March 22, 2018- Rest for the Weary- Isaiah 50:4-9, Psalm 23:1-2

weary rest

The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens- wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.

The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together! Who are my adversaries?  Let them confront me.

It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up. Isaiah 50:4-9 (NRSV)

In light of current events, much has been said about the role of bullying and violence in schools. Being spit on, having one’s hair (or beard) pulled out, and being beaten on are not pleasant experiences. In the storms of pain and humiliation it is human nature to want to lash out and retaliate rather than to simply endure. Endurance is harder than revenge, even when we know that our rage is pointless and will not make a difference in the amount or the duration of the pain we endure.

If there is one thing common to the human experience it is suffering, whether it comes from our own human failings or it is inflicted by the hands of others. Even if one is not literally being spit on or beaten, the storms of life wear us down. We all get weary.  We all long for rest and resolution.

Jesus knows what it is to share in our suffering. He did not fight back against His tormentors. Instead, He silently endured the punishments that we deserve.  He knows our pain and anguish when we are tormented and weary.  He is with us and He shares in our pain.

The One who vindicates us, who restores us, who brings us rest, has been where we are and worse. Jesus knows the humiliation and violation of being mocked, spit on, of being scourged, and ultimately of being nailed to a tree.

It’s not easy to stand in times of trial. Even so we can have the courage to say along with the Suffering Servant as He stands with us: Let us stand up together! Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me!

Jesus knows our weariness. He has fought our battles.  He walks with us through the valleys of shadow and leads us to refreshment and rest.

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. Psalm 23:1-2 (NRSV)

November 24, 2017 – Christ, the King! Colossians 2:6-19, Matthew 20:25-28

christ the king

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.  For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.

 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision  by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God. Colossians 2:6-19 (NRSV)

Speaking of kings seems like a very old fashioned thing to do.  The United States declared independence from the British monarchy 241 years ago.  Admittedly, King George III was a rather tyrannical monarch, and history has proven over and over that one man having absolute power will lead to absolute corruption.  Human monarchies typically are not terribly effective forms of government.  Dictatorships are even worse.  Why should One Guy be in charge of everything?

In Scripture we learn that even the “good kings” like David, Solomon and Hezekiah had tragic faults. The “bad kings” were Really Bad. So why would we want to call Jesus “King?”

The answer is that Jesus simply is (that simple little word again) the King.  He was not made- He is One with the Father Who made us. Unlike human beings who want to think they have some kind of divine calling to rule over other humans, Jesus is the divine ruler.  No debate, and no proving ground was ever necessary.

Yet Jesus took the ultimate proving ground. While He could rule over humanity with an iron fist- and be within His right- Jesus took the route of sacrifice and ultimate love.  He entered into the world of humanity and took on the entire human experience, including poverty, suffering and an unspeakable death.

crucifix5

As we think about Jesus the conquering King, we also remember He comes to us in humility and compassion. We represent Him and follow Him when we reflect His example- when we remain humble, when we sacrifice of ourselves for the good of others.

jesus-mercy-compassion

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:25-28 (NRSV)

 

September 13, 2017- Are We In the Place of God? Genesis 50:15-21, Ephesians 2:10

Joseph-and-Benjamin-in-Egypt

Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?”  So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.  Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.”  But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.  So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. Genesis 50:15-21 (NRSV)

Are we in the place of God?

When it comes to exacting revenge, we shouldn’t presume to stand in the place of God, even though sometimes we really want to.

Surprisingly Joseph doesn’t choose to repay his brothers for selling him into slavery even though he would have every right to do so. In our lives there are so many times we want to take our pound of flesh from everyone who has wronged us, and we want to play the tit for tat game.

The problem with playing tit for tat- exacting our own revenge- is that we don’t have God’s perspective on the purpose of events in our lives.

Joseph’s brothers had no idea that the pesky younger brother who was their father’s favorite would be transformed from being a slave into a savior.

In some ways Joseph teaches us about one of his descendants- Jesus- Who became the suffering servant and ultimately the Savior of all.

Jesus gave Himself as a sacrifice and joined us in our humanity. Humanity rewarded Him by hanging Him on a tree to die.

Yet God’s mercy and grace abound even when we betray our fellow humans. Like Joseph, Jesus comes to us as a brother, a friend, and offers us provision in our times of desperation and need instead of the vengeance we deserve.

Joseph ended up in Egypt for the very purpose of preserving his family- a family that includes Jesus’ ancestors. God knew what was happening to Joseph was ultimately for good even though Joseph’s brothers intended their actions for evil.

How do we know that the cruelty someone else inflicts on us today may not end up as a means for us to glorify God?

