A New Command

“A New Command”

https://pastorpreacherprayer.com/2021/04/02/a-new-command/(opens in a new tab)

John 13:31-35 (13:34) – April 1, 2021

            When I mention the word “love,” what do you think of? For me, it’s different things at different times. When I first read through this reading from John 13, what came to me was the Lennon/McCartney song “All You Need Is Love.” This may bring back memories of the late 1960’s, with love-ins, and peace movements, and psychedelic color schemes. But, our modern ideas of love hardly scratch the surface of Jesus’ expression of love.

John shows us the extended conversation Jesus had with His friends on that last Thursday night, the night before He died on the Cross. Jesus said many poignant, important things to His disciples. Some of them were even commands! Like this one here, from John chapter 13.

            The disciples followed their Rabbi around Palestine for three years. Living together, rubbing shoulders and elbows together, those itinerant people got particularly close. That can happen when people travel and live in close quarters with one another! Now, at the culmination of all things, Jesus gives His disciples a new command. He even highlights it! “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Jesus made sure all of His friends knew it was a command!

            Shallow people comment, thinking about love-ins, peace movements, and psychedelic color schemes. Can’t you hear them already? “Oh, how wonderful of Jesus! I love everybody already. I’m a good Christian.” Let’s take a closer look at what exactly Jesus was asking.

            Sure, the Gospel of John mentions the disciples loving one another. But – John’s Gospel also has passages about other kinds of people, too. Nicodemus was a respected member of the Jewish religious rulers, the Sanhedrin. By and large, the Jewish rulers were no friends of the Rabbi Jesus. What about the half-Jew, the Samaritan woman of chapter 4? She was also an outcast in her own town.

Did Jesus show any hesitation in His interaction with either one? Wasn’t He caring, loving and honest with each of them, just as He was with everyone else?

            Jesus was the ultimate in being open, loving and honest to everyone. No matter who, no matter where, no matter what faith tradition, social strata, ethnicity, or any other designation.  Jesus is commanding us to love in the same way. Not only towards strangers, but towards friends, as well. That can be even more difficult sometimes.

            “Here in John chapter 13, Jesus demonstrates his love for the same disciples who will fail him miserably. Jesus washes and feeds Judas who will betray him, Peter who will deny him, and all the rest who will fail to stand by him in his hour of greatest distress. The love that Jesus demonstrates is certainly not based on the merit of the recipients, and Jesus commands his disciples to love others in the same way.” [1]

            I get set back a bit when I realize the full ramifications of that Jesus-love. Whoa, Lord! You don’t really expect me to be that way with people who insult me, or are mean to me, or disrespect me, do You? Umm. I kind of think that is exactly what Jesus means. Love them. No “but, what if…?” Love them.

And, this is not just a suggestion. Jesus makes it a command. If you and I want to follow Jesus, this is one of the requirements. Other people may not merit Jesus’ love. Gosh, I don’t merit Jesus’ love a lot of the time! But, that makes no difference. Jesus still loves us, No matter what. Plus, Jesus commands us to love others in the same way. The same ultimate, above-and-beyond, bottomless way.

This Thursday night we observe Communion, on the night in Holy Week when Jesus observed it for the first time. He was leading a Passover seder, and shared the bread and the cup on that table to be an expression of the New Covenant. This sacrament is a visual expression and reminder of our Lord Jesus and His love poured out for each of us.

“Jesus goes to the cross to demonstrate that, in fact, “God so loved the world.” Jesus went to the cross to show in word and deed that God is love and that we, as God’s children, are loved. So whether we succeed or fail in our attempts to love one another this week, yet God in Jesus loves us more than we can possible imagine. And hearing of this love we are set free and sent forth, once again, to love another.[2]

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-of-easter-3/commentary-on-john-1331-35

Commentary, John 13:31-35, Elisabeth Johnson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2016.

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/on-loving-and-not-loving-one-another

“On Loving – and Not Loving – One Another,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2013.

Give Thanks to the Lord!

“Give Thanks to the Lord!”

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 (107:7) – March 17, 2021 (Midweek Lenten Service, Week 4)

            One thing that I’ve heard many people miss in this time of the pandemic is congregational singing. Sure, there is piano and organ music in worship services, sometimes guitar, violin or cello, even wind instruments on taped services, when no church members are present in the congregation. But, many people really miss singing hymns together in worship services, and can’t wait until it’s safe to sing in a group once more.  

            That’s exactly what we have here today. A congregational hymn, in Psalm 107, one many people would sing together in worship as they marched up the hill to the great Temple in Jerusalem. Or, they also could possibly sing this psalm in praise to God as the worship in the Temple started to get under way.

