What is the “norm”?

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S (Scripture): Luke 1 [Mary proclaims]:

49b

“Holy is his name.

50 

    He shows mercy to everyone,

        from one generation to the next,

        who honors him as God.

51 

He has shown strength with his arm.

    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.

52 

    He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones

        and lifted up the lowly.

53 

He has filled the hungry with good things

    and sent the rich away empty-handed.

54 

He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,

        remembering his mercy,

55 

    just as he promised to our ancestors,

        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

O (Observation): Mary proclaims what God has already accomplished, but in a way that points to the fact that God will continue to act in this way – to bring down the haughty, and to lift the lowly.

Mary says these things, even as she is living into her own understanding of what God has done / is doing / will do. She speaks like God has already won a great victory, and continues to win – even despite our failings to create a distance between strong and weak, rich and poor.

A (Application): God has a tendency to reverse what we have done. We lift up class, race, socio-economic status as indicators of the victors and losers.

White. Male. Heterosexual. Many consider this the norm. Someone in these categories doesn’t think of race, gender or sexual orientation as categories. Rather, these are considered the norm. When NOT in these categories, we consider anything else a deviation from the norm.

That offends people in “my category,” for that is a part of who I am: white, male, heterosexual. This country was founded mostly by folks in this category. Also, those who founded this country came from areas where domination and submission of the “other” was considered a show of strength and success. No wonder we continued down this road as a nation, beginning with the domination and submission of American Indians, as well as building much of this country on the backs of black and brown enslaved people.

What does God consider good or right? I’m not sure. But we do know how God acts: brings down the haughty, raises up the lowly.

These are the words of hope for me today. I am the haughty, the proud, the powerful. I am becoming one who is being lowered, that I might know better how to walk alongside my siblings of color. My status is becoming less a concern, so that I can walk hand in hand with others this society still considers less.

God afflicts the comfortable, and comforts the afflicted. Thank you, God, for this.

P (Prayer): Gracious God, remind me and all who struggle with power and control: we are all made precious in your sight. Amen.

Your Gifts: Will They Help or Hinder?

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S (Scripture): Luke 1:30 The angel said [to Mary], “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”

O (Observation): Mary is stunned, perplexed, unaware of why this strange, angelic visitor has come to visit. This is indeed a kairos – a holy moment in which God is speaking to Mary. This visit reveals a promise made by God to Mary and to all of humanity.

This promise brings hope. This promise reminds God’s people that God continues to make good on God’s promises. That even in the midst of uncertainty, God is present.

And yet, Mary must wait a little longer. It will be years before she has real evidence of the promise of this child’s saving grace.

For now, she accepts the Lord’s promise. She accepts this child. And she will be blessed. Yet in the end, she will see her Son’s death. She doesn’t know that now. Even if she knew of his death, she would not be able to completely perceive another promise that would come after that: the Holy Spirit.

Surprise. Consternation. Hope. Grief. Promise.

Mary’s life. Our life.

A (Application): What gives us hope this day? We have seen protests, riots, deaths of black people by white officers, confederate monuments ordered or simply torn down, a virus that silently kills and spreads…

We are a people poised for a word of hope. What happens when our hope lies with our military, our President, our own strength as individuals or a nation? We find a solution, perhaps, but only a temporary one.

Our money, our power, our strength.

These can be used for good. Yet our brokenness causes us to use these gifts of money, power and strength for our own use.

What would happen if we shared those God-given gifts? I wonder what would happen if people used those gifts for others?

We might see cures for our illnesses. We might see healing between neighbors. We might see strength in the face of natural disaster responses. I have seen these myself – I know healing is possible.

We have a lot of hope left. We have Jesus Christ, our saving grace and the giver of the Holy Spirit, by his death.

We have the Spirit to guide us into conversations that will help us to see from one another’s perspectives. To use our gifts to build us up, rather than help us to tear one another down.

We have so much hope. Let us use it for good. For the sake of the other.

P (Prayer): Gracious God, give us pause this day to consider how we will use our gifts. To help or to hinder? Amen.

Following Where Called

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S (Scripture): Mark 12: [The Pharisees asked Jesus]: “Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay taxes or not?”

