Sermon on the Mount: When You Give

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Mt 6:1-4) 

We’ve made it to Matthew 6 in our Sermon on the Mount series. Lest we forget that this is all one sermon from the mouth of Jesus, let’s briefly recap. In Matthew 5 we learn that Jesus saw the crowds, went up on the mountain, sat down, and began to teach. He began with The Beatitudes–the foundation upon which the rest of the sermon would stand.     N. T. Wright in his book God and the Pandemic writes: “…the Sermon on the Mount isn’t simply about ‘ethics’, as people often imagine…it’s about mission. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit…the meek…the mourners…the peacemakers…the hungry-for-justice people’ and so on. We all too easily assume that Jesus is saying ‘try hard to be like this, and if you can manage it you’ll be the sort of people I want in my kingdom’. But that’s not the point! The point is that God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort.” (Emphasis mine)

Right after the Beatitudes, Jesus says that his followers, his disciples, his students, those learning from him, and being transformed into beatitude-type people will be salt and light in the world who will point to the Father and glorify him by the way they live.

Jesus then says he did not come to abolish the law and prophets but to fulfill themand moves into his You have heard it said, but I say to you…” statements, each one highlighting a traditional interpretation of the Jewish law (murder, adultery, divorve, oaths, revenge, loving neighbors), and flipping each on its head. We see in Jesus’  interpretations the love he has for, and the value that he placeson human beings and how he wants us to love, terat, and value all others as well. He obliterates all interpretations of the law that would lead to the mistreatment of people.

After setting this foundation, Jesus begins addressing the “when you…” statements.

Pastor John shared with us that three action pillars in the Jewish faith were giving, praying, and fasting. It’s why Jesus used the word when; these were things devout Jews would have been doing. Interestingly enough, the early Christian church carried out these same actions:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need…(Acts 2: 42, 44-45)

..in the church at Antioch, there were prophets and teachers… While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting… (Acts 13:1-2)

Giving, praying, fasting.

So Jesus, establishing his mission–the Kingdom of Heaven coming to earth–wants to address the heart motivation of his followers in regards to these actions that indicate we are Kingdom-of-God people who belong to him.

The Passion Translation of these verses in Matthew 6,  makes the heart issue very clear: Examine your motives to make sure you’re not showing off when you do your good deeds only to be admired by others; otherwise, you will lose the reward of your heavenly Father.

And today’s emphasis:

 So when you give to the poor, don’t announce it and make a show of it just to be seen by people, like the hypocrites in the streets and in the marketplace.  They’ve already received their reward!  But when you demonstrate generosity, do it with pure motives and without drawing attention to yourself. Give secretly and your Father, who sees all you do, will reward you openly.”

That’s super clear, right? When you give to the poor don’t toot your own horn, don’t give with duplicitous motives, give secretly and God will reward you.

Wait…what? Rewards?

This is where things can get tricky! This is where our western, capitalistic, individualistic mindset can take over and all of a sudden our heart motives get way off. As a result, depending on your faith tradition, this idea of rewards can go to one of two extremes. One extreme is to completely ignore this portion because it feels worldly to place any emphasis on rewards and we’re a little afraid of ourselves if we think about it too much. The other extreme is to make it all about rewards, usually thinking of personal rewards that oftentimes land in the individualistic material wealth realm–if I give to God he will prosper me and make me rich.

I remember an occasion during my childhood when I didn’t think my measly allowance was going to get me to my financial goals, so I put my entire allowance into the offering plate expecting to get a grand return on my investment. Guess what? It didn’t work out the way I planned–and since I’d wiped myself completely out, I did the very noble thing of stealing money out of my dad’s loose change box so I could buy items of value like candy bars. My heart motivation in giving my whole allowance was all about what I thought I’d get out of it. I could have cared less about the ministries and missions my allowance was contributing to; I just wanted more money for me.

And therein lies the problem of too much emphasis on the “me” in rewards.

Pastor John reminded us that the goal of giving, praying, and fasting was to establish and enhance community, not the individual self. When our reward mindset is focused on “what can I get out of this”, we miss the fact that God’s kingdom is all about community. The Jews of Jesus day understood that they were giving collectively in order to target the needs of the community. The early church believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Some churches are really good at giving this way; however, I’m afraid that the public reputation of the majority American church has exposed the opposite attitude–one of greed, of individualism, of a “me first”, “my rights”, “my personal prosperity” mindset, and one that looks very little like the community-focused, generous, all are welcome, all are cared for, inclusive kingdom of Jesus. 

Let’s check ourselves for a moment. How are we doing with this giving to the needy thing? How are we doing with the giving collectively thing? How are we doing with the generosity thing? How are we doing with the kingdom-based community thing? How are we doing with the heart motivation thing? (Just in case you wonder–I’m writing to myself too.)

Let’s return for a moment to the idea of God rewarding us. What do God’s rewards look like?  If we return to the beatitudes, each one contains a reward:

…theirs is the kingdom of heaven

…they shall be comforted

…they shall inherit the earth

 …they shall be satisfied.

…they shall receive mercy

…they shall see God

…they shall be called children of God

…theirs is the kingdom of heaven

And the persecuted? …their reward is great in heaven

Let’s do a quick heart check. Do these rewards seem sufficient? Let’s sit with that for a moment and ask God to show us our own hearts.

Before I wrap this blog post up, I want to highlight one more thing. There is what I believe to be a Holy Spirit movement stirring in the hearts of many of God’s people in this nation. As is the case with a lot of God’s movements, it seems to be stirring on the margins of society. Some segments of mainstream Christianity seem to be threatened by this stirring and are pushing back hard by dropping into a binary way of thinking and of fear-mongering. However, the movement is demonstrating a more Christ-like way, a more community-minded way, a more inclusive way, the way of shalom for the flourishing of all.

Christian author Jen Hatmaker writes: We are wired to care about what other people want and need. As socially influenced individuals, sharing the values and concerns of our neighbors creates social harmony. Embedded in our psyches is the sense that, when our neighbors are suffering, the whole community is at risk. We instinctively know what we all should be experiencing: justice, equality, safety, agency, belonging…it is why injustice cuts most of us so deeply. (Emphasis mine)

Where is the reward in caring like this?

Emory University carried out a study in which participants were given the chance to help someone while their brain activity was recorded. Helping others triggered portions of the brain that also turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure…helping others brings the same exact pleasure as personal gratification. Hmmm.

Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner in his article “The Compassionate Instinct” wrote, Not only do our brains reward us for compassionate behavior, the rest of our body does too. [in speaking of the autonomic nervous system fight, flight, or compassion responses he writes] When adults feel compassion for others, this emotion also creates very real physiological changes; their heart rates go down from baseline levels, which prepares them not to fight or flee but to approach and soothe. Additionally, nurturing behavior floods our bodies with oxytocin, a chemical reaction in the body that motivates us to be even more compassionate, an internal prize for kindness. 

Internal pleasure and calm for generosity and compassion is the chemical and neurological response that God hard-wired into our bodies when he knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. You all—that’s huge. We are created in the image of our generous, self-giving, compassionate, coming to us in our desperate need, loving God. When we allow God’s nature to flow through us by the power of the Holy Spirit, we see ourselves as part of His great compassionate community, giving of ourselves and our resources to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the world. We are not in it for ourselves. We are in it for the great mission of God–that the world (Greek= kosmos)–the earthly world and her inhabitants through Jesus, might be saved (Greek=healed, made whole) (Jn 3:17).

Examine your motives to make sure you’re not showing off when you do your good deeds, only to be admired by others; otherwise, you will lose the reward of your heavenly Father…But when you demonstrate generosity, do it with pure motives and without drawing attention to yourself. Give secretly and your Father, who sees all you do, will reward you openly.

As we generously and collectively give of ourselves and our resources, God rewards us with more compassion, more kindness, more others focus, more internal calm and peace, and more of his nature and character. The needs of the poor are met. The world sees Jesus through our actions. God is glorified by our “salt and light”,  and it all becomes a beautiful cycle of self-giving love.

the Sermon on the Mount…it’s about mission…God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort.

That, my friends, is how the world will be saved.

–Luanne

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You Have Heard It Said: Hate

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt. 5:43-48)

You have heard that it was said.  Diving right in and thinking of today’s cultural climate, what things have we heard said? Are we blindly taking those things in as truth because they come from leaders or news sources or people whose thoughts align with ours? Do those things line up with what Jesus has said? Is what we have heard said leading us to be more like Jesus?

When God laid this Sermon on the Mount series on Pastor John’s heart we weren’t in the midst of a global pandemic. We weren’t being asked to wear masks and social distance, and it’s been years since we (as an entire culture) have been so blatantly exposed to what ongoing and systemic racism looks like. We’re learning whether or not our personal values lie more on the side of individualism and our rights, or on the common good even if I have to sacrifice a little–more on the side of “me first” or community. Pastor John was preparing for this series before all of this happened. He has remained faithful to preaching the series God laid on his heart–and wow–is it ever what we need to be wrestling with. If we will listen, if we will wrestle, if we will go deep, this could be the recalibration that the people of God so desperately need.

The words of Jesus in this week’s passage pack a punch.

You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ but I tell you, love your enemies…

Just like the other “you have heard it said’ statements we’ve studied, hating your enemy is what the Jewish people had been taught.  Where did this teaching come from? How did it begin? In Leviticus 19:18 the Israelites were instructed not to seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. They inferred, therefore, that they were supposed to love their own people–they could hate everyone else.

Jesus corrects this teaching not only in today’s passage but also in Luke 10 when he is asked by an expert in Jewish law what is required to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks the lawyer, What is written in the Law?… How do you read it? (v.26) . 

The Lawyer responds: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  (27)

Jesus tells him that he’s correct and encourages him to live that way. The Lawyer then asks Jesus–Who is my neighbor?  

Jesus answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan. To the Jewish people, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. However, as we know from the parable, the beaten and robbed man was passed by and ignored by a priest and a Levite, yet he was lavishly ministered to by a compassionate Samaritan man. At the end of the story, Jesus asked the lawyer, Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man? (36)

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” 

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (37)

The Good Samaritan was a radical, shocking example of who constitutes a neighbor, and Jesus was being very intentional. He speaks a similar way in this portion of his sermon to expose and lay bare the superior self-righteousness of the crowd by saying: If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

Loving “your people” and hating everyone else is not the way the kingdom of heaven on earth is to function–AND it’s not the way God functions.

Jesus points this out when he says: He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  In other words, God is not picking favorites. God loves the whole world. Jesus came to save the whole world. His followers are to take God’s love and kingdom life to the whole world. 

Loving “our people”, thinking more highly of “our people” might be the way of the world, but it’s not the way of God. As a matter of fact, if we look at the kingdom on earth that Jesus was establishing, and if we look at the early church ushering in the kingdom, people from all different walks of life, ethnic backgrounds, social status, and other humanly separated categories were together as part of it. The Apostle Paul makes this clear and encourages us to unify around Jesus. Jesus invites everyone from everywhere to his table. In his own ministry, we see him with Jew, Gentile, women, men, Romans, Pharisees, tax collectors, prostitutes, rich, poor, sick, healthy–everyone was welcome. What happened?

It is rare for today’s churches to look this diverse; however, I can think of one church in Queens, New York that looks this way. My husband and I attended a conference there a number of years ago. The church is in a very diverse part of Queens and had people from many different countries represented in their congregation. Pastor Pete Scazzero shared that for that type of church to work, each person has to be responsible to separate their culture (whether it be family culture or nationality) from the culture of Jesus. No one’s culture gets to trump another’s culture–they seek to unify around Jesus and the culture of his kingdom. Pastor Scazzero acknowledged that sometimes it’s messy, but isn’t the kingdom of heaven on earth worth the mess?  Isn’t learning to listen, seeking to understand, and loving one another worth some wrestling? Isn’t getting rid of labels and categories and treating all others as equals a worthy pursuit? Isn’t joining arms and working together for the flourishing of all humankind the way of being in the kingdom of God?

When Jesus says pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your Father in heaven.he nods back to two of the beatitudes from the first part of his sermon:

  1. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
  2.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

I read the beatitudes almost every morning during my prayer time and cringe at the persecuted part every time. Sadly, sometimes being a peacemaker is what leads to persecution. Peacemakers and peace-keepers are very different. Peace-keepers maintain a false appearance of peace on the surface. Peacemakers address hard issues–peacemakers go to the core of the matter, exposing what’s in the dark and bringing it to the light so that it can be seen and resolved. Peacemakers are oftentimes persecuted–just ask Jesus. But in the end, the peacemakers and the persecuted are called children of God and they live where God reigns.

Pastor John pointed out that Jesus says love your enemies, pray for them to be blessed, but we relish in the secret scorn we have for others. Ouch!  He said: It’s not enough to do just enough. That won’t change the world. Do more! Be different. Love more. Stop retaliating. Check your secret scorn. He reminded us that our social media presence and “likes” reveal a great deal about what matters to us. And he reminded us that the current cultural and global crisis is showing us our true character. Do we like what we see?

Think about it; who would your enemy be? Who receives your secret scorn? If Jesus were telling you the story of the good Samaritan who would shock you? The good Muslim? The good Democrat? The good Republican? The good African-American? The good white person? The good gay man? The good transgender woman? The good immigrant? The good _______________?

If we love only those who are like us, that’s what the whole world does. Jesus says–do more, love others like I love you. He teaches us that there is no such thing as an enemy– everyone is a neighbor and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Whew! Hard stuff!! 

And then Jesus says: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. What?!! How?!!

Be–not do. God is perfectly who God is. Be perfectly who God created you to be living for the things that matter to God’s heart. Be whole. Be Christlike. Be Spirit-filled. Be for the flourishing of all. Be perfect, which looks exactly like “God is love” to the world. 

–Luanne

I will start where Luanne left off and we’ll work our way backwards a bit. She left us with the words, Be perfect, which looks exactly like “God is love” to the world. “

Sometimes, to see a more expansive picture of the things Jesus spoke about, it is helpful to look at more than one of the gospels… In Luke 6:36, we read: 

“Be merciful (responsive, compassionate, tender) just as your [heavenly] Father is merciful.” (AMP)

Brian Zahnd expounds on this verse, in a blog post titled Oh, Mercy. He writes,

“The Gospel writers use different words.

What Jesus in Matthew calls perfection, Jesus in Luke calls mercy.

This is significant and instructive. Luke’s use of “mercy” gives us an inspired commentary on Matthew’s “perfect.”

First of all, Matthew’s “perfect” is the Greek telos; i.e. goal.

Put the two together and you will understand what God is like and what our goal is to be.

God is perfect in mercy. This is what we are called to imitate.

The goal (telos) for the disciple of Jesus is to be merciful like God is merciful.

The perfection God is looking for is not the unattainable perfection of flawlessness—But the fully attainable perfection of extending mercy to those who are flawed.”

This perspective is corroborated in the story of the Good Samaritan that Luanne wrote about above. After Jesus shared the story in response to the question Who is my neighbor?, he asked his own question to make sure the lawyer understood.

Jesus asked the lawyer, Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man? The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” 

To see everyone as a neighbor and no one as an enemy, to show mercy to the flawed, to love those who hate–this is what it means to be perfect as God is perfect. God sees none of his children as enemies. Not in the way we understand what an “enemy” is, anyway. God is Love. He loves perfectly. We were created in the image of God with the capacity to love beyond our humanity. On our own, our love has limits. But Jesus showed us a different way as he walked this earth fully God and fully human. Divinity is his nature and as we are filled with his spirit, we also have access to the divine being awakened with us. God cultivates the seeds planted within our hearts and grows us in the likeness of his Son. As God’s beloved children, the divine lives within us, empowering us to live and love beyond our limitations.

So, is Jesus really teaching that we have no enemies? Yes. I believe he is teaching exactly that. He is, once again, turning their understanding upside-down and deepening their capacity to live according to the ways of his kingdom. Luanne wrote:

He [Jesus] teaches us that there is no such thing as an enemy–everyone is a neighbor and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

But wait… In Ephesians 6, Paul tells us plainly that we do have enemies, right? Yes. This is what he has to say on the matter:

For our fight is not against any physical enemy: it is against organisations and powers that are spiritual. We are up against the unseen power that controls this dark world, and spiritual agents from the very headquarters of evil.

(Ephesians 6:12, J.B. Phillips, emphasis mine)

Evil is real. It exists all around us. The spirit of evil–the spirit that is anti-Christ, that stands against the Spirit of God–infiltrates powers and structures in our world. But people are not our enemies. People–all people--are our neighbors. Jesus wants his listeners to really understand this concept because it sets his kingdom apart from any other. In his kingdom, there are no outsiders. There is no us versus them. There are only neighbors.

Remember the crowd he was speaking to… It was incredibly diverse.  The words he spoke weren’t hypothetical, or for some future moment or encounter they might have. No. The crowds Matthew wrote about were full of people who didn’t naturally mingle.

