God’s Constant Love and Goodness

“God’s Constant Love and Goodness”

Psalm 25:4-10 (25:7) – February 24, 2021 (Midweek Lenten Service, Week 1)

            I fondly remember a dear older pastor who died several years ago. Pastor Lou often used to spread his arms wide and say at the beginning of worship, “God is good, all the time!” And the congregation in his church would respond, “All the time, God is good!”

            Sometimes, the goodness of God can be difficult to experience. Isn’t that the truth? Sometimes, with all the falls and missteps, the sins and shortcomings that people commit, the goodness and faithfulness of God can be so distant. It even seems like that goodness and faithfulness is never to be reached, never to be felt, disappearing like smoke.

            Do you sometimes feel the lack of relationship in your life, just disappearing like smoke, too? Many of us feel lonely, closed in, even isolated. The missteps, sins and shortcomings can amplify those feelings, and cause further separation from God.  

            As we read this psalm over again, we can see the view “of the landscape of the soul that experiences pain and difficulty, even at times a sense of abandonment, yet which longs wholeheartedly for God. Waiting for God to draw near, for God to be felt and discovered is in the cry of the faithful who wish only to be remembered by God.” [1]

            Feeling especially lonely and isolated yet? I think that abandonment is what our psalm writer is reaching for here. Yet – all is not lost! This psalm is a deeply personal psalm about relationship – the relationship between the psalm writer and God. Even though our writer does talk about the sins and errors of his youth (and some of us are guilty of sins and errors when we get older, too), hope is certainly not lost!

            Yet, there is a bedrock of truth in what my friend Pastor Lou said: “God is good, all the time! All the time, God is good!” We can see that repeated several times in this psalm. Our writer repeats the fabulous Hebrew word chesed, here translated steadfast or constant love. It has an even richer and fuller meaning than that, but that translation is a huge concept on its own!

“Remember, O Lord, your kindness and constant love which you have shown from long ago. Forgive the sins and errors of my youth. In your constant love and goodness, remember me, Lord!” This wonderful petition, “Remember me!” is coupled with the Lord remembering all the kindness and constant/steadfast love which has been abundantly shown, already!

The request is for relationship. And, we know God is in relationship with us, already! It does not matter that we do sin, for we know a forgiving, merciful God. The capper is the constant, steadfast love extended not once in a while, not sometimes, but all the time. For – that is exactly what “constant and steadfast” mean.

             Dr. Nancy Koestr has a superb illustration of this idea: “My dog has the right idea. She takes the leash in her mouth when I take her for a walk, so that she can lead me. It is an endearing gesture and always makes me laugh. If this give and take happens between animals and humans, surely it happens between us and God. And as we live in that relationship, we wait, and receive, and lift our souls.” [2]

            Praise God, we are offered a deep relationship with God. We are loved by God! And, this is a good God. Not sometimes, not most of the time, but all the time. I can indeed say with Pastor Lou, God is good, all the time! And, all the time, God is good. Amen, amen.


[1] https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/73719/21-February-1-of-Lent.pdf

Thanks to Rev. Marjorie McPherson, Edinburgh Presbytery Clerk, for her thoughts about the 1st week of Lent.

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26/commentary-on-psalm-251-9-4

Commentary, Psalm 25:1-9, Nancy Koestr, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

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

God Gives Us Good Things

“God Gives Us Good Things!”

Deut 26-1-11 words

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 (26:11) – November 24, 2019

This season we are in right now I call the thankful time of the year. We give thanks for the harvest just brought in to the barns across the country. We give thanks for fruits and vegetables harvested from our back gardens in cities and suburbs. And, we give thanks for God’s wonderful bounty of gifts poured out upon us all, regularly.

Our Scripture reading from the book of Deuteronomy lists a thanksgiving for the harvest for the Jewish people. It’s not only a thank-you to God, but chapter 26 lists a required offering of first fruits all Jews ought to bring to God. The first fruits—or harvest—of the season we bring to God, as an expression of gratitude and thankfulness.

What is more appropriate for our reading today than this Scripture reading, especially at this thankful, grateful time of the year?

Deuteronomy 26 begins with these words: “When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name.”

Talk about making an actual, physical offering of the first fruits you have gathered from your farm, or orchard, or dairy, or hen house. Whatever we have the opportunity to gather from our harvest, that is what we are to present to the Lord

Yes, showing our gratitude and thankfulness to our God is truly important. But—does this Scripture passage say more than just a duty-bound thank-you operation? Our biblical commentator certainly thinks so. “God gave the unexpected and free gift of a new life to a group of stateless persons, making of them a people with a special relationship to him and giving them a ‘land of milk and honey’ to live in.” [1]

I can understand how this presentation of first fruits was so important for the Jewish people—finally with a land of their own after centuries of having no place to call their own. Wandering and landless. Just as Moses gave one of the biblical patriarchs as an example: this reading even mentions a “wandering Aramean.”

Moreover, the manner in which the Jews are to say “thank you” to God for material and spiritual gifts is important. That is what I hear when I listen to this chapter read: it has not only the instructions for presenting the first fruits of our harvest to God, but also the underlying reason why, in the first place.

“The members of the nation are invited to respond to this divine initiative by showing their gratefulness, and to do so by returning to God part of what God has given them. But how can we give a present to the invisible God? Here is where the institution of organized worship comes in, to enable human beings to make a symbolic offering to God and in this way to express their relationship to him.” [2]

So, we are not only to give God thanks individually, but we are instructed to do so in organized worship services. This is a way to gather together and to jointly—as a worshiping body—lift our voices to the Lord in gratitude and thanksgiving.

This is not just for adults. Families can give thanks. We ought to look for opportunities to get our children and grandchildren involved, too. An excellent bible commentator I often reference, Carolyn Brown, mentions how we might possibly get our children involved in the giving of thanks. “Involving children in community services is a good way to draw a crowd and to introduce children to their community’s religious base.”  She also suggests that we “provide paper and crayons or markers for children (and older worshipers) to write poems or draw pictures of where they see God all around them.” [3] These are imaginative and creative ways to celebrate God and give God our thanks.

There are many ways we can celebrate at a joint Thanksgiving service to God. One way is to sing hymns of thanksgiving and celebration and thank God for the wonderful harvest, as we are in this service today.

