pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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From the Margins, to the Margins

Reading: Luke 1:46-55

Verses 47-48: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has been mindful of the humble state of God’s servant.”

Mary’s Song is a beautiful song lifted up to her God. It is an outpouring of faith and emotion. She begins by glorifying and praising God because God has “been mindful of the humble state of God’s servant.” In these words we see the spirit shared by Mary and Elizabeth. Both women are totally humbled by God choosing them to play such important roles in the birth and life and ministry of the Messiah.

Mary’s Song speaks of God’s preference for the poor and marginalized. Mary is one of these. She is a young girl, pregnant and not yet married. Her song is personal in this sense. Elizabeth too was from the margins. She was barren. Old and without any children to care for her, she existed on the edges of society. Mary and Elizabeth were two of the unlikeliest choices possible. I wonder what each thought as they stated at each other while this beautiful song poured out, amazed at what God was doing. What a blessing for these two women!

Within Mary’s Song we also find evidence of the divide between folks like Mary and Elizabeth and the folks who were rich and powerful. Mary sings of God “scattering” the proud and of God bringing down rulers from their thrones. Mary has a deep sense of who and what God is, and by nature, of who and what her son will be. In God’s choosing one from the margins, Mary knows that God is a God of the margins. In his ministry, Jesus will very much reflect God’s preference for the poor and needy, for the marginalized and the outcast, for the hurting and broken, for the powerless and the sinful. With Mary’s humble spirit and deep faith in God may we go forth to do the same, loving those most in need of God’s presence.

Prayer: God, turn my heart to what matters to your heart. Lead me away from the cares and concerns of the world, away from greed and pride and power. Lead me to love those who matter to you. Amen.


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Our Great and Glorious King

Reading: Psalm 72:1-7

Verse 6: “He will be like rain falling on a mown field.”

Today’s Psalm speaks of a leader. Justice and righteousness will be hallmarks of this king. Defending the afflicted and saving needy children will be regular practices. There will be prosperity in the land. Who is this king that Solomon describes?

In verse 5 we get another hint. Here we read that this king will “endure as long as the sun, as the moon.” Without using the word, Solomon tells us that this king will reign forever. Add in justice, righteousness, care for the poor and needy – who else could this be but Jesus Christ the Lord?

Within these verses we also see other sides of Christ. In verses 4 Solomon writes, “He will crush the oppressor.” Sin and death long held power over humanity. In his death and resurrection Jesus will defeat these two great oppressors of humankind. And we also have verse 6: “He will be like rain falling on a mown field.” In my mind I want it to read “gentle rain.” This would add to the sense of peace that I already feel in these words. I love this side of Jesus too. A kind and peaceful and gentle ruler – like rain falling gently on a mown field.

Psalm 72 reminds us of our great and glorious King. Today we rejoice as we close with the last two verses of the Psalm: “Praise be to the Lord God, the God of Israel, who alone does marvelous deeds. Praise be to his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with God’s glory. Amen.”

Prayer: God, you are the king of kings and lord of lords, one both now and forevermore. You reign in power and might. Yet your heart breaks for the least of these and for the lost and broken. You rain down peace, joy, love, and hope. Praise be to the Lord our God! Amen.


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The Lord is our Refuge

Reading: Psalm 14

Verse 3: “All have turned aside… There is no one who does good, not even one.”

Photo credit: Nick Fewings

The psalmist looks at the world and sees many who live as if there was no God. They are “corrupt” and “vile.” God looks down from heaven and struggles to find any who truly seek God. In verses 3 we read, “All have turned aside… There is no one who does good, not even one.” In our minds we may be tempted to add, ‘All but me.’ Yet that line – “there is no one who does good, not even one” – it is also in verse 1. The repetition draws us to consider our place in this phrase. David’s“no one” includes us.

Our society is driven to achieve success and popularity and power over. Those who have these things exert a great amount of influence and control, especially over those without. While we may not be directly responsible for systems and laws that benefit those at the top, we often benefit too. And then we become reluctant to speak against unjust systems and corrupt ways. We want for ourselves and forget about those on the margins. For example, many of our churches received and were forgiven large PPP loans. Yet some who sit in those same pews complain about the forgiveness of relatively small student loan debt.

