Thursday, August 30, 2012

Wisdom

Thursday, August 30
Scripture Reading—James 1:1-8

We can ask for a lot of things when we pray—and we should.  We can ask God to help us in times of stress.  We can ask God to bless people we love and care about.  We can ask God to be present with people who face war, hunger, or hurricanes.  There are many things we can ask for.  But James says that we should not forget to ask for something else—wisdom.  God wants to give us all this gift, James claims.  But what is wisdom exactly?  Some say that wisdom is knowing how to apply or make use of knowledge.  Wise people—you’ve met them—are perceptive.  They understand situations and people.  They know how to help people understand the truth, but do so with tact and compassion.  They know how to help people solve difficult problems without coming across as know-it-alls.  James says when we ask for this gift, we should do so with confidence that God wants to give it to us.  The form of the answers to many of our other prayers makes us wonder sometimes if we’ve prayed rightly or if God has heard us at all.  But we can never go wrong praying for wisdom.  In time, whether from a flash of insight or through the words of a good friend, God will show us how to live the lives we were created to live.

Thought for the day:  The one prayer God will always, finally hear, is the sincere, confident prayer for wisdom.

Prayer:  O God, I do not always know how to pray or what to pray for.  More than anything grant me wisdom, that I will know how to live a life that brings glory to you, good to others, and joy to me.  Amen. 

Chosen


Wednesday, August 29
Scripture Reading—John 15:16-25

Do you remember those uncomfortable scenes from elementary school?  Captains are chosen and told to choose their teams for dodgeball, kickball, basketball, or some other competition.  Of course the biggest, fastest, and sometimes meanest kids get picked first.  You only hope and pray you’re not the last one chosen.  That’s a rather public humiliation for any kid to endure.  It means either people don’t like you, or you’re just not big or fast enough to merit people’s attention!  As we get older, the stakes get higher.  We want to be chosen by the school we want to attend, or the employer we want to work for, or the partner we hope to attract.  Sometimes our wishes come true—and sometimes they don’t.  Unfortunately, we spend a lot of our time trying to turn ourselves into the kind of person we think will make those people or institutions we want to be connected with want us.  I’m so thankful that Jesus looked at his disciples and reminded them, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”  And thankfully Jesus’ way of choosing people isn’t anything like ours.  Jesus often chose people others rejected as unclean, unworthy, or unimportant.  In fact, Jesus wants us all to be part of his team, his family.  All we have to do is say, “Yes.”

Thought for the day:  God chooses all of us to be part of God’s family. Being chosen by God, and accepting that offer of belonging to God, is what makes life worth living!

 Prayer:  O God, thank you that you choose us to be your much loved children.  Whenever we become too anxious about how others treat or evaluate us, help us to remember that you choose us to be part of your family—just as we are.  Amen. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, August 26


Strong in the Broken Places
John 6:56-69
 A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church
Richmond, VA
August 26, 2012

 
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 God’s love made real in the brokenness of Jesus’ body and the spilling of the blood is a constant reminder that it is in the circumstances of brokenness where find God’s presence most real.

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 It’s a relief for some of us to come to the end of this long series of Gospel readings and sermons on John 6.  What more could be said about the deeper meaning of the feeding of a crowd of over 5000 by Jesus with a few loaves and fish?  What more is there to reflect on besides the reminder of God’s provision for us with daily bread like the manna God provided the children of Israel in the wilderness?  What more can be said about the eucharistic imagery or the offer Jesus makes to each of us to be the true bread of life?

I think that there may yet be one more thing.  It’s not quite as explicit as some of these other themes, but it’s a truth that has gotten my attention.  Perhaps it’s why I found myself drawn to want to think more deeply and prayerfully about this passage.    If there is any validity in this hunch, then perhaps it explains, at least partially, why  the people reacted to this teaching as they did when it was all spoken, compiled, and handed on from community to community.

 At the end of it all, at the end of the miracle and the offer of Jesus that anyone who eats the bread he could provide, bread of his flesh, and the true drink of his blood, many people simply cannot receive the gift.  Yes, the imagery may have been too bold and graphic.  It could have been that people did misunderstand the references to eating flesh and drinking blood.  It could have been that people simply could not comprehend God’s intimate, life-giving presence being transmitted to them through the life and words of an ordinary human being.  John reports, “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’”  John notes that many of the Jewish leaders found Jesus’ words offensive.  Others who’d been attracted by the miracle left.  At this point, Jesus is aware, John says, that one of his own would betray him.  “Because of this teaching many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him,” John says.

