Contagious

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been asked to do many things to help slow the spread of this very contagious virus. The two most important things suggested are that we wear a mask and practice social distancing. Indeed, these two practices have changed our society as well as our interactions with one another. The challenge has been trying to keep the virus from spreading.

In the beginning, the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was only known by a handful of people. The event did not occur with any news coverage, social media posts, or street reporting. The story of Jesus had only affected a few people, namely Jesus’ disciples. And even the disciples were unsure of what had happened. Outside of their small group, Jesus was not a well-known figure.

However, it did not take long for the news to get out. Overwhelmed with joy and good news, Jesus’ disciples began to tell the story of Jesus. The good news story of Jesus began to spread. People were hearing what God had done in Jesus and were drawn into a relationship with him. One by one, the Gospel message began to spread. And as it spread, this good news began to change people’s lives.

The apostle Paul is often credited as the individual who took the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles, everyone who was not a Jew. Paul, the once persecutor of Christians, now had a mission to spread the Gospel to all places and all people. Paul traveled extensively, telling others about Jesus and starting new churches. The story of Jesus was contagious, and more and more individuals accepted Jesus as their Savior and Lord.

As recipients of the good news, Paul encouraged the new believers to continue it spread. In his letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul writes,“Finally, brothers and sisters, pray for us, so that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere, just as it is among you.” (2 Thessalonians 3:1) Paul desired that every person be exposed to the Gospel so that every person has the opportunity to become infected with the story of God’s love. This spread would occur when Jesus’ followers began to live out the Gospel in their lives.

Although we are 2000 years past the time of Jesus, we too are called to further the spread of the Gospel. Through our words and deeds, we must live lives that demonstrate our Gospel exposure, how it has changed us, and how it can bring life to all people. We can never be content to contain the good news of Jesus within the confines of our lives. Instead, we must continue to further the spread until it infects all people with God’s grace and love. An infection that leads not to death but life, both abundant life, and eternal life.

Collectively as the church, we must be a super spreader. Through our words and actions, we bear witness to the Gospel. We share the old, old story of Jesus and his love and embody that love in our actions. It is love that is highly contagious. We help continue its spread by living infectious lives that have the possibility of passing on God’s love to those around us. God’s love is contagious.  We now must further its spread.

Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com

In Good Hands

Waiting on God can be difficult, especially when you are unsure what God is up to in our lives. God can be hard to figure out. The scriptures teach us that God’s ways are not our ways. The mind of God is beyond our grasp and understanding. Hence, at times, our relationship with God can leave us scratching our heads. 

In the Gospels, Jesus often left his disciples scratching their heads. Whether it was something Jesus said or something he did, the disciples could not usually make sense of what Jesus was doing. According to John’s Gospel, on the night before his death, Jesus took a towel and basin and washed the disciples’ feet. This behavior was shocking to them. Washing a person’s feet was the responsibility of a servant or a slave. It was not something that you would expect from a rabbi. It was not that which they could see Jesus doing. But here he was kneeling at their feet.

When he came to Peter, Peter questioned Jesus’ actions. It didn’t make sense to Peter that Jesus would wash his feet. Jesus responds to Peter, saying, You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” (John 13:37) Peter would not understand what Jesus was doing, not then, at least. It would be much later before Peter would understand what Jesus had done. 

We don’t always know what God is doing in our lives. However, even in our lack of understanding, we can trust that God is working on our behalf. Even when life doesn’t make sense, God is still in control bringing his will to fruition. Our lives are not spinning wildly around as if there is no purpose for our living. While life can be chaotic, and we can question God’s action, we can still place our faith in God. Like Peter, what God is doing now might not make sense in the present, later we will all understand. The apostle Paul would echo this truth in his letter to the Corinthians where he writes, For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) God is faithful to his people. God kneels at the feet of each of our lives and says, “trust me.” We are in good hands.

Clothed in Grace

Every day one of the first questions that most people must answer is what am I going to wear today? A lot will depend on the season of the year, the weather, and what you will be doing during the day. Some people will give much thought and consideration into what they will choose to wear. Others will throw on anything to get themselves dressed. 

According to the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve did not have to make that decision in the very beginning. According to Genesis 2: 25, And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” Sin had not yet entered the picture. Their nakedness symbolized their purity. There was no need for coverings. Yet, as the story unfolds, the first couple disobeys God, sin enters the picture, and immediately they realize their nakedness. Ashamed of what they had done, they now cover themselves with leaves to hide their nakedness.  

Hiding in the bushes, God confronts Adam and Eve. God questions them and asks if they have disobeyed him. After confessing their sin, God issues a judgment. The first couple will no longer be able to remain in their garden home. With this divine eviction in place, the writer of Genesis tells us, “And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and his wife and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21) Even though they would suffer sin’s consequences, God would not put them out in the cold.  Instead, God replaces their leafy wardrobe with garments of skin. Without his help, they would not survive in a sin broken world. God would clothe them in grace.

We are a long way from Eden, but we, too, have been clothed by God’s grace. Rather than leaving us alone in a world of sin, God offered his presence to remain with us, even in our sin. Yes, we have disobeyed God, but God refused to give up on us. Just as God’s presence would cover the sinful couple, God’s presence covers us even in our sin.

However, God still knew we needed more.  While clothed in his presence, we still suffer from our sinfulness.  As a result, God sent his only son into the world to wear and bear our sin upon the cross.  In Jesus’ death and resurrection on Calvary, God brought a new day out of Eden’s tragedy.  No longer would we be defined by our sin, but in Jesus, we are defined by God’s grace.  Paul, in his letter to the Galatia, would state it this way, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”(Galatians 3: 27).  And then to the Ephesians, Paul would write,“For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24)

What we experience in Jesus is the ultimate wardrobe change.  The old self, stained and broken by sin, is clothed anew in Jesus.  Jesus returns us to the way God intended it from the beginning.  Jesus is our new beginning.  We no longer need to carry the weight of our sin and shame, but we are now clothed in God’s grace.  In Jesus, God completes the wardrobe He started with Adam and Eve.  We now wear the finished product.

