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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Yes indeed!

Reading: Psalm 147: 1-11 and 20

Verse 1: “How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him”!

Photo credit: Jeremy Perkins

Psalm 147 is a Psalm of praise. It encourages us to offer up our praise to God for all that he is to and for us. The psalmist first recounts how God gathered the exiles, healed their broken hearts, and bound up their wounds. God restored Israel to wholeness. God continues to draw in the exiles – us when we wander and the lost when they seek him. God continues to bring healing and wholeness to our bodies and souls. We too have reason to “sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him”!

In the next stanza the psalmist calls for praise and thanksgiving because God provides rain to make the grass grow. The grass provides food for the crops and animals that in turn feed the people. Today many are grateful for the rains and snows that nourish the soil. The bountiful soil produces food for each of us and employment for many. Yes, indeed – praise the Lord! In this way, God sustains the earth just as God “sustains the humble”. Our God draws near to those who draw near to him. His love and mercies sustain us in our times of need. His mighty power and limitless understanding provide all we need in the valleys and in the trials. Yes indeed – let us praise the Lord! Thanks be to God!

Prayer: Lord God, how good and pleasant it is to praise your holy name. How awesome is your care and provision, how deep is your love. Thank you, Lord! 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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The Image of…

Reading: Matthew 22: 19-21

Verse 21: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s”.

Today’s short passage reminds me of the saying, ‘In the world but not of the world’. As Christians we know that this place is not our home. Yet we also clearly see in Jesus’ example and teaching that our task as disciples is to engage the world – especially the spaces and places where God’s love can bring healing and wholeness and community. Jesus sought to bring people into the circle of God’s love. As he departed this world he gave us instructions to do the same as we seek to make disciples of all people.

In the first half of today’s key verse, Jesus calls us to respect our earthly authorities. It does not matter if they are oppressive and insure that peace is kept via the threat of violence. It does not matter that they worship different gods. It doesn’t even matter that it will be Romans who whip him and drive nails through his hands and feet. The Romans are in authority. God has allowed them that role for a season. Therefore, “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”. This same concept applies today. None of us totally agrees with our bosses or teachers or leaders, but we are called upon to respect them, to pray for them, to honor them – whether or not they totally align with our values and beliefs.

Hard as this may be at times, the second half of this verse is even more challenging to truly live out. [“Give unto] God what is God’s”. Well, it all belongs to God. Without God we would not draw breath or inhabit these bodies. Without God we would not know true peace, joy, hope, love, comfort, contentment, grace, mercy… All that we have and all that we are belongs to God. This is what Jesus Christ is calling us to give – our all. Yes, this is a struggle. I fail every day in many ways. Sometimes it is withholding something small that I hope God doesn’t notice, sometimes my rebellion is more out in the open. What then? What then? The Holy Spirit intercedes. Sometimes quietly, sometimes with more conviction than I think I can bear at the time. The Holy Spirit reminds me of who I am and of whose I am. Yes, I am created in the image of God, just as you are. But the mirror works both ways. God sees in us the image of his son. God sees in us one of his children. In endless love, God calls us back into right relationship, back into our place in the family. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Loving God, it is good to be reminded that I am a beloved child of yours. It is a blessing to be a part of your family, where love reigns over all, covers over all, sustains all. Help me to reflect and share that love each day as I seek to make you known. Amen.


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Wholeness and Unity

Reading: Philippians 4: 1-3

Verse 2: “I plead with ___ and ___ to agree with each other in the Lord”.

Paul is imprisoned in Rome as he writes these words. The man who founded many churches and who was a key figure in bringing many people into a saving faith in Jesus Christ has been imprisoned for preaching the gospel. Paul is highly respected in the Christian communities spread throughout the known world. His words and writings carry weight. As he sits under house arrest in Rome, word of a dispute in the church in Philippi comes to his attention. Philippi is about 800 miles from Rome. Word would be carried across land, then sea, then land again. As he closes the letter to the Philippians, Paul takes time to address the dispute between Euodia and Syntyche, two prominent women in the church. In the opening verse above I left two blank lines because for most churches today we could fill in the lines. The spat may be past tense in some of our churches, but it is alive and well in too many others.

The fact that two women are in a sharp enough disagreement to merit mentioning means that it had significance for that church. Such disagreements often do. We do not know the source or cause of the disagreement, we just know it was doing what these things do – causing division and hostility. Paul knows these are bad for relationships and for churches so he asks a third party, believed to by Syzygus, the “loyal yokefellow”, to mediate. Again, in our churches it could be Bob or Anne or anyone skilled at bringing reconciliation. This is often a necessary step.

Division in the body of Christ does harm in so many ways. When we dig in and hunker down and refuse to enter into dialogue, we allow division to exist. When we in the church allow this, Satan is winning the day. Our community is weakened and our witness to the world is lessened. Whether one person is wrong or if both are wrong or if neither is wrong, all parties had a hand in creating division. Understanding and healing and forgiveness and grace and reconciliation must be found. Just as Paul pleads for these people to “agree with each other in the Lord”, may that be the prayer that we lift whenever needed in our churches and communities of faith. May the conviction of the Holy Spirit and the prayers of our hearts bring wholeness and unity to the body of Christ.

