God Never Leaves Us

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Job 12:1,14:1-22; Acts 12:18-25; John 8:47-59

Goodbyes are never easy.  Saying goodbye to that close friend on hospice care dying of cancer, or saying goodbye to a colleague in ministry who is venturing off to seminary, or saying goodbye to an important relationship – goodbyes are often not fun at all!

There is a dramatic goodbye in our scripture reading, although one that probably brings relief to many, not heartache.  In Acts, Herod dies.  He is struck down by an angel of the Lord and “was eaten by worms and died.”  I am not even sure what that means, but it sounds gruesome and awful!

Herod has been the arch-enemy of the Christian faith since the beginning.  He hunted down the infants under two and had innocent boys murdered.  Now the soldiers who let Peter escape suffer the same fate – death.  Herod is uncompromising.  Herod is strong and determined.  Herod is rigid in his policies and rambunctious in upholding them.

But this time the crowd has turned against him.  When the crowd gathers to hear him speak on his royal throne, and having won over Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, the crowd boldly shouts out, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!”

What we see in this story is that despite the overwhelming evil, God’s purposes are not thwarted.  Dramatic Hellos and Goodbyes do not phase God, because God is forever.

How easy it is to believe that God can be overtaken.  In the midst of cancer treatments, divorce, death of loved ones, breakups, sickness, betrayal, or loss, it can be easy to lose focus on God and misunderstand what is going on.  I remember as a child saying goodbye to summer and having school start, and everything being so different.  It was like my whole world had been upturned.  One unfailing constant was church – a sign that the church family is always there, and that God never leaves us.

What we see in Acts is not just the mission of the church playing out, but the mission of God in overseeing the creation.  Peter is delivered.  Paul is delivered.  The people are delivered from spiritual prison to light.  What God is reminding us is that, while the world may rage around us, the world can no longer get to us, because we are born from above.  Despite all the raging powers and the chaos the people experience, ultimately God will intervene and make things right.

In Jesus’ case, the justice brought on Herod took a while.  It was well after Jesus had come into this world and left this world that Herod’s justice came.  But the fact is, it came.  And so whatever strife you are enduring, know that God is there and that justice will reign.  It may take some time, and God knows it may take more time than you feel you can endure, but in the end God’s justice, peace, and righteousness will overcome.

-Matt

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Giving Up

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Job 12:1,13:3-17,21-27; Acts 12:1-17; John 8:33-47

When I think about all the trials and tribulations that the early Christians faced, I am in awe.  How did they go on?  What gave them the strength to never give up?  Very early in our story, even in Acts, we discover there is a dark side to following Christ: sometimes being hunted down or risking one’s own life.  In today’s Acts story: James is killed; Peter is imprisoned; Herod, the Christians’ powerful enemy, seems to have the upper hand.

Guess what comes to their rescue?  An angel!  “Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell.  He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his wrists.  In the midst of this story we realize that God will not leave us.

The angel is a symbol of God’s presence.  This is a theme we see not just in Acts, but a common theme throughout the New Testament.  While persecutions and oppression may come, time after time we get reminders of God’s perpetual presence and faithfulness.

We also must stand firm against the powers and principalities, for God’s reign is coming.

There is also an element of delayed realization for Peter.  It took a while for things to sink in.  “Then Peter came to himself and said, ‘Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.’”

This is the true deliverance.  It is not from the hands of Herod, but from himself.  God saves Peter from Peter.  And isn’t that often the case for us as well?  Sometimes it is easy for us to become our own enemies.  We set our minds up for it, deciding that transformation isn’t possible, that situations are hopeless, only to find later that God had not given up on us.

This is reassuring, knowing that God’s faithfulness is not reliant on mine.  God not only goes before me, but does not give up as easily. Have you experienced this?

Where have you felt God’s reassurance and comfort in the midst of doubt?  How has God delivered you?  Maybe from an addiction?  Struggles with your children?  Your own mental state?  As you look back on your life, how far have you come?  What is left, unrealized?  Where do you see God at work in your current predicament?

