Stewardship, via Paul

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S (Scripture): Romans 15:24 I’ll visit you when I go to Spain. I hope to see you while I’m passing through. And I hope you will send me on my way there, after I have first been reenergized by some time in your company.

25 But now I’m going to Jerusalem, to serve God’s people. 26 Macedonia and Achaia have been happy to make a contribution for the poor among God’s people in Jerusalem. 27 They were happy to do this, and they are actually in debt to God’s people in Jerusalem. If the Gentiles got a share of the Jewish people’s spiritual resources, they ought to minister to them with material resources. 28 So then after I have finished this job and have safely delivered the final amount of the Gentiles’ offering to them, I will leave for Spain, visiting you on the way.

O (Observation): Paul is continuing his way to Spain, but first, a stop along the way…to Jerusalem. He wishes to drop off an offering made to the Jewish Christians by Gentile Christians living in Macedonia and Achaia. Paul recognizes that all Gentile Christians are indebted to Jewish Christians (from a spiritual perspective). Without the Jewish people, Christians (especially those who were Gentiles) would still not have a home. They are the branch grafted into the tree.

So, a material offering after receiving a spiritual one.

A (Application): Offering is an essential element to one’s faith development. We receive spiritual blessing when we give and when we receive. The hurdles we have to jump over, however, can be quite daunting.

Debt – I have debt. How can I give? Carefully, that’s how. I know debt. We are still working our way out of debt, personally. It means we choose not to have too much luxury, yet still give 10% of our funds away. The blessings come back. Not in the form of a nice car, but in the peace of knowing that God provides for me and my family.

I have no money at the end of the month – God certainly doesn’t wish for us to be broke. That’s why each is called to give a portion, not a set amount. As you begin to give a portion week after week, month after month, you will notice a strange thing. You made it through the month. But this means you prioritize giving at the beginning of your budget, not “if we have any left over” at the end of the month. Try it. Just for a month. Set aside some percentage. Declare to yourself or spouse or kids: we will give X% this month, and see how it goes by the end of the month. This practice might even help you to start looking at saving some money each month, too!

I want what I give to apply to me – The folks in Macedonia and Achaia gave because the church in Jerusalem needed help. They knew they wouldn’t see direct effects from those gifts. Yet they gave anyway. When we give to God through church offerings, we apply that to the entire ministry of the congregation. The dollar you give may affect youth, publications, maintenance on the building, and more. You will definitely see some impact, but think in terms of ministries being worked on through the congregation, not just return for ministries centered around you. In the end, you will see blessing and God’s abundance.

Consider your gifts. Time and talents are noteworthy stewardship gifts. So is the treasure God has entrusted into your care. The amounts given are not what is vital; rather, your struggle with how much to give is the crucible in which faith can be formed.

P (Prayer): Lord, teach us to give and to receive. 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.

Save Me, Lord

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S (Scripture): Romans 3:9 So what are we saying? Are we better off? Not at all. We have already stated the charge: both Jews and Greeks are all under the power of sin. 10 As it is written,

There is no righteous person, not even one.

11 

There is no one who understands.

    There is no one who looks for God.

12 

They all turned away.

    They have become worthless together.

There is no one who shows kindness.

    There is not even one.

O (Observation): Here, when Paul says “we,” he is referring to the Jews who follow Christ. He wants to ask if the Jews have an advantage over the Gentile Christians, since the Jews had the Scriptures from which to study and learn about God. But even with the Scriptures, they have to realize that even they – as first recipients of God’s covenants – are sinful, too!

Paul uses Scripture to support the notion that no one people are immune from the power of sin, not even the Jews.

The words above in italics are Psalm 14:1-3. From the Scriptures, Paul reminds the Jewish Christians that none are without sin.

A (Application): While this all seems hopeless, we also keep in mind that God’s grace saves us all. The reminder of sin affecting us all is simply a tool for humility. We (however defined) are not by default better than anyone else. We all sin. And so therefore any good we do comes because we are forgiven – forgiven sinners, but still forgiven.