            Just as modern worship services often begin with praise music, this psalm opens with instructions to the congregation to give thanks to God. We can think of many hymns and praise songs that do this exact thing. In this particular psalm, God, in goodness and steadfast love – or chesed – has redeemed the people from the hand of the oppressor. What is more, God’s people have been gathered “from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (verse 3), or from all points of the compass. [1]

            This is a longer psalm, speaking to travelers lost in the desert, prisoners, the sick, and sailors on the sea. God reaches out to all of these groups, to all of these travelers through life. I don’t know about you, but I sure feel lost and alone sometimes – especially after the year of the pandemic. We are now at the one-year point, thinking about all kinds of loss so many have gone through this past 12-month period of time. How have you navigated through these difficult times? What has been your anchor in this time of storm and distress?

            This psalm was written after the exile to Babylon, so I am certain that many of the people who had returned to the land of Palestine had difficult memories of the 50-year period of time just passed. However, this psalm urges us to remember the wonderful things God has done and continues to do for each of us, every day. The Lord is good, and displays steadfast love, or chesed, to all. God’s wonderful words to all the children of humanity completely overwhelm me – looking at the world, the beauty of each day, and the marvels of creation that God freely gives.

Commentator Nancy deClaissé-Walford does remind us, “What about those who in the wilderness and are sick to the point of death through no fault of their own? What about those who are battered by the storms of life? Yes, we can cry out to God; yes, we can hope in God’s good provisions.”

I know this is a difficult thing for some, especially when going through serious illness, extended challenges, or the loss of a close loved one. Yet, God’s mercies are faithful. They are sure every morning. “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” is not just a pretty hymn we sing in church sometimes. No, we can remember those mercies, that steadfast love God displays to all, and take comfort and encouragement from those very gifts. Free gifts, given to all, the just and the unjust.

  “We must never forget that those of us who have ample resources and strength are called to be the arms and legs, the hands and feet, the voice of God in this world. God will redeem from the east and the west, from the north and from the south; but the redemption of God often takes human form. And isn’t that what Lent is all about?” [2]


[1]  Nancy deClaisse-Walford, Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages

McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University, Atlanta, GAhttps://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-psalm-1071-3-17-22-4

[2] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

When God Shields Us

“When God Shields Us” – October 18, 2020

Exodus 33:12-23 (33:19-22)

Have you ever known someone who was really important? I mean, really, really a V.I.P.?

Moses was personally acquainted with the biggest V.I.P. in the whole world. Even, in the whole universe. Eileen just read today’s Scripture lesson from Exodus 33, and we heard what an awesome experience Moses had on top of that mountain. Just him and the Lord, they had personal one-on-one time.

Let’s take a closer look at this reading. An overview, so we can understand exactly what is at stake. We can simply take Exodus 33 as a striking word-picture of how awesome, mighty and all-powerful God is, and we would be absolutely correct. Our God is indeed an Awesome God. But, there is so much more involved here.   

Moses and the Lord talk about the presence of God. This is huge! The presence of God is a continuing theme in the book of Exodus, and right here is a particularly important exchange between our two protagonists.  

We could simply watch Moses and the Lord, almost like we are in the audience, or viewing on a television screen. Reading this story from Exodus, we might say “What does this story have to do with me?”  But, we can relate this to our personal situation – each one of us.

To come before the physical presence of God is truly rare – but it was something Moses greatly desired! What is more, he also wanted to be able to reassure the people of Israel with the reality of God’s presence. Is that something that reassures you, today?

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, again and again, we hear about how dangerous it is to approach the Lord. God’s presence is so fearsome that a number of people are immediately struck dead for daring to come in contact with the Lord. For much of Exodus, the Lord is not even sure whether Israel is even worthy enough to sit by and receive that Godly presence. Yet, Moses sees God’s presence and blessing as a beneficial thing, a good and necessary thing.

Have you ever been given the silent treatment? This could be by a parent or other grown-up when you were younger, or perhaps by a sibling or a friend? The silent treatment is particularly sad and jarring, especially when you really respect, even love the person giving you the silent treatment.

That is pretty close to what the Lord wanted to do to the whole nation of Israel by removing God’s presence and blessing from Israel. That would be horrible! Like, drinking water, and finding it was dry water. Or, going outside in the middle of the day, and finding there was an eclipse of the sun – permanently. What a traumatic, even cataclysmic event, having the Lord discuss permanently removing God’s presence and blessing from Israel. [1]

Yet – God said to Moses, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ And, even further, “the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” That must be so heartwarming, hearing God say, “I know you by name and you have found favor with me.”

I remind you, looking on the face of God was fatal, for a number of those in the Hebrew Scriptures. I wonder: is it a fatal act to think that we see God’s glory, that we fully comprehend God, today? The hazard of thinking you’ve got it all figured out becomes a sign of our self-centered, self-involved problem. The idea that we’ve got it figured out, because once we figure that, WE become God to ourselves – our self-centered delusion is that WE are greater than God. This was certainly part of what was going on with the self-involved people of Israel, periodically thinking they were much more important than the presence of God.