-Matt

Telling the Story

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Job 12:1-6,13-25; Acts 11:19-30; John 8:21-32

Acts is one of my favorite books in the Bible.  It is one of surprise, intrigue, almost dare-devil undertakings that result in the amazing growth of God’s kingdom.  Here in today’s reading, the Spirit is bubbling over into Antioch, a place of a great number of Hellenists.  This spillage of God’s Spirit is no accident, but a deliberate and evocative growth for the body of Christ.

This story today makes it clear that God’s word is being heard and understood by those rooted deeply in Greek culture.  It is not just Jews who “get it” anymore.  God’s word has spread.

Today mission work by Christians has transformed to look very different than in years past.  The statistics of missionaries sent and received around the world tells the story.  While the USA sends a lot of missionaries, along with Brazil, France, Spain, Italy, and South Korea, where these missionaries go may surprise you.  It seemingly does not match our Acts story, where God’s word is spreading in new ground and a predominantly non-Christian context.  Overwhelmingly today, Christian missionaries go to predominantly Christian countries, especially around Oceania and the Caribbean.  Those destinations elsewhere, like Africa and North and South America, are also to predominantly Christian countries.

In fact, none of the 10 top countries for receiving missionaries is less than 90% Christian.  Why is that?  Are Americans timid about sharing the story as it is being shared in Acts?  Well part of the answer has to do with some of the largely populated non-Christian countries that deny or restrict missionary activity.

And this is OK.  God finds a way.

The face of mission long ago changed anyway.  This is no longer about Western civilization exporting their way of life, along with a message of “hope” which sometimes sounded dangerously like idolatry or colonialism, with a God who always seemed to be cast in their own image.  Instead, mission today is from the margins, with God most powerfully speaking to us FROM the global south TO the global north.  It is also much more about partnerships, relationships, and gathering resources.  It sounds healthier to me.

A good example is our team that recently went to Uganda.  When this mission started many years ago, the feedback I was getting from many of you was that it was sounding a lot like the colonialist-model 19th Century form of proselytism of old.  That perception certainly has changed, as people awakened to the reality that Uganda is an overwhelming Christian nation (upwards of 90% compared to 65% in the USA).

What we came to realize is that Ugandans knew a lot about how to be Christian, and it was our time to learn how to tell the story, how to receive and give hospitality, how to “do church” and how to be in partnership with another national Presbyterian Church.  As it turned out, ironically, it was the Ugandan church that was providing life-sustaining hope in the gospel to us.

It is not all one-sided though.  We Americans have gifts to share too.  Much of that I see as Uganda struggles with human rights, gender equality, political corruption, and LGBT rights.  We provide hope to the Ugandan Christians who seek to stand up to that kind of injustice, just as they provide us hope as we try to turn the tide of our broken religious system and the deterioration of Christianity in the US.  This is the true meaning of partnership, where each provides new life, and a life-sustaining hope in Christ and the gospel.

So the face of mission has changed.  From one predominant Christian nation to another, we seek solidarity and increasing hope.  We all seek new life.

We must trust that God can take care of those areas where we fall short and that our message of new life will continue to spread, and that the story of Acts continues to morph and change as we respond to a changing landscape of God’s kingdom.

-Matt

To get involved with Mission at FPCOKC, go to www.fpcokc.org/serve–volunteer

(Statistics come from the Center for Study of Global Christianity, 2013. http://wwwgordonconwell.com/netcommunity/CSGCResources/ChristianityinitsGlobalContext.pdf)

Beyond Comprehension

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Job 8:1-10, 20-22; Acts 10:17-33; John 7:14-36

By the time we get done with this bizarre election cycle, I get the sense I will know everything there is to know about Trump and Clinton.  I will have read all her emails, and I will have seen him take every possible stand on every issue that is possible defending each view point.

Sometimes I wonder if I know too much.  The 24 hour news cycle, with cameras following them and every Olympic athlete is almost too much.

Not so with Jesus.  No cameras or paparazzi following him.  In fact part of the story of the Gospel of John is now Jesus remains hidden – enshrouded in mystery.  Part of the awesomeness of God – and specifically Jesus – is that we don’t get it.

What I like about John’s words is the mystery and conundrum itself.  Not only are his words about Jesus difficult, but Jesus himself is elusive and confusing.  That’s part of the story!!!  People didn’t get him!  At times we see how hard that was for Jesus himself.

