Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Isaiah 55:12

September 17, 2020

Conventional wisdom divides material into animal, vegetable and mineral. Helpful at one level but perhaps damaging at another, as we tend to ascribe certain characteristics to one group more than the others, characteristics of thought, motion, feeling, etc. Frankly we’ve often relegated these things just to the narrow category of humans within the larger animal classification, though that’s finally beginning to change as we come to understand other animal life better.

But perhaps this is only the first small step in a much wider understanding of the world around us, one that might see trees and other plants viewed in a whole new light that necessitates a whole new acknowledgement of relationship between us and them.

Maybe Scripture isn’t simply using anthropmorphisms, and trees and other vegetable classifications are far more complex than we’ve assumed. Science will take credit for discovering this but Scripture has used that kind of language for a lot, lot longer.

Makes me wonder if maybe, along a similar line of reasoning, our understandings of Isaiah 55:12 and the mineral world have room to grow as well!

Yes,the Press Is Biased

September 16, 2020

Great article linking to another great article about woefully inadequate press coverage of anti-Christian vandalism and other kinds of attacks – here in the United States (obviously there’s little interest at home in the press for anti-Christian activities elsewhere – we’ve known that for a long time).

Reading Ramblings – September 20, 2020

September 13, 2020

Date: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 20, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 27:1-9; Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Context: The overflowing grace of God the Father through the atoning death of God the Son on our behalf, brought to us through faith as a gift of the Holy Spirit might seem like welcome news. It ought to be – and it usually is for us. But are we as happy to see that free gift extended to others we think are less worthy than we are? That’s a tougher question, and a good barometer of how much we still like to think our good behavior earns us extra brownie points with God. The grace of God is not an invitation to licentiousness. It is not cheap soas to be presumed upon as our due. But it is lavish. Extravagant. Bewilderingly so at times, and that is what we need to hear. If God is willing and able to receive even those who come to him late and at the last moment, then He is willing to receive you and I in our sinfulness at whatever time the Holy Spirit is able to break through and show us our gaping need for his love and forgiveness.

Isaiah 55:6-9 – We had the first five verses of this chapter as the Old Testament reading about 6 weeks ago. In those verses God extends his invitation not just to his own wayward people but to those beyond the Hebrew people. But to receive God’s extravagant grace and gifts means first acknowledging our need for them, that our own ways and efforts are deficient to say the least, and completely wrong-headed at worst. But a clock is ticking. God will not extend this grace forever. A day is marked for judgment. And short of that, each person has a tock clicking in their own lives, and none of us can be sure when the ticking stops. Therefore, we should take seriously God’s invitation as soon as we are made aware of it (v.6). This requires not simply the appropriation of God’s grace but the process of dispossessing ourselves of those traits and qualities and practices that are no longer appropriate with such grace (v.7). We are wrong to presume God does things the way we do, and whenever we presume to have God safely in our pockets we can be sure we are in danger of not having God at all. The life of repentance is just that – a life. Daily and hourly. Not a one-time conversion experience but a constant turning and retuning ourselves to the Word and will of God.

Psalm 27:1-9 – Powerful words for our day and time! When fear is so prevalent, when it is deliberately being fostered and stirred up in people, this psalm should remind us whose we are and that fear does not dominate us. We who are in Christ, how is it we think fear has a permanent place in our life? These words build our confidence. There is nothing that will defeat us permanently. Sickness and disease may take our life prematurely. Injustice and violence might constrain us or take our life prematurely. But there is no thing and no one who can defeat us eternally. The worst that can happen is suffering and death for a time. And then we know we will dwell in the house of the Lord, in his temple, in his shelter, under his tent, upon his rock. All words of protection and strength. God remains our salvation, and the powers of evil in this world and the effects they produce will one day be judged and sentenced and banished and we will be free of them to live in joy and perfection. This is not just a wistful hope but a certainty that can and should strengthen our hearts and minds and hands for the present time and the current challenges.

Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30 – We leave behind Romans and move on to Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The church in Phillipi was the first European Paul founded, on his second missionary journey as detailed in Acts 16. He visited them again on his third missionary journey (Acts 20), and writes to them now to thank them for a gift of financial support they have given him, to convey Epaphroditus back to them after his recovery from a serious illness, and to inform the Philippians of Paul’s current status as a prisoner of the Roman Empire, making this one of Paul’s four letters during imprisonment. Time and location of writing are uncertain, with arguments being made for Ephesus, Caesarea and Rome. The strongest (and most traditional) arguments favor Paul writing this letter from Rome during his first imprisonment there circa 60 AD or later, and most probably about 62-63 AD. The sections in today’s reading refer not just to his imprisonment, but how the Holy Spirit has used his imprisonment to further the Gospel and encourage and strengthen fellow believers by his witness. A reminder that even in dire circumstances we are never beyond the ability of God the Holy Spirit to use for his good purposes of furthering the Kingdom of Heaven, even if we ourselves are not rescued from our temporal predicament.

