You are IN!

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Ruth 1:1-14; 2 Cor. 1:1-11; Matt. 5:1-12

There are those who would like us cast aside the immigrants and refugees of our day.  Have these people even read their Scriptures?  All throughout the Old and New Testament we are called to a better way – to ever-widening circles of love, family, inclusion, grace as I talked about yesterday in my sermon.

Ruth is a great example, which we begin reading today.  Ruth – a Moabite, a foreigner – who then joins the line of David, a descendant of Jesus.

In Matthew we encounter the Beatitudes.  Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount, in which he raises the bar for all those cast aside by society, and lifts them up, especially immigrants and refugees.

If you want to proof-text you can get the Bible to say just about anything.  Heck, there is a verse about rejecting the Moabite in your midst.  But if you keep reading…….

If you keep reading what you encounter is that God’s love is expanding, and we are called to be a part of that.  There is always danger in prooftexting.  But when you read the entirety of scripture the trajectory is clear, and it can be summed up in the words of the Sermon on the Mount.  There is a call to action – and that action is based in grace, love, and inclusion for all God’s people.

Read on, my friends.  And encounter the awesome good news for Gentiles and Jews alike – that we are already engrafted into God’s family and loved with an everlasting love.

-Matt

Now What?

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Isa 63:15-64:9; 1 Tim. 3:1-16; Mark 11:27-12:12

With a White House is chaos, arguably the worst scandal involving the White House and a foreign power since Iran-Contra, I awaken to read 1 Timothy, which basically asks, “Now What?”  The difference between dreams for a better America and the nuts and bolts of daily leadership become apparent.

In 1 Timothy, we see a Church that is struggling to see its future ahead.

Many had thought Jesus would come again.  And by saying that, they meant “tomorrow” or perhaps “the day after next”.  It was soon.  Then it didn’t happen.  This left them in a quandary.  They had to find the structures necessary to formalize and grow.  Bishops were now needed – leaders.  And deacons too – those who cared for others.  The struggle for how to organize was prevalent.  Different churches have interpreted this different ways.

Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters might freak a bit when they see these qualifications of bishop.  Married only once, managing his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way.  Where is celibacy?  Nowhere.  There are many things about the early church that look a bit different than today, for better or for worse.

Qualifications of Deacons are also laid out.  Here too we get an image of the church as the household of God.  This is of unfathomable importance in understanding the structures of the underground early church and its use of power.

The root of that word “bishop” is also the same word as how we get “presbyter”.  And those of us who are Presbyterian know what it means to be a “presbyter” – more meetings.  Both elders and ministers serve as presbyters, providing oversight to the churches, and in a very real sense, functioning as bishop.  If I were to translate this to Washington, everyone in the Senate, House, White House, and Courts would be considered “presbyters.”  They are all designated, elected leaders, accountable to one another and to us.

I now serve the presbytery as our Stated Clerk, which means I am ex-officio of a lot of committees.  Some days I am about up to my ears in oversight.  I am also noticing how different we are organized than other churches – Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran.  But I like how we are organized.

I may be the Stated Clerk, which is officially the ecclesiastical leader of all the Presbyterians in Central and SW OK, but I am no where near the US President (Thank God!!!!)

We put ultimate power in groups, not individuals.  No one has absolute power.   No one is exempt from oversight.  There is a system of checks and balances.  This allows individual sin to be kept at bay.

I just love the Presbyterian Church! For in it, we believe Jesus Christ is head of the church, with ultimate authority, and all of us are leaders, checks and balances, to keep us accountable to the True Lord and all moving forward as He leads.  I just love the PCUSA and I hope you do too.

-Matt

Hearts in the Right Place

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Isa. 63:7-14; 1 Tim. 1:18-2:8; Mark 11:12-26

Today, in Mark, is one of the most disturbing stories of the New Testament: the cursing of the fig tree.  It seems oddly upsetting for those focused on Valentine’s Day.  But ironically it fits right in – with the true meaning of St. Valentine’s Day.

Jesus was traveling from Bethany to the Temple Mount and sees a fig tree in the distance.  He is hungry, and as he comes upon it, realizes it has no fruit on it.  He curses the fig tree saying, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”  Now, here’s the catch that troubles me:  it was not the season for figs.  It is not as if this tree is defective.  It was cursed for doing exactly what it is supposed to do at that time of year.

So what is going on?  Right after this story is the cleansing of the temple.  It appears that these two stories are interwoven, meant to work together.  Israel is compared to the fruitless fig tree.  He gets mad, throws money changer tables, and calls them robbers.  Then a day later, as they pass by the fig tree again, Peter is astounded to discover the fig tree has withered.