In verses 5 and 6 we read, “God is present in the company of the righteous… the Lord is their [the poor] refuge.” When we strive for justice and seek to end or fix systems that favor those with much, then we are working to build God’s kingdom, not our own. We may suffer a bit along the way. Yet just as God is a refuge to the poor, God will be our refuge too. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, give me the courage to see the ways that I benefit from or participate in unjust systems and practices. Give me the courage to stand for what is right, being willing to count the cost of discipleship. Amen.


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Repaid

Reading: Luke 14:12-14

Verses 13-14: “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”

As we continue in Luke 14, Jesus turns from instructions on how the invited guests should act to who the invited guests should be. If the Pharisees or us modern readers struggled with the idea of practicing humility, then today’s words will be really tough. At the core of the red letter words today is the idea of loving without strings attached.

Jesus looks at the guest list for this dinner at a prominent Pharisee’s house and says – you’ve got it all wrong. Don’t invite those just like you. They’ll invite you to come over sometime too and that’ll be your reward. This scenario reminds me of many moves we’ve made. You invite 6-8 friends to help you move. The help is great. But you know you’ll get 6-8 invites to help them move one day.

Jesus offers this guest list suggestion: “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” Jesus offers a radical and generous vision of loving neighbor. This list is exactly who the Pharisees avoided. It is exactly who Jesus sought to have dinner with. Where does our guest list fall along this continuum?

While you or I may not have the crippled, lame, blind, or poor in our circle of friends and acquaintances, they are in our communities. We need to be willing to expand our circles. Inviting and including those that society tends to ignore and exclude is exactly what Jesus is calling us to do. Then we will be “repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” This will not be a part on the back and an “atta-boy” from Jesus. This will be the joy of seeing the lost who were found and we’re saved by Jesus.

Prayer: Lord God, make me brave enough to step outside my normal circles. Empower me to invite those outside into those circles. Widen them out so that all are welcome. Amen.


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Heart Revelations

Reading: Luke 12:32-34

Verse 34: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Jesus begins today’s passage by saying, “Do not be afraid, little flock, your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” It brings God joy to see people becoming part of the kingdom of God. This verse also touches on how God loves to care for and give to those in the family of God. (This aspect connects back to what Jesus is saying in the previous section.) God is happy to have you and me in the family!

In verse 33 Jesus encourages us to sell our possessions, giving the proceeds to the poor. Taken literally and completely, this would be very challenging to me. If honest, I’m not quite to that point. Maybe some day I can get to this point. In the meantime I’ll continue to work on not being closely attached to my things. In doing so I’ll become better at giving to those in need.

Jesus speaks of storing up treasures in “purses” in heaven. These items, of course, are not tangible things like money or cell phones or jewelry. What then do or can we store up? I think Jesus is talking about our godly actions and the relationships affected by these actions. As is the case in about all Jesus says or does, there is a connection here too. For example, when I am willing to be generous with my time, I can form a relationship with someone. Maybe it is helping someone who struggles with money to make and keep a basic budget. This process can lead to a relationship that allows me to share the good news, guiding them to accept Christ. The treasure is one day rejoicing in heaven together.

Our passage closes with these words: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” If we were to mentally review each day’s choices and actions, what would be revealed about what we treasure in our hearts? Would our heart reveal a deep and abiding love for God and for all of God’s children? Day by day may our hearts belong increasingly to God.

Prayer: Lord God, you challenge me to grow day by day in my love for you and for all I encounter. It is a challenge I desire to meet. Show me the way. Amen.


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An Intentional Choice

Reading: Psalm 82

Verse 8: “Rise up, O God, judge the earth, for all nations are your inheritance.”

Asaph, the psalmist, echoes yesterday’s call of ‘How long?’ The Psalm begins by recognizing that God presides in heaven, giving judgment. Recognizing this truth, the author then offers a great reflective question. If this truth is true, God, then “how long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?” The Israelite understanding that God blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked does not seem to be playing out. So God, how long will you allow this?