Again, Brian Zahnd, in one of his own sermons (Pastor Brian has a lot of great things to say about the sermon on the mount and the beatitudes; it’s one of his favorite things to talk about!), said this regarding the crowd:

“…The crowds, they came from Galilee, they came from from Decapolis, they came from Jerusalem, Judea… That tells us–if we know the history and the geography–that a mixed multitude of Jews and Gentiles were gathering to Jesus. All kinds of people… The whole spectrum of humanity was being attracted to Jesus…”

To this crowd, Jesus said… Love those who are not your people. All they had to do to practically apply his words was look around. They were surrounded by “others” who were likely easy for them to hate. It was a mixed crowd, full of people who didn’t look like one another, think like one another, dress like one another, believe like one another. They were likely from all different income brackets. They did not all have the same culture, music, or food in common. They probably didn’t agree about politics, as they represented many different regions. But they were all attracted to Jesus and to this kingdom he kept talking about. So they gathered together and listened to hard teachings, teachings that challenge us today in the same ways they challenged his first hearers.

I want to reiterate the last line I quoted from Pastor Brian above:

“The whole spectrum of humanity was being attracted to Jesus…”

All kinds of people were attracted to Jesus and his kingdom when he walked the earth enfleshed in humanity. Friends, do you know how Jesus walks the earth today? Enfleshed in our humanity. We, the followers of Christ, are to embody his kingdom, all that he is. Are all kinds of people attracted to the Jesus they see in us? Do we live from the kingdom he brought to earth? Do we see all people as our neighbors, bearing the image of the Divine, same as us? Or do we live from a different kingdom, one that spews hate and violence, one that separates, divides, judges, and condemns? Do we understand that our only enemy is the spirit of evil, or do we make enemies of our flesh-and-blood neighbors? Is the whole spectrum of humanity attracted to the Jesus they see in us, those who call ourselves his followers? Is there a seat at the table for ALL? Or does our secret scorn lead us to arrogant exclusion that values some more highly than others?

These questions are hard. The ways of Jesus’ kingdom are demanding. Will we have the courage to let his words mess in our business and show us where we’ve made enemies of neighbors? Will we have the courage to then repent, to change our minds and then our actions, as Pastor Beau talked to us about last week? Will we let the Spirit lead us in the way of love? I pray that each of us as individuals and the Church as a whole will choose to answer “yes” to these questions. Because, here’s what’s true: The whole spectrum of humanity will always be attracted to the real Jesus, but sometimes, his followers get in the way.

–Laura

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How Long, Oh Lord?

As I ponder how to begin our blog today, I’m asking the Holy Spirit to give me the ability to write with clarity–the chance of being misunderstood is great. On Sunday, Pastor John diverged from his Sermon on the Mount series to focus on the issue of racial injustice, and our (majority culture) silence that happens over and over in our nation. What makes this hard to discuss is the tendency among many majority culture people to bristle at the mention of racial inequity. Defenses go up, political assumptions are made, lines are drawn and division occurs. Conversations (or social media threads) get heated. Thoughtful, culture-changing conversations don’t happen. I don’t know why it’s so polarizing. I do know the polarization keeps us from healing, from becoming better and from experiencing the kingdom of heaven on earth.

I’ve been on a journey for a number of years now trying to gain better understanding of the systemic issues of racism in our nation. One of the push backs that happen when this subject comes up is an immediate “I’m not racist”, so I want to clearly explain a couple of terms.

Pastor, seminary professor, and author Soong-Chan Rah wrote one of the clearest definitions of systemic racism that I’ve read thus far.  In his book The Next Evangelicalism he wrote: Central to our understanding of the sin of racism is our understanding of the image of God... we make ourselves the standard of reference in the determination of our values and norms. Racism elevates one race as the standard to which other races seek to attain and makes one race the ultimate standard of referenceRacism elevates the physical image above the spiritual image of God given to us by our creator. Racism is idolatry…it elevates a human factor to the level of the ultimate.  

Systemic racism can be really subtle. It can be as subtle as “flesh” colored band-aids, and “nude” pantyhose, which are the color of my flesh. I’m “the norm”. I can walk into stores and not be deemed as suspicious or someone to keep an eye on because my very appearance doesn’t create any kind of stir. I’m “the norm”.  My education primarily highlighted the contributions of European settlers–“the norm”. Up until the last few years, most of the theologians and Bible study authors I’ve read have my color of skin–meaning even our church theology can be subject to “the norm”.

In speaking of church matters, Professor Rah writes: When the majority culture church continues to define and shape what the church will look like, those who are “the other” are …silenced and the multiethnic dialogue deteriorates to a white monologue.  

And yet…if we look at the New Testament, In Revelation 7:9 John shows us what the “C” church looks like:  I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. 

The Apostle Paul writes: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28) and In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. (Colossians 3:11)

In the book of Acts, Peter had this realization when God confronted him with his own racism ( the mindset that the Jewish people were “the norm” as God’s people) and he exclaimed I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34) A few chapters later, Peter stood up at the Jerusalem Council and told church leaders that God made no distinction between Gentile believers and Jewish believers, he gave them the same Holy Spirit without having to become Jewish– “the norm”. (Acts 15) 

In speaking of justice, I’m not talking about worldly social justice. However, the Bible speaks of justice from beginning to end; therefore, it is imperative that we pay attention to and understand biblical justice.

The Bible Project group says: According to the Biblical justice that God sets forth, all humans are equal, all humans are created in His image, and all humans deserve to be treated with fairness and justice.. most of the time the Bible uses the word justice to refer to restorative justice, in which those who are unrightfully hurt or wronged are restored and given back what was taken from them. Taken this way, the combination of righteousness and justice that God dictates means a selfless way of life in which people do everything they can to ensure that others are treated well and injustices are fixed. Is this something we see our churches addressing? 

A small sampling of scripture on this issue includes:

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression. (Isaiah 1:17)

He has told you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times! (Ps. 106:3)

Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely. (Proverbs 28:5)

He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord. (Ps 33:5)

To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice. (Pr. 21:3)

This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)

“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Luke 11:42)

Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets. (Mt 7:12)

The call of Christ: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, (Luke 4:18)

So what are we to do? Acknowledge, listen, learn, act, influence…

I’ve shared before about my parents’ influence–my mother began a group in my hometown (a college town) for wives of doctoral students who were from other nations–they built community while learning from and supporting one another. There were Christians, Muslims, Buddhists etc. Love, fairness, justice, and respect are pillars of that group still today.

My dad had a KKK cross burned in the yard of his church in 1950 because he welcomed a black man in his church and visited him during the week. 15 years later my dad marched with MLK.

I am of the first generation of integrated schools; my friend group was highly diverse, which was encouraged in my home. I’m grateful for that legacy.

Our nation was founded by people escaping oppression who incorporated biblical principles in our early documents; however, a look at history shows they failed to see the image of God in the people who already lived here and brought with them the very oppression they were escaping from. They failed to see the image of God in their slaves and used scripture to justify atrocities.  These things are hard to face, but we must recognize them, do what we can to help heal centuries-old wounds and not participate in a culture that contributes to ongoing oppression.

A few years ago, Laura, another friend, and I attended “The Justice Conference” in Chicago. We didn’t know what to expect, and I’m not going to lie, it was hard to be spoken to so frankly. We didn’t like it at all (at first). However, I’ll be forever grateful that we stuck it out and wrestled it through. Our role at the conference was to listen and learn. We heard from Native Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, a Christian Syrian refugee, a Muslim Yemeni refugee, a Jewish rabbi, and others. We were confronted with our own cultural bias and lens. One of the things we became aware of was the individualism and silence of white culture America in matters that don’t personally affect us. A majority culture man in the audience pushed back against one of the speakers and he got called out on it. It was uncomfortable and we thought he was treated unfairly. The three of us went back to our hotel, and in our arrogance, we discussed how we thought the minority culture speaker was wrong.  Later that afternoon, we boarded a train and headed into downtown Chicago.

Our train car’s seats made it possible for groups of four to face one another– it also had an upper level of single row seats facing perpendicular to the lower level bench seats. We could look to the upper level and see the faces of the people seated there. At one station, an ethnically diverse group of young people got on the train and headed to the upper level. They were older teens, jovial, and enjoying their day. Most seats on the lower level were filled with people who looked like us, one group contained middle-aged men.

While we were en route, two testosterone-laden majority-culture teens came through our car. One of the youth on the upper level said something about a hat; the young men below thought the comment was directed at them and started verbally threatening the group. The upper-level group tried to explain, but the two young men were already escalated and were right next to the seat where the middle-aged white gentlemen sat. Those men looked down, looked at each other, but didn’t say a word to the angry young men. It’s what we had just learned at the conference; if it doesn’t affect us personally we stay silent and our silence encourages violence.

The angry young men turned, came right by us, and climbed the staircase to the upper level–they were ready for a fight. One young lady tried to block them from hitting her boyfriend. We were flabbergasted, jumped up, and spoke out. We said things like “Enough!” “Stop!” etc. And you know what? They did. They came back down the stairs and cussed their way out of our train car. 

We sat back down, all three of us shaking, and all three of us amazed at the lesson we had learned. We got off at the same stop as the young people, checked on them, told them how deeply sorry we were that they were treated that way, and went our separate ways.  It was life-changing. Our arrogance flew out the window and we were/are more determined to listen to and learn from minority voices. However, it is not the job of minority culture people to teach us. They are exhausted. It is our responsibility to learn about our own individualistic culture, what is helpful and what is not in seeking biblical justice, and how to come alongside (not take over) and work together to change oppressive systems.  

Could our experience on the train have gone differently? Yes. Could we have been in danger of being hurt. Yes. Would that have justified staying silent? No.

And we can’t stay silent when George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others to list here are murdered, or incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit, or given longer sentences than those of “the norm” who committed the same crime, or not speak out about the disappearance of hundreds of Native-American women, or not pay attention to land that is still being confiscated, or not be deeply concerned by the suicide rate among LGBTQ+ youth and young adults. These indicate serious, serious systemic issues.

We must stop judging peaceful protests because we don’t like the way they are done. We must pay attention to people in power who abuse their roles. We must advocate for arrests, for fair trials, for equity in our judicial systems. We must look beyond the surface to deeper issues, the things that don’t directly affect us as part of “the norm”. And when frustration spills over to rioting, we must remember the words of MLK from his 1968 “The Other America” speech who said:

Let me say as I’ve always said… riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice…

…[but] I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air.Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. In the final analysis,a riot is the language of the unheard.

And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity…

What do we do? It’s a complex issue that’s not going to be fixed quickly–so we commit to the long journey. We commit to listening, to learning, to looking deep. We commit to squelching our own defensiveness, exploring why we get defensive, and acknowledging our own fragility when this subject comes up. We commit to trying to see through a different lens. We commit to abolishing pre-judgment and suspicion based on the color of someone’s skin. We commit to not being discipled more by our preferred news sources than we are by the Word of God. We commit to paying attention to who Jesus valued, loved, saw, encouraged, and to treat others as he did. We commit to using our voices and standing with those whose voices are being ignored. We commit to paying attention to and changing oppressive political policies. We commit to the common good.

And, as the people of God, we humble ourselves, pray, seek God’s face (even in the faces of image-bearers who look different from us), turn from our wicked ways (judgment, individualism, silence, contributing to the standard of “the norm, systemic racism) and God will forgive our sin and heal our land. (2 Chron 7:14).

Lord God, move us deep within. Help us to hear, to see, to acknowledge, to act. Help us to empathize, seek to walk in another’s shoes, care deeply. May your kingdom of total inclusion and equity come, may your will that includes the flourishing of all humanity be done right here on earth, through us, as it is in heaven.

–Luanne

Like Luanne, I have been revisiting the things we learned at The Justice Conference and remembering our experiences from that weekend. I’m so glad I have notes saved in the journal I took with me to Chicago–I come back to them again and again. As I have been reading back through the things I learned from so many wise presenters, some of their words stood out in new ways in light of what we are experiencing in these days. I want to share some of the quotes I recorded with you as we press into the holy work for biblical justice and equity that Luanne explained so beautifully and clearly for us. I’ll start with something she said above:

“…if it doesn’t affect us personally we stay silent and our silence encourages violence.” 
The story of what happened on the train drilled this truth into the three of us that experienced it together. If we are part of the majority culture, we have the option of entering in… or not. If it’s not convenient, if it feels unsafe, if we’re criticized for speaking up or standing up, if the cost to us personally seems too high… we can choose to opt out. This is what privilege looks like. It’s not about wealth or having an easy life. It’s about having the opportunity to choose whether we’ll be affected by injustice or not.
Many people don’t have that choice.
Injustice, prejudice, racism, violence–these things affect their daily lives. And until the majority culture, the ones holding the power to change systems and structures that oppress and dehumanize others, chooses to listen, to speak up, to come alongside, the daily lives of those on the underside of the power dynamic will continue to be negatively impacted by a multitude of injustices. Our silence has consequences. Our silence allows things to remain as they are, as they have been for hundreds of years.
Many of the speakers at the conference we attended spoke directly into our silence, which is, as we learned, complicity with the systems that are in place.
Pastor and activist Sandra Maria Van Opstal said,
“How can we say we love our neighbor and not stand up against the systems that break them? We can’t say we “do life together” unless we actually do.”
We were challenged at the conference, and continue to be challenged in our day-to-day lives to do more than simply break the silence. It is a good and necessary first step, speaking up. But if our words never grow legs and move us into action, what good are they?
Justin Dillon, Founder and CEO of the nonprofit Made in a Free World, shared that,
“Participating in the problems of others is the path to purpose.”
He went on to describe something we’ve mentioned in the blog before: virtue signaling. Justin explained this as “lending a voice, but no action, pulling equity out of something we have no investment in.”
Virtue signaling is real and it can hurt the very people we long to come alongside. When we raise our voices, when the words we say make us sound like allies, but we are unwilling to move into action, to do the hard work required for change to come, our words are hollow.
But what do we do? I’ve heard this question asked repeatedly in recent days. The truth is, as Luanne highlighted above, it is a process. We are not experts, we are part of the majority culture, members of the societal norm. But we have chosen to take the posture of learners, to listen, to get proximate to the wise, faithful voices on the margins and follow their lead. Humility is essential. Acknowledging our own biases, coming to terms with our privilege, admitting our shortcomings and lack of understanding, owning our failures–these are all part of where we start. We heard the word “proximity” over and over again in Chicago. It’s important that we get proximate to the real people behind the stories we hear. As Reverend Gabriel Salguero shared,
“We have a seeing and hearing problem… the biggest fog is distance.”
He also talked to us about how our fears and beliefs about others, our implicit biases that we don’t even know we have impact our ability to see and to act:
“Fear of our neighbor must be overcome. Love is what overcomes it. You cannot love people you’re afraid of.”
He addressed our fears of feeling unsafe in this work. He said of God,
“He’s not safe, but He is good… To truly love your neighbor(s) is never safe. But it’s always good.”
He also reminded us that to truly love, there must be mutuality…
“You can’t be a neighbor to someone you’re trying to conquer.”
This is where equity comes in. There is a power dynamic that exists, and it is fiercely guarded. It favors the strong and powerful and further oppresses the marginalized. When it attempts to act on behalf on another, it does so with bravado, like a hero on a white horse, seeking applause and accolades that maintain and strengthen the dynamics rather than shift them. In seeking to be a neighbor, to truly love our neighbor as ourselves, we must actively choose to be quiet so that the voices around us can be heard. It’s not about being the voice for the voiceless–no one is voiceless. It’s about quieting down so that the voices of those who haven’t been heard can be elevated. They are speaking–we simply haven’t been listening.
We will never see the stunning mosaic of God’s kingdom come to life in our churches, in our communities until we intentionally elevate the voices on the margins. What they bring to the table is not a threat to our faith. No. They bring a feast we didn’t know existed because we’ve been eating the same meal for too long. So we invite them to bring the fullness of who they are to the table, understanding that sometimes it is necessary to let go of our limited understanding. Inviting, elevating, believing and honoring the voices of our brothers and sisters who don’t look like us to lead us expands us, grows us, helps us to see a more complete picture of God. We cannot think we have an understanding of who our God is if it only includes the narrative of the normative.
So we start with humility. We listen, learn, get proximate, acknowledge, give up our seat at the table, understand that we don’t understand and so we look to those who do, those who live on the margins. We engage in hard conversations with those in our own circles–our families, our friends, our churches. We choose love over fear, and we let our love grow into action. We do not lead out as heroes in the story. We follow the lead of those already in the trenches, fighting for change, and we leverage our privilege to magnify their voices. We don’t burden people of color with our questions, our guilt, our shame–we find resources (there are so many available!) and we do the hard work of educating ourselves. We repent and we let Jesus and his way mess in our business. We wrestle with our defensiveness, our fears, our selfishness, and our complicity with our God–we don’t lash out at others. We walk alongside our friends, as humble allies, not heroes looking for a pat on the back. We recognize that there’s much we don’t know, but we do know this: In Jesus’ kingdom, the marginalized are prioritized, loved, protected, and elevated.
These are some things we can do. But how we do these things matters just as much. As I was flipping through my notebook and praying about what to write here this week, I came across notes from a sermon that Pastor John preached in July 2017. Reading through the points I recorded from that message out of Colossians, it struck me that this is how we do these things that matter. The passage is Colossians 3:12-14:
So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.
Pastor John began his message with these words, “This passage is all about connection, it is transformational rather than transactional. The way we connect with others is a reflection of our connection with Jesus.”
We looked deeply into what the virtues highlighted in these two verses really mean, as they are all about how we relate with others. Here’s what we learned:
Compassion begins with seeing a problem, then letting what we see penetrate our hearts. It can literally be translated “co-suffering.” Compassion moves us beyond feeling pity into  action. It moves our hearts and our feet toward others and it always involves personal sacrifice.
Kindness is “a tender goodness that is useful.” It is all about community. It goes against independence and individuality. It cares for the well-being of all others and is willing to be a “last” so someone else can be a first. It leads us to see the needs around us. Pastor John called it, “the yoke of Jesus.” I love that.
Humility is defined in a multitude of ways, but John highlighted that it means “groundedness, earthiness.” Humility is not about cowering; it is not self-deprecating, pathetic, or downcast. It doesn’t minimize our individual gifts. It is about knowing who we are in Christ and taking our place, filling up only the space that is ours--not more, not less, so that everyone else can take up exactly their amount of space, too. To be humble means to have an honest, healthy perspective of who we are in relation to God and others and knowing our place in the kingdom.
Gentleness, what the translation above calls “quiet strength,” is exactly that. It is not voicelessness. It is the middle ground between too much and too little anger. It is a burning that stirs us to move toward something that needs addressed, corrected. It says what needs to be said, led by the Spirit. Pastor John said that gentleness is letting God out of the inside of you, saying the hard, difficult things with strength. It does not shrink, and it does not rage. It finds the space between the two and remains planted there.
The word discipline in the passage in more often translated patience. It is connected to gentleness because it also deals with anger. It is a restraining of anger, a very long wick. It is steady and keeps a little distance between us and the anger and swelling emotions. This can be both healthy and unhealthy depending on how we lean into this space, but in our dealings with others, this is what creates a little space, allows us to wait and process, restrain destructive rage and choose how to we will move rather than being led by our anger.
Forgiveness in this passage also carries the concept of forbearance. Both are important.
Together, they mean being tolerant of some things and releasing our “right” to get even. This means abstaining from attacking and controlling others because we value and honor the person. We choose to see every person as someone of value and we choose to be for them, not against. Forgiveness and forbearance are born out of grace, and leaning into this hard work takes us out of the role of judge and keeps us flexible and willing to engage with others to work toward the flourishing of all.
Love is what holds it all together. If love is not what drives us, none of the other virtues will grow in our lives. Love is where we start and end–everything else flows out of it. Love, according to what Jesus taught and modeled, is self-emptying. It “…never gives up, cares more for others than for self, doesn’t want what it can’t have, doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, trusts God always, looks for the best, never looks back, keeps going to the end.” (taken from 1 Corinthians 13, The Message)
We must be willing to do something, to put actions behind our impassioned words about the injustices in our world. But we must choose how we engage. Wisdom reminds us that we always have choices. We must choose wisely. Our fight for restorative justice is born out of compassion–the kind of compassion that sees someone hurting, abused, silenced and, like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable, moves toward that person–regardless of the cost. Kindness leads us to be willing to prioritize the needs and voices of the marginalized and unheard.  Humility makes us aware that the space we’ve been handed by our world may not match the space that is actually ours to take up according to the kingdom. In the kingdom, there are no power dynamics at play, and no one gets more space than another because of their skin color, gender, education, or status. It recognizes the systems that have been built to uphold some and oppress others and it desires to set things right–to restore Shalom according to kingdom principles. This does mean those of us that have been given more than our share must choose to step back into the space we were created to inhabit so that those who haven’t been able to breathe, speak, grow, lead can expand into the space that is theirs to fill.
Gentleness moves us into the space where we say what needs to be said–not more, not less. It sounds like strength, but it’s controlled and measured. It is a healthy anger that smolders within–enough to move us into the work that needs to be done, but not so much that it engulfs what is good, holy work in flames that could burn the whole thing down. Patience creates the space we need to keep going. If we burn hot and engage from a place of raging anger, we will never see restorative justice come, and the flourishing of all will be inaccessible. Forgiveness is imperative in this work. It’s messy and not one of us will do it right all the time. We have to be willing to hang in, to keep working together in spite of our differences, and extend grace to others and ourselves when we cause and experience pain on the journey.
Love is the foundation, the source, the river that carries the work of justice. Without it, nothing we do or say matters. But when we’re firmly rooted in the love that gives and sustains life, grounded in the goodness of the One from whom it flows, there is nothing we can’t do, nowhere we can’t go. When we’re driven by love, we are empowered to do the work that needs to be done in a way that makes justice and equity possible.
May we remember that Jesus already brought the kingdom to earth. It’s here. But it needs channels to flow through so that everyone can be brought into wholeness and flourishing for the benefit of all of creation. The world will remember our response to the mounting injustices plaguing this generation. How we are remembered is up to us. What we do matters. How we do it matters. May we be found faithful citizens of the kingdom we carry within us.
–Laura
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You’ve Heard it Said…

