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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You Have Heard it Said: Part 3

Today’s passage is a doozy. It’s a common “clobber” passage used to judge others and exclude them from full fellowship in some churches. Even before you read this blog, please know that we are not a shaming church; we believe that God loves us all and shuns no one. Pastor John shared that these two verses in the Sermon on the Mount almost kept him from doing the entire series. Yet, like the rest of Jesus’ sermon, we are  looking at the full context, looking at the heart of Christ, and exploring the deeper meaning of his words.

Here we go:  “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Mt 5:31-32 ESV).

The Passion Translation words it like this: “It has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her legal divorce papers.’  However, I say to you, if anyone divorces his wife for any reason, except for infidelity, he causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

And the NIV like this: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Before I go any further, I want to say that I believe God’s original intent for marriage is that it lasts, is fulfilling for both husband and wife, and a healthy reflection of God’s relationship with us.  However, all the way back in the Old Testament we see that marriage didn’t look like this. And, in these two verses, Jesus is addressing the men. Why? Because in that culture they had power, and they abused their power.

Culturally, in that day, a woman had no rights. She was considered property and horribly undervalued. It was rare for a woman to be able to make it on her own; her chances for gainful employment were slim to none. Yet, a man could decide at any time to dismiss his wife, and send her out to fend for herself. His reason could be as simple as she over-salted his food. She had no value, and a hard-hearted man would not have a whit of care about what happened to her.

Let’s briefly recap what we’ve learned up to this point in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus began with the beatitudes–the inner character that drives the outward behavior of Jesus’ followers. Then he says his followers will be like salt and light in the world–our depth of character and our presence making a positive, kingdom of heaven difference in the here and now. After this, Jesus tells us that he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. We’ve studied how Jesus spoke of the commandments not to murder and not to commit adultery, yet jumped right over the action words and focused on the heart of the matter–anger and lust. Now we’re on these verses about divorce. Jesus has not changed direction; he is still concerned about the heart of the matter.

In the book of Genesis, when God created humankind, God said:

“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and overall the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image,

in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (1:26-27)

In God’s original design, male and female each reflect who God is, each bears his image, and each was given the same task–to steward well his created world. Nowhere in the creation story does God create a hierarchy. Yet, all throughout the Old Testament we see men marrying multiple wives, sleeping with servants, dismissing and mistreating women–even among the patriarchs and kings.

Jesus enters the scene and models something completely different. Even before Jesus’ birth, we see God highly esteeming women. There are five women named in the genealogy of Christ. Tamar who was wronged by her husband and had to trick her father-in-law in order to bear a child; Rahab, the woman from Jericho who resorted to prostitution in order to survive and hid the Jewish spies on their way to the promised land— she married into the Jewish faith and gave birth to Boaz; Ruth, the widowed foreigner who honored her mother in law and later married Boaz. Bathsheba (Uriah’s wife) is the next woman mentioned. She was taken advantage of and then became one of the wives of King David who was the grandson of Ruth. A few generations later the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary first–not Joseph.

In Jesus’ earthly ministry he gives women his full attention. He encouraged Lazarus’ sister Mary’s behavior when she chose to sit at his feet and learn, just like male disciples did.

When the teachers of the law tried to trick Jesus and brought him a woman caught in the act of adultery (where was the man?), Jesus did not condemn her. Instead, he caused each man present at the scene to search his own heart.

Jesus interrupted his trip to the home of Jairus, the powerful synagogue leader, and gave his full attention to a woman who had been a bleeding outcast for twelve years. He gave her time to share with him her full story.

The account of the woman who poured perfume on Jesus’ feet shows us that he was not about to allow her to be condemned or poorly thought of.

The women present at Jesus’ crucifixion are named in scripture. The women are the first to see the resurrected Jesus and the first to share the news that he is alive.

The women are present with the men on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. They receive the very same power of the Holy Spirit, and together with the men share the news of Jesus in foreign languages to those within their hearing.

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is probably my favorite encounter. Jesus was speaking to a woman who was from a people group considered inferior to his. Both of those things were taboo. Scripture even tells us that when the disciples returned from getting food, they wondered why he was talking to her. She had been married five times and was currently living with a man who wasn’t her husband. (Let me remind you–she couldn’t divorce a man, so she had been dismissed and abandoned five times). Jesus doesn’t condemn her, instead, she is the first person to whom he reveals his identity as the Messiah. Their conversation changed her life. She shared her story and his identity with those in her town, and they came to know Jesus as well. 

Back to this week’s verses…Jesus is addressing the men. The man divorces, he is supposed to give her a certificate of divorce, his actions cause her to choose someone else so she can survive, and his actions defile her next husband. It all begins with the man, his abuse of power, a power over her that was never God’s intent in the first place, and the ripple effect of his choices.

The Passion Translation offers a footnote that says the Greek word for divorce (apolyo) can also mean “to loose,” “to dismiss,” “to send away.”By serving her divorce papers, a husband was required to return his wife’s dowry. The divorced woman would then leave his house and receive back her dowry.  Think about that, he could dismiss her without papers and not be obligated to return her dowry, leaving her without means. 

I have a Lebanese Muslim friend whose marriage was arranged for her. Her family provided a dowry to the groom’s family. When we lived near one another, we asked each other questions about our lives and cultures, so I asked her about that. She told me that the dowry wasn’t a “bride price”, but that it was like an insurance policy. She said if anything happened to her marriage or her husband, the dowry was what she would use to live on. I’d never heard that before, but The Passion Translation footnote indicates the same thing. In other words–“Fellas, if you’re going to be hard-hearted and dismiss your wives, at least be honorable. Give her what is rightfully hers so she has something to live on.”  Jesus is addressing their hearts.

