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Thursday, October 11, 2018

Deuteronomy 5:1-21 Sabbath Freedom

Observation: Moses' final sermon to the people of Israel includes a recap of the Ten Commandments God gave to them on the mountain. Just as in Exodus, the first place the commandments appear, special attention is paid to how and why the people should observe a Sabbath day every week. It's a great equalizer: it's for people of every station, free and slave alike, and it is born from Israel's communal trauma of being slaves themselves in Egypt.

Application: I recently had an online discussion with other Lutheran pastors about days off. It's variable, but most people take either Friday or Monday as a day of rest. It's becoming more common today for Pastors to take an actual "weekend" (Either Friday-Saturday, or Sunday afternoon through Monday) the same way many other professionals do.

What strikes me about our understanding of Sabbath today is that we sometimes think of it as a luxury, or a personal indulgence. It's's a Commandment, and it's for everybody. It is an act of worship, in its way, to cede control of our lives to God and know the world will keep turning even if we get off the hamster wheel.  At the same time, we no longer live in a society that shuts down one day a week. It can't. While some rest, others pump gas, answer emergency calls, and monitor hospital units. Or, you know, preach the Gospel.  So our sense of Sabbath has become individualized. We have to figure out what Sabbath looks like for us. But it has to be a full day...if you think you can really let go of trying to be Lord and master of your life on four hours here and eight hours there, between shifts, with no consistent schedule, you've missed the point.

You're not a slave to anyone. Not your boss, not your bills, not the economy, not the election cycle, nobody. And besides that, you're not God. The world will get along fine without you, and even better when you return refreshed. Take a day and be free.

Prayer: God, help me let you be you. Amen. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Matthew 5:27-37 A Hedge Around the Law

Observation: In his sermon on the mount, Jesus uses a Rabbinical teaching technique called "building a fence around the Law," or "Khumra" in Hebrew. The idea is to avoid committing small, less harmful sins in order to protect against bigger ones. Don't want to commit adultery? Don't even look lustfully at someone. Don't want to swear falsely? How about not swearing at all? You can see why Jesus says just a few verses earlier that he's not here to abolish but to fulfill the law.

Application: I don't know if you can relate to this, but I'm much less disciplined a person than I'd like to be. Sometimes reading Jesus' sermons is daunting. I don't love the idea of being cast into hell (or Gehenna, the actual word used here, but that's another story), just for a minor offense of my hand or eye. Jesus' standards are impossibly high. For him, technically fulfilling the law isn't enough. He raises the level of accountability to the nth degree, until pretty much nobody really feels "free and clear" in their day to day conduct.

I believe that's part of the point. I think Jesus intended to raise the stakes to the point where no one was comfortable or complacent anymore. If anything got under Jesus' skin it was a self-righteous attitude, so he pretty much torpedoes any chance of that from the get-go.

Jesus probably didn't intend for people to just read all this and despair. I think he really believed in the potential of humans to be better than the bare minimum. But he also knew how to hit us where it hurts, to remind us that nobody has this thing completely down. We all need God's grace.

Prayer: Jesus, build a fence around my heart. Help me be better today than yesterday, but also rely on your grace. Keep me hopeful but humble. Amen.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

1 Corinthians 7:10-16 Paul's Advice on Marriage

Observation: In response to a question from the Christian community in Corinth, Paul writes that as a command "from the Lord", divorce is to be discouraged, and as a word of personal advice, "not from the Lord," that even if a Christian is married to a non-believer, they should stay together. I should note here that Paul's individual call from God was to stay unmarried and celibate all his days.

Application: Sigh. Putting together a sermon about Jesus' words on divorce this past Sunday was hard. And here comes Paul's advice right on its heels, and this is hard to read too. It's like a one-two punch. I know so many people who have been through divorce, and I know it's not because they messed up, or didn't try hard to work through issues they may have had. Yet there is still so much guilt and shame when it comes to divorce and Biblical texts like 1 Corinthians 7 aren't helping matters. I'm not sure what to do with it sometimes.

Of course, marriage is a lifelong commitment, and we should go into it intending that that be the case. God wants us to be able to support and love one another all of our days, and never have to wonder if the relationship we have today will be there tomorrow. That's the ideal. And I should say based on my reading of scripture, I don't believe that ideal lifelong commitment of love and support should only be open to heterosexual couples. God doesn't want any of us to be constantly doubting ourselves or our romantic partners, never knowing if and when we may end up alone.

But something I said on Sunday applies here too: I do not believe Paul or Jesus would have envisioned a world where people whose marriages end are ostracized from society, and especially not from the Christian community. God does not want a world where people have to choose to either endure abuse, misery, or households devoid of love or compassion, or to be completely isolated from their church, friends and family. Some situations in life are no-win. No one wakes up joyful and excited on the day their marriage comes to an end, but no one should ever face that day any less confident of God's love, support, forgiveness, and grace than they were before.

To paraphrase Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, God doesn't love the "ideal" version of you, because that person doesn't exist. God loves the "real" you, with your story, your past, your present, your future.