Matthew 20:1-16 – If you want concrete examples of what the psalmist says about God’s ways not being our ways, look no further than this parable. Continuing on from Jesus’ teaching in Chapter 19 about the first being last and the last being first we have this story where that is literally true – the last to be hired are the first to be paid, and the last to be paid were the first to be hired. In fact this parable is bracketed by similar sayings of Jesus about the first and the last, and the grammar of the parable’s beginning, For the kingdom of heaven is like makes it clear the parable is linked to Jesus’ prior teaching and is an explanation and example of it. The parable is about how things work in heaven, and by extension, in the life and work and ministry of Jesus himself as the advent of the kingdom of heaven. It is how the kingdom of heaven looks in this present world, rather than a commentary on how things will look on the Last Day. How does God treat his creatures. Equally. Therefore it is not up to us to compare ourselves to others – believers or otherwise – and conclude we are more beloved of God, more deserving of his love, more entitled to greater reward.

What a challenge this was and is. Jesus’ day was not so different from our own in the oftentimes cutthroat effort for self-distinction and the merit possible with it. We compare ourselves in almost every respect to those around us, whether on the basis of weight, looks, height, education, professional accomplishments, salary, spouse, children, zip codes, vehicle makes, designer clothing – the list is nearly inexhaustible. Against this culture of competition and self-advancement Jesus makes the assertion that heaven does not function this way. The disciples may have a unique role on the day of judgment (19:23-30), but even this ultimately does not distinguish them in the way we typically think, a qualitative or value distinction. All are equally valuable to God the Father who has created, redeemed, and sanctified all of his people equally.

The Christian Life and Social Media

September 12, 2020

Thanks to Chuck for sharing an article with me about a missionary pastor in the United Kingdom facing calls for his deportation and the burning down of his church because he expressed views on Facebook offensive to the LGBTQ+ community.

All of which is pretty predictable these days, but once again raises the purpose of social media for Christians. Social media has become ubiquitous and touted as a place of self-expression. However self-expression is routinely being attacked when it doesn’t conform to minority opinions about sexuality and gender issues, not to mention politics in general.

I deleted my Facebook account about a year ago and I haven’t missed it for a single moment. Not one. The concept that was so attractive 13 years ago – being able to stay in touch with people in your life you might otherwise lose touch with – is not the reality. It’s now a place to scream your views and heap abuse on those who disagree with you – even if those people by some miracle are still friends with you on Facebook, surviving the common calls several years ago to purge ourselves of anyone who disagrees with us. I observed a few strange things, to say the least.

Colleagues who are pastors and literally make their Facebook identity their professional one puzzle me. Don’t you have any people in your life you relate to as other than a pastor? Does every single one of your family & friends have your vocation as pastor as the primary means of interacting with you? It seemed odd to me, at the very least. I know a lot of people through a lot of different venues, and my vocation as pastor only comes into play in a certain number of them. As such I tried to keep that in mind on the rare occasions I would post anything. I wanted to be aware of and considerate of not just what I said but how I said it.

I found (and continue to find it odd when I hear about it through my wife or other people) that someone who emphasizes their vocation as a pastor on social media feels as though advocating for a particular political party or platform is appropriate on social media. Again, are the only people they’re friends with on Facebook people who share their opinions on everything? If so, why the need to say something in the first place? And if not, why say something that could be deeply hurtful to people who love you but disagree with you?

Particularly for clergy I find this an egregious misuse of social media. It is a blurring of the line between being who we are and being honest and authentic, and the divine directive to operate with love in all things and to be very cautious of what we say or do – even if we’re right – that might hurt or cause another person to wander away from or further away from God. And when those social media comments call into question the very faith of someone who disagrees with a social or economic or political policy? Good grief people – what are you thinking!?

Some might argue that we have to raise our voices in social media as well as everywhere else, that otherwise Biblical Christian faith gets overwhelmed and drowned out by the discordant clamorings of any number of other ideas and ideologies. It would be good to remember that as near as we can tell the Christian faith did not grow and spread by screaming and shouting at random passersby, but in small acts of love and interpersonal giving and even sacrifice. Tragically the Church is more accustomed these days to thinking in terms of market share rather than trusting the power of God the Holy Spirit to work through the least of his sheep towards not just the transformation of culture but the salvation of souls.

Jesus directs his followers to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. I tend to suspect that if we are to place the emphasis in the proper place, it should be on the latter rather than the former. There is no shortage of serpents in this world – wise or otherwise. But there can never be enough doves.

I’d urge Christians to reconsider social media in general. What does it accomplish? How do you feel when you’re scrolling through your feed? What sort of emotions and responses does it stir inside of you? Is your social media experience true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise? Or are you more often stirred to irritation or anger or offense or lust or sorrow or shame? I won’t advocate for dumping social media, but I do advocate for proper, appropriate, and critical/thoughtful use of it. Simply the fact that you’ve been using it for a long time or everyone else is using it hardly justifies something that may be personally harmful to you.

Yes, anti-Christian rhetoric is on the rise in social media and elsewhere. Yes, it is horrible that people threatening bodily harm, economic injury, and destruction of property are sanctioned and not seen as a threat whereas someone simply stating a contradictory belief is viewed as a dangerous threat to be eradicated. Yes it is unfair. Yes it is wrong. But simply mirroring those tactics and that rhetoric is not only not going to be ineffective, it’s outright disobedient to how we are called by God to deal with a very dangerously sinful world. Not just a sinful world around us but a sinful world within us. Giving reign to that internal sinfulness is just as dangerous or perhaps more so than the dangerous sin around us. We are called first and foremost to be obedient to what God has called us to, regardless of whether this accomplishes the other social or political or cultural ends we would like it to.