God shows us throughout scripture that he sees his relationship with us like a marriage. In the Old Testament, God’s relationship with Israel was to be a model of his faithfulness and love to the nations around them. In the New Testament, the relationship between Jesus and the global church is supposed to show the world his love for us, our love for him, and our love for them as a result.

If you are divorced and have been hurt by the church, I’m sorry. Jesus’ words on divorce were never intended to be used as clobber verses, nor were we ever told to exclude anyone from fellowship with Jesus and his church. If you are divorced you are fully embraced and fully accepted by God. There is no condemnation in Jesus.

In the 1970s, my dad’s best friend was leading a weekend ministry event at a church in another town. He shared his testimony with the group, and part of his story is that he is divorced and remarried. A man came up to him afterward and asked: “What’s it feel like to be living in sin?” Pete responded: “I don’t know. You tell me.” It still makes me chuckle.

We are not prisoners to our histories. There is freedom in Christ no matter what our story is. In this freedom,  Jesus is asking us to go deeper–to check our hearts, to value those around us, to esteem our relationships, and to be demonstrators of God’s unconditional love to the world around us. 

–Luanne

We are seeing over and over again in this series a process that would be beneficial for each of us to adopt as we make our way through this world. What Jesus is doing in this famous sermon is picking up the law–one piece at a time–and processing it through the filter of a higher law, a law he modeled in every interaction recorded involving him during his life on earth. He ran every single law through the law of Love. The love of God and love of people, which are truly interchangeable, because if we are doing one well, it follows that the other will also be satisfied. The law may allow, require, condone ________ (fill in the blank), but what does Love require?

This is the question, the heart of the matter. It is what Jesus is getting at with every point he makes. You have heard it said… but what does Love require? This week’s passage applies the question to marriage and divorce. It might be the clearest, most straightforward distortion of God’s heart toward his children, because it addresses the stripping away of the inherent value of a woman–her identity as an equal image-bearer–and the reduction of a human being to property that can be used and disposed of at will. Can you think of other examples throughout history and even presently when the value of a human being was reduced to property? I can. Too many to list.

I think that’s part of the ache of these two verses. What Jesus was doing in his brilliant way, was lifting up the “leasts,” as he always did. In this case, the leasts are women. His words honor the value of a woman and, if followed, offer protection from systems that left so many displaced and destitute. Yet, somehow, these exact verses have been used to further abuse and devalue women and abdicate men from their responsibilities, at the hands of the Church. How did that happen?? It happened because, even as Jesus was reorienting the Law around the way of Love, those in power chose to make it about the words rather than the heart behind the words. It became about a list of dos and don’ts, and this short passage has been used against the very people it was meant to protect and left devastation in its wake.

Running the rules through the filter of Love makes all the difference. In regard to marriage and divorce, I’ve seen that difference firsthand. I’ve watched friends and family I love dearly choose the way of self-emptying, self-sacrificing love when they had every right to leave and never look back. I’ve seen people devalued and devastated choose to honor their vows even when their spouse has shattered theirs. I’ve watched, awestruck, as God moved through open channels of love to restore what was lost, as the pile of torn and tattered threads was woven into a tapestry more beautiful than should even be possible after such devastation.

I’ve also seen and experienced what can happen when a lesser love captures a heart. I watched my mom be discarded three times by the same husband, abandoned for other women and a brand new life, left with nothing but the bills and the children and her failing health. I watched her struggle to put food on the table as she worked long hours in multiple jobs to try to make ends meet. I watched as our church turned its back on our family while my dad was still allowed to attend with his girlfriend and her family. I saw my mom’s new church embrace her partially, but warn her that if she remarried, an adulteress she would be. I saw her ache for a community that didn’t really have room for a poor, divorced woman and her kids–one that certainly wouldn’t invite her to use the gifts she’d been given as a full participant in the kingdom within their walls. At best, she was a project, a charity case. She was marked.

Jesus didn’t want that for her. What happened to her was the exact opposite of what he called for in this week’s passage. What happened to her is what happens when we miss the heart of the matter, when we don’t process the law through the higher law of Love. And somehow, we all know there’s a better way. There’s a song that keeps running through my head as I write. Not some spiritual, worship song, but the chorus of a song I didn’t even know all the words to until I looked it up a moment ago. The song is Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love”, released in 1986. Here are some of the lyrics…

