We Pray: God Provide!

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S (Scripture): Genesis 22:6 Abraham took the wood for the entirely burned offering and laid it on his son Isaac. He took the fire and the knife in his hand, and the two of them walked on together. 7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father?”

Abraham said, “I’m here, my son.”

Isaac said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the entirely burned offering?”

8 Abraham said, “The lamb for the entirely burned offering? God will see to it, my son.” The two of them walked on together.

9 They arrived at the place God had described to him. Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son Isaac and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice. 11 But the Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham from heaven, “Abraham? Abraham?”

Abraham said, “I’m here.”

12 The messenger said, “Don’t stretch out your hand against the young man, and don’t do anything to him. I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.” 13 Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the dense underbrush. Abraham went over, took the ram, and offered it as an entirely burned offering instead of his son. 14 Abraham named that place “the Lord sees.” That is the reason people today say, “On this mountain the Lord is seen.”

O (Observation): A very interesting story, indeed. Some look at this story and are appalled at such a disturbing set of circumstances. Some see this story as supporting child sacrifice (which cannot be further from the truth). Some see this story as the beginning of support for animal sacrifice.

Abraham has done almost everything God has asked, to this point. Abraham has been willing to follow God, but took one interesting part into his own hands (fathering a son, Ishmael, with his servant, Hagar). God called Abraham. God does not control Abraham.

So, God sets out for one final test…and does not fail Abraham. Isaac is bound (“akedah” in Hebrew). Bound, Isaac is about to be sacrificed to God. Abraham has been faithful, knowing all along that in some way, God will provide. Will God being Isaac back from the dead? What will happen?

God provides. God provides a ram, caught in the thicket. Abraham is faithful, even to the point of giving full dependence upon God. Even giving up the son that he loves dearly…the son promised by God.

A (Application): The father / son language is reiterated over and over again. You see very clearly the connection and relationship and wonder where the Good News is in this story.

As Abraham knows, God provides. In my study on this text, I came across the following, and leave it here for your reading, in hopes that you can see the Good News in such a text….the Good News that foreshadows Jesus the Christ:

The story of the akedah makes a claim on us: All that we have, even our own lives and those of the ones most dear to us, belong ultimately to God, who gave them to us in the first place. The story of the akedah assures us that God will provide, that God will be present. And, of course, as generations of Christian interpreters have seen, it foreshadows the story that forms the foundation of Christian faith – the story of the death and resurrection of the beloved son,5 son of Abraham, son of David, Son of God.

– Kathryn M. S Hoffner decker, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2138

P (Prayer): Lord, you always provide for us. Help us to see your provisions around us. Amen.

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From Head to Heart

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S (Scripture): Matthew 7:28 When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were amazed at his teaching 29 because he was teaching them like someone with authority and not like their legal experts.

O (Observation): Jesus finishes up the Sermon on the Mount. The crowd reacts to Jesus’ message (beginning in Matthew 5). The impact of this message on the people is this:

“He was teaching them like someone with authority and not like their legal experts.”

Jesus speaks in a way that he is not just parroting what God desires. Instead, Jesus fully embodies God’s will and message as he speaks to the crowd.

A (Application): So often, Christians will parrot and repeat messages. This is a good first step in faith formation. One must know the basics of the faith.

Many Lutherans I know that are 50+ years of age recall that Confirmation consisted of much memorization. Some had to memorize the entire Small Catechism, some had to remember parts of it. Or Scripture.

What they are supposed to do with that memorization was up to them.

The move from the head to the heart is the most difficult distance to travel. That is what Jesus has done. He has moved our faith toward its original intent: a law and a Spirit that dwells in our hearts. This is why Jesus seemed to teach with authority, because the Law and Spirit reside in his heart.

As I help our young people prepare for a life in the Christian faith, we focus less on memorization and more on learning how to embody the faith and how to discern what the Spirit is saying. We talk about where we have seen God in our lesson, or in our lives. We share that “kairos” moment and ask one another to give their feedback into the other’s kairos. We discern, together, what God is saying for that person and what God would have that person do. The individual takes the lead, but the surrounding community gives feedback to help the individual decide what God is saying.

Jesus taught with authority, because he and God are one and because Jesus knows the Law in his heart. May we know such union with God that we might speak with gracious and humble authority in our own lives…that we might help others to know our peace and our desire to seek peace and justice throughout the earth.

P (Prayer): God, move our faith from our heads to our hearts. Amen.

Coldest Nights

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S (Scripture): Psalm 12:1 Help, Lord, because the godly are all gone;
the faithful have completely disappeared
from the human race!
2 Everyone tells lies to everyone else;
they talk with slick speech and divided hearts.
3 Let the Lord cut off all slick-talking lips
and every tongue that brags and brags,
4 that says, “We’re unbeatable with our tongues!
Who could get the best of us with lips like ours?”

5 But the Lord says,
“Because the poor are oppressed,
because of the groans of the needy,
I’m now standing up.
I will provide the help they are gasping for.”

