Giving–Conscious and Unconscious Spending: a Reflection on James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a and Proverbs 31:10-31

We consciously and unconsciously spend from our Christian wallet, our life’s wallet. That is, how we spend our intellectual, emotional, spiritual, financial, physical, and time capital is sometimes with awareness or not. A USA Today poll back in 2013 cites an anger and fear epidemic among Americans:

According to a new USA Today study, the share of Americans who report feeling angry or irritable has surged from 50 percent just two years ago to 60 percent today. A Harvard Medical School study from 2012 found that nearly two-thirds of American teens admit to having anger attacks involving the destruction of property, threats of violence, or engaging in violence. “Some are describing this as ‘America’s anger epidemic,’” says one New York news website. It cites unemployment, the economy, and for those who have work, overworking, as contributing factors. But we’re not only angry. We’re also afraid… of one another. “For four decades,” reports the Associated Press, “a gut-level ingredient of democracy—trust in the other fellow—has been quietly draining away. These days, only one-third of Americans say most people can be trusted. Half felt that way in 1972.” The AP article concludes, “Forty years later, a record high of nearly two-thirds say, ‘you can’t be too careful’ in dealing with people.”[1]

There is wisdom here, my friends. Remember, wisdom is knowledge that has proven the test of time. I find wisdom compelling, in that it beckons me to keep examining how anger and fear inhibit the spending of my intellectual, emotional, spiritual, financial, physical, and time capital.

Conscious and unconscious spending is about character and having congruity between our Christian words and actual behavior. Our Christian speech cannot be unconsciously peeled away from or Christian practice.[2]Proverbs 31:10-31 is instructive in this regard to character. Unfortunately, this text is often and usually used on Mother’s Day, which provides limited use of this powerful and instructive text. This portrait of a godly woman is incredible, but it has been used to keep women in a subservient and lesser role than men as opposed to lifting such character traits to speak against the power structures that oppress and further “victimize” women when they speak up for themselves in the injustices they experience. Far too often women are not accepted as peers or respected. Often, women do not receive equal rights, pay, opportunity, status, or accountability. The characteristics of the woman described in Proverbs 31 should be embraced by men in that as we embrace the strong characteristics of the female gender, we will better see how we need each other to fulfill God’s design for humanity and its salvation. Our lives, as Christian wallets, are lived uniquely yet similarly by women and men. H. James Hopkins writes that there is “needed work that is best accomplished together, work that expresses faith, hope, and love in ways that build people up and bring people together.”[3]

Let me conclude with three questions, which the text in James beckons us to ask. First, who is wise among you? We must consciously assess that our lives cannot spend to feed ego or to fulfill some need driven by envy. Second, from what do conflicts, and disputes arise? We must consciously assess how our spending can easily be driven by selfish ambition, cravings, and coveting. And third, what does God want? We must consciously begin, more and more, to submit ourselves to God and God’s ways. Spending our intellectual, emotional, spiritual, financial, physical, and time capital must advance God’s mission not our own. Mike Slaughter in The Christian Wallet writes, “I don’t believe that Jesus literally wants us to give away everything we own, have, or enjoy. We must start spending, giving, and living with the conscience of Christ.”[4]

Gordon MacDonald relates the following personal story of living with the conscience of Christ, when a friend who he was caught in a conflict that could have easily spun out of control asked MacDonald for advice. MacDonald simply said, “Someone has to show a little dignity in this thing. It really should start with you.”[5]It wasn’t long after that counsel that Gordon MacDonald needed to heed his own advice. He was scheduled to fly from Boston’s Logan Airport to Chicago. When checking in, the agent pointed out that he was scheduled to fly not out of Boston, but Manchester, New Hampshire. MacDonald asked whether she could solve the problem and she could for an additional $360. MacDonald was shocked.

