

The Old Testament blessings are a secondary benefit.  They are never guaranteed.

The New Testament turns the corner on material blessing.  In fact, faithfulness can lead to poverty and martyrdom.  Ask the Apostles.

If money doesn’t equal blessing, we’re still left where we were when we began this conversation.  And we’re even more stumped by Jesus’ teachings.  He tells a rich man to sell everything he has, give it to the poor and then follow Jesus.  (Mark 10:17-22.)  He openly states that it’s hard for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God.  In fact, money won’t get us there — only God can do that. (Mark 10:25-27.)

Jesus turns everything on end (as usual) when he says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20b)

Money doesn’t earn us God’s love.  We can’t buy our way into God’s blessing.  This view pushes God out of the way and we chase our tails trying to pursue the god (little ‘g’) of money.  We deceive ourselves into thinking we don’t need God.

That’s the most enticing temptation of all.  We have life insurance, health insurance, home insurance, automobile insurance.  They provide security when we’re sick or our home is destroyed or we’re in an automobile accident.  Certainly this kind of security is a good and helpful thing.  But, does it eliminate the need for God?

Perhaps we need old-fashioned Stewardship Campaigns.  The Bible is clear about one thing: we don’t own anything.  It all belongs to God.  Therefore, we’re accountable to God for how we steward our money.  In the Old Testament we read, “Ten for God, ninety for me.”  That’s called tithing.  I saw a statistic recently that we tend to give about 2% of our income to the church: “Two for God, ninety-eight for me.”

And now the guilt kicks in and our giving becomes a duty and we discover we’re appeasing God.

Where’s our sense of discipleship?  Out the window while money, once again, holds power over us.

Do you see what I  mean?  We give money power.  We permit It to use us, to tempt us, and we wonder why we’re twisted up in knots.

We believe that God is the giver of all.  God created the heavens and the earth.  God is in every aspect of our history.  God is the ultimate sacrificial giver in Jesus Christ.  We can’t begin to match anything that God has done for us.  We are unworthy of these gifts, and yet, God gives anyway.  Abundantly.  Lovingly.

Rest on that for awhile and we come to the realization that all we have wasn’t achieved on our efforts alone; that a system of obligation isn’t enough; that if we try to keep a record on our eternity, we’re so far in the red we’ll never catch up.

Rest on that for awhile and money just might take it’s proper seat in the background where it belongs.

Giving is a spiritual practice.  When you write that check; when you place money of any kind in the offering plate, it is a sacred moment.  We are acknowledging that our week begins with a day of rest (Sunday), not labor and that we have received a gift greater than any in Jesus Christ.

We don’t give to justify ourselves.  We give as an act of holiness.

And when we focus on God’s work, our giving becomes a part of God’s mission here on earth.

Churches worry about money.  They’re wrapped up in the concept of scarcity.  There’s not enough.  And many a church is in hospice today, living on what the congregation can give, not embracing what they have as gift.

That day at the temple, the crowds were giving out of their abundance.  I don’t hear Jesus criticizing the crowd.  I do hear awe in his voice when he commends her for giving her all.  Given the discussion of the egotistical religious leaders just before he watched the widow, I think he was probably angry at their use of the poor to keep the Temple wealthy.

Jesus was there that day because he had teaching to do.  And a cross to climb up on.  He did that for the widows and for you and me.

Given that, what do you do about your giving?  First, go to God in prayer.  Consider God’s loving act of sacrifice.  Consider your own relationship with the almighty.  Then prayerfully consider how you will participate in God’s ongoing giving.

How will you organize your life so that God can spend you?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


The Outsiders

During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. A man with his wife and two sons went from Bethlehem of Judah to dwell in the territory of Moab. The name of that man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They entered the territory of Moab and settled there.

But Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died. Then only she was left, along with her two sons. They took wives for themselves, Moabite women; the name of the first was Orpah and the name of the second was Ruth. And they lived there for about ten years.

But both of the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, also died. Only the woman was left, without her two children and without her husband.

Then she arose along with her daughters-in-law to return from the field of Moab, because while in the territory of Moab she had heard that the Lord had paid attention to his people by providing food for them. She left the place where she had been, and her two daughters-in-law went with her. They went along the road to return to the land of Judah.

Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, “Go, turn back, each of you to the household of your mother. May the Lord deal faithfully with you, just as you have done with the dead and with me. May the Lord provide for you so that you may find security, each woman in the household of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.

