Grace Through Ritual

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S (Scripture): Today, two of the lessons I read come together nicely to make one point: following God’s call supersedes even the most sacred of rituals.

1 Samuel 15:19 (Samuel said to Saul…) “Why didn’t you obey the Lord? You did evil in the Lord’s eyes when you tore into the plunder!”

20 “But I did obey the Lord!” Saul protested to Samuel. “I went on the mission the Lord sent me on. I captured Agag the Amalekite king, and I put the Amalekites under the ban. 21 Yes, the troops took sheep and cattle from the plunder—the very best items placed under the ban—but in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”

22 Then Samuel replied,

“Does the Lord want entirely burned offerings and sacrifices

as much as obedience to the Lord?

Listen to this: obeying is better than sacrificing,

paying attention is better than fat from rams,

23

because rebellion is as bad as the sin of divination;

arrogance is like the evil of idolatry.

Because you have rejected what the Lord said,

he has rejected you as king.”

————-

John 2:13 It was nearly time for the Jewish Passover, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 He found in the temple those who were selling cattle, sheep, and doves, as well as those involved in exchanging currency sitting there. 15 He made a whip from ropes and chased them all out of the temple, including the cattle and the sheep. He scattered the coins and overturned the tables of those who exchanged currency. 16 He said to the dove sellers, “Get these things out of here! Don’t make my Father’s house a place of business.” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written, Passion for your house consumes me.[a]

18 Then the Jewish leaders asked him, “By what authority are you doing these things? What miraculous sign will you show us?”

19 Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.”

20 The Jewish leaders replied, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” 21 But the temple Jesus was talking about was his body.

O (Observation): In the Gospel of John, Jesus turns water into wine…but not just any water. Jesus takes the water used for ceremonial cleansing and turns THAT water into wine. Jesus points out that those jars of water will not be necessary for cleansing anymore.

And on the heals of that story, we get today’s text of Jesus overturning tables and cleansing the Temple. And Jesus promising that the Temple will be torn down and raised in 3 days. Why? The whole sacred system is about to be turned upside down, right along with those tables Jesus flipped.

Now, in Jesus, the world has its path towards forgiveness and love for God and neighbor. Rituals don’t rule – God does.

Saul, trying to honor God with animal sacrifices, moves away from the Lord’s calling. The Lord calls on Saul to destroy the Amalekite people and their livestock. Saul disobeys, thinking his plan is above God’s. I think not.

What is more important? Samuel – God’s prophet – points out that following God and God’s commands is more important than tradition or ritual…even if it means changing the whole system. Even if it makes you looks unpopular.

A (Application): Ok, ok. Take a deep breath. I don’t propose we throw out ANY rituals at this point. I personally believe that the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are chock full of God’s grace and are a means through which God speaks to us. So…ok.

As we use these rituals to point out that God is reaching us through these means of grace, we continue to embrace them. Jesus calls us to these sacred gifts, and so we call others to the waters in which we are spiritually bathed and to the tables around which we commune.

Let us never use these gifts as tools for leverage or as a means for holding power over one another. Let these gifts always point us to God, and not to ourselves. Let these gifts be blessed and let us use them as God does – for reaching out with a hand of mercy, grace, and compassion for others.

P (Prayer): Lord, help us to use these means of grace well. Amen.

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Hello? Are You There?

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S (Scripture): 1 Samuel 3:1 Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. 2 One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room. 3 God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the Lord’s temple, where God’s chest[a] was.

4 The Lord called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said.

5 Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did.

6 Again the Lord called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

“I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.”

(7 Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.)

8 A third time the Lord called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

Then Eli realized that it was the Lord who was calling the boy. 9 So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been.

10 Then the Lord came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!”

Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”

O (Observation): Samuel is called by God. Wow! How special is this! Hearing a calling was rare back then. Even more so today.

Samuel wasn’t really ready for his call. He was young. He didn’t understand. He wasn’t yet equipped. But he was called.

And that makes all the difference.

A (Application): God doesn’t call the equipped. God equips those who are called.

We never know when or how we will be called, but we all can listen. We can ignore the call, but God will persist. We can step out in faith, knowing that the call means God is supporting us along the way.

The form of God supporting us might look like friends or loved one’s loving us or challenging us. The call may be short-term or long-term, easily discernible or complicated.

In any form, the call is true and present. In my baptism, I believe that God is calling me in many ways.

How is God calling you?

P (Prayer): Lord, help us to discern your call. Amen.