Prayer: God, I pray for anyone reading this today who may read texts like this and feel deep pain from their past. I pray you would love them and walk beside them as they heal. I pray you would remind them that nothing in all creation can separate them from your love. And I pray you would use your church not as a gavel of judgment, but as a living, breathing reminder of that promise.  Amen.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Genesis 21:22-34 Abraham the Migrant

Observation: Abraham doesn't yet have a land of his own. God has promised that one day his family will be a great nation with its own land, but for now, Abraham lives the same life as his ancestors: he's a nomadic herdsman. As such, it's really important to maintain good relationships with the owners of the land where his livestock graze. In this text, Abraham makes a covenant with Abimelech that they will have honest dealings with one another while Abraham resides in his land as an alien.

Application: What jumps out for me today is that all three of the "Abrahamic" faiths--Judaism, Christianity and Islam--claim a migrant worker as their ancestor. Throughout his entire life, Abraham lived as a foreigner in the land of others. He never had his own. Furthermore, a central value God lifts up for Israelites when they do finally enter the Promised Land, is kindness to foreign residents on their land, remembering they once were in the same position.

In remembrance of Abraham, a lifelong nomad, and of Jesus, an itinerant preacher who never had a permanent place to lay his head, we are called to be compassionate to immigrants, and find the proper way to do right by them.

Prayer: God, we are your guests on this land. No one is here permanently. Help us be humble, and generous with all that we temporarily call our own. In the name of Christ, the Shepherd of our souls, we pray. Amen.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Zechariah 10:1-12 Ask For Rain

Observation: the prophet tells his readers to ask for rain from the Lord, rather than their household idols, because only God can deliver. Because of false dreams and visions from these idols, the people of Israel are wandering aimlessly. Only God can give them the direction their lives need. 

Application: We woke up to an autumn thunderstorm this morning. Aside from making my kids extra squirrely and difficult to get ready for school, it was a good thing. Rain is one of those things that reminds me I'm not in charge and my plans are often contingent on things I can't control. Today I'm grateful for rain, but however I feel about it, it's 100% a God thing. 

There are a lot fewer things in our lives over which we have control than we'd ever want to admit. Sometimes in addition to "thy will be done" I think we should also be saying "and help us to go with the flow." We can't stop the rain ourselves, much less start it. Better to pray for the presence of mind to bring an umbrella. 

Prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen. 

Friday, September 28, 2018

Psalm 19:7-14 Clear Me From Hidden Faults

Observation: the first half of this song describes how the skies proclaim God's glory. The second half is from a human perspective, praising God's law. Better than gold, sweeter than honey, pointing out mistakes we make that we'd never see in ourselves.

Application: I am not sure I always see the law of God as sweet or valuable. Thing is, being wrong and making mistakes doesn't feel too terrible if you don't know you're doing it. In fact, it often feels good. It's being corrected that hurts. Dishing a little gossip, letting loose with a friend about your frustrations with coworkers, laughing a little...all that feels pretty good. What ruins everything is when your friend has to be "that person" and redirect the conversation, reminding you that this isn't exactly square with who God would have us be.

There isn't always an immediate "pay-off" in knowing God's law. A lot of times it reminds us we're falling short. Compared with the rush of self-righteousness that comes from pointing out others' faults, it's a buzz-kill. Until we realize that we're not just sinners, but sinners whom God has forgiven. Grace means nothing unless we know the sin it overcomes.

Prayer: God, thank you for the mirror of your law, to see I'm not perfect, but forgiven. Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Acts 4:13-31 Speaking With All Boldness

Observation: Peter and John have healed a paralyzed man in the Jerusalem temple in Jesus' name. When the religious authorities--the same people who orchestrated Jesus' death--tell them not to preach in Jesus' name anymore, Peter and John decide to listen to God instead of humans, "for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard." After somehow avoiding arrest, the apostles pray, not for safety from a very real danger, but for even more boldness to speak God's word.

Application: You know what? The more I watch what's going on around me, the more I get this paralyzing sense of anxiety, guilt and exhaustion. I know I'm not speaking out enough on behalf of people who are suffering very real harm in our society. Maybe some would call that "preaching politics," but I'm fairly sure Peter and John healing and preaching in the name of a man the Roman government recently crucified was seen as political also.

I need Peter and John's prayer today, not for safety from danger (my worst-case scenario is nowhere near as bad as theirs was anyway) but to speak God's word "with all boldness".

I think Peter and John were able to pray for boldness instead of safety because they knew the power of the story they had to tell. They had seen with their own eyes that Jesus had died, but was alive again. They were fresh from the miracle of Pentecost, where thousands heard God's word, and believed.

When I just pray for unity, for harmony, for peace, for everybody to "just get along," the subtle message I'm sending is that I don't really believe God's word can change lives and hearts. That it's more important not to offend people than to really speak the truth I find in God's word. But when I ask God to give me the guts to just tell the truth, well, I have to actually believe what Jesus says, that "the truth will set us free." That's a whole other thing. It's far from safe, but it's exactly what our world needs.

Prayer: Okay. Here goes...God, I want you to help me proclaim your word with all boldness. At least I want to want that. Maybe that's a start. Give me, and all who are reading this, some compassion, some discernment, and a whole lot of backbone, because the times require nothing less. Help us trust that your truth really does set us free. Amen.