pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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Willing to Die?

Reading: John 12: 20-26

Verse 24: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain”.

Photo credit: Noemi Pongracz

Our passage begins with some Greeks wanting to see Jesus. They are probably in town for the Passover and are curious about this man. Perhaps they were in the crowd that waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna”! Maybe they’ve just heard a few stories – snipets of his teachings or whispers of miracles. These Greeks know enough to want to know more.

Jesus begins by announcing that his time has come. Soon he will be glorified. Jesus wants them to know that not only he will soon die but that all who follow will also pay a price as well. In verse 24 Jesus says, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain”. Jesus is paralleling his physical death with the emotional, cultural, spiritual… deaths that all followers of Christ are called to. During the season of Lent the question that Jesus might ask of us today is this: What kernels of wheat do we need to allow to fall to the ground? Is it being greedy with my money? Is it being selfish with my time? Is it judging those who are different than me? What is your kernel of wheat that you need to let go of so that you and those you meet can experience true life?

As a society we have come to see humility and death as the enemies – physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. We do all we can to stave off death. This is the right and godly thing to do with a child or young parent or many others. Yet for each of us there comes a time when our physical death is a welcome friend. As a society we look down on humility. Instead we are taught to be strong, to be independent, to work for success in life. We’re taught that once we accumulate these things, all will be good. Until we do. Then we learn that meaning and purpose and love and contentment and peace and joy and hope cannot be earned or bought. Living as a person of the world, these eternal gifts are elusive.

We must be willing to die to pride, fear, arrogance, anxiety, selfishness, doubt, greed, lust, envy, racism, jealousy, judging, anger, prejudice, worry, elitism, injustice… as we seek to follow Jesus. As Jesus says in verse 25, we must “hate his [or her] life in this world”. Only then will we be willing and able to die to self and to begin to walk as a disciple of Jesus Christ, following him daily and one day into eternal life. May you and I be willing to do the hard work of this call to die to self. May the Lord bless our journeys.

Prayer: Loving God, your Spirit leads and guides me daily, holding up to me those kernels that still need to die. I’ve plucked off leaves now and then. Help me to get to the roots. For those things that still separate me from you and from others, grant me the strength to die to these barriers and sins. Thank you God. Amen.


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Fringes and Edges

Reading: Matthew 9: 9-13

Verse 11: “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners”?

Photo credit: Marten Newhall

Our passage today opens with Jesus calling another disciple as he walks along the road. The man he calls us named Matthew. He was sitting in his tax collector’s booth when Jesus said, “Follow me”. It’s hard to say what an equivalent calling would be today. Tax collectors were almost universally disliked and hated. They worked for the occupying force, the Romans, collecting taxes to pay for the enemy to stay in power. Most tax collectors gathered well above and beyond what the Romans required. Becoming rich was a side perk of this government job. Being wealthy was nice but the occupation limited one’s circle of friends. Matthew’s crowd would be limited to other tax collectors and others who took advantage of others. Money lenders, prostitutes, slave traders… would have been among the crowd at Matthew’s house as Jesus joined them for dinner.

Upon seeing the crowd that Jesus has chosen to become a part of, the Pharisees ask, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners”? Why would Jesus call one of these to discipleship, to following him? Why would Jesus sit amongst this crowd of sinners? I suppose some people today think the same thing when they see their pastor emerging from the hymn sing at the local brewpub or when they see members of the outreach team exiting the local strip club. In response Jesus says, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick”. Jesus did not come to just sit around the temple or local synagogues chatting with the faithful about the scriptures. Yes, Jesus did this and this habit continues to be a very important part of our faith journey. But Jesus also spent the majority of his time doing ministry out in the world – among the tax collectors and sinners, among the hurting and broken, among the Gentiles and others who were marginalized by the religious establishment. These are the ones in need of a “doctor”. These are the ones in need of healing, wholeness, love, a sense of community.

Who are the tax collectors of your neighborhood or community? Who are those on the fringes and edges? How can you minister to these that Jesus surely would have?

Prayer: Lord God, make my heart and will more like yours. Guide my feet to those in need of your love and care. Bring me past the barriers and fears in my mind, trusting more fully in your guidance and direction. Amen.


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Life Springing Up

Reading: Isaiah 61: 8-11

Verse 10: “I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God”.