Prayer: Father God, where there is division, bring me words of healing and peace. Where and when there are disagreements in the body of Christ, give me words of understanding and love, words of grace and forgiveness. When hearts are hard, lead me to foster openness and care for the other. God, draw churches of all flavors into the unified church that will better resemble eternity. Walk with me as I seek to lead in that direction. Amen.


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I Will Be with You…

Reading: Exodus 3: 7-15

Verse 12: “And God said, ‘I will be with you'”.

In today’s passage we see the love and compassion of God for his people. In the first few verses we hear how God has “seen the misery”, “come down to rescue them”, and “have seen… the oppressing”. God has heard the cries of his people and has decided to act. As is most often the case, God will act through a person. God chooses Moses to go to Pharaoh to “bring the Israelites out of Egypt”.

In response to Moses’ self-doubt God tells him, “I will be with you”. God does remain present to Moses from that day forward – in numerous trips before Pharaoh and through many trials and rebellions in the wilderness. God remained Moses’ constant. Many years later God was a constant presence again. Born of the virgin Mary, God became one of us. As Jesus Christ, God lived out what he told Moses: “I will be with you”. The same love, the same compassion, the same empathy lived among humanity. God’s action took the forms of bringing wholeness to physically and/or emotionally and/or spiritually broken and hurting people. It led people to a new or renewed connection to God and to community. Jesus brought people out of their darkness, isolation, brokenness, and sin. He broke the chains of slavery – of sin and death – so that we could live in right relationship with God. Jesus died to accomplish this victory.

His death was not the end of the story. Jesus gifted us with the Holy Spirit. In the giving of the Holy Spirit to dwell in each believer’s heart, Jesus says, “I will be with you – forever”. The Holy Spirit is our constant presence of God in our lives. The Spirit leads us just as it led Moses, just as it was lived out by Jesus. Our Christlikeness, our creation in the image of God – these lead us to see the misery of the people, to go to rescue them, to work to end their oppression, to hear their cries. This day and every day may Christ within us lead us out into the world to share God’s love, compassion, and empathy, to help others know the God who promises, “I will be with you”. May it be so.

Prayer: Loving God, just as you hear and see and feel and act, help me to do the same. Lead and guide me to be your love in my world. Use me as you will. Amen.


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Preaching, Teaching, Healing

Reading: Matthew 9: 35-38

Verse 35: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching… preaching… and healing”.

Today’s short passage sums up Jesus’ ministry quite well. In verse 35 we read about the things that occupied most of his time: teaching, preaching, and healing. I believe that these three practices remain the core practices of ministry today. These three practices often work together to shape and form who we are as people of faith.

Teaching can occur in many settings and can cover many topics. In ministry, we most often think of Bible studies and other topical small groups as the main ways that teaching occurs. This tends to be the focus of teaching in our churches. There are other ways to teach faith. In intentional conversations and in the things we regularly do and say we teach about faith. For example, as parents our everyday words and actions are the main methods of passing our faith along to our children. In this time of COVID there has been a great deal of teaching in our churches on how to safely minister while honoring the need to social distance and stay at home. We have begun to teach about safely gathering again. More recently there has been an increase in teaching on racism and prejudice in America. These teachings have centered on understanding racism and on recognizing how we are all implicit in and impacted by this evil. Social justice has always been a cornerstone of Christianity.

Preaching is something we think just happens on Sunday morning or maybe on a Wednesday or Saturday night. These are the primary delivery times but it also occurs at various times in a variety of settings. These can range from a one-on-one conversation to retreats and camps and even to impromptu gatherings in a bar or the local coffee shop. In almost all cases, preaching centers on sharing, understanding, and applying faith to our daily lives.

Healing was the third aspect of Jesus’ ministry. Today we do not see as many physical healings as we read about in the New Testament. But the Holy Spirit is very active, working in and through Christians all over the world. Healing included restoration to wholeness, redemption from sins and bondage, being drawn into a community of faith, and finding new life in Jesus Christ.

In our passage we read that Jesus preached, taught, and healed for one reason: compassion. He saw those who were in need – the “the harassed and helpless” – and he ministered to them. Our very understanding of who is harassed and helpless has certainly grown over these last few months. In verse 37 Jesus notes, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few”. May we all be workers for Jesus Christ today!

Prayer: Leading God, day by day help me to use all three of these practices to minister to my congregation and to my community. Empower me by the Holy Spirit to bring fullness and wholeness of life to those in need. Amen.


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Authority

Reading: Matthew 28: 16-20

Verse 18: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”.

Jesus begins his final words reminding the disciples that he has authority over all things – both in heaven and on earth. He has demonstrated this authority. In walking on the water and with the calming of the storm he demonstrated authority over nature. By raising Lazarus and others and by walking out of the tomb Jesus demonstrated authority over life and death. Through many healings he showed power over disease and illness. In many encounters Jesus revealed the authority to restore brokenness and to redeem sinners. Jesus has authority over all things.