Called to Serve!

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S (Scripture): Luke 3:7 Then John said to the crowds who came to be baptized by him, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? 8 Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.”

10 The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”

11 He answered, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. They said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?”

13 He replied, “Collect no more than you are authorized to collect.”

14 Soldiers asked, “What about us? What should we do?”

He answered, “Don’t cheat or harass anyone, and be satisfied with your pay.”

O (Observation): John speaks for God – he is a prophet. Many come come to be baptized by John to show that they wish to receive forgiveness of sins and wish to change their lives. No longer does John think it sufficient to be a Jew – from the lineage of Abraham and Sarah. That “status” is of little significance should one not change one’s life.

John says that God expects a changed life in response to the grace given to each.

Life in Christ gives ALL people a chance – even a pile of rocks : )

Jesus forms a new way of life with God, one that is open to all.

A (Application): Complacency is our biggest threat as Christians in the world. “I’ve done enough. I’ve done my part. There’s nothing I can do about it.” These words are our excuses.

Instead of relying on our baptism as our “ticket home,” let’s also think about our baptism as our call to serve and our being equipped for mission in the world!

Rest not only on what God has done FOR you…through prayer and community discern how God is working THROUGH you!

P (Prayer): Lord, make me a channel of your peace. Amen.

Rituals and Relationships

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S (Scripture): Hosea 6:4 Ephraim, what will I do with you?
Judah, what will I do with you?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that vanishes quickly.
5 Therefore, I have attacked them by the prophets,
I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgment goes forth like a light.
6 I desire faithful love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God instead of entirely burned offerings.

O (Observation): God’s people are getting a heaping of The Law, they are being shown where they have fallen short of honoring God. In God’s address to the people who claim the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as their God, we hear God naming God’s people as a vanishing morning cloud. God’s people show up, but vanish. God’s people appear, then disappear. They claim to be faithful to God, but go away when they desire affirmation or healing.

Faithful love and knowledge of God. This is what God desires most – for people to know their God. Instead, God’s people find a way to focus on the rituals, with empty hearts. Seems God would rather have a relationship than a ritual. Or maybe, better yet, the relationship would be the focus of the ritual.

A (Application): Do you and your friends have a special greeting or handshake? I know that sounds very middle school, but do you have routines with friends or even family members? Like, do you take your shoes off when you go in their house? Do you go right to the kitchen to grab a snack or a water?

When you leave, do you honk your horn a certain number of times? Do you have a prayer or some other send off?

If any of the above apply, I hope you consider that your rituals likely occur, because you have a relationship with one another.

In the same way, God wishes for our worship rituals to be reflective of our relationship with God. God’s people of Old (in Hosea) still showed up for worship with burnt offerings, but they had very little stock in their relationship with God. When trouble came, or a need for healing, God’s people would quite often turn elsewhere for hope.

In Jesus, we have God re-establishing a relationship, and this time, the relationship is clearly with the whole cosmos! All people are invited to receive God’s mercy and be transformed by God’s grace.

Next time you worship, hear the words and focus on the relationship God wishes to have with you (or maybe you know that relationship is already there). For many of us, that relationship is made firm in our baptism. As a Lutheran, I have lived my whole life long knowing that God reached out to me to establish a relationship with me in my baptism, and has brought many others around me (friends, family, pastors, church leaders, etc.) to remind me of our relationship. And from this relationship comes the many rituals in which I am blessed to partake.

Peace!

P (Prayer): Lord, I thank you for establishing a relationship with me, and helping me to see that our relationship with you and one another on earth are central to who we are as your followers and your witnesses to all the earth. Amen.

500th Anniversary of the Reformation!!!


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Check out the Lutheran World Federation’s live streaming of commemorations of the 500th anniversary of the Refomation from around the globe!!!

S (Scripture): Ezekiel 36: 22 Therefore, say to the house of Israel, The Lord God proclaims: House of Israel, I’m not acting for your sake but for the sake of my holy name, which you degraded among the nations where you have gone. 23 I will make my great name holy, which was degraded among the nations when you dishonored it among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord. This is what the Lord God says.

When I make myself holy among you in their sight, 24 I will take you from the nations, I will gather you from all the countries, and I will bring you to your own fertile land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be cleansed of all your pollution. I will cleanse you of all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove your stony heart from your body and replace it with a living one, 27 and I will give you my spirit so that you may walk according to my regulations and carefully observe my case laws. 28 Then you will live in the land that I gave to your ancestors, you will be my people, and I will be your God.