If we step back from being self-centered and self-involved, we realize we are invited into a relationship – a relationship with the Lord. Moses knew that to become more aware of the presence of God, he needed to spend time with God. That is exactly what he and God were doing on top of that mountain. And, God and Moses had a number of one-on-one encounters that helped Moses get through his life’s journey.

Knowing that we are always in the presence of God will help us get through many difficult things. Though complicated questions and weighty issues overwhelm us on a regular basis, we can be certain that God walks beside each of us on our journey through life, too. [2]

Are you ready to have a relationship with the Lord? To have one-on-one conversations with God? Sure, our God IS a powerful, mighty, Awesome God. We are also freely invited into the generous, merciful presence of God.

Let us celebrate the presence of God, today. Amen, alleluia.


[1] Brueggemann, Walter, “Exodus,” The New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. I (Abingdon, Nashville, TN: 1994), 938-39.

[2] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship-planning/pressing-on/twentieth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-a-lectionary-planning-notes/twentieth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-a-preaching-notes

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Joy Through Difficulty

“Joy Through Difficulty” – August 9, 2020

Phil 1-12 advance Gospel

1:21-27 (1:21, 27)

When bad things happen to you, how do you react? What about when really unpleasant things continue to go wrong – what then? Do you feel down in the dumps? Depressed and anxious? What about your general attitude towards life – is that affected, too? Who am I kidding? Of course our whole lives are affected.

What about the apostle Paul and his attitude? The apostle Paul wrote this letter to the believers in Philippi as a thank you note, and a whole lot more. But, let’s take a look at Paul’s immediate situation? Where was he as he wrote this letter?

Let’s look more closely at verses 12 and 13: “12 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.” Wow! We can see, right here, that Paul was locked up, in prison.

That would be an awful situation for most people – in fact, for just about anybody! However, I know that Paul was repeatedly locked up, thrown in prison, put into stocks, beaten on a number of occasions with rods or with a whip – and I could go on. Paul himself tells us about many of these difficult situations that happened to him in 2 Corinthians, too.

During this sermon series, we will highlight Paul’s focus on joy! Again and again, Paul mentions either “joy” or “rejoice.” We know that Paul was considered a saint, and he traveled a great distance as a missionary. Plus, he certainly had perseverance. Even what some call stubbornness. And, he let his abundant joy shine through.

If we try to compare ourselves to Paul, some might say, “I’m no saint! At least, not like St. Paul! He was a real saint, and extraordinary missionary, and powerful pastor.”

Scripture – the Holy Spirit – couldn’t be talking to me through this verse…or, could it?

Sure, we see Paul in these verses, in prison, locked up. He is in chains, chained to a Roman soldier, and still, he’s joyful with the joy of Christ! What on earth…?

You and I may not be in as dire circumstances as Paul’s, but, surely there are some lessons to be learned from Paul. How can we imitate him, today? What can we do to show God’s joy to everyone, despite difficulties and big challenges in our own lives? I’m glad you asked.

Sometimes life does get particularly rough. You and I know that. Maybe really difficult times have hit my family or yours. Maybe we know friends or acquaintances who have dealt with similar challenging situations. You know these things as soon as I mention them. Serious accidents or horrifying diseases? What about when death hits close to home – repeatedly? What about natural disasters, fires, floods? Or, God forbid, armed conflict? And, what if our family has a member in the same place as the apostle Paul, in prison? What do we do then? How do we keep the joy of God front and center in our lives?

In case we haven’t noticed before, Christ is a big deal to the apostle Paul. Jesus Christ is the reason that Paul is now imprisoned. Christ is not just a sideline or an afterthought. Paul has not stopped talking about the claims of Christ even in prison. He has that deep of a relationship with Jesus Christ that he wants everyone to be similarly related to Him.

Do we – you and I – have that kind of deep, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ? And if not, why not?

I’d like everyone to imagine. And as I said last week, you can close your eyes here if it helps you to imagine. Think of your best friend. I mean, your best, best friend, whether you two are still in touch, or whether you haven’t seen each other for years and years. Is everyone thinking of that special relationship? That relationship is as close as the one with our Lord Jesus.

At least, Jesus dearly wants that very special relationship with each of us.

We know Paul already praised his friends for being partners in preaching the Good News of God. Moreover, “Paul writes from prison (Phil 1:7, 13-14, 17), uncertain whether he will die (verses 19-20), hoping only that “Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death” (verse 20). The circumstances have not dampened Paul’s joy (see 1:18; 3:1a; 4:4, 10). Perhaps [the circumstances] have even clarified his focus.” [1]

How can we have that dearly close relationship with our Lord Jesus, too? What can clarify our focus?