Authority is a powerful thing. As we have talked and read about this week, humanity can struggle with properly exercising our authority over the created world. As we have seen once again, authority can be abused. Using one’s title and position of authority to kneel upon a man’s neck until life has ebbed out of his body is clearly a case of extreme abuse of authority. In the MeToo movement we also witnessed what unchecked abuses of authority can lead to. There is no place for any of these types of abuse of authority.

How did Jesus use and define his authority? As one considers Jesus’ ministry, his authority was used to bring healing, restoration, wholeness, and true life to people. Jesus always sought to connect people to God and to one another in the community of faith. That is the task he sets the disciples to in our passage today. Jesus defined his authority as being total – over all things. In his ministry he clearly demonstrated the scope of his claim. His authority applied to all things and to all people. There was never anyone Jesus turned away from, never anyone he refused to minister to.

In the call to make disciples of all nations, may we claim and employ the authority that Jesus gives us. Jesus holds out the authority to love as he loved, to serve as he served, to minister as he ministered – without conditions, without barriers, without strings attached. Jesus’ authority allows us to walk as his disciples, following his example. May we faithfully love God and neighbor just as Jesus did this day and every day.

Prayer: Loving God, may I fully claim the authority you give me to love and serve as Jesus did. May all I do and say and think reflect you within my heart and to all I meet each day. Amen.


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Forgiveness

Reading: John 20: 19-23

Verse 23: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven”.

Much of the resurrection focuses on forgiveness. The most obvious examples are Jesus forgiving those who placed him on the cross and the grace that he extended to the thief on the cross next to his. But there are other examples. The taking upon himself our sins began the process of confession and repentance that we must practice at least daily. The spirit of forgiveness, I would argue, began even earlier in the week. As Jesus washed Judas’ feet and shared the first communion with him, Jesus was modeling what forgiving our enemies looks like. Then, in the garden, as Jesus the man feared the brutality that lay ahead, he gave a human plea to be spared. To move past this point, to master his emotions, the divine Jesus bowed to his Father’s will. To do so he had to come to peace with his situation. To do that, in a way Jesus had to offer forgiveness for what he was about to endure.

When Jesus appeared to his disciples, after offering his peace to them and showing them the scars, he shared his intent to send them out. He empowered them with these words: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven”. The Holy Spirit would be the guide and the power to go in Jesus’ name. With this power the disciples would teach and heal – both physically and spiritually. We too receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, first at our baptism. Being anointed with water, the Holy Spirit becomes a part of our lives, leading and guiding us. Upon professing Jesus as Lord and Savior, the Holy Spirit blossoms into full life. As we mature in faith our ability to hear and feel the Spirit deepens and widens. This power that grows and blossoms in us is the same Holy Spirit that led the first disciples out to share the good news of Jesus Christ and to change the world forever. We too have the same power inside of us.

Part of Jesus’ plan was the forgiveness of sins. It is why he went to the cross. It is what he modeled over and over as he restored many to wholeness of life. It is what Jesus continues to do today as the Spirit works in our lives and through us in the world. The peace that Jesus brings is tied to this idea of forgiveness. If we are to have peace in our lives – true peace – we must be disciples that practice forgiveness. That means that we do not offer up the hollow “I forgive you” like we did when kids. That means not trying to offer forgiveness while still holding onto hurts and thoughts of revenge. That means truly forgiving our enemies and others that we suspect might hurt us again. This is the forgiveness offered at the cross. This is the forgiveness that Jesus lived out. This is the forgiveness that the resurrection calls us to live out. May it be so.

Prayer: Loving God. Yes, loving God. You love me in spite of all my sins and failures. You do so because once I confess and repent, to you my sins are no more. Grant me that depth of love, O Lord. Grant it to me, please. Amen.


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By Our Love

Reading: Isaiah 63: 7-9

Verse 8: “He said, ‘Surely they are my people’… so he became their Savior”.

Today’s few verses begin by reminding us of God’s kindness and of the many good things God has done for Israel “according to his compassion”. God has been and will always be a God of kindness and compassion. Verse eight speaks of this: “He said, ‘Surely they are my people’… so he became their Savior”. God knew the way to deepen his connection with us was to become like us, so God sent his Son to be our Savior.

Jesus, our Savior, then lived out the next verse. In times when he encountered distressed people – lepers, the woman accused of adultery, Nicodemus, Martha, Peter – in compassion Jesus joined them in their distress. Then, in “love and mercy he redeemed them”. Jesus removed their disease, their stigma, their fear, their worry, their shame… and redeemed them to wholeness. He saved them from all that kept them broken and separated and he restored them to a fullness of life.

In his ministry Jesus mirrored the kindness and compassion of the Father. Jesus Christ lived these things out as he walked the earth. The source of his kindness and compassion was and is love. Love is still what identifies us as Christ’s disciples. By our love, others will know we follow Jesus. By our love, others will come to know Jesus, the Savior and Redeemer of the world. May it be so today and every day.

Prayer: God of love, over and over you redeem and restore me. Over and over. Give me a heart to love like you love, over and over. Give me eyes to see past barriers and stereotypes and all else that can separate. Grant that my hands will always reach out and that my feet will ever step forward in service to you. May this be so, O God. Amen.