Monday, October 31, 2016

Great in Love

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you. - Isaiah 12:6 (NIV)

God did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? - Romans 8:32

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 119:121-128; 2 Samuel 22:1-25; John 11:1-16

I confess that the first thing that popped into my head when I read the word "great" in today's scriptures was the Great Pumpkin, which will probably be showing on TVs all over the world later today. Obviously, "great" means something quite different in the TV cartoon - and also in one of our main political slogans this year - and in Isaiah 12.

Both the Isaiah 12 and Romans 8 verses speak of a God whose greatness is shown in compassion, in noticing and being with people in need, in taking saving action, withholding nothing for the sake of love. Psalm 119 adds a note of trust in God despite fatigue or impatience from waiting. 2 Samuel 22 takes time for a song of gratitude and trust from King David, with words that remind me of Psalm 46 and "A Mighty Fortress," God as a protector and deliverer. And in John 11, as Jesus prepares to go to Lazarus, his disciples understand that he is risking death to save someone he loves.

The Great Pumpkin is a humorous way to highlight some of the ways in which we fail to see how God's greatness is rooted in God's great love. Linus works hard to locate himself in "the most sincere" pumpkin patch, and expects goodies to be delivered. He keeps repeating this, even after the Great Pumpkin repeatedly fails him.

In contrast, God is "among us" and works "for all of us." Our sincerity, or we might say faith or piety or righteousness, is not something that earns us God's love and attention, but rather a response to what God has already done. And as today's scripture passages describe God's love and acts and deeds, they call us to a response that celebrates and rejoices in them, and also proclaims and shares them with others. God's greatness is shown in love that changes our lives, and calls us to be a part of God's work in changing the lives of others.

True greatness means always living in the midst of God's great love.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Hope of the Righteous

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

The hope of the righteous ends in gladness. - Proverbs 10:28

You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. - James 5:8

Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

In the Lutheran church, the last Sunday in October is observed as Reformation Sunday, when we celebrate the renewal of the church that begin on October 31, 1517 (499 years ago this year!) when Martin Luther posted his "95 Theses" for discussion. There's a temptation to remember the Reformation as something that happened in the past. But the Reformation also taught that the church has a purpose - to proclaim the true Gospel, the good news that in Christ we have God's free gift of grace that sets us free and makes us holy for God's work - and that there is always a need to observe and evaluate how we're doing at fulfilling that purpose. A later saying is that "the church is always being reformed."

My sermon today has to do with how the world is changing, and what we might say today about the church's proclamation of the gospel. Reform is needed, and is underway by the guidance of God's Holy Spirit. Sometimes it's uncomfortable or scary, but it helps to remember that our core purpose is not changing. The Gospel is the same. There are just new ways (which often are actually the renewal of ancient ways!) to proclaim the good news.

I connect this Reformation message with the Daily Texts' word today of patience and strength and "the hope of the righteous." We might interpret these words to refer to an individual hope for eternal life with God. And that is certainly an important part of the Gospel! But that eternal life is not the whole story, just one dimension of abundant "life into the ages" that includes joyful, active participation, here and now, in God's work of proclaiming the full Gospel to the world. Today, on Reformation Sunday, may we look ahead also to a church fully engaged with the good news of Jesus Christ for the current needs of the world around us. May we be patient, and strengthen our hearts, and aim for lives of righteousness in living out the purpose God has for us.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Servant Leader

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Gideon said, "I will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you." - Judges 8:23

Jesus said, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant." - Mark 10:42-43

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 119:113-120; 2 Samuel 21; John 10:34-42

I'm grateful for some more words of grace over the last few days. It's been an overwhelmingly busy week. I feel like the "spinning plates" guy on the old TV shows. Some of the busyness is just the season; some is due to the work of trying to plan and make space for the ministry of the future while keeping up with the ministry of today; some comes from an office computer project that suddenly made a number of things urgent; some of it undoubtedly comes from my own failure to say "No" to things or find someone else who will do them. But as much as humanly possible, I believe all of the busyness does come as part of the work of being a servant leader.

In my head, the "servant leader" concept is something that's been important for a long time. There have been indications of it throughout the Old Testament (Gideon in today's verse, David most of the time, Isaiah's suffering servant songs). The message is consistently that God is ruler, not any human. People called to leadership roles can only really succeed when grounded in God's word and will, drawing strength from God's power. Jesus is the fulfillment of the servant leader way. His words in John 10 today remind me of the "Christ hymn" in Philippians 2:5-11: he was in the highest position with God, emptied himself and came into the world and humbled himself to the point of death on a cross, and was exalted again to the highest position. In Mark 10, he directly teaches his disciples this way: whoever wants to be a ruler must be a servant.

In my life as a follower of Jesus, and as a pastor in his church, servant leadership is also something that I've always aimed for. Just as God is the ruler vs. any human, God is also the point of the work of Christian leaders, not any human purpose. We are to serve others by pointing them to God, discipling them in the way of Jesus, teaching them how to love God and love others. This morning, I'm mindful of this in specific ways, as I meet for the first time with a new church group who I hope will also become servant leaders.

