Launching an Earth Stewardship Action Network (and some steps YOUR church could consider)

Caring for Our Environment, Serving Those in Need

By Keith Mills

Our new Earth Stewardship Action Network has been given a mission of earth care and earth justice, and everyone in our Presbytery is invited to participate in this ministry in some way. Our intention is to be both faithful and practical; a specific example follows.

At a Presbytery of the Western Reserve meeting in early 2016, a vote was taken on a potential General Assembly overture that PC(USA) not divest from fossil fuel company investments, believing this move would be counter-productive and divisive. That motion carried, but with the strong recommendation that PCUSA congregations take action to reduce their carbon emissions, specifically though energy efficiency and renewable energy sources.

Therefore, all Presbytery of the Western Reserve congregations are invited to commit to decreasing annual building energy use by at least 10% over time. This is a win/win path that reduces church utility spending — which can be redirected to missions, programs and staff — and reduces our pollution emissions. One justice issue around air pollution is its link to poverty: pollution tends to most dramatically affect low income neighborhoods, as inner city rates of asthma and COPD are among the highest in North East Ohio.

Reducing energy use starts with simply turning off church lighting and equipment when not in use. Each church can restrict hours the building is open, by, for example, closing the church on one night.  Upgrading at least 80% of church lighting to LEDs and using motion sensors over time is recommended, as these investments fairly quickly result in reducing lighting costs. Using setback thermostats reduces heating and cooling costs when the building is unoccupied. Finally, tracking energy use over a period of time helps to confirm that we have actually reduced energy use, and takes weather differences into account.

This path has been followed by many congregations across the country, and is both faithful and practical.   A proposal to Committee on Outreach, if and when approved, will provide monetary grants for congregations who commit to moving along the energy reduction path. Any congregation can start small, installing 5-10 LED bulbs at a time.   Energy efficiency project loans for larger projects are available through PCUSA.

Please contact the Earth Stewardship Action Network at earthstewardship@preswesres.org if you would like to share an earth stewardship example that you are passionate about, or if you have questions for (or would like a visit from) one of our Network members.

Every blessing,
Keith Mills

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Remembering to Build the Temple

Reformed and Always Reforming, Seeking God Together, Serving Those in Need, Speaking Truth to Power, Worship Study Prayer

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Haggai 1:1-15

 A Call to Build the House of the Lord

     1In the second year of King Darius, on the first day of the sixth month, the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest:

     2 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come for the Lord’s house to be rebuilt.’”

     3 Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”

     5 Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”

     7 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the Lord. “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the Lord Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house. 10 Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. 11 I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the olive oil and everything else the ground produces, on people and livestock, and on all the labor of your hands.”

     12 Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the Lord their God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the Lord their God had sent him. And the people feared the Lord.

     13 Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message of the Lord to the people: “I am with you,” declares the Lord. 14 So the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of the whole remnant of the people. They came and began to work on the house of the Lord Almighty, their God, 15 on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of King Darius.

For my money, the Book of the Prophet Haggai might just be the most under-appreciated book in the whole Bible. In fact, I’ve only heard one other guy preach a sermon on Haggai, and he joked about how obscure the book is. Haggai only has two chapters, both of which involve the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem after the return from the Babylonian exile. Today’s passage is a little longer than our usual readings, so I’ll be a little briefer in my comments.

Haggai tells about the time after the king of Persia had issued a decree that the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean countryside, who had been dragged off into exile by the Babylonians, could now go home. (The Persians had subsequently conquered the Babylonians.) Some portion of the exiled Jews made the trip back to rebuild Jerusalem, which had been in ruins for about sixty years.

When they got back to the ruined city, the exiles set about rebuilding. And it seems that their first priority for rebuilding was to rebuild the city wall. That makes sense, since there were enemies all around them trying to stop the rebuilding of the city. Apparently their second priority was to rebuild their homes. From this passage, it seems that when they rebuilt their homes, they didn’t just throw up simple shelters, but rather constructed “paneled houses.” The scholars say that means houses that were nicely built and fairly luxurious.

The problem was that the people never got around to rebuilding the temple. They were living in nice houses, but the temple was still lying in ruins. So God sent the prophet Haggai to complain.