Sometimes being merciful is hard. It’s difficult to forgive when we have been wounded.  But sometimes that’s God’s plan for us, to forgive the unforgivable and love the unlovable.

We may not stand in the place of God, but we can trust that He stands with us, and that He will give us what we need to do the good things He intended for us to do. Even when it’s hard.  Even when we want revenge.

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Ephesians 2:10 (NRSV)

Regular Guys- Matthew 14:22-33

jesus-on-the-water

Immediately he (Jesus) made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”  When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” Matthew 14:22-33 (NRSV)

stained glass saints.jpg

When we encounter familiar stories of Scripture- we tend to look at the disciples and other heroes of the Bible from the perspective of “These guys are on the stained glass windows, and they are portrayed in sacred art as pristine clean with pretty halos, and they are NOT us.” We refer to the venerable “saint so and so” but we forget they were saints and sinners at the same time just like us.  I hesitate to use the descriptive of “Saint so and so” when I speak of the disciples or other people portrayed in the Gospels, simply because all believers are saints. The disciples and the other saints of the Bible were guys (and girls) like us.  The disciples most likely were guys who smelled- and roughhoused, and drank, like guys.  We see the stained glass saints and think the disciples were old guys, all clean and neat and bearded and looking like my Dad if he were wearing a halo and a dress.  In reality they were young guys. The disciples were probably all in their early 20’s or maybe even younger when they walked with Jesus.  They were very young, rough and probably had coarse manners and language.

Jesus 1940s

How many times have we seen Jesus portrayed in sacred art as a clean cut, angelic, very Anglo looking man? This is a wonderful portrait that was my grandmother’s from the early 1940’s. I loved to look at that portrait as a child. Grandma had it hung on the wall in the spare bedroom.  It normally hangs there now, where my own granddaughter can see it when she stays with me.  It was a comforting image, and had someone asked me when I was five what Jesus looked like, that picture would have come to mind.

african jesus

I was a bit taken aback by a portrait of Jesus I saw when I was in college and was visiting a friend of mine who is Black. Jesus was Black- complete with an Afro- in her portrait of Him, which looked sort of strange to me until I realized that there is part of us that wants to believe Jesus looks like us, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. We should see Jesus in His humanity as well as his divinity.

But if Jesus had looked like either the Anglo man or the Black man for that matter, in real life, He really would have stood out in 1st century Palestine. Had He really been haloed, sparkling clean, fair skinned, blond haired and blue eyed, or if had he had African features, He would have really stood out.  It would have been, “Hey! Check out this dude!  He looks special!  He looks different.

holygrail-arthur-3knights

I am a huge fan of Monty Python. One of my favorite Monty Python movies is called “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” in which they parody the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  In one scene, King Arthur and the Knights pass by people as they are calling out, “Bring out your dead!,” and the people are picking up the bodies of plague victims and tossing them in wheelbarrows. Someone sees King Arthur, who is wearing his nice white tunic and silver and gold crown, and cries out, “He must be the king.” Another asks, “Why?,” to which the other replies, “He hasn’t got any s—t on him!”  The king was supposed to look different.  He was supposed to be above everyone else.  The king wasn’t supposed to get dirty. The implication is that the king was above all the dirtiness and nastiness of real life.

When Jesus walked the earth, He didn’t look anything like either my portrait, or my Black friend’s, or Monty Python’s King Arthur. He was a working class guy.  He was Jewish. He would have been olive-skinned, dark eyed, and dark haired like everyone else in 1st century Palestine. Nobody had running water and daily showers or Whirlpool washers- no sparkling white tunic for Jesus, or a gold and silver crown either.  He would be dusty and dirty from carpentry work and from walking around on dusty dirt roads.  His hands were calloused.  He wasn’t squeaky clean. The King probably did have doody on him, unlike King Arthur in the Monty Python movie.  First century Palestine was not known as a halcyon era of sparkling clean hygiene.  He probably “smelled like a man” and like farm animals too.  There was no such thing as Right Guard or Old Spice either.

But God has a history of picking “regular guys”- and often “rejects” at that- to do His work. God loves the misfits and the unlovely.  Jesus was described by the prophet Isaiah as the suffering servant, as “having no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him.” Isaiah goes on to say further that He was “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces, He was despised and we esteemed Him not.” (Isaiah 53:1-5)  This kind of destroys our perception of Jesus looking like Robert Plant in a toga, no matter how pretty the painting is. But Jesus was one of us. He got dirty.  He looked like us.  He suffered like us.  He felt joy like us.  He loved like us.