“I’m a 100k customer on your airline. I give you guys a lot of my business. Can’t you just get me on the flight for free as a courtesy?” But the boarding-pass attendant said her hands were tied. MacDonald would have to pay the $360.The testy situation had reached its decisive moment. Though the problem was a result of MacDonald’s incorrect booking, he felt “depreciated, blown off, victimized by a big company that seemed to put a monetary value on every transaction. The ungodly part of me wanted to say something sarcastic (about friendly skies, for example) that would hurt the other person as I felt hurt. Hurting her would help me to feel that I’d hurt the rest of the company—all the way up to the CEO. Perhaps she’d call and tell him how I felt so that his day would be ruined like mine was about to be ruined.”But then he remembered the advice: “Someone has to show a little dignity in this thing. It really should start with you.” “I said to the boarding-pass lady, Before I pay you the $360, let me say one more thing. Six weeks ago, I came here to take a flight to the West Coast and discovered that the airline had cancelled the flight and hadn’t told me. They said they were sorry, and I forgave them.Then two weeks later, on a flight to Europe, the airline lost my luggage (for two days). They said they were really, really sorry. And, again, I forgave them. Last week, on a third flight, they got me to my destination two hours late. Your people fell all over themselves saying how sorry they were about the delays. And you know what? I forgave them again. Now here I am—fourth time in six weeks—wanting to fly with you again. See how forgiving I am?But this morning the problem’s mine. I forgot that I scheduled myself out of the other airport. And I am really, really sorry that I made this terrible mistake.You guys have said ‘sorry’ to me three times in the last six weeks, and, each time I have forgiven you. Now I would like to say ‘sorry’ to you and ask you to forgive me and put me on that flight without charging me the $360. You have three ‘sorries,’ and now I’m asking for one. Does that make any sense to you?The boarding-pass lady took her own time-out and considered my idea and then said, ‘It really does make sense to me. Let me see what I can do.’ She typed and typed and typed into her computer—as if she was writing a novella—and then looked up with a smile. ‘We can do this,’ she said. Two minutes later I was off to the gate with my boarding pass.That morning dignity won. The airline forgave me. The skies were indeed friendly. I didn’t have to pay an extra $360.”MacDonald offers these closing thoughts: “This increasingly crowded, noisy world is generating more and more of these kinds of moments where no one is really doing something bad … just stupid (me, in this case). But because our human dignity is eroded by these constant clashes, even our innocent mistakes point to the possibility for hateful exchanges and vengeful acts. You have to keep alert lest you get sucked into saying and doing things that you’ll regret an hour later.”[6]

Conscious and unconscious spending of intellectual, emotional, spiritual, financial, physical, and time capital is all about being wise, handling conflicts and disputes appropriately, and doing what God wants.

Have you noticed the “Six Tips” on how to be the best neighbor posted in the courtyard? They are keep smiling, listen more, be inclusive, be generous, love unconditionally, and judge less. We all stand before God, my friends. That is why some conscious reflection on how we spend our intellectual, emotional, spiritual, financial, physical, and time capital in our Christian wallet, our life’s wallet is in order.

[1]This story is taken from http://www.preachingtoday.com as found inEric Metaxas, “Angry America,”Break Point Commentaries (12-10-13).

[2]This insight is attributed to Barbara Brown Taylor in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4(Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 63.

[3]H. James Hopkins in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, 79.

[4]Mike Slaughter, The Christian Wallet (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 19.

[5]Taken from http://www.preachingtoday.com as found in Gordon MacDonald, “Show a Little Dignity,” LeadershipJournal.net(11-23-09).

[6]Ibid.

Giving–Budgets and Values: a Reflection on Psalm 19, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38, and Proverbs 1:20-33

Say no to say yes. According to an unknown source, “Being lost is living by a set of values that systematically dismantles your life.”[1]We need values that guide our thoughts, words, and deeds. Loving God. Loving others. Two values Christians hold dearly. And, Jesus told us that they are the greatest commandment. But, we need to learn to say no to say yes.

There is wisdom here, my friends. Remember, wisdom is knowledge that has proven the test of time. I find wisdom compelling, in that it beckons me to keep hearing its voice searching me out, calling me to a deeper experience of God and others, and challenging me to trust the leading of the Holy Spirit. I hear wisdom’s voice propelling me to respond not react in the public square as racism continues to raze its ugly head as it did at the Aliso Niguel and Santa Ana football game on September 7 at Aliso Niguel High School; at intersections when a driver gets angry at me for not driving fast enough; and the busy workplace where the bottom line temps me to compromise my values. More and more, I hear the challenging voice of the Spirit to say no to react to say yes to respond in the way of Jesus.

