Risking For What Is Right

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Judges 4:4-23; Acts 1:15-26; Matt. 27:55-66

There is a common thread in all three of our readings today: God can work great things through ordinary people.

In Judges, one of my favorite stories in the Old Testament, is the story of Jael.  She is one sassy, sneaky person!  Jael, the wife of Heber, ends up killing Sisera, the commander of the bad guys.  She does this by luring him into her tent (well actually he TELLS her she will host him).  But in the process of hosting him, drives a tent peg through him, and kills him.  She then goes out of her tent and finds the good army leaders and says, “Hey I got the guy.”  What an understatement!  She got the general of the army!

It is a story of courage and bravery and standing in the face of sexism, power, and authority that is not of God.  She leads to a military victory for the Israelites, and arguably for God.  I believe her greatness goes beyond a military victory, though.  Jael’s greatness is not in her violence act, but in the way she stands up for her people, putting her own life at risk.

In the New Testament we have the account of Jesus after his death on the cross.  Joseph of Arimathea comes to request the body of Jesus.  Being rich, he is able to provide a proper burial.  Again, another relatively unknown person in Scripture, obviously a committed follower of Jesus, who steps up when it is time to stick his own neck out and risk.

This is the call to all of us.  To risk.  To stick our necks out, even if it might be cut off for the sake of the good news.  Joseph, Jael – they put themselves second, to serve God.  This call to action is in fact the mission of the Church.

I love the phrase in our Book of Order, one of the two parts of our Constitution in the Presbyterian Church that says, “The Church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ.” (G-3.0400)

How wonderful it is to be in a denomination that focuses that intensely on mission, looking beyond ourselves, even to the point of our dying.

In the midst of the disagreements we had over gay marriage I few years ago, I often heard the argument “it is upsetting” for some churches to talk about this.  That is the weakest argument ever!  We were never promised that the Christian life would be all hunky dory.  If we had always avoided tough conversations we would still have slavery, so you can shelve that argument right now.

We are called to listen to God’s voice and act appropriately on his calling.  And while we work to build up the peace and unity of the church, we cannot shy away from things of disagreement, if it is what we believe Scripture is leading us to believe.  Conflict is never resolved by hiding in a hole.  It only gets worse.  My work on the Committee on Ministry has taught me that.  Conflict that stews is conflict that erupts much worse than it started.

Peter and Paul had their disagreements, and they modeled for us how to work them out – to face them head on with courage.

This is the conundrum.  In risk – in possibly losing our lives – in daring to follow God in new ways, we may also find victory and hope.  Jael found a new hope in her risk.  And so can we.

-Matt

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Radical Acts

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Judges 3:12-30; Acts 1:1-14; Matt. 27:45-54

There are a lot of pages that need to turn – things that need to change, in our society, in our churches, in all our current contexts.  It is pretty evident that God is doing some new things, and we need to look out.

Today begins our journey with the Book of Acts for a while.  It is one of my favorite New Testament books, not only because of the subject matter, but the craftiness and artistry of the writer Luke, arguably one of the most gifted writers of the New Testament.

This book is a continuation of Luke’s gospel, and it is where Luke’s themes are fully developed.  Among them – the fulfillment of God’s promises in the ministry of Jesus and the life of the church.  We see it in today’s reading.  Luke wastes no time letting us know the absolute reliability of God’s word.

Remember how the gospel of Luke began?  The annunciation to Mary by the Holy Spirit is mirrored with the mission of the church: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem….”

Remember how the gospel of Luke ends?  While Luke began with a couple humble women following the Holy Spirit, now the room with the disciples is also filled with “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus.”  Women are a testament to the Spirit of God breaking forth, because they take a more prominent role than ever seen in Israel’s history.

Luke also looks beyond.  In Acts, the Spirit of God is on the loose, spreading.  There are phrases like “to the ends of the earth” and the inclusion of women all over!

It is unfortunate that women leadership was a challenge to Graeco-Roman culture, and within a couple centuries it was nearly snuffed out, with women taking more of a backseat with regard to the proclamation of scripture.  It is evident in the Bible this was not the case.  They were helping make the decisions, and running churches.

I love Acts!  Here the work of the Holy Spirit takes center stage. “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.”  It is a book that, in a sense, does not end.  We are among the Acts of the Apostles, the echoes of their greatness, and the continuation of their work.  Every time I read this marvelous book I want to jump up and say, “Was that an echo of something that Jesus did, or a precursor to what I just did?

