Giving and Receiving

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S (Scripture): 2 Corinthians 8:12 A gift is appreciated because of what a person can afford, not because of what that person can’t afford, if it’s apparent that it’s done willingly. 13 It isn’t that we want others to have financial ease and you financial difficulties, but it’s a matter of equality. 14 At the present moment, your surplus can fill their deficit so that in the future their surplus can fill your deficit. In this way there is equality. 15 As it is written, The one who gathered more didn’t have too much, and the one who gathered less didn’t have too little. (Ex 16:18)

O (Observation): Paul was great about getting the churches to support one another in his time. He reminded them that giving was to be done joyfully, and not out of obligation alone.

The outward focus is key here. Giving finances away to a place where you actually couldn’t really oversee the expenses was a challenge for sure.

Also note that Paul is not wanting folks to live in poverty so that others can live a plush lifestyle. He does all of this for the sake of equality. That when they are in need the others might give to them and support them.

A (Application): Over the last two decades the trend has been for congregations to retain more money within our individual churches, but less to larger missions work or to the larger denominational bodies. Paul focuses on the outward giving as important!

The ELCA has experienced this trend to be true. More money staying at the local level of the congregation and the congregation doing more local mission work, too. The trend is a struggle, since money given to our synod (our four-state region of GA, AL, MS, and TN) supports our staff who then support our congregations (think redevelopments, congregational vitality training, mission starts, etc). And in our region, half of all monies that go to our synod passes through to the ELCA, which then supports our candidates for ministry and seminaries, our teaching and worship resources, our global missions, etc.

All of this occurs not so that some might be more poor and others might be more rich. We do this so that we can share and come close to attaining equality.

A good example is this: The 2019 entering class at my alma later (Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary) will have all tuition paid for!!!! (They still need to cover housing and food and such, but what a great blessing!). I didn’t have that luxury, but perhaps you can start to see what Paul saw. You give now, so that you can receive later.

The church that receives a candidate for pastor with little debt load might have an easier time calling that pastor. If that pastor had a huge debt load, that pastor might need to seek a larger church that has more margin for pay, or a church that could work out short-term loan assistance. You can see how the challenge perpetuates.

In all, Paul encourages us to give, with no restraint. Except this: be joyful in giving, and know that this is for equality…you will receive.

P (Prayer): Lord, you make us joyful givers. Help us to celebrate this. Amen.

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Missional Communities

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S (Scripture): 1 Corinthians 16:19 The churches in the province of Asia greet you. Aquila and Prisca greet you warmly in the Lord, together with the church that meets in their house. 20 All the brothers and sisters greet you. You in turn should greet each other with a holy kiss. 21 Here is my greeting in my own handwriting—Paul.

O (Observation): Paul’s letters – making up a large portion of the New Testament – are a treasure for us. These letters help us to catch a glimpse of the goodness of God. God’s Spirit flows through Paul, who goes on mission. God’s Spirit flows through Prisca and Aquila (and their whole household).

The household was the setting for the early church. Followers of Jesus were not worshipping in cathedrals or pews or temples. Instead, God was with them on their journeys and in their homes. The home would host 30-50 people. They would read what Scriptures they had. They would all share food and eat together…including bread and a cup of wine.

A (Application): More congregations are extending the Sunday conversations by having people meet in one another’s homes. There, they share personal stories, read Scripture, and rally around a mission (volunteer at a local school, work with a homeless shelter, connect with Muslim folks in our community).

The mission is the core identity marker, as God’s people serve in the community. Having the mission as the identity marker allows us to ensure that the group does NOT become just a club. Instead, the mission drives the community and the worship this community does.

And it can all be done from someone’s home.

Where relationships can be built, and hopefully, thrive.

P (Prayer): Lord, guide us into mission work we can be proud of. Amen.

Of the People

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S (Scripture): 1 Corinthians 9:19 Although I’m free from all people, I make myself a slave to all people, to recruit more of them. 20 I act like a Jew to the Jews, so I can recruit Jews. I act like I’m under the Law to those under the Law, so I can recruit those who are under the Law (though I myself am not under the Law). 21 I act like I’m outside the Law to those who are outside the Law, so I can recruit those outside the Law (though I’m not outside the law of God but rather under the law of Christ). 22 I act weak to the weak, so I can recruit the weak. I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means. 23 All the things I do are for the sake of the gospel, so I can be a partner with it.