This is when the story gets even more emotionally evocative.  Jesus answers with, “Have faith in God.  Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.”

Those of you that have been to Israel with me in 2012 may remember the day we took this journey (sorry 2017ers, we missed this!).  I remember passing from Bethany to Bethpage and stopping and pointing off in the distance to a man-made mountain, the Herodium.  “Oh look, friends, if you had faith like the Romans you could move mountains.”  The Herodium was literally an artificial mountain that had been build by Roman ingenuity and the hard work of Jewish slaves.

Could it be that Jesus was insulting the crowd when he was talking about a mountain being taken up and thrown into the sea?  Could it be that he was declaring his fellow Jews had less faith than the Romans?  If so, this is quite an insult.

Despite the raised emotions of this passage, it becomes for me a great testament to faith, belief, and prayer.  On this sappy day of romantic love (hardly what St. Valentine stood for), Jesus is reminding us that God desires a heart that is in the right place.  He is reminding his disciples not to get too complacent and think that just because they are Jews that they are doing everything right.  Jesus encourages self-differentiation – honest feedback – “keeping it real” – in a day and time when people rarely say what they mean and do what they say.

This is the call to us today – to keep it real.

– Matt

Treasure in Heaven

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Isa. 60:1-17; 2 Tim. 2:14-26; Mark 10:17-31

God will turn things on its head.  This is certain to me.  It is a standard theme throughout scripture.  The rich will become poor, the ones with power will have little power, the poor will be raised up.  So it is in the prophets, and in the gospels, especially Mark.

Today this theme takes the form of the rich young man who comes to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. After telling him a litany of commandments, which he declares he has followed, Jesus answers with, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me”

Unable to do so, the rich young man leaves grieving.

In Job and Proverbs and many other places in Scripture we find that wealth jeopardizes spiritual health and is looked at with much disdain.  This may come as a great shock to many Americans who strive for money and power.

Our God is a God of justice.  The psalms declare time and time again that those who flaunt God’s law will get their just reward.  In order to find God’s blessing, one must have priorities straight, putting people first.

At other points in scripture we see how great wealth can be a blessing and a vehicle of God’s grace or God’s wrath, but this is not the message we get from Jesus.  He is emphatic that money corrupts spiritual health.  He demands that our priority must be to follow him.  All else, it seems, is secondary.

How can we live into such words?  Where is the challenge for our spiritual health in the midst of plenty?  How can God use us to build up treasure in heaven?

– Matt

First? Last?

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Isa. 58:1-12; Gal. 6:11-18; Mark 9:30-41

It is easy falling into the trappings of power and wealth.

Today in Mark the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest disciple.  Jesus gathers them all together and declares, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  He then took a little child and put it among them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Power and wealth are certainly temptations – an attempt I think to try to get ahead.  It is easy here in the midst of American capitalism to think the answer to happiness or life is to gather more money or power.  Jesus speaks clearly and plainly, by taking a little child, who is an exemplar of powerlessness.  He is saying, “Forget about having 100 employees, or having a huge 401k…your job is to lift up the least among you…. Your job is to be a servant, not a ruler.”

How can we break the cycle of selfishness and embrace our calling to SERVANTHOOD?  How can we move to accumulation of wealth to abundance of giving?  How can we best model a God who came and emptied himself for us, giving his life and his love away?

What does it even mean to be first in our society, or last?  What is our calling?

 

– Matt

Freedom

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Isa. 55:1-13; Gal. 5:1-15; Mark 8:27-9:1

We hear the central tenet of Paul’s gospel message in Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set us free.”

Hes sees prerequisites of grace as an offense to the cross, invoking slavery language and Old Testament standards like circumcision as antithetical to the gospel message and the cross.  He then launches into a tirade on freedom stating that, “…through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Some time ago I was encountered a young man on the phone who had called the church needing to talk with a pastor.  We get these requests a lot, and in skepticism I took the phone, waiting to be hit up for money.  I will admit I was a bit uncaring in my tone.

His voice was completely unknown to me, and it was clear he was just going down a list of churches in hope that someone…anyone would listen.  His voice was shaky and he refused to tell me who he was, but he desperately needed to share his story.  Did I have the time, he asked.  I reluctantly said yes.

Within a minute I understood this man was in real distress, and he wasn’t hitting me up for money.  He needed someone to listen to his pain, and help him.

He described what he called his “expulsion” from his church.  The heartbreak and the misery was almost too much to bear.  His church family was gone, he said.  As a young, single student here in Oklahoma, separated from his family, he felt alone.  All he had was his church, and now that was gone.