15 Since Jesus recognized the Pharisees’ deceit, he said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a coin. Show it to me.” 16 And they brought one. He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

17 Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” His reply left them overcome with wonder.

O (Observation): Allegiance. Can the religious authorities paint Jesus into a corner? Would Jesus defy governing authorities and tell God-followers NOT to pay taxes? Or would Jesus side with the government, telling God’s people to align with the government?

Well, how about both?

The Pharisees wanted Jesus to admit to breaking either the religious Law or the government law. If Jesus says it is NOT in line with the Law (The Torah), and tells people not to pay government taxes, then Jesus stands in contempt of the ruling authority, and could be imprisoned. If Jesus says it is NOT against the Law, then he looks like he is condoning the leadership and authority of Caesar over and above allegiance to God!

Jesus doesn’t fall for it. Jesus recognizes that God’s people live in a broken world. Jesus recognizes that the worldly realm is sometimes subject to governing authorities. Those governing authorities – though imperfect – can be followed to an extent. These authorities may rule over money or position in the world, but what does God oversee? What is God’s realm?

God’s realm includes all of this that Jesus has spoken of, and more. And so, God’s people are called to give all that is God’s back to God. That includes life itself.

A (Application): Jesus is not asking us to align with God or the government authorities. Jesus seems to be asking us to give all of who we are to God (emotions, finances, physical being, soul, etc.). That part in this worldly realm (home, finances, possessions, etc.) that are given to the government does not make one disloyal to God.

In my estimation, we give our lives – as Christians – to our God. All that we say and do is to give glory to God. Treating our possessions as if we earned them, but also as if we can freely give them to those in need, is somewhat getting to the point. Yes, earned them, but yes, they belong to God.

I most often attempt this understanding by giving a tithe to the church and paying my quarterly estimated taxes to the government. I want the water department to come and quickly repair a leak in a burst pipe that caused water to spurt out from beneath the driveway near the sidewalk at my house. I love newly paved roads. I like having a government in place. I also like supporting God’s work through the Church.

Yet the government and authorities will not be my only guidance. I will seek truth and justice and peace, and give my allegiance to God. Sometimes that will be in line with the government, and sometimes not.

I will diligently and prayerfully give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. That takes prayers and discernment. I will look to my wife and friends and those I trust to help me discern. I’m sure the Spirit will have something to say in the midst of all of that.

P (Prayer): Gracious God, give me a discerning spirit to follow as you call me and those around me to comply when for the good of all and to confront when any of us is oppressed. Amen.

Take My Life, That I May Be…

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S (Scripture): Mark 10:25 [Jesus said to his disciples] “It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”

26 They were shocked even more and said to each other, “Then who can be saved?”

27 Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible for God.”

28 Peter said to him, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you.”

29 Jesus said, “I assure you that anyone who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, or farms because of me and because of the good news 30 will receive one hundred times as much now in this life—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and farms (with harassment)—and in the coming age, eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first.”

O (Observation): A man had just come up to Jesus to ask about inheriting eternal life. Jesus told the man that keeping the commandments was great, but that he lacked one thing: sell all your goods and give to the poor. The man went away saddened. He had many possessions.

Jesus lets the disciples know that possessions have a way of infecting one’s priorities. To let these go, in favor of allowing God to supply our needs.

Herein lies the crux: what we need, God provides.

When they give up possessions, they will actually gain. Maybe their names won’t be on the deed or the registration form, but the disciples will have access to the homes and food of others. And much more importantly, one will gain relationships of many shapes and forms, such that they will lack for nothing emotionally.

A (Application): Jesus turns to the disciples to teach them of the challenges of riches. We become slaves to our possessions. We become possessed by our possessions. When we have much to lose (in terms of possessions) we feel threatened when those might be taken away.

This feeling makes us rulers of our own worlds. We have to dominate. We have to be right. We have to smartly plan our entire lives, for we are in control.

We see letting go of things as weakness; Jesus sees letting go as a strength.

We think the one with the most toys wins; Jesus says the one who gives up the most has the most to gain (again, not gained as in “owned,” but a sharing and a building of relationships comes forth).

