The text this week has a very popular phrase that many of us might have heard if we grew up Christian which is "Take up your Cross and Follow me." It is easy to forgot what the cross stood for in Jesus' time, which was death and social stigma. If you had a family member who was crucified, it put the whole family to shame. This is different from today, where many people view the cross as a fashion accessory. What this saying reminds us about is that following Jesus is hard work and can put us into situations, were we are derided, shamed, physically assaulted, or even killed. Many of our African, Asian, and Middle Eastern brothers and sisters, know about these threats all too well. In America where there is freedom of religion as well as a Christian underpinning, we don't experience this as much. This doesn't mean that we don't ever experiences this.
I have many friends, who have worked to help people with drug and alcohol abuse. They have told me stories about in their quest to help them, get these people other resources, and to be there support network they have been ridiculed by others for helping these people out. "Why help out that scum bag, don't you realize how awful of a person they are?" "What is wrong with you helping out somebody who is just using you?" "Why bother, they will never quit!" These are some of the questions they hear all the time, from friends, coworkers, and even family members of the people they are helping.
This doesn't even cover the times when the people they are trying to help, get physical or verbal with them about trying to help them. They say stuff like "You drink, how can you be a hypocrite and tell me not too?" "I hate you!" "Why are you trying to ruin my life?" However, these fine folks feel God's pull to be in this field to help people as nurses, social workers, and counselors. They remember that Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus didn't just say love the likable neighbors, no he said all the neighbors even the ones who are struggling.
So when you pick up your cross this week and follow Jesus this week, what is that going to look like? How do you put your faith on the line to follow Jesus? How do you begin to follow Jesus command to love your neighbor, yes even the neighbors who are struggling; the neighbors that nobody else loves; and the neighbors who are all out of hope? This is hard work but this is what Jesus commands us to do when he asks us to pick up his cross and follow him.
Ahhh...February, this is the time of year that I experience my first time walking on water. I know it is frozen but I still walked on top of it! A friend of mine, wanted to take me out to his uncle ice shack so that we could do a little fishing. I had never done this before, and I was a little hesitate when we got to the lake because I had visions of falling through the ice. I put one foot on the ice and then quickly retracted it. My friend turned to see what the hold up was and sighed as he saw me at the shore paralyzed by fear. "Yo Paul, look" he yelled and then proceeded to jump up and down on the ice. "Stop it! You are going to die," I remember hollering back in a panic as I waited for him to fall through the ice. Nothing happened. He came back, took my hand and then suddenly we were on the ice. All the hair on my neck stood up as we walked across the ice to the shack. When we got there my friend just grinned at me "See silly, we are just fine." We were just fine and I felt a little foolish for not taking his word for it.
I wonder if I felt some of the same emotions that Peter did when Christ invited him out of the boat, onto the very non frozen Sea of Galilee? I bet he was nervous. I bet he was a little scared. Peter did take those first steps onto water and started moving toward Jesus. Then he realized what he was doing and he forgot who he was walking toward. Peter began to sink and cried out to Jesus, who prompted came over to him and helped him back onto his feet and then back into the boat. When they got back into the boat Jesus told Peter, "See silly, we are just fine."
Acting out our faith can be a scary thing. It is hard to go against the grain of many things in our current society. It is hard to help people that others have said we shouldn't help. It is hard to not react to people instead of listening to them. When we look around we feel that our faith can't help us, that the world is just that way, and that we may be drowning in all the business of what we "really need to do." Jesus reminds us that trusting in him, we are able to do extraordinary things. We are able to feed the hunger. We are able to help broker peace. We are able to make a difference in this world.
So what are you nervous about this week? Where have you felt your faith calling to you to act instead of staying on the side lines? Where do you feel yourself drowning in? Look up and throw your hand up to Jesus. With Jesus at your side, nothing is impossible. "See silly, we are just fine." When we listen to those worlds we change and so does the world. How does this change how you will behave this week? How will this affect how you will live?
The cold and snowy weather has made my Sundays a little more exciting as I navigate the roads between church and home. I apologize for not getting up a blog for last week, but due to the weather I had to leave the office earlier than I had hoped to which cuts down on my blog writing time.