Think about it, there must be a higher love
Down in the heart or hidden in the stars above
Without it, life is wasted time
Look inside your heart, and I’ll look inside mine
Things look so bad everywhere
In this whole world, what is fair?
We walk the line and try to see
Fallin’ behind in what could be, oh
Bring me a higher love
Bring me a higher love, oh
Bring me a higher love
Where’s that higher love I keep thinking of?
Worlds are turnin’, and we’re just hanging on
Facing our fear, and standin’ out there alone
A yearning, yeah, and it’s real to me
There must be someone who’s feeling for me
Things look so bad everywhere
In this whole world, what is fair?
We walk the line and try to see
Fallin’ behind in what could be, oh
Bring me a higher love (oh my Lord)
Bring me a higher love, oh (oh)
Bring me a higher love (my Lord)
It’s that higher love I keep thinking of…
We all know intuitively that there is a better way, a higher way. We crave that higher love  whether we know and believe in Jesus or not. We know, “there must be a higher love, down in the heart or hidden in the stars above…” And yet, we run after lesser loves. In our fear and desire for control and order, we forsake the way of love for the inferior substitute of a list of rules. That list of rules has served an insidious purpose. The Church that is the bride of Christ, meant to birth the fruit of that union–the kingdom on earth, has clung not to her groom but to the list, and abdicated her responsibility to the way of Love. It is heart-wrenching to see the results of our idolatry. Rather than embrace the extravagant way of love that Jesus modeled, we have too often looked to satisfy the minimum requirements.
Imagine what the world would look like if we processed everything through Jesus’s filter? If we looked for ways to exhibit the maximum amount of love rather than the minimum? It should change everything, friends! Because the love Jesus spoke about and modeled–self-emptying, humble, generous, gracious, compassionate, real love–is inexhaustible. There is actually not a maximum, because love never ends (See 1 Corinthians 13). The more we pour it out, the more there is available. It expands, enlightens, restores, and remakes everything it touches. Its power is in the laying down of oneself on behalf of another, the way that Jesus did for every single human being. What if we followed his lead and lived accordingly? We wouldn’t have to worry about ourselves because there would be reciprocity and mutuality and thriving for all. Love like this doesn’t need additional rules and regulations. It covers absolutely everything.
I believe with my whole heart that this is Jesus’s whole point. Everything he says in the sermon on the mount, all of the exhortations and insights he gives are expressions of love in action. This week’s passage is about divorce, but not only divorce. It applies to the way we are to embrace, cherish, and care for one another as we live out the love we share with our Abba. It was perhaps the clearest example Jesus could give in that day of what happens when the way of higher love is replaced by lesser things. When we refuse to live in the light of love, we reduce one another, treat each other as problems and projects, see each other as means to an end, expendable. We NEVER see Jesus objectify anyone in this way. 
The story that I held in my heart as I listened to Pastor John preach on Sunday is the same one Luanne emphasized above, the woman at the well. Jesus had every reason–and the teachers of the law may have said an obligation–to avoid her, ignore her, and condemn her according to the law. But love…
The law said not to associate with “those” people. The Samaritans were outsiders, people the Jews were not to mingle with. The law didn’t allow them to be alone together at the well–she was a woman, and an unmarried woman at that. Forget about a conversation–that went way too far. It was against the rules. And Jesus knew more still about this woman he engaged at the well. She had been married five times, and was now living with a sixth man. The law gave him so many reasons to not only walk away from her, but to outright condemn her!
But love…
Pondering this passage in different seasons, I’ve cried many times over the tenderness of the moment. The story, much like our verses this week, has been used and preached in unkind ways. But the Jesus I know is always kind. Always good. Always loving. He knows the backstory to every story. When I read and ponder this particular story, specifically the part where Jesus lets her know that he knows what she’s been through, I hear his voice as gentle, quiet, empathizing with her plight. I see tears pool and fall from his eyes as he feels how brutally and repeatedly she’s been rejected by those charged to cherish and protect her. I have exactly zero doubts that in that moment, she experienced the love she’d searched for all of her life, love that saw to her core and called her beloved despite the labels she’d been given by the world. How am I so sure? First, because my Jesus has done the same for me. But also,  her reaction tells us everything we need to know. Hope overflowed as joy exploded in her. She left her jar and ran back to the village to tell everyone about this man who had set her free from her shame. His words to her did not condemn her. His words communicated that she was seen and known… and fully loved. 
The words Luanne ended her portion with seem appropriate to repeat here…
“We are not prisoners to our histories. There is freedom in Christ no matter what our story is. In this freedom,  Jesus is asking us to go deeper–to check our hearts, to value those around us, to esteem our relationships, and to be demonstrators of God’s unconditional love to the world around us.”
Can you imagine what the world would look like if we loved like this?
–Laura

 

 

Love Never Ends | Christian Bible Verse" Poster by ChristianLife ...

 

 

Living Loved & Loving Others

We took a short break from our sermon on the mount series this week to hear from Trevor Schenk, one of our elders. Though his message wasn’t from the sermon on the mount, it fit in seamlessly with what we’ve been learning from Pastor John. One of the first statements Trevor made was,

“Jesus led a life that showed us how to love, how to live.”

He led us through passage after passage reminding us about God’s love, what it is and what it’s not. He reminded us that even when we’re living with hateful, murderous thoughts inside like we discussed last week, we are not exempt from the love of God that pursues us. He gave us many examples from the scriptures of people who chose to kill rather than to love, and yet God went to them and revealed his heart to them–changing them by the transformative power of his love and empowering them to love like him. He exhorted us to first embrace our own belovedness and then to learn from the example of Jesus so that we can model that kind of self-sacrificing love in our relationships with others.

The message was a “Selah” moment, of sorts–a pause to remember and reflect on how dearly loved and chosen we are by the Creator who calls each of us children, made in the image of our eternal God. It was also a call to live a life worthy of the one we claim to follow.

Rather than write a lot of extra words to expand on the message Trevor brought to us, I thought the best thing to do this week would be to give our readers what Trevor gave us–a moment to pause and reflect, a moment to ponder with fresh awe the deep, deep love of God lived out in the life of Jesus, and what that love requires of us as we relate with our fellow image-bearers.

The main passage Trevor spoke from is 1 John 3, so I’ll include the verses he used below, as well as many of the supporting passages he shared with us. I am intentionally including a variety of translations. My hope is that you’ll take a moment to read through them slowly, ponder the words in your heart, and be reminded afresh of the deep love that pursues you, that pursues us all. Because this is what I have found to be true over and over again–

When we catch a glimpse of the Love that made us, that pursues us, that willingly died a criminal’s death at our hands so that we might understand there is nowhere he wouldn’t go to reach us… we can’t help but be changed. Love like that rearranges our hearts if we let it, and it keeps doing its good work until we learn to live cruciform like Christ–arms outstretched in love that looks outward and invites all to come in…

