Hope for Today/What do you hope for?

Psalm 80

Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow Nation guided his people through the deep crisis brought by the invasion of the white man. Shortly before his death in 1932, he said to his biographer: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.” Jonathan Lear, author of Radical Hope, is haunted by this phrase. What did Plenty Coups mean by “after this nothing happened”? It is as though there is no longer an ‘I’ there.”

We have a term for life without hope: despair. Aquinas calls it the greatest sin. That judgment is something of a surprise, since hope is not the greatest of the virtues: love is. So why would despair, which opposes hope, outrank hatred, which opposes love? Aquinas believes there is something about despair different from either unbelief, which opposes God’s truth, or hatred, which opposes God’s goodness. While hatred and unbelief oppose God directly, despair, says Aquinas, “consists in a man—when we—cease to hope for a share of God’s goodness.”

Despair concerns God indirectly; it detaches us from God’s story. Despair does not so much deny or oppose God’s truth or story directly, but rather says: whatever the truth is, or whatever the story may be, there is nothing in it for me.

Hope is what sustains us when things go badly in our lives and in our world.  The Hebrew prophets were soaked in hope!  When the children of Israel were out of step with God, going in wrong directions the prophets pictured a better future with God bringing them back, blessing them with new hearts.  The emphasis is always on God’s action and mercy up against our human failings and frailties.

Hope is not having rosed colored glasses.  Hope is not optimism.  It doesn’t pretend that things are better than they are.  It does not mask reality.  Hope keeps us trusting even in the midst of trials and troubles.  

Sometimes when life is good, when we have things go our way without any challenges and difficulties we get comfortable and think this is the way it is supposed to be.  Then when troubles come we loose sight of what hope really is.

Our faith becomes soft and squishy.  Then we don’t have anything to hold on to (or to hold us steady) when troubles come. And troubles do come!  

Odysseus had to be tied to the mast as he passed the signing of the Sirens so he wouldn’t capitulate and be drawn to them.  Aquinas tells us that as Christians we need two be tied to a person—Jesus and the cross.  

We dare not be fooled.  If we fall into the trap of thinking life should be easy and we shouldn’t have struggles then we are vulnerable to giving into despair.  There is no perfect life.  There is no perfect job.  There are no perfect families.  There are no perfect marriages.  There are now perfect children or patents.  No one has it “made in the shade.”  No one is trouble free!  One of my members that I served years ago—an older widow who knew life could be hard—would tell me “this ain’t heaven yet!”  

Christian fellowship is when we realize we are all in this together and are pilgrims and sojourners of hope that lean on each other as we travel this sod.  

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “I have never been an optimist.  I am a prisoner of hope.”  That is a quote from Zechariah 9:12 in the Old Testament.  In that verse the prophet says to despondent Israelites, “return to your stronghold.”  Their situation was not changing immediately for the better.  They needed to rest in God’s grace and presence in the midst of struggles.  That is why the prophet Zechariah then calls them “prisoners of hope.”  Hope is refined and strengthened in the darkness.  Hope endures great evil and calls us to “buck up” and continue to entrust ourselves to God.  

There are times when we realize our grip on God is slipping.  Our faith is not strong enough.  And we feel like giving up and giving in to despair.  Don’t!  Jesus does not give up on us.  His grip won’t let us go.  We are tied to the cross through baptism even when we feel our faith is flimsy and failing.  It is not about how strong our faith is, but how strong our Savior is. 

Consider Psalm 80.  It starts by crying out to God “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel” (Israel here applies to all the people of God in both the Old and New Testaments, including you and me) “come to save us!”  The Israelites recognized their sin and desperate need, and their dependence upon God to save them.  We recognize our need and God’s ability to save us also!  Three times in our psalm for today the cry of the psalmist is “Restore us, O God.  Let Your face shine on us and we shall be saved” (verses 4, 7 & 19).  

Let Your face shine upon us is a tremendous phrase.  God looks our way favorably.  God sees our condition and acts upon His great love to care for us.  This captures the essence of Jesus coming—God in human flesh—God with us.  God as one of us.  God taking on our brokenness and giving us hope.  God holding on to us in the midst of the storms of life.  

This Advent season once again gives us hope.  We have the hope of several vaccines for this dangerous virus.  We have hope for a healthy government and the possibility of unity and harmony even with social discord and tension.  

Our hope isn’t in the hands of the donkey or the elephant.  Our hope rests in the Lamb. 

In Jesus’ name.  Amen. 

The Lord is Near!

Philippians 4:1-9

v 1 Paul, stating his love and joy in the Philippian believers tells them to stand firm in the Lord.  

You might recall in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter six, he writes about spiritual warfare and the armor we should put on.  In verse 13 he writes, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything to stand firm.”   The word translated “withstand” implies being able to resist and oppose the evil winds and forces that oppose us.  

Life is not easy.  There is much good in the world, to be sure, but we are naive and foolish when we fail to see the evil in our world as well.  Paul, in his letter to the Philippians believers is positive and filled with joy.  As believers we can echo his hope and assurance.  Yet, he is also realistic and tells us to stand firm in our faith in Jesus.  There are forces at work that would draw us away from Him and whittle away our trust and confidence; weaken our resolve to serve Him.  

v 2-3 He goes right into one of the major areas that affect us—disagreements in the body of Christ.  In so many words he tells us to “get along,” we are on the same team.  We are co-workers with our names written together in the book of life.  

v 4 Then he goes right into the a series of commands, enjoiners telling how we should order our thoughts.  Rejoice in the Lord—not in circumstances, not only when everything is going our way, not in life when it is good—but in the Lord.  