Along the same line, in Psalm 118:22 it is said of Jesus: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” God has a great sense of humor. The guys Jesus picked to do His work were regular guys.  The disciples were regular guys who were coarse around the edges. Today they may have been truckers, or farmers, or automotive technicians. They were regular guys who blended right into a crowd- no halos, no stained glass, and no angelic looking faces.  They didn’t go to some high faluting seminary or theological school.  They simply walked with Jesus and learned as they lived with Him.    They were saints- but we forget sometimes that they, like us, were also sinners in desperate need of grace.

The disciples were delightfully human, just like we are. These guys were scared out of their pants when Jesus appeared to them when they were in the boat in the storm, just like we would be if we saw someone we knew just randomly walking across water.  That doesn’t happen.  They were afraid. We would be afraid too.

The phrase “do not be afraid” is found numerous times in Scripture, because we ARE afraid. The disciples were afraid that their boat was going to sink.  They were also afraid that Jesus- appearing to them in a supernatural way- was a ghost and not the same “regular guy” they were used to hanging out with.

Peter is the boldest disciple, and perhaps the best example of a very fallible human among the disciples. He reaches out to Jesus in faith, in a way knowing that he can trust Jesus for what he needs to walk on water, but in another way doubting his own ability to carry it out. What could be more human than that? We have to come to that realization like Peter did that we can only navigate life- let alone walk on water- if we cry out to Jesus, and surrender to Him. Sometimes we also have to realize that Jesus comes to us through other people, who He calls and sends to us to help us carry our burdens.

There isn’t a whole lot of difference between the way the disciples reacted to Jesus and how we react. How often do we say to ourselves, “Jesus is really the Son of God,” but then we doubt His ability to get us through the difficult times in life, or we think we can walk across the water all by ourselves- until we panic and sink.

It’s good for us to hear other people’s testimony. It’s good for us to see how God is working in other people’s lives and to share how He is working in our lives.

In the Lutheran tradition we aren’t always the greatest about sharing our testimonies, but it is a good practice, not only to remind us, that hey, Jesus really is the Son of God, and He really is working in our lives, but also to make that reality known to others. We are called to encourage others and help build their faith.

We also have to remember that we don’t have to look up at stained glass windows to see the saints, and that Jesus isn’t necessarily going to appear as a very white Anglo-Saxon or as an African man with an Afro in a pretty portrait. More likely than not, the saint who walks into your life and works miracles might be dirty and coarse around the edges. More likely than not, the saint who walks in to your life will be a fallible, human person with flaws and fears and doubts. He or she might have greasy hands and dirty clothes. He or she might be the exact opposite of who you were expecting to see.

Jesus might come to us as a needy child, or an elderly woman, or as a friend with the right words of comfort at the right time. We don’t have to wait on the supernatural to see God working all around us, but we need to have eyes to see those beautiful examples of God at work.  Like the apostle Thomas, in our human nature we really do want to see and touch His wounds to prove that yes, Jesus did rise from the dead.  The more we share our testimonies and listen to those of others, our faith is strengthened.  Our minds gather the evidence that eventually makes its way to our hearts as we share with other believers.

Do we have eyes to see Jesus and to experience the saints in the “regular” world? We don’t have to have a degree in divinity or a background in theology to be as Christ to one another.  One of the beautiful concepts in Lutheran (as well as most Protestant) theology is something called the priesthood of believers– meaning that all believers are fully qualified to participate in God’s kingdom regardless of what our vocations may be.

We are also qualified to serve God through our vocations, regardless if we dig ditches or do neurosurgery or ask people if they want fries with that. In Christ we have the same potential for God to work in and through us as anyone else. God made us for His purpose, and we can do anything He intends for us to do.

Do we have the courage to share what Jesus has done for us?  Do we have the courage to believe in ourselves the way that Jesus believes in us?  We really can walk on water on God’s command if we keep our eyes and minds and hearts on Jesus.

In His strength we can do impossible things, but we have to be willing to try. We have to be willing to see the sacred and experience the supernatural in the very ordinary and perhaps unlovely people we encounter every day.

May 17, 2017-The King of Glory and the Suffering Servant- Luke 24:25-27, Isaiah 53:1-5

deus ex machina

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. Luke 24:25-27 (NRSV)

Who has believed our message, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?  He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. Isaiah 53:1-5 (NIV)

The disciples were disappointed – and perhaps kept themselves from seeing Jesus because the real Jesus was so much different than their expectations of Jesus. They were looking for a warrior king, but they got someone who submitted to a humiliating death on a cross.

We want a deus ex machina kind of God.  We want God to show Himself to us as an example of that literary device that makes action movies so fun to watch.  We want Him to come to life in the form of someone swooping in from above in a blaze of glory- wielding a machine gun, magically solving all of our problems, and making the world safe for democracy.   The problem is that isn’t how Jesus works.   The King of Glory is really the suffering servant who enters into the messy reality of human life that Isaiah portrays so eloquently.

