God…how about…NOW!

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S (Scripture): Matthew 17:24 When Jesus and the disciples came to Capernaum, the people who collected the half-shekel temple tax came to Peter and said, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”

25 “Yes,” he said.

But when they came into the house, Jesus spoke to Peter first.“What do you think, Simon? From whom do earthly kings collect taxes, from their children or from strangers?”

26 “From strangers,” he said.

Jesus said to him, “Then the children don’t have to pay. 27 But just so we don’t offend them, go to the lake, throw out a fishing line and hook, and take the first fish you catch. When you open its mouth, you will find a shekel coin. Take it and pay the tax for both of us.”

O (Observation): The idea is confusing: a temple tax…but for the king. Some confusion remains over whether this was indeed a temple tax or a national tax.

In either case, we can extrapolate that Jesus’ belief over whether or not to pay the tax differs slightly from his action. He drills Peter about the taxes, and Peter answers rightly, they don’t need to pay the tax. And yet, for the sake of peace, Jesus pays the tax. But he does this in the most extraordinary way: the payment appears in the mouth of a fish that Peter catches.

The point is made: Jesus and the people of God need not pay the tax, but they will at this time…and God will provide for it.

A (Application): Sometimes we go along with things until the time is right. Sometimes we bite our tongues…vehemently disagreeing…and yet going through the motions…biding our time.

I hope you find the right time to take action for what concerns you. Our youth of this nation are about to take action regarding gun violence. Our women are marching towards justice. Our hopes find ways of becoming actions.

I’m listening to a podcast today by RadioLab, called “More Perfect.” This podcast discusses Supreme Court cases, telling the stories behind the cases, drawing you into the narratives surrounding the cases.

This episode – “American Pendulum II” (found here) – tells the story of the case regarding Dred Scott (a slave from the 1830’s) and The Tawney Family (who owned Dred Scott as a slave) coming together, 3 and 4 generations later! In this gathering of descendants is forgiveness and reconciliation. Powerful stuff.

They had to bide their time and like money showing up in the fish’s mouth, God provided this coming together of descendants that they may be reconciled to one another.

Where do you need forgiveness and reconciliation? How is God providing for you in the meantime?

P (Prayer): Lord, you being us hope in the midst of challenge and despair. Provide for us as you provided for Peter and Jesus in today’s Gospel text. Amen.

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Promises, Promises…

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S (Scripture): Matthew 17:1 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. 2 He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.

3 Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

5 While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” 6 Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.

7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.”

O (Observation): The Transfiguration is a powerful story revealing God’s manifestation amongst the people: as the Law, the Prophets, and now, through Jesus. This ongoing story of God’s inbreaking into this world is put on display for Peter, James, and John. They see God clearly though the Law and Prophets, and in Jesus’ words and actions.

A (Application): I recently had a conversation with a Muslim acquaintance, in which he asked: “Do you see the Old Testament as important?” What a great question!

“Yes!” I told him. In fact, without the Old Testament, we might not understand the person of Jesus nearly so well.

The covenants God has made with Israel are fulfilled in the person of Jesus. The first promise (or covenant) is made from God to Abraham – a promise of many descendants and great rulers.

Then, the Law is set forth, with help from Moses. Later, God promises that God will build a house out of King David. And God promises to write the Law on the hearts of all of God’s followers (Jeremiah 31). Eventually, as all hope seems lost – the covenants almost forgotten – Jesus springs forth, of the line of Abraham, David, Jeremiah…down to Mary and Joseph.

Had I been more on my game when talking to my Muslim friend, I might have lifted up this passage (of the Transfiguration) as a great indicator of the succession of covenants and how important the Old Testament is as a witness to the sustaining power of God’s Spirit through the ages…to stick with us despite our failings as God’s people…to experience grace and forgiveness, unending.

And all of who God is shapes us! If my God is that forgiving, now I will embody forgiveness towards others. Instead of faith being a transaction or a belief in God, my faith is to be lived out is as if Jesus is alive in me. So, believing in Jesus is then a way of life, a way of seeing, a way of interacting, a way of hearing.

God has moved through the ancestors of the Old Testament, in the person of Jesus, and continues to live in me and all of creation, through the movement of the Spirit.

