Tuesday, July 31, 2012

When God's Plans Are Better Than Ours

Tuesday, July 31
Scripture Reading—Romans 15:22-33

Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the most profound pieces of theology in the New Testament.  It has exercised great power throughout the history of the Christian tradition.  Martin Luther rediscovered the central message of this text, realizing that we are justified by faith, not by works and ignited the Protestant Reformation.  John Wesley heard Martin Luther’s preface to his commentary on the Letter to the Romans at a house on Aldersgate Street in London on May 24, 1738 and said he felt his heart strangely warmed.  The Methodist revival that had a profound impact on all of England and subsequently led to the formation of a powerful denomination in the United States traces its beginnings to that chance encounter Wesley had with Paul’s letter to the Romans.  But Paul wrote this letter, not so much to offer a profound summary of his understanding of the heart of the Christian faith, but to prepare the Christians in Rome for a visit he intended to make.  Paul did not start the church at Rome, which at the time of the writing of this letter probably only consisted of a hundred or so people.  No, Paul had in mind going to Rome, strengthening that church, gaining their support all so he could have a forward base of operations to press further west, on into Spain with his missionary work of planting churches and spreading the gospel.  He apologizes for his delay in getting to Rome because he has been busy collecting an offering among Gentile Christians to take to Jerusalem to aid the struggling church there.  With a sense of foreboding, he realizes he may meet opposition in Jerusalem.  That turns out to be the case.  He is nearly killed there and then imprisoned and sent to Rome, not as a preacher traveling under his own authority, but as a prisoner to stand trial before Caesar.  Most scholars do not think Paul’s great hope of pressing onto Spain ever materialized.  But as one writer points out, if Paul had not had the dream of going onto Spain to proclaim the good news, he would not have gone to the trouble of writing the letter to the Romans, a writing we turn to over and over again to gain insight into what God intended to do for the world in Christ, and what it really means to be made right with God by faith through grace.  If there is a lesson here for us, it is that so many times the great dreams we aspire to don’t always materialize as we hope, but along the way of chasing a dream we believe God has placed within us, with God’s help, we often make some unexpected contribution that turns out to be even more lasting and important than would have been the case if our original dream had been fulfilled as we’d hoped.  Keep chasing your dreams.  Though they may not be fulfilled as you imagine, God is going to do something great with your passion and effort—perhaps something far greater than you could have ever dreamed!

Thought for the day:  There are times our dreams do not materialize as we’d envisioned, but we discover along the way that God had something even better in mind!

Prayer:  O God, give us great dreams of what you’d have us do with our lives.  And when the dreams we have pursued don’t materialize as we’d envisioned, help us not to despair, but to give you thanks that along the way, you have used us in some wonderful way we ourselves could never have envisioned.  Amen. 

Through the Lens of Faith

Monday, July 30
Scripture Reading—Philippians 4:10-20

It is hard to be grateful in every situation.  It is next to impossible for most of us to be content in any and every circumstance.  We are taught that we control our own destinies, that we can transcend any social circumstance or condition if we just work hard enough.  But the truth is, life often hands us conditions, circumstances, and situations that we did not create.  We are given a biological identity that comes from our parents’ DNA and are nurtured by other human beings in those years of our lives in which we have no influence or control over other people’s treatment of us.  Paul knew what it was to face all kinds of situations that he didn’t feel he could immediately change or escape from.  Imprisonment, shipwreck, and punishment at the hands of civil authorities are just a few of those situations Paul faced.  But he said “I have learned to be content with whatever I have . . .I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.”  Have you learned the secret of contentment, of peace and freedom from anxiety and worry in any and all of life’s circumstances?  This does not mean that we passively accept hardships and difficulties without trying to overcome or rise above them.  It does mean that as people of faith, we see our problems through a different lens.  We see no difficulty, illness, loss, failure, or disappointment as a sign of God’s abandonment of us.  The great theologian H. Richard Niebuhr once described his perspective of God’s presence in the world and in our lives: “God is acting in all decisions upon you.  So respond to all actions upon you as to respond to [God’s] action.”  From the perspective of faith, we believe God is always present with us—in good times and bad.  We ask in every situation regardless how joyful or challenging, “As God’s person, how am I called to respond?”  Paul faced all the trials and difficulties of his life through this perspective of faith.  Thus, he could say with confidence—not in himself, but God—“I can do all things through him who strengthens me!”

Thought for the day:  In any and all of our life’s circumstances, God is with us.  This is what we see through eyes of faith.  And in faith, God calls and empowers to respond to every situation with the confidence that we can endure and overcome all things with God’s help!

Prayer:  O God, whatever it is I am facing in this hour, help me, through the perspective of faith, to trust that you have not abandoned me or any I love and that with your help, together we will not only endure, but overcome and attain victory.  Amen. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012


July 28, 2012
Scripture Reading--Luke 4:31-38

We often pursue goals, activities, and aspirations that we think will give us great satisfaction and fulfillment only to find that we still feel empty inside.  In the recent economic downturn, many people have come face to face with the reality that wealth can be fleeting and that even something as cherished as a home can be taken away.  We see many ironies in our time.  We are more connected to people through social media than ever, but many of us long for deep, lasting relationships.  We have more entertainment options than we can count, but many of us are easily bored.  We are surrounded by all kinds of choices for food.  But many among us have either too little or far too much.  It is an ancient problem—substituting short-term fixes to fill some great spiritual need.  Jesus had been discussing life with a Samaritan woman at the well.  He’d violated every social convention of the day by reaching out to her.  The disciples were concerned about Jesus and wanted him to stop, take care of himself, and eat.  Jesus wasn’t so spiritual that he didn’t think taking care of the body wasn’t important—after all, he did feed 5000 hungry people!  But he told his disciples, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”  The disciples thought he had some secret supply of food.  But Jesus went on, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to do his work.”  Jesus knew that the only thing that would ultimately satisfy him was being squarely in the center of God’s will.  Of all the lifestyle options available to us,  discovering God’s will for us as individuals and living into that purpose is still the only one that doesn’t overpromise and under-deliver!