 Was there anything else?  I might be wrong, but I think the offense of Jesus’ words was not just about the jarring physical imagery or even the announcement that God was present in a unique life-giving way in Jesus.  Yes that was part of it.  I think that part of the offense for some of the hearers came in the vision of God Jesus presented.  For Jesus’ claim is that God’s presence was coming to the world not through worldly success, fame, or military greatness.  It was being offered to people through human brokenness.  It was not a body strengthened and sculpted through vigorous exercise or performance enhancing drugs, but a broken body, a weakened body, a defeated body that was offered as the key to life.  It was not blood shed in the pursuit of worldly power or domination or even an act of defiant revolution, but blood shed because of deep love.  Jesus body and blood were signs of brokenness rather than strength, defeat rather than victory.  That was offensive to those who wanted an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God who could send Caesar’s armies running in fear.  And I expect that that kind of God, a God who comes to us in humility, a God who allows his chosen representative to be killed rather than to kill, is still offensive to many of us.

 But some of us need to be reminded that is through this God we know in Jesus who does not shun the broken places of our world or our lives, that we ourselves can discover healing and life and power. 

 It was the Greek philosophers who influenced early Christian theology who stressed God’s distance from the world and made Christians wonder if God could really have suffered in Jesus, since suffering involves change, and change is not something people in the ancient world could associate with the mental image of deity they cherished.

 But one of the central and most mysterious claims of the biblical story is that God suffered in Jesus, that God is not too far removed to suffer with us.

 When I was in college at Oral Roberts University, theology majors had to write a Senior Paper.  Now you might think that the only things people could study there were how to speak in tongues, perform miracles of healing, develop television ministries, or articulate pre-millennial pre-tribulation dispensational theology.  But there was in fact a remarkable spirit of openness and at the time I was there a strong United Methodist presence.  I’ll admit I was a little wary when I told my professors what I wanted to write about.  I wanted to write about Jurgen Moltmann.  Moltmann was a hot topic in those days with his theology of hope.  His theology was a unique blend of influences ranging from Martin Luther, his teacher Karl Barth, other theologians of hope like Wolfhart Pannenberg and Johann Baptiste Metz, the prophets of the Old Testament, and an atheistic philosopher influenced by Marxism named Ernst Bloch.  Moltmann has continued to write prolifically and I suppose many would consider him one of the four or five most influential theologians of the twentieth century.

 Moltmann was shaped by the suffering of World War II and the great theological questions that arose from the holocaust.  One of his most important books is entitled The Crucified God.  And one of the main problems Moltmann wrestles with in that book is how to understand the suffering of God.  Patripassianism, the idea that God the father, the first person of the trinity could suffer, was regarded in some quarters as a theological mistake if not a heresy.  But Moltmann believed that in all the awful events of the twentieth century, in Jesus Christ, God had suffered with humanity, not abandoning us to our evil devices, trying reach out to us to redeem us in the worst of human circumstances.  In other words his view of the atonement was not anything like that many people reject because in envisioning God the Father offering up God the Son as a sacrifice for sin that resembles some form of cosmic child abuse.  Rather, Moltmann argued that on the cross, God himself enters humanity’s godforsakenness and takes the suffering of the world into Godself. 

 He explained his thinking like this: 

 When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness…He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and godforsaken can experience communion with him.”[1]

 To explain his understanding of the atonement, Moltmann shares the story of Elie Wiesel recounted in Weisel’s book Night.   Standing in a crowd being forced to watch the hanging of an angel-faced child at Auschwitz, Wiesel heard someone ask, “For God’s sake, where is God?” “And from within me, I heard a voice answer,” Wiesel writes, “‘Where is He? This is where—hanging here from this gallows.’”[2]

Reflecting on Wiesel’s statement, Moltmann writes,

“If that is to be taken seriously, it must also be said that, like the cross of Christ, even Auschwitz is in God himself. Even Auschwitz is taken up into the grief of the Father, the surrender of the Son and the power of the Spirit…As Paul says in I Cor. 15, only with the resurrection of the dead, the murdered and the gassed, only with the healing of those in despair who bear lifelong wounds, only with the abolition of all rule and authority, only with the annihilation of death will the Son hand over the kingdom to the Father. Then God will turn his sorrow into eternal joy…God in Auschwitz and Auschwitz in the crucified God—that is the basis for a real hope which both embraces and overcomes the world, and the ground for a love which is stronger than death and can sustain death.”[3]

As I was thinking back to discovering those words many years ago, I realized that there are many questions I have about God, many days the questions outnumber any sense of having answers.  But there is one thing I believe more strongly with each passing day—God does not abandon us in our godforsaknness.  God does not abandon us in our darkness, in our suffering.  Rather God goes to those places, meets us there, refusing ever to forsake us.  God is present in the broken places, the dark places of human existence.  That is I believe what the message of the cross is finally about if it is about anything.  The broken flesh and shed blood of Jesus is a powerful reminder of that truth.

