Monthly Archives: February 2019

Good News? Or, Bad Advice?

27 “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.[a] 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.

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”  (Luke 6:27-38 NRSV)

Last week we read about Luke’s version of the Beatitudes.  Jesus comes down from a mountain after a night of prayer and meets his followers where they are.  They have traveled from far and wide and I suspect they come from a variety of economic conditions.  The vast majority were probably poor.

Jesus speaks words easy to listen to if you’re poor and hungry; difficult to hear if you’re rich.  You’re blessed if you’re hungry, and trouble is coming your way if you’re full.  You’re blessed if you’re weeping, poor, or hated.  The kingdom is yours.  But if you’re rich, laughing or thought well of, watch out.  Trouble lies ahead.

I suggest that we not look at last week’s scripture from one side or the other, but from the middle.  Get right with God; drop those idols (as much as possible) and then look around.  Look to see who’s laughing and who’s weeping and why.  Don’t be afraid to gaze on the poor and the rich.  Take stock of those who are hated and those who are highly respected.

What you will probably see is a hardy dose of reality mixed with glimpses of the kingdom.

If last week was difficult, put your seats belt on.  There’s turbulence ahead.

Love your enemies, bless your abusers, turn the other cheek, give your shirt and your coat, as well.  Love your enemies.  Jesus says it more than once.

Again, I suggest that we go to the heart of this scripture rather than view it as either/or.  Either I love my enemy or hate him.  Either I turn my cheek of I slap him back.

At the heart is the Golden Rule, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  (v. 31)

The story goes that Rabbi Hillel was approached by a young man who told him that if he could teach him the whole law while standing on one foot, he’d convert.  The wise rabbi gazed on him for a moment and then lifted one leg, saying, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to a fellow.  That is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary.  Go and learn it.” (Shabbat 31:7)

If we’re right with God, we can see the pain of others and we can respond to them the way we would want to be treated.  Being God’s beloved children, we do not respond as a Casper Milquetoast.  We respond with dignity.  If turning the other cheek is your course of action, do so with dignity and love.

Perhaps we could turn to Paul for assistance with this.  “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.'” (Romans 12:19-20)

As Jesus walked this earth, he was enacting a future of equality for all.  The rich and poor, the bullies and the abused, all sharing in the Messianic Banquet.  All are equal: the ungrateful and the wicked as well as the merciful.

So what do we do with all this?  We continue getting our lives sorted out, if we haven’t already done it.  We quit hanging on to stuff: the stuff taking up space in our closets, the stuff clogging our hearts from loving others, the stuff that hangs around like baggage controlling how we think and act and respond.

It’s a life long task, but the closer to the center we get, the closer to understanding the beatitudes and loving enemies we come.  With listening ears on Jesus we discover better ways to respond to those who would rather hurt and bully others.

Jesus was generous just as His Father is generous.  We, too, can be generous.  We begin with ourselves: treating others as we would want to be treated.  We move to God who is full of mercy and extends that mercy.  Then we look to the other with love.  Not an easy, squishy love filled with valentine hearts and candy.

No, a love that is filled with grace, even to those we would rather turn our backs on or drop a bomb on, and seek to understand the human and divine.

It’s a tall order.  Few of us will completely succeed.  Knowing we’re saved by grace through faith, though, makes us ready and willing to seek the kingdom.

Love others.  Love yourself. Because God loves you.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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Pie-in-the-Sky?

17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[a] on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.  (Luke 6:17-26 NRSV)

We need a lot of perspective on this text.  A whole lot.

To begin with, we need to know where Jesus came down “from.”  He came down from a mountain where he had spent the night in prayer with God.  The following morning he called his disciples and chose the inner circle of apostles.  Apostles would be the “sent ones.”  Thus begins some 100 verses of teachings for these sent ones and anyone else interested enough to listen.

He came down with his disciples and apostles to a level place.  A place on the same level of those he served.  A place where Emmanuel could demonstrate the truth of “God with Us.”  He came down to this level place to find people from far and wide who were waiting to be taught and to be healed.

Jesus reverses the expectations.  First he heals.  How we can we hear what he has to say if we’re in pain or suffering?  How can we take in the Spirit’s words when unclean spirits are in the way?  First he heals.  Then he teaches.

He looked up at his disciples.  And now, God’s eyes are on them.  God’s eyes will remain on them.  The disciples (now apostles) will be seen by God.

The next expectation is the message itself.  Blessed are the poor, woe to the rich.  Blessed are the hungry, woe to the full.  Blessed are the weeping, woe to the laughing.  Blessed are the hated, woe to the well spoken of.

I’ve known no hunger in my life.  I have known periods of not being able to pay the bills, but not real poverty.  I’ve wept and I’ve laughed.  There’s a list of people who I don’t particular like and I wouldn’t be surprised if some outright hated me.

I wonder if many of you are nodding your heads.  So are we blessed?  Or are we facing woes? 

Jesus tells us to rejoice and leap for joy because your reward is great in heaven.  So, if you’re poor and needy and weeping, etc., hang in there.  Heaven is coming.  Some day you’ll be in a better place. 