Clearly Said

In listening to another person, most people talk, like when that person gets straight to the point. That is, beating around the bush or talking too much can leave you weary in your listening. We want the person to be clear and direct, so there is no misunderstanding. Let your words speak for themselves.

Jesus has a way of getting straight to the point about matters to living out one’s relationship with God. Jesus could be straightforward and get straight to the point. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is a great teacher. Nowhere is this truer than with the Sermon on the Mount. One such direct teaching is in Matthew 6: 25, where Jesus states, “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” It doesn’t get more direct than this as followers of Jesus. When we said yes to Jesus, we are not only accepting his gift of salvation, but we are also saying yes to a way of living. Being saved is the easy part; living out that salvation can be challenging. 

Three words: love your enemies. Yikes. Think about your enemies. While we may not label individuals as enemies, people do come to mind that we don’t like or get along with. It is impossible to live in our world and not find ourselves living in tension with others. This tension can quickly turn into hate of another person. Jesus calls us to reverse that course and instead respond in love. Love is not merely an emotional feeling towards another person, but rather love is an active response. Love is not only something you say but something you do.

With this scripture, at least, Jesus says, “do good” and “lend, expecting nothing in return.” You might say, “do good and give.” When we think about those individuals in our lives that we don’t always get along with, what would it look like if we did good and gave ourselves to them? Such behavior could be transformative in our relationships as well as in our society. Indeed, loving others, even our enemies, as Jesus commands us, can be a powerful force in our world. As Christians, Jesus didn’t offer this as a suggestion. Instead, Jesus gave us a command. Following Jesus requires a different way of living. A form of living that over and over again defined as love. Jesus said, “they will know you are my disciples by your love.” (John 13:35)

It is easy to live in a world whereby we hate our enemies and love our friends. Jesus said paraphrasing, “anyone can do that.” (Matthew 6:34) Jesus calls us to a better way. Jesus got straight to the point when he said love your enemies. Now, we have to get straight to the point of living it out in our lives.

Your Last Breath

Over the years as a pastor I have had the sacred opportunity to be with individuals when they took their last breath. In most cases, we know that death is near and so I sit with family as they watch their love one journey through the final moments of life. As we join them in their time of departure we realize that each breath could be their last one. As the breathing slows, eventually we witness that final breath. Immediately you realize that they are gone. Their body is still there before you, but the essence of their life has departed. They have taken their last breath.

Most people do not go through life thinking about their breathing unless they suffer from a serious breathing disorder. The typical person doesn’t really worry about their next breath. A human breathes about 960 breaths an hour, 23,040 breaths a day, 8,409,600 a year. Unless we get a lot of exercise, the person who lives to 80 will take about 672,768,000 breaths in a lifetime. We just naturally assume that there will be another breath.

Yet, for every individual there is a last breath. As individuals, we live with the knowledge of our mortality, even though we might deny it. Even with the length of our days extended by modern medicine, we still know that we will one day take our last breath. The question that leaves us to ask ourselves is what happens the moment after the last breath? Is it is simply the end or is there something more? Humanity since the beginning to time have pondered what happens after the last breath.

As a person of faith, I trust that the God who placed in his breath in us has a plan for when that natural breath ceases. In scripture, we read, “In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.” (Job 12:10) According to the Bible, it is God who ultimately Lord over our living and our dying. Furthermore, as a Christian, I believe that because a person has a relationship with Jesus, when they take their last breath on earth, the next breath is the air of God’s eternal heaven. An eternity in which we will never have to be anxious about our final breath.

Yet, here in the present, each breath brings us closer to our final breath. Knowing this, we should consider now what happens next for us when that last breath is taken. This doesn’t mean we sit around stuck in fear of death, but it should lead us to contemplate what it means for us as individuals as we reflect on the moment after that last breath. While much of what happens after that last breath is still a mystery, we can trust in the God who will be there to receive us. We can live in hope, even in the face of death. A hope that we can experience in a relationship with Jesus Christ, where we trust Him with every breath of our living, even our last one.

Choose the Better Way

Regardless of which candidate wins the next presidential election, we as a nation have already lost. We lost some time ago. Regardless of who is the next president, our country will remain divided. There have always been differences, but now the division has turned ugly. We’ve stopped seeing one another as fellow citizens and have labeled one another as enemies. We accepted the “us versus them mentality” in regards to everything. Our leaders have set us against each other. The division has seeped down from the corridors of Washington and into communities, friendships, churches, workplaces, and even families. Social media has turned into a war zone of sarcasm, condemnation, and sinful pride.

But here lies our problem; our sinfulness. From the very beginning, our sin led to a breakdown of relationships. The very first sin of disobedience in the garden brought division to the first couple. They began to blame and point fingers at one another. Later, with two grown sons, one rose up and killed the other. Abel’s blood saturated the soil, and by Noah’s time, the world was full of wickedness. Sinfulness spread throughout humanity like a virus, infecting our human institutions, including our political ones.

We have surrendered to the politics of hate and destruction. We’ve not only surrendered, but we seem to relish in it. Also, we’ve become quick to see it in others, but not in ourselves. We can easily find the speck in another’s eyes but fail to see the plank in our own. We’ve decided that we are the “good,” and they are the “bad.” We’ve convinced ourselves that we are on God’s side and everyone not like us is not on God’s side. It is easy to sink into self-righteousness. Self-righteousness blinds us. It makes us unable to see our lives and others as they truly are.

Yet, until we recognize our sin and repent of it, we will never be the people God has created us to be. We will continue down the same path. While we may find some satisfaction in how things turned out the way we want in an election, we will still have lost. We cannot honor God as long as we remain divided. When we continue to malign one another, then we move further and further away from the Kingdom of God. We will continue to bear the fruit of anger, hatred, and division.

