Tested Faith

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Deut. 8:1-10; James 1:1-15; Luke 9:18-27

We all endure tests of faith.  Today we hear about them in scripture.

In Deuteronomy, it strikes a tone of parental discipline, as we hear why the Israelites were made to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.  Eating of the manna in the wilderness is spoken of like a curse, becoming a reminder that the Lord would provide and that we  “cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

James also speaks of an active and tested faith.  Maturity and endurance bring about wisdom.

In both of these passages, we get a sense that the Lord is shaping us and molding us as his people for some purpose.  The sufferings that we endure seem to open the spirit to God’s presence, “for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.”

I have certainly been through some trials and tribulations in my life, and I know you all have as well.  And it certainly is no comfort to someone in the midst of trauma to be talking about how this will increase their wisdom.  In fact it is the absolute WORST way to provide pastoral care for someone.  I absolutely hate when people say to one another, in the midst of their nervous energy not knowing what else to say to a person in the midst of trauma, “Well, everything happens for a reason.”  Really?  There was a reason my child was killed by a moving train?  There was a reason my wife’s cancer and pain got so bad she killed herself?  Don’t think so.  It is a HORRIBLE thing to say.  There is no rhyme or reason to some of life’s tragedies.  And if you have said this to someone before in the midst of chaos, I want you to promise yourself to evict it from your vocabulary right now.  Seriously.  Right now.  Promise me.

We are all tested in the faith.  And realizing that God has led us through the wilderness of our lives is something we discover on our own, miles away from the tragedy itself.

I pray that you discover deeply the meaning of today’s passages for your life, that you come to unlock the mysteries that God is revealing in your life, and where in your life endurance has come to shape your faith.

And if you are in the midst of the storms of life, I pray for peace for you.  And as God walks with us through the pain, I hope you will dare to trust me and others to walk with you.

-Matt

Breaking Down Barriers

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Wisdom 16:15-17:1; Rom. 14:13-23; Luke 8:40-56

The Gospels are chuck full of miracles.  Today Jesus heals a woman and restores another to new life.  The true miracle is beyond a simple healing, however.

Jesus ministry is about breaking down barriers.  Paul and other followers continued this trajectory for Christianity, preaching good news to the Gentiles.  Luke’s gospel, especially, seems concerned with this breaking down of barriers, and we see it front and center.

The real miracle here is Jesus’ simple TOUCH.  It was apparent this woman was hemorrhaging and suffering from abnormal menstrual flow, which made her unclean and untouchable.  To even be in her presence was a clear violation of the Levitical code.  Jesus breaks this barrier.  This same violation takes place when Jesus touches the dead body of the young girl just a few verses later.

Both of these stories are beautifully portrayed in a window at FPCOKC, with the story of the woman within the greater story, and in the corner of the window, pictured above.

When the woman touches Jesus’ cloak, not only does that violate scripture, it makes Jesus unclean, and prescribes that he now quarantine himself.  When he turns and responds to this woman, and then heals her, he is breaking down barriers.  He is revisiting the Law and questioning its presuppositions.

In many ways, he is taking up the same argument as when the disciples ate on the Sabbath.  Was the Law created for people, or people for the Law?

Jesus’ answer is always grace and healing.  He reaches out his arm, and invites us all to be made clean – to be cleansed of the harsh condemnation we place on ourselves and others.  He washes our lives from the presuppositions and invites us into a life of love.

This is an extraordinary move he makes.  Jesus’ moves into the unclean places of the world, and reaches out his hand.  He crosses borders, and is found in the least expected places.  Some have talked about this as the “preferential option for the poor”.  Liberation theologians have surmised that Jesus walks with the poor, the oppressed, the underprivileged.  And why?  Because he always has.  It has always been his choice.

And it is miraculous, because it means there is hope for you and me, for we all fall short of the glory of God.  But this is of no consequence to God, who forgives us and makes us all whole again.