Now, obviously, it wasn’t that God needed the temple to live in. This is a God who has created a universe that’s run on schedule for 13.8 billion years. He didn’t have to worry about being homeless. And in the minds of the ancient Hebrew people, the temple of Jerusalem didn’t really represent God’s ‘home,’ so to speak, as much as it represented God’s ‘throne room.’ The Hebrew people understood that God reigned over the universe from that structure. So by leaving the temple in ruins, the people were expressing a lack of respect for God’s role as Lord of their lives. That’s the point God sent Haggai to raise with them.

One of the things about this passage is that God wasn’t threatening to punish them with some great catastrophe, like a flood or an earthquake or another foreign invader. Instead, the people would experience a general withholding of God’s full blessing. The chosen people would not really flourish as they might have. They would get by, but not really do that well. The message was pretty clear: If you fail to honor God by acknowledging him as Lord and by keeping his reign at the center of national life, then you will not know the full blessing he has in mind for you.

Obviously, we live in a very different kind of society. In spite of what some people might mistakenly think, we Americans are not God’s new chosen people. We live in a pluralistic democracy that accepts people of different faiths and people of no faith. (Or at least, we usually accept people of different faiths.)

Our understanding is that it’s the followers of Jesus who are, in a sense, God’s new chosen people. So the challenge to us – whatever country we may live in – is to honor God by keeping him at the center of our lives. Not to be consumed with ‘building our own houses’ – with advancing our own interests and our own agendas. But rather to be focused on helping God build his kingdom, in which peace and justice will rule, in which the needs of the poor will be met, in which the hungry will be fed and the sick will be healed, in which those of us who claim to be his people will hold ourselves to the highest standards of personal integrity, will honor our marriage vows and not exploit others for our own pleasure or enrichment.

And it might seem obvious, but I would say that’s true of our life together as well as our individual lives. Sometimes decisions we make as churches can be driven by worldly concerns instead of genuine commitment to God’s kingdom. Bigger membership, growing budgets and nice meeting houses are of less interest to God, I’m pretty sure, than congregations who are genuinely making spiritual growth, bearing witness to outsiders and service to others the central principles of their life together.

That, I think, is probably the 21st century equivalent of rebuilding the temple of God in the center of our lives, and of our life together.

Let’s pray. Lord, move in our hearts to cause us to make your reign the center of our lives as individual believers, and of our life together as congregations of followers of your Son. Amen.

Have a great weekend, and worship God joyfully on Sunday!
Henry

 

(The other readings for today are Psalms 130 and 148; Revelation 2:18-29; and Matthew 23:27-39.)

Jesus Teaches on Following and Leading

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Matthew 23:1-12

      1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

     5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long;they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have people called them ‘Rabbi.’

     8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Master, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Today’s gospel reading has some interesting points to reflect on. These points all relate to a basic principle that Jesus expresses on a number of occasions in the gospels: that leadership among the people of God is not intended as an honor for leaders, but rather as a responsibility to the people of God. In this passage, Jesus points out some of the mistakes and shortcomings of the religious leadership of the Hebrew people of his time, and he uses those mistakes and shortcomings as object lessons in teaching his own followers about the nature of godly leadership.

Jesus starts by pointing out that for all their shortcomings, the Hebrew religious leaders actually did have authority, by virtue of the fact that their teaching follows on the long traditions of their people, and that it is based on the Torah. That Torah was understood to be the Law of God given to the people through Moses, so the Hebrew religious leaders were considered Moses’ spiritual successors. And Jesus seems to uphold the Jewish leaders’ claim to theological authority.

It seems surprising to read that Jesus tells his followers that they should obey the teaching of these Hebrew religious leaders. (It’s especially surprising in light of the following passage, in which Jesus calls these religious leaders “hypocrites” and “blind guides.”) But Jesus tells his followers that they should not imitate the behavior of the religious leaders, because they do not “practice what they preach.”

It seems to me that we tend to think that we have the right to ignore any religious figure whose actions seem unacceptable, but Jesus doesn’t seem to buy that. As the saying goes, Jesus tells his followers to do what the religious leaders say, but not what they do. That runs against the grain of our normal default outlook. We sort of take it for granted that religious leaders who commit sins should be run out of the church.

But Jesus seems to be saying that even teachers and others who have serious spiritual flaws can play a constructive role in the life of God’s people. I suppose we might say that God has to work through sinful people, because when you get right down to it, that’s the only kind of people there are.

