Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.


Friday, January 30, 2009

January 29, 2009 The Twelve

READ: Matthew 10:1-15
1 And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction.
2 The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother;
3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;
4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

5 These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans,
6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
7 And proclaim as you go, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand.
8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay.
9 Acquire no gold nor silver nor copper for your belts,
10 no bag for your journey, nor two tunics nor sandals nor a staff, for the laborer deserves his food.
11 And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart.
12 As you enter the house, greet it.
13 And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.
14 And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.
15 Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.

Footnote to yesterday's entry: It appears that it isn't just ONE wave that's about to roll over me. If Jesus gives authority to his disciples to heal just as he does, then anyone who wants their walk with God to be tidy and placid has another thing coming.

That having been said, I think one of the most untidy things Jesus did was in sending out the twelve the way he did. Have you ever been in a 3-legged race? It is the closest you'll probably ever come to understanding what oxen go through every day. Jesus wasn't just trying to see to the disciples' safety. He knew what they couldn't at that time but what the Apostle Paul wrote about in 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, "Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." Jesus knew that alone the disciples would flounder.

In the church we need companions at our side to encourage us, to keep us from danger, to remind us of what the Word of God teaches. I spent 25 years in youth ministry, and with each successive group of young people I would say, "partner with this one. He/she is your life-line in the faith." But the number of times any of them actually did it I could count on one hand. Why? Because of the way we tend to structure our relationships. We "get" the idea of a mentor. That's someone older who is showing us the ropes. But a partner at our side? Someone who will do... what? I don't want my brother or sister to be an intentional teacher to me. That puts them "above" me in the mythic food-chain we're all so afraid of. What I really want is a buddy. I want a friend who will be particularly 'with' me.

I can't speak from a woman's perspective about this, but boys learn this around middle school age, and for a time they will have their friend. But the warrior at my side, the brother who has my back guarded and in whom I confide (albeit across the work bench in the shop or when out hunting or at a bar) is a rare thing for men over 20. We put all our eggs in the one basket of our girlfriend or wife, and then family priorities take the place of really engaging in the battle for Christ. But her place and our family's place in our life is very different from what I'm describing. And I don't believe the two need to be mutually exclusive. Our Western construct is that of a fortress-home. Each of us has his/her castle and stays mostly behind the walls of that one building. Not so in an agrarian or subsistence culture.

A friend of mine (he's an elder in our church) is putting in a den at our new house. This morning he showed up with a buddy of his and they've been happily working together all morning. I don't think he's paying the friend. But that's the way it seems to work here. Now, if only I can get them to talk about the Lord while they work...


January 28, 2009 The Harvest

READ: Matthew 9:35-38
35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.
36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
37 Then he said to his disciples, The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;
38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!
Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me!
Underneath me, all around me, is the current of Thy love
Leading onward, leading homeward to Thy glorious rest above!
-- S. Trevor Francis, 1875

I've always been afraid of the ocean. I don't often go in ocean water, even if it is warm and inviting. The reason is that ocean waves are unpredictable. I'm not a strong swimmer, and I'm quite sure I could be sucked under by a strong current or a rip tide. I much prefer the safe waters of a lake, or better yet the perfectly placid waters of a nice chlorine pool.

So it is that I hate to admit that my reason for holding to reformed theology is not entirely... well... theological. A good piece of it is because I can 'handle' the relatively calm waters of calvinism. It makes sense. It is actually pretty reasonable. Even though I'm stuck with a whole host of paradoxes I don't like, at least God is predictable.

But I'll tell you... the idea of Jesus going through every village and city and "healing every disease and every affliction" is like having an ocean wave about to crash upon me. I don't want Jesus to have compassion on me. I'm a leader. I can handle myself! I don't want him to send out laborers into the harvest to save me. I'm supposed to BE the laborer who was sent out.

I recently hear an author talking about the book he had written say, "Everyone loves Jesus because we can make a picture of him so that he's anything we like." At the time I thought, "Yea, but no one wants the second person of the Trinity. That's like inviting GOD into your life."


In some ways it would be easier to have God heal a disease I might have than for him to heal the things I'm "afflicted" with. A disease is physical. There's an invader, and clearly it needs medicine. But an affliction? Haven't you ever heard of "self-inflicted wounds?" I can handle my afflictions quite nicely, thank you, as long as I'm not overpowered by anything. As long as I can stand on my own two feet I'll be okay. It is that WAVE I don't think I can stand.


January 27, 2009 Four Healings

READ: Matthew 9:18-34
18 While he was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.
19 And Jesus rose and followed him, with his disciples.
20 And behold, a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment,
21 for she said to herself, If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.
22 Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well. And instantly the woman was made well.
23 And when Jesus came to the ruler's house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion,
24 he said, Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping. And they laughed at him.
25 But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose.
26 And the report of this went through all that district.

27 And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed him, crying aloud, Have mercy on us, Son of David.
28 When he entered the house, the blind men came to him, and Jesus said to them, Do you believe that I am able to do this? They said to him, Yes, Lord.
29 Then he touched their eyes, saying, According to your faith be it done to you.
30 And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly warned them, See that no one knows about it.
31 But they went away and spread his fame through all that district.

32 As they were going away, behold, a demon-oppressed man who was mute was brought to him.
33 And when the demon had been cast out, the mute man spoke. And the crowds marveled, saying, Never was anything like this seen in Israel.
34 But the Pharisees said, He casts out demons by the prince of demons.

Many years ago I had taken the opportunity as a youth pastor to use a common interest to share Christ with a young man. He and I had a standing appointment to play racquetball at the local YMCA. Every Tuesday afternoon I would pick him up after school and we'd spend an hour and a half playing our hearts out. Sometimes we'd get to talking. And sometimes he would open up about what was hurting in his 14 year old life. On at least two occasions I can think of we ended up sitting on the floor of the court and our time slipped away as he cried. I wanted to offer healing, but I didn't know how.

A few years later, after he asked Jesus into his life, we were at a shopping mall on tour with our youth ministry. All the rest of the kids had gone off shopping, but I saw this young man sitting with a lonely, hurting man on a bench in the middle of the mall, talking. I felt this was an important conversation, so I steered clear. I came back later to find the young man, head in hands. I sat down and asked him what was going on. He said, "I couldn't help him." Again, he was crying. I wanted to offer healing, but again I didn't know how.

Some years later he called from where he was a staff counselor in a group home. He was overwhelmed by some of the situations he faced with the people in his care. Again we found ourselves in tears, this time on the phone. Once more I wanted to offer healing. Again, I didn't know how.

After that he went overseas as a missionary for several years. We stayed in touch via email mostly. As a teacher and guide he had been out in the hill country with one of the students in his care when she was bitten by a poisonous snake. It all happened so quickly, and the girl died in his arms. When he came back on furlough some weeks later he came to see me. We talked and cried as it seemed our habit was. I still wanted to offer healing, and still I didn't know how.

