What’s More Important: God or Neighbor?

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S (Scripture): Matthew 22:34 When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had left the Sadducees speechless, they met together. 35 One of them, a legal expert, tested him. 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): How essential are these words from Jesus? Not only does he establish the most important principles for the life of a God-follower, but he does so using commandments that have existed since God’s people were set free from Egypt.

The law-keepers (the Pharisees) think they can trap Jesus into picking one Law above others so that they can trap him into an argument that will expose a weakness in him. They may be expecting him to erase the Law and come up with his own command apart from God.

Much to the dismay of the Pharisees, Jesus does not eradicate the commands of God, but reinforces them. Jesus takes the commands that God’s people have twisted and corrupted for their own advantage, and has reset them as the main thing for all who look to God.

A (Application): How often have we in the church hurt people because of some basic routines and rituals we go through when preparing for worship or education or fellowship? How often have we said, “Oh, we don’t do it that way” or “That’s nice, but let me show you how we do it.” We can learn from one another…that is my hope.

Leaning on the former ways is okay, as long as it doesn’t shut out a new way of thinking about something.

And how many times have we (as the Christian Church) shut out and hurt those who have not “fit the mold” of our “normal” Church-goer expectations? How often have we said or acted in ways contrary to Jesus’ words to love our neighbor?

Instead, many have latched on to the idea that “Loving God” takes precedence OVER “Loving neighbor.” Many have taken the stance that “Loving neighbor” means pointing out “their sin” and lifting up “The Truth.” Aren’t I loving them by helping to correct them and show them the Truth? (No! You’re just being a jerk!)

We all fall short of the glory of God. We all need repentance. And we all can love God and love neighbor by humbly respecting others and listening to one another.

Jesus didn’t say “Love the Truth with your whole heart,” he said “Love the Lord your God…and your neighbor as yourself.”

P (Prayer): Lord, help us to re-gain focus on the central tenets of loving you and our neighbor. Amen.



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S (Scripture): Matthew 20:25 Jesus called the disciples over and said, “You know that those who rule the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. 26 But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. 27 Whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave— 28 just as the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.”

O (Observation): Jesus turns the idea of “status” on its ear. The worldly issues about status don’t work in God’s Kingdom. Instead, to become great, you lay down your own ambitions and seek to serve someone else.

How is that helping your own cause? Jesus seems to be thinking upside-down and backwards. … Well, maybe that’s exactly what the Gospel is about: shifting around our priorities and letting go of status altogether.

A (Application): How many times have you tried to network, only to feel subservient? Like you were there to serve everyone else, and felt like you were just a pawn in someone else’s game? Why is that? Is it about a negative self-image? Is it because you think serving others is your calling? Is it because you see others as better than you?

We play lots of mind games with ourselves. When we are in a room in which someone feels they must have the upper hand, our sense of pride swells up and we don’t want that other person to walk away feeling superior. But something about humility and serving our neighbor kicks in. Do we let them just walk away thinking they have the upper hand? Do we remain poised in a “ready to be your servant” kind of mind frame? Doesn’t that mean the “other person” wins?

How frustrating is this thing called faith? The first will be last / servant of all?

That just doesn’t feel right, does it? And it doesn’t make sense, right? What is the end game? Ah… now that question changes everything.

What do we assume about the goal of the Christian life? What is the assumption about being a servant? Is it bad, by default? Is the Christian life about winning and losing?

(There you go….more questions than answers today…)

P (Prayer): Lord, keep us servant-minded in our approach to life today.

Stumbling Blocks

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S (Scripture): Matthew 19:23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I assure you that it will be very hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 In fact, it’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”

25 When his disciples heard this, they were stunned. “Then who can be saved?” they asked.

26 Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible for human beings. But all things are possible for God.”

27 Then Peter replied, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you. What will we have?”

28 Jesus said to them, “I assure you who have followed me that, when everything is made new, when the Human One sits on his magnificent throne, you also will sit on twelve thrones overseeing the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And all who have left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children, or farms because of my name will receive one hundred times more and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first.

O (Observation): Jesus comes off of some talk about being rich and entering the Kingdom of God. How these are somewhat incompatible. The disciples claim they’ve given up everything, and that is good and well. They will receive much for this emptying of themselves.

But Jesus doesn’t leave it there. He says: “Many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first.”

Kind of throws wrench into the system the disciples has in mind, no? Jesus isn’t looking for a first place finisher, just some who are showing their dedication to the Way. In this is blessing…but maybe not a “first place” finish.

A (Application): I am struck by the stories of King Arthur and the round table. Why a round table? So that there is no “head” of the table. No power position to be had.

A vision of equality at the table.

That sounds close to the truth. No status. No clawing after wealth. No power play. Just being with one another.

Ah…if only…

P (Prayer): Lord, make us loose the grip on earthly status in favor of our heavenly callings to love and grace and mercy. Amen.


Retribution or Reconciliation?