Bad things happen to good people.  Not everything that happens can be explained away as being God’s will.  God does not will or cause evil.  God is not the author of death, but life.  God did not bring sin into our world.  We did.  So, not everything that happens is what God intended to happen.  Evil breaks His heart.  Disease and death break God’s heart.  Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus.  The death of God’s children is sacred and special.  God created us for life.  Jesus suffered, died and rose again to restore us to that life.  And when Jesus comes again He will usher in that eternal kingdom promised in Scripture.  In the interim we suffer.  Paul did.  He wrote these words from prison, and if we understand his circumstances correctly he never was released from prison.  Yet he says rejoice.  In the Lord.  Because God is still in control.  

v 5a Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The word translated “gentleness” can also be translated forbearance, patience, considerate.    

Another way of stating what Paul is saying might be, don’t react with anger to those around you.  Don’t be argumentative.  Don’t belittle or begrudge those you deal with.  Get along.  Be Christlike.  Be patient.  Be gentle.  We sure could use some of that attitude in our world.  Rather than wishing others would be like Jesus, Paul says, YOU BE LIKE HIM!  You be the standard bearer.  

The wedding feast parable in our Gospel reading shares a parallel thought.  You and I have been invited to a wedding party.  We understand this parable to be picture the “wedding feast of the Lamb.”—Jesus is the groom.  We are the bride.  We’ve been invited to the party.  And yet so many of us have too many others things going on in life.  Too many things to bother with this Christianity stuff, this holy living stuff, this churchy stuff.  

God’s invitation is to life and celebration of His presence and abundant giving.  It is an invitation to enjoy God’s presence, protection and provision no matter what and where we are.  We come clothed in Christ.  That means being filled with God’s Spirit, and doing the work of loving and caring for others Jesus’ style—the same way Jesus loves and cares for us.  

Note this, God loves us as we are and brings us into the kingdom as His guests with everything prepared for us.  But God loves us too much to let us continue unchanged.  Learn to grow in Christ.  Learn to emulate His attitude and way of caring for others.  Learn to put others before you.  Learn to turn away from greed, selfishness, self-centeredness, laziness, lustful thinking, etc. etc.  

v 5b The motivation?  The Lord is near.  His Second Coming, His return is imminent.  Live as if His Second Coming were this afternoon, or tonight or tomorrow.  If you knew you only had one more day of life how would you respond to the irritants that set you off balance?  Would you still be given to greed or complaining?  How would you be different.  Paul says let Jesus’ return modify your attitude, words, and actions.  

v 6-7 Paul continues:  Don’t worry!  Remember the song, “don’t worry, be happy!”  Paul is not simplistic here, but he does give us a formula, a strategy for not worrying.  Instead of worrying he says—P R A Y.  Talk to God.  Give God your concerns, but do it in such a way that you are thankful and grateful no matter the outcome.  That can only happen when our trust overrides our fears and worries.  God knows you and me.  God knows our needs better than we do.  Can you entrust yourself to God no matter what?  If so, “the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”  

The word “guard” is a military term from the Greek language.  It implies a sentry at the gate or doorway of our heart and mind.  The word picture is peace will protect and keep away those pesky worries and thoughts that assault us.  

v 8-9 Finally, says the Apostle.  Finally practice a little self talk.  Practice a little mental focus.  Be deliberate about what you focus on.  Intentionality ought to be part and parcel of our Christian faith.  You can control where your mind goes.  When it wonders into “enemy territory” such as worry, greed, etc.  lasso it back and focus on the good, noble, honorable, pure, commendable and excellent things.  You might have to pray for help.  But hey, that is okay.  You might have to admit failure and confess, but hey, that is okay.  Don’t quit redirecting your thoughts.  Don’t give in.  Fight the good fight and let God’s peace be with you and fill you.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

A Vineyard Story

Matthew 21:33-46, Psalm 80: 7-15, Philippians 3:4-14 ELC/ October 4 2020

Press On—Do the Next Right Thing!

This parable is about God’s grace and gifts to us as the people of God in this world.  He gives us all we need for daily life, including blessings and gifts that give us joy and pleasure.  It is good to recognize and remember that God’s gifts and grace surpass the mundane needs of necessary things for life.  God wants us to enjoy and celebrate His presence among us, and to celebrate life.  It is good to be grateful!

In this vineyard parable, along with the portion of Psalm 80 we see how we have failed God.  That is not breaking news—not a news flash.  It is old news.  We humans are predictable in our failure to see past ourselves.  We are predictable in consuming what we think is ours.  We forget we are stewards of God’s gifts, often slipping into the fallacy that God is our servant, doing our bidding, taking care of our every need.  Almost like a “Santa Clause god” just waiting for us to make our list of demands and wishes.  

This parable helps us see that God continues to care for us even when we rebel and resist His grace and Spirit’s pleading.  He speaks to us through His prophets—the Bible.  He sends His Son.  We are the ones guilty of Jesus’ death on our behalf.  When the tenants throw the Son out and kill Him, that is us!  We dare not blame Pontus Pilate or the Roman government.  We cannot put it off on the Jewish religious leadership.  God’s plan all along was to send His Son into the world to save us from our sin, from ourselves, from our greed, hate, bitterness, brokenness—all the things that shatter and ruin the paradise God created for us.  

Ours is a broken world.  Sometimes we can ignore that, pretending that all is good.  Today’s cultural chaos is like a reality check in that regard.  To quote an old member from my past “this ain’t heaven yet.”

The psalmist’s cry is also our cry:  “Restore us, O God of hosts; let Your face shine, that we may be saved…turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven and see; have regard for this vine…”

On first reading this parable in Matthew it is easy to miss the good news.  It sounds like God is angry and disappointed with the whole lot of us, that He is ready to throw us out and give the kingdom to others more deserving.  Sometimes the Word of God has to be like a hammer, breaking through our hardheaded, hard heartedness.  Sometimes our denial and defensiveness needs to be confronted.  Our protective shell must be shattered so we can be humble and teachable.  God does give us Jesus—His Son—for the sake of the world, for the life, wellbeing and healing of the world.  God gives us Jesus for the sake of saving us and restoring us to a living relationship with Him and with each other.  