The good news and grace for me today is the realization that the role I play as a servant leader for Jesus is still entirely within his way of being a servant leader for me. As I try to serve, teach, and disciple others, Jesus is constantly and consistently serving, teaching, and discipling me! Yesterday's scriptures helped me to think about slowing down, moving at God's pace and not mine, aiming for God's direction and not mine, planting seeds and being patient in knowing that it's God who gives the growth. Today, I've received an even deeper gratitude for how these same principles are at work in my own life.

Thank you, God, for quietly and humbly serving, teaching, and discipling me. We've come a long way as we walk together, yet I still daily need your grace and guidance - and I always will! Keep calling me to watch and listen to your direction and your ways. Give me rest and peace, and then show me who to serve and how. Work in me and through me so that some of the seeds I plant may come to bear fruit of joy and peace and love in their lives, for your kingdom.


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Resolve

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Thus says the Lord, "I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown." - Jeremiah 2:2

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. - Hebrews 10:23

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 119:89-96; 2 Samuel 18:1-30; John 10:1-10

Today's scriptures show images of difficulty and danger: time in the wilderness, thieves and robbers, natural threats, hunger and thirst, lack of direction, self-centered sinfulness and shortsightedness. We walk in this world through a rough landscape!

In the middle of all that, the scriptures give hope for a way through, to abundant life. I've come to like the word resolve a lot, to describe the spirit of this hope. Resolve is the opposite of "wavering," Hebrews 10's word for avoiding commitment and trying to split the difference between trust in God and attachment to other things.

As I've reflected on it in the past, it seems to me that resolve has three layers of meaning:

  1. An action we can do: to settle, determine, make up our mind
  2. A guide we can have: a decision that becomes a life direction
  3. A deep quality of character: firmness of purpose, determination

I see resolve as a gift. It comes in the voice of God, with love and care that teach us this voice is to be recognized and trusted. It comes with God's promise of adoption as children forever. It comes through solid people God puts in our lives who give us counsel and support. It's developed over time as God teaches us to listen and follow.

It's clear that in this life we can expect struggles, fears, distractions, and stress. Christian faith does not exempt us from any of these! But God is with us to create resolve that guides us and shapes us to be strong and faithful. Resolve becomes part of who we are, and enables us to stop wavering, but make up our minds to commit to God's way.

Thank you, God, for working resolve in me. Renew this gift each day! Shape my life according to your faithfulness, guide me through all the things that would push or pull me away from you, and let your strength be my strength as I seek to listen and follow and serve you.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Seeing New Things

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. - Isaiah 42:9

The mystery from which true godliness springs is great: he appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory. - 1 Timothy 3:16 (NIV)

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 119:81-88; 2 Samuel 17; John 9:35-41

With Reformation Sunday coming up this week, I'm thinking about how God is always doing new things. In our individual lives, in the form and work of the church around the world, in the relationships among all peoples and with all creation, God is at work for the reign of love and grace and mercy and reconciliation. This has been the story of the Bible all along, and it's the story of our life with God today.

Today's Isaiah verse is part of one of the "servant songs," prophetic visions of a suffering servant who will be a light to the nations. Does the prophet mean Israel as a people? The messiah? Everyone who follows God's ways? Yes, I think Isaiah means all of these things. And he calls us to see, to pay attention to the direction and pattern of God's word, and to watch for its fruition. Today's 1 Timothy verse points to Christ as the center of God's new things, and calls everyone to see and follow Christ, rather than going after the other forces and influences around us.

In reading and praying today, it strikes me that the "new thing" coming for each person today is an awareness of how Jesus Christ is alive and active in ordinary life. Sometimes this comes as a big, dramatic, memorable moment, but often it comes from simply seeing something common in a new way. Jesus liked to talk about the kingdom of God as something that starts small, seemingly insignificant, but has an enormous effect. And he used images of death and new life - a vine that is pruned and just abides, a seed that's buried in the ground - to talk about the simple yet profound transformation we experience in his care.

We live in a time of anxiety and bluster and noise and conflict. Yet all around us, God is doing a new thing, bringing the kingdom of God to people through simple acts of service, quiet observation and prayer, ordinary fellowship, and small signs of love. Our hope is in Christ as the center of all this. May we see, and hear, and stay rooted in God's promise of renewal and redemption in him. May we be blessed as God's new things begin within us and among us, to be extended as a blessing of new things for others.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Peace

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety. - Psalm 4:8

He is our peace. - Ephesians 2:14

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 119:73-80; 2 Samuel 15:30-16:23; John 9:13-34

Peace is important to me! I developed the habit a long time ago of signing my letters and emails with "Peace, Jim" - partly because I think peace with God and with other people gets to the heart of Christian faith, and partly because peace is something I can wish and hope for any person of any faith or no religious faith. We can all understand peace in the biblical sense of shalom: not just the absence of war, but a number of positive, active factors: calm, tranquility, harmony with God and all creation.