I knew when I started writing this entry that I needed to write these things down. As I began I didn't know why or what lesson I would be teaching. I just knew the four healings in Matthew 9 made me think of my friend. But just now it came to me: I didn't know how to offer healing because that wasn't my place in the story. We are no more the agents of healing than a rag used as a bandage is on a wound. The bandage merely holds back the bleeding for the moment. Medicine is needed that will address whatever is wrong. Jesus is the medicine. In each situation he applies himself to the wound, and often he finds an old rag of a person to wrap around where you're hurting. The rag is not even sterilized, and often has been used to clean a dirty gym floor, a bench in a mall, the halls of a treatment center, or the ground under a dying person. But for the moment it holds back the bleeding so the real medicine can go to work.

Jesus, thank you for using my friend to hold back my bleeding so you could offer me the healing I needed over and over again. Thanks for the tool he is in your powerful hands.


January 26, 2009 Sacrifices

READ: Matthew 9:9-17
9 As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, Follow me. And he rose and followed him. 10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? 12 But when he heard it, he said, Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. 14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast? 15 And Jesus said to them, Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. 17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.

Now we need to discuss Matthew himself. First off, there is a lot of discussion in the scholarship about whether Matthew the Apostle -- tax collector Matthew -- is also the gospel writer who gave us our present subject. There are arguments on both sides. The most compelling seems to me to be the idea that, out of humility, both Matthew and later, John, don't ever talk about themselves in the first person. Luke does some of this in his later discussions of the missionary journeys with Paul (chapters 26-28 of Acts).

So here is this strange sentence sticking out in the text like an inviting sore thumb: "he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, Follow me. And he rose and followed him." If the Matthew who is sitting at the tax booth isn't the same man who wrote the gospel the sentence means little. But imagine that you are writing about yourself with the clarity that only thirty years' distance from an event can give you, and you come to the part in the story where you made the key decision of your life. How would you report it?

Our modern culture doesn't like the idea of conversion, especially not the kind of conversion that is sudden and un-equivocating. We are trained to it. We have pre-nuptial agreements and escape clauses so we never find ourselves in a situation we can't get out of. In our world there are no ultimate truths because that would mean there are ultimate falsehoods. There are no absolutes because that would mean that certain things are just wrong. But if there is one thing we can be certain of it is that a tax collector of the First Century AD (excuse me... CE... wouldn't want to leave anyone out as we mark time) knew where he stood in his culture.

The tax collectors were as hated a group as any in culture. They were Jews who were hated by Jews because they in some way represented the Roman oppressors. But they weren't respected by the Romans either because they were Jews who were for sale at a price. They were, to a person, dishonest. They had been told to collect a certain percentage for Rome. Anything else they could extract was theirs to keep. As a result, they were tollerated, but only with the thin veneer of civility with which those seeking credit from Dickens' Scrooge might have deferred to him. Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:10ff) illustrates this social distinction well.

Had Matthew met Jesus before that day in town? Could this possibly have been a first meeting? If so, the power of Jesus personality or the unction of the Holy Spirit or both must have been dramatic at that moment. Matthew doesn't think for a moment; doesn't weigh his options; doesn't even consider what he's about to throw away for this man. He simply gets up from his tax booth and walks off with Jesus.

Was your conversion that dramatic? Or are you still, after many years of what one author recently called "dating Jesus", weighing your options. If so, you're still behind your tax booth. You don't really want a savior. You don't really want a Lord. You want someone wise you can talk things out with from time to time and then, when you're done with them, someone you can leave and come back to again just as so many of our contemporary youth do with their dating relationships.

Even so, Jesus sees you as you are, you tax collector. I can say that without sounding judgemental because I know that's how he saw me. I knew when I said yes to him that I was unacceptable. And it didn't matter because he had said the one thing to me that no one else could. He said, "God shows his love for (you) in that while (you) were still (a tax immoral man...a weak person...a drunk...a greedy person...a liar...[fill in the blank], Christ died for YOU." Oh, the words were Romans 5:8, but I knew it was Jesus, standing in front of my booth, just quietly saying, "Follow me."

Don't give it a second thought! Whether you've never heard him call you before or whether you've gone half-way for Christ all your life -- Do it now! I implore you: get up and follow him. He may not come this way again.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

January 23, 2009 Following

READ: Matthew 8:18-27
18 Now when Jesus saw a great crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side.
19 And a scribe came up and said to him, Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.
20 And Jesus said to him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.
21 Another of the disciples said to him, Lord, let me first go and bury my father.
22 And Jesus said to him, Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.

23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him.
24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep.
25 And they went and woke him, saying, Save us, Lord; we are perishing.
26 And he said to them, Why are you afraid, O you of little faith? Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.
27 And the men marveled, saying, What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?

The story of the disciples in the boat is a classic bit that should really trouble us a lot. I don't know about you, but in my world verse 24 ought to read, "And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves, and he was in the back with a bucket helping the disciples out." But it doesn't. And verse 27 ought to read "What sort of man is this, that he can sleep in the middle of a great storm?"

Taking the thought that Jesus could possibly stay asleep in the middle of a raging storm at sea aside, I'm with the disciples on this one. I want my Lord to be ever at the alert, ever ready to spring to my defense when I'm in danger. I think he should be like one of those Christian art paintings of an avenging angelic being, wings unfurled, a drawn sword in his hand and a shield in the other, turning this way and that to ward off any foe. That's who Jesus should be in my world.

But it isn't my world. It is his. I don't get to decide how Jesus will help, what form his love will take. I can't even second-guess the reason Jesus may have had for sleeping at that particular moment. It would be convenient to say, "If he hadn't been asleep, the disciples would have missed a great lesson." But we don't know that. If he'd been awake bailing the story could have ended the same. They might still have come to him and said, "We're about to go under. Won't you do something?" And he might still have rebuked the wind and the waves.

There are a lot of avenues God might use to answer a prayer. It wasn't until the disciples were safe on shore that they could be sure God had saved them from harm. What they knew in the moment was that the experience had increased their trust in Jesus as the Christ.

"Oh, God, Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small."
-- Breton Fisherman's Prayer

January 24, 2009 Demons and Blasphemy

READ: Matthew 8:28-9:8
28 And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way.
29 And behold, they cried out, What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?
30 Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them.
31 And the demons begged him, saying, If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.
32 And he said to them, Go. So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters.
33 The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men.
34 And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region.
1 And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city.
2 And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.
3 And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, This man is blaspheming.
4 But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, Why do you think evil in your hearts?
5 For which is easier, to say, Your sins are forgiven, or to say, Rise and walk?
6 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins—he then said to the paralytic—Rise, pick up your bed and go home.
7 And he rose and went home.
8 When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.