Jesus then goes on to list some of the failings he sees among the religious leaders of the covenant people. First of all, Jesus says that they place heavy burdens on people, but don’t do anything to help people meet them. He seems to be talking about the very detailed and demanding rules about ritual purity and keeping the Sabbath and so on. These detailed rules that become deeply entrenched in Jewish life. For some people, taking part in these rituals was even becoming a financial burden, so that practicing their faith was causing genuine hardship for people. The teachings of the religious leadership were actually making life harder for these people.

And then Jesus goes on to criticize the leadership for their efforts to glorify themselves instead of God. The leaders, he says, loved to strut around in public in religious attire and be treated like bigshots wherever they went. These leaders had become more interested in the praise and admiration of others than in pleasing God.

But Jesus cautions his own followers that in their ministry, they are to refrain from letting others treat them with great honor and reverence. In fact, he says, they are not to let people address them by religious titles, like ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Father.’ Instead of allowing others to honor them in that way, the leaders of Jesus’ movement were to deflect all honor back to God. It’s to be intentional humility, not glorification, that is the hallmark of the leaders among Jesus’ followers.

It seems to me that those who are called to leadership among God’s people – and especially among the followers of Jesus – are challenged to lead by example. They are to set an example of discipleship by being committed to spiritual growth through study and prayer and worship. They are to set an example of service in Jesus’ name to those who are suffering and in need. And they are to set an example of growing more holy by being more concerned with their own sins than they are with the sins of others. And they are to set an example of humility, wanting God to be glorified, not themselves.

And when the leaders in his church grow closer to God in all those ways, Jesus seems to be saying, they will be leading others closer to God, as well. When the leaders of the church demonstrate the kind of humble servanthood that Jesus himself showed, then the others of the church will be led to do likewise. That, it seems to me, is the heart of Jesus’ vision of leadership among his followers. And it’s a stiff challenge to those of us who are called to any form of leadership among the people of God.

Let’s pray. Lord, we ask that you will turn the hearts of our leaders to show the humility and servanthood that marked Jesus himself. Share with them your vision for the church, and empower them to lead us in fulfilling that vision. Draw them closer to yourself, so that the rest of us will be led closer to you, as well. Amen.

Grace and Peace,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 53 and 147:1-11; Amos 8:1-14; and Revelation 1:17-2:7.)

Loving Neighbor, Because We Love God

Seeking God Together, Serving Those in Need, Worship Study Prayer

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Matthew 22:34-40

The Greatest Commandment

     34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

     37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

It’s hard to imagine a question that would be more important for people who are claiming to follow Jesus. Think about it: If Jesus was God in human form, as we understand him to have been, and if God was the source of all the commandments handed down to humankind throughout history and recorded in the scriptures, then what could be more important than asking Jesus the question in this passage: What is the greatest commandment?

It’s probably important that we stop and glance back at yesterday’s reading, because today’s starts out by saying that when the Pharisees heard how Jesus answered a question from their rivals, the Sadducees, they put their heads together to come up with a question of their own. The Sadducees had asked a complicated question about marriage in heaven, but the Pharisees asked this simple one about the most important commandment.

I suppose lots of people who are followers of Jesus might remember how Jesus answered the Pharisees’ question. Love God with your heart and soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. But when you actually stop and think about what it is that we’re being commanded to do, it seems like Jesus’ answer requires a little more thought than we usually give it.

It seems pretty obvious when we read this passage that in Jesus’ mind (and we understand that to mean in the mind of God), love of God and love of our neighbor are ‘alike.’ Jesus is asked for one “greatest commandment in the law,” but his answer winds up having two parts. What do you make of that?

I guess I’d have to conclude that in God’s mind, love for him can’t be separated from love for other people. For all other people – because the Parable of the Good Samaritan seems to say that every other person is my ‘neighbor.’ This reminds me of a quote from the famous Roman Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, who once said, “I can’t claim to love God more than I love the person I love the least.”

I don’t know about you, but I think she might be right, and I find that a really scary standard. There are some people in this world that I think very badly of. Terrorists. Dictators. Guys who beat their wives. People who abuse or neglect their children. Leaders of militias in Africa, who kidnap kids and give them drugs and assault rifles and use them to terrorize their enemies. Or racists and bigots in our own country.

Maybe you struggle with some of this, too. So what are we supposed to do? Does God actually expect us to love people like that?

