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Tuesday Thoughts

A NImble God

Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders[a] of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” (2 Samuel 7:7)

We are in a time when many congregations are not able to gather and worship in their sanctuaries – not only across the country but around the world. As a consultant and teacher, I hear stories of places where congregational councils and boards are pounding pastoral leadership to “not be afraid,” and “get us back in church.” While we are fortunate in our congregation to have wiser and more long-term leaders on our council, not every congregation is so blessed. Many people are almost desperate to get back in their buildings and have not been able to adapt and keep ministry going. Stresses are high and the virus is on the rise – this isn’t ending soon and for many it may not end well.

So it is an interesting lesson that we have appear in our lectionary this week. For Protestants it is Reformation Sunday – a day that is especially dear to many Lutherans. The text tells of God and David’s encounter and the tension over the building. David wants a Temple – something to show the worthiness of God. God has been more than happy with a tent – hasn’t complained once. People seem to need these things. God seems quite disinterested.

To reassure David, God promises a kingdom to him that will not end. Of course, we believe that covenant is fulfilled in Jesus whose life, death and resurrection are the source of never ending hope and life for us. Like God, Jesus seems less committed to buildings. When the Samaritan woman starts asking about the Temple in Jerusalem and the mountain where Samaritans worship, Jesus tells her that it isn’t about place. Real worship is in “Spirit and truth…” God will be God with and without these things. While we are often preoccupied with them, God will commit to no one place in particular it is all God’s anyway.

That’s why the tent was God’s preferred “place.” The tent as Tabernacle had started in the wilderness. As the people moved, they packed up the tent and went to the next place where they set it up again. Rather than representing a God who was in one place, the Tabernacle represented a God who was nimble and always on the move.

In a time when we are less able to commit to the comforts of using our sanctuaries the way we prefer, and in a time of great change, this is a message for Reformation Day that resonates with our times. God doesn’t need our spaces as much as we do. And when we internalize that, we will better remember that we don’t need them as much either. God is a nimble God. Where we are God is. Wherever we go – there God will be. Sounds more like a tent than a building, doesn’t it?

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Tuesday Thoughts

When our lives align with God’s dream

Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory”. (1 Samuel 2:1)

Hannah had longed for a son for a long time before she gave birth to Samuel, who would become a great prophet. It had been a long wait and she dedicated his life and work to serving the God who had answered her prayers.

But Hannah’s prayer is not just about Hannah. While the source of her joy can be found in the fulfillment of something about which she had dreamed, her song recognizes that what has made that happen and brought her real joy is that the child that she will bear is one who will not just bring her fulfillment but also further God’s work in the world. So her prayer also celebrates the lifting up the poor, the feeding of the hungry and signs of the care that God offers of the oppressed.

This is a key to deep meaning and joy and one key way that joy is something deeper than just being “happy.” When our deepest longings also serve God’s greatest purposes, our sense that our lives matter and the joy that wells up within us can be amazing. One key to this is aligning your deepest desires with what you know that God is working for. Hunger and long for the reign of God. The other is being open to being used by God to advance these things. When we see that the fruit of our life’s work is also contributing to God’s reign breaking into our world, like Hannah, our hearts will sing with joy.

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Tuesday Thoughts

God won’t give up

And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. (Exodus 32:14)

It must be frustrating being God sometimes. Human beings have been created in God’s image and charged and entrusted with the work of caring for the world God made and loves. But we go off the rails all too often. And the Bible shares more than a few stories of how people have made God furious more than once.

In the verse above, we are at the end of the story about Moses being up on the mountain with God and not coming back down by the time he was expected. People thought something had happened to him. There was no point in waiting for him to come down – he was probably not going to survive up there anyway. Moses’ brother Aaron then led them in melting down their gold and using it to make a golden calf for them to worship. As you would expect, God is not happy!