As our passage for today opens Isaiah reminds God’s people that God loves justice. As would be expected, God hates robbery and iniquity. Living in a foreign land under much oppression and injustice, these words resounded with hope for the people living in exile. The same is true today for people living in unjust systems of oppression and injustice and inequality. To know that systems that support prejudice and abuse and unequal pay and unfair labor practices and… are not God’s way and are not part of God’s plan brings hope for the future. To the exiles in Babylon and to those today living in unjust systems that deny them true freedom, the promise of an “everlasting covenant” brings hope not only for themselves but also for their children and grandchildren.

As followers of Jesus Christ, as believers in his light and love, we can join the prophet in saying, “I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God”. God is our rock and our refuge, our hope and our strength. God clothes you and me in “garments of salvation” and in a “robe of righteousness”. We are adorned in ways that cause the world to notice that through our faith we are blessed by the Lord. We live with hope and peace, with joy and love. Trusting in the Lord, resting and standing upon God’s promises, we look to the future with assurance and confidence. Are you thankful for all that God has done, is doing, and will do for you? Lift up a little prayer of thanksgiving right now!

And then lift up a little prayer for an end to racism and prejudice, for an end to injustice and oppression, for an end to abuse and iniquity. Then consider how you can be a seed planter, a hope waterer, a justice fertilizer. As the people of God delighting in our God, rejoicing in the Lord, may we be a part of God’s plan for justice and equity. May we be part of the kingdom work of our day and age, of our time and place, so that in all nations and communities “the sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up”. May it be so in all the world!

Prayer: Lord God, where will you send me today? Where will you use me today to be a bringer of justice, an energy of robbery and iniquity? Strengthen me to stand with the oppressed, the unjustly treated, the abused, the imprisoned. Use me each day to make your kingdom more and more of a reality in my community and in my world. Amen.


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Sincere, Devoted, Selfless

Reading: Romans 12: 9-21

Verse 10: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves”.

The section for today is titled “Love” in my Bible. If I had to choose just one word to describe or define God or Jesus, love would be the word. Love guides all that the divine does and says. In today’s passage, Paul encourages us to live the same way.

“Love” is a word that has many applications and even more degrees at the human level. Love, like most words, can be tossed around and can be easily manipulated. It can be twisted for our own purposes. These types of uses fall under the “hate what is evil” part of verse nine. Paul begins today by slicing through all of this by writing “love must be sincere”. Other translations use pure or genuine. It is a calling to love as God and as Jesus love. As Paul urges us to “cling to what is good”, I am reminded of the WWJD slogan. Well, Jesus would love.

In verse ten Paul writes, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves”. The first part of this verse mainly covers agape or brotherly love but the same ideas are essential with all forms of love. Being devoted means commitment and investment in the relationship. It means always honoring and respecting the other person. This approach naturally leads into the second part of this verse. Genuine or sincere love makes the intentional and purposeful choice to place the other person’s needs and wants ahead of our own. This is a call to selfless love. Often it is a sacrificial love. Here too we are reminded of the love that Jesus Christ modeled throughout his ministry and especially on the cross. There he put the needs of the entire world before his own wants as he conceded “not my will but your will be done” to God in the garden.

As we consider what sincere, devoted, selfless love looks like today, may we be thankful for Christ and for others who have loved and who love us this way. And may we strive to love in this model ourselves. May it be so with all we meet.

Prayer: Lord God, to have such a love is admittedly not always easy. The easier path is selfish and inwardly focused. Open my heart to love as you love. Help me to deny self and to even die to those parts of myself. Mold me and shape me to love as you first loved me. Amen.


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Lead in Love

Reading: John 20: 19-23

Verse 19: “When the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and said, ‘Peace be with you!'”

Following his death the disciples gathered together in their small community and were present to one another. The recent events left them feeling powerless and vulnerable. There was a sense of fear hanging over them. If this could happen to him, it could happen to any of them. If the Jews, the ones filled with power and fears of their own, could flex their muscles and cause this to happen to Jesus, the disciples were well within their reach.

Fear is certainly present in our society today. COVID has created many: fear of dying, fear of sickness, fear or losing a business, fear of financial failure, fear of isolation… Fear is also very present right now in some of our cities and in some of our social groups. Another senseless death has sent another ripple of fear through affected communities. The ripple had become a flood of emotion and response in some places. Even though there is no place for hate in God’s kingdom, it remains something that humanity is struggling with in this world.

