Praying for Peace

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Job 28:1-28; Acts 16:25-40; John 12:27-36a

I remember walking along down the streets of Jerusalem back in 1999.  I had ended class for the day, headed to a shop in a different district in Jerusalem, minding my own business, moving briskly.  I was on my guard, for the day before there had been car bomb about a mile away.

Despite my single-minded focus on getting to my shopping destination, something stopped me in my tracks.  I passed by one store, a rug seller from the Far East, and I heard something that seemed a bit strange in this neighborhood – singing and praying.  I could not resist – and I went inside.

There I found a mixed group of Jews, Muslims, and Arabic Christians standing in the midst of all the hanging rugs, praying for peace.  Praying for the peace of Jerusalem.  It was enough to turn anyone’s heart.

In this country we can get such a skewed idea of the truth of the Holy Land and its people.  It turns out religious differences were secondary to these folks, as they are for many.  Not everyone is a religious nut (very much like USAmerica! In reality there are lots of people who don’t really care about religion much at all).

The reality was they were all neighbors – the friends and family of adjacent shops.  And they were fearful that any more violence would hurt friends and neighbors and ultimately decimate the neighborhood.  Common ground was easy to find.

In our scripture today, Paul and Silas stop people in their tracks too.  They are singing and praying in prison.  It isn’t that earthquake in the midst of it that gets the guards attention (although earthquakes in Oklahoma have been getting ours!).  They are singing and praying despite the chaos around them.  They proceed to preach.  They baptize.  And when morning comes, the magistrate sent the police saying, “Let those men go!”

Paul, realizing he has turned their hearts, decides to play his trump card – and really rile things up.  He is a Roman citizen.  “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now they are going to discharge us in secret?  Certainly not!”

As a Roman citizen he has rights.  If he tells the right people of the atrocities that have been committed against him, the roles could be reversed.  It would be the guards and the magistrate who would be in prison, and Paul would be set free.

Paul withheld.  He chooses grace.  He chose to draw them closer to the heart of Christ and welcome them as brothers, instead of turning their lives upsidedown.

I mention this not to vouch for the power of prayer and singing, although it is powerful.  What is at hand is the power of relationships – and the power of God in our midst, bringing us together.  The power of God to draw people together is there, when our hearts are open to it.

With all the animosity for Muslims so prevalent these days I wonder what the answers are to draw people together.   We simply must discover our religious similarities – not dwell on the differences and divide our lives even more.

Just the other day, my friend Imam Imad Enchassi was grieving on Facebook how tired he is getting of only fielding questions from the media about terrorism, 9/11, Al Queda, and ISIS.  Why not ask him about the environment, education, health care, homelessness, or poverty?  He is a really smart guy and has great community-building things to say about all that.

The temptation is to always dwell on difference.  It is human nature I suppose.

Millions of clear-thinking, peace-loving Muslims want reconciliation.  Millions of clear-thinking, peace-loving Christians want the same thing.  And yet, we become mesmerized by our televisions, convinced that divisions exist greater than they are.

Continue to pray for peace and goodwill for ALL God’s people.

-Matt

You are welcome to join me at 9:40am this Sunday for my Israel Class: Jesus and the Land. Room 217, FPCOKC.

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Belonging To God

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Job 42:1-17; Acts 16:16-24; John 12:20-26

In life and in death we belong to God.  So we are reminded in our Confessions.

Yesterday morning FPCOKC received the shocking and awful news that Matt Trei had died in his sleep.  A long time teacher for SPARK and our School – a child of the church – a child of God – a friend and colleague in ministry for many, many years, transforming the lives of many – from our youth at Triennium this last summer to greeting our preschool children nearly every day since.  From staff to visitors Matt was a beacon of welcome and hospitality.  He was also a cancer survivor and a tough cookie.  Words cannot capture what he meant to so many of our children and youth at the church.  Or to me.  He was my friend.