Well, I would say, ‘Yes,’ but we probably need to keep in mind the meaning of the word ‘love’ as it’s used in the New Testament. Because the word that’s translated “love” here doesn’t really mean the same thing most of us think about when we read the English word ‘love.’ It’s not so much about warm feelings of romance or affection. Instead, it refers to a commitment to the welfare of another person. So, hard as it may be, it’s possible to love someone even if you don’t like them. I think that’s why Jesus can tell us with a straight face to love our enemies.

Because the core idea of the word love as Jesus uses it here is not feelings, but rather commitment. Love as it’s used here is a commitment to the welfare of another person. The challenge for us is to allow God to foster within us a genuine commitment to doing whatever we can to promote the welfare of every single person we interact with.

Which is easier – sort of. It’s at least easier to wrap your head around. But maybe not that much easier to do. How do you love – even in that sense – someone who has sworn to destroy you, your culture, and everything you stand for? Or even the gossip who’s saying bad things about you? Or the next-door neighbor who seems determined to irritate you?

Maybe loving those people can start with praying that the Holy Spirit might soften those peoples’ hearts to peace and reconciliation. Or that the Holy Spirit might make peace in the parts of the world where child soldiers are being recruited. Or that it will heal the greed that causes one person to exploit the needs of another for their own enrichment. Or heal relationships between us and those we’re estranged from for any reason.

Maybe in God’s mind, our willingness to pray for that kind of peace and reconciliation represents the seeds of love being planted in our minds and hearts. I hope so. Cause for the time being, that’s probably the best I can do.

The other part of this passage that I wonder about is having the same word used to describe our relationship with God – love – that’s used to describe our relationship with others. I have a growing sense that God hopes that our feelings for him actually will include warmth and affection. God has made a great sacrifice for us, and given us a gift of incredible worth. So our love for God shouldn’t be about doing what he says so he won’t punish us by sending us to hell. That’s not love – that’s fear. I’m coming more and more to think that God wants our feelings toward him to be colored with gratitude for our blessings and for his grace in our lives. And for his patience and forgiveness. Sometimes our love of neighbor just isn’t going to be like that.

Maybe that’s where love of God and love of neighbor merge – in our commitment to advancing the interests of each, no matter how difficult that might seem. Maybe because of our deep love and affectionate appreciation for our God, we can learn to make a genuine commitment to doing whatever we can do to advance the welfare of others, because doing that is also advance his interests – helping him to bring about his kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.

Let’s pray. Lord, open our hearts to love you more and more, not just as an authority figure who holds our fates in your hands, but also as a loving Father who has paid a great price to bring us to yourself. And because we know that you care about others – our neighbors and even our enemies – move us to make their welfare our concern as an expression of our love for you. Amen.

Every Blessing,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 33 and 85; Amos 7:10-17; and Revelation 1:9-16.)

The Spiritual Impediment of Wealth

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Matthew 19:16-30

The Rich Young Man

     16 Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
     17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
     18 “Which ones?” he inquired.
     Jesus replied, “‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
     20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
     21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
     22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
     23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
     25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
     26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
     27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
     28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

The first half of Matthew’s account of the conversation between Jesus and the rich man was yesterday’s gospel reading, and the second half is today’s. But it seems to me that you need to read the whole thing together to get the point of what’s being said here, so we’re combining it in one day’s reflection. That will make this Reflection a little longer than usual, so thanks for your patience with that.

A wealthy young man approaches Jesus to ask about the way to eternal life. He asks about “what good thing” he needs to do, and Jesus points out that only God is good, apparently meaning that the way to eternal life is obeying the commandments God has handed down.

We might read those words with some puzzlement, because Christian theology teaches us that we can’t earn eternal life by being good enough to deserve it. That’s one of the reasons I wanted us to read the whole passage together, because in the second half of the story (in verse 26), Jesus says, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

And just how impossible it is for us to live up to God’s standards is illustrated by the rest of Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man. When the man says he has kept the commandments all his life, Jesus calls him on it. One of the commandments the man claims to have kept is “Love you neighbor as yourself.” So Jesus tells the man to go and liquidate his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. The man’s reaction shows that he has not, in fact, kept that commandment, because he wants to keep his wealth rather than share it with his poor ‘neighbors.’

After the disappointed rich man goes off, Jesus turns to his disciples and speaks the famous line about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into heaven.