This opening text today may not seem all that dramatic, with Jesus ascending, and Matthias chosen to replace Judas.  It bridges the past and present; it turns the page; it announces it is time for a change; and it invites me to see myself in the continuum of saints, as part of the change.

-Matt

Crucified

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Judges 2:1-5,11-23; Rom. 16:17-27; Matt. 27:32-44

Darkness pervades today.

The Gospel reading for today recounts the crucifixion of Jesus.  They offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it.  The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way as the crowd.  All hope is lost.  The disciples have fled.  The darkness of this hour is almost complete.

For me the most powerful aspect of the crucifixion story is Jesus’ response to all this.  He is a man of relatively few words.  He does not respond with bitterness and anger, like the bandits next to him.  He is not lashing out at the world, like so many of the political figures that clutter the stage these days in our politics.  Jesus does not lash out although he had every right to.  Instead, he takes the attitude of “Thy will be done.”  He knows God will be victorious in this fight.  This may not be comforting as we look up and see our Savior crucified to a tree, but it is comforting to know that God’s love stretches well beyond the cross.

Much of the Bible is learning that God is in charge.  And as I look at the craziness of our world today, I must rest in the same thing.  Perhaps that is the silver lining in these dark texts – the painful parts of scripture – that God transcends it all.

-Matt

Women in Ministry

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Joshua 24:16-33; Rom. 16:1-16; Matt. 27:24-31

Occasionally it crops up – in a class or at a presbytery meeting – and we have to endure the age-old debate of women in ministry.  And I will be completely honest – I am SO OVER that debate.  I am getting to that point on marriage equality as well.  But certainly I cannot even muster the energy to speak about women’s ordination anymore.  I mentally check out.

Today, in Romans, is Paul attesting to the ancient roots of women in leadership for Christianity.

Paul is nearing the end of his letter, and greets his personal friends and former associates.  At the top of the list is the minister of the church and two of the key movers and shakers, all three of which are women.  First there is Phoebe, the minister of the church at Cenchreae.  He goes on to say “help her in whatever she may require of you.”  So much for “women are not to be in leadership over men” (as the list goes on it is apparent there are many men in the church as well).

Then there are Priscilla and Aquila, who “risked their necks for my life”.  We are not sure what this means, but appearing elsewhere in scripture it is obvious this Godly marriage for ministry is instrumental in the daily operations of the church – both of them equally.

I find it odd that Paul sets the tone for women in leadership, as did Jesus, and that somehow so many churches lose this Word.  The Roman Catholic church remains firm in that women are not to be priests.  A few of their bishops have ordained women, against the pope’s directives, only to have their own ordination questioned.  One of my friends, a long time Southern Baptist minister and also a woman, no longer has her ordination recognized by the Southern Baptist Convention.  Few remember these days, when Baptists used to ordain women, but they did – long before the Lutheran and Presbyterians ordained women.  The topic really bores me to tears when these issues are brought up in my own PCUSA denomination.

Four people have greatly influenced my call to ministry.  The Holy Spirit has spoken strongly through them.  Two of the four of those people are women ministers.  So it is hard for me to believe that scripture is wrong when it elevates women or when Paul speaks of women in leadership roles over men.  It is hard to discount Paul when he says “In Christ there is neither male nor female” and speaks of the variety of spiritual gifts and the need to use them.

It is true that in another of Paul’s letters, for that specific place it was best for women not to be in leadership over men.  But it seems odd to me to ignore the passages where they are, jumping to conclusions that women should never be in leadership, when in scripture they clearly are.

People who argue that women should never be in leadership are often the same folks who want us to “focus on God’s Word” more.  But then they conveniently ignore scripture when it doesn’t fit what they believe.  This cherry-picking from the scripture drives me nuts.  I am interested in what the scriptures principally teach.  Don’t become guilty of dismissing all those places in scripture that talk about the Holy Spirit, and how Peter had a revelation on the roof about a new code of being in compliance with Scripture.  Remember a similar cherry-picking tactic was used to justify slavery.

 

What does Paul offer as medicine to these churches stuck on spin cycle?  Paul’s passage for us today in Romans is a wonderful example of the church in harmony.  At the end he states, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  We all know he had disagreements with many of these people.  But at the end of the day, they are all family – reconciled to each other, committed to Christ’s mission in the world, and committed to recognizing each others’ spiritual gifts.

