No Reflections

Sorry for the lack of Morning Reflections.  My home computer went on the fritz and it has disrupted my normal morning routine of writing.  I hope to be back up and running soon….just in time for my annual pilgrimage to New Orleans.  So not many Advent reflections from this one!

-M

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A True Gift

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Isa. 2:1-111 Thess. 2:13-20Luke 20:19-26

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

This hits a little close to home, doesn’t it?  We live in the midst of a consumerist society obsessed with shopping and material things.  The assault on Christmas began even before Halloween, and is now in fully throttle, with Christ completely ripped out of Christmas for so many.

Today the scribes and Pharisees are trying to trick Jesus.  But like a brilliant lawyer, Jesus responds in a way not to trap himself.  The question “Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?” has no good answer!  If Jesus says, “No, don’t pay!” then he is guilty of sedition.  If he says, “Yes, pay taxes!” then he is guilty of breaking God’s law, for it involves graven images and a sense of Rome being put above religion.

Instead, Jesus attacks their question with an assertion that the money is evil (Give to Caesar that which has his picture on it!) and also that God owns everything anyway (Give to God what is God’s).

Is not everything God’s?  Of course!  But the deeper question – is that how we live our lives?  Do we go about our daily business understanding that everything is the Lord’s?  Have we come to a settled place about how we spend our money?

My beef is not with us buying gifts.  It is the underlying materialism.  It is the hording.  It is the obsession with money.  We have actually bought into the lie that if we gather enough, we can somehow escape our dependence on one another and God.  The Protestant Work Ethic has melded with our sin and greed, and we have fallen into truly believing that somehow we can escape dependence, or suffering, or however you want to view this.  Well I have news for you: There is no escape from our mortality.

Here’s my other beef:

Here we are in the midst of America’s celebration of Christmas, which by all accounts has become Consumerism Christmas.  Jesus has been traded in for Santa.  Somehow our Christmas spirit is often judged on how many presents we buy, how many parties we have, how many cards we mail out, and how many decorations we put up.  The problem with those standards is that they all center around consumerism.

It would probably be better if our churches moved the celebration of Christmas to July to avoid the vicious assault on our faith.

We are called to a renewal of Christ’s incarnation.  That means a renewal of understanding that God is close to us, and that all we do and say is wrapped up in the marvelous gift of God With Us.  To have God in our midst means to put all our energy in that which was important to him.  As someone who came and reached out to the poor and afflicted, it would seem that if Christmas is going to be about gifts, it will center around alms to the poor, not gifts to other family members.

Ironically it is in giving all back to God, we finally claim something of true value.

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  This is our call – to turn from the bizarre incongruencies of our lives, and turn to the truth of God’s radical gospel of love and light.  There is hope and joy wrapped up in that little gift – enough for the whole world.  Lord, let it be!

-Matt

The Mystery Ahead

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Isa. 1:10-201 Thess. 1:1-10Luke 20:1-8

Happy New Year.

Yes you heard me right.  Advent has arrived, and with it a new year…a new liturgical year.  The Daily Office is a two-year cycle, and we have begun again with Year 1.

But more than that – it is a new year for the church – and messages of new beginnings fill our day, along with Advent hope.

We begin readings with Isaiah, who today is giving the people an ear full about worship.  He argues that God rejects their ritualized worship if it is not accompanied by genuine inner change – a change in one’s moral compass.

Paul begins his letter to the Thessalonians in traditional fashion, thanking God for their present activity and the way that the “gospel came to you not in world only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”

In Luke the scene is set right after Jesus has purged the temple.  Folks are trying to entrap Jesus and the reading is a dramatic conflict where Jesus’ Temple authority is questioned.  Jesus is evasive.  They ask him point blank where he derives his authority, or from whom.  He fires back with a question, instead of an answer: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

Since they don’t come up with an adequate answer, he decides not to answer their question.

Ever wondered why the Bible is so complex, deep, and arguably contradictory?  My thought is that if it was simple and vanilla, people would have stopped reading it a long time ago.  It is because of its richness that it reflects the human condition, which is also complex.  Life has no easy answers.

Jesus illuminates this today, as do Isaiah and Paul.  Following Christ is not easy.  Being faithful is not easy.

If it were, everyone would do it.  It would be second nature, and there would be no reason to provide the Bible in the first place.

The Bible is more than a guidebook for right living. It is a Codebook.  Like a mystery novel it has twists and turns, and only if you read the whole thing do you have the possibility of discovering some of its secrets.  One can spend a lifetime in the Bible and not crack all the code.  Those who quote individual verses out of context are so often beginning Christians who have not yet come to understand the breadth and depth of following Christ.