In saying this, the scholars say, Jesus was using the same kind of Semitic humor as his comment about getting a speck out of someone else’s eye while you have a log in your own. Actually, scholars in the Aramaic language Jesus spoke point out that in that language, the word for ‘camel’ was also the word for ‘rope.’ So the image Jesus was expressing here might have been one of trying to get a rope through the eye of a needle, which seems to me to make more sense than the ‘camel’ translation.

But in either case, Jesus was using a ridiculous word picture to make a point: that great wealth is more often an impediment than a help in the life of faith.

It seems to me one part of this passage that’s usually overlooked – but shouldn’t be – is the disciples’ shock at what Jesus said. In the Hebrew way of seeing things, wealth was a sign of God’s favor. If a person was materially blessed, it was assumed that God regarded that person as especially virtuous. So when the disciples heard Jesus say it was impossible for the rich to enter the heavenly kingdom, they were stunned. Jesus had turned their whole understanding of the nature of salvation upside down.

There’s still a lot of thinking among people of faith that connects material blessing with spiritual health and righteousness. The whole “prosperity gospel” movement is based on promoting that connection. But there are some real problems with that kind of theology.

First of all, that outlook tends to promote a sense of entitlement on the part of people who think of themselves as “good Christians.” People who worship regularly, study the Bible, pray faithfully, etc., can convince themselves that since they’re doing all these things, they can expect to be materially blessed. They can even come to think that God owes them prosperity, so to speak.

And if they’re not materially prosperous, folks who embrace this sort of theology can come to resent God for failing to keep his part of the bargain they think they’ve made. Or conversely, that their poverty is punishment for some great sin they’ve failed to confess and repent of.

And if you regard righteousness and material blessing as going together, then it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that any person who’s poor in material things must be spiritually poor, as well – that their poverty must be some sort of punishment from God. And if you allow yourself to think that way, it’s a short step to concluding that you don’t have to help the needy, because their poverty is ‘their own fault.’

But we’re not guaranteed a prosperous life if we follow Jesus, and those of us who are materially blessed have no justification for judging ourselves as morally superior to the poor. In fact, many of the needy have a strength of faith that those of us who are comfortable could learn something from. The poorest segment of the American population is African-American, and statistically African-Americans pray, worship and study the Bible more than white Americans.

But our hope should not rest in the things of this world, anyway. Rather, our hope should rest in Jesus – in following him as faithfully as possible, and in trusting that in his kingdom, the need for material things will be a thing of the past and all we will need will be the eternal presence of our God.

Let’s pray. Lord, set us free from our attachment to the things of this world, and from the thought that our blessings are a sign of our spiritual superiority. Move us to express our love of neighbor, as well as our true discipleship, by sharing generously with your needy children. Amen.

Grace and Peace,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 96 and 134, Obadiah 15-21; and I Peter 2:1-10.)

When his Yoke Is Easy and His Burden Light

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Matthew 11:25-30

 Rest for the Weary

     25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this was for your good pleasure.

     27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

     28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

This short passage has several sayings of Jesus that we’re fairly familiar with, but it’s not entirely clear how they’re connected. Actually, some Bible scholars think Matthew collected some sayings of Jesus and put them together without worrying about whether or not Jesus said them at the same time.

So as we think about these sayings today, how about if we don’t worry that much about the order, either. Let’s start at the end, where Jesus says that ‘his yoke is easy and his burden is light.’ Personally, I find this a little challenging, because just last night in a Bible study class, I commented that I think the life of discipleship is very hard.

I mean, this is the same Jesus who also calls us to forgive seventy-times-seven times, to love your enemies, to go the extra mile, to give someone our shirt if they ask for our coat, and to be willing to take up our cross and follow him daily, right? I don’t know about you, but to me, that doesn’t all strike me as ‘easy and light.’ So what’s going on here?

Well, let’s start with this: Someone once said, speaking of newspapers, that they should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I’ve heard it said that the same thing is true about sermons. But maybe more to the point, I think the very same thing is true about the teachings of Jesus.

To the self-righteous and self-satisfied, to those who think they have it all figured out and who think the world would be a lot better place if everyone were as virtuous as they are, serious study of the teachings of Jesus is an affliction. Jesus had no use for self-righteous religiosity. But to those who have been crushed and broken by the trouble of the world, to those who have been rejected and marginalized – to those who are already afflicted – the words of Jesus are a tremendous comfort.