As Christians, we are called to live in light of our relationship with Jesus Christ and to bear the fruit of this relationship. Paul would write in his letter to the Church at Galatia: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) This is the fruit we to be bearing in our daily living as followers of Jesus. Imagine what the world would like if this was the path we chose. Unfortunately, we have abandoned this fruit and chosen the fruit of hate, anger, and division. We have believed the Temptor’s lie, that this is the only way to accomplish things in our world. We have chosen power over humility, and we are now paying the price for our foolishness. 

The day after the election, nothing will have changed. This division will continue to be there until we change. Until we reject the lie of saving ourselves, we will remain lost. As the Psalmist would remind us in Psalm 146: 3-6:

Do not put your trust in princes,
    in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;on that very day, their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God, He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
    the sea, and everything in them—
    he remains faithful forever.

The only real answer to our brokenness is found in God alone. Placing our ultimate hope in anything or anyone else will continue to bear bad fruit. Getting our person in office will never accomplish what placing God at the center of our hearts can. Only when God reigns in our hearts will we discover who we truly are and who we can become. I am praying that we will choose the better way. I know I am going to try.

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Free To Serve

In a nation like the United States of America, we like to stress our freedoms, and we don’t like someone trying to suppress them.  How often have we heard the remark, “this is a free country, and I can do what I want.”  We don’t like the idea of someone dictating what we can and cannot do.  When someone infringes upon our rights, then we can become outraged.  We should be free to do what we want.

In the apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia, he addresses this idea of freedom.  Because of Jesus Christ, we have been set free.  Whereas the people had obediently followed the law to maintain their relationship with God, in Jesus, that relationship was now made right by God’s grace.  However, this new status before God did not give them the freedom to do whatever they wished or desired.  Instead, the freedom in Christ Jesus had a higher purpose.  In Galatians 5: 13, we read, “For you were called to freedom, brothers, and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”  According to Paul, we should use our freedom not merely for ourselves and our own needs and wants, but we should use our freedom to serve others.

As a people of faith, we are called to center our lives not around our own needs or what is best for us, but instead, make our living about meeting others’ needs.  The question that we should ask in every situation is not, “how will this affect me” but rather, “how will this affect others?”  Through love for others, we decide how to live our lives.  Paul also states, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  As Christians, we realize that life is not about placing us at the center but about putting others before ourselves and serving them.  We are called to love our neighbor.

Now “love your neighbor” is a broad statement and rightly so.  We tend to limit our neighbors to people just like ourselves.  However, when we are called to love our neighbor, then there are no limits on who our neighbor is.  Our neighbor may be a lot different than ourselves.  We do not get to pick and choose our neighbor, but in Christ Jesus, every person is our neighbor.  I love the signage that I sometimes see, which says:

Love Thy Neighbor

Thy Homeless Neighbor

Thy Muslim Neighbor

Thy Black Neighbor

Thy Gay Neighbor

Thy Immigrant Neighbor

Thy Jewish Neighbor

Thy Christian Neighbor

Thy Atheist Neighbor

Thy Addicted neighbor

God’s neighborhood is pretty big and diverse.  As his followers, this is where we are called to live.  As a result, we are always looking out for the interests of others before our own.  In Christ Jesus, we are free to serve others by loving others the way that Jesus did.  We are free to choose other people’s needs before our own.  We are free to put others before ourselves.  We are free to love in the same way that God has loved us:  unconditionally.  This is what true freedom looks like.

Heavy Hearts

The normal heart is about the size of a clenched fist and weighs 300 to 350 grams, less than 1 pound.  When you consider your overall weight, it is small in size.  Yet, when it comes to importance, the human heart is essential.  The human heart begins to beat in the fetus at 3 to 4 weeks.  When you consider that it then beats for the rest of human life, it is an incredible organ.

Beyond its physical importance, we use heart metaphorically in many ways.  The end of a relationship may bring a broken heart.  A sports competitor is described as playing with all their heart.  If we are not excited about something, we might say our heart is just not into it.  Or if we are overburdened by something in life, we might confess that our heart is heavy.  We might sometimes concur with the great German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “My peace is gone, my heart is heavy. ”

In Proverbs 12: 25, we read, “Anxiety weighs down the heart.”  The writer of Proverbs recognized that sometimes we have heavy hearts.  It is impossible to live in the world and not have a heavy heart at times.  When problems grow great, worry settles in, and uncertainty fills the future, we can quickly feel like our hearts are sinking.  We often use the idiom to describe such a situation by saying, “my heart sank.”

In the Gospel of John, Jesus sat around a table with his worried followers.  Jesus could tell that their hearts were sinking.  It was the night before Jesus’ death, and their lives seemed to be unraveling.  The heaviness of the hour was thick in the air, and it filled their hearts with a sense of despair.  Realizing this, Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) Jesus’ remedy for a heavy heart is his peace.  Peace, which the apostle Paul said, “passes all understanding.” (Philippians 4:7) Our hearts need not be overwhelmed by trouble when we allow God’s peace to guard them.  God gives us peace that can hold us steady and strong, even when our hearts seem to be failing us.  God’s peace will not fail us.  We will always face difficulties and challenges living in a broken world, but we can trust that God’s peace is stronger and can lift the heaviest of hearts.

Although we might look to other things and peoples to find our peace, these will always be inadequate. While they may offer short term peace to a heavy heart, true peace of heart can only come from God.  C.S. Lewis once said, “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”  May we trust in the peace that passes all understanding.  May we anchor our anxious hearts to the presence of Christ Jesus, and may we live in the hope that can lift our heavy hearts.

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A Pebble in Your Shoe

It is an uncomfortable feeling.  You are walking when you realize that you have something in the shoe you are wearing.  In many cases, it may be a small rock or pebble that has found its way into your shoe.  And while it may not be huge, it can cause you discomfort and affect your walk.  Eventually, you have to sit down, take off your shoe, and remove whatever object is there.  Otherwise, you will continue to be uncomfortable, and your walk will be affected.