We are in the fourth week of our Sermon on the Mount series. As a quick recap, Jesus began with the beatitudes–how his followers are to “be”, then he said we are to be salt and light in the world, which will happen organically if we are “beatitude” people, then he taught that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them, to complete them, to help us understand their original intent.  This week, we look at one of those laws and the first of Jesus’ statements “you have heard it said…but I say…”

 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Mt. 5:17-20)

You have heard it said ‘you shall not murder’–it’s one of the 10 Commandments. I imagine we’re all familiar with those words. I imagine there are very few of us who have committed murder so we can feel pretty good about ourselves as far as that commandment goes. Right?

Well, not so fast. Jesus hops right over murder and addresses the heart-the issue of anger that happens before we escalate to murderous rage. Murder is an outward action. Anger is an inward emotion. Jesus takes this commandment, this “do and don’t” thinking and basically says it’s deeper and bigger than the action– check the condition of your heart, your state of being.

If you recall, the first murder that took place in the Bible is recorded in Genesis chapter 4 and was an older brother killing his younger brother. Cain, the oldest son of Adam and Eve, was very angry (v. 5) because God accepted his brother Abel’s sacrifice, but not his. God, in His mercy, came to Cain and said:  “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (v. 6-7).   

Cain did not rule over his anger, instead, he allowed it to rule over him, to burn in him until he killed his brother. His consequence–his judgment, for killing his brother was separation– he was driven from his land, lost his home, and lived in fear that he would be killed. The Lord didn’t remove all of Cain’s consequences, but he did place a mark on him that would protect him from being killed (v.15).

Did Cain deserve the protective mark? Not according to the Levitical law that came a few centuries later. By the code of Levitical law, a murderer was to be stoned (Lev. 24:17). Stoning is the consequence that those listening to Jesus would have been familiar with and would have thought of as just punishment for such a heinous act.

So Jesus, in addressing murder, ups the ante.  He addresses anger and says “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”  Subject to judgment? That makes sense in terms of murder, but for being angry? What does that even mean?

Get this… the Greek word for judgment is krisis. If that reminds you of the English word crisis you are exactly right, and according to vocabulary.com The noun crisis comes from the Latinized form of the Greek word krisis, meaning “turning point in a disease.” At such a moment, the person with the disease could get better or worse: it’s a critical moment…

So, anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to crisis, to a turning point, a critical moment that could get better or worse. 

I understand that. I’ve not ever been angry enough that I wanted to kill another person, but I’ve certainly been angry enough to be in crisis mode, emotional turmoil, and dishonoring toward another human being with my thoughts and words. It never leads anywhere good. There have been other times in the critical moment, I have taken a deep breath, valued the relationship and handled myself in a much calmer manner, seeking a solution and reconciliation. Our response to anger, the critical turning point in how we’ll handle ourselves, is our judge.

Anger is a God-given emotion. Some things are truly worth being angry about, but we’ve got to be careful with our hearts. Jesus is addressing the heart matter, the crisis moment, the turning point.

Jesus’ brother James, one of the early church leaders, offers wise words for how we are to comport ourselves: My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness (justice) that God desires. (Jms 1:19-20)

The Apostle Paul advised,  In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. (Eph. 4:26-27)

Paul also wrote:  …rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips…clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Col. 3:8 & 12-14)

Jesus constantly points to valuing people and relationships. He sternly warns against demeaning others with our words. He encourages us to settle disputes before having to get the judicial system involved.  He encourages us to reconcile with others before we bring our gifts, our worship to the altar of God so that we are rightly related with others and therefore, rightly related with God. Our relationships with others, how we treat others, is of great importance to God. Every human bears the image of God and is dearly loved by God. To mistreat a fellow human being is to mistreat God.

Jesus’ order of topics in the Sermon on the Mount was not happenstance. He talks about anger right after teaching the beatitudes and letting us know we are to be salt and light in the world. I think it would behoove all of us, myself included, to reflect and ask the Holy Spirit to show us our heart attitudes toward others. Have we demeaned others, or supported others who are demeaning in their treatment of people? Have we been divisive? What do our social media accounts look like? Our political posts? Our Covid19 posts? Our humor? Proverbs 18:21 tells us the tongue has the power of life and death. Jesus taught us that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. (Luke 6:45). Are our words murderous? Do we ingest the murderous words of others and allow those to taint our hearts?

Have we been righteously angry about the right things such as gross, sometimes murderous injustice against image-bearers of God–many times because of the color of their skin, their ethnicity, their station in life? Even in our godly, righteous anger would our posts, our words be defined as wise? As loving? As peacemaking? Do they represent the salt and light, the principles of the Kingdom of God, or do they goad?

Let’s reflect once more on the heart attitude, the “be” attitude Jesus desires in his followers. He desires followers who are humble and totally dependent upon God, who mourn (feel deeply), who are gentle and kind (meek), who hunger and thirst for right relationships and equity, God’s kind of relationships among all humankind with each other and with God. He desires followers who are merciful, who are pure in heart and can see God’s presence in others and in the world, followers who strive to make peace, those who live so counter-culturally that they are persecuted, lied about and insulted for being like Jesus, (which is exactly what Jesus experienced at the hands of an angry group of powerful people who stirred up an angry mob).

Can we be like the beatitudes in our own strength? No. But we have the Holy Spirit within us and can pray, like Paul prayed for the Ephesians: I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being (3:16) 

Anger flows from the heart. If left unchecked it leads to crisis, broken relationships, the demeaning and blaspheming of the image of God in others, superiority attitudes, separation, condemnation, condescension, division, violence, abuse and murder.

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment…

…human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires…

So, search (us), God, and know (our) hearts; test (us) and know (our) anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in (us) and lead (us) in the way everlasting. (Ps. 139: 23:24)

Create in (us) a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within (us). (Ps 51:10)

Above everything else guard your heart, because from it flow the springs of life. (Prv. 4:23)

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Mt. 5:8)

–Luanne

As difficult as this week’s passage is, I have been eager to get to it. Everything Jesus speaks in the sermon on the mount is revolutionary, but this section that we are getting  into is one that has been transforming the way I see, believe, and walk out my faith for a few years now.
Sometimes people say–and I’m pretty sure we’ve written similar things in this blog more than once–that Jesus condensed all of the Law into two commandments that really are one. Love. Period. In Matthew 22, when a Pharisee quizzes Jesus about which commandment is most important,
 Jesus answered him, “‘Love the Lord your God with every passion of your heart, with all the energy of your being, and with every thought that is within you.’ This is the great and supreme commandment. And the second is like it in importance: ‘You must love your friend in the same way you love yourself.’  (vs. 37-39, TPT)
Sometimes when this is brought up, people call it watered-down, negligent of the whole Law, too grace-based. The argument is that saying Jesus is all about love lets people off the hook to do whatever they want, that it’s a bit of a loosey-goosey, free-for-all theology. Jesus would disagree. He completes the above statements with these words:
Contained within these commandments to love you will find all the meaning of the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:40, emphasis mine)

“All of the Law and the Prophets” are contained in Jesus’ commandments to love God with our whole hearts and to love others in the same way. That’s a pretty big deal.

You might be thinking, “That doesn’t sound at all like this week’s passage…” 

And it doesn’t–at least not on the surface. What we are looking at this week lays the groundwork for what Jesus will say later. If Jesus had made his Matthew 22 statements prior to his lengthy explanations in the sermon on the mount, I can’t imagine the riot it could have caused. He had to move slowly into this space, to meet the people where they were, so that they could see the truth:

Jesus was not in any way setting the Law aside or replacing it. He came to expand it, to show that their understanding of the commandments of God was skin deep. And nothing we put on our outsides has the power to transform what is inside.

Luanne wrote in her portion,

“Jesus takes this commandment, this “do and don’t” thinking and basically says it’s deeper and bigger than the action– check the condition of your heart, your state of being.”

The Law’s intention from the beginning was to form God’s people in the way of love, as we discussed at length last week. But that’s not how it was being used, and Jesus wasn’t about to stay quiet about it. A little later in Matthew, we come across these words,

“Now Jesus turned to address his disciples, along with the crowd that had gathered with them. “The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer.”

(Matthew 23:1-3, MSG, emphasis mine)

So when Jesus says, “You have heard it said… But I say…,” he is reorienting the hearts of his listeners to the why behind the Law. Each of the Ten Commandments was designed to form the people in the kingdom ways of loving God and loving neighbor. But those in attendance had no idea. They were living in a generation that had been totally overtaken by those in positions of power and privilege, and they didn’t know the heart of God. They knew the list of what they could and couldn’t do, and they were doing the best they could with the skin-deep theology they were taught.

No wonder they were hungry for the bread of life…

They had ingested the “wisdom” of their teachers and, while it may have kept them from breaking the law, it also left them starving for the God those laws were meant to keep them connected to. The wisdom of their teachers wasn’t wisdom at all. According to James,

“Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.

(James 3:17-18, MSG, emphasis mine)

Treating each other with dignity and honor…

Luanne wrote,

“Our relationships with others, how we treat others, is of great importance to God. Every human bears the image of God and is dearly loved by God. To mistreat a fellow human being is to mistreat God.” 

This matters deeply to Jesus. So he takes the law and seemingly makes it even harder to follow. And it is–if we’re not being formed in the way of Love.

My morning reading yesterday included Psalm 139. Luanne included a bit of it above. As I read it slowly, the spirit spoke deeply to my heart, connecting it to Sunday’s message. I’ve included the whole Psalm below. I encourage you to read it slowly, and ask Jesus to be your guide as you read this. Last week, at a prayer school that was put on by pastor and author Brian Zahnd, we were encouraged to “…go into the Hebrew Scriptures escorted by our Messiah.  Let Jesus teach us. He’s our (as we are Gentiles) Jewish sponsor…” Reading Old Testament passages with Pastor Brian’s exhortation in mind has made a difference in how I see. I hope you can read the words below in this way, with Jesus as your guide and the lens through which you see.

Lord, you know everything there is to know about me. You perceive every movement of my heart and soul, and you understand my every thought before it even enters my mind.
You are so intimately aware of me, Lord. You read my heart like an open book and you know all the words I’m about to speak before I even start a sentence! You know every step I will take before my journey even begins. You’ve gone into my future to prepare the way, and in kindness you follow behind me to spare me from the harm of my past. With your hand of love upon my life, you impart a blessing to me. This is just too wonderful, deep, and incomprehensible! Your understanding of me brings me wonder and strength.Where could I go from your Spirit? Where could I run and hide from your face? If I go up to heaven, you’re there! If I go down to the realm of the dead, you’re there too! If I fly with wings into the shining dawn, you’re there! If I fly into the radiant sunset, you’re there waiting! Wherever I go, your hand will guide me; your strength will empower me. It’s impossible to disappear from you or to ask the darkness to hide me, for your presence is everywhere, bringing light into my night. There is no such thing as darkness with you. The night, to you, is as bright as the day; there’s no difference between the two. You formed my innermost being, shaping my delicate inside and my intricate outside, and wove them all together in my mother’s womb. I thank you, God, for making me so mysteriously complex! Everything you do is marvelously breathtaking. It simply amazes me to think about it! How thoroughly you know me, Lord! You even formed every bone in my body when you created me in the secret place, carefully, skillfully shaping me from nothing to something. You saw who you created me to be before I became me! Before I’d ever seen the light of day, the number of days you planned for me were already recorded in your book. Every single moment you are thinking of me! How precious and wonderful to consider that you cherish me constantly in your every thought! O God, your desires toward me are more than the grains of sand on every shore! When I awake each morning, you’re still with me. 

O God, come and slay these bloodthirsty, murderous men! For I cry out, “Depart from me, you wicked ones!” See how they blaspheme your sacred name and lift up themselves against you, but all in vain! Lord, can’t you see how I despise those who despise you? For I grieve when I see them rise up against you. I have nothing but complete hatred and disgust for them. Your enemies shall be my enemies! 

God, I invite your searching gaze into my heart. Examine me through and through; find out everything that may be hidden within me. Put me to the test and sift through all my anxious cares. See if there is any path of pain I’m walking onand lead me back to your glorious, everlasting ways—the path that brings me back to you.”

(Psalm 139, TPT)

I want to share with you a few things that spoke to me as I read these beautiful words, but I don’t want to say too much or linger too long. I hope each of us will sit with these words and invite Jesus to speak through them, to shed light on what it means that he came to show us the way of Love, and to help us understand why he had to clarify that what we have heard said may not capture the whole picture.