As the disciples gathered on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, locked behind some closed doors, he came and said, “Peace be with you”! They were overjoyed. Speaking directly into their fear he said, “I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit”. Jesus encourages them to walk into the world tinged with hate and oppression as people filled with love and power. The Spirit would be the source of love and power and strength and hope. It was a presence the disciples would need as they set out to transform the world.

The Holy Spirit continues to lead with love. It is a love for all people, not just for some. It is a love that leads to compassion and understanding and empathy and unity. It is a love that is both culture blind and colorblind. Just yesterday I read a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. He said, “Protest is the voice of the powerless”. Yes, often it is. The root cause is powerlessness. Feeling powerless leads to feeling hopeless and helpless. In moving forward may the disciples of Jesus Christ continue to allow the Holy Spirit to lead in love. We with power must choose to be voices for those without. For the healing of our communities and of our world, may God’s love lead the way. May it start with each of us.

Prayer: Lord God, the Holy Spirit empowered the first disciples to transform their world. It began with them loving you above all else and then spread to loving one another. The community was based upon love and grace and mercy and compassion and justice. Their love changed the world. Make it happen again, Lord. Empower your disciples today to be change agents once again, leading the way across divides and through barriers. Let love be our guide, bringing healing and restoration. May it begin with me, O God. Amen.


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Clear Priorities

Reading: Luke 14: 25, 26 and 33

Verse 26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father… mother… wife… children… brother… sister… even his own life… he cannot be my disciple”.

Two of three of today’s verses are really tough verses. Jesus says to the crowd and to us, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father… mother… wife… children… brother… sister… even his own life… he cannot be my disciple”. That is hard to read twice in such a short time. He then concludes our passage from Luke 14 by telling us that we must “give up everything” if we want to be his disciple. Jesus is using hyperbole today to make his point. He is addressing a large crowd. Those following Jesus has grown quickly and they all do not clearly understand the cost of following Jesus. Today’s verses are a bit of a reality check.

Jesus uses the word ‘hate’ today as a term to define our priorities in life. If asked what our priorities are, almost all of us would respond: God, family, work (or school). But a look into our week and our choices and decisions might not actually reflect that order. Jesus chooses his words today to drive home the point that faith must be our clear #1 priority. It must be so clear that we appear to hate our family, friends, and even our own self when compared to how much we love God. Jesus wants us to understand that there must be a striking contrast between the devotion we live and show to God and all other relationships and priorities in life. Jesus had strong relationships with his mother Mary, with the disciples, and with friends like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. ‘Hate’ would not describe any of these relationships. But his devotion to God never wanted – it was clearly Jesus’ top priority.

In verse 33 Jesus addresses the sacred cow of the secular world. Culture identifies and defines worth by what we have and by who we are in the power structures of the world. Again, Jesus is calling us to put all this worldly stuff a distant priority when compared to our faith. When we turn away and pursue the things of the world more than loving and serving God, we have lost focus on what really matters. Our priorities have been reordered.

Jesus says “Follow me” to us. That means living the priorities that Jesus lived. That means clearly committing to our faith as the most important thing in our lives and then living that commitment out. Yes, it is a hard commitment. Jesus is the only way. May he be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord, at times walking a life of faith can be so simple and straight forward. At other times it can be a great struggle as the flesh inside me rises up and as the voices and things of the world call out. O God, help me to walk closely with you day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment. Amen.


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The Foundation

Reading: Psalm 97

Verse 11: “Light is shed upon the righteous and joy on the upright heart”.

Right up front the psalmist declares the point of his Psalm, writing, “The Lord reigns”. It is a good reminder for us and also for the world in general. Too many people live without understanding this simple truth that God is in control. In verse 2, righteousness and justice are declared as two of God’s central characteristics. These two play out in the next verses as God’s fire consumes His foes and God’s light reveals the condition of humanity, causing the earth to tremble. God’s righteousness and sense of justice means that those who live lives of sin and who do not acknowledge God’s reign will spend eternity in the fires of hell. This is not God’s intent or hope or choice for anyone, but the reality is still true. Some will choose evil and the desires of this world.

