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.

No Need to Look Over Your Shoulder

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S (Scripture): Matthew 9:18 While Jesus was speaking to them, a ruler came and knelt in front of him, saying, “My daughter has just died. But come and place your hand on her, and she’ll live.” 19 So Jesus and his disciples got up and went with him. 20 Then a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years came up behind Jesus and touched the hem of his clothes. 21 She thought, If I only touch his robe I’ll be healed.

22 When Jesus turned and saw her, he said, “Be encouraged, daughter. Your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed from that time on.

23 When Jesus went into the ruler’s house, he saw the flute players and the distressed crowd. 24 He said, “Go away, because the little girl isn’t dead but is asleep”; but they laughed at him. 25 After he had sent the crowd away, Jesus went in and touched her hand, and the little girl rose up. 26 News about this spread throughout that whole region.

O (Observation): Some scholars debate whether or not Jesus broke the religious purity codes in this episode. Most say he does not, but a fine line exists between being defiled and bring “in the clear” in this case.

Jesus is on his way to raise a young girl from the dead. Along the way, a woman who has been bleeding for some time – which makes her impure, by the way…according to the religious standards of the day – and Jesus receives this touch without condemning the woman. In fact, Jesus commends the faith of this woman.

This bleeding woman , not Jesus, proves that purity is more contagious than impurity. So she reached out to Jesus.

Jesus follows the call to raise a young woman from the dead. Again, a possible impurity awaits Jesus. Yet he engages and raises her.

New things are afoot…

A (Application): What does it mean to us to have the Gospel, but never use it? To have salvation, but no one with which to share it.

Many Christians think their call is to live better than others. I’m not saying we should all devolve into the worst people we can be; no! Rather I propose that we can all grow by sharing the Gospel more and more in the places most people won’t wish to go.

Sharing the Gospel means loving others as they are. Showing them that someone cares.

Sharing the Gospel means crossing boundaries that most take for granted, or that we assume should never be broached.

Yet in Jesus we have our hope and our example. With our salvation well in check, we can look to Jesus as our guide for making a way forward – living out the Gospel, without looking over our shoulder to see what others think. If we have shared the Good News, we have done our part.

P (Prayer): Lord, teach us to look forward to the work you have called us into, being not afraid to live out the Gospel truth. Amen.

Ever-Present Grace

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S (Scripture): 2 Peter 3:11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be? You must live holy and godly lives, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming day of God. Because of that day, the heavens will be destroyed by fire and the elements will melt away in the flames. 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

O (Observation): Peter is getting on everyone to be ready for the coming of the Lord. Perhaps folks have started to wane in their commitment to Jesus; many think the days are dragging on. Shouldn’t Jesus be here by now? Perhaps, but maybe one day to us is a 1,000 years to God? What if Jesus doesn’t come back for a really long time?

Peter suggests we be ready nonetheless.

Peter speaks of fire bringing forth the new heaven and the new earth. Sounds quite scary! Is fire the path to a new heaven and earth? A purifying fire?

A (Application): I never quite get the fire and brimstone speeches of the later parts of the New Testament. Folks who speak of exhortation (like today’s piece) seem to like to use these texts in ways that describe Christianity as a “be saved or die” ethic.

Folks who lean mostly on these texts create a new Law. They treat this new Law as the Gospel. They think saving power lies in the “believe or die” approach. They think Christianity is about making sure people believe exactly the right things.

The truth seems to be that our call is to keep on reminding one another of the grace of God, and to try not to take for granted the beautiful gifts of our baptism and the grace offered at the Table. We have God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ. No need to squander it!

So, let us tell others of this kind of love that our God shows to the whole world. Let others know that they are encompassed with God’s Grace.

God will do the judging, not us. God will refine our hearts and minds, so that we might more clearly see the deep, deep value of God’s Grace freely offered and freely given.

Stay humble, my friends! Stay humble.

P (Prayer): Grace-filled God, remind us of your love and grace in our places of mission this day. Amen.