Look with wonder at the depth of the Father’s marvelous love that he has lavished on us! He has called us and made us his very own beloved children. The reason the world doesn’t recognize who we are is that they didn’t recognize him. Beloved, we are God’s children right now; however, it is not yet apparent what we will become. But we do know that when it is finally made visible, we will be just like him, for we will see him as he truly is. And all who focus their hope on him will always be purifying themselves, just as Jesus is pure. . . Here is how God’s children can be clearly distinguished from the children of the Evil One. Anyone who does not demonstrate righteousness and show love to fellow believers is not living with God as his source. The beautiful message you’ve heard right from the start is that we should walk in self-sacrificing love toward one another. We should not be like Cain, who yielded to the Evil One and brutally murdered his own brother, Abel. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s righteous. So don’t be shocked, beloved brothers and sisters, if you experience the world’s hatred. Yet we can be assured that we have been translated from spiritual death into spiritual life because we love the family of believers. A loveless life remains spiritually dead. Everyone who keeps hating a fellow believer is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. This is how we have discovered love’s reality: Jesus sacrificed his life for us. Because of this great love, we should be willing to lay down our lives for one another. If anyone sees a fellow believer in need and has the means to help him, yet shows no pity and closes his heart against him, how is it even possible that God’s love lives in him? Beloved children, our love can’t be an abstract theory we only talk about, but a way of life demonstrated through our loving deeds.

(I John 3:1-3, 10-18, The Passion Translation)

Be kind to each other, be understanding. Be as ready to forgive others as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you. 

(Ephesians 4:32 J.B. Phillips)

 You shall not take revenge nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor (acquaintance, associate, companion) as yourself; I am the Lord.

(Leviticus 19:18, Amplified Bible)

“Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get.”

(Matthew 7:12, The Message)

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

(1 John 4:7-8, NKJV)

 If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.  If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

 Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. Love never stops loving. It extends beyond the gift of prophecy, which eventually fades away. It is more enduring than tongues, which will one day fall silent. Love remains long after words of knowledge are forgotten

(1 Corinthians 13:1-3 MSG, 4-8 TPT)

Trevor encouraged us to be aware of what is in our minds and hearts. He reminded us that God already knows what is hiding within each of us but still refuses to give up on us. I read last week that St. Augustine said sin is, “…being curved in upon oneself.” Those few words have messed with me these last few days. They challenge me to look up, to reach out, to listen, to recognize what lives in the shadows of my soul. Being curved in upon myself–however good the reason may be, even when it feels like the only way to protect my heart–is the opposite of living cruciform, the opposite of Jesus’ display of self-emptying love. This week, my prayer is that we each have the courage to open, to embrace the beautiful vulnerability of living with arms outstretched as we continue to learn how to live as dearly beloved children of God.

–Laura

Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth ...

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 #4: Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics. That’s where Pastor John began Sunday’s message. It’s a big word that most of us are probably not very familiar with. While the word may be unfamiliar to many of us, its impact has touched all of our lives in one way or another. It means simply, the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts.” What any of us know or understand about the Bible has come to us through the filters of many different interpretations. It was the same for Jesus’ first followers, except their “bible,” at that point, did not include what we call the “New Testament” today. They had the Hebrew Scriptures, and they had scribes and Pharisees to interpret for them what the words meant and how they were to be applied.

Long before Jesus sat down to teach the sermon on the mount, there was another man on another mountain. It was Moses and the mountain was Mt. Sinai, where he met with God and was given what became the Ten Commandments, the Law. These Ten Commandments were given from God to his people in love as a comprehensive framework for how to love God and each other. As Brian Zahnd writes in his Lenten devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus,

“The first four of the the Ten Commandments are intended to form Israel in right relationship with God, or what we call worship. The final six commandments are intended to form Israel in right relationship with one another, or what we call justice.”

Instead of adhering to God’s exhortation to the ways of love, the people expanded it and broke it into subsets of laws and conditions. The commandments grew from ten God-given laws to 613 different regulations. Around the 613 regulations there were thousands of comments to explain them. How were the people to know what they were to do, how they were to follow the Law? As Pastor John shared with us Sunday, they needed interpreters, designated men, set apart to attend to the interpretation of the many amendments to God’s original commandments. Enter the scribes and Pharisees… These teachers were set apart to interpret ALL of the laws and regulations FOR the people. What the people learned as “God’s Law” came through the hermeneutics of the scribes and Pharisees. This elevated these leaders in the Jewish culture. The people needed them so that they could correctly understand the words of God.

But there was a problem. The leaders had missed the the original intent of the law. They had missed the intended focus. The focus was never supposed to be on the Law itself as a checklist to be completed. The focus was to be on the God of love who gave it to them as a way to protect them from the disease of self and the effects of living in opposition to God’s way of love. This brings us to this week’s text, Matthew 5:17-20:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus goes up on a mountain and sits down to teach his growing number of followers. He begins to teach them how they are to be, as citizens of his kingdom; he tells them that, in living his way, they will be salt and light to the world. He follows that up with this week’s passage about the Law that they held so dear. In the midst of what may have sounded to the people like new commandments, perhaps replacing what they had learned as God’s Law, Jesus says otherwise. I imagine the people were confused–what Jesus was teaching sounded nothing like what they had been taught all their lives from their scribes and teachers of the law. This is precisely why Jesus says what he does. He knows they have learned the law in a way that missed the mark of its original intent. He knows that the focus had become the laws themselves rather than the God who gave the law to them. So he addresses it in these four verses, and we get to see the law through the hermeneutics of Jesus and how his interpretation differs from that of the scribes and Pharisees.

He begins by saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law…” According to Strong’s Greek Lexicon, the word abolish in this passage is katalyo, which means “to destroy, break down, dissolve.” Its root words mean “to loose, unbind, set free, break apart, set apart.” Jesus did not come to set them free or unbind them from the original Law. He came instead, he says, to fulfill them. Please bear with me as we dig into what the word fulfill means here. I know not everyone gets as excited as I do about the definitions of words, but this one is important to our understanding of this text. And it’s pretty fascinating, too!