He will forever remain in my heart as the heartbeat for our school – a glorious reflection of the soul of First Pres, and a true saint who poured his heart and soul into the Church – always, everywhere.

Matt loved our children, and loved the Lord.  It was obvious to anyone he met.

Today in scripture we see the complex and difficult book of Job coming to an end.  Job is humbled.  He prays for his friends.  His fortune and health is restored.  By book’s end, we end up back at the beginning, which only affirms Job’s view of God and condemns that of his friends.

My first reaction in reading was anger that Matt’s health was not restored – that this unjust story of Job’s suffering was replaying.  And as I reflect back on the defiant speeches Job proclaims to God and how he was mad at God, honest with God, denied divine justice – I too cry out to God, upset and angry that one so dear to us was taken at such a young age.  39?  Where is the justice, O God?

In many ways the Book of Job is this very struggle – a wrestling with God about the conundrum of life’s unanswered questions.  The whole book has been a Wisdom Literature’s way of exploring the inadequacies of operating in a universe that uses the principles of reward and punishment.

There are no good answers to why.  Ultimately we are reminded in Matt’s death of the fragility of life, and amidst the shock and broken hearts, invited to look at our own fragility, remembering that in life and in death we belong to God.  I cherish the time I had with Matt and reflect on a life so full of hope and exuberant faith – with me, with our children, with all.

Our new pastor, John McKinnon, shared a touching devotion yesterday to a shocked staff, reminding us of many of these ancient truths, and that ultimately Matt Trei did not belong to us, and who sadly had returned to God.  And that, in God’s world, he wasn’t ever ours to keep.  John ministered to me on a day when I really needed it, and a day many of us were faced with a long day of caring for children with our broken hearts and picking up where Matt left off.

Our challenge is to see through the conundrums of life to the everlasting hope that God provides us, and the reality that the heartbeat of the school or our church has not stopped – that Matt’s lifeblood was the same as many of us: building up the Body of Christ.  We live in the shadow of his ministry, picking up the pieces, and learning once again to be the Church.

So God, amidst the tears and the discombobulation that many of us are experiencing, we know that ultimately all these children are yours, O God, held in your everlasting arms.  And we pitch in for a little while, and pray we can do the best we can.

Even if just for today.

Grant us strength, O God, to carry on, reflecting your love like Matt Trei always did.

-Matt

A Memorial Service celebrating Matt’s life will be held at First Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma City at 11am this Saturday.

Living Wastefully

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Job 40:1-24; Acts 15:36-16:5; John 11:55-12:8

Wasteful. Extravagant. Maybe even outrageous.  That is how many of the disciples described what Jesus declares appropriate.  Very rarely do we see extravagance lifted up as a virtue in scripture.  Usually moderation is lifted up.  Not today.

Mary is anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume, wiping them with her hair.  Judas Iscariot asks a good question, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  Jesus responds with: “Leave her alone.  She bought it so that she might kept it for the day of my burial.  You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Judas Iscariot would be right any other day of the week!  But today was different, choosing extravagance over moderation.

I am reminded of one of our new hymns in our relatively new hymnal, the purple one.  There is a wonderful hymn called “Woman In the Night” that walks through all the different women in the gospels who impacted Jesus’ ministry.  One verse ends with “loved him with your hair” an obvious reference to Mary who anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume.

Time and time again scripture calls us to live in opposite how the world wants us to live.  So often, especially in the midst of our economic woes, the temptation is to look inward, worry only about oneself, and bury one’s treasure.  Jesus says no.

We are challenged as Christians to live in opposition to the prevailing winds.  When others horde wealth, we are called to give it to the poor.  When others want to kill Jesus, we are called to honor him with extravagant gifts.  When the temptation is to worry about physical surroundings, we are called to invest our money in spiritual things, build relationships, and focus on people instead of buildings.

