Faith in Action!

“Faith in Action!”

James 2:1-10, 14-17 (2:14) – September 5, 2021

            I watched a lot of movies and television series in the past – usually with my children, when they were children and teenagers. A lot of these shows were about young people on a high school campus, complete with all the groups and cliques, exclusion and favoritism. All the “popular” kids were beautiful people, and all the “nerds” and “dorks” were unpopular. Heaven help you if you were really poor and came from the wrong side of the tracks!

            Does this sound familiar? Is this favoritism similar to what James talks about here, in our reading today? James mentions one person coming to worship in fancy clothes, with expensive jewelry. He follows that up with a description of a poor person, in ragged, threadbare clothes, coming to that same worship service. You and I need to ask: who would James exclude from worship service? Who would James exclude from fellowship in the church?

            When we consider the typical high school campus and the typical high school kids, we may give them a pass. Some say they don’t fully understand how damaging and how hurtful their actions are, to many people. Others say that only weak, socially-awkward people get hurt from the rough-and-tumble world of high school…that is just something everyone has to put up with, and to live with. Suck it up, people! Get on with life!

            Except, this rough-and-tumble, catty, mean way of carrying on is not the way that Christians are supposed to be! Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are supposed to be better than that! Believers are not supposed to play favorites! Aren’t they? James says so! Doesn’t he?

Who would James exclude? “If we’re honest, we have to squirm a little bit as he describes the scene. Of course, we’ve all done this; we’ve all shown partiality in this. We hope we’re overcoming it; we hope we’re countering it; we hope we’re better than that. But our society has drilled into us to value people on outward appearances more than essential being.”[1]

            This letter from James is so practical! Yes, he does refer to theological concepts now and then, but he wants to give us a manual of Christian living: living the way we as believers are called to live! The description in this reading today is a pertinent, hard-hitting example.  

            The Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary today also has some difficult, hard-hitting points. Jesus and the disciples are in the racially-mixed area of the Decapolis, near the Sea of Galilee in the far north of Israel. A Gentile woman approaches the Rabbi Jesus while He is at dinner, and asks Him to please heal her daughter. Jesus says some challenging words to her about being a Gentile. She convinces Jesus to help her and heal her daughter, which He does.

            This Gospel reading deals with favoritism and being partial to one group while excluding another group. Who would Jesus exclude? Would He exclude me and my family? Would favoritism include you? How about your children, or grandchildren?  

            These are difficult issues raised by both the apostle James and the Gospel-writer Mark.

            Perhaps the world does things like this, almost all the time. Perhaps the common, sinful people in the world act and speak and think like this, almost all the time. But, we as believers are not to act like the world!

            As commentator Dr. Derek Weber says, “James points out the economic distinctions that we are all too likely to make in our hospitality ministry. But it wouldn’t be too big a leap to talk about racial and immigrant and gender and orientation distinctions at the same time. This is not, however, a recommendation to avoid the issues We are called to speak up, to follow the boldness of James and talk about the lines of respectability that we too often draw, consciously or unconsciously. It is better to enter into these delicate subjects knowingly than to be surprised.”[2]

            Today, we often use the word “believe” to mean intellectual assent, or understanding. The New Testament agrees – except the full understanding of the word “believe” is deeper and richer than simply the intellect. “When John 3:16 declares that “whosoever believes,” it is asking for a life that reflects that core belief. It isn’t really asking “do you believe” but “are you willing to put your life on it?”

“Does your life and your witness, do your actions and your words tell us that you believe that Jesus Christ is Lord of your life?” That’s what it means to believe in New Testament terms. For James, then, at the heart of believing is how we view and then treat others.” [3] Listen again to the hard-hitting words of James: “My friends, what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it? Can that faith save you?”

            Who would you exclude? Who would I? Do we act like we prefer someone who wears fancy clothes and expensive jewelry to someone who wears ripped, patched blue jeans and shoes with holes? But, it’s more than that. No one deserves favoritism, or a fancier place to sit, or more attention, or more service. Does God choose favorites? What if you are one of those excluded high school kids, sitting at the heavenly loser lunch table, with no way to even get close to God? Shut out from God’s loving, caring, nurturing presence?

            Thank God we are always God’s beloved children! We are always the favorites – all of us! Here is a quote by Max Lucado. See if it resonates with you. “If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. If God had a wallet, your photo would be in it. God sends you flowers every spring and a sunrise every morning Face it, friend – God is crazy about you!“

            Does God choose favorites? No! That is the way God feels about each one of us! Please, remember that as you go into the world. Treat every single person you meet as a very beloved child of God – because, they are! No matter what, no matter who!

@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.umcdiscipleship.org/worship-planning/doers-of-the-word/fifteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-b-lectionary-planning-notes/fifteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-b-preaching-notes

[2] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship-planning/doers-of-the-word/fifteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-b-lectionary-planning-notes

[3] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship-planning/doers-of-the-word/fifteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-b-lectionary-planning-notes/fifteenth-sunday-after-pentecost-year-b-preaching-notes

Becoming—Like Christ

“Becoming—Like Christ” – November 1, 2020

1 John 3:1-3 – All Saints Sunday

            Simple words go straight to the heart. Words can echo and re-echo deep within. Have you experienced that? The elderly apostle John uses simple, straightforward words to communicate deep, eternal truths. Like, right here, in our Scripture reading today.

In today’s reading, John urges the Christian community to hold fast to what we have been taught, persevere in leading a moral life, and love one another.

You do know that you are God’s beloved child? Yes! Each of us has been chosen by God. We are the Saints of God! Not only in the eyes of this church on this corner, but in the eyes of all churches that observe All Saints Day or All Saints Sunday.

Today is All Saints Day. It is a special day in the life of the Church. A day to remember those who were persecuted, and those who died to keep the faith. And, a day to celebrate the living saints: you and me.

Sometimes, you and I may not feel especially saint-like. Yes, the age-old problem of sin does creep into our lives, and cause some disruption. Sin can make us feel far away from God, and like everything is turning topsy-turvy.

            Can other things happen in our lives, other kinds of disruptions make us feel like we are unworthy of God? Absolutely. All kinds of circumstances, trouble, losses of various kinds, calamities, and all manner of tumult can strain our nerves, our bodies and our souls to the very breaking point.

            The pandemic is also a perfect opportunity for Satan to turn our lives topsy-turvy. Churches closing, isolation from our communities; with fear and anxiety, we become afraid of the stranger. We end up not setting aside time for regular worship and prayer.

            Perhaps the apostle John did not have a pandemic to worry about. However, John would have seen the passing of many believers. John wrote this letter of encouragement because Dissenters wanted to lead astray the community of faith. Maybe these troublemakers were even trying to convince John’s followers to forsake Jesus Christ and throw their lot in with someone or something else. He was witness to many people leaving the faith, because their own beliefs had changed.

As believers in Christ, we know who we can depend on. The Lord has called us children of God. We can always turn to our heavenly Parent – or, heavenly Father, as John says.

