Sunday, March 1, 2015

Fools for Wisdom

Today's readings: Psalms 84; 150, Jeremiah 1:1-10, 1 Corinthians 3:11-23, Mark 3:31-4:9

What does it mean to be wise? Unlike certain types of intelligence, wisdom is not something we can rate on a scale. Neither is it the same as knowledge, which we can acquire by the ton without finding an ounce of wisdom. The cliché that wisdom comes with experience certainly holds some truth, yet many people manage to experience decades without growing much wiser at all and some young people are what we call wise beyond their years. Though most of us would like to be wise, few of us would honestly describe ourselves as such.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says calls the thoughts of the wise futile (Cor 3:20). He advises them: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise” (Cor 3:19). What could this contradictory message mean?

Worldly wisdom points toward wealth, power, security, and a legalistic kind of justice. God’s wisdom, expressed through the teachings of Christ, points toward humility, mercy, risk, and a kind of justice that is about serving those most in need. The worldly view is often more appealing, and the temptation to rationalize our own desires and prejudices is a strong one. When we interact with the world, particularly if we are called to lead in some way, we should humbly seek God’s will above our own. Our confidence is to be primarily in God, not in our own thoughts and desires. True wisdom does not seek to teach so much as to learn.

Acting out of God’s wisdom may make us look foolish to the world, but it also empowers us. When Jeremiah insisted he was too young to be a prophet, God told him: “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.” (Jer 1:7). Is there a sense of freedom in knowing we are not under pressure to be wise, but instead to be listening for and guided by God’s wisdom? After we listen we must still act with integrity, discernment, and accountability – as only a fool can do.

Evening readings: Psalms 42; 32

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Worship Well

Today's readings: Psalms 43; 149, Deuteronomy 11:18-28, Hebrews 5:1-10, John 4:1-26

When Jesus passed through Samaria, he sat by a well to rest while his disciples went into town for food. He asked a Samaritan woman for a drink of water, and as a result of the conversation that followed she recognized him as a prophet. Then, for the first time in John’s gospel, Jesus identified himself as the Messiah. John the Baptist and the disciples already believed this but, according to John’s narrative, Jesus had not confirmed it. So why did he choose to reveal himself openly to this non-Jewish woman in this non-Jewish place?

The well where they met was Jacob’s well, a site significant to both Jewish and Samaritan history. When Jesus said those who drank its waters would be thirsty again, but those who drank the living water he offered would never thirst again (John 4:13), he was saying eternal life was not found in or bound to any material source but in the truth. When the woman pointed out that Jews worship in Jerusalem and Samaritans on Mount Gerizim, he responded: “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem […], when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (vv 21-23). His words told her, and tell us today, God is greater than any constraints of tradition or culture.

What constraints do Christians place on God and worship today? We insist on creeds and denominations that are more products of political history than spiritual necessity. Within denominations we have yet more division among groups who believe they own more truth than others. Like a person who believes nothing exists beyond what can be seen through a single window, we use the Bible to limit our understanding of God rather than accept truth wherever it is found.

Unexpected revelation from God occurs not when we are certain and comfortable, but when we are questioning and in strange – perhaps enemy – territory. Sometimes we have to leave our temple or mountain to find where the living waters flow.

Evening readings: Psalms 31; 143

Friday, February 27, 2015

Decreasing to Increase

Today's readings: Psalms 22; 148, Deuteronomy 10:12-22, Hebrews 4:11-16, John 3:22-36

In terms of ministry, John the Baptist was a big success. Business was so good he had customers from Bethany to Aenon, where he chose to move because it had abundant water to let him do his job. He had his own disciples and was irritating all the right authorities. Yet when Jesus arrived on the scene, John was willing to give it all up. John knew something we often forget: successful ministry is not determined by numbers or longevity, but by how well it advances the message and mission of Christ. When John’s followers began to flock to Jesus, John didn’t start planning how to win them back. Instead he said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (v 30).

Christian ministry is not a competition, but our competitive nature can sneak into it. Choir solos, sermons, fundraisers, offerings, praise hands, PowerPoint presentations – sometimes we can’t help comparing these things, especially if we are good at them. If a healthy competitive streak pushes us to do our best work, the ministry can benefit. When we compete for the purpose of raising ourselves above others, we do a disservice to everyone, and undermine the community and the ministry. Whether an individual or a church, we let our lights shine to illuminate the love of Christ, not to put a spotlight on ourselves. Even if we are the very best at something, there are times we must intentionally step aside to let others play their parts. Being our best – not the best – is what matters.

Mature preachers will say praise and criticism are the same. In other words, they hear feedback, but do Christ’s work for the sake of the work, not the reaction. Praise does not swell their heads, and criticism does not defeat them. This ego-free attitude requires cultivation, but our work will be the better for it. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a compliment for a job well done, but if our focus moves from Jesus to acquiring compliments (or members, or money), our work suffers.

For others to increase, sometimes we must decrease. But if we do it to help Jesus increase, we rise along with him.

Evening readings: Ps 105, 130

Thursday, February 26, 2015

It's 3:16 somewhere...

Today's readings:   Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Deuteronomy 9:23-10:5, Hebrews 4:1-10, John 3:16-21

John 3:16 is possibly the most commercially successful verse in the Bible. It's so marketable that the reference alone is enough to sell millions of keychains, bumper stickers, t-shirts, coffee mugs, eyeglass cases, and just about anything else that can sport an imprint. It is the unofficial logo of Brand Jesus.

It's a beautiful verse that sums up the message of the gospel: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." Is it possible it could be a little too popular? Without delving into the whole discussion about faith versus works, is it possible we can be so happy all we have to do is "believe" that we never get around to doing the work of God's kingdom? After all, belief is a solitary and internal occurrence. It doesn't feed the poor or clothe the naked, or do any of the things Jesus says we do for him when we do them for the least of our sisters and brothers.