The more we let go, the less we have to worry about losing. The more we leave behind, the more (stuff, relationship, faith) becomes available to us. The more we let go of control, the more we can fully rely on God.

P (Prayer): Jesus, take my life that I may be consecrated, Lord, for thee. Amen.

Click here for a YouTube video of the hymn “Take My Life, That I May Be.”

Innovation after Information and Imitation

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S (Scripture): Mark 6:7 He called for the Twelve and sent them out in pairs. He gave them authority over unclean spirits. 8 He instructed them to take nothing for the journey except a walking stick—no bread, no bags, and no money in their belts.

O (Observation): Jesus begins to move his disciples from observers to actors in this movement. They have followed Jesus. They have witnessed his powerful deeds. Now, they are to act. Not of their own accord. They act with the authority of Jesus.

A (Application): How many of you were experts in what you did on day 1? None of us! We all have a learning curve. We all start somewhere.

First, we need information. We need to know the possibilities of what exists.

Second, we need someone to imitate. At this point, Jesus has been giving his disciples something to imitate: exorcising demons, healing, preaching, and more.

Who in your life taught you – through knowledge and imitation? Who “showed you the ropes”? For me, it was my parents and coaches.

Having been involved with sports for much of my life, and part of that in coaching baseball, football, and softball, I know that you give young kids knowledge and skill training. That all leads to the final step: INNOVATION!

We always want to jump right to innovation. Go out there and do it! Catch that pass. Dig in and stop that grounder. Hit that ball over the fence.

Not always easy. But when you tell them how to do it. And you SHOW them how to do it. That’s when you see the players start to soar – start to innovate! That’s when you see a player start to come into their own.

Information. Imitation. Innovation.

Jesus uses this pattern to tell, show, and empower his disciples. He very particularly gives them authority. Maybe akin to a coach pumping up their players and telling them: “you can do this!”

I’m seeing a lot of innovation out there these days. We have all heard and seen how to do ministry. Now, we are all learning how to do this online or in person in ways that are creative and loving (following all due safety measures, of course).

It’s almost as if God’s people have collectivity heard Jesus say: “Go. I give you authority to creatively make ministry happen. To share my love with the world. To honor and love one another. You can do this!”

Folks, you are doing it. You are making ministry happen in innovative ways. Keep it up. And when this pandemic is over…think about how to move forward in ways that help s to be the church in the world.

P (Prayer): Lord, we give you thanks for your witness. We will follow and be witnesses for others. Amen.

God Works During this Sabath

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S (Scripture): Mark 3:1 Jesus returned to the synagogue. A man with a withered hand was there. 2 Wanting to bring charges against Jesus, they were watching Jesus closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. 3 He said to the man with the withered hand, “Step up where people can see you.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they said nothing. 5 Looking around at them with anger, deeply grieved at their unyielding hearts, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he did, and his hand was made healthy. 6 At that, the Pharisees got together with the supporters of Herod to plan how to destroy Jesus.

O (Observation): By this time Jesus’ notoriety was building. He was healing people – and according to the church officials – without God’s or the church’s authority.

Jesus – extremely frustrated – asks the man with the withered hand to come up, front and center. Then Jesus puts the church leaders on the spot: “on this precious Sabbath…shall we do good or evil? Bring life or death?”

In other words, should we let this man suffer, still? When we know he could be healed?

Jesus doesn’t disrespect the Sabbath. He just wonders if the rules the church leaders have created for the Sabbath now promote their own agenda, rather allow the Sabbath to be a day for new life and renewal.

A (Application): How strange a time in which to be living. This is Easter Monday. Yesterday, we celebrated the Resurrection of our Lord (albeit online).

The 5 of us in my family (me, wife, our 3 children) had baskets of candy, watched a few worship opportunities online. Had a nice meal. Zoomed with 3 of our family groups.

It was the oddest Easter for us. It was the first time in over 12 years I did not rise early for a sunrise Easter service. I did not notice the small of eggs and sausages and bacon being cooked at church, like in my last call, where they made a huge Easter breakfast.

