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.

A Cry from the Depths

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S (Scripture): Psalm 130

1

I cry out to you from the depths, Lord—

my Lord, listen to my voice!

    Let your ears pay close attention to my request for mercy!

If you kept track of sins, Lord—

    my Lord, who would stand a chance?

But forgiveness is with you—

    that’s why you are honored.

I hope, Lord.

My whole being hopes,

    and I wait for God’s promise.

My whole being waits for my Lord—

    more than the night watch waits for morning;

    yes, more than the night watch waits for morning!

Israel, wait for the Lord!

    Because faithful love is with the Lord;

    because great redemption is with our God!

He is the one who will redeem Israel

    from all its sin.

O (Observation): The psalmist knows the depths of despair. Sin and worry have weighed down this heavy heart.

No temple in which to worship.

Sins piling up with no chance to seek forgiveness.

Does God even hear our cry? Yes?

If so, why would God listen? We have sinned. We have fallen away and are not worthy of forgiveness.

And yet…

And yet, because God is faithful, we shall be forgiven.

Let Israel yearn for the coming of the Lord, for in God, we have hope.

A (Application): I can’t begin to tell you how tumultuous and joyous my life has been since becoming an Assistant to the Bishop of the Southeastern Synod of the ELCA.

I have enjoyed many trips, many events, many trainings. I have met people, started new friendships, and re-kindled former relationships.

I do not despair the job. I love the work.

I struggle, instead, with my own doubts around forgiving myself. I am my own worst critic.

When I do not allow God’s forgiveness – held most securely for me in my baptism – to wash over me, my family suffers, my work suffers, I suffer.

And yet…

And yet, God promises to always be with me…to surround me with people to remind me that I am forgiven and that I am called to the work I do….to remind me that I am baptized and, therefore, am always linked to God.

I’m glad I sat down this morning to this devotional time. I needed it. Thanks, God.

Maybe you needed this, too? If so, I hope you are blessed by this.

P (Prayer): Gracious God, help me to forgive myself. Amen.

Responding to the Call

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S (Scripture): Hebrews 5:4 No one takes this honor for themselves but takes it only when they are called by God, just like Aaron.

5 In the same way Christ also didn’t promote himself to become high priest. Instead, it was the one who said to him,

You are my Son.

        Today I have become your Father

O (Observation): The call to serve the people of God comes from God…even for Jesus. Aaron served God’s people by communicating with God and bringing the people’s joys and concerns to God. Also, for the sake of order, priests throughout the ages have spoken to God on behalf of God’s people. They offer contrite hearts to God.

Eventually, we have seen God’s desire more clearly. We no longer need sacrifices – Jesus made sure of that. God never needed sacrifices, just a people willing to admit their brokenness.

A (Application): Instead of sacrifices, we bring our collective broken heart to God. And priests help us to do that.

Who are our priests? These are people of God who sense that called has called them to carry these broken hearts and help them to connect to God. These people who are called by God to be priests are also acknowledged and accepted by the surrounding community. In other words, that call is both internal (sensed by the individual) and external (verified by the God-follower community).

In the Evangelical Lutheran Church In America, that process of discernment is aided by what we call the “Candidacy Process.” If you are sensing that your baptismal call is leading you into service of the Church, check out our resources on the ELCA website.

And if you do sense God’s call, let me know…I’d love to help you process that a bit.

Here’s my number: 615-617-9697.

P (Prayer): Lord, in our baptism, you call us. Help us to respond to your call. Amen.

Playing Politics

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S (Scripture): 1 Corinthians 1:10 Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose. 11 My brothers and sisters, Chloe’s people gave me some information about you, that you’re fighting with each other. 12 What I mean is this: that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in Paul’s name? 14 Thank God that I didn’t baptize any of you, except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that nobody can say that you were baptized in my name! 16 Oh, I baptized the house of Stephanas too. Otherwise, I don’t know if I baptized anyone else. 17 Christ didn’t send me to baptize but to preach the good news. And Christ didn’t send me to preach the good news with clever words so that Christ’s cross won’t be emptied of its meaning.

O (Observation): Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians) is all about how to help the different factions of the followers of Christ to get along and to be of the “same mind and same purpose.”

They tend to identify with the one who baptized each of them: Apollos, Paul, Cephas, etc.”. Yet the one doing the baptizing is NOT the focus. Paul reminds them of this. Paul reminds them that in Christ we are baptized. And that is enough. No one else need be identified in baptism.

A (Application): Everything is political. I’m not just talking about parties or independents… I’m talking about “lowercase ‘p’ politics.”

We all struggle with three main desires: Identity (Who am I?), Belonging (Where do I fit in?), and Purpose (Why do I matter?).

Unfortunately, we want to “play politics” and to shape these desires by pointing people to ourselves. We want to define who people are (by what they don’t have). We want to define where they belong (by telling them you don’t want to be “one of those”). We want to define someone’s purpose (by what they can do for “me”).

This is exactly backwards. And Paul knows it.

Paul wants them all to be identified as being “in Christ”.

Who am I? You are God’s child.

Where do I belong? You belong to God, in the body of Christ.

Why do I matter? God will do great things through you, just like Jesus taught the apostles.

Do you believe this?

P (Prayer): Gracious God, define our identity, belonging, and purpose. Thank you. Amen.

Living Sacrifices

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S (Scripture): Romans 12:1 So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. 2 Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.

O (Observation): Whether one subscribed to giving sacrifices to God – or not – one is now called upon to give one’s own life as a sacrifice…a LIVING sacrifice. Every action taken is to give thanks to God. Just like a sacrifice would be used.