That can’t be right.  That can’t be what Jesus means.  And here’s why.  Nowhere in scripture does it say that we’re NOT involved with God.  We are intricately involved with God and God with us.  We’re reminded over and over again that the poor are always with us; that wealth of any kind is treacherous and will be our undoing if we aren’t extremely careful; that we can’t serve two masters and survive.

Scripture reminds repeatedly to give alms; to open our hands to the poor and needy; not to allow anyone to go to bed hungry; that when we turn our backs on those in need of any kind, shame on us!

If Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted, then he can rejoice: I’m truly afflicted. 

Jewish and Christian tradition refuse to see the poor and hungry as cursed.  Nor are they considered impure.  Think about the homeless guy you encountered.  Did you cross the street to the other side?  How about the woman panhandling at the traffic light?  Did you avert your eyes?

Jesus announced in his hometown that his mission statement was to “bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19b NRSV)

Every action, every step, every prayer, every healing ties back to this mission statement he borrowed from Isaiah.  In his blessings and woes, he’s raising the poor and hungry and weeping and hated to his level.  He’s raising them up and he’s pointing us in their direction. 

And he’s saying to the rich and full and laughing and well spoken of, “Shame on you if you’re not doing anything about this!”

Sometimes we cross the road to avoid the homeless or we avert our eyes from the woman at the stop light.  But, dear reader, I also trust that you write checks often to help others help these very folks.  I know that you keep them in prayer, even as you cross the street and avert your eyes.  And there are times when you approach with a smile, a prayer and some money to help them.  And perhaps you even notice in that split second occurrence the sense of God’s grace touching both of you.

Jeremiah says it best.  “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.  They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.  It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8 NRSV)

I have a picture of a tree that has stood on the edge of a lake for more than 50 years.  It stands about ten feet above the beach with half of its roots bared.  Even so, they are entwined with each other and have dug into the sandy shore.  This tree has withstood high water and drought, wind, extremes of temperatures, even kids climbing its branches. 

That tree reminds me of Jeremiah’s encouragement to trust God.  When we trust God, our roots grow deep and our bank accounts become secondary; we entwine our roots with those who also trust God and we work together for the God’s kingdom.  Most of all, we are able to find joy even in our weeping.

When Jesus lifted his gaze to his disciples he began to teach them that the world is upside down and inside out when compared to the kingdom of God.  So, when you feel hated or excluded or hungry, know that God sees it and blesses it.  God knows all about it.  Lean into God.  Trust.

Because you’ve just had a glimpse of the world as it really is.  And it pales in comparison with God’s intent.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

 

 


Unworthy. Inadequate. Called anyway.

Once while Jesus[a] was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.  (Luke 5:1-11 NRSV)

When Jesus reveals God’s glory, he doesn’t mess around.

Sitting in the boat, finishing up a teaching session with the crowds, he turns to Peter.  He and his friends have had a long night without much to show for it.  They’re cleaning their nets and getting ready to go home and get some sleep.

How often did that occur?  How often were they successful with their catch?  I’m told that 70% of Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs.  The stress, the uncertainty of the economy, the low wages, job insecurity.  When the day ends, they’re content to go home.  They don’t want to throw their nets in.  They’re tired and worn out.

Jesus has other plans.  Even though Peter believes Jesus’ request is in vain, he complies, anyway.  Perhaps he sensed something about this man and he couldn’t say no.

The fish is so bountiful that Peter has to call in help to complete the catch.

Finally, the last of the fish are hauled into the boats.  The men look around them: fish up to their knees!  Peter falls to those knees in awe and wonder and amazement.  “Go away from me, Lord!  I’m a sinful man!”  He now understands that he’s in the presence of the holy and divine.

Others have felt that presence.  Isaiah, when he entered the temple filled with God’s presence and all he could see was the hem of God’s robe.  Moses approached a burning bush and received the order to take off his sandals, for he was standing on holy ground.

We can often tell when we’re in the presence of the divine.  God’s grace and blessings come unexpectedly.  They surprise us.  They unsettle us.  We feel unworthy.

On his knees (or as close to it as he can get surrounded by all those fish) Peter expresses his awe by confessing his sinful condition.  Martin Luther was heard to say that those who see their need of grace are in the best position to find it.  Confession truly is good for the soul.

Jesus reassures all of them.  “Fear not.”  And then he issues the call.  “From now on you will be catching people.”

God is at work.  There are new horizons to explore; new boundaries to push through; walls to break down.

The neighborhood was in a bad part of town.  Poverty and crime lived side by side.  What caused some of the residents to begin growing vegetables is unknown to me.  They couldn’t use their back yards, though.  There was too much shade.  So they planted in the front yards.

Before long, neighbors who had once barely talked to each other were gathering in yards comparing notes on their gardens.  How do you get so many tomatoes on your bushes?  You might try planting that bush closer to the shade for better production.

A few fish jumped into their nets.

Soon they were able to eat the fruit of their labors.  That led to a predicament.  What to do with the table scraps and peelings.  They began composting.  They decided on one compost pile which everyone could use for spring planting.  Some more fish jumped into their nets.