The psalmist writes these words,

You read my heart like an open book. . . Your understanding of me brings me wonder and strength.Where could I go from your Spirit? Where could I run and hide from your face?. . . How thoroughly you know me, Lord!

He reads our hearts. Not our outward behavior, but the attitude of our hearts. There’s nowhere we can hide from his constant gaze. This understanding brought the psalmist wonder and strength. Why? Because there’s nowhere to hide from a love like that. We are thoroughly known and seen… and loved. Jesus wants his listeners in our passage this week to get this deep into their bones. God knows the hearts of each one–their teachers included. What they had heard said might have been correct on the surface, but we don’t follow a shallow God, and his love grows from the depths outward–not the other way around. The people didn’t know the truth until the Truth came to walk alongside them. The only way he could exhort them later on to live according to the greatest commandment of love was to first reveal that love through himself.

O God, come and slay these bloodthirsty, murderous men! For I cry out, “Depart from me, you wicked ones!” See how they blaspheme your sacred name and lift up themselves against you, but all in vain! Lord, can’t you see how I despise those who despise you? For I grieve when I see them rise up against you. I have nothing but complete hatred and disgust for them. Your enemies shall be my enemies! 

When I read this part of the Psalm yesterday, I wept. Because as I read it with Jesus as my guide, it changed into this…

God, come and slay the bloodthirsty, murderous ways that live within me… Rid me of the parts of me that don’t line up with your way of love. I cry out, ‘Depart from my mind, my heart, and my words, you wicked thoughts, criticisms, judgements, comparisons–all you do is blaspheme the image of God in my brothers and sisters. You lift yourselves up against the wisdom of God that is peace-seeking, kind, patient, and gracious, and all you care about is being right. But you can’t out-right the Holy One.’ Lord, I despise the ways in me that despise your command to love first. I hate that my love can grow cold in the valley of selfishness, arrogance, and pride. When I see how far I’ve moved away from your heart, I grieve, and sorrow carries me into wells of my own tears. I am disgusted by the image of me that parades around my soul as your ally, your counterpart. That part of me knows not your humility and is an enemy of your image alive in me. Your enemies are my enemies, and they are out to devour my soul. I am at war within myself–the parts of me that attempt to deceive me into eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil fighting with the presence of your Spirit in me that invites me to dine at a table set under the tree of life, in the presence of the enemies that live within… 

While all of that is true, I need not fear. For he is with me. He’s the one who prepares the table in the dark corners of my soul, in the presence of the pieces of me that aren’t yet fully formed in his image. And he invites these parts of me, these “enemies” to bear witness to the disciple in me as I sit and dine with the one who leads and guides me. As the enemies within behold the feast, they come to know that they are also invited to come sit and be formed in the presence of Love.

The psalm ends with these beautiful words:

God, I invite your searching gaze into my heart. Examine me through and through; find out everything that may be hidden within me. Put me to the test and sift through all my anxious cares. See if there is any path of pain I’m walking onand lead me back to your glorious, everlasting ways—the path that brings me back to you.

See if there is any path of pain I’m walking on–anywhere in me that came upon a crisis and chose wrongly and has ended up in the valley of the shadow of death, on the winding road away from love–and lead me back to your ways.

Jesus’ way calls us to live in a whole different dimension while remaining present where we are. That’s what living in the kingdom is all about.

We have heard many things said… But what does Jesus say? May we listen well to the author of life as he leads us beneath the surface and into the real.

–Laura

Psalms 139:23 God, I invite your searching gaze into my heart ...

Sermon on the Mount: #3

The year was probably 1997. Our family had lived in Brazil for a little over a year, and had truly been adopted by a wonderful Brazilian family. One of their daughters was thrilled to have “foreigners” in their midst that they could love on like scripture teaches, and they loved us well! One particular day we were on their back patio; my then 5-year-old middle child was running, fell, and got a pretty good, icky, oozy, bleeding scrape on his knee. Before most of us could react, his Brazilian “aunt” swept him up, put him on the kitchen counter, grabbed a handful of salt and rubbed it into our screaming son’s wound. I didn’t know what to do–had never seen anything like that. After the initial sting of the salt wore off, Phil continued to play as if nothing had happened, and you all—that knee healed faster than anything I’ve ever seen!

Salt. Just Google its history and you’ll find more information than anyone could read. Wars have been fought over salt. It was highly valuable in the ancient world; it was traded ounce for ounce with gold. It was used for preserving foods, for purifying, healing, and for flavor. It keeps people alive. The Vintage News tells us “When Napoleon’s forces retreated from Moscow, many of the troops lost their lives as a result of salt deficiency and consequently, a low resistance to disease“. People suffer malnourishment from salt deficiency.

The Latin word for salt is “sal”. Roman soldiers transported salt, and salt was part of their pay package…our word “salary” comes from that root. Salt was valuable. It still is. Did you know that “over 50% of all drug molecules used in medicine exist as salts”? (Drug Names and Their Pharmaceutical Salts). I think it’s important to acknowledge the incredible value of this very common item before we get to this week’s scripture from the Sermon on the Mount.

Right after the “beatitudes”–the how Jesus’ wants his followers to be statements—Jesus says: You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.  (Matthew 5:13)

In order to understand the impact of this statement, let’s learn more about how physical salt affects things and try to translate that awareness to the spiritual realm. In Chef Samin Nosrat’s fabulous science-based cookbook “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” she writes:

Salt is a mineral…it’s one of several dozen essential nutrients without which we cannot survive. The human body can’t store much salt, so we need to consume it regularly in order to be able to carry out basic biological processes, such as maintain proper blood pressure and water distribution in the body, delivering nutrients to and from cells, nerve transmission, and muscle movement…

The primary role that salt plays in cooking is to amplify flavor…[it] also affects texture and helps modify other flavors…Does this mean you should use more salt? No. It means use salt better. Add it in the right amount, at the right time, in the right form.” (Emphasis mine)

Flavor lies at the intersection of taste, aroma, and sensory elements…When a recipe says “season to taste” it leads to “flavor ‘unlocking’…as salt helps release the flavor molecules that are bound up within proteins.”

And maybe my favorite spiritual salt application:Salt also reduces our perception of bitterness, with the secondary effect of emphasizing other flavors present in bitter dishes. Salt enhances sweetness while reducing bitterness in foods that are both bitter and sweet…”

I can’t help but think about the beatitudes as I ponder salt. Blessed are we, when we’re poor in spirit, when we mourn, when we are persecuted, when we experience the bitter side of life, because in the principles of heaven’s kingdom, God’s sweetness can be enhanced, seen, experienced, and known, even in the bitter.

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to eat at a Brazilian steak house (or better yet, eat meat in Brazil), you’ve experienced the miracle of what salt can do to a piece of meat. As the salt penetrates the meat, it tenderizes it and seasons it from within.

This may not seem like a very “spiritual” blog post up to this point, but Pastor John pointed out in his sermon that salt doesn’t affect anything if it doesn’t touch it, and that salt completely loses itself to the object it is flavoring.  You are the salt of the earth. Hmmm.

Right before Jesus talks about salt, he said “be this way”…not “do these things”. Acts 17:28 tells us that in him (Jesus) we “live and move and have our being“.  Jesus himself tells his followers: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

Our “being” is not what we do. It’s who we are–our very essence.  Remaining connected to Jesus is the key to having the beatitude way of being, leading to the natural outflow of “flavoring” the world with his principles, his ways, his heart, his love, him.

Eugene Peterson in the book Reality and the Vision writes: “For most of us, the desire for beauty and the good proves infinitely frustrating, for we are mainly aware of what we are not. When we “do” things well, we get satisfaction. When we “are” well (holy) we are unconscious of it and so get no satisfaction, at least not in the sense of ego-gratification.” 

Peterson goes on to write:  “Who are the people who have made a difference in my life?… The ones who weren’t trying to make a difference.” 

As we immerse ourselves in Christ, he gives us himself, and our very essence changes. Just as Nosrat wrote about salt–we can’t maintain salt in our bodies, we must come back continually for more.  When we stay connected to Jesus, our presence, our being makes a difference in the world. We touch the world and bring healing, flavor, tenderization; we preserve good things and keep them from rotting, our presence adds value to our environments as we lose ourselves to Christ’s mission for the sake of his kingdom on earth.

You are the salt of the earth…

Did Jesus pause before he moved to the next enormous statement?  “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Mt. 5:14-16)

Light. Another humongous subject. When Jesus spoke these words, there was no electricity. Light came from the sun, the moon, the stars, flashes of lightning, and fire. The first recorded words of God in scripture are “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3).

Light absolutely makes a difference. A nightlight helps to alleviate fear in the dark. Light makes the unseen seen. Light keeps us from stumbling. Light causes things to grow. Light is invaluable to life. Even the smallest light makes a difference.

While we still lived in Campo Grande, the father of one of our Brazilian “family” died after hitting his head in a fall. Brazilians bury their dead within 24 hours, so his funeral was held at 10 p.m.  The church was full, and there was much grief.  I had been asked to play the piano, so I was sitting at the front of the church perpendicular to the rest of the people. During the funeral we were thrown into complete darkness as a sudden massive power outage covering three Brazilian states occurred (pre-cellphone era). It was dark. The sound system ceased, the fans stopped blowing air, everything about the lack of power made the tragedy seem that much heavier, that much darker. The service continued in the dark. I was praying for my friends and praying about darkness in general when a lightning bug flew into the church through one of the open windows. From my vantage point, I could see it fly back and forth over every single pew, and then fly back out. It was the only light in the building and it was tiny, but it was powerful. It does not take much light to make a difference. And you know what? Darkness cannot extinguish light. Light, even tiny light, extinguishes darkness.

The Apostle John wrote of Jesus: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1: 1-5)

Or in the beautiful Passion Transation:

In the very beginning the Living Expression was already there. And the Living Expression was with God, yet fully God. They were together—face-to-face, in the very beginning. And through his creative inspiration this Living Expression made all things, for nothing has existence apart from him! Life came into being because of him, for his life is light for all humanity. And this Living Expression is the Light that bursts through gloom—the Light that darkness could not diminish!

So Jesus says to us–you are the light of the world. He goes on to say: Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

The goal of our light is to show people the unseen, so they can experience the unknown, and come to know and glorify the God who loves them so much that he became THE Light of the world who gave it all so we could know him.

We can’t muster up our own light. Just like my electric lamp can’t shine without being connected to its source of power, we must abide in Jesus if we are going to shine.

Two weeks ago, as we were beginning this sermon series with the beatitudes, I referenced Philippians 2…(have this attitude/mind in you which was also in Jesus).  In that same chapter, Paul wrote: God will continually revitalize you, implanting within you the passion to do what pleases him. Live a cheerful life, without complaining or division among yourselves.  For then you will be seen as innocent, faultless, and pure children of God, even though you live in the midst of a brutal and perverse culture. For you will appear among them as shining lights in the universe, offering them the words of eternal life. (Phil. 2:13-16 TPT). 

Jesus is the Living Expression of God. We are the Living Expression of Jesus. Jesus is the light of the world, we are the light of Jesus to the world. Jesus is the salt of the earth, we are the salt of Jesus flavoring the world with his presence and love.

You are salt; you are light… it’s who we are–not what we do…for In Him we live and move and have our being.

–Luanne

Pastor John began his sermon on Sunday by reminding us that it is important to be aware of the context as we dig into scripture and to pay attention to the order of things, to their placement. With that in mind, I want to remind us who Jesus was speaking to and what he was introducing…

The setting is a mountain in Israel, a nation occupied by a foreign power. The people listening are largely poor, some desperately so. There are stirrings that this Jesus is possibly the promised Messiah. To a people barely surviving, oppressed and hungry and mistreated, Jesus offered hope of a new kingdom. His listeners understood kings and kingdoms the only way they knew how–they were established by way of conquest and force, maintained by power and violence. They had never seen any other kind of kingdom. They were tired of oppression and injustice, and the prospect of a king who would free them from Rome stirred their hope. This is the community Jesus addresses on the mount–a people hungry for justice and freedom, a people who knew hardship as a way of life and marginalization as a way of being.

Jesus introduces the kingdom he has come to establish. He moves into who is blessed–who is seen and heard and honored in his kingdom. His hearers must have been stunned, because what he says is unexpected, to say the least. This new kingdom would be established on a foundation of who it includes, not who it excludes. Until this point in history, kingdoms were established to be exclusive. Conquering any and every “other” had been a guiding principle of the kingdoms of the world–even those kingdoms that claimed the name and favor of God operated this way–since the first kingdoms were established. It was simply how power was gained and maintained. Who’s in? Once that was established, all those who were out were kept out by any means necessary. The rich and strong had all the power and influence, and they lorded it over those who had not.

So… Jesus had been traveling throughout Galilee, gathering his disciples, speaking about a new kingdom, and “healing every disease and sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:23) He was gaining quite a following. “News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.” (Matthew 4:24-25)

Jesus was healing “every disease” and all manner of infirmities and speaking of a new kingdom to a people long-oppressed and desperate for change. Is it any wonder that his following grew so rapidly? Matthew tells us these things that I included above and then the very next line of scripture reads:

“Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said…” (Matthew 5:1-2)

Jesus saw the large crowds following him.

Can you imagine the excitement in the air? In my mind, the scene is electric bordering on frenzied. These people had hope for the first time in a very long time. This “teacher” just might be the one they’ve been waiting for, the one who would change everything. I imagine there was lively chatter, some cheering, maybe dancing and singing, rejoicing from those who had already been healed. Maybe there were even shouts of revolution ringing out from mouths that had been silenced for too long. Can you see it? This is no solemn procession.

Jesus saw the crowd…

This is an odd line, right? Jesus had been traveling and teaching and, as he did, the crowd around him continued to grow. He was aware of the people around him, certainly. He didn’t suddenly notice that there was a huge crowd pressing in to get closer to him. So why does Matthew include these words? 

Again, context, and digging deeply into what we’re reading matters here. The Greek word translated “saw” in English is a word we’ve discussed before. It is horaō. It means much more than to simply “see.” It means to see with the eyes, the mind; to perceive, to behold, to become acquainted with; to pay heed to and care for; to stare at and discern clearly; to attend to. This definition changes my understanding of the verse entirely. Of course Jesus had “seen” the people following him. But here, before he begins to preach the most famous sermon ever recorded, he beholds those following him. He pays heed to what is happening, perceives and discerns beyond what the eye can see, and chooses to attend to and care for this group of people, hungry for revolution.

Perhaps he discerned that their passion was rising, that their expectations were fueled by a desire to overthrow their oppressors? Perhaps when he beheld their hearts and saw into their minds, he saw the need for his light to permeate their darkened understanding. We aren’t told exactly what he saw–only Jesus knows that. But whatever it was, it gave him pause.

He sat down to teach them.

As Pastor John shared with us recently, when Jesus sat down to teach, he was doing what the rabbis of his day did when they taught. What did he see when he looked at them that caused him to choose this moment to teach them these things?

Could it be that he saw their excitement was misguided? Could it be that he saw where their ideas were leading them, and it seemed necessary to change directions? I know I am speculating beyond what we are told in the text, but I find it helpful to think through the scene. When we don’t pause to think about the who/what/when/where, it is far too easy for us to cast ourselves into the story, in roles that were never ours to play.

When Jesus spoke the words that became the sermon on the mount, his original audience was a group of oppressed, impoverished, less-thans who were hungry for revolution. Of course the words of scripture are for us, too. The Holy Spirit illuminates them and teaches us as we ingest the words of life. No one is excluded from Jesus’s kingdom. No one. Not the poor beggar. Not the leper. Not the rich oppressor. Not the powerful leader. Not you. Not me. Because of his great love and kindness, all of us are grafted into the vine, branches that are valued and significant and called to bear much good fruit. But originally, Jesus was not giving a prescriptive list of how to inherit the kingdom. He was telling those who were used to being the “leasts” and “lasts” that, in his new kingdom, they were already “firsts”. He acknowledged their lives of smallness, meekness and called them blessed, because it was to them that the kingdom had come. He knew their expectations were misinformed and misguided, and so he sat down, calmed the scene, and gave them the inside scoop…

You who have spirits that are broken, you who have mourned, who are seen as small and insignificant, who are hungry for justice and who have suffered violence–you’re already blessed in my kingdom. You’re seen, you matter, your lives have significance. 

But then he turns their ideas upside down when he shares more about what it means to live in this kingdom he is establishing. This promised kingdom that was stirring their hopes would not be founded through force, nor would it be maintained through violent means. It would be built on a foundation of mercy, justice, devotion to the truth and to the way of love. It would be established through peacemaking–and it would come with much persecution.

Jesus outlines what his kingdom looks like and who is included. Great news–they’re already in. They are already called “blessed” and they can rejoice, even in persecution, because Jesus has elevated these who are used to being the least.

So far, no problem right? They’re included. Great! Let’s get this thing moving. So who is excluded? Definitely the Romans, right? The powerful, the greats, the “haves”?

I imagine the people may have been hungry to hear who Jesus would name as the “cursed” ones.

