Give to God What Is God’s

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2 Samuel 18:19-33Acts 23:23-35Mark 12:13-27

If you are one who would like to think that the Bible isn’t political, you are going to have a rude awakening this morning when you read Mark 12.

Two questions come to Jesus, in order to trap him: the question about paying taxes to Caesar, and the question about the resurrection from the Sadducees.

These two questions, which fan the flames of those in power: 1) Rome who has the political power, and 2) the Sadducees, the religious and temple authority.  Jesus is rubbing salt in the wound he inflicted with his parable (in the previous passage about the wicked tenants), casting dispersions about those who are the tenants of the vineyard, and throwing them out for new tenants.

These groups mean to trap him and he sees through their hypocrisy and twists his answer so craftily that it continues to confound and exacerbate.  “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

On the surface it is somewhat playful.  It has Caesar’s image on it.  Of course it is his.  Give it all away!

Now before you think I am advocating a 100% tax, giving all our money away to the government, let me say some more!  If Jesus had said, “Give it to God,” there would have been trouble, for Jesus would be breaking Roman law.  He would have been thrown in prison. Instead, by saying, “Give to God the things that are God’s” any good Jew listening would think, “Well, that is everything!  Everything is God’s!”  Roman officials would have heard him being in compliance with the law.

At the end of the day, Jesus is not talking about money or the resurrection really, he is talking about “where your heart lies.”  And this, my friends, becomes very political for Jesus.  He doesn’t want you to follow the politician of the day.  He wants you to follow him.  Fully.  Maybe that does mean 100%, come to think of it.

Jesus does get political.  And it is not the debate with other rabbis that is important here, or even Jesus’ answer, but the trajectory of this gospel, a trajectory that is witnessing the rejection, betrayal, and crucifixion of God’s own.

The tables are turning, but ironically, it is the crucified and rejected one who ends up turning the tables and coming out on top.

And so it is in our churches today.  Sometimes we get so focused on the Fight du Jour, and we miss the fact that the only important fight was one that Jesus already won.  Despite his own people rejecting him, he has a grand “YES” for this world, and an invitation to having our slates wiped clean.

-Matt

Turning Things On Their Head

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2 Samuel 18:9-18Acts 23:12-24Mark 11:27-12:12

The Bible may be a lot of things – but boring isn’t one of him.  It is graphic and memorable.

In our Old Testament reading, Absalom is hanging by his hair from a tree.  In a bizarre twist of the story, a great battle ends with the son of the king, Absalom, getting his hair stuck in a great oak as he is riding under it.  Joab comes across him, fearing raising a hand to the king’s son.  Finally he is convinced, and while his armor-bearers surround him, Joab thrusts three spears in the heart of Absalom, and they strike him and kill him.  It is tragic, but certainly memorable.

Paul is also being hunted.  The one who hunted Christians and killed them is now himself being hunted.  40 Jews take an oath not to eat or drink until they have killed Paul, and they go to the chief priests and elders to tell them of their plan.  Paul’s sister warns him of the ambush.

The Bible is filled with battles, with death, with power-shifts.  Almost always we see God’s deliverance at hand, or God choosing differently than we might expect.  From Jacob and Esau, to Ruth and Naomi, to Jesus and Paul, we continually see a God at work who chooses the most unlikely of characters to carry his will forward.

These things are of great comfort to me.  In a world that seems to have problems beyond my control – a government that seems intent on destroying itself, racial inequality and tensions everywhere, world hunger – God has chosen me as one of his agents of grace.  I am certainly not the most qualified.  I am not as smart or as charismatic as I would like to be, but God chose me anyway.  And he chose you too.

Things certainly have come full circle.  Who would have thought that God would entrust his kingdom to people like you and me?  We don’t have that much power and influence.  Or do we?

In God’s world, the mighty fall.  The proud are humbled.  The rich become poor.  In God’s world, all things are made new by the king who gave his life for us all and died on a cross to save even the most lowly of people.

And with that, comes the good news that God has saved even us, and the freedom to live a life of service to others, continuing the ministry of turning things on their head.

-Matt

The Signs

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2 Samuel 17:24-18:8Acts 22:30-23:11Mark 11:12-26

Just like yesterday’s Gospel reading was troubling and difficult to understand, so is today’s gospel reading of Jesus cursing the fig tree.

The story of the fig tree had troubled me for many years.  What did this tree do to deserve being cursed??  Actually it withers and dies.  It wasn’t even the season for producing figs, and yet Jesus blames it for not having figs?!  Does Jesus lose his cool?

The only valid explanation came from one of my professors in Israel – and the explanation came due to a mountain, not a shriveled tree.  I remember us standing at the Herodium, a man-made mountain that the Romans used as a fortress in Jesus’ time.  And it is a huge pile of moved dirt, let me tell you.  Everyone in our group gasped and said, “This MOUNTAIN got here artificially?”  Yes, basketful by basketful, by slaves.