When it comes to give for the sake of others, wisdom is essential. At the foundation of God’s wisdom about giving fully of ourselves rests this truth from God’s Word. Proverbs 1:32-33 reads, “For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.” Note these important initiatives of wisdom. First, wisdom always shows up in a moment of need. On October 2, 2006, a killer entered the one-room schoolhouse in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. The killer lined up ten young girls and shot each of them at point blank range. Five were killed. In that moment of need, wisdom beckoned the members of that community to forgive and not seek revenge. Second, when we do not listen to wisdom the intended and unintended consequences of panic overtake us. And third, when we forget the ways of God’s wisdom, we often end up saying and doing things we regret. Wisdom consistently shows up and pleads with us to say no to reactive behavior and yes to responsive behavior. Wisdom leads us to a budgeted wallet of intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and financial capital so we can avoid being overdrawn or spent.[2]Our lives are Christian wallets. H. James Hopkins writes, “To walk in wisdom is demanding. The promise that wisdom makes when she says that good things come to those who walk with her needs to be qualified by the words ‘often,’ ‘sometimes,’ and ‘it is not surprising when.’”[3]

Oh, we often say yes to things that we resent. Why do we have such a difficult time saying no? Oh, we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. We don’t want to be irresponsible. We don’t…say no for a variety of reasons. Ah, for the very same reasons, we often do not say yes, either. You know, we only have so much time in a day. We better examine our values and budget time for the things for which we have passion and our spiritual gifts match, so that when we say yes, we are more confident how the yes fits in to the grand scheme of God’s will. Mike Slaughter in The Christian Wallet emphasizes the importance of budgeting with a strong inference to all aspects of life, not just money, when he writes, “It’s common sense that you can’t reach a destination or hit a target that you haven’t identified, and budgeting is no exception.”[4]We need to budget all aspects of our lives around God’s passion and gifts in us for use in our relationships with God and others. The baseline in Psalm 19 is that the goodness, glory, and wisdom of God give us dignity as humans and lead us into yeses (responses) of gratitude. Haddon Robinson, a fine Christian and professor of homiletics and preaching writes,

Dorothy Sayers, the mystery writer, was also a devoted Christian. Dorothy Sayers was attempting to explain the moral law of God. She pointed out that in our society there are two kinds of laws. There is the law of the stop sign, and there’s the law of the fire. The law of the stop sign is a law that says the traffic is heavy on a certain street, and as a result the police department or the city council decides to erect a stop sign. They also decide that if you run that stop sign, it will cost you $25 or $30 or $35. If the traffic changes, they can up the ante. That is if too many people are running the stop sign, they can make the fine $50 or $75, or if they build a highway around the city, they can take the stop sign down, or reduce the penalty, making it only $10 if you go through. The police department or city council controls the law of the stop sign. But then she said there is also the law of the fire. And the law of the fire says if you put your hand in the fire, you’ll get burned. Now imagine that all the legislatures of all the nations of the entire world gathered in one great assembly, and they voted unanimously that here on out that fire would no longer burn. The first man or woman who left that assembly and put his or her hand in the fire would discover that the law of the fire is different than the law of the stop sign. Bound up in the nature of fire itself is the penalty for abusing it. So, Dorothy Sayers says, the moral law of God is like the law of the fire. You never break God’s laws; you just break yourself on them. God can’t reduce the penalty, because the penalty for breaking the law is bound up in the law itself.[5]

Loving God. Loving Others. It is the law of God. Say no to say yes to a budgeted life that loves God and others. And a budgeted life, like the writer of James states, is steady in its practice of faith. What? That’s right, saying no to say yes brings equilibrium to our craziness. Will we say no to our ways to say yes to God’s ways? The radical truth of Jesus will not confirm the Jesus we try to shape him to be. As Jesus told Peter in the Gospel reading, we are to deny ourselves, pick up the cross and follow Jesus in his way of life. Jesus shows us how to say no to a life of self-promotion to say yes to a life of self-giving. Say no to say yes.

[1]This quote is of unknown origin; submitted by Lee Eclov, Vernon Hills, Illinois. The citation is found on http://www.preachingtoday.com.

[2]Some ideas in this paragraph were encouraged by H. James Hopkins in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 51, 53, and 55.

[3]Ibid., 55.

[4]Mike Slaughter, The Christian Wallet (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 24.