Thought for the day:  Discovering and doing God’s will is the only path that satisfies our deepest hunger.

 Prayer:  O God, we pray for those who are truly hungry.  Bless them with enough food to sustain them.  But help all of us whether living in want or plenty, to discover the joy and fulfillment that comes from living into your purpose for our lives.  Amen. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Time for a Change?

Friday, July 27
Scripture Reading—Colossians 3:12-17

The clothes we wear tell other people something about how we see ourselves.  Likewise, the clothes we wear often shape the way we perceive and feel about ourselves.  I recall being very aware of the difference I felt when I worked in a job where I wore a uniform that was covered in mud and dirt by day’s end from those days I wore nicer cleaner clothing.  And I recall being very tuned into how other people perceived me in those different garbs.  This text uses the image of clothing to describe the Christian life.  Prior to these verses, the writer has told the Colossians what elements they need to strip off.  He mentions things like fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed along with anger, wrath, malice slander, and abusive language along with lying.  Quite an ugly suit of clothes!  The image the writer has in mind is Christian baptism, through which we are washed clean and given a new suit of clothes—a whole new identity.  This new suit of clothing—this new self—consists of compassion, kindness, humility….you get the idea.  At the heart of it all is love which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  Other traits follow—the peace of Christ that fills us and overflows into our relationships with others along with a joyful gratitude that is expressed in song!  The two suits of clothing are starkly different.  They signify the difference between the old person and the new.  Is it time for some new clothes—clothing that signifies the death of a person at odds with self, others, and God and the birth of a new person who knows what it means to be loved, and is ready to love the unlovely, and to face each day with joyful gratitude? 

 Thought for the day:  A Christian is a person who has experienced the transforming grace of God in such a way that selfishness is overcome with love, guilt with forgiveness, and cynicism with great joy!

Prayer: O God, we all need to become new people.  Help us to allow you to remove all the things in our lives that rob us of life, and to clothe us with those traits that help us live in harmony with you, at peace with ourselves, and with a joy we have never known before.  Amen. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, July 22

Mercy on Demand
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church
Richmond, VA
July 22, 2012

Jesus’ example gives us the freedom to seek the rest and renewal we need to live as faithful disciples in the world. It is this ability to rely on God that enables Jesus to respond to our cries for help anytime and anywhere!

Someone has said that there are two great dangers in the Christian life: one is to withdraw from the world and not work to transform it; the other is to work so hard at transforming the world that we never find time to withdraw from it.

Throughout the history of the church, groups have come along that feel that the world is so corrupt and evil that to preserve what little bit of Christian faith they have, they need to get as far away as possible from its temptations and distractions. Whenever Christianity became more acceptable in the Roman Empire after Constantine’s conversion, a small minority of Christians feared that authentic discipleship had been compromised. It had become too easy to be a Christian. So they fled to the desert, started monasteries, took vows of celibacy, lived in solitude, prayed constantly, fasted dangerously—all to pursue union with God with the intensity of an athlete training for the Olympic games.

Whenever it seemed that ignorance and superficiality had overtaken Europe during the middle ages, again Christians like Benedict challenged the monks and nuns of his day to deeper forms of devotion, greater degrees of obedience to Christ. In the end, Benedict and his monasteries became pockets of salvation and learning in a dark time.

In John Wesley’s day, the Moravians taught that before one could really be of any use to Christ in the world, first you had to withdraw from the world and wait patiently and prayerfully to receive the divine knowledge that you really had been saved from your sins. Then and only then, could you engage in works of charity for the poor or take up your post serving God through your vocation in the world.

Wesley admired the Moravians and it was through their preaching that he himself discovered assurance of his own salvation. But he parted with them by teaching that one need not withdraw from the world’s demands to discover assurance—quite the opposite. He taught that by praying, study the Scriptures, worshiping God, receiving the sacraments, and serving others, one was in a much better position to receive the gift of inward assurance of salvation.

It’s tempting to want to flee the world—its troubles, heartaches, disappointments. It’s tempting to want to find a place where temptations do not threaten to undermine our faith or discipleship. It’s tempting to try to find refuge from the stresses and strains of life on a mountaintop, a beach, or a sanctuary. And once we’ve found that place of peace and tranquility, we’d like to just stay there. Run from the world and all its heartaches, difficulties, and pain. And sometimes some of us yield to that desire. And we fail to help others come to know Christ or to speak up against injustice and evil or to make our neighborhood or workplace just a little bit better because we prefer the quiet place apart.

You know people like that. Maybe they haven’t run away to the desert or disappeared to a monastery. But they’ve found refuge in their lovely mountain retreat, or on that lush golf course, or in their comfortable gated community. There they are not bothered by the cries of parents whose children kill each other over drugs, or children whose hearts ache because their parents are in prison.

The other temptation is to become so busy making our mark on the world, trying to change the world, that we never find time to be still or be quiet. We never find time to just quit running here and there. We never stop to enjoy that sunrise on the beach or be impressed by the mountain’s autumn colors. We work constantly. We even do good things in our business—nurturing our children, caring for our parents, visiting the sick, reaching out to those in need. There’s something admirable about people who rise early, work energetically, and never seem to require much rest. Troubles don’t seem to slow them down.

We live in a society that rewards, admires, and honors that kind of life.
Americans take less time off and enjoy fewer days of vacation than just about any industrialized nation in the West. Americans average just over two weeks of summer vacation. That makes us vacation misers when compared with say, the Germans (whom we once thought of as such hard workers), who enjoy an average of six weeks of summer vacation, or the French, who have over five weeks of vacation.

Americans are working more and producing more, to be sure, but they are working longer in order to do it. Surprisingly, the average productivity of the Germans or the French is not much less than that of Americans, considering how many more hours Americans work. And the French and the Germans have lots of holidays throughout the year on top of all this summer vacation!

The idea of being caught not working hard scares some of us to death. We take a sick sort of pleasure in others looking at us and wondering how in the world we manage to do all we do.

That is where our text for the day speaks to both temptations. One could never accuse Jesus of being lazy. He was on the go, from here to there, preaching, teaching, and healing. But he gives his disciples a command in today’s passage that may be quite foreign to some of us. “Come apart and rest…” This is not just a suggestion—it is a command. Rest.