The Apostle Paul knew all about human righteousness and human efforts to fix our broken world and put everything back in order.  He was on top of his game in being religious and spiritual.  Yet, he compares all his goodness and righteousness to dung—literally to sewage waste.  He’d rather have Jesus and Jesus’ righteousness.  He goes on to say that is his goal and aim.  That is what he strives for.  

Listen again to what he says:  “…that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith…I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own.”

All of us can look back and point to regrets and failures.  Paul continues, “…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” 

Do not despair.  Do not give up or give in.  Do not lose hope.  Don’t throw in the towel and say what’s the use!  Keep keeping on.  Stay focused.  When the world goes crazy, center yourself on Jesus.  Take one day at a time.  When you blow it or get confused, do the next right thing.  Keep trusting Jesus, following Jesus, loving all those in your life and in our world, without wanting to give in and become like the world in its hatred, anger and despair.

Press on.  Do good.  Love.  Do random acts of kindness.  

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Where the Sidewalk Ends

The readings for September 20, 2020—Philippians 1:21-30 and Matthew 20:1-16 help us to grasp the wonder of God’s scandalous grace and connect that with our purposeful living on this side of heaven.  

There is a sign near our home that I drive by on a regular basis that reads, “Side Walk Ends.”  It makes me think of Shel Silverstein’s poem and book “Where the Side Walk Ends.”  Maybe you have dealt with edges and uncertainties in your life.  Maybe you have lived where there are no sidewalks!  

Life can be exciting when we deal with the unknown of what is just around the corner.  It can also be quite scary.  We are certainly in such a time now.  

  • The most critical election our country has faced in our life time is just around the corner.  
  • Maybe some of you are not convinced of the science of climate change and global warming.  I assure you I am!  Regardless of what you think there, consider the huge fires our country is facing.  Multiple Millions of acres burned.  Many lives lost.  Many homes and businesses destroyed.  Unknown loss of birds and wild life.  Don’t forget Australia’s huge fire that was also  very devastating.  Our fire season is still in full swing.  
  • How many hurricanes and floods and damaging winds and storms have we had just this year?  We have run out of alphabet characters for naming the storms of this season. And we are not through yet.  
  • And then consider the Covid pandemic.  Europe is spiking again.  Utah is certainly spiking again as are other parts of our country.  Regardless of what politicians may say the Covid virus is not under control and scientists are telling us the timeline for a hopeful vaccine is still off in the distant future.  Those who hope for herd immunity to save us have to reckon with millions more deaths just in our country before we can take hope in that.  And our country is already way ahead of any other country in terms of infections and deaths.   
  • Then, consider Black Lives Matter.  Some will be offended by this even being mentioned.  But when you consider how people of color have been treated for centuries, and how if given the option or choice we would not trade places with them for anything, maybe they have a right to be unhappy and upset.  Maybe it is time for social change.  America is not a “while nation.”  We are a people of many colors, nationalities and ethnic blends.  There are many differences among and between us, but we are all equal in God’s eyes.  Yes, all lives matter, but not all lives have been treated equally down through the ages.  

Am I missing anything?  We would much rather ignore what is happening in our world, let alone try to image what is just around the corner.  But God calls us to have our eyes, ears and hearts open.  Jesus, over and over repeats the phrase “the one who has ears to hear, let them hear.”

God’s Holy Spirit is wrestling and working in us individually and collectively, helping us to see, hear and respond.  So, we need to pay attention.  

On top of that, many people are asking, “Is this the end times?”  Are we in the apocalypse? Is Jesus soon to come again?

My answer?  Maybe!  But consider this.  Did the people who went through World War I think it was the end of the world?  When the Black Plague ravaged Europe and millions died, and the Spanish flu that took so many lives at the beginning of last century, did they think the end was near?  What about World War II? Or the victims of the floods, tsunami’s earth quakes, fires and disasters that have wreaked havoc on our planet over the centuries and past millennium?  Our current day situation is no more or less serious than any of that.  

Are we in the last days?  I believe the message of Scripture would be that we should live as if we were, but not to be clock watchers.  

Have you ever sat in a class where you watched the clock and couldn’t wait for the class to be done?  We will talk more about this as we go through our fall Scripture readings.  But for now, note that Jesus doesn’t want us to watch the clock on the wall, but to live every day to its fullest!  That is our task.  Not to be worried about the timing sequence of when Jesus comes again.

Jesus in our Gospel reading tells us a little bit of what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. 

This parable gives us a picture of a land lord (boss) who goes to the town square where the unemployed people gather and make themselves available to be hired.  He goes out early at the very start of the day and sets up a verbal contract with a crew.  Then he goes out multiple times during the day, including the very last hour of the day and hires more and more people.  

At closing time he tells the business manager to give everyone their day’s wages, starting with those who were hired first.  They are given a full days salary.  Those standing in line behind get their hopes up.  If this boss is that generous with these blokes, what about us!  We have worked all day in the heat and blistering sun!  We are going to get a huge pay check!  

But when their turn comes the business manager only gives them what they and the boss had initially agreed on.  And they were steamed!  They felt cheated.  How unfair.  No union would allow for such unfair treatment.  If this boss is an image of God, God would be taken to court for unfair and unlawful treatment by the labor union!  

Jesus’ sums up this parable by telling us in so many words that God’s grace is scandalous by our world’s standards.  Offensive even.  Because God’s treats all of us equally regardless of how much we do or how good we are or what our social/economic status is.  We are all in need of God’s mercy and grace, and are all equally benefactors of God’s unmeasurable grace.  