We don't take blasphemy very seriously these days. We also don't take forgiving sin very seriously. I think that's because we don't really believe in blasphemy these days. How can you blaspheme what isn't really there? How can you forgive sin when there really isn't any such thing as sin? It really shouldn't bother us that Jesus healed the man. What should bother us is that nagging question of whether he really was God. If he wasn't really God in human form and he healed the man in God's name, then he was guilty as charged. It isn't so much a question of faith as it is of logic.

C.S. Lewis, writing about the experience his four Pevensie children have in the land of Narnia uses the character of old Professor Kirk to ponder this very question. One of the children, Lucy, had been to Narnia (and gotten there through a wardrobe in a spare room in the professor's house). The other children hadn't and wouldn't believe her story of a magic land where animals talk. Finally they go to visit the professor in his study.

"They went and knocked at the study door, and the Professor said "Come in," and got up and found chairs for them and said he was quite at their disposal. Then he sat listening to them with the tips of his fingers pressed together and never interrupting, till they had finished the whole story. After that he said nothing for quite a long time. Then he cleared his throat and said the last thing either of them expected:

"How do you know," he asked, "that your sister's story is not true?"

"Oh, but -" began Susan, and then stopped. Anyone could see from the old man's face that he was perfectly serious. Then Susan pulled herself together and said, "But Edmund said they had only been pretending."

"That is a point," said the Professor, "which certainly deserves consideration; very careful consideration. For instance - if you will excuse me for asking the question - does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful?"

"That's just the funny thing about it, sir," said Peter. "Up till now, I'd have said Lucy every time."

"And what do you think, my dear?" said the Professor, turning to Susan.

"Well," said Susan, "in general, I'd say the same as Peter, but this couldn't be true - all this about the wood and the Faun."

"That is more than I know," said the Professor, "and a charge of lying against someone whom you have always found truthful is a very serious thing; a very serious thing indeed."

"We were afraid it mightn't even be lying," said Susan; "we thought there might be something wrong with Lucy."

"Madness, you mean?" said the Professor quite coolly. "Oh, you can make your minds easy about that. One has only to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad."

"But then," said Susan, and stopped. She had never dreamed that a grown-up would talk like the Professor and didn't know what to think.

"Logic!" said the Professor half to himself. "Why don't they teach logic in these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn't tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth."

Susan looked at him very hard and was quite sure from the expression on his face that he was no making fun of them.

"But how could it be true, sir?" said Peter.

"Why do you say that?" asked the Professor.

"Well, for one thing," said Peter, "if it was true why doesn't everyone find this country every time they go to the wardrobe? I mean, there was nothing there when we looked; even Lucy didn't pretend the was."

"What has that to do with it?" said the Professor.

"Well, sir, if things are real, they're there all the time."

"Are they?" said the Professor; and Peter did'nt know quite what to say.

"But there was no time," said Susan. "Lucy had no time to have gone anywhere, even if there was such a place. She came running after us the very moment we were out of the room. It was less than minute, and she pretended to have been away for hours."

"That is the very thing that makes her story so likely to be true," said the Professor. "If there really a door in this house that leads to some other world (and I should warn you that this is a very strange house, and even I know very little about it) - if, I say, she had got into another world, I should not be at a surprised to find that the other world had a separate time of its own; so that however long you stay there it would never take up any of our time. On the other hand, I don't think many girls of her age would invent that idea for themselves. If she had been pretending, she would have hidden for a reasonable time before coming out and telling her story."

"But do you really mean, sir," said Peter, "that there could be other worlds - all over the place, just round the corner - like that?"

"Nothing is more probable," said the Professor, taking off his spectacles and beginning to polish them, while he muttered to himself, "I wonder what they do teach them at these schools."

"But what are we to do?" said Susan. She felt that the conversation was beginning to get off the point.

"My dear young lady," said the Professor, suddenly looking up with a very sharp expression at both of them, "there is one plan which no one has yet suggested and which is well worth trying."

"What's that?" said Susan.

"We might all try minding our own business," said he. And that was the end of that conversation.

So let me ask, when you hear stories from pentecostals or people from third-world countries about healings and the raising of the dead, what sort of reaction do you have? Do you pooh-pooh it as fantasy? Do you smile and say, "I have heard things like that happen in far off places," wanting to patronize those of weak mind? Or has it ever occurred to you that maybe... just maybe... the stories are not just stories. Let's face it. If Jesus was not a blasphemer; if he really was God in the flesh, then maybe in places where people's experience is not clouded by their capital; in places where the poor need miracles because there is no medicine; in places where Jesus still walks the earth through the work of his disciples, maybe there still are miracles.

Why don't they teach logic in these schools?


Monday, January 26, 2009

January 22, 2009 Healing

READ: Matthew 8:5-17
5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him,
6 Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.
7 And he said to him, I will come and heal him.
8 But the centurion replied, Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.
9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, Go, and he goes, and to another, Come, and he comes, and to my servant, Do this, and he does it.
10 When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.
11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven,
12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
13 And to the centurion Jesus said, Go; let it be done for you as you have believed. And the servant was healed at that very moment.

14 And when Jesus entered Peter's house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever.
15 He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him.
16 That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick.
17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.

There are, I think, always more dimensions to Jesus' ministry than at first meet the eye. A first glance at this passage and we say, "Isn't that great! Jesus had compassion on the Centurion and on Peter and healed their loved ones. But Jesus doesn't like to waste an opportunity. It seems to me that he also healed something in the Centurion and in Peter. Sort of 4 for the price of 2. What's the thing that is healed in them? Well, with the Centurion I think the issue was worthiness. He believed that Jesus had the authority and the power to do what he was asking, but he didn't think himself worthy of the favor.

Dr. Tony Campolo tells a story from his days in seminary. The professor asked him to open the class in prayer. Young Tony stood and prayed, "God, I am so worthless..." Immediately the professor barked, interrupting Tony's prayer, "Mr. Campolo, you are wrong. You are not worthless. You are of great value to God. The word is unworthy. You are unworthy to come before God. Begin again." But I think the professor was incorrect too. The Centurion needed to know that he not only had value before God but that he was worthy of what Jesus was about to do for him. He was a Roman soldier. I think he couldn't quite figure out how a Jewish rabbi would want to heal his servant, no matter how much value that servant might have to God.

The healing of Peter's mother-in-law is a healing of expectations. Peter knew she was sick and wouldn't be able to serve them. That means she must have been very sick indeed. In that culture tasks were assigned to certain people by class or station. In most Jewish households the men would simply have expected her to get off her bed and do her duty, unless she was simply unable to stand. Peter doesn't ASK Jesus to heal her. Did he expect that he would? The text doesn't say. My guess is that Peter was like most of us. He knew the Master could heal if he wanted to. But I think he just didn't want to impose, reasoning that his mother-in-law would get well in time and... well... Jesus was "off the clock" and probably wouldn't want to do any freebies.