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S (Scripture): Genesis 50:15 When Joseph’s brothers realized that their father was now dead, they said, “What if Joseph bears a grudge against us, and wants to pay us back seriously for all of the terrible things we did to him?” 16 So they approached Joseph and said, “Your father gave orders before he died, telling us, 17 ‘This is what you should say to Joseph. “Please, forgive your brothers’ sins and misdeeds, for they did terrible things to you. Now, please forgive the sins of the servants of your father’s God.”’” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.

18 His brothers wept too, fell down in front of him, and said, “We’re here as your slaves.”

19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I God? 20 You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as he’s doing today. 21 Now, don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your children.” So he put them at ease and spoke reassuringly to them.

O (Observation): Hmm? If I’m not mistaken Joseph’s dad said nothing about Joseph need by to forgive his brothers. Could this be another case of Joseph’s brothers trying to cover their own backsides? I think so.

The most interesting part is the result: Joseph forgives them in an emotional display.

Is this justice? Not hardly…not an earthly justice. But as Jospeh says, he is not God…and indeed, God has turned to good something meant to harm. Joseph – left for dead by his brothers – was taken to Egypt and rose to power there and saved his father and brothers (and many of God’s people) by storing up food, based on God’s revelation to Joseph.

And so…in a position to strike back at his brothers and in their attempt to deceive Joseph (yet again), Joseph leads with grace. And grace sets people free…it sets Joseph free…it sets free Joseph’s brothers and their families…it breaks the cycle of violence.

A (Application): Loving our neighbor. Will this help us to break the cycles of violence and deception all around us? We are a violent and cynical people, quicker to react than to think.

Joseph had justification for denying forgiveness and mercy to his brothers. In fact, you may have had a negative reaction towards Joseph…like he was weak or soft. Well…depends on the perspective. What is the end game? Retribution? And end to violence?Reconciliation?

I’ll take reconciliation any time…apology, forgiveness, moving forward together. We catch a glimpse of this in Joseph’s story.

How has this worked itself out in your life? Did you need to apologize? Did you need to forgive? If both have applied to you, have you moved forward together?

P (Prayer): Forgiving Lord, you call us to be reconciled to one another, just as we have been reconciled to you. Aid us in this effort. Amen.


Owning Our Junk

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S (Scripture): Genesis 32:22 Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. 24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”

But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”

27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.”

29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”

But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there.

O (Observation): Name changes in the Old Testament are very significant. Sometimes places are named or re-named. Sometimes people are given new names:

Abram->Abraham, Sarai->Sarah, Jacob->Israel, etc.

In every case, the name means something in the Hebrew language. Where Jacob wrestled with God, Jacob re-names that place Peniel (which translates to “face of God,” since Jacob “sort of saw God” there).

Jacob’s name has been the subject of much study and contemplation. A quick read through Genesis shows that Jacob sort of usurped the birthright and blessing from his older twin, Esau. Jacob’s name can be translated as “heel / trickster / overreacher / supplanter.” This indeed describes Jacob’s actions regarding Esau.

And as Jacob wrestled with God (or an angel of God?), God asks Jacob to let him go. Jacob will not, without a blessing. All of this wrestling is good and well, but finally, God asks Jacob to say his own name: JACOB.

In speaking his own name (usurper / supplanter) Jacob is almost confessing before God. Jacob is owning up to his name: usurper!

And instead of replying with a name, God simply blesses Jacob, and gives him a new name: ISRAEL. Traditionally, this is translated: “he struggles with God.” However, some suggest a better linguistic etymology results in the following: “God struggles” or “God rules.”

God rules. God struggles.

A (Application): Owning our own junk is the talk of the news stations: school shootings, affairs, politics. We all have junk we gotta own up to. As scary as this is, God wishes for us to wrestle with these things. Privately, publicly, depends on the situation. But a confession is sought after, especially when harm is done to another.

God continues to wrestle with us. To bring us back to loving one another. To bring us to a place in which compassion for our fellow human beings is paramount.

Instead, we draw up borders, pick up guns, and spend our time arguing how to keep people out. We think defense is the only priority. That if we don’t “defend ourselves” progress will halt. That we will revert back to colonial times or “have to start learning to speak Spanish or Arabic.”

In the meantime, shootings are happening almost daily…people are being beaten and killed because of their sexual orientation…parents are ripped away from their children, because we don’t have a good plan for immigration…DACA recipients who would contribute greatly with the resources here in America will be going “underground” and not be able to acquire or use a college degree…as others remain homeless, and the hungry remain hungry.

What are our priorities? God wrestles with us as we contemplate these things. And maybe before God blesses us…we will have to speak our name… that we might have to own up to our role as “usurper / supplanter.”

P (Prayer): God, help us to own our own junk. To confess to you, to receive forgiveness from you and to find a new identity in you. Amen.