If we really understand the Gospel of God’s love for us in Jesus and recognize all of our sin and need for grace then we know we are all standing on level ground before the cross.  None of us deserve it, but all of us are given it because of Jesus!  Amazing Grace.  Amazing love indeed!

This boss—the owner of the vineyard, the picture and image of God—was hiring laborers for His harvest work.  He kept going back to the town square making sure that everyone had a chance to work in His vineyard.  Regardless of the timing for employment of the workers.  Some labor from their youth on.  Some have “death bed conversions.”  Some work their fingers  to the bone, others are slackers and skate their way through the harvest.  They seem to only do the minimum of what is expected.  And God’s treats us all alike!  We are all in need of God’s mercy and grace.  And all receive the same unconditional love and acceptance.  Those who work the hardest don’t get a special place in heaven. Is that unfair?  By human standards, maybe!  But not by God’s rule of grace.  Jesus says, the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  Meaning, I suppose, that God’s values and priorities turn our values and priorities upside down.  

How does Paul apply that rule to his life?  He says, “for me living is Christ and dying is gain.”  He knows he has no more special place in heaven than anyone else.  But he longs for heaven anyway.  And…he knows that he has a purpose for continuing to live because his ministry impacts others—including the members of the Philippians church he is writing to.  Paul goes on to tell the believers in Philippi that they need to live their lives in a  worthy manner of the Gospel of Christ.  Live with integrity, faith and honor.  Be dedicated and devoted followers of Jesus.  

Put these two passages and the application is God has work for you and me to do.  If you are able hear this message or read these words, then this applies to you.  God is expecting and looking for your faithful response to loving God and caring for God’s people—all of God’s people.  See Jesus in everyone.  Pray for all.  Do good to all.  Be kind to all.  Speak love and grace to all.  Embody Jesus for all.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Go High. Rise above the wrongs and violence!

texts: Romans 12:9-21 & Matthew 16:21-28

How do we respond to evil in our lives and world? Jesus and Paul teach us how to respond without letter evil motivate or control us.

Peter has just correctly identified Jesus as God’s Son, our Messiah, Savior of the world.  A confession that Jesus says comes from God’s revelation.  In Matthew 16:21-28 Jesus is turning his focus on going to Jerusalem where He will endure suffering and death at the hands of religious leaders.  Peter chides Jesus and says in effect, “no way, Jesus!”  

The journey to the cross and the cross itself is God’s plan for defeating sin and evil.  Our world’s way of defeating evil is matching it with more evil.  Retaliation.  Pay back.  Revenge.  Get even.  “Do to others before they do it to you.”

Jesus is God’s answer to evil.  And it stymies us that God would choose the foolishness and weakness of the cross as the best way to defeat evil.  Peter certainly didn’t agree with Jesus.

Jesus’ answer to Peter, you are looking at solving the problem of evil and sin from a human vantage point.  God’s perspective is totally different.  If you want to follow Me you must deny yourself daily, pick up your cross and follow Me.

Paul, in Romans 12:9-18 repeats that message and unpacks it.  In effect Paul is saying this is what it looks like for Christians to follow Jesus.

Pastor Peter Marty tells the story of a woman named Martha who had a terrible upbringing.  Her mother beat her regularly with a strap.  “She was mean even though I never did anything wrong,” says Martha.  Her father was no better.  He would fix her school lunch, and instead of a sandwich he would put a rock!  

Pastor Marty asked how it was that Martha and her husband were able to raise such a beautiful daughter after such a horrible upbringing.  Victims often times become abusers themselves, repeating the cycle of violence.  Martha’s response was, “I was determined to do the complete opposite of what my parents did to me.”

Do the opposite.  Love, not hate.  Bless, not curse.  “Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” says the Apostle Paul (Romans 12:17).  Rise above the wrong.  Do the right thing.  

That is diametrically opposed to how our world functions!  We compete.  The one with the most money and toys wins.  The one who climbs to the top at the hurt and harm of those in the way is the one who is successful.  Money and fame, influence and power.  That is what counts.  

God’s kingdom values are completely different.  Let love be genuine—not a put on.  Hate evil and hold on to what is good.  Out do each other in honoring and respecting each other.  Let hope give you joy.  Be patient even when circumstances and people are against you. Pray.  Be generous and hospitable even to strangers.  If someone hurts you, bless them instead of cursing them.  Let God take charge of getting even.  Your soul cannot handle the hatred, anger and desire to get revenge.  When they go low, go high!  

When we are wronged we tend to let that wrong control our thoughts and motivate us in becoming evil and aggressive ourselves.  Then instead of being part of the solution we perpetuate the painful cycle.  

Jesus and His follower Paul tell us to break the cycle.  Don’t be overcome by evil.  Overcome evil with goodness!

In the summer of 1985, professor Henri Nouwen left his prestigious position at Harvard Divinity School and joined a movement called L’Arche (the Ark) in France.  He served there for nine months living among individuals with disabilities.  Then he moved to Canada and joined the L’Arche Daybreak community there.  He served as pastor there until he died in 1996.

Nouwen lived Paul’s unpacking of Jesus’ teaching.  He associated with the low and unimportant nobodies.  He did unimportant things in the eyes of the world and by doing that he discovered he drew closer to the heart of God!

Do you want to know how to conquer evil?  Do you want to know how to gain freedom from anger and thoughts of revenge?  Do something totally different—bless your enemy.  If they are hungry, feed them.  If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.  By focusing on the needs of those we are angry with we humanize them.  By praying for them and blessing them we take their power to hurt and harm us away from them.  They may not change, but we do!  We hold on to our humanity.  We claim our identity in Christ and live under His Spirit and grace.  That is much better than being controlled and manipulated by evil ourselves.

