Resting in God

During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is Giraffes Can’t Dance, by Giles Andreae & Guy Parker-Rees.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 11:28-30

St. Augustine of Hippo

When he was not much older than me, a man back in the fourth century started writing a book. That one book turned into thirteen before he was done pouring out his soul through pen and paper. The author—named Augustine of Hippo—had only been a Christian for ten years, and these books were an attempt to express how God had worked in and through him. The Confessions—as the books came to be called—are an outpouring of praise and repentance, and they continue to function as a model for Christians who seek to articulate their own spiritual autobiographies.

In his own telling, Augustine was a man who had trouble finding his own way in life. He was born in North Africa, in what would have been regarded a backwater area. His father was a Roman official, but his role meant he was held personally responsible when there was a shortfall among the collected taxes. This was no doubt a strain on the family’s resources and one reason Augustine described them as poor. While Augustine’s father was a pagan, his mother had raised him Christian, and her devout faith left a significant imprint on young Augustine.

That said, he never himself became a Christian until his 30’s. He proved himself to be a good student, but the family’s financial troubles kept interrupting his study. In the end, he attended university and became a professional public speaker and teacher. He started living with a woman and had a child out of wedlock, and he began following the Manichaean religion, which was a kind of syncretism of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity—all of which Mani (the founder) did not believe went far enough. (Later in life, Augustine would be perhaps the most significant voice of the Christian Church condemning Manichaeism as heresy)

At about age 30, Augustine moved to Rome—it seemed a prudent vocational decision at the time. In reality, however, it proved disastrous. The only good outcome is that he was noticed by a Roman official who helped him get a new job in Milan.

It was in Milan that everything changed. From his previous experiences, Augustine felt that Christianity just wasn’t intellectually rigorous—it consisted of simple beliefs held by simple people and it did not stand up to the inquiry of logic that was so central to his life. (He was an academic, and Christianity was soooo hoi polloi). 

But in Milan, Augustine encountered a bishop named Ambrose. Even today, Ambrose is considered an eloquent speaker, so you can imagine the impression he left on Augustine. For reasons I’m not sure even Augustine ever understood, Ambrose took him under his wing. In the Confessions, Augustine writes: “That man of God received me as a father would, and welcomed my coming as a good bishop should.”

Everything was coming up roses. His career was taking off, and his mother managed to arrange for an advantageous marriage to a good Christian girl. This latter part was painful for Augustine, however, because the cultural dictums stipulated that he must send away his lover in order to be married. 

But it was also around this time that Augustine had an experience of God that shaped the rest of his life. As he tells the story in the Confessions, it was in August 386 that he heard a childlike voice telling him “take up and read.” He understood this to mean he should pick up a bible and read the first thing his eyes alighted on—what a mentor of mine referred to as “bible roulette” or the “flip-and-point method of discernment.” Augustine landed at Romans 13:13-14:

“Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy—Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Romans 13:13–14 NRSV+)

This Augustine saw this to be an indictment of his life and an instruction to make some changes. He broke off his engagement, changed many behaviors, and was baptized the following Easter. Over the next years, his mother and child died, and Augustine sold virtually everything he had and gave the money to the poor, following the instruction Jesus gave to the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:21. He was ordained in 391, and became “bishop of Hippo” in 395, a position he retained until his death. Augustine began his Confessions just two years after becoming bishop. He was a famous preacher and we still have over 350 of his sermons preserved. He advocated for Christianity in North Africa his entire life, fighting the heresies that so frequently invaded Christian churches. Alongside John Chrysostom, he is one of the most prolific writers of Christianity, and many regard him as the most significant theologian of the Church after the apostle Paul.

In the first book of the Confessions, in the first chapter, in the first paragraph, and in the third sentence—(so the third sentence of the entire work), Augustine prays: “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” [REPEAT]

Aside from being a beautiful sentiment, I believe this brief confession is truly at the core of Augustine’s faith. As he tells the story of his life in the Confessions, Augustine tried to “find rest” through relationships, through education, through work, through prestige, through wealth, and through pretty well anything else you can imagine. But none of these things brought peace; none brought rest. Like a wandering pilgrim on a journey, Augustine shuffled from one place to another, but he never arrived at a place that welcomed him home. Not until he found a home in God.

Matthew

I think that is what Jesus is talking about in today’s scripture text. Just like Augustine, there are so many things we try to stuff into the voids we feel in our being: we become workaholics and wanton consumers who worship at the idol of busyness. Like junkies, we sacrifice our health, our relationships, our faith, and everything that counts for another hit……of new, or entertaining, or at least distracting.

It all adds up—everything you buy, everything you consume, everything you damage along the way—these are the burdens that crush shoulders and souls alike as we submit over and over to slavery to the powers of this world.

Jesus calls to us:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–30 NRSV)

“God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”

Isaiah

It’s a call that has gone out from God since the beginning, really. The words of God in Isaiah 43 have long echoed in my heart in those times I need to find rest in God:

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you…

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine…

For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isaiah 43:2, 1a, 3a NRSV)

Giraffe’s Can’t Dance

The children’s book this week might be about dancing giraffes, but it speaks truth to the heart of this struggling Christian as well. 

“Sometimes when you’re different you just need a different song.” There is no one-size-fits-all shape to the Christian life—in fact, Paul and others are quite adamant that we are all made and gifted differently by God’s intentional design. 

We each have to find our path; we each have to discover our gifts. But we are also not in this alone. The reason we are different is so we can be complementary—after all, we are created to be interdependent……in community, as our triune God is in community. 

Hear the Christ, calling across the ages:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

And confess with me:

“God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”

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Indivisible?

During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is Hugs from Pearl, by Paul Schmid.

Scripture Reading: Romans 8:35-39

Separated?

In our scripture lesson today, Paul writes to the church at Rome, where it feels the world is spinning off its axis. 

Tensions are mounting between Christians and Jews…

Christians are getting kicked out of the synagogues where they’ve had their faith home…

and the politics of their city and nation are absolutely out of control. 

In all likelihood, Nero is emperor, and the burning of Rome and his casting blame on Christians is less than a decade away. 

The Christians of Rome are in a toxic environment—one that is filled, quite literally, with “hardship… distress… persecution… famine… nakedness… peril… [and] sword.” This describes daily life for them.

