pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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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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Loving God…

Reading: 1st Corinthians 6: 12-20

Verse 15: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself”?

As followers of Jesus Christ we have a freedom that guides our living. Through Jesus Christ we are freed from the things of this world. Earthly pleasures still entice us, yes, but we find our joy and peace, our very identity, in and with Jesus. Yes, we will sin and one day face death, but in Christ we are freed from the shame and guilt of our sin and we are freed from worry or fear or anxiety over death. We see the things of the world as temporary and we see our life in Christ as eternal. But the freedom that we find in Christ is not permission to do anything and everything, knowing that Jesus forgives our sins. Faith calls us first to holy living and to humble service. Some in Corinth had this backwards. They were confused. Some were sinning openly and knowingly under the claim that “everything is permissible” because of the grace and mercy and forgiveness offered by Jesus.

Today’s passage centers on the sexual immortality present in some of the church members’ lives. Promiscuity and the use of prostitutes were the earthly pleasures that some were indulging in. Others in the church did not think these behaviors were in line with holy living. Instead of simply telling those who were sinning to stop, though, Paul helps them to think through this scenario so that they can think like this for themselves when other issues or questions arise. Paul uses “do you not know…” three times to frame their thinking. He reminds them that their bodies are “members of Christ himself”, that sexual union makes the two people “one flesh”, and that the body is the “temple of the Holy Spirit”. Ultimately Paul is reminding them that they are connected to Christ and that what they do with our bodies should honor him. To enter into sexual unions outside of marriage, to overindulge in food and drink, to lord one’s status or wealth over others, to do other unhealthy things with our bodies – all dishonor our bodies and therefore dishonor God. All of these issues were things that the Corinthian church would wrestle with and through using Paul’s framework. In the end, each issue would come down to loving God, loving neighbor, and loving self. Doing these well, the church brought honor and glory to God. May it be so with each of us as well.

Prayer: Lord God, in so many ways faith is about love. Does this thought or word or action show my love of God? Does it reveal my love of neighbor? Does is reflect a holy and righteous love of self? Guide me in your ways of love. Amen.


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God Still Speaks

Reading: 1st Samuel 3: 1-20

Verse 6: “Again the Lord called, ‘Samuel'”!

We begin this week’s readings with the calling of Samuel. One night when Samuel lay down in the temple, as he had done for many years, God decided to speak to him. In some ways it must have been a shock but in other ways it was expected. To understand why, a little background from the previous chapter. Samuel was, after all, born to Hannah, the fruit of a desperate prayer to the Lord. This barren woman had taken her case to God and he responded. Eli was there that day in the temple as she poured our her heart and her pain. After understanding her prayer, Eli blessed her, saying, “May the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him”. When he is born, Hannah names him ‘Samuel’ “because I asked the Lord for him”. After Samuel is weaned he is brought to the temple so that “his whole life is given over to the Lord”. Samuel is raised in the temple by Eli, learning much about God. So, it is not a shock when God calls, “Samuel”!

Samuel’s story reminds me of my story and perhaps it also reminds you of your story. Long before I began to remember things for myself, my parents brought me before the Lord and baptized me, committing my life to a faithful walk with the Lord. My birth was an answer to prayer, some comfort to hurting hearts. Although I did not live at the church, worship and Sunday school were regular parts of my childhood. Youth group eventually replaced Sunday school. I was confirmed and became a member of the Congregational church. During my high school years I made the personal decision to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Perhaps your faith journey is similar to mine and, therefore, to Samuel’s. God has long been at work in our lives. God knows us well.

It took Samuel a while to realize that God was speaking to him and he needed Eli’s help to realize it. This too I recognize in my life. I do not always recognize that it is God “speaking” to me. At times I too need others to help me recognize the whispers, the nudged, the guidance. Sometimes three calls are just the beginning of the process for me.

Just as with Samuel, God has plans for our lives. God will call and call, full of patience and love. As we live out our faith each day, may we grow in our connection to the Lord so that we too are faithful in responding, “Speak, for your servant is listening”.