I am thankful that the sun is breaking through the clouds, and that people are re-engaging with God’s Word, because then there is hope – and we all know the church of today is hungry and needing a renaissance.  We need to grow up and move on into God’s new future, where all are valued in leadership once again.

-Matt

Welcome One Another

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Joshua 9:3-21; Rom. 15:1-13; Matt. 26:69-75

The work of the Gospel is laid out today in our Romans passage: Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

This is not the work of pastors, but of all of us.  This is not the work of the Welcome Team at church, or the Greeters, or just for the Ushers.  This is the work of EVERYONE!

And do we welcome just at church?  No.  We do this in our daily lives – at school, at work, at the store.  Everywhere and always.  We live lives with open arms, welcoming others into a life of grace and love.

Paul also encourages us to “to live in harmony with one another.”  This takes all of us!

It was just a couple days ago that many of our youth left Oklahoma and traveled to Triennium, the every-third-year national gathering of Presbyterian youth held at Purdue University in Indiana.  It is spiritual renewal, worship, and togetherness wrapped in a big package.  It is a retreat to end all retreats.

This year’s theme is “GO!” It’s time to GO and SEE!  Opening worship was led by one of my favorite Presbyterians, Rev. Rodger Nishioka, who spoke of good news and encouraged our youth to claim their place in God’s kingdom.  To paraphrase him: The “you’re not enough” messages are lies. God chose a bunch of stinky, outcast SHEPHERDS to carry the good news of salvation.  How dare you say you’re not enough!  The shepherds go and seek.  I hope you are ready, friends let’s go and see. (Rodger Nishioka  )

How true this is!  In all our lives as Christians, we need to step up and share our gifts, our ideas, our leadership skills.  Often I see the children leading with joy.  I see our youth bubbling up with new ideas, but sometimes dashing their own hopes with feelings of “you’re not good enough,” or simply too stretched for time – drawn to too many places.

We need to prioritize what’s really important!  Paul knew that welcome was really important.  This is something so many of us can do – irrespective of age.  A simple “Glad you are here!” can go a long way at transforming a youth group, or a Wednesday night potluck dinner.

We may have differences in the church.  We may have different ideas about how things should go and what we should do for our next mission project, or whatever – but we can all agree that we carry the same good news – from the same source – Jesus Christ.  We are called to live in harmony and welcome, just as Christ himself welcomed people of all sorts.

That also means recognizing our cultural context and current struggles.  We do a disservice to the good news if we ignore oppression or injustice and try to sweep away today’s context where racism, sexism, and ageism pay huge parts.  And so living into this Romans passage means recognizing those who may not be experiencing the full welcome of God in our churches today.

Christ reached out to children, women, those with leprosy, Samaritans, even Gentiles! Lordy!  So this is why you see many Christians engaged in the “Black Lives Matter” movement, because it is our job to stand up to injustice wherever it is found, and get involved in movements that seek empowerment for those for whom justice is elusive.  It is as blogger Stephen Mattson said recently, “Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Women’s lives matter.””  Identifying victimization and responding is a huge part of our life together.  We don’t stand over an accident scene and shout “All lives matter!”  We reach down and respond to those in distress.

All these things are an essential link to truly living a life of welcome.

So let’s live with ARMS WIDE OPEN, welcoming others and striving for joy, peace, and hope.  Harmony will come.  Some of that we can leave to God to sort out.  But in the meantime, our job is to be the best instruments of invitation and inclusion we can be.  To truly WELCOME all.

-Matt

Joshua

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Joshua 8:30-35; Rom. 14:13-23; Matt. 26:57-68

Joshua is a fascinating character in the Bible.  There are so many opportunities for us to see our lives through biblical characters and Joshua is one of them.

Joshua has a different set of challenges than did Moses.  Having led the people to the Promised Land, and having now captured Ai, they have to build a new life.  Joshua demonstrates an essential component of their new life: worship.  He builds an altar to the Lord “just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the Israelites.”  Not only is this a fulfillment of the law of Moses, but a direction the people have been going long before the law was given: Worship and Sacrifice.  It is a renewal of covenant that began at Abraham, and again at Passover.

Where do you need renewal in your life?