To me it is comforting to know that this is all above and beyond comprehension.  God is awesome and his love is unfathomable.  We get glimpses occasionally…if we are lucky.

I suppose I will spend lifetime trying to get to know God.

And that’s OK.

-Matt

Let the Feast Begin!

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Job 6:1,7:1-21; Acts 10:1-16; John 7:1-13

It was a cool, crisp evening in Jerusalem.  My friends and I decided after a long week of classes, to treat ourselves to a fancy dinner.  We walked to one of my favorite parts of town, right outside the Old City, and with a spectacular view of the Temple Mount lit in the background, we enjoyed a glorious meal, as so many of the meals in Israel are.  With the fresh produce and the trade routes that go through Israel, it is easy to find fresh, varied, top-quality in just about everything – from meats to cheeses to fresh produce.

I am hazy on a lot of the details of the meal, but I remember the stuffed Cornish hen and all the fresh vegetables.  After supper, with our palettes craving more, we longed for dessert.  I boldly ordered, also asking for coffee.

When dessert and coffee arrived, I asked the waiter, “Excuse me, sir, may I have some cream.”  The waiter glared at me, and in a move that would rarely happen in America, he barked back loudly, “Heavens NO!  No cream for you!!”  And he stomped off.

I was shocked!  Waiters don’t talk to customers like that in America, my internal script thought.  I turned to one of my Jewish friends and said, “What was that all about?”

“He is not going to let you break Kosher,” my friend quietly explained.  “You ate meat for dinner.  You won’t be getting cream now, you moron!  Why don’t you ask for some non-dairy creamer.  Would that be alright?”  This was also a reminder to me that staying Kosher was a lot more involved than avoiding pork and shellfish.

I didn’t really think about or understand the intricacies of his argument, I was still focused on the fact I had been yelled at by the waiter.  And I was thinking that staying Kosher was much more about Jews than about me as a Christian!  What did it matter?  That part I did not understand – the fact that no good Jew in Israel was going to aid in someone else breaking God’s law.

It is in that context that I encounter today’s passage in Acts, with Peter and Cornelius.  Peter is on the roof having this strange dream.  He is also hungry.  Heaven opens and a sheet is lowered on four corners.  In the sheet are all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air.  “Get up, Peter; kill and eat,” says the Lord, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

So begins a new chapter for Christianity.  This passage is seen as the quintessential passage releasing us from the Kosher dietary restrictions.

This also marks a significant change for Peter.  He was the one who had been adamant about Christians first becoming Jews, and following all of the Old Testament Law.  Peter’s focus was on rules and restrictions – God had other plans.  Instead God declared that the Law had been fulfilled in Christ, and that we were to follow the Law of Love.  This, of course, means that the Old Testament remains intact, but it means a recasting of the vision of the Law back to its original purpose.

The Law is not meant for God, but for us – to help us live into loving God more and loving one another.

And this is when the true feast begins, doesn’t it?  When our table is more than just a table full of food, but a table full of love, then its power is truly understood.  When God’s Law becomes an instrument to call people together in love and fellowship, then we have begun to discover the true meaning of the law.

May the true feast begin for each one of us – a life where the table is open to love yourself and others and God in new ways!  Bon Appetit!

-Matt

Putting Grumbling to Good Use

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Job 6:1-4,8-15,21; Acts 9:32-43; John 6:60-71

Complaining is a pretty normal fact of life – feels pretty good when it is me getting something off my chest, but grating to deal with others who complain.

Complaining seems to abound in our passages for today, Old and New Testaments alike.  First, in Job, after a very stirring argument from Job’s friend Eliphaz that Job has sinned, Job rebuts his friend declaring that his complaining to God is just.  Those of you that know Job, you know that Job is right!  He hasn’t sinned.  This is the conundrum of his dilemma.  Job is suffering for no reason, and as part of the Wisdom literature, we are faced with this complexity of understanding the human condition, which is a mystery.

What we encounter in Job is a God who listens to Job’s request – who seriously engages with Job and walks with him in the midst of suffering.  In many ways, Jesus does similar things in the gospel of John, walking with the disciples along their journey to greater understanding.