Prayer: Lord, thank you for your faithful and persistent call upon my life. I am grateful for each person that has helped me to hear the call throughout my life. Open my eyes and heart to hear you better and better each time you call. Give me a willing spirit, ever ready to respond. Amen.


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Redemption

Reading: Luke 2: 36-40

Verse 38: “She spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem”.

Today as we read this short section from Luke 2 we focus in on Anna and her words concerning Jesus. Anna is an old woman, a prophet with a deep devotion to God. She has been a widow for a long time and the focus of her life is praying and fasting in the temple. After thanking God – for the encounter, for seeing the Messiah, for what Jesus means to her people – Anna “spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem”. At this point in their history, all Jews are looking forward to Jerusalem’s redemption.

The act of redeeming has always been a part of the Jewish faith. Mary and Joseph have just redeemed Jesus, Boaz was the kinsman redeemer, and the Jews celebrated the Year of Jubilee every 50 years. In each of these acts, one is released or freed – from their debts, from their slavery, from a burden that forced them to sell family land. This idea of being freed from that which binds us is very much a part of Jesus’ ministry and healing. Jesus healed both relationships and physical ailments. Often these were tied together. Physical healing often led to relational healing. By revealing the depth of God’s love, mercy, and grace, Jesus drew many back into relationship with God and with one another. He brought a wholeness to life that invited people to live with joy, peace, and hope. Jesus also healed people physically – lepers, the blind, lame, mute, deaf, the possessed – also inviting people back to God and back into society, family, and community. Jesus brought a completeness and unity to life that was freeing and welcoming, that was unconditional and full.

When I think about this side of redemption that Jesus offered, I am drawn to my community and to my neighborhood. Nearby, there are folks who are bound up in or with addiction and abuse, folks who feel enslaved to financial debt, folks who feel isolated and alone, folks who are grieving because of loss. Jesus offers the same redemption, the same healing, the same freeing today. He offers it through you and through me. May we be a part of building other’s faith, seizing the opportunities that God gives us to share our faith with others, inviting them into the love, hope, peace, and joy of Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Loving God, you seek to redeem, to free all people. You are a God of love and justice and community. Use me this day to draw others in, to add to the family of faith, to bring your healing and freeing love to those who need to know you. Amen.


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This Child

Reading: Luke 2: 22-36

Verse 34: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many… so the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed”.

The day after Mary and Joseph complete the purification ritual they bring Jesus to the temple to dedicate and redeem him. Mary and Joseph are devout people, following the law according to Moses. Each firstborn son is to be consecrated or given to God. The law also provided a way for a family to keep their son. A poor couple like Mary and Joseph would need Jesus to work in the small family business. They offered the normal gift – two birds – to redeem their son. Having completed the ritual, Mary and Joseph were ready to return to Nazareth. But something extraordinary happens first. Mary and Joseph meet Simeon and Anna, two people closely connected to God.

Simeon and Anna have been waiting to see the one who will bring salvation and redemption. God had revealed to Simeon that he would see “the Lord’s consolation” before he died. This day the Spirit leads Simeon to the temple and to Mary and Joseph. He proclaims, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many… so the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed”. Jesus will be both salvation and a stumbling block, connecting with some hearts, hardening others. Simeon also forewarns Mary of the “sword” that will one day “pierce her own soul too” as she stands at the foot of the cross. And then Anna, an old prophetess who spends all her time in the temple, thanks God for seeing Jesus and tells Mary and Joseph that their child will be the redemption of Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph take in God’s plans for their newborn son. Returning home, we read that Jesus grew up and was filled with wisdom and that God’s grace was upon him.

As we reflect on the one who came, comes, and will come to offer salvation and redemption to all things, where is it that we need to feel his loving touch and his healing mercies on this quiet day after the Christmas celebration? The light remains in the world and in our hearts.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for the gift of the one who saves and redeems. Help me to walk daily with Jesus, bringing light and love into the world. Amen.