Can we think of a better way to have everyone in our community gather together to give thanks for all the blessings we enjoy? Just like on this coming Wednesday, when our wider Morton Grove community will gather here in this place to give thanks.

I know that several people here in this service have attended many of the past community Thanksgiving Eve services. I would like to remind everyone that the giving of thanks is a universal expression of gratitude. We have a tremendous opportunity for everyone to gather together and give thanks, despite our variety of backgrounds and despite our religious differences.

Just as we collect an offering at the close of each service on Sunday mornings, so we will gather an offering on Wednesday night. Not only are we making a symbolic gesture of our worship through the gathering of people from diverse faith traditions and various world cultures, but we all can lift thanksgiving and gratitude together as a community, no matter when each of us separately and regularly praise and worship God.

Is there a better and more praiseworthy way for us today to give thanks to God? What is more, is there a better way for us to show God how much we care for and love God? The Jewish people have gathered for millenia, in regular praise and worship of God, and especially in thanksgiving for all God has done for them in the past.

Deuteronomy 26 tells us that each individual citizen was told to rejoice with the priests (or, in this case, Levites) and foreigners. God wishes everyone to come before the Holy One with thanksgiving, including foreigners. Just saying, but God repeated informs Israel that they are to treat the foreigners who live with them exactly the same as any citizen of Israel. God makes no distinction, and tells the people of Israel those exact words.

How wonderful to have that continuity across the ages. From the Jews, wandering in the wilderness, through the time of the Temple and what formal worship happened there, up through the times of the foundation of the Church and more recent centuries—we have always had occasion to gather together to give praise and thanks to our God.

Everything, even life itself is a gift from God above, enabling us to give thanks to God in all things. Isn’t this what the apostle Paul told us in his letter to the Philippians?  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

[1] http://www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2014-10-01

“Giving back to God what God has given us,” Commented Bible Passages from Taizé, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3][3] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/09/year-c-thanksgiving-day-october-14-2013.html

Worshiping with Children, Thanksgiving Day, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2013.

@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!

Suit Yourselves!

“Suit Yourselves!”

2 Tim 4-3 itching ears

2 Timothy 4:1-5 – October 20, 2019

Have you seen the comics lately? I’m sure everyone here is familiar with the comics section of the newspapers—the daily comics in black and white, and the Sunday comics in full color—even if you don’t read them regularly. Can you picture this scene from the comics? A single panel, showing two business men by an office water cooler. One looks like a boss, and he says to the other, “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a yes-man. Isn’t that right, Baxter?”

We chuckle, because we all are familiar with that kind of attitude. I’m sure we can recognize that tendency in other forms. Getting some yes-man to tell us what we want to hear . . . not what’s good for us to hear, not what we need to hear, but instead what we want to hear.

With all the worry and anxiety, trouble and danger in this modern world, people are actively searching for good news. Many are searching in all the wrong places. Commercialism and consumerism are rampant, with many people accumulating more and more stuff and always needing to get something else, something more, something new.

Sometimes, some people search for thrills, for that adrenaline rush, for some kind of excitement in life. It doesn’t matter if thrills come from drag racing, gambling, or risky behavior, like a wild bender at the local bar. Oftentimes, these people are trying to fill a hole deep inside.

Other people turn inward, searching for spiritual fulfilment. There are many ways of experiencing some kind of spirituality, like through the martial arts, or through meditative practices. Fung shui, the Chinese method of arranging furniture is an attempt to try to find balance and proper order in this life. Sure, doing an inside job, concentrating on the inside of ourselves is a great place to start, but . . . searching for inward, spiritual fulfillment on our own just won’t work. Anyway, not without God.

We have the assurance, from our scripture passage today, that Timothy had the opportunity to know God. Timothy was instructed, from the time he was very young, in the way of salvation through Jesus Christ. His mother and grandmother were both women of faith, and Timothy grew up in a believing household, a household that put God first.

As we read further in our passage today, we find there are people who will not put up with sound doctrine. They will not even want to listen to the truth! Even when the truth is as clear as day, and presented to them in a straight-forward manner, still, some will turn away.

You probably are all familiar with that modern phenomenon—tele-evangelists, some of whom are worthy people of God. However, there are those who are frauds. Charlatans. Fakes. Preachers not of sound doctrine or biblical teaching, but instead telling their listeners exactly what they—the listenerswant to hear.

Are you familiar with the health, wealth and happiness gospel, which focuses on only a few isolated passages from scripture? This false gospel tell the listeners that God wants us all to be healthy, wealthy and happy! All the time! And even shows us the example of Job—why, didn’t God give back to Job everything that was taken away? But . . . we must have faith! And if anything is wrong in our lives, or if our house burns down, or if we get sick, or if someone we love loses a job, or if our child gets in trouble, or . . . or . . . or . . . you get the picture. Well, we just didn’t have enough faith. Oh, and we didn’t send enough money to the tele-evangelist. So, God apparently must be withholding His blessing because of our lack of faith and our stinginess.

Not so!! This is a perverse, yet skillful, twisting of the truth! I bet you can see parts of the true Gospel here in what I’ve just described, but the rest is so skillfully bent and twisted, It sounds so similar to the Good News of God we have come to know and to understand and to love. Like, and yet unlike. The true Gospel tells us that God does indeed want to bless us abundantly! And, it is an inside job! God wants to change us, to help us change ourselves, to make us new creations from the inside out, through faith in Jesus Christ.

But, what about unsuspecting folks, who get turned away from the truth in God’s Word? What did our scripture passage today say about this sort of people? It mentions that they have “itching ears.” This is a Greek phrase that can be translated several ways—another way is “having their ears tickled.” In other words, having the preacher tell you exactly what you want to hear! These people with the itching ears, who wanted nice, warm, soft, fuzzy things said to them, nonthreatening, reassuring things preached to them from the pulpit, these people turned their backs on the truth of God’s Word and of sound doctrine.

These people with the itching ears had an agenda—and that was to hear only what they wanted to hear, at all times. None of the challenging words, none of the admonishing words, none of the emotional words of Scripture. This is another form of idolatry: putting themselves first, putting God aside as an afterthought. You know the attitude—me, me, me! I’m the most important person around here! Everything needs to go my way! Nobody else counts!