But Jesus does something a bit different – he confronts their complaining.  The disciples, after hearing Jesus speak about flesh to eat and blood to drink, they complain to Jesus: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”  And what do you think Jesus did?  Did he change his message?  Did he dumb it down so people could understand?

No.  He stays on point.  Jesus stands up to the confrontation and the complaining and does not give in.  “Does this offend you?” he asks, “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?  It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.  The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

What we realize is that Jesus will not compromise the truth for what is convenient or causes the smallest stir.

This is a key lesson for us to learn as Americans.  So often we fall into the trap of people-pleasing.  We do it in our jobs; we do it in our relationships; we do it in our neighborhoods.  We think that the problem will go away if we upset the least amount of people.  The problem is that often this is succumbing to the bully.  Just like the bully was able to control the weaker kid in 1st grade, now the mob has become the bully, even at the risk of the truth.  What we often realize is that by ignoring the problem, it got worse in our trying to placate it.

We are not called to be meek and mild, compliant to the point of losing our values.  Jesus didn’t.  He compromised not even an inch.  Of course he died for it.  And we must be ready for the same – for people to not like us, perhaps even dismiss us, or hate us.  But when it comes to standing up for God’s truth, there is no compromise.

And here is what I know of God’s truth – God wants us to stand up for the poor, the weak, the helpless, the widows and orphans, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the uninsured.  We see this all over in the Bible, and all over in Jesus’ ministry.  God wants us to break the mold of the elite and privileged and declare the world to be God’s beloved children and spread that love throughout the land.

And people will hate us for this.  They will hate us because it threatens their power, their wealth, their truth.  But our Truth is one that will last, and we need not fear.

-Matt

Listening to God in the 21st Century

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Job 4:1,5:1-11,17-21,26-27; Acts 9:19b-31; John 6:52-59

Sometimes reading and understanding Scripture can be difficult.  Today is a good example, with pretty gruesome words in John’s gospel, with Jesus talking about “drinking his blood” and “eating his flesh”.

John’s “Bread of Heaven” talk is more like a theological treatise.  Sometimes I wonder if outsiders to our faith really know some of the radical stuff within our holy texts.  Today is a text for insiders.  It contains some troubling words: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”  He says the phrase “eat my flesh” four times I believe.  No wonder early Christians faced rumors of secret meetings where they engaged in cannibalism and child sacrifice!

What a graphic way to describe Communion!  Provocative and in contradiction to the Old Testament Laws, it pushes the disciples and the Jews to the edge of trying to understand Jesus.

They, like we, come with baggage.  They are not listening with the right ears.  All they are hearing is cannibalism.  They are hearing about eating flesh that still has blood in it.  Blood is life, and it is not to touch the lips of any good Jew.  So what is Jesus talking about?

Well, hindsight is such a privileged position, isn’t it?  We know he is referring to the bread and wine of communion.  But that doesn’t change the fact that this teaching was difficult and the Jews and disciples were struggling to understand.

How often is that the case for us?  It is hard to hear the Word of God, because of the coded language, difficult subject matter, and twists and turns.  It is hard for us to hear anything in 2016 that doesn’t fit our cultural expectations.  We live in a world bombarded by technology, and by many voices.  We also live in a time of choices, where if we don’t like what we hear, we simply UNFOLLOW them on Twitter, UNFRIEND them on Facebook, or change the channel back to FoxNews or MSNBC when we don’t like what we are hearing on PBS or NPR.

Beyond Scripture’s difficult subject matter, often we are simply distracted.  There are so many competing for our ears.  Even as you read this Morning Reflection, I am guessing there are 20 more tweets that have arrived, begging for your attention, 3 more emails awaiting action from you, and your boss is looking over your shoulder wondering why you are taking 2 minutes for God’s Word.

The fact is at the end of the day God is above all these words and worries.  God is bigger than all of this.  I am called only to sit in God’s presence and enjoy and glean what I can from the Almighty.  I am not called to understand, but to breathe deeply of our risen Savior – to be washed in his blood – to be filled with his Spirit.

So listen intently for God today.  Rest in God’s Words for you today.  Cherish them.  Don’t pass by them casually like a Tweet that is here today and gone tomorrow.  Come back to God’s Word often, and find a deep truth beyond the words, that knits your life into the life of love provided to us by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

-Matt