24 Don’t you know that all the runners in the stadium run, but only one gets the prize?

O (Observation): Paul talks about his approach to ministry. He adapts to the culture and the people’s practices. He doesn’t forget his identity in Christ, but he lives as a servant of Christ, always.

A (Application): St. Patrick was lauded for his approach to mission. He entered Ireland a second time (first as a slave, second, as a bishop). As bishop to Ireland, St. Patrick chose to appreciate each different clan and their dialect as a unique gift. He never made them learn Latin, nor follow all of the practices he picked up in Europe, in his seminary studies.

Patrick loved the people and appreciated them. He never forced his ways, yet still proclaimed the Gospel.

In what ways do we obscure the Gospel? When do we cover it up? When do we let it shine?

P (Prayer): Lord, helps us to shine your light on the world this day. Amen.

Church Leaders – More than just White Men

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S (Scripture): Romans 16:1 I’m introducing our sister Phoebe to you, who is a servant of the church in Cenchreae. 2 Welcome her in the Lord in a way that is worthy of God’s people, and give her whatever she needs from you, because she herself has been a sponsor of many people, myself included.

3 Say hello to Prisca and Aquila, my coworkers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their own necks for my life. I’m not the only one who thanks God for them, but all the churches of the Gentiles do the same. 5 Also say hello to the church that meets in their house. Say hello to Epaenetus, my dear friend, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ. 6 Say hello to Mary, who has worked very hard for you. 7 Say hello to Andronicus and Junia, my relatives and my fellow prisoners. They are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.

O (Observation): Paul does a most wonderful and honorable thing: he mentions the women who have been faithful to Christ and with whom he has worked alongside. Why honorable? This should be expected, yes? Of course these women mentioned should be included, but for Paul to do this in the first century is a bit scandalous.

After all, women were NOT seen as equals amongst the Jews. Women had little rights and certainly no claim to positions of authority, especially in relation to matters of religion.

Yet, here they are. These women mentioned by Paul are working tremendously hard in order to share the Gospel with those who would receive it.

A (Application): Yet another example given to us about God doing “a new thing” in Scripture, in the early formation of the Church.

These leaders working with Paul remind us that the obstacles before us in the Church are typically self-made. We put up parameters around who can lead / do certain aspects of organized religion. Quite often we give little to no regard for the individual’s value.

We have done much harm from WITHIN the Church, as we have denied certain people from being leaders in the church based on their ethnicity, race, language of origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, and more.

Thankfully, we are making strides towards being more just about these things from within the modern Church. We are seeing more diversity amongst our leaders, but our congregations seem less and less willing to extend calls to those who are not “white, straight, English-speaking” pastors.

But hope abounds. Congregations throughout the ELCA (in which I serve) are wrestling more and more with these issues and our hope rests in God’s abundant and reckless grace. Our denomination repents of these harmful actions in the present and in the past.

God will continue to send the Spirit to guide us into the way of peace. And we will hope to write about these leaders on social media, just as Paul wrote about his experiences to the churches in Rome.

P (Prayer): Lord, we are all made in your image and we are all known – individually – by you. Guide us. Amen.

The Church: Challenges and Grace

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S (Scripture): Romans 4:21 [Abraham] was fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised. 22 Therefore, it was credited to him as righteousness.

23 But the scripture that says it was credited to him wasn’t written only for Abraham’s sake. 24 It was written also for our sake, because it is going to be credited to us too. It will be credited to those of us who have faith in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was handed over because of our mistakes, and he was raised to meet the requirements of righteousness for us.

O (Observation): Paul leans on the mark of faith instilled into Abraham as the KEY factor in Abraham’s inheritance of God’s covenant. What God said, Abraham believes. Now, Abraham was not perfect in that belief, but it still stands that God was the one who was making promises and Abraham believed God would make good on God’s promises.

Faith is the factor for inheritance, not works or responses to that grace.

So, both Jew and Gentile could be Christian without giving up the Law (for Jews) and without needing to be held to the Law of the Jews (for Gentiles).

A (Application): God has always been about making room for all who wish to believe. Those considered “outside” of the Church is more often than not a rule generated and implemented by the Church, not God.

In what ways have you seen the Church push others away? When have stumbling blocks been put into place? When have blessings come to pass as people have been reunited with the Church body?