6 The Lord’s promises are pure,
like silver that’s been refined in an oven,
purified seven times over!
7 You, Lord, will keep us,
protecting us from this generation forever.
8 The wicked roam all over the place,
while depravity is praised by human beings.

O (Observation): The psalmist speaks from a place of despair once again. Yet hope remains because God makes a promise to feed and support the oppressed. And God’s promises are “tried and true.”

But what does a fulfilled promise from God look like? Is it something that appears out of thin air? Are God’s promises fulfilled through people? Perhaps it is both!

A (Application): Some people say that prayer works in this way: “Pray that hungry are fed. Then, go out and feed the hungry.” We can Pray and pray and pray…and maybe, by some miracle, God will answer that prayer. God has done this for many (as we see in Scripture). God can certainly work in this way.

And yet, I can’t help but feel called to step into action, because I have been given a willing spirit – at times a broken spirit, but a willing spirit, nonetheless. A spirit willing to serve those in need (and to learn from those seeking help). A spirit willing to speak up about injustices and encourage others to work towards justice. A spirit willing to encourage conversation and to even get in the public square to right wrongs and to feed and clothe those in need.

But in all of this, I know that God is who calls me to action. And as I look around our community of Murfreesboro, I see Christians, atheists, Muslims, B’ahi, agnostics…All coming together to serve one another…to walk with one another. And I am encouraged. The wicked will not win out. God calls all people from all walks of life to serve and encourage one another.

Today, my wife and I continue that work, by making some mashed potatoes for the local homeless women’s freeze shelter (opens when temps dip below freezing). Murfreesboro Cold Patrol facilitates these shelters through what it calls Coldest Nights program. They work with local law enforcement and volunteers who seek out some of the homeless to come in off the streets for a meal and a warm place to stay. Day shelters assist during the day time, but for tonight…in a cold and snowy Murfreesboro (with temps below ZERO), we work together to feed and house folks. Perhaps tonight, we will save a life. Or better yet, God might further open my eyes to become even more concerned and involved in getting to know more about these fine folks who have no place to lay their head at night.

P (Prayer): Lord, give me strength and a willing spirit. Amen.

Click here to learn more about the Murfreesboro Cold Patrol and the Coldest Nights shelter.

Seek-Knock-Ask-Find

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S (Scripture): Matthew 7:7 “Ask, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door is opened. 9 Who among you will give your children a stone when they ask for bread? 10 Or give them a snake when they ask for fish? 11 If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him. 12 Therefore, you should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets.

O (Observation): Jesus continues to teach his disciples about the Way. This Way is what God has been about since the beginning of Creation. Treat others as you would want them to treat you.

Seek. Knock. Ask. Find.

The door is open to all who ask.

This is the Way, even as the Law and Prophets testify. God gives food to all who seek. God does not give out harmful judgment.

A (Application): Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that one must go through a survey, a set of doctrinal beliefs, or be “clear” of any social stigmas before one can receive the grace they seek.

And even if those who seek God come with stigmas or behaviors that are harmful, the hope is that God would move them to repentance (um, yes, that includes every single person ever). Upon repentance, one’s life is changed. But ALL of that work of transformation, to die to yourself and selfishness, and to be raised in Christ is the work of the Spirit. And the best way to help all people to get to this point…to get close enough to hear God’s words of grace, is to be a place (a congregation) that truly welcomes and affirms ALL people. (Oh yeah…that repentance is a daily thing. No “one and done.”)

Some say that because our congregation has this open and welcoming and affirming stance that we “really aren’t a church.” This stance comes not because we just want people to “feel good” about themselves. RATHER, BECAUSE we have a God who loves us right where we are, because The Spirit calls us to seek out God, we purposefully welcome all people to come and be a part of life in our congregation, and we hope they will welcome us into their lives. That we may be one, just as God and Jesus are one.

Straight or gay, trans- or not, questioning, people of color, white people, old, young, male, female, faith, no faith, atheist….all are welcome to be a part of Advent Lutheran Church. So says our Statement of Welcome. Because our God takes us all in. Because we are all broken. Because none of us “has it all together.” Because we all have a plank in our own eye. Because we have a loving God who acts like a good parent to us all.

Yes, you are welcome. God seeks a relationship with you. Seek. Knock. Ask. Find what you are looking for.

P (Prayer): God, break down our hearts of stone. Give us hearts for love alone. Amen.

P.s. I am very proud that our congregation has hosted the first ever PFLAG- Murfreesboro meeting last night. (PFLAG stands for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. This is a safe space for folks to have conversation, ask questions, and mutually support one another.)

Liberty and Justice for All

Martin Luther King Jr speaks at a 1961 Luther League rally. Click here for photo credit and to hear the audio of his address to this group.

S (Scripture): Psalm 10:17 Lord, you listen to the desires of those who suffer.
You steady their hearts;
you listen closely to them,
18 to establish justice
for the orphan and the oppressed,
so that people of the land
will never again be terrified.

O (Observation): Many of the Psalms are examples of God’s people crying out for help as foreign powers overtook Israel, God’s people overtaken and oppressed. Many of the psalms are examples of God’s people showing full dependence on God to help them through their current predicament, in order to be brought to safety. God’s people seek justice. God’s people seek to be made whole again.