Doubt and Despair

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S (Scripture):

Lamentations 1:9 

Zion’s gates sank into the ground; he broke and shattered her bars;

her king and her officials are now among the nations. There is no Instruction![b]

Even her prophets couldn’t find a vision from the Lord.

10 

Daughter Zion’s elders sit on the ground and mourn.

They throw dust on their heads; they put on mourning clothes.

Jerusalem’s young women bow their heads all the way to the ground.

Hebrews 7:26 It’s appropriate for us to have this kind of high priest: holy, innocent, incorrupt, separate from sinners, and raised high above the heavens. 27 He doesn’t need to offer sacrifices every day like the other high priests, first for their own sins and then for the sins of the people. He did this once for all when he offered himself. 28 The Law appoints people who are prone to weakness as high priests, but the content of the solemn pledge, which came after the Law, appointed a Son who has been made perfect forever.

O (Observation): Today’s texts remind us of two very different points in the revelation of God and God’s overall story. In Lamentations, God’s people sense that God – in the form of Instruction, or Torah – has “left the building” so to speak. Their understanding of God’s presence was wrapped up in the physical presence of God in the book of Instruction and in the Temple, neither of which were present any longer (at least not perceived to be present). God’s people begin their Babylonian exile.

Fast forward to God’s story post-ascension of Jesus, post-Acts. Now we have a God being understood as a priest forever. But not just any priest. Jesus is now the priest forever. Nothing can separate God’s presence from God’s people now. For our priest is perfect, now and forever.

God is always “in the building.”

A (Application): In our heads, we get what the Hebrews text is speaking to. In our hearts, we can get mired down in the world of Lamentations.

THIS IS TOTALLY NORMAL FOR US!!!

No shame is found in doubt or despair. As we discover (and re-discover) the story of God’s people, we are constantly being reminded that God’s people have (and will) experience moments or even seasons of doubt or despair.

How do we recall that our priest – Jesus – speaks to God for us, giving us freedom to act out of grace? We gather around the story as individuals and as community. We worship together. We serve together. We find ways to build relationships and ways to give to God and neighbor. Here, we rediscover God’s presence.

The story of God includes you. You are made in God’s image. Remember that this day. Remember that Jesus intercedes for you and brings your prayers to God. Jesus encourages you and me and all that seek grace.

Turn to God. Do so in community. See the grace flow.

P (Prayer): Gracious Jesus, sing for us, speak for us, when we can do neither. Amen.

Pushing Others Down

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S (Scripture): Romans 2:28 It isn’t the Jew who maintains outward appearances who will receive praise from God, and it isn’t people who are outwardly circumcised on their bodies. 29 Instead, it is the person who is a Jew inside, who is circumcised in spirit, not literally. That person’s praise doesn’t come from people but from God.

O (Observation): Most of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome was about reconciling the differences between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. His beef with the Jewish Christians was that they were acting arrogant. They believed that with their outward customs, they were better than Gentiles who became Christian. Or that somehow Gentile Christians should adopt the outward custom of circumcision to be on equal ground with Jewish Christians.

The problem that Paul points out is that nothing is gained from the outward practice. He says that the real change God seeks is one of the heart (or spirit). If someone comes to believe in Christ as Lord and Savior, the change doesn’t come from the outside in. The outside marker is just an indication of the internal change that God enacts in someone’s being.

So do the Jews have an advantage? If they do, it’s only because God established a covenant with them first, and revealed the Law and Scriptures to the Jews first…but this gift has always been available to all people.

A (Application): “They’re not Christian.” Quite often I hear people say things like this about other people. The ones making the accusations go to church (or at least say they do) and act all prim and proper. But when it comes to living like Jesus and acting out of grace, they come up way short. I do, too.

The problem with lifting up one’s self over another usually comes because we are insecure about our own faith. We recognize we don’t do the Law, and so we try to make ourselves feel better than others by pushing them down, rather than asking God to lift us all up.

We do this by class, race, sexual orientation, and other ways. We simply are insecure. And that scares us. And thus, we get defensive.

We don’t do The Law. It is a guide, and it is meant to show us our shortcomings. And in the wake of that realization, God hears our cries and welcomes us back with the Gospel.