[5]Taken from Haddon Robinson, “Crafting Illustrations,” PreachingToday.com.

Giving–Enough Already: a Reflection on Psalm 125, Mark 7:24-37, and Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

Tomorrow through Wednesday, I’ll be in Pittsburgh for a meeting of the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCCEC), a permanent committee of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which writes and administers the five standard ordination exams (the Bible Content Examination and the Senior Ordination exams of Biblical Exegesis, Theological Competence, Worship and Sacraments, and Church Polity), for those who wish to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) as Ministers of Word and Sacrament. I have been elected to a four year-term.

Standards matter. The principles that guide and instruct our lives are extremely important. In fact, how we live or don’t live by standards forms one’s reputation. It’s all about integrity, my friends. When I board my flight to Pittsburgh Monday afternoon, I will once again be reminded about three standards. The Captain gives a PA instructing us to wear our seat belts and not to congregate around the lavatories. And the lead flight attendant instructs us to put our oxygen mask on first before we assist those around us. They’re great standards. Speaking of airline standards, I ran across this fun fact.

There’s a very important letter that every pilot-in-training needs to learn about—the letter V, short for velocity. V-speeds are derived from aircraft designers and manufacturers during flight testing. Heeding to the limits of V-speeds maximizes aircraft performance and safety. The FAA has designated at least 35 different V-speeds. All of them are important, but there are six that every pilot must master.

For instance, according to the FAA manual, VRis the speed required to get a plane airborne in a reliable, predictable fashion. VSrefers to the plane’s stalling speed. VAis often called the plane’s “design maneuvering speed.” Given rough flying conditions, exceeding the VAspeed can cause structural damage to the plane. VNOis self-explanatory. It corresponds to the upper limit of the plane’s airspeed in smooth air conditions. Finally, there’s the velocity classification known as VNE, which is the absolute, never-to-be-exceeded velocity for your aircraft.[1]

We need standards. God has set them for humanity. And in dialogue with God, each one of us must develop our personal code of standards to make a better society.

When it comes to giving for the sake of others, standards are essential. At the foundation of God’s standard about giving fully of ourselves rests this truth from God’s Word. Proverbs 22:22-23 reads, “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lordpleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.” Your moral character and mine forms a community after the heart of God rooted in the peace and justice of God. Character rooted in the peace and justice of God “takes up the task of searching and seeking out the fullness of life, received as gift of God, and manifested in the particularities of everyday lived experience.”[2]God is the Creator of all of us and all of life as we know it. That’s right. All animals, fish, insects, reptiles, birds, the earth and planetary system, the sky, oceans, stars, moon, sun, and the air we breathe are created by God.

God favors the poor and God’s pursuit of justice for the downtrodden is relentless. In partnership with God, your life is given for that cause. All the capital you have in mind, heart, spirit, and finances is to be given for the sake of others to know the surpassing worth of being loved by God. That’s the point of your existence and mine.Our lives are Christian wallets. The verses in Proverbs 22 are wise nuggets of instruction. Susan T. Henry-Crowe writes, “Wise and true, these proverbs offer ideas and ‘best practices’ of how to live a life of honesty and integrity where honor, justice, and good reputation are prized.”[3]

God’s nature, presence, and activity is for you to be about favor for the poor and justice to the downtrodden. Mike Slaughter in The Christian Wallet emphasizes the importance of living a giving life for the poor and downtrodden and not having an attitude that “You’ve given enough already” when he writes, “There is no clearer indicator of our ultimate values than our financial priorities and practices—how we spend, how we live, how we save, and how we give reveal the true altar of our hearts.”[4]TheLordadvocates for the poor and downtrodden through you and me. We are to be God’s voice of peace and justice in the way we give of our time, talent, and treasure.

My friends, it’s never enough already when it comes to being a wallet of benefit for the poor and downtrodden. It was the Syrophoenician woman who demonstrated that it wasn’t enough already. She was persistent. Even for the crumbs. Jesus healed her daughter because of her immovable faith. Let us lift up Psalm 125:1, “Those who trust in the Lordare like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever.” It truly is all about the letter “V,” velocity. And our faith in Jesus Christ keeps us going.

[1]Robert Robinson, Macon, Georgia; source: Jamie Beckett,“V Is for Velocity,”Flight Training (July 2012). The illustration is found on http://www.preachingtoday.com.