Continuing on, the psalmist asks God to defend, rescue, uphold, and deliver the weak and fatherless, the poor and oppressed, the needy. He wants God to shed light on those who practice evil, on those who “walk about in darkness.” Speaking to these, to those who think themselves mighty and powerful, Asaph writes, “you will die like mere men.” All face the same fate in the end. Closing, the author seeks this as he writes, “Rise up, O God, judge the earth, for all nations are your inheritance.”

Reflecting on the Psalm today one realizes that Asaph could be writing these words today. But could we write this Psalm? Are we aware enough of the marginalized to implore God to action? For many of us, the reality is that we are not. Our lives and our circles of interaction are far from those on the edges of life. Maybe we brush up against it on a mission trip or as we read or hear a news piece. But these usually feel far away. Yet this world exists in our communities. And the weak, the fatherless, the poor, the oppressed, the needy – they live in most of our neighborhoods. May we make an intentional choice to deliver deeper, to look harder, to venture wider, to work beneath the surface in order to truly minister to the margins.

Prayer: Lord God, reveal to me and to our church the margins and edges that exist right here. Impassion us all to really know and really invest in practices that transform lives – and not just others’ lives but our own. Amen.


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“Hear this…”

Reading: Amos 8:1-6

Verse 4: “Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land.”

Photo credit: Nick Sarro

We continue this week with Amos. Last week God used a plumb line to reveal how askew or crooked the Israelites had become. In this week’s reading from Amos 8, God reveals some details. As our passage opens, God shows Amos a basket of fruit. The fruit is ripe, maybe even appealing – at first glance. When one looks closer, however, one can see the rot along the edges. Using this analogy, God says, “The time is ripe for my people; I will spare them no longer.” We all know what happens when you leave rotting fruit in the bowl with good fruit. It will all go bad. It is time to deal with the rot.

In verse 4 God speaks to the rot: “Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land.” The Sabbath is a farce. The powerful go through the motions, anxious for it to end so that they can return to making dishonest profits and to trading on the lives of the poor and needy. Selfishly living they ignored the needs of their brothers and sisters. We too can play these games. I’ve gone to church and spent the whole time thinking about that afternoon or the week ahead. I’ve given the homeless man a granola bar or a bottle of water while tightly clinging to that wad of cash in my pocket.

God declares that their songs will turn to wailing. Bodies will be strewn everywhere. This brings to mind recent images of responses to times when those with power have abused or oppressed those without power. Punishment will surely come for being selfish and ignoring the plight of those on the margins. God will not stand for such evil. What would Amos tell us about how we live and about how we treat those in need around us? How could we better reflect God’s heart for all people?

Prayer: Lord, guide my eyes to look beyond myself. Lead me to be more generous, more willing with all that you’ve blessed me with. Amen.


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Don’t Show Favoritism

Reading: James 2:1-10

Verse 1: “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.”

Photo credit: Elena Mozhvili

In our passage from James there is a clear call to be aware of our tendency to judge and stereotype and to make distinctions based on appearances. In verse one we read, “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.” James’ audience came by this tendency naturally, as we do today. Society has always valued those with wealth and status and power. That is why so many people chase after these things. This preference for and to certain people was having a negative impact on the church. If allowed to persist it has damaging effects.

James points out the tendency to welcome the wealthy person, trying to find them a really good seat, a place of honor. He opposes how a poor person is received as they are asked to sit on the floor or to stand in back – places of dishonor. The world treats the wealthy and powerful real well, hoping to get a little something out of it for themselves. In this process we devalue the poorer person, clearly making them feel less than. In verse four James asks us, “have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” The answer is ‘yes we have.’ There is always a driving force that guides how we treat others. In the scenario here in James, those with wealth and power can help out a struggling church. We too easily dismiss the one who is shabbily dressed, letting them know that they don’t matter much to us.