And as I sit this morning, I wonder about the point of worship and the gathering of God’s people.

Is this really a moment for me to feel the joy of the risen Lord? Don’t get me wrong, I am hopeful. I am not a pessimist. And I know this will all pass.

I guess I just mourn the loss of community this day.

I think of this quarantine time as a Sabbath, perhaps. A time for renewal and rest from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. And perhaps this time can better prepare me and my family to see that God can bring new life, even (and especially) while we are in this Sabbath time.

How is God stirring you this day? I sense my own frustration, but perhaps God can work all of this towards the good, eventually. Maybe God is doing the work in me/us already, but maybe I/we can’t see it yet.

I am not saying God brought this on us…just like I don’t think God made the man’s hand withered. I guess I’m saying that in the Sabbath, God can still work things for the good.

P (Prayer): Lord God, create in me a heart that is open to your will being done, in spite of this virus that keeps us apart from loved ones and strangers alike. Amen.

Our God Who Confounds Us

S (Scripture): (2 Scriptures today)

Psalm 48

12

Walk around Zion;

    go all the way around it;

    count its towers.

13 

Examine its defenses closely;

    tour its fortifications

    so that you may tell future generations:

14 

“This is God,

    our God, forever and always!

    He is the one who will lead us

    even to the very end.”

Mark 2 (Jesus Heals and Forgives the Paralytic Man)

1 After a few days, Jesus went back to Capernaum, and people heard that he was at home. 2 So many gathered that there was no longer space, not even near the door. Jesus was speaking the word to them.

O (Observation): The people of God at the time of the psalms point to God as one who overwhelms us through awe and majesty and glory. And this God will lead us to the end.

Jesus, early in the Gospel of Mark, is about to forgive and heal a man born paralyzed. This brings awe and majesty to God, but in a very different way. This does not reduce God’s majesty, but rather augments the way in which God acts: through forgiveness and healing.

What do God’s people see? Powerful acts of God come through the majestic city of Zion and now, through Jesus in a defiant act of forgiveness and healing – defiant, for it was not the accepted way.

A (Application): Good Friday is upon us. I see two stark images from these texts. In the psalm, God’s city is majestic and holy. Where Jesus is on the cross, the city has been overrun by politics and an earthly emperor. In the Mark text, a crowd gathers for the awe that Jesus brings, and now, so few gather around Jesus on the cross – only his dedicated followers are with him – plenty of room.

And yet these starkly contrasting images blend together in a beautiful tapestry.

Bold, majestic, beautiful Zion. This is our God.

Emptied, suffering, dying. This is our God.

Both for our sake. Both to point to the true nature of our God – mighty, meek, gentle, healing, sacrificing.

This is Good Friday.

May we be blessed.

May the emptiness fill us this day.

P (Prayer): Gracious God, empty us of selfish desires and full us with your love. Amen.

To the Earth’s Guardians on Maundy Thursday

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S (Scripture): Psalm 47

God is king over the nations.

    God sits on his holy throne.

The leaders of all people are gathered

    with the people of Abraham’s God

    because the earth’s guardians belong to God;

        God is exalted beyond all.

O (Observation): The people of God assume that all people will eventually praise God. All will praise God for God is sovereign Christ over all the earth. Not a dictator, but a benevolent ruler, seeking the good for all people.

The people may not all be unified in belief or allegiance, but they will all recognize God in some form or fashion, because all belong to God.

A (Application): It’s been a minute folks. I have not posted in over a month, I think. I am happy that Holy Week is my venture back into this possibility of promise and praise of our God.

I am weary, as most of us are these days.

I celebrated my 19th anniversary with my lovely wife, while we are locked down at home. I stay busy working from home, equipping our ELCA congregations in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. I teach my children when they get stuck with schoolwork, and I try to not annoy my wife too much : )

We are all weary. This week, today, in fact, we remember Jesus gives a true example of what it means to be a servant-leader. A servant-leader will get down on a knee and do something as lowly as wash feet. Will give fully of their self, even to the point of pouring one’s self out completely. This is Maundy Thursday.