So let’s glance back at the beginning of this reading. Jesus starts out by giving thanks that there is a level of spiritual truth that is “hidden from the wise and the learned.” So, in terms of the Hebrew world Jesus lived and ministered in, those people would be ‘the comfortable’. And Jesus gives thanks that this truth had been revealed to “little children.” But in this case, Jesus almost surely isn’t talking about actual little kids. Rather, he’s talking about people who come to him with the humility, with the realization of their own weakness, that were typical of children in his time. And many of those people were among the world’s afflicted.

It seems to me that most of us have times in our life of faith when we are among the comfortable, and times when we are among the afflicted. And in this passage, Jesus seems to me to be making two promises.

The first is that in those times when we are congratulating ourselves on having things all figured out, in those times when we are patting ourselves on the back for our own virtue and righteousness, we will find that our own hypocrisy and self-righteousness hide the face of God from us. We will have, as Jesus said elsewhere, “a log in our own eye” that hides from us the real presence of God.

But the other promise is that in those times when life seems too heavy for us, when we are crushed and exhausted by the trials of life and by the realization of our own sins and inadequacies, Jesus is there to give us rest. To take away the heavy burden we’re bearing and give us a lighter one. To let his gentle spirit wash over us and renew us once again in our relationship with God.

At some points, I guess it’s true that being a follower of Jesus is really hard to do. But that’s mostly true when we’re trying to achieve “good Christian” status by our own efforts, by our own righteousness. On the other hand, in those times when we really take to heart the truth that we’re never going to achieve real “goodness,” that’s when our hearts cry out, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” we find a rest that comes from Jesus alone, “a peace that passes all understanding.” And with that peace, his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

Let’s pray. Lord, you know that our instinct is to try to achieve righteousness by our own efforts, and you know the frustration that arises when we do. Help us to accept the truth that it is only by opening ourselves to the movement of your Holy Spirit that we will ever be transformed in the image of Jesus. And help us to open our hearts to the easy yoke and light burden of trusting in that Spirit. Amen.

Every Blessing,
Henry

 

(The other readings for today are Psalms 54 and 146; Jeremiah 40:7 – 41:3; and I Corinthians 15:41-50.)

 

 

 

The Love of Commitment and Servanthood

Seeking God Together, Serving Those in Need

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I Corinthians 13:1-13

 Love

     1If I speak in the tongues of people and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

     4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

     8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12 For now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

     13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

 

This reading, the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, is probably the best-known passage from any of the letters of Paul. I think that for at least ninety percent of the weddings I’ve ever participated in, the bride and groom have chosen this passage as one of their scripture readings. There are some important things to think about where this passage is concerned, but also a couple of things about the text that need to be pointed out if we’re to fully understand Paul’s drift here.

First of all, it’s important to understand how a couple of words were used in the time of Paul’s ministry. The term translated as ‘prophesy’ was understood, not just as foretelling the future, but more nearly as ‘speaking into the world from God’s perspective.’ Actually, ‘preaching’ would probably be the closest thing in our language of faith.

Next, verse 10 is translated as “when perfection appears, the imperfect disappears.” But some translations substitute the word ‘completeness’ for ‘perfection.’ The Greek word can mean both things, and Paul never suggests that followers of Jesus become ‘perfect’ in the way we use that term today. He’s talking here about understanding God’s will more completely.

Also, when Paul writes about seeing “a poor reflection as in a mirror,” (in verse 12) it’s important to remember that in his time, people didn’t have the kind of mirrors we have today. Most people just had a piece of highly polished metal that would give a very poor reflection by our standards. So Paul is comparing the very limited understanding we have today to the much better understanding we will have as the Holy Spirit brings us closer and closer to the image of God.

And finally, the subject of the passage – love. Couples choose this passage because it talks about love, and on their wedding day they’re focused on the love that has brought them to the altar. However, the word for love here isn’t eros, the word for romantic love, but rather agape, the word for love of neighbor. This passage isn’t about our feelings for our “significant other,” but rather about the commitment we’re called to make to the welfare of every other person we encounter. So if you read this again and think about that non-romantic love, it sort of puts the passage in a whole new light.

Now, ironically, couples who choose this passage for their weddings are probably making a wiser choice than they know. Because the best relationships, it seems to me, are ones whose ‘glue’ is not just erotic-romantic attraction. Because, let’s face it, most of us don’t roll out of bed every morning looking like someone who inspires erotic-romantic attraction. So if that’s all we’ve got between us, we can be in trouble. But relationships whose core is agape love, a love marked by complete commitment to the welfare of the other, have a tendency to grow stronger with the passage of time.