Even more basic and essential is the fact that Joshua leads by example.  He helps build this “altar of unhewn stones, which no iron tool has been used”.  Then in the presence of the people, he writes on the stone a copy of the law of Moses.  Granted it may have been key inscriptions, but it sets the standard.  It is as if he is communicating: “This will be the centerpiece of our life together, he is declaring.  This is the place worship has.  This is the place teaching has over us, and just as God taught me, I now teach you.”

In congregational development circles (which I hang in cause I am a nerd) and in leadership training circle, there is not surprisingly an abundance of looking to Joshua as a good example.  Joshua holds up God’s law.  What a great example he sets!  He wants to get on board with God’s agenda, something we often forget in our churches.  We follow a pastor or a matriarch or a charismatic elder simply because we like what they are saying, rather than looking to God who is our true leader.

Have you ever tried to change a system, when the leader at the top isn’t on board?  Good luck.  Have you ever sought transformation of purpose without first modeling that new direction yourself?  Good luck.  Joshua is a potentially effective leader because of his actions.  He gets people on the same page with God.

One of my huge pet peeves is the way many churches and dioceses/presbyteries use or misuse interim times.  At First Pres. in OKC I think we have used our interim time well.  But not so in other places I have seen.  Often the mistake is made: that now without a leader (sometimes without a leader of any kind), it’s somehow magically a good time to institute radical change.  Great job folks, who is going to carry this to fruition!?!

There are changes that best come about with permanent leaders in place.  Other changes can happen with other leaders in place.  But change in the midst of chaos and disaster – oh that sounds fun!  I grow tired of watching people who know nothing of organizational development try to institute change at all the wrong times, and I find myself wishing they would leave such things to the experts.  Joshua shows this wisdom.  He knows his place.  He takes the mantle of leadership with humility, yet purpose.  He sets the tone for excellence – not as someone from the outside coming in, but a claiming of his own authority and leadership, and moving into a bold new future together with the people.  How powerful!  By teaching and modeling he is setting the pace for excellence.

I am fascinated by Joshua.  I doubt he had it easy.  Living into the footsteps of Moses is not a challenge I would be up for.  But he does it with pose and with purpose.  He leads knowing that honoring God is the most important, and that God is the true leader of this bunch of lost sheep, and he focuses on what God would have the people do.  That’s a leader!

What does God desire from us as his people today?   How are we called to lead?  To follow?

-Matt

Perishing By the Sword

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Joshua 8:1-22; Rom. 14:1-12; Matt. 26:47-56

In many ways today’s readings are a continuation of yesterday’s.  Joshua and the gang continue their quest in Ai, ambushing and achieving victory there.  Paul, in Romans, expands on the urgent appeal to love one another as a fulfilling of the law.  This is achieved with a concrete example of judging and how many in Rome had selected dietary matters and other regulations as grounds for their superiority.  Paul takes this head on.  In Matthew, after the Gethsemane prayer, Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested.

It is the Matthew passage that speaks most deeply to my soul today.  Details abound.  First is the kiss.  How ironic that the one who turns on Jesus chooses to violate the deepest trust and friendship with an intimate act such as a kiss.  It really drives home the point, especially on the heels of the sleeping disciples directly before this story, that Jesus is not utterly alone.  Even those who love him have violated that trust. In many ways this kiss is the most violent act in the New Testament.

Another detail, even more fascinating, is the incident with the sword, the slave of the high priest, and his ear being cut off.  One of Jesus’ disciples draws his sword and the violence and bloody battle seems to have begun.  Does Jesus call up arms?  Is he ready to fight this Jihad?  No.  Not in this way.  “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

Jesus then aids in painting the stark contrast between a violent political Messiah and the one he is going to be.  He asks, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?  But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled?”  Twelve legions is a staggering number.  Will there be 72,000 angels plus cavalry come to his aid?  No.  Because something greater is at work here.  Despite him appearing alone, he is still in control.

The Matthian account leaves the situation broken and in disarray.  There is no telling of the ear being put back on.  And then Jesus is left utterly alone.  After the verbal tirade from Jesus, “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.”

How often have we felt God has abandoned us?  How often has violence torn us apart as a society, only to be seduced into seeing more violence as the answer?  When can we wake up to the ways that God demands of us?  When have we betrayed Jesus?  And have we come to understand that despite that betrayal, Jesus still calls us his own?  Can we even see the love before us?

-Matt