So the ground upon which we stand as forgiven people is established God, by Jesus suffering, dying, and being resurrected.

Therefore, we ALL can receive grace. We ALL can receive mercy. Not by our own doing, but by what God has done for us, for me.

P (Prayer): Lord, save me, a sinner. 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.

Do We Get a Cheat Sheet?

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S (Scripture): Acts 15:6 The apostles and the elders gathered to consider this matter [of circumcision]. 7 After much debate, Peter stood and addressed them, “Fellow believers, you know that, early on, God chose me from among you as the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and come to believe. 8 God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith. 10 Why then are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we and they are saved in the same way, by the grace of the Lord Jesus.”

12 The entire assembly fell quiet as they listened to Barnabas and Paul describe all the signs and wonders God did among the Gentiles through their activity. 13 When Barnabas and Paul also fell silent, James responded, “Fellow believers, listen to me. 14 Simon reported how, in his kindness, God came to the Gentiles in the first place, to raise up from them a people of God. 15 The prophets’ words agree with this; as it is written,

16 

After this I will return,

        and I will rebuild David’s fallen tent;

        I will rebuild what has been torn down.

            I will restore it

17 

            so that the rest of humanity will seek the Lord,

                even all the Gentiles who belong to me.

O (Observation): The leadership of the Church fathers in Jerusalem for what becomes known as The Jerusalem Council. At the council, circumcision is discussed.Is it necessary – or not – for one to be circumcised before one can become a Christian?

For those who never ventured out to foreign lands nor turned their attention to any wisdom other than their own teachings, OF COURSE one must be circumcised FIRST!

Yet to folks like Peter and Paul and Barnabbas, who remained open to God’s movement and actually paid attention to the Gentile population, they witnessed God inviting ALL people into the fold. So for the disciples and Paul, of course we welcome in all who accept Jesus Christ without the need for circumcision.

What matters are two things: 1.) in the quote from Amos we see above, God has already, from time immemorial, welcomed who all seek to call on God’s name – Jew and Gentile; and, 2.) as Peter claims, we are saved by grace and no work from the Law of Moses.

A (Application): Where do we spend our time? Is it looking only at our own teachings and customs? Or do we spend time in places we aren’t comfortable and learning about religions and customs other than our own?

Seems to me that this text is really, really challenging us to open our eyes to the new thing God has done, is doing, and will do.

When do we ever stop thinking and just get a list of rules to live by as Christians? The answer is: never.

So, we must be ready to listen. How do we do that? With practice.

We listen and share what God has spoken to us. We share with other Christians to confer with other disciples and we move forward in grace.

Most of all, we remember how we got to where we are as Christians: through grace.

P (Prayer): Lord, remind us of our humble nature as Christians. Help us to listen to your voice. Amen.

God Remains Steadfast

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S (Scripture): 2 Samuel 22:1 David spoke the words of this song to the Lord after the Lord delivered him from the power of all his enemies and from Saul.

2

He said:

The Lord is my solid rock, my fortress, my rescuer.

3

My God is my rock—I take refuge in him!—

he’s my shield and my salvation’s strength,

my place of safety and my shelter.

My savior! Save me from violence!

4

Because he is praiseworthy,

I cried out to the Lord,

and I was saved from my enemies.

5

Death’s waves were all around me;

rivers of wickedness terrified me.

6

The cords of the grave surrounded me;

death’s traps held me tight.

7

In my distress I cried out to the Lord;

I cried out to my God.

God heard my voice from his temple;

my cry for help reached his ears.

O (Observation): David has had quite the wild ride: anointed as king in private while Saul was still king, rose to power, battled those loyal to Saul, ran from Saul and his supporters, returned to power, then ran from his throne when one of Saul’s sons wanted to kill David, and finally back home again on the throne God prepared for him.

And now, in the wake of these disasters and for God’s loyal love and faithfulness to David through it all, David sings God’s praises. For David recognizes that God carries forth no matter what is going on in our lives. God continually watches over us and provides grace for when we go astray or when we are under attack.