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Prepared to Offer Love

Reading: Psalm 100

Verse 4: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name”.

Psalm 100 is such a spirit-lifter! It is all about praising God and rejoicing in God’s goodness and love. The Psalm was written to be sung heading to and in worship. That is what the psalmist means, literally, when he writes, “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise”. Enter into the tabernacle, enter into the temple, enter into the sanctuary, enter into the chapel… with thanksgiving and praise. We can all leave “life” behind and enter into that holy space to praise and worship the Lord. It is in that sacred place that we connect to the Holy One. There we are lifted up in spirit and filled with his presence and love. There we are renewed and refreshed. There we are prepared.

The second half of verse four reads, “give thanks to him and praise his name”. Once connected, lifted up, filled, renewed, refreshed, then we are prepared to exit the church to live lives that give thanks to the Lord and that bring praise to his holy name. We do so by living out and pouring out our faith into the world and into the lives of those we encounter. This is the feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty… that we have been reading about in Matthew 25. May we each see and live out the relationship between worship and life, seeking to make Jesus Christ and his love known in all we say and do and think.

Prayer: God of all generations, may my life be a fragrant and pleasing offering to you. May my times of connection ever be times of thanksgiving and praise, filling me to do your will in the world. Amen.


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Lord of Love

Reading: Matthew 21: 23-27

Verse 23: “The chief priests and elders came to him. ‘By what authority are you doing these things’? they asked”.

In today’s passage Jesus is in the temple, the home court of the religious leaders. He is teaching. Not just anyone can enter the temple courts and begin preaching. Not quite ready to simply run him out, the leaders ask Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things”? Jesus is not what they envisioned for the Messiah, so they have a hard time seeing him for who he is.

People still do this today. Jesus is not exactly who they want him to be or he doesn’t function as they’d like him to, so they refuse to believe in him. Some expect Jesus to “do” certain things or to make life good. They cannot equate trials and sufferings to the Lord of love, so they abandon him too early in the process. When Jesus doesn’t immediately swoop in and fix things, they think him powerless. This was part of the religious leaders problem. They envisioned a conquering, Roman defeating Messiah. Jesus was a humble, surrendering Savior.

The religious leaders wanted Jesus to fit into their world. They also knew that he wasn’t just a man or some prophet. They acknowledge his power, admitting that he is “doing these things”. No one else can heal and make people whole again. But they want the Messiah to be one of them and Jesus is not. We too can want Jesus to be like us instead of us being like Jesus. This cannot be. Our love is limited, our surrender only partial. Jesus is the perfect example of God’s love – willing to humble himself fully, willing to give all of himself in surrender. He is the Messiah that came to save us all. He served through love. May we too seek to be like this Jesus, the model of love.

Prayer: Lord God, open my eyes to the Lord of love. May his love fill me and overflow into the lives of all I meet. In that love, shape me into a humble servant of all. Amen.


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Undeserved? YES!

Reading: Matthew 20: 1-16

Verse 1: “The kingdom of God is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard”.

Today’s parable in Matthew is the second in a row where Jesus teaches about God’s upside-down kingdom. If we were the workers who were hired early in the morning, we too would be upset when we received the same pay as those who worked only one hour. Like these workers, it would not matter a whole lot to us that we agreed to our pay before we even started working or that it was a fair days wage. Similarly, those who worked nine hours would be pretty upset, those who worked six hours would be kind of upset… On the surface level we struggle with this story just as we can sometimes struggle with the story of the thief on the cross found in Luke 23.

Jesus’ actual behavior also reflects this upside-down feel. He did not spend most of his time in the temple. He did not recruit his followers from elite rabbi schools. Jesus himself was not even trained as a professional rabbi. The religious leaders were much like the full day workers in our parable. They cringed and recoiled when Jesus forgave the sins of adulterous women and greedy tax collectors and the lame and deaf and mute – those obviously carrying the lifelong burden of some unrepentant sin. Like the thief on the cross and the workers who only came at the last hour, people like these do not deserve such easy grace, such free flowing forgiveness.