Believing this makes a profound difference in the way we look at our own brokenness.  Believing God is with us even in the most difficult godforsaken circumstances gives us courage and strength that is, I believe, explicable in no other way.

Some of you will remember the story of Joni Erackson Toda.  She was in a diving accident at the age of 17 which left her a quadripalegic.  After two long years of rehabilitation, she emerged with skills she’d never had and a new determination to help other people.  She learned how to paint with a brush between her teeth.  Her high detail fine art paintings and prints are sought after and collected.  She has written 70 books and received awards so numerous they would take several pages to list.    She is also a singer and songwriter.  One of her songs is entitled : “When Pretty Things Get Broken.”  Here are the words:

My life was just like china, a lovely thing to me,
Full of porcelain promises of all that I might be.
But fragile things do slip and fall as ev'rybody knows,
And when my vase came crashing down those tears began to flow.

But don't we all cry when pretty things get broken?
Don't we all sigh at such an awful loss?
Jesus will dry those tears as He has spoken
'Cause He was the One broken on the cross.

But Jesus is the Porcelain Prince.
His promises won't break.
His holy Word holds fast and sure.
His love no one can shake.

So if your life is shattered by sorrow, pain or sin,
His healing love will reach right down and make you whole again.[4]

 Christ meets us in the broken places giving us strength we never knew we had. 

 That strength in life’s broken places isn’t just given to a few who go on to become highly publicized examples.  It happens anywhere Christ is allowed to be present in those broken and painful places of life.

 It was Saturday night before my first Sunday in a new appointment.  I had a call that a woman had committed suicide.  I rushed to the home—a beautiful farm in a valley surrounded by mountains.  I didn’t know anyone.  There must have been fifty people there, family, friends trying to comfort the husband.  The police were still there collecting evidence and doing their work.  I met the man that night.  It was awkward to say the least.  I learned that this was not the only tragedy this family had known.  Twenty years before the couple’s youngest son had been hit by a car crossing a busy highway and killed.   His wife, like him, still grieved that loss, but he thought she’d been doing better.  He said that morning had been one of the best mornings they’d shared together.  They’d had breakfast, talked of hopes and dreams they had for the future.  He’d gone down to the barn to do some chores, waiting for his wife to join him.  She never came.  He was concerned.  He went to the house and found her lying in the yard with a gunshot wound.  You can imagine how horrible that was for him to absorb.

 Well, we got through the first Sunday, and we began planning a funeral.  Through that process, I got to know the new widower better.  I went by on a somewhat regular basis for awhile to check on him.   Not long before this tragedy, he’d taken a new job working for a large construction firms.  He was extraordinarily talented as a builder and contractor and very well respected. 

 I’ll be honest with you.  I really wondered if he was ever going to be able to dig out of the deep hole he was in.  Sometimes when I stopped by the shades would be drawn.  He didn’t feel like getting out, eating. 

 But slowly some things started to change.  People from the church kept calling and going by.  The family had become somewhat inactive before this event and many of the people really didn’t know them well.  His sisters and mother kept going by taking food.   And he started coming back to church--hardly ever missed a Sunday.  It was hard.  And he began to look better and occasionally smile.  He got reconnected to the church and instead of becoming bitter and angry because of the terrible suffering he and his wife had endured, he got reconnected to his faith.   He went to counseling, realizing he needed help.

 Within a year or so he took the risk of dating again.  And within two years he was leading a remodeling project of the sanctuary.  He joined a men’s group on a mission trip. And the next year he was leading the trip.  And I heard from him not long ago and he was ready to remarry.  I didn’t know how such pain could be healed, how such brokenness could be overcome.  But the truth is, through his family, his friends, and the church, God met him right there.  God did not abandon or forsake him, though he felt that that was exactly what had happened. 

 And that is the good news we all need to hear.  The God we know in Jesus is not above being broken, bruised, and bloodied by the pain human beings bear.  And it is in that brokenness signified by Christ’s body and blood that we are reminded we are never alone.  It is in that brokenness that we are made whole. 

 On the days I am not sure what I believe, I remind myself that I believe that.  And remembering that I believe that,  I realize that if that is where and how God meets us, that God is calling us to meet him there—in those places and people who are being stretched, strained and broken by life’s difficulties.  It’s in those places we discover just how great, good, and powerful God really is!

 

        [1] J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 276.
 
         [2] Elie Wiesel, Night, Bantam, 1982, pp. 75-6.
 
         [3] Moltmann, p. 278.
 