My need for peace is connected to the power of God's grace. When I rely on myself to get things done, keep my priorities in order, attend to my key relationships, and take care of myself, I can barely begin before things get out of hand. I have trouble keeping up with everything, which makes me more stressed, which makes the problem worse. When, on the other hand, I'm able to see through the lens of God's grace, and rely on God to direct and supply and arrange things, I can have peace at heart, even when the pace of life is frantic and the volume is overwhelming. Just knowing that everything does not depend on me sets me free to do what I can, and trust that God will supply everything else necessary.

I'm writing today's devotion about 14 hours later in the day than I intended, and it's been a day filled with planned and unplanned busyness of many kinds. I'm tired, and pretty close to being ready for bed. There's a stack of notes nearby with unfinished tasks, concerns to check on, people to talk to, decisions to make. But it's been a good day, where I've had some moments of seeing God at work in people's lives, and I've been able to give thanks throughout the day that God is at work in me and through me. When I do lie down for the night, I think I'll sleep well and peacefully, knowing that it's ultimately God's hands and not mine that hold all these things.

Tomorrow will be another day, and I'll look for God alive and active again. Life will go on with its ups and downs and twists and turns, and God will keep faithfully being present with me no matter what, and calling me to be present myself. Thank you, God, for every day, and for the peace that gets us through all our challenges. Help me to center myself on you and your love, and rest in your peace even in the midst of busyness. Let this peace sustain me and transform me, and let it settle into the lives of people I touch who need it too.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

God and the Nations

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

"From the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations," says the Lord. - Malachi 1:11

Many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. - Matthew 8:11 (NIV)

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 119:65-72; 2 Samuel 15:1-29; John 9:1-12

One great benefit of reading scripture regularly is that it gives a whole different perspective on what it means to be a citizen of a nation and what it means to be a child of God. The nearby kingdoms of the Old Testament who were life-and-death enemies or allies of Israel and Judah have been gone so long that their names seem like only difficult tongue-twisters. The Roman Empire that ruled the known world in Jesus' time decayed and fell a few hundred years later. When the Bible speaks of "the nation," it means the descendants of Jacob who became Israel, wherever they might be. When it speaks of "the nations," it means the Gentiles, all other people, however they have organized themselves into political groups. God is there for all of them, and in Christ, we have the fulfillment of God's design that all people everywhere should have access to God's table.

At times in history, other groups have identified themselves with "the nation," appropriating all of God's promises and grace for themselves. These rise and fall, come and go - but God continues. America is probably the prime example, in my lifetime, of a country with enough faith to be inspired by the stories of the Bible, but also enough pride to see its borders as the markers of God's favor. The tension between the kingly and prophetic voices in scripture has found a long-running parallel in our American tension between a sense of identity rooted in Judeo-Christian faith and a commitment to truly submit our vast resources to God's vision of a better future for all. I can't read scriptures like today's verses, without thinking of our current presidential election and our ongoing struggle to figure out how to be a people whose lives and work reflect God's intent.

Two important factors rise up from these two little verses today. One is that God has to be at the center of any people or nation or effort before it can be truly great. We can build a solid foundation by humbly bearing the name of God, knowing that it's not we ourselves who are great, but the One who created us and all others. The second is that God desires all nations, all people to take their place together at the banquet of God's love, so that true faith in God leads toward peace and reconciliation, healing, respect, and abundant life for everybody. Rather than futilely trying to grab what we can and hoard it for ourselves, we understand that the earth is God's, and everything in it, and whatever power and influence we've been given is a gift for us to steward toward God's design.

Thank you, God, for creating us in all our variety, for giving us tribes and groups of people with whom we can become families and communities, and for providing a clear vision in which our divisions are not ends in themselves, but different ways to show forth your love. Call us to see you, to hear your word, to build on the power of your name, and to work for your love for all people, here and in all nations.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Works in Progress

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

The Lord says, "I will look with favor upon you and make you fruitful and multiply you; and I will maintain my covenant with you." - Leviticus 26:9

You are God’s field, God’s building. - 1 Corinthians 3:9

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 119:57-64; 2 Samuel 13:34-14:33; John 8:42-59

There are different images in today's scriptures for the way God works in our lives for growth and usefulness: fruit, field, building. All the time, God is at work in each of our lives. The psalmist says, "the earth, O Lord, is full of your steadfast love." These images each highlighting a unique aspect of the way God's love is poured into our lives, to draw us forward from where we are toward a greater maturity and participation in God's work. We are all "works in progress!"

Scripture is also full of stories of people who wrestle with the various forces in the world. Surrounded by God's steadfast love, we still are tempted to give greater precedence to our own self-centered needs, or the attractions and attachments of little worldly pleasures. The story of David's sons in 2 Samuel contains several rounds of questionable decisions and uncertain outcomes. Where will it all lead? Will anything good come out of it? And in John 8, Jesus talks about some people who are children of God and others who are children of the devil. Is this based on the choices we make? Or are we predestined to choose one way or the other?