O (Observation): As a prophet, Ezekiel continues to share God’s word regarding the sinfulness of the people and God’s mercy and grace.    Notice what instigates God’s mercy:  God’s own desire to cleanse God’s people.  

This element of grace cannot be overstated!   God’s people are not doing a special act!  They are not even repentant until they are shown the distance between their actions and God’s grace.  They are to look at themselves in the mirror, and see what they truly are: a people who have taken their stature as God’s children for granted.  

God decides to sprinkle clean water on God’s people… and to put a new heart and a new spirit in them…God will even give back to God’s people the land they once were given…and it is promised to be like the Eden of old.   

God graces God’s people.  Not for what they’ve done, but because God desires it.  

A (Application):  To be sprinkled clean…to be given a new heart and spirit…this is the hope of a Christian baptism.  We retain our identity, and yet something has changed.   We are transformed. We say we “die with Christ” in baptism, so that we might be raised with Jesus and live a new life. 

The sprinkling of water in this text reminds us of baptism.   We are also reminded of the fact that baptism is SO MUCH what God does.  Then, we live our lives in response to that grace and mercy.  

As Lutheran Christians, we baptism at any age.  Baptizing adults is the norm from Scripture.  The believer makes promises to live into the covenant of baptism.   God promises to be present in, with, and under the water, effecting change in the believer.  Faith alone makes this sacrament possible.  

Martin Luther and cohorts – 500 years ago – reminded the Church that God’s grace was not for sale.  And not just this, but that God’s grace was comes to set us free to love and serve our neighbor.  This shift causes us to focus less on our own salvation, and more about serving others.  

The word from Ezekiel today (though not often used to help explain infant baptism), is yet another example of how far God’s grace reaches.    At no point in this text are God’s people repentant.  God makes it all pretty clear:  I’m doing this for my name, alone.  So we believe in infant baptism, as God’s grace – alone – is instilled in us.  Parents and baptismal sponors make known their desire to aid the infant or child in their rearing.  They promise to raise the child in the faith and to aid them in their faith development.  And these actions are all born out of what God has already granted to the child: namely, mercy and grace.  

Part of our weekly worship is a time of Confession & Forgiveness.  In this rite, we confess our sins, then we hear the words: “in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven of all your sins.”   Why these words?  These are a reminder of God’s baptismal promise to cleanse us…to give us a new spirit and a new heart.  

May today – the 500th anniversary of the Reformation – be a reminder to you that you are forgiven, loved, and made new in Christ Jesus.  And may that forgiveness be what inspires you to examine your motives and actions every day.  

P (Prayer):  Lord, remind us that you are not an angry God, but a God of grace and mercy.  Amen. 

Taking Grace for Granted


S (Scripture): Romans 4:9 Is this blessedness then for the circumcision or also for the uncircumcision? For we say, “faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 How then was it credited to him? Was he circumcised at the time, or not? No, he was not circumcised but uncircumcised! 11 And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised, so that he would become the father of all those who believe but have never been circumcised, that they too could have righteousness credited to them. 12 And he is also the father of the circumcised, who are not only circumcised, but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham possessed when he was still uncircumcised.

O (Observation):  In chapter 4, Paul opens up a diatribe directed towards the Jews.  He makes references to Abraham and David, important figures to Jews, but who mean nothing to the Gentiles.  

Now, a big deal for the Jews was the outward sign of the covenant between God and God’s people.  God declared to Abraham that God would make out of Abraham a great people, and kings would come from his line of descendants.  The people of Abraham, in return, would then circumcise their male children as a sign that they are God’s people.  After all, God commanded that the people circumcise their male children as a sign of faithfulness on the people’s part.  

Over time, circumcision was seen as the work of the people to show their dedication to God.  But also, circumcision became this sort of entry into God’s covenant without any real impact on the life of God’s people.  They basically started taking God’s grace for granted.   They began to think that if one was circumcised, one basically had a free ticket to Abraham’s lineage and that one who was circumcised could do no wrong.   

And then, eventually, circimcision became the EXCLUSIVE way to God’s grace.   The Hebrew people took circumcision as the “be all, end all” sign of God’s grace.  They began to believe that the only way to God’s grace and inheritance was to be circumcised, to the exclusion of all other ways and people.  The prevailing mindset of the Hebrew people became this:  Gentiles were CERTAINLY not ever going to be a part of God’s family.  

