pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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“L” is for…

Reading: Matthew 25: 31-40

Verse 40: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me”.

In today’s passage Jesus sounds a bit like an Old Testament prophet. His words and what I imagine his tone to be evoke visions of Ezekiel or Isaiah. Jesus is once again speaking of heaven and hell. Passages like this naturally bring to our mind the question: am I in or am I out? Reading this passage I’ve often fallen into these ways of thinking. In my rule-following mind it was and sometimes still is hard not to feel some condemnation when I read this passage.

Jesus is clear in the overall message today. There is a right or faithful way to live with one another. Therefore, there is also a wrong way. The right way is to care for the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned. The wrong way is to ignore them, to not care for them. In verse forty we read, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me”. In verse 45 we read the result of failing to care for such as these: “you did not do for me”.

Reading this passage we can tend to think: Am I a sheep or am I a goat? The judge living inside of us can easily start to scroll through our lives, weighing the evidence for and against. The ‘in or out?’ question can become a balance scale of sorts. But then I stop and ask: does this align with the Jesus we see in the Gospels? Can you really see Jesus judging you this way when you one day stand before him? This is not the Jesus revealed to me in the New Testament or along my faith journey.

Then what is the point of the teaching? We cannot simply toss it or skip by it because it makes us uncomfortable or because it causes us to wrestle with our faith and how we live it out. In a way this was the underlying point of all of Jesus’ teachings. These words were spoken by the one that always calls us deeper into relationship, deeper into loving God and one another. So what if this teaching is about a way to live, about a rule of life? Jesus was one who sought to connect to the least, the lost, the last, the lonely. What drove him to do so was another “L”: love. Yes, the ideal is to always care for others, in whatever form that may be.

I struggle less with this parable than I used to. Now I see it as the model that Jesus set. I still fail at times. I don’t always feed the hungry… I do not always visit the lonely… But I do strive to love each to the best of my ability and capacity – to the best of my faith. When I fail, the Holy Spirit always goes to work within me, leading and prompting me to love deeper the next time God presents an opportunity. I am a work in progress. I’d guess you are too. May the shepherd continue to lead you and me.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for a heart that yearns to love more each day. Guide and lead my heart to be more and more like yours. Amen.


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Hope in Exile

Reading: Ezekiel 34: 11-16

Verse 16: “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak”.

Ezekiel was one of God’s prophets. He ministered to Israel during their time in exile in Babylon. After being defeated by the Babylonians, many Israelites were dispersed throughout the kingdom of their conquerors. These words from God’s prophet would bring hope during a difficult time. These words of God would remind the people that their current experience will not be their reality forever. Both of these circumstances are true today. In our current pandemic, there is no doubt that this is a difficult time for almost everyone. Although it feels like it has been a really long time, we know that the virus and its effects will not last forever. Yet, in the midst of it, we are much like the Israelites in Babylon – isolated, feeling powerless, becoming a bit hopeless, grieving, separated.

Beginning in verse eleven God reveals his plan. In this verse God tells the people that he will “search for my sheep and look after them”. In the next verse God promises to “rescue them” from isolation, from exile, from “all the places where they were scattered”. Then God shares that he will bring them back home. In verse thirteen God states, “I will bring them into their own land”. God will search for his children; God will rescue them and gather them; and, God will bring them back home. Living in a time of defeat, in a time of exile, to hear that God is still God, that God loves and cares for them, that God will once again bring them all back together – these are words of healing and hope.

During these COVID times, just as was the case in exile, some people are coping or doing okay, some are not. Those who are naturally resilient, those who are disposed to optimism, those whose faith has grown in these times – these folks are going alright. There is a middle group who are mostly getting by. They have some of these positive characteristics, but life is now a delicate balance. And there are those who have depleted their reserves of these characteristics. They are struggling emotionally, physically, spiritually, relationally. This last group, especially, needs to hear verse sixteen’s promise: “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak”. God has a special love for those hurting the most. Jesus, his son, modeled this love. Jesus, our Lord, calls us to follow his lead. To those around us most feeling like they are in exile, may we share these words of hope and love. And, if we dare, may we be these words of hope and love. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord God, lead and guide me to the list, to the strays, to the weak. Set my feet towards those hurting in my communities. Break my heart for what breaks yours. Fill my broken heart with your love and care. Use me to bring hope to those without. May it be so. Amen.


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New as Well as Old

Reading: Matthew 13:52

Verse 52: “Therefore every teacher… who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven… brings out new treasures as well as old”.