He says nothing about anyone being excluded. Nor does he say that those who don’t fall into the outlined categories are not blessed. He makes it clear that being great in this kingdom doesn’t mean what they think it means, he honors the significance of the small, and continues…

He moves from identifying with the “leasts” straight into the kind of impact their lives would make if they lived according to the principles of the kingdom.

These previously unseen ones, the ones Jesus calls blessed–he says to them “YOU are the salt of the earth. . . YOU are the light of the world. . .” 

You… you who have lived seemingly insignificant lives, lives of silence, lives without recognition or influence, lives marked by poverty, grief, chaos, injustice–you will show the world what my kingdom is all about. You will show those who have excluded you–those you’d like me to exclude–who God really is. 

Luanne wrote in her portion,

“The goal of our light is to show people the unseen, so they can experience the unknown, and come to know and glorify the God who loves them so much. . .”

Light reveals what’s already present. It shows us what’s already here. Sometimes, what is already here is hidden or obscured. The image of God had been misunderstood, covered, and marred by imperfect people who didn’t understand that he is love. When Jesus appeared on the scene, he came as The Light, the one who would shine on and reveal the truth of who God is. The people had become used to earthly kingdoms and kings. Power and violence ruled the day.

Then the Light appeared. To reveal the truth of God’s love for all people. Jesus told his listeners that, as they lived as citizens of his kingdom, their light would shine just the same. They were to abide in him (Like Luanne wrote, it’s so important to remember that none of this can be “done” apart from Jesus. It’s not about doing. It’s about abiding in the Vine, and “being” a branch that bears his fruit.) and let his light pour through them as they seasoned the world with his great love. And as that light poured forth, it would shine on and reveal the truth about God and his kingdom, and would glorify him. God. Their light was to glorify God.

Brazilian Pastor Ed René Kivitz once said,

“It wasn’t Rome who was the light of the world–but the disciples and those who had taken into themselves the kingdom. He chose the things that are not to confound the things that are. . .”

Luanne did a remarkable job of guiding us through salt and light, so I won’t add anything more to her beautiful words here. I’ve already written too many…

I know I went backwards a bit today, perhaps even down some rabbit trails, but I did so on purpose. Aside from sensing that this was where I needed to go, I know my own propensity to insert myself into these stories in the role that is most appealing to me. It’s tempting to turn the scriptures into prescriptive lists of, “If I do this, then that is the result.” There is so much more for us to find in these old teachings, treasures to mine in the shadowlands of scripture that are unfamiliar to us because our lived experience is so different from what we encounter there.

Jesus blessed and elevated the marginalized, the leasts, the forgotten, the outcast. We see it all over the pages of scripture. He invited these voices to speak and teach and lead. He identified their plight and called them blessed; told them that they were salt and light and that they would influence the world. We are invited to do the same, to live according to the ways of the kingdom and in doing so, shine Jesus’s light to the glory of God. But we are invited to do so in the same way that Jesus himself did. Which means acknowledging that, more often than not, we are not the leasts Jesus identified. We need to step back and leverage our power on behalf of those on the margins, listen to–and elevate–their voices.

The ways of the kingdom are not easy, especially for those of us (most of us…) who struggle to see that we are already blessed according to the kingdoms of this world, and maybe cannot identify very easily with the lives of those Jesus called blessed. We are included, yes. But power is not ours to wield; power is ours to relinquish on behalf of those who don’t have it. It’s important that we acknowledge that there are those who are the living beatitudes, seasoning and lighting up the world, showing us what Jesus looks like with skin on. Look to the leasts, to the margins, to the outcasts, and like Jesus did, bless them who already embody what the kingdom of heaven looks like on earth. The way of the kingdom is upside-down. It is ever pouring out, always willing to humbly learn, constantly moving down so that others may be lifted up.

Do we really want to live like this?

–Laura

You are the Salt of the Earth & You are the Light of the World ...

Lent: A Personal Rescue

I find it incredible, that a few months before our world was facing a global pandemic, God had placed on the heart of Pastor John a series of messages that would lead us to Easter Sunday; the subject of the messages–our rescuing God.  The timing of yesterday’s message was mind-boggling.  Yesterday was the second Sunday that we were unable to physically gather together as a congregation. Many of us have been home for at least a week. None of us know how long the pandemic will last. We all have questions, we all have fears, we all face this uncertainty. As we hear the pleas from our medical community to isolate ourselves, as we hear from leaders of other nations who beg us to pay attention and slow the spread of the pandemic, the reality of what we’re facing slowly begins to trickle in. It is at this time, and in this series of messages, that this particular message of rescue and hope just so happened to fall.

In the beautiful book of Ruth, we learn that a severe famine had taken place in Judah.  Elimelek and his family lived in Bethlehem. As the famine continued to wreak havoc on the land, Elimelek moved his wife (Naomi) and two sons (Mahlon and Kilion) to the country of Moab. While in Moab, Elimelek died. Naomi was a widow–a very difficult thing for a woman in that time to be; however, she had two sons who could care for her so her situation was not hopeless. Her sons married Moabite women (I wonder if that was hard for Naomi?), and they lived in Moab for about ten years. Scripture doesn’t tell us how, but we learn that after about ten years, both of Naomi’s sons die, leaving her with no men to provide for and protect her and her two daughters-in-law.

I’m sure this was a season of intense grief, fear, and uncertainty. I think we can place ourselves much more easily in Naomi’s shoes given our current situation.

Somehow, Naomi gets word that the famine in Judah has ended, so she makes the choice to go back. She and her daughters-in-law (Orpah and Ruth) begin to head toward Judah, when Naomi stops and encourages Orpah and Ruth not to go with her. (Is this because she never felt fully at home in Moab and didn’t want her daughters-in-law to experience the same thing in her home culture?) She had great fondness for these young ladies and said to [them}, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me.  May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” (Ruth 1:8-9). 

After many tears, and much persuasion, Orpah returns back to Moab, and Ruth clings to Naomi and says, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. (Ruth 1:16-18)

We learn that the people in Bethlehem are surprised when Naomi returns; I don’t think they expected to see her again. We also learn the state of Naomi’s heart. She tells the women of Bethlehem, “Don’t call me Naomi,” … “Call me Mara, [Mara means bitter], because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.  I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (1:20-21)

Two women–no husbands, no sons, no income, no home; destitute. And this is where the story of living life according to the principles of God’s kingdom, and the effect that kind of life has on others begins to be seen.

In chapter two we learn that Elimelek had a wealthy relative named Boaz. We also learn that Ruth was willing to “go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.” (2:2) . This was a practice called gleaning. Leviticus 19:9-10 lays out God’s purpose and plan for this practice:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.”

God, in God’s beautiful, extravagant, generous ways laid out a plan for taking care of the poor and the foreigner way back in the days of Moses. God doesn’t qualify this by saying, if you are rich and your field is this size then I want you to leave food for the poor and foreigner. He just says–when you reap your harvest, leave some. As I type this out, I think of all the current news reports of empty toilet paper shelves, of no food, of medical people lacking supplies, of snarky shoppers, and it grieves my heart. As of today, our supply chain is still working, truckers are still getting supplies to stores. If those who have financial means continue to overbuy leaving nothing for those who can only buy a little at a time, we are not caring for the least of these. I hope people are overbuying in order to share with others. Lord Jesus, give us your heart!

Ruth begins to glean in Boaz’s field. He arrives on the scene, notices her and asks about her and learns,  “She is the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi.  She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the harvesters.’ She came into the field and has remained here from morning till now, except for a short rest in the shelter.” (2:6-7)

Boaz (the wealthy landowner) approaches Ruth and says to her: “My daughter, listen to me. Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with the women who work for me. Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow along after the women. I have told the men not to lay a hand on you. And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.” (2:8-9) . 

Boaz doesn’t send someone else with the message. He, himself, goes to her. Not only does he tell her that she is welcome to glean in his field, but he also lets her know that he has told the men to leave her alone and she is welcome to get water when she’s thirsty from the jars the men have filled. He is providing for her and protecting her.

I wish I had time to post in the rest of Chapter 2. It’s so beautiful! Basically, Ruth is astonished that Boaz has taken any time to notice her because she is a foreigner and of lesser social standing than his servants. Boaz recognizes the sacrifice that Ruth made to take care of her mother-in-law, including leaving her land, her people, and recognizes that she has chosen to make God her refuge. His kindness puts her at ease (2:13). That’s what kindness does–kindness welcomes.

Boaz continues to provide for Ruth, making sure that she is well-fed, that she has leftovers, and that she knows she is welcome to come back to his fields.

When Ruth arrives home, Naomi is shocked at the food Ruth brings home and asks where she gleaned. Ruth informs her that she was in Boaz’s fields. Naomi speaks blessing over Boaz because he is their “kinsman-redeemer”, and encourages Ruth to continue to glean in his fields because she might be harmed in another’s field. Again, we see that the character of Boaz is not the character of everyone–he is a man who has chosen God’s principles. Ruth gleans in his fields until the barley and wheat harvests were complete.

The concept “kinsman-redeemer” comes from Leviticus 25:25:If one of your fellow Israelites becomes poor and sells some of their property, their nearest relative is to come and redeem what they have sold.”  This concept is so crazy! Let’s say I have to sell my house in order to survive. I sell it to some random person. My kinsman-redeemer would buy my house back from that random person and give it back to me. If no one has the means to be my kinsman-redeemer, when the Year of Jubilee comes (every 50 years, but never actually done), all property is returned to its original owner for free. Ponder what that indicates about the principles of the Kingdom of God for a minute. Can you imagine what the world would be like if all of humanity functioned like that–if even the people who follow Jesus functioned like that? In the Kingdom of heaven, there is always enough for everyone as long as we choose to live generously.

There is so much more to this beautiful story–Boaz follows every step correctly and eventually becomes Ruth’s husband. They have a son who becomes the grandfather of King David. Jesus is born out of that lineage, and Ruth, the redeemed destitute foreigner is one of the five women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus.  (Mt. 1:5)

What can we take away from this beautiful story of personal rescue that is relevant to us today?

  1. Jesus is our ultimate kinsman-redeemer; he rescued us, he restores our lives, gives us purpose, loves us unconditionally, teaches us to love others with the same love we’ve received, and shows us what it means to be a citizen of, and advance his kingdom right here on planet earth.
  2. Naomi and Ruth show us that despite life’s hardships, God sees us, he is with us, he knows our sorrow, he knows our fears, he does not leave us alone.
  3. Boaz shows us that we may be the answer to someone else’s prayers. We may be exactly who God wants to use to show someone else that God sees them, is with them, provides for them, loves them.
  4. The whole story reminds us that God rescues and redeems, that God loves, that God cares for all humanity and desires that we care for one another, no matter who the other is.

God is with us in this season of uncertainty and fear. There will be days when I am strong and can come alongside you. There will days when I am filled with fear and anxiety and you can come alongside me. There will be those in our midst who will need physical provision, financial provision, messages of hope, and the assurance that they are not alone, even while we are unable to “be” with one another.

There is much opportunity, during this time to enter in…

–Luanne

I can think of no better place to start than by asking you to scroll up and read Luanne’s last paragraph again. She identifies in her beautiful words what sat at the forefront of my mind after listening to Sunday’s message. These stories of personal rescue encourage us to recognize that, as Luanne wrote in point number 3 above, “…we may be the answer to someone else’s prayers. We may be exactly who God wants to use to show someone else that God sees them, is with them, provides for them, loves them.”

I see a few different examples of personal rescue in the captivating book of Ruth. Luanne detailed the way Boaz, as kinsman-redeemer, rescued the two widowed women–how kingdom principles are evidenced in his words and actions throughout, and how he foreshadows the coming Redeemer in many ways.

There is also the personal rescue of Naomi–beyond being a beneficiary of Boaz rescuing Ruth. I believe Ruth rescued Naomi, too. What if she hadn’t clung to her and insisted on staying with her? What would her fate have been? Upon arrival back in her homeland, she would have still had the opportunity to sell her late husband’s land, but their family name would have died forever. We don’t know what life would have looked like for Naomi had Ruth gone home to her own family. What we do know paints a picture so lovely it makes me cry, and it leads me to ask some questions about how we engage with one another–especially now.

Has anyone ever “clung” to you the way Ruth clung to Naomi? Has there been someone in your life–not bound by law or obligation–who has loved you this way? Someone who has said, “I’m here. I’m staying. There is nothing you can do or say that will make me walk away from you.” And then… they actually stayed? Stood by their word no matter what? Continued to walk with you, pursue you, love you well–even when you’ve pushed them away? Has someone loved you that much? Have you loved others that way?

While I pondered the relationship between these women, lyrics from J.J. Heller’s song, “The Best Thing” came to mind. The second verse begins with these words:

If I ever show my face
Nothing left to hide behind
Would anybody stay right here with me no matter what they find...

We all want to be loved like that, don’t we? Chosen for exactly who we are. Worth enough that someone would choose to stay. Period. Ruth chose Naomi. Knowing it meant becoming a foreigner in an unfamiliar place, facing possible mistreatment, with no guarantees of provision. She said to Naomi, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried…” (Ruth 1:16-17)

What kind of love does that? What kind of love is willing to go anywhere and adapt in whatever ways may be necessary?

The kind of love that rescues us from ourselves…

Let me unpack what I mean by that. Upon returning Naomi told the people not to call her by her name. She says, “Call me Mara, [Mara means bitter], because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.  I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (1:20-21)

She returned bitter and empty, and she believed that the Lord was to blame for her misfortune, that he had afflicted her. I’ll interject here that there are some who are saying that COVID-19 is an affliction from the Lord, that God is angry and is punishing the wickedness of humanity. Just as that assumption was not true for Naomi, it is not true for us today. Scripture tells us “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and that, “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Jesus himself says in John 14:9, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the father…” The heart of God was revealed in the person of Jesus–Jesus the healer, the redeemer, the restorer, the shepherd. He came not to condemn the world and judge humanity, he came to rescue! (John 3:17) Pain and loss, though, can lead us all to believe things that aren’t true–about ourselves, others, and about God. Naomi was grieving and as we read her raw lament, we are invited to experience and empathize with the depth of her sorrow. If Ruth had not returned with her, the story likely would have ended there. She would have gone home, bitter and alone. And she would have died there, likely still bitter, with no heir to carry on her husband’s name.

Fortunately, that is not where the story ended. Because Ruth did go with her. And she did not simply go back with her. She did what she said she would do and she stayed with her. She didn’t have to. We can see this in chapter 3, when Boaz found Ruth laying at his feet. When he heard her request, he replied, “The Lord bless you, my daughter! You are showing even more family loyalty now than you did before, for you have not gone after a younger man, whether rich or poor.” 

She could have gone after another. From the content in the book’s four chapters, we can gather that she was a young, desirable woman. She could have tried to catch the eye of another, in which case any children would have been the heirs of another family. But her love and commitment to Naomi remained her priority.

The end of chapter 4 reveals to us how Ruth’s love rescued Naomi from her bitterness, from herself:

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When he made love to her, the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel! He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.” Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.” (Ruth 4:13-17, NIV)

Ruth clung to Naomi, refused to leave her, accompanied her as a foreigner, loved her in her bitterness and followed her instructions. She worked and provided food for the two of them and then she pursued and married the man who could carry on the family name. She had a baby that the women of their community called Naomi’s son. The text tells us that Naomi took the baby in her arms and cared for him. I don’t know what that means entirely. But I know that the community identified how much Ruth loved her mother-in-law and credited her as having more value to Naomi than seven sons. That is a huge deal, especially in their time.

Boaz, as kinsman-redeemer, certainly provided a personal rescue to both women. But without Ruth, Naomi’s rescue would have been incomplete. Boaz likely would have purchased the land had Naomi come back home alone. But because of Ruth’s love and commitment, Naomi’s bitterness was turned to joy, and her family had an heir to carry on their name.

Pastor John mentioned on Sunday that before this virus, we all needed rescuing in one way or another. For some that need was financial, for some relational, for others it was health related. He emphasized that we were all already facing something. We already needed rescuing. And then we found ourselves in a world we no longer recognize with challenges we never imagined we would face. If we needed rescue before, we really need it now. But how do we help each other from a distance? How do we cling to each other and allow others to cling to us with the kind of love that Ruth showed Naomi?

Love that is willing to go anywhere, to adapt to any environment doesn’t necessarily look the same as it did in this week’s story. It can’t look like that–especially now. But what we saw in Ruth is what it looks like when we say yes to Jesus living through us. Through our words, our hands, our feet. Through our consideration of one another, our compassion, our faithfulness. When we feel like we can’t hang on to one other, can’t reach out again, Jesus moves through us to continue to pursue and stay with each other.

I’ve been blessed with a few who have stayed with me, who have chosen to love me and refuse to walk away. They have rescued me more times than they’ll ever know and been Jesus to me in ways that bring tears to my eyes even now. I count them among my most precious gifts and I know that they have saved me from myself–from my own bitterness and grief–like Ruth did for Naomi. And there are a few I have “clung” to who have allowed me to stay with them and love them in that same way. This gift is equally precious, to be allowed to journey alongside another so intimately.