The verses following John 3:16 expand on its statement, and describe how those who believe embrace the light, and those who don't believe stay in the darkness because it hides their deeds. No matter how strongly we "believe in him" (and what exactly that means is a discussion unto itself), maybe we should spend a few moments considering whether we would be comfortable with Christ's light shining on our lives. Belief is the beginning of faith, not the end. If how we live our lives does not stand up to the light, our belief dies on our lips instead of living in our hearts.

Jesus's sacrifice requires more from us than buying our accessories at the local branch of "3:!6 24/7." Bumper stickers will eventually fade in the light; the service we perform in Christ's name is eternal.

Evening readings:  Psalms 126; 102

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Born Again

Today's readings: Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Deuteronomy 9:13-21, Hebrews 3:12-19,bn John 2:23-3:15

"Born again Christian." It's a phrase we've all heard, but it can mean many different things depending on our religious background (or lack thereof). It has its origins in Today's reading from John, when Jesus tells the sympathetic Pharisee Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again" (John 3:3). The Greek wording could also mean "born from above." The idea of a second birth is confusing to Nicodemus, and Jesus doesn't really clarify it. For many Christians, this one ambiguous phrase found in only one gospel has become an extremely subjective litmus test for "authentic" Christianity.

The gospel uses several images to describe the new life that comes from a relationship with Jesus. Why is this one definitive for so many people? Maybe because it implies the reality of a a complete do-over. Human beings are helpless at birth and depend on their parents for everything. When we surrender ourselves to Jesus, we re-learn how to live and depend totally on God's grace to carry us through that process. Throughout our lives we find new reasons and new ways to surrender. Our re-birth is not a one-time event occurring at the moment of conversion or baptism, but a constant spiritual renewal.

Whether or not being "born again" is part of our theological vocabulary,  renewal is part of life in Christ. Just as the birth of an infant can be simultaneously joyous and scary, so can the changes in our new lives. At times we will need to celebrate, at other times we will need support, and sometimes we will need both. Fellow believers may need the same from us. Our new lives are meant to be shared, so let us be present for each other in all the ways we can.

Evening readings: Psalms 27; 51

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Money Changes Everything

Today's readings: Psalms 34; 146, Deuteronomy 9:(1-3) 4-12, Hebrews 3:1-11, John 2:13-22

Today's reading from John is one of the most famous Jesus stories of all time. Jesus enters the temple and -- incensed by the money changers and people selling animals -- he fashions a whip out of cords and drives them away livestock and all. He then turns over the tables of the moneychangers. Scary, eh? This  Jesus is not the forgiving Prince of Peace in whom we find comfort. This Jesus is angry and impulsive.

Or is he? We don't know how many cords he used, but creating a whip involved knotting each one in a specific fashion. Not an all-day process, but long enough for people to notice what he was doing. And whipping was not a typical Jewish punishment: it was a specifically Roman practice. Money changers converted Roman currency, which the Jews were forced to use under Roman occupation, into currency acceptable at the temple -- at very high cost. Those selling animals took advantage of poor people who had no livestock of their own to sacrifice. More than impulsive rage, Jesus's response communicated a specific message: those who used the occupation to further oppress their Jewish brothers and sisters placed themselves outside the community and were subject to the brutality of the masters they chose to serve.

While whipping is off the table, we need have no patience for people who try to insert commerce between us and our God. True followers of Christ do not ask for donations in exchange for prayer or show favor in proportion to one's financial resources. Religious leaders who do such things, particularly when they exploit the poor and desperate, deserve to be challenged and -- if necessary  -- rebuked. No human agent stands between us and God. His love and grace are free to all.

Evening readings: Psalms 25; 91

Monday, February 23, 2015

Jesus: Life of the Party

Today's readings: Psalms 51; 148, Genesis 6:1-8, Hebrews 3:12-19, Reading John 2:1-12

Christianity is serious business. We use words like sacrifice, atonement, sin, repentance, blood, and crucifixion with alarming regularity. We speak of love in very demanding terms. We revere saints who deprived themselves of all earthly pleasures and martyrs who died in horrible ways.  We embrace the nobility of suffering, often to physically and mentally unhealthy extremes. Some critics of the faith have gone so far as to call it a death cult, and the communion meal a pseudo-cannibalistic ritual. Given the violence and suffering that so many love to repeat as part of the Christian story, how do we ever sing songs like “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart?”

Despite the bloody reality of the cross and the traditional fire and brimstone sermons we have heard, suffering is not the default position of the Kingdom of God. Christ did not suffer and die just so we could continue suffering and dying. In the book of John, his first public sign is turning water into wine at a wedding banquet in Cana. That’s right: he made his public debut at a party, and performed a miracle so the party wouldn’t have to stop. It wasn’t just any party though – it was a celebration of life that recognized not only the bond between two people, but the bond between each of them and God (John 2:1-12).

The Cana story does not appear in other Gospels, but in Matthew 22:1-14 Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as a wedding banquet where outcasts feast. The Kingdom is a party and feast where all are invited, not a funeral meal. Suffering is inevitable, but we don’t seek it out, at least not for its own sake, to be good Christians. Jesus had little regard for people who put their suffering on display as a show of faith (Matt 6:16-18). We are to confront head on the suffering of the world and help where we can, and to rely on God when we ourselves suffer, but we are never to be resigned to suffering. Our suffering does not please God, but sometimes it is the cost of staying the course on the way to the feast. Jesus came to heal us, teach us to forgive, and celebrate with us. Let’s not forget to RSVP.

Evening readings: Psalms 142; 65