10 But they replied to her, “No, instead we will return with you, to your people.”

11 Naomi replied, “Turn back, my daughters. Why would you go with me? Will there again be sons in my womb, that they would be husbands for you? 12 Turn back, my daughters. Go. I am too old for a husband. If I were to say that I have hope, even if I had a husband tonight, and even more, if I were to bear sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you refrain from having a husband? No, my daughters. This is more bitter for me than for you, since the Lord’s will has come out against me.”

14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth stayed with her. 15 Naomi said, “Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her gods. Turn back after your sister-in-law.”

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. 17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.” 18 When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her about it.  (Ruth 1:1-18 Common English Bible (CEB)Copyright © 2011 by Common English Bible)

It was the worst of times.

No food.  Famine in the land.  They watched friends and family starve to death.  Living in Bethlehem, the House of Bread, was no longer possible.  They learned that the country of Moab was doing well.  Refugees were headed that way, crossing difficult territory to arrive.

They had to think twice about this.  Moab was a sworn, longtime enemy of Israel.  In the end, their hungry bellies drove them to pack up and leave.

We can only imagine life in Moab for them.  It would have been difficult because of both their immigrant status and they were sworn enemies.  However, it appears they were at least minimally welcomed.  They settled in and made a life for themselves.  Their sons found Moabite wives and, for a time, there was peace in their lives.

Then the worst of the worst of times.  Naomi’s husband died.  Widows don’t fare well in the time of the judges.  At least she has her sons to rely on.  Then they die.  We don’t know if it was illness, or the result of a hate crimes.  Naomi won’t survive long.

Word arrives that the famine in Israel has passed.  It won’t be an easy trip, and life in Israel will be difficult, but she wants to be home.  She stands a better chance of surviving in Bethlehem than in Moab.

She talks Orpah into staying in Moab.  There’s nothing more Naomi can do for her daughters-in-law.  They stand a better chance in their mother’s homes where they might be able to marry again.

She didn’t reckon on Ruth’s tenacity.

“I refuse to abandon you.  I’m going with you.  I’ll live with you, I’ll die with you and be buried in your land.”

There’s more to this vow.  She turns to the God of Israel and denounces her former religious faith.  Naomi’s God is Ruth’s God.  She leaves behind her Moabite culture and applies for citizenship in Israel.

This vow is rich with the Hebrew “hesed.”  In a few words, it means loyalty, faithfulness and loving-kindness.  These words only begin to describe true hesed.

Hesed is a result of a bonding moment.  Ruth has tied herself to Naomi and to Naomi’s land and culture and religion.  Ruth vows to never dessert her, never forget her.

“Ruth” means “friend.”  This foreign, widowed, enemy woman, stays with Naomi as death pursues the women.  There are no sons to care for them, so Ruth will step in and care for them both.

Hesed.  It’s a unique concern for someone you know well: a family member, a close friend.  It’s an action that rescues the other from a desperate situation.  Hesed is performed by a person uniquely qualified to do what is needed.

God shows us hesed often.  God is in a unique relationship with us and knows us better than we know ourselves.  God rescues and cares for us in desperate times.  God is uniquely qualified to provide for our needs.

God shows hesed by acting through an outsider.  Ruth responds with amazing fidelity to both God and Naomi.

God isn’t mentioned much in the book of Ruth, but God is definitely active.  God acts in terms of reversals: an outsider caring for Naomi; a husband to redeem them and provide a child to inherit Elemilich’s estate; this child will be the father of David, ancestor of Jesus.

Strange, isn’t it?  Of all the people in all the land, God calls an outsider, lowly, widowed, stranger and enemy to bring about redemption.  God chooses the outsider to model for us loyalty and devotion.  And Jesus’ family tree has a mixed race branch.

Strange, isn’t it?  That God calls on the outsider, the enemy, the excluded to bring about God’s redemption.

I love the story of Ruth.  The two women make their way through life, securing redemption.  Ruth’s barrenness will end.  Death leads to rebirth.

I can’t help but wonder.  Who are the Boaz’s today?  Where are the Ruth’s and Naomi’s?  Perhaps walking toward the U.S. seeking asylum.

If so, what do we do?  How can we respond responsibly and faithfully?

What does hesed look like today?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

 

 


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