Robert Greene, in his book, The 48 Laws of Power, tells about a speech that President Lincoln gave while the Civil War was still raging.  Lincoln makes a reference to Southerners as fellow humans who are in error.  A woman present at his speech scolds him for not cursing the southern slave holders, calling them irreconcilable enemies and calling for their destruction.

Lincoln responded, “Why, madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Do the opposite!  Be different.  Maybe it is time for us to do something totally different.  Be kind. Be hospitable. Be hopeful.  Overcome evil with good.  Take care of the physical needs of our enemy and befriend them.  Let God take care of vengeance.  

Jesus taught us the Golden Rule, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

Paul invites us to live according to the values of the kingdom of heaven rather than by the standards of this world.  Evil is present.  All of us experience it in various forms.  The way to defeat evil and not let it get the upper hand is to follow Jesus’ example—deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him.

God give us the grace and courage to do so.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


Marty, Peter W. “Loved as is.” The Christian Century, January 29, 2020, 3.

“Henri Nouwen,” L’Arche Manchester, 222.larchemanchester.org.uk

Greene, Robert.  The 48 Laws of Power, http://www.goodreads.com


text: Matthew 16:13-20

A former Navy Seal was visiting his grandson’s kindergarten class, telling them about some of the things he did as a Navy Seal.  Navy Seals are an elite group, special forces who do incredible courageous and brave things.  After his presentation the teacher asks if there are any questions.  A little hand shoots up and a small girl asks, “So, can you balance a ball at the end of your nose?  Questions!  Sometimes they throw us off!

Who is Jesus to you?  What difference has Jesus made in your life?  How are you different today because of Jesus?  Those are questions that come to mind as we contemplate our Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 16.

Jesus is a story teller.  His parables help us see past the mere surface of things and see deeper into the type of life God’s longs for us to live.  He also knows how to ask searching questions.  Questions that challenge our easy, shallow answers. Questions that penetrate beneath the surface of casual thinking.  Questions that help us discover who He is and who we are in relation to Him. 

Jesus has just finished caring for a Canaanite woman and her demon possessed daughter.  He challenged the disciples to see outsiders differently and understand our human circles that we draw are small and exclusive.  God’s circles are infinitely larger and inclusive.  We tend to be afraid and critical of those who look, think and sound differently than us.  We exclude them from God’s plan.  God includes them and us through His plan of salvation through Jesus.  

Now Jesus is returning to Jerusalem and is still in Gentile territory.   It is a turning point in His ministry.  The cross and the end goal of His sacrifice on our behalf is looming close.  How well do they (and we) know and understand His purpose and mission in life?

So He asks, “What’s the rumor mill say about Me?  What do people think about My mission as the Son of Man?”  I do not believe He is asking out of curiosity, but inviting His disciples to think for themselves; as if to say, do you recognize what is happening here and what God is doing?

They answer saying folks believe You are a prophet like one of the greats—John the Baptist, Elijah or Jeremiah.  They see You as a great teacher!

Jesus then presses them by asking what they think about Him and His mission.  

Peter blurts out, “You are God’s Anointed One, the Messiah.  You are God’s Son.”  By saying this Peter, knowingly or unknowingly recognizes that Jesus is more than just a mere man.  He is the unique Son of God,God’s Anointed Savior for the world.

Jesus erupts with joy and praises Peter for his answer.  He goes on to say that Peter did not discover this through book learning or talking to scholars and intellectuals.  This insight comes from God.  Recognizing who Jesus is and seeing His mission and purpose in life is a God thing—only God could reveal such an insight.

The Christian faith is not an accumulation of human thoughts and wisdom accrued over the years.  Knowing God through Jesus is something only that the Holy Spirit can reveal to us.  The gift of faith in Jesus is for everyone.  God’s revelation is freely offered to all people.  You do not need a diploma to believe and follow Jesus!  Just an open, receptive heart.

Jesus then shocks Peter even more.  Peter’s name up to this point is Simon, which in Hebrew means “to listen” or “hearing.”  Now Jesus changes Peter’s name to “rock.”  Jesus is saying that this man Simon who is brash and bold, and yet a coward; this man who is a fickle follower who fails to stand up for Jesus on the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest; this man who denies even knowing Jesus three times at Jesus mockery of a trial; this man Jesus calls “rock.”  

Jesus says I am building My church—the body of Christ—on you and people like you.  

Now throughout this passage “you” is second person singular, meaning Jesus is speaking specifically to Peter.  Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters understand this to mean Jesus is setting Peter up as the head authority of the Church on earth and gives Peter (and the papacy) complete authority on earth.  

Jesus is not establishing the papacy, but rather emphasizing the rock solid faith that Peter has confessed as the foundation the Church is built upon.  

Let’s take that one step further.  Jesus is saying the foundation of the Church, the building blocks of the Church are fragile, frail followers of the Lamb who certainly don’t seem qualified to carry on Christ’s mission and ministry on earth.  

Consider Peter’s track record.  Look at ours!  How qualified did Peter feel?  How qualified are we to be a part of God’s plan for changing the world?

Bold, brash Peter drew a sword to “help” Jesus at His arrest on the night of His betrayal.  But then he fled with the other disciples as Jesus was lead away under armed guard.  Then during Jesus’ mockery of a trial, while Peter was warming himself at a fire, he denied even knowing Jesus.  Three times.  After the resurrection Peter felt like quitting and decided to do what he knew how to do.  He went fishing.  Jesus then reaffirms and commissions him as a disciple—a follower of the Lamb.

We often feel inadequate.  We do not believe we should be God’s chosen ones to make Jesus and faith in Jesus known.  Yet we are the building blocks of the church.  Consider what Peter says in 1 Peter 2:5 where he calls us “living stones—built into a spiritual house…”

The Apostle Paul also reminds us that we are filled with God’s Spirit, 1 Corinthians 3:16 “Surely you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you!”