Do we sometimes cringe and recoil at who God continues to invite into the kingdom of God? Do we ever walk into church on a Sunday morning and wonder, Who let them in? If so, we need to check the inner religious snob hiding inside of us too.

I do not know about you, but I am glad that God is the God of late in life professions of faith and death bed confessions of Jesus as Lord. That expression of generous and unconditional grace is the same exact grace that forgives my struggle with pride for the zillionth time. Yes, yes, we rejoice at that grace. Whether one comes at the first hour or at the last hour, may all hear about and come to experience that same extravagant and wonderful grace.

Prayer: Loving and generous God, it is so wonderful to live within your abundant and generous grace. Even though I may not deserve to experience it over and over, you continue to pour it over me time and time again. Thank you for your love of a sinner like me. Amen.


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All in Praise

Reading: Psalm 27: 4-6

Verse 6: “I will sing and make music to the Lord”.

If you are a fan of contemporary Christian music you probably cannot read verse four without a song running through your head. This line appears in the song “Better Is One Day”. The author of that songs proclaims that “better is one day in you house than thousands elsewhere”. While this is true, David’s hope is much greater. In verse four he writes, “that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days if my life”. Not just one day but every day. That too should be our goal.

To be present to God, to “gaze upon his beauty”, is possible in many ways. We can do this when we are in spiritual connection with God through prayer or meditation or study. We can do this through a physical connection, such as seeing God in the beauty of nature or in the face of one who we are serving or ministering to. And, of course, we can do it as David does, when worshipping God.

In the Psalm, David rejoices in the times that God has kept him safe in days of trouble, rescuing David. This also leads David to praise God. With shouts of joy David offers himself in worship. There, in the temple, “I will sing and make music to the Lord”. This is David’s grateful response to God. In whatever shape or form that takes, may we too offer all of ourselves in praise to our God. May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer: Father God, you alone are worthy of my praise. You lead and guide me, you protect me. Time and time again you have saved me and set my feet upon the rock of Jesus Christ. This morning I praise you! I ask that you would be the Lord of my life all of my days. Amen.


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Servant

Reading: Isaiah 49: 1-7

Verse 3: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor”.

At the time of Isaiah, the Israelites are in exile in Babylon. They are living in a foreign culture that worships many gods. They are far outside of their normal ways of life and all the comfort and routine that it brings. The Israelites long for what was. Even though they know the temple and Jerusalem have been destroyed, it is still home. It is where God is found.

On our journeys of faith we can experience times in exile, times when we feel distant or separated from God. Depending on the root cause of our exile, the time there can vary. If it is a “small” sin, for example, one that we can confess and repent of easily, then our time of separation can be short. But if we sit in our sin or if the guilt or shame becomes too great, then the exile can lengthen. In these cases we come to the place the Israelites find themselves – we long to be restored and forgiven, but we feel stuck or trapped.

Today’s passage is the third of Isaiah’s “Servant Songs”. These songs tell of a servant who will draw the people back to Israel, restoring the twelve tribes. For the Israelites, they would find hope and promise in these words. Their first and immediate question would be: when? In verse three we read, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor”. The people long for God’s splendor to once again be shown in and through them. They long to be back home, back to living in right relationship with God.

The words of the prophet Isaiah ring true with us too. God desires to shine in and through us, his servants. God longs to be in right relationship with each of us, to restore and redeem us. The Holy One has chosen us too. May we walk in the light of Christ, the Redeemer, helping others to walk in the light of Christ too.

Prayer: Lord God, you called me by name. You have restored me and brought me back over and over. In my human weakness you have been so strong. You guide and lead me. Today, as I seek to walk with you and to shine your light into the world, guide my words and thoughts. Fill them with all of you. This day, once again, use me as you will. Amen.