Zion and Israel rejoice over God’s judgments. The people of God recognize that God reigns. They also understand that God’s righteousness and justice are founded upon love. For those who worship God, there is an understood choice: God or the world. In verse 10 we read, “for those who love the Lord hate evil”. This makes clear the distinction. Even though the faithful understand the distinction, we cannot forget the foundation of God’s righteousness and justice: love.

If we choose to look at evil or those struggling with sin and then to simply resign them to the fire, then we have lost sight of God’s love. If we choose to simply judge those we determine are living in sin, then we are utterly failing to live out God’s love. In verse 11 we read, “Light is shed upon the righteous and joy on the upright heart”. We have light and joy within us to share with the world. God fills our cup to overflowing not so that we can watch His light and live spill out on the ground but so that it can be shared with those who do not know God’s love and righteousness and justice. Experiencing and knowing these things will help the lost to choose them. God does not wall up with the saved but goes out as “the Lord of all the earth”. This day may we rejoice in the Lord our God and may we make His glorious name known in all the earth.

Prayer: Reigning Lord, thank you for the light and love that is shed in my heart. Thank you for the joy you bring into my life. May all that I am reflect your glory and may I walk each day within your holy righteousness, seeking to bring justice and mercy and humility with me wherever I go. May love lead the way. Amen.


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By What Authority

Reading: Matthew 21: 23-27

Verse 23: By what authority are you doing these things?

Over the course of his three years in ministry, Jesus has built up a reputation as a great teacher, as a healer, and as a man of both the people and of God.  He has loved and welcomed one and all – saints and sinners alike.  The priests and elders have observed all of this and seem to have come to a point of decision.  They asks Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things”?  In their minds they were hoping for an answer that would allow them to easily dismiss Jesus and His teachings.  What they got was an invitation to delve in deeper.  But that would mean change.

Today there is no shortage of need for clarification.  Turn on the television or scroll through your Facebook feed and there are lots of controversies and arguments and sad situations and tragedies out there.  In too many cases, though, it seems to me as if we like to get caught up in the argument or the controversy instead of delving down to the heart of the matter.  Why?  Because it is easier, it requires less of us.  But God expects more.

As Christians we cannot retreat from the issues of our time.  We must stand and be the voice of justice and love and community.  The issues surrounding the flag controversy have deep roots – both in social justice and equality and in the respectful and loving use of power and position.  The issues surrounding any other controversy – the LGBT community, the hate groups, the poverty of our reservation, you name it – also call for justice and equality and respect and love.  But these are not the only things required.  We must also wrestle with the same question: “By what authority are you doing these things”?

Our authority must come from and rest in God and His Word.  As Christians, we must be willing to engage the issues and controversies of our time at the deepest levels.  We cannot answer our call to bring the kingdom here to earth if we allow hate and injustice and prejudice… to exist in any form.  In engaging the world may we live into Paul’s words: “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love”.


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Engaging Systems

Our sins are not always the things we do.  Sometimes they are the things we fail to do.  Our sins are not always personal; sometimes they are communal or corporate.

About once a month we have a homeless person come to church on  Sunday.  Sometimes it is some other individual who is noticeable because they are different from the regular worshiper.  As the people of God we are called to love all people and as a whole we really do well at this.  But not always.  Some days we are only as loving or good or welcoming as our weakest or lowest part.  So it is our task as fellow believers to notice these weaker parts and to build them up in love for all people.  We cannot and should not accept less.

As a society there are ills and things that are not ‘right’ in all of our communities.  These are things that certainly cause a tear to roll down God’s cheek.  As the people of God we are called to address the issues in our communities.  This does not mean simply jumping on the latest Facebook bandwagon and adding your ‘like’.  It means being on the streets and in the shelters and in the jails.  It means going to the places where the least, the lost, and the broken are and entering into relationships with them.

To truly be the people of God and to really love all of our neighbors, we must roll up our sleeves and get a little dirty.  We must truly walk alongside those in need to begin to see things at a systemic level.  It is at this level that we must begin change.  To end prejudice, injustice, and hate we must begin with fixing the systems that cause these evils.  As Christians we must engage the evils of the world.  We are called to be the light in the darkness.  Our light needs to shine into these dark places to begin real change at the base level.

Scripture reference: Psalm 51: 1-12