“Things are not alright” – Daily Office Reflection

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Lent IV

(Psalm 69; Jeremiah 22:13- 23; Romans 8:12-27; John 6:41-51)

Romans 8:12-27

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh- for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

 

In reading this text alongside the Psalm appointed for today, I am remembering the importance of honest and raw prayer. I see such a great example in this Psalm of simply naming what we see, how we feel, and asking God to answer and save.

Sometimes I wonder if what keeps us from getting to this place is that we avoid being where we really are. “No, the waters aren’t up to my neck…I’m doing fine! Just going through a tough season. I’m just so busy right now, you know?” “God is still in control, right? God knows. And any way, it could be worse.”

There can be some amazing freedom in naming the fact that things are bad, broken, and feel hopeless. This passage always reminds me of a song called “The Resistance” by Aaron Niequist. The words are pulled straight from this passage:

all creation waits / bated breath in pain
for redemption’s day
all creation cries / floods and charcoal skies
things are not alright

with brokenness and broken fists we
beat upon the breast of falleness
we hear the call of kingdom come as
one more train we chase to only miss
but we will never give up on it

We are quick to quote Paul’s words above, ” I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us,” but have not done the important work of naming the suffering and, well…actually hurting in the midst of it. Paul was good at naming his own suffering: rejection, loneliness, despair, beatings, shipwrecks, thorns in his side…I could go on. But he then was able to reframe it with hope.

We miss out on the beauty and power of hope by downplaying or ignoring our pain. And we can miss the greatness of our God and our opportunity to depend fully on God today for our strength, our hope…even our words/meaning in prayer.

So…what is bad around you and in you? What needs to be set right? What do you look at and think, “God, save me! I am drowning!” And then, pray and groan about it, totally unfiltered. Don’t worry about the right words. Don’t worry about being theologically correct. Trust that, as you come to God as a child, God wants to hear from the kids.

 

Sunday Sermon: Lent IV- John 9:1-41

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I had the opportunity to preach this past Sunday at Breath of God Lutheran Church in our neighborhood. While I forgot to record it, I am posting my manuscript here. The name of the sermon was “Blind Witness News”. A big thanks to Mark Parker for the invite and grateful to have such an engaged church in our neighborhood.

“Blind Witness News ”
Text: John 9:1-41

I don’t know about you, but I’ve probably spent more time in the last six months absorbing news content than I have in the last 6 years. The political climate in which we live, regardless of your political persuasion, is unprecedented and unpredictable. And with newsworthy happenings in the world come the inevitable spin and questions. It is so easy to get sucked in to the news reports and the arguing and the punditry and the analysis.

As such, perhaps this what has caused me to think of today’s Gospel reading in much the same way: as a news story. Could you imagine if it were recounted by a popular 24 hour news network today? Perhaps it isn’t too difficult to imagine. We have a significant event happening and a lot of people questioning and disagreeing about it. So today, I do want us to follow this story a bit like we would a news story, and try to offer some self-reflection along the way.

The word “blind” is used by John 17 times in his Gospel. 15 of those times are in this passage. This should bring to our mind not simply the topic of this passage, but a theme of sight. John wants us to see something here (pun intended).  We will come back to the disciples question in a bit, but I wanted to focus on the rest of the narrative, as if it were picked up by the news.

Imagine what the local news coverage would have been like for this story. “Breaking: we have some odd reports of a man, apparently born blind, who has been healed with mud, and you won’t guess what it’s made out of. Tonight at 11.” Or further still: “It is unclear as to the true identity of this man who was allegedly healed by a traveling Rabbi. We have someone who claims it was him who was healed, others claim it was just someone who looked like him: you be the judge.”

There are a lot of fun details in this story, and we can’t address everything, but I just had to pull out this amazing question by the neighbors as they begin by questioning the blind man after he received his sight. They ask him, in v. 12 “Where is he?” and he said “I don’t know.” Come on now…that is funny! This man has literally never seen anything in his life, he is sent by Jesus to go wash in a pool, where he then receives his sight and begins to be questioned, and one of the questions is, “Where is this man whom you’ve never seen?”

Next, the story gets picked up from the local news by the big news channel. Let’s call them PNN (Pharisee News Network). Their headline would look something like this: “So-called Prophet Breaks Sabbath by Performing Alleged Miracle…Sinner performing signs?” On their show, they would invite the blind man and his parents on, along with some expert analysts (pharisees, of course), to talk about this situation.