This changes what we do. Our minds – transformed through renewal (God’s doing?) – affect our actions. It’s a repeat of “repent and believe.” That phrase starts with God’s people having their minds renewed, which leads to living into a new belief: that God’s people are one in Christ Jesus.

A (Application): How many of us love as if we are living sacrifices? Are we a pleasing gift to the Lord? I have my days and moments when I can say boldly and confidently, “Yes!” Equally, I can find days and moments when I hide in shame.

We all do. We have these moments where God’s Spirit shines brightly through us, and then we don’t.

So, we live lives seeking to be healed and to seek forgiveness from one another. This reminds us of our humility. Out of our humility, we come to God, broken and weak. And we are renewed as we remember the waters of baptism flowing over us…as we remember that we are part of something bigger (the body of Christ).

May we see that our lives are not our own, but God’s gift to the world. May we live into these roles of living sacrifices, for the sake of the world.

P (Prayer): Lord, protect us and heals and make us whole. Amen.

A Slave to Righteousness

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S (Scripture): Romans 7:5 When we were self-centered, the sinful passions aroused through the Law were at work in all the parts of our body, so that we bore fruit for death. 6 But now we have been released from the Law. We have died with respect to the thing that controlled us, so that we can be slaves in the new life under the Spirit, not in the old life under the written Law.

O (Observation): Paul is still riffing about about the Law. Is one under the Law if also under Christ? No! How is this? The Law is for the living. In Christ, especially in baptism, we die and are re-born. Thus, we are released from the Law, and at the same time, are now slaves to righteousness, under the Spirit.

The Spirit’s calling compels us to respond…not just an obligation to pass or fail…but as an opening for doing God’s ministry.

A (Application): I see us constantly using the new Spirit in us as a new Law. We set up markers to see who is “really” doing God’s work. We measure public appearances, an abundance or a lack of social media presence, or popularity to decide who is being “faithful.”

The time that I spend in personal devotion and prayer helps me to remember that God is with me day in and day out, regardless of the standards I mentioned above. When I get away from this practice, I get out of focus.

The time I spend “digging daily” is a way of “mining for God’s presence.” I do this practice with several other folks. Something life-giving comes from doing this work with others. Is this devotion a new Law? Absolutely not! The practice of digging into God’s word daily is a great way to see the Spirit alive and well in my life and all around me…especially in troublesome times.

P (Prayer): Lord, sustain me in my journey as a space to righteousness. Amen.

The Use of Sacraments / Ritual

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S (Scripture): Romans 4

7 

Happy are those whose actions outside the Law are forgiven,

        and whose sins are covered.

Happy are those whose sin isn’t counted against them by the Lord.

9 Is this state of happiness only for the circumcised or is it also for those who aren’t circumcised? We say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 So how was it credited? When he was circumcised, or when he wasn’t circumcised? In fact, it was credited while he still wasn’t circumcised, not after he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that comes from the faith he had while he still wasn’t circumcised. It happened this way so that Abraham could be the ancestor of all those people who aren’t circumcised, who have faith in God, and so are counted as righteous. 12 He could also be the ancestor of those circumcised people, who aren’t only circumcised but who also walk in the path of faith, like our ancestor Abraham did while he wasn’t circumcised.

O (Observation): Paul dissects the point at which their spiritual father (Abraham) became righteous. Was it before or after he was circumcised.

Yes, Paul is still ranting about circumcision. Why? This issue was just the most prominent of MANY issues that divided Christians that were formerly Jewish from those Christians who had no Jewish background.

Paul points out that Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him as righteousness BEFORE he became circumcised. In this way those who are circumcised AND those who are not have Abraham as their spiritual ancestor.

In making this point, Paul makes something else even more clear: our external responses (like circumcision) do not dictate whether or not a person can have faith in God.

Persons of faith need not throw away customs, nor do they have to adopt them, in order to respond in faith to God’s grace given to all people who wish to receive that grace.

A (Application): As Christians, we have certain external markers that declare grace to us: namely, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. I’m big fans of both. HUGE fans of both : )

These “means of grace” (as we call them in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) remind us of God’s gracious Spirit being poured out into our very beings. This Spirit joins us to the body of Christ, and gives us grace and forgiveness to live out our lives in hope.

These means of grace, however, remain external signs. Sort of like what circumcision meant for Abraham. Not exactly, but close.

Baptism remains our way of joining to Christ’s body. In baptism we are marked with the promised Holy Spirit. I wonder, though, what the non-Christian journeys through when they look at the Church? Are we using Baptism as a means of pushing others away? Or are we inviting them to consider – first – becoming a part of our community. Then, after a time of deliberation, continue to encourage these persons to consider being baptized…to show that on a particular day and time, in a faith community willing to love and support one another, that the Spirit has joined them to the body of Christ.

Personally, I see everything to gain in Baptism and Holy Communion. The old self being washed away for the new life in Christ to come forth. Yet our journeys are not all the same.

More can be said regarding Communion, but I digress.

Let us not use the Means of Grace as a means to divide us into classes (the Baptized OVER the non-Baptized; those who attend worship or commune weekly OVER those who attend worship and commune once or twice per month). Let us, instead, focus on the joy that comes from these means of grace, such that those who do not yet know of these gifts might be inspired by the Spirit to receive them gratefully. And if not, that we not disparage them, but instead, meet them where they are in their faith journey.

P (Prayer): Lord, give us grace, that we might share it bountifully with others. Amen.