Paul wants them to know with certainty that this reality does not indicate God’s displeasure with them—that they are not experiencing hardship because of a lack of faith. God’s love is indeed with them. And not only can these physical realities not separate them from God’s love, here (offers Paul) are a list of immaterial realities that also cannot divide them from God’s love: 

not death, not life;

not angels, or rulers;

neither things present, nor things to come;

not powers, not height, not depth;

not anything else in all creation (Romans 8:38–39 NRSV)

Nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

Period.

Lovable?

But you know, I believe Paul is also speaking to Christians here who (like many of us today) struggle with whether we are very lovable to God. 

From my experiencing listening over the years, I know there are many of us who just don’t feel like it is possible for even God to love us. 

We know some of the struggles inside ourselves all too well. 

We know our failure to reach perfectionistic heights. 

And more often than not, we were taught explicitly or implicitly that perfection is precisely the God-ordained minimum. 

So how then can God love us at all?

 

Now while I’m talking to Christians here, I have to point out that I’ve heard some of the same things from folks who haven’t yet decided to follow Jesus. 

How can God love me given my past? 

How can God love me given my struggles with addiction? 

How can God live me given the things I’ve done? 

How can God love me given the things I’ve let others do to me? 

How can God love someone as messed up, broken down, and untrustworthy as me?

The truth is, I don’t always know how to respond.

I don’t know how, because I do not understand God’s love for me. These struggles are my struggles too. But life with God has taught me that whether I feel lovable or not, God has loved me—and does love me—and will love me with a deeper, more real love than any I have ever known.

Christ is the proof of this, at least in the eyes of the New Testament writers. 

Just a few verses before where we started reading this morning, Paul defines God’s love for us: it is because God “did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us” (Romans 8:32 NRSV). 

Or as Jesus put it in John 15:53, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NRSV). 

Or as 1John 4:9 offers, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (1John 4:9 NRSV).

Wherever we pull from in the scriptures, we cannot get around the fact that Jesus demonstrates for us God’s radical love of us. 

We do not deserve it…… That’s why it’s called grace.

We cannot earn it…… That’s why it’s called grace.

It does not rest on what we do…… That’s why it’s called grace.

God’s love is an unorthodox, unrestricted, and incomprehensible gift…… And nothing we can do can cause that love to be diminished, divided, or erased. 

Period.

 

To be clear: our human embodiment of that love may be even more incomprehensible (if that’s even possible). But the nature of love remains the same. 

“Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. 

It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth. 

It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never ends.” (1Corinthians 13:4–8 NRSV)

Indivisible?

I know I’ve used this illustration before, but when we were expecting our second child, I was truly concerned: I loved our first child so much that I was genuinely worried that I wouldn’t have enough love for another one. My fears, however, were quickly put to rest; love, it seems, is a bottomless well, an endless stream, a cup that always flows over.

Maybe saying love is “indivisible” isn’t quite right. 

Love is divisible, it just doesn’t diminish when divided. That’s what we get wrong about love, I think: It actually has infinite divisibility. 

Infinite disibility is just one more bit of wonky church math to add to your repertoire:

There’s the Trinity, where 1 + 1 + 1 = 1

There’s the dual natures of Christ, where 1 + 1 = 1

And now we get the infinite divisibility of love, where [love ÷ n (where n = any number) = LOVE]

 

I was thinking about this already, and then I came across a pretty remarkabe poem by Anita Atina called “The Heart of Love is Indivisible.” A couple lines near the end nearly took my breath away. She says:

If the heart of love is indivisible,
set free those you love

From the chains of expectation
and labels of the world…

For the heart of love expands,
when more is asked of it

“The heart of love expands when more is asked of it.” 

That certainly characterizes the heart of God that I have come to know through Jesus. And I believe that heart of love expands even larger than anything we might conceive. 

It is God’s love that brought Jesus into this world.

It is God’s love that is demonstrated in the world through Jesus.

It is God’s love that we embody, when we allow our hearts to expand large enough to set free those we love from the chains of expectation and labels of the world.

May God’s desires be fulfilled through us, for the glory of God and the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom.

Misplaced Hope

During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is Paper Bag Princess, by Robert Munsch & Michael Mertchenko.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 10:5-15

The Challenge of Ministry

I know it seems like I say this a lot, but today’s scripture lesson is one that really challenges me. I probably say it so often because Jesus really challenges me—as I believe he does us all if we’re really paying attention.

The verses we read today are about ministry—but they’re not just for clergy. Twelve followers of Jesus are named right before our reading began, but this is an ever-widening circle. In Luke’s telling (chapters 9-10), the commissioning of the Twelve is followed by a commissioning of the Seventy. By the time we get to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 (and certainly Matthew 28), it is clear that the commission soon involves not just a select few, but rather and even “all those who will believe in [Jesus] through their word” (John 17:20 NRSV). 

At this early stage, however, Jesus is sending the Twelve among the Jewish people and giving them the power to do the same kinds of ministry that Jesus himself has been doing:

Preach that God’s Kingdom is coming near,

Heal the sick,

Raise the dead,

Restore the ostracized,

Bring wholeness to the demonized,

And demonstrate radical generosity.

Believe it or not, these are the same kinds of things the Church of Jesus Christ is called to do even today. And for that reason, maybe we’d do well to consider the next instructions too. 

“Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff.”
(Matthew 10:9–10 NRSV)

One of the big, omnipresent issues in the biblical story is our human struggles with trusting and relying on God. This struggle is at the heart of virtually every failure we’ve enacted in the biblical storybook—from Adam and Eve, to the destruction of Israel and then Judah, to even the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. And even here in Matthew 10, Judas is named among the Twelve that goes out and performs these remarkable and miraculous tasks. 

But Jesus doesn’t give them much opportunity to trust themselves instead of God. Everything that would make them self-reliant, they must leave behind. Every resource that might appear to support a more successful mission trip, they are to avoid. As Jesus stacks the deck thusly against them, it will be undeniable that any successful ministry they undertake can only be traced back to God. 

“Laborers deserve their food”
(Matthew 10:10 NRSV)

It’s helpful to remember that: being given by Jesus the power even to raise the dead does not mean ministry is going to be easy…… It is going to be labor; it’s going to be work. 