At the end of their newscast, the blind man turns the tables, even asking the pharisees if they want to follow Jesus because of all their questions. And like good pundits, they stick to the talking points and seek to discredit the man in order show they are the ones who are right, saying “You were born entirely in sins, and how are you trying to teach us?” And they cut the interview off and send him away, feeling satisfied that they got another news story, and maybe boosted their ratings.

Notice, that Jesus is not invited into the Pharisee’s discussion. Instead, Jesus goes to find the man after he hears about how he has been treated. He hears his confession of faith and says to him: you are the one who really sees. You get it, while those who think they have insight into the ways of this world are showing that they are blind. This is the work of Jesus which elicits an important question, not just for the pharisees, but for all of us: “surely we are not blind, are we?” We see things the way they are, don’t we Jesus?

It is here where I want to finally come back to the beginning of the story. When Jesus and his disciples come across this man who has been born blind, the disciples’ first impulse is to ask a question which I would paraphrase like this: “Whose fault is it?” This man is suffering, is it his own fault or the fault of someone else? Or, put even more succinctly: who can we blame for this?

I feel this question on a regular basis when I encounter human suffering, illness, and injustice in our world. My first impulse is to ask: “Whose fault is it?” so I can quickly post something calling them out on Facebook or something (I am only speaking for myself…I’m sure you don’t do this!) Or, it allows me to make a judgment call. “Well, they obviously brought this on themselves.” This helps me deal with the suffering as I see it. It helps me explain it away. It helps me keep things at a distance.

But, Jesus invites us into another way of seeing, altogether. To simply see a blind man as a problem to be analyzed, diagnosed, reported, or blamed is the way of the world. It is the way of the 24 hour news media. It is the way of blindness. Furthermore, to dismiss the work of God in the world when it doesn’t look like we think it should is the way of the religious elite, it is the way of power…basically, it is not the way of Jesus. And it is damaging.

Let me just say, that people have been horribly stigmatized by those who claim Christianity. I work part-time with HopeSprings, an organization which seeks to awaken, equip, and engage the church to bring hope and healing to those with HIV. We are having some focused conversations with other health and faith-based organizations right now to better address how faith informs our engagement with the people most at risk for HIV. This includes people in the LGBTQ community, particularly black gay men, transgender individuals, and IV drug users. Some of the people we have the opportunity to serve amaze me, because they still love Jesus after being treated as subhuman by those who claim to follow him. Many struggle to even think of darkening the door of a church again, though their faith is incredibly important to them. So many have been over-analyzed and scrutinized because of these factors, but people often fail to see God at work in their lives (and oftentimes, God is working in them to work through them to bless others…like us!) Certainly these would be like those whom we would categorize as “blind” today and seek to blame them or others for whatever may ail them. I wonder who else may be treated like they are “blind” today. And I further wonder whether we aren’t, in fact, the blind ones.

When Jesus sees this man, born blind, he sees it as an opportunity for the kingdom of God to break into the world. He sees it as a chance for him to get to work. To literally get his hands dirty, making mud out of spit and dirt. The work which began in Jesus continues on in his body, the Church, by the power of the Spirit. He is the light of the world, and now, so are we.

So, as we move forward today, back into our neighborhood this week, we are invited by Jesus to see what he sees. When we see our immigrant neighbors, will we simply analyze our assumptions concerning their lives, or will we wonder where God might be at work and inviting us to join? When we hear or read of another carjacking, mugging, or break-in, will we seek to blame police, victims, or perpetrators…or will we wonder “How might the light of Christ shine in this situation?” Where is God inviting you to see the world around you differently, as pregnant with possibility?

Jesus’ words in response to his disciples are an apt challenge for us today: We must work the works of him who sent us while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. So, as long as you are in the world, shine in the world by working in the world, perhaps in the most unlikely places, in order to bring glory to God. May we move forth as people who see. May we look for opportunities for God’s kingdom to come in the situations and people we encounter. May we get our hand dirty in the work of loving and healing others. And may we have our own eyes opened to the reality of Christ.
Amen.

“He withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” – Daily Office Reflection

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Lent IV

(Psalm 89; Jeremiah 16:10-21; Romans 7:1-12; John 6:1-15)

So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

In this part of John’s Gospel, Jesus had a pretty good moment. He performed a miracle, feeding tons of people. And he taught his disciples something about God’s provision. And people are starting to see him for who he is…or at least, part of who he is. They say, “This is the prophet we’ve been waiting for!” which was a part of their hope for the coming Messiah. A Messiah that they were ready to take and make king.