There are a lot of reasons why we don't come to Christ for the help we know he can give. What's yours?


January 21, 2009 Authority

READ: Matthew 7:28-8:4
28 And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching,
29 for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.

1 When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him.
2 And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.
3 And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, I will; be clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
4 And Jesus said to him, See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.

I love to listen to sermons by Dr. Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. Dr. Keller is one of the best Bible teachers around today. His insights into the Scriptures are, in my opinion, impeccable. If you are interested in hearing some really awesome preaching, go to Most of what is there is for sale, but there are some Keller sermons that are free for the listening.

One of the greatest fears I think any expositor of the Word faces is the thought that he/she may not be listening to God and is really just offering opinion or wisdom from the world or their own gut when they preach. I knew one pastor who was terribly afraid that he might somehow dishonor Christ. He often said that he put more time in praying that God would protect him from dishonoring the Word in his own life and in his preaching than on any other subject.

To me, the fascinating thing about this passage isn't that the crowds were astonished at his teaching. Any ol' preacher like Tim Keller can do that. It isn't even that Jesus healed a leper. Modern medicine offers treatments for many diseases, and frankly, God has used many people over the years as agents of direct and miraculous healing. No, the amazing thing to me here is the final statement Jesus makes to the leper, "And Jesus said to him, See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them."

Say nothing to anyone? A huge crowd had just followed Jesus down from the mountain. The leper was kneeling there before Jesus in the middle of a great throng! Think of it. Why would Jesus be saying this to the man with a huge crowd around. If I had just been healed of a deadly disease I'd be excitedly going from neighbor to neighbor telling one after another what the preacher had done for me.

There are two things to notice. The first is that Jesus doesn't need to be the focus of attention here. He heals the man, but after that there's no preaching. There's no lesson Jesus wants to use this occasion to highlight. He simply had compassion and the authority to accomplish the healing. Secondly, Jesus is very concerned to do what Scripture requires. His reference to Moses is from Leviticus 14:2-32. He tells the man to follow Scripture. I think that if it had been me I'd have probably taken the opportunity to consolidate my congregation. I'd have called for follow-up meetings and most likely we'd have had a healing crusade for weeks following. I might have even started a non-profit and named it after myself. But I guess that's not how Jesus does things.


January 20, 2009 Knowing and Building

READ: Matthew 7:21-27
21 “Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
22 On that day many will say to me, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?
23 And then will I declare to them, I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.

24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.
25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.
26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.
27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.

Jama and I in Portsmouth, New Hampshire the other day with my son and future daughter-in-law. We were looking for a place to have the reception after their wedding. It is really hard to find any place that won't charge you an obscene amount just to have a party. Did you know that the average american wedding reception is estimated at between $23,000 and $30,000? Does anyone really have that much money to throw around for a 4 hour party?

Like I said, we were hunting for "the" place. That's when we came across The Portsmouth Pearl. It is a reception hall on Pearl Street, which is in a sort of dodgy part of town. The hall itself is really nice. When we walked in the first thing we noticed was that the building was quite old. There is no real lobby, and there are semi-circular stairs swooping up on both sides ascending to the great hall above. What was this place originally, I had to ask. My answer came when I walked outside and found the historic marker on the front of the building:

Originally built as a Freewill Baptist Church, The Portsmouth Pearl was sold to the People's Baptist Church in 1915 and served the seacoast African-American community until the 1980's. During that period, it was the center of Black society in Portsmouth. It was here that Martin Luther King, Jr. preached in 1952, while still a divinity student at Boston University.

How quickly time forgets a place. Was the Free-Will Baptist church built on sand? Or is the life of a church much more complex than that? Certainly Dr. King did "great things in Jesus name". Then why didn't this mult-cultural church last more than 125 years? I think the answer is in erosion. Anyone who has lived in an old house will tell you that the fastest way to "end" the life of the house is to let the foundation deteriorate. Old foundations can be the strongest, if properly maintained. But if you let the mortar fall off over time, if you don't keep watch for infestations in the beams and sills, if you don't watch out for rot, pretty soon you're living in a "knock-down".

Just so in our lives. I may have a vital relationship with Christ today, but erosion can happen at any time. And while my eternal security is assured by Scripture, I don't ever want to be found wanting at the Last Day. It is a pity we can't build dynasties for Jesus. But each person's life with God is their own ultimately. What my adult children do with the foundations of faith is their own. Each parent builds the strongest foundations for their children that they know how. But the maintenance is up to the "homeowner". Once I've turned the keys over to them, there's no more time to add mortar to the stone. That's why it is so important that we give our children the best we've got when it comes to faith. But ultimately, it is just as important that we look to the condition of our own foundation. You may have built a great amount of Bible knowledge when you were a young Christian. You may have great stories to tell about ministry adventures with your high school or college friends. But what stories are you and Jesus writing together today?


January 19, 2009 Being and Doing

READ: Matthew 7:12-20
12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.
14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?
17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.
18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.
19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

“To be is to do”–Socrates.
“To do is to be”–Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Do be do be do”–Frank Sinatra.

The origin of this little triad originated in Kurt Vonnegut's 1982 novel, Deadeye Dick, and has become a regular part of the popular culture. We've all seen it on a bathroom wall somewhere. I confess I've never read the novel, though now I think I may go out and find a copy. But the bathroom-philosopher is actually asking a really important question. What's more important, character or actions?

In verse 12 doing seems to be the crux of the matter. And Jesus seems to be backing that assertion up by saying "this is the Law and the Prophets." And the western evangelical church has used that idea to hold people's feet to the flames on issues of behavior. "Enter by the narrow gate" can only mean one thing: what you do is of primary concern to God, and if you don't behave something awful will happen to you.

Now, recognizing that Jesus may well not have said verse 12 in the same sermon as verses 13-14 or verses 15ff for that matter, there is a reason why Matthew puts these sayings in such close proximity. Just as a pastor may draw excerpts from several places in a book as a Scripture lesson so he can make a point in a sermon, Matthew may well have drawn these three statements together just in the same way Vonnegut does.

Jesus seems headed in the direction of legalism with his offering of The Golden Rule in verse 12 and the follow-up that there is only a very narrow way that leads to life. But then why does he warn us to look out for ravenous wolves masquarading as sheep? Ah! Because, as Bob Dole tried to get the american public to accept in 1996, "Character Counts".

