Your Gifts: Will They Help or Hinder?

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S (Scripture): Luke 1:30 The angel said [to Mary], “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”

O (Observation): Mary is stunned, perplexed, unaware of why this strange, angelic visitor has come to visit. This is indeed a kairos – a holy moment in which God is speaking to Mary. This visit reveals a promise made by God to Mary and to all of humanity.

This promise brings hope. This promise reminds God’s people that God continues to make good on God’s promises. That even in the midst of uncertainty, God is present.

And yet, Mary must wait a little longer. It will be years before she has real evidence of the promise of this child’s saving grace.

For now, she accepts the Lord’s promise. She accepts this child. And she will be blessed. Yet in the end, she will see her Son’s death. She doesn’t know that now. Even if she knew of his death, she would not be able to completely perceive another promise that would come after that: the Holy Spirit.

Surprise. Consternation. Hope. Grief. Promise.

Mary’s life. Our life.

A (Application): What gives us hope this day? We have seen protests, riots, deaths of black people by white officers, confederate monuments ordered or simply torn down, a virus that silently kills and spreads…

We are a people poised for a word of hope. What happens when our hope lies with our military, our President, our own strength as individuals or a nation? We find a solution, perhaps, but only a temporary one.

Our money, our power, our strength.

These can be used for good. Yet our brokenness causes us to use these gifts of money, power and strength for our own use.

What would happen if we shared those God-given gifts? I wonder what would happen if people used those gifts for others?

We might see cures for our illnesses. We might see healing between neighbors. We might see strength in the face of natural disaster responses. I have seen these myself – I know healing is possible.

We have a lot of hope left. We have Jesus Christ, our saving grace and the giver of the Holy Spirit, by his death.

We have the Spirit to guide us into conversations that will help us to see from one another’s perspectives. To use our gifts to build us up, rather than help us to tear one another down.

We have so much hope. Let us use it for good. For the sake of the other.

P (Prayer): Gracious God, give us pause this day to consider how we will use our gifts. To help or to hinder? Amen.

Following Where Called

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S (Scripture): Mark 12: [The Pharisees asked Jesus]: “Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay taxes or not?”

15 Since Jesus recognized the Pharisees’ deceit, he said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a coin. Show it to me.” 16 And they brought one. He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

17 Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” His reply left them overcome with wonder.

O (Observation): Allegiance. Can the religious authorities paint Jesus into a corner? Would Jesus defy governing authorities and tell God-followers NOT to pay taxes? Or would Jesus side with the government, telling God’s people to align with the government?

Well, how about both?

The Pharisees wanted Jesus to admit to breaking either the religious Law or the government law. If Jesus says it is NOT in line with the Law (The Torah), and tells people not to pay government taxes, then Jesus stands in contempt of the ruling authority, and could be imprisoned. If Jesus says it is NOT against the Law, then he looks like he is condoning the leadership and authority of Caesar over and above allegiance to God!

Jesus doesn’t fall for it. Jesus recognizes that God’s people live in a broken world. Jesus recognizes that the worldly realm is sometimes subject to governing authorities. Those governing authorities – though imperfect – can be followed to an extent. These authorities may rule over money or position in the world, but what does God oversee? What is God’s realm?

God’s realm includes all of this that Jesus has spoken of, and more. And so, God’s people are called to give all that is God’s back to God. That includes life itself.

A (Application): Jesus is not asking us to align with God or the government authorities. Jesus seems to be asking us to give all of who we are to God (emotions, finances, physical being, soul, etc.). That part in this worldly realm (home, finances, possessions, etc.) that are given to the government does not make one disloyal to God.

In my estimation, we give our lives – as Christians – to our God. All that we say and do is to give glory to God. Treating our possessions as if we earned them, but also as if we can freely give them to those in need, is somewhat getting to the point. Yes, earned them, but yes, they belong to God.

I most often attempt this understanding by giving a tithe to the church and paying my quarterly estimated taxes to the government. I want the water department to come and quickly repair a leak in a burst pipe that caused water to spurt out from beneath the driveway near the sidewalk at my house. I love newly paved roads. I like having a government in place. I also like supporting God’s work through the Church.