Well, as the professor explained, Jesus and the disciples were traveling from Bethany to Jerusalem, passing through Bethpage.  On that route, the Herodium is visible.  And so when Jesus said, “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…,” it was as if Jesus was saying, “If you only had faith like the Romans, you could move mountains like them.”  It was an insult.

Jesus was not mad at the tree, but mad at the people, making a point about “things coming to pass”, prayer, and faith.  The tree was left as a visible reminder.  Interestingly enough, not too long from that time, he would travel the same road on his way to Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.  Talk about things coming to pass!  I wonder if on passing the tree on Palm Sunday he turned to the disciples and said, “Hey guys…remember what I said: Have faith in God.  I’m withering next, but don’t you worry.  YOU WILL be moving more than just mountains in my absence.”

Scripture is so weird sometimes, and that’s why I like it.  It challenges me and causes me to think deeply about my life.  The fig tree for instance….there are signs in my life which remind me to have faith in God.  And I am not talking about grand signs like eclipses, or the Lord’s Supper, or the like.  I am talking about withered signs.

Oklahomans know a little bit about withered signs – from usually high summer temperatures, to the destruction of tornadoes or hail.  From tree limbs down, to roofs blown off, to water main breaks, we are often reminded that the things in life are just transitory.  And they are just things.  It helps me to focus on that which is truly important – that which does not pass away – the Word of God.

-Matt

Your Faith Has Made You Well

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2 Samuel 15:19-37Acts 21:37-22:16Mark 10:46-52

Today in Mark, Jesus heals a blind man named Bartimaeus.  Here Jesus goes again handing out free healthcare.  

Despite how close this theme of his hits home, I see this story in a different light.  This is not merely a story of healing, but of one that attests to the breaking in of the new kingdom.

Mark is much more crafty than to just have a story of healing pop in for no reason.  This story ends a major section in Mark.  As we begin Chapter 11, we see a radical departure from Jesus normal modis operendi, with his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem and the Holy Week sequence.

The context: This whole chunk of scripture previous is the disciples and others struggling to see who Jesus really is.  They are struggling to understand what it means to be the “Son of Man” and be “handed over to the chief priests and scribes.”  We see a transfiguration, and requests to be at his right and left side.  The disciples are confused.  They are blind to Jesus’ true identity.  They can’t see what’s coming.

Jesus’ words to us become all the more powerful then: “Go, your faith has made you well.”  As post-resurrection people, standing on the other side of the cross, how much more powerfully do Jesus’ words come to us, as Bartimaeus hears them.  We know the end of the story.  We are not blind to the crafty literary workings of Mark.  We know just a bit more than the characters in the story, like any good novel.  In this case, we know what Jesus knew – that the secret got out – that the tomb was empty – that he will rise again, just like he said.

May all the blind see this, and come to know that “He is not here.  He is risen!”  May all come to know that their lives are not held by the present afflictions, but that we will all be released and made whole, washed in the blood of the lamb, and comforted by the heavenly angels.

-Matt

P.S. Our faith has never been in our temporal leaders!  So turn off the news feed.  It is of little consequence.  We follow the one who transforms every fiber of our being.  He is in control: of all.

A Message to My Fellow Clergy

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2 Samuel 14:21-33Acts 21:15-26Mark 10:17-31

Usually my Morning Reflections are geared to “my flock” (i.e. those in my congregation, those in my presbytery under my care, etc.).  Today, I shift to a different gear.

Today I talk to my minister friends and colleagues: Don’t let Donald Trump get you down.  Don’t give one person the power to manipulate and destroy your day.  No one should have that power.  I see many of you on Twitter: grieving, freaking out, organizing.  Others might say it is over-functioning.  Let’s pause.  Let’s focus on that which is most important.

I mean, I understand what you are doing…you are challenging your people.  You are working for them to deepen their theology and become engaged – to have folks inwardly digest God’s Word and put it into action.  And that is frankly something we should all be doing more.  But I would urge you to turn off Twitter for a few days.  Unplug from FB.  Turn off the news.

Our chief concern as clergy is developing relationships, reaching out to those in need, loving our flock, and connecting them to God’s Word.  And that can happen with a simple hospital visit.  It can happen in Bible study.  It doesn’t need to be rally or a march against hysteria.

Some of us have fallen into the same things we accused the other side of the aisle of being guilty of.  And I can see their point, because some of us are looking hysterical, unhinged, and frankly sleep deprived.

I turned to our Mark passage today and discovered one of the major themes of all of scripture: God will turn things on its head.  Here, the rich will become poor, the ones with power will have little power, the poor will be raised up, etc., etc.

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.