Treating others according to how they look on the surface is the opposite of how Jesus treated people. It ran counter to the Mosaic Law as well. James is clear on the impact of making distinctions: “If you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” These are hard and challenging words. To truly live without favoritism or judging or stereotyping is difficult. It is a call to stop making distinctions, to love and see with the heart of Jesus. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Lord, the world clearly favors those who have over those who don’t and those who are like us over those who are not. Help me to see as you see: without judgment, without prejudice, without hate. Help me to love all as you love all. Amen.


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Faithful Responding

Reading: Proverbs 22: 8-9 and 22-23

Verses 22-23: “Do not exploit the poor… for the Lord will take up their cause.”

Photo credit: Spencer Davis

In our passage from Proverbs the focus remains in those with and those without. Care and concern for the poor and needy is a very common theme throughout the scriptures. In the Law are provisions for the least of these – laws about not harvesting every single head of grain so there was still some left for the needy and guidelines for welcoming in the alien and stranger in your midst. Verse nine illustrates well the understanding of this charge to care for those in need: “A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor.” Blessings come from living out the heart of God.

Today we tend to see the care of the needy and poor one of two ways: that’s someone else’s job (either the governments or the pastors) or… here’s some money to help with that. Both approaches fail to comprehend the heart of God and the way we are called to truly care for those in need. Solomon did not say the generous man gave food to the poor. He shared his food with the poor. This implies sitting at the table together, sharing both food and time with one another. In a similar way the guidelines mentioned above implied opening your door and welcoming the other into your home to share in your generous hospitality. The heart of God is all about relationships and walking together with those that God places in our path and on our hearts.

In verses 22 and 23 we hear both a caution and a warning: “Do not exploit the poor… for the Lord will take up their cause.” The poor and needy tend to be powerless and voiceless. They are easy targets for some to take advantage of and for others to simply ignore. Jesus calls us to do just the opposite. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), for example, the plight of the man in need is the focus. The one who cared for the man in need is the one whom Jesus called us to “go and do likewise.” In our lives the voice or nudge of the Holy Spirit often reminds us of our call to care for such as these. This is the Lord taking up their cause. So when the Spirit speaks may we be faithful in responding to the need before us. Doing so we will not only bless the other but we will be blessed ourselves.

Prayer: Loving and compassionate God, your love for me is no more or no less than your love for my neighbor. Your care and concern for me is the same as your care and concern for the one far from you. Open my heart to live out these truths: all are loved, all are worthy and valued, all deserve to be cared for. With an open and willing heart, guide my hands and feet today. Amen.


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Maker of All

Reading: Proverbs 22: 1-2

Verse 2: “Rich and poor have this in common: the Lord is maker of them all”.

Photo credit: Stephen Leonardi

As we begin in Proverbs 22 today Solomon elevates character over wealth. In the opening verse he says it is more important to have a “good name” and to be “esteemed” or well thought of than it is to be wealthy. To have good character is important both in the eyes of the world and in the eyes of God. We are drawn to people who are honest, upright, genuine, sincere, humble, dependable. We ourselves strive to be this kind of person. Almost everyone wants to have a good name and to be esteemed by others.

I taught middle school for twenty years at a school in the downtown area of a small city. On occasion in my early years I would walk someplace after school and I would encounter a homeless person. Soon I was crossing the street or doing other things to avoid such people. My thoughts were never kind, always judgmental and critical. Then our church opened a day center for those struggling with issues of poverty and homelessness. Through some initial interactions and then volunteering at the center once a week, God changed my heart. As soon got to know many of the guests, I came to see that those I had judged and shunned were, in most ways, a lot like me. I came to see we were much more alike than different. Some had struggles that were different than mine, but inside each was a child of God, beloved and valued by God. Over the years I developed friendships with many guests and still enjoy reconnecting with them when the opportunity arises.

In verse two we read, “Rich and poor have this in common: the Lord is maker of them all”. I am very grateful that God taught me this lesson in a personal way. We could and should add to this verse too: black and white, men and women, native and immigrant… All people are creations of God. All people are beloved by God and all are deserving of our love. With all we meet this day and each day, may this be so.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the change that you wrought in my heart. As I still judge or am critical of others at times, continue to shape and refine me, drawing me closer to what you want me to be. Help me to love unconditionally and without limit. Amen.