-Matt

Ready for the Storm

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Wisdom 13:1-9; Rom 13:1-14; Luke 8:16-25

Luke retells the story of Jesus calming the storm and the Sea of Galilee today.  It seems ironically appropriate after the wave of bizarre weather events of the last few weeks: from straight winds that damaged our West Transept Window, to hail storms, to tornadoes (last night one in Elk City), to the occasional earthquake.

For people of that era, the sea had special significance.  While it provided food and life, it was also seen as something that separated us from God.  In the world view of the time, not only was the earth flat, but it was surrounded above, below, and beyond by the chaotic waters, much like a large bubble of air in an infinite sea of water.  The sea was not just an ocean, but a vast expanse of chaos, including the firmament of the sea which dwelt above.  The heavens were beyond this, and while God dwelt in the temple, God was also present in the heavens above.

This story is not merely Jesus calming the storm.  For Jesus to command the wind and the sea meant to control the power of separation from God.  Jesus was bringing the chaos under control, a foreshadowing of the coming kingdom, a kingdom in which God was closer and more accessible.

Revelation puts this concept in these terms, “And the sea shall be no more.” (Interestingly enough, to indicate that the sea will be no more ties in to that ancient understanding of the firmament as well – for if the sea is a vast expanse of chaos, which is above and below us, and it disappears, then that which separates us from God is no more.  Heaven is here on earth too).

The chaos of our recent weather is a bit different.  Here in Oklahoma it is common for tornado sirens  to blare, wall clouds to approach, and hail, wind, and thunder coming weekly.  But I don’t remember having to dodge strong winds DAILY and worry about large hail and earthquakes too.  I am beginning to wonder if the rapture is coming.  In the midst of the storms, God always provides us with the gift of each other, which Oklahomans do so well – coming together.

God is present in all that we do.  When we look beyond the text, Jesus does not merely heal a couple paralytics or diseases – he breaks the barriers of the chaotic realm on the physical universe itself, which separates and deceives.

God now is among us.  God is not bound by our physical reality, and yet has become a part of it.  The separation with God has been shown to be a false separation in Christ Jesus.  And that is some good news amidst the impending storms this week, and also for the daily grind of life.

-Matt

Living Sacrifice

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Wisdom 10:1-4(5-12)13-21; Rom. 12:1-21; Luke 8:1-15

Many of you have inquired whether Morning Reflections will continue now that I am leaving FPCOKC.  Of course they will!  This is my personal ministry, above and beyond what I do at the church!  I love writing and I cannot imagine stopping.  I have also had some of you inquire about wanting to donatie to ensure this ministry continues.  I will look into a PayPal button or something.

So turning to our scripture in Romans today….

Christians exist in a world of irony, and the scripture to which we cling often represents this irony in metaphor.  We sacrifice ourselves but we are alive.  In the cross we find life.  By his wounds we are healed.  When we die in our baptism, then we have new life.

Romans provides us a new chapter of our understanding of God, where grace and love triumph over sin’s power.  We are asked to present ourselves as “living sacrifices”.  Paul paints a new picture for us – one in which our whole bodies are offered up for service – and our minds too.

When I think about Paul and his life I am struck by the radical nature of his use of “living sacrifice”.  This is not a part-time job to him.  It is a complete relinquishing of his agenda to Christ’s.  He spent his life building up churches and traveling around, encouraging them in the faith.  It was an extraordinarily hard life, according to all accounts.

What does it mean to be Christian in today’s society?  How are we to relinquish our lives to serve the one who gave it all?  I think about the extraordinary outpouring of God’s grace that he has shown to my current ministry context and the high volume of dedicated disciples that I have at my disposal.

But then I think about other pockets of the Church, and I wonder what happened.  It seems that much of the Church in North America is somewhat sleepy when it comes to Christ’s mission.

What does it mean to be a living sacrifice in 21st Century America?  How are we to live to die, and die so that we might live?