How wonderful if today we could remind our flocks of this remarkable major theme of scripture.  Talk about good medicine!  I am guessing there are many who have never realized this theme, thinking that money and power is the point, the barometer of success.

We don’t have to talk about politics today with our scripture readings, because our flocks are smart people who can make the connection without us overtly doing it today.  Money corrupts.  Yes it does.  Leaving it at that is alright.

Rest in this my clergy friends: 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.

Let’s remind our people of that today.

And let’s forget about Donald and the whole Washington crew.  And just for one day, let’s focus on those in our midst and not worry about all the rest.

– Matt

A Message to My Fellow Clergy

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2 Samuel 14:21-33Acts 21:15-26Mark 10:17-31

Usually my Morning Reflections are geared to “my flock” (i.e. those in my congregation, those in my presbytery under my care, etc.).  Today, I shift to a different gear.

Today I talk to my minister friends and colleagues: Don’t let Donald Trump get you down.  Don’t give one person the power to manipulate and destroy your day.  No one should have that power.  I see many of you on Twitter: grieving, freaking out, organizing.  Others might say it is over-functioning.  Let’s pause.  Let’s focus on that which is most important.

I mean, I understand what you are doing…you are challenging your people.  You are working for them to deepen their theology and become engaged – to have folks inwardly digest God’s Word and put it into action.  And that is frankly something we should all be doing more.  But I would urge you to turn off Twitter for a few days.  Unplug from FB.  Turn off the news.

Our chief concern as clergy is developing relationships, reaching out to those in need, loving our flock, and connecting them to God’s Word.  And that can happen with a simple hospital visit.  It can happen in Bible study.  It doesn’t need to be rally or a march against hysteria.

Some of us have fallen into the same things we accused the other side of the aisle of being guilty of.  And I can see their point, because some of us are looking hysterical, unhinged, and frankly sleep deprived.

I turned to our Mark passage today and discovered one of the major themes of all of scripture: God will turn things on its head.  Here, the rich will become poor, the ones with power will have little power, the poor will be raised up, etc., etc.

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.

How wonderful if today we could remind our flocks of this remarkable major theme of scripture.  Talk about good medicine!  I am guessing there are many who have never realized this theme, thinking that money and power is the point, the barometer of success.

We don’t have to talk about politics today with our scripture readings, because our flocks are smart people who can make the connection without us overtly doing it today.  Money corrupts.  Yes it does.  Leaving it at that is alright.

Rest in this my clergy friends: 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.

Let’s remind our people of that today.

And let’s forget about Donald and the whole Washington crew.  And just for one day, let’s focus on those in our midst and not worry about all the rest.

– Matt

Let the Little Children Come to Me

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2 Samuel 14:1-20Acts 21:1-14Mark 10:1-16

It was just a couple Saturdays ago, we were remembering the life of Dr. Suzan White at the Presbyterian Church in Ada.  During her career she was a child psychiatrist, but what brought me to Ada was that she was also the mother of Rev. Scott White, the pastor there.  At her service not surprisingly we read the words from Mark’s Gospel, Let the Little Children Come to me.

I talk routinely about the Bible as a story of upsidedown-ness.  Those of you who have been a part of Morning Reflections for a while have heard me say this a lot.  All throughout, we see God’s understanding of the world or God’s choices are opposite about what we might think – from God’s choosing of Jacob over Esau, Joseph over the other brothers, David over the other brothers, and on and on and on.  God’s ways are not always our ways.

God’s upsidedown world continues in the New Testament.  One could look no further than the selection of the disciples for that.  Fishermen and tax collectors.  Are you serious, Jesus?  Why not have some political strategists, man?  Some Doctors?  Lawyers?  People of influence and repute?  God says “I’ve got this” and makes some surprising choices.

Then we hit Mark’s 10th chapter.  “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”  Children, too, were pushed to the fringes of society in that time.  Jesus turned that around.  Certainly Suzan did in her life too.  And many of us in our work as well – teachers, parents, nurses, so many – giving voice to those who can’t.

And our job is also to approach faith like children too – courageous, free, uninhibited, carefree, extravagant.

In a culture convinced we can outthink God, we really need to hear these words.  Our intellectual pursuits are eclipsed by our financial obsessions and material hoardings.  We don’t just believe we can outthink God; we believe we can outdo God!

And God’s response?  Have faith like a child.  Return to simplicity and wonder. 

In the Old Testament it was “I do not delight anymore in your burnt offerings;” in the New Testament it is “I do not revel in your theological trickery.  Your obsession with the Law has brought you no closer to God!  Try the way of children and return to a simple faith: trust, sharing, and faith.”

Humans are always trying to draw lines in the sand.  We like to decide who is in and who is out, who is blessed by God and who is lacking.  And God continually surprises us by welcoming others in.

-Matt