P (Prayer): Lord, grant us wisdom to witness the ongoing work of the Spirit in our world, in our very lives. Amen.

What is the Way of the Cross?

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S (Scripture): Matthew 16: 21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and that he had to be killed and raised on the third day. 22 Then Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him: “God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.” 23 But he turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 25 All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them. 26 Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives? 27 For the Human One is about to come with the majesty of his Father with his angels. And then he will repay each one for what that person has done. 28 I assure you that some standing here won’t die before they see the Human One coming in his kingdom.”

O (Observation): Following Jesus most certainly means difficulty and challenge. Peter will have none of that. Poor Peter…bless his little heart. He’s just trying to hold on to the thing that everyone wants to hold on to: God’s Son, in the flesh!

Peter wanted so much for Jesus to NOT suffer…or be killed…and yet, that is precisely the path for Jesus.

Only the way of suffering and death could lead to resurrection and new life!

Jesus is trying also to lift his disciples out of the dualistic view of the world: from “life OR death” to “death leading into new life.” Both go hand in hand, in God’s care. Death does not hold back what God can and will do in spite of death. New life is God’s way, even in the midst of tragedy.

A (Application): We have got so many things we want to hold on to in our world. Our money, our status, our stuff…our guns?

Sigh….

This “death leading into new life” stuff (which I firmly believe) is hard to face when thinking about school shootings and the abuse of guns in our country.

So, I won’t pull us down that road, other than to say this: I hope voices arise from the din of silence that envelopes a community when tragedy strikes; there is new life. I hope civil conversations occur everywhere regarding appropriate use of guns; there is new life. I hope potential terrorists are loved and cared for, so they don’t turn to drastic measures of death and gun abuse; there is new life.

Where will new life occur? In you? In someone who has experienced tragedy? In policy changes? In love shared with neighbor?

Seek God’s direction today…and don’t be surprised if that path leads to you letting go of something…so that something new can spring forth.

P (Prayer): Lord, you take up our suffering and our shame and turn us towards bringing new life and hope into your world. Be with all the families of the students who died in Parkland, FL, last week as they lay their sons and daughters to rest. Amen.

Guns. Sustenance. God.

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S (Scripture): Matthew 15:32 Now Jesus called his disciples and said, “I feel sorry for the crowd because they have been with me for three days and have nothing to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry for fear they won’t have enough strength to travel.”

33 His disciples replied, “Where are we going to get enough food in this wilderness to satisfy such a big crowd?”

34 Jesus said, “How much bread do you have?”

They responded, “Seven loaves and a few fish.”

35 He told the crowd to sit on the ground. 36 He took the seven loaves of bread and the fish. After he gave thanks, he broke them into pieces and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 37 Everyone ate until they were full. The disciples collected seven baskets full of leftovers. 38 Four thousand men ate, plus women and children.

O (Observation): This is the feeding of the 4,000. The feeding of the 5,000 came just a few verses earlier. The two feeding stories are very similar, calling forth an image of abundance in the midst of scarcity. The story is also about Jesus providing for those who have very little in their current circumstances. Because of his compassion, Jesus wishes for the crowd to be sustained.

And from their midst, they bring forth loaves and fish…just a few. But Jesus blesses their meager resources and makes it enough for all to eat…with 7 baskets leftover.

A (Application): Another mass shooting…in a school. Anger. Frustration. Sadness. Emptiness. Scarcity. Fragile.

Living in the Pit of despair. I couldn’t imagine speaking for the families of the dead and wounded. But as for me, I wallow in doubt and fear. I am empty. I have no words to share that would bring comfort or solace.

Yes, Jesus reigns, but what does that sound like to the parent of a child gunned down in a supposedly safe place? What does this moment mean for them?

From a distance, I can lean on this scripture today…that Jesus will take the meager resources at our disposal, will bless them, and will make sure that all who need sustenance will be sustained.

This sustenance may come as grief counselors, law enforcement officers, nurses, doctors, funeral home staff, friends, family, faith leaders, school teachers and administrators. While the shadow weighs heavy, may God stir up those around the dead and wounded, in order to provide sustenance for the days and weeks ahead.

P (Prayer): Lord, we seek your presence in our troubles times. Amen.