Speak the truth but speak it in love. I’m increasingly skeptical of whether that’s possible through a megaphone or social media.

The Christian Life and Social Media

September 11, 2020

Yet another famous Christian is drawing criticism for posting pictures on social media that some deem inappropriate. This time it’s not Jerry Falwell, Jr., but rather actress Candace Cameron Bure. Bure achieved fame with the comedy television series Full House in the 90’s.

Bure, an outspoken Christian, drew criticism from some Christians for a photo she posted to her Instagram account. The photo is of her and her husband, his arm draped over around her shoulders and resting, well, resting considerably lower than her shoulders. Based on current standards of decency the photo isn’t terribly controversial. They’re both fully clothed and there are no other erotic or sexual aspects to the photo other than the location of his hand. Clearly it’s intended as a playful photo.

Critics point out the picture isn’t appropriate for social media and indiscriminate sharing by someone who is a Christian. One critic claims when determining what photos to post to social media, choose only photos depicting something you would do in front of Jesus. It’s an interesting guideline, if a theologically strange one. I understand where he’s coming from but I chafe at that way of expressing it. Marital intimacy does take place in front of God, though that’s not really something we tend to want to think too much about, or perhaps we should think more about?

I don’t think the issue is so much what would we do in front of Jesus (I suspect that will consist of basically worshiping him, a spectrum of possible photo options I suspect the critic himself would find too restrictive). The issue is really what do we share and with whom? The photo – while tacky – is not intended to be offensive or titillating (couldn’t resist). Shared with closer friends and family there might not be any offense or objection. But shared to a social media account followed by literally anyone, the photo does seem unnecessary to say the least and inappropriate at worst.

Why choose to share such a photo in the first place to the world? What is your goal? In this age of carefully curated social media pictures and comments it can’t really be argued you just weren’t thinking. Clearly you were thinking, the question is what were you thinking? What did you want to convey, and why? The issue of causing a brother (or sister) in the faith to stumble that Jesus teaches on in Matthew 18 applies here. And not knowing who is looking at it or why, it seems that regardless of what positive statements you want to make about playfulness in marriage are outweighed by the risk that someone could be led into sin or misunderstand your message.

Another critic points more accurately (in my opinion) to the inappropriateness of such a picture in public. Marital intimacy – playful or otherwise – is not something the world needs/should be privy to.

That being said, we have to acknowledge interpretations of what ‘too much shared intimacy’ means changes over time. Even the most conservative of Christians would probably agree that 1920’s women’s bathing suits are unnecessarily restrictive and overly modest, while women from the 1920’s would likely disagree. Movie studios once dictated that not even married couples could be depicted sleeping in or laying on the same bed together regardless of whether they were doing anything affectionate or not, and I doubt many Christians would feel such a limitation was still necessary today. While the Bible talks about chasteness as well as modesty, it doesn’t provide a lot of solid examples or directives about how this looks – perhaps knowing darn well (as only God can) that specifics will change over time.

And curiously enough, when it does provide specific directives, Christians are prone to ignoring them. Hmmm.

Bure has since pushed back against such criticism. Her defense is twofold. Firstly, it’s her and not a someone else. In other words, the picture could only be considered offensive or inappropriate if another person was touching her intimately. Since it’s her husband, no harm-no foul. Again, in a more private or selective sharing of the picture this might be very true. But in posting it to an openly public social media account, the concerns raised in Matthew 18 again should predominate.

Bure’s second objection to complaints is less about the social media posting and more a defense of playfulness and intimacy in marriage. Again, her point is true, but is this the best way to convey these things? Is it necessary for her to convey them in the first place, and why? After all, the assumption is that married couples enjoy their intimacy together. Is it necessary to demonstrate this in a publicly shared photo? Erring on the side of caution, I’d argue no.

How we communicate Biblical truths (the God-given beauty and joy of marital intimacy, for example) matters just as much as the truths themselves. Social media escalates this exponentially as you have no control over who is seeing what you post, the effect it may have on them, and so. And we should be open to the possibility that, while we thought what we were posting was OK, maybe it really wasn’t. Not because it was anything wrong per se, but simply because the Internet is a dangerous place to put much of anything.

What’s valuable is the opportunity for dialogue and discussion. I’d have preferred if her critics started out by asking why she posted the picture in the first place. That might help mitigate some of their concerns about it. And perhaps in such a conversation Bure might be led to rethink her own position as well. Unity, rather than bickering, might be demonstrated and achieved.

That takes a lot more work, but it’s what we’re called to as followers of Christ who are commanded to love God and to love our neighbor. Even on Instagram.

Pastors in Pandemics

September 9, 2020

The message came early in the evening during preparations for dinner. A member who had fallen and been hospitalized had slipped into unconsciousness. They were non-responsive and not expected to recover. They were coming home for hospice care, and would I come to pray with the family?

It was my first home visitation in six months.

I can’t describe how good it felt to spend time with a parishioner in their home. Preaching and teaching has been enough of a struggle these past six COVID months. But actually spending time with people where they live is another aspect of pastoral ministry I really miss. Not chit-chatty social calls but spending time in prayer during important moments, whether it’s after the birth of a child or near the end of someone’s life. To be where people live, to – COVID be damned – breathe their air, that’s when and where you learn the most about people. People may appreciate a sermon or enjoy a Bible study but when you’re with them one-on-one in their home, real connection can be made. Relationship is strengthened and deepened.