         [4] http://restorationheart.blogspot.com/2008/08/when-pretty-things-get-broken.html

 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Benediction

Tuesday, August 28
Scripture Reading—Ephesians 6:21-24

 Upon reading this short passage, you might conclude that there’s not much of substance here.  These are just the closing words of the Letter to the Ephesians.  Such things are mere formalities, right?  Just a way of bringing a message to a close, correct?  But are the endings of correspondence whether by e-mail, text, tweet, or phone important?  We’re affected by the way messages and conversations end.    We look for clues from what people say and how they say it.  Don’t you feel terrible when a conversation ends in anger?  Or with some hint of doubt about whether the person is well, or happy?  Or wondering whether your relationship with that person is on solid footing?  Christians have a way of ending their conversations and correspondence.  It’s called “benediction.”  We ask for God’s blessing and presence upon the people we’ve been talking with.  And that’s how this letter ends.  The writer wants the readers to know that he is sending a messenger named Tychicus who will tell them how he is really doing.  And then he offers a benediction, a blessing that is not just perfunctory, but a way of expressing the hope that that the whole community will know God’s peace, love, and be filled with faith, all of which are gifts given in abundance by the God of Jesus. He wants them to know God’s grace and he acknowledges their undying love for Jesus Christ, regardless of whatever other disagreements or conflicts may have been discussed in the letter.  A word of blessing—a benediction.  It’s a powerful form of speech.  How would our relationships with others be different if we took care to think about how we ended our conversations and communications?  Could anything be more uplifting, positive, or fruitful than reminding someone of all the good we see in them and all the blessings we hope for them?  Our benedictions don’t have to be overly theological or verbose, but reminding others, even those with whom we disagree or experience conflict, that we see good in them and want  God’s best for them could be one thing that changes the whole tone of our relationships with each other.

Thought for the day:  Offering a benediction—simple, heartfelt, and in our own words—for another when we part may be just the thing that prepares the way for love to deepen or healing to occur.  Parting words have power!

 Prayer:  O God, help me to be mindful of the power of words to hurt and heal, bless and curse.  Help me to learn the art of speaking words of blessing to others—those I love deeply, as well as those with whom I experience conflict and disagreement.  Amen. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Mutuality

Monday, August 27
Scripture Reading—Ephesians 5:21-6:9

 This section of the letter to the Ephesians is called a household code.  It was not uncommon in the ancient world for philosophers and teachers to instruct people on how to order their relationships with one another.  For a household—or a society—to run smoothly, people need to understand their role, as some people might say more pejoratively—their place.  If everyone knows and keeps their place, then things in a home usually run smoothly.  It probably wouldn’t have been unusual in first century Rome to think that as long as husbands controlled wives, parents controlled children, and masters controlled slaves, everything would run along smoothly.  I know that this passage doesn’t sound revolutionary to those of us who value living in a world where everyone’s rights are equally protected.   But in the first century, it must have sounded revolutionary.  These intimate relationships of the household, the writer instructs, are not to be governed by a hierarchy, but are to be lived out in mutuality.  Wives are not merely to submit to husbands—but husbands are also to submit to wives.  Children are not merely instructed to obey their parents, but parents are instructed not to provoke children to anger.  And though I wish the institution of slavery described in this passage had been eradicated, so that there would be no need to tell slaves to obey masters, the very institution itself is undermined by  the simple statement in verse 9 that “both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.”  Hierarchical relations are still prevalent in our world—just look at the organizational chart of any university, government agency, or denomination!  But, the truth is, the most democratic and egalitarian movement in the world should be the church.  Here in the body of Christ, we are of equal worth and importance in the eyes of God.  The foundation for Christian relationships is the notion that we are each called to seek the welfare of the other. If only one party yields her or his will, relationships become exploitative and even abusive.  But God intends for each of us in all our relationships to seek one another’s mutual benefit.   Our model is God made known in Jesus, for Jesus surrendered all the authority, prestige, and power that rightly belonged to him to serve, suffer, and even die for us.  What would our homes, our churches, and our world begin to look like if that became the model for our relationships with each other?  It just might be revolutionary!

Thought for the day:  The model for all Christian relationships is the self-giving, sacrificial love of God revealed to the world in Jesus Christ.  Practicing that kind of love would revolutionize our homes, churches, and the world.

Prayer:  O God, help us to seek relationships where we neither exploit others for our gain, nor allow ourselves to be exploited because of fear or weakness.  But help us to model our lives together after Jesus, who showed us truly how to love one another.  Amen. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Why Pray?