Somehow…God Redeems

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S (Scripture): Genesis 27:5 Rebekah was listening when Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau went out to the field to hunt game to bring back, 6 Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “I just heard your father saying to your brother Esau, 7 ‘Bring me some game and make me some delicious food so I can eat, and I will bless you in the Lord’s presence before I die.’ 8 Now, my son, listen to me, to what I’m telling you to do. 9 Go to the flock and get me two healthy young goats so I can prepare them as the delicious food your father loves. 10 You can bring it to your father, he will eat, and then he will bless you before he dies.”

O (Observation): Rebekah and Jacob (mother and son) conspire to steal Esau’s blessing as first-born son. (Yes, Jacob and Esau are twins, but Esau was born first. And in Hebrew tradition, first-born gets a double-portion of the inheritance.)

How conniving and under-handed is this! Rebekah leads this endeavor, and Jacob is not only complicit, he outright lies to his own father. And he succeeds in receiving Isaac’s blessing of Esau’s inheritance.

And over time, God is referred to as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and not Esau). How bizarre! Such a terrible act…and somehow, Isaac’s descendants are still blessed and numerous and destined to still have descendants who will honor God…one of whom will eventually bring salvation to all: Jesus!

Later on in Genesis, we will see a reckoning between Jacob and Esau…but the origins of this story are quite challenging.

(But we also cannot forget the Lord’s word to Rebekah when she was pregnant. God said to her in Gen 25:23 –

“Two nations are in your womb;
two different peoples will emerge from your body.
One people will be stronger than the other;
the older will serve the younger.”

Is this God fulfilling God’s prophetic word? Did God simply foresee this action by Rebekah and Jacob? Did this impact Rebekah’s decision to choose Jacob?)

A (Application): What can this mean? Should we go around bringing about thievery and deceit? I should think NOT!

Instead, I am led to think this: even through our deceit and misdeeds…God can still work through our crap and redeem God’s promises.

We make monumental mistakes at times, but God somehow finds a way to work within our systems and makes a way forward.

Where have you seen God working out a plan through your own faults and misdeeds?

Every day, as a husband and parent, I see my own mistakes and wonder how God will work through me and my family, even though I find ways to mess things up? And the church I serve…how does God cover my faults or the faults of our leadership (for none of us is perfect)?

Perhaps being the Church means we are redeemed and covered through God’s forgiveness. Yes. I believe this is the only way I can contribute to God’s work in this world – as a forgiven sinner, redeemed by God’s grace.

P (Prayer): Lord, our misdeeds do not define us. Being your daughters and sons define us. Peace.


We Pray: God Provide!

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S (Scripture): Genesis 22:6 Abraham took the wood for the entirely burned offering and laid it on his son Isaac. He took the fire and the knife in his hand, and the two of them walked on together. 7 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father?”

Abraham said, “I’m here, my son.”

Isaac said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the entirely burned offering?”

8 Abraham said, “The lamb for the entirely burned offering? God will see to it, my son.” The two of them walked on together.

9 They arrived at the place God had described to him. Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son Isaac and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice. 11 But the Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham from heaven, “Abraham? Abraham?”

Abraham said, “I’m here.”

12 The messenger said, “Don’t stretch out your hand against the young man, and don’t do anything to him. I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.” 13 Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the dense underbrush. Abraham went over, took the ram, and offered it as an entirely burned offering instead of his son. 14 Abraham named that place “the Lord sees.” That is the reason people today say, “On this mountain the Lord is seen.”

O (Observation): A very interesting story, indeed. Some look at this story and are appalled at such a disturbing set of circumstances. Some see this story as supporting child sacrifice (which cannot be further from the truth). Some see this story as the beginning of support for animal sacrifice.

Abraham has done almost everything God has asked, to this point. Abraham has been willing to follow God, but took one interesting part into his own hands (fathering a son, Ishmael, with his servant, Hagar). God called Abraham. God does not control Abraham.

So, God sets out for one final test…and does not fail Abraham. Isaac is bound (“akedah” in Hebrew). Bound, Isaac is about to be sacrificed to God. Abraham has been faithful, knowing all along that in some way, God will provide. Will God being Isaac back from the dead? What will happen?

God provides. God provides a ram, caught in the thicket. Abraham is faithful, even to the point of giving full dependence upon God. Even giving up the son that he loves dearly…the son promised by God.

A (Application): The father / son language is reiterated over and over again. You see very clearly the connection and relationship and wonder where the Good News is in this story.

As Abraham knows, God provides. In my study on this text, I came across the following, and leave it here for your reading, in hopes that you can see the Good News in such a text….the Good News that foreshadows Jesus the Christ:

The story of the akedah makes a claim on us: All that we have, even our own lives and those of the ones most dear to us, belong ultimately to God, who gave them to us in the first place. The story of the akedah assures us that God will provide, that God will be present. And, of course, as generations of Christian interpreters have seen, it foreshadows the story that forms the foundation of Christian faith – the story of the death and resurrection of the beloved son,5 son of Abraham, son of David, Son of God.

– Kathryn M. S Hoffner decker, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2138

P (Prayer): Lord, you always provide for us. Help us to see your provisions around us. Amen.