[2]Stephen C. Johnson in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4(Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 29.

[3]Susan T. Henry-Crowe in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, 26.

[4]Mike Slaughter, The Christian Wallet (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 1.

Serving–Resurrection Wisdom: a Reflection on Mark 7:1-8

“Cajun humorist Justin Wilson tells the story about two boys who were neighbors. They were best of friends on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, but on Sunday they were enemies because one was a Catholic and the other was a Baptist.”[1]

Their parents didn’t like the fact that these religious differences were producing such uncongenial relations, so they agreed to have their sons visit each other’s church services so that a mutual understanding might foster a more tolerant attitude. On the first Sunday, the Baptist boy visited the Catholic church. Just before they sat down, the Catholic boy genuflected. “What’s that mean?” the Baptist boy asked. All through the mass, the Baptist boy wanted to know what this and that meant, and the little Catholic boy explained everything very nicely. The next Sunday it was the Catholic boy’s turn to visit the Baptist church. When they walked in the building, an usher handed them a printed bulletin. The little Catholic boy had never seen anything like that before in his whole life. “What’s that mean?” he asked. His Baptist friend carefully explained. When the preacher stepped into the pulpit, he carefully opened his Bible, and conspicuously took off his watch and laid it on the pulpit. “What’s that mean?” the Catholic boy asked. The Baptist boy said, “Not a darn thing!”[2]

We humans need order. We don’t do well without it. That is the point of the story. The Catholic boy explained the order to his Baptist friend, ritual act by ritual act. And the Baptist boy explained the content of the bulletin, particularly the order of service. When the preacher put his watch down, order was cast out the window. At that point, both boys new that time didn’t matter. Why? The service was going to end when the preacher determined it would end.

Order is important. But, we can abuse it when we make the various aspects of order more important than the anticipated outcome. Mark 7 suggests we wise up. Yes, we need order, laws, and doctrines. However, order that loses security of individual experience, laws that lose organization of the common good, and doctrines that lose ability to articulate belief[3]guarantee outcomes which miss the mark. The Pharisees were attempting to trap Jesus in the legalism of ritual cleansing. The disciples had not washed their hands before eating, thus the religious leaders questioned Jesus’ dismissing of the teaching of the elders. How dare he not adhere to ritual righteousness. We often behave like the Pharisees. Like the Pharisees, we misinterpret what is important to God.[4]

Rebecca Manley Pippert in Out of the Salt Shaker & into the World emphasizes the importance of not misinterpreting what is important to God when she writes, “One of the cries we hear in our modern culture is the search for family, for a community, especially with the isolating nature of modern life…As an evangelizing church, we need to ask ourselves: Who are the poor and destitute, the widows and orphans in our midst? How do we offer them the love and hope of Christ as a Christian community?”[5]Resurrection wisdom is that which occurs when order, laws, and doctrines, are tested and actually work in real life with real people. Wisdom is knowledge that that has proven the test of time.

Jesus asks us this day to examine the purposes behind why we do what we do in worship. Are you becoming more aware of God’s love for you and God’s presence with you because of the liturgical components of a call to worship, Prayer of Confession, Scripture Readings, Message, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, Affirmation of Faith, the Offering, Singing, and Benediction? Or have you stumbled because the Prayer of Confession offended your sensibilities, a hymn was sung not to your liking, a person you hoped would pass the peace of Christ to you, seemed to snub you, or passing the communion trays is not your preference for the Lord’s Supper. Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm writes, “However difficult or challenging Jesus’ words may be, there is within them the hope of renewing our attitudes and actions so that we may reflect God’s loving intentions for humanity.”[6]We do not want to give lip service to Jesus in our worship. We desire the outcomes of worship to come to fruition. We want to love God and others more dearly and deeply.

Yes, there is a family argument going on in the text in Mark as well as in the Christian community. Church people want what we want when we want it. Shame on us for behaving like the Pharisees. Let us appreciate the Spirit’s work today in helping us consider and experience anew, Jesus’ claim on our lives.

[1]Justin Wilson and Howard Jacobs, Cajun Humor (Pelican Press, 1984); submitted by Van Morris, Mount Washington, Kentucky. The illustration is found on http://www.preachingtoday.com.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Some ideas gleaned from Amy C. Howe in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 22.