Throughout its history, the one trait of the followers of Jesus that has seemed most surprising to the world is their strange capacity to love others – to demonstrate great caring about strangers and people they hardly knew, as well as to family and friends. The power of our ministry today is determined by how well we can continue to demonstrate that love in the world we live in.

Let’s pray. Lord, let your Holy Spirit stir our hearts to love others – to commit ourselves to their personal welfare. Let us serve others – even those we may not like, even those who may want to harm us, remembering that Jesus showed love to those who would betray and deny and doubt him, and prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified him. Amen.

Blessings,
Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 135 and 145; Jeremiah 36:11-26; and Matthew 10:5-15.)

 

Being Everything to Everyone

Non-Judgment, Rational Thought, Seeking God Together, Serving Those in Need

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I Corinthians 9:19-27

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

Today’s listed reading from First Corinthians has at least two important ideas that are well worth our reflection.

The first of these ideas is what Paul writes here about ‘becoming all things to all people’ in his efforts to carry the gospel into the world. As we’re told in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul believed that a good part of the Hebrew religious tradition was not binding on gentiles who became followers of Jesus. In other words, that you didn’t need to become a Jew to become a follower of Jesus.

But Paul himself did continue to strictly follow those Hebrew traditions. And in this passage, he explains his reason for doing that: He says he strictly followed the Law of Moses so he could tell the story of Jesus to Jews without scandalizing them. But in his ministry to gentiles, Paul apparently made a point to set aside some of the Law so he could deal with them on an equal basis. He doesn’t specify what he means by that, but it might be that Paul was willing to eat and socialize with gentiles in ways that strictly observant Jews would not.

Paul says that he doesn’t regard himself as free to just do whatever he wanted, but that he is striving to live according to what he refers to as “Christ’s law.”

The main challenge this passage presents for contemporary followers of Jesus, it seems to me, is one of figuring out how far we can go in being all things to all people without somehow compromising our role as followers of Jesus. For example, some followers of Jesus have taken up ministries among motorcyclists, riding with them and getting to know them so they can share faith with them. That’s a valid ministry. But some biker subcultures abuse drugs and alcohol and get in brawls. Obviously not ideal behavior for a follower of Jesus. So when we set out to be all things to all people, the lines between acceptable and unacceptable levels of involvement can get blurry.

Obviously, bikers are just an example. You could probably find lots of other examples of segments of American culture where a follower of Jesus might find chances to share the love of Jesus, but also where sometimes the values being expressed would seem inconsistent with faith. Entrepreneurs. Sports fans. Hunters. Car buffs. In each case, lines could be crossed that could compromise our ability to ‘be Jesus’ in the world.

I’d love to be able to paint a bright line for you to divide what’s OK for followers of Jesus from what’s not OK. But I really can’t. I suppose the closest I could come would be to suggest that if you can’t imagine Jesus taking part in some kind of behavior, his followers shouldn’t be engaged in it, either.

But Paul’s point is that as followers of Jesus, we should be looking for ways to engage with people rather than trying to stay apart from them. Because it’s only when we really build relationships with others that they’ll be willing to listen when we tell them about what God has done in Jesus, and about what Jesus has done in our lives.

The second major idea in this passage likens the life of discipleship to physical training. Paul says that those of us who follow Jesus should regard ourselves as being in “strict training.”

This touches on a topic that, as it turns out, came up in our session meeting last night. We’ve been reading and talking about James K. A. Smith’s book You Are What You Love. And one of the points Smith makes in his book is that spiritual disciplines like worship have a formative influence on us. Worship isn’t just about us expressing our feelings about God. Rather, it’s a discipline in which what we believe about God, and in fact our relationship with God, are formed by what we do and say and think. Like exercise, the spiritual disciplines aren’t going to do much for you if you practice them once every couple of months. (Or twice a year on Christmas and Easter.) I suppose in fact that if you only exercise twice a year, it’s more dangerous than helpful.

But when we approach the spiritual disciplines – worship, but also prayer and study of scripture and service – with the same dedication an athlete brings to “strict training,” then the Holy Spirit can be at work in us, forming our faith like ‘spiritual muscle,’ so that our own relationship with God in Jesus is enriched, and we also become more useful to God in making his love known to those around us.