It would be so much easier if Jesus were that blaze of glory kind of savior. But He is the kind of savior who gets dirty with us, who walks with us, who carries our pain and suffering, and who knows what it is to be rejected and unloved.

anguish

One of the things that may keep us from seeing Jesus is that we don’t want to think that He is stuck in the mundane like we are. We don’t want to think of Jesus as being awkward, or ill, or poorly clothed, but He entered into the entirety of the human experience including suffering, humiliation and even death.

On the surface we might want to think of Jesus as a cosmic Dirty Harry, or as the ultimate deus ex machina, but He is so much more than that.  Rather than just being an external entity or a deliverer from afar, Jesus gets up close and personal. He enters into our experience.  Including the parts that we would rather skip.

How can we have a more realistic view of Jesus and how He manifests His glory in the world?

December 12, 2016- Not Enough Room for the Lord of Life? Luke 2:7, Isaiah 45:18

crowds

“And she (Mary) gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Luke 2:7

One of the hallmarks of modern life is what we see as the lack of time or space or resources.  How often do we say, “if only I had…more room, more time…more money…more energy,” and so on?

It’s telling that at Jesus’ birth there was “no room” for the arrival of the Lord of Life. The birth of the King of Kings was relegated to a corner of an animal barn.

It’s sad but we miss little advents of Jesus coming into our lives when we find ourselves too busy, too distracted, and too caught up in all the urgency of the moment to see Him shining through.  We think there is no room for Jesus in all of our busyness – but the reality is that we don’t always want to see Him in the room.

For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): I am the Lord, and there is no other. Isaiah 45:18 (NRSV)

Whether we recognize God’s presence or not, He is constantly in and with and through everything.  Even so, He invites us to engage Him, to seek Him, to see Him in His handiwork.

It’s easy to miss those moments where Jesus wants to come more fully into our lives.   Sometimes we are so busy looking after others or doing the things we need to do for physical survival, such as working and chores, that we need to take a moment to ourselves to just invite the Holy Spirit to wash over us and bring us the rest and refreshing that we need to keep on going.

One of the safety instructions that flight attendants give before a plane takes off is that should the plane cabin depressurize and the oxygen masks drop, adults should put on their masks before seeing that children have theirs on.  The logic behind this is that we cannot care for others if we neglect to care for ourselves.  This is true in the practice of our faith as well.  We need to make room for Jesus and invite Him to refresh and renew us in prayer, study and service before we can be of much use in the community and live purposeful, effective lives.

A very wise Pastor once taught that God is not interested in some abstraction called a “spiritual life,” but that He cares about your life.  All of it.  The “sacred,” the “secular,” the holy and the mundane.  Life is a gift of God.   He was willing to make His first fleshly appearance in a dirty animal barn, and die an ignominious and horrific death on a cross to prove His infinite love for us.  He became God with us so we could see that He is the Life.

It’s not so much a question of making room for Jesus, but making the effort to see and recognize Him in the room.

Mary prayed in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) : My soul magnifies the Lord. She made room for Him, figuratively and literally.  We can share her prayer again today- so others may see that Jesus is already in the room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

December 6, 2016- They Will Call Him Emmanuel, God With Us – Matthew 1:22-23, Isaiah 53:3-5

Nativity

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” – Matthew 1:22-23

The reality of Jesus- God the I AM, coming to earth to live as a human being, along and with human beings is difficult enough to wrap our heads around.

Imagine what it would be like to be Mary.  She was a teenage girl, likely only thirteen or fourteen, when God’s angel came to her and told her that she was going to be Jesus’ earthly mother.

Teen pregnancy is difficult enough today, but imagine coming to your parents with her announcement:  “Hey everyone, I’m pregnant.  But don’t worry, it’s God’s Son.  I’m still a virgin. I’ve never been touched by a man.”

How many parents would fall for that line?  Better yet, how many fiancés would believe it?

Mary was telling the truth, but even so, there would have been stigma and shame.  No doubt the community would be casting aspersions upon her family, and wondering if Joseph was being taken advantage of.  People snicker.  People talk.  People say not so nice things about other people’s morality, even if they don’t know the whole truth.

He was despised and rejected by others;
    a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities
    and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
    struck down by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
    and by his bruises we are healed. – Isaiah 53:3-5 (NRSV)

Yet the messy and lowly manger is how God entered this complicated and often insensitive world of humanity- born under what some might consider questionable lineage, raised in the home of a modest tradesman.  He was not born into a house of royalty or nobility, but in a stable surrounded by farm animals.

When we think about God’s possibilities and how he enters our lives, do we put limitations on how we think God should enter in?  Or do we seek him in the lowly and unlikely places?