Some of us may need a nudge to leave our place of retreat and get to work. But I suspect more of us need to consider the meaning of Jesus’ command to his disciples—“Come aprt…rest…”

Think with me about the context of this command, if you don’t mind me calling it that. Jesus had sent his disciples out on their first mission trip. They’d given all they knew to give up to that point. They’d faced challenges they’d never experienced. They’d experienced some success—but I’m sure that they’d tasted some failure. Now, after all that work and activity—it was time to find a place for them to be alone, to tend to their souls, to learn again from their teacher. “Rest…”

Also, while they’d been out preaching the good news, word had reached Jesus and the disciples that something awful had happened—John the Baptist had been beheaded by King Herod Antipas. He was really one of them—he was on their team. Things might have gone well on the mission trip, but if John had just been beheaded, what was going to happen to them if they kept following Jesus? What would happen to Jesus if he kept preaching the same message he was preaching? Something like John?

But they not only worried about themselves and their teacher—undoubtedly they, and especially Jesus—were heartbroken. For Jesus, John was family. He was dead. If anyone understood him besides his mother, it was probably John. They’d grown up together—born near the same time. He was dead. They needed time to rest, to have their souls renewed—but they also needed time to grieve.

Now, I know this time of retreat doesn’t work out quite like Jesus had hoped. The crowds will not leave him alone. And admirably, Jesus, even though he must be physically exhausted and emotionally drained continues to try to minister to the people. But that doesn’t lessen in anyway the lesson he was trying to teach his disciples—everybody, even the very Son of God, needs time to rest.

I suspect that obeying this command is hard for some of us for several reasons. One reason it may be hard for some of us to stop, be quiet, turn off our cell phones and tv sets, is that we genuinely feel we’re just too busy. We’re caught up in the rat race and just don’t know how to stop. We’ve made so many commitments to our bosses, our families, friends, and yes, sometimes our church that we just don’t know where to cut back. But as the great philosopher Lily Tomlinson once said, “Just because you win the rat race doesn’t change the fact that you’re still a rat.”

Some of us get addicted to the busy pace that slowing down for 30 minutes to meditate and pray or for one day to think about God’s direction for our lives would be like a junkie going without a fix.

I’ve often wondered if the problem with the priest and the levite in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan was that they were just too busy to stop and assist the man who’d been beaten by robbers. They had meetings, at church of all places, and they could not be delayed. The Samaritan may have been good, in part, not just because he stopped to help when no one else would, but he had prioritized and ordered his life in such a way that when he saw a real human need staring him in the face, he had time, and had given himself the permission to stop.

Perhaps another reason we resist taking time to stop and be still on a regular basis is that we’re not all that sure of what we’ll discover when we look deep within our souls. What motives will we unearth if we examine our consciences? What wounds will surface that have never really been healed? What grudges or resentments will we see if we look closely?

Henri Nouwen wrote that "our culture has become most sophisticated in the avoidance of pain, not only our physical pain but our emotional and mental pain as well. We not only bury our dead as if they were still alive, but we also bury our pains as if they were not really there. We have become so used to this state of anesthesia, that we panic when there is nothing or nobody left to distract us. When we have no project to finish, no friend to visit, no book to read, no television to watch, no record to play, and when we are left all alone by ourselves we are brought so close to the revelation of our basic human aloneness and are so afraid of experiencing an all-pervasive sense of loneliness that we will do anything to get busy again and continue the game which makes us believe that everything is fine after all.” (Reaching Out, pp. 16-17).

Still, I suspect that many of us have engrained deep within us somewhere that if we are not doing something all the time, we are wasting time. And wasting time is not only un-American—it is, for many of us Protestants steeped in a tradition with a strong work ethic, a sin against almighty God. So, if that is the case for you, if you feel guilty for taking time for yourself, time to restore your spirit, time to rest your body from the grind of life, let me counter the command engrained in many of us—“Thou shalt always be busy (or at least look like you are) with the command Jesus gave his disciples here in Mark, a practice, he himself tried to be faithful to, “Rest..”Come apart, be with me, let’s rest a bit.” Jesus wasn’t suggesting that they run away from the crowds permanently, or that they leave behind the work God had given them to do forever—he was saying, just for a time, let’s get away, let’s slow down, let’s refresh our spirits, let’s encourage one another, let’s get close to God, let’s examine our souls, and then, when we’re ready, we’ll get back to it.”

Jesus thought it was important. Why? He knew that if his faith wasn’t strong, and if his energy wasn’t high, and if his body wasn’t healthy, and his mind wasn’t clear, he could be of as much use to the people God had sent him to love and care for. And he wanted his disciples to learn this.

One man challenged another to an all-day wood chopping contest. The challenger worked very hard, stopping only for a brief lunch break. The other man had a leisurely lunch and took several breaks during the day. At the end of the day, the challenger was surprised and annoyed to find that the other fellow had chopped substantially more wood than he had. "I don't get it," he said. "Every time I checked, you were taking a rest, yet you chopped more wood than I did." "But you didn't notice," said the winning woodsman, "that I was sharpening my ax when I sat down to rest."

How many times to we try to serve God with a dull ax?

And then there’s one other problem I think some of us have with finding balance, a good rhythm in our lives. Because we are so accustomed to evaluating the worth of a corporation or the worth of a person by their productivity, we think that if we are not working we are not producing and if we are not producing, we aren’t worth much.

So what Jesus is trying to impress on his disciples goes against the grain of much of the world’s conventional wisdom, doesn’t it? But in the realm of the spirit, in the realm of God’s kingdom, just because you are not working at your job or building a building or plowing a field doesn’t mean you’re not being productive.

Jesus invited his disciples to a deserted place—a wilderness, if you will. Such places are sometimes viewed negatively in the Scriptures. The wilderness is where you go to be tried, to be tempted, to be tested. The wilderness is a place where you feel far away from God, where you feel all alone. It doesn’t look like, at least on the surface, that anything good happens in the wilderness—that deserted, lonely place.

