April 3, 2019- The Widow’s Mite, the Shema, and the First Commandment-Mark 12:41-44, Deuteronomy 6:4-8, Matthew 22:34-40

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And he (Jesus) sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.  For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Mark 12:41-44 (ESV)

Jesus’ account of the poor widow isn’t meant to guilt trip us into putting all of our money in the collection plate. Jesus isn’t really even talking about just our money.  While we should be good stewards of what God provides us, and we should be mindful of our giving of time, talent and resources to the mission of the church, Jesus is really talking about the First Commandment and what it is to take it seriously.

We can all agree that the shema – which is the primary prayer and petition of the Jewish people- is good.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:4-8 (ESV)

Jesus underscores the shema as being the foundation of God’s Law as well:

But when the Pharisees heard that he (Jesus) had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:34-40 (ESV)

So the question Jesus asks of us is, “Do you really love God with all your heart and soul and mind? Do you really love other people like you love yourself?”

The answer to this question is, “No, we don’t.”

We don’t love God with all our heart and soul and mind – and we certainly don’t love others like we love ourselves because we can’t. No matter how hard we may try, we fall short.  Cats meow, dogs bark, and sinners sin.  As long as we live this life in these imperfect bodies, we will still be subject to the curse of sin. We are powerless to love perfectly, and we cannot love God and others in and of our own strength.

We can only love God and others, as imperfect and fallen as we are, by the grace of God in Christ.  We, like the poor widow, have nothing to offer God but ourselves in our weakness and poverty.   Jesus loves God, and loves fallen humanity perfectly in a way we are not capable of.  He gives us the faith we need to be able to give even our imperfect selves.

This isn’t to say that the Law is a bad thing. The Law is a good thing because it shows us our desperate need for Jesus.  Jesus lived out the Law perfectly, not only in love toward God, but also in love for us.  He gave His life- which was all that He had here on this earth- so that God would see us as being justified under the Law.  He freely took the punishment that brings us peace (Isaiah 53:5.)

That is what love is, and why it is so difficult for us to trust God so fully that we give freely of ourselves for the good of others. In Christ, we know love.  In Christ – by His grace, through faith, we are free to give all that we are and all that we have to Him.

March 5, 2019- Shrove Tuesday, Extravagance and Love – John 12:1-8

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Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”  He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” John 12:1-8 (ESV)

Shrove Tuesday is also known as Mardi Gras (literally: Fat Tuesday.)  Being the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent, in liturgical traditions, (especially Roman Catholicism) Shrove Tuesday is traditionally a day to eat up all of one’s sumptuous food and to live it up before embarking on the somber, penitent, fasting season of Lent.  Of course, the Mardi Gras tradition is also one of theoretically getting all one’s sinning out of one’s system so one can be “shriven” or forgiven all their sins.  Of course, we all need to remember our baptisms and confess our sins daily.  We may be God’s saints, but as long as we are in these bodies on this earth, we are also sinners in need of God’s grace.

Jesus was sinless, so He had no sins to get out of His system before the Passover- or at any other time. The only sin problem Jesus ever had is when He took on the sins of the world- so that He could defeat the curse of death, cover us in His blood, and forgive our sins.

He was treated to a dinner with His disciples and friends. Mary saw the opportunity to be extravagant in her care for Jesus while He was with them.  Before He had to embark on His lonely journey through Passion Week, taking on the burden of our sins, and ultimately dying for us on the cross, He was cared for and richly anointed.  She had no idea what lie ahead of Jesus in the following days, but she responded to Him out of love.  Mary did not realize that she was preparing Jesus for the journey ahead of Him and she was anointing Jesus for His burial.

Yes, there are times for prudence and frugality. There is always a need to care for those less fortunate than we are. It can be said in this text that Judas had an ulterior motive for pointing that out. Charity does not always come from a heart with pure motives. There are also times in our lives in which we should celebrate and be extravagant with each other.  We do not know how long we will have our loved ones with us.