Pastor’s are uniquely privileged in this respect as we get to be with people in their homes without at least some of the angst caused by hosting a social visit. Few other professions meet with people in their homes (at least under good circumstances!). As a seminary professor once drilled it into our heads, it is part of a noble task. I try not to take my privilege lightly.

The home is the primary locale for life. I suspect American Christianity has missed a great opportunity in trying to position the church buildings or grounds as the most important space in people’s lives when it’s obviously their home. Sometimes ministry needs a different and larger space but ministry began in the home, whether it was Adam and Eve in the beginning or Jesus and his disciples having dinner with Mary and Martha and Lazarus. And unless the home is recognized as just as much the abode of God the Holy Spirit as the sanctuary, the sanctuary will eventually dwindle in significance.

I wish it was a happier occasion for this first visitation in six months. Then again, praying over (and with) someone who has lived a long and vibrant life and has a deep and abiding trust in Jesus as their Savior is a really good thing. To know that he’s now at peace, awaiting the final Day, the great reunion that won’t ever end, that’s not a bad thing. Not by a long shot. It’s an honor and a privilege to remind people of that even in their grief. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

Encouraging Community

September 7, 2020

She came in person to ask for help.

We chatted for a few minutes in the office. She was new to the area. She made a bad decision and purchased a car “as-is” from a private seller for $2000. Then she found out the car needed another $2000 in repairs. Perhaps our community could take up a collection to assist her. She had documentation she was enrolled in a city safe-parking program – she could sleep in her car in a designated lot somewhere in the city where she wouldn’t be hassled and would hopefully be safe. She was homeless, but not without resources and was open to assistance. She had applied for employment. Her area code was on the East Coast, but she declined to divulge where she was from.

I told her I’d make some calls and get back to her. I knew I wasn’t willing to try and come up with $2000 for her. But perhaps I could get her a free second opinion on the repairs, or perhaps a discounted rate on the repairs. I called a congregational member in his final year of law school to see if she might have any Lemon Law recourse in our state. I apprised my Elder of the situation to get his feedback. He thought the congregation could provide some limited assistance from a benevolence fund we have set up, but was skeptical of extensive help – and rightly so. When she called back later in the afternoon I didn’t have more information and told her I’d be in touch the next day. When asked, she was pretty confident the seller of the car wasn’t going to be of any help in defraying expenses.

The next day I had word back from the law student that her options were slim. When she called – very proactive! – I explained the situation.

I am asked for help on a somewhat regular basis. Sometimes it’s by phone. Sometimes they stop by the office. Sometimes they want $20 in gas or help with food. After nearly a decade of working in the recovery community here, I’m more aware of both the myriad issues that can drive people to ask for help as well as some of the local resources available to assist them. So rather than reaching for my wallet I often refer them to one of these resources. They invariable are uninterested. Usually that’s the end of the encounter.

But I’ve also taken up the practice of suggesting they join us for worship, that they meet our community. After all, I’m convinced that the underlying issue for many people in dire need is a lack of community. For whatever reason(s), they don’t have people around them who know them and care about them and can be of help. We can try to target mental health or housing or substance abuse or any number of presenting problems for homelessness, but without a community, any solution is going to be temporary at best.

So I invited her to worship with us on Sunday and said I’d talk with her then about how we could help. At the very least I’d be willing to purchase her a bus pass so she could get around if her vehicle proved unreliable. She thanked me and said she’d be there. She remained calm and didn’t argue or protest.

She actually came on Sunday.

Forty-five minutes early, but she was there. She was greeted by various people in the congregation as she sat enjoying the sun on the hottest day of the year. She listened to the musicians warming up. I walked her out and got her a bulletin and made an introduction or two. Just a few moments before worship started there was a knock on my door. In the hallway was my wife and this woman, both smiling and talking. The woman asked again for financial assistance. She had spent the previous night making a list of her most pressing needs. She had a line on someone willing to help her out with her car repairs, and the biggest need she identified was fees to have a background check run on her and to apply for work as a home health care assistant. I told her I’d cover those expenses the next day.

I assumed she was leaving before the service started, once she had a pledge of assistance. But to my pleasant surprise she stayed through half the service. I had committed to help her and I was going to do that whether she stayed or not. But her willingness to participate at least somewhat was very heartening.

However the next day was Labor Day and her potential employer was closed.

Tuesday she was in touch again and we coordinated to meet at a notary and then at the employment office. I paid her fees for her and she thanked me. I cleared it with my wife first – who agreed it was a good thing to do and had appreciated meeting the woman on Sunday morning. I notified my Elder of what I was doing.

I don’t know if we’ll see her again. I’m hoping we will. She indicated she had some sort of church background but didn’t elaborate or explain. But she read through our statement of faith regarding Holy Communion. And she engaged me on part of it she misread as saying we needed to be worthy to receive Holy Communion. I clarified it was a warning against receiving it unworthily – presuming our deserving of God’s grace or in denial of our sinfulness. She seemed satisfied by this. She left shortly after I started my sermon, but by that time she’d been there for nearly an hour and a half, so I can’t entirely blame her.

