Hope Amidst Despair

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Gen. 21:1-21Heb. 11:13-22John 6:41-51

Everyday in ministry I meet people who are beaten down by this life.  And I refuse to believe in a God who punishes them for succumbing to the pressures and troubles of this world.  Amidst the despair, the disappointments, the crushing defeat life sometimes doles out, God’s love and providential care reigns supreme.

Today’s reading in Hebrews touches on this element of faith.  We hear about those who have died in the faith without hearing the promises of God.  It is a day when God’s grace explodes into the afterlife.  We are told that while they are strangers and foreigners that “God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.”

It is a city where desolation and despair disappear.  It is a city of  wonder, amazement, and hope, where the abundant love of God overflows.

I believe this image of the city is a metaphor of God’s gracious welcome, that extends well beyond those who had Abraham’s faith, but for all those who are lost in the sea of God’s love.

All of us have experienced sadness and despair.  The world is full of it.  The question is always what are we going to do with that disappointment, difficulty, and sometimes desolation.  Is God in there somewhere?  At rock bottom, do we find a savior, or an empty pit?

We believe in a God that has prepared a place for us – even those who have never heard the mention of Christ.  This is a God of abundant love – a God who never leaves us.  So rest in that, and trust that God will find you, even if you can’t seem to find him.

-Matt

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Breaking Bread

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Gen. 19:1-17(18-23)24-29Heb. 11:1-12John 6:27-40

“I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  So it comes to us from Jesus in the gospel of John.

I just heard these words read at the Installation of LaVonne Alexander yesterday, as Pastor of the Columbian Memorial Presbyterian Church in Colony, Oklahoma.  Yes, it was a busy day of driving and I am still recovering from being gone for 16 hours straight.

John has many “I AM” statements for Jesus: I am the resurrection and the life.  I am the living water.  I am the light of the world.  I am the Good Shepherd.  But being the bread of life is even more intimate and essential, for one does not live without bread.

While we didn’t celebrate communion at the Installation, there were many aspects of being tied to the Bread of Life.  Just as we are bound together through the mystery of the table, so we are bound in service to God.  Christ becomes a part of us just as the bread integrates with our body and soul.  The bread then becomes living bread, moving out into the world.

In many ways this is the experience whenever we break bread together.  The reception afterward, for instance, was a great representation of God being the Bread of Life for us.  File Jan 29, 7 09 47 AMHere we were, ministers and congregants from all over the presbytery – “One Church in 47 locations” as I put it.  And yet here we are, drawn together in table fellowship, experiencing the unity of the table and the bonds of fellowship – all brothers and sisters in Christ, united in purpose, united in love.

So maybe we did celebrate communion together!  We just didn’t have it during Worship.

 

If we take the gospel of John as a whole, we come to understand that the one who claims all these “I am” statements is also the one who claims that he is in the Father and the Father in him.  We also learn that he is in us, just as we are in him.

This mystical union is a fancy way of talking about the Holy Spirit and the body of Christ.  If Jesus is the bread of life, then we become the bread of life in the post-Pentecost days.  We become the hands of Christ.  We become the mechanism for daily sustenance to the hungering world around us.

-Matt

Multiply

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Gen. 17:15-27Heb. 10:11-25John 6:1-15

 

John’s text for today recounts the feeding of the 5,000.  It is a story spilling over with God’s grace and abundance.  God’s blessing seems to go a little too far for the disciples’ tastes.  The boy with five loaves and two fish is called upon.  God’s grace spills forth and more fragments and crumbs are collected than we began with.

I have been to a church right off the shores of the Sea of Galilee called The Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes.  To me this was always an exceedingly long name for a church.  I really don’t wanna be the pastor that church because I don’t want to put that on my letterhead.  But what a good representation of the abundance!

In the floor of this church is a mosaic from the 2nd Century representing the five loaves and two fish.  Since the beginning of Christianity this has been seen as a significant symbol of Christ’s work on earth.  Perhaps it is because, at least in my mind, it ties in with his death as well.  In order for us to have nourishment, things must die – grain, grapes, fish, olives – you name it.  Christ came to give life abundantly.  In that lurks death.

In all his miracles and healings, Jesus represents the beginnings of the kingdom breaking forth.

The paradox of Christianity is that in death, Christ gained life, destroying the cycle.  Who is really being fed in this story?  As it turns out, all of us are thrust into the feeding, forced to encounter God’s extravagant abundance and inbreaking kingdom.

-Matt

What’s In a Name?

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Gen. 16:15-17:14Heb. 10:1-10John 5:30-47

Have you ever heard your name called in a loud, crowded room and been surprised you knew you were being called?  With a common name like Matt, often I have been surprised I could not just pick out my name over the cacophony of sound, but knew it was a familiar voice looking for THIS Matt.