Saturday, August 25
Scripture Reading—Luke 11:5-13

I suppose there are many reasons some of us don’t pray as much as think we should—or could.  We are busy.  There are many distractions.  It is hard to find ways to unplug, even for short periods, from the noise of the world.  And even when we try to do that, we can’t turn off the noise of our minds long enough to focus on something other than ourselves.  Those are the obstacles I find to prayer.  It is unfortunate that prayer seems so difficult for us at times.  I think one of our problems is that we look at prayer like the friend approached at night for bread Jesus describes in verses 5 through 8.  We think of God as one who would rather not be bothered, as one we have to pester relentlessly to be heard.  But as we go on through this passage, we discover that Jesus’ point is that God is not like the neighbor who doesn’t want to be bothered with our request for help at midnight.  Jesus encourages to persist in prayer because God is better disposed toward us than any earthly parent could ever be toward a child.  God wants to hear our prayers, whether they are requests for aid with the mundane needs of life, or the deeper cries and longings for deeper things—direction for our lives, divine mercy toward loved ones who are hurting, healing of relationships, the well-being and salvation of our broken world.  In all these things, God desires to be present.  And that is, after all, the greatest gift to be sought and received through persistent prayer—God’s presence, love, and grace.  Hear Jesus’ promise that in prayer God will give us himself—“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”  That’s a gift worth asking, seeking, knocking, and searching for.  It’s the one gift God is eager to give.

Thought for the day:  The real purpose of prayer is not just to seek God’s aid for ourselves and others in times of need—it is more than anything to make ourselves available to God so that God can give the best gift of all—himself.

Prayer:  O God, help me to make prayer a priority in my life, not just to fulfill an obligation or command, but so that we can become more receptive to receiving the gift of your constant, abiding presence with us always.  Amen.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Time

Friday, August 24
Scripture Reading—Romans 13:11-14

Deadlines focus our attention on what is important.  They force us to work with a sense of urgency.  The arrival of April 15 motivates us to get our taxes done.  An upcoming final exam motivates students to study hard.  Teams play more frenetically when the clock is winding down.

And most sobering of all, we often begin to think what is really important in life when we know our days are numbered.  Paul told the Romans that if they realized how short their time was, they would change their behavior.  We may not have the sense that history is about to end as Paul’s readers may have had.  But his challenge is no less pertinent.  The truth is our days are numbered.   Our time is limited on this earth.  Paul thought if people really appreciated this fact they wouldn’t spend their energy in unproductive, unsatisfying ways. Yes, there is the sense here that the works done in under the cover of night will be exposed in the light of day and we don’t want to get caught in some embarrassing or compromising situation when our true character and actions have light shined on them.  It does sound like a threat--or a warning at the least.    But isn’t there some good news here?  Since we know our time is limited, why waste it doing things that hurt and anger other people and that ruin relationships by our self-centeredness?  Why not live every moment in the full awareness of God’s love for us?  Why not spend our waking moments expanding that reservoir of love?  What is it in our lives that we’re doing that just isn’t worth the time?  What are we doing that brings no joy to us or others?  If we really believed that our time was limited, how would we want to live?  Maybe answering that question is the key to knowing how we really want to live each day.

 Thought for the day:  Knowing that our time on earth is limited can help us discover what is really important to us.  It can help us live the life—the full, joyful, abundant life—God intends for all of us.

 Prayer:  Dear God, please help to realize that my time on this earth is limited.  Help me to discern clearly who you are calling me to be and what you are calling me to do in this time.  Help me to know what is truly important.  Amen.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Encouraged

Thursday, August 23
Scripture Reading—I Thessalonians 5:1-11

 I Thessalonians, was in all likelihood, the earliest written document in the New Testament.  Paul wrote to Christians not far removed from Christ’s first coming and who believed his second coming would happen in their lifetimes.  They faced two dangers to their faith—living in constant fear over Christ’s sudden appearance on the one hand, or becoming complacent and sleepwalking through life on the other.  Though most of us don’t live with the sense that Christ’s coming to judge the living and the dead is imminent, we face the same problem in living as faithful disciples.  We can become afraid that the signs of the times indicate God’s displeasure with us, or we become so consumed with just making through the day that we give little thought to things of ultimate importance.  For me, the latter is the biggest problem—getting so preoccupied with meeting the obligations of the moment that I forget the bigger picture.  But many of us have had experiences that jar us into remembering that there is more to this life than just earning a paycheck or living for the next vacation.  Unfortunately, it is sometimes a crisis that makes us ask what is really important—losing a job, a broken relationship, or a grave illness.  One of the reasons we need other Christians is to help us remember what is important.  Paul writes that we should always be encouraging one another in our faith.  He’s right, isn’t he?  Life’s boredom and life’s crises are better handled when loving Christian friends are nearby to encourage ua to keep focused on what is of ultimate importance and to help us claim the joy and peace that comes from being God’s child right now!

 Thought for the day:  Whether we are bored with life’s routine or overwhelmed by its challenges, we can help one another remember who and what is truly important.