To stay with each other–whatever that requires–that is how we continue to be agents of rescue in one another’s lives. It’s how the personal, rescuing love of Jesus looks lived out in the kingdom he established on earth. How do we do that now, during a worldwide pandemic? I’ll remind us again of what Luanne wrote above:

There will be days when I am strong and can come alongside you. There will be days when I am filled with fear and anxiety and you can come alongside me. There will be those in our midst who will need physical provision, financial provision, messages of hope, and the assurance that they are not alone, even while we are unable to “be” with one another.

This is how we “cling” to each other now. Is it harder to do while we’re stuck at home? Maybe… But maybe not. We have been given a gift of time in these days. Time to re-prioritize, to slow down, to let those we love know how much we love them. We have time to remember how to love Jesus’ way. We all need someone to come along and say, “I’ve got you.” God loves to say that to each of us through the love of one another. May we be open enough to both cling and be clung to, to love deeply and extravagantly however Jesus leads us in these days.

Luanne told us there is much opportunity during this time to enter in… I hope we all will lean in to each opportunity. We’ve never needed each other more. Prayers and blessings to each one of you, friends.

Until next week…

Laura

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Lent: An Extravagant Rescue

Are you familiar with the story of the prodigal son?  It’s likely that most of us have heard parts of the story told in one way or another. Often, this story is referenced when discussing someone who has “fallen away,” as a warning against “wild” living, and as a reminder of the love of God that welcomes his wayward children home. The story, though, is about so much more. Entire books have been written on the subject, and we will not have the space here to dig into every nuance of the parable. We will cover as much as we can…

Before we dive into the text, let’s talk about the context of the story. First, it is a parable. A story that Jesus used to illustrate a kingdom principle. He did this all the time when addressing crowds, his disciples, even individuals. These stories were not true accounts of people in the area. They were a way for Jesus to help those who desired to listen understand the ways of his kingdom. They painted a picture of the heart of the God the people didn’t think they could see. In the stories, Jesus chose words and associations that were familiar to the people and culture of that day. They often contained an element of surprise, a twist—something unexpected and counter-cultural.

Next, it is important that we look at where the parable shows up. It is the final installment in a trilogy of stories. In most Bible translations, there are headings that accompany each story. They typically read, “Parable of the Lost Sheep,” “Parable of the Lost Coin,” and, “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” Interestingly, the word “prodigal” didn’t show up in any translation of the text until 1560, when the Geneva Bible used it in the heading. At that time the definition of the word was associated with a morally neutral lavishness. It is not used in all translations and was not a word Jesus used in the original story. Also notable is the fact that the third story emphasizes the lost son—as though there was only one lost son—and doesn’t mention the father. In Jesus’ telling of the story, all three are central characters. To zero in on the one can cloud our vision of the others.

In general, I find the use of headings in scripture problematic. They divide text that was originally connected, and they impose a translator’s understanding onto the text. The headings of these three stories take readers’ minds in a direction that may have the opposite effect of Jesus’ original intention. In his telling of the stories, he emphasized that the sheep was found and there was much rejoicing, the coin was found and there was much rejoicing, the son was found—he was alive again—and there was much rejoicing. In the final story about the two sons, though, not everyone rejoiced over the lost being found. Because the story ends on a cliffhanger… There are two lost sons in the story. Jesus doesn’t tell us if the older son was found. We know that the father hoped so, he invited him and welcomed him home, too, but we’re left wondering what his son chose to do. Not only is this exemplary storytelling, it drives home the point Jesus wanted to make. He knew his audience—their biases, assumptions, proclivities, attitudes—and he told a story that would make every listener more than a little uncomfortable. If we really listen to the story, it will have the same effect on us today. Here is the scene…

A father had two sons. The younger came to him one day, demanding his share of the inheritance. His share, according to the customs of Jewish culture in that day, was one-third of everything that belonged to the father. Beginning the story like this would have shocked those listening. Losing a sheep was unfortunate, losing a coin was perhaps careless and concerning—and finding those belongings brought great joy. But then Jesus essentially says, “There was a son who told his dad, ‘I wish you were already dead. To me, you are. Give me what’s mine.’” Anyone who might have been drifting off for an afternoon nap was awake now, appalled at the audacity of this son. Most, if not all, of those in attendance probably expected the father’s wrath—his righteous judgment—to fall heavy on this wayward, entitled, disgrace of a son.

Jesus continued the story, telling his hearers that the father proceeded to divide his property among them. Did you catch that? Dad granted his youngest son’s request, but the real winner that day was the son who hadn’t really made an appearance yet. The older son, who, by very nature of being the oldest had a responsibility to protect his father’s interests. I read about this when I looked up ancient Jewish traditions regarding inheritance. Part of being the first heir, part of receiving the two-thirds share, was looking out for what belonged to the father while he was still living. Where was the older brother? Why didn’t he come to the father’s defense? While this nuance is often lost on modern-day readers, the people listening that day would have asked these questions. Why wasn’t big brother there to stop this atrocity that so dishonored his dad? Perhaps because baby brother’s rebellion benefitted him, too?

Dad divided the property among them. Little brother received his one-third. Big brother got two-thirds. I’m not a math whiz, but last I checked, one-third plus two-thirds doesn’t leave any leftovers… The father divided everything he had between his two sons. We don’t hear big brother objecting.

The story went on… Little brother liquidated his assets (again, we don’t know what this entailed or meant in that day, but this story got more and more provocative with every line Jesus spoke…) and left the Holy land to go ruin himself with the ungodly heathens he wasn’t supposed to associate with. He made terrible choices and lost everything. He decided to come crawling home, ready to confess his wrongs and to beg to be a servant in his father’s household.

At this point in the story, those in the crowd who were hungry for justice would have been foaming at the mouth, ready to hear how this disgraceful son got what he deserved. They would have known something the text doesn’t reveal, something we don’t glean with a surface-level understanding of what’s written. They knew that the community had a right—if this poor excuse for a Jewish son ever tried to come home—to stone him to death. That the laws of the time provided for retributive justice, enacted by the community, to see to it that this son got what he deserved.

The son would have known about this law, too. Still, he chose to make his way toward home.

What does this tell us about the condition of the son’s heart, that he chose to move toward almost certain death rather than stay where he was? What does it suggest he knew about the heart of the one he was returning to? While we don’t have the time or evidence to dig into these questions here, they are worth pondering, and would not have been lost on Jesus’ audience…

The crowd was likely on the edge of their seats, waiting for what Jesus was about to say. The Pharisees among them probably tilted their chins upward even further, vindictive smirks starting at the corners of their mouths…

   “When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him…” (Luke 15:20, Message)

Wait… What did Jesus just say? Nobody expected to hear those words. Wide eyes and mouths agape replaced smirks of indignance.

Why would this scorned, rejected father do that? He didn’t only dishonor his patriarchal role by lifting his robes and running… He embraced and kissed his unclean, smells-like-dirty-unholy-pigs son. He got to him first, providing protection for him, salvation from the lawful justice the community most assuredly would have enacted upon him.

I imagine the crowd was stunned. Silent. Maybe not… They may have grumbled among themselves about this “rabbi” with these “radical” views and stories. Whatever they were doing or thinking, Jesus didn’t stop there… He told them that the father then threw a party! A HUGE party. There was no discussion about wrongs committed, no expectation that his son make any kind of amends for what he had done, no “putting him in his place.” Nope. None of what his audience expected. None of what we might expect…  or might have experienced in the past… might have said to a “prodigal son” in our own lives…

When the older brother showed up and found out what happened he was, some translations say, indignant. Indignant in its root form means, “to regard as unworthy.” Ouch. He regarded his father’s son (he refused to acknowledge him as his brother) as unworthy of the treatment he was receiving. The only one worthy of that kind of feast and celebration was him. The good one. The right one. He deserved more, he deserved the party. He could not rejoice over the found son like entire communities had over the sheep and the coin. Because, in my speculation, he thought that if he did choose to celebrate his brother, it would be at the cost of his own significance, his own worthiness—everything he had worked so hard to earn, and the image he was desperate to keep. Practically, it did cost him. The two-thirds of the estate that funded the party technically belonged to him. His father had divided all his wealth among the brothers. One-third was squandered by the younger. The rest, then, belonged to the older. So maybe it was plain, old-fashioned selfishness and greed that motivated his indignance. How dare his father use his wealth on that scoundrel of a man? How dare he take from the good one to embrace the bad one?

The older brother couldn’t see that in his father’s house, there was more than enough. More than enough resources, more than enough grace, more than enough love. He couldn’t see that his father’s house was built on the principles of generosity, kindness, forgiveness, acceptance, grace, and a love that pursued both brothers.

Older brother stood outside of the party, fuming. The tender father left the party he was hosting—another cultural no-no—and went to him, just like he went to the younger son. He went to him full of love, generosity, zero condemnation. He took the time to explain why, even though he didn’t have to. He pleaded with him to join the celebration—another thing the patriarch simply would not do. But the older son was, as some translations say it, unwilling to go inside.

There is so much to digest in this package. But the unwillingness of the older brother to join the celebration has stayed at the front of my mind. It makes me ask questions I’m not sure any of us want to answer…

Who am I unwilling to celebrate?

Who am I unwilling to welcome in, to welcome home?

Who am I unwilling to worship alongside?

Who, if worshiping inside our church, would arouse feelings of indignance within me? Who would I be unwilling to join inside?

I wish I could say that there is no one I wouldn’t love to embrace. I wish I could say I am willing to invite, welcome, and protect anyone and everyone. I wish I was there. But I’m not. These questions lead to answers that reveal how far I still have to go before my heart truly looks like Jesus. And that’s why it is so important to ask and to answer them. We all have a ways to go on this journey. None of us is perfect. But this story Jesus told is a story about the father’s heart toward each child. Every single one. And it is a story that reveals the upside-down kingdom and its shocking, disruptive ways. Do we have ears to hear? Do we have hearts willing to lean in, to be honest? Do we have hearts of flesh that we are willing to entrust to the gentle hands of Jesus? Are we asking him to show us where we need to grow, and are we willing to submit ourselves to the process of being changed?

These are hard, probing, painful questions. The answers that live in the depths of our hearts might be equally hard to wrestle with. But, friends, may we be willing to wrestle! So that the Church of Jesus might begin to look a little more like the One we follow…

—Laura

Based on what Laura wrote above, I have some questions to ask regarding the parables of Luke 15:

When we hear the parable of the lost sheep, where do our minds place the emphasis? Is it on the lost sheep, on how the sheep got lost, on the shepherd who leaves the 99 to go after the one, or on the shepherd’s invitation to join him in rejoicing over the found sheep?

What about the lost coin? Is the emphasis in your mind on the lost coin,  on how the coin got lost, on the woman’s diligent search for the lost coin, or on the woman’s invitation to her friends to rejoice with her over the found coin?

What about the father and his two sons? Is the emphasis in your mind on the youngest son who asks for his inheritance, squanders it in wild living, and returns in desperation to his home? Is the emphasis on the father’s acquiescing to the youngest son’s request for his inheritance, on the father’s waiting, on the father’s running to the son, on the father’s rejoicing that the son was found, on the extravagant party that the father threw for his found son?  Is your mind’s emphasis on the older son, his anger, his jealousy, his attitude of entitlement? Is it on the father going out to the older son and inviting him to join the celebration?

Laura pointed out that our Bible’s subheadings title these parables as “The Lost Sheep”, “The Lost Coin”, and “The Prodigal Son”. Do those subheadings accurately reflect what the point of each parable is? I don’t think they do. Each parable ends with an invitation to celebrate and rejoice. I think that’s the point. Maybe the headings could be: “Throw a Party: the Lost Sheep is Home!”, “Party With Me: I Found My Lost Coin!”, “Join the Celebration: My Son Is Home!”

When Jesus tells these parables, he is in the midst of “tax collectors and sinners” who want to hear what he has to say, while the teachers of the law and the Pharisees are looking on and judging Jesus for welcoming sinners and eating with them.

To build on what Laura wrote about the word prodigal, I looked up its etymology. It comes from the Latin word “prodigus” which means “lavish”?  According to dictionary.com, lavish means: bestow something in generous or extravagant quantities on

Based on this definition, who is the prodigal in Jesus’ story?

Maybe the fact that we often emphasize the wrong thing is one of the reasons people experience Christians as mean and judgmental, and churches as the last place they would be welcome.

I think we’ve forgotten that God is the God of rejoicing. He is the God of lavish, extravagant love. He is the God who seeks, who fellowships, who communes with us. And He is the God who will run to rescue us.

Laura pointed out that in the Jewish culture, when the youngest son returned from his journey, the community had the right to stone him. He had dishonored his father, he had dishonored the community, he had dishonored the laws of the Torah, he was a disgrace. By every right, the community could have killed him.

But the father watched for his son, and while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20)

The father ran. The father got there first. The father came between the son and the community. The father set the tone. He made it clear that his lost son was to be welcomed and was worth celebrating. The community could have killed the son–the father modeled something completely different.

As Laura noted above, the father had two sons. The oldest son heard the party. He asked one of the servants what was going on. He was not happy with what he learned.

Once again, the father goes out, this time to the older son who is being the ‘I deserve it and you never did that for me’ son, and alludes to the fact that his brother is dead to him by saying to his dad when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ In other words…he’s not my brother, and I’m not sure where I stand in all of this either. I’ve worked, I’ve earned, I deserve!!!!!

Does the father yell back at him? No. He says:

“‘My son…you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (31-32). 

He emphasizes “you are my son too, and this is your brother, please come celebrate”.

And then Jesus leaves us hanging. We don’t know what the older brother decides to do with his father’s lavish extravagance.

Jesus is hanging out with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees and teachers of the law are looking on in judgment. He chooses this moment to tell these parables without telling them what the oldest son chooses; therefore asking, who will they choose to be? What will they decide? Will they celebrate that everyone is lavishly loved and worth celebrating in the kingdom of heaven that’s here right now? Will we?

I used to judge Muslims until I had a Muslim friend. All of a sudden, Muslims weren’t a generalized blob to me anymore. I could put a face and a name to a Muslim person, to her husband, her children. I learned about her culture, about her faith. We cooked together, they came to our church cookouts. She shared with me what it was like to grow up in a country that experienced war–bombs coming into neighborhoods including hers. My perspective changed. I love her. I love her people. She is not my enemy. She is not God’s enemy. He lavishly loves her.

I remember one day at school years ago–it was recess time and I was playing with my very dear Jewish friend. We were sitting on top of the monkey bars when, some of our classmates began to spew hateful words at her. They were incredibly cruel. She and I got down and walked away. I wish I could remember if I said anything to them or to her. I can’t, but their cruelty is etched in my memory forever. She is not God’s enemy. He lavishly loves her. And you know what? He lavishly loves the children who were cruel too…he goes out to them like he went out to the older brother, inviting them to let go of judgment and come celebrate at his table.

I have three children who I love dearly. One of my three came out as gay his senior year of college. Talk about a hot button issue in the church. My husband (who just so happens to be the pastor of our church) and I made the choice to embrace our son, to love him–no part of us desired to reject him, even as we wrestled with what all of this meant (and means) for our lives, our ministry, our perspectives and perceptions. We love our son. He is not God’s enemy. God lavishly loves him.

Last year at this time, that same son suffered a severe injury. I flew out to him and stayed in an apartment provided by a non-profit organization close to the hospital for six weeks. His friends surrounded us and loved us both very well. Many of them have very real and alive relationships with Jesus, but very few of them have a church family to be part of.

I returned home deeply burdened for this community of people who are loved by God but rejected by the church.

Pastor John, my husband, spoke about our son from the pulpit for the first time on Sunday morning. He said that he was making the choice to be like the father in the parable and run to his son before anyone else can get to him. He admitted that he doesn’t have this all figured out–and we don’t need to. That’s not what Jesus asks of any of us. We are asked to love the world, and without a doubt, we love our son.

This morning in my Lent reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn was quoted as saying: “The line that separates good and evil does not run between nationalities, ethnicities, religions, or political parties, but right through the heart of every person.”  I agree with his statement, and I recognize that it’s true in me. Sometimes I’m at the table dining with Jesus, embracing others and celebrating his lavish love; sometimes I’m judging. I know which one feels more like Jesus in my heart and can see which one produces better fruit.

Jesus tells stories which end with lavish rejoicing and an invitation to join the celebration. The oldest son didn’t appreciate the father’s lavish celebration. He didn’t appreciate the father’s wild and reckless love. Do we?

Jesus says to the church in Revelation 3:20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

He still comes for us and says to us: God celebrates you with lavish love–my coming, my death, my resurrection and the gift of my Holy Spirit are proof of that. God celebrates people on the other side of whatever lines we’ve drawn with lavish love. His table is open. All are welcome. Open the door; feast at God’s table where there is always room for, and rejoicing over one more. Come celebrate!

–Luanne

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Lent: A Rescuing Love

On the calendar of the capital “C” church, the season of Lent has begun. In our particular faith tradition, many individuals practice Lent, but Lent is not something we do corporately. This year, even though we are not having corporate Lent services, or special prayer and fasting (we do that in January), Pastor John wants to lead us through a series that sets our hearts on our rescuing, loving God and prepares us for the greatest event in the Christian faith–the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We began this series by reading the 3rd chapter of Hosea.