So this week, we are in the midst of a couple of Parables. When I went to seminary, I took a course from Arland Hultgren on the the Parables. It was an awesome class and it made me understand a lot more about their unique teaching method that Jesus employed. One of the things I came away from this class was Jesus' Parables were really up for interpretation based on where we were as person.
Case in point, if we look at the parable about the woman and the leaven bread, we have to ask ourselves what does has to do with the kingdom of God? Leaven is an agent used for bread to rise. However, Jewish families during the Passover are required to take the leaven out of their bread. So is the leaven bad? 40 pounds of bread which would be the weight for 3 measures of flour, is the amount of flour that Sarah used for the three heavenly visitors that came to see her and Abraham. So does the parable talk about the woman waiting to have a divine visit?
These parables force us to grapple with ambivalent signs. Apparently, the coming reign of God is good news for some, but not for others. It brings both judgment and salvation. These parables also remind us life is not always black and white but shades of grey. What we do know is that God loves us and God wants us to live a Godly life which means we need to say we are sorry (repent) when we screw up. So what do these parables do for you? How do you see this ambivalent teachings? Do you feel they are good news or not so good news? Why?
Praying it is what we as Christians are asked to do on a daily basis, in good times, and bad times. Prayer is suppose to be as precious to us as breathing. Why then is it so intimidating to do? Why do people balk at praying? Why does everybody look to the pastor as the person who is the prayer professional? I think we are very much in the same boat as the people of the 1st century for whom this text was written. We feel that God only listens to the right language. The prayers we hear on television, on the internet, and in church seem to be full of flowery, theological (church language), and polished rhetoric. How can we as people who don't have reverend in our name hope to get God's attention?
This is where Jesus steps in today and shows us how to pray. Some interesting things about the prayer he teaches: (1) it is in Aramaic instead of Hebrew which is the language of most folks at the time where Jesus was at; (2) it is direct, in that it starts out "Our Father...", no fluffy language; and (3) it is for all, Jesus says anybody can do it, meaning you don't need any initials behind your name to pray. What Jesus was concerned with is what is on people's hearts. He wanted to give us a frame work so that we would feel at ease when we talked to God.
Now the prayer we hear Jesus pray in this text is not the Lord's prayer, which is a remix of some text from the Gospel of Matthew as well as the Gospel of Luke. However both of these prayers the one that Jesus uses and the Lord's prayer both help us do the same thing, which is to give us words and a frame work to use when we want to pray.
So what is holding you back from praying? Can't find the right words? Don't know how to begin? Jesus says God knows what is in your heart. God doesn't care whether you prayer is perfect. God just wants to hear from you, talk to you, and listen to you. This week, take some time, five minutes and just pray. Don't worry what to say, don't worry that it isn't "the right thing to pray about", and don't worry if it is too short. Give it a try. Then try it again, the next day and the next. When we do this, we begin to go from just believing in God to believing God. Then we can begin to see how God wants us to live, which is in relationship with God and that changes our lives.
This week, we are looking at the Beatitudes, which is one of Jesus' most famous teaching. In it he tells groups of people that they are blessed for the mess that they are going through. More specifically he says stuff like Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the Earth or blessed are those who mourn for they for they will be comforted. As we saw last week, translating New Testament Greek into English is not a perfect science. This is the same this week, when we look at the Greek word makarios the NRSV translates this verb as blessing. A better translation would be happy or happier. So if we look a the two verses I have previously quoted we would read Happy are the meek for they shall inherit the Earth, or Happy are those who mourn for they will be comforted. So what gives? How are we to be happy in the midst of our suffering?
I think there are two points for us to consider, with this teaching. The first is that we as God's people need to take the long view on the sufferings in our life. We are suffering, but this suffering is not the final note or final chapter but that God's Grace, Mercy, and Love win in the end. So this knowledge helps us to move through our suffering knowing that it may be long but it is not final. The second is best explained by Gerald Liu Assistant Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary "As peculiar as the promises of happiness seem in the Beatitudes, they seem to rest in part upon the ability of the followers of Jesus to attend to the wounds of the world with the saltiness of God, to illuminate a way forward in impossible circumstances with divine light, and to do those things as if it’s just us being who we are. Like it’s second nature." So we don't let others suffer alone, we come and walk alongside them, because that is what we are called to do.