Amid the confusion, we also have God's words of assurance that the love will keep coming, and the growth will keep happening. And Jesus, many times in John's gospel, encourages people to abide (a word that can also be translated remain, or continue) in him and in his word. We are works in progress, and in Christ, the work will go on.

Thank you, God, for your persistence and care. Help us to see and cooperate with the transformative work you're doing in our lives. Bring us peace and joy that rests in you, and that overflows for good into the lives of others.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Continue in the Word

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is at hand. - Zephaniah 1:7

Be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another. - 1 Peter 4:7-8

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 119:49-56; 2 Samuel 13:1-33; John 8:31-41

The psalmist writes to God about remembering "your word to your servant," which becomes the basis for life from then on. Jesus says, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." Zephaniah calls us to "be silent" before God in expectation of what God is about to do.

There's a direct connection between the word of God and the next step we take each day. The word is spoken, received, and heard. It goes out with a message of life and holiness, reaches our ordinary human lives, and calls us to a new path of faith. The path is new each day, a section we have never traveled on before. But having learned that God's word leads to better places than we would find on our own, we remember, we listen, we continue. We trust that in God's direction we will find truth and freedom and life and love.

In the work that I do as a pastor, in my daily personal life, as a husband, father, son, neighbor, and friend, I'm often aware that I'm on a journey. I know where I began and where I've been. I know I've been faithfully and abundantly guided by God up to this point. I have some ideas about what the future looks like - but I don't know the way. I make some guesses about the ultimate destination, but it's clear that I don't know exactly where that will be, and definitely not how to get there. So I appreciate today's message of remembering what God has spoken in the past, being silent to listen well to God's word today, and resolving to continue, to abide in the word of God whenever and wherever I receive it, taking step by step ahead as God leads. Thank you, God, for your faithful love and guidance. Thank you for continuing to speak the word and direct my path, even when I'm not so good at listening and following. Thank you for your promise of truth and freedom and life, for all who will follow.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Work of Your Hands

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands. - Psalm 138:8

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. - Ephesians 2:10

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 119:41-48; 2 Samuel 12; John 8:12-30

Scripture talks about humans being created in the image of God. We're made and molded to reflect something of God's own character into the world. In order to stay true to our creator and our purpose, it helps to keep paying attention to God. We trust, we rely on God for everything we need - including the knowledge of what it is that we really need! We try to live in obedience to God's design for us and our lives. We show gratitude when God's ways lead to abundant life beyond what we could have imagined.

Yesterday's scriptures drew a contrast between proclaiming ourselves and proclaiming God. We can choose to pursue our own ends, or God's; we can shape our lives so that they cry out about our own priorities, or God's. Today, the scriptures are a reminder that those choices are rooted in our sense of identity and connection with God. When we see ourselves as God's good creation, prepared to bear witness to God's goodness, it's easier to remember what choice to make. God's own image is our core reality, at work within us. We don't have to work up our own righteousness or holiness.

God, today I thank you for the act of creation, for making me and all others in your image, for calling us each to play our own part in your world. Thank you for making all things new in Christ Jesus, in us and through us, out of pure love. Help us to remember that it's you who created us, and you who lives through us, supplying everything we need. Give us rest from all other influences, and courage to live freely and boldly in your joy and freedom, bearing fruit for your kingdom and casting light into the world.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Instruction for the People

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

In your days I will speak the word and fulfill it, says the Lord God. - Ezekiel 12:25

We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. - 2 Peter 1:16

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 119:17-24; 2 Samuel 7; John 7:25-44

"Open my eyes," says the psalmist. And throughout scripture, we have stories of people whose eyes are opened by God, in surprising ways.

2 Samuel 7 is a significant turning point in the Bible's big story, with David finally settling in as king in Jerusalem, and making up his mind to make a house for God, the temple. But God speaks to David through Nathan and says No, "I will make you a house," meaning the household and lineage of David's kingship. God has never been unsatisfied to travel with God's people, and now God chooses to become known through David's line, which will ultimately lead to the Messiah. David is amazed by the grace and goodness behind God's promise, and responds with praise and wonder and gratitude. Part of David's prayer of thanksgiving is this request for blessing: "May this be instruction for the people." He prays that the memory of this particular part of the story might be a reminder, forever, of God's abundant grace.

The memory of stories like this might have helped people recognize Jesus, when his time came. For example, in John 7, there is confusion over who Jesus is, where he comes from, and what his relationship might be to the Messiah. Jesus also points back to God as the origin of all the good things he says and does.

In our time, God's people of the church around the world are living through another turning point in the story. The power and influence of the institutional church as a force in Western civilization is declining. The centers of religious power we've looked to for generations are fading, and we're seeing with new eyes how God is alive and active in the world in countless smaller ways. This can feel unsettling, and we might seek to use our own power to try to "build a new house" for God in some ways. But maybe David's prayer can be effective for us, and the story of God active in his life can be instruction for the people of the church today. God is not unsatisfied to travel with God's people, and the promise of the eternal presence of the Messiah still stands. Wherever we go, and whatever form(s) the church takes in years to come, we have the assurance of God's abundant grace.