Some of my non-Christian friends wonder what exactly it means to follow Christ.  Or why?  Or how?  In my youth, I would try to answer them to the best of my ability.  Now, I say to them, “You wouldn’t understand.  It’s a secret.  And only those in the secret society can get it.”  It turns out, this is some of the best evangelism I have done recently.  Everyone wants to be part of a secret society.  Everyone wants to figure out the mystery.

It is only when I get elusive and refuse to answer that anyone has ever wanted to hear this minister mouth off about God.  Go figure.

Perhaps we should be making it harder to become Christian, not easier.

This would certainly be more like the First Century Church.  It was really hard to become a Christian back then.  It was an underground secret society.

These days it is so easy to say, “I accept Jesus into my heart.”  And I find a church full of folks who have no inkling what that means, nor the desire to figure it out.

As we prepare for Advent and Christmas, and the mystery and depth of readings ahead, let us also commit to the deep, rich, complexity of the story, and yet the simplicity of it as well.  And if anyone has any questions, I promise to be evasive and answer it with another question!

May joy fill your day.  And may the mystery of God enfold you.

-Matt

No More Hiding

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Zech. 13:1-9Eph. 1:15-23Luke 19:11-27

Today Luke tells the troubling parable of the Ten Pounds.

If you don’t remember: one slave gets one pound, and makes 10 pounds.  Another slave gets one pound and turns it into 5 while the master is away.  The final slave gets a pound as well, but wraps it in a cloth and returns it.  He is reprimanded.

This has been perhaps the most troubling of all parables for me.  Greed is rewarded?  Earning 10 fold was not something proud of attainment like it would be today.  That kind of profit was strictly forbidden by Old Testament codes.  If you exploited others, you were forbidden from business.

This is a parable, so by definition we are meant to learn from this about something else.  The context was a bunch of folks who expected the kingdom of God to appear immediately.  And Jesus ends by talking about “these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.”

That is even more frightening talk.  Jesus wants those who disagree with him to be slaughtered in his presence?  I thought Jesus was meek and mild?  No.  That’s the case only if you read the edited version.

So what is going on?  It appears Jesus is much concerned with this: to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

It appears Jesus, like Paul and Zechariah in our other two readings, is inciting us into action.  He wants us to DO something.  We have gifts.  We have skills.  We have money.  Many of us have all three.  We are to use them for the sake of the gospel.  We are to claim our calling, and not hide our gifts.

I think back to my early days in church, a young tween and my fear of playing the piano for church.  I had become quite the pianist for an 8th or 9th grader, but I was nervous and hesitant to play for church.  My perfectionism had reared its ugly head.  Unless I could offer “something that was perfect to God” I didn’t want to offer at all.  My pastor at the time, a compassionate but firm Lutheran pastor, pulled me aside on a Saturday afternoon during my practice time at church to inquire about this.  I remember Pastor Mike’s response to this day: “God has given you the gift of music.  And while you may feel it is bad to offer something less than perfect to God, it is a far greater sin to NOT OFFER IT AT ALL.  You must play.  Whatever it is you got in you, you MUST play.”

That was the best advice I could have gotten.  It was telling me that if I was going to wait to offer something that was perfect, I would be waiting a long time.

Despite the church being a place full of broken people, the fact is that we offer our gifts anyway.  With all our warts, we are called to offer our best.  But the key is: we are called to offer them no matter what.  No excuses!

-Matt

It Is Not Illegal to Seek Asylum

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Zech. 11:4-171 Cor. 3:10-23Luke 18:31-43

Today in Luke a blind beggar calls for Jesus, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  People order him to be quiet, but he shouts all the more.  He gets Jesus’ attention and ultimately is healed.

This all occurs on the heels of the Rich Young Ruler, who could not enter into eternal life with his worldview of money.  It also occurs on the heels of a lack of faith on the Pharisees part, or even the disciples.

Here is a blind beggar: by the crowd’s standards this guy is unclean by his condition, and doubly unclean because of his begging.  Here, Jesus lifts him up as the example of faith.  He knows that he only has to ask, because he knows who this is and the power he has.

We are in need of being healed of our affliction.

We are a people who have traded in the grace of God for a lie.

We believe that we are the dispensers of God’s grace, rather than recipients of it.

We believe that in our pursuit of money, if we are truly successful we can become immune to the need for God’s grace.

We are wrong on both accounts.

I love the irony that is found in the debate about immigrants and refugees.  Ironic because most of us have the blood of immigrants running through our veins.  Natives remind us that we belong to the land, not the other way around.  And yet many of us feel privileged, immune, resistors of the reality that all comes from God and our dependence has always been on the Other.