But that’s not the only way to look at the wilderness. Sometimes, when you’re in the wilderness—spiritually as well as physically—though on the surface it doesn’t look like much is going on, deep down below the surface, in the subterranean levels of your spirit, God is doing a great work. Not only did the children of Israel find themselves banished to the wilderness because of their hardness of heart, but in the wilderness, they learned how to trust God for everything so that they’d be ready to enter the land of promise. Sometimes the wilderness connotes a place of safety or protection as well as renewal. David escapes Saul when Saul wants to kill him by going out into the wilderness. The prophet Elijah discovers God’s protection from Jezebel as she tries to pursue and kill him—in the wilderness.

Sometimes when you enter the wilderness, not because of decisions of you’ve made but because of circumstances imposed on you by life—an illness, a disappointment, the loss of a loved one, loss of a job—you feel that nothing good could possibly come of it. You feel far from God and feel like he’s let you down. Nothing good, you think, could come of such a time or place. But maybe, without you even knowing it or feeling it in any tangible way, you are growing spiritually—you are learning to walk by faith, and not sight, you are learning patience or trust or faith or perhaps even compassion. God is using such a time to shape you so that at the right time, he can use you in a way he hadn’t been able to use you before.

Have you been there? The deserted place? The wilderness? Maybe you choose to go there, maybe sometimes God leads you there and meets you there.

This idea of rest may be foreign to us. But it wasn’t to God. What does the Bible tell us about God’s own rhythm. He worked, he created how many days? 6 right? What did God do on the 7th? He rested. And he commanded the people of Israel to build into the rhythm of their lives the same pattern—a day of rest, a day of worship, a day of renewal—every Sabbath day.

This passage begins with Jesus seeking a place apart for him and his disciples to rest, to recover, to grieve after the loss of John the Baptist. It ends with Jesus responding with compassion and offering healing to people who were sick and who were broken. The suggestion is that the two things are related. If we want to be useful to God at work, in our families, through the mission of the church, we need, as often as we can, to touch base with the one who is the source of all life and the source of power to do the good we truly desire to do.

Philip Melancthon, the great Reformation theologian, once said to his friend Martin Luther, "This day you and I will discuss the governance of the universe." What Luther said in response was unexpected: "This day you and I will go fishing and leave the governance of the universe to God.

The next time you start to feel weary, physically or spiritually, remember God’s command—and God’s gift—rest. Because when you take time to rest, to find that deserted time and place, you are testifying to one of the greatest elements of our faith—God is the one in charge of the world. Not you and me. What greater source of peace, strength, and courage could there be?   

God's Power Withn

Thursday, July 27, 2012
Scripture Reading—Colossians 1:9-14

In this letter to the Colossians, which many scholars believe was written by a follower of Paul after his death, the writer begins by stating his hopes for his readers.  He hopes that they will be filled with knowledge of God’s will, that they will lead lives worthy of the Lord, that they will be made strong to endure trials with patience.  All these things are noble aspirations.  They sound like very difficult things to accomplish or to become.  They sound like they would take many years of hard work, discipline, and spiritual training to attain.  They sound like character traits almost impossible for many of us to develop.  But the writer makes clear that any of these fruits in the life of the Christian do not come about merely by our hard work or spiritual effort.  They are the results of the power of God at work within us.  The writer makes clear that it is God, “who has enabled [us] to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.  He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have forgiveness of sins.” (vss. 12-14)  How often do we view our spiritual growth and development  as  a product of our hard work, commitment, and devotion?  How often do we grow proud because of how much we’ve grown, or despondent over how little we’ve changed? Pride and despair are both enemies of the Christian.  The amazing truth we often forget is that God dwells within us through the Holy Spirit.  One of the most difficult lessons for us to learn is to surrender ourselves to this greater power and to simply allow it to produce Christ-like fruit within us.  Most of the time, we want to be in control deciding on the kind of person we will become, and how.  But God has a different plan.  God wants to help us become all we were created to be.  But surrender to God’s plan, God’s power, and God’s timing is no easy thing to do!

Thought for the day:  God has a vision of the kind of person we can become—a vision that far exceeds anything we could ever come up with on our own.  By surrendering our will to God, and inviting God’s Spirit to work within us, we can become that person!

Prayer:  O God, when I am proud of my spiritual accomplishments, or when I am despondent over my failures, help  me to remember that you have a far better plan for my life than I can imagine, and that you want to live and work within me to make that plan a reality.  Amen. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

When You're Lost

Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Scripture Reading—Luke 15:1-7

(I'm sorry to have missed the last few days.  I hope you will continue to look for these daily readings).

 Luke’s gospel is my favorite.  He is eager to show us the way Jesus breaks through the social barriers and religious customs of his day that separate people.  In this well-known passage about the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to go and look for the one that has wandered away, Jesus is responding to the persistent charges of his critics, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  We preachers like to make this into a missional text, urging our congregations to be like the shepherd in this story and go out and find the lost sheep.  This text certainly suggests that.  But in approaching it that way, we’re tacitly assuming that we’re always among the ninety-nine, or that we’re always as well-intentioned, self-sacrificial, and willing to take big risks as the shepherd in the story.  And that’s often true as well.  We do often make great sacrifices and take big risks to go out and bring the lost back into the safety and security of the fold.  But, sometimes, we can’t really identify with the sheep who are safe anymore than we can identify with the shepherd intent on being faithful to his mission.  Sometimes, we’re the ones who wander off from the fold.  Sometimes, we get lost because we’re not watching the path that leads to safety.  We’re too busy looking down at our lists of obligations and duties.  Sometimes we drift away from the fold because of some wound that just won’t heal.  We just don’t feel like being with the rest of the sheep.  Sometimes we get off course because we get angry about something or another.  Sometimes sickness just saps our energy.  I know—some of us don’t literally leave the fold—we’re just not really as interested or committed to the cause as we once were.  We go through the motions of spirituality.  And I’m glad that if you or I should ever wander away from the flock, wind up in a wilderness that is dark, lonely, and frightening, we know we have a shepherd—a God that we’ve come to know in Jesus—who loves us enough to come looking for us to bring us back home!