A (Application): How appropriate for a text like this to come up on a day when we recognize a national leader who sought justice for all people, especially for equal rights for African-Americans in our nation.

A lot of people think we are a post-racial society. That we are beyond racism. That many folks fought for equal rights for blacks and that all is well now. Yet that is simply not the case.

Bryan Stevenson – author and lawyer – has spent years seeking justice for black men and women wrongly accused of crimes. He shared that truth and reconciliation are the two components necessary to bring about healing and health. Stevenson says that in America we have sought reconciliation without truth. That is an empty reconciliation.

As in the psalm for today, we seek out God to establish justice for the orphaned and the oppressed. Martin Luther King Jr, Bryan Stevenson, and so many others call upon their fellow Americans to seek out justice for all people. Without knowing the truth of our ugly history, how can we truly reconcile?

Here is some homework for you…some things for you to look up:

  • The 14 Words
  • Black Wall Street
  • National Lynching Memorial

This research you are about to do is part of the truth-telling that is needed to seek true reconciliation with those we have hurt in our own backyard.

Whether anecdotal or systemic, many truths must be reconciled for us to come together in harmony.

So take that first step. If you’re the praying type, pray. Then take the time to research these items I listed above. Then, get involved with MLK activities today. Learn more today. Participate in conversations (or host a conversation) on race relations. Find someone with whom you disagree (but love dearly) and try to figure this out together.

Whatever you do will be worthwhile. This endeavor will bring joy and frustration, hope and helplessness…my hope is that this process will break you down, but build you back up with a sense of purpose to seek liberty and justice for all.

P (Prayer): Lord, you guide us in the way of truth and justice. Don’t fail us now. Amen.

Adultery

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S (Scripture): Matthew 5:27 [Jesus said:] “You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery. 28 But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. 29 And if your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body go into hell.

O (Observation): Jesus has been re-shaping and re-defining communal boundaries of those who follow God. Jesus is expanding their understanding of what it means to be a follower of God…and what it means to be blessed. Being blessed in God looks upside-down according to the world.

Also, Jesus is re-shaping their understandings of (2 of) The 10 Commandments: Jesus is showing that the commandments are more than just rules to be kept, but rather, a spirit to be embraced.

A (Application): Highpoint Church. Google it. Then come back here.

Jesus mentions not committing adultery. Ok, not committing the act of adultery is the main idea. But Jesus says even lusting after someone is harmful. In other words, the worth and value of the one being lusted after should be kept whole and undefiled, in deed and in spirit. The one committing the act of adultery is to be repentant (and not shaming the victim, or even worse, trying go from being the perpetrator to being the victim).

Perhaps Jesus is getting at another point here, too: just because you proclaim to be free of committing adultery in deed, you may very well be guilty in spirit.

This guilt hopefully leads to the truth coming out and the perpetrator seeking forgiveness and ultimately, justice being done. With Jesus’ understanding, the default would be that we all – in some fashion – have sinned in terms of adultery and that we – not the victim – are most in need of healing.

P (Prayer): Lord, bring us hope and make us accountable to you and other honorable people in this world. Amen.

A Journey of Trust

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S (Scripture): Genesis 12:1 The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.

3 I will bless those who bless you,
those who curse you I will curse;
all the families of the earth
will be blessed because of you.”

4 Abram left just as the Lord told him, and Lot went with him. Now Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran. 5 Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all of their possessions, and those who became members of their household in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan.

O (Observation): What a brave, bold, trusting act of Abram! And even more so, what a great opportunity God gives to Abram and Sarai!

What do we know of Abram? Not much. Sarai? Again, not much. Only that they were descended of Noah’s line (since Noah’s descendants had to re-populate the WHOLE earth…hmmm). Anyway…

Abram and Sarai leave what is known and what is secure to enter something new and different…with God promising to guide them the whole way.

A (Application): I wonder what Abram and Sarai mentioned of this promise to their household? I wonder what the children thought? What the 2nd cousin twice removed thought? What the grandparents thought? (“We’ll never hear from them again!”)

God speaks to us…but can we hear God? When God calls, a response is appropriate. Sometimes the response is to NOT go. Sometimes the response is to act. Sometimes the response is to remain silent. We have no set type of response. The response is discerned. And that discernment is best done within the trusted community to which one belongs.

I have felt called over the last several years to take steps towards equal justice for various groups. As a white male, I feel not guilt, but a responsibility to make sure those on the margins are heard and respected. In doing so, I leave my own “Ur,” as Abram and Sarai did long ago. As Abram and Sarai, I, too, trust that God goes with me.

One such venture into justice occurs tomorrow, January 11, 2018, with the congregation I serve: Advent Lutheran Church, Murfreesboro, TN (Http://TheAdventChurch.com). We will host the Rev. Ron Bonner as he leads a presentation and conversation on race relations. The workshop details are in the graphic below:

If you’re a Murfreesboro person…come on out!

P (Prayer): Lord, we don’t know where the journey will end, just that you will be with us. Thank you for calling and leading us. Amen.