We have always fallen into sin, especially those of us who come with this warped European work ethic driving us, thinking somehow that “those without” simply haven’t worked hard enough, when the reality is that generations ago when our forefathers came with nothing in their pockets, the reality is that they were also recipients of a lot of grace, opportunity, and second chances – mainly through the laws protections or the lack of laws about immigration.  Yes many experienced discrimination, but they were also afforded amazing opportunity to establish themselves.  And now somehow we have forgotten that our history is one that includes the Statue of Liberty and all that goes with her.

I pray that we can come to terms with the reality that we are not dispensers of grace, but recipients of it, and therefor have become instruments of God called to dispense more of God’s grace.  I pray that grace once again becomes the order of the day.

Are you familiar with Kelly Latimore?  Kelly Latimore Icons.  His work has gone viral on Facebook a lot lately.  He very powerfully in images has portrayed the refugee, particularly his images of the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt.  Check them out:  kellylatimoreicons.com  They are powerful reminders that we have hitched our wagon to a Savior who himself was “without” and needed the community of grace and protection.

We hitch our wagon to a refugee who reminded us we too are refugees.

We are a prideful people, we Americans.  We are industrious and independent.  “Help?  No thanks, I can do it myself.”

May we have the courage and faith to look past that to the reality that we are utterly dependent on God and one another.

-Matt

Community and Togetherness

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Zech. 10:1-12Gal. 6:1-10Luke 18:15-30

Last night was a great night, reconnecting with the Search Committee that brought me to NW Ohio as General Presbyter.  We had dinner at Carol’s house.  I am so thankful for them, and the work they put in.  Anyone who has been on a search committee knows this.  Countless hours.  Hopes.  Dreams.  The meal was extravagant (as it always is when Presbyterians gather).  But mainly it was a time to say “thank you” as we broke bread.

It was a time of thanksgiving and celebration, but also a reminder that our stories are far greater than our little lives.  We are connected in ways we sometimes forget – connected through our greater church life, the work of the presbytery and our denomination, and connected to one another in our dependence on one another and the earth in which we live.

The readings this morning transported me to last night, but they also took me all the way back to Taizé, France where there is a monastery that is close to my heart.  It is also a fairly well known monastery these days attracting thousands of young pilgrims every summer in Europe.

I had the privilege of spending a couple weeks of continuing education at Taizé almost 17 years ago.  I got to interview Brother Roger, the founder of the community, and really live in the midst of their community for a while.  I was honored.  Some of the key words you would hear over and over again from Brother Roger were “reconciliation” and “community”.

People these days are hungry for togetherness.  I deal with people on a daily basis who are profoundly lonely.  What we see over and over is that just because someone lives with a roommate or has a large family does not guarantee avoiding loneliness.  Loneliness is everywhere. Taizé is an important place for many troubled souls to reconnect to God and be reminded that their story is a part of the fabric of God’s greater tapestry of grace.

In both our New Testament readings, there are examples of the Christian’s value of community and togetherness in new and profound ways.  Jesus blesses the little children.  Paul speaks of bearing one another’s burdens.

For Paul, being together in community means something much deeper than restoring a transgressor, and righting a few wrongs, but of a mutual responsibility and forbearance.  Being part of the family of faith means sowing seeds of community and responsibility into the fabric of our lives – so that we reap from the Spirit.

Today is a great day.  This week has the potential to be a great week.  For wrapped up in this season is the ability to make it a season of togetherness.  And this year is an opportunity to do it in a new and special way – to mend fences and experience the joy of giving thanks.  This is not mere lip service, but a call to the renewal that Paul speaks about and the blessing that Jesus speaks of.

We are called to bless one another.  In doing so we value each other in our mutual brokenness.  It is not “I will love you if you fix all your flaws, but I love you despite all your flaws.”  This is the blessing we give to children, and the blessing we are called to give to others as well.  In that blessing carries great power, but also great responsibility, for the two way street of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood means that blessing will come back 10 fold.

-Matt

A Thanksgiving Proclamation by Lincoln

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Psalm 145Joel 2:21-271 Thessalonians 5:12-24

Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday.

This may seem ironic, because it is a holiday of purely secular origins, and I have a schedule that is decidedly filled with sacred holidays being a minister and all.

And yet I cling to Thanksgiving.  It is one of those rare holidays that the church hijacks from the world.  The tables have turned!  Usually it is the sacred holidays that get hijacked by the world.  Talk to the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus if you wanna take issue with that last statement.

But why not put a sacred spin on Thanksgiving Day?  After all, the harvest comes in and we give thanks to the God that created the world.  It is the time of year that makes the most sense for any God-fearing person to give thanks.

This is what President Lincoln knew and articulated when Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed for the first time, and like all the presidents that have followed him.  And so today we pause and give thanks to God, the source of our being and abundance.

Lincoln’s words were spoken at a time of deep division in our country.  It is almost haunting how much they ring true in our time.

Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State