Yet—today is All Saints Day, a day for us to remember our loved ones, who we miss and mourn. Yes, the Lord is our heavenly Parent. But, everything here on this earth seems to be turned upside down.

The Rev Janet Hunt reflects on her church’s traditions of All Saints Day. At her church, this has long been a day for gathering together. This is a day “which begins with the resounding strains of ‘For All the Saints’ and ends with the dancing percussion of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In…’  And in the middle, we read the names, sound the bells, light the candles one by one by countless one until the whole place is alight with palpable memory and almost tangible hope. And it, along with so many precious rituals which help to tie us to all who we have been and all we will one day be, will simply not be ours this year. At least not here where the COVID-19 numbers are rising.” [1]

             Do as John tells you: turn to our trustworthy God. What marvelous love our God has extended to us! John reminds us that God has already called us children! We have already been adopted into God’s family, [2] We can be hesitant, or disbelieving, or fearful. The Lord still loves us, and has already called us God’s children, without any pleading or whining, without special offerings or mystical midnight services on our part. This gift is already ours. John affirms so, right here.

            This is the extravagant welcome that God provides. God so loves the world. Period.

            We all have places where we fall short, where we sin in thought, word and deed. Places where we are not Christ-like—yet.

            John says, “What we know is that when Christ is openly revealed, we’ll see him—and in seeing him, become like him.” Each of us should strive to become more and more Christ-like. Do not surrender to the evil world of the pandemic. Seek help if you are struggling. God is here. I am here. Call, write, e-mail, pray.

            What a glorious gift. What a marvelous hope. We may not see our Lord Jesus now, but that glorious day that is quickly coming. We shall see Jesus in glory – just as our loved ones, saints in Christ who have died, are seeing Him right now. And, that is a promise that is faithful and true. Alleluia, amen!


[1] https://dancingwiththeword.com/all-saints-day-2020-blessed-are-those-w-ho-mourn/

[2] https://wordpress.com/posts/pastorpreacherprayer.wordpress.com 

Commentary, 1 John 3:1-7, Nijay Gupta, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015. 

@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!

Stepping Out (in Faith)

“Stepping Out (in Faith)”

Gen 12-5 God-calls-abram

John 3:1-17, Genesis 12:1-4 – March 8, 2020

Is faith an important part of your life? Your everyday life?

Faith is complicated, for many reasons. Sometimes, people can have a lot of faith in someone or something. Other times, those same people can choke up, or get scared or anxious. And, sometimes, those same people can step out in faith, taking big chances—or opportunities.

We have two stories of faith this morning. Miss Eileen read them to us. The first is the calling of Abram by the Lord, and the second is the nighttime visit of Nicodemus to the Rabbi Jesus. In both of these we see faith, and the need for faith.

I ask again: is faith an important part of your life? Your everyday life?

We look first at Abram, in Genesis chapter 12. He was living in a big city called Ur, and at this point he probably did not know very much about the Lord, the God who made heaven and earth. Abram was fairly well off, with flocks and herds and other resources. In other words, a man of substance. Similar to someone in the upper middle class here in the Chicago area. Can’t you see a well-off executive, or business owner, or entrepreneur, getting acquainted with the Lord for the first time? That is the situation for Abram here.

We have a different type of man in Nicodemus, presented to us in John chapter 3. Nicodemus was a renowned teacher in Israel and a member of the religious council in Jerusalem. (Probably what we would call a full professor of bible and theology at one of the leading universities today.) He was curious and intrigued enough to visit this new upstart Rabbi Jesus, to have a one-on-one conversation with Him.

Abram had a one-on-one with the Lord, too. The Lord of heaven and earth had a command for Abram: “Go.” Go out from your comfortable house and stable place of living, Abram. Go into the wilderness, and I won’t even tell you where your destination is. Just, go, Abram. Go because I tell you to go.

In Nicodemus’s one-on-one conversation with Jesus, the set-up was a little different. We see Nicodemus—the well-respected, senior teacher of Israel—coming to the young upstart Rabbi by night. Sneaking away to see Jesus, because it probably would not be good for his reputation. Imagine, a highly-placed, scholarly professor, actually having a conversation with this young guy with the wild and crazy ideas? Sure, this Jesus is a Rabbi, and He is knowledgeable about the Bible, but, some of His ideas are way out there. Yet, as we see from reading John chapter 3, Jesus has just as much authority as the Lord of heaven and earth.

We see Abram and his reaction to the Lord. When the Lord says, “Go!” Abram packs up his bags and tents and flocks and herds, and his wife Sarai and nephew Lot, and does just that.

We hear much more of the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. We hear the marvelous words of John 3:16-17, which is part of Jesus’s response to Nicodemus. We do not find out much about the response of Nicodemus—at least, not yet.

In the children’s time today, I talked about Abram and how much faith he had. Abram went when the Lord told him to go. And, Abram did not even know where he was going to end up. He had faith in God. Isn’t this another way of explaining faith? Faith is more than what Abram thought. Faith is what Abram did and where he went. Faith is believing God.

Is faith an important part of your life? Your everyday life? Is faith more than just what you think? Is faith what you do and where you go? Just like Abram?

Nicodemus is a little bit different from Abram. Abram actually stepped out in faith. The Lord told him to go, and he went. But, Nicodemus was more cautious. Isn’t it difficult to jump in with both feet? Or, step out, the way Abram did? Nicodemus didn’t want other people knowing about him going to see this young Rabbi Jesus.

Sure, we might know lots of things about Jesus. We might think Jesus was right about a lot of stuff He said, too. Jesus even did a whole lot of miracles! At least, people said He did. Or, do we sneak around and visit Jesus by night, under cover of darkness, just like Nicodemus? Are we willing to stick our necks out and tell everyone we are Christians, in broad daylight? Or, are we afraid people might make fun of us for believing some of that stuff about Jesus, including that part about the resurrection from the dead and His ascension into heaven?

Sure, Abram shows us what it means to believe the Lord, and to act on that belief. Faith is having our Godly sandals on, and stepping out. Faith is what we do and where we go.

But, before we criticize Nicodemus for not having “enough faith,” this is not the end of his story in the Gospel of John. No, we see him again, twice. In John chapter 7, Nicodemus came to Jesus’s defense when the religious authorities tried to defame Jesus. And again, in John chapter 19 after the crucifixion, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea with burying Jesus.

We see Nicodemus as he steps out in faith, listens to Jesus’s words, and watches Jesus’s actions. In his everyday life, faith becomes what Nicodemus does and where he goes.

It’s true that having faith can be a challenge to you and to me. We are not necessarily people of great faith. As commentator Karoline Lewis states, “Believing for the characters in the Fourth Gospel is a verb. And as a verb, believing is subject to all of the ambiguity, the uncertainty, and the indecisiveness of being human.” [1]

Did you hear? Yes, it is only human to be unsure. And, yes, believing—even in God—is something that is a journey. A stepping-out-in-faith journey like that of Abram, in Genesis 12, even a hesitant, journey-by-night, like that of Nicodemus, starting in John 3 and continuing throughout the Gospel of John.