David knows that – despite all of the ups and downs – God is constant and unmoved and full of grace.

A (Application): I don’t know how the Jewish community would take a text like this one I selected, and agree with David, in light of the terrorist attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue near Pittsburgh, PA.

Perhaps they would see that God, in all of our ups and downs, is with us. That when we are feeling high and mighty, God is with us. That when we are feeling loneliness and despair and sorrow, God is with us there, too.

My deepest sympathies go out to the family and friends of those who died last Saturday at this temple.

I am also encouraged by the responses thus far. Responses that include Muslim neighbors stating that they are prepared to donate at least $70,000 for the families who lost loved ones or were injured, and that they are willing to provide protection to anyone who feels unsafe.

I am encouraged by Jewish leaders across the nation who have shared that LOVE will win this day, and not darkness.

I am encouraged that – despite the dividing rhetoric being spewed these days – we can see people coming together.

May we celebrate God’s ongoing righteousness and steadfast love, especially in the midst of such challenging circumstances.

P (Prayer): Lord, guide us always into peace, into shalom. Amen.

Jesus and/or Tradition?

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S (Scripture): John 10:22 The time came for the Festival of Dedication in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was in the temple, walking in the covered porch named for Solomon. 24 The Jewish opposition circled around him and asked, “How long will you test our patience? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”

25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, but you don’t believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you don’t believe because you don’t belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice. I know them and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life. They will never die, and no one will snatch them from my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them from my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”

31 Again the Jewish opposition picked up stones in order to stone him. 32 Jesus responded, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of those works do you stone me?”

33 The Jewish opposition answered, “We don’t stone you for a good work but for insulting God. You are human, yet you make yourself out to be God.”

O (Observation): Jesus challenges his opponents once again to share in what manner He has done anything to cause them to want to stone him. He stumps them!

The Jewish leadership at the time felt that Jesus was insulting God. They couldn’t pick out any of Jesus’ actions, so they went for a subjective argument. “You insult God.”

Well, depends on your presuppositions, no? If you assume that your teaching trumps what is right in front of you, then yes, Jesus insults God. But if one were to take a different perspective one might find that Jesus can be the fulfillment of what God was working through.

A (Application): I’ve heard folks say that Jesus is great, even apart from the Old Testament. Well, might I suggest that Jesus is the fulfillment of our God’s thoughts and actions from throughout history – yes, including the Old Testament.

God formed the world and set people to work. They came together and fell apart. They followed God and they didn’t follow God.

Ultimately, God allowed God’s people to do their own thing. After all, God is not in the business of coercing those he loves to follow. As a result God’s people were scattered throughout the Middle East. Their religious center was shifted, but a remnant remained. They carried on the faith and developed quite some number of rules that either they or their ancestors set forth for good order and teaching.

With that in mind, surely Jesus causes feathers to be ruffled. But Jesus is also the reminder that God continues to stick by God’s people. The promises of old start coming into fruition.

The move Jesus makes is to remind God’s people that God has always loved al people. Previously, God showed that love through a certain people: The Jews. Now, God shows the world love in the person of Jesus.

The tradition challenges us. The history makes us think that nothing radical will work. We feel we must keep the institution. And so, we are challenged. Like the Jews of old, we must determine what holds true.

Do we hang solely on tradition? Do we scrap it all and follow Jesus – standing in front of us? Do we try to weave together tradition and our God, Jesus, standing before us today?

May we choose wisely and may God grant us grace.

P (Prayer): Lord, today we continue to pray for all who suffer from loss of life and injury in the wake of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, PA. Amen.

Jesus – the Great “I Am”

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S (Scripture): John 8:56 (Jesus said to the Jewish leaders) “Your father Abraham was overjoyed that he would see my day. He saw it and was happy.”

57 “You aren’t even 50 years old!” the Jewish opposition replied. “How can you say that you have seen Abraham?”