There are times when something happens in our daily living, causing a relationship with another to be damaged.  Something is said or not said, done or not done, that results in hurt feelings or anger.  Someone has made us mad, and we cannot stop dwelling on it.  Thus, like a small rock in our shoe, our inability to forgive and move on disrupts our lives,  leaves us irritated and frustrated.  Hence, each day we walk around miserable because of the past act, which has now turned into a grudge.  A grudge is defined as “a persistent feeling of ill will or resentment resulting from a past insult or injury.”  If you have ever carried a grudge around before, you know its impact on daily life.

The writer of the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament offers wise counsel with respect to grudges.  In Proverbs 17: 9, we read, “One who forgives an affront fosters friendship, but one who dwells on disputes will alienate a friend.”  As the writer suggests, we can easily dwell on actions in the past to the point that we grow more and more distant from our friends.  Many individuals daily live with broken relationships because of an inability to forgive.  And in many cases, this unforgiveness is a result of something relatively insignificant.  Rather than letting go of the act, we allow it to fester in our lives to the point that we walk around angry and agitated.  This can be a miserable way of living.

On the other hand, forgiveness can remove the power of an act to continue to agitate our living and, at the same time, strengthen our friendship with the person who has wronged us.  It is impossible to live in relationships with others and not be hurt at different times.  Even the best of us say and do things that bring hurt to others.  Forgiveness is like removing that rock from our shoe and then moving forward to walk anew.  It doesn’t mean we can completely forget what caused the hurt, but forgiveness allows us to let go so we do not continue to hurt.  Likewise, forgiveness is rich soil for a friendship to grow again.

Life is too short to walk around limping in unforgiveness.  Letting go and offering forgiveness to those who have wronged us sets us free to walk with a fresh new step and towards a brighter future for ourselves and our friend.

pebble

Under the Influence

Most often, when we hear the phrase “under the influence,” we think of individuals whose behavior has been influenced by alcohol or drugs.  We also tend to think of individuals under the influence of such substances while behind an automobile’s wheel.  We have read plenty of tragic stories where automobile accidents and death have resulted from driving under the influence.  Of course, driving under the influence can be seen in a driver whose driving is erratic.  What influences you will affect your behavior.

Every person lives their lives under the influence of something or someone.  Our living does not happen in a vacuum.  Our words and deeds are influenced by something, whether we recognize it or not.  The question we must ask ourselves is, what am I under the influence of?  Lots of things can influence us.  Our desire for wealth, or fame, or power, or pleasure, or self-aggrandizement can lead us to live our lives in a certain way.

The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, tried to simplify the influence equation.  In Colossians 3:17, we read, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”  Paul contends that as Christians, our words and our actions should be under the influence of the name of the Lord Jesus.  In the Bible, a person’s name was more than a legal identification; but it represented the person’s character.  It is why Moses asked for God’s name before he went to Pharaoh to seek the Hebrew people’s freedom from slavery.  When we are under the influence of the name of the Lord Jesus, then our words and deeds will mirror the character of Jesus.

In all honesty, there are times in which I fail to live under the influence of Jesus.  My words and deeds betray my relationship with him.  At times, people may look at our lives and wonder about our relationship with Jesus.  If Jesus is our Lord, then wouldn’t our lives look different?  Unfortunately, as followers of Jesus, we do not always do a good job following him with our words and actions.  We can call him Lord but appear to be under the influence of something else.

We might all benefit from examining our daily living as Christians.  Before we speak or act, we should consider what these words and actions look like in the light of Christ.  It would seem that Christ’s light is a light of love.  Jesus would tell us, “they will know you are my followers by your love.”  Are my words loving?  Are my actions loving?  How we answer these questions will reveal the influence we are under.

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How Will We Know It’s You?

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, curbside service at restaurants has become popular.  You place your order on your phone or online, pull into specially mark parking, and text the restaurant to let them know you are there.  In some cases, you tell them the kind of car you are driving and its color as several people may be parked waiting on their order.  With your vehicle described, you wait for your food.

In the Gospel, we find Jesus riding into Jerusalem on what is traditionally called “Palm Sunday.”  It is the week of his crucifixion, and Jesus enters Jerusalem to a crowd of individuals who are excited to see his arrival.  For many, he is the Son of David, their messiah, and their new King.  Jesus is coming to restore Jerusalem to its glory days. With the number of people in the crowd on the crowded streets, how will they know he has arrived?

However, Jesus will not be arriving with a police escort with sirens blaring. The gospels tell us that Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, riding on a donkey to fulfill the prophetic word of Zechariah.  In Matthew 21:5, we read, “Tell the city of Zion. Look, your King is coming to you! He is humble and rides on a donkey and a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  Jesus’ choice of transportation seems to go against the grain of what we would consider being used by a King.  How about the King pulled by a group of horses, chariot, or maybe riding a fierce-looking stallion?  But a donkey?  What is there to get excited about a simple, plain donkey? They were everywhere.  Where is the spark, the charisma, the show of power?  You can’t rev up your engine if you are riding on a donkey.

The scripture teaches us that Jesus came in humility.  Humility is the quality of being humble and means putting another person’s needs before your own and thinking of others before yourself.  Jesus is the perfect picture of humility, not only on this particular day but also throughout his ministry.  Jesus always lived by a philosophy that he had come to serve rather than be served.  In the day of Jesus, a king was surrounded by servants who did his every bidding.  Jesus, however, understood himself as a servant King, who came to offer love, mercy, compassion, and kindness to others.  Jesus didn’t make every act he performed about himself, but others.  On his last night with his disciples, Jesus knelt before them and washed their feet.  Jesus then told them he had given them an example to follow.

The great revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards once said, “We must view humility as one of the most essential things that characterize true Christianity.”  As followers of Jesus, we are called to lives of humility.  With Jesus as our example, we are called to put the needs of others before ourselves.  The apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your interests, but the interests of others.” (Philippians 2: 3-40) When we follow Jesus, we surrender our need to be in the limelight but joyfully choose to be a servant of others.  This is the kind of life that Jesus modeled and invites us to follow.

