Not Fitting In


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

“I just don’t get you.”

Have you ever heard these words?  Perhaps they were spoken to you in anger.  Perhaps in jest by a good friend.  As a northerner in a southern area, I get this routinely – when I crave brats or drink unsweet tea or say the word “bubbler”.  But on a more serious note, sometimes we hear these words and it cuts more deep – it’s meaning is more along the lines of “You don’t fit in” or “We are just two different people…or too different.”

If you have ever felt out of place or on the outside of God’s grace, you can take solace in our scripture today, for Jesus himself is out of place.

Today we see Jesus as God’s representative, a common theme in John’s gospel.  This goes along with all the I AM statements as well.  His authority comes from above, and we see an almost “other worldly” Jesus.  Jesus is in the temple at the Festival of Booths, and as someone who has “never been taught” the Jewish leaders are wondering where he gets off speaking with such authority.

Jesus not only gives them advice (“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”) but also gives them an answer to their questions about authority (“You know me, and you know where I am from.  I have not come on my own.  But the one who sent me is true, and you do not know him.  I know him, because I am from him, and he sent me.”)

Like a good mystery novel, in John the readers are always one step ahead of the crowd.  Some are struggling with Jesus’ identity, confused because some want to kill him and we all know where he comes from, and the Messiah…well, no one will know where he comes from.  But we are one step ahead of the crowd.  We know the Messiah will, in fact, come as someone who is not known, and yet is known.  We know that “the signs” the crowd speak of are actually playing out before our eyes, and the hidden shroud is one that is before our eyes.

This is the craft of the gospel of John.  The whole gospel is built on this idea of logos.  The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.  Figuring out who or what this logos is is the struggle.  So we get series of “I am” statements, and strange musings like “light of the world”.  All the time we are struggling to see that light more clearly.

What I like about John’s words is the mystery and conundrum itself.  To me it is comforting to know that this is all above and beyond comprehension.  God is awesome and his love is unfathomable.  God is not supposed to fit in!  Oh we get glimpses occasionally…if we are lucky.  And it is OK not to get it all right away.  Some spend lifetimes trying to get to know God.

This gospel validates me, where I am in my journey.  I have just scratched the surface of what all this means for my life.  I am a novice.  Maybe we all are.  But you know what?  That’s OK.

After the resurrection, the disciples were confused about what this all meant, and what to do next.  So it’s OK if I don’t “get it all”.  And God will correct me in the places that I am wrong.  And God still loves me all the same.


Words of Life


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

Have you ever been stuck in a grumbling mood?  I know I have.  Sometimes I catch myself being a big-ol whiny butt.  It can be exhausting.  It can also be exhausting being around someone like this.

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.


Listening for God


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

Listening is an art.

Listening has also become an endangered species these days.  It is so easy to silence voices we don’t like.  We click them off.  Mute.  Close the screen.  Turn the cell phone over.  Turn down the volume quickly because we are in a meeting.

And so when I read the strange passage today from the gospel of John, I thought of how easy it is to “turn off” scripture we don’t like.  Today’s reading can be difficult, with gruesome words and Jesus talking about “drinking his blood” and “eating his flesh”.

“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!

As the rumors swirled about this new Jewish sect of folk calling themselves Christians, and them meeting in secret, with stories of cannibalism, it is no wonder.  Eating flesh?  Drinking blood?  And it is right there in the text!  And blood is life, and it is not to touch the lips of any good Jew.  I’m thinking a lot of folks were confused what was going on, or even what Jesus is talking.

No wonder so many shut their ears to the Gospel.

We know the coded language – that 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 our ears are shut.  How easy it is to turn a blind eye.  How easy it is to dismiss crazy talk or people that simply talk too much.  With the Word of God there is coded language, difficult subject matter, and twists and turns.  It is easy to see why many never get around to reading the Bible.

It is hard for us to hear anything 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.

Other times 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, 7 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.

I beg you.  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.


Bread and YOU


Job 2:1-13Acts 9:1-9John 6:27-40

If you are in a church that follows the lectionary, we have had a number of weeks that talk about the Bread of Life from John’s Gospel.  Preachers have been preaching about bread even on non-communion Sundays.