As I was thinking about this text over the past days, it came to me—what would Calvin say? John Calvin was one of the foremost theologians in the Reformed tradition, the tradition we in the UCC adhere to. What would Calvin say about these false teachers, preaching a “health, wealth and happiness” gospel, or any other sort of false gospel, for that matter?

How would he deal with these false teachers, leading people astray? Checking the Institutes, I find that Calvin spoke strong words against these false teachers, saying that they, in fact, pose the greatest danger to the church. They lead people away from true scripture and sound doctrine, and are responsible for bringing in destructive heresies. [1]

But . . . that’s not what we learned. That’s not what Timothy learned. We have the “sacred writings that are able to instruct us for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” We have the opportunity to come into a relationship with Jesus Christ. How wonderful, how awesome, and how sobering that Jesus entrusted us with the message of His Good News.

Now what? The different New Testament letters do indeed tell us definite things about doctrine, about theology . . . but then . . . what do we do with all of this information? How do we put it into practice? How do we live the Christian life? Now what, in other words?

I consider the commands in this passage to be good advice to anyone wanting to follow Christ more nearly. We are to proclaim the message. Communicate the Good News!

This command may give some people pause. How can I preach the Good News? Am I supposed to go to some cable television station and get on the air as yet another tele-evangelist? Or how about standing out on a street corner, preaching with a megaphone? Both of these are valid ways of preaching God’s Good News, but I don’t think most of us here in this church could ever see ourselves doing either of these things. But there are other ways to proclaim the message.

Preach the Good News. Another way of thinking about it is . . . telling what God has done in your life. What has God done for you? How has God made a difference in your life? How has God made a difference in mine? What new things have you and I learned from the Lord lately? What an opportunity to share these things with others, with our friends, with those who might not know God in a personal way.

Do we need advanced degrees in divinity or theology to do this? To share what God has done for us? No! Oftentimes, we are excited to tell people about other things, like who won the latest ball game, or about the neighbor next door spraining her ankle, or what exciting story we just heard on the news. Why can’t I tell people about Jesus, and what He’s done for me? Why can’t you?     I can tell about God’s faithfulness in my busy, hectic life. I can praise God for helping me to walk the Christian walk, one day at a time.

Thank God we have been given this Good News! What a opportunity! What a thing to celebrate! Praise God, we have been granted salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. That’s truly something to celebrate. That’s truly Good News to share.             Alleluia, Amen.

[1] Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, edited by John T. McNeill (Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1960), IV.9.4.

@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!

Who Are You, Lord?

“Who Are You, Lord?”

Acts 9 conversionofsaintpaul - ethiopian icon

Acts 9:1-20 – May 5, 2019

Once there was a recent college graduate named Martin. He had enrolled in a doctoral degree program at the University of Erfurt, but he went home for a few days before the class session started. On his way back, not far from the town of Erfurt, a huge thunderstorm broke over the countryside. Martin was trying his best to get to shelter when a sudden lightning bolt fell to earth. BOOM! It struck the ground immediately next to Martin—so close he could feel it singe his clothing! He was thrown to the earth with great force. Frightened almost to death—literally—Martin made the immediate, passionate vow that he would change course in his life, become a monk and devote his life to God. All this happened while Martin was traveling, on the road. A true “Road to Damascus” experience.

Has anyone here ever known someone who went through a radical transformation in an instant? Or, at least, in a relatively short time? That is what happened to Saul of Tarsus, on the road to Damascus.

But, that comes after the end of our narrative, today. What is the beginning of the story? How did Saul of Tarsus get to this point?

The wonderful commentator Bob Deffinbaugh sets a vivid scene for us. He says, “Imagine for a moment that this is the week of Saul’s arrival at Damascus. By this time Saul has gained a reputation as the ringleader of the movement to make Christianity extinct. A devout Hellenistic Jew, of the tribe of Benjamin, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, Saul did not agree with his teacher, Rabbi Gamaliel, on how the Christians should be dealt with. Rather, he sought the arrest, trial, conviction, and punishment (with imprisonment the norm and death the ideal, it would seem) of those in Jerusalem. Saul was not content to punish some and to drive the rest from the “holy city.” He did not want to merely contain Christianity or to drive it from Jerusalem; he wanted to rid the earth of Christianity and its followers. His opposition to Christ and His church took on a ‘missionary’ spirit. Saul went to other cities where he sought to arrest Christians and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. Damascus, a city 150 miles to the northeast of Jerusalem, was one such city. Word was out that Saul would soon be arriving.” [1]

I don’t know about you, but if I heard of such a bloodthirsty, vengeful person coming to my home town, I might be scared to death, too. What are the followers of Jesus going to do? Ethnic hatred blended with and heightened by religious hatred is corrosive and hurtful, and greatly to be feared.

This was not just a problem in bible times. Seriously, there are many places in the world today where determined, devout people want to eradicate people who do not believe like they do. Not just run them out of town, or out of the country, but instead, put them to death. I am not just speaking about devout Hindus, or devout Muslims, but sometimes devout Jews, or devout Christians or Catholics or Orthodox Christians.

This was the situation with Saul of Tarsus! He was a religious, observant Jew, an up-and-coming rabbi, a “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” by his own account. And, he could not kill these “heretics” fast enough. He even had letters of recommendation to the heads of synagogues in Damascus, to let them know his official status as a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council.

This was early in the life of the Church, only a number of months after the great Pentecost happening in Acts chapter 2. And, the followers of “The Way” (as they were called) were spreading like wildfire!

But, similar to the situation with Martin in the scene I opened this sermon with, Saul was literally knocked off his feet. A heavenly light, brighter than bright, surrounded Saul. A shocking, out-of-this-world thing happened on the road to Damascus, indeed!

Just like Moses at the burning bush, just like Martin when the lightning struck, Saul had the presence of mind to realize that this was so huge, so stupendous, this could only be a God-moment! Have you ever had a God-moment? You, or someone you know? An instant when you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is present? Did you get an answer to that question, “Who are You, Lord?” up close and personal?

I did. I remember it vividly. Itp was early in my first chaplain internship, right out of seminary. In Cardiac Care, I held the hand of a tiny, very elderly woman as she transitioned from this world to the next. The woman had no one—no relatives, or friends, or any one else, except for a state-appointed medical power-of-attorney. I could feel the presence of God. And, yes, God was there with us, as she died.

Saul got that answer from God in plain language. From our reading today from Acts: “Saul fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” He replied.