The false prophets of Jesus' day were all about "doing the right thing". They were meticulous in insisting that people follow the law to its last iota. And contrary to popular God-talk, it wasn't that they had missed the "heart of the law" -- that's the kind of thing people say who are trying to wriggle out of any responsibility to the law in their lives. Nor is there a yin-yang to this. It is NOT true that there is a little truth in every lie. Jesus calls these people false prophets because what they were teaching about God was simply false. A narrow legalism without love is not the way of God, nor is a liberalism that allows people to do anything they like and never challenges the behavior because it isn't "loving" to "judge". What we call "character" in modern society turns out to be a kind of worldly wisdom that makes street philosophers into pop icons. To really apply Jesus' words here character doesn't trump action; action doesn't trump character. Neither comes first or is the starting point. Jesus is challenging us to have both and to care more about the Lord and his ways "known or to be made known," as the early Congregational liturgy says, than about anything else.



History is bunk.
-- Henry Ford
Henry Ford is bunk.
-- History

Thursday, January 22, 2009

January 17, 2009 Judging and Asking

READ: Matthew 7:1-11
1 “Judge not, that you be not judged.
2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.
3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?
4 Or how can you say to your brother, Let me take the speck out of your eye, when there is the log in your own eye?
5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.

6 “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.

7 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.
8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.
9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?
10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?
11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

There is a natural comparison to be made between the two halves of this passage. First, let's understand what it means to judge. Or rather, let's understand what it doesn't mean. Stating the truth of a matter is not judging. But stating the truth in order to lower the position of another or get them in trouble? That's judging. The whole purpose of judging is to elevate yourself above another. Judging is telling without analysis. It is also taking from another their position or pride or place out of self-interest.

When Jesus tells us to ask... seek... knock... it is an invitation to analyze. And when we ask and seek and knock we are not only analyzing our own situation, we're also analyzing the situation of the one at whose door we knock. The bigot knows no such luxury. He reacts. He never acts. Moreover, he is never in a position of need. He will be master over all and will have everything on his own terms. But the one who asks, enquires. The one who seeks, learns. The one who knocks, listens intently for a response. The one who asks already knows he is a beggar. The one who seeks already knows he is looking for something he does not yet have. The one who knocks has not yet discerned that this is indeed the right door. He is living in hopeful expectation that it may be the right one.

I was really frustrated with the cable TV company the other day. I had been on hold on the phone for over 30 minutes. The worst of it was that part of that time I was listening to the most inane muzak you could imagine. This is torture for a classically trained musician of high character such as myself. So, when the poor woman came on the phone and asked me to spell Northwood for her a second time, I popped my cork. Without asking whether the volume on my phone was set high enough or whether there was static on the line I simply blurted out, "Are you not intelligent enough to spell Northwood?!!" To her credit, she politely said, "I'm hanging up now," and was gone from the line, leaving me to endure another 30 minute wait. She had every right. I had been rude and judgemental.

It takes work to be a person who asks and seeks and knocks. It also takes humility.


Monday, January 19, 2009

January 16, 2009 Treasure and Anxiety

READ: Matthew 6:19-34
19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal,
20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.
21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light,
23 but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?
28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin,
29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or What shall we wear?
32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.
33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Here's a collection of sayings all about what we "lay up". That's a fancy way of talking about the things we store or collect or build one upon another that affect our lives. A lot has been said about our 44th president recently. There's a lot of promise going into his inaugural. There's a lot of planning and preparation going on. This is a man who has invested a great deal in getting where he is. Have you looked at Jimmy Carter (#39), George H.W. Bush (#41), Bill Clinton (#42) or even George W. Bush (#43) recently. They're looking pretty tired and old. Why is that? They each started their presidency with that same enthusiasm. They each invested a lot in getting to be president.

You'd think they'd have built even more excitement having had all that power and money to throw around for 4 or 8 years. But actually, the reverse is true. They're right. You can't take it with you. In fact, the genius of our American system of government is exactly in knowing when to leave power behind. Power and glory, money and fame -- none of these can be stored.

At the end of the 1968 movie "Patton" the voice of George C. Scott is heard saying this, "For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes, his children, robed in white stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning that all glory... is fleeting."

General Patton worked his way up from West Point cadet to 4-Star General. He had everything he wanted. And then, just as he was about to retire, on December 21, 1945 -- not even six months after the end of World War 2, Patton was struck and killed by a run-away truck while riding in his jeep. Ironically, the jeep was traveling no more than 20 miles per hour. Patton loved the Army, probably loved war with his whole heart. His treasure was definitely where his heart was.

What are you investing yourself in? Is it your job? Your family? Your spouse? Your position in life? Wouldn't it be great if we could take all that with us to present to the King at the Last Day. But as Job said, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, And naked I shall return there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD." (Job 1:21) Actually, the only thing we CAN take with us when we go is the Lord. Even those souls we've won for him belong to him anyway. They aren't ours to own or even brag about. My suggestion is that you invest everything you can into Christ and your relationship with him. That's what you'll have at the end.


January 15, 2009 The Lord's Prayer and Fasting

READ: Matthew 6:5-18
5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.
8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread,
12 and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,
15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,
18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

There is a pattern I’d like to point out that Jesus has set up in his preaching. Almost all preachers have idiomatic expressions they use that mark their teaching. These are patterns of speech and repeated phrases that are the stuff of composition. You can always tell Mozart from Beethoven, for instance because certain phrases and rhythm patterns show up time and again. So it is with Jesus. His pattern here is “And when you…” followed by “but when you…”

There are three of these sayings here. The first (vs. 5-6) has to do with hypocrisy; the second (vs. 7-15) has to do with forgiveness, and the third (16-18) has to do with fasting. We lose sight of the forest here because the trees of what we call The Lord’s Prayer are so dense.

So many of us feel like hyprocrites. We sin during the week and then show up at church and are invited to pray. Is that hypocrisy? Or is that the natural course of life with the Lord? He knows we are sinners. That’s no secret. And he knows we aren’t perfect. As we saw several days ago, when Jesus challenged the Pharisees to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” he wasn’t saying we could somehow become sinless. He was intentionally going over-the-top in order to point out to us just how needy we are before him. No, it is not hypocritical to come and sit down with your brothers and sisters, all of whom share your own same frailties, and speak the truth (Eph. 4:15) with your neighbor and with God. What is hypocritical is when we pray such generalities that no truth is ever spoken, no hurts ever revealed, no lies ever confronted, no power over us ever broken. Anyone can pray for the sick, for the dying, for world and national situations, and feel like they’ve “done a good thing”. But that God should do the good thing in you through prayer? Most of us fear what that kind of repentance would be like, what that kind of intimacy might mean. The real hypocrisy is when you stand and pray in public and begin to like the sound of your own voice.