But Moses does survive the time on the mountain and comes down to see what has happened. Seeing how angry God is, Moses intervenes to try to prevent God from acting on the anger. Moses reminds God of all the people have been through and all that God has done and promised. It would make all of that for naught to lash out now. So God rethinks the actions and decides not to destroy the people. God will show some restraint and not act on the anger.

The text reminds us that we routinely make God disappointed and even angry. But God’s commitment to us is immense and when God steps back and reflects, often God chooses not to act on the anger but to exercise patience instead. Ultimately, the patience and persistence of God finds its way to the cross, where the death and eventual resurrection once again show us how God simply refuses to give up on us.

When you catch yourself feeling like you have let God down, perhaps even angered God, hear the words of grace in this text. Even when humanity has chosen to intentionally disrespect God, God has chosen to stick it out with us anyway. That means, you can be confident that, even in your lowest moments, God will not give up in you either.

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God’s Reminder to Trust

Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory. You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ (Exodus 13:7-8)

We live in a time of trauma. As I write this, the first of three presidential debates has just ended. No matter which candidate you favor, watching was an experience in trauma – I won’t say more. But in a time of COVID shutdown, economic recession, racial tension and the rise of militant groups – I am now 60 years old, and at no time in my lifetime has our country been a bigger mess or in more trouble. It is easy to be discouraged. In fact, it is hard not to be discouraged.

This is not the first time God’s people have been discouraged and in struggle. After years of toil in slavery in Egypt and plague after plague sent by God to convince the pharaoh to release them, they were worn thin. Hope seemed distant. Would anything ever end this?

Then God acted in a mighty way. Each family was to mark their home with the blood of a lamb as a sign that they were in on God’s plan. Everyone else in Egypt would be at risk. The night when the call to action was given, death poured over Egypt while the Israelites fled to freedom. God had acted in the midst of struggle and they were given a new lease on life.

The verses from above are after the time in Egypt was over. God instituted the Passover, a celebration in which God would act to encourage God’s people year after year. No matter what was happening, they would pause and celebrate that God always acts to bring life and salvation – not always on our timeline, but always. This gathering over a meal would mark the Jewish people as people of hope – hope that sustains them no matter what else may be happening at the moment.

For followers of Jesus, God’s ultimate saving acts are embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In the trauma of the cross, God in Christ was subjected to the pain of the world and Jesus’ own blood would be the blood that would mark God’s people for life and salvation. In the eating of bread and drinking from a cup together, God comes among us in communion, not just encouraging us to remember what God has done, but also to hear from God who is truly present in the midst of the meal, “I’m here for you. I know life is hard right now. But we’ve been through struggle before. Resurrection always wins.”

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Forgiveness – the road to a new future

But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. (Genesis 50:19-20)

This week we explore the story of Joseph. It is a long narrative filled with a cocky younger brother, angry older brothers, betrayal, famine, political intrigue, and danger. In the process, relationships are severed and a family is nearly torn apart. It is a story of intrigue and struggle.

But the end of the story is instructive in the verses above. In the end, Joseph and his alienated brothers are able to forgive and reconcile. What was torn apart by jealousy and anger was repaired by forgiveness. While nothing could change what had happened, the ability to forgive was able to change the outcomes. In other words, forgiveness cannot change the past – but it can change the future.

We live in a world where divisiveness is almost always either in our face or just around the corner. Facebook posts and family discussions can turn ugly with just one bad sentence. And so many things happening to us at once – elections, political rancor, the pandemic, the recession – are pounding at all of us. Add to it our own personal problems and relationships and it can be a lot to bear. Is it any wonder that all too often we find ourselves at odds with people we work with, live near and even the ones we love?

That’s why forgiveness is such an important thing. We can’t change the past. But with forgiveness, we begin a journey to change the future. It is the first step in freeing ourselves from bearing the pain inflicted by someone else. It is the first step in restoring some chance of renewed relationships, perhaps not exactly like the previous ones, but maybe a bit deeper as a result.