So, when Jesus and Paul started challenging this idea of the exclusive availaiblity of God’s grace, this was a major challenge to the theology and customs of the Hebrew people. 

Paul is making the case that Abraham wasn’t circumcised when he was graced with God’s promises.  The circumcision was simply an outward sign of an inward grace.   Circumcision was the result of receiving God’s grace, not the cause of receiving it.  

Paul was calling on the Jews to humble themselves and to give some thought to the idea that grace and blessing are possible outside of circumcision.  

A (Application):  Churches these days have all kinds of odd customs to make people feel like they are part of the church (or NOT part of it).  Some are new customs, but even ancient rites seem to lose their impact.  

As sacred as it is for me, I wonder if those not of the Christian faith view baptism today just like Gentiles viewed circumcision back in Paul’s day?  I hope not!  But then, I wonder.  

Circumcision back in Paul’s day is not the same thing as baptism, but I can see how it might be viewed this way.  As if baptism was the exclusive way for God’s grace to work.   

I have spoke about this before, how we as Christians can start to use our baptism like Jews used circumcision:  as a tool of exclusion and as something we take for granted!

We practice making people feel welcome in our congregation, even though I’m sure we fall short.  But we really try to help people feel welcome, even if they have not been baptized.  We view becoming a part of our congregation as an exploratory journey towards baptism.  Some will be baptized and receive God’s Spirit in this way, but I have to believe that God can instill faith in other ways, too.   

God continues to surprise us all (as seen in Scripture and in my own personal experiences).    To narrow down God’s avenues of grace is dangerous territory for me (or anyone).

So, should we get rid of baptism?  Certainly not!  Is baptism still a good thing?  Absolutely!

So let us treat all people with respect.   Let us be diligent in not taking baptism for granted.   Let us be forgiving as God forgives and graces us. 

What “hang ups” do you have about the Christian Church these days?

P (Prayer):  Lord, help us to be grateful for your grace.  Amen.  

Welcome Back, Traveler


S (Scripture): 

2 Chronicles 36:20 King Nebuchadnezzar deported to Babylon all who escaped the sword. The Israelites served him and his sons until the Persian kingdom rose to power. 21 This took place to fulfill the Lord’s message delivered through Jeremiah. The land experienced its sabbatical years; it remained desolate for seventy years,as prophesied.

Ezra 1:1 In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order to fulfill the Lord’s message spoken through Jeremiah, the Lord stirred the mind of King Cyrus of Persia. He disseminated a proclamation throughout his entire kingdom, announcing in a written edic the following:

2 “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia:

“‘The Lord God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has instructed me to build a temple for him in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. 3 Anyone from his people among you (may his God be with him!) may go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and may build the temple of the Lord God of Israel – he is the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 Anyone who survives in any of those places where he is a resident foreigner must be helped by his neighbors with silver, gold, equipment, and animals, along with voluntary offerings for the temple of God which is in Jerusalem.’”

O (Observation):  Ezra picks up where 2 Chronicles leaves off.   At the end of 2 Chronicles, God’s people have been sent to Babylon, under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar.   After 70 years of exile (approximately a generation or two), God stirs King Cyrus’ heart and mind to allow the Israelite people to go back to their homeland and help them rebuild their Temple, and not only that, but he calls on the Persian people to help fund the whole endeavor.  The Persians respond generously, and God’s people go back home. 

Kind Cyrus even returned the vessels used in the Temple – vessels stolen by King Nebuchadnezzar 70 years ago. 

A (Application):  You just never know, right?  As much as we wander and wonder, God constantly surprises me.   

Only by the grace of God do we have a way forward.    How did King Cyrus change his mind and heart?  Perhaps it was God’s doing.   We will never know.   Ezra seems to think it was God’s doing.  I’m okay with believing that.  

This makes me think about my baptism.  I was baptized as an infant.  (Yes, it counts.)  My baptism marks a point in my life when God made promises to me to never let me go.   As far as I move away from God, God still has a hold of me, pulling me back.  Even at my worst, God doesn’t forget me.   

This Lent, I repent of my failings and my shortcomings.  I repent of any way that my version of Christianity causes harm to my neighbor in  need.   

And I am hopeful, because God can change me…a sinner.   And God can and does work in those around me.  God can even convince others to aid me on my back “home.”

How is your journey?   Who has God put into your life to aid you on your journey?

P (Prayer):  Lord, you work in wonderful and marvelous ways.  Remind us that you never let go.  Amen.