Ten years later Commonwealth Urban Farms has nets bursting with fish.  They are able to sell the compost.  Customers purchase produce in February with the guarantee of 25 weeks of produce provided to them free of charge.  A green house and a hoop house have been built.

Community has become united rather than divided.  The neighborhood is safe.  Land once abandoned to burned out homes and blight have been revitalized.

The fishing nets are full to bursting.

What have you seen in your corner of the kingdom?  What gives you hope?  Where are the nets filling up with fish?

Sometimes it’s hard to see.  Growth can be slow.  Other times growth is killed by the spirit of unkind competition.  Discouragement rears its ugly head.

God’s call is an amazing occurrence.  Yet, we often come face to face with our limitations.  And we give up.

But God in Christ calls us.  And when we follow, we enter places we never dreamed we’d go.  We experience the indescribable.  We hurt.  We feel joy.  Eventually, we learn to look for the unpredictable and we shy away from routine.

I have known greater joy in serving God than at any other time in my life.  I’ve known the heartache of disappointment when my nets were empty.  I’ve known the joy of bursting nets.  I wouldn’t give any of it up for anything.

In this world where everyone we meet has a broken heart, it’s good to be able to see the fish in the nets.  It may be as simple as seeing someone offer help to a homeless person or as complex and huge as an organization building a homeless shelter.

Whatever it is, know that God is at work.  And each time you experience it, remove your sandals for you truly are on holy ground.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


Who? Me!?!

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,

“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”  (Jeremiah 1:4-10 NRSV)

It was a lovely warm evening; typical of Southern California.  My family and I were at church attending the pot luck supper.  While I waited for the serving line to begin, I slipped out the door and wandered towards the sanctuary.  Surprisingly, the doors were unlocked.  I entered quietly and reverently.

I loved this sanctuary.  The deep blues of the stained glass windows gave an aura of mystery.  As the sun began to set, the sanctuary darkened, but I wasn’t afraid.  I was only eight years old, and darkness usually scared me.  But not tonight.

I walked down the long center aisle and stopped about half way down.  I looked around and listened.  That’s when I felt it.  A presence.  Comforting, loving.

It would take several decades for me to remember that moment of God’s presence made known.  Deep down, though, I  must have remembered it because I was never far from a church home.  I strayed away at times, but never for long.  I always returned to find that presence.

This passage from Jeremiah speaks to me.  The word of the Lord didn’t come to me on that long ago night.  But, the presence spoke volumes.

Jeremiah says, “I’m only a boy.”

God says, “I will be with you.  I will send you.  I will deliver you.  I give you my words that you will speak.”

God’s “I’s” are firm.  Jeremiah’s only response is to go where God sends him.

It won’t be an easy ministry.  God is clear from the beginning that Jeremiah will pluck up, pull down, destroy and overthrow.  Later he’ll begin to build and to plant.  He’ll speak to the people of Judah; they won’t listen.  He’ll try over and over again, and come away wondering why they can’t understand what is in front of their eyes.

Four years ago I visited with people who wanted desperately for President Obama to be impeached.  They couldn’t understand why others couldn’t see what they thought was obvious.

These days I visit with other folks who want to see President Trump impeached.  They can’t understand how his followers can be so blind.

Truth is a strange word in our post-modern world.  We have alternative truth; truth that politicians spin to their own advantage; fake news; even truthiness.  Was that what it was like in Jeremiah’s day?  Was it difficult to see that Judah was headed to exile?  When you’re living in the midst of history, it’s hard to see the hand in front of your face.

For 40 years Jeremiah used words and creative actions to get God’s word to God’s people.  Eventually, Babylon conquered Judah and took the inhabitants into exile.

So, where’s the good news in all this?

Some people look on the world and see only decline.  Perhaps God is in their plucking up, pulling down, destroying and overthrowing.  If that’s the case, then God is also at work to buidt and to plant something better and more faithful.

In Cleveland, OK, Arlington Park provides good wholesome, entertainment for the local residents.  Bands play under the protection of a band stand; park benches and tables are available for picnics; flea markets and art shows are popular.

But it wasn’t always that way.  Once it was the sight of some decrepit buildings that housed the fire and police departments.  The City refurbished other space and each department moved into nicer accommodations.  Then the buildings were torn down to make way for the new park.

Plucking up, pulling down, destroying and overthrowing.  Sometimes we have to go through the painful and destructive in order for the new to be planted.  Such was the case for Jeremiah.  His ministry would see the fall of Judah.  He would then be able to send messages of hope to the exiles.

Later the exiles returned and began to build and plant.

A child born in Bethlehem would be born several centuries later.  He would preach and teach and heal and feed.  He would eventually endure a mock trial and be crucified.  But, God would have the final word in resurrection.

Fear not.  If we live in troubled times, know that God is with us.  God hasn’t given up on us.  God will do God’s work to bring about something better and more faithful.

Our job is to answer the call when God taps us on the shoulder.  Our job is to make our corner of the kingdom a better place for having been here.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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