Paul tells us again and again that we are not to be focused inwardly, not to be focused on ourselves. Our call is to be focused in an outward direction. Think of others. Do things for others. Tell others about Christ, and how much a relationship with God can change their lives. Has that relationship changed your life? As we live out the Gospel – the Good News – in our lives, that is the absolute best invitation we could possibly have for others who have not heard about the close relationship our Lord Jesus wants to have with them.

There is an added bonus, too. “The Lord’s people who are discouraged will see our faith in God in the midst of trials and be encouraged to trust God and bear witness for Him.” [2]

Let’s all pray that we can have this incredibly close friendship with Jesus Christ, not only for the sake of others, but especially for us! As we are drawn closer to God, vertically, others around us see our lives shining like a bright light. Then, we can tell many about the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord. Is there anything better than that? Paul doesn’t think so. God will be pleased, too! Go! Do! Think of others more than of yourselves, in the name of Christ. Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3431

Commentary, Philippians 1:21-30, Troy Toftgruben, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2017.  

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-6-happiness-through-circumstances-or-christ-philippians-112-18

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Live in Peace

“Live in Peace”

 

2 Cor 13-11 God of love peace words

2 Corinthians 13:11-14 (13:11) – June 7, 2020

Did you ever try to grab the fog? I did, when I was a youngster. I’m sure all of us remember foggy mornings, when the fog was so thick you couldn’t even see fifty feet ahead of you. But—did you ever try to grab hold of that fog in your hands? Well, it can’t be done. For regular human beings trying to lay hold of that fog is almost the same as us trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. People may try. Yes, it is a difficult concept for Christians to grasp.

However, God’s comforting, welcoming presence is not difficult to hold on to, especially in complicated, troubled times like these. We turn to our Scripture passage for this morning. 2 Corinthians 13:11-14 is the close of a letter Paul wrote to a church very much conflicted, very much in pain. Yet, these final words are words of encouragement, comfort and blessing.

Did the multi-layered situation in First Church Corinth have any similarity to the tumultuous situation in the United States today? In a way and on a smaller scale, yes. The two situations do not have a one-to-one correspondence, true. But, can we find some insight, encouragement and comfort for today in Paul’s final words to his fellow believers in Corinth?

I have two sisters. Before they retired, both worked as managers for a number of years in two different corporations. Over the years, I heard from them both about difficult situations both had to deal with. I am sure everyone here knows of a complex situation that blew up in your face, or your friend’s face, or at your workplace. This kind of uproar can raise tensions, too.

Does this sound familiar? This complex group of situations was the uproar in First Church Corinth. Paul needed to address these situations in this second letter to the church.

I felt God nudging me to speak to this current great racial divide in our nation. It is bubbling over, even while many sit in our homes, sleep in our beds, and go about our daily business. Yes, this inequity has been present for a long, long time. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery are simply the most visible among those horrific deaths that have been sad, desperate realities for countless numbers of families, for centuries.

We are not going to look through a magnifying glass at the complex situation in Corinth. It is enough to say that there was considerable strife among church members, including factions inside the church. I suspect this strife had spilled over into relations with others in the city. Perhaps, even, into relationships in the area of greater Corinth.

Paul did end up speaking sharply to the whole congregation, as well as to several specific people. Yet, in this second letter to the Corinthians, Paul also gives us tremendous understanding about the reconciliation we receive from Christ that we are also commanded to go out and share with others. What a command, after quite a rebuke and commentary!

Referring to factions in the church, Paul stated in verse 1:10 of his first letter, “that you be united (katertismenoi) in the same mind and the same purpose.” And Paul comes back to this concept in his closing words in 2 Corinthians 13:11: “’mend (katartizesthe) your ways,’ ‘agree with one another,’ and ‘live in peace.’” [1]

Paul expresses the wish, the desire that his fellow believers might live in unity, mending their ways, finding agreement even in disagreement, and above all living in peace.

This earnest desire of the apostle Paul’s heart seems more and more evasive ad elusive in this turbulent time, indeed. Like the fog I referred to, a few minutes ago, so difficult to grasp hold of. I see the demonstrations, the rallies, the protests and yes, the looting of these past days, the bubbling over of widespread racial inequities that have existed for a long, long time.

My friend, Presbyterian pastor Russell Smith wrote, “by our society’s actions, it’s clear that we as a culture treat Black lives as mattering less. This devaluing of life is a devaluing of the image of God that every human being carries. It is sinful and wrong.” [2] Friends, I agree with Russell. Every person created on earth is an image-bearer. All deserve to be lifted up. All deserve to live in peace. No matter who. Period.

