God in the Unexpected Places

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S (Scripture): Genesis 39:1When Joseph had been taken down to Egypt, Potiphar, Pharaoh’s chief officer, the commander of the royal guard and an Egyptian, purchased him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 2 The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man and served in his Egyptian master’s household.

20 Joseph’s master took him and threw him in jail, the place where the king’s prisoners were held. While he was in jail, 21 the Lord was with Joseph and remained loyal to him. He caused the jail’s commander to think highly of Joseph.

O (Observation): The story of Joseph is quite intriguing. One must read all of this chapter and the preceding chapters to understand that Joseph – while being favored by his father – was the runt of the litter and was therefore expected to get the least favorable treatment. Instead, God continually looks with favor on this most unsuspecting of peoples.

Joseph is left for dead by his brothers, but ends up being put in charge of a rich person’s entire estate! He is falsely accused of dishonoring his boss’ wife, and is thrown into jail.

While in jail, God once again looks favorably upon Joseph.

God makes good on God’s promises. Even when the circumstances surrounding Jospeh seem bleak, God steps in.

A (Application): Even when things seem bleak, God has a way of lifting up the lowly. We don’t always see this as the case. Sometimes, we are down and can’t get back up.

Sometimes, we are down, and don’t see a way out.

Sometimes, we are down, and can’t see a way forward.

God has an uncanny way of being present when we least expect God to be present.

So, in your days, I pray you see God in the journey with you, through surgeries or treatments or therapy or tests or homework or struggles.

P (Prayer): Lord. Help me to know your presence. Amen.

The Seed and the Fruit

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S (Scripture): Matthew 7:15 Jesus said, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are vicious wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruit. Do people get bunches of grapes from thorny weeds, or do they get figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, and every rotten tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit…

“21 “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter.

O (Observation): Jesus is nearing the end of his Sermon on the Mount. He is conveying to those listening: you can say all you want about being a God-follower, but the truth will come out when you act!

Words are the avenue through which the Gospel seed is planted. The germination process begins with a seed planted.

For those who claim to be from that seed, Jesus is interested in more than words…Jesus wants God’s people not to fall into the trap of living as God-followers in name only. Jesus wants all who believe to live out the love and forgiveness shown to them by Jesus and God.

Word AND deed. Salvation comes either way, but the living out of the Word is our witness to the world.

A (Application): Ever been a witness to a kind deed? What did that do for you? Did that kind act change your attitude or disposition for the moment?

Doing kind acts is not salvific. Rather, these kind acts are the outward appearance of the love and grace of God. As we share this gift of grace, we invite others to follow the One we follow. Maybe they join us, maybe they don’t.

We can invite, anyway. Come and see. See the fruit. Know the way.

And when we are not perfect – like most of the time – we remind folks that our path is one of grace and mercy. The fruit is love.

P (Prayer): Lord, remind us of who we are by the seed you plant in us…the seed of faith. Amen.

Committed

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S (Scripture): Hosea 2:16 On that day, says the Lord, you will call me, “My husband,” and no longer will you call me, “My Lord.” 17 I will take away the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they will not be mentioned by name anymore. 18 On that day, I will make a covenant for them with the wild animals, the birds in the sky, and the creeping creatures of the fertile ground. I will do away with the bow, the sword, and war from the land; I will make you lie down in safety.

19 

I will take you for my wife forever;

    I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice,

        in devoted love, and in mercy.

20 

I will take you for my wife in faithfulness;

        and you will know the Lord.

21 

On that day I will answer, says the Lord.

        I will answer the heavens

        and they will answer the earth.

22 

The earth will answer the corn, the new wine, and the fresh oil,

        and they will answer Jezreel;

23 

I will sow him for myself in the land;

        and I will have compassion on No Compassion,

        and I will say to Not My People, “You are my people”;

        and he will say, “You are my God.”

O (Observation): As much as God is know. For correction and judgment on our wrongdoings, God is even more so working towards restoring us to wholeness. In Hosea, God compares God’s people to someone who marries a prostitute – a metaphor for someone who is not committed to God, but rather follows gods.

God is angered and tells the people they will be dismissed, but God is a faithful God and promises to bring God’s people back…to restore them to faithfulness.

