How to Party (i.e. Give Thanks)

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Lev. 23:1-22; 2 Thess. 2:1-17; Matt. 7:1-12

The Passover is laid out in detail in Leviticus today.  So is the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  The Sabbath is expanded upon, and the Passover as a central focus for Sabbath observance is discussed. These days shape the identity of the people of Israel.  Just like our celebration of the Eucharist is a GREAT thanksgiving, so too the Passover is exalted and explained as a great thanksgiving.

Many think the Old Testament is just filled only with wars and conflicts.  These folks have not read the Old Testament!  Don’t believe them.  Genesis and Exodus, especially, are filled with juicy stories about God’s movement among the people.  Even Leviticus, with its many obscure and oddball rules, is still a joy to read.  Amidst the strange dietary laws is a Wilderness Survival Guide that includes how to maintain identity.

Today we get to one of my favorites: a detailed explanation of the grandest party of them all.  How fun that God lays out how to party!  Do we do it by drinking and getting raucous?  No, we do it by giving thanks to God.

Many churches celebrate Seder meals these days.  When they do it, my hope is always that a Rabbi come in to celebrate the meal, to get an authentic picture of a contemporary Seder meal feels like, and not to artificially insert Jesus in the conversation.  (There is a reason we don’t celebrate the Seder, but we celebrate the Eucharist!).  Maybe you saw the recent article in the Oklahoman after our Seder and read about Rabbi Abby and my thoughts on the matter. If not check it out: http://newsok.com/article/5487420

One of my favorite parts of the Seder meal is how the children are showcased.  The youngest asks “the Four Questions.”  The Afikomen (the large part of the broken matza) is hidden for the children, and a scavenger hunt ensues, held as a ransom to complete the meal.  The children often open the door for Elijah too.  Then they become central in the games, music, and dances.  It is a party to end all parties, with all generations at work.  The purpose of these feast days: 1) To give God thanks, and 2) To pass on the imprint of this event in the memory of the people.

My prayer is that the same is true for our children in the midst of the Eucharist.  How tragic that in some churches the children are not even present for the Lord’s Supper, ushered off for “childrens church” (what does that even mean?).  This becomes a time of imprint, and that they will always remember God’s activity in the lives of the community – from the Garden to the Cross, from Noah’s flood to their baptism.

As you read all the rules and regulations of Leviticus today, trust that God will use them to mark a divine impression of his grace in your spirit.  Use them to learn a bit about how to give thanks, just as the Lord’s Supper is a time to learn how to give thanks.

Matthew declares, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”  Every day I encounter the spiritual hunger of people.  I encounter people at the church and out on the town who are genuinely seeking God in their lives.  They want to come to know, and find meaning to their existence.  They are on the road to Emmaus, looking out for the divine presence in their lives, waiting for their eyes to be opened wide.

Of course my job is to help them articulate that hunger, so they can see the road ahead.  But often I find that it is at the table they need to be.  They are looking to be fed spiritually, but what it comes down to is table fellowship.  And I don’t just mean the Eucharist, although that is a representation of the true hunger.  What they need is to give thanks and gather around a table with people who are also seeking and hungry, and they need to bear their soul and find common ground with another.

Is that true for you too?

-Matt

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How to Read Scripture

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Lev. 19:26-37; 2 Thess. 1:1-12; Matt. 6:25-34

Today we learn in the Old Testament that I am in violation of the Levitical code.  “You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it.  You shall not practice augury or witchcraft.” (OK. I pass the test on this one).  “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.  You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you.”

Oh uh!  I eat my steak rare.  I just had my sideburns trimmed at the barber a few days ago.  What beard!?  And I have a tattoo.

Those who take the Bible literally have difficulty with discrepancies such as the ones today.  How do we follow all the Bible, not pick and choose?  I chuckle when people pair this understanding of the Bible with getting back to the Bible’s “family values.” How many wives did Solomon have again?

I wonder what values they are talking about.  Here in Leviticus, which is ultimately all a wilderness survival guide – the demands are pretty stringent.  And those who say that Jesus came to free us from the dietary laws and the ritual sacrifices of the Levitical code, I point out passages like today, or the one where we have to stone our children if they speak out of turn.  That doesn’t sound like a dietary requirement to me!!! And yet we don’t follow it.  Why?

The Matthew passage sheds some light on this.  “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”

Jesus came and felt strongly that it was the inner core of being that was of primary importance.  The gates were also open to the Gentiles, who did not claim to be a part of the heritage of the Old Testament, and therefore of its laws either.  The early church had to struggle with this.  So, who is bound by requirements of the Old Testament?  How much authority does it have?

It has all the authority that any other passage has!  One just has to KEEP READING.  What is the story?  Where is the story going?  How does each passage relate to one another?  In other words: CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT – that is one important ingredient in how we read scripture.

More importantly, look more broadly.  Take a step back from each individual scripture and ask, “Where are we going with this?”  In other words, what do the scriptures principally teach?  Sometimes looking at something under a microscope reveals things, other times you need a telescope.