The word translated fulfill comes from the Greek pleroo, meaning “to complete, fill to the full, cause to abound; to fill to the top: so that nothing shall be wanting to full measure, fill to the brim; to consummate, render perfect and complete in every particular, to carry through to the end; to bring to realization.” A deeper look reveals that the root of pleroo is plebes, which means “to fill up hollow vessels; to thoroughly permeate the soul.”

When I read these definitions, it sets off fireworks in my mind! When Jesus says he came to fulfill the Law, he is essentially saying that he came to bring the Law to life! To “cause to abound” implies the action of fruit-bearing. To consummate is to bring together, to connect and make one of two. He came to connect the Law to himself, to Love; to complete the people’s partial understanding of the law and its intent so that in uniting one to the other, fruit would be born in abundance. And this fulfillment Jesus brought would fill up the places left hollow by the law and “thoroughly permeate their souls.” Jesus’ intention was not to set them free from the bindings of God’s original Law, but rather to tie the Law to himself and expand it into a way of being, as God originally intended. As Romans 10:4 states:

Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

The Law as a checklist has its limits. Where the words of the Law end, Jesus steps in to show us what it looks like to live as a kingdom-dweller. In Beth Moore’s gorgeous new book, Chasing Vines, she writes,

“John’s Gospel tells us that “the law was given through Moses” and “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). But lest the graced ones misinterpret these words, grace didn’t break the law of Moses, like stone tablets thrown into worthless fragments. Grace loosed the law of love from its limits.”

She continues a few pages later,

“Jesus isn’t impressed by love in word but not in deed (1 John 3:18). In Jesus’ reckoning, when it comes to love, confession without action is pretention.”

This leads us into what is, perhaps, the most difficult part of this week’s passage, the last verse. Here it is again, to refresh our memories:

“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I imagine the mouths in the crowd, if they weren’t wide by this point, fell open as they heard these words. What was the teacher telling them? The Pharisees and teachers of the  law were the most righteous among them, and this Jesus guy was telling them they had to be more righteous than them? Talk about unrealistic expectations! I wonder if any of them stood up to leave at this point, discouraged by the impossibility of meeting Jesus’ requirements.

Fortunately for the crowd that day, Jesus wasn’t finished yet. The words in verse 20 weren’t the last in the discourse, they were said to set up what would come next. He is about to expand and deepen their understanding of the individual laws they followed. As Beth wrote, “Grace loosed the law of love from its limits,” and the people were about to hear exactly what that means. But we’ll get into that next week. For now, let’s dive into the troublesome verse and see what there is for us to glean…

First, it’s important to note that when Jesus says “…you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven,” he is not talking about eternal destiny. As we have discussed at length previously, the kingdom Jesus repeatedly talks about is here and now. The Greek definitions of the words in this particular verse mean, “the kingdom realm; not to be confused with an actual kingdom, but rather the right or authority to rule (…) the encompassing, vaulted expanse of the sky and universe and all things visible in it.” He is telling them that if their righteousness is not greater than that of their “teachers” they’ll have no right to rule or teach with any authority in his kingdom. He is simultaneously disqualifying those who had been elevated as the only ones authorized to speak on the law and calling his hearers to live at a higher level than that of these leaders.

What is this higher level he calls them to?

“. . .unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law…”

As we have written about previously, the word righteousness is translated from the Greek dikaiosynē, derived from the root word dikē, which means “equitable, just.”  I wrote these words two weeks ago,

There are many occurrences of the word righteousness in our English translations of the Bible that originally meant justice, equity–which is a fuller understanding of exactly what Pastor John talked about: being rightly related to God, which will always include being rightly related to all others.

So Jesus is exhorting his listeners to be more equitable and just than their teachers, to be rightly related to God and others in a different way than what had been modeled for them. What had been modeled for them is what Beth talked about in the quote I included above: pretention--a whole lot of lip-service without action driven by love. The focus had shifted from God and his way of love to the words that made up the commandments and the 613 addendums to the 10 original laws. These added words also kept the powerful in charge and the weak in check. Jesus came to flip all of that on its head.

One more word definition, and then I’ll wrap this thing up… The word translated “surpasses” is from the Greek perisseuo. It means “to superabound, beyond measure; to exceed a fixed number of measure; to exist and abound in abundance.” Its root word means “beyond; on the other side; farther.”

I find this beautiful. Jesus says to the crowd, essentially:

When you bring together the words of the law you have been taught with the ways of being I am teaching you and you connect the two with my love, your fruit will abound. This is what it means to let your light shine. It’s not about knowing the letter of all 613 laws. But it’s not about abolishing the commandments they came from, either. It is about viewing them in my light, and reflecting them, in love, to the world around you. Real righteousness is not what you have been taught. It’s more. It goes further. Because it is driven by love. 

Pastor John said, “Let Jesus author our faith.” Our faith is not authored by the words of hundreds of by-laws. Nor by the words of men that took liberties with and manipulated God’s original laws. No…

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:2) We look to Jesus, and invite him to write the story his way. He is, after all, the way, the truth, the life–the light for all humankind. He is the one who shows us what it means to live according to the laws of love, and how living like that fulfills every law God gave us to follow.

–Laura

Laura did a beautiful job of helping us understand what Jesus means when he says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

She wrote: When Jesus says he came to fulfill the Law, he is essentially saying that he came to bring the Law to life! … He came to connect the Law to himself, to Love …Jesus’ intention was not to set them free from the bindings of God’s original Law, but rather to tie the Law to himself and expand it into a way of being, as God originally intended.

If you’ve read our blog for any length of time you know that we write over and over God. Is. Love. God’s nature, God’s essence is love. Love is who God has always been and who God always will be. Until the time of Jesus, it might have been confusing to know exactly what that meant; however, the Apostle Paul tells us in Colossians 1:15 Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation. 