58 “I assure you,” Jesus replied, “before Abraham was, I Am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and left the temple.

O (Observation): The Jewish leaders were quite upset that Jesus would dare to equate himself with the great “I AM”! They were so indignant they wished to throw stones at Jesus! A visceral response to such a bold statement. They didn’t even try to think it through or pray about it. Just a knee-jerk reaction.

Jesus was right, but the Jewish leaders couldn’t let go of their systemic religious priorities: God is one! No other God comes before the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

God’s people were wrong.

A (Application): Feels nice to have 2,000 years of the Christian Church to look back and say to these Jewish leaders: “Fools!” Don’t you know?!?! This is Jesus, the one promised of old to Abraham, David, and the prophets. Jesus is the ONE to make all things new!”

But wait…we have had 2,000 years to decipher this truth.

And to this day, we still struggle with believing. In fact even Jesus’ disciples struggled.

So, what do we make of all this? Should we throw faith and belief away? Certainly not!

Perhaps knowing that God’s people got God wrong leads us to remember that we can also get God wring from time to time. Maybe we can be so wrong about how God works.

But we hold on to faith that Jesus is the I AM. Jesus is God in the flesh. He heals. He makes us one with God.

Perhaps that is enough. To know that I was baptized into a death like his, that I might walk around today as one forgiven and set free to love God and neighbor.

P (Prayer): Lord, may we receive your Spirit to help guide and direct us this day. Amen.

Here’s a Box…Do you fit in it?

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S (Scripture): Mark 7:24 Jesus left that place and went into the region of Tyre. He didn’t want anyone to know that he had entered a house, but he couldn’t hide. 25 In fact, a woman whose young daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard about him right away. She came and fell at his feet. 26 The woman was Greek, Syrophoenician by birth. She begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter. 27 He responded, “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

28 But she answered, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

29 “Good answer!” he said. “Go on home. The demon has already left your daughter.” 30 When she returned to her house, she found the child lying on the bed and the demon gone.

O (Observation): Jesus has just finished talking to a bunch of Pharisees who don’t like that his disciples eat with “unclean” hands. Jesus reminds them that what comes out of a person (based on the heart) is what defiles a person, not what is on the outside (religious inheritance, laws, rituals).

He turns to the crowd and reminds them of the same idea:

Mark 7:20 “It’s what comes out of a person that contaminates someone in God’s sight,” Jesus said. 21 “It’s from the inside, from the human heart, that evil thoughts come…”

As Jesus tries to go off for a few moments of solitude, he is encountered by a Syrophoenecian woman…a Greek. Remember, Jesus just got done telling the Pharisees and the crowd that no one is clean, Jew or Greek, for all fall prey to the heart’s desires…to evil.

So should Jesus engage this non-Jew with grace? This seems to be Jesus needing to put his money where his mouth is : ) A Greek wishes for Jesus to heal her daughter. Perhaps that is all the faith Jesus needs to see to heal the daughter. No creed. No statement of faith. Just acknowledgement and tenacity.

Jesus seems to be convinced that even though the “children” need to eat first, perhaps this woman knows the abundance of Jesus’ grace will so fill up the table that there will be plenty of crumbs to spare…and that is all she’s asking for. Just a crumb. To heal her daughter.

A (Application): What boxes do we draw around the ones who can receive God’s grace? Who’s inside of that box? Who’s outside of that box? Are we willing to accept that God works in the hearts and minds of those who don’t know Christ the same way we do?

What if we grew up in the Church? Does that mean my privilege precludes others from receiving grace? Like it’s a set size of a pie, and I need to get my slice before someone else? If they came late to the party, oh well…that’s there fault. I don’t think so.

Jesus reminds us that our external affiliations (I.e. religion, denomination, heritage, etc) does not give us a special place to the exclusion of others. We are all open to receiving grace and giving grace. Jesus’ abundance of healing and grace is our witness.

So give the grace. There is more where that came from.

P (Prayer): Lord, give us grace to give to others. Amen.