Like Bouncers Checking ID’s

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S (Scripture): Matthew 15:21 From there, Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.” 23 But he didn’t respond to her at all.

His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.”

24 Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.”

25 But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.”

26 He replied, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.”

27 She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.”

28 Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed.

O (Observation): A line is drawn. On one side, a Canaanite woman, who’s daughter is possessed by a demon; on the other side, Jesus’ disciples. “Have mercy!” she says. “Get rid of her!” says the disciples.

And in the middle, straddling that line – eventually totally obliterating that line – stands Jesus.

Like a bunch of bouncers checking ID’s, the disciples wonder why Jesus is even giving this foreigner the time of day.

James Boyce (Emiritus Professor of New Testament and Greek at Luther Smeinary, St. Paul, MN) shares the following in his commentary on this text, via WorkingPreacher.org:

Jesus’ parable raises questions about the understanding of where the boundaries of God’s mercies are to be located. Traditional ways of locating what is unclean or outside are called into question as Jesus calls for a new understanding and a new heart as the origin and center of God’s ways among us.

A (Application): We gathered yesterday, at noon and 7pm yesterday for Ash Wednesday worship services at Advent Lutheran Church. We gathered to contemplate our own mortality and mourned the loss of 17 high school students in Parkland, FL. We wondered, considering our own mortality, how to wrestle with this difficult situation.

We have questions. We are saddened. Where is God’s mercy in this situation? Where is the boundary marker here? Perhaps some of those affected by this mass shooting will bear out God’s mercy and grace. Perhaps a witness will rise up amongst the chaos and transform tragedy into hope.

Perhaps someone will move into a new circle of thought and divided peoples will come together in some way. That is the hope of this sorry from Matthew, after all.

This story of the Canaanite woman’s remarkable faith in an unexpected place serves as a reminder to me about the hope of moving outside of our normal circles.

When we are scared of moving outside of the normal circles, I wonder why that is? Are we afraid of wasting mercy and love?

Against all opposition, this woman stands her ground. Her faith is not shaken by the disciples and their lack of grace.

In my ministry, I have been surprised by reversals in my own thought and the thoughts of those around me, from a more narrow to a much wider understanding of God’s grace. I am awakening more and more to the wideness of God’s mercy.

As I move more and more into “outsider” circles, I see many who are faithful to God and / or to their neighbors. Out of compassion, these so-called outsiders show extreme care and faith, and seem to know very deeply what mercy is all about. I see God in them and I see mercy through their actions. I see people coming together to laugh, to mourn, to consider one another.

Yet I have many days when I am joining the chorus of the disciples, pushing out the needs of those struck by difficulty. I can be cruel, if I’m honest. If not verbally, maybe in my own mind.

And so, seeing both sides of this story, I stand in awe of Jesus’ words and actions. Jesus is the one who surprises us, who is the embodiment of God’s mercy and love and judgment.

Jesus allows us to speak and share, but always guides us in the moments after our speaking. Jesus brings us to God’s mercy as the key to our ministry.

May those affected by tragedy in Parkland, FL, know that sense of mercy this day. May God’s mercy be with them. May we see beyond our normal circles, and widen them to include all.

P (Prayer): Lord, we seek your mercy and love. Our broken hearts are yours. Amen.

Lead Me Beside Still Waters

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S (Scripture): Psalm 23

1 The Lord is my shepherd.
I lack nothing.
2 He lets me rest in grassy meadows;
he leads me to restful waters;
3 he keeps me alive.
He guides me in proper paths
for the sake of his good name.
4 Even when I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—
they protect me.
5 You set a table for me
right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil;
my cup is so full it spills over!
6 Yes, goodness and faithful love
will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the Lord’s house
as long as I live.

O (Observation): This famous psalm is a psalm of assurance for those in dire circumstances. This faithful witness provides hope to all who are facing difficulties.

This psalm is full of wonderful images that contrast the challenges facing the person described in the psalm.

A dark valley full of danger, with God protecting with rod and staff. Enemies ready for battle, but a table – a sign of comfort and fellowship – where opposing forces will come together in peace. And instead of death and peril chasing the psalmist down, goodness and mercy (faithful love) will pursue.