A lot of folks read this teaching in different ways:

Some think Jesus is trying to get them to see this as important work instead of a vacation.

Others suggest they will be motivated to work harder by their growling stomachs.

But I guess I’m more simple than a lot of others. Since this teaching is connected to all the things they aren’t supposed to bring, I can’t help but think Jesus is just trying to make sure they know that doing ministry isn’t a free ride— following Jesus’ example in these ways will likely be the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life. You’ll wish for safety nets that aren’t there. You’ll pray for more certainty than you’ll ever have. But you’ll probably find yourself as a simple day-laborer in the cause of Christ—working day to day (or more often moment to moment) and without much clarity or security about the future. 

We most likely find ourselves drawn into an encounter that lasts a moment, a day, a week, or whatever, and then the encounter is past. We never get to see the big picture. We never get to know what happens next. We just know that we have to be ready and available when the Spirit does her thing. And in a world that cultivates addiction to busyness, being ready and available is a lot harder than it sounds.

“If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”
(Matthew 10:13–14 NRSV)

Now we get to the really sticky part: sometimes we try to respond to the Spirit and our “peace” finds a home; sometimes it does not. 

Did we misread the signs?

Was God not in it after all?

What does “successful” ministry look like, anyway?

Moving to Life…

And maybe we’d be better off here removing the word “ministry” altogether—I think the message remains the same.

Sometimes, things don’t work out as you hope.
Sometimes, life doesn’t work out as you hope. 

And a lot of the time, it’s not just as simple as making lemons into lemonade. Sometimes, our attempts to do the right thing results in us losing peace—or at least sleep—and ending up feeling dirty from the whole encounter. What then?

Maybe now you see why I believe that Jesus’ instructions here aren’t helpful for just ministry and evangelism. There’s wisdom here about how to let go of bad experiences or relationships so we can continue on living. Because there are going to be times in life when things don’t work out—regardless of our best intentions and hopes. 

Thinking back to the book, I believe there’s a “Ronald” in each of our lives—and probably more than one. A “Ronald” is something we thought was going to change everything and give us a happily ever after. 

Maybe your “Ronald” was a person—someone with whom you had a relationship……

Maybe your “Ronald” was an opportunity—that job or connection that was going to turn everything around……

Maybe your “Ronald” was an object—something that seemed like it was going to be the be-all, end-all……that was going to end your search or longing for the right thing……

Whatever your “Ronald” was, you did try hard, you did try to make things happen and work out, but your “Ronald” let you down……and let you down even harder.

Death & Grief

These misplaced hopes are a kind of death, really. 

The death of a future that is no longer a possibility

The death of a relationship that can never be what was dreamed

The death of a quest, and by association, a purpose

We’re not well equipped to grieve this kind of death. Instead giving ourselves permission to grieve, we feel silly, like we shouldn’t have gotten our hopes up……

like we shouldn’t have become so emotionally invested to begin with……

like we were fools to miss whatever signs we now imagine were there at the beginning……

So we bury our grief, and we pretend that these deaths don’t even slow us down.

Back to Jesus…

Maybe……maybe these ancient words of Jesus can help us even today. Maybe within these teachings, we can find the interface between treading lightly in this world and investing deeply.

Because I think that’s what this is all about here, really. The kinds of ministry that Jesus empowers in the Twelve are a deep investment. 

I have seen the sick healed. 

I have seen those who were virtually dead—or even medically dead—come back to life. 

I have seen those who were ostracized find integration and community.

I have seen those who wrestle with demons find wholeness.

I have seen God do all these things, through cracked vessels like you and I. And the one thing I can tell you about all of them is that they are exhausting. 

It takes time to build relationships. 

It takes emotional energy to be present in heartache. 

It takes humility to truly hear someone else. 

It takes wisdom to discern where God is leading. 

It takes a lot of hard work and deep investment before any of it becomes possible.

And without investing deeply (and at times recklessly) in others, these things just aren’t going to happen. And then the Kingdom of God does not come nearer.

Balance & Outro

But there’s a balance that is urged, at the same time. Our fully human Savior Jesus the Christ advocates for that with us and with our God. 

Even in calling his followers to such deep investment, Jesus cautions them to tread lightly on this earth. 

Don’t take extra provisions. 

Don’t rely on your own resources. 

Don’t suppose you can make the Spirit show up by pushing the right buttons and saying an prayerful incantation. 

Don’t “store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19–20 NRSV)

As a church: If we are so invested in something that we cannot “shake the dust from our feet” when it stops working, then that is a sign we have come to trust in ourselves to make it happen instead of trusting God to make it happen.

As followers of Jesus: If we are so stuck in our imagining about how things are supposed to be that we cannot offer others the freedom to follow their own path and be different than us, then that is a sign that we have come to trust in ourselves instead of trusting in God..

As human beings of any faith or no faith: If we are so closed to the plight of those with less than us that we dismiss the violence they experience, then it is we who have ceased being human.

 

May we discover in God’s goodness and mercy the capacity to extend mercy to all—even ourselves—when the future we imagined and the future we encounter fail to line up.

Unlimited

During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is Ruby’s Wish, by Shirin Yim Bridges & Sophie Blackall.

Scripture Reading: Galatians 3:26-4:7

Women in Ministry

Just this week, I was in conversation with someone. The subject of deacons came up, and they were shocked that we would have female deacons.

The day before, I was in a clergy group and three female pastors shared experiences they’d had last Sunday. 

One was told to her face by a church leader that her “rack” was distracting–his word, not mine. 

The second–who has a non-gender-specific name like “Alex”–was promptly dropped from consideration as a pastoral candidate when they learned she was female. 

The third has been getting stalked by a church member and the church refuses to do anything about it.

These are not problems that are normative for male clergy like myself, but every single female pastor I’ve met has a story like this–and usually more of them than she is willing to share.

It pains me that the Church of Jesus Christ is still having these conversations……and doing such harm to itself and one another.

Jesus brought women into the closest circles of discipleship–even entrusting the first proclamation of the resurrection to Mary Magdalene (John 20). As it turns out, the first preacher we could clearly identify as “Christian” was a woman named Mary who was tasked with preaching the Good News to a group of men.