I’m not sure the metaphor of sacrifice is one that resonates with us – people who live 2000 years after Temple sacrifices were the order of the day.  How about, instead of “living sacrifice” we think of it as a complete organ transplant.  This is no mere biopsy, where God cuts out a little part of our lives he doesn’t like.  This is not a touch of plastic surgery, where God mends an unsightly scar from ages past.  No, this is a radical change for us.  It is a complete transformation of self.  Our heart is no longer ours, but Christ’s.  When we eat, we feed Christ’s body.  When we walk and talk, we have become an extension of Christ’s will for the world.

When we truly die to live, we may find our whole lives uprooted – and a new era of love, generosity, and selflessness taking root in our lives and in our world.

-Matt

Cathedral Window Tour

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Wisdom 9:1, 7-18; Col. (3:18-4:1)2-18; Luke 7:36-50

Today at Noon at FPCOKC there will be a Window Tour.  I invite you to come.  Bring a friend.  Spend your lunch hour gazing at windows and learning about God’s miraculous story for you.

This 45-minute tour will be your opportunity to see and hear an overview of all of our 73 Willet stained glass windows.  It will also be your last opportunity to see the giant West Transcept Window before it undergoes major repair, damaged by the straight winds of a couple weeks ago.

I am also leaving First Presbyterian on June 15, 2017.  This will give me some time to focus more on my presbytery responsibilities as well as explore some new vocational paths.  That being said, this may be one of my last tours.  (That is unless you schedule a private tour, which is the best way to do it!)

It has been an extraordinary ride.  By my best counts, I have had over 2,400 people attend my Cathedral Window Tour alone!  This is the general tour that covers a little bit of everything.  Then there have been the special Lenten offerings.  The Hidden Symbols and Making of Stained Glass Tour has been popular too.  The tours at SpiritFest have been the most lively, often with many folks who have never been in the building before, and we do the Witness & Faith tour, which is all Holy Spirit!

Last Wednesday I led what I affectionately called my “Goodbyes in the Windows” Tour.  We sat in the chapel and explored the many ways Christ, the prophets, and apostles have said their goodbyes.  I know many of you were shedding tears as I spoke.  And it is sad to say goodbye to one’s ministry.  To those of you whose heart breaks, just know that God is bigger than all of this.  I was never meant to stay at FPCOKC forever.  We have laughed and learned together, broken bread together, and explored God’s wondrous grace together.

All that continues!  Just not with me as your pastor.

And I will still be in the building, building up the body of Christ at the presbytery level.  There are a lot of ways to relate to someone other than pastor.

In the meantime, let us enjoy the time we have, celebrate the wondrous mysteries of God, and rest in the providential care of God – which is so beautifully depicted in our windows.  Come see!

See you at Noon.  www.fpcokc.org

-Matt

 

G-d Does Not Keep Silent

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Wisdom 5:9-23; Col. 2:8-23; Luke 6:39-49

Usually I focus on the stories, themes, or topics within the passages themselves.  Today my imagination was caught by just one concept: keeping silence.  Silence, peace, and centering has been hard for me to find lately.  My days have been filled with VERY upset people, with the news of the budget recommendations and struggles at First Pres.  I have appreciated all the care and concern you all have shown me and I would have it no other way.  And yet, there is no silence or peace to my day.  It is non-stop.  I too am crushed.  So there are the outside voices to my day.  There is also my inner voice, crying out by the suddenness and creepiness of all this.

And then I read in Psalm 50: “Our God comes and does not keep silence.” 

 

Today I found myself dwelling on the idea that God does not keep silent.  That is an inverted way many people experience God.  We spend our days hustling and bustling around, and many feel that God has fallen silent – deaf to this world of brokenness.   In this view, he sits up there, watches from above, sometimes in horror, but has abandoned many people’s lives.

In my early days of contemplative prayer I would struggle to silence my voice.  It took a lot of practice to get to where I heard God regularly.  And I am not saying I have mastered this – for we are all beginners in prayer – but perhaps those who don’t hear God have simply fallen out of practice.  Perhaps they never learned to listen for God.  God is speaking.  I know this to be true.  And so we pray for silence.