How stupendous was that response! And, how crushing! All the orthodox theological and religious scaffolding Saul had painstakingly erected throughout his education and training was tumbling around his ears, in that one moment.

Dr. Luke continues with the risen Lord Jesus’s words: “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So, they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days Saul was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.”

“It was time for Saul to ponder what he had seen and heard. For now, he was told to proceed on to Damascus, where he would be given his next instructions.” [2] It was as if this revelation was going to come in several different pieces, or parts. Yes, his sudden conversion happened on the road to Damascus. However, Saul’s blindness allowed him the opportunity to think deeply about these events, and gave him the opportunity to wholeheartedly commit his life to the risen Lord Jesus Christ. How many of us would take something like this seriously?

Remember bloodthirsty Saul? Breathing fire and brimstone? Remember the shock and stunned reaction to the heavenly light, on the Road to Damascus? And, the follow-up question, “Who are You Lord?” Saul made a first-person testimony. We all can thank God for Saul’s—now, Paul’s—testimony and subsequent witness, too. Witness and Apostle to the world.

Remember Martin, almost struck by lightning? That was Martin Luther, and that was a true story. It really happened in 1505, and Martin’s life was forever changed, that day lightning just missed striking him. That was his Road to Damascus experience, sending Martin on the path to grapple with God’s presence and forgiveness in his personal life, and more.

It doesn’t matter whether you or I have had a Road to Damascus experience, or whether we more gradually become aware of God’s work in our lives, because there are countless ways to come close to God. These were the ways Saul (who changed his name to Paul) and Father Martin developed their relationships with the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus has His arms open. He wants us all to struggle out of blindness, like Saul, and come into His heavenly light, the light of a loving relationship and friendship with Him.

Come to Jesus, like Saul, like Martin. Jesus has His arms open wide.

Amen, alleluia.

[1] https://bible.org/seriespage/conversion-saul-acts-91-31

“The Conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1-31),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/conversion-saul-acts-91-31

“The Conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1-31),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

@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!

Jesus is Back! Just Ask Thomas.

“Jesus is Back! Just Ask Thomas.”

John 20-28 st-thomas

John 20:19-29 – April 28, 2019

Who remembers reading storybooks to their children or grandchildren? I do! I love to read stories, and I read books to the preschoolers here every Tuesday morning. One of my favorite stories is about Curious George. Curious George is a monkey who is very curious and mischievous, and always gets into big trouble because of his curiosity. But, by the end of the books, everything always comes out all right. Except—George remains curious.

Traditionally, many people have thought of “doubting Thomas” as really negative, a person we might point our fingers at, and perhaps view as “the Disciple least likely to believe in Jesus.” But what if we viewed Thomas as curious, as the kind of person who needed evidence? Sincere questioning is positive. Being curious is positive. Some people need first-hand evidence. Curious Thomas was just such a person.

What would the monkey Curious George have thought of not being there for something exciting, a super exciting event he missed out on? That was what happened to Curious Thomas. For some reason—we are not told why—Thomas was not with the other Disciples when the risen Lord Jesus came to be with them on that first day of the week. Afterwards, I suspect when the others told Thomas about it, Curious Thomas was beside himself with curiosity! He had to see for himself what had happened!

Do you know someone who is like that, who really needs evidence to fully believe? How many of us need evidence before we stop being skeptical? “Well, I’m not sure. It seems like a real long shot. I wonder—but we will have to see.” Curious, yes! And skeptical, yes!

We know God welcomes questions! How many times was Jesus asked honest questions during the Gospels? And how many times was Thomas one of those asking the questions? I suspect Thomas was one of the Disciples who just had to know “why,” who was both skeptical and curious. Curious Thomas.

Dr. David Lose, one of my favorite commentators, put it this way: “But that’s not the way it works with Thomas. He doubts. He questions. He disbelieves. He’s not satisfied with second-hand reports and wants to see for himself. And again I would say, who can blame him? He was, after all, one of those who saw his Lord and friend mistreated, beaten, and then crucified and has probably spent the last few days pulling the broken pieces of his life back together and trying to figure out what to do next.” [1]

Listen again to our Gospel reading from John: “24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

In this modern day and age, scientific evidence is held up as the gold standard for many things: for medical testing, for chemistry experiments, for biological research. Commentator Dr. Martin Marty says, “The counsel is clear: do not accept something just because people traditionally have done so. Science is creatively disrespectful of such traditions. Scientists reason that if they are to heal, they must probe, criticize, evaluate, and seek to discover.” [2]

Sometimes, our honest questions show we are particularly curious, and extremely interested in what we are questioning. Sometimes, we need evidence, just like Thomas.

Except—Jesus does something remarkable the next time He returns to the Upper Room. He obviously knows that Thomas has honest questions, and He will certainly respond to them! However, listen to what Jesus does first: “26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

Did you hear? Before Jesus does anything else, He wishes His disciples peace. “Peace be with you.” That is what we did after the reading of Scripture today. Many churches make the Passing of the Peace a weekly part of their worship service, and I wanted to highlight it. Peace, or shalom, is a traditional Jewish greeting, it is true, but for Jesus to wish His friends peace? For the risen Lord Jesus to bless His disciples with peace, and commend peace to them? This is so significant, and so moving.

It is only then that our Lord Jesus turns to curious, skeptical Thomas: “Then Jesus focused his attention on Thomas. “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving. Believe.”

The Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio created a famous painting called “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.” In this painting, the risen Jesus shows the wound in His side, and Thomas is actually sticking his finger into the wound. We know from John’s Gospel account that Jesus was quite willing to go to any length to give Thomas the evidence he needed to satisfy his questions, to allay his curiosity and skepticism.

How far are we willing to go with Jesus? Do we have honest questions? Do we have questions regarding some miracle, or are we curious about a parable Jesus told? Or, perhaps are we just plain skeptical about the Resurrection story itself? Do we wonder how on earth the story of Jesus rising from the dead 2000 years ago will make any difference in our lives today?

What is it to be a Christian? Do we need faith? Do we need evidence? Do we need to see God at work in people’s lives?