Paul names at least one woman to be a deacon (Phoebe, in Romans 16:1-2), at least one woman considered to be an apostle (Junia, in Romans 16:7), and countless women who headed house churches or are named alongside their husbands as the leaders of a house church. 

Even those texts about women not speaking or not teaching men–when read in their appropriate historical and textual context–are not limiting who can be church leaders; they are rather advocating spiritual education for a group of people that society didn’t believe were worth educating (cf. Cynthia Westfall).

It continues to amaze me that even though the scriptures clearly state that in Christ “there is no male or female” (Galatians 3:28), we continue to define some as categorically unfit to be called by God. It is rubbish.

But you know, I didn’t always realize this.

Second-Class Citizens?

Despite a series of serious crises of faith through my college years, some of that patriarchal language of fundamentalism continued to infect my faith. I was less and less a biblical literalist–I discovered (like others before me) that I took the Bible too seriously to take it literally (usually attributed to Karl Barth, but actually originating with Madeline L’Engle)–but I continued to read a few select verses in an exceedingly literal way that ignored historical and even textual context.

The tipping point came for me in seminary, as I theologically sparred with a friend. We were debating women in ministry–specifically in the role of pastor. I argued against; my opponent argued for. I’m certain there were other people involved as well, but my memory has telescoped the event into its crucial parts.

For me, such debates were recreation, like a hobby. I have since realized that for my friend in this story, the stakes were far more serious–it was a matter of living out the calling that she was convinced God had placed on her life.

I remember almost nothing about the conversation as a whole until we got to a single point–and then my memory snaps into crystal-clear, technicolor focus: “So what you’re saying,” my friend summed up, “is that there are second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God?”

That blow struck me heavy, as though I had been physically hit in the chest. And I realized almost immediately: that is exactly what I had been arguing

that some people are inherently incapble…… 

that there are some that even God cannot empower…… 

that God cannot overcome the biological hurdles required to gift certain people……

that the same divisions of society that have been so destructive on earth are supposed to be that way……

Without realizing it, this was my argument.
My life has never been the same.

In God’s Kingdom……

There are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God.

In God’s Kingdom, there are no impediments to anyone. The divisions that we experience in this realm are not reflected in God’s realm. And in fact, if we are going to pray with Jesus “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” then it’s going to be the other way around–we are going to be working to make this realm reflect God’s realm.

And in our scripture lesson today, the apostle Paul couldn’t be more clear: 

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27–28 NRSV)

In this world, gender divides us. 

But in God’s Kingdom, we tell stories of preachers like Mary Magdalene, deacons like Phoebe, apostles like Junia, and the many women like them throughout God’s Story. In God’s Kingdom, we even tell stories of people who don’t fit into our normal categories, like the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 who (because of his castration) didn’t fit into either the male or female categories of his world. 

In this world, race and nationality divide us. 

But in God’s Kingdom, we tell stories like that of Cornelius in Acts 10, who wasn’t thought to be the right ethnicity. But God intervened, and–through a series of visions and experiences–led Peter to conclude that the doors to God’s Kingdom were thrown wide-open in Christ. “Who?”–Paul later asks church leaders in Jerusalem–“who are we to think we can hinder what God is doing through the Spirit?” (Acts 11:17b).

In this world, our religious backgrounds divide us. 

But in God’s Kingdom, we tell stories of people like Paul–a man who zealously persecuted those he believed were wrong. Yet in spite of–or perhaps because of this–he was able to serve as the greatest unifier and missionary of the early church.

In this world, our ages and generations divide us. 

But in God’s Kingdom, we tell stories of people like Timothy. He was young enough to be disregarded (Paul even says “despised”) by those he was sent to lead. Yet Paul encourages him to remember that it is God who calls and empowers him. The church apparently thought he was too young, but God clearly disagreed.

In this world, our social statuses divide us. 

But in God’s Kingdom, we tell stories of people like Joseph and Daniel–who, through their own unique journeys, ended up as slaves at the absolute bottom of the social ladder……statuses that were redeemed in ways that brought deliverance to countless others.

Of course–in the biblical world as in the “real world”–there are many with several strikes against us; we are divided and divided again. 

But in God’s Kingdom, there are no obstacles that cannot be overcome. In God’s Kingdom, we tell stories like that of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7. She’s the “wrong” gender, the “wrong” race, the “wrong” nationality, the “wrong” religious background, and she behaves and speaks improperly and disrespectfully. I’m not sure whether there’s a category for which she isn’t in the exclusion column. Yet she has a pivotal role in the shape of Jesus’ ministry; as Mark tells the story, it is this encounter that turns Jesus’ consciousness toward the salvation of non-Jews.

And we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of how the women in the Bible defied social customs to live out God’s calling: warriors like Deborah and Jael, matriarchs like Sarah and Rachel, prophets like Anna and Huldah, figureheads like Miriam and Esther–to say nothing of the women who aren’t named: Jepthah’s daughter, the woman of Thebez, the wife of Manoah, the daughters of Zelophehad, and on and on.

There are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. Not you, and not me.

Reconciling

In God’s Kingdom, all those barriers that the powers of this world use to divide and conquer us have been overcome. The differences between us as individuals are not abolished, but are rather redeemed in amazing and unexpected ways in order to advance God’s Kingdom.

This is, after all, the point of our calling and giftedness as members of the Body of Christ. Paul insists repeatedly that our calling comes from God and should be affirmed by the church. He stresses that our giftedness–however similar or different–comes from the same Spirit and is given for encouragement, for consolation, and for the building up of God’s redemptive project (the drawing all people to Godself, or to put differently: the building up of the church).

If we are following Jesus in this dynamic project of God, then we will be living the Kingdom way here on earth. We will be living out God’s commitment to encouraging unlimited lives–believing that God does not call or gift all people to the same tasks, but also recognizing that no one is limited in their Kingdom roles by the things that divide this world. 

In the second letter to the Corinthian church (5:18ff), Paul describes the ministry God has entrusted to every Christian as the work of reconciliation. Reconciliation (by definition) involves bringing together things that do not seem to go together: that which is broken is made whole again; that which was divided is united; that which didn’t add up is zeroed out. By living these things into the world, Paul says we are “ambassadors for Christ” and “God…makes his appeal through us” (2Corinthians 5:20 NRSV). 