 Thought for the day:  We can take comfort in knowing that even if we wander away from the safety of the fold of God’s sheep, for whatever reason, that God will come looking for us!

 Prayer:  O God, sometimes I feel far from you.  And that is not because you have failed me, but because I have gotten distracted, distraught, or disappointed.  When I am in the wilderness, help me to stop my running, let you find me, and be renewed in my faith.  Amen. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Paul the Philosopher

Friday, July 20, 2012
Scripture Reading—Acts 17:16-31

Luke presents Paul as an erudite philosopher arguing the great profundities of life on the Aeropagus with other learned people in Athens.  Paul tries to find points of contact between his message and the ethos of the great city of education and learning.  He notes the religious interest and spirit of the people of the city indicated by the presence of images of various deities.  He notes an inscription, “To an unknown God,” and takes as his assignment revealing to his interlocutors the nature of this one they acknowledge exists, but know neither its name or nature.  Like Paul’s other missionary proclamations in Acts, he has mixed results.  A few are persuaded by Paul’s message.  Some are intrigued.  Many are indifferent.  Early in this passage, we learn that Paul was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.  At the heart of Paul’s message was the announcement that there is only one God, and all of us owe our being to this God.  There is nothing else worthy of our ultimate loyalty and allegiance.  This is at the heart of our proclamation to people in our time, regardless of how intelligent or simple, how educated or unlettered—there is only one God.  There is only one loyalty worthy of our complete devotion.  Anything else is idolatry.  Anything else is fleeting, temporary, ultimately unsatisfying.  There are so many manifestations of our loyalty to goals, causes, and purposes other than the one true God—the brokenness of our lives, failed relationships, violence, injustice, and almost everything that robs people of life, joy, and peace.  Paul’s invitation may have sounded harsh, demanding, and exclusive.  But in fact, it was an offer of life—life grounded in the realization that only the one who is eternal can satisfy our infinite longing for acceptance, peace, security, and joy.  Indeed, this force in whom we live and move and have our being, is the one who would not let death and evil have the last word but overcame them all by raising Jesus from the dead.  That is the gift, the hope, and the message offered to us—and the message we have to offer the world!

Thought for the day:  True freedom, joy, and peace is found by recognizing that life is at its best when lived in relationship with the one from whom we come, in whom we live, and to whom we will return!

Prayer:  O God, there are so many things in the world calling for my attention, loyalty, commitment, and allegiance.  Help me to quiet all the other voices calling to me that I me hear your voice and receive your invitation to find life in you, the one who is the author and sustainer of life itself.  Amen. 

Fighting Evil

Thursday, July 19
Scripture Reading—Colossians 1:15-23

 I had hoped to write on this passage yesterday, but didn’t get to it.  It is actually quite fitting for today (Friday).  Early in the morning, we were met with the news that there had been another mass killing in Colorado.  This time, a gunman entered a movie theater where an excited audience including young people and small children had gathered to watch the latest Batman movie and opened fire, killing and wounding many innocent people.  I have to admit, I was hoping to see this movie.  I know the new renditions of the Batman stories in the slickly done movies with their realistic special effects are more graphic than the old series with two grown men fighting crime in tights I grew up watching—and now laugh at because they seem so corny.  But there is an underlying theme that speaks to people with a sense of justice, and even faith, in Batman and the other popular superhero movies—and that is that no matter how ominous or threatening evil may be, good will find a way to triumph in the end.  Unfortunately, it appears that early this morning, a person tried to imitate the evil personified in the movie that people had assembled to watch.  Such events are heartbreaking and anger arousing!  But it was exactly this struggle with human sin, evil, and brokenness that Paul has in mind when he wrote, “For in him [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.” (vss. 19-20)  Paul preached that in Christ, God had given everything that could be given, to heal the breach between God and humanity, between heaven and earth.  He speaks in the past tense, as if this great act of healing and reconciliation has taken place, as if it is a fact.  And yet, to be sure, there are signs of our brokenness and persistent rebellion on display every day.  We could give up hope—or we can keep living with hope that in spite of the pain of the present moment, one day we will begin to live fully into the reality God has called into being through the death of Jesus on the Christ.  It is living in, with, and toward that hope that helps us face the realities of our broken world with courage.  We face the imperfections and sorrows of our own lives with the assumption that these too will be one day swallowed up by God’s power and goodness!

 Thought for the day:  God’s victory over sin, sorrow, and evil has already been secured in Christ.  We are called, even when it is hard to do, to live with the conviction that we will one day experience this new reality in its fullness.

 Prayer:  O God, there are signs of our world’s stubborn rebellion against your love all around us.  Not many days pass that I do not have questions myself about your nearness to me and those I love.  So, help me to know that you have already fought the fight with evil and defeated it, and that through faith, we too will one day live in the fullness of that victory.  Amen. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Wednesday, July 18
Scripture Reading—Luke 7:31-35

Life often disappoints us because we have the wrong expectations.  Couples often enter marriages with false expectations.  He’ll mow the grass—she’ll do the cooking.  Each will make the other indescribably happy!  Or we start out on a vocational path that we think is a perfect match for our talents, desires, and abilities.  We love it for awhile, but soon we see that no job is perfect.  No work is without difficult days spent sometimes with difficult people.  If you’ve lived very long at all, you know that things don’t always turn out as you’d hoped.  John the Baptist and Jesus were very different.  John proclaimed a stern message of repentance.  Jesus brought good news to the poor.  But they shared something in common.  Both of them were rejected by their own people, people they loved dearly.  It’s easy to attribute their rejection to arrogance.  But at the heart of their struggle to win followers to their respective messages was the fact that neither of them fit into people’s expectations of how God operated in the world—or at least how they wanted God to operate in the world.  They wanted deliverance from Roman occupation.  John called people to prepare for a coming kingdom by turning from sin and turning to God.  They wanted a powerful Messiah who would overthrow the Roman Empire.  Jesus couldn’t even eat with the right people.  He ate and drank with those despised agents of the Empire—tax collectors and various other sinners.  The God offered by John and Jesus just didn’t match up to people’s expectations, so they missed out on discovering in new, life-giving ways God’s gracious love and mercy.  How often do we miss out on God’s presence in our world and in our lives because we’re looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place?
Thought for the day:  We often miss out on encountering God’s presence and grace because we have the wrong expectations about how, where, when, and through whom God is to be discovered.