God, thank you for opening our eyes. Thank you for the scriptures that keep alive the stories of your faithfulness with people before us. Thank you for the lordship of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit for our instruction. Call us and enable us to be faithful to you, and to respond with wonder and praise and gratitude wherever we see your grace. Lead us through the challenges of this time and place. And may our story also become instruction for the people yet to come, and a reminder, forever, of your grace.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Spirit and Life

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. - Ezekiel 34:11 (NIV)

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Follow me." - Mark 1:16-17

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 118:22-29; 2 Samuel 3:1-34; John 6:60-71

I see another interesting connection between Jesus' "Bread of Life Discourse" in John 6 and the verses chosen for today. There is the "shepherding" call to follow, which begins so simply. But Andrew and Simon Peter are also there later, when Jesus speaks at length about the "Bread of Life" and eating his flesh and drinking his blood. There is a decision point, where some of his followers turn away, while others know him well enough to trust that he is the one with the true words of eternal life - and who else could they follow?

Jesus compares himself as the Bread of Life to the manna that sustained God's people through all their years in the wilderness. And of course the people complained about that too! In the same way that manna was the food promised to always be available, and gave exactly the strength and energy needed for the wilderness journey, Jesus seems to be saying that his flesh and blood are the exact right food of spirit and life for the landscape of the flock of disciples who follow him. We are called to a journey that lasts a lifetime and brings challenges and asks us to deny ourselves. On this journey, we're well sustained by eating and drinking of Christ and abiding in him. But "the flesh is useless;" other things we might try to fill ourselves with are unsatisfying, unhealthy, and unable to keep us going.

Thank you God, for not only calling us to follow you, but for committing yourself to full, forever care for us. Help us to abide in you, and be strengthened by your flesh and blood, and guided by your words of Spirit and life. Keep us from useless things, and keep us sustained by the food that comes only from you.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Eat and Drink

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us. Isaiah - 63:7

Indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. - 1 Peter 2:3

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 118:15-21; 2 Samuel 2; John 6:52-59

There are invitations today to "taste and see" the goodness of God and, in John 6, to "abide in" Jesus, who says, "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day." These are invitations of GRACE - meaning that God comes to us, God takes action first, God reveals truth and life and goodness, and lays it out before us, out of pure love and mercy.

Once we begin to see ourselves as followers of Jesus, taking on the name "disciple" (learner), we see that there is a whole lifelong process for us of watching him, imitating him, coming to see the world from his point of view, working alongside him in God's kingdom, being some of the people he has chosen to work through to make God's love and grace known to the world. It's a very different life from what the world around us encourages us to live. It requires discipline and discernment, saying NO to some things so that we can say YES to other things. As we mature in faith and take some responsibility for leading or encouraging others, we're also called on to use all of our gifts and creativity to put together a plan for moving forward in faith together. It can feel overwhelming!


So it's good to be able to return to the simple words of these invitations of GRACE. Taste and see. Eat and drink. Abide. These are natural, organic things to do. They remind us that the work is God's, not ours. And we are formed and upheld and sustained and strengthened by what God provides. Young or mature, weak or strong, at any stage of life, we know how to taste and see, eat and drink, and abide by resting and drawing strength and healing.

Today, I'm drawn particularly to the words of Jesus, inviting us to eat and drink, and have life into eternity, and be raised up. John's gospel doesn't contain any story of Jesus' institution of holy communion as a part of the life of the church, but I'm one of the people who can't help but notice clear references to communion in Jesus' "Bread of Life Discourse" in John 6. Maybe John is trying not to limit himself to the Last Supper scene in explaining what it means to eat Jesus' flesh and drink his blood. Maybe he knows that we'll be doing that regularly in worship, but also wants us to see that at all times, and in all places, Jesus is the "Bread of Life" who sustains us and keeps us connected to God's eternal kingdom.

Today, I'm thankful for the gift of holy communion. For me, that's the central part of worship, where we come in faith to accept God's invitation of grace, gathering to receive our Lord, empowered to be sent back out into the world. And I'm thankful that whenever I need it, in this daily time of scripture and prayer or in any moment of doubt or stress or uncertainty or exhaustion, the words of invitation are right there, immediately available to me. Thank you, God, for calling me to eat and drink, taste and see, abide in you, now and always. Help me to keep turning to you, and living out of your strength and your will, as I seek to be a child of your grace and a servant of your will.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Shining Light

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

The Lord is righteous. He loves righteousness. - Psalm 11:7 (NASB)

Live as children of light - for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. - Ephesians 5:8-9

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 118:10-14; 2 Samuel 1; John 6:43-51

I've always been fascinated by the physics of light. There are lots of aspects to it that intrigue me. But maybe the simplest is that light just shines. Our human eyes and minds are used to dividing things up into dark and light, day and night. There's a common theme throughout the Bible that also connects this contrast to the difference between good and evil. The categories are so familiar to us that we easily fall into "Star Wars" thinking: that there is a duality of a "light side" and a "dark side" which oppose each other more or less equally.

