Friday, July 22, 2016

You Have Heard It Said, But Jesus Says...

In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus begins his greatest sermon, his essential teachings: The Sermon On The Mount.  One of the interesting aspects of The Sermon On The Mount is the pattern in which Jesus teaches.  

He begins each new teaching with these words:  "You have heard it said..."  These words indicated that he was reminding them of the religious rules and regulations that they were supposed to follow as faithful, covenant people of God.  

But then Jesus did something unexpected.  He would follow up his "You have heard it said," explanations of the religious laws with a new way of viewing the old commandments, and he would begin these new teachings with the words, "But I say to you..."  

It would go something like this:  "You have heard it said, you must not murder...  But I say to you, if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be judged." 

Or like this:   "You have heard it said, you must not commit adultery... But I say to you anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."  

Jesus also had this to say, which always lands on me like a ton of bricks:  "I tell you that if you are no more obedient than the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven."  

So what was going on here? 

Basically, Jesus was saying to the stuffy, pompous, judgmental religious people of his day was, "So you kept the rules... the bare minimum rules...  Bra-vo."  I can almost see him slow clapping the religious folk as he says it.  

I see this in Christian circles all of the time.  There's a litmus test for what counts for right beliefs and practice.  So, if you refrain from certain behaviors, if you read the right authors, if you go to the right churches... then you can be considered to be the right kind of Jesus-follower.  

But all of the rule-keeping and law-giving that passes for Christian faith and practice in so many Christian communities does little more than lower the bar for what it means to follow Jesus.  

Jesus tells the regular people listening to his words, "If the sum total of your commitment and relationship with God is just do what's expected of you--you're just not getting it."  The problem that so many of us Christians have is that we worry if we don't "hold the line" on the rules, then the rules will always end up being broken. 

Jesus has another idea.  Why don't you do whatever you can to be in relationship with God and then you will discover that the old rules, the old litmus tests aren't good enough.  

God doesn't want my compliance, which is secured by fear and dread.  God wants obedience, which is marked by trust and love.  God doesn't want me to focus on drawing lines in the sand, God wants me to stumble after his Son as I try to follow Jesus' footsteps in the sand.  

May you discover a new way to be in relationship with God that isn't defined by rule-keeping or breaking.  May you trust and lean not on your own understanding, but on the hope and joy that comes from a life spent stumbling after Jesus.  

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Jesus Picks The Worst People

Jesus' disciples were washouts.  They were not even has-beens.  Each one of them was a never-was.  They were a motley crew to be sure.  While the Bible is clear about the occupation of some of the disciples, scholars can only guess at the background of some of them.

Peter, Andrew, James the Elder, & John were all fisherman, according to Scripture. 
Philip, Thomas & James the Younger were most likely fisherman as well.  
Nathaniel was described as a Seeker of the Truth, a perpetual student, who never graduated (and also probably a fisherman). 
Judas, Thaddeus, Simon were all Zealots, conspiracy theorists, who hated the Romans, and who were most likely violent Jewish nationalists.  
Matthew was a Tax Collector, one of the most reviled of all vocations in Israel.  

These guys were nobodies.  In the Jewish tradition they lacked the skills to be scholars, religious leaders, rabbis.  They'd flunked out of the rabbi system as a young age.  They weren't good enough to be any reputable rabbis' disciples.  

Until Jesus called them.  

In the ancient rabbinical system, once you got to the point where you were sufficiently proficient with Scripture, you would seek a rabbi to follow.  You would beg a rabbi to become his disciple, and if you were lucky, the rabbi would allow you to follow him. 

Jesus went and found these guys.  The worst guys.  

The fishermen in the group would have thought the Zealots were a bunch of troublemakers, who were always causing problems for everyone else by their activism, and penchant for violent activity that would bring the Romans down on everybody.  

The Zealots thought that everyone else in the group was a coward, who didn't care about the fact that the Romans were taxing everyone to death, oppressing people and generally making life miserable for Jews.  

And everyone--and I mean everyone--in the group hated Matthew.  He was a tax collector, working for the Romans.  He worked the docks where the fishermen returned with their daily catches, and he taxed them on the spot.  

So the fishermen in the group couldn't stand him because he took their money and the Zealot couldn't stand him because he was a traitor in their eyes.  

Great group of people, right?  

Jesus picked the worst possible candidates to follow him and carry on his ministry.  He found a group of people who would have never agreed on anything, and then exacerbated things by picking Matthew last, dropping that bomb right in the middle of them just to shake things up. 

It's like Jesus was trying to show what he was capable of, isn't it?  He could take people who ordinarily wouldn't even share a meal with one another, who wouldn't cross the street to give one another the time of day, and he could turn them into a movement.  

A movement that would change the world.  

Did these guys always get along?  Nope.  We have evidence all throughout the Gospels and the book of Acts that demonstrates they didn't.  One of them betrayed Jesus and had to be replaced.  It was messy being together.  But they did it.  They were transformed in their relationships with each other because of their relationship with Jesus. 

I think Jesus is always calling the worst people.  He's always calling people with serious differences.  He's still seeking to demonstrate how a relationship with Him can transform even the deepest divisions.  

May you discover a newfound love for those whom Jesus has chosen to walk behind him in this journey we all share.  May you discover a generous grace for those brothers and sisters in Christ with whom you disagree.  May you strive for the peace, unity and purity of the Church as Christ has called you to do.  

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Working With Love For The Glory of God

Author Seth Godin has written extensively about the joy of doing good work.  He recalled a time when he was on vacation, and had spent a wonderful day at a resort in Jamaica with his family.   