What would the world look like if we as Christians followed our leader?  How would we treat others?  What would our words sound like, and what would our actions say about us?  How do people know when we have arrived?  By the noise, we make about ourselves or by our silent service to others?  Christianity will have its most significant influence not on the noise it makes but by its willingness to love, serve, and live as Jesus did.  That’s how the world will know who we are riding with.

black donkey behind brown cage
Photo by LARAINE DAVIS on Pexels.com

Stump Speech

In a campaign season for political office, we become quite accustomed to candidates making speeches.  Sometimes they are called a stump speech.  A political stump speech is a standard speech used by a politician running for office.  In such a speech, the candidate usually reiterates their talking points, several things they want to accomplish or stop from happening by the other candidate.  Such speeches usually fire up the base, who are the ones who attend the events where the candidate is speaking.  Such events can draw a crowd.

Jesus drew a lot of crowds.  Throughout the gospels, you read the phrase, “and the crowds followed him.”  Jesus was used to having people hang on his every word.  In Luke 4, you might find what you could call Jesus’ first stump speech.  Jesus had just spent 40 days in the wilderness being tested by Satan.  Satan’s temptation was to be Jesus’ primary campaign advisor as he began his ministry.  Satan presented Jesus with all kinds of scenarios where he could gain a following.  Yet, with each temptation, Jesus refused to bow to Satan and remained committed to what God had called him to do.

On the Sabbath, Jesus arrives at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.  Luke tells us that Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit as news about him began to spread.  While attending a synagogue meeting, Jesus was asked to read from the Hebrew scriptures.  Jesus stood and took the scroll and found a reading from the prophet Isaiah.  Jesus reads from Isaiah 61: 1-2

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

You might say, Isaiah’s words became Jesus’ first speech in his campaign to announce the Kingdom of God.  Jesus spoke about bringing good news to the poor, releasing captives, healing the blind, freeing the oppressed, and proclaiming the year of the Lord.  The crowd reacted favorably to Jesus’ remarks.  But when Jesus began to teach that his mission would also be to the Gentiles, then things went downhill fast.  The people became furious that Jesus would extend God’s blessings to the Gentiles; they were outsiders to the faith.  They grabbed Jesus, took him outside, and prepared to throw him downhill off a cliff for his words.  Somehow Jesus simply walked away from the mob.

Jesus would build his ministry around the coming of God’s Kingdom.  A Kingdom where all would be welcomed, none would be excluded, and all could enjoy the blessings of God.  Jesus’ message of inclusion was met by strong resistance, not only that day in the synagogue but throughout Jesus’ ministry.  Eventually, Jesus’ enemies would have him put to death on a cross.  They assumed that by silencing Jesus permanently, his mission would come to an end.  Little did they know that three days later, Jesus’ resurrection would inaugurate a whole new age.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to continue his message and ministry in the world.  Like Jesus, we must seek to bring the Kingdom of God to all people.  We are to actively seek to bring the Kingdom of God or Heaven to earth.  The Christian campaign is not merely a promise of future heaven but also a diligent work to bring God’s work and will into a broken world.  These are not campaign promises but Gospel reality.  We can never be content as followers of Jesus as long as individuals suffer in the present and until Jesus’ words in the synagogue become a reality:  “Today this scripture is fulfilled.”

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Border Crossings

We hear a lot about border crossings today.  A border checkpoint is a place, generally between two countries, where travelers or goods are inspected. Authorization often is required to enter a country through its borders. Access-controlled borders often have a limited number of checkpoints where one can cross without legal sanctions.  In the United States, we have borders with Mexico and Canada.  As we are aware, crossing them illegally can get you arrested.  Borders define your land, much like your property lines in your yard.  In addition, the government of a region can only create and enforce laws within its borders.  Borders mark separation from one place to another.

There were well-defined borders in the Bible.  These borders were especially true when it came to the holiness code of the Jewish faith.  The code recognized that Israel’s people were separated from the rest of the world because God had chosen them.  The code also established borders between the holy and the unholy, the healthy and the sick, the righteous and the sinner.  An individual of the day knew where they stood when it came to borders.  You were on the inside, or you were on the outside, and the border was not easy to cross.

When you read the Gospel stories of Jesus, it appears that Jesus didn’t pay a lot of attention to the border rules of the day.  Jesus was quite aware of the distinct separation that existed at the time.  However, Jesus seemed to freely cross the borders as well as welcoming others who crossed over to meet him.  Jesus did not worry that he was a Jewish Rabbi, but instead, he invested himself in others’ lives, regardless of what side of the border they came from.  As a result, throughout the Gospels, you see Jesus interacting with those suffering from disease, tax collectors, women, children, Samaritans, Gentiles, and whoever else had a label upon them as being outsiders from the right side of the boarder.  Jesus illegally crossed borders to share God’s love with people.  It didn’t win him any points with the religious authorities who always complained about his loose interpretation of the law.  For Jesus, grace just trumped borders.

In our modern society, we, too, can find ourselves resting safely on our side of the border when it comes to living our lives.  We tend to hang with the same crowd and are often reluctant to reach out, engage, and befriend those who may be different.  We develop an us and them mentality, and we like it best when everyone knows their place.  As followers of Jesus, however, this is not an option.  As Jesus’ disciples, we must be willing to live in a world without borders, where every person is worthy of love.  As Christians, we do not get to pick and choose our borders, but we are called to stretch beyond our comfort zones and into the lives of those around us.  The Christian faith is about building bridges, not walls.  We must seek to model our lives after Jesus, who welcomed all.

When the early church found itself beginning to set up its borders, the apostle Paul wrote, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” (Romans 15:7)  When we cross borders and enter into the lives of others, then we bring praise to God.  When we reach out in love and acceptance of others, we worship God.  It is no wonder then that the scriptures remind us about our place of worship, “My house will be a house of prayer for all people.” (Isaiah 56:7)  There are no borders for God, but only people to be loved, embraced, and befriended.

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Hitting the Brakes

For anyone who has ever driven a car, you know there are times when you have to hit the brakes.  Now it is impossible to drive a vehicle and not have to use the braking system.  With starts and stops, you have to gently press the brakes to slow your car down and bring it to a halt.  Yet, there are other times when you have to hit the brakes to avoid hitting something else and having an accident.  Instead of slowly pushing the brake pedal to ease your speed, you hit the brakes hard to bring the car to a screeching stop.  And while slamming on the brakes can create a scare for those in the car, sometimes it is necessary for all’s safety and well-being.