How, then, can we as followers of Jesus live in peace? As Professor Works reminds us, “the appeal to peace is also a marker of the Spirit’s work. In short, the presence of joy and peace are the indicators of the Spirit’s transformative work to reveal God’s kingdom: Paul’s closing in 2 Corinthians is not simply an appeal for the church to get along, it is an exhortation for the Corinthians to be the new creation that the Spirit is equipping them to be.” [3]

What a wonderful follow-up to our Pentecost celebration last Sunday. Paul is indeed calling every believer to be all that God through the Holy Spirit is helping us to be. No matter what, no matter who. No matter whether we live in city, suburb, rural, or any other community. No matter what our skin color happens to be.

God willing, we can all strive to become more and more like Jesus. Who would Jesus love? Every one. Every single person in all creation. No matter who.

Paul ends this letter with a benediction. It is called a “Trinitarian benediction,” because it refers to God the Creator, Forgiver and Comforter. Receive these words of the apostle Paul:

May Jesus Christ who forgives us,

God who created us and loves us always,

and the Holy Spirit who is with us helping us and caring for the world through us

be with you all today and every day. [4]

[1] Commentary, 2 Corinthians 13: 11-13 (Trinity A), Carla Works, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2014.

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2081

[2] https://russellbsmith.com/2020/06/05/black-lives-matter/

[3] Commentary, 2 Corinthians 13: 11-13 (Trinity A), Carla Works, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2014.

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2081

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/05/year-trinity-sunday-first-sunday-after.html

Worshiping with Children, Trinity Sunday, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Follow, Carry the Cross

“Follow, Carry the Cross”

Mark 8-34 take up your cross, print

Mark 8:31-38 (8:34) – February 25, 2018

When you imagine children at play, what do you think of? Children in a schoolyard, out at recess or out at lunch break? I am not sure what children play now, but when I was in school, school children played all kinds of games. Besides hopscotch and jumping rope, there were games of Red Rover Red Rover, Mother May I?, Duck Duck Goose, and Simon Says. And, Follow the Leader in the playground among the play equipment.

When we compare children’s games today with the words of Jesus from Mark’s Gospel reading, we are looking at two very different things. When Jesus said, “Follow Me!” He was not talking about a fun thing like a children’s game. He spoke about something quite serious.

The background of these words is critically important for us to understand exactly what Jesus was getting at. What was the history, the backstory? Here we are at the center of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus had healed, taught, cast out demons, and performed other signs of power, but often in secret. And, people had questioned who this upstart Rabbi was, but with little answer.  Up until this time, Mark had only mentioned the term “the Christ” once, in the opening verse at the very beginning of the book, until here in today’s reading, in Chapter 8.

Just before this scripture reading today, the Rabbi Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do other people say I am?” Great question! We are familiar with the responses. Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah or another prophet, but you and I know better. We know different. We know the end of the story. The thing is, these disciples do not.

Jesus has been asking the disciples to follow Him ever since the first chapter of Mark. When He called James and John, Simon and Andrew, Levi and all the rest, Jesus said simply, “Follow Me!” And, they did! They left everything, in fact. Commentator Matt Skinner said “Jesus isn’t so much about gathering pupils or making sure everyone understands him. He calls followers. Want to see who he really is? Join him.” [1] Which is exactly what many people did.

Today, we are following Jesus step by step on His journey to Jerusalem and the Cross during the next weeks, throughout Lent. Similar to these early followers of the Rabbi Jesus, we are taking this following thing one step at a time. We focus on one facet of the journey each Sunday. This Sunday we look at what Jesus said about taking up the cross when we follow Him. What on earth does that mean?

Here we can see that Jesus knew where He was going, and what He was going to do. Others probably did not, and even would call Jesus crazy or somehow deluded. “What do You mean, Jesus? How can You say that?”

Didn’t Peter just say that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the chosen One of God? I suspect the disciples were thinking, what kind of mixed messages are coming from Jesus now?

Jesus not only mentioned that the disciples ought to follow Him, but He also wanted them to take up their cross. Jesus even made some mention of a person being willing to give up their life. The only comparison I can figure is that of police officers and firefighters. They “make the decision to put themselves in danger, risking their lives to save another person.  They measure their lives not by length, but by depth and quality.” [2] That sounds very similar to the sort of thing Jesus said in our reading today.

There is a problem. I can hear some people today saying, “Wait a minute, Jesus! I didn’t know that following You meant the possibility of giving up my life! I didn’t know that there was such danger and risk involved in being a Christian.”

Except, giving up one’s life was what the apostle Paul talked about over and over again in his letters to the churches in the New Testament. And, that’s what Jesus starts telling His disciples quite plainly, starting in today’s Gospel reading. Listen to Jesus: “If any of you want to come with Me,” He told them, “you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow Me. 35 For if you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for Me and for the gospel, you will save it. 36 Do you gain anything if you win the whole world but lose your life? Of course not!”