In that way, we fulfill a part of the prayer Jesus taught us to pray: God’s kingdom comes closer, as God’s will is done on earth, just as it is already done in heaven. In this we see again that the Christian life is not about knowing the right things; it is about following the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. 

Empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, we are called to be activists who advocate for the unlimited potential of each person made in God’s own image. 

Challenge

That, then, is our challenge this week. The powers of this world spend considerable resources to put us in separate little boxes and keep us there: 

men on the right, women on the left

older over here, younger over there

rich and poor

republican and democrat

those who know the right things and those who do not

……one group against another, infinitely smaller and smaller until we each are isolated and alone inside our own little prison…… each ashamed, thinking everyone else to be free.

It’s a house of cards of lies, and it crumbles as soon as any one of us chooses to trust God and break out of the boxes that define and confine us. The whole system falls apart when we really let God be God in our lives and allow the Spirit to empower us to serve God no matter who we are or what the world tries to tell us. All these walls that divide prove to be little more than illusion when we begin to advocate for the unlimited potential that resides in each person made in God’s image–when we discover together how great is the power of God’s love.

Because what we learn is that the system is not real……not like you or I are real. What is real is God’s kingdom and the freedom that is opened up when we are opened to God’s love. Everything else–to paraphrase the preacher of Ecclesiastes–proves empty and without any real substance at all.

That’s why Jesus insists his followers “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33 RSV). We have to prioritize the ways of God’s kingdom over the ways of this world. Making God’s kingdom come isn’t about aligning state with religion, or pursuing misguided policies in the Near East intended to “force” God’s hand into sending Jesus back. 

Making God’s kingdom come is about embodying God’s liberating love in our relationships and life. In doing so, they–and we–discover the unlimited potential we have in God’s kingdom. 

Prayer

Give us the courage, O God, to change.

May you and others forgive us
for how we have sinned against others,
holding them back from the vocation you intend for them.

May we discover the richness
of the Body of Christ
as we advocate for the full participation
of each called, redeemed, and gifted individual.

But may we also discover,
the beauty of how their expression of gifts and calling
enriches our own lives,
for the enriching of the Church
and the advancement of your Kingdom
is the reason you gift and call any of us.

To You, O God, be the glory,
and the honor, and the power,
forever. Amen.

The Right Kind of Radical

During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is The Way Back Home, by Oliver Jeffers.

Scripture Reading: Luke 10:25-37

Questions for Jesus

Some of my favorite sections of the New Testament describe times when people have questions for Jesus. I like that people are asking Jesus things. 

I like it when people pose questions to Jesus because I have questions too. 

I’d like to ask about how the Kingdom of God is going to be fulfilled. There are a lot of texts in our scriptures that give hints of before and after, but nothing that really shows the tipping point of getting from here to there.

I’d like to inquire about how Jesus’ humanity and divinity fit together in his thoroughly human life—what did he know when? how did his divinity respond to his human struggles? how could he be fully human and fully divine?

Along those lines, I’d love to hear a better explanation of the Trinity than what we humans have managed in 2000 years of our flailing attempts.

But those theological questions (and others like them) are not the sort that keep me up at night–it is another sort of question that really matters.

I’d like to know why this one family I love can’t ever seem to get a break.

I’d like to hear why God couldn’t find a way to intervene and save my relative’s life.

I’d like to understand why it is always the children who suffer the worst of our choices…I mean: couldn’t creation have been set up fundamentally differently?

And I still want to know why it sometimes takes such desperation before God seems to show up and bring about rescue.

I have a lot of questions for Jesus, for sure. I suspect many of you do, too.

Ancient Questions Are Modern

I find it interesting that the initial question posed by the man in today’s reading is essentially the same one that came up in our joint Sunday School class last week: What do I have to do to be saved?

The narrator here tells us that this man is “an expert in the law.” But don’t be mistaken into thinking he was a lawyer! The “law” here is the Torah, the first five books of the Bible for Jews (and Christians alike). In today’s parlance, we might regard the man to be a biblical scholar, or a theologian, or maybe even a prominent pastor who’s authored a bunch of books. This is someone who knows their bible…… someone who knows the right answer to his own question…… but it becomes clear that he does not know how to put his faith into practice.

Now the narrator of Luke tells us (in v.25) that this questioner is aiming “to test Jesus.” Later (in v.29), Luke tells us he is “wanting to justify himself.” His ulterior motive is being exposed—and that motive is something like pride, or the assurance that he is not part of the problem.

But honestly?—I don’t think all this explanation of inner machinations is even necessary. The man’s questions are indeed timeless ones: “What do I have to do to be saved?” and “Who do I have to be kind to?”

In telling the now-famous story that follows, Jesus aims to answer not just these explicit questions, but also other, unasked ones. Questions like:

Who is my enemy?

Which is more important: religion or relationships?

Does God value faith commitments or people more?

Who is capable of being a conduit for God’s loving and redemptive work? Who is disqualified?

Among other lessons, Jesus reminds us through this parable not to judge a book by its cover—and maybe even that judging isn’t for us anyway. 

But within this parable and certainly elsewhere in Jesus’ teaching, there is a sense that judging may be ok or even encouraged–if it is directed inward instead of outward. In other words, if the one we are judging is we ourselves, instead of others.

By Their Fruits…

It seems to me that this parable might in some ways be a depiction of another teaching of Jesus—and one that is often misapplied in order to justify judging others. I’m talking about his teaching about knowing the type of tree by the fruit it produces.

Twice in Matthew and once in Luke we have recorded this catchy teaching of Jesus. Matthew groups this teaching with warnings about false prophets, but Luke attaches it directly to Jesus’ words about not judging others. 

Flip over if you want to Luke 6. 

Starting around v.20, we find Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, and v.37 (where we’re about to start reading) directly parallels Matthew 7:1:

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:37–38 NRSV)

A few verses later we get to the log-headed guy trying to take the speck out of someone else’s eye, and then we move right into the tree-and-fruit imagery (v.43ff):

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.” (Luke 6:43–44 NRSV)

“Each tree is known by its own fruit.” The “produce” of our life testifies to who we are in ways that speak far louder than any words. Thus, it is the “produce” of the lives of those characters of the Parable of the Good Samaritan that praise—or condemn—each person.