This is all very strange.  I know.  Trust me; I know.  I live in the conundrum of right living every day.  As someone who has given my life to the church, I find myself pondering these questions every day.

How does God want me to use my money?  How should I be using my time?  Should I give some money from the pastoral fund to the vagrant sleeping in the bushes, or should I wait and give it to a member who is buried in medical bills?

It is as Bishop Spong has said – that we follow a God who loved wastefully, so much so that he gave his life and his love away.  Now we are to do the same.  In that sense, we are called to live extravagantly/wastefully, pouring out life to others.

-Matt

Believing in a Better World

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Job 29:1,31:1-23; Acts 15:1-11; John 11:17-29

“I am the resurrection and the life,” says the Lord.  Asking Martha then, he says, “Do you believe this?”  “Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Many overlook the fact that Martha is making a political statement.  She has decided to enter into the debate about Israel’s future, knee deep.  The question was about Jesus being the resurrection and the life, a markedly spiritual distinction.  Martha answers with a political one.  In a way her answer was: “Do I believe you are the resurrection and the life?  Yes, I believe you are the Messiah, the one who will bring defeat to the enemy.”

Notice the disconnect?  We are talking about a different enemy.  When “Messiah” was mentioned to most Jews of the time they thought about political defeat of the oppressor – the Romans.  To speak of the Messiah coming was treason.

Martha is more than just sassy.  She is reframing the entire political issue, and helping shape the landscape of the new Christian message. What she really said: “Yes, I believe that you are more than just the political liberator, but the spiritual leader of my people,” she is really saying.

So Martha is more than just gutsy.  She is more than just guilty of treason.  Now she is also guilty of turning her back on the establishment of the Sadducees and the Temple establishment of Scribes.  Martha is a disciple who is taking seriously other words of Jesus, like “Take up your cross and follow me.”  She is putting her life on the line.

Jesus makes it clear that her very interpretation is the one that brings life.  One is not to believe in the concept of resurrection, or the concept of Messiah, but in Jesus himself – and it is this belief that brings life.

I have often wondered what it means to believe in Jesus himself.  Believe in his power?  Believe in his identity?  Believe in what ultimately happens to him – death on a cross?

And as this story illuminates, the belief in eternal life is something that Jesus brings into the present.  It is not a future state of being, but a present state of mind, body, and spirit.  So to believe in Jesus is to be suddenly transformed in understanding of what is important and who is the author of life.

For me, this is the heart of “believing in Jesus”.  It is not a state of simply knowing his identity, but a present reality of Jesus as the resurrection and the life – in the here and now.

And in that I find great joy, and rest for my weary soul.  As a “thinker” who is often burdened with my own thoughts, it is nice to wake up and rest in the simple fact that I may not know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.

-Matt

You are RESURRECTED!

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Job 29:1,30:1-2,16-31; Acts 14:19-28; John 11:1-16

Have you ever had a traumatic event that puts life into perspective?  Perhaps a life-threatening disease?  The death of someone close?  Today’s scriptures include this, and new perspectives as well, weaving hope, allowing for glimpses beyond ourselves, and including God’s deliverance in difficult times.

In John we encounter the death of Lazarus.  And more importantly, in the death of Lazarus we see another side of Jesus.  We see a savior who commands power over death itself.  He is more than a miracle-worker – more than a nice guy to the poor – more than a rabble-rouser who incites the Pharisees.

We also see a man who has friends – and Lazarus, his friend, and brother of Mary who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair, is dying.  Jesus, who has described himself as the good shepherd, now risks his life to give life to his friend.

Some see this as a foreshadowing of Jesus conquering death himself.  I see it as an irony – that the one who commands power over death is himself hunted down.  Jesus makes it clear that the disciples do not see the whole picture: “Are there not twelve hours of daylight?  Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world.  But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”

What a curious way to say “You don’t see the whole picture.”  Notice that those who walk at night do not do so because they don’t have light with them, but because they don’t have light in them.