How serious are we about this thing we call Christianity? Is it a religion, a creed, a set of beliefs we believe in, and if other people don’t believe exactly the way we do, are they wrong? Do we banish them to outer darkness, and not allow those people to come into our churches or our lives? Or, do we have a living, vital relationship with the risen Lord Jesus Christ? Is He our Best Friend? Does He come alongside of each one of us, in the happy times as well as the sad times, and walk by our sides all the way? No matter what?

Thomas made the first-person testimony after he was convinced that Jesus was alive. He said, “My Lord and my God!” Can you and I say that, and mean it?

Jesus is waiting. He has His arms open wide. Come with your honest questions: God can handle them. Come with your skepticism and fear, your anger, or hesitancy and doubt. Jesus does understand. He really does.

Come to Jesus, today. Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2016/03/easter-2-c-blessed-doubt/

“Blessed Doubt,” David Lose, …in the meantime, 2016.

[2] Marty, Martin E., Theological Perspective on John 20:19-31, 2nd Sunday of Easter, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 396.

@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!

When Adam Was Afraid

“When Adam Was Afraid”

Genesis 3:8-10 (3:10) – June 3, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

do-not-be-afraid

How often have we seen children, after they have misbehaved? Oftentimes, they know very well they have done something wrong. Their little lips may tremble, sorrowful eyes fill with tears. They may duck their heads because they fear being punished, and not meet the adult’s appraising look. Or even, run and hide so the person in charge needs to go find them.

These traits can occasionally be true for not-so-little people, too. Can you remember people you knew who acted like this, at work, or school, or among the circles of friends you know? The feeling of embarrassment and guilt, even of wrongdoing, can be very strong.

We look today at Genesis chapter 3, and at the very first instance of being afraid recorded in the Bible. But before we take a closer look at the book of Genesis, I’ll give you a preview of our summer sermon series. We will focus on a phrase that appears dozens of times in the Bible, both in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament. “Be Not Afraid!”

Fear and anxiety—and their companion, worry—haunt many people, on a regular basis. God keeps reminding us in the Scriptures to be not afraid! We can find this command many times throughout the Bible books, in many different situations.

As I said in this month’s newsletter article, I attended both undergraduate classwork at Moody Bible Institute as well as seminary study at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. I learned in my bible study and interpretation classes that if anything is mentioned with frequency in the Scriptures, it is really important. “Be Not Afraid” certainly is one of those statements.

But, what is the first time fear is mentioned in the Bible? For that, we need to look at Genesis 3, the account of the time sin entered the world. This narrative is about permission, prohibition, temptation, and most of all, about relationship. Free, loving relationship between God and humans.

To recap, in the beginning, God created humans. We look at two representative humans, Adam and Eve, who figure prominently in Genesis 3. The crafty serpent asks Eve a leading question about God and what God has forbidden them access to. The serpent puts doubt in her mind, and tells Eve that this forbidden fruit will cause her to become wise, like God. She sees the attractive fruit on the only tree God has forbidden, plucks it and eats it. She then gives some to Adam, and he eats some, too.

I could tell you lots more about the serpent, and how crafty and manipulative it was. I could mention about thoughtful Eve, and how she drew her own conclusions from what the serpent presented to her. I might add that she saw the tree as good for food and pleasant to the eyes. Moreover, when she brought some of the forbidden fruit to her husband, he “puts up no resistance, raises no questions, and considers no theological issues….The woman does not act as a temptress in this scene; they both have succumbed to the same source of temptation.” [1]

To say this in a different way, God has given the man and woman considerable freedom and latitude in their lives in paradise. The serpent slithers in and plants doubt in Eve’s mind. She eats the fruit, her husband also eats, and they have both transgressed the only hard and fast rule that God has given them.

Adam and Eve’s eyes are opened, and they realize they both are naked. Guilt, shame, and embarrassment are all featured prominently here. What are they to do? They both sew coverings out of leaves to cover their nakedness. Cover up their shame and embarrassment. However, their human resources are just plain inadequate.

Except—their guilt and sin are now compounded. When God—in some kind of human-like form, so humans could see and relate to God—came into the garden later that day, fear strikes deep into the hearts of both Adam and Eve.

Fear! What must that have been like? To feel fear for the very first time?

All of us have had that experience. All of us have experienced fear for the very first time, and I suspect you cannot remember the situation, or exactly when it happened. It probably happened when you were very young. We are told this is the exact situation with Adam, here in Genesis chapter 3.

Why are Adam and Eve afraid? If you had disobeyed a dear parent or other beloved family member, how would you feel? If you—as a child or teen—had purposefully gone against something that was forbidden, what would be the result? Wouldn’t you be afraid? At least a little bit? Afraid of being punished?

Fear of punishment is very real, even in areas where physical or verbal punishment is frowned on. Let’s look at how punishment is defined. ”The purpose of punishment is to stop a child from doing what you don’t want—and using a painful or unpleasant method to stop him [or her].” [2] That certainly seems like what Adam and Eve might be expecting. It seems like they expect God to be full of anger, wrath, even vengeance.  

God does not act in the expected way. “The Creator of the universe and all creatures chooses not to relate to the world at a distance, but takes on human form, goes for a walk among the creatures, and personally engages them regarding recent events.” [3]

What is that? Did the commentator on the book of Genesis say that God was seeking out a relationship with Adam and Eve? Doesn’t God go out of God’s way to look for the humans? Such a striking and unusual response for God to make. Instead of punishment and retaliation, the Lord comes looking for humans with open arms, even though God knew very well what they had done, and what was necessary to set it right.

Fear causes us to hide, too, when we sin. Fear of disappointment, yes, but also fear of shame, and embarrassment, too. Plus, there is fear of punishment: punishment on a horizontal plane, from other people as well as a vertical plane, from God.

Each of us—every worshiper here today—sins. Every day. It doesn’t matter who we are, or how good we are trying to be. Each of us makes mistakes. It is like someone using a pencil; there are sometimes mistakes we would like to erase. We all have sins, or mistakes, or errors in our lives. And what’s more, we can admit them to God and receive forgiveness.

We can see the loving response right here in Genesis 3, when the Lord was walking in the evening, and how God called and called. God took the initiative. Who was it who sought out humans openly and in love and compassion? God. Simply God.

What do we think when we see the Creator of the universe coming toward us in love, compassion, and relationship? Is that Someone we can trust? Is that Someone we can ask forgiveness from? Is that Someone who cares deeply about us even though God may know every single fact about our sin and disobedience?