So how do you feel about this call to be Happy in the midst of your suffering? What does that look like in your life? Is it helping out a friend or family member who is struggling right now? Is it getting other Christians to help alongside you? What does the grace, love, and mercy of God look like when it is stretched over your suffering?
The video I am including this week is the song Happy. How do you feel this fits the Message from Jesus? How do you think it misses the mark? Please feel free to comment and let me know what you think.
As you can see from the various blog entries so far, we are going to be studying the book of Matthew for a while. Today's text is often referred to as the tempting of Christ. In this text, Jesus has just been brought up out of the river Jordan newly baptized and then wanders in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. It is at this point that Satan shows up on the scene and begins to test Jesus. When we look at the Greek, the original language for the New Testament, we see that the word used is test not tempt. So Satan was not tempting Jesus but instead testing Jesus. What he is testing Jesus about or on? It wasn't mathematics, social studies or science but instead was how Jesus would relate to God. This is all approved by God, because we see that the Spirit was what led Jesus here. So what do we do with this? How do you feel about a God who tests us? Is it fair? Is God just being a jerk?
This story reminds me when I was a student in Nuclear Medicine a the University of Iowa. It was the first week, where we learned to do venipuncture, where we put a needle into the patient so we can give them medicine. Our professor took a few moments and demonstrated the technique on one of my classmates and then it was my turn to try on one of my classmates. I was scared beyond belief when I thought of putting that needle into my friend's arm. After several minutes I finally got the nerve and put the needle very slowly into my friend's Mark arm. No Luck, no blood came back into the needle telling me that I wasn't in. I then twisted the needle around to try again and my instructor came over and told me to take the needle out. I had tears in my eyes, I think it hurt me more than Mark. "Paul, what did I tell you to do? Go in quickly. The longer you take the more it hurts. Don't redirect, unless you know you can hit it again. Sometimes it is better to pull it out and get another needle to try again." I shook my head through my tears. "Remember Paul, you are doing this because you care about somebody else. This test can save their life. So it might hurt a little a first but what comes out in the end more than makes up for the pin prick of the needle." I have lived by these words every since both during my time as Nuclear Medicine technologist and also as a Pastor.
When God tests us, God does it because God cares about us. God is helping us grow closer in relationship to God. Does testing hurt, yes but it doesn't compare where we come out in the end which is a healthier and a closer relationship with God. Where might God be testing you right now? How do you feel about it? How does it feel knowing that even though God is testing you, God is also walking with you through the test?
Repenting is one of those church words that makes for great movie dialogue like "You must repent or suffer the consequences!!" than a common word that we use in our everyday vocabulary. It might even seem to make less sense, when I tell you that January 13, 2019 is the Sunday, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. What does Water and Repentance have anything to do with each other and more importantly what does it have to do with me?
Repentance is about admitting our mistakes and then making the best possible actions to fix our mistakes, ask forgiveness, and not to make that mistake again. Repentance is about going in the opposite direction than where you were going. It is like if you stoled something, you give back the item and then help other people not to make the same mistake you did. I know for many of us, talking like this causes us to break out in a sweat, our pulse quickens, and our stomachs get upset. Admitting our faults is hard to do, especially in our culture today, where it seems like everybody is ready to pounce on you if you have one toe out of line. It takes a lot of courage to admit when we are wrong. It takes a lot of courage to do the right thing. So how do we do this?
This is where that water comes in. Baptism is a sacrament which is a fancy way of saying that we see God's presence come into the world through the physical element of water. Baptism is a time where we are covered in water which represents the part of ourselves that rebels against God and what is right and we break the water as a new creation. Our baptism reminds us that we are not perfect yet God still claims us by name. God promises to be with us in spite of our mistakes and because of God's love we are given the courage to admit our mistakes and make amends. God loves us even when we make mistakes. God never gives up on us. So during this new year what would it look like to admit your mistakes? Pretty scary stuff right? Remember that God is with you in the midst of your mistakes and also in the midst of you "saying your sorry" and through it all God loves you!