Let’s pray. Lord, we pray that your Spirit will empower us as we try to foster relationships with others that will allow us to make your love known to them, and that the Spirit will guide us in sharing those relationships without compromising the standards of behavior Jesus calls us to. And we pray also that you will move in our hearts to strengthen our commitment to the disciplines of faith, so we can know you better and serve you more faithfully. Amen.

Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 84 and 148; II Kings 19:1-20; and Matthew 8:1-17.)

 

The Good Samaritan

Serving Those in Need

The Parable of the Good Samaritan (New Revised Standard Version)

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,[b] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The curriculum we use for our adult Sunday School classes is a web-based program entitled “The Wired Word.” Each week, it sends out a lesson drawn from events in the news that week. The lesson for this Sunday makes reference to today’s gospel reading, which is the Parable of the Good Samaritan, so I thought we might let the editors’ thoughts guide our reflections on this passage today.

We learned over the last several days about heroes, ordinary people who did costly but helpful deeds for others: homeless men who rushed to assist victims of the Manchester bombings and now are haunted by what they saw; passengers on a Portland train who intervened when a man threatened two young women and were killed or wounded for their efforts; other passengers who then became good Samaritans to the dying heroes.

It was no small thing that Jesus told the story we call “the parable of the good Samaritan” to illustrate what it means to be a neighbor. The actions of these people at these tragic events bring that parable alive for us. So for this installment of The Wired Word, we will look afresh at this great parable Jesus told.

 Good Samaritans don’t set out to be heroes. Usually, they’re simply involved in the business of everyday living when they encounter someone in need and in response, they do their best to help using whatever resources are on hand. And sometimes, they pay a heavy price for being a true neighbor.

The situations where good Samaritans emerge are often created by a person or persons doing bad things to other people, and sadly, that was the case during the week of May 21-27. On May 22, a suicide terrorist exploded a bomb at an arena in Manchester, England, moments after U.S. singer Ariana Grande finished performing. The bomb killed 22 people, including children, and wounded 59 others, some of whom have life-threatening injuries. On May 26, a man spewing hate speech at two teenage girls on board a Portland train stabbed three men who put themselves between him and the girls and tried to calm him.

The evildoers in both cases have been identified and their names are now part of the public record, but for this lesson we’re more interested in those who acted to help.

At Manchester, the good Samaritans included at a least two homeless men.

Chris Parker, 33, had been begging in the arena foyer where the suicide bomber detonated his device. Amid the carnage and chaos, Parker rushed to help victims. He comforted a girl who had lost her legs, wrapping her in a T-shirt, and cradled a dying woman in his arms.

Stephen Jones, 35, who had been sleeping outdoors near the arena, also ran to help. He pulled nails out of children’s arms and faces.

Both men were left shaken by the event, and Parker, interviewed by a reporter afterward, said he hadn’t stopped crying.

On the Portland train, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23, Rick Best, 53, and Micah Fletcher, 21, were all stabbed by a raging man as they attempted to defuse the situation and protect the two teenage girls he was threatening. Namkai-Meche and Best died from their wounds and Fletcher is hospitalized with serious injuries.

There were other people who became good Samaritans in the aftermath of both situations, some of whom have not been identified.

In the Portland train slayings, other passengers rushed to help the stabbed men. Passenger Michael Kennedy and two other men started CPR chest compressions on Best until emergency medics arrived. Rachel Macy, 45, along with another passenger she described as a veteran, knelt beside Namkai-Meche as he lay bleeding on the train car floor. Macy pulled off her tank top and pressed it against the deep slash on his neck. She spoke words of comfort to the dying man, and prayed with him. Other passengers chased after the assailant, who fled as the train doors opened. They called 911 and directed officers to his location.

When medics arrived, they put Namkai-Meche on a stretcher. Macy, now clad only in a slip on top, as she had used her shirt in an attempt to staunch Namkai-Meche’s wound, stayed by his side.

Macy reported that before Namkai-Meche was carried away, he had a last message:

“Tell everyone on this train I love them. ”

Indeed.

Let’s pray: Lord, we thank you for this great teaching from our Lord, and for the challenge of living out a genuine love for our neighbors. Inspire in our hearts that kind of commitment to all those we encounter in our walk through this world. Amen.

The Rev. Henry Pearce