Prayer:  O God, help me to be open and flexible in my thinking about you so that I might encounter your presence in unexpected ways, in unexpected places, and through unexpected people.  Amen. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Always More to Learn

Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Scripture Reading—Acts 23:12-35

This passage is full of drama.  Forty men conspire to kill Paul.  They want him dead so badly that they go to the Sanhedrin and ask them to request that the Roman commander have Paul brought back before the Jewish leaders for questioning.  Their intention, however, is to kill him as he is transported from one place to another.  Paul’s nephew comes to his aid, reports the plot to the Roman authorities, Paul is spared—at least momentarily.  He’s shipped off to Caesarea for a hearing before Governor Felix.  All these events remind us that in spite of intense opposition, death plots, and court proceedings, the gospel will be proclaimed.  Indeed, Paul’s faith is so strong that he uses his imprisonment as an opportunity to proclaim the truth to leaders of the Roman Empire.  His conviction and tenacity makes our excuses about the obstacles we face in sharing the gospel look rather lame!  But there’s more here.  How do we explain the intense hatred for Paul?  Why is it Paul’s own kindred will not even listen to him?  The flat out rejection of Paul’s message, like the rejection of Jesus’ message, reminds us how prone we are to see things the way we’ve always seen them. It is much harder than we want to admit for any of us to change our minds about anything—how human beings come into existence, whether the world is flat, or whether it revolves around the sun or vice-versa.  We have a hard time thinking that God’s love includes people we’ve been taught to exclude.  It took a dramatic intervention by the risen Christ for Paul to change his thinking.  At the very least, perhaps we can learn that it’s not always a bad thing to hold our most cherished convictions with humility.  Perhaps God has much more in store for us to learn than we’ve yet recognized. 

 Thought for the day:  Holding onto our convictions with humility allows God to reveal new truths to us about God’s purposes and the scope of God’s love and mercy.

 Prayer:  O God, thank you for strong beliefs that give shape to the direction of my life. Free me from every trace of arrogance that makes me think that I have it all figured out.  Help me to be open to the new things you have yet to teach me about myself, other people, and your creation.  Amen. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Which God?

Monday, July 16
Scripture Reading—Acts 21:27-39

This reading picks up from the readings in the daily lectionary from several weeks ago, following Paul on his journey to Jerusalem, and then onto Rome.  It is essentially Paul’s last missionary journey.  He arrives in Jerusalem and confers with James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and presumably Jesus’ brother.  The leaders of the church there acknowledge Paul’s success among the Gentiles while also pointing out to him the stressful relations this success is creating with Jewish Christians.  To make a long (and interesting) story sort, Paul falls into  controversy when, trying to prove his respect for his own Jewish tradition and the feelings of Jewish Christians, he goes to the temple for a rite of purification with four other Christians of Jewish backgrounds.  A group of Jews from Asia had previously seen Paul in town with Trophimus, a Gentile from Ephesus.  They assumed, mistakenly, that Paul had done the unthinkable—he had taken a Gentile into the temple.  The people were so angry that they wanted to kill Paul—and nearly did.  This sets in motion a series of investigations, violent attacks, and eventually trials before the civil authorities—all because people assumed that Paul had desecrated sacred space by taking a Gentile inside.  As you read through the rest of Acts, you will see that Paul denies the validity of the charges against him, but does not deny that he proclaims something his opponents also vehemently deny—the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  He uses this false accusation as a tactic to proclaim the truthful difference between him and those who disagree with him.  This incident reminds us that though religion has great power to heal, save, liberate, motivate, and inspire, it also has great power to divide.  It can lead to irrational, violent behavior that demonizes those who have differing beliefs or practices.  At the core, I believe, of this dispute, was the struggle to understand whether God is God only of a few who share common ethnicity, heritage, and language, or whether God is a God of love whose offer of mercy extends to all people and makes our human distinctions null and void.   It’s clear where Paul stood on this matter.  And every day, we are given the opportunity to demonstrate by our words and deeds the nature of the God we give our loyalty and allegiance to.

Thought for the day:  The offense of the gospel is not just that we are saved by grace rather than works; but that all of us are equally worthy to be counted as children of God.

 Prayer:  O God, frequently remind us that your love and mercy is freely given to any who will receive it.  Amen. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, July 15, 2012

And You Thought Reality TV Was Bad!
Mark 6:14-29
A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church
Richmond, VA
Sunday, July 15, 2012


Even in the face of deceit, treachery, and murder, the kingdom of God is never finally thwarted, but always advancing toward its fullness.


It is not always easy to do the right thing; and it is often easy to be quiet when something wrong is being done.  Whether in business, church, politics, or family, we have experienced more than one occasion when doing or saying the right thing might risk for us the breakdown of a relationship or being ostracized in some way.  How do we respond to the challenge to do what is right?  Do we calculate what others will think, what the cost might be, how others might perceive us—or do we do the right thing even when it might cost us a relationship, our job, or our lives?

 Here in Mark’s gospel, we gain insight into two broad ways of approaching the dilemma of whether to do what is right or what is expedient.  If we are honest, we may see some of both of these approaches in ourselves.  This striking passage, which probably needs an R rating, comes in the middle of two important events in the experience of Jesus and his disciples.  Jesus has commissioned the twelve to go out into the world to preach the gospel, heal the sick, and free people from the power of evil.  Then, the twelve return to report to Jesus about how God has blessed them on this, their first mission.  Mark is not just filling time in his gospel while the disciples are on the road—he is trying to teach us something about the shape of Christian discipleship.

 Jesus, through his own words and deeds and the ministry of his disciples, was developing quite a reputation.  Herod couldn’t help but wonder who this Jesus was, where he came from, how he got so much power, why he was so popular, and whether he posed any immediate threat to him.  His immediate thought was to interpret Jesus through a concept familiar in the ancient world—he was simply John the Baptist raised from the dead.  Believing that the ghost of a great person often took up residence in someone else, Herod couldn’t help but wonder if John had come back from his grave to haunt him.