In many ways, Jesus supercedes the law here.  But he does not cancel it out.  I have many friends who have no need for the Old Testament.  And this breaks my heart.  It is so rich in stories of God’s grace, and it provides the footing and understanding of everything in the New Testament.

For instance, it is not enough boil down today’s passage to become “Don’t be anxious.”  That is to completely miss the point because of the verse that follows it:“For the Gentiles seek all these things: and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.”  In fact, this passage was a commentary on the Levitical code of dress and dietary requirements.  Jesus is saying, “Don’t worry so much about whether you are staying Kosher and don’t spend your whole day worrying about things that don’t matter.  Seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and everything else will fall in place.”

Priorities.  The Bible is teaching us about priorities.  Examining priorities in our lives, which are so filled with “busy”ness and pressure, would not only do our blood pressure good, but probably our families, and our society as a whole.

So often reading scripture is an art.  It means knowing IT ALL.  No cherry-picking allowed, for I can get the Bible to say just about anything.  (Even things that contradict!).

Here’s another tip: Read several translations.  Often the original Hebrew or Greek is complicated and even figuring out what the Bible actually says is difficult.  The best way for folks who don’t know Greek is to use multiple translations and note differences.

Also, enjoy! This is meant to enrich your life and help you find joy and peace.  If you aren’t getting that maybe you aren’t in the mindset for scripture just yet.  Talk to your pastor, get right with God, and then go back to the texts.

-Matt

Hijacking Ourselves

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Lev. 19:1-18; 1 Thess. 5:12-28; Matt. 6:19-24

In Matthew’s Gospel we hear that one cannot serve both God and money.  In Thessalonians, final appeals are made to test everything and hold on to what is good, and right, and peaceful, standing against that which does not build of what the leaders of the church have set.  In Leviticus, many of the details of the Ten Commandments are fleshed out, speaking about Sabbath keeping, sacrifices, harvesting rules, not defrauding your neighbor, rendering unjust judgments, etc.

In each of these passages, God’s word seems to move outward, from self to other – a love of neighbor.  One is not to store up treasures on earth, but to store up treasures in heaven.  It becomes clear that faith that is not backed up with works means there was no faith to begin with.  This is more than just intentional goodwill or tithing for the sake of the poor.  One’s whole being must be wrapped up in “outward giving” of the heart.

I have a number of minister friends who are Democrats.  I actually am about to go meet with a few of them at our Wednesday morning coffee group.  Many of them are frustrated with the direction of this Presidential cycle – heck, many of us are frustrated by all of our government officials.  I understand why.  Money has hijacked the best interest of many of us.  When self-interest groups who have money stick their nose into things it gets even more dicey.  Selfishness is almost inherent in the system.  Of course people are going to watch out for themselves!  Who else will?

What to do?  How do we reclaim what I call the “outward giving of the heart” that Paul, Matthew, and the Torah speak of?  I wish I had the answers.  What I do know is that the community of the faithful is called to outward living, which is a daily struggle for churches.  It is only natural to want to hold on to what is ours.

I picture a farmer with a bucket of seed.  In order to plant his field, he keeps the seed and plants each seed in the ground.  It doesn’t make sense to run around wildly throwing seed on your neighbor’s land, or to simply give the bucket away to someone else.  But that is exactly what we are called to do as an outward-living community.

I recently said in a Bible Study that I envision heaven and hell to be identical places – where there is a great feast and everyone has 4 foot utensils attached to their arms.  In heaven everyone feeds one another.  In hell everyone starves.

God and money.  What to do?

-Matt

Learning to Pray

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Lev. 16:20-34; 1 Thess. 5:1-11; Matt. 6:7-15

Jesus, in a response to some people who evidently pray with a lot of words, Jesus encourages them, “Do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do…pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And do not bring us to the time of trial,

but rescue us from the evil one.”

It sounds dangerously close to a recommendation for contemplative prayer!  It is easy to forget the context – that of using fewer words.  There are also Old Testament critiques of long-winded prayer, and Jesus goes on record against them too.

I’m sure you have heard prayers from people who are not quite confident to pray – the dull repetition of “And Lord, we just….we just….”  It is enough to drive me batty.  So uncomfortable with silence the speaker fills time with a distracting and almost stuttering mantra to God.  Often the Thunder pre-game “invocations” are this way – rambly prayers that wander from thanks to intercession back to thanks to just, just, just Lord we thank the troops to just, Lord we know that, you know, you are a great God.”  Come on, this is a Thunder game, not preschool.  Thankfully last night’s Invocation at the Thunder/Mavs playoff game was done by Rabbi Vered Harris and was extraordinary.  To those not so gifted, Jesus gives a gift of a non-rambly prayer to help, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”

The goal isn’t to have a short prayer, but one that is not a show, or distracting.  Also, fewer words from our lips often allow silence and listening to enhance God’s words to us – for prayer is more about listening than it is talking.

Often I encounter folks who are having trouble with prayer.  They almost ashamedly admit they don’t know what to say to God.  I try to remind those timid folk that prayer doesn’t need words to be valid!  (GASP!  What did Matt just say?)  It’s OK to listen for God’s words instead!  That is prayer too.  Or pick up scripture and let God’s words guide you deeper into prayer.  Eventually your own words will take over.  Just relax.