But in terms of physics, light and darkness are not the same at all. Light just shines. Whether we argue that it comes like a wave or like a particle, light is unquestionably a form of radiation that travels from one place to another. Light brings energy that can be used in lots of different ways. It reveals (or creates?) color. It gives life through photosynthesis. It provides warmth. Creatures can detect it and use it to navigate and survive in the world.

In contrast, darkness doesn't shine. Darkness is just the absence or absorption of light. Darkness has no active presence or being in itself. Darkness is what we notice when light isn't shining.

So rather than simply say that light is good and darkness is evil, it's interesting to me to think about what it means, from the point of view of physics, to think of Jesus as "the Light of the World" and to think of his followers as "children of light." It means shining. It means a source of power that can keep generating light without end. It means activity, and energy radiating outward. It means life and warmth and possibility.

This line of thinking helps explain Paul's phrase "the fruit of the light." When light shines, things happen. Every piece of real fruit in the world exists, in part, because light brought energy to the plant that grew it. That energy gets packaged in a different form that can also go out into the world, and help create yet new forms of life. There is a chain reaction of creation and growth and transformation.

I see a link with today's John 6 section also. It's not so hard to see now how light can become food. "The Light of the World" and "the Bread of Life" are different ways of describing the same reality in Jesus.And when he says, "No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day," it makes sense that our whole lives of faith, from birth to death, from baptism to funeral, can be part of the same flow of creative life and energy.

Today I'm thinking that being a "child of light" is not about toeing the line, following rules, choosing to do good things instead of evil things. Although the whole chapter of Ephesians 5 can be read that way, it could also be read as actively shining instead of dissipation and nothingness. Light from God can excite and energize us, so that our lives are aligned with creativity and life and possibility. Dullness, distraction, apathy, and emptiness are overcome. Our lives shine, pointing other people to the God who is the source of all light and goodness and righteousness and truth.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Accepted

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

The Lord said, "I do forgive, just as you have asked." - Numbers 14:20

Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. - Colossians 3:13

Lectionary texts: 2 Kings 5:1-3,7-15c; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Themes of forgiveness, acceptance, healing, and cleansing are all connected in today's scriptures - as well as the theme of being a part of the community of God, and useful for God's work in the world.

We all have some flaw, or sin, or "strike against us" that keeps us from being able to live perfect, holy lives according to God's full design. The root of the problem might be within ourselves, or it might be caused by some damage done to us. The burdens we live with might be visible, even obvious to others, or they might be invisible. Whatever the details, these things are real.

With God, there is Law that reveals to us what is not acceptable in God's way of life. Yet there is also Gospel that proclaims the grace of God in wanting, even initiating, a relationship with us, even when we fall short of the Law. Our behavior can never be totally acceptable - but we are deemed to be acceptable. God's love in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus shows how far God is willing to go for this.

My sermon today focuses on this Gospel (Good News) in the life of the Samaritan man who was healed of leprosy, and declared "clean" and "saved" by Jesus. I'll encourage today's listeners to think about what Law and Gospel mean in their own lives. And I pray that I, and the congregation I serve, will be able to identify that Law and Gospel, and praise God, and help make the good news of God's acceptance known to others. May the news go out to many, who can hear and understand and live out what Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:15: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth."

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Bread that Endures

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple. - Psalm 119:130

Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. - Romans 15:4

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 118:1-9; 1 Samuel 30,31; John 6:25-42

In John 6, Jesus notices that a bunch of people are interested in him because he performed a "sign" that gave them bread. Five thousand people were fed, in a meal that began with a little boy's sack lunch of five barley loaves and two fish. A crowd of people follow Jesus, looking for me. He wants them to realize that the true value in what he did was not the bread, but the sign - that he is the one who can give "the true bread from heaven," the "bread of life" which fills and satisfies so that "whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." With a powerful "I AM" statement, echoing the name of God given to Moses in Exodus 3, Jesus says, "I AM the bread of life."

Today I was thinking that daily time with scripture reflects the same principle. The point is not the time in absorbing words, but the One to whom the words point. Today's verse from Psalm 119 uses the images of light and understanding; Paul in Romans 15:4 says that hope is the result of time in scripture. In the words of scripture, we're introduced to the living God who still enlightens and shapes the future of human life. Reading the Bible regularly is like eating bread, in that it gives us strength and provision for the day. But it's even more than that. Time spent in reading scripture, praying, reflecting, centering oneself in God, listening for God's leading, submitting to God's direction, is to dig into the true bread of life in Christ, which will never run out. This time is a way for us to touch and be reminded of the constant presence of God.