 Herod had good reason to worry.  A prophet whose message had much in common with Jesus had also gained a wide following.  His name was John the Baptist.  He had called people to prepare for the Messiah’s arrival by repenting of their sin.  But John the Baptist had the temerity to challenge Herod, the king of Galilee on the conduct of his personal life.  Herod had seduced his brother’s wife and married her.  This probably didn’t surprise John or the people of Galilee. For Herod’s family had a long history of cruelty, immorality, and dysfunction.  This Herod, Herod Antipas, was the son of another Herod—Herod the Great.  You remember him.  When he heard about Jesus’ birth and the claim that another king was on the scene, he demanded that all of the infant boys under two years of age in Bethlehem be killed.  Herod the Great was married many times.  Toward the end of his life, he became insanely paranoid and murdered member after member of his own family until it became a Jewish saying, “It is safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.” 

 The incestuous, murderous nature of this family is astonishing, even by modern standards.  Because of the numerous marriages, the family genealogy is nearly impossible to sort out.  So, I want to read a bit from William Barclay’s commentary so you can get some sense of why John, and undoubtedly other devout Jews, were so disgusted with this family who ruled over them. 

 Barclay writes:  “First, Herod married Doris, by whom he had a son Antipater, whom he murdered.  Then he married Mariamne, the Hasmonean, by whom he had two sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, whom he also murdered.  Herodias, the villainess of the present passage, was the daughter of this Aristobulus.  (Herodias, would have been the granddauther of Herod the Great).  Herod the Great then married another Mariamne, called the Boethusian.  By her he had a son called Herod Philip.  This Herod Philip married Herodias, who was the daughter of his half-brother, Aristobulus, and who was therefore his own niece.  By Herodias, this Herod Philip had a daughter called Salome, who is the girl who danced before Herod the ruler of Galilee in our passage.  Herod the Great then married Malthake, by whom he had two sons—Archelaus and Herod Antipas who is the Herod of our passage and who was the ruler of Galilee.  The Herod Philip who married Herodias originally, and who was the father of Salome, inherited none of Herod the Great’s dominions.  He lived as a wealthy private citizen in Rome.  Herod Antipas—the Herod of this passage—visited him in Rome.  There he seduced his wife Herodias and persuaded her to leave her husband and marry him.  Now note who Herodias was:  (a) she was the daughter of his half-brother, Aristobulus, and therefore his niece; and (b) she was the wife of his half-brother Herod Philip, and therefore his sister-in-law.  Previously this Herod Antipas had been married to a daughter of the king of the Nabateans, an Arabian country.  She escaped to her father who invaded Herod’s territory to avenge his daughter’s honor and heavily defeated Herod.”[1]

 You get the picture.  Herod Antipas, like his father Herod the Great, used his power to get whatever he wanted from whomever he wanted it. 

 John had the audacity to speak the truth about Herod to his face.  Herod had John thrown in prison.  But something intrigued Herod about John.  He was strangely drawn to the preaching of this prophet from the desert who’d had the courage to tell him the truth.  Perhaps he secretly contemplated how his life might be different if he could have the courage to repent of his own sin and go down a path different from that of his father’s.

One evening, Salome, the daughter of Herodias, danced for Herod at the palace at Machareus, which stood on a lonely ridge, surrounded by terrible ravines, overlooking the east side of the Dead Sea.  Dancing in a way only prostitutes would, Salome, with the approval of her mother, pleased Herod greatly.  He was so enamored with this sensuous display that he rashly promised her:  “Whatever you want, I will give you—up to half my kingdom.” 

 Salome went to her mother and asked her advice.  Herodias told her, “Ask for John the Baptist’s head to be brought on a platter.”  She did.  And Herod, Mark says, was deeply grieved.  That’s an odd response, isn’t it, for someone who had no compunction about taking his own brother’s wife.  Here is a moment of decision for Herod.  There is no reason he cannot refuse this request.  Yes, he will look bad for a moment in front of his guests, and yes, his wife, Herodias, might become so furious with him that she leaves him.  But this moment is a moment where Herod can make a break with the troubled past of his family and his own sinfulness and start down a whole new path.  And perhaps he considers this—for he was deeply grieved.  But, the opinion of his guests about him, and his need to please his wife, were in the end more important.  So, like his father before him who’d murdered his own sons, this Herod concedes.  John the Baptist is executed.  His head is brought to Herodias on a platter.  What a birthday present!

Herod represents many things.  He is intrigued by John’s proclamation of the truth about his life, but not willing to embrace that truth.  He is grieved over the prospect of John’s death, but unwilling to lose faith with his guests or his family.  Thus, he misses the possibility of new life because the cost is just too great.  He cannot stand the thought of being seen by his guests or his subjects as breaking a silly oath.  He cannot stand the thought of his wife’s anger toward him because of his sympathy for one who had called her way of life into question.  In the end, he cannot stand to be associated with this prophet who came to point the way to Jesus, the one his own father had tried to crush when he was only an infant.  Intrigued, attracted, perhaps, almost persuaded—but in the end unwilling to make a break with his past, his way of life, his standing in the community.

 I doubt that any of us has been involved in things quite as unseemly as Herod and his family, nor have we been in positions of great power where we have faced the moral question of how to maintain our integrity and hold on to power.  But we are tempted each day in ways we do not perhaps want to acknowledge.  Maybe we are not tempted to murder—but we are tempted to fail to see that because God has created all of us on this planet, there is no human being outside of the scope of God’s concern—and therefore no human being we can write off as having no claim on us.  Maybe we are not tempted to do anything it takes to gain and hold political power, but we may often fail to consider what it means to say that Jesus is Lord over all things.  And in light of that claim to consider whether we are putting some other loyalty ahead of that—loyalty to family, or business, or nation? 