God wants a free and loving relationship with each of us, just like trusting children and a loving, caring parent. We celebrate that relationship today with communion, remembering what the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, did for us 2000 years ago. God wants to restore us to the peace, joy and love intended for us from the day of creation. Praise God! Alleluia, amen.

[1] Frentheim, Terence E., Book of Genesis, New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. 1 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999), 361.

[2] https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt_edu/350/350-111/350-111_pdf.pdf, accessed 5/31/18.

[3] Frentheim, Terence E., Book of Genesis, 362.

@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!)

Follow Jesus in Service

“Follow Jesus in Service”

John 12-26 serves, follow me

John 12:20-33 (12:26) – March 18, 2018

Following a leader can be a challenge. People follow all kinds of leaders, leaders in serious and not-so serious areas. People flock after leaders and trend-setters in fashion, certainly, purchasing the latest styles or shoes, or the newest fabrics and colors of the season. People follow charismatic leaders who convince their followers to diet or exercise or vote or meditate or do some other worthy cause.

But, what about here? What about now, in today’s Gospel reading from John? Our Lord Jesus says some pretty amazing things. Jesus wants us to follow Him with our actions. (Just as He said in weeks past. We are to follow Jesus.)

Let us take a step back. Where are we in the Gospel of John? The chapter before, chapter 11, concerns the raising of Lazarus in the town of Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem. Immediately after that comes the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. We know that well from our celebration next week, on Palm Sunday. This reading from John 12 comes right after that.

Remember, Jerusalem is jam-packed with observant Jews from all over the known world, coming to worship at this special time of Passover. Not only from all over Palestine, but from Egypt, parts of Asia, and Europe. Maybe even further away than that. Some Greek-speaking Jews who must have heard about this Rabbi Jesus want to see Jesus and talk with Him. Perhaps, they even would like to consider following Him.

This is exactly what Jesus has wanted from people all along. At the very beginning of His preaching and teaching ministry, Jesus said, “Follow Me!” At various times throughout His journey up and down the country, and as He turned His face toward Jerusalem, Jesus repeated His call to follow. “Follow Me!” And, during this final week, this Passion week, just days before He went to the Cross, Jesus again says “Follow Me!” But, follow, how? In what way?

John calls these people “Greeks,” but he is not specific. They could be Greek proselytes, or they could be Greek-speaking Jews from far away. Whichever it was, they were more comfortable speaking Greek, which was the international language of trade and commerce, and the dominant international culture of the time. As one of my commentators said, “These foreigners wanted to investigate the possibility of becoming disciples. They had heard about Jesus (i.e., His reputation or ‘glory’) and wanted to ‘see’ if they could follow Him.” [1]

When the disciples bring these Greeks to Jesus, He responds with what seems to be an analogy, only sort of connected to becoming disciples. Listen to Jesus’s words: “23 Jesus answered the disciples, “The hour has now come for the Son of Man to receive great glory. 24 I am telling you the truth: a grain of wheat remains no more than a single grain unless it is dropped into the ground and dies. If it does die, then it produces many grains. 25 Those who love their own life will lose it; those who hate their own life in this world will keep it for life eternal.”

Come on now, Jesus! How did Jesus get from becoming disciples to talking about grains of wheat? And then, wheat being planted and dying in the ground? Okay, I can see what Jesus meant about a single grain growing into one stalk of wheat which can produce many grains of wheat. But, does that really connect to becoming disciples?

My commentator Larry Broding is helpful here. “Those who gave their lives to others would die, but see others live and would enjoy eternal life. They would bear ‘much fruit.’ Notice those who gave up their lives unselfishly followed Jesus to his death.” [2] That is one way of seeing discipleship. Following Jesus, in a challenging, unselfish and giving way.

What a way to demonstrate becoming disciples of Jesus!

Sometimes you and I have a problem. Sometimes, we cannot accept what Jesus sets in front of us. Sometimes, we are unwilling to follow the guidelines and rules God places before us. On occasion, some of us are too stubborn to do what God wants us to do. Even though we might know what God wants, and how to follow, sometimes—we do not.

The Rev. Janet Hunt relates something that happened about a month ago at her Lutheran church in De Kalb. Let’s see whether this helps us to understand Jesus’s words better.

“A few weeks back [in February], 93-year-old Vivian suffered a brain bleed. The damage was great and irreparable and her family opted to bring her home on hospice care. For the next almost two weeks, her 94-year-old husband sat by her bed, held her hand, and prayed and prayed and prayed. He was utterly heartbroken. From the start, I knew that they were just shy of their 70th wedding anniversary. Over the course of the last few weeks, I learned that they had been together much longer than that. For Bob actually held Vivian’s hand as he walked her to kindergarten 88 years ago.

“As the vigil neared its end, Bob became ill as well and was taken to the hospital with a severe case of pneumonia. A day later, his family talked his doctor into letting him go home, for they knew he had to be there when she died. And so he was. A day later he was back in the hospital once more. And a day after that, with a full heart and clear eyes, he declined all invasive treatment. He told me he was tired. He told me he only wanted to go to Vivian. I will not ever forget standing with him and with his family, praying for their hope and trust in God. His eyes were open and comprehending the whole time. Moments later, his nurse turned down the oxygen. After saying good-bye to his children, a few hours later he died, three days after his wife had breathed her last.

“Yes, he was 94. And yes, his health had been poor for some time. And no, he could not imagine a life without his beloved Vivian. And so, in a world where our medical system is set up to sustain ‘life’ at all costs, Bob faced it down and chose something other, something more. I cannot help but believe that while he surely did it for himself, he also did it for her. For while there was nothing more he could do for her, nor nothing more he needed to do for her, Bob was imagining heaven as a place where he could still be and do for his beloved. Even as he had always done. And he was willing to die to be able to do just that.” [3]

Do you understand? Do you see? Jesus was willing to serve and to die, for each of us. He wants us to be ready to serve and to die, for each other.

That is where our reading from Jeremiah comes in. God doesn’t have the rule book on stone tablets any more, like the Ten Commandments that Moses brought down from the mountain top. No, the prophet Jeremiah tells us that the Lord will write God’s laws upon our hearts. We do not have to blindly follow rules, but instead enter into a relationship. A real, loving relationship with Someone who loves us more than anyone on earth possibly could. God writes guidelines of love, service and relationship inside each of us, on our hearts.