We are also told in the psalm that God comes as judge.  He gathers the faithful ones and looks for the mark of thankfulness.  And while we might seek to be in silence with God, we have to understand God is not silent with us – always guiding and speaking to this world.  It is our choice whether to acknowledge God’s call or not.

It appears in our political world, there are some that would like to silence the voices of others – that there is a story to tell and their goal is to scuttle that.  As you and I well know, this never happens.  The story will come.  God’s justice will prevail.

And so let the noise come.  In your life.  In our country.  In our church.  Let God speak boldly to you.  And as I depart the daily life of FPCOKC, know that God will continue to speak loudly.

Be listening.

-Matt

Servanthood

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Wisdom 4:16-5:8; Col. 1:24-2:7; Luke 6:27-38

For those who dislike Paul, your cure may be today’s reading.  This is a man who is completely dedicated to the task at hand.  His commitment to Christ almost brings tears to my eyes.

Not only does he “rejoice in [his] sufferings” but he offers an image of complete surrender: “in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body.”  He sees his life, not as his own, but that of the Church’s – the body of Christ.

As I walk the halls of First Presbyterian, I encounter many who have poured their heart and soul into building up the body of Christ.  It is overwhelming some days.  To me, it is a sign of the resurrection.  I think of people like Matt Trei, Angela Parks, Sarah Chancellor.  Folks like Helen Wood, Dodee Weibel, Virginia Bosworth, Jennie Slade, Martha Pat Upp.  I too have poured my heart and soul into that church and am sad to see it come to such an abrupt halt.

But it is those saints that have gone before me like Matt Trei that really get me.  The dedication, the commitment, the submission to Christ that I saw – it gives me hope in the human race, and in Christianity for the 21st Century.

It is strange for many to think that the church is growing my leaps and bounds in South America and Africa, for it has been declining in North America.  And it may surprise many to know that it is not the “happy, clappy” churches that are growing down there.  It is the Roman Catholic Church.  It is the Orthodox Church.  It is the Presbyterian Church in Africa that is growing.  Pentecostalism is on the rise – hardly an expression of the emergent church phenomena we see in America.  Joel Olsteen is not the face of the growing Church in Africa, it turns out.  (Joel Olsteen as it turns out is not even Christianity by the church’s standard, or mine – oh well – best of luck Joel – try again.)

I believe much of the growth in Africa and South America has to do with their unfettered commitment to the Holy Spirit at work.  We have a culture that simply does not value submission and dedication, like they do.  We don’t like to follow.  We like to be in control. Our culture is often built on individualism, adventure, and the taking of personal risk.  This has little to do with submitting to the body of Christ, or building up something other than one’s self.

So when I reflect on the decline of some of our churches in North America, I don’t get too upset.  Perhaps God needs to prune us a little.  Perhaps the wheat and the tares need to be separated a bit.  It also becomes a fair challenge that God has given us.  It is not a time to lament, but a time to work – and submit – for the Holy Spirit.

I have seen that happening at First Presbyterian Church for most of my ministry.

It is no accident that we have been growing the last few years.  Two of the last three years with net growth!  And that is in an interim time!!!  Wow.  That is what happens when a church commits deeply to the Holy Spirit’s work in its neighborhood, and the lives of its members.

My prayer is that FPCOKC will continue to DARE – not necessarily with bold new initiatives, but with submission and selflessness.  That is my prayer for this whole presbytery – to DARE to be servants to one another.  If we embrace that, we will see new ministries planted and growing and thriving.  When I see servanthood, I see the Church.

I am thankful for those who consistently put themselves second, and dedicate and commit their time and talents to something greater – God’s commission and the mystery of Christ’s revelation to the world.  It is the Matt Trei’s of the world that have led us deeper into Christ’s servant-spirit.  Let’s honor them by living the same.

-Matt