For over 100 years, starting in 1859, the Sunday School Times was published. This was a Christian family magazine. Features, articles and vignettes were all included in this publication, including the following:

“There was once a good woman who was well-known among her circle [of friends] for her simple faith and her great calmness in the midst of many trials. Another woman, living at a distance, hearing of her, said, “I must go and see that woman, and learn the secret of her calm, happy life.” She went, and, accosting the woman, said, “Are you the woman with the great faith?” “No,” was the answer, “I am not the woman with the great faith, but I am the woman with the little faith in the great God.” [2]

We believe that God can love us and forgive us, even when we mess up. How can such things be? Because we believe in a great God.

Is faith an important part of your everyday life? We may not be giants of faith, like Abram. We can still step out, in our uncertainty and our hesitancy. We might just be stepping out at night, under cover of darkness, as we strive to have more faith, like Nicodemus.

We might have little faith, but we believe in our great God. And, that’s enough. Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=43

Commentary, John 3:1-17 (Lent 2A), Karoline Lewis, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2008.

[2] http://www.moreillustrations.com/Illustrations/faith%208.html (Sunday School Times)

@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!

Our Redeemer Lives

“Our Redeemer Lives”

Job and his friends - Ilya Repin, 1869

Job 19:23-27 – November 10, 2019

Have you ever thought that God is just not fair? Look at the world today. With natural disasters, wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes, torrential downpours, and flooding, some insurance policies still today list “acts of God” as a factor in their settlements.

Many people throughout the world live with debilitating illness or long-term disabilities. We may know several of them, personally. We may even be some of them, with illnesses like multiple dystrophy, polio, lupus, fibromyalgia, ALS, and complications from AIDS; not to mention the disabilities we see Jesus healing on a regular basis—people who are blind, lame and mute, to mention just a few.

Yes, there is a whole lot of bad and awful going on in the world. Many, many people think—and outright say—that God is just not fair. Do you ever feel that way? I know I have.

Job definitely felt that way; he expressed his feelings openly in the book named after him, in his discussions with his friends as well as his discussions with God. This book squarely brings up the question: is God fair? I ask again: is God fair? Job wanted to know. I think, so do we.

If people want comfort, they turn to the Psalms, or the Gospel of John, maybe parts of Isaiah, or the encouraging sections from the letters in the New Testament. Not the book of Job.

Perhaps you only know Job as a character in the Hebrew Scriptures who was very rich, and then through a horrific series of circumstances and through no fault of his own, had everything taken away. How many here know the basics about Job? And…that is about it? Oh, there is a sort of postscript to this book, where Job gets all of his wealth returned to him, plus additional children are born to him and his wife, but that does not come until the very ending of the story—a real happily-ever-after ending.

In the middle of Job’s disputing and arguing with his friends, the middle of his traumatic loss, paralyzing grief, and horrid debilitating physical condition, Job is really hard-pressed by his circumstances.

Plus, Job’s so-called friends are ostensibly there to try to comfort and help Job out. Talk about kicking a man when he’s down! Essentially, his friends wag their fingers in Job’s face and tell him to confess his secret sins. He is repeatedly, verbally beaten up by these three.

Poor Job slogs through his desperate life, one day at a time, one hour at a time. He goes through all manner of crap, from his circumstances, his health, and the people around him. Can we blame for saying, “God is not fair!”

Coming closer to home, we might consider the holiday tomorrow, Veteran’s Day. This day is set aside to remember veterans, and honor all veterans everywhere for their duty and sacrifice for our freedom. As we remember the horrors and deprivations of armed conflict throughout the world, what can you and I do about it? I feel powerless, puny and insignificant in the face of such things as conflicts and wars. Maybe you do, too. We also might say, “God is not fair!”

Seriously, I know I have thought God isn’t fair, sometimes. I suspect you have, too. Or, one of your loved ones has, or one of your close friends. If we assess the world today, it is enough to make even a sensible person throw up their hands and walk away, shaking their head.

Earlier in chapter 19, Job says that he repeatedly cries out to God, but God just doesn’t answer! The commentator James Limburg has the heartrending paragraph: “Job’s further complaints: and it is all God’s fault! Job says his life is miserable. He finds no support from family or friends (verses 13, 14, 19, 21). Even little children do not like him (18) and his wife finds him repulsive (17). Job is certain that God is behind all of this (13, 21, 22).” [1]

If we are looking for a poster child for miserable, suffering humanity, Job is definitely a finalist. But, wait. In the midst of all of Job’s cries for help and his complaints to his friends and to God, we have this shining jewel of verses in 19:25-26. What does Job say? I will read it again, so we can all savor the words: “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. 26 And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God;“ I’m amazed at Job, having the gumption and the perseverance to make this proclamation. What a statement! James Limburg says about these words that this is “Job’s declaration of faith: I know that I have one who will rescue me from this mess!” [2]

We all agree that Job complains! He kvetches and complains to his friends and to God. Yet—Job does not quit. Some people we know may very well feel like quitting, and Job certainly was a candidate for throwing in the towel, yet—Job makes this shining declaration of faith.

In this unexpected verse he talks about a Redeemer. In Jewish usage, this term might be used for buying back a field or a person sold into slavery. Perhaps in modern terms we might “redeem” a musical instrument or piece of jewelry from a pawnshop. This same Hebrew word (go’el) is used in Exodus for God redeeming God’s people from slavery in Egypt, or in Psalms for God delivering an individual from death. God is the Redeemer! God will save Job! [3]

We might feel captive to our debilitating illness, or our desperate continuing situation, or shattering emotional state. It might seem like no one could ever reach down and help us out of the deep, dark pit we are in. Just like Job. Yet—God can reach down. God can save us. God is our Redeemer, just as God was Job’s Go’el, Job’s Redeemer.  

I would like to quickly add: Job was a realist. Job came right out and said he might die first, because he said his skin—his body—could very well be destroyed first before he was redeemed. Nevertheless, Job had the confidence to say “yet in my flesh I will see God.“ As James Limburg says, “Job expresses his conviction that there is One living who will eventually rescue him from the suffering and mess his life has become. As that One once rescued Israel, or the exiles, so the Redeemer will one day put Job’s life back together.” [4]

Does anyone doubt that this Redeemer can put our lives back together, too? In part three of the well-loved oratorio Messiah, the soprano soloist begins with Job’s words “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” I fully agree that the other Scripture passages Handel used in this part of the Messiah explain Job’s words so well.

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.  
(I Corinthians 15: 20)  
Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.  
(I Corinthians 15: 21-22)  
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  
(I Corinthians 15: 51-52)  
The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality.  
(I Corinthians 15: 52-53)
But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  
(I Corinthians 15: 57)  
If God be for us, who can be against us?  
(Romans 8: 31)  
Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is at the right hand of God, who makes intercession for us.  
(Romans 8: 33-34)  

Where part three of the Messiah began with Job’s words “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” is there any way more fitting and more glorious to close this meditation on Job’s shining declaration of faith than the way Handel finished his oratorio? The words of Revelation 5:12-14:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom,
and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.
Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.
Amen.
 