Again in 2 Corinthians 3:1 he calls us “living letters” that others can read to see and know more about who Jesus is.

You are I know we are not perfect.  “Christians are not perfect.  We are forgiven.”

Most of us would be reluctant to stand out in the crowd and say “use me as an example of what it means to be a believer and follow Jesus.”  We don’t feel qualified.  

Yet in 1 Corinthians 4:7 and following verses Paul reminds us that we are clay pots—frail, fragile and flawed, yet we hold a precious treasure because of Christ within us.  

What I believe Jesus is saying to Peter—and through this passage of Scripture to all of us—is that we are not only the body of Christ in this world, we are the building material and it is our faith and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord that becomes the foundation for the message we live out in real life and proclaim.  

So once again consider these questions:

Who is Jesus to you?  What difference has Jesus made in your life?  How are you different today because of Jesus?

Are you willing to say, “yes, I am willing to serve You Lord again today!”

In Jesus’ name.

Drawing Circles

August 16, 2020

Matthew 15:10-28

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.  May God add His blessings to our time together under the Word.  Amen.

A poem by Edwin Markham:

“He drew a circle that shut me out-

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle and took him In!”

A readings for today force me to ask some tough questions:  Who do you let into your inner circle?  Who makes you feel safe?  Who makes you feel unsafe?  Who is “clean,” acceptable?  And one more, who has a clean heart?  How do we get a clean heart?

Our Gospel reading is divided into two part.  The first is where Jesus seems to question and criticize the Pharisees for their tradition of washing their hands before they eat.  This washing is a ceremonial washing that focused on “clean and unclean” thinking.  Once you have gone to the market that is filled with all kinds of different folk these conservative religious followers insisted on washing off the ceremonial uncleanliness.

Our culture has insisted on the washing of hands for the sake of preventing the spreading of germs.  The COVID or “coronavirus” has certainly increased our awareness of the importance of frequently washing our hands.

Jesus is not against washing hands before a meal.  Jesus really isn’t criticizing the Jewish ceremonial washing of hands either.  He is a Jew Himself and probably practiced such customs.  What He is questioning and criticizing is the empty ritual that forgets the principle behind the custom.  If we are really concerned about purity—having a clean heart, soul, mind and body—we need to hear what Jesus is saying.

What you put into your mouth—eat—doesn’t make you unclean.  It is what comes out of your mouth from your mind and heart that makes you unclean.  That is where all the judgmental thoughts, the greedy and selfish thoughts, the jealous and hurtful thoughts, etc. come from.  

Ceremonial uncleanliness is not the concern.  The concern is how clean is your heart?  How clean is your mind?

That is the first part of our Gospel text.  The following passage is a great illustration of that principle.  It is one that makes many of us uncomfortable.  And, I believe, that is the Holy Spirit’s intent.  Cause us to question our assumptions, question how we view and treat people that we view as unclean and unholy.

This is the story of a Canaanite woman who has a demon possessed daughter.  An interesting point of the story that is oftentimes missed is the setting.  It is in the area of Tyre and Sidon, a town deep into Gentile territory, about 50 miles from where Jesus has last been in Galilee.  Another interesting point is after this encounter Jesus again returns to Galilee.  

Did Jesus get lost?  Did His GPS misdirect Him?  Did He intentionally go out of His way to encounter this desperate mom?  We don’t know, but it is important to know that Jesus takes a 100 mile round trip out of His way, has this uncomfortable encounter with this Canaanite woman and then returns to Galilee.

It is uncomfortable because the woman is bold, brash and unstoppable.  She is an aggressive woman, motivated by her daughter’s condition.  Most of us even today get uncomfortable with an aggressive female.  Guys we expect to be aggressive.  Gals, not so much.  She is a momma bear caring her child.  And she does not give up.  The Greek language implies she is very persistent.  

It is also uncomfortable because Jesus ignores this woman, calls her an outsider (she isn’t a Jew), and insults her and her daughter by calling them dogs.

The disciples are beside themselves.  It is a very uncomfortable situation.  First, because of the woman herself.  Not only is she a woman who should not talk to a Jewish man in public, she is an Canaanite woman. She is a descendent of the original people that inhabited the land before the Jews took possession.  She is not Jewish, and her religious affiliation is unclear.  That two strikes right from the start! Plus she is so unrelentingly aggressive.  What a turn off.

And then Jesus!  What do you think when He ignores her?  Is that the way you picture Him?  How would you feel if He treated us/you that way?  Then after she persists and the disciples ask Jesus to send her away, Jesus very clearly says, He has come only to care for “the lost sheep of Israel.” She doesn’t have a membership card.  He says that out loud so everyone could her.  

Is that true?  Remember Jonah and Nineveh? God has always been concerned about the larger picture.  God is not merely the God of the Jews.  Jesus is the Savior of the world, not of one small group of humans.  Remember John 3:16, “for God so loved the world…”  

Jesus is saying this to rattle His disciples and our unquestioned thinking, to challenge our biases and assumptions.  I picture Jesus glancing at this woman and catching her eye, with a glint in His eye.  He knows her.  He knows she is spunky.  He shows her faith to be genuine and praise worthy.  “Great is your faith.  Your daughter is well.”  Jesus only says that two other times.  

Jesus does not side step tough issues.  He is like—bring it on!  He clarifies kingdom values and kingdom principles.  It is not human traditions and ceremonial cleansing that matters, but rather how we value and treat each other.  Including how we treat others that are strangers and different.  

How welcoming are we?  Whom do we exclude and defend ourselves in doing so?  How small minded and narrow are we in our circle drawing?

“He drew a circle that shut me out-

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle and took him In!”

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Fear or Faith

Fear or Faith?