God will say, “You are my people.”

And God’s people will say, “You are my God.”

A (Application): Staying committed to anything is hard: diets, saving money, staying out of debt, praying, worshipping weekly…even staying committed to God can be challenging.

That’s right. And yes, even for me…a pastor.

So many things call for my allegiance and my attention. I can be selfish. I can be idolatrous. I can forget how much God has done for me.

Yet that doesn’t make God any less loving and committed to me.

That is grace.

And my response? To live for God and for the sake of others out of a sense of deep gratitude, because God loves me – indeed, loves all of us – even when I am (and we are) not committed to God.

God’s commitment gives me a place to belong (the body of Christ), gives me purpose (my calling as a husband, father, and pastor), and helps me to know that I am somebody. And all of this so that I might live for others…lest I get selfish about all of this attention God has given me : )

P (Prayer): Lord, this day, I give you thanks for all that I am and all that I have. 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.

The Temptation that is Actually Bitter, Not Sweet

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S (Scripture): Hebrews 12:14 Pursue the goal of peace along with everyone—and holiness as well, because no one will see the Lord without it. 15 Make sure that no one misses out on God’s grace. Make sure that no root of bitterness grows up that might cause trouble and pollute many people. 16 Make sure that no one becomes sexually immoral or ungodly like Esau. He sold his inheritance as the oldest son for one meal. 17 You know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected because he couldn’t find a way to change his heart and life, though he looked for it with tears.

O (Observation): God’s grace comes to all. Lead with it. End with it. Without leading in grace, people won’t see God’s grace for them. When others are leading with bitterness, people will not only receive bitterness, but they will then act bitter towards others.

A (Application): We are called to lead with joy, not grasping on to the nice shiny object in our faces, like Esau. He wanted that quick thing – a meal, forsaking his blessing.

We don’t need that quick fix. We have the grace of God to sustain us and fill us!!!

What is the shiny thing you are trying to get a hold of? Who around you is helping you to look at God’s grace, instead of the bitter reward of earthly gain?

P (Prayer): Lord, help us to look to you, not just to ourselves. Amen.

Too Much to Bear

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S (Scripture): Lamentations 1:

14 

My steps are being watched; by his hand they are tripped up.

His yoke is on my neck; he makes my strength fail.

My Lord has handed me over to people I can’t resist.

15 

My Lord has despised my mighty warriors.

He called a feast for me—in order to crush my young men!

My Lord has stomped on the winepress of the young woman Daughter Judah.

O (Observation): God’s people are in the midst of their exile and are feeling the pressure. Who weighs them down in their sorrow? God, according to them. They feel that God is not for them, but AGAINST them.

A (Application): When we are not following God or trusting God, we can feel like we have that heavy yoke around our neck. And we feel like God is doing this to us. And we blame God for it!

Who is to blame when we don’t look to God to help us through our tough times? We need only to look in the mirror. Does God place the heavy yoke on our shoulders? Yes, absolutely!

BECAUSE WE ASK GOD TO PLACE THE YOKE ON OUR SHOULDERS!!!!

We are to blame for the yoke. For we are not asking God to guide us or help us! So, yes. Life seems overburdensome when we try it on our own, apart from faith.

But with God…we see miracles happening.

I invite you to give the burden back to God.

Jesus came to show us what a life in God truly looks like. And God has passed on the gift of the Gospel to us, even though we are like fragile clay jars carrying this gift with us.

When we feel despondent, helpless, overwhelmed…give it to God and watch God bring peace and friends into your life in ways unimaginable.

Faith. Receiving God’s Grace. Acting in response to grace. This is the life of a Christian.

P (Prayer): Lord, forgive us when we take the burden from you. Thank you for receiving the burden back again. 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.

Exile, Promises, and Hope

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S (Scripture): Jeremiah 46:27 

But don’t be afraid, my servant Judah;

    don’t lose heart, Israel.

I will deliver you from a faraway place

    and your children from the land of their exile.

My people Jacob will again be safe and sound,

    with no one harassing them.

28 

So don’t be afraid, my servant Jacob,

    declares the Lord.