(Revelation 5: 12-14)  

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=735

Commentary, Job 19:23-27a, James Limburg, Pentecost 24C Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2010.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid.

(Many thanks to James Limburg, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, MN, for the use of his excellent commentary article on this passage from Job 19.)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Keeping the Faith

“Keeping the Faith”

2 Tim 4-7 kept faith, purple

2 Timothy 4:6-9 – October 27, 2019

Happy Reformation Sunday! Yes, we celebrate and commemorate the beginning of the Reformation on the last Sunday of October each year. It is that time of year when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther tacked up his 95 Theses, or complaints, against the Catholic Church. He put them up on the chapel door at the University of Wittenberg, where he was a professor of theology, on All Hallows Eve, 1517—or, Halloween, October 31st.

Among other things, Martin Luther wanted the Catholic Church to be faithful to God in many practices. Being faithful was really important to Martin Luther! You know who else being faithful was important to? The Apostle Paul. Eileen read the end of the second letter Paul wrote to Timothy, and Paul strongly stressed being faithful to God. Just like him. Just like Martin Luther. Just like countless saints throughout the centuries. Keeping the faith, through thick or thin, through good times or bad, no matter what.

I always get sad when I read the second letter to Timothy, and especially the fourth chapter. That is the part where Paul is being up front with Timothy. He realizes he does not have very much time left here in this world. Paul was in prison in Rome for the second time, and this time, Paul did not have much hope of being freed. This is one of the last letters he expects to write to his good friend and protégé Timothy. What kinds of important things does Paul say in these last few paragraphs?

When other people know they are going to die soon—because of illness or other tragedy, somehow time becomes much more precious. Their internal and external focus becomes more acute. I think this was happening with the Apostle Paul, right here, where he told Timothy what was most on his heart.

What did he want to communicate to Timothy? Looking at this last chapter, we find so much on Paul’s mind. I would like to focus on two verses in chapter 4: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Paul had been through the wringer, as we read when Paul wrote about many of his experiences in the second letter to the church at Corinth. He lists that he has been put in prison repeatedly, been whipped, beaten with rods, given thirty-nine lashes, shipwrecked, then adrift on the sea for a day and a night, not to mention being cold, starved and thirsty repeatedly, in danger and on the run from all manner of people, for years at a time. What is more, Paul said he would do it all again for the sake of preaching the Good News, and knowing Jesus Christ crucified.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear Paul describe everything he has been through, I am in awe. And yes, I feel so insignificant, so unworthy even to be in Paul’s presence. Paul’s whole life is one huge example of keeping the faith.

As we come forward through the centuries, and learn more about Martin Luther, we can see that for years Martin was on the run from a bunch of different groups and from people sent by the Catholic Church. These wily guys wanted to prosecute Luther before a church court, and he argued his case again and again. Martin Luther was put through the wringer repeatedly.

True story: 1521, Martin was put on trial yet again, and finally offered the “opportunity” to say he recanted what he said and had written. Luther knew his response would get him in even deeper trouble, but that did not stop him. He boldly told the emperor, his officers and some leaders of the Catholic Church that he would not move. Martin said he was captive to the Bible, the Word of God, and he could not go against God. Many people remember Martin’s famous words, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Martin kept the faith and stayed true to God.

Have you—have I—ever felt put through the wringer for the sake of Jesus Christ? Just thinking about what the Apostle Paul and what Martin Luther went through, being put through the wringer is definitely not fun. Standing up for what is right and Godly and the God-honoring thing to do, or a certain way to pray, or even a specific way to worship God? All over the world, for centuries, any of these things could get you imprisoned or perhaps even executed. I am serious. This is not a joke.

According to Professor Dirk Lange, “Faith is not faith in one’s own abilities but God’s faith planted within us that turns us, despite the upheavals and setbacks and failures of life, into faithful workers in the vineyard.” [1] God-given and God-planted faith helped Paul and Martin to keep on going, and to keep the faith. Can that God-given faith help us to continue on, as well?

Professor Michael Jackson had such an intriguing idea about this verse. Let me share it with you: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith… all three verbs are in the perfect [tense]. Even though Paul is still alive and writing these words, he views his life lived for Christ as complete… and as my Greek teacher, Roger Hahn always loved to point out for the perfect tense – completed action that has continuing and ongoing repercussions… I like that idea – our finished lives continue to speak, to influence, to make a difference in the lives of those we have served. That’s how we leave a legacy!” [2]

Whether we have been on this earth only a few years or are in the later decades of life, how have our lives been used for God? What kind of legacy are you and I leaving? Have we—as Paul commanded Timothy—fought the good fight? Finished the race? Kept the faith in Christ Jesus? These are not simple questions. They are reflection questions, questions to ponder, and questions that I hope and pray we all bring to God.

I would like to close with some words of reflection from Joseph, Cardinal Bernadin, Cardinal of this Chicago archdiocese for a number of years. He was diagnosed with a rapidly moving cancer, which took his life. In the months before he died, Cardinal Bernadin wrote a final, short book: The Gift of Peace. I’ve read it, and it is so poignant.

I would like to read from the last chapter. “As I conclude this book, I am both exhausted and exhilarated. Exhausted because the fatigue caused by the cancer is overwhelming. Exhilarated because I have finished a book that is very important to me. As I write these final words, my heart is filled with joy. I am at peace…. I will soon experience life in a different way. Although I do not know what to expect in the afterlife, I do know that just as God has called me to serve Him to the best of my ability throughout my life on earth, He is now calling me home.” [3]

So similar to what Cardinal Bernadin wrote, Paul tells us God is leading him home, in these verses we are considering today. Just like Martin Luther, Paul tells us to keep the faith, just as he did. Just as Martin Luther kept the faith, just as Cardinal Bernadin did, too.

What is Paul’s charge to all of us, on this Reformation Sunday? Keep the faith. Know the faith, preserve the faith and see that faith in God gets passed on.

God willing, I will follow Paul’s charge. Will you, too?

Alleluia, amen.

[1] Commentary, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Pentecost 22C, Dirk G. Lange, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2010. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=740

[2] Commentary, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 | Michael Jackson | Associate Professor of Homiletics, TNU | A Plain Account, 2016, http://www.aplainaccount.org/copy-of-proper-25c-psalm

[3] Bernadin, Cardinal Joseph, The Gift of Peace, (Image Book: New York NY, 1998) 151-52.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Our Good Confession

“Our Good Confession”

1 Tim 6-12 good confession

1 Timothy 6:11-13 – September 29, 2019

Some people express their devotion to certain things so clearly, don’t they? Take sports teams. I am sure you know friends or acquaintances who devoutly follow a sports team in season and out. I have one particular friend who regularly wears the team jerseys (yes, he has several), plus team hats, team jackets, and team flags. All the official merchandise! Everyone knows who he supports!