That priest? What actions and behaviors does his life produce?

That Levite? What actions and behaviors does his life produce?

That Samaritan? What actions and behaviors does his life produce?

Each tree is known by its own fruit.”

This is a real challenge that Jesus offers to us here. 

What is produced when we imitate Jesus?
when we fulfill God’s commands?
when we advance God’s Kingdom?
What does that look like?

In a preacherly attempt to answer my own question, let me suggest that this parable reinforces the notion that the central hallmark of a Christ-like life is mercy lived out in relationships.

Mercy in Relationships

Mercy in relationships. 

Remember that song we sang last week?—”They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love”?

Remember our conversation about the Golden Rule and how radical a principle it remains?

Mercy is a vital component to living life as God intends. We humans are made to be in community—made in the image of our Triune God. And there are not minimum or maximum numbers that define how small or large a “community” is to be. But there are minimum requirements for how we live with each other.

First, we have to recognize that our lives are interconnected

that what I do affects you and vice versa; 

that we are intertwined in ways we may never fully realize or appreciate; 

that when you rejoice, it brings me joy, and when you suffer, we suffer together. 

We explored this a bit during our worship series on the Lord’s Prayer, recognizing that almost all the language in that prayer is plural: “Our Father…… give usour daily bread…… forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors……” 

If we are going to be in community with each other, we have to realize that the “we” must always take precedence over the “I.”

 

But we also must practice mercy on each other—that’s the second “minimum” for being in relationship together. 

This is Jesus in John 20:23 telling us that “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:23 NRSV). 

This is John in 1John 4:20 insisting that “those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1John 4:20 NRSV). 

This is Luke in Acts 2:43-47 inspiring us with a picture of the early church truly living out mercy and grace in remarkable, uplifting ways. 

This is Paul urging the Corinthian church (and we today) to realize that everything is for naught unless we are driven by and toward love (cf. 1Corinthians 13:1-3).

 

Now I think there is yet a third “minimum” for us to observe in our relationships, and it is one that this parable absolutely shouts out: Being part of the Body of Christ means that we steadfastly refuse to accept as an enemy any other human being that God loves and that Christ died to redeem. 

You are not new to the parable of the Good Samaritan; you know that Samaritans were seen as the enemy by that priest, that Levite, and probably even by the not-dead-yet man in the gutter. But that Samaritan was the one person in this story who embodies God’s priorities and Christ’s instruction to love even your enemies.

Countercultural

You know, when and where I grew up, there was a lot of talk about how Christians should be countercultural—how we should not accept what culture told us was ok. It seems this philosophy is making a bit of a comeback of late.

And truthfully, I do agree……in spirit. We should not blindly accept our culture’s values and vision.

But I do tend to disagree with how this works out in practice. 

Then—as now—countercultural was defined as so-called “traditional marriage roles,” masculine church leadership, wearing the right kinds of clothes at church, not smoking/drinking/doing drugs/gambling, and so on. For those willing to be really honest, it’s quite clear that these are not counter-cultural practices, but rather retro-cultural practices—they aim to preserve the cultural norms of a few decades prior. 

But that’s not the kind of counterculture we are called to embody. That’s not the kind of radical that we’re supposed to be. 

We should be countercultural, but we should be countercultural in the ways that Jesus was countercultural. And Jesus wasn’t countercultural by trying to pull his church backwards to a past golden era. Quite the opposite, Jesus was countercultural because he was trying to pull his church forward into the future Kingdom of God.

 

Jesus is countercultural in the way that the Parable of the Good Samaritan is countercultural, because showing mercy to enemies is always going to be countercultural. 

Practicing the Golden Rule is always going to be countercultural. 

Becoming a servant to all (“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” Mark 9:35 NRSV) is always going to be countercultural. 

Choosing to see the divine image in those who look and act and speak and sound and worship different than us is always going to be countercultural.

These are the kingdom values that Jesus demonstrates for us, and they are just as revolutionary today as they were 2000 years ago. 

These are the fruits that our lives will produce if we are being the right kind of radical.

 

And through it all—just like in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and in our children’s story today—we may even find that the means to God saving us all rests in each other—even and especially in the ones of which we are afraid.

Goals

During this annual summer series, we read a children’s story as an additional “scripture” lesson. This week’s story is Leonardo the Terrible Monster, by Mo Willems.

Scripture Reading: Luke 6:27-36

Self-Discovery

Some years ago I happened across a TV show called “Who Do You Think You Are?” I didn’t realize until preparing for this week, but the series is still on the air today. The basic premise of the show is that they bring on a celebrity of sorts and perform genealogical research into their family tree. 

As you might expect and as ancestry-researchers have known for a long time, when you start digging around in the past you can’t help but discover some fascinating stories. So as each episode develops, the subjects learn of their connection to people of power and to criminals, of stories of hardship and triumph, and a lot of mundane stuff too.

The bulk of each episode is unveiling this deep look into the past, but one of the things I remember most profoundly is the way most subjects would talk about how their newfound knowledge would change how they lived in the future. Because of what they discovered about themselves, they aspired to be a somehow different person.

A World Without Stories

Learning about your family’s past can make you see yourself in a different light; it can’t help but do that–given the good, bad, and ugly that you will no doubt unearth. I think really listening to the stories of other’s lives always does this, whether or not you’re related to them. 

No matter how much we are around people, they tend to remain a bit two-dimensional in our imagination. And that can be isolating. 

When we struggle but don’t see the struggle of others, we think we are alone and perhaps faulty somehow.

When we fail but never see others’ failures, we may begin to imagine ourselves to be the personification of failure: it is not that we failed, but that we are failures.

When we only know of our own experiences, we often become narrow-minded, imagining that everyone’s experience is the same as our own.

And before long, we have lost our ability to show compassion, the responsibility that comes with being interconnected with others, and all touch with reality, really…… And in its place we’ve gained a delusional pride that sees only your way in everything, an inflated sense of self-importance and accomplishment, and hatred masquerading as love.