In the Bible, the prophet’s role was one that often slammed on the brakes for the people of Israel.  As God’s chosen people, Israel had entered into a covenantal relationship with God.  A covenant which called for faithful allegiance to God alone as well as an ethical responsibility for others.  The people had agreed to love God with all their hearts, souls, and minds, and to love their neighbor.  However, there were times in which the people of Israel failed at both of these covenant promises.  They often chased after other gods and forgot their relationship with God. To make matters worse, even when the people claimed allegiance to God alone, it did not often translate into loving their neighbor.  Instead, Israel’s people allowed injustices to multiply, often neglecting the care for the most vulnerable in their society.  In some cases, the people mistreated these individuals, ignored others, and oppressed the least of these.  As a result, the prophets often cried out against the people, hitting the brakes and shaking things up with the injustices that prevailed.

One of the most prominent and well-known prophets in scripture is that of the prophet Isaiah.  This eighth-century prophet of Israel cried out against the people for allowing injustice to flourish in their society.  Isaiah 1 states, “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. ” (Isaiah 1:17) Isaiah called the people to return to the ways of the covenant where all people were treated fairly, where the least of these were cared for, and where their faith in God refused to allow injustices to stand in society.  Isaiah reminds us that our faith must be active just by his word choice in the above scripture:  “learn, seek, rescue, defend, and plead.”  Isaiah “hit the brakes” and disrupted the comfortable ride of the people.

It is easy to become comfortable in our faith journey where we are content because our world’s injustices have no direct effect on us.  We know that people in our world are oppressed and suffering, but we often continue in our spiritual journey without much thought to their condition because it does not touch our own lives.  Or if we do respond to such a situation, we meet their current need without addressing our society’s unjust systems that have left them in their current state.  We can easily band aid the problem without considering the source of their wounds.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, and key founding member of the Confessing Church. His writings on Christianity’s role in the secular world have become widely influential, and his book The Cost of Discipleship has been described as a modern classic.  Bonhoeffer once wrote, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”  Bonhoeffer, a modern-day prophet, realized that sometimes you had to hit the brakes.  It was not good enough to treat the victims of injustices, but one had to bring the injustice itself to a halt.  The church could not merely journey forward while so many were left behind.  At some point, the church would have to cry out, “enough is enough.”

So many in our world today continue to suffer injustice, oppression, and persecution.  Whether it is racism in our own country, global sex trafficking, poverty, inadequate healthcare, or other human rights issues, the church must be a prophetic voice and agent of change.  The church must provide a voice to the voiceless and be willing to sacrifice its sense of comfortableness as it engages the injustices in our society.  Like Jesus, sometimes you have to turn over tables and challenge the status quo.  As followers of Jesus, we cannot make a blind journey through life on cruise control but must be willing to hit the brakes even if it means throwing everything around in the car/church.

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Watermarks

I think most people are familiar with watermarks.  Originally a watermark is a more or less transparent image or text applied to a piece of paper, another image to either protect the original image or make it harder to copy the item, e.g., money stamp watermarks.  If you hold the paper in the right light, the watermark appears.  The watermark gives the paper authenticity.

As Christians, we are marked.  In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we read, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.” (Ephesians 4:30)  As Jesus’ followers, we are authenticated by God’s Spirit.  God has claimed us as his own and has placed his watermark upon us.  In our baptisms, we are marked and sealed with God’s Spirit.  As a result, our lives must reflect God’s ownership.  When people look at our lives, they should be able to tell to whom we belong.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul was addressing the life change that comes from following Jesus.  Paul speaks of a new lifestyle as Christ’s followers. Paul writes about putting away falsehoods, speaking the truth, changing behaviors, watching our speech, putting away wrath and anger, and offering forgiveness to one another.  If our lives do not match our watermark, then Paul says we will grieve the Holy Spirit.  To grieve means to make sad or sorrowful. It means to cause sorrow, pain, or distress.  It saddens God when our baptism marks us, but then we do not follow the ways of our Lord.

Following Jesus in our world is not easy.  The temptation to join the crowd and forget our watermark is easy.  We end up blending in, losing our identity in Christ, and failing to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the world. Instead, our lives must exemplify the Christ we came to follow if we are to be authentic.  Unfortunately, what the world often experiences from Christians and the church comes across as a cheap imitation.  Our confession of faith does not match our daily living.  C. S. Lewis in his classic work; Mere Christianity stated, “When we Christians behave badly, or fail to behave well, we are making Christianity unbelievable to the outside world.”  The world will only true believe the good news of Christ Jesus when they see it in us.

As we live our daily lives as followers of Jesus, let us commit ourselves to God’s mark upon our lives.  May we be a Christian not merely in name, but in word and in deed.  Let us encourage one another in our walk as we all stumble at times.  And let us hold one another accountable in our faith so that the world will see our watermark and know to whom we belong.Baptism

Lost in our Thoughts

What are you thinking about?  We’ve asked that question of others, and others have directed that question toward us.  A lot of times, you can tell when someone is thinking about something.  They are there, but there is a disconnect with the environment around them.  They are lost in their thoughts.  The dictionary defines lost in thought this way:  “When you give all your attention to what you are thinking about and do not notice what is going on around you.”

It just seems that our minds are always thinking about something.  Some of our thoughts can be reasonably average like what is for supper, what do I need to pick up from the store, did I turn the lights off?  At other times, our thoughts can weigh much heavier upon our minds as we consider issues such as our health, relationships, finances, and other uncertainties.  Yes, we can get lost in our thoughts.  We can worry.

Everybody worries.  It would be impossible to live in the world and not find ourselves at times worried about something or someone in our lives.  Parents know what it means to worry about their children.  Business owners know what it means to worry about the bottom line.  A person who is dealing with a disease knows what it is like to worry about their health.  The list goes on.  Yet, worry is not a modern phenomenon, but it is as old as humanity itself.