I wonder, do many of us know people who express their belief or devotion to Jesus Christ with the same excited amount of fervor? Or, are people shy of expressing their belief in the Lord very loudly, lest they be considered weird or narrow-minded, or even extra judgmental?

We are looking at the letter to Timothy for the second week in a row. Here we sneak a look over Paul’s shoulder as he dictates this letter, and discover he is concerned about Timothy remembering what is really important. He tells Timothy what that is: remember when he made the good confession, when he openly told everyone he was on Team Jesus. Can you see him excitedly shouting, waving his arms and wearing his Team Jesus merchandise?

Perhaps that “Team Jesus” uniform and jersey analogy is going a bit overboard, even somewhat fanciful. However, Paul was quite sincere in reminding Timothy about the time he publicly confessed his faith in Jesus Christ. This time of baptism was an important time in any adult believer’s life, both early in the founding of the church as well as in later centuries.

I suspect we here in the United States have only an unclear idea of how much danger the first believers were in. They were outlaws, outcasts in the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was not particularly fond of Jews, but at least Judaism was allowed. However, Christians were getting rounded up by the authorities because Christianity was a new, outlaw religion.

Did Paul realize his friends would get in trouble if they told people they were on Team Jesus? Yes, of course he did. Sadly, he knew this very well. He himself was in prison for regularly testifying to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let’s take a closer look at the words Paul wrote to Timothy: “12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14 to keep this command.”

Almost everyone who became a believer in Jesus Christ at that time was converting as an adult from another kind of religion to Christianity. In other words, taking the step of a public baptism was part of confessing Jesus Christ as Lord, publicly.

In many cases, the newly-baptized person put on a fresh, white robe, signifying new life in Christ. I want to emphasize—after baptism—putting on fresh, new clothes: a brand-new Team Jesus jersey, letting everyone know that the newly-baptized person was now an openly-professing Christian.

Just so we do not mistake exactly what this confession details, let me give an illustration from the book of Acts, chapter 16. Paul, Dr. Luke and their friends were on a missionary journey to a large city in Macedonia, Philippi. Paul—as usual—was getting in trouble for preaching, teaching and casting out evil spirits. Paul and his friend Silas get thrown into prison, and God sovereignly causes an earthquake to happen. The jailer (who has been hearing all about their good confession all day and into the night) gets convicted by God, Reading from Acts 16: 29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized.

That was the good confession. Right there. The confession made by the Philippian jailer, even though he knew what a commitment that confession might be.

But, wait—Paul does not stop there in his letter to Timothy. He then mentions the Rabbi Jesus, who after His arrest and during His trial makes the good confession before Pontius Pilate oly a few hours before His crucifixion. Moreover, Christ Jesus made this good confession before many hostile witnesses.

A professor of the New Testament Dr. A.K.M. Adam states “In this, Timothy followed the example of Jesus before Pilate, who did not deny God in order to secure his own safety (the letter identifies Jesus’ response to Pilate also as a “good confession”).” [1] Again, the apostle Paul is not shying away from openly stating that these people believe in the Christian God.

We here in the United States might think, Paul, are you crazy? Coming right out and telling hostile people you are a Christian? Wearing your Team Jesus jersey all the time, day and night?

Yes, Paul does mean that. He is faithful, and he confesses his faith in Christ on a regular basis. He wants to encourage Timothy to do the same, to live each day for Jesus.

I think most people who knew how hard the baseball player Joe DiMaggio played would say he gave his heart and soul to the game of baseball. Late in his career, when the New York Yankees were comfortably ahead in the pennant race, Joe DiMaggio was asked why he continued to play so hard. He said, “Because there might be somebody out there who’s never seen me play.” Just so, the Christian should live every day as if someone will see him who has never seen a Christian before. [2]

So, Paul and Timothy are both wearing their Team Jesus jerseys, and maybe Team Jesus hats and jackets, too. The transformed Paul and Timothy let everyone who sees them know that they are Christians, showing love, compassion, and caring to all.

Paul even gives Timothy a run-down of all the attributes we ought to expect to show in our lives if—if we have this good confession, and before hostile witness, too! If we show this kind of sincere, persistent faithfulness, then our lives will start to show these Godly characteristics Paul mentions in verse 11. We will pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. That was the transformation that Paul told Timothy would happen. And, God does transform lives, even today!

Just like Timothy, we are encouraged to live like we mean it. Live as if someone who sees us has never seen a Christian before. Live the best life we can, for God’s glory. It’s not just with a spoken-confession, but it is also with a doing-confession. Not only show Christ by the words we say, but we show our belief by the actions we do. Yes, confess with our mouths the Lord Jesus, and also do the deeds that please God and glorify His name.

That is confessing the good confession, indeed. Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=731

Commentary, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, A.K.M. Adam, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2010.

[2] https://ministry127.com/resources/illustration/faithful-all-the-time Source: Summer of 49, David Halberstam

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Infant Holy, Infant Lowly

“Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”

Infant Holy, words

Luke 1:39-45, 56 (1:45) – December 9, 2018

The meanings of names are a fascinating subject. The particular meanings of certain names are more well-known. Just think of Peter—Greek for “rock” and Irene—Greek for “peace.” Three names from Hebrew, Rachel (“lamb”), David (“beloved”) and Daniel (“God is my judge”). Then, there is my own name, Elizabeth, which comes from the Greek and means “God is my oath” or “God’s promise.”

My parents did not have any particular person on either side of the family who they were thinking of, or who they wanted to name me after. They just liked that name. I have always really liked my name, too.

I don’t know whether you have ever thought about the meaning of your name. Did your parents name you after a beloved aunt or uncle? Or perhaps a dear grandparent or godparent? Or did they just happen to like your name when you were born?

There is another Elizabeth in the New Testament. Our Gospel reading from Luke 1 talks about her. She was the mother of John the Baptist. She was the older cousin of Mary, living some distance away in the hill country of Judea.

In the verses just before this reading, we meet Mary, a teenaged girl who is visited by the angel Gabriel. Of course, the angel informs Mary that she will become the mother of the Messiah; Mary is to name the baby Jesus, Yeshua, or Joshua, which is Hebrew for “he saves.” As the angel says, “He will save His people from their sins.”

The angel Gabriel gave Mary some important information about her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth, as well. Apparently, Elizabeth and her husband the priest Zechariah had tried to have a baby for years, but could not. Finally, when Elizabeth had just about given up hope, she found she was indeed pregnant. This was called a miracle by everyone. Imagine—Elizabeth pregnant at an advanced age. God certainly works miracles, mighty acts and acts beyond the explanation of human eyes and ears.

What about Elizabeth, and about her younger cousin Mary? They are both women. Females, usually discounted and considered second-class by the cultures of their day. What do we find that is different about Elizabeth and Mary?

”All four gospels support the equality of women, but Luke is the one who is most obvious about it.  The male in the story, Zechariah, had been visited by an angel, but he did not trust [the angel’s word] (1:20) and was made mute.  His wife Elizabeth, however, who was an older woman, turns out to be the heroine of the family and she, in stark contrast to her mute husband, speaks under the influence of the Holy Spirit (1:41).” [1]

Elizabeth greets her young cousin, and says “God has blessed you more than any other woman! He has also blessed the child you will have. 43 Why should the mother of my Lord come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, my baby became happy and moved within me. 45 The Lord has blessed you because you believed that God will keep his promise.”