John the Apostle wrote the same thing when he said: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. 

Jesus himself said: Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)

So God, in the form of Jesus came to fulfill the law–to bring the law to life.

The Scribes and Pharisees were doing the best they knew how with “dead” law, but Jesus wasn’t impressed with their interpretation. He said to them: What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either. (Mt 23:13) .  Jesus is emphatically saying–guys you are missing the whole point and you and all those you influence are shut out of God’s realm as a result!

On another occasion Jesus said to them: You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (Jn. 5:39)

Does he say the same to us?  If the law–the knowledge of good and evil, the do’s and don’ts, the who’s in and who’s out drives us, then Jesus is not the center of our faith. If he and his ways are not the cornerstone of our lives, we are missing the point. I want to say this very, very carefully. If you read our blog, you know that we have a high view of scripture. We study it, we read it, we let the Holy Spirit speak to us through it, but scripture is not God. It is inspired and it is unlike any other book–but it is not our life source. Jesus is our life source…we study scripture to get to know the living Word–Jesus.

If we don’t come to the living Jesus and don’t look at all of scripture through the lens of the God of love as revealed in Jesus, we have a tendency to get mean and very black and white in our way of thinking. That’s the kind of attitude that led to Jesus’ frustration with the Pharisees when he told them that they shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. Are we doing that?

Laura reminded us that the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus is speaking of is not the after-life. It’s the Kingdom that is right here among us. She wrote: “the kingdom realm; (is) not to be confused with an actual kingdom, but rather the right or authority to rule….”  I’ve read before that it is the place where God reigns–which is any place where we are doing things his way. The kingdom of Heaven, the realm of Heaven, is where God’s will is being done on earth. (May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven) If that’s a new thought, remember that Jesus himself said in John 17:3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. It all starts right here. And ultimately God’s will is that we love like He loves. 

So Jesus’ purpose in fulfilling the Law and the Prophets is to show us how to live in God’s kingdom right here, with the door wide open for anyone else to come in. This goes against our natural tendency, and we’re not alone.

In the Old Testament, the prophet Jonah got mad at God for his “open door” policy. He didn’t want the Ninevites to be accepted by God. In the New Testament, there were those who tried to impose circumcision according to Jewish law on Gentiles who were coming into the kingdom. Paul told them Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. (Gal 6:15) .  Peter had a vision from God during his prayer time on a roof, where God lowered a sheet in front of him with all kinds of “unclean” animals on it and told Peter to kill and eat them. Peter said: “Surely not, Lord…I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” To which God replied (3 times) “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10: 14-15) . Peter could have refused–after all, his tradition and the law he had grown up with taught him that to touch unclean things was a sin–yet here was the living God saying–nope. It’s not about that.

Shortly after the vision, Peter had the opportunity to share the love of Jesus with a group of Gentiles.  Peter’s takeaway:  I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism…And it wasn’t just Peter that was blown away by God’s acceptance of outsiders: The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. (Taken from Acts 10: 44-48)

So, what are the Law and the Prophets that Jesus came to fulfill? They are certainly not tablets of stone. The Lord tells us through the prophet Jeremiah: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer. 31:33)  And through the Prophet Ezekiel he says: And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh. (Ez. 11:19)  And the Apostle Paul, writing to the church in Corinth says: You show that you are a letter from Christ…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Cor 3:3)

Let’s be “one-hearted” letters of Christ to the world. What would the heart of the living fulfillment of the law and the prophets in Christ say to them? Who would it include? How would it be presented? Would we, like Peter’s companions, be astonished at who God welcomes, or do we know that the fulfillment of the law and the prophets means everyone, exactly as they are, can enter in?

–Luanne

Reflections – blog | Trinity Presbyterian Church | of the Orthodox ...

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 ...

Jesus is Our Rescuer

Every story of rescue we’ve explored during the season of Lent–Hosea & Gomer, the prodigal son & his father, Abram & Lot, Naomi & Ruth, Ruth & Boaz, Moses & the nation of Israel, and the thief on the cross & Jesus–served to set the stage for the ultimate story of rescue: Jesus and each one of us.

On Easter Sunday, Pastor John preached about Jesus. He preached about his death on the cross, his resurrection, his victory over death, and the hope we have in him. It was not an unusual Easter message. In fact, it may be one of the most straightforward, simple messages we have heard in a while. It was the perfect Easter message because it is the message all others must be built upon. It is the story that needs to be told and retold because without it, our faith has no foundation. And even though it is familiar, there is gold yet to mine, treasure yet to be found. Our Jesus–the story of his life, his death, his resurrection, and his life now living within us who know him–is a well of inexhaustible riches and mysteries–there is always more to discover.

On Sunday, Trevor, one of our Elders, read a few verses of scripture and prayed before the message. One of the passages he read was John 3:16-17:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Another was John 13:34-35:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

As he prayed, he thanked Jesus for the death that he died and that he rose again. I found myself silently adding to his prayer once he finished, overwhelmed again by the familiar verses, the story I’ve known all of my life…

Thank you, Jesus, for dying a terrible death at our hands, for choosing to endure the suffering–but thank you, also, for the life that you lived! For showing us how to live, how to love…

As I listened to Pastor John’s message and pondered things later on, it was that simple thought that stayed with me–

In everything he did, from the beginning of the story to that bloody day on the cross and then after he rose from the dead, Jesus showed us how to love. He didn’t just tell us, didn’t simply teach us–he lived it.

Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. “

How does he love us? In all the ways that we have learned about throughout this series. His love rescues and forgives, runs toward us, protects us from the judgment of those who seek to harm us, welcomes us home, frees us from our bondage, redeems us, refuses to leave, clings to us. And on the cross, he displayed how far his love will go to show us another way, to show us how his kingdom works, to give us sight and a new way to see the world. On the cross, he endured our violence, and his love absorbed our hate. He set us free from the bondage of our shortsightedness and self-absorption and he offered grace to cover our shame. He reminded us–along with the thieves next to him–that he is the restorer of all things, of paradise lost and our forgotten identities.

As Pastor John said on Sunday, we are in constant need… And Jesus constantly comes to meet us in our need. He brings us hope when all seems lost, and he reminds us how to live and love as we learn from him, walk with him, remember how he did it, and see how he is doing it still. He is, as Brian Zahnd so eloquently phrased it in The Unvarnished Jesus, “the Gardener who touches living things with living hands,” and invites us to follow him and do the same.

As we have explored stories of rescue over the last seven weeks, we have seen that the need for rescue is present when an antagonist is present. That antagonist takes a different form in every story. At times, it shows up in a family member, other times in an entire community. It can be a nation, an accuser, or systems that set themselves up against the weak and the marginalized–creating the need for a rescuer to come. An antagonist is anything that sets itself up against the way of love, anything that stands in opposition to the ways of the kingdom Jesus ushered in. It can be self-imposed bondage, forced captivity, or a mix of the two, but every antagonist in whatever form it takes has one goal: to maintain their power and assert their control. 

But–no antagonist can stop the rescuing love of Jesus. We are never alone in our bondage, never left to fend for ourselves in the face of whatever antagonist has set itself up against us. He always comes. How has he rescued you? Can you recall times his rescuing love has showed up to save you?

I can’t count the times he has rescued me… it would take volumes to document every moment and all that Jesus has saved me from. Here are a few examples…

I was a tiny baby enduring beatings for a spirit I supposedly carried within me. I don’t remember the earliest days, but I lived. My life was protected.

I was a little girl, afraid and ashamed, angry and confused–more than I knew. I lived somewhere between complete chaos and pretend peace, a painted smile set in place. In the midst of it, Jesus spoke kindness to my heart. He stirred my heart toward him with gentle thoughts that weren’t my own. In the flowers I watered, the sun that warmed my face, the grass I rolled in, the creeks I splashed in, the trees I climbed, I saw a God different than the one I had been told of. I longed to know him, this Jesus who showed up in my dreams and in the moments of breathless fear. He protected me from completely believing the lies I was taught about why I should fear him. He pricked the core of me with an awareness of his goodness that would grow later.

As a poor preteen with a broken family, a sick mom, and a growing sense of the injustice around me and the rage within me, he rescued me from hopelessness. He brought people to me who breathed his grace like oxygen into my depleted soul. I wasn’t ready to run all the way to his arms, but he continued to come to me. He kept me tethered to him through the people who loved me well and provided for needs I didn’t yet know how to name.

When that preteen grew into a secretly rebellious teenager, those people who loved me well kept showing up. They continued to carry Jesus to me. There were nights I shouldn’t have awoken to the light of a new day for all of the self-imposed danger I placed myself in… I found out later, those same people had spent those nights awake and on their knees, knowing I needed their intercession more than they needed their rest.

The shame of those wild nights would have overtaken me… but he rescued me with grace.

I was pregnant with my daughter, spinning across four lanes of traffic in the snow during the busiest hour of the morning and came to a complete stop in the face of oncoming traffic. My car was completely untouched and I drove away, heart in my throat, breath held–protected in a very real way.

He has rescued me from fear that used to keep me awake at night.

He has rescued me in grief that threatens to suffocate.

He provided a rescuing embrace in the arms of a friend when guilt called me a killer.

He has rescued me from lying narratives that were taught as truths, from identities devoid of truth, from attacks on my character.

He has rescued me through therapy that helps me find him with me in the midst of the most painful of my memories. He has shown me where he always was, where he always is–with me in the middle of the mess.

He has silenced the voice of the powerful that wielded their might to control me; he has set me free from the shackles of their accusations and condemnation.

He has rescued me in my loneliness with his very own presence.

He has restored my dying hope with painted skies and flowing water. He’s cured my cynicism with delight as I’ve marveled at blue jays, butterflies, rocks and streams that he created.

He continues to show up in the faces that refuse to turn away from my brokenness–he’s saved me through kind eyes, shared tears, and the gift of wild laughter more times than I can even remember.

Every antagonist in my life has met their match in my Jesus. 

Including me. 

Many times, the antagonist in my story is me. I’m not the terrified little girl anymore, or the self-destructive teenager, nor am I the critical, questioning young adult I used to be. My self-imposed bondage looks different today… To maintain some sense of control, some idea of knowing the plan, I put shackles on myself. I limit my thoughts and ponderings and hide them away to “keep the peace.” I lock up my opinions, fears, and needs so I won’t burden those I love. I put myself in the corner and force my eyes to gaze at the floor. I quiet my song and restrain my dancing.

And Jesus comes to me, the captive who is also the captor, the caged bird holding her own key, the little girl in the corner held in place by the glare of the woman who sent her there… He comes to me, cups my chin, lifts my face, speaks gently and softly with words that loosen the grave clothes I’ve re-wrapped around my heart. He breathes grace and peace, courage and the deepest love into my heart until it beats with his again. And then he asks me,

“Are you willing?” 

Am I willing… to fly, to sing, to live in the freedom he gave me long ago–and to carry that freedom, that rescuing love, to others? Will I be to others what others have been to me throughout my life–a life lit up with the love of Jesus, ready and willing to pour out for the sake of others?

I get to choose whether I will be an antagonist or a rescuer. We all have that choice. One stands in opposition to the kingdom life Jesus shows us how to live. The other is impossible without living connected to, abiding in, the love of Jesus, our vine, our life-giving source. I’ve been both, sometimes in the same day, even moment-to-moment. I want the life of Jesus to live through me–to live my life the way Jesus would live it if he were me.