In the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus addresses worry.  Jesus speaks about worry related to the daily needs of food, drink, clothing, and shelter.  Jesus knew that the people of the day could easily get lost in thought and worry about these things.  Jesus states, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” (Matthew 5: 28-30) Jesus called his hearers who found themselves lost in thought and worry to reframe their thinking by focusing on lilies.  Now I don’t think lilies were Jesus’ favorite flower.  Instead, Jesus pointed out lilies because they demonstrate God’s concern and care for the flowers of the field, and if God thinks about the flowers of the field, we can trust that we are always in God’s thoughts and on God’s mind.

When we can come to trust in God’s care and concern for our lives, then we can trust God with our anxiety, worries, and problems.  We can allow our thoughts to rest in God’s mind.   In doing so, we do not become so lost in our thoughts and weighed down with anxiety that we can’t enjoy the life God has blessed us with.  We can begin to think of all of God’s blessings, acts of mercy, times of provision, sustaining grace, and steadfast love.  When we get lost in these kinds of thoughts, we enjoy the peace of mind that only God can give.  That’s something to think about.

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The Pursuit of Happiness, When We Were Made for Joy

It says it right there in the Declaration of Independence: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  These are three examples given of unalienable rights granted to all humans by their creator.  According to the Declaration of Independence,” we have a right to these.  I’m not sure why these three were identified as central, as I am not a historical scholar.  Yet, I have been intrigued by choice of the pursuit of happiness.

But what does happiness mean?  Happiness can mean different things for different people.  Is there a set standard for happiness, and who gets to define the standard?  What does it mean to pursue happiness?  When I think of pursuing something, I think of trying to chase something down, capture it, and claim it as my own.  And I guess if you are pursuing something, it doesn’t mean just sitting still, but actively going after whatever you are pursuing.

Well, I think most people want to be happy.  Happiness makes us feel good.  Happiness puts a smile on our faces.  Yet, it has been my experience that happiness never lasts, but it is fleeting.  Maybe this is why we are always pursuing it.  Once we attain it, it does not last long.  The new car eventually gets dinged and dented.  The new job becomes routine.  The new outfit goes out of style.  The new relationship begins to grow stale.  The next high wears off.  Happiness is off and running, so the pursuit begins again.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says these words to his disciples:  “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11) Jesus promised his disciples that they could share in his joy.  Unlike happiness, joy seems to have a deeper and richer meaning to it.  John Piper defines Christian joy this way:  “Christian joy is a good feeling in the soul, produced by the Holy Spirit, as he causes us to see the beauty of Christ in the word and the world.”  This kind of joy cannot be found or experienced in anything that the world has to offer, but instead, its source is in God alone.  When Jesus said to his disciples that he had said “these things,” so they might have joy, we have to ask what did Jesus say?

The verses preceding John 15:11 record Jesus speaking about our need to abide in Jesus and for Jesus to abide in us much like a branch does to a vine.  When we share our lives with Christ Jesus, then we become infused with Jesus’ joy.  We don’t pursue it or chase it down, but it is offered to us a gift of God’s grace.  An abiding relationship with Jesus Christ is the only real source of joy.  There may be happiness imitations, but they do not last.  Only the joy of the Lord is lasting and does not flee even in times of difficulty.  God’s joy is eternal.  What we receive now on earth is only amplified when we went enter into the joy of heaven.  As Fanny Crosby wrote in the great Christian hymn, Blessed Assurance:  “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine.  Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine.”

What is it that we are pursuing?  What is it that we have found, and has it brought lasting happiness?  Happiness will continue to slip through our fingers.  Joy, however, will anchor itself in our hearts as a constant reminder of the trustworthy source of our joy:  Jesus.

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Bent Out of Shape

It happens.  Something happens that upsets us.  We get angry.  We get frustrated.  Even our physical demeanor changes as we become red face.  We get “bent out of shape”.  The phrase means to take offense; to become angry, agitated, or upset.  Something has set us off so much that we are all twisted up inside about it.  We can’t think straight, our emotions are high, and we are visibly upset.

In the Gospels, Jesus often caused people to get bent out of shape.  This was especially true of the religious leaders who disapproved of the way he conducted himself.  The Jewish religion of the day had strict guidelines and instructions on how one should live.  There were certain things you were not permitted to do.  This was especially true about the Jewish Sabbath.  Strict observance of the Sabbath meant working and other activities were simply not permitted.

In Luke 10: 13-17 we read the following story of Jesus healing a woman on the Sabbath.  “Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”

This particular woman had been physically bent out of shape for 18 years.  She could not stand straight up, but hunched over, she lived looking at the ground.  When Jesus sees her condition, he extends compassion and heals the woman.  However, the leader of the synagogue becomes bent out of shape because Jesus healed on the Sabbath.  According to policy and procedures guidelines, Jesus should have waited till after the Sabbath.  Jesus broke the rules when he healed the bent out of shape woman.  I think most people when we read this story think how ridiculous it was for the leader of the synagogue to become so upset about breaking a rule to help a person.

Sometimes we become bent out of shape on things that really in the big picture don’t matter.  Someone says something or does something and immediately we find ourselves twisted up inside, walking around miserable and mad, and generally unhappy with life at the moment.  We end up bent out of shape about something we should have just let go in the first place.  Yet, for some reason, we are good at holding on to these feelings and allow them to disrupt all the goodness around us.  All the synagogue leader could see was his anger, while he missed the bigger picture.

So, the next time something bends us out of shape, let us think about what it is that is really making us upset.  Is it justified?  Is it worth it?  And if the answer is no, then just let it go and then go forth and live your life.  It is ironic in the story that the woman walks away free from her bent over condition while the religious leader leaves all bent out of shape.  We don’t have to live bent of our shape.  Jesus can straighten us all out as he teaches us about what really matters in life. Life is too short to get upset about some things.  Jesus always shows us a better way.