We could list several facts. Elizabeth spoke by the power of the Holy Spirit. She announced that Mary was richly blessed, as was Mary’s baby, Jesus. She also stated that John, the baby inside of her, had responded to the nearness of the very young infant Jesus. Finally, Elizabeth praises Mary for believing in God’s promise. And, we can be sure that God does keep God’s promises.

When I was in grade school, I was fascinated by the meanings of names. It was at around this time that I happened to start attending a Lutheran church in Chicago, brought there by my older sisters. They attended sometimes because of several friends from high school in the church youth group. They stopped attending when they left for college, but I kept going to that church.

I was a voracious reader. I would read just about anything, and as I mentioned, one of the books my parents had on their shelf had many lists of names and their meanings. I would pore over that book, and I sincerely wondered about my name. “God is my oath,” or “God’s promise.” It was at about this time that I started learning a great deal about the Bible and theology, and about the various promises of God. Especially the promises fulfilled at Christmas, in the birth of the Messiah.

What an earthshaking event, the birth of that Infant Holy. What a marvelous miracle, lifted up by Elizabeth in our Scripture reading today.

Here we have two strong women. Two women who know their own minds, and two women who are not going to be put in the background. These are two women—one younger, one older—who have been chosen by God to do great things. Not only to be the mothers of John and Jesus, but also to have the responsibility of raising them.

What stands out even more is that Mary has unshakeable faith in God’s promises. Can you imagine? I do not have complete faith and trust in God. A pretty good faith, but not one hundred percent, not doubt-free.

Rev. Bryan Findlayson has an intriguing comparison. He talks about seeing faith in Jesus as if it is a good bet. “If we are wrong, we lose nothing, but if we are right, we gain everything. Jesus is certainly a good bet, but the bet is not faith.” [2]

Mary’s faith is faith in God’s promises. She took God at God’s word. Sticking to God’s promises, firmly resting on them, this is what the Bible means by faith. Isn’t that what we lift up in these weeks of Advent? We have faith in God’s promises, and we rely on the Bible’s words, both in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament.

Tonight is the anniversary of the first showing of the “Peanuts Christmas Carol” in 1965. We can watch this Christmas television special and laugh as we watch the Peanuts characters. We can also take the Christmas message to heart, as read by Linus, when Charlie Brown wanted to know what Christmas was truly all about.

God deeply wants to send abundant peace into the world. The birth of the Prince of Peace helps us to welcome Jesus for ourselves. He may have many different names, like Jesus, Joshua—”He saves,” Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God—but our Lord Jesus is the one and only Savior. As we prepare to celebrate “God with us,” Emmanuel, we also can lift our voices to praise the Prince of Peace.

Alleluia, amen!

[1] https://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2012/12/lectionary-blogging-luke-1-39-55.html

Lectionary Blogging, Luke 1:39-56, John Petty, Progressive Involvement, 2012

[2] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/studyg/advent4cg.html

“Mary Visits Elizabeth,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.  

@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!

When Abram Believed God

“When Abram Believed God”

Gen 15-1 not afraid

Genesis 15:1-6 (15:6) – June 10, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

Fear. Anxiety. Not knowing which way is up, you’re so worried. I am sadly familiar with these kinds of emotions, since I’d often encounter them in the hospital, working as a chaplain. There is a certain kind of anxiety and worry that sometimes comes with having no one related to you. I have been with and accompanied patients who had no one to be with them as they were extremely sick, or even at the point of death. Family certainly is important.

This is our second week considering the passages where the Bible tells us to “Be Not Afraid!” In one of our Scripture passages today, we read of the Lord telling Abram not to be afraid. But, why? Why did God tell Abram something like that?

For the answer to that, we need to look at what happened in the few chapters before Genesis 15, chapters 11 through 14. Here we learn that Abram and his wife Sarai are recent immigrants from far away who came to the region escaping famine. Abram and his only relative Lot are feuding over wealth, and how to distribute it. Even worse, Lot has been captured in regional fighting, and Abram and his men need to rescue him. [1]

Yet, this is not all. God has made a big promise to Abram that has not come true. Abram is now eighty years old, his wife not far behind him in age. Since God promised Abram would be the father of many nations, and there is no son yet, Abram is probably wondering, what gives? God, what now?

I suspect that Abram must have been more than afraid. He probably was disheartened, too, perhaps even depressed. Long-term depression, too. Here the Almighty God who created heaven and earth had promised Abram that he would have a son, some years before. As time continued, no son. Just think, in Abram’s time, there was no fertility clinic, no medical advisor, nothing at all like that. Except, hoping and praying and perhaps sacrificing to God, pleading and imploring God to be gracious and grant Abram and Sarai a son.

Today, there are also people who pray for children of their own, couples who have difficulty with fertility, or carrying a baby to term. Fertility clinics and specialists certainly aid many couples in fulfilling dreams of a child of their own. But, that is today, with all of the technological and medical advances of the 21st century. Abram and Sarai had nothing at all like these treatments and medical capabilities.

Worry, fear, anxiety. How long, Lord? What gives? Am I doing something wrong? What about my wife, my husband, or my partner? Are any of us doing something wonky, or saying something they shouldn’t? What do I need to do, or say, or sacrifice, in order to get a son?  

I realize this topic of yearning for a child may be a difficult topic for some to hear. I do apologize, if that is the case for you, or for a loved one. I would humbly like to point out that this situation is something that is highlighted in Genesis. It’s referenced a number of times in other places in the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments.

After we find out that Abram is afraid, or fearful, what happens next? God shows up! By the word choice and behavior in Genesis 15:1, we see a particularly special thing is happening. “The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.” This construction in Hebrew means that this is a particularly marvelous thing. This is the only time we have these particular words written in the first five books of the Bible, period.

Plus, these words have special significance, wherever they appear in the Bible. These words flag us that God is going to show up, up close and personal. These words can even mean that an appearance of God in a way that humans can understand and deal with. A fancy word called “Theophany,” meaning “Learning from or making an appearance by God.”

And, what super-special thing does the Lord have to say in this super-special appearance? “Be not afraid, Abram!”  This is a momentous occasion, let me tell you. God doesn’t just happen to stop by. God doesn’t just pop in, or make appearances to any random person. No, the Lord really wants to communicate to Abram.

In this situation from long ago in Genesis, Abram is revealed to have a prophetic voice.  “The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.”  How awesome is that? God had a special delivery message, just for Abram. (for Abram, and his wife Sarai, too, of course.)

What else does God say to Abram? “I am your shield; your reward will be very great.” Wow! Let me ask you: what would you think if God communicated with you like this? Do you have any fears, any really big anxieties? What would it mean to you to have the Lord tell you that the Lord will shield you from harm? From worry? From evil intent?

