Thursday, February 9, 2017

Preparing for the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany - Matthew 5:21-37

Matthew 5:21-37New International Version (NIV)

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,[a] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister[b][c] will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’[d] is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’[e] 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’[f] 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

So after 2 readings to remind us of the importance of God's decrees and prioritizing God in our life, and after a reading where Paul is exhorting the church to grow in their discipleship by moving from milk (the simpler things) to meat (the more complex things), we have this text in Matthew that seems to hammer it all home.  The overarching theme here seems to be that following the law (the decrees of God) has greater ramifications than we think. 
We say, for example that we love God yet curse our neighbor (Raca is an Aramaic term of contempt) and Matthew says that is a chargeable offense.  Likewise, if we push the issue and call our friend a fool, we may endanger our eternity.  Then we find that lust is more than just physical action, but has something to do with what is in our heart and our mind as well.  Have you ever really considered how great the cost of our sin was on Christ?  Or how big the chasm was between us and God because of our sin?  We can easily bring to mind the things that we actually "did" when thinking about sin...but what about all of those times we only thought hateful things, only "felt" harmful ways towards others?
This text should disturb you at a variety of levels.  It sets a bar, seemingly, that only Christ can live into and fulfill.
Everything on this list is something that needs to be reconciled either with others or within us.  We are going to be talking about reconciliation this weekend, so I invite you to think about those areas and those people in your life were reconciliation has not yet come.  What is your part in bringing that about?
I look forward to seeing you on Sunday!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Preparing for the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany - 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

1 Corinthians 3:1-9New International Version (NIV)

Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Many centuries after our texts from earlier this week, Paul is addressing 1st century followers of Christ in much the same way as God charged the Hebrews in Deuteronomy.  For the church in Corinth, the people had not yet progressed to a place in their faith journey that Paul felt he could give them more.  They were still eating the figurative food of infants.  I wonder who Paul would make this same address to today.

Perhaps one way to look at this is to re-evaluate where we are on our own spiritual journey.  Here are some prompting questions:  Am I abandoned to God completely in worship, or am I too afraid of what others may think if I kneel, raise my hands, or follow my heart and God when I worship?  Do I steer clear of certain topics, say the Holy Spirit, because I am uncertain that I want to be slain in the Spirit, or filled with the Spirit, or be like some of the things I have witnessed on television or in real life?  Does the head knowledge I have about Christ translate into a transformed heart that I have for God's people?  Do I spend more time keeping God a priority or arguing about or chasing after worldly things?
I can't speak for everyone, but I can speak for myself.  I think if Paul were around today, I would be one of the one's that he would make this address to.  If I had to hazard a guess, I am pretty confident that while all human beings may not be at the place Paul viewed the Corinthians to be in, we could each grow in some area of our faith.  Even I could learn more about God.  Even I could move from milk to solid food in certain areas of my discipleship.  May it be so.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Preparing for the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany - Psalm 119:1-8

Psalm 119[a]

א Aleph

Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
    who walk according to the law of the Lord.
Blessed are those who keep his statutes
    and seek him with all their heart—
they do no wrong
    but follow his ways.
You have laid down precepts
    that are to be fully obeyed.
Oh, that my ways were steadfast
    in obeying your decrees!
Then I would not be put to shame
    when I consider all your commands.
I will praise you with an upright heart
    as I learn your righteous laws.
I will obey your decrees;
    do not utterly forsake me.
Just a reminder that Psalm 119 is one of the acrostic psalms; meaning that each section (stanza) begins with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Even more interesting is the fact that the verses of each stanza begin with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
This psalm ties blessedness and connection to God to our obedience of God's decrees and teachings, very much echoing the words read in Deuteronomy yesterday.  In yesterday's verse there was a charge by God against God's people and it is easily understood that God is not only pointing out the flaws of his people's obedience, but God is also exhorting them to change in that moment.
The psalmist, however, appears to be coming to the same point from an educational type of religious experience.  He recognizes that those who follows God's decrees are blessed. He recognizes that God has intentionally laid down these precepts so that they might be followed.  Then there is the post self examination that convicts the psalmist of his own shortcomings...""Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees!"  If only I had done this.  If only I had done that, then I (the psalmist says) would not be put to shame.  The psalmist recognizes that he has more to learn and he commits to praising God, learning what he needs to, and obeying more fully the precepts that God has placed before him.
Can we have the same conviction to name our shortcomings to God?  Are we prepared to invite God to teach us what else we need to learn about God's decrees?  Can we re-commit to God our allegiance and obedience like the psalmist did?  I hope and I pray that it can be so.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Preparing for the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany - Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Deuteronomy 30:15-20New International Version (NIV):

15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.
17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

What if these particular words were prophetic?  What if they weren't just about some conversation between God and God's people on a given day in history?  What if these were really the choices before us on any given day?
Isn't it true, as we renounce the forces of evil and wickedness in the world and profess and embrace our relationship with Christ (as in our confirmations), we are saying to God that we are choosing life?  I think this is one of the hardest things for us as Christians to embrace.  It is easy to claim God's grace and mercy, it is easy to get into the relationship with God because God so often meets us at our weakest.  The tougher challenge is making this choice over and over again every day that we wake up.
It is the line half way through verse 20 that shakes me to the core: "For the Lord is your life..."  Not my job, my spouse, my children, my family, my friends...but the Lord and only the Lord.  For me it is a not too subtle reminder to check on my priorities.  As I heard many years ago, if I am right with God, it is amazing how right the rest of my life will be (no matter what the circumstances).
Today, I pray that I/we can hear these words.  More importantly, however, I pray that these words make it from our heads to our hearts.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Preparing for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany - Matthew 5:13-20

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

 These words at the end of this passage are definitively charged.  Our righteousness must surpass that of the religious leaders of the day?  Our presence in the kingdom of heaven depends on it according to Christ.  This is quite the tall order!  Now certainly, Jesus had cast charges against the Pharisees and teachers of the law in other areas, but these charges are directed at those who would follow Jesus directly and only reference the other two groups as a negative example.