In a time of busyness, stress, work, and anxiety, it's easy to run out of energy and find strength failing. Today I'm thankful for God's Word in scripture, for the opportunity to spend time in it each day, and especially for the "sign" it provides, pointing directly to God. I'm thankful for this "food that endures for eternal life!"

Friday, October 7, 2016

Faith Ripples

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. - Judges 2:10 (NIV)

Simeon prayed: "My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." - Luke 2:30–32

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 117; 1 Samuel 28,29; John 6:16-24

Each of the texts today makes a reference to a significant event in the history of God's people, and how God intervened for salvation - to draw the people out of a situation they couldn't manage on their own, bringing them to a new situation that would allow freedom and movement and life. The ups and downs of life gave rise to a new, stronger, living faith in God.
And like ripples in a pond, the story was remembered, retold, bound up in the identity of the people, and passed on to generations to come. The impact of the story goes on; a wider circle of people know of God's love and grace and mercy and strength; the whole environment is changed as additional ups and downs are seen to be part of the continuing story of God and God's people.

Today's texts also show that there are times when the story may be forgotten, or denied, or judged to be overshadowed by other happenings. In these situations, God keeps faith and continues what was set in motion in the past, renewing it in the lives of people of the current day. In every generation, there is something to be learned from those who have come before us in the faith; and something to witness in our own time to God's saving action; and something to be remembered and proclaimed to those who will come after us.

Although we often prefer calm waters, maybe it's the ups and downs of life, our struggles and our awareness of God's presence, that best keep God's story alive. Today I'm trying to be aware of fellow Christians and others who have walked with God in places I haven't been yet, and watch and listen and learn from them. I'm looking for the disturbances in my life and in the world around me, and praying to be able to notice and proclaim the troubles and the saving actions of God. And I'm aware that what I say and do will have an effect on other people, and asking God for faith and courage and compassion to let the story continue to be told through me. All this is something of a challenge! But also a blessing. Life is more than random disturbances and solitary reactions. Faith ripples to me and through me and beyond me.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Right Path

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

All deeds are right in the sight of the doer, but the Lord weighs the heart. - Proverbs 21:2

"All things are lawful for me," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be dominated by anything. - 1 Corinthians 6:12

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 116:15-19; 1 Samuel 26,27; John 6:1-15

One of the great gifts of Christian faith is simple everyday trust in God. Like all people everywhere, we try to make the best decisions, and yet we're not just striving to live by a certain code or philosophy; we also have God's word, our fellow believers in the church, and God's own Holy Spirit to help us along the way. We wrestle with what's right for ourselves and for others, but we're not left to agonize on our own; we trust that the One who creates, redeems, and sustains the world is also giving us the guidance we need to follow the right path.

Today's scriptures remind me of many times in life when I would never have found God's path on my own. Sometimes I'm not paying attention. Sometimes I'm caught up in my own little priorities of the moment, which aren't always in my own best interests in the long run. Sometimes there are factors I can't see yet, and I need to be protected from my own limitations. Sometimes I'm stuck in my own biases and see only what I've trained myself to see from previous experience, and I need to be shaken up and retrained to see things differently. I do trust myself and my decision-making ability most of the time, but I've learned that things unquestionably go better when I submit my choices to God's way of weighing hearts and options. In just the scriptures of this one day, we have King Saul, the psalmist, the twelve apostles, and Paul the great apostle and evangelist, all very capable, powerful people - yet all learning again that they will make poor choices without God's guidance.

I ask today for a heart of gratitude and humility as I recognize how God has guided me so far, and for a faithful spirit that clings close to God as I continue to travel forward. I ask that in times when I've barged down the wrong path and caused pain and problems that there might be forgiveness, and some good and beautiful things that come from what I've damaged. I ask that my words and actions will more and more conform to God's ways, and that I might make a contribution to someone else's ability to see and use and trust God's guidance. I pray for all people entrusted to make the big decisions that affect the lives of others, and ask that they too would learn and follow the ways of God who leads to true righteousness, abundance, and freedom.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Turning Back to God

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

If anyone secretly entices you - even if it is your brother, your father’s son or your mother’s son, or your own son or daughter, or the wife you embrace, or your most intimate friend - saying, "Let us go worship other gods," you must not yield to or heed any such persons. - Deuteronomy 13:6,8

If anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. - Galatians 6:1

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 116:8-14; 1 Samuel 25:18-44; John 5:31-47

In today's scriptures, there is both Law (God's NO to something that will harm me or my relationship with God or others) and Gospel (God's YES, even though I've screwed up, God still wants to be in relationship with me). Both are gifts! Sometimes Law is thought to be a bad thing, but it performs a valuable and necessary function, acting as a boundary and barrier, making me aware that I'm headed for something hazardous. And Gospel is the partner to Law, showing how God is interested in more than just rule-following. Gospel includes an invitation back to God, Jesus Christ as the way to get back, and the Holy Spirit as inspiration and strength for the journey.