I hope you all had a great Christmas!! In the church year, we are in the season of Christmas until this coming Sunday the 6th of January, when we celebrate Epiphany. This is the Sunday, we talk about the traditional story of the three kings coming from the East following the star. In recent years, biblical scholarship has begun asking us to relook at the details of this particular story. As interesting as it is to look at these details, what has stayed the same and is often overlooked in this story is the concept of Going into the Unknown. Going into the Unknown is a scary thing. I think many of us remember our first jobs, where we didn't know all the ropes; didn't know very many people; didn't know the routine; or maybe didn't even know if we liked what we did for our job. It can be scary, having a new routine or a new normal. However, jobs are something that we eventually learn to grow into and we eventually become comfortable with. I would argue that Going into the Unknown in terms of faith is very hard.
In our story today, we have many sets of people going into the Unknown. We have Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus going into the unknown of Egypt. We also have the three kings/magi following a star to find the boy who would be the Jewish Messiah. I think Going into the Unknown, based on the call of God can at both times be comforting and very challenging. It is comforting because, we know God is with us and will support us as we journey. However, at the same time it is very challenging because we don't know where the end of this unknown time will come. It is also scary because we don't known exactly what God has in store for us and what we will have to do. The thing we see in scripture today is that when we trust God in the midst of this unknown time and space, is that God delivers us. It might take some time, there probably will be difficulty, but in the end God honors God promise and delivers us.
As we look into this new year, where do you think God is calling you to go into? Where is the great unknown for you? Is it a new job? Is it working on a broken relationship? It is rethinking how you look at yourself? Is it finding help for an addiction? Whatever it is, know that God walks with you during this time and God honors God's promises!
Our text today talks about Jesus' birth from a totally different angle than the Christmas text we hear from the Gospel of Luke. In Matthew's text, we hang out with Jesus' adoptive dad Joseph. We hear about how Joseph felt when he learned that his finance was pregnant as well as his plans to divorce her quietly. Then the angel of the Lord comes to Joseph and tells him about the baby that Mary is carrying, who is God's son. The angel goes on to say "...and they will call him Immanual-which means, 'God with us.' "
Believe it or not the Greek, the language of the new Testament, is not as helpful to us here as it might seem. For you see the prophesy, written in Hebrew, that takes place in Isaiah 7 talks about a baby coming who will be named Immanuel which means "God is with us". The "is" is very important to the audience of the Gospel of Matthew. During the time of Matthew's Gospel, the temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed (God's earthly home); thousands of people have been killed; and several hundred had been crucified by the Romans. Times were not good for our Jewish brothers and sisters.
Jesus' birth reminded them that even though God's earthly home had be destroyed, God had not abandoned them. In fact, God had come down with skin on to let people know how much God cares about us, and how much God honors God promise to walk with us.
So how about you today? Is there something going on in your life, where you feel the absence of God? Do you feel abandoned? Hopeless? Christmas and Advent remind us that the promise of God is still valid today. God has promised to walk beside you; to support you; and care for you. This is the reason we get so excited for Christmas, because it reminds us that we can lean on God in the good times and the bad times. Isn't that the best news you have year all year?
As I was working on the text for this week, I was stuck with how Professor Juliana Classes talked about our text for today. She said this "For people today who all too often find themselves in a state of chaos and despair, this powerful depiction of the (suffering) servant in Isaiah 42 may speak in the following ways: First, in the midst of those times when chaos is rampant, when we are weighed down by the forces that seek to destroy life as we know it, we need to accept the fact that we often are no more than “bruised reeds” and “dimly burning wicks.” As the songwriter and theologian Leonard Cohen says so beautifully in his song, “Anthem”: “Forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, but that is where the light gets in.” That is where the light comes in. God’s grace and power works exactly there where we are broken, where we are most fragile --"
What struck me from her statement was this image of a cracked clay pot and how the crack wasn't an imperfection but was where God's grace and power are at work. I know for myself, I can get caught up in doing things "perfectly" that I forgot what the purpose behind what I am doing is. Or I don't feel that if something is not done "perfectly" that God can't use what I am doing. However, it is in the imperfect that God's love and power are at work? Where is that for you today in your life? Where are those cracks showing through in your life? What does it look like knowing that God is in the cracks, using God's power and grace to be with you in this brokenness?