The section that contains the familiar words of The Lord’s Prayer really has to do with recognizing our need and also the opportunity of forgiveness. Each verse is about recognition of need. In verse 7 Jesus talks about how the “gentiles” (that is, everybody else who isn’t a Jew) make long prayers hoping to be heard. I guess they figure they’re SO much in need that maybe the gods will hear them if they say enough. Verse 8 creates the antithesis: your Father knows what you need before you ask. It also creates a dilemma for anyone who isn’t content with a God who invites us to pray. Unbelief demands of God, “Then why should I pray, if God already knows what I need?” Look, the most beautiful, the most awesome, the most majestic, the most powerful, the most loving Being in, out or beyond the universe has invited you to talk to him about whatever is going on in your world. Why do you want to pass THAT up?

Verse 9 is the answer to that objection: God is Father. God is set apart. We, as children, are in profound need of fellowship with Father God. In verse 10 there is no more helpless position we can put ourselves in than to admit that our world is HIS kingdom and that what makes our world work is HIS will. By verse 11 we’ve realized we are no better than beggars. In many old-world cultures people lived their lives in a particular caste of society. There was no mobility possible except by great effort. Those in a beggar class would go to the same land-owners doors every day and hold out their hand as if to say, “Give me my daily bread, please.” This is a position of abject need.

Verse 12 should be familiar to anyone with a VISA or Mastercard, a mortgage or car loan. Wouldn’t you like to see that revolving charge suddenly disappear? Imagine if you knew someone who could “take care of it” with a snap of their fingers. You wouldn’t be in need any more. What a great thought. And verse 13 is like it, but expresses our helplessness in the face of the greatest enemy we might confront. And there is God, inviting us again to ask his aide.

Now, if I haven’t lost you, here comes the “but when you…” of this rather long thought. It started back in verse 7 “And when you pray… (recognize your position of need),” and it ends with the most startling, terrible word Jesus could have given us, “(But when you pray)…forgive others their debts. There is some kind of maxim to be made when it comes to us being the hardest on those who share our particular faults. If you are a critical person you are most likely to be nettled the most by the behavior of a critic. I have one friend who is so disorganized that he drives me nuts. I think his study habits are atrocious. But have you ever seen my desk mid-week? We need to recognize our need for forgiveness – in fact our complete neediness before God – before we will ever be able to forgive those who have hurt us.

Finally comes a word about fasting. Unless you’ve been made to go without a meal by a well-meaning doctor about to test you for some reason, you may never have experienced what it is like to fast for a day. I can tell you, and my pride is welling up even now as I prepare to tell you, that by the third day of a prolonged fast most of us are feeling pretty virtuous. It is like the compensation for not eating is in getting to tell our friends what we’ve been doing and why. Without going up on some mountain alone, try fasting for a few days and not telling others what you’re up to. It isn’t easy to go about your normal business while fasting. But if you do, there’s an interesting “compensation” to be had: by not telling others you will find yourself telling this and oh-so-much-more to God.

I know this was a long entry, but this teaching is one of the key statements Jesus made in all of the gospels. I pray the Holy Spirit will use it in your life.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

January 14, 2009 Loving Enemies and Giving to the Needy

READ: Matthew 5:43-6:4
43 “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
2 “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

This is a totally loaded saying. It is like a howitzer all charged up and ready to fire. First, in both paragraphs Jesus starts by blasting those who think they are religious. In the first instance he nails people who think they have a safe system all figured out.

Leviticus 19:18 says, "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD."

There is something that happens to people who make a statement like this a rule for their lives and refuse to consider the converse might be true or fail to go beyond the strict confines of their "law": they become hardened and inflexible. Their world becomes small and confined. What they imagined as a place of safety becomes a prison, and they are unable to truly be in relationship to anyone because their law has become so mechanical and automatic that there is no give and take. There is only the law. That's why Jesus ties loving enemies to being sons of our Father. If all we are is automatons -- little robots who obey the law of God -- we may do all the right things, according to the law, but we cannot love. Robots can't love. They can only obey. But if we have to wrestle out what love really means, especially when the very people we're trying to love have hurt us and are opposed to us, then we begin to really see them and not just boil them down to what they've been or done.

In Victor Hugo's epic Les Miserables, chief inspector Javert pursues Jean Valjean through a lifetime, because his whole world is founded in the belief that people are either good or bad and that a convict can never be anything more than a convict. Even when Valjean rises repeatedly to positions of respect in his community, Javert cannot see beyond his youthful indiscretion of having stolen a loaf of bread because he was hungry. When the pursuit finally ends, Javert kills himself rather than live in a world where Valjean might possibly be found to be good.

The same can be said of Shaw's Higgins, as quoted by Eliza Doolittle in Lerner and Lowe's 1959 musical, "My Fair Lady". Her summation of her teacher is this: "I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower girl and always will. But I know I shall always be a lady to Colonel Pickering because he always treats me as a lady and always will."

We are not saying here that sin is not sin or suggesting that we simply overlook the wrongs people have done to us. But anyone who has been a son or a daughter knows that in order to really live in a family there is a lot of "stuff" that happens that you have to work through. And sins need to be dealt with and forgiven, hurts need to be brought into the open and healed.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

January 13, 2009 No Ifs, Ands, or Buts

READ: Matthew 5:33-42
33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.
34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,
35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
37 Let what you say be simply Yes or No; anything more than this comes from evil.

38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.
41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

Beginning way back at verse 12 Jesus began a series of sayings that all have a first line that begins with "You..." and a following line that begins with "But I tell you..." They are:

You are the salt of the earth...
But if salt has lost its taste...
You are the light of the world...
And a city on a hill cannot be hidden...
You have heard it said... do not murder...
But I say to you anyone who is angry...
You have heard it said... do not commit adultery
But I say to you anyone who looks at a woman...
You have heard it said... get a certificate of divorce
But I say to you anyone who divorces his wife...
You have heard it said... do not swear falsely...
But I say to you do not take an oath at all...
You have heard it said "an eye for an eye..."
But I say to you do not resist an evil man...
You have heard it said love your neighbor...
But I say to you love your enemies...

The genius of these sayings is that each one demonstrates the small-heartedness of the teachers of Jesus' day. They had convinced themselves of their own righteousness before God by using the safest interpretation they could come up with in matters judicial and religious. They couldn't even imagine what kind of standard a really holy God would demand of them. And yet they demanded terrible punishments from simple sinners like you and me.

Jesus blows these "teachers" out of the water by offering such extreme interpretations of these legal passages that even the legalists of his day would have been appalled by what he said. I think it is hilarious that the legalists of OUR day use the saying about divorce as a proof-text that no one should ever re-marry after a divorce. I don't believe that's what Jesus was driving at in the least. The complacent "teachers" had divorce all neatly worked out so it would be easy enough for any of their cronies to get a divorce any time they liked. Jesus says, "look... if you're going to make it that easy to divorce let's broaden the terms of sin just that wide: anyone who divorces commits adultery... anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery... and while we're at it... anyone who LOOKS at a woman in lust is guilty of adultery.