What is more, Jesus rebuked Peter for telling Him He—Jesus—was wrong, and for trying to keep Jesus from walking the journey to Jerusalem and the Cross. Preventing Jesus from facing the Passion and sure death. At this point, Peter did not understand the full meaning of Jesus being the Messiah, the Christ. Plus, I suspect Peter and the other disciples were not clear on what taking up their own cross and following Jesus meant, either. But, they would find out, in the months and years to come.

Yes, sometimes it is difficult to follow Jesus. And, who in their right mind would want to shoulder the difficult burden of carrying a cross?

When we consider police officers or firefighters and what challenges they face on a regular basis, sometimes we call them heroes. Yet, Jesus calls all of His followers to face any number of difficulties and challenges, too. Except, not quite like running into a burning building or running down perpetrators, but still just as challenging.

Imagine someone you know, or someone you’re related to, bearing different crosses during their life. Crosses can be burdens we carry, difficulties we face. Some crosses involve physical pain and suffering. Other crosses can be financial, relational, or mental. What are the problems you or your family are dealing with today? Last month? Next year?

This might be the cross Jesus calls for us to bear, whether dealing with a devastating disease, accident, handicap, or disability. (Seen or unseen.) On the positive side, taking up our cross might assist us as we journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem. Lutheran pastor Edward Markquart reminds us:

-To take up our cross daily means to be open and flexible to God’s plan.

-To take up our cross daily means to focus on God daily.

-To take up our cross daily means that we can fail. That is, we do not do it.

-To take up our cross daily means to try to be loving every day.

-To take up our cross daily means to go the extra mile to do our jobs in life well.

-To take up our cross daily means to work on my relationship with my relatives and with people I do not like. [3]

Like I told the children earlier, we need to live like Jesus. We have to love God every day and love the people around us even when it gets hard. Yes, Jesus tells us clearly what it is like to follow Him. It is simple, yes. But easy, not necessarily so. May we pray for the grace, strength and perseverance to continue to follow Jesus, and to take up our own crosses.

And at the end of our lives, when we stand before Christ, what does the apostle Paul say? In Romans 8, “If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 Certainly not God, who did not even keep back his own Son, but offered him for us all! He gave us his Son—will he not also freely give us all things?” Praise God, we are indeed accepted by the Messiah Jesus. We are loved by our Beloved, Jesus Christ. Amen, and amen!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1383  Matt Skinner

[2] https://sacredstory.org/2012/02/29/jesus-faces-death-taking-up-the-cross/

“Jesus Faces Death: Taking Up the Cross,” Mother Anne Emry, Sacred Story, 2012.

[3] http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_a_peter_the_stumbling_blockGA.htm

“Peter: The Stumbling Block and the Way of the Cross,” Gospel Analysis, Sermons from Seattle, Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Love Your Enemies

Matthew 5:43-48 – February 19, 2017

matt-5-44-love-enemies-pray

“Love Your Enemies”

Rules are good things. Rules help us to know what are good things to do, or prudent actions to avoid. Rules—or laws—or commands give us guidelines for how to behave, and what is or is not acceptable. You all know the rules of the road, and traffic laws we need to follow. We have codes of conduct and ethical guidelines for different professions. All of these are rules, laws, codes. Commands.

Moses talked about commands, too. The Ten Commandments, and an elaboration of the big ten, too. That’s what we have for our Old Testament reading today. We used a modern translation, Eugene Peterson’s The Message, to give us a fresh understanding of this important part of God’s rule book, or God’s guidelines for living.

There are 613 laws—or rules—or commands—in the Law of Moses, in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the last few weeks, our Gospel readings have Jesus starting with a big law from Moses’s Law Code, and then elaborating on it. Not reciting the law by rote, like some child at school, but much more than that. Jesus transcends the Law of Moses, every time.

Like last week. Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 5:21? “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’” He quickly followed with Matthew 5:22—”But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Transcending the Law of Moses, with additional information. Jesus was talking about the inside job, about how people’s feelings translated to their outward actions. Today’s reading from Matthew 5 goes even further. How does Jesus begin? In verse 43: “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that.”

We all know how children scuffle and argue together. Imagine a playground or the park in your mind, with a group of kids. Two of them start arguing. The argument escalates. Soon they are name-calling, first one, then the other. Then, they start pushing one another. They push harder, and more vigorously. Before you know it, punches start flying. Maybe the friends on both sides get involved, and we have an outright brawl on our hands.

What did Jesus say, again? “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that.” And then, Jesus goes a step—or three—further. He adds: “I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer.” This may well be the hardest thing that Jesus ever told us to do.

We can tell, from specific examples in the surrounding verses, that Jesus was thinking about the occupying Roman forces. He gave several examples of how His listeners ought to act when confronted by Roman soldiers, and made some recommendations on how to respond. Positively, courteously, and not in a retaliatory way! Turn the other cheek; don’t hit back. Give the soldier your cloak, and the shirt off your back, too.

