Words of Life

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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.

-Matt

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Listening for God

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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.

-Matt

Bread and YOU

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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.

-Matt

New Directions

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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.

-Matt

The Complexity of Life

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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!”

-Matt

Risking For What Is Right

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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.

-Matt

Women in Leadership

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

From time to time on the floors of presbyteries, we have to endure the age-old debate of women in ministry.  And I will be completely honest – I am SO OVER that debate.  While I am still willing to chime in on gay marriage or divestment issues, I cannot even muster the energy to speak about women’s ordination anymore.  I am thinking, “That was 70 years ago!  Are we still having this debate?”  I mentally check out in many ways.

Today, in Romans, is Paul attesting to the ancient roots of women in leadership for Christianity.  (Yes, it’s true.  Some people think Paul is anti-women.  Well, it turns out, he offers conflicting info, or different advice to different churches.  More on that later.)

Paul is nearing the end of his letter to the Christians in Rome, 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 they are instrumental in the daily operations of the church.

I find it odd that Paul sets the tone for women in leadership, as did Jesus, and that somehow so many churches got lost along the way.  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.  The anti-women craze came later, surprisingly.  Today it rears its ugly head again from time to time.  It astonishes and amazes me.

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.  Context appears to be everything.

People who argue that women should never be in leadership, also talk about how they want us to “focus on God’s Word” more.  But what they fail to realize is what the scriptures principally teach.  They are failing to focus on God’s Word, instead focusing on just a couple of God’s Words that fit in with their agenda.  They also are 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.  They also fail to remember a similar tactic to theirs about women was used to justify slavery.

Please pardon my soap box, but I felt it must be said, especially because of the nature of the church lately – to be stuck on spin cycle about a couple of hot button issues.  It is like we are playing the same song over and over again, stuck on REPEAT or REPEAT SHUFFLE, and dismissing the workings of the Holy Spirit.

I will conclude by saying that as a whole, 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 in these areas, for the church of today is hungry and needing a renaissance in this area.

-Matt