 Prayer:  O God, it is easy to forget your presence on one hand and to fear it on the other.  Help us to encourage one another in moments of forgetfulness and in moments of fearfulness.  Help us to help each other be aware of your presence, your purpose, your gifts, and your call in the midst of life’s ups and downs.  Amen. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

When We Forget

Wednesday, August 22
Scripture Reading—Mark 8:14-21

We have encountered various versions from the gospels of the account of Jesus feeding multitudes in the last several weeks.   The gospel readings for five Sundays have been drawn from John 6, which is an extended theological reflection on the deeper meaning of this same miracle.  We go from physical bread to Jesus as the bread that sustains and nourishes life.  This passage in Mark 8 recalls two incidents of Jesus’ feeding large crowds.  The disciples are low on bread again and worried about how they’ll find enough to eat.  Jesus reminds them of the previous miracles and asks them why they can’t remember all he’s already done for them and others.  I can’t help but think that reviewing these accounts of God’s provision is just as necessary for us as it was for the disciples—I know it is for me.  We often find ourselves overcome with fear, anxiety, or worry over how to pay the bills, find a job, or solve a family problem.  We know rationally that God has brought us through so many things in the past and that somehow, God will provide all that we need.  But emotionally, we have our doubts about the present moment.  Thankfully, we can take comfort knowing that we are not much different from the first disciples who also had short memories.  Jesus is patient enough to remind us that God will provide all we need—today, tomorrow and always.

Thought for the day:  Though we sometimes forget what God has done for us in the past, and though we can be filled with anxious moments about the present, Jesus will be there to remind us that God will be there to provide all that we need.

 Prayer:  O God, I am prone to forget all you have done for me and others.  Help me when the concerns of the moment overshadow the blessings of the past to allow you to remind me that you will always provide all I need.  Amen. 




Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What's Your Story?


Tuesday, August 21
Scripture Reading—Acts 7:9-16

Life presents us with moments when we need to know who we are, where we’ve come from, and what we stand for.  Stephen faced that moment when he was charged with blasphemy and called to give an account of himself before the council with his very life on the line.  As he tried to explain to those who vehemently disagreed with him, he told the story that he lived by—the same story that shaped the lives of his accusers.  At the heart of this story was the account of the way God used all the hardships faced by Joseph to provide for his family in a time of drought.  Though he was falsely accused and imprisoned, Joseph came to believe that God had worked through all these adversities for good.  Stephen had the courage to proclaim his conviction that God had entered the world in Jesus because he had a similar faith—even in death, God would not abandon him.  When we are challenged or stretched by life’s difficulties, it helps if we can remember our story.  Thankfully our story is not merely the store of the nation in which we live, or the nuclear family from which we come, but out story is the story of God’s people that stretches back to Adam, includes Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Jesus, Mary, and on down the line.  Knowing that story reminds us of the many ways God has saved people in the past.  It gives us courage in the present, reminding us that whatever we face, God will provide the strength and grace we need to overcome.

 Thought for the day:  We all need a story to live by.  The story of God’s saving action we discover in the Bible is a story that gives us courage and hope.  It is a story worth getting to know very well, for there will come a time when it may be the source of our salvation!


Prayer:  O God, thank you that you include is in your great story of salvation.  Help us to find our place in the story of the Bible, that when we need it the most, it will be a source of strength, hope, and salvation.  Amen. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Turning Conflict into Unity


Monday, August 20
Scripture Reading—Acts 6:1-7

Many of us long to be part of a vibrant, growing church where lives are transformed by grace.  The depiction of the early church in Jerusalem in Acts 6 is of a growing movement that is drawing diverse people into a single community of faith.  How exciting it must have been for these early Christians to realize that their message had power to attract people to their movement!  Though church growth in and of itself does not verify either the truth of the message a church proclaims or serve as the only indicator of its effectiveness, it certainly does seem to indicate that people are responding to good news that can elevate, transform, and reorient lives.  But growth usually brings problems of its own.  Here in Acts 6, the problems the growing church in Jerusalem faced arose because there were two prominent, but distinct groups.  The Hebrews were the Jewish Christians who had come to Jerusalem from the farthest reaches of the earth and whose native language was Aramaic.  The Hellenists were Christians from among the Jews whose native language was Greek.  You can begin to imagine the possibilities for misunderstanding, stress, and conflict that were present.  The situation became very uncomfortable for everyone when the widows of the Hebrews appeared to be neglected in the daily distribution of  bread.  This painfully unfair treatment of a group truly in need of the church’s ministry (widows) could have threatened the unity of this fragile movement.  Instead, people came together and found a solution—deacons were selected to handle the distribution of food.  This allowed everyone’s needs to be met and allowed the apostles to focus their work on prayer and the proclamation of the word.  The result was the continued spread of the gospel and growth of the church.  All churches face challenges.  We see here that the Holy Spirit can lead people to creative solutions that turn problems into possibilities, threats to harmony into opportunities for reconciliation, and competition for limited resources into opportunities for more people to be part of the mission—so that the good news spreads as far and as wide as possible.  Perhaps there are lessons for us from the early church in Jerusalem as we try to accomplish more with less and find unity in the midst of our diversity.