Comfort and mercy in challenging times.

A (Application): With this psalm as our guide, we are given assurances (and reassurances) that God does not leave us orphaned or alone.

Six years ago, I was installed as pastor of the congregation I am now serving. A little over 6 years here and a little over 4 years in a prior call. Over 10 years of experience…and I’ve had my ups and downs – valleys and mountaintops – in both places.

On March 31, I will have been married 17 years…and yes, ups and downs, to be sure.

Kids…our oldest will be 15 on Feb 23. Our middle just turned 12. Our youngest is 5. Ups and downs? You betcha!

But through it all…through multiple moves (living in many states and in many places over the last two decades)…through debt and financial struggles…through ups and downs…God is with us.

God has been with us, even when confronted with enemies or challenges beyond our control. God has been with us, giving us images of sustenance, leading us beside still waters and making us whole, when we have felt broken.

Sometimes it looked like family, friends, or strangers entering our lives and making us feel whole. Too many stories to share here. But please see this as my witness to the joy God has brought to my life – so that I might share that joy with others. And i hope God might use me to be the sustenance for others around me – for friends, family, and even strangers.

P (Prayer): God, create a wholeness in me. Help me to be a part of your mission to bring healing and wholeness to others around me. Amen.

Homeostasis – the Force is Strong With This One

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S (Scripture): Matthew 13:53 When Jesus finished these parables, he departed. 54 When he came to his hometown, he taught the people in their synagogue. They were surprised and said, “Where did he get this wisdom? Where did he get the power to work miracles? 55 Isn’t he the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother named Mary? Aren’t James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas his brothers? 56 And his sisters, aren’t they here with us? Where did this man get all this?” 57 They were repulsed by him and fell into sin.

But Jesus said to them, “Prophets are honored everywhere except in their own hometowns and in their own households.” 58 He was unable to do many miracles there because of their disbelief.

O (Observation): Wow! Stubborn disbelief. So much so that Jesus was unable to do many miracles there. Yikes!

That’s pretty powerful stuff, right there.

And Jesus kind of recognizes that they will not likely believe in him, precisely because they knew him before his baptism and ministry began.

They say, “We knew him when…”. And because of this, they can’t see the possibility that Jesus is the Son of God. His parents are Mary and Joseph, right? Don’t we know his sisters and brothers? What makes Jesus so special?

A (Application): Ever tried to disagree with someone at a family reunion? Ever tried to buck a trend in your place of business? Ever tried to steer away from a family tradition?

Talk about difficult! “This is how we do things.” “This is the way we’ve always done it.” Phrases like this are either spoken or unspoken, but implicit in the language and the reactions of the people around you. Even if the reaction is subconscious. Heck, I’ve been guilty of this, too! I’ve given a visceral reaction when a change is suggested. It happens to all of us…

I’ve had times where I agreed with the proposed change or agreed with a dissenting opinion, but my body language or a look on my face defied that suggestion. It’s a little thing we call homeostasis – a force exists that pulls us back to the way things are. And that force is strong!

(The term “homeostasis” is usually used in discussions of biology, and we need homeostasis in some things…like a level body temperature and such…but in terms of behavior, homeostasis can be a stumbling block.)

So…Jesus faces this force of “oh, that’s just Mary and Joseph’s son. He’s not the Son of God. Surely he can’t perform miracles.” And with that kind of attitude, a stubbornness borne out of doubt…and sure enough, Jesus can’t perform the miracles…or maybe they just blinded themselves to this possibility of these miracles.

This is a good warning for me. To be vigilant for times when God is on the move in the systems of which I am a part. A church goer, a family member, a co-worker who makes a suggestion to keep things as-is or change things to something new…maybe we can move away from the knee jerk reaction and focus on what God is saying to us in that moment. We can do that in our own minds or share with one another this tension that is rising. Name the thing that is in the room causing tension. And being brave enough to speak out. You never know who else may be thinking the same thought as you. But if no one speaks up, an opportunity may be lost.

Speak out. Let your concern or idea be heard. Let God guide the conversation.

P (Prayer): Lord, pull us beyond the force of homeostasis to be able to listen and appreciate all voices in the room…of the raw and uneducated, of the wise and sophisticated. Amen.