First, we are to hold on to the saltiness that we received when we first came to know Jesus.  We must not let the things of the world dilute our ability to season and preserve that which is bound up in the in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven here on earth.  If we become too diluted by the world around us, we will no longer be effect agents of Christ.

The second part of the verse seems to be calling us to again push away the things of this world that would dampen the power of Christ working in us and through us.  Whatever bushels the world would put over our lights, we are to escape them so that our light may be continuously seen.  We are to utilize our saltiness to season the world around us in the name of Jesus and we are to allow our light to shine to the world around us so that Christ might be glorified.

It is only after these analogies that Jesus suggests that this is not in opposition of the law or the teachings of the prophets, but rather a means of Christ (and by extension, I am inferring, his disciples) of fulfilling them.  Remember how Israel lost its saltiness through disobedience?  Recall how God's people dampened their own lights and the light and power of God working in them and through them by chasing after their own desires instead of living into the will that God had for them?  How many prophets did God send attempting to get light and salt re-activated in the Old Testament.

Matthew bears witness to the model that Jesus has provided for his disciples and the truth that he lived out throughout his life and ministry.  What becomes important now is not what our worship or our rituals or personal piety looks like, but rather the way we permit Christ to work in us and through us.  Is Christ central in our lives?

So what exists in your world that dilutes your saltiness or dampens your light?  Where have you allowed the commands of Christ to be minimized or ignored in your life?

I am reminded of the words of one of the communion liturgies that are used here as I take this inventory myself:  Holy God, we admit that we have not always been an obedient church.  We have failed to feed the hungry and to clothe the needy...forgive us for joyful very appropriate seeing as we are coming up on the celebration of Holy Communion this weekend.

I pray that the fullness of God's forgiveness is experienced by us all and that we may leave our places of worship this weekend renewed and freed for the calling that God has placed on each of our lives.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Preparing for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany - 1 Corinthians 2:1-16

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.[a] For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:
“What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”[b]
    the things God has prepared for those who love him—
10 these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.
The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.[c] 14 The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. 15 The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, 16 for,
“Who has known the mind of the Lord
    so as to instruct him?”[d]
But we have the mind of Christ.
After Paul's discourse on God's power through weakness last week, he is now addressing the church about the source and the power of true wisdom.  If worldly forces and influences are what create most of the problems for those following God (as it was in the ancient near east of the Old Testament and the 1st century New Testament era), then Paul is right in feeling called to preach the truth about where wisdom comes from and how it is attained.  For Paul it is a serious difference; it is the difference between a life built on truth verses a life that is built on lies.  It is a place where Paul pits the person following the philosopher of the modern age against the one who is embodied by the Holy Spirit and open to the wisdom the Spirit would impart.  Personal piety and ritual have less to do with our faithfulness and obedience for Paul, than the place from which we derive our wisdom.

Now some of what comes in Paul's corrective teaching to the church in Corinth may be the pendulum swung at the complete opposite of where the Corinthians had been.  I am inclined to listen to that juxtaposition, but I listen to it with a Wesleyan bent.  Remember our Wesleyan Quadrilateral?  Scripture is primary, but reason, experience and tradition also play vital roles.  I believe that God gave us reason to be used...but not to be elevated to the point of being equal to the wisdom that comes from a life lived deeply entrenched in the presence of God.

So here are the questions that resonate from me as I ramble:  where have I/you/we sought knowledge or wisdom simply for the sake of having it (whether that was merely to know more than those around us or to satisfy some deep need to know more than we knew before for mere knowledge sake)?  Have you, like I have, sometimes sought counsel or wisdom from somewhere worldly rather than turning to God for a fresh outpouring of wisdom from the Holy Spirit?  Have you, again like I have, had times where you have finally gotten fed up with the world's view and gone to God to have your perspective refreshed and grown in your Godly wisdom and knowledge?

Looking forward to Sunday, please feel free to share your comments below.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Preparing for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany - Psalm 112:1-10

Praise the Lord.[b]
Blessed are those who fear the Lord,
    who find great delight in his commands.
Their children will be mighty in the land;
    the generation of the upright will be blessed.
Wealth and riches are in their houses,
    and their righteousness endures forever.
Even in darkness light dawns for the upright,
    for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous.
Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely,
    who conduct their affairs with justice.
Surely the righteous will never be shaken;
    they will be remembered forever.
They will have no fear of bad news;
    their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the Lord.
Their hearts are secure, they will have no fear;
    in the end they will look in triumph on their foes.
They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor,
    their righteousness endures forever;
    their horn[c] will be lifted high in honor.
10 The wicked will see and be vexed,
    they will gnash their teeth and waste away;
    the longings of the wicked will come to nothing.
This is one of the many psalms that are actually acrostic poems where each line begins with a different successive letter in the Hebrew alphabet.  We miss the beauty and creativity when we look at it in the translated form.
That aside, we are reminded once again that genuine, holy reverence draws our lives into God's desire for justice and righteousness in the world.  The service of the righteous is recognized by both God and the Psalmist.  Their faith has borne good works and their righteousness (because it is God's righteousness working in them and through them) will endure forever.  Their dignity, symbolized by the horn, will be lifted high (by God) in honor.
These passages, both the one yesterday and the one above, may also speak to our identity amnesia or the forgetfulness of who we are and whose we are.  The constant repetition of what a follower of God looks like and how a follower of God interacts with the world around them is shown in a multitude of voices (both prophetic and poetic) so that all might hear and respond to God's divine Word.