God in Christ offers forgiveness in Jesus’ name. In other words, forgiving the people you are mad at is already done by God. You and I just need to get with the program. God, who looks over and loves all of us, is saddened by each of our failures. But the death and resurrection of Jesus tell us that God will do anything to love us – even die. And God will do anything to renew life with us – even come back from the dead.

So forgiveness will not change your past – you have to make peace with your own journey. But forgiveness can change your future – the way ahead can be quite different if you let grace lead you down the road.

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Believing God makes all the difference

Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord[ reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

Christians generally teach that we are saved, not by works, but by faith. We believe God when God says to us, “I love you,” and knowing that makes it true for us. Not believing it won’t change the fact that God loves us. But not believing it will mean we live in a state of not knowing and wondering what God thinks of us. So faith does not make it happen – faith makes it real.

The Bible shows us pretty early that it has always been that way. Abram (later named Abraham), the Father of the Jewish nation, has all sorts of roadblocks to accomplishing what God says he will accomplish. After all, he and his wife are too old to have kids of their own and God’s promise that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars seems like a bit of a stretch. But God tells Abram that is exactly what will happen, and Abram believed God. The trust that Abram places in God’s promise is reckoned to him as righteousness. Righteousness is not primarily about what we do to be right – it is what God does within our relationship with God to make things right.

This story is set nearly 4000 years ago. Abram/Abraham lived roughly as long before Jesus as we do after. Abraham and Sarah are the first figures in the Bible to have any direct connections to the history of the Jewish people and their defining moments come, not from what they do, but from the times when they trust what God will do.

A covenant is designed to frame out a trusting relationship. It is less about a list of things being kept like a legal contract. It is more like a series of commitments that two parties make in order to keep themselves connected and able to love one another. In our baptism, God has entered into just such a covenant with us too. Our lives are joined to the promises of God and our values and actions are to be shaped by those promises out of the love that God has for us and that we have for God.

So, when God tells you, “I love you,” believe it. Like Abraham and Sarah, God will reckon it to you as righteousness as well.

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God’s Partners

And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. (Genesis 2:8) 

We often forget why we are here. We are here because God has made us with the intent for us to be God’s partners. You and I exist, at least in part, to do God’s work and to shape the creation which God has made and loves. We are invited to do what needs to be done for this to be the best world possible.

We often forget this and misunderstanding scripture doesn’t help. We think of Eden as a perfect place and then people show up. But in fact, people show up and only then does God make Eden. We have the story backwards! The Bible tells us the reason this is so is because if God starts planting a garden without a gardener it won’t work – there is “no one to till the ground.”

You and I are called to join in with God’s creative project. Left to our own devices, the story shows us that we will veer off the path and choose our own way, a way that leads to death and destruction. When it seems like this is the path of history, the Bible tells us that God’s commitment is greater than our ability. God comes to us in Jesus, does what needs to be done to make things right between us and God, and then invites us to join in with God’s work again. The partnership is restored.

So you and I – followers of Jesus – are given a new lease on life and a new chance to accept responsibility for making the world more like God wants. You don’t have to look far to see there is lots of work yet to be done. So be encouraged in the fact that your life is important. God is counting on us to join in! If we don’t God won’t quit on us. But if we do, we get to be included in the most important project ever – the redemption of the world!

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Give to God What is God’s

Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him. (Mark 12:17)

This is my first blog post after returning from an eight-week sabbatical. As the congregation spent time looking at the core of Lutheran Christian teachings, I have been reflecting on a lot of things about how we worship, connect with our neighbors and increase our spiritual vitality as followers of Jesus. The ongoing concern about a global pandemic is escalating as people realize that what has been happening in other parts of the world is increasingly likely to be happening her as well.

That’s why a text like this one gets to the heart of so much. We have many hopes and dreams. We have many concerns. How do we put them all in place and keep things in perspective?

One way is by focusing on Jesus. His teaching shapes us and his death and resurrection provide the base from which we live out of hope, even in the midst of difficult circumstances.