[4]This idea of misinterpreting what is important to God is gleaned from Amy C. Howe inDavid L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, 22.

[5]Rebecca Manley Pippert, Out of the Salt Shaker & into the World (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 248-249.

[6]Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, 25.

Serving–Commitment to Follow Christ: a Reflection on Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 and John 6:56-69

As in the case of the sick man lying on a platform at the Bethesda Pool, Jesus asks you, “Would you like to get well?” What is your answer? Rebecca Manley Pippert in Out of the Salt Shaker & into the World notes this about the significance of telling your story of salvation, moving from brokenness to wholeness, back to brokenness then returning to wholeness, and the journey of conversion continues. Becky writes,

It is not a story of human invention but a God-authored gospel that has the power to save! We are called to give the unchanging message that God sent his Son, Jesus, who took our sinful, broken humanity into himself and made it his own by dying on the cross. He sacrificed his life for us and overcame our sin. Then he rose from the dead so that by surrendering our lives to him our sins may be forgiven, our lives made whole and our eternal destiny made secure.”[1]

God made the covenant with Joshua. God chose the people and the people promised to be faithful. And we have been chosen by God and promise to be faithful. “Recognizing the one God who has been with them all the way, they declare, apparently in unison: ‘Therefore we also will serve the lord, for He is our God’ (Joshua 24:18).[2]Serving others with words and actions of Jesus, salvation happens.

The encounter in John 6 suggests that Christianity is about an ongoing experience of salvation. Not once only, for eternal life, but an ongoing discovery of what eternal life is…salvation becoming new every day. So, the question is, from what are you currently being saved?In the John 6 pericope, many of Jesus’ disciples had turned away. They left Jesus’ company and returned home. Being a follower of Jesus demanded a lot. Suffering in and through the predicaments of others, particularly their sin, was often overwhelming. Being obedient to God by loving God and others was difficult at best and infuriating most of the time. Jesus asked his small band of disciples, if they too wanted to turn back and no longer hang out with him. Peter answers Jesus’ question about whether any of the disciples wanted to leave with this statement, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Jesus offered people bread that was far more sustaining than the manna that fell from the sky. Jesus offered people a drink of water from his well that would quench their thirst continually. Why do disciples then and disciples now want to leave Jesus’ company and return home? They were, and we are afraid.

Contrary to what culture tells us, that we can control our lives and set our destiny, we are incapable of being successful at these endeavors. We are broken and flawed. Our motives are never pure. We often are selfish. We look out for our own interests at the expense of others. We pretend that we are self-sufficient and do not need to be part of a community. Jesus offers us Spirit and life. But we prefer the trappings of religion, that pretend side show. We question whether or not a life with Jesus really matters and makes a difference.

Why do millennials value service more than sitting in a pew? How many of us would admit there is greater fulfillment teaching Sunday School than being annoyed at the disruptive nature of a baby’s crying and children being restless during worship. We like rules, because we can be absorbed in writing and enforcing them. Most people, however, want to participate in a religion which gives meaning to life and an experience of that meaning. Like Joshua, we want our obedience to matter.

God can do amazing “quick fixes,” but an engaging, ongoing, life changing relationship with the One who knows us the best and loves us the most is much more rewarding. It is demanding, however. When we choose to eat the bread and drink the cup that Jesus offers, we are abiding in Jesus, for we are saying yes to giving our lives away for the sake of others. When we grasp this, we realize that we are no better than anyone else. We know we’re not in control.  Amy C. Howe writes, “When we can accept the love of God that is pure grace, love flows from us and we love others.”[3]

Jesus wants us to get well. Jesus tells us that we are beloved and cherished. He helps us overcome our weaknesses and insecurities. It is Jesus who helps us become our true selves. When we stop to have authentic conversations with others, we prefer God to the trappings of religion. When we forgive the person in the pew for their life circumstance which troubles us, we prefer God to the trappings of religion. When we value the disruption of children and yes, even our own children in worship, we prefer God to the trappings of religion.[4]Why? Our commitment to follow Christ is a higher value. By surrendering our lives to Jesus, the ongoing journey from brokenness to wholeness captures our attention. We want our commitment to Jesus to matter. We want to experience our words and actions serving “the other.” For then, as Jesus taught, we are serving him.