I was a bit taken aback and needed more information.  I encouraged him to come to the church and talk face to face.  He declined.  So I pressed on the phone: “What happened?  Expulsion is quite a word.  What are you saying?” I inquired.  After much discussion, and trying to calm him enough to share his pain, I came to realize this had all come about because he had gone to the pastor of his church with the fact he was struggling with his sexuality.  That was it.  He had just entrusted the pastor with his struggle of sexual identity.

The pastor evidently told him never to set foot in the church again.  With a shaky voice he asked me point blank, “If I am gay, does God hate me?”

In horror and disbelief I think I yelled into the phone: “God loves all his children, and I can’t believe this pastor of yours!  Has he never read the good news of the Bible?”

I think we would all agree his pastor was in the wrong.  But it seems symptomatic of our times, when the church at times consumed by sexual ethics, threatens to fragment itself, missing the core message of transformative love and mercy.  When did some of our churches lose their way so badly, attempting to become museums for saints rather than hospitals for sinners (which we ALL are…hello!?!)?  Have they even read Paul?  How is it loving to cut people out of the community who are struggling?  Isn’t all of life a struggle?

If we cut off everyone who falls short of God’s glory, we are going to be left with an empty church.  And if we cut off people who have not even done anything wrong, but just struggled, or been tempted, or reached out for help, then we are going to clear out our churches in an hour.

I believe the church is being held hostage – by our own own fear.  The yoke of this slavery is almost too much to bear.  Certainly for this young man, it was strangling their church.   Unless we can let go, and allow the transformative nature of God’s grace to truly wash us, God will select us into extinction.

Paul slams his message of freedom home when, in dramatic fashion, he jests: “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”  If you read Paul closely you discover Paul’s primary concern is knitting up the body of Christ as a relational body, not become a bastion of demonic excommunication.

Freedom in Christ means exactly that.  It means not being strangled by the prejudices of the past, but embraced by a new ethic: a Law of Love.  Wasn’t that the whole point of the cross?  Paul’s point is well taken.

Maybe what we need is a focus on what is essential: that old rugged cross.  Some may want to forget that bloody image.  But I believe there is something mysterious and essential about the blood of Christ metamorphosing us into the agents of grace and freedom that he needs us to be.  We see Christ beat up by humanity, but through that coming to a new expression of grace and freedom.

Only until we realize the depth of human hurts, and confront it head-on, embracing and consuming the body and blood of Christ ourselves, will we come to truly understand what redemption is all about.  Transformation isn’t far behind.  Freedom lay within.  A true freedom that binds hearts and minds in an everlasting mercy and love.

-Matt

Wake Up!

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Isa. 54:1-10(11-17); Gal. 4:21-31; Mark 8:11-26

After the feeding of the multitude….yeast becomes the topic of the day.  The disciples jumped in the boat to head to the other side.  And they forgot to bring but one loaf.  Jesus cautions them, saying they should beware of the yeast of the Pharisees.

They misunderstand: “It is because we have no bread?” Jesus retorts with some harsh words for the disciples, “Do you still not perceive or understand?  Are your hearts hardened?”

Jesus is making it clear that even the disciples’ hearts are hardened.  Although it is unclear exactly what his issue is, there is a clear line being drawn between the disciples’ need and their insufficient resources.

Mystery abounds today.  As I have mentioned before, the real joy of Mark is that as the gospel continues, there is more and more intrigue – more and more mystery – more and more secrecy, that is both let out to some, but deepened for others.

What is becoming clear is that the ways of the Old Testament are being reversed, challenged, and reinterpreted.  Our reading in Galatians also bears this out.  The entire letter, in fact, is an explanation of how the Old Testament just didn’t measure up and how God was doing a new thing.

What that new thing is, in Mark, we don’t know yet.   But what is certain is that this new and different thing that God is doing includes a much larger band of followers than before.  This is a God who is not only interested in right teaching, and right following, but in the hungry, the oppressed, and somehow the truth of the gospel hinges on the actual physical care of those around us.

God wants us to wake up.  God wants scripture to actually impact our daily walk and transform the way we live.  This is what it means to pray “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Is this starting to smell like the “social gospel” that many of the so-called “Christian conservatives” want to rail?  Well, it may not be the only thing scripture doles out, but we get a heavy dose of the social gospel from the gospel writers.  It is radical and untapped grace.  It may frighten some.  Well, so be it.  It’s there.  Scripture is clear.   Don’t be one who closes their eyes to the parts of scripture they don’t agree with, especially NT scripture – instead embrace the entirety of scripture with me and be confounded by the mystery of God.

-Matt