What’s more, what would it be like to have God call you by name? By your personal name, not “O, mortal!” or even your family name. God is being extremely intimate with Abram here. That is powerful stuff!

Sure, Abram had been waiting for a long time. Even after this reassurance, he questions God! He has a contingency plan, an heir to all his property, just in case. However, as biblical commentator Sara Koenig points out, “Abram expects — and believes — God will keep God’s word, which is why Abram speaks in the way he does.” [2] God comes back at him with the marvelous statement/repeated promise, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then God said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

How heartening is that? Such a personal, individualized promise! The next words we read are, “Abram believed the Lord, and God credited it to him as righteousness.” Pretty powerful stuff, indeed.

Even though continuing situations can be telling us that the situation is really bad, almost hopeless, we can still hope in God. Even though Abram went for years with no son, no assurance of this promise from God, God’s faithful promises still came through, in God’s time.

Did Abram have fear and anxiety in his life? Was he probably disheartened, even depressed, long-term? Yes. Did the Lord supernaturally step in and move Abram from fear to faith? Yes. The testimony of Hebrews 11 tells us “By faith Abraham made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she[b] considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.”

Yes, this is the rest of the story. This is how God miraculously continued to work in the lives of Abram and Sarai (that was before God gave them the new names Abraham and Sarah.)

Can the Lord move us from fear to faith, too? Yes! We, too, can look forward to that eternal city, whose architect and builder is God. We can claim the eternal promises of God, by faith, and pass through our fear, anxiety and worry to life in God’s faithful promises.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] Ivaska, David, Be Not Afraid (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 22.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1730

Commentary, Genesis 15:1-6, Sara Koenig, Pentecost 12C Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013.

@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!)

Encourage, Nurture and Communicate

Luke 18:15-17 (18:16), Mark 10:13-16 – August 6, 2017

Luke 18-16 Jesus, children, stained glass

“Compassion: Encourage, Nurture and Communicate”

Encourage, nurture and communicate. These are three strong action words! Why on earth do I have these three verbs, or action words, as the title of my sermon today? Especially in the middle of a summer sermon series on compassion?

Our gospel reading is from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 18. This is a situation where the disciples are being really thick-headed. By forbidding young children and babies to get close to “their” Rabbi Jesus, the disciples are definitely not being compassionate. In fact, this is an unkind and unfeeling act. Sadly, we know this kind of unkind, unfeeling behavior is typical of the disciples on much more than one occasion. It might even be typical of followers of Jesus today—this behavior may be even typical of people we know in our own neighborhoods.

Encourage, nurture and communicate. Those are action words that sound like Jesus. What’s more, I suspect the disciples might chase us away from Jesus if we act in that way, too. Encouraging others; nurturing and communicating to others, in love and friendship, showing others the love of Jesus. Are the disciples really so thick-headed and dense that Jesus has to rebuke them? I am afraid so.

We are going to go back two months, to the middle of June. In the Wednesday midweek bible study, we took the opportunity to begin crafting a revised mission statement for St. Luke’s Church. Using the excellent book The Path by Laurie Beth Jones, the bible study members and I went through a series of exercises and steps to winnow through the different types of words and phrases which might often be listed in mission statements.

Our first puzzle piece in the revised mission statement was to find some action words, or strong verbs, that describe what we as a church have been doing among ourselves in the past, and what we wish to do in the present for those inside and outside the church, for outreach.

In other words, we focused on our church’s unique gifts and background, on our passion. What are we passionate about, as a church? If our mission holds no passion, we won’t go much of anywhere. The word “enthusiasm” comes from the Greek words “en” and “theos,” which mean “in God.” What are we enthusiastic or “in God” about? [1]

Let us take another look at our Gospel reading for today. What were the people in our Gospel text for today excited about? Reading from Luke 18: “15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus for Him to place His hands on them.” The parallel passage in Mark also mentions people bringing “young children” to Jesus.

Do you hear? Parents and even grandparents were excited to have the Rabbi Jesus place His hands on their children. They wanted Jesus to bless their children! That’s what they were passionate about! That’s what they were enthusiastic about!

How can we—as a family of faith—take what most excites us and use it to change things in our neighborhood—in the nation—in the world?

Every mission requires action. Action words are verbs. The bible study looked at a long list of action verbs. We kept our church and what we are good at in mind, and, what we wanted to see our church do in this neighborhood, too. We figured out the three most meaningful, purposeful and exciting verbs out of over 200 action words that referred specially to our particular church and what we are good at. That is puzzle piece number one.

And, yes. That is where encourage, nurture and communicate fit in. These action words are the words we chose as meaningful, purposeful and exciting words for St. Luke’s mission.

Turning back to our Gospel reading for today, we need to examine the thick-headed disciples and their hasty halt to the babies and children who wanted to come to Jesus. What were the mistakes the disciples made? How can we do better, today?

Let’s take our three action words. I would like to ask you: can we as a congregation encourage people to come to Jesus? Can we encourage children, young people, adults and seniors to come to Jesus? Our second action word is nurture. Can we nurture each other in the love of God within this church building? How about nurturing others who are not in this family of faith? And third, we can all communicate God’s love, every day. Not only within the church, but outside. On the street. In our homes. To everyone we meet.

To continue with the story of how we built the mission statement piece by piece, the bible study examined what we stand for, as a congregation—as a family of faith. What principle, cause, value or purpose would we be willing to defend…devote our lives to? For example, some people’s key phrase or value might be “joy” or “service” or “justice” or “family” or “creativity” or “freedom” or “equality” or “faith” or “excellence.” What is St. Luke’s Church’s CORE? What is the most fundamental value/purpose for St. Luke’s Church?

Again, we went through a whole list of meaningful and worthwhile phrases and values. The bible study talked about a few of the ones we found most important, and came up with three finalists: integrity, faith and welcome. This is puzzle piece number two in our mission statement.

What exciting possibilities are open to us, as a congregation?  Someone asked Laurie Beth “What if I come up with the wrong mission statement?” When she asked him what his current mission statement was, he didn’t have one. She told him, “Well, whatever you come up with will be 100 % more accurate than the one you have right now.” A good mission statement will be inspiring, exciting, clear, and engaging. It will be specific to our congregation and our particular enthusiasms, gifts, and talents. [2]

Let’s go back to the thick-headed disciples, who just did not get what Jesus was trying to get across to them. As Luke mentions, “15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them.” Can you imagine a follower of Jesus kicking someone out of the youth group? Or telling someone they are not welcome in a bible study or a men’s breakfast? Or, at service on Sunday morning? Can you imagine someone at our church doing something like that?

This is one big reason why integrity, faith and welcome were so important to our mission statement. We considered integrity, faith and welcome to be St. Luke’s Church’s CORE, or the most fundamental value or purpose for St. Luke’s Church.

Which brings us to puzzle piece number three. Who is important to us, as a family of faith? Which group or cause excites us? Who do we want to come alongside? We in the bible study chose three groups that we most want to reach, or feel the most empathy for. We can impact these in a positive, meaningful way: children, families and individuals.