Confessing Stories

Maybe that’s why “remember and tell this story so they don’t forget” is such a common refrain in the Old Testament. For every experience of the ancient Israelites–good or bad–they are instructed to remember what happened, to tell its story to the next generations, and not to forget. For every time they do forget, they lose track of who they are and they wander far from God’s paths.

Jumping into the New Testament, maybe this is part of what undergirds the instruction of James 5:16 to 

“Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” (NRSV)

When we share our stories with one another–when we pray for one another amidst experiences of praise and failure–we will truly find healing and hope in community. Those stories and struggles and celebrations of others cannot help but change how we see the world, just like those celebrities on the TV series.

#goals

I don’t know if this will surprise you or not, but I think some  of the biggest obstacles for Christians trying to embody Jesus’ love in the world are our own goals and expectations. We get these ideas in our head about who we are, or want to be; and we tend to define these things quite narrowly. Take a moment and think about the things you aspire to be. Maybe you try to be:

a good person (which whether we realize it or not is culturally defined and not the same for everyone around the globe; a caveat that applies to all our goals really)

a good American

a good employee

a good citizen

a good “Christian”

a good church member

Most of us wear lots of hats (so to speak), so we also want to be:

a good parent

a good child

a good brother/sister

a good neighbor

a good friend, and so on.

That’s a lot of roles already, and we’ve only just now scratched the surface.

I think most of us struggle (at times–if not most of the time) figuring out which hat to wear when. And like with Leonardo the monster (in the children’s book), we sometimes find the different roles we fill (or the different goals we have) create conflicts within us and outside us. Some of those personas we aspire to become prove to be mutually exclusive.

As an example that’s sure to be provocative, I think the Christian role of “follower of Jesus” is increasingly at odds with the über-patriotism that some today define as being a “good American.” 

Our Christian ancestors throughout history suffered and died because their allegiance to Christ trumped their allegiance to their nation. If following Christ is seen by some (even by some Christians these days!) as un-American, I know with certainty where my allegiance is pledged.

But these are not easy realities to navigate. Each of us, after all, have considerable expectations placed upon us: by our families, by our friends, by our church, by society, and so on. More than anything else, I think the greatest expectation placed on us is that we will not change……that we will remain comfortably predictable, so as not to rock the boat of life.

A Disruptive Jesus

But the Jesus that we follow is thoroughly disruptive. From before he was even born, Jesus was upsetting the apple carts of expectation and predictability. In Jesus, God does something new (cf. Isaiah 43:19) that changes the world forever……and new is not something we do well as humans.

Take this section of teaching that we’ve read today, for example. Within these ten verses, Jesus destroys their expectations of how to respond to those doing you wrong, he jettisons the basic moral principle they have been following, and he presents a model of behavior that (quite frankly) looks like a recipe for failure.

Love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you. 

Do more than is required–even when it comes at a cost:

If anyone strikes you on the cheek,
offer the other also;
and from anyone who takes away your coat
do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you;
and if anyone takes away your goods,
do not ask for them again. 

Abba Macarius Gets Burgled

That reminds me of a story of abba Macarius in Egypt–he’s one of those voices of early Christianity called the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Anyway, Macarius returned to his residence to find a stranger there. The man had brought a pickup (of sorts) and was stealing all of Macarius’ things. Macarius went up to the man as though he were a traveler who did not live there, helped him load the animal with his own things, and led the man on his way in peace.

Why? The story says it is because Macarius was reminding himself that “We brought nothing into this world,” that all things are a gift of God, and that God deserves praise in all circumstances (in Daily Readings, p.35).

I’m not saying we should respond as Macarius in all circumstances in our lives–nor, I suspect, would he–but I do think he fulfills these words of Jesus in a challenging and remarkable fashion.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 

If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.”

Which Hat to Wear?

In a world of competing goals, responsibilities, and aspirations, I find these words of Jesus have a way of cutting right to the heart of things. Who am I to be in this moment? How am I to respond? Which persona gets priority? Which goals should be pursued?

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

It is a rule that was taught to most of us when we were young, whether or not our parents or guardians were religious. But it continues to be one of the most daring, revolutionary, disruptive things we can live out in the world. 

Because when we do to others as we would have them do to us:

we show love to those who do us harm

we are generous with those who would steal from us

we bless when and whom others would curse

we respond to violence with non-violence

When we follow this simple teaching of Jesus, we live more completely in the now-but-not-yet Kingdom of God; we choose to follow God’s ways in a world where such things look foolish. And these, I do strongly believe, are goals worth pursuing.

Lord’s Prayer: Celebrate

Scripture Reading: Matthew 13:44-50

Ceeee-le-brate Good Times, Come on!

What does it mean to celebrate?

There are things we’re good at celebrating: a win by our favorite sports team or the landing of a new job, birthdays and anniversaries and graduations, and so on. 

But there are other things we’re not so great about celebrating. Following the model of the Lord’s Prayer, I wonder:

Do we celebrate when we successfully “make God’s name holy” in the world by our actions as individuals or as the church?

Do we celebrate the ways we see God’s kingdom becoming a little more real in our lives and the lives of others?

Do we celebrate the ways our day was met with a kind of sufficiency–in terms of basic needs, yes, but also in terms of emotional and spiritual support and endurance?

Do we celebrate forgiveness–the forgiveness of God, of others, or of ourselves?

Do we celebrate the times we overcome temptation or the times we were delivered from the evil that threatened us?

I think the only one of these “celebrations” I have witnessed with any regularity is deliverance from the threat of harm. That one we like. Because that one began outside us, required no confessing of personal struggles, and was resolved (at least as we tell it) with a neat bow on top.

But that’s nothing like the celebrating described in the parables we’ve read this morning, nor is it akin to the last line we pray of the Lord’s Prayer.

In the parables, we find that there is a confessional basis to the celebration depicted. I don’t mean “confessional” like confessing sins to each other though. What I mean is that in each of these parables, there is a vulnerability to celebration. In each case, the persons involved open themselves up to criticism by those who would undermine their celebration.

1. Opens Self up to Criticism: Motivations

In the first parable, we’ve got someone who is poking around property he doesn’t own. He is trespassing, apparently. And more than that: he’s trespassing and digging around.