Jesus said—in extremely plain language—we are not to retaliate. Not to escalate things, or make things bigger, or worse, or to blow things out of proportion. Jesus said “Love your enemies.”

Here is the parallel passage from Luke 6:32-33, where Jesus is also preaching. “27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.”

I know this may be difficult for us. But—what part of this rule do we not understand? Or, is it just really, really challenging for us to live up to this particular command of Jesus? This is part of God’s rule book. This is the ultimate. The pinnacle. This is the last of the laws from the Law Book of Moses that Jesus quotes here, and then goes even further in His interpretation.

We sit, in our safe, warm church, looking back at the first century. We consider Jesus, talking about the occupying Roman forces. They had the whole nation of Israel under their collective thumb. But, we aren’t under occupation, being crushed by enemy forces or living under martial law. However, the nation of Israel was. What’s more, Jesus knew it, very well. Even more than that—Jesus gave these commands, or rules, for believers to follow, with full knowledge of the land of Israel being under occupation.

One of the commentators I consult regularly had this example listed for the Gospel reading today. Carolyn Brown describes a children’s book called The Christmas Menorahs: How A Town Fought Hate, by Janice Cohn. She tells us, “A hate group threw a rock through the bedroom window of a Jewish boy in Billings, Montana.  There was a menorah lit in the window.  In response, the children of the town drew menorahs to put in their own windows.  The local newspaper printed a full page menorah for other families to color in.  It was the community’s way of standing up to a bunch of bullies.” [1]

Thus, a loving, non-violent, empowering way of standing up for someone being bullied. Of loving one’s enemies, just like Jesus said.

“The book includes the legend about the King of Denmark wearing a yellow star when the occupying Nazis decreed that all Jews must wear a yellow star.” [2]

I remember what a dear senior friend of mine told me, who grew up in the hilly region of France not far from Switzerland. She was a child during World War Two. A number of unaccompanied Jewish refugee children were being housed in their small town. A very devout, Christian town, let me add. The occupying Nazi forces demanded that the Jewish children wear the yellow stars of David, indicating they were Jewish. My friend’s mother sewed yellow stars for every child and young person in that town. They all wore the yellow stars, every day, whether Jewish or Christian. That is how they combatted the Nazi occupying forces, using peaceful, non-violent means. (And, they saved the lives of every Jewish child in that small town.)

Remember what Jesus said in response to the question: “But, who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the Jewish people could not stand the Samaritans! Jesus knew that! Yet, that was just His point.

Is it difficult to show love to our enemies? To those who hate us? Yet, this is exactly what Jesus calls us to do. This is right up at the top of God’s rule book, right next to “Love God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Including our enemies. Including whomever is a Samaritan to each of us.

Yes, loving our enemies is difficult, and challenging. It’s difficult for me, and I suspect it’s a challenge to a number of others here, too. But, God will help us. All we need to do is ask God for help with loving others who are difficult for us to love.

Listen to the words of Jesus, finishing this Gospel passage: “48 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity.” We already know what to do and how to live. Let’s go out, and live like it.

Alleluia! Amen!

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/01/year-seventh-sunday-after-epiphany.html Worshiping with Children, Epiphany 7, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014. 2011.

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/01/year-seventh-sunday-after-epiphany.html Worshiping with Children, Epiphany 7, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014. 2011.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Listen for the Shepherd’s Voice

“Listen for the Shepherd’s Voice”

Jesus Mafa, from a Christian community in Cameroon, Africa. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library

Jesus Mafa, from a Christian community in Cameroon, Africa.
From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library

John 10:14-16 – April 26, 2015

So many voices, sounds and cries, clamoring for our attention today! Noisy voices, going bash, bang! Clash, crash! Busy voices—hurry, scurry! Going round and round, almost spinning out of control! Angry voices, growling, scowling, mean and nasty. Making me want to run and hide myself away! All of these loud voices, and sounds, almost too much to handle.

Here in our Gospel reading today, Jesus talks about being the Good Shepherd. He is referring to us—that’s each one of us—as sheep. Rather unflattering, but in my opinion, pretty accurate.

Jesus portrays Himself as the Shepherd. The Good Shepherd, caring for His sheep.

Sheep can be fearful, not sure of what to do. Sheep can be stubborn and single-minded, going their own way. Sheep can even be gluttons, eating food that will make themselves sick unless they are steered away from certain kinds of plants in the pasture. But our Lord Jesus identifies Himself as our Shepherd. That’s a difficult job. Being Shepherd of so many, varied, and assorted kinds of sheep.

As someone who was born and bred in the city of Chicago, I do not know anything at all about sheep, or lambs, or ewes. However, I have learned a number of things since I’ve become an adult. I’ve gleaned information from books, and articles, and from people relating their experiences with sheep.