God loves us so much that God sent the man Jesus into this world, to communicate that wondrous love to humanity. Jesus is communicating that wondrous love and generous service to each of us, today.

Are you ready to follow Jesus? Let us follow Jesus in love, and follow Jesus in service. Who can you serve today?

[1] http://www.word-sunday.com/Files/b/5Lent-b/A-5Lent-b.html   “The Glory of the Cross,” Lent 5B, Larry Broding’s Word-Sunday.Com: A Catholic Resource for This Sunday’s Gospel.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/a-single-grain-dying-for-the-sake-of-life/ Rev. Janet Hunt, Dancing with the Word

@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!)

Don’t Doubt—Believe!

John 20:19-31 (20:27) – April 23, 2017

Jesus and Thomas John 20-24

“Don’t Doubt—Believe!”

Being skeptical can be a positive thing. Just think of ice in winter, covering a lake. Am I right in being skeptical that the ice is hard enough to hold me (and my weight)? And, think about engineers and scientists. They are often naturally, honestly skeptical and analytical; they hold things at arms’ length and consider all sides of a situation. That can be positive and helpful, in many situations. Even necessary, at times.

Consider Thomas. He missed the big event, the first time that the resurrected Lord Jesus came back to the rest of the disciples. Let’s look at this event from Thomas’s side. For some reason (we are not told the reason), Thomas missed the weekend gathering of the eleven disciples, plus some others who also were traveling with Jesus. Perhaps they were gathering for regular prayer, or for a worship service. Maybe to have a meal together. Maybe all of the above.

The gathering was secretive. Remember, the Roman and Jewish authorities were disgruntled and angry. The body of Jesus had disappeared completely, even though the tomb had been guarded by Roman soldiers. Therefore, the authorities were looking for a really high-profile body, and it was unbelievable to them that there was no trace of the Rabbi Jesus’s remains, anywhere. Of course the authorities would seek out this upstart Rabbi’s close companions, and keep them under surveillance, just in case any of them knew where the body was.

Whatever the reason, Thomas was not there the previous week. And, he—and the other disciples—had good reason to be jumpy, and cautious. Even, skeptical, as we will see.

Reading from our Gospel passage, “So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

This passage comes to us from the Gospel of John. Throughout John’s Gospel, this writer has an understanding of believing that is active. To John, believing in Jesus is not just an intellectual exercise. No! Belief to John is very much an action verb.

Believing in Jesus is having a relationship with Jesus. As Jesus Himself said earlier in the Gospel of John, “I abide in you and you abide in Me.”  So, for this Gospel writer to say that skeptical Thomas was having trouble believing is not quite the same thing as making light of Thomas for doubting. Thomas had just seen his Rabbi and leader die on the cross, be executed by an extreme and cruel form of suffering and agony. I suspect Thomas’s relationship with his Rabbi was pretty close to being extinguished. Sure, Thomas was skeptical.

Are there times when you or I are skeptical, too? I mean, times of sincere questioning of our faith? When we might think, with Elijah, that the heavens are all closed up, and nothing can penetrate, not even a desperate prayer? If we were honest with ourselves, I suspect in almost every person’s life there are difficult times, challenging times, times when we  come to the end of ourselves and have no more hope, no more tears, no more swear words to say.

Desperate times, indeed. Who can blame Thomas for being skeptical? As Father Rick mentioned on a sermon preparation site I follow, how crushed Thomas must have been. Perhaps, to keep his heart safe, he refuses to believe… it hurts too much to believe. [1] Can you hear pain, and fear, and maybe stubbornness in his response?

Here is a slightly different translation of Thomas’s dramatic statement: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and shove my finger into the mark of the nails, and shove my hand into his side, I absolutely will not believe” (20:25, translation by Jaime Clark-Soles). Here, we look at the verb from a slightly different angle. The Greek verb ‘believe’ is a forceful one (ballo), as is the emphatic negative (ou me). “I absolutely will not believe.” Not a simple, “I’ll believe it when I see it” —Thomas has a lot of conditions;” [2] conditions that he speaks out of a dark place of anger and grief and anxiety, and conditions that will only be met by the resurrected Jesus.

But, what happens next?

Now, this is not resolved right away. Thomas is left doubting—rather, being skeptical, for a week. Reading from our Gospel passage: “A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

What would that do to your faith? If your faith were wavering, and you were faint of heart, perhaps doubting, maybe even skeptical—what would we do if Jesus were to come among us today—right there—and say, “Peace be with you!” Would that cause people to believe in Jesus? Let’s find out.

“Then Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

If Jesus appeared among us and said those things to us, would that cause you and me to have the kind of belief that John is talking about here—where we start or cement a deep, true relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus, and believe in our hearts that God has raised Him from the dead? What did those words do for Thomas?

28 Thomas said to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

Did you hear? Thomas just made an earthshaking confession of faith as well as a crystal clear statement of belief.

(And, remember, we are using John’s definition of belief. A deep, true relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus!) Praise God, this is a confession that Jesus is our Lord, He is our God. As John tells us in the beginning of his Gospel, He is the Word made flesh, come into this world to make His dwelling among us. To abide in us as we abide in Him. All this Thomas confesses in this statement of faith. This confession is made all the more powerful because skeptical, discouraged, frightened Thomas has made it.

I ask all of us, again. What would we do if Jesus were to come among us today—right there—and say, “Peace be with you!” What would we do if Jesus showed us the nail scars and where the spear went into His side? Oh, no! some might say. Jesus would never do that. Not here, not now. Perhaps in bible times, but not today.

Here we have a clear invitation to the skeptics, to the doubters, to those who are not sure about their faith any longer. This Gospel reading is also for those who have been hurt by the church, and perhaps are not sure there is Anyone up there listening to them any longer. This passage is for you, too.

Praise God, Jesus has conquered death, and He will be with us when we walk through fiery trials and dark places in our lives. Using John’s definition of belief, we all can have a true, deep relationship with Jesus as our Lord and our God, just like Thomas.

Have you heard? Do you know that Jesus has risen from the dead? This is not only Good News, it’s the best news ever shared, in the history of ever. It is much more than just the dry words from the Apostles Creed, written on a page. Jesus holds out His hands, shows us His side. Christ is risen, indeed!