I think people were friendly and let her know she was welcome so I hope she’ll be back. I hope she’ll appreciate that she was responded to not simply in terms of a financial need but in terms of community and a place to belong and be safe. I know the odds of this all working out are slim. That doesn’t bother me in terms of money spent. It worries me for her and her future. Because what she needs ultimately isn’t just a job or a reliable car but people around her who love her. And more deeply than that, she needs a relationship with the God who created her and loves her more deeply than anyone else ever can or will. Maybe we can be a part of that story, her return to faith or nourishment in the faith or whatever it is. I can’t control that part of her story, I can only seek to be faithful and open to whatever part in her story our congregation can fulfill.

Times are hard all over right now. We can and should be open to the needs of others, even when we’re trying to socially distance and protect one another. One of the ways we do this is through hospitality. It’s a curious word that is difficult to work with in our American culture that, even before COVID-19 struggled with hyper-individualism and a heightened level of distrust and fear of anyone beyond immediate family members.

So hospitality is complicated for us. We like the idea but frequently because we define it improperly. A seminary professor teaching on 1 Timothy 3 once glossed over hospitality as being nice. A recent article in a denominational publication mentioned ordering food via GrubHub or tipping additional when picking up food during our COVID-19 pandemic as forms of hospitality. But being nice isn’t hospitality, although a host will be nice as they are being hospitable. And being generous is not being hospitable, though a good host almost by definition is a generous one. Hospitality involves a relationship established when an outsider is invited to become an insider. Into the home or family or community. And we struggle with that as American Christians.

Yet we’re called by God to be hospitable (Isaiah 58:7, Genesis 18, Romans 12:13, 1 Timothy 3:2, Hebrews 13:2, just to name a few) both by exhortation and command as well as by example. So being of help to people isn’t necessarily just a matter of writing a check or handing out some cash. That may be part of the equation as well, but we have the opportunity to establish a relationship that goes beyond giver and recipient, beyond excess and need, and instead that crosses the chasm between insider and outsider.

It doesn’t always work and hosts can’t force people to be guests, can’t force people to receive hospitality, and can’t force people to come in from the outside. But we can and should create that opportunity when and how the Holy Spirit prompts us. Because there’s more going on than a meal or repairs for a vehicle. God the Holy Spirit is at work seeking to draw all people back to the God the Father who created them and God the Son who redeemed them. The Holy Spirit’s care and concern goes beyond the immediate to the eternal, and beyond the physical to the totality of a person’s body and spirit. And the Church and the people of God are the place where the Holy Spirit’s work should be most prominent and eminent and palpable.

My decision to help this young woman financially was practicing generosity. But the invitation to her to join us and meet more of our folks and potentially find connections that would stick and begin to form a network of support, a community, a home – that’s part of hospitality. That’s part of trusting you are a piece of someone else’s puzzle in the hands of the Holy Spirit as He seeks to bring wholeness to a broken world. And miracle of miracles, in doing so, we find that those we open ourselves to are pieces in our own puzzle.

Reading Ramblings – September 13, 2020

September 6, 2020

Date: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 13, 2020

Texts: Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:1-12; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Context: It’s not fair. Two of the most powerful passages in Scripture scheduled for reading on the same day! Paul’s call to humility and brotherly love in the midst of disagreement in Romans 14 is a critical lesson too easily dismissed when we run into actual disagreement. Jesus’ picture of forgiveness but also the entire Christian life of holiness and sanctification as an outgrowth of what has already been received from our heavenly Father is both a beautiful description of the greatness of God’s grace as well as a powerful encouragement to take the Christian life seriously. I don’t know how to choose which direction to preach in this Sunday, but I’m grateful for two very compelling and challenging texts that strike at the practical, daily nature of our life in Christ.

Genesis 50:15-21I could never be so forgiving! I often hear people express sentiments like this when confronted with the hard reality of God’s Word played out in people’s lives. Would a better translation be something to the effect of I’d never want to be so forgiving! ? The Joseph story is wonderful to teach to little children but as we grow older and realize the depth of hurts we can experience, the beauty of Joseph’s forgiveness seems less enviable. His faith in God’s presence and purpose despite the malice of his brothers isn’t enviable – who among us would like to go through what Joseph has by the time his brothers ask his forgiveness? Who among us would receive their repentance as anything other than unabashed self-serving? Sure, they’re sorry now that Joseph could kill them! After all, they literally make up a story about Jacob requiring Joseph to forgive them! But ultimately forgiveness is not dependant on repentance or contrition. Forgiveness is the insistence to see the grace and love of God for every other person, no matter what they have done, and first and foremost because we know we have received God’s grace and love and forgiveness despite not deserving it and not being adequately contrite. We are quick to see ourselves as the injured Joseph, when we should more likely identify ourselves with the hateful and self-seeking brothers, and Joseph as representing God.