[1]Rebecca Manley Pippert, Out of the Salt Shaker & into the World (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 134-135.

[2]Susan Henry-Crowe in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3 Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 366.

[3]Amy C. Howe in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, 384.

[4]My thanks to the fine thinking and writing of Susan Henry-Crowe and Amy C. Howe in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, 362, 364, 366, 380, 382, and 384.They have impacted my thinking and writing.

 

Serving–Nourishment That Doesn’t Originate from the Earth: a Reflection on 1 Kings 19:4-8 and John 6:35, 41-51

Ron Shackelford, in his recently published book, New Jesus, New Joy,writes, “Jesus never turns away a person with a sincere spiritual thirst.”[1]We thirst for purpose, joy, and confidence in our lives. On October 15, 2013, Paul McCartney was interviewed on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” In that interview[2], the former Beatles star said,

It seems to me that no matter how famous [you are], no matter how accomplished or how many awards you get, you’re always still thinking there’s somebody out there who’s better than you. I’m often reading a magazine and hearing about someone’s new record and I think, “Oh, boy, that’s gonna be better than me.” It’s a very common thing.

The interviewer then asked, “But, Sir Paul McCartney: You have had success in so many dimensions of music. You really feel a competitive insecurity with somebody else that’s coming out with a record?” McCartney replied:

Unfortunately, yes … I should be able to look at my accolades and go, “Come on, Paul. That’s enough.” But there’s still this little voice in the back of my brain that goes, “No, no, no. You could do better. This person over here is excelling. Try harder!” It still can be a little bit intimidating.

God’s confidence in us never ends, my friends. But, when we cry out to God are we claiming an idea that God’s confidence in us never ends or clinging to God? If clinging, we experience God’s confidence in us. Therein lies our purpose and joy, clinging to God. O. Benjamin Sparks writes, “Everyone, says Jesus, who has heard and learned from [God the] Father comes to me. There is no salvation outside the church. That is a refreshing, renewing word for our disjointed days.”[3]If we do not have a relationship with Jesus, we are left stuck in our purposeless and joyless insecurities. “Whatever we need to comprehend Jesus must come as a gift, insight not of our own devising. It must ‘come down from heaven.’”[4]

The encounter in John 6 suggests that Christianity is a spirituality, but first and foremost, a relationship with Jesus. Let’s look at this more carefully. Here’s the problem, then and now. Some people are more confident than others that they know more about Jesus and his movement then he does. How does this play out? Take the crowds for example. They continue to seek out Jesus. The crowds appear to be outsiders to “the God Thing.” But the Jews, as the complainers are referenced, are the insiders. They know better about “the God Thing” and question Jesus. Their arrogance and dogmatism are frightening. Oh, to rest in God’s confidence in us is one thing, but to question the Son of God, his identity, and family status is another. And when Jesus states that no one can come to him unless they are drawn to him by the Father, the insiders’ sensibilities are offended. This was Jesus’ context to share good news. Some were enthralled with him and wanted to know him better, the outsiders. And others, the insiders, were “know it all’s.” Rebecca Manley Pippert in Out of the Salt Shaker & into the World tells the story of a friend who was struggling with self-esteem and insecurity. This friend had paid a lot of money for some tapes with a recorded voice, which told her how wonderful she was. Becky writes,

“How many times do you have to listen to these tapes for them to work?” “A lot!” she answered. “Excuse me if this sounds rude, but how can such affirmative statements mean anything when the person speaking on the tape has never laid eyes on you? It’s like saying, ‘Dear consumer, you are gorgeous.’” “Oh, but for twenty-five bucks more you can get a personalized tape with your name on it.”[5]

We are members of both groups, the crowd (Outsiders) and the Jews (Insiders). As in Elijah’s case in the reading from 1 Kings, God makes redemption possible for both outsiders and insiders. Why? Because God is always calling people to salvation and releases grace for us to grab on to. It was through God’s loving initiative and action that Elijah experienced redemption. And the same is true for every one of the 7+ billion people inhabiting the earth.