Traditionally Lent is a time of penitence and sacrifice. It is not just a time to give up bad habits or to get rid of unnecessary things.  It is a time to contemplate the life and Passion of Jesus.  It is a time to consider taking up good habits such as regular Bible study, giving, or serving others.  As we enter the season of Lent- whether we participate in Fat Tuesday traditions or not- perhaps we could make time to appreciate our loved ones, while they are with us, and we with them.  We do not know where this life’s journey may take us.

 

August 21, 2008- Shadow, Refuge, Light and Jesus, Lord of All -Psalm 36:7-9, Acts 7:9-16

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How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light do we see light. Psalm 36:7-9 (ESV)

And the patriarchs, (i.e. Joseph’s brothers) jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food.  But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit.  And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all.  And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem. Acts 7:9-16 (ESV)  (See also Genesis 37 and Genesis 45:1-15.)

God, the fountain of life, the light of the world, God our refuge, is for us. Even though situations can appear hopeless, God makes a way for His people.

Joseph seemed to have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was his father’s favorite child, much to the disdain of his older brothers.  His brothers became so angry with and jealous of Joseph and his favored position that they decided to take his clothes and sell him into slavery.

One might think that it would be difficult to see the hand of God in being sold into slavery and to being made to suffer humiliation and even time in prison (Genesis 39) during that enslavement.  Yet God preserved Joseph so that he would be able to provide a way for his family to survive a terrible famine.

Sometimes we might wonder what God is doing with us in our particular time and place.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. – Proverbs 9:10 (ESV)

Walking by faith- trusting God- doesn’t always make sense. We have no idea most of the time what God has in mind when we find ourselves in situations we would never want to be in.

It’s hard to say, “Trust God,” when someone is in the middle of suffering. It’s hardest of all when we have to look up and trust God through impossibilities, through adversities, and through our tears. Sometimes we wonder what use we can be to ourselves or others when we are disabled, or broke, or too scattered and busy. Other times we wonder if God really cares about us or our lives.  As we study the Bible, time after time we see all the ways that God makes a way for His people.  We can trust He will make a way for us as well, even when we can’t see it or we don’t understand.

We look to Jesus, whose thoughts were of us as His earthly life bled away on the Cross. What did God do with such a seemingly senseless sacrifice? Jesus told us that we must take up our crosses too – Luke 9:23– as we follow Him.  Because He died and rose from the dead, we share both in His death as well as His resurrection life.  He walks with us through it all- even as He walked with His forefather Joseph through the impossible and the unfair and the seemingly hopeless.

Walking by faith, trusting God, seems like a very silly thing to do if we subscribe to the wisdom of this world. Confessing our sins to God daily, putting on our baptism and accepting His free grace and forgiveness, bringing our prayers to God, forgiving others, serving others, these are gifts of the Holy Spirit to us.  Jesus is the only Way, Truth and Life.  He works in and through – and sometimes in spite of- the crosses we are called to bear even though we don’t see how most of the time.  We may never see the good that God works in and through us in our lifetimes.  Even so, because of God’s good gift of faith, we can hope beyond our temporary circumstances. We look up, we trust God, and we know that we are covered under His wings.

July 10, 2018 One Flesh, One Body- Genesis 2:13-25

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Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.

Genesis 2:18-25 (ESV)

It is not good for human beings to be alone. God made us for relationship, not just with Him, but with His creation and with other humans. God entrusted Adam with naming the animals, but having the animals as companionship just didn’t seem to be enough for Adam.  As much as we might think a world with just dogs and cats for company would be a good thing, we can’t relate to them on the same intellectual level.  Procreation is pretty much impossible without both male and female humans.  Where would the babies come from?

One of the most tragic casualties of the Fall – and of the second half of the 20th century- is the good gift of marriage.  Fewer and fewer couples see the necessity of making the commitment of marriage, and even among those who do, only about half of all marriages will survive until one of the partners dies.  Our culture glorifies the ideals of independence and sexual freedom.  The fallout of the so-called “sexual revolution” is all around us. We want that euphoric high of infatuation, and we love to be in romantic love, but we don’t want to deal with another person’s flaws or hard times. Infatuation doesn’t last long. Marriage can become trying when the reality of monthly bills, medical issues, and dirty laundry and each other’s personality flaws becomes painfully clear.