 But, we are presented another alternative—another way to respond to God’s claims on us.  That of course, is John the Baptist.  John is an odd, somewhat frightening character to me.  Frankly, I do not know how comfortable I would be with John’s demeanor or his message.  He strikes me as an intense, no-nonsense sort of guy.  He is consumed with being faithful to God, and he wants others to be faithful to God as well.  I am not sure how well his message would be received today.  We live in a time when the most popular preachers who sell the most books are able to help us adjust to the complexities of modern life rather than challenging them at their core.  We often prefer messengers who show us how to cope with stress, how to manage anxiety, how to put faith to work for our own prosperity.  Many churches are eager to find ways to help people feel comfortable with Jesus so they out-Disney Disney.  John the Baptist comes along telling people that Jesus is coming to establish his reign upon the earth and that unless you want to be left out, you need to repent.  John calls people to line up their lives so they fit God’s purpose, not to try to fit God’s purposes into their own sense of their needs.  I rather think John might admire people who travel some distance each week to come downtown to worship.   It would remind him of all that time he’d spent in the desert, trying to listen to God’s voice. 

So, John stands up to Herod.  He tells him his whole life is a sham.  He makes him question everything.  There are only two possible words to describe someone like that:  stupid or courageous. 

 If a sermon is anything, it is to be a proclamation of good news.  This is a difficult text because it’s hard, at least at first glance to find the good news.  In this text, we come across a very messy family situation that might make Jerry Springer blush.  We read about a horrible, violent execution at the end of a seductive dance that would make Dr. Phil ask, “What were you thinkin’?”

 Here’s a try at an attempt to find good news.  First, even in this messy, unseemly situation that involves incestuous family relations, a gross abuse of power, and a grotesque execution with the victim’s head presented on a platter, God is present.  God is at work.  I know it’s hard to see how immediately.  But the fact that Mark tells us this story means that it was important to early Christians who needed to know how God brought salvation to the world in another person, Jesus, who lost his life under circumstances that were just as unseemly.  The simple telling of this story in all its gory detail reminds us that God is not absent from the messiest of human situations.  “Where can I go from your spirit,” the Psalmist asked.  “If I descend to Sheol, to hell itself, you are there.”   The corollary to affirming that God is present in such a situation is to remember no matter how messy our lives or the lives of people we love become, God is with us.  That affirmation also comes with a challenge and a summons for those of us who can hear it and bear it; a summons to refuse to run from messy, uncomfortable situations, believing that with God’s help, we might just be the vessel through which some measure of healing and grace flows to others.

Second, there are times are efforts to confront injustice, dysfunction, abuse of power will not always be met with open arms.  Indeed, we may get ourselves in a good bit of trouble trying to speak truth to power, or by insisting on obeying God’s call rather than, like Herod, doing what is expedient.

Finally, in the end,  true heroes of the faith are those people who find strength and courage to be faithful even when it is costly.  That’s what we learn from the prophets.  That’s what we learn from John the Baptist.  That’s what we learn from Jesus.  That’s what we learn from Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Desmond Tutu.    With God’s help, we can become people with the spiritual strength to stand up for the right even when that is not popular, even when it may turn out to be very costly to us personally.  We believe our faithfulness, even if met with great opposition, can be a vessel through God’s victory is attained.

 Who was United States Senator Edmund G. Ross of Kansas? I suppose you could call him a Mr. Nobody. No law bears his name. Not a single list of Senate greats mentions his service. Yet when Ross entered the Senate in 1866, he was considered the man to watch. He seemed destined to surpass his colleagues, but he tossed it all away by one courageous act of conscience.

Let’s set the stage. Conflict was dividing our government in the wake of the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson was determined to follow Lincoln’s policy of reconciliation toward the defeated South.  Congress, however, wanted to rule the downtrodden Confederate states with an iron hand.

Congress decided to strike first. Shortly after Senator Ross was seated, the Senate introduced impeachment proceedings against the hated President. The radicals calculated that they needed thirty-six votes, and smiled as they concluded that the thirty-sixth was none other than Ross. The new senator listened to the vigilante talk. But to the surprise of many, he declared that the president deserved as fair a trial as any accused man has ever had on earth.? The word immediately went out that his vote was shaky.

Ross received an avalanche of anti-Johnson telegrams from every section of the country. Radical senators badgered him to come to his senses. The fateful day of the vote arrived. The courtroom galleries were packed. Tickets for admission were at an enormous premium.
As a deathlike stillness fell over the Senate chamber, the vote began. By the time they reached Ross, twenty-four guilty votes had been announced. Eleven more were certain. Only Ross’s vote was needed to impeach the President. Unable to conceal his emotion, the Chief Justice asked in a trembling voice, “Mr. Senator Ross, how vote you? Is the respondent Andrew Johnson guilty as charged?”

Ross later explained, at that moment, “I looked into my open grave. Friendships, position, fortune, and everything that makes life desirable to an ambitions man were about to be swept away by the breath of my mouth, perhaps forever.”
Then, the answer came, unhesitating, unmistakable: “Not guilty!”  With that, the trial was over. And the response was as predicted.

A high public official from Kansas wired Ross to say: “Kansas repudiates you as she does all perjurers and skunks.”   The open grave vision had become a reality. Ross’s political career was in ruins. Extreme ostracism, and even physical attack awaited his family upon their return home.

One gloomy day Ross turned to his faithful wife and said, “Millions cursing me today will bless me tomorrow...though not but God can know the struggle it has cost me.”  It was a prophetic declaration.

Twenty years later Congress and the Supreme Court verified the wisdom of his position, by changing the laws related to impeachment.

Ross was appointed Territorial Governor of New Mexico. Then, just prior to his death, he was awarded a special pension by Congress. The press and country took this opportunity to honor his courage which, they finally concluded, had saved the country from crisis and division.[2]

Where would we be if John the Baptist had not had the courage to speak the truth without regard for his safety and security?  Where would we be if Jesus had not entered willingly into the messiness of our human lives and lived faithfully, even to the point of his death on the cross?  What kind of impact could we make on the world if more of us were willing to allow a little bit of that fearless, reckless, courageous faithfulness rub off on us?

         [1] William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark in The New Daily Study Bible  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 173-174.

        [2]John Johnston, Courage—You Can Stand Strong in the Face of Fear (Wheaton, IL:  Victor Books), 56-58.