Then the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.” So I bought her for myself for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a half of barley.  Then I said to her, “You shall stay with me for many days. You shall not play the harlot, nor shall you have a man; so I will also be toward you.”  For the Israelites will remain for many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred pillar and without ephod or household idols.  Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king; and they will come trembling to the Lord and to His goodness in the last days. (Hosea 3:1-5)

God is not asking an easy thing of Hosea. God is asking Hosea to go again… Let that sink in. Go again to your wife, the wife you still love, the wife who is unfaithful to you, the wife who is sleeping with other men, the wife who has broken your heart, the wife who has done this before…go again. Go. Demonstrate agape love, unconditional love, love in action. Love her the way I (God) love my people, even though they chase other gods, offer sacrifices to other gods, and credit those gods for their provision. Hosea, go and be me to your wife, so that Israel will see, through your loving example, how I love them.

So, Hosea goes. He buys his wife back. He doesn’t drag her down the street by her hair. He doesn’t create a public spectacle. He doesn’t play the tough guy by yelling at her and putting her in her place. He takes items worth a great deal in that culture and exchanges those costly items to purchase his wife back. He redeems her. Does she deserve it? Has she shown any indication that she wants to be redeemed? None of that matters. What matters is Hosea’s love in action. It’s love that costs him something. It’s love that the broader community will not understand. By right, Hosea could have had his wife stoned. Culturally, that’s what she deserved–but that’s not the way of God. Costly love that redeems is the way of God.

So Hosea takes her home and says to her: “You shall stay with me for many days. You shall not play the harlot, nor shall you have a man; so I will also be toward you.

When you read those words, what tone of voice do you hear Hosea using? Is it a “Listen up, girl, this is the way it’s going to be…” tone of voice, or is it gentle? Although we can’t know for sure, I think Hosea’s last phrase gives us a clue. Hosea, who has been faithful the whole time says to her, stay with me, be faithful to me, and I’ll be faithful to you. This isn’t a threat. This isn’t an “if you cheat on me, I’ll cheat on you and show you what it’s like”. No, this is “I love you. I’ve been here being faithful to you the entire time. I will remain faithful to you, and we will take this journey together.” Hosea’s faithful, costly love will be what restores his wife. It will happen over time, as she chooses him and he walks with her.

The chapter then goes broad, and the Lord tells Hosea what’s going to happen in Israel. He says their political system is going to fail them. Their religious system is going to fail them. Their false gods are going to fail them. Then, when every other thing they have chased fails them, they will return and seek the Lord. What will they find? Punishment? No. We are told they will come trembling to the Lord and to His goodness in the last days.

The word translated trembling can mean “in awe”. After all of their wandering, after chasing what the world offers, after worshiping everything but God, they will return to the Lord and discover his goodness. They will discover his costly love that buys them back. They will discover his companionship. They will be left awestruck.

God’s rescuing love is demonstrated in action. It’s a love that loves. It’s a love that redeems. It’s a love that empathizes, that joins us where we are and restores us as we walk with God.

Every man-made system in which we place our hope will fail us, but God will never fail us. He will not reject us. He will pursue us. He will love us. He will restore us. He will be with us.

Once we experience this kind of rescuing love; once we experience the goodness of God; we will be awestruck at the enormity of it. The response to this kind of love is not only deep gratitude, but a desire to offer God’s love to others and join him in his rescuing work. Rescuing love that makes no sense to the world is how the kingdom of God works. We are rescued. We don’t deserve it–that doesn’t matter–he loves us; he paid a costly price to buy us back; he places his very own Spirit in us and tells us over and over that he will never leave us or forsake us…

…and he gives us the beautiful opportunity to love others into his love.

Go again and love…

–Luanne

Go again and love

As Luanne wrote about in the beginning of her portion, the words “Go again…” are hard. For anyone who has felt the sting of betrayal–be it marital infidelity as it was for Hosea, or the betrayal of a close friend, or the rejection of a family member–those two words, and the two that follow, can feel like an insult added to the injury of our pain. As I write this, there are memories that surface–some old, some very fresh–that remind me of the sting of betrayal and rejection I have felt from those I love. I am sure you have stories, too. I think that’s why this short passage of scripture is still relatable and significant today. It’s appalling, what God asked of Hosea…

I wonder if he wrestled… I wonder if he asked God any questions. Did he go for a long walk, or maybe a run? Did he throw a bit of a tantrum? Did he yell in the privacy of his own home, or break something in his pain and frustration? Did he cry a little? Or maybe even all-out ugly cry, snot and all? Did he wonder how many times his heart would have to be broken before it couldn’t be put back together again? 

Hosea doesn’t tell us how he felt or the ways he might have wrestled with God’s instructions. But everything I listed above? I’ve reacted in all of those ways and more in response to various betrayals and rejections in my own life. To be left and disregarded, betrayed by one who has vowed to be there, to love you–the pain is hard enough to work through one time. But again? It wouldn’t have been unreasonable for Hosea to have said something like, 

“Seriously, God?!? I know you’re, well, God. So you know the whole story! She’s done this before. Everyone knows. She’s embarrassed me, betrayed me, left me alone–not once. Over and over. You know exactly how many other lovers have captured her attention, how many others she has given herself to, the ways she has smeared her name–and mine! You know what she deserves. So do I… I don’t want to exact the law upon her–I still love her. But you’re saying it’s not enough to let her live, to mercifully spare her life and the just consequences of her behavior–you want me to go after her? Again? And pursue her, love her, bring her home as mine? When she has given herself to everyone but me? Are you really asking me to do that? Again?”

These would have been fair questions, especially in the time that Hosea lived. Luanne wrote above, regarding his wife, 

Does she deserve it? Has she shown any indication that she wants to be redeemed? None of that matters. What matters is Hosea’s love in action. It’s love that costs him something. It’s love that the broader community will not understand. By right, Hosea could have had his wife stoned. Culturally, that’s what she deserved–but that’s not the way of God.

Pastor John shared that for Hosea to choose his wife again rather than reject her risked his own reputation. Really, he was risking more than that. He was risking everything. To choose her again meant embracing the unknown, the what ifs, the chance of her leaving him again in the future. Those around him just would not get it–until they did. 

I want to tell you a story that I know, a story that resembles Hosea’s…

There was a woman, she was a faithful, loving wife and a wonderful mother. She loved Jesus with her whole heart, battered and wounded as it was. Life had not been easy or kind, but she was hopeful, joy-filled, warm, and as present as she knew how to be. Eleven years into her marriage, she got sick. Very sick. Her future was uncertain. 

Not long after her health began to deteriorate, she found out that her husband had been unfaithful to her, more than once, with more than one other woman. And he was leaving her for one of them. He had fallen in love and just did not want her anymore. She had become to him a “good friend,” and nothing more. He left her alone, sick, without resources, and with their children to care for, promising he would do his part. He didn’t.

Over the next months, the man had some doubts… He missed her kindness, her friendship, he missed their kids, their family. He wanted to come home. The woman set aside her ache and said yes, he could come home. Those around her didn’t understand why she welcomed him back…

He came home.

Stayed a few days.

And left… again. There were whispers of, “I told you so…” as people learned he’d gone. 

A little bit of time passed, and again he wanted to return. Again, she welcomed him home, but only if he was there to stay. He assured her he was. Again, there were murmurings from their community.

And again, he left. 

He came back one more time. Her heart was battered, torn apart. She had no reason to believe him this time, and told him so. She took some time…

They took the kids out together and spent time as a family over the next days. He seemed genuine.

One night, at the county fair, their kids watched him kiss her under the stars next to the Ferris wheel. Their eyes sparkled, her breath caught in her chest, their kids looked at them, giggling and hopeful. All seemed right in their world this time. 

He came home.

Days later, he told his kids he missed the other woman and her kids, told his wife he was sorry, but he couldn’t make this work. 

She begged him not to go. Said she’d do anything, be anything, change everything about herself–if only he’d stay. 

And he left again. For good this time. Her love, the redemption she offered, her welcoming arms—none of it was enough to make him stay. The whispering community largely deserted her and her kids. 

She struggled. She sobbed and screamed in her bathroom with the fan on and the water running. She thought the kids couldn’t hear her, but they did. They didn’t know if she cried because she missed him… or because she was sick and in pain… or because they didn’t have money for groceries. They didn’t know for sure, because she didn’t speak poorly of their father in their presence. She assured them of his love for them, and tried hard not to complain about her own pain. 

Fast forward to more than a decade later. She fought through her illness and experienced the love of Jesus carry her through her darkest days. She was in a different state, with her daughter and young grandchildren, at a summer festival. They rounded a corner and came face to face with her. The one who knew the whole story because she was the other woman. The one he left her for years ago. The one he eventually left for another someone new…

Shock and fear flashed across the other woman’s face. Tears spilled as she hung her head. How were they both here, today? They hadn’t lived in the same state in more than ten years. Before the other woman could say anything, the scorned wife went to her and wrapped her arms around her, held her tightly as both women cried.

“I’m so sorry! So sorry…” the other woman choked out between sobs.

And then I heard my mom say, “I forgive you. I forgave you a long time ago. And I love you.”

I cried at the beauty of the moment, but I wasn’t shocked. I knew how she felt, how she’d wrestled and come to a place of love and forgiveness. But I turned and glanced at a friend who happened to be nearby and had witnessed the whole exchange. Tears rolled down her face; her expression held the awe of one who’s witnessed a miracle. 

And that’s exactly what it was. A miracle of love that didn’t make sense according to the world’s systems. My mom’s love, despite her efforts, didn’t keep my dad home. Her love didn’t rescue their marriage. And it didn’t rescue him from a life filled with regrets. But, we can be sure, her love rescued one, and impacted many… When she embraced the other woman, it wasn’t in her own strength. It was the love of Jesus in her and with her that led her to reach out to the one who was responsible for much of her pain. And that love, pouring through my sweet mom, spoke to this woman that she was loved, redeemed, forgiven, rescued from the guilt and shame her own choices had caused in her life. It was a gift unexpected and most certainly undeserved. It was a gift that changed more than one life that day.

My friend told me she had never seen anything like that. She was overcome by the beauty of the love of Jesus expressed that way. I have heard her tell the story and how it impacted her heart many times, in small groups and to other friends. That’s the power of loving God’s way. 

Real love doesn’t reserve a little room for revenge, for retribution, for resentment, expectations, conditions… It doesn’t react, separate, distance, avoid, isolate or divide. Real love can’t exist if there’s even a little sliver of hate. Because real love acts and responds. It is demonstrated by moving toward, pursuing, including, inviting, holding space. It redeems,  it empathizes, it rescues. And it does this without any guarantees of how the recipient of that love will respond.

Hosea had no way of knowing if Gomer would stay after he brought her home again. History would say otherwise. But he pursued her anyway. She did stay and they were reconciled. My mom had no way of knowing if my dad would stay. History told her otherwise, too. She embraced him anyway. And he left, and they were not reconciled as husband and wife.

God knows that we are an unfaithful bride. That we repeatedly leave him. He does know it will happen again, and how many times we’ll run to something or someone other than him. He knows. And yet… he keeps coming. He doesn’t wait until we ask if we can come home. No, he–like we see in Hosea–moves toward us first. He pursues and he never stops pursuing. When we turn away, he moves around us until we’re face to face again. When we run, he runs with us, never leaving us alone. When we fall down in exhaustion, he picks us up and carries us home, restoring us every step of the way. 

Luanne wrote,

Once we experience this kind of rescuing love; once we experience the goodness of God; we will be awestruck at the enormity of it. The response to this kind of love is not only deep gratitude, but a desire to offer God’s love to others and join him in his rescuing work. Rescuing love that makes no sense to the world is how the kingdom of God works. We are rescued. We don’t deserve it–that doesn’t matter–he loves us. . . and he gives us the beautiful opportunity to love others into his love.

My mom experienced the rescuing love of God. She wasn’t reconciled to her husband, but Jesus became her husband and loved her with a love that left her awestruck. She responded by extending that love–even to one the world would call her enemy. 

I don’t know your story, but I know mine. I could tell you many stories of betrayal and rejection, the many times that others have been unfaithful to me… I could tell you more about the times I have been the unfaithful one in my relationship with Jesus. That list is long, friends.

But he loves me as though the list doesn’t exist.

He pursues me even when I try to get away. He holds me in my pain and experiences my hurt as his own. He rescues me when I run straight into the fire over and over again. He always has. He always will. That’s what love does. He is who love is.

Who is he asking us to “Go again and love” this week? May we be filled with his love, awestruck by the enormity of it, and–in his strength–may we move toward others instead of pulling away.

–Laura

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Dedication

Psalm 30

A psalm. A song. For the dedication of the temple. Of David.

I will exalt you, Lord, for you lifted me out of the depths and did not let my enemies gloat over me. Lord my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me. You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead; you spared me from going down to the pit.

Sing the praises of the Lord, you his faithful people; praise his holy name.
For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime;
weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.

When I felt secure, I said, “I will never be shaken.”
Lord, when you favored me, you made my royal mountain stand firm;
but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.

To you, Lord, I called; to the Lord I cried for mercy:
“What is gained if I am silenced, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you?
 Will it proclaim your faithfulness? Hear, Lord, and be merciful to me; Lord, be my help.”

You turned my wailing into dancing;you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will praise you forever.

The words above are those that David prayed to dedicate the temple. The psalm is a song of praise; Pastor John began his message on Sunday by reading these words. It was fitting on this special day–a day that marked the beginning of a new season for our church as we moved into our new building under our new name, City Park Church. It was a day to dedicate our new space to God and the work of his kingdom, but more than that, it was a time to remember that we–not the building itself–are the temple of God.

The psalm above holds within it difficult and beautiful reminders of what it is to be an imperfect temple where the perfect Spirit of God resides, and as we moved through the lines, we found an opportunity to not only dedicate our new space in this new season, but to re-dedicate the spaces within our own hearts to the work and purposes of our God. 

“I will exalt YOU, Lord, for YOU lifted me out of the depths… Lord my God, I called to YOU for help, and YOU healed me… YOU brought me up… YOU spared me…” 

These words are some of the first that David speaks to God, and they are telling. He is among the congregation, dedicating the new temple, and the first cries of his heart are not words focused on the building or the community, but rather a personal remembrance of the merciful hand of God that has been ever-present in his own life. Did you catch the words? God lifted, healed, brought him up. God’s hand, his touch, is what David acknowledges here. Hold onto that; we will come back to it…

The first words of the psalm are God-focused, and the rest of the song follows that same pattern. Though the pit and needs are mentioned, they are not the focus of the song. David speaks not of the work that was done by human hands, nor of the strength of his faith to see the work completed. The focus is on what God has done, on his unstoppable mercy and constant presence. He does mention once feeling secure and unshakable, only to find himself shaken and pleading for help and mercy, desperate for the presence of his God. We know that feeling, don’t we?

Times of transition are never as smooth as we would like them to be. Change can be hard, unsettling. It can cause us to feel like our world is shaking and insecure. We certainly felt that from time to time as a community throughout this long season of transition. There was loss and hurt, doubt and fear visited often, relationships were tested–as was our faith. Mourning and weeping accompanied some of these changes.

And… there was God’s presence.Every step of the way. The God that David encountered in every high and every low, the constant hand that reached toward him and lifted him from every pit is the same God who has upheld each of us and invites us to follow him as he leads us forward into a new place.

Our mourning is turned into dancing and our weeping into songs of joy when we realize our longing for God’s presence, and recognize the constancy of his love, his mercy, his arms ever-reaching to embrace us and pull us back in–regardless of how many times we’ve turned away.

Dancing and rejoicing are not simply the exuberant responses to hardships being removed and brokenness being healed… they are the front-line battle cry that moves a community forward into new territory. They remind us who goes before us and with us and upholds us on every side. They are silencers of fear and doubt and they cause us to remember whose we are and who we are in Him.

Sunday morning, our community remembered who our God is and all that he has done. We also remembered who we are and why we are here as we came together in worship so sweet there are no words sufficient to describe the experience. Pastor John reminded us that God is present everywhere and he is the one who invites us to come in, to show up, in the places where he already is. We were reminded that where we sit is meant to be a place we move out from. We can find ourselves tempted to insulate ourselves inside strong, beautiful walls, to get comfortable and “just be us” in our own small spaces. But this has never been the way of Jesus, and it is not who God is calling us, our community, to be now.

Rather, we come into the “temple” to be reminded of the story we came from, the story where each of our own stories find their origin–and one day their completion, as well. Our new building offers the most beautiful picture of this old, old story. Stunning stained glass enfolds the worship center on three of the four sides. It beckons us to enter in to the story of Jesus and reminds us of his life and ministry. It extends an invitation to continue his ministry as carriers of the kingdom of God. This is the story the windows tell…

Jesus was born as a human baby, in a manger. He grew and learned in the temple. He was baptized in the full power of the Spirit and under the blessing of his father and propelled into his kingdom-bearing ministry. He called his disciples, performed miracles, offered his presence. Jesus healed. Jesus restored. He encountered every kind of person. He ate and broke bread at his last supper, he prayed in Gethsemane. Peter denied him, Pilate washed his hands of him, and Jesus died on the cross. Then he was resurrected and restored all that was broken.