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The Mess We Leave Behind: Politics and Conversations

For anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant as the wait staff or as a busboy or busgirl, there are times when you go to the table after the diners have left to find a mess.  Now there will always be dirty dishes and the like, but sometimes the table is a disaster.  Remnants of the meal are spread around the table, on the seats, and on the floor.  Everything is in disarray.  At other times you can tell that the diners intentionally left the table in nice shape, stacking dishes, collecting trash, and the like, because they know someone will have to clean up things.  Having waited on tables before in my life, I try hard now not to leave a mess behind for others to clean up.

As an American citizen, I am concerned about the mess we are leaving behind for future generations.  Our table fellowship has gotten awful messy.  While political disagreements have always been part of our American family, it has in recent years turned into a free-for-all of insults, sarcasm, ugliness, and hatefulness.  Civic conversations have given way to Jerry Springer Show like theatrics where the goal is not to discuss issues but to seek ways to destroy one another.  It has not helped that our national leaders have modeled this way of exchange for us.  When our leaders are unable to conduct themselves with honesty, integrity, and respect, then it filters down to the rest of us.  It shows up among circles of friends, families, workplaces, and churches.

The widespread use of social media has only exasperated the problem.  The daily barrage of comments, sarcastic posts, and mean-spirited words are all over the place from all sides of politics.  We are quick to point the finger at our political opponent while failing to see our own shortcomings.  In fact, political opponents are now better described as political enemies.  The lines have been drawn and compromise is forgotten as an option.  Yes, we are creating quite a mess, but at what price?

Our children and grandchildren are watching us and taking it in.  If we continue to model this way of discourse, then it is only inevitable that they will follow suit as they age.  We will have left the table so messy, then they will not know how to begin to start the conversation.  They will think this is the normal of table conversation.  Left unchanged, we will be setting them up for a generation of division and animosity.  Is this really what we want to leave behind?

As people of faith, we have to do better.  We have to model a way of discourse that is guided by grace and humility.  We have to resist the temptation of joining in the free-for-all of insults, sarcasm, and hatred.  We have to live with a different mindset; the mind of Christ.  The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, would write, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4: 8-9) Imagine the salt and light we could be as Christians at the table if we operated under a different mindset than that of the rest of society.   Jesus told us that they will know we are his followers by our love for one another.  I think we would all probably rather be known for our love than our last political post on FACEBOOK.

As Christians, we can continue to talk, discuss, and debate the issues of the day.  Each voice is important.  Yet, we do so with the mind of Christ within us.  We must let the mind of Christ guide our conversations.  Again, the apostle Paul would write to the Philippians saying, “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2: 1-8)

We all want our voices to be heard in the political conversation.  However, are we willing to speak with voices guided by Jesus Christ?  We don’t have to leave a messy table for others to clean up.  We can leave a better place for those who come after us.  We cannot do it, however, on our own, but only by the guidance of God’s Spirit.  May we each ask God to guide our speech and its tone.  May we see others, even the ones we disagree with, as children of God.  And may we realize that our ultimate allegiance is to Jesus Christ.

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Sloppy Saints

Did you ever ask a question of another, but did not get the answer you wanted to hear?  You ask the question hoping that the individual will affirm what you have already decided the answer to be.  In Matthew’s Gospel, the apostle Peter comes to Jesus asking a question about forgiveness.  In Matthew 18:21 we read, “Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Peter answered his question before Jesus could respond.  Peter wanted to know if he should forgive up to seven times.  Now it is not exactly clear what Peter meant by seven times.  Did he mean that when you forgave a church member seven times then you were done?  If an eighth time came along, then you didn’t have to forgive?  Or did the number seven mean perfection?  Was Peter asking Jesus if he had to offer perfect forgiveness? Now, whatever Peter meant, he does seem to be asking to see if there are limitations on forgiveness.  Is there only so much forgiveness to go around?

Jesus responds to Peter with a number of his own.  Jesus says, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.”  (Matthew 18:22) Peter was probably confused by Jesus’ answer.  What does that even mean?  Jesus then goes on to tell a parable about a king who wished to settle accounts with servants.  As he called each servant before him to settle up, one servant came forward owing 10,000 talents.  In modern money, it is $3.48 billion.  There was no way this servant would ever be able to pay the king back.  So, as you would expect, the servant begs for more time to come up with what he owes.  The king is moved by his plea.  He does not grant the servant an extension but instead erases his entire debt.  He now owes nothing.  Freed from his debt, the servant heads out only to meet another servant who owes him just a little.  When this servant asks for more time, the recently forgiven servant will have nothing of it.  Instead, he threw him into prison until he could pay his debt.

This news makes it back to the king.  The king once again calls the servant before him demanding to know why he didn’t forgive his fellow servant after he had just received forgiveness.  Incensed with the servant, the king takes back his forgiveness and orders him to be tortured until he pays back everything.  The story ends with Jesus saying, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18: 35)

So back to the original question.  If a church member sins against me, how often should I forgive?  Well, the first truth here is that church members sin against one another.  Even though we are followers of Jesus, we still lug around with us the baggage of our human sinfulness.  As a result, as church members, we say and do things that cause hurt to others.  Any person who has ever spent time with a church family knows that this is true.  We can still wound others with our words, actions, or lack of action.  The church is by no means a perfect place, but a group of sloppy saints trying to do the right thing.  Yet, sometimes we get it wrong.

As a pastor for the last 30 years with the same church, I wish I could say I always got it right.  Yet, sometimes I am a sloppy saint.  We all are.  That is why forgiveness is such an important part of the church.  If we can’t forgive one another, then it makes our proclamation of God’s grace seem cheap or inauthentic.  If there is anywhere forgiveness should have a good root system is in the church.  Now, this does not mean excusing unacceptable or unharmful actions, but it does mean forgiveness should always be a part of our interactions with one another.  When unforgiveness plops down in a pew or a pulpit, then problems are inevitable.

Forgiveness is not easy.  It can be tough work.  Yet, Jesus has demonstrated what it looks like.  The only guideline is to forgive from your heart.  And when we can begin there, God can then take care of the rest.

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