In the encounter we see this week, Jesus has been approached by religious leaders who want to trap him with a trick question: In dealing with money, does God or the world get priority?

On the surface, Jesus’ answer is a simple one: Give to God what is God’s and give the rulers of this world what is theirs.

So, what does that mean in practice? While it has many layers of meaning and served to keep Jesus from falling into the trap that the questions were supposed to set for him, there are two things that seem clear. First, Jesus is not here to “compete” with the world but to offer himself for it. There are things where the world calls for our faithful participation and we should do so. But notice that he says, “Give to God what is God’s…” first. God gets our highest loyalty and the hope that is ours in Jesus provides the base from which we relate to God and then to the world God has made and loves.

So, in times like these, remember to first ground your life in hope, love, joy, peace and all the other fruits that the Holy Spirit offers to us. Start with God. And then, with that context, participate in the life of the world around us faithfully and as fully as possible. That may mean a lot of different things for all of us in the months ahead. We will have to wait and see how things in these turbulent of times run their course. We will most likely have to give up some things we are used to having and doing. But the life of faith calls for meaningful and purposeful sacrifice. As we give to the world what we are called to give, may we do so with peace in our hearts, for Christ dwells in and works through us.

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God comes to us

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” John 1:14

American religion is filled with voices trying to convince us that it is our decision that determines our eternal destiny. Often called “decision theology,” it makes accepting Jesus sound like a choice that you must make. Fail to do so and eternity in hell is your destiny.

There are other voices from other traditions, with other ways to get to God. But often these voices have the same theme: there is something that you need to do to get right with God.

Contrast this with the biblical witness that Martin Luther found so enlightening and freeing. In so many places in the Bible the truth is simple. There is no way to God – period. And Luther found that freeing because he could stop trying to get to God and simply let go and God would come to him. There is no work to be done to get to God. God in Christ comes to us.

Once you encounter God in Christ, all sorts of things change. People often wonder if God has it in for them or if they have done something to make God angry. But meeting Christ means being introduced to grace embodied and a God of love.

These are the foundations of our faith. God comes to us in Jesus. The God we meet in Jesus loves us. Without these truths, there is nothing left of Christianity. But grounded in these simple things, the Christian faith is the most amazing gift and a life-changing way to live in the world.

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Street Credibility

And they (the crowd) were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commends even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Mark 1:27)

Ministry (the act of serving) is at the heart of Jesus’ work and even central to his identity. In Mark’s Gospel, from the very beginning, Jesus begins to do God’s work in visible ways that make a difference and change lives. Jesus can’t even avoid it – the demons recognize him and tremble in his presence. He doesn’t confront them – they show themselves to him. They simply can’t help it.

This way of being on the world gets Jesus almost immediate credibility. People haven’t ever seen anything like it. Whatever it is that Jesus seems to have – it is the real thing. Having that kind of street credibility is the base from which Jesus will do his work. The may not know what to make of it (there will be plenty of confusion about who Jesus is in Mark) but they will know there is something very real there.

Our congregational ministry works the same way. As the body of Christ, we continue the ministry of Jesus today. Doing what we do is an essential part of being the church. Being in the streets, serving in the kitchen, mentoring in the schools all show that we are truly serious about being a force for God in the world around us. When people see that we aren’t just sitting around waiting or life to happen but instead we are out being agents of life around us, they give us street credibility as well.

It is out of that kind of street credibility that Jesus can do his work and share his message that as he arrives and works, “the kingdom of God is near.” His deeds elevate his message. His message helps interpret the deeds.

There is a great lesson here for us as we carry on the work of Jesus. Our deeds lift up our message. And our message makes sense of the deeds. Both are important. Do the work without a message and people struggle to make sense of it. Share a message without the deeds and people don’t give you the kind of attention that street credibility provides. Word and deed. Deeds and words. It is out of this two-fold way of being in the world that we live as the body of Christ in this place.