I have also had times when people call me by name, engage me in deep conversation, only for me to finally confess, “Have we met? Do I know you?”  The answer is often “No, but I have heard you speak out in public.  I feel like I know you.  I don’t think we ever met.”  I suppose this is a hazard of my profession, but this happens more often than you might think.  Sometimes I wonder if I am losing my mind half way into these conversations.

These examples remind me of the power of a name.  To know someone’s name, especially in ancient Hebrew culture, meant to have power over one.  God goes further with Abram – actually renaming him.  It taps into the deep reality of his identity.  “Abram” means “Ab (a divine name) is holy” whereas “Abraham” means “Father of a multitude.”

Abraham has just been blessed with a son, Ishmael, finally at 86 years old.  Then at 99 God comes to him and reveals that Abram will not just be blessed with more ancestors than there are stars, but that he will be the father of many nations.

The covenant with Abraham is abundance and progeny.  As a sign of that covenant circumcision is given.  “So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.”

While I have never quite made the connection as to the importance of this kind of sign, what it represents to me is that abundance and blessing are exhibited in the physical world with Yahweh, not just in the spiritual realm.  Our God is not a god who sits enthroned above, utterly disconnected from our daily lives, but infiltrates even the most intimate aspects of our lives together.  We are bound together with God, and with one another, and we are claimed as God’s own forever.

This is what baptism means for the Christian, when we are claimed as Christ’s own forever.  And unlike circumcision, the dividing walls of gender fall by the way side.  God’s welcome opens to all.  It is why baptism is called the “new circumcision” by Paul.

As you head out into the world today, be assured that we follow a God who has called each of us by name, who loves each one of us, and claims us as his own.  You might also want to call out to those you love, NAME THEM, and tell them you love them.

-Matt

Turn Around

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Gen. 16:1-14Heb. 9:15-28John 5:19-29

When I began this year, I was convinced 2018 was going to be better than 2017.  It hasn’t turned out that way for many of us.  Already death has touched some of our families.  Heartbreak looms after Christmas for many others.  Between job stresses, family struggles, and illness for so many, it is hard to believe we are hanging on and hanging together as a presbytery.  And yet the struggle for life continues, and new life and hope does ultimately come.  It just doesn’t feel like it yet for a lot of us.

The ability to turn from a troubled past, or turn from difficulty and embrace a new future is something that is hard to do.  One of the key ingredients for any Christian to move forward into a new life is revealed in our passage from Hebrews today: forgiveness.

First we hear of Christ as the mediator of a new covenant, “that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.”  Then the writer of Hebrews explains things in terms we don’t hear in our churches much these days: in terms of blood.

“‘This is the blood of the covenant that God has ordained for you.’  And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship.  Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”

All this blood talk may seem a bit strange!  And it is!  We must always remind ourselves of the prominence of the Temple in the lives of the first readers of these texts, and the Temple’s (over-reliance) on blood sacrifices.  Their whole theology is around blood, and blood = life.

So we encounter deeply mystical metaphors like: We are a people washed in the blood, and we have come out clean on the other side.  And while it sounds a lot like the cup of salvation we pass around at the Lord’s Supper, we are talking about the crucifixion here – the blood that was poured out for the salvation of the earth.  It is only after this event we can truly come to understand love, and forgiveness, and a new covenant.

In a mysterious and strange way, God brought us closer to him through this event.  It is not that God is a sadist, killing his own child, but that God himself took on the role of sacrifice, atoning and blessing us, just as the ram did for Abraham and Isaac, or the lambs on the Day of Atonement, or the doves of the Temple Mount.

Every one of my groups to Israel has stood on the Temple Mount with me!  We visit this holy place, where for centuries Jews offered their sacrifices up to God, including Mary who offered her two turtle doves in presenting Jesus as the Temple.  This is also the site where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, sacrificing a ram instead.  In the picture above you can see Brian and Martha Pat Upp, who traveled with me to Oberammergau one year, and to Israel the next.  Rest in peace, Martha Pat.

I have been known to blow the Shofar (ram’s horn) that I acquired in Israel for a children’s sermon on a week we talk about forgiveness.  Blowing the Shofar was a call to prayer and to a life of sacrifice.  Every pilgrimage to the Temple Mount was a call to turn your life around.

In the sacrifices, the people turned from their wicked ways and renewed their covenant with God.  They “got back on track” as it were.  In the same way, as Christians, God is clearly saying to us is that in order to experience new life, we must have a new lease on life, free from the bondage of sin.  In Christ God has said, “Go ahead.  You are free now!  Live like it!”  Like Isaac on the mountaintop, you have experienced a divine intervention.  God has provided for the needed sacrifice already, so that you can move forward.