At what I would consider my “home” church, back when I was still a middle school teacher, I was part of the team that began a contemporary worship service. That was over twenty years ago. At the time it caused a lot of angst and even some division in the church. When the service outgrew the “Upper Room” and needed to shift to the sanctuary, then we really upset the apple cart. Change is hard, especially when it involves something new and relatively unknown to many people in the group or organization. But a quick survey of almost every church offering contemporary worship will reveal that that service is their best attended service. Change can be good and positive and even life giving.

When I moved into full-time ministry just over right years ago, one of my secret inner fears was one day being appointed to a small, rural church with just an organ or piano that only sang hymns on Sunday mornings. Since helping start the contemporary worship service that was the only service I had attended. When we were out of town on a weekend, we would find a church to visit with a contemporary service. But after just a couple of months in pastoral ministry I came to realize that I loved the hymns and liturgy of traditional worship. Holding onto the past, to the tried and true, very often has its place. It is often the key component of a group or organization’s core identity. It is essential to who “we” are.

In today’s verse Jesus is talking about this same idea – the old and the new. Talk about someone with first-hand insight on holding onto the past yet also doing something new. If we keep nothing but the old in our faith and in our churches, then we become old. We all know what eventually happens to the old. But we cannot just change it all overnight either. Then folks look around and wonder where they are. Balance is the key.

The same is true for our lives and for our journey of faith. Growth is most often a slow and steady process that involves melding the good new with the good old. In our faith and in our churches may we be open to the new even as we hold onto the roots and traditions that make us the children of God. May it be so.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to know, to discern, how and when and where to go in a new direction and why and where to keep the tried and true. Both are central to a healthy and growing faith and to a strong and vibrant church. Lead and guide me, I great Jehovah. Amen.


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Unity and Diversity

Reading: 1st Corinthians 12: 3b-13

Verse 12: “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts… they form one body”.

Paul is writing today about the balance of unity and diversity. Whether in church or politics, whether on a team or in a family, this balance is essential if that organization or group is going to be its best. An organization or group can function in total unity but it is less than it would be with some diversity. Yet if one swings to the other extreme and only diversity is honored, it can challenge the functioning of the organization or group. When an organization or group is sure of those essential beliefs or elements that bring unity, there is often space created for diversity.

We have all been in an organization or group where everyone was or wanted to be the same or equal. On Pentecost all the believers were given the same gift – to speak in different languages. Imagine, though, how incomplete the church would be if that was the only gift of the Spirit. Imagine if the Spirit did not give wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, and prophesying too. If everyone in the church was exactly the same, how hard it would be to learn and grow in the faith. So instead the Spirit “gives them to each one, just as he determines”. Our diversity of gifts allows the church to accomplish far more for the kingdom of God.

In verses twelve and thirteen Paul speaks to the idea of unity and diversity existing in balance. Here he writes, “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts… they form one body”. Think about what you would be without a heart or without a spine or without a foot or without ears. You would definitely be less – if you were anything at all. The church is the same. Through the gifts of the Holy Spirit each and every one of us has something to offer that makes the whole better. Yes, when people withhold or do not use the gifts that they have been given, the church is less.

Paul reminds us that we were all baptized into one body by the one Spirit. May that be evident in our words, thoughts, and actions each day.

Prayer: God of all, help me to cherish diversity amidst our unity. Guide me to value each person for the gift that they are and for the gifts that they bring. Lead me to help folks see and develop and use their gifts for the better building of your kingdom. Amen.


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By Faith Alone

Reading: Romans 4: 1-5 and 13-17

Verse 13: “It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise… but through the righteousness that comes by faith”.

As Paul and the rest of the earliest church were sorting out just how Jewish one must first be to become a follower of Jesus Christ, he penned these words that we read today. Before becoming an apostle, Paul was known as Saul. In that phase of his life he was a self-proclaimed Jew among Jews. He was a very devout Pharisee who knew and followed the letter of the law. As the early church grew and began to add Gentile believers, a huge debate arose over just how much of the Jewish faith must be followed to become a Christian.