John is not just filled with I AM statements.  He also spends a good bit of time on I AM THE BREAD.  It was not Moses who gave the people bread from heaven, but God the Father who gave them the bread.  “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” Jesus said.

“Give us this bread!” the disciples respond.

Jesus said to them, “I AM the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  These series of “I AM “ statements in John explore the identity of a Messiah that we are only beginning to know in the 6th chapter of John.  The richness of his identity is confounding and complex.  It is mysterious and deep.  Almost exclusively though, it emphasized Jesus’ role as the true giver of life.

We discover in this gospel that Jesus is more than just a nice guy – more than a great rabbi – more than a prophet.  Jesus is someone very special – the Messiah – but more so, a Messiah we did not expect.  Here in John’s gospel, he is both expanding and turning on its head the expected role many thought the Messiah would take.

Jesus is the Bread that was broken, and that was passed through the ages, and fed more than a generation – he feeds the whole world.  He is the Bread that in his brokenness, multiplies God’s grace in exponential ways.

Wrapped in this idea of being the bread of life, there are three verbs which seem to interconnect.  Coming to Jesus, seeing and believing seem to be essential keys.  This too expands the metaphor.  It is not enough to just “eat” the Bread of Life (such as at Communion), but that we must see and believe this Bread.

It’s time to get our imaginations going!  How can we believe in this Bread of Life?  Believe what he says?  Believe what he does?  Believe in the signs?  Believe in the power to transform us?

May the richness of John’s Gospel wash over you.  May you find depth to the love that Christ has for you, and may it radiate forth into your day, that you may be life and bread and hope for others.


New Directions


Judges 18:1-15Acts 8:1-13John 5:30-47

Is God calling us in new directions?  This is the question before a lot of our churches these days, as they struggle with aging buildings and membership.  These questions are front and center in our Acts passage today.

Acts is one of my more favorite books.  It is a book of excitement and uncontrollable growth.  It seems that God cannot be contained, and in many ways it continues a theme that had begun at the tomb: that God is on the loose.

In Acts 8 we encounter Saul, who we all know will become Paul and become one of the great leaders of the church.  But for now, Saul is in overdrive when it comes to persecution.  He not only approved of killing Stephen (and capital punishment is against Jewish law), but he is going from house to house, dragging out men, women, and children and sending them to prison.

And what is their offense?  The only crime they have committed is being Christian.

It is hard for us to imagine this kind of persecution.  I would hardly describe America as a Christian nation, but there is certainly enough religious freedom that I do not feel any trepidation about practicing my religion or going to church at any time of day or night.

There is a small tidbit of history that may go unnoticed to the untrained eye.  The simple words, “Philip preached in Samaria” are coded.  Many of us are conditioned to focus on the verb and read “Philip PREACHED in Samaria,” when most likely people of that day were reading this as: “Can you believe Philip preached in SAMARIA!?”  The Jews and Samaritans had long-standing animosity.  Remember the questions that were raised when Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman?  These are a people that don’t get along.  So this marks an important step in the church’s growth.

Where are our current day “Samaria”s – those places that are seen as off-limits for some Christians, but are the exact places we need to be?

People were amazed at Philip doing this and preaching in SAMARIA.  One of these men was Simon, who had previously practiced magic, but listened and declared “This man is the power of God that is called Great!”

It is somewhat amazing that these persecutions backfire for Saul and the other persecutors.  They were seeking to stamp out Christianity.  But what does their persecution do?  It spreads the gospel message even further.

Today we see persecution of other kinds in our churches.  It tends to center around gay marriage, immigration, and the poor.  I find the persecution go well beyond politics, and to every which way in the argument.  This all raises questions for us as the Church.  Where should we be?  What should we be doing?  How should we “do” church?  These are questions for every presbytery to wrestle with – and arguably every church.