Yet the government and authorities will not be my only guidance. I will seek truth and justice and peace, and give my allegiance to God. Sometimes that will be in line with the government, and sometimes not.

I will diligently and prayerfully give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. That takes prayers and discernment. I will look to my wife and friends and those I trust to help me discern. I’m sure the Spirit will have something to say in the midst of all of that.

P (Prayer): Gracious God, give me a discerning spirit to follow as you call me and those around me to comply when for the good of all and to confront when any of us is oppressed. Amen.

Take My Life, That I May Be…

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S (Scripture): Mark 10:25 [Jesus said to his disciples] “It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”

26 They were shocked even more and said to each other, “Then who can be saved?”

27 Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible for God.”

28 Peter said to him, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you.”

29 Jesus said, “I assure you that anyone who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, or farms because of me and because of the good news 30 will receive one hundred times as much now in this life—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and farms (with harassment)—and in the coming age, eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first.”

O (Observation): A man had just come up to Jesus to ask about inheriting eternal life. Jesus told the man that keeping the commandments was great, but that he lacked one thing: sell all your goods and give to the poor. The man went away saddened. He had many possessions.

Jesus lets the disciples know that possessions have a way of infecting one’s priorities. To let these go, in favor of allowing God to supply our needs.

Herein lies the crux: what we need, God provides.

When they give up possessions, they will actually gain. Maybe their names won’t be on the deed or the registration form, but the disciples will have access to the homes and food of others. And much more importantly, one will gain relationships of many shapes and forms, such that they will lack for nothing emotionally.

A (Application): Jesus turns to the disciples to teach them of the challenges of riches. We become slaves to our possessions. We become possessed by our possessions. When we have much to lose (in terms of possessions) we feel threatened when those might be taken away.

This feeling makes us rulers of our own worlds. We have to dominate. We have to be right. We have to smartly plan our entire lives, for we are in control.

We see letting go of things as weakness; Jesus sees letting go as a strength.

We think the one with the most toys wins; Jesus says the one who gives up the most has the most to gain (again, not gained as in “owned,” but a sharing and a building of relationships comes forth).

The more we let go, the less we have to worry about losing. The more we leave behind, the more (stuff, relationship, faith) becomes available to us. The more we let go of control, the more we can fully rely on God.

P (Prayer): Jesus, take my life that I may be consecrated, Lord, for thee. Amen.

Click here for a YouTube video of the hymn “Take My Life, That I May Be.”

Innovation after Information and Imitation

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S (Scripture): Mark 6:7 He called for the Twelve and sent them out in pairs. He gave them authority over unclean spirits. 8 He instructed them to take nothing for the journey except a walking stick—no bread, no bags, and no money in their belts.

O (Observation): Jesus begins to move his disciples from observers to actors in this movement. They have followed Jesus. They have witnessed his powerful deeds. Now, they are to act. Not of their own accord. They act with the authority of Jesus.

A (Application): How many of you were experts in what you did on day 1? None of us! We all have a learning curve. We all start somewhere.

First, we need information. We need to know the possibilities of what exists.

Second, we need someone to imitate. At this point, Jesus has been giving his disciples something to imitate: exorcising demons, healing, preaching, and more.

Who in your life taught you – through knowledge and imitation? Who “showed you the ropes”? For me, it was my parents and coaches.

Having been involved with sports for much of my life, and part of that in coaching baseball, football, and softball, I know that you give young kids knowledge and skill training. That all leads to the final step: INNOVATION!

We always want to jump right to innovation. Go out there and do it! Catch that pass. Dig in and stop that grounder. Hit that ball over the fence.

Not always easy. But when you tell them how to do it. And you SHOW them how to do it. That’s when you see the players start to soar – start to innovate! That’s when you see a player start to come into their own.

Information. Imitation. Innovation.

Jesus uses this pattern to tell, show, and empower his disciples. He very particularly gives them authority. Maybe akin to a coach pumping up their players and telling them: “you can do this!”

I’m seeing a lot of innovation out there these days. We have all heard and seen how to do ministry. Now, we are all learning how to do this online or in person in ways that are creative and loving (following all due safety measures, of course).