In our reading for today Paul points to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. Paul chooses him for two reasons. First, he is one of the pillars of Judaism. His faith is one of the models. God declares Abram righteous because of his faith. As we’ve been reading, God called and in obedient faith, Abram went where God led. He stepped out and followed God. Second, at the time there was no law. It had not been given yet. Paul is saying that one can be saved by faith apart from the law. Paul, known as the apostle to the Gentiles, is not in favor of applying Jewish laws to the Christian faith. Paul himself became a believer when he met the risen Lord and then entered into a personal saving relationship with Jesus Christ. For Paul it had nothing to do with the law. In the next chapters Paul will go on to argue this point further. Martin Luther will pick up these texts many hundreds of years later as he works out his “justification by faith alone” doctrine that will rock the church.

Even though the New Testament clearly spells out that one is saved by faith alone we can often feel like we must do good works or follow some set of prescribed steps to be saved. God does not have a giant balance scale that one day weighs out our good versus bad. We know from the scriptures that as soon as we confess and give our sins to God, they are wiped away – they are no more. Nothing is being stacked up on the “bad” side of some mythical scale. Yes, our faith will lead us to do good things. That is how we live out the love of God within us. It is the model Jesus set for us. As we follow Christ, living out our faith, may his ‘why’ become our ‘why’. Jesus loved others because the love of God within him overflowed into the lives of others. May we do the same. May the sharing of God’s love be our grateful response to our God who saves.

Prayer: Dear Lord, thank you for your unconditional love and grace. It is certainly not deserved but you pour it out upon me anyway. I definitely cannot earn yet it is still there in unending abundance. It is an amazing love, an amazing grace. Thank you. Amen.


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Salvation and Love

Reading: Galatians 6: 1-6

In Galatians Paul is writing to a church that is beginning to fracture from within.  From the outside the people are seeing the church as contradictory and unattractive.  Over the many years since this has been a frequent occurrence.  As time rolls along we just find different things to fight about while the secular world usually watches with held breath.

The Galatian church was basically arguing over membership requirements.  Those with Jewish roots were arguing that all makes must be circumcised and that the Torah Law must be followed.    To these folks one must become a good Jew before one could become a Christian.  This ‘follow all our rules so you can be just like us’ attitude is nothing new.  There was a time when women had no voice and later no leadership roles in the church.  There was a time when all of the churches were very homogeneous and races and ethnicities did not mix.

On the other end of the spectrum Paul found those who did and allowed almost anything.  Under the beliefs that God alone should judge and that God is all about love, they were living lives without any constraints.  As long as they did not harm others with their actions they thought God would forgive anything.  This approach, if taken just one step further, can have disastrous results.

Paul counseled a middle ground.  He first established that salvation comes only through the saving work of Jesus on the cross.  There is no rule we can follow and no action we can take to save ourselves.  Following all the rules and laws in the world will not save us.  Doing good act after good act all the days of our lives will not save us.  We are saved through faith in Christ alone.  Paul also balanced this with Christ’s guidelines for our life. We are to daily take up our own cross to follow Him.  We are to do the things Jesus did: love God above all else, love neighbor as self, serve all of our brothers and sisters as living sacrifices.  Paul believed that out of the saving relationship we find through Christ that we would be led to live as Christ lived.  This day may we each take up our cross and follow in Jesus’footsteps, being love lived out to our God and to all we meet.


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Special Together

God is pretty smart and very creative.  Consider for a moment the design and intricacy of our bodies.  Our bodies hum along, performing activity after activity without us having to think about it.  And in general our bodies last a long time.  If I drove the same truck every day for 50 years it would be absolutely amazing.  Yet here I sit, still running relatively well, hoping for another thirty or forty years out of this body.

The vast array of parts and functions that make up our bodies is another example of God’s genius.  Each part is pretty indispensable.  Imagine for a moment if all of our legs ended at our ankles – balance would be tough.  Imagine if we had one eye.  We could still see but would have no depth perception.  How close is that car?

Apparently there was some squabbling and division going on in Corinth.  Paul had to remind them that the gifts of the Spirit are like our body parts – all equally important and all necessary for the body of Christ to function properly.  They wanted to elevate certain gifts over others but Paul reminded them that all parts are for the common good.  Imagine where the church would be if all had the gift of prophecy but none had the gifts of teaching and administrating and healing.

A modern example of the need for diversity and the necessity of working together would be our praise team.  If we all played bass and did nothing else, we would not be much of a band.  We need singers and pianists and guitarists as well.  Each gift adds to the whole.

Each and everyone of us has gifts.  Are you using yours to the fullest?  Are you building up the body of Christ with your gifts?  Each of us is equally important and specifically designed to play our roles.  May the Lord bless you in the use of your gifts!

Scripture reference: 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31