What would it look like if instead of hiding the ways we break The Law, we face the music and let God redeem us. Then, maybe, we can do less judging of others and more inviting into relationships so that we can share this Gospel message with others. We can speak from our own brokenness and let God come to others.

P (Prayer): Lord, redeem us and make us whole, as only you can. Amen.

Finite

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S (Scripture): Romans 1:16 I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith, as it is written, The righteous person will live by faith.

O (Observation): Paul speaks of the Gospel to the followers of Jesus in Rome. He is clear: the Gospel is God’s saving power. Not adherence to Law alone, but receiving grace through Jesus Christ. The Law was meant to guide God’s people, not be a litmus test for whether or not God loved God’s people. The Law was never a litmus test to decipher who should be loved and who should be considered an outsider (and thus treated as less than human).

The gift of The Law (which includes the Gospel – God’s saving power) was given to the Jews first. And so as the first recipients of God’s saving power, Paul does not deny access to the Gospel for the Jews. Instead, Paul adds into the list of recipients, the Gentiles who have faith in God.

And Paul clarifies: God’s righteousness comes to us through the gospel, instilling in us faith. This faith is what makes us righteous. Not adherence to The Law. Not being a good person. Not being perfect in prayer or praise. No! Faith comes from God giving us the gospel.

Nothing in us is good or holy, apart from God’s saving grace. Only the gospel saves. Whoever believes this is made righteous.

A (Application): Last night, as I led Ash Wednesday services, I was reminded of our mortality and frailty. I was reminded that my finiteness cannot compare to God’s vastness. As we surrender our lives, through the gift of baptism, we surrender our earthly frame to God’s saving power.

In our weakness, there is Christ. In our sadness, there is joy, for there is Christ. We spend a lot of time covering up our weakness to make us strong.

Instead, let us expose the frailty of our lives to God to let God lead us into healing. We can do this by sharing in faithful community. By prayer and fasting.

Let God care for you in the midst of your brokenness. Let God love you and re-shape you this Lenten season.

P (Prayer): God, you give your gospel gift to all humanity. Help us to let down our guard and embrace it. Amen.

Carry the Light

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S (Scripture): Acts 26:20b [Paul said to King Agrippa:] “My message was that they should change their hearts and lives and turn to God, and that they should demonstrate this change in their behavior. 21 Because of this, some Jews seized me in the temple and tried to murder me. 22 God has helped me up to this very day. Therefore, I stand here and bear witness to the lowly and the great. I’m saying nothing more than what the Prophets and Moses declared would happen: 23 that the Christ would suffer and that, as the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to my people and to the Gentiles.”

O (Observation): Paul stands accused by the Jews of inciting unrest and they make Paul stand trial. The Roman authorities don’t care much for these problems, but when the skirmishes become unrest for a large part of the population, they listen in.

King Agrippa listens to Paul’s claims.

But maybe these words are more for God’s followers.

Paul lays it out: Jesus was always part of God’s plan. As told through Moses and the Prophets, Jesus – the Suffering One for All – was not a backup plan when people “messed up.” People were never perfect, and thus wandering in the dark, fighting for self-preservation and self-interest.

Jesus is the light to all people, a true revelation of God’s glory.

And now, Paul simply witnesses to the light for all who would hear. He bears God’s redeeming word for all the heat.

A (Application): Quite often we feel like we have to defend Jesus and defend our faith in a preemptive way. Like anything we do could rightly defend our God.

I’m not saying we don’t stand up for peace and justice, but we first struggle with the idea that we are first and foremost seeking the light for ourselves. Sounds selfish, but this is the starting point for all of us. To stumble in the dark until the light is revealed to us in the person of Jesus.

In receiving the light, we are then compelled to share our story to any who would listen.

And as we share the light, as Paul does, we also remain humble, because the light is never ours to own. We simply carry the light for God. We give thank to God that we can carry that light that never diminishes.

We humbly, with broken hearts and minds, carry this light into our homes, work places and schools.

May we be the light…humbly thanking our God for brining the light to us in the first place.

P (Prayer): Lord, shine your light on this poor sinner. Amen.