It’s almost as if God’s people have collectivity heard Jesus say: “Go. I give you authority to creatively make ministry happen. To share my love with the world. To honor and love one another. You can do this!”

Folks, you are doing it. You are making ministry happen in innovative ways. Keep it up. And when this pandemic is over…think about how to move forward in ways that help s to be the church in the world.

P (Prayer): Lord, we give you thanks for your witness. We will follow and be witnesses for others. Amen.

Our God Who Confounds Us

S (Scripture): (2 Scriptures today)

Psalm 48

12

Walk around Zion;

    go all the way around it;

    count its towers.

13 

Examine its defenses closely;

    tour its fortifications

    so that you may tell future generations:

14 

“This is God,

    our God, forever and always!

    He is the one who will lead us

    even to the very end.”

Mark 2 (Jesus Heals and Forgives the Paralytic Man)

1 After a few days, Jesus went back to Capernaum, and people heard that he was at home. 2 So many gathered that there was no longer space, not even near the door. Jesus was speaking the word to them.

O (Observation): The people of God at the time of the psalms point to God as one who overwhelms us through awe and majesty and glory. And this God will lead us to the end.

Jesus, early in the Gospel of Mark, is about to forgive and heal a man born paralyzed. This brings awe and majesty to God, but in a very different way. This does not reduce God’s majesty, but rather augments the way in which God acts: through forgiveness and healing.

What do God’s people see? Powerful acts of God come through the majestic city of Zion and now, through Jesus in a defiant act of forgiveness and healing – defiant, for it was not the accepted way.

A (Application): Good Friday is upon us. I see two stark images from these texts. In the psalm, God’s city is majestic and holy. Where Jesus is on the cross, the city has been overrun by politics and an earthly emperor. In the Mark text, a crowd gathers for the awe that Jesus brings, and now, so few gather around Jesus on the cross – only his dedicated followers are with him – plenty of room.

And yet these starkly contrasting images blend together in a beautiful tapestry.

Bold, majestic, beautiful Zion. This is our God.

Emptied, suffering, dying. This is our God.

Both for our sake. Both to point to the true nature of our God – mighty, meek, gentle, healing, sacrificing.

This is Good Friday.

May we be blessed.

May the emptiness fill us this day.

P (Prayer): Gracious God, empty us of selfish desires and full us with your love. Amen.

To the Earth’s Guardians on Maundy Thursday

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S (Scripture): Psalm 47

God is king over the nations.

    God sits on his holy throne.

The leaders of all people are gathered

    with the people of Abraham’s God

    because the earth’s guardians belong to God;

        God is exalted beyond all.

O (Observation): The people of God assume that all people will eventually praise God. All will praise God for God is sovereign Christ over all the earth. Not a dictator, but a benevolent ruler, seeking the good for all people.

The people may not all be unified in belief or allegiance, but they will all recognize God in some form or fashion, because all belong to God.

A (Application): It’s been a minute folks. I have not posted in over a month, I think. I am happy that Holy Week is my venture back into this possibility of promise and praise of our God.

I am weary, as most of us are these days.

I celebrated my 19th anniversary with my lovely wife, while we are locked down at home. I stay busy working from home, equipping our ELCA congregations in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. I teach my children when they get stuck with schoolwork, and I try to not annoy my wife too much : )

We are all weary. This week, today, in fact, we remember Jesus gives a true example of what it means to be a servant-leader. A servant-leader will get down on a knee and do something as lowly as wash feet. Will give fully of their self, even to the point of pouring one’s self out completely. This is Maundy Thursday.

This example is why people will flock to our God, why all the earth’s guardians will bend their knees. Not out of compulsion or force. Rather, the earth’s guardians flock to our God, for our God is a just and benevolent God, who – in the form of Jesus – first bent the knee to serve us.

Blessed Maundy Thursday, folks. Be well.

P (Prayer): Lord God, you first served us. Help us now to use that example to serve others. Amen.