He ends the whole discussion with a final blow: you want to pronounce judgment on your fellow men and women? Fine. Then BE PERFECT. Your heavenly father is.

You see? None of us is in a position to judge. None of us is above reproach. ALL of us are, alike, depraved sinners desperately in need of grace. As I said a few days ago, until we realize our own need before God, we'll never be in a position to be blessed. This is, however, no license to go out and live any way you like. This is a license to love God with your whole heart and do what pleases him.


January 12, 2009 Lust and Divorce

READ: Matthew 5:27-32
27 “You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery.
28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.
30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

31 “It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.
32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

There is a common root between lust and divorce. Both are motivated by selfishness. Well, I suppose all sin is motivated by selfishness. But the particular kind of selfishness these two sins are rooted in is called adultery. To make a terrible pun, there isn't anything adult about it at all. Adultery is what happens when a person hasn't learned how to be faithful to another. In our adolescence this is what we see all the time in friendships. We want to hang out with one friend one day and another friend about 10 minutes later. But we don't want to "hurt" the first friend, so we make up some excuse why we're busy and move on. We weren't really busy, we were just done with our friend and expected them to wait around until we came back.

As we get older our lust takes on this same quality if we will let it. We are taken up in one sexual relationship after another in our late teens and early 20s... at least, that's what the modern age would have us do. It isn't wrong they say. it is just that kind of learning everyone has to do on the way to maturity. But let's call a spade a spade. You want what you want when you want it and if it isn't yours to have, you'll simply take it. That's what lust is.

Finally, in marriage adultery finds its fullest expression when our spouse isn't enough to satisfy our sexual urges and we go looking for release somewhere beyond the covenant we made. But let's be honest about adultery: it isn't just having sex... or perhaps it isn't even primarily the physical thing we are doing that is the unfaithfulness. Our adultery can easily be with so many "others". It may be your career that draws you away from your spouse. It may be something as innocent as some sport or club or activity that, in-and-of itself is good. But if it draws you away from your commitment to your husband or wife, for you it is sin. Ask anyone who has been in "the ministry" for 10 or 15 years. They'll tell you what a threat the desire to be loved and needed by others can be to the covenant of marriage. The worst is when we let our commitment to the church outweigh the love we spoke of at the altar. That is an adultery deserving of divorce!

Let's get our priorities straight, beloved! There are times when honoring God means you don't go to church. Most of the time, the best thing you can do for your marriage is to engage with your spouse IN your relationship with God, wherever and however the opportunity arises.


January 10, 2009 Anger

READ: Matthew 5:21-26
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.
22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, You fool! will be liable to the hell of fire.
23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you,
24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison.
26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

This passage is a great example of what I was talking about yesterday. It breaks down into three distinct teachings that probably weren't said by Jesus all at the same time. But if you wanted a condensed look at Jesus' teaching on anger, here it is.

The first 2 verses are Jesus taking the "teachers of the law" to task for their faulty interpretation. "You have heard it said" is like saying, "You people who have been running the synagogues have been holding one kind of judgment over people's heads, and you think you're doing it God's way. You want to appeal to the perfect standard of a perfect God? It isn't murder that will bring judgment on you. Just being angry is enough! Hey, you want to haul people into your courts for what they're thinking... look out!"

The second 2 verses are about anger in personal relationships. Isn't it interesting that Jesus brings church into it? Well... not church... God. You see, "leave your gift at the altar" meant something very different in the jewish context than it does today. For the Jews, you really weren't "in God's presence" until you were directly before the altar. So a triangular relationship is set up in these verses. It isn't just you and me having an argument. It is you, me, and God. And you and I can't experience our relationship with each other apart from our individual relationships with God. And you and I can't experience our relationship with God in its fullness until we are reconciled with each other. The fact is you and I can not come to God alone. Modern evangelical thought would tell us otherwise, but that is such a "western" construct. We need our brothers and sisters, however many there are and in whatever context we know them, in order to really know God at all. Even if you live in a tiny outpost in the woods (those of you who've never been to Nottingham can laugh all you want to... this is a BIG town when it comes to fellowship with believers), you won't make it alone.

The final 2 verses have to do with civil relationships. As believers we are told by Paul not to have lawsuits with each other. But what happens if someone outside the family of God brings suit against me? I need to be prepared to "come to terms" with him/her as quickly as possible. The people who bought our house in Kensington, CT told us the deal would be cancelled if we wouldn't agree to pay for a new roof on the house. I pondered what the right thing would be. This is a young couple with three small children. He is still in grad school. She's a nurse. If I just "gave" them $5000 to put a roof on it seemed to me they might get into a situation where they simply wouldn't have the money when it came time to do the work. So I suggested putting the money in escrow for up to 5 years. If they don't use it to put a roof on in that time, it reverts to us. This protects my interest in the money and it protects their desire to do the roof. I also felt this way I'd be doing what is right for the house itself. The couple readily agreed to the proposal, and the sale went forward. The "argument" that was a civil case became something I could be proud of doing even though it ended up costing me.

Jesus has given us a model for learning wisdom from our anger: wisdom in dealing with the judgments of others; wisdom in dealing with anger in our interpersonal relationships; wisdom in knowing how to deal effectively in civil matters.


January 9, 2009 Salt, Light, and Fulfilling the Law

READ: Matthew 5:13-20
13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.
15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.
16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

There's an important ground-rule for understanding the gospels. They aren't biographies of Jesus. Actually, the best word on what they are comes from one of the gospel writers himself. Luke says at the beginning of The Acts of the Apostles, "In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach..." That's really all a gospel is.

When we start to look at a passage like the Sermon on the Mount we need to understand that it most likely wasn't ONE sermon, but rather should be seen as a series of things Jesus said to the crowds. That's why it doesn't read like most sermons do. The writing seems to have several points where there's a disconnect as a new paragraph starts. Since no one would deliver a message this way, the general thinking is that the Sermon on the Mount is quotes from many of Jesus' messages.

So, verse 13 can now stand on its own, and we begin to ask whom Jesus is addressing. Is he speaking to the crowds or to his disciples or perhaps to the religious leaders? It doesn't make sense for this to be a word addressed to a group of disciples who are just starting out in a relationship with Jesus. They would be profoundly excited to share the message of the Kingdom with anyone they met! It also doesn't really make sense that he'd be addressing the crowds that had come to hear him. They aren't the salt of the earth. They aren't people who have separated themselves from the world system. In fact, they are nothing more than just that sort of person who gets caught up IN the world system. They were coming out because this was a new teaching, a media event, a big show. But if this saying is addressed to those who have considered themselves the guardians of the faith, leaders in the church, life-long believers, then it begins to make sense.