Psalm 103:1-12Forget not all his benefits (v.2). How easy it is to forget all his benefits when we’re in the midst of struggle or loss. How easy to forget his benefits the minute things get difficult or unpleasant! To forget not requires a conscious effort, an intentional focusing not just on the troubles at hand but the blessings before and during. Joseph sees not just his brothers who have hurt him but God’s preservation in all the years since, even when that preservation took place during years in jail. Seeing God’s benefits in that Joseph wasn’t murdered outright by his brothers initially, or by the traderrs who bought him from them, or by the Egyptians or Potiphar after the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife. Seeing God’s benefits in his interpretation of the Pharaoh’s dreams and subsequent rise from prisoner to second in command, saving the Egyptians and so many others from starvation during a seven-year drought, and now, with the opportunity to be and do what his own brothers weren’t and didn’t – a preserver, a protector, and a proper demonstration of brotherly love as well as obedience to a heavenly Father. A powerful passage indeed that provides another contextualization of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel reading.

Romans 14:1-12 – Paul’s words here can and should be linked to his last thought in the previous chapter, about not gratifying the desires of the flesh. And while we might more commonly think of fleshly desires as regarding issues like drunkenness and sexual immorality Paul mentions in 13:13, he also mentions quarreling in that same verse. We might easily be able to say we are not drunks or promiscuous, but the issue of quarrelsomeness and how we deal with it is likely to hit closer to home, particular in Christian congregations such as the one in Rome. It is this topic Paul sees fit to follow up on at more length – another telling sign this is more important than we might like to think. So Paul’s admonition in 14:1 not to quarrel over opinions. This has nothing to do with doctrine, per se, with the essentials of the faith, but rather the more personal way each follower of Jesus pursues sanctification and the holy life. Not simply on a personal level, but perhaps with an eye towards leading others in the community to emulate their preferences. We don’t know if Paul is aware of a specific situation dealing with vegetarianism or only uses it as an example. The key however is first discernment as to what is true and right, and then grace and love that does not seek to compel a brother or sister in a way not required (or prohibited) by Scripture. Proper doctrine or Biblical interpretation does not entitle me to compel someone else to change how they seek to serve God if it is not a matter of salvation. It isn’t that some ways aren’t more faithful or better than others – Paul acknowledges a weaker understanding or faith vs a stronger one in this passage, but neither the weaker or the stronger is entitled to manipulate the other. If it is not a matter of sin or salvation, we are to try and live at peace with one another even if we disagree. Unity is found not in identical ideas or behaviors but an insistence on not allowing our differences to divide us.

Matthew 18:21-35 – I find this parable of forgiveness to be one of the clearest and most powerful. The implications are clear – our treatment of others is not a matter of their worth or deservedness but purely and completely compelled by the love and grace and forgiveness we undeservedly receive in the death and resurrection of the Son of God on our behalf. God the Son takes on the penalty and cost of our sin to himself, personally. He pays it just as surely as the king in this parable absorbs the massive financial loss incurred by this evil servant. The servant’s refusal to act charitably with his fellow servant reveals the depths of his sinfulness, as sinfulness that keeps him from focusing on God’s grace to him. The point is not that he must forgive the debt of his fellow servant (though this is certainly not beyond the realm of interpretation), but rather his insistence on demanding his rights under the law rather than allowing his fellow servant to pay him back.

Many if not all Christians could do well to meditate daily on this passage in Matthew, reading it over and over again and thinking about the implications in their lives with the people they know. Combining it with the reading from Genesis further drives the point home. It is not that we are not hurt by others in this life, but the decision to be gracious and forgiving is a decision made for us when we acccept the grace and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ. It is apt for Jesus to teach in the Lord’s prayer that we ask God for daily forgiveness at the same time understanding and affirming that we are forgiving to others. The two go together. We should not marvel at this, nor should we object to it. Rather, we ought to celebrate the opportunity to give in small part what has been given to us on an immense scale!

Reading Ramblings – September 6, 2020

August 30, 2020

Date: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 6, 2020

Texts: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 32:1-7; Romans 13:1-10; Matthew 18:1-20

Context: Sin. One of the central realities of Biblical Christianity, the reality and severity of sin have been greatly obliterated by modern psychological theory. It is not uncommon to meet people with absolutely no concept of any moral guilt on their part towards other people, let alone towards a Creator God. Yet sin is fundamental to the Biblical Christian worldview and anthropology – our understanding of ourselves. If sin is not a fundamental, existential issue, there is no need for a savior, no eternal consequence to our thoughts, words and deeds. Certainly this is a convenient corollary to evolutionary theory, but it is completely foreign to a Biblical Christian understanding. Yet many churches are unwilling to address the real and pressing matter of personal moral guilt, afraid that in a culture which prizes self-esteem at all costs, it will drive people away. Whether it drives them away or not is, unfortunately, not the responsibility of the Church. The Church is responsible for declaring the reality of sin and the severity of it, both in temporal effects and eternal conclusions, as well as the divine remedy centered alone in the Incarnate person and work of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ.