Some marriages are destroyed by adultery. Still others are torn apart by addiction, or by physical or emotional abuse. Some even decide to end a marriage due to lack of interest or “falling out of love.” There is always emotional and spiritual fallout throughout a family when a marriage falls apart.  Separation and divorce- while sometimes absolutely necessary due to abuse or unavoidable because of adultery- are part of our sinful condition, because of our hardness of heart. Separation and brokenness were not the ways God intended.

The relationship of a husband and wife was intended by God to be the closest and most intimate relationship within humanity. John the Baptist compares the relationship of Christ and the church to a marriage. See John 3:28-30. We, the church, as the Bride of Christ are part of His body- just as we see foreshadowed in the creation of Eve from the flesh of Adam. Marriage was intended to be a mirror of that perfect union.

Flesh of my flesh,” Adam says of Eve.  He speaks of a relationship so close that they are of the same body, the same mind, unashamed of their nakedness, with no secrets between them.  This kind of relationship echoes the intimacy of God walking with Adam and Eve in the Garden without the barriers of sin, shame and regret.

The good news is that Jesus always invites us to come to Him- to confess our sin, to repent, and to surrender our shame to Him. Unlike our flawed and tempestuous relationships with other sinners/saints like ourselves, Jesus is always with us, always faithful, never letting go of us, even into eternity.

While the best earthly marriages foreshadow the delight of the forever relationship we will share with Jesus, we can trust that at all times Jesus is our comfort, our strength and our defender.

It is important to remember that there is no condemnation for a person to seek separation or divorce should they be the victim of adultery, or for those who suffer abuse (which includes physical, financial and emotional abuse) at the hands of their spouse. There is forgiveness, healing and restoration for those who have suffered the pain of divorce. Everyone alive has fallen short of the glory of God.  Jesus invites us to come to Him to be forgiven and restored.

We can look forward to the day when there will be no separation from Jesus- no more tears, no more pain, and no more brokenness. Until that day we trust that God will give us the grace to reflect and share His love, forgiveness, restoration and peace.

April 30, 2018 God’s Love- Overcoming the World: 1 John 5:1-5, Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 12:1-2

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Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.  For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.  Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? 1 John 5:1-5 (ESV)

God’s commandments aren’t burdensome? Really? Who among us can claim to have kept God’s commandments for any length of time?

If we try to go through life keeping score and attempting to will ourselves “good” by adhering to a harsh legalistic interpretation of God’s law, we are setting ourselves up to fail. The apostle Paul teaches us:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV)

Faith itself is a gift of God. There is nothing to brag about unless one is bragging about Jesus.

The things we do, or the length to which we succeed in obeying God, is in response to our faith, which is in and of itself a gift. The glory all belongs to God, because we are not capable of love or goodness apart from Him.  John Calvin (a theologian who was a part of the Reformation around the same time as Martin Luther) proposed the total depravity of man, which is to say that apart from God humanity is 100% corrupt, self serving and downright evil. Roman Catholics refer to this concept in a similar way, calling this condition original sin, which is the concept that we humans all inherit the original sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden.

Jesus died on the Cross as our substitute for all the sins of humanity for all time, because the penalty for sin is death. (Romans 6:23) Even though we trust Jesus for our salvation because He became our substitute, as long as we live in these bodies on this earth, we live the paradox of being saints and sinners at the same time.  God in us prompts us to respond to His love, but the old Adam has to be drowned (as we remember our Baptism and confess our sins) on a daily basis.

If we try to love and do good deeds as if those are items on a checklist, we will fail horribly. Yet if we focus on loving God, the fruits of repentance will follow.  A wise Pastor once taught that if a person truly loves God, he or she can do whatever he or she wants, because his or her desires will be God’s desires.  As Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer: Thy (meaning God’s) kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

The apostle Paul also teaches us:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:1-2 (ESV)

It won’t necessarily become easy to love the unlovable.  Diapers will still stink.  Drudgery will still cause our bodies and minds to be weary.  But as we grow in our faith, and we trust that Jesus gives us our daily bread, we experience joy beyond the drudgery, and we know love in serving others, which is love we share in serving God.   We have the hope of the kingdom to come where sorrow and pain and tears will be no more. (Revelation 21:4)

It has been said that nothing easy is worth doing. Yet it is God behind the action, God granting us the faith and the resolve to love the unlovable, and to endure hardship for the sake of another.  We cannot love or serve others apart from God’s love.