These questions help us to reconcile what it means to be a people of faith. Is there a standard? A Law? If so, what does the corresponding word of Grace sound like?

Is receiving God’s Grace easy for us? A challenge? Necessary for salvation?

Let that stew for a while : )

P (Prayer): Lord, be with us in our faith struggles. Amen.

The Law…The Rules

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S (Scripture): Romans 3:28b We consider that a person is treated as righteous by faith, apart from what is accomplished under the Law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Isn’t God the God of Gentiles also? Yes, God is also the God of Gentiles. 30 Since God is one, then the one who makes the circumcised righteous by faith will also make the one who isn’t circumcised righteous through faith. 31 Do we then cancel the Law through this faith? Absolutely not! Instead, we confirm the Law.

O (Observation): Paul is once again speaking to the Jewish Christians (those who were Jewish and now following Christ). He points out that their adherence to the Law (or lack there of) had nothing to do with their salvation.

When a Jew expresses the Law, this comes from faith in God. The mark of circumcision is the outward expression of an internal faith.

If that external marker was removed, what then? Could someone…say…a Gentile show faith in God? Yes! And if so, that person would not need the Law to become righteous…for God instills faith in both the circumcised and uncircumcised.

Anyone who believes in Christ has been joined to Christ’s righteousness. This is a free gift. The Law stands as a reminder of who we are called to be as God’s people. The Law was a guide and identity marker, not a path to salvation. Salvation is about faith in God.

So, should the Law be thrown out? Absolutely NOT!

A (Application): What barriers are we putting up as God’s people? What rules do we put in place for members and church leaders that make us stumble along the way? Shouldn’t we throw them all out? Well, not so fast : )

Just like we don’t throw out the Law, we don’t throw out everything that are good boundary markers in organized religion.

Healthy boundaries can be good, so that we can care for each other and build up healthy community. When we don’t trust one another and break down these barriers, we can lean on forgiveness and reconciliation, which we have first received from Christ.

Now, following the rules of the Church is not the goal…faith in Christ is the goal. As such, when the rules of the Church inhibit certain groups of people from access to faithful community, then perhaps the rules need to be updated.

The Law guides us and is an outward expression of what it means to have faith in God. Rules of the Church exist to guide us into community. But faith in God is what makes us righteous. And this righteousness comes through Christ, who gave himself for us. Believing in Christ – thanks to the Holy Spirit instilling faith in us – brings us to righteousness. The Law…the rules…don’t make us righteous. Christ does.

P (Prayer): Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief. Amen.

Measuring the Church

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S (Scripture): Psalm 20

Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed one;

    God answers his anointed one

        from his heavenly sanctuary,

    answering with mighty acts of salvation

        achieved by his strong hand.

Some people trust in chariots, others in horses;

    but we praise the Lord’s name.

They will collapse and fall,

    but we will stand up straight and strong.

Lord, save the king!

    Let him answer us when we cry out!

O (Observation): The anointed one is the king of God’s people. This psalm may have been written before God’s people were conquered by the Babylonians, thus representing a general orientation towards giving thanks to God for blessing the people with a ruler to govern God’s people.

And in what do God’s people trust? They trust in the Lord’s name, not chariots and horses. Chariots and horses represented a country’s might – both politically and militarily.

The psalmist is reminding God’s people that – as illogical as it seems – strength comes not from our might, but from the Lord.

A (Application): The Church is in a precarious state. Our “horses and chariots” for years have been dollars in the offering plate and attendance. With high numbers for both, we say: “Look! God is good, because we have high attendance and lots of offering!” Is that the right metric, though?

What is the State of the Church? Are we counting the right things? How about counting how many people come to faith? Return to the faith? How about we count the numerous ways our church members impact their families and neighborhoods? How about we measure our disciple-making process? How about we measure the fruitfulness of the conversations between our adult members and our youth? How about we measure the inspiration level that some members have on others?

Some of these things we can measure…some, not so much. So what do we do? We keep on telling the story of God at work in our world. We talk about how God shows up in our lives, our politics, our homes. We show faith in God, who shows up every time.

Question is: Can we discern God’s presence? Or are we too busy counting our chariots and horses?

P (Prayer): Lord, hear us as we call out to you. Help us to count the right things. Amen.