Thought for the day:  Whenever we run into differences of culture, background, or perspective in the church, with God’s help these differences can be opportunities to allow God to bring healing and harmony as well as to discover new ways to be faithful so that the good news continues to spread.

 Prayer:  O God, forgive us when we, intentionally or unintentionally, fail to love and serve one another faithfully and fairly in the church.  Enable us to learn the skill of coming together to find solutions that lead to harmony in our fellowship with one another so that others come to know your love and grace through our witness.  Amen. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Vacation--Devotionals Resume August 20

If you've been following this blog, I'm truly grateful.  We will be away for a week or so.  Please check back on Monday, August 20 when the daily devotionals will resume.  In the meantime, please feel free to look back at other postings.

Sermon for Sunday, August 5, 2012


Truly Satisfied

John 6:25-34

A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church

Richmond, VA

August 5, 2012



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We are often drawn to Jesus because of what we think he can do for us, but soon discover that it is Jesus himself through which our lives are truly satisfied.



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What’s in it for me?  It’s hard to avoid thinking about that calculation in any endeavor or relationship.  Our instinctive sense of fair play makes it hard for us to put aside completely any thought of the return on our investment we should expect to receive for the time and effort we invest in something.  Just as we would hesitate to deposit our money in a bank that offered no interest and charged us monthly fees to keep our money safe, we often hesitate to invest ourselves in ventures that do not promise something in return.  We would be slow to admit it, I’m sure.  You go to work every day not only because you want to make some contribution to the world through the use of your talents and abilities, but you expect something in return.  At the very least, you expect a fair wage, and hope for some benefits that provide financial security.  And it’s nice if every now and then someone notices your hard work and thanks you for it.  We’re slower to admit it, but we often have this thinking in the back of our minds in our most intimate relationships.  We are often drawn to love people not just because they need our love, fidelity, and support, but because deep down, we hope that they can provide something for us—acceptance, affirmation, fulfillment, joy.  We know that as parents, the direction of love should flow from us to our children.  But you have seen more than one parent/child relationship that is corrupted because a manipulative parent needs so much in return from the child.  And if we are truly honest, we all are drawn to God, not simply because we want to ground our lives in the reality of the one who created us, not simply because we want to give ourselves to some greater cause and purpose that draws us beyond our own egos, but because we have needs—legitimate needs for forgiveness, for a sense of self-worth, purpose, and yes, resources to deal with our greatest fears—abandonment and death.  So, we should not be too surprised or shocked to discover that many of the people who were drawn to Jesus were interested primarily what they thought he could do for them.



The Crowds Search for Jesus



After feeding the five thousand, Jesus tried to get away.  And he did.  The crowds, in awe of the way that so many had been fed with so little, were ready to make Jesus king.  They found Jesus in Capernaum.  Jesus didn’t offer a very hospitable greeting, “very truly, I tell you,” he said, “you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”  He assumed he had their motives pegged, and he was probably right.  They were chasing after Jesus because they had a long list of things they could use a miracle worker to do.  Oh, he could keep feeding them when they got hungry, he could perform the miracle they all thought the Messiah would perform by crushing the Romans and liberating Israel.  He could restore Israel to a place of prominence on the international scene. 

Jesus went on, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life , which the Son of Man will give you.”



Yes, he was genuinely concerned about real human need.  He did not want truly hungry people to go without the bread that fills the stomach and maintains the body.  But there was something more to him.  He wanted to show people that it was possible to attain all the physical blessings and rewards this world could offer, but never be truly satisfied.  No, he did not say that physical well-being was unimportant to God.  But he did want this crowd to know that there was much more to life than bread, much more to life than financial or cultural superiority, much more to life than political and military supremacy.



What are We Looking For?



We make the same mistake, don’t we?  We chase after all kinds of physical, earthly things thinking that they will satisfy our deepest longings.  We often hear from political leaders, sometimes in subtle and other times in not so subtle ways, that there is something almost innately superior about people who have gained more of this world’s wealth and its goods.  We assume that those people are happier, if not more secure than everyone else. We look for forms of spirituality that promise to give us security, health, prosperity, and position.  We are interested in what is in it for us.



An e-mail circulated not long ago about signs found in real kitchens of real people.  Here are some of those signs:



“A messy kitchen is a happy kitchen and this kitchen is delirious.”