That evening after everyone had settled down for the night, he went to the hotel lobby where there was a computer hooked up to internet.  He settled in and was happily answering emails and doing a bit of work.  A couple walked by then and he heard the man say, "Look at that poor guy, working on his vacation."  

Godin remembers thinking, "Poor guy?"  He enjoyed his work, and was happy to be doing it.  He thought about how he'd spent a wonderful day relaxing and decompressing, spending time with his family, and how much joy it brought him.  

He also thought about how much joy he got from working, and considered himself blessed that both aspects of his life were joyful and life-giving.  

I like to work.  I'm one of those people who will spend at least a portion of his day off or vacation happily working--writing, studying, answering some emails, planning and the like. I haven't always gotten the balance of work and rest right, to be sure, but I'm working at it harder than I used to.  

I've learned some things about work in my years of studying, teaching and preaching from the Bible.  I've come to understand that there is something holy and beautiful about good work done to the glory of God.  

In Genesis 2:15 we see the first mention of work as "The Lord God took [Adam] and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it."  Work was established from the beginning, according to the text, as part of humankind's response to God's goodness.  

The Apostle Paul echoed this idea when he said, "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord [Jesus Christ] and not for human masters."  (Colossians 3:23)

The great Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran once wrote, "All work is empty save when there is love...when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God."  

May your work today (whatever it might be) be done with love.  May you find joy in your work as you work with love for family and friends.  May you find the fulfillment that God longs for you to discover in work done well, and to God's glory.  

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Forgiveness Can Set You Free

Have you ever had someone in your life that you knew you needed to forgive, but you just didn't want to?  Maybe you knew it was the right thing to do, but you were mad or hurt or a little of both.  

Perhaps, this person is just a rotten so-and-so, who constantly does or says things that are worthy of being on your "no-forgiveness" list.  Or, it could be that you have held on to your anger toward that person for so long, you have no idea what your life would be like without it. 

And if you are trying to be a "good Christian" you sometimes feel a little guilty that you don't want to forgive them.  

In his wonderful book, What's So Amazing About Grace? Philip Yancey gives some very good reasons why forgiveness is so much more than just being magnanimous, or "doing the right thing."  It's a life-giving, resurrection-powered action.    

He asserts first that forgiveness can "halt the cycle of blame and pain," that keeps us bound to the guilty party.  It also "loosens the stranglehold of guilt" in the person you are forgiving, allowing transformation to happen in their life.  

Finally, Yancey states that forgiveness helps us to realize "we are not as different from the wrongdoer as we would like to think."  In other words, we discover new levels of self-awareness and are able to look at the guilty party and say, "What I see in you, I see in me."  

Rob Bell did a video teaching on forgiveness some years ago, and in his teaching he indicated that practicing forgiveness was an act of intentionally setting someone free, and then finding out it was you--you were the one who needed to be set free.  

(Watch the Rob Bell video "Luggage" by clicking here)

May we find the strength to forgive those who have wronged us, wounded us, treated us badly, spoken ill of us, stabbed us in the back... May we let go of our need to hold on to our grace toward them.  May we set ourselves free by setting those who have hurt us free through forgiveness.   

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and forever.  Amen. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

Today I Am Just Going To Be Angry

I got angry yesterday when I heard the news from Baton Rouge that there had been another assault on police, which resulted in the deaths of three officers, and the injury of three others, including one who is still fighting for his life. 

Another senseless attack. Another crazed, demented and deranged killer inspired by the militant, angry rhetoric, twisted ideas and perhaps the very example of others, and enabled by a culture that is steeped in violence.  

This on the heels of nearly one hundred people dead from an attack in France, and the deadly shootings in Dallas that took the lives of five police officers.  

So yesterday I got angry, and I'm still angry today.  I am tired of having to explain all of this.  I'm wondering where God is, and why all of these things keep happening.  I am at a loss on how to respond.  

I am tired of prayer vigils, and weekly prepared statements from elected officials telling us that "this is not who we are."  

Today I woke up and read Psalm 44.  The Psalm starts out with the psalmist relating all of the stories he's heard about what God used to do to rescue his people.  Then he lifts this prayer up to the Almighty: 
"But now you have rejected and humbled us..."  ""You gave us up to be devoured like sheep..." "You have made us a reproach to our neighbors, the scorn and derision of those around us..."   
And then the psalmist says: 
"All this came upon us, though we had not forgotten you; we had not been false to your covenant."
Basically what he is saying is, "..and all of this happened to us when we thought we were living for you, serving you, doing the right thing."  Then all of a sudden things get very real for the psalmist: 
Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? We are brought down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. Rise up and help us; rescue us because of your unfailing love.
And then the Psalm ends.  

There are no easy answers in this psalm.  There's no happy ending.  It's steeped in anger, sorrow, doubt and fear.  

But underneath the surface there is a sliver of hope.  The psalmist is definitely calling out to God, but also completely calling God out.  

"You did this before... rescued us, delivered us... You are the rescuing God, whose love never fails... rescue us again..."  

I think I'm going to hold on to my anger for the moment.  I'm going to let my sadness slip over me, my spirit fill with fear and I am going to let God know how I feel--no holds barred. God can take my anger, my sorrow and my fear, I am sure of it.

But I'll also hold on to hope.  Even if all I have left is a sliver of it.  I'll hold on to it for dear life because that's all we can do in these moments.  

And I'll whisper over and over again: "Your love never fails... Rescue us again...Rescue us again... Rescue us again."