This world can be painful, difficult and hard to endure. But in Jesus we have hope.  Because He loved us first, we are free to love others and find joy in that service.

February 22, 2018 No Greater Love- John 15:13, 1 John 4:9-12

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Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15:13 (NIV)

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 1 John 4:9-12 (NIV)

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

What does this mean?

*I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. – from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism on Sanctification -the Third Article of the Creed.

Belonging to God is not our choice. God is the one who does the choosing and the naming and claiming. God created. God calls us to life in Him.  God loves us first and has plans for us.  In Baptism we become permanently and irrevocably His. The Holy Spirit equips us for a life of faith.  It’s not about what we do, but what God has already done and continues to do in and through us.

The gift of faith and of being named and claimed by God is incredibly freeing. Our salvation is not contingent upon our current emotional state, the good deeds we do, or our good behavior, but on Jesus crucified. He was the perfect example of love- laying down His life for not only His friends, but for every human being.

When Lutherans talk about loving God and those around us, we do so in the realization that we can only love because God first loved us. Much as the moon can only reflect sunlight and has no light of its own, we can only reflect God’s love.

This is not to say that it is easy or automatic to live a life that honors God.  The difference is that we are called to live in response to God’s love for us.  We cannot earn God’s love and we certainly do not deserve it.

If we say we love Jesus, it is only because He has loved us when we were unlovable.

What does that say for the love that we reflect?

If we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us.

February 20, 2018 – Whatever We Fear (Do It Anyway!) 1 Peter 3:13-16, 1 Corinthians 2:13

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Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?  But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 1 Peter 3:13-16 (NIV)

Whatever I fear the most is whatever I see before me/ Whenever I let my guard down, whatever I was ignoring /Whatever I fear the most is whatever I see before me /Whatever I have been given, whatever I have been – “Whatever I Fear”- Toad the Wet Sprocket

Fear in and of itself is neither good nor evil, but there are healthy and unhealthy fears. “Fear of the Lord,” as in a reverent respect for God, is a healthy fear. Fear of touching a hot burner is a healthy fear. At times fear can prevent us from diving into an action or a behavior that will cause us harm.

However, it’s easy in this world to get mired down in unhealthy fears that are borne of either bad experiences in the past or irrational anxiety. To “err on the side of caution” is usually considered a prudent and wise course to take, but too much caution can lead us to stagnation and lead us away from the things that God has for us to experience and accomplish.

We should not hesitate to do what we know is good. We should be unafraid to tell others about Jesus and what He has done and is doing in and through us. The apostle Peter tells us to have an answer for those who ask us why we hope in Jesus- a kind and respectful and helpful answer.

Unhealthy or excessive fear can keep us from doing and saying the things we know we should.

Martin Luther is known for saying, “Sin boldly.” This doesn’t mean just randomly sin, but to feel the fear and live and do anyway. Since we are sinners, yes, some of the things we do along the way will be wrong and will fall short of God’s will, but nothing will get accomplished if we are too afraid to try. We are challenged to be bold even when we are shaking in our boots, if we know what we are doing, saying or standing for is necessary and right.

The Holy Spirit has answers when we don’t have them –

This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. 1 Corinthians 2:13 (NIV)

God is the only One we should fear- the same God who tells us to get out there to do good, and to tell others about Him.

How is fear holding us back from the discipline of service today?

Do we fear getting too involved, whether it is emotionally, physically, financially or in committing our time?

Do we hesitate to make a sacrifice for the sake of others?

The spiritual disciplines of sacrifice and service do require intentional effort on our part.  Like the disciplines of sports or music, for example, we get better at it through small steps, and practice.

How can we practice a small step today- an act of service for someone, or a sacrifice of our time and talents to serve God?