Jesus is building on the I AM statements.  I am the good shepherd.  I am the light of the world.  And now – I am the Light of the World, that is, I am the Resurrection and the Life.  To tie these two together is the beginning of the true Messianic secret.  Not only will this savior bring light, understanding, and truth, but will bring it through death – and not killing, but resurrecting friends.

I see this as a foreshadow of the Day of Resurrection, when all of us who have died will be raised to new life, taken before the Judgment Seat and read the verdict of who is in the Book of Life and who is not.  We discover, in this story, it is Jesus himself who will do the calling forth on that day.

To the one whose hour has come be all the glory and honor and praise.

-Matt

Hope and Change

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Job 29:1-20; Acts 14:1-18; John 10:31-42

There came a point at which the disciples’ lives changed.  That “change” is witnessed in the gospel of John.  Something new happens – something extraordinary with Jesus, the incarnate God.  Something is rising from the ashes of extinguished hope to lift them to new heights of hope and change.

Are we a people filled with that kind of hope?  Or are we people who are burnt out and consumed with the ploddings of daily life.  Because it seems to me that some of us are down.  Some of us seem to have lost that fire and that spirit that we once had.

Personally I have been battling allergies, which seem in full force.  I suspect our new pastor is battling the same thing.  It is also an election year, and the media is on spin cycle so much that some of us get that glazed over look.  Hillary. Trump. Hillary. Trump  Oh, give it a rest already.

Yet others of us are consumed by our children’s back to school routines and the daily stresses of our jobs.  We have fallen into the groove – the drudgery.  Have we forgotten that are true lives are like that of the phoenix and that we have risen from the ashes to a new life?

Today can be an exciting new beginning!  Our chance is now!  The world is at our doorstep hungry for change – hungry for a new breath of fresh air in this world of stale hope.

We are also nearing an important anniversary of the September 11th attacks.  My hope and prayer is that this one will be not just about looking back and remembering, but looking forward and grabbing on to the same courage and working toward a brighter future.  Looking deeply into scripture needs to be the same process.

We can bring that message of hope and light.  We don’t just read scripture, and then say “That’s nice” and put it down and never do anything with it.  Through it we can see beyond the grave – knowing that God is on our side and that the world has yet to see the greatest chapter.  But we must step up.  We must claim the joy that comes from serving others.  We must claim the joy of possibility.  We must see beyond ourselves to the prize that awaits.

And what is that prize?  It is laid out in scripture.  It is a day of no more suffering – no more pain.  And we are a part of making that happen.  We must spread the joy and the peace.  It may be as simple as taking some time to listen to a friend, or helping a neighbor.  It may be simple gestures of loving-kindness.  But it begins that spreading of joy and hope.

So start small.  But aim big.  For God is on our side.  And God can lead us to the joy eternal.

-Matt

Labor Day Prayer

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God of the rough-worn hands, as we honor workers this day,
let us not forget those whose work is without honor:
those homemakers who watch over children and homes
but are not recognized as workers because they are not paid;
those who are forced out of jobs by corporate changes,
those forced into early retirement,
those who are denied employment because of their age;
those who live far from home,
struggling to save a bit of money to sent to their loved ones;
those who must work illegally in order to survive;
those who lose jobs because employers use undocumented labor.

Christ of the aching back, you worked the rough wood,
you walked the long and dusty roads,
you know the bitter thirst of the poor.
Let our thirst become a passion for justice.
Help us to work toward transformation of economic policies
that allow only a few nations to hoard the world’s wealth,
policies that pay women as only half a person or less,
policies that do not recognize the worth of labor exactly without pay

Spirit of creative power, move among us this day.
Heal the wounds we carry because of jobs we hate but must do,
jobs we want but cannot have.
Heal all those who labor to survive.
Renew in us our sense of vocation.
Help us discern your Presence in even the lowliest tasks we face. Amen

– The prayer comes from Chalice Worship.