I’m with you;

    I will put an end to all the nations

        where I have scattered you.

But I won’t put an end to you.

    I won’t let you avoid punishment;

    I will discipline you as you deserve.

O (Observation): Some of God’s people experienced exile when the Babylonians were allowed to come in and take over Judah. Some of God’s people stayed in Judah to be servants to the Babylonians.

Either way, an exile was happening. This was no longer their home. Temples destroyed. Protective city walls crushed. Foreigners occupying the territory of God’s people.

God’s people erred and went out of their way to disobey God. And God’s response was to let the Babylonians come in and do their thing.

Yet, God would not completely abandon the people whom God claimed. God’s people would be remembered by God. They would not be forsaken forever.

The promise is made by God. Even though discipline awaits, God is still with God’s people.

A (Application): Exile. I kind of feel an exile has come upon our family. We moved from Murfreesboro, TN, to Lilburn, GA. Our children are in new schools, our jobs have changed. Yet, this does not feel like punishment, but rather a call towards a new direction. This whole situation is not one of correction, but one of new orientation.

We do sense God’s hand guiding and moving us in the right direction. We are to be patient and trust in the Lord. We are to “be” and not just “do.”

That is hard. Simple, but hard.

And so we go to work or school. We do our best to give God praise though our words and actions…knowing that God does not forget us.

God is with us. For, even though we feel like are being worn away, this allows God’s presence to shine through even more.

If you feel like you are in exile, explore the ways in which “less of you, more of God” comes about in your life.

P (Prayer): Lord, guide us into the way of peace. Amen.

What are Your Values?

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S (Scripture): Ephesians 4:29 Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say. 30 Don’t make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy—you were sealed by him for the day of redemption. 31 Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil. 32 Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.

5:1 Therefore, imitate God like dearly loved children. 2 Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. He was a sacrificial offering that smelled sweet to God.

O (Observation): Paul instructs the Christian community he established to honor God with their lips and lives. They have been forgiven and set free from the standards of the world – pride, envy, anger – and have been given something else to live for: love, kindness, compassion.

A (Application): I wonder if we as a Christian community can find ways to speak in support of our refugee brothers and sisters AND find ways to do it without assuming other people share our values. This is the crux of Christian engagement in the world.

How do we show Christian love when others don’t share our values? What do we do about other Christians who don’t share our values?

I have a hard time dealing with people who don’t share values of love, kindness, and compassion. They say they are being compassionate, but typically that means being compassionate towards their own self / community.

We are good at looking at others and saying that THOSE people have something screwed up internally, but when WE are at fault, it is usually something beyond our control. Or we just deny fault of any kind.

May we find that all of us receive forgiveness from the faults we possess. May we find grace and compassion are the ways forward.

P (Prayer): Lord, helps us to see that you are our source of grace, and that all of us need it to be sustained. Amen.

Holy Work

Photo credit here. By the way, this is a video describing the ELCA’s program, Young Adults in Global Mission.

S (Scripture): Ephesians 2:8 You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith (or, through his faithfulness.). This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. 9 It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. 10 Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.

O (Observation): Debate continues on the emphasis of the faith. Is it God’s faithfulness to us, or our faith that saves us? Either way, we have reconciled this by stating that “our” faith only comes to us as a gift of the Spirit. So, in the end, the onus is on God. God stirs up faith in us.

Is our level of faith in direct correlation to our kind acts (or perverse / sinful acts)? Certainly not!

God’s Grace is a gift – a gift we have in abundance!

We are created in Christ Jesus to do good! This is our purpose.

A (Application): How often do we cut ourselves short when it comes to our ability to serve others in the name of God? We have a perceived inability to do miracles and wonders in Christ!

Faith turns us from our selfish desires towards looking for the ultimate good in ourselves and others. Faith calls on us to look for the Christ in the other: the poor, the homeless, the outcast, the refugee, the immigrant. In doing so, we cannot help but to serve and to love our neighbor in need.

Where are you feeling called to serve? Whether in Christ’s name or just from the goodness of your heart. Do that work, and see a miracle!

P (Prayer): Lord, remind us of your presence in our lives! Stir our hearts towards the holy work to which you call us. Amen.