Text: Matthew 14:22-33

John Ortberg in his book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, tells the story of a balloon party.  John and his wife are joined by another couple for a hot air balloon ride.  The pilot is a young man.

Ortberg says the balloon basket is different than he expected, coming only to their knees.  Any jolt or sudden movement could cause them to fall out and plummet to the ground.  So they hold on tightly as they rise up into air.

Pastor Ortberg strikes up a conversation with the young pilot by asking how he got into piloting hot air balloons.  “Dude,” says the young man, “it’s like this…”  The young man was a surfer and got into ballooning because of an accident.  He was driving a pickup truck and had too much to drink.  He crashed the truck and badly injured his brother.  While his brother was recuperating and not able to do much they started watching hot air balloons.  

Then the young pilot said something like, “By the way don’t be surprised if things get choppy on the way down.  I’ve never flown this particular balloon before and I am not sure how to handle the descent!”

That is when Ortberg’s wife glares at him and says, “You mean to tell me we are a thousand feet up in the air with an unemployed surfer who started flying hot air balloons because he got drunk, crashed his pickup, injured his brother, and has never flown this balloon before?  And he doesn’t even know how to get us down?!!”

The wife of the other couple looks at John and says, “You are a pastor.  Do something religious!”  

“So…I took up an offering!”

Ah, fortunately it is a joke!  An old one, but good.  

Fear.  It has a way of grabbing our attention, stealing our focus, blinding us.  Fear can paralyze us, imprison us, weaken our thinking and destroy our faith.  

The disciples in our gospel reading our overcome with fear.  They have just witnessed Jesus feeding five thousand men, plus women and children with a lunch of five loaves and two fish.  Miraculous!  Stunning! mind-bending! Unbelievable!  

Then Jesus immediately sends the disciples, by boat, to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  He dismisses the crowds, stays behind by Himself and spends time alone in prayer.  Meanwhile, the disciples encounter strong head winds that impede their progress.  In vain, they are fighting waves tossed up by the wind.  After hours of torment and struggle they have moved the boat about a mile and still have a long ways to go.  Their lives are not in danger.  But, they are tired, weary, frustrated, grumpy and ready to quit.  But they can’t.  So they struggle on.  Then in the darkness—it is about 4 O’Clock in the morning—they see a figure walking toward them on the water.  They jumped to the only logical conclusion they could!  They were seeing a ghost and it was coming their way.  Why are we so afraid of ghosts?  Hmm.  

They panic and cry out in terror. They have been fighting wind and waves for hours.  They are worn out and discouraged.  They are easy prey for superstition and irrational thinking.  Fear seemed to be the best response to their situation.  That’s is when Jesus—immediately—calms them and shouts out above the sound of wind and waves, “Take heart.  It’s Me! Don’t be afraid.”

Then Peter—bold, brash and bodacious Peter—says something unbelievable and shocking.  “If it is You, Master, command me to come to You.”  

Jesus’ response is simple, “Come!”

And, again, unbelievably, bold and brash Peter leaves his comfort zone, climbs out of the boat, steps tenaciously onto the water and begins his journey to meet Jesus on the turbulent wind tossed waves.  And he is doing it!  At least until he takes his eyes of Jesus and properly assesses his situation.  The roar of the wind in his ears and the wind tossed waves capture his focus and he caves into fear.  

Fear has a way of taking over.  It robs us of faith.  It destroys our confidence in God and God’s ability to care for us.  Peter sinks into the water, and as he goes under he cries out, “Lord, save me!”

Just like that Jesus is right there, above Peter.  He reaches down and grabs Peter’s wrist and pulls him up above water.  Together they make their way to the boat walking on water.  When they get into the boat the wind calms and the waves smooth out.  

Then our text says the disciples look in amazed wonder at Jesus and worship Him, saying, “You really are God—the Son of God.”  As if to say, there is way more to You Jesus then meets the eye.  

What are you afraid of today?  What are you looking at?  Is fear or faith governing and guiding your life and decisions?  The focus of our faith should not be on the things of life that alarm us.  Our world is crazy right now.  It has always been so, but we don’t always see it.  Health concerns and the virus dominate the news.  Economic distress and social unrest and protests fill the news.  Election concerns cause us to cringe.  

So, where should our focus be?  What should we  be looking at?  God who is still in control.  When we see Jesus this way, we can be like bold, brash and bodacious Peter—we can leave the safety of the boat and follow Jesus where He leads us.  We can trust Him.  We can yield to His leading.  We can care about justice and lend a hand in making a positive difference in our world.  That is better than giving into weariness and slumping down in our troubled boats, giving in to suspicion, superstition and fear.  

So, are you with me?  Let’s keep our eyes on Jesus and follow Him. 

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Pastor Bruce

Finding Rest and Peace Today

If you are looking for peace don’t follow the crowd!

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

The above Gospel reading from Matthew 11 includes the well known verses for those who are weary and worn out.  

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” 

Have you ever noticed what this encouraging, comforting passage follows?  Have you read it in context?  

Jesus has just finished scolding the religious crowds listening to Him.  Many of them rejected the message of John the Baptizer because he was too conservative—too austere.  He never took part in their eating and drinking.  His style and approach to ministry was as coarse as his camelhair robe and diet. He ate honey and bugs!

The religious crowds also rejected Jesus. He was too liberal—He mixed with those whose life styles and morality were questionable.  

John and Jesus confronted these would be religious folk with a picture of themselves that they didn’t like.  Both Jesus and John confronted them with the reality of sin—such as, how they treated people, what their values and priorities were—and their need for repentance and turning back to God.

Jesus’ goal was not to be popular and a part of the in-crowd. Jesus was not and is not a crowd pleaser.  He did not try to get people to like Him. He came to be our Savior, not to win a popularity contest.  John was not a people pleaser either.  Jesus and John would never make it as Time’s Person of the Year.  