Ezekiel 33:7-9 – The opening half of this chapter is God’s renewed call on Ezekiel to warn the people of God of the danger they stand in because of their lack of repentance. This call was first issued in Chapter 2 and further explained in Chapter 3. Ezekiel is in exile with the aristocratic remnant of Jerusalem in Babylon. Much of his 20-year span of prophecies has to do with warnings against the people who remain in Judah after capitulating to the Babylonian siege about 10 years before the final Judean revolt against Babylon and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem. Ezekiel continues to warn both the people in Judah as well as those already in exile of the continued dangers of unrepentant disobedience to the calls of God. God’s warnings are real and true. It is Ezekiel’s job to faithfully convey them. He is not responsible for the response (or lack thereof) of God’s people, but will be held responsible if he fails his calling to warn them. This is part of the continued work of the Church today – calling people to repentance and the assurance of forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

Psalm 32:1-7 – Where do we go with the guilt of sin? When we are convicted of guilt because of our thoughts, words or deeds, regardless of whether anyone else knows about it or not? How burdensome that weight can be, as we try to convince ourselves it’s no big deal, or that no sin was actually perpetrated! The conscience is a powerful thing, if an imprecise one at times. The reality of moral guilt also requires a means of relief from that guilt or we quickly become overwhelmed by it and unable to function. I’m sure modern psychologists would have a field day with the side effects described by David here, even if they refused to acknowledge the reality of a God before whom David is ultimately held morally accountable. Only from our Creator can true forgiveness and healing come. To pretend otherwise is foolish and dangerous. It is our joy to know our God does indeed provide healing and forgiveness. Hiding from him is only detrimental to ourselves and those around us. Honesty with God, repentance and faithful trust in his forgiveness through his Incarnate Son are the true and lasting source of healing and relief and joy that all other methods of meditation or positive-thinking can only aspire to.

Romans 13:1-10 – Had we remained in Eden, I doubt we would have need for government in the sense we know it. Adam and Eve enjoyed perfect union with and obedience to God the Father, so that there would be no need for any hierarchy or system of human administration. At least I like to think this. Even if there were, eventually, such a need, it would be perfect. However, we are not in Eden. Our connection both to God and one another is now broken and flawed even in our best intentions. Reason itself is marred. Government becomes a necessity, but also a flawed necessity. God in his goodness ordains that broken humanity organize itself and protect the vulnerable through systems of government. The Bible does not advocate one system over another, yet historically nearly every human governmental institution has at one level or another claimed for itself divine legitimacy. Some governments are better than others. Some officials are better than others. Christians are strongly warned against presuming to take government into their own hands, but rather to trust in God’s work. Good leaders exist for the good of their people. And while bad leaders certainly exist they will answer to God for their abuses, and Christians are not to assume it to be their job to rebel against power structures. We are, however, called to love. Everyone. At all times. Not just theoretically but tangibly as we have opportunity. And we are called to give thanks to God for providing means of protection through human governance. Serving God does not automatically exempt us from our responsibilities as citizens of a given political entity, even as we cling to God’s Law even should temporal law set itself up in opposition to God’s will.

Matthew 18:1-20 – How serious is sin? Far more serious than we are inclined to take it, most likely. Pervasive. Devastating. Dangerous to ourselves and to others. Jesus’ language here should leave no doubt as to the insidious nature of sin and our proclivity to turn a blind eye to it. Entering the kingdom of heaven consists of the simple awareness we cannot accomplish this on our own but, like little children, must be dependent on a loving God to give us what we could never procure on our own. It is God’s good intention to give generously, but sin interferes. Not just the innate sinfulness in each one of us, but the cruel reality that we are able to lead others into sin, endangering their eternal gift from God the Father by potentially directing them away from his love and grace and forgiveness.

All of this stems from the question posed by the disciples initially of who is greatest? We are prone to measure greatness by standards we create and control and therefore are to some degree achievable. But this is not greatness in the kingdom of heaven. There are standards there for us to manipulate, and the one who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven is none other than God himself, who continues to extend grace and mercy and forgiveness to even the least of these that we are likely to consider of little value and not worthy of such extravagant love and care.

Jesus reiterates the directive Matthew recorded in the previous chapter about the work of the Church in proclaiming the forgiveness of sins or announcing the danger of unforgiveness to the unrepentant. Here the words are linked to how matters of sin are to be handled among the people of God, where there should be at least nominal agreement on both the nature of sin and the need for repentance prior to forgiveness. So serious is the issue of sin that when it is discovered, it needs to be confronted and repentance called for. This should be done lovingly and privately, but if such means are not sufficient, things must be escalated. Always this is with the goal of bringing about true repentance – not simply acknowledgement of the sin but an earnestness to turn away from that sin. If someone who claims to be a follower of Christ will not respond to the clear teaching of God’s Word, then they are to be treated as one who has not yet learned of God and Christ. They are no longer participants of the members of the body of Christ but become those to be reached out to with the good news of grace and forgiveness made possible through repentance. Only in this way can the integrity of the Church be maintained and the seriousness of the situation communicated to the offending person, so they would repent and receive God’s forgiveness. The goal is the celebration appropriate when someone receives Jesus Christ and the promise of eternal life!

Reading Ramblings – August 30, 2020

August 23, 2020

Date: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 30, 2020

Texts: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Context: We are conditioned at an early age with the idea if we do things a certain way, we can reasonably expect certain outcomes. Study hard and you’ll get good grades. Work hard and you’ll be appreciated with greater opportunities and compensation. Follow a basic path towards a life that is stable and happy at home and at work. We’re in control. To some extent there is some truth and wisdom in this conditioning. But when we attempt to use similar reasoning in our relationship with God, we can quickly find ourselves on rocky ground. Does our good behavior or obedience mean God will protect us from disgrace or hardship or suffering? Does it ensure we are happy and healthy in body, mind and spirit and that our loved ones are similiarly protected? The great figures of the Bible lived their lives of faith through very trying and difficult times – should we assume we are different? If so, we run the risk of fulfilling Satan’s accusations about Job, that our faith is really only present because we’re comfortable and blessed.