Let’s not be attracted to Jesus for a miracle, the idea that God can do some amazing “quick fixes,” but an engaging, life changing relationship with the One who knows us the best and loves us the most. Like the people in Jesus’ day, we outsiders and insiders have questions. Jesus didn’t answer questions directly then or now. Instead, he probed to figure out what the people were really seeking for nourishment. And he continues to do the same today. Our nourishment truly comes from heaven not from the values and priorities of the world. No need to compare ourselves to others or succumb to “image management.”

Jesus is no stranger to us. We don’t have to pay him for words of encouragement and confidence building counsel for our self-identity. Jesus always tells us the truth. That we are beloved and cherished. He helps us overcome our weaknesses and insecurities. It is Jesus who helps us become our true selves. Why? We are created in the image of God.

[1]Ron Shackelford, New Jesus, New Joy(San Bernardino, CA: 2017), 166.

[2]Taken from the PreachingToday website, August 10, 2018. NPR Staff, “What Makes Paul McCartney Nervous?” NPR’s All Things Considered(10-15-13); submitted by Jonathan Sprowl, Carol Stream, Illinois.

[3]O. Benjamin Sparks in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 336.

[4]William H. Willimon in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, 337.

[5]Rebecca Manley Pippert, Out of the Salt Shaker & into the World (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 220.

Serving–Faith Encounters a Person: a Reflection on Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 and John 6:24-35

There is a saying among the Ngambaye people of Chad: “one day of hunger can make a wife leave her husband’s house.”[1]We, like this wife and the people of God in the Exodus 16 reading, want what we want when we want it. We want God to solve “stuff” for us. In the Exodus text, Moses is the advocate on the people’s behalf for the loving nature of God. As your pastor, I am the advocate on behalf of you for the loving nature of God. As followers of Jesus, you are the advocate for the loving nature of God on behalf of others. Jesus is our advocate. God’s benevolence never ends, my friends. But, when we cry out to God are we claiming an idea that God is loving or clinging to God? If clinging, we know all about God’s love, by experience. And, our experience of God’s love validates that all things work together for good. Dean McDonald writes, “God in Christ has passed the test of faith, but the church is being examined every day.”[2]

Let’s be honest. Miracles do not necessarily, bring about faith. Often, miracles cause confusion, division, and hostility. Why might that be the case? If we do not have a relationship with the miracle worker, we are left dumfounded. The high is short-lived. In John 6, Jesus admonishes the listener to stop seeking “food that perishes.” People then and now seek food that perishes because “we long for a religion of convenience, faith that satisfies our wants, rather than working for the food that endures.”[3]We are addicted to the “high” of temporary fixes. Jesus came to complete a relationship, between God and humanity. That’s a permanent fix we are to experience.

The story in John 6 suggests that the focus of ministry is not what good people decide is a good idea and said idea is reasonable to undertake. But instead, trusting God to probe and ascertain our true question and authentic need. What is accomplished, then, is not what’s reasonable, but a miracle. Ministry should leave people exclaiming the transforming power of God. People talk about Jesus when they experience his incredible love. And they are changed. Rebecca Manley Pippert inOut of the Salt Shaker & into the World writes, “…if seekers do not see the love of Christ in us, then they most likely won’t be interested in investigating any further.”[4]

Each of us has questions about God and our experience of God’s love. The Table is a very present reminder that God has accomplished something incredible for each one of us. Some have begun to experience it and others wonder what “it” is. Let’s not be attracted to Jesus for a miracle, the idea that God can do some amazing “quick fixes,” but an engaging, life changing relationship with the One who knows us the best and loves us the most. John Calvin writes, “Christ does not reply to the question put to him,” when we seek “in Christ something other than Christ himself.”[5]Like the people in Jesus day, we have questions. Jesus didn’t answer directly then or now. Instead, he probed to figure out what the people were really seeking. And he continues to do the same.[6]

[1]Abel Ndjerareau, Africa Bible Commentary (Nairobi, Kenya: Word Alive Publishers, 2006), 106.

[2]Dean McDonald in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 295.

[3]Wayne A. Meeks in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, 311.

[4]Rebecca Manley Pippert, Out of the Salt Shaker & into the World (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 150.

[5]John Calvin, The Gospel according to St. John, Part One 1-10, in Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, translated by T.H.L. Parker (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1961), 152.

[6]Thank you, Christopher Morse, for this insight. For more of Christopher Morse’s thinking on this subject, see David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, 308, 310, 312.