Acts raises questions for every Christian too.  Is God taking us in new directions?  Where in our lives have we been complacent or stalled?  How is God calling us forth into the unknown or into the uncomfortable?  Are we called to preach like Peter or Philip?  Are we called to acts of mercy or acts of judgment?

Whatever we are called to, we are called to GO, for God’s spirit is on the loose.  And where we go really is not up to us…it is up to God.  I happen to believe God is taking us in new directions, and God knows it will be a bumpy ride for the church.  But God wants us to grow up.


The Complexity of Life


Judges 14:1-19Acts 6:15-7:16John 4:27-42

I have a close friend who grew up in a church where hell, fire, and brimstone was the order of the day.  It did no good for him.  It just scared him away from church and from God.  Not surprisingly he left the church long ago.

There was a time where I was angry at these simpletons who stood in the pulpits of his church.  Now I have let that go, because I see the human condition.

It is a natural tendency of humanity, I think – to paint the world as black and white.  We put people into categories, and behaviors.  There is right and wrong.  There is good and evil.  It makes us feel in control.  It helps us to cope with a world out of control.

But eventually we grow up, and we realize these categories of right and wrong are not quite so simple or straightforward.  From divorce to climate change, we realize the depth of human emotion and the complexity of our needs and wants are way deeper than a simple blame game and painting one party as wrong, as we claim victory.

But it is in our nature to want to see things simple.  We like categories.  We like things organized and simple.  So we lie to ourselves.

Jesus knows and understands the complexity of life.  It shows in today’s gospel reading.  He comes and challenges our presuppositions and stereotypes about God and God’s people.  He wants us to broaden our minds.  In many ways, John’s gospel today deals with who is in and who is out.

Remember the story of Jesus and the Woman at Samaria?  The disciples discover Jesus has been speaking to a WOMAN, and they are HORRIFIED.  They urge him to eat something, and he speaks esoterically about having food they do not know about.  He talks about gathering fruit for eternal life, the sower and reaper rejoicing together, and those who have labored entering into their labor.  It is a strange response to say the least.   Then the Samaritans show up and declare to the woman that they no longer believe because of what she said, but because they have heard for themselves.

Jesus understands his work to include the harvest of all people.  “Sowers” and “reapers” usually work months apart, with one planting grain, the other reaping the benefits of its growth.  Here it appears here that the harvest has already come.

In today’s Gospel reading we are encouraged to wrestle with the complexity.  And they lift up Jesus as a living embodiment of the complexity of God’s goodness and grace.

These miracles in John do more than stir controversy about “who’s in and who’s out” or breaking rules on the Sabbath.  They focus on the person and power of Jesus.  They illuminate a savior who is utterly unconcerned with the way things “used to be” or even the way things “should be.”  He is concerned only with showing God’s glory in the world, and helping people to see a harvest that goes beyond the walls, beyond the rules, and beyond their imagination.

Could it be he is alluding to a day where all are drawn to the love of God?  Where no one is left out?  Where all are wrapped so tightly in the love of God that no one can escape?  Some might say, “Say it ain’t so!”  Others of us say, “Yes!  Exactly!  This is the Good News we have been talking about!”


Risking For What Is Right


Judges 4:4-23Acts 1:15-26Matt. 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 nailed the general of the army! Literally.

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.  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 Acts, Matthias is chosen by casting lots to be the 12th disciple, with Judas’ seat being empty.  We know nothing about Matthias really, and he seems to disappear off the grid fairly soon in Christian history.  For me he represents the “everyman”.

Then 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, Matthias, and Jael all put themselves second, to serve Christ or Israel.  This call to action is in fact the mission of the Church.

We have a lot in our world today that demands risk.  We MUST go against the ridiculousness of hate and division that is afoot in our country these days.

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 church disagreements over racism or over LGBTQIA+ issues, I often hear the argument “it is upsetting” for some churches to talk about this.  That is the weakest argument ever, and an argument that holds no water.  We were never promised that the Christian life would be all hunky dory.  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.

In risking – in possibly losing our lives – in daring to follow God in new ways, only then will we also find victory and hope.  Jael found a new hope in her risk.  And so can we, no matter the issue.