“A clean house is a sign of a misspent life.”

“If we are what we eat, then I’m easy, fast, and cheap.”

“Thou shalt not weigh more than thy refrigerator.”

“My next house will have no kitchen, just vending machines.”

“A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand.”



They’re funny.  And our obsession with food has a humorous side—until that obsession turns into obesity and the obesity turns into diabetes, heart disease, and a host of other problems.  Some people don’t have enough daily bread and some of us have far too much. 



And those of us with far too much are often using food not as a source of nutrition and energy to meet life’s demands, but as a substance to fill a great void in our lives. 



We often discover that the things we thought would fulfill and satisfy our deepest longings don’t really deliver on those promises.  We get the job, we get the car, we get the money, we get the accolades, we get the partner—and still we feel like something is missing. 



What the People Needed



Jesus just wasn’t being cantankerous with the crowd who came looking for more signs, more miracles, more spectacular displays of divine power.  He knew there was more to life.  “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life which is what the Son of Man will give you.” 



In some ways, Jesus was frustrated not that the people were drawn to him because he’d filled their stomachs with bread, but that they weren’t bold enough to ask for more!  Yes, enough to eat is important.  And yes, living in a more just world, free from the arbitrary dictates of tyrants is important.  But Jesus had so much more he wanted to give the people who came looking for him.  He wanted to give them more than bread, more than freedom from oppression.  He wanted to give them something else—life.



There are two different Greek words for life in John’s gospel.  The first is psyche and refers to this present physical life that one day comes to an end.  The other is zoe which refers to life that nothing can ultimately diminish or destroy.  When John talks about eternal life, he’s not just talking about life after death, but he’s talking about a quality of life that begins here and now—a life that is worth living, a life that has meaning and purpose, a life that is filled with joy regardless of whether we are rich or poor, famous or obscure.  It is a kind of life that death cannot destroy or end.  Jesus linked two powerful biblical symbols bread and life.  Bread was the basic component of the diet of most people in his day, supplemented by fruits and vegetables, and if you were well off maybe meat now and then—but bread was essential to life.  And then life.  Life filled with joy, purpose, meaning—life that death could not exhaust, end or destroy.  And he says something bold and amazing, “I am the bread of life.”



Do you hear what he’s offering?  He’s offering himself to us and all the world as the source of life, love and power.  He’s offering to us a constant and abiding relationship that nothing can steal or end.  In Jesus, we find something that will fully and truly satisfy our deepest longings and desires. 



How do you see God?  Do you believe God has it in for you?  Do you sometimes think that because of some flaw, weakness, or failure, God wants to punish you?  Do you sometimes wonder whether God loves and cares for you?  Hear Jesus words, “I am the bread of life.”  Jesus wanted to give the people who came to him much more than they thought of asking for.  He wanted to give them life!



What We Need



And that’s what Jesus wants to give us—life.  You know every Friday, we offer the physical bread needed to sustain life to many people who need it.  But every once in awhile, I think we get a glimpse into the possibility that through the offer of that bread, people find living bread—they find life.



The other day, I was on one of my walks around downtown.  It’s amazing what you see when you get out and start looking.  I found at least 6 restaurants I didn’t know existed.  I saw three new buildings where apartments and condominiums are being built.  There is a lot going on right around us.  But I ran into one of the guests who have been coming for lunch on Fridays.  His name is Manuel.  He recognized me and greeted me with a big smile.  He immediately began thanking me for what our church had done for him—offering a meal every Friday.  He went on to tell me that he was from Mexico and had had a tough time since coming here.  But things were looking better.  New possibilities for a better life were coming his way.  He’d gotten a job working on the construction of one of the new apartment complexes in the Manchester neighborhood.  He said he might not be seeing us much more on Fridays, but he could not stop expressing his gratitude for what our church had done for him.



I think he was so happy because he was finding life.  And though he didn’t articulate it this way, I hope that he is finding the bread of life that Jesus can offer.



The bread of life is being offered to you and to me today.  We connect with the life force of Jesus that heals, forgives, transforms, and empowers in many ways.  We do it when we pray, when we read the scriptures and meditate on them, when we worship, when we reach out in concern and service to others.  And we connect with that life in a special way this morning, when we come to the table where Jesus is the host offering us the gift of God’s healing and transforming presence and grace through these ordinary elements of bread and wine.  



Yes, many of us, like those crowds in Galilee come to Jesus because of what we need him to do for us.  And folks, that’s all right.  Because Jesus wants to give us more than we could ever ask or imagine.  So, we’re invited to come today, asking God to do what only God can do for us—to give us life!  And if that happens, then we will become God’s gift to others and to the world around us.