The Deuteronomy passage speaks about the first and most important commandment of the Law, to have no other gods than the one true living God. It makes me ask: what does this mean for me today? I don't have the opportunity to be tempted to worship the idols of other people, and I can't say I've ever heard anybody say the words, "Let's go worship other gods." But a "god" can be anything I turn to in times of trouble and stress. If I direct my time and energy and value and honor away from God to anything else, thinking it will give me some advantage in life, that could be a false god. If I look away from faithfulness to God, and instead seek success, praise, growth, or any other value, I'm likely to be tempted to go worship other gods. Even in terms of the work I do for God in the church, there are processes, values, books, programs, techniques, judgments that seek to lure me away from worshiping God alone.Turn

The combination of scriptures today calls me to be, and do, whatever God wants, for the most fruitful future for myself and the church I serve and God's kingdom in today's world. Even if it means dying to something else, letting go of something I value, I'm called continually back to simply following God. I'm thankful for Law that teaches me where the dangers lie and how to recognize them. And I'm thankful for Gospel that calls me to turn back when (not if, but when!) I've wandered down a wrong way. I'm thankful that the one true living God knows me and cares about me, seeks to defend my life and my relationships, and gently restores me when I need.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Getting, not Grasping

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

In God’s hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. - Psalm 95:4

The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands. - Acts 17:24

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 116:1-7; 1 Samuel 24:1-25:17; John 5:16-30

Today's texts make me think about what's in human hands, and what's in God's hands. Paul's visit and speech in Athens, told in Acts 17, give a great example of how we think about these things. With shrines and statues and idols all around, Paul could easily see that the people of Athens were spiritual people. His goal was to get them to see in a new way their objects of worship made with human hands, and to point them instead to one true living God who requires nothing from humans, but instead holds the whole world in hand and provides everything we need for life.

There are limits to what we humans can grasp, both literally in our hands, and metaphorically with our minds. We can see by what God pours into the world, grace and life and strength and truth and beauty and meaning, that we have been given some kind of connection with each other, with the world, and beyond. But we don't have the capacity to fully grasp it. Every attempt we make to describe our relationship with God falls short, whether we use adjectives or metaphors or images of any kind. All these things are helpful when they serve their purpose of pointing accurately to God and God's full truth. They fail when we get confused and start thinking we have fully grasped God by focusing on them.

Instead of trying to grasp what's beyond our limits, Paul teaches a simpler, humbler way: Being content with getting instead of grasping. By "getting," I mean receiving, holding our hands openly to accept what God pours out. And I also mean understanding, "getting it" even a little bit, knowing that our ways of describing God are helpful in broadening our perspective on who God is and what God does for us, although they're never able to fully contain God. An attitude of getting can help us remember that God is bigger than we are, has more in mind than we can know, and provides all that we need to be a part of the world as it was created to be.

Thank you, God, for the ways in which you've helped me to "get it" so far. Forgive me for always grasping, trying to hoard what I've been given, or thinking that I've got it all figured out. Keep working on me, and in me, so that I can keep learning and growing. And help me to point toward you as the source of all life and truth and goodness, ready to pour into other lives as well.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Burden

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you. - Psalm 55:22

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. - Philippians 4:6

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 115:9-18; 1 Samuel 23; John 5:1-15

This morning's texts came at a good time for me. It's a busy season; there are several church projects going on that I'm involved with; I keep pondering about some possible big new steps for church life; we added another "New Beginnings" course as some people have expressed interested in membership ... You get the idea. It was a relief to read "cast your burden on the Lord" and "let your requests be made known to God." Thank you, God!

Then I realized that I didn't know exactly what "requests" I would make of God this morning. Help the projects go well? Give me some insights into what I should do about the big new steps? Line things up so that the New Beginnings course goes well? Again, you get the idea. I was hanging on to the burdens. Instead of "casting them on the Lord," I was just ready to ask for a hand so I could get the load steadied on my shoulders a little better.

So this morning, I spent more time than usual just resting in God's presence, listening, absorbing. My mind came around to a question that's often been helpful for me in prayer: "What would you have me focus on, God?" I was reminded that the work I've been pondering is God's work, not mine. The goal is not to get God to help out a bit with my plans, but to allow God to work through me - and many others! - so that God's plans unfold as God sees fit. 

I remembered a day, years ago, when I was visiting a church member who was going through some serious challenges in the hospital, and I was anxious because I wasn't sure what to say. But it turned out to be totally unnecessary anxiety, because she had been reading and praying about Philippians 4:4-7, which includes the verse above, plus "rejoice always," "the Lord is near," and "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding." We talked about that passage, and her situation, and we both spoke a prayer. Clearly, she ministered to me that day!

Today, I think I've made a little progress at casting burdens on God, and God has gotten through to me a little further about the joy and peace of God's presence and God's power to handle all situations. I'm grateful for this time with God, and today's word. I hope it sticks, and I hope more people will be able to see God's presence and power in their lives, working out God's plans in the world. You get the idea!