I had to stop here and think about how I would feel were I in Jesus’ shoes. I would probably be thinking something like, “They like me, they really like me!” I would be basking in the glow of the success of feeding all of these people. I would be feeling pretty good abut myself. Oh, and they want to make me king? Well…I guess that is what I’m here to be. It feels good to be wanted. Father, who would’ve guessed that the people would embrace me like this. What a blessing!

But Jesus’ response is not my response (thanks be to God!). When he realized that he was getting super popular, when he realized that some other were trying to co-opt God’s plan (though they likely didn’t think of it that way…they probably had some good desires for freedom and God’s kingdom to come) Jesus make the decision to get away by himself. At first, this seems so counterintuitive. Was Jesus against being popular? Was he that weird guy at a party that just leaves awkwardly to go be by himself? Is he really just an introvert at heart?

I think something more important is going on here. Perhaps Jesus saw this as a temptation. After all, he had been tempted with popularity before by the Enemy in the desert when he was tempted to throw himself off the Temple for all to see God’s angels come to save him. If Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, as a real human with real feelings, is it too difficult to imagine that Jesus was feeling the pull of popularity, the allure of acclaim, and knew he needed to change things quickly?

I have been challenged with this temptation of popularity recently. I want to be liked. I want to be noticed. I want to be appreciated. (and these are not bad desires in and of themselves, necessarily). But, they often can be desires which push me to act in certain ways. I will take this role because people really want me to do so. I’ll post this on social media in hopes that it gets a lot of likes/retweets/shares.

For Jesus, and for us, the way we can fight against the real pull of popularity is to intentionally choose solitude. It is to say, in effect, I am not what people think of me. I am not my successes (or my failures). I am simply loved by the God who always sees me. The regular practice of solitude–shutting out the noise of the world–allows us to tune into the Voice that speaks perfect love and acceptance to us.

Some of the most profound things have been revealed to me when I take the time to be alone with God, and away from the voices all around me. Do you practice solitude? If so, what has that been like for you?

“Does not meet expectations…” -Daily Office Reflection

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March 21st, 2017: Week 3 of Lent

(Psalm 78; Jeremiah 7:21-34; Romans 4:13-25; John 7:37-52)

The Lord is full of compassion and mercy: Come let us adore him.

John 7:37-52

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”‘ Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified. When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, ‘This is really the prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’ But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’ So there was a division in the crowd because of him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him. Then the temple police went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, ‘Why did you not arrest him?’ The police answered, ‘Never has anyone spoken like this!’ Then the Pharisees replied, ‘Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law-they are accursed.’ Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, ‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’ They replied, ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.’

We carry certain expectations with us about people. Some might actually call these expectations prejudice–and they would be right. We all do it. We bring our own ideas of who someone should or should not be, how they should or should not act, and, more generally, how the world works.

In this passage, the Pharisees have a strong prejudice against Jesus. Well, they actually have several! But, the one that comes the fore in their view of who the Messiah is supposed to be. “No prophet is to arise from Galilee,” they say. Nathan says something similar when he first hears of Jesus from Philip: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip (John 1:46). Later on, people will say use more coded language about Peter and John, calling them unlearned, ordinary men.

But here’s the thing: what they are experiencing does meet their expectations. In fact, they both exceed and disrupt them. Jesus is obviously a prophet. He is healing and growing in favor with the people. He is speaking profound truth about God. But it is upsetting the stats quo, threatening the political, social, and religious influence of the Pharisees, temple police, and others. So the response? Disparage the leader and his followers as ignorant, backwoods, and even accursed. Because this doesn’t fit our framework (the framework we happen to benefit from, by the way!)

In your life today, are there places where you would be quick to say, “God couldn’t have anything to do with that or them!” or “Can something good ever come from (insert backwoods/disparaged place here)?” Or could we even disparage entire groups of people for “going along with it” like the Pharisees did–calling them accursed and ignorant. Do you derive power or significance from being able to hold yourself over and against others; obviously knowing better than them? Could it be that God’s work around you actually makes you very uncomfortable by breaking apart your own categories and ways of thinking about God?

God’s invitation for us today is to “Come and see,” when our expectations are not being met or followed. The question is not “Is God at work here?” but rather “How is God at work here?” And the answer may have more to with God’s work in our own prejudiced hearts than anything else. Will we respond? Or will we hold fast to our “principles”, rules, or guidelines and miss the movement of God right in front of us, disparaging people along the way?

 

 

 

 

 

“Let me dwell with you in this place” – Daily Office Reflection

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Third Week of Lent
(Psalm 80; Jeremiah 7:1-15; Romans 4:1-12; John 7:14-16)

Jeremiah 7:1-15

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors for ever and ever.

Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord. Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel. And now, because you have done all these things, says the Lord, and when I spoke to you persistently, you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your ancestors, just what I did to Shiloh.And I will cast you out of my sight, just as I cast out all your kinsfolk, all the offspring of Ephraim.

“God is here.” This is a phrase we often use in holy moments or in worship gatherings. It is a way of calling attention to God’s presence amongst God’s people; Jesus being true to his promise of being in the midst of his people. While leading in corprpate worship this last weekend, I recounted a conversation I had with another pastor in the area (who also happens to be a scholar on the Holy Spirit and Worship) about why we need to pray prayers which invite God to be with us. “Isn’t God already here? Why do we have to ask God to be somewhere where God is already present.” He responded by saying, “We don’t have to…but, as God’s children, we get to.”

In light of this passage this morning, it causes me to reflect: is God really present in those places where we simply assume God’s presence? Might it be  that God could be absent?

This is the accusation and correction brought by Jeremiah to God’s people. You oppress the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow. You have pledged allegiance to things or ideas or beings that are not God. You continue to break the commandments with license, trusting that the Temple is more of a place for you to come and be comforted in these sins than it is to truly offer worship to God.

Could it be that God is withholding God’s presence from our times of gathered worship, and is instead inviting us to “amend our ways” and act in justice toward one another. Next time you are tempted to say that a worship service didn’t move you or connect with you, perhaps consider your relationships, your desires, and your neighbors. Assuredly, this will create space and need for God to dwell in your midst.

Is God present? Have you invited God to be present? We get to, and God is respectful, often not coming to parties to which he is not invited and which are not about his ways.

 

 

 

“We are prophets of a future (and a past) not our own…” Daily Office Reflection

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March 7th, 2017: Week 1 of Lent

(Psalm 45; Deuteronomy 9:4-12; Hebrews 3:1-11; John 2:13-22)

In reading both the OT and NT readings today, I was struck by the idea of legacy. The Hebrew people were about to step into the land, and were tempted to think it was because of their own work or righteousness rather than God’s grace. The writer of Hebrews wants to convey the importance of Moses and Jesus in the story of God, the former being in the house (or the house) and the latter building the house.

The words of this prayer came to mind immediately. It is a prayer that is attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero, though he likely never said it. It was read at a commemoration service by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw. Romero was shot and killed during the civil war in El Salvador while presiding over the mass in a hospital. He was a huge advocate for the poor and pushed for an end to violence in his country. Here is his prayer:

Archbishop Oscar Romero Prayer: A Step Along The Way

 It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

We are prophets of a future not our own… And I would add, we are beneficiaries of a past not our own. We can walk into the land because God is the one who is preparing a way for us, even in spite of ourselves.
There is a sense of liberation which can come when we resign ourselves to the fact that our holy obligation is faithfulness in living where we are, when we are.
Were you to come to terms with your limitations today, what would it free you to “do, and do very well?”

“It was because the LORD loved you…”-Daily Office Reflection

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March 2nd, 2017

Lent (Psalm 37:1-18; Deuteronomy 7:6-22; Titus 1; John 1:29-34)

Deuteronomy 7:6-11

6For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. 7It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you-for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, 10and who repays in their own person those who reject him. He does not delay but repays in their own person those who reject him. 11Therefore, observe diligently the commandment-the statutes, and the ordinances-that I am commanding you today.

Here, as Moses is giving a very long sermon and retelling the law to the people of God (nom0s=law, deutero=second), he is preparing them to enter the new land. This was a new generation of people who would be seeing the fulfillment of God’s promise to deliver the Hebrew people.

And he reminds them of their roots. They were not chosen by God because they were powerful or numerous or gifted. They were chosen out of pure love and faithfulness. They are a part of a story that started well before them with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. And the story will continue on beyond them as well (a thousand generations!).

Today, I needed to be told again (deuteronomied?) that God loves me because God has chosen to do so. I don’t bring anything that impresses God, so I don’t need to shy away from God when I feel I have failed or am weak. I am a part of a people who are deeply loved by God because God decides to do so and has a plan to bless the world through us. What makes us special and valuable is that we are with God and we are loved by God.

How could we respond to this good news today, that God loves us before we do anything or bring anything? I know, for one, it affects my disposition of obedience. As I enter this time of Lent and follow through with my commitment for fasting and abstaining, I am very aware that I am earning nothing with God. Instead, I am creating more room to experience God’s love and to obey with delight, knowing I am perfectly loved. My response today is one of intentional praise and thanksgiving for God’s perfect and abiding love.

How do you want to respond today?