Jeremiah 15:15-21 – Jeremiah’s task is not easy – proclaiming God’s judgment and displeasure and the results of that to the people of God in the city of God, Jerusalem. People who presume God’s protection could never be removed, that He would never allow his people to suffer catastrophe. But their assumptions certainly aren’t based on the history of their people. As the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for 40 years should demonstrate, God has never hesitated to chastise and discipline his people. Jeremiah’s message is not appreciated and he suffers because of it, and now cries out to God at the unfairness of it all. Why should Jeremiah be made to suffer when he is only being faithful and obedient to God’s calling (vs.15-18)? God’s response is not necessarily what we (or Jeremiah!) might like to hear! Jeremiah is chastised for complaining and called to repentance and obedience rather than self-pity (v.19). God has been, is, and will continue to be with Jeremiah. This does not mean Jeremiah will quit suffering, but it should mean Jeremiah can trust in God to defend him and sustain him in the midst of continued suffering and attempts to silence him. We too should trust in God’s presence even as we suffer from Coronavirus fears or political unpleasantries. We show ourselves to be people of God in our faithfulness and love during these challenges, rather than by presuming we are exempted from our obligations as God’s people just because things are hard.

Psalm 26 – We should admit this psalm is hard to read, initially. It makes us uncomfortable. It sounds as though the speaker is bragging, standing on his merits to demand certain things from God. We’ve read enough of St. Paul to know this would be inappropriate, Pharasaical, diminishing the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. But if we read the psalm more closely, we see the main issue as being one of relationship. The speaker gives examples that demonstrate the trust in his heart (v.1). This is the center – his absolute trust in God, and that this trust works itself out tangibly in his life by what he chooses to do (vs. 3, 6-7) and what he chooses to avoid (vs. 4-5). In this relationship not just of external piety but internal trust and devotion, the speaker rightfully looks to God as the source of their strength and hope. He is not trying to justify his pleas for help to God, but rather knows that because of his faithfulness and trust, God will not disappoint him. We too should have this trust. Our God will vindicate us no matter what happens to us. God has and will deliver us in Jesus Christ and we can be confident about this!

Romans 12:9-21 – Paul has transitioned from his exposition about the Jewish people to encouragements to the Romans to live lives fitting their faith in Jesus Christ. Verses 3-8 focused on what this looks like within the life of faith with fellow Christians, and now starting in v.9 Paul extends this to general behavior appropriate at all times and situations. Paul summarizes his section at the start – love is not just an idea or a concept, love is expressed tangibly or it is insincere. Love actively seeks good and avoids evil. Love insists on devotion to one another in all situations not just when things go the way we prefer them to. Love honors others rather than trying to tear them down to build ourselves up. Love serves the Lord zealously. And love focuses on the big picture even when things at the moment are difficult. Love is generous and inviting to others. Love extends beyond those we like and who like us to enemies and persecutors. Love is not conceited but loves people regardless of how society defines them or treats them. It is a high calling Paul outlines, one we are not capable of on our own or based on our emotional commitment, but rather we trust God the Holy Spirit to strengthen us towards this calling even when we are tired or don’t feel up to it. That way God receives the glory rather than ourselves!

Matthew 16:21-28 – Jesus knows what God the Father is calling him to do. He is committed to doing it despite the fact it is highly unpleasant. But Peter, like us, would like there to be an easier way. A simpler way, and perhaps even a way more personally fulfilling or materially rewarding. Peter encourages Jesus to realign his understanding of God’s will with the world’s way of looking at things. Being of the world this is only natural. We presume the world’s way of honoring and giving glory is the way God works as well. What glory or honor could there be to God if Jesus suffers and dies as a common criminal? Surely Jesus can’t mean to pursue a path so contrary to how the world does things!

But Jesus does intend to because that is God the Father’s will. This understanding led Jesus to resist Satan’s temptations in the wilderness earlier (Matthew 4:1-11), but certainly Peter’s words remain tempting. Jesus truly is human and the idea of a humiliating and excruciating death are terrifying! So Jesus’ strong words here are roughly equivalent to his rejection of Satan’s more direct temptations in Chapter 4.

Jesus knows what God the Father wants and trusts God the Father to see him through it. This is the same faithfulness and trust God calls Jeremiah to in the Old Testament reading, and the same faith and trust the psalmist leans on. It is the same faith and trust you and are called to, and we don’t have a problem with this when things are going well – when we’re healthy and before Coronavirus appeared and when politics and economics are going our way. But when things are not going our way, we’re prone to wanting to take control and force things the way we think they should be. We’re prone to complain to God rather than giving him thanks and praise. We’re prone to lamenting our obedience rather than trusting in God even when things are not working out the way we desired.

We are called to take God’s Word that his love for us truly is real, even if it doesn’t look and feel the way the world decides love should look and feel. Jesus’ trust and obedience in this situation led to his victory over sin and Satan and death, to our freedom and eternal life. We can and should trust God can work even in the difficult places and times in our life to his glory and the benefit not just of ourselves but those around us as well.