In the process, the person finds something of value, but keeps it hidden so he can buy the land and have a legal claim to the treasure. It sounds like a story from the gold rush or oil boom eras, when gold or “black gold” were discovered and then an attempt was made to acquire the land before anyone else found out about it.

Do we celebrate with this man? 

What was he doing digging around in someone else’s field? 

Doesn’t this sound kind of underhanded, like he sneaky-cheated the original landowner into selling property that was more valuable than he realized?

By celebrating his find and acquisition, the man opens himself up to these and other criticisms.

2. Opens Self up to Criticism: Priorities

And what about the second parable? How does it fare?

This time it’s a merchant who deals in precious stones and other pretty adornments for jewelry and whatnot. A pearl is found–but it’s not just any pearl: this is the largest, most perfect pearl the merchant has ever seen, and pearls are her business. So the merchant sells everything–the house, the car, the tv, the store, all her jewelry stock–just to acquire this one pearl.

Now my own midwestern background censors these kinds of celebrations with reckless abandon:

You paid how much?

For that?

God help me, but in the early days of my marriage to a southern gal I would virtually have a coronary every time she acknowledged the price of something we purchased. It didn’t have to be expensive; it could have been a box of cereal. But where I come from you just didn’t tell people how you spent your money; you never opened yourself up to the kinds of criticism this merchant has made herself vulnerable to.

3. Opens Self up to Criticism: Mixed Results

The third parable is longer than the previous two, and it is certainly no less challenging. The background is fishing–and net fishing in particular. My grandpa Spurr used to net fish with cast nets in Florida (back when it was legal there); I found it fascinating how you never knew what was going to be in that net when you pulled it up. It could have been snapper or drum or flounder or even a small shark!

The fisher-folk in this parable pull in their nets and it’s an amazing harvest of fish! There are all kinds of fish, and a huge number of them. But you know, not all fish are keepers, and there’s some undesired fish mixed in with the good ones.

It’s a good fish story, but the results are a bit of a mixed bag. 

How mixed can results be and still warrant celebration?

I’m quite certain most of us have failed to celebrate some “win” in our life because the results were not 100% positive. We didn’t want others to second-guess whether the results were positive enough, or to question how to weigh the good against the bad. Even though the model of scripture might be to celebrate any good and the God who helped bring it into being, I find myself more often taking the opposite tactic: not celebrating if there is any bad mixed in at all.

Back to the Present…

Maybe this kind of thing is familiar to you, too. I know there have been times in my life where I tried to celebrate what I believed was a good thing happening; but as my motives, results, and even means of celebration were questioned I found my celebration sapped of the joy with which it began.

I think this is a common enough experience that it frequently hampers true celebration from taking place, even and especially among the church. We’ve experienced such pushback when we have tried to celebrate before, that many of us are shy about even celebrating God in our lives. 

Is someone going to try to prove it was just coincidence?

Is someone going to ask why God didn’t help them in the same way?

Is someone going to push for “proof”?

Is someone going to suggest it wasn’t really that bad to begin with?

Is someone going to insist that God doesn’t even exist?

All these are things I’ve witnessed or experienced when I’ve tried to celebrate what God has done in my life. And it’s enough to make anyone gun-shy about celebration.

Celebration Is Foundational

Which is too bad. Because celebration is one of things I believe the community of believers called the church should do best. Hundreds of years ago, St. Augustine proclaimed “A Christian should be an alleluia from head to foot.” He echoes many of the psalms–often called the prayerbook or hymnal of ancient Israel–in their call to celebrate who God is and what God has done for us.

But I also believe (with writer Richard Foster) that “All the [spiritual] Disciplines freely exercised bring forth the doxology of celebration” (Celebration of Discipline, p.201).

In the context of the Lord’s Prayer, that means that celebration is the appropriate response to God’s receiving our petitions.

[screen: Our Father, who art in heaven]
God “fathers” us–a fact worth celebrating.

[screen: Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come thy will be done–on earth as it is in heaven]
Because we trust that God will (in fact) make God’s name holy, bring God’s kingdom, and enact God’s desires for creation, we respond with celebration and praise.

[screen: Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.]
We further celebrate that God provides what we need, that God forgives and enables forgiveness, and that God strengthens us that we may endure and not be overcome by evil.

Though the doxology we reflect on today was most certainly not originally offered by Jesus himself–(instead being a later addition, and a good one, I might add)–the doxology of the prayer guides us into a proper response of trust and celebration that the God who has brought us through all things will indeed do so again.

Loving Others

And just as with the other facets of this prayer, such celebration guides us in our embodiment of Jesus’ core teaching–what Paul will later call “the royal law of Jesus”: the love of others–and even our enemies!–as ourselves. 

You see, it’s hard to celebrate alone. And without sharing in the joys of one another’s life, we have far less to celebrate. I’d even dare say that without sharing in celebration with others, we would miss a good deal of the good things that God is bringing about in us. And that awareness–that consciousness–is key to learning to love.

If we are ignorant of how much we have benefitted from God’s parenting, we will be less graceful in our expectations of others’ achievements in life.

If we fail to recognize how much God has provided for us–physically, emotionally, spiritually…–then we will be far less generous with what God wants us to share.

If we are blind to how much God has forgiven us, we are less likely to forgive others.

If we are not conscious of the ways we have fallen into temptation or allowed evil to use us, we will be too prideful to help others avoid temptation or escape the evil that threatens their lives.

All these have celebration as part of their remedy. When we look to celebrate God, we cannot help but see ourselves overcome with a tsunami of grace–an overwhelming love that Jesus calls us to embody: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 NRSV).

Pray:

To you, O God,
Be glory and honor and praise.
As Psalm 147 testifies:
“You are gracious, and…praise is fitting.

We do give you thanks for every good thing in our lives.
We do confess our reliance on you.
We do acknowledge our sin
and hopeless need for your hopeful grace.
We do confess that Jesus as Lord and Caesar is not.
We do proclaim the truth that this world is not everything or even as real as we think, but rather your kingdom is true reality breaking into the world around us.
Help us, precious Lord, to continue to be conformed into the precious image of the Christ, our Savior, in whom we place our trust and hope.

For yours, O God, is the kingdom, and the power,
and the glory forever and ever. Amen.