How different it is for most of us.  We are consumed by our fear of criticism and the rejection of others. We are so concerned about what others think of us we shape and modify our message.  We adjust our personality (as much as we can). We hide who we really are.  We try to fit in, be part of the in group.  We say and do what we hope will please the crowd.  

And that wears us out.  It makes us dishonest.  It makes us tired.  

Jesus did not do that.  He was (and is) more concerned with truth than saying what we want to believe and hear.  He confronted His listeners then with being fickle and not trusting God’s message of turning their lives around.  He calls us to be honest with ourselves and God too.

Knowing God and knowing the peace of God does not come through our creative efforts and imaginative thinking.  Knowing God is a gift that we receive by divine revelation.  

“No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (v. 27).  That does not make Christianity an exclusive club where we can judge who is in and who is out. Salvation is a gift from God.  Period.  

We cannot judge who has received that gift and who has not. Faith is a personal thing.  God, through His Word, calls us to examine ourselves and our relationship with God—not to judge others in their spiritual walk. We cannot judge others.  Nor should we make ourselves slaves to the approval of others in our relationship with God.   Following Jesus means letting go of being a people pleaser.  

It makes complete sense then that after confronting the fickle public and reminding them that truth cannot be compromised that Jesus shows us where rest and relief is to be found.  Where? Through coming to Him.  

Do you want to know you are approved and accepted by God?  Don’t submit to the craziness of trying to gain the approval and acceptance of others.  Go right to the source.  Jesus says, “Come to Me!”  Don’t go anywhere else.  Others might mislead you.  Others—even religious folk—may try and fill you with all kinds of rules and “teachings” that do not fit and are not from God.

Make your relationship with God through Jesus your top priority.  Do not compromise it by being a people pleaser.  Don’t acquiesce to peer pressure.  It is by knowing we are okay and accepted by God through Christ Jesus—it is by resting in His love and grace—that we are accepted.  Find genuine rest and peace through Jesus’ forgiveness. Let His presence fill your soul. 

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Say Yes to God

Lenten Signs — Yield Elim March 15 2020 \ bwk

Say Yes to God

  • Psalm 40 Messiah Jesus offers Himself to God for the sake of God’s people
  • Philippians 2:5-11 Jesus empties Himself and becomes a servant for our sake
  • Luke 22:39-46 v 42 “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet, not My will but Yours be done.”

This message is what we would have shared had we met on March 15.

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ.  May God add His blessings to our time under the Word this morning!

Back to the Middle Ages Pope Gregory and King Henry IV of Germany had a confrontation. Pope Gregory had excommunicated King Henry IV when the king insisted on divorcing his wife Bertha of Savoy. This barred King Henry not only from heaven, but it also made him ineligible to sit on the throne of Germany.

The king took all this to heart and came to Rome to do penance and to seek absolution. Arriving at Rome he discovered the pope was away in the mountains. Not to be dissuaded, King Henry IV and his servants made a long and dangerous journey through the snowy mountains of northern Italy to meet with the Pope. This was during the harsh winter of 1077.  King Henry finally found the Pope in a small town called Canossa in the mountains of northern Italy.

When Henry and his retinue arrived, the pope refused to meet with him and forced him to wait in the bitter cold for three days. Finally he agreed to see the dejected and humiliated king. When Henry was finally permitted to enter the gates, he walked barefoot through the snow and knelt at the feet of the pope to beg forgiveness. Then the Pope granted him absolution.

You and I do not have to do anything like that to gain forgiveness.  We do not have to make a long journey to a foreign country.  We don’t have to stand in the cold for days and then walk barefooted through snow and frozen ground to beg forgiveness.  We don’t have to beg to be forgiven and fearfully await the stern look and words that convey forgiveness.  

We do not, and in fact cannot, make the journey to God.  God Himself makes the journey to us.   The Christmas story we celebrated just a couple of months ago leads us now to Jesus, God-in-human-flesh, who has come to us bringing us forgiveness through His life and death on the cross. Jesus brings us hope and heaven as a gift.  We cannot find our way to God, so God-in-Christ comes to us.

The journey of salvation is not our journey but Christ’s. He is the pilgrim—the pioneer, as the writer of Hebrews put it. It is He who walked the Via Dolorosa, the way of suffering. It is by His initiative that we are saved, not our own. 

Our Lenten Road Sign for today is YIELD.  Our Scripture readings focus on Jesus’ yielding to the Father’s will.  His humility and obedience “even to death on the cross.” 

Our readings today show us Jesus’ heart in agreement with God the Father’s heart.  They echo the words of John 3:16 (for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life) reminding us that God’s love brought Jesus into the world as one with us in our humanity in order to make us one with Him and bring us life and salvation.  His purpose and call in life was to live and die on our behalf, and to be raised on our behalf giving us life, forgiveness, freedom, a restored relationship with God and the promise of heaven.  

Our key passage that we focus on today is Luke 22, verse 24 “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet, not My will but Yours be done.”

Jesus is not arguing with God.  He is not trying to dissuade God from the plan of salvation that had been put into motion even before time began.  Rather, our text shows the utter agony He suffered on our behalf.  There was no other way for our forgiveness to be won.  

This was not a contest between God and Satan, a wrestling match with humanity as the prize to the strongest arm.  No.  It was God, through the cross, fixing the brokenness we had brought on the world.  

Jesus’ death on the cross was not a payment to the devil as a ransom to set us free.  Nor was His death an attempt to appease an angry God who demanded justice no matter what.  Jesus in yielding to the cross is God coming to us, God freeing us from our own brokenness and captivity to sin and death.  

Jesus is God’s yes to us.  Jesus is God’s yes for us.  All that is left for us to do is to say yes to God.  

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.