What was our Lord Jesus’s response to the disciples? “Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Jesus valued children and young people. Society as a whole did not think very much of children at all. Certainly not in His time, and not so much in ours, either. Worldwide, the position of children and young people is not high—especially of pre-teen and teenage girls, and women, too.

It is imperative that St. Luke’s Church reaches out with the Love of God to children, families and women, too.

How can we reach out in love, to those inside the church, and out?  Reach out with God’s Love, that overarching, undergirding base, the end-all and be-all to everything? We can reach out through loving words and actions, good works, food pantries and other service projects.

Jesus had a compassionate, one-sentence mission statement, which He states in Luke 19:10. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” That is what He gave His entire life to. St. Luke’s Church’s compassionate mission statement is: to ENCOURAGE, NURTURE and COMMUNICATE in INTEGRITY, FAITH and WELCOME to children, families and individuals through loving words/actions, good works, food pantries and other service projects.

Are we serious about our mission? God willing, we shall be. Now, go and do likewise. Encourage, nurture and communicate God’s love in integrity, faith and welcome. To everyone we meet.

 

[1] The Path, Laurie Beth Jones, (New York, NY: Hachette Books), 49.

[2] The Path, Laurie Beth Jones, (New York, NY: Hachette Books), 64.

@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!)

Faith, Birth from Above

John 3:1-17 – March 12, 2017

Jesus and Nicodemus, JesusMAFA

“Faith, Birth from Above”

Got faith? Really, do you have faith in anything? Perhaps, faith in electricity, to keep the lights and appliances working in our houses. What about faith in our doctors, or in the medical profession in general? Some people would say “yes” and others “not so much.” How about faith in the Chicago sports teams? That kind of faith is getting more and more difficult to keep up.

What about in our Scripture readings today? We have already heard about Abraham, and how he had faith in his God. In each reading, we have a person in our list of faith recipients. A person who tried to have faith and trust in someone or something outside of themselves.

Let’s take a closer look at Abraham’s situation. Reading from Genesis 12: “Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Everything the Lord was saying sounded strange and unfamiliar. God did not even name the country where Abram was supposed to go.

Turning to John 3, Eileen and I acted out the encounter Nicodemus had with the Rabbi Jesus; let’s remind ourselves of that situation. “Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Nicodemus was trying to have faith in someone or something, but faltering. That sounds a lot like us. Don’t we hesitate and falter sometimes, when trying to have faith?

“Jesus answered Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

This is a real puzzle for Nicodemus.  Added to that, Nicodemus had heard Jesus a number of times, thought He was right about a lot of things, but still was cautious.  Put yourself in Nicodemus’s situation. How would you like to be a big-shot teacher of Israel, well known not only among the common people, but also with his colleagues among the Pharisees? He brought his questions to Jesus at night when no one would see him and maybe make fun of him. [1]

Perhaps we are in a similar position, too, where some of us here are cautious or hesitant about finding out more about Jesus. For sure we are in the same boat as Abram: we don’t know quite where we are going, or where this new land really is.

This whole trusting-Jesus-business requires some faith.

Another way of looking at this is that we need to find a new perspective, too, like the Apostle Paul said about Abram in Romans, our New Testament reading today.

Leaving everything familiar to begin a new life? Going to an unknown land, you don’t even know where it is, or how far away? Look, Abram is not coming back. This is certainly no there-and-back-again journey. This is no pilgrimage, either.

I was fascinated to learn some things from one of the commentators. “On a pilgrimage, one sets out to a new place or a holy place to learn something and return where one came from with some new insight for living back home. Abram’s is to be a permanent relocation, something far more like the experience of the millions since Abram who have immigrated to other countries, including the vast majority of the population of the current United States or at least their ancestors.” [2]

I know some of you here are familiar with computers. You might even know how to “reset” or “restart” your computer with a CTRL-ALT-DEL move on a Microsoft Windows®-based computer. Maybe that was what Nicodemus really wanted to do. (It does get frustrating, being uncertain and unsure, not knowing where on earth we are going!) Let’s look at the situation from Jesus’s point of view. Jesus wanted to bring Nicodemus into a whole new world. He started talking about a new birth, or birth from above.

A sermon website I go to from time to time had a superb illustration. (I’m sorry, but I don’t know the name of the anonymous pastor.) “When I was a country pastor trying to get directions to a farm that I had never been to before, if the directions were complicated, the directions sometimes began with “you can’t get there from here.” It was their way of saying that starting from a different place would make the trip easier. Sometimes the best spiritual advice is like that — in order to get to life in the kingdom/reign of God, we have to start from a new place, a reborn place in our lives; and that we can’t get there (to the kingdom) from here (our life of sin apart from God). Nicodemus has trouble thinking that you can start from a new place, that you can’t take along all the history and baggage of the past — “how can these things be?” (vs. 9)” [3]

In computer terms, it is almost as if Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has to “reboot” — that he can’t run his program any more because there are too many error messages flashing in his life. We need, and God is ready to supply, an entirely different operating system.

Too true! Jesus offered the cautious Nicodemus more than a new perspective. It’s a new birth, and whole new world. And, how is he able to reach it? By faith, that’s how.

When God called Abraham, Abraham left everything he knew to move to a place that had not been named.  That is brave and bold.  That takes faith.

All that faith business is centuries in the past. Nicodemus lived when Jesus lived, and Abram lived a lot of centuries before that. What does all that have to do with today? With modern life, and with us here at St. Luke’s Church? Don’t we hesitate and falter sometimes, when trying to have faith? Today, Jesus would tell us the exact same thing.

Some people treat our relationship with God as something we earn by what we do, by “being good” or at least “not being bad” on the basis of some checklist of good or bad behavior. Have we reduced a life of discipleship to Jesus to morality and status instead of actual faithfulness to trust Him and follow where he leads every day? [4]

When we gather together our courage and go to see Jesus under the cover of darkness—like Nicodemus—He welcomes us. He enters into a relationship with us. We are in the same boat as Abram: we don’t know quite where we are going, or where this new land really is.

What about when we get to the end of that lifelong journey, and cross the River Jordan? There will be a welcoming party when we arrive in the Promised Land, for sure!

My original question at the beginning of the sermon: got faith? This whole trusting-Jesus-business requires some faith. The best part is that Jesus will help us. He understands our difficulties. He is patient, and will walk with us as we journey towards that new land. He’ll be right by our side in the valley of the shadow. Step by step, we strive to have faith in God.

What a Savior. What a Friend we have in Jesus. Amen.

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/02/year-second-sunday-in-lent-march-16-2014.html 

[2] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/second-sunday-in-lent4#bow

[3] http://desperatepreacher.com//bodyii.htmhttp://javacasa.com/resources/dps_form_results/jon3_1.htm

[4] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/second-sunday-in-lent4#bow

@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!)

(Thanks so much to the good folks at UMC Discipleship.org! I am following their Lenten series. Their online Lenten sermon notes and worship helps are invaluable.)