Throughout each scene, we witness Jesus’ withness, and Jesus’ touch. Just as we saw the hand of God reaching to David throughout our Psalm, in these windows we see the hand of Jesus ever-reaching, ever-embracing…

Who is he embracing in these pictures? “Sinners” and “saints”… the old and the young… the rich and the poor… men and women… those who denied him… the seen and the unseen… the sick and the well… followers and doubters… those whom he sought, and those who sought him. The pictures on both sides reveal the Kingdom-heart of Jesus, the Jesus who extended his hand to touch every life. The picture in the back, nudging us forward, is stamped with these words, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” What gospel? The story that the windows walk us through, the story of Jesus. The story that we are reminded of not only as we look side to side, but as we look forward to the fourth wall. On that wall there is a window–but it doesn’t hold stained glass. It holds a wooden cross, built from pieces of our yesterdays as a community, carried into today, and propelling us into our tomorrows. The cross hangs in that window, a reminder of the self-emptying, cruciform, outstretched love that leads us to live and love in-kind. And it hangs there empty, because Jesus rose from his grave, holding in his hands the keys to death and hell. The empty cross reminds us, also, that he lives among and within us. We are living temples, invited to carry this power that frees us from the prison of death into all the world.

This new “temple” our community has moved into is a reminder that following Jesus is not ever about getting comfortable, sitting in one place, and insulating ourselves from the rest of the world. To follow Jesus is to move with Jesus, to be filled with his presence and his love and to extend our hands–as he did–to touch every life we encounter with an embrace of welcome, of mercy, of belonging. We have the opportunity to dedicate ourselves each day to the ministry Jesus invites us into… May we accept this holy call and move in the ways of our God…

–Laura

In addition to reading David’s dedication psalm, Pastor John also read excerpts of Solomon’s dedication prayer from 1st King’s chapter 8.

Solomon begins with these words of praise: Lord, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below—you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way.”

A few verses later Solomon’s own mind is blown and he asks: “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!”

Solomon expresses his desire: “May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place.”

He asks God to be their judge, to forgive their sins, to restore them and bring them back when they stray.

And later in the prayer he includes these words: “As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name—  for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple,  then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.”

That may be my favorite part of the prayer. Solomon knows that God desires to use Israel to make God’s name known to all the people of the earth- not just some. Solomon is praying in a way that shows his openness to those from distant lands. He even asks God to honor the prayers of the foreigner.

After the prayer, Solomon blesses the people and says:  May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our ancestors; may he never leave us nor forsake us.  May he turn our hearts to him, to walk in obedience to him and keep the commands, decrees and laws he gave our ancestors.  And may these words of mine, which I have prayed before the Lord, be near to the Lord our God day and night, that he may uphold the cause of his servant and the cause of his people Israel according to each day’s need, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God and that there is no other.  And may your hearts be fully committed to the Lord our God…”

Solomon, the king of the chosen people, chose inclusivity. He understood the heart of God.

There is much in Solomon’s prayer and blessing that we could dig into, but I’m going to go a different direction.

Pastor John reminded us that we are not “the temple”–we are the church. Jesus founded the ekklesia (translated “church”)  which means the “called-out assembly. We are part of His kingdom–his called out ones–along with all those who follow Jesus from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. We are one church. Each of us individually is a temple that serves as a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit (1st Corinthians 6:19) and together we are part of a holy global work.

Peter helps us understand this concept when he writes: As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual temple to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light…(1 Peter 2:4-5,9)

This is our task, our mission, our purpose. We get to carry the wonderful light of Jesus into the darkness of the world. We get to be part of establishing his kingdom and his ways right here. What a beautiful, mind-blowing, blessing!

Solomon asked “But will God really dwell on earth?” and requested “May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’” 

Do you think Solomon could even begin to fathom that God would indeed come to dwell on earth in human form? Could he fathom that God, in the person of Jesus, would start a movement that will continue for eternity? Could he fathom that God’s very Spirit would dwell inside his followers–that God would place his seal on us in the Spirit and give us His name? That God would give us the honor to be His living, organic, growing temple—the inclusive temple of the inclusive King?

Can we fathom it?

Laura finished her section with these words:

We are living temples, invited to carry this power that frees us from the prison of death into all the world.  This new “temple” … is a reminder that following Jesus is not ever about getting comfortable, sitting in one place, and insulating ourselves from the rest of the world. To follow Jesus is to move with Jesus, to be filled with his presence and his love and to extend our hands–as he did–to touch every life we encounter with an embrace of welcome, of mercy, of belonging. We have the opportunity to dedicate ourselves each day to the ministry Jesus invites us into… May we accept this holy call and move in the ways of our God…

–Luanne

fire for the world

Teach Me to Serve

What comes to mind when you hear the word serve? What about when you hear it at church? What if it is coming out of your pastor’s mouth from the pulpit? We heard the word come out of Pastor John’s mouth more than a few times on Sunday, as our second installment in our “Teach Me” series centered on serving. What does it really mean to serve, and what does it require of us? Pastor John began by telling us that this is not about shaming or “should-ing”; it is not a manipulative tactic to get any of us to do more or be better or give extra. This is about understanding what serving really is, as well as what it is not.

The text we looked at in this week’s message was Joshua 24:1-24. I’ve included verses 14-18 from that passage below:

“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods! It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. And the Lord drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”

The people responded to Joshua, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord and to serve other gods!” We know, as Joshua did, that it is not far from any of us to reach for, follow and, ultimately, worship (give our attention, focus, devotion and love to) other gods. We will all serve someone or something. Our hearts are wired to worship and if our hearts are not set on our God, they will be set on something—or someone–else.

Pastor John told us that serving is not an obligation, it is an expression of gratitude for all that God has done. God has already given us everything. He didn’t give us life and love and gifts with strings attached. He has called us his beloved children, lavished his unconditional love upon us, and wired into each of us many different gifts and abilities. There is no catch, nothing that removes our identities, his love, or our gifts if we don’t serve him the way he wants. That’s not who our God is—that’s not who he has ever been. If we feel manipulated or made to do certain acts of service or reach a certain level of giving, those are either constraints we have put on ourselves or demands and expectations put on us by others—sometimes by churches. God doesn’t place expectations on us, though. God invites.

What exactly does God invite us into? Wholehearted, focused kingdom living. Pastor John pointed out that we cannot serve if we are divided and distracted, if our attention is split between God and our other gods. We can look like we’re serving, but our hearts will give us away every time…

Psalm 86:11 says, “Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.” (NIV)

And Matthew 6:24 reminds us, “How could you worship two gods at the same time? You will have to hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other…” (TPT)

Pastor John referred to the story of Nehemiah that we touched on last week to give us an example of what it looks like to serve with undivided focus, with hearts set on a call—however unreasonable and impossible that call might seem at the time. We don’t know if Nehemiah had the skills needed to rebuild the walls, but we do know that he was determined to do what God placed on his heart to do. He faced opposition and distraction, but he remained focused on the task at hand. And because he was focused, he was able to see deception when it came his direction. He was wholeheartedly devoted–and it protected him from a multitude of attacks and schemes.

This is an important point. Nehemiah saw the deception because he was focused. We cannot see what is in front of us if we’re not focused. Just as our unfocused eyes cannot clearly see even what is right in front of us, unfocused hearts cannot discern with any clarity what is coming our way. If our attention is split in different directions, the eyes of our hearts will be blurred by the whiplash caused by being pulled this way and that. Nehemiah’s heart was whole, set on his God, and so he was wholly focused on the work he needed to do. He made a choice, and he was committed to seeing it through.

Ultimately, serving is a choice. As I wrote earlier, God invites us to serve. Then he leaves it up to us. In our passage, Joshua says to the people, ”…choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…” (from Joshua 24:16). Where will we place our focus, attention, worship, and love? Whatever and whoever our hearts love, we will serve. God wants our whole hearts, he wants us to live fruitful lives in service to his kingdom, and he wants to infuse our serving with impact and growth that will bear good fruit, but he won’t make us do it his way. We are the wielders of our own willingness. God won’t force us into submission. But he wants so much for us to grow into our healthiest, most whole selves.

Beth Moore, in the introduction to her latest book, Chasing Vines, writes:

“God wants you to flourish in Him. Every last thing He plants in your life is intended for that purpose. If we give ourselves fully to His faithful ways, mysterious and painful though they may be at times, we will find that it’s all part of the process that enables us to grow and bear fruit… And so we find ourselves at a crossroads. If we have guts enough to believe that we were created by God to flourish in Christ, we have a choice to make. Will we sit idly by and wait for it to happen, as if our cooperation isn’t part of the process? Or will we set out, light on our feet, with hearts ablaze, and give chase to this call to flourish?”

How is serving connected to flourishing? When we are filled with gratitude for all that God has done and we have learned to trust him with our lives, that gratitude produces joy, and joy inspires us to share, to give, and to serve. Serving from a place of deep love and joy creates new life and bears good fruit.

And we already know the model friends…

When Jesus called out to his disciples, “Come, follow me,” what was he inviting them into? What example did he give them to follow? He was inviting them—and us—to follow him into a life of self-giving love in service of the kingdom of God, to follow him into places that are unsafe among people who are sometimes unlovely. This is one of Jesus’ invitations to learn from him:

 “Are you weary, carrying a heavy burden? Then come to me. I will refresh your life, for I am your oasis. Simply join your life with mine. Learn my ways and you’ll discover that I’m gentle, humble, easy to please. You will find refreshment and rest in me. For all that I require of you will be pleasant and easy to bear.” (Matthew 11:28-30, TPT)

Join our life with his.

Learn his ways.

He is gentle and not difficult to please.

All that he requires of us will not be hard for us to bear...

This passage is not saying that everything that happens to us will be pleasant and easy, that our lives will be carefree. But it does tell us that Jesus is our life-giver and he wants to teach us his kingdom ways. We’ll find in him no sense of obligation or expectations; he won’t ever manipulate our affections. He will be our place of refuge and will teach us how to live refreshed in him. What is required?

That we come to him. That we follow him and seek to learn.

This takes willingness, vulnerability, flexibility in our “plans.” It may mean that we relinquish our vision of how things ought to be in order to adapt his vision—and we may have to do that over and over again as we journey with him. It will definitely require that we recall what we have learned about how to trust.

If we come to Jesus in this way, we won’t have to try to cultivate wholehearted focus. If we watch him, learn from him, follow him, we will be completely captivated by this One who came to serve–not to be served–that we won’t be able to stop ourselves from falling in love. He is that good, and his ways are that compelling. We will find these things for ourselves if we’ll simply make the choice to come. We all get to choose this day who we will serve, dear friends. May we choose well…

–Laura

Choose this day whom you will serve; as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. 

Joshua 24: 15 is written on plaques and hung on walls, written on garden stones and placed in yards, even stuck to the back of cars. We make declarations, buy reminders, and then forget what we’ve pledged to do. As Joshua was reminding the people of God’s incredible faithfulness, as he was making his declaration that he and his household would serve the Lord, he implored the Israelites to make a choice. As Laura reminded us above, the people responded that they would choose the Lord. They said emphatically: We will serve the Lord. However, just a few verses later, Joshua says to them: “throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” (24:23)

That struck me as I listened to Pastor John’s sermon. The people had been delivered from slavery in Egypt. They had wandered in the wilderness for 40 years with the Lord providing for all their needs. They had faced opposition. They had experienced the Lord’s deliverance time and time again. Yet, after all this time, with their feet finally in the land that was promised to them, and with, what I believe was sincerity of heart, they expressed a desire to serve the Lord, so Joshua reality checked them and reminded them that they still had foreign gods in their possession. They’d carried them for years.

It’s easy to point fingers at the Israelites; it’s more difficult to self-reflect and see what false gods we carry with us.

Laura wrote above: …serving is not an obligation, it is an expression of gratitude for all that God has done. God has already given us everything. He didn’t give us life and love and gifts with strings attached. He has called us his beloved children, lavished his unconditional love upon us, and wired into each of us many different gifts and abilities. There is no catch, nothing that removes our identities, his love, or our gifts if we don’t serve him the way he wants. That’s not who our God is—that’s not who he has ever been. If we feel manipulated or made to do certain acts of service or reach a certain level of giving, those are either constraints we have put on ourselves or demands and expectations put on us by others… God doesn’t place expectations on us… God invites.

We are invited into a beautiful life of Christ-likeness, of service, of gratitude. Yet, we sometimes get this confused. We place expectations on God. We misunderstand who God is, how gentle God is, how inviting God is. We forget that God loves us fully, completely, unconditionally. We try to earn God’s pleasure (or stuff) by striving, or by bartering. My relationship with God functioned like that for a very long time–and then God pointedly, but lovingly showed me the system I had created. He brought me face to face with my incredibly mixed motives in serving Him.

I was in my late twenties. Two of my three children were born. My husband had completed seminary and had been called to serve as youth pastor in a church in the Atlanta area. I wanted to begin establishing relationships with people in the church, so I joined a small group study of Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God. A few weeks into that study, I was at home lying on the sofa and God met me there. He showed me that I had set up my entire relationship with Him as a barter system. He revealed that my mindset (heart-set), was…Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you if you promise me that I won’t get cancer and die while my children are young (like my mom did). Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you if you promise me that John will not die and he’ll be able to provide for us and take care of us. Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you, if you promise me that my children will be healthy and I won’t lose any of them…Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you if…

Ugh. When God showed me this, I knew he was right…and I also knew that I wanted guarantees from him. I knew God was asking me to surrender it all, but I wanted God to do this my way. I wanted safety. I wanted my children safe, I wanted my husband safe, my provision safe, I wanted me safe. I was carrying the false god of safety and security and had been bowing to it for a lot of years. I wasn’t ready to give it up. So, I wrestled, I cried, I begged God to promise me the things I wanted. He was not cooperating. I knew that he wanted me to surrender it all to him, including my kids, without any guarantees of safety and security…nope!

When our group met the following week, the leader asked if any of us had anything to share. I had no intention of talking about the wrestling match I was in. I was a new “staff wife” and needed to have it all together (or so I thought). Much to my dismay, I burst into tears. Next thing I knew, I was sharing, through sobs, with these people I’d basically just met about all that God was showing me–and that he wanted me to surrender everything–including my kids into His hands, and that I couldn’t do it. This beautiful group of people circled around me, laid hands on me, and prayed for me. I’d love to tell you that I surrendered at that moment, but I didn’t.

For the next few nights, I stayed on the sofa–I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I just wrestled. I knew that my system was keeping me stuck and that I wasn’t going any further with God than I was at that point. God was inviting me into a deeper, fuller, richer relationship–but I didn’t see it that way. In my wrestling match, God reminded me that suffering is part of life on this planet, but that nothing would separate me from His love. I didn’t like that. I really wanted God to bow to me–that’s honestly what it boiled down to.

Finally, out of sheer exhaustion and a desire to get some sleep, I said–okay, God. I’ll give it all to you–I surrender. It’s hard to describe what happened next–I was filled with incredible peace; I felt love for God that I didn’t even know was possible, and I experienced the beauty of God’s all-encompassing love in a new way. The fountain of living water was turned on and has never gone off. I fell in love with God. That moment of surrender happened a lot of years ago, yet the fresh fruit of that moment is still being born in my life. It was the turning point in my adult relationship with God.

So, when we talk about serving as an invitation rather than an obligation–I’ve experienced it from both sides, and I don’t ever want to go back to obligation. Obligation leads to burn out, resentment, “shoulding” on ourselves and others, comparison, etc. It’s not life-giving.

Teach me to serve.

To serve means to give. If we are served dinner, if we are served papers, something is given to us. God serves us–He gives, and gives, and gives, and gives. Jesus, the image of the invisible God, showed us what a life of service looks like.  A life of service genuinely cares about others. A life of service shares wisdom, gifts, stories, moments. A life of service pulls away and allows God to restore, refresh, renew, guide, direct. A life of service is open to being served by others. A life of service washes the feet of those who would be considered less than in the world’s hierarchical system. A life of service acts justly, loves mercy and walks humbly with God (Micah 6:8). A life of service is filled with and fueled by supernatural love. A life of service is not agenda based. A life of service gives it all.

When we are taught that the greatest commandment boils down to loving God with all we are and all we have, loving others the way God loves us, and loving ourselves with godly love, that’s the living root from which a life of service flows. It’s not service that strives. It’s service that is the natural outflow of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Eugene Peterson once wrote: “The people who have made the greatest difference in my life were the people who weren’t trying to make a difference.” I think about that quote often. True serving makes a difference without striving to make a difference.

We all know when we are someone’s project. or when we’ve made someone our project. It doesn’t feel genuine, because it isn’t genuine. I believe the real key to serving is to fall in love with God, to walk with God, to accept God’s invitation to life in the Spirit, and to be absolutely bathed in and convinced of God’s unconditional love for ourselves and all of humanity.

We have the ongoing opportunity to choose this day who we will serve–to choose this day who we will love…to choose this day to be loved…to choose God’s beautiful, life-giving, logic-defying, self-sacrificing, love-saturated way this day…

–Luanne

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