May God continue to radiate in your lives, remind you of the redemption that is at hand, and may you go in peace.

-Matt

Changing Lives

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Gen. 15:1-11,17-21Heb. 9:1-14John 5:1-18

What a joy to turn to the Gospel reading and have it be one of the places I have actually been while in Israel!  It comes to life when you have stood there.  If you have never been to Israel, you really should go with me sometime.  I lead trips there all the time.  Next up is the Mediterranean Cruise to Italy, Greece, and Turkey following Paul’s journeys, but Israel will come up soon.  www.mattmeinke.com/trips

Today is the healing of the blind man by the pool of Bethsaida.  When our group was there, we actually stood at the edge of the archaeological excavations of the pool of Bethsaida, so this story comes to life in a special way for me.

Part of the story is that Jesus heals on the Sabbath.  And it is a somewhat unfamiliar text to many, as it only appears in the Gospel of John and doesn’t get much attention from the yearly lectionary cycle.

Jesus went up to Jerusalem, by the Sheep Gate, to the pool named Beth-zatha.  The blind, the lame, and the paralyzed lie there, hoping to be made well.  Although the pool is mainly drinking water for flocks of sheep who come in the Sheep Gate, there is evidently some mystery surrounding the healing properties of the water, especially when the waters are stirred up.

Jesus, who would have had to pick him up and put him in the water, a clear violation of Sabbath rules, chooses to simply say, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”  Even before the water is stirred up, the man is healed.  He takes his mat and began to walk.

Carrying his mat is a violation of the Sabbath, and the Jewish authorities point this out.  He responds, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’”  They want to know the identity of the man who healed, but Jesus had disappeared in the crowd.  But they find out who he is.

This convoluted story about Sabbath breaking is challenging.  Of course one of the first things to point out is that all this laboring, including the performing of a miracle, is breaking the Sabbath.  And I don’t know about you, but I thought Jesus was going to weasel out of it by saying, “My Father is still working….and he can do whatever he wants!”  Instead, he fed the fire of their persecution, pleading guilty to it, saying, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”

Jesus is not concerned about breaking the Sabbath, but revealing who he is, and who God is.

He is also interested in changing lives.

It is easy to understand why all this authority gets him in trouble.  But the story reveals even more.  Why was Jesus hanging out at the dirty, smelly Pool of Beth-zatha?  What do the disciples have to do with herding sheep?  Did they come for the medicinal properties of the water?  Perhaps he came especially to see the people there.

Jesus seems to be playing with fire when it comes to the Jewish authorities.  He is taking the role of Judge and Advocate.  By performing these miracles, especially in the most unlikely of places, he is sending a clear message to the Jewish authorities: “God is not playing by the rules of the temple here.  And there is no stopping it.”  He is changing lives by defaulting to grace and healing and welcome and restoration.

This bold, abrasive message gets him killed.  And yet, all the while, revealing the Word made Flesh.  The Gospel of John is a unique picture of Jesus, but one that I see as essential.

He portrays a somewhat bumpy ride to the cross – actually more of a roller coaster ride – but as Lent approaches and the difficulty of life comes more into focus, I cherish the stories of John which call for an extra dose of faith in a God who has the power to heal and change lives.

-Matt

3, 2, 1…Connect

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Gen. 11:1-9Heb. 6:13-20John 4:1-15

Genesis is chuck full of wonderful themes and intrigue.  The theme of “the Fall” is one of them.  It goes well beyond the story of Adam and Eve, but permeates the whole book.  Certainly we see in each of our lives how easily frayed our relationships can become, both from God and from each other.  It is easy to relate to Genesis.

Today’s story of the Tower of Babel certainly fits into that theme.  As the story goes, the whole earth had one language and the same words.  Human pride gets in the way, and the punishment is that language and speech are jumbled.  Before the “fall” was about humans falling away from God; now they are falling away from each other.

As the human population grew, the fray only continued.  People became divided politically, socially, and economically.  That divide continues until today.

I am fascinated by our smartphones and how these little devices are revolutionizing our communications.  We stand at the precipice of a fascinating age of connectivity, never seen before in human history, which I suspect will not end.  What an exciting opportunity for the church – to once again reclaim its Pentecostal message that exhibits oneness and community in the body of Christ.

Just the other day I was talking online with a Coptic priest serving a number of churches in Ethiopian.  How exciting.  It takes mission and evangelism to a whole new level when we can have live interactive discussions with people around the world at any moment.

We are a Christian community stand in opposition to the Tower of Babel – beyond to the other side of its complementary story of the Pentecostal fire where those who spoke different languages began to understand one another.

The question is “What will we do with our time and how will God use us?”

-Matt