Abundance Now

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S (Scripture): Matthew 14:15 That evening Jesus’ disciples came and said to him, “This is an isolated place and it’s getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

16 But Jesus said to them, “There’s no need to send them away. You give them something to eat.”

17 They replied, “We have nothing here except five loaves of bread and two fish.”

18 He said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. He took the five loaves of bread and the two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed them and broke the loaves apart and gave them to his disciples. Then the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 Everyone ate until they were full, and they filled twelve baskets with the leftovers. 21 About five thousand men plus women and children had eaten.

O (Observation): Scarcity. Too little. Not enough. Yet, miraculously, enough. How? Through Jesus’ blessing.

I love how Jesus turns the emphasis away from himself when told they would not have enough to feed the crowd. Jesus tells them, “You give them something to eat.”

So Jesus takes what is given – 5 loaves, 2 fish. Jesus blesses that. And that is enough. That is abundance.

A (Application): How often do we think: I don’t have enough time / money / power / influence?

Jesus tells us to bring to him what we have. Let Jesus bless what we do have, instead of bemoaning what we don’t.

Then go and make a difference in the world. Go and see to it that others know from where your abundance comes: through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lived and died, who defies the logic of this world and brings to bear the strange economics of grace and abundance in the midst of our world of scarcity and brokenness.

P (Prayer): Lord, open our eyes to the abundance of gifts set before us and in us. Amen.

Get On the Dance Floor

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S (Scripture): Matthew 11:16 [Jesus says to the crowd:]: “To what will I compare this generation? It is like a child sitting in the marketplaces calling out to others, 17 ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song and you didn’t mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 Yet the Human One came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved to be right by her works.”

O (Observation): Jesus has a way of making sure folks know what the most important thing is in a particular moment. He sharpens the focus such that no other conclusion can be drawn out: God is in your midst, dummies! : )

Folks ain’t dancin’ and they’re callin’ Jesus a drunk and a sinner. They are stuck with their current view of religion. Don’t associate with “those” people.

Well, “those” people are included in the big dance. We just don’t wanna believe it!

A (Application): Who are we letting into the circle of Christian fellowship? Well, first of all, it’s not up to us to “let” people in – God already invited all humanity to love and serve one another.

Well, who are we okay with joining in? Will we sabotage their dance? Will we be happy they are joining along? Perhaps not.

Yet we dance on anyway!!!

Just because we don’t understand or approve of someone else, perhaps God does understand.

God is continually waking us up and inviting us into the dance. As we follow Jesus, we can’t help but dance.

I pray the Spirit moves us to show the world this dance, and that they might be inspired to join in.

P (Prayer): Lord of the Dance…get us all movin’! 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.

Authority

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S (Scripture): Matthew 9:1 Boarding a boat, Jesus crossed to the other side of the lake and went to his own city. 2 People brought to him a man who was paralyzed, lying on a cot. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man who was paralyzed, “Be encouraged, my child, your sins are forgiven.”

3 Some legal experts said among themselves, “This man is insulting God.”

4 But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said, “Why do you fill your minds with evil things? 5 Which is easier—to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 6 But so you will know that the Human One has authority on the earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“Get up, take your cot, and go home.” 7 The man got up and went home. 8 When the crowds saw what had happened, they were afraid and praised God, who had given such authority to human beings.

O (Observation): What a shock Jesus’ words must have been! “Your sins are forgiven”!!!! Jesus stuns the crowd. Why? Why rock the boat?

Jesus dares not mince words. Jesus has a mission. That mission includes not only physical, but also spiritual healing. Others have shown powers of healing. No one has proclaimed forgiveness of sins!

If Jesus can heal a person’s deeper, spiritual concerns, certainly Jesus can heal someone’s physical needs.

A (Application): The crowd recognizes one, most important matter: God has give. Authority to human beings…to forgive one another.

How often do we go to one another for forgiveness? Aren’t we too ashamed? Too worried about showing fault? Too…

Yet the result is freedom. Pure, unadulterated freedom. No catch. No gotcha.

The Gospel frees us of such worries.

We are free to stand up, take our mats, and walk.

We can receive words of forgiveness from one another.

P (Prayer): Lord, free me from the guilt my most grievous faults, of all my faults. Amen.