This example is why people will flock to our God, why all the earth’s guardians will bend their knees. Not out of compulsion or force. Rather, the earth’s guardians flock to our God, for our God is a just and benevolent God, who – in the form of Jesus – first bent the knee to serve us.

Blessed Maundy Thursday, folks. Be well.

P (Prayer): Lord God, you first served us. Help us now to use that example to serve others. Amen.

Let the Gospel Do its Thing

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S (Scripture): Matthew 22:35 One of the Pharisees, a legal expert, tested Jesus. 36 “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. 40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

O (Observation): Jesus emphasizes Old Testament scriptures that point out the call to love God and neighbor. The Pharisees – legal experts in the law – placed later upon layer of teachings and regulations concerning how to keep the law. Once that is decided, one could figure out how to use those laws to decipher who is “in” and who is “out.

Jesus comes along and turns that whole system on its ear.

And just to refresh their memories of the Law from God (and not just the laws and interpretations of laws of the Pharisees), Jesus pulls out Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The Gospel was always there. They just piled their own junk on top of it, obscuring the Gospel from shining forth.

A (Application): How can we keep the main thing the main thing? How do we keep from covering up the Gospel?

Quite often in our own desire to be clear about faith and belief, we tell folks what they need to believe. As ELCA Lutherans we share in a Creed and basic beliefs around the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Those are powerful symbols (pointers) for Christ.

As we share these symbols, who do we let in to that circle? Does it behoove us to expand that circle? Do we cheapen God’s grace when ask folks to come into those circles? Do we teach and preach about the symbols first before we let them in?

I leave these questions here today for you to struggle with. I have opinions, but I’m looking for the collective thought process, and just my own understanding.

May you keep in prayer all of those who are fearful this day from the potential of the coronavirus spreading and for those recovering in Middle Tennessee.

If you want some guidance on resources for worship, or how to respond to the tornado relief effort, please visit the ELCA-Southeastern Synod website (ELCA-ses.org).

P (Prayer): Lord, helps us to see beneath the stuff we place on top of the Gospel. What is helpful for teaching the Gospel, help us to embrace. Help us to find the cure for the coronavirus, that all may be made well. Also, we give thanks for the thousands of volunteers and dollars being dedicated to tornado relief in middle TN. Amen.

Middle Tennessee Tornado & Hope

S (Scripture): Exodus 12:1 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, 2 “This month will be the first month; it will be the first month of the year for you. 3 Tell the whole Israelite community…

O (Observation): Notice where I cut off the text? I didn’t even get to what God was instructing the people to prepare for and to do. Why? To highlight the importance of this: God establishes commands and ritual for God’s people…for the sake of the world.

God was about to establish the Passover, a ritual that would be a way to establish a remembrance of God’s activity in the world.

As God’s people enacted this ritual, they were given hope for a new day. They were given a way forward when all hope was lost. This newly established ritual would encourage God’s people to always remember that day!

God would lead God’s people into freedom. And all would know that God makes good on God’s promises to be with those who need God the most.

A (Application): In the wake of the Middle Tennessee Tornadoes on Tuesday, March 3, at 12:45am est, we started to hear of the devastation – including the deaths of 25 people – across areas of Middle Tennessee, including Nashville, Mt. Juliet, and Cookeville (and the surrounding Putnam County area).

Talk about a need for folks to see hope.

My prayer is that as the people rally around to support those in need, they see the face of God in one another.

I know we will see ritual as a way to be reminded that God is with us, even in the wake of this natural disaster.

The people of Middle Tennessee will be supported and we will carry one another through the pain and suffering, with an eye towards the future. A hope that will envelope us. A hope that will guide us into a day. A hope that will bring us together.

And maybe one day, through ritual, through worship, we might look back on these days ahead, and see God’s hands and feet at work through all of those who will volunteer and donate funds to the recovery efforts forthcoming.

May you be at peace, people of Middle Tennessee. We will grieve with you. We will walk with you. We will mark these days as holy moments in the midst of devastation.

And we will see the face of God in one another.

P (Prayer): Lord, give us the strength we need to come together, to bear one another’s burdens, to share hope. Amen.

St. John’s Lutheran Church, Nashville (before and after)