This passage is a good place to start with God guiding us into a deeper prayer life, for what could be more appropriate than Jesus’ own words to the Father.

-Matt

Life and Death

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Lev. 16:1-19; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; Matt. 6:1-6,16-18

Life in the early church I can imagine was confusing.  Chaos abounded.  Stories traveled fast of Christ’s resurrection.  As the news spread to Gentiles and Jews alike many questions began to arise.  Who was in?  Who is out?  Much of Paul’s writings deal with this reality.  There was another question though that hung in the minds of believers: “When was the Lord coming back?”

Many thought the answer to that was, “Very soon.”  But as time passed and the catacombs began to fill up, the harsh reality that the church needed some structure and order also began.  Folks also needed to be reassured in the resurrection.  Our 1 Thessalonians 4 passage provides some of this reassurance.

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do  who have no hope.  For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. “

Paul goes on to declare that the coming of the Lord will not leave out those of us who are still alive, but that the trumpet will sound and all the dead shall be raised first, and then we who are alive will be swept up in the clouds together to meet them.  It is a wonderful picture of togetherness that is painted.  Paul is trying to reassure the chaotic 1st Century Church that all will be well, it will just not be happening the way they had first intended.

Many had thought Christ would come back very shortly, in their minds complete his Messianic role, and crush the Roman empire.  That did not happen.  Others thought he would come back to destroy the temple.  Once some of those 1st generation believers died and did not come back to life, the Christian community looked in hope to the future.

We have said goodbye to way too many music icons recently.  Just a couple days ago Papa Wemba, a legend in the field of Rumba, and this news on the heals of Prince.  I also read this morning of a friend who moved his mother from assisted living into nursing care this weekend.  Aging is one thing.  Watching others age and die is another.  This getting old isn’t for the faint of heart.  In the midst of these tough weeks, let it also also be one of hope, for the saints of the church that go before us remind us that Christ’s message continues, and that we are not called to live in the present only, but to live into the future.

May your day be filled with renewal and hope, as we look to a future day when all of us will get swept up in something so unimaginably glorious, that the whole world comes to a halt.

-Matt

The Age of Visual Media

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A number of you have commented about how you like my new platform, and the visual tie-in each day.  I thought I would pass along a religion article from The Guardian I found inspiring.  Nice to have some feel-good media in the drear of daily life.

How my camera helped me re-focus on my faith

by Jim Grover
It started as a photography project, shadowing an Anglican minister. But it led me to a way of being marked by kindness, generosity and community spirit
To read the article, click:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/apr/21/moment-that-changed-me-faith-anglican-london-photgraphy?CMP=share_btn_tw

The Law of Love

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Exod. 34:1-17; 1 Thess. 2:13-20; Matt. 5:21-26

The hub-bub over the Ten Commandments monument at the Capitol is perplexing.  Why this has become the focus of so many of our politicians is beyond me, especially after the State Supreme Court has said, “No religious symbols on State grounds!”  My question is simple: “Why should we allow the State to manipulate religious symbols at all?”

The Ten Commandments are the topic of our Old and New Testament lessons today, and in the context of Jesus’ words it becomes easy to see why Christians would adopt numerous other statues over a 10 Commandment monument every day of the week and twice on Sundays.

After shattering the Ten Commandments, Moses cuts two tablets of rock and goes back to Mt. Sinai.  God writes on the stone and renews the covenant with the people – basically that they shall be a holy nation, observe the Lord’s commands, and they shall be blessed.

In Matthew, Jesus addresses the Ten Commandments.  Instead of dismissing the Old Testament laws, which many erroneously think he did, he strengthens and tightens them.  For him, “You shall not murder” does not provide judgment on those who murder, but equally on those who get angry with a brother or sister.  Insults are equally as bad as murder itself.  This would be quite a shock to some of our Oklahoma legislators.

Many Christians do not know what to do with the harsh words of Jesus with regards to law, so they dismiss it all together.  Jesus came and recast the law into the Law of Love, but so often I find people who simply cast off anything “Old Testament”.

What we see here challenges that.  It strengthens and broadens the Old Testament requirements.  Perhaps as Christians we should be arguing for all 600 Laws to be cast in stone.  Or how about the Law of Love?  The Summary of the Law?

With regard to the Law of Love, we are not called to simply honor father and mother anymore, but to honor all our family.  And who is that?  “Who is my mother?  Who are my brothers?”  It became apparent in the way Christ lived, that all he encountered were family.  And we are not called simply to “not murder” but to a life of non-violence.  So we must love everyone, especially our enemies.  A tall order, especially in a country so filled of late with vile words of discord, war, prejudice, and hatred.

I have often wondered, if God came to earth to rewrite and rework the Ten Commandments for our generations today (and the argument could be made that God would, because in so many ways we have dismissed them, stopped listening to God, and failed to follow them at all, so perhaps God would want to give em a fresh new angle and something to go viral on the internet), what would they say?  I suspect Commandment #1 would stay the same.  But #2 would say, “For further understanding of #1, SEE JESUS.”  That would tweet.

-Matt