You might be aware that sheep are at the same time stubborn and timid.

Sheep aren’t good at many things. They are relatively dumb animals and can do little on their own. However—they are good at following—sometimes. As I have read on one of my favorite inductive bible study websites, sheep are also good at distinguishing sounds. They can recognize the familiar voice of their own shepherd. They often follow their own shepherd willingly enough, but won’t pay any attention to others who try to lead them—sometimes.

Even still, as our Good Shepherd, I suspect that Jesus has a difficult time in leading His widely varied multitude of sheep around the pasture. What with stubborn or confused ones wandering off into far-flung or seldom-traveled areas of the pasture, this huge flock must be hard to keep track of, and even harder to round up.

This particular morning, I want to focus on one particular verse: John 10:16. Our Lord Jesus mentions that He has lots of sheep. Other sheep, from outside of this little sheep pen. Lots of sheep, from all over the place. Even from all over the world! Jesus is not going to neglect those other sheep, either.

What are we, as sheep, going to do out on the hillside, when we are out in the great, big pasture with Jesus? This wide pasture can be a scary place. We might get lost from the Good Shepherd. Maybe there are dark places, rough spots on the hillside, where I as a sheep, or some of the other sheep, might wander off. Maybe, get in trouble, become sick, have an accident, or meet a predator.

Let’s consider the wider context. The wider world. Other voices can be just as loud as the welcoming, confident voice of our Good Shepherd. Instead, the craving, the desire for more, and never having enough. Just think how listening to that alluring, insidious, beckoning voice can destroy relationships within a family or a group of friends.

A second voice can be quite loud, drowning out the supportive voice of the Good Shepherd. Instead, the sneaking voice of suffering and despair, weakness and sorrow. The penetrating voice of bitter tears and clamor can distract and cause a great deal of dismay. That insistent voice doesn’t have to be loud, but is so often nagging, persistent, even heart-rending.

What can our Good Shepherd do, in those cases? I admit it. I am often a fearful, anxious sheep. I cry out, and say “help me!” or “save me!” And, “I’m scared!” or “I’m all alone!” Thank God that our Shepherd Jesus has a strong, familiar voice. He is insistent and persistent, too!

          I can hear Him when He calls out to me. Can you hear Him when He calls to you, too?

When my older two children were very small—I’m talking a toddler and a preschooler, now—I can vividly remember one time when we were at a department store in Chicago, in the women’s clothing section. There were a great number of round clothing racks, about four feet high, and I was pushing my younger daughter in a stroller. I took my eyes off my older daughter for just a few seconds, and by the time I looked back at the place where she had been standing, she was gone.

I tried not to panic, but began calling her name. Calling over and over, traveling in and out among the many racks, around the clothing section. Sure enough, she came out from the middle of one of the clothing racks where she was hiding, coming towards my voice. A familiar, comforting voice, one that she knew well. She knew she could respond to that voice in trust and assurance.

Do we know the familiar, nurturing voice of Jesus, our Shepherd? Or, is that voice the voice of a stranger—to us? Is Jesus just a nodding acquaintance, or is He one of our best friends?

Let me tell you about a Lutheran pastor who I sincerely respect, the Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt. I often read her sermons online. I was especially moved by the one she wrote on this passage.

She, too, is listening for the nurturing, encouraging, supportive voice of the Shepherd in her life. As she listened for the voice of the Shepherd, she found herself remembering other, life-giving voices which have shaped her.

Let Dr. Hunt tell you, in her own words:

“When I was in my last month of seminary, my adviser Paul was preparing to retire. Like me, he was a lover of books, but without his office shelves, he needed to get rid of a whole lot of them. So he let me have my pick. . . . A number of them still sit on my shelf. Paul died of cancer not long after that, so all I have left of him are those books with his handwritten name inside and a handful of letters he sent me while I was on internship. . . . I feel as though I still hear his voice of confidence in me whenever I run my fingers along their spines.”

We can see that our Good Shepherd’s encouraging voice can echo in the voices of other dear ones, too. Other helpers, who reflect that familiar Voice of our Shepherd, and also serve as confident supports. Challenge and teach us. Mentor us. Come alongside of us, and act as nurturing, helpful voices in each of our lives.

          What do you hear as you listen today?

Do you hear the confusing voices of the world? Or, do you hear the nurturing voice of Jesus, our Shepherd? Do you hear the discouraging internal voices of sadness, hurt, and depression? Or, does the comforting voice of Jesus come through, loud and clear?

          I encourage each one of us to listen for our Good Shepherd’s voice.

Listen to that familiar, comforting, nurturing, supportive voice. This is the Good Shepherd, who loves each of us so much He laid down His life for the sheep. Praise God, we can celebrate! We can rejoice that we do have a Good Shepherd who intimately knows each one of us, and loves us. No matter what. Praise God!

Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)