[1] http://desperatepreacher.com//bodyii.htm Posted by Rick+ in Reno, March 31, 2016.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3222  Jaime Clark-Soles

@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!)

Preach the Word!

“Preach the Word!”

2-tim-4-2-preach-the-word-water

2 Timothy 4:2 – October 16, 2016

For those who have had a mentor relationship—either as a mentor or a ment-ee—this kind of relationship can be so rewarding. This is the kind of relationship I had with Pastor Gordon, when we worked together years ago for almost a year at another UCC church. He was the mentor, I was the ment-ee. Paul and Timothy had this kind of relationship. Close, nurturing, and a blessing to both parties. In their case, this relationship was especially close. Paul even called Timothy “my true son in the faith.”

We get glimpses of the deep, nurturing relationship between Paul and Timothy in several of the New Testament letters. However, perhaps the deepest, most personal window into their relationship comes from this letter, the second letter to Timothy recorded in the New Testament.

Some backstory. Paul is in prison in Rome. This is nothing new for Paul. He had been imprisoned multiple times throughout his time as a follower of Jesus Christ. What is the most urgent thing on Paul’s mind? His direct command, his charge to his son in the faith: “Preach the Word! In season and out of season.” (In other words, all the time.)

Yes, Timothy was a pastor, and a preacher. We can take this command as something that Paul only meant for Timothy. Or, expand it a little further, and consider it a command for any pastor, for any preacher.

I would like to let everyone here know that I always—always—start with the Word of God. When I start preparing my sermons, I pray over the text. I ask God what the message is that God wants me to deliver to the congregation. I research the pertinent passage, and sometimes other, related passages from the Bible. Sometimes I take a closer look at the original languages, and at the nuances and the shades of meaning in the translations. Then, after all that, I write the sermon. And, I hope and pray I may faithfully proclaim God’s Word to the congregation. Always.

That is what I—personally—do as I bring the Word of God to you, each week. But, I believe Paul is talking to more than just his son in the faith. I believe Paul’s message can be taken to heart by all believers. Not only by me, or Pastor Gordon, or Pastor Kevin from Epiphany UCC, or Pastor Vertie Powers from the Chicago Metropolitan Association. But, Paul’s message is for all of us. Each of us, individually. At this church, and any every church.

As is so often the case with the Apostle Paul, he crammed a ton of ideas into a very small space. Let’s read his directions to Timothy, again, starting at 3:14: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it.” Paul had already praised Timothy for his careful learning from his grandmother and mother, Lois and Eunice, at the beginning of this letter. Here, he expands this idea.

Here, Paul ”refers to the people from whom Timothy has learned. (And it is ’people,’ more than Paul alone, but a collection of people, since the ‘whom’ in 3:14 is plural.)” [1] We know that Timothy learned from his mother and grandmother, because Paul said so. Perhaps Timothy also went to Hebrew school, or Torah classes, or studied with some rabbinic scholar as a teen. But, Paul said Timothy learned from a number of people. Mentors. Teachers. Coaches. Elders in the faith, people who had thorough, lived-or-demonstrated faith. Their faithfulness, which made Timothy who he was as an adult.

Go back in your mind and memory. Can you remember one or two special people who instructed you in the faith? People who lived out their Christian faith each day, every day?

I can remember one dear woman when I was in elementary school on the northwest side of Chicago at the Lutheran church. I vividly remember a senior, Mrs. Pabst (who died many years ago). She was faithful. She was kind. She had the spiritual gifts of helps and mercy and service to others in abundance. She was unfailingly loving and giving to others. Each day. Every day. She lived out the Christian life in front of me. I learned practical theology from Mrs. Pabst: how to make theology part of everyday life and apply it to the nuts and bolts of everyday living. She demonstrated the Christian faith as part of who she was.

That’s what Paul is talking about here. He praises Timothy for having absorbed practical theology from mentors, teachers, coaches. The Christian faith was part of who Timothy was.

Who have we learned from? Who showed us how to make practical theology part of our everyday lives? Great question! I’ll let us all ponder that for today.

Let’s get back to talking about the Word. Yes, Paul commanded Timothy to preach the Word. What else does Paul say about the Word? About Scripture? These verses are rich with meaning. Paul says that Timothy learned Scripture from the time he was very small. From his infancy Timothy had been exposed to God’s Word, which was—which is able to make all of us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

How about for us, today? Does that mean learning about Scripture in Sunday school? Memorizing verses in Confirmation classes? Sharing at bible study or at prayer time? Yes, yes, and yes. All of those, and so much more. What about decorating the sanctuary for Christmas? What about getting the fellowship hall ready for the Spaghetti Dinner or the Not-So-Lent Fish Fry? What about working at the Car Wash? Or praying for others with the email Prayer Chain?

Can those be times when we learn from each other how to be of service, and how to live Godly lives in a cheerful, faithful way? How to DO practical theology?

Just letting you all know: this final letter is bittersweet. More than sad. Paul is coming to the end of the road; he knows it. This time, he knew he had very little time left before he was executed. Beheaded. He has lost the final appeal, before the Emperor in Rome. Time is short—Paul desperately needs to give Timothy a final charge: “Preach the Word!”

We can all point to preachers on street corners or on television, or on the Internet. Preachers who give us lessons in how NOT to preach the Word. Preachers who use a boom box or a bullhorn, using guilt and shame as weapons to browbeat passersby into their “churches.” False preachers like these have no regard for those hearing the message. They do not deliver the Good News of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. God’s Word that transforms the life of every person who truly believes.

Communicating the transforming Word of God is the ministry of the Church. The main job of each and every believer. Just as Paul praised Timothy for having absorbed practical theology from mentors, teachers, coaches, just as Paul recognized that the Christian faith was part of who Timothy was, so each of us can live out the Christian faith each day. Every day. We can make theology part of our everyday lives, too.

We can have confidence and faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord, our Savior. We all can live lives that let everyone know we are Christians because we have love for one another. We can strive to be unfailingly loving and giving to others. Many others. Each day. Every day. And when we finally stand before Jesus Christ in glory, we will hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

St. Francis of Assisi made theology part of his everyday life, making the Christian faith part of who he was. He reminded us, “Preach the Gospel at all times. And when necessary, use words.” Let those with ears to hear, let them hear. Amen.

 

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1836 ; Commentary, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Matt Skinner, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)