Have you been a Christian for a long time? Has your relationship with God gotten kind of routine? Or worse, have you become like so many creatures of the church -- a cynic standing by while Jesus preaches and saying, "Go ahead, excite me. I dare you." If so, then take the first phrase and meditate on what it means, "YOU are the salt of the earth," and take Jesus at his word when he says that's what he wants you to be. No matter how many of us there are, we can never hope to take the world by conquest. Don't even begin to plan how you're going to "change the world for Jesus." But we can be the seasoning the world is hungry for. Let's make them crave salt so much that they can't get enough of it.

My eyes are dry
My faith is old
My heart is hard
My prayers are cold
And I know how I ought to be
Alive to you and dead to me

But what can be done
For an old heart like mine
Soften it up
With oil and wine
The oil is you, your spirit of love
Please wash me anew
With the wine of your blood
-- Keith Green, 1978



Friday, January 9, 2009

January 8, 2009 The Beatitudes

READ: Matthew 5:1-12
1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: 3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Most commentators I've read about this section focus on the specific categories of people Jesus talks about. But think for a second about the relationship this passage has with what Jesus says in Revelation:

“‘So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.

“‘For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

“‘I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.

I don't think what Jesus was driving at here at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount was so much how blessed the poor, the mourning, the meek, the hungry, the thirsty, the merciful, pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, and the reviled are. With Jesus (and we'll see this again and again), most of the journey is in recognition. If you don't realize you are hungry or thirsty, if you aren't aware you're in mourning or poor, if it hasn't occurred to you to offer mercy to another in their sin, if you don't know there is something wrong with your heart, don't know the trouble you've caused in relationships, have never thought to speak the name of Jesus boldly so as to risk persecution, you'll never know his blessings either. We either recognize our need for Jesus or we don't.

The reason Jesus was so hard on the religious leaders of his day was because they believed themselves to be righteous in themselves. Though they talked about God all the time, they had never really faced their personal need. Well, most of them, anyway. Remember that it was Nicodemus (a member of the ruling counsel) who came to Jesus at night because he realized his need. So many people never ask the question or admit they have a need or a problem because they're afraid someone might judge them or think less of them. Well, on behalf of your brothers and sisters I want to make an offer: we're here and we're just as damaged and hurting as you are. That's why we've fled to Jesus. Come... let's talk.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

January 7, 2009 Jesus begins his ministry

READ: Matthew 4:12-25
12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee.

13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,
14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15 The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.

17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

18 While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.
19 And he said to them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.
20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
21 And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them.
22 Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

23 And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.
24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.
25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

I was at a meeting at Seminary of the East in Auburn, MA. All of us were new to one another, so we went around the room and told where our ministry was and what we did. I told everyone I am the pastor of Nottingham Congregational Church in... well... I just got all these blank looks. Finally one tweedy type asked the obvious: where is Nottingham?

Don't they teach geography in schools these days?

Nottingham, of course, is just a little closer to Manchester than to Portsmouth, but nearly on a straight line between the two. By going just a bit to one side of Portsmouth it is an easy run of about the same distance to Rochester. But the best and closest bay with a port of any size is really at Boston. These are all very famous places that trip off my friends' lips with that known familiarity that comes from living in a place for a long time. The only problem is that I was just describing Nottingham, UK, not Nottingham, NH.

As Jesus began his ministry he moved away from all that was familiar to him in Nazareth. But do we know anything about how far he went when he moved? Nazareth is generally in the northern part of Israel, about 94 miles north of Jerusalem. Nazareth is, however, only about 29 miles from Capernaum, which sits almost at the northern-most point of the Sea of Galilee. So it wasn't like Jesus was going off to a foreign land. Capernaum is part of the same district as Nazareth. The whole area is sometimes called "Galilee of the Gentiles" because it is so close to Lebanon and Syria. In fact, it is a toss-up as to which is closer to Nazareth: Jerusalem or Damascus.

Why does any of this matter? Perhaps God was "saying" something to the world by having Jesus conduct most of his public ministry way up in Capernaum. If his intent was only to offer the gospel to those of Jewish ancestry, he probably would have left Jesus in Bethlehem, only 6 miles from Jerusalem, and fairly well centered on the territory of Israel. But for Jesus to spend most of his time closer to Beruit and Damascus than to Jerusalem is like saying, "Messiah is not going to come just to Israel. He's coming for ALL."


Monday, January 5, 2009

January 6, 2009: The Baptism and Temptation of Jesus

READ: Matthew 3:13-4:11

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me? 15 But Jesus answered him, Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness. Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. 1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to him, If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread. 4 But he answered, It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 and said to him, If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, and “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. 7 Jesus said to him, Again it is written, You shall not put the Lord your God to the test. 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me. 10 Then Jesus said to him, Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve. 11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.

What strange creatures we are!  God comes to us and offers us real intimacy with him and we wave him off claiming it wouldn't be "appropriate".   Think of it!  Jesus comes to John and asks him to baptize him.  How is that intimate, you ask?  Have you ever washed another human being who wasn't an infant or a lover?  Those of us who have been care-givers to the elderly know what this is like.  It is both intimate and embarrassing.  I suspect John was feeling some of these same things when Jesus -- his cousin -- someone he had most likely grown up knocking about with -- came to him asking to be baptized.  It was intimate because this was John's cousin.  

It is a lot easier to baptize someone who is a stranger than when it is your own flesh and blood.  As a pastor, I have served communion to hundreds of people at one time.  They shuffle up to the altar and I feel nothing as I mechanically serve them the bread and wine.  But when I serve the Eucharist to the Elders at Nottingham; when I am fortunate enough to serve it to Tim and Beth (my own kids) or Jama; when I hold the cup to the lips of someone I know and love all the feelings and complexities of that relationship come into play and I am no longer a pastor fulfilling a rite of the church.  I am suddenly a shepherd, a discipler, a father, a husband.  And there are times I can barely choke out the words, "The body of Christ, broken for you."  It is at those times I really know what John was going through when he said, "I need to be baptized by you."  "Don't come to me and ask me to do this!  It is too powerful of a moment and I am so unworthy of your love."

Ah, but that's when the tempter comes with his lies.  Notice that twice Satan says to Jesus, "IF you are the Son of God..."  He is trying to wear away at Jesus' self-knowledge.  He is trying to bring into question whether Jesus really IS who he believes himself to be.  And when that doesn't work he tempts Jesus to worship someone other than who he knows his Father to be.  When we have those intimate, powerful, human-and-yet-divine moments where we know that God is calling us to bring together our humanity, his divinity, and the humanity of another in that unique triangular relationship that only God can cause, do not wonder that there is a voice close at your ear saying, "Don't do it!"  It will be a voice telling you that you are not good enough, or the moment isn't right, or you don't have the authority to say or do what you know in your heart God is calling you to do.  At such a moment there is only one thing you need to say, even before you continue the Eucharistic moment: "Be gone, Satan!  For it is written, you shall love the Lord your God and him only shall you serve!"