Except for when I don’t… Because power, control, some sense of knowing how things will turn out–these are tempting things to grasp at, to reach for. Especially now, in a season full to the brim with uncertainty, a season where fears seem present in the very air we breathe. We want stability, safety, a promise of “normal” tomorrows. It is tempting to reach for control, for power in these days, to think that’s what we need to make it through. But…

What we really need is rescue.

Will we let Jesus rescue us again–here, now? Can we acknowledge our fears, admit our proclivity toward power-grabbing, and let his arms hold us as we cry out our need for him? We are in constant need, and our Jesus constantly comes to meet us here. He is our rescuer in every season–even now.

–Laura

I was having a phone conversation with my 90-year-old dad last week, and at one point in the conversation, he shared with me that because of a book he’s reading on the Apostle Paul’s teachings, he is seeing some scriptures through a new lens and experiencing a fuller understanding of the ministry of Christ. He expressed that he’s appalled; he’s studied theology all of his adult life and yet still has so much to learn. I responded that I don’t think he needs to be appalled, and encouraged him to embrace the mystery that there is always more to learn, always more to glean, always a deeper a layer to explore.  We will never know the full mystery of God–that’s what makes our faith exciting, sometimes frustrating, beautiful, challenging, transformative and life-changing.

The story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection has many layers to explore, many implications for the world and many implications for each of us. Laura did a beautiful job of expressing the many ways that the God of love, who rescued the entire world on the cross, has rescued her in personal ways over and over again. The beauty of her encounters with God, her willingness to see how he was with her in some devastatingly hard seasons, her willingness to let the Spirit “mess in her business”, her willingness to let God continue to shape and re-shape her understanding as she digs in and seeks, her willingness to mine for deeper layers of healing and deeper layers of revelation are beautiful and worth emulating. I hope you’ll spend some time asking God to show you how you have been rescued.  Rescuing love is part of God’s nature.

Brad Jersak, in his book A More Christlike God takes us through scripture, pointing out the ways that God came after people in scripture over and over again. In a very abridged version, I’m going to try to capture some of Jersak’s examples:

After sinning, Adam and Eve tried to hide from God. What does God do? He comes looking for them.

Cain does not heed God’s warning and murders his brother. What does God do? He goes looking for him. He protects him.

Abraham gets tired of waiting on God and has a son by his servant. What does God do? He still honors his promise to Abraham.

Moses takes matters into his own hand, murders an Egyptian and hides in the wilderness for 40 years. What does God do? He comes looking for him and asks him to lead.

David commits adultery with Bathsheba and has her husband murdered. What does God do? He honors the promise of a royal line that will not end through the second son of David and Bathsheba, Solomon. 

Israel, instead of reflecting God’s glory to the world, becomes unjust and corrupt exploiting the poor and oppressing the marginalized. What does God do? He calls Hosea to be his example of rescuing love. 

Then God becomes human, that he might find and heal humanity.

A woman at a well, abandoned by five husbands: What does God do? He sits with her at a well, converses with her, loves her, values her. She, in turn, introduces her entire community, the community she’d been avoiding, to him.

A Jewish tax collector became an oppressor of his own people: What does God do? He singles him out for a dinner date. Declares that salvation has come to his home. What does Zaccheus do? Pays back those he defrauded–becoming generous rather than greedy.

A woman caught in adultery: What does God do? Kneels beside her, writes in the dust, the accusers leave, and then he tells her that he doesn’t condemn her and gives her a fresh start. 

A demoniac man: What does God do? He gives him his mind back, his clothes back, his family back, his life back–he sets him free. The man then tells the entire region about the miraculous, powerful love of God.

A paralytic man: What does God do? He speaks forgiveness to the man, then tells him to take up his pallet and walk, making a spectacle of those who blamed the man for his condition and excluded him from the temple. 

“Finally, here is the whole human race, chosen and dearly loved by the God who is always for us, always toward us, and always in pursuit of us.  Driven by fear and pride, our need to maintain our systems of power, enforced by violence–we arrest, and condemn, torture and crucify this God. …the world’s premier religious system and political empire–conspired to murder the Lord of glory. And what does God do? 

He says, ‘I forgive you. While you hated me, I loved. You who took my life, I give you my life. While you were my enemies, I made you my friends.’

Christ did not come to change the Father, or to appease the wrath of an angry judge, but to reveal the Father. God is like Jesus, exactly like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus.” (Brad Jersak, A More Christlike God)

I don’t usually use so many borrowed thoughts and words in my posts, I hope you will forgive me for that this week, but these feel so important right now, and they barely scratch the surface of all the rescuing stories found in scripture. At the crucifixion, God was rescuing us. He was not pouring out wrath upon Jesus. God was not condemning Jesus. God is not pouring out wrath on the world right now during the pandemic. God. Is. Love. God is with us. God is for us. God rescues us. Follow Laura’s leading above and spend some time contemplating how he’s rescued you how he’s been with you, even in the hard. He is so good to us!

The apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:15-19:

He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them.

 So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

 And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him.  For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation…

Our rescuing God makes us new and invites us to enter into the deep things with him, the counter-cultural things, the kingdom of heaven things, and then join him in his mission to rescue the world–one precious, beloved person at a time.

For God so loved the world…

–Luanne

beautiful name

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lent: Rescue Through Deliverance

Pastor John has been taking us on a journey through this Lenten season, a journey of rescue. We have looked at how the rescuing love of God pursues us and rescues extravagantly, radically, and personally. This week we heard about how the rescuing love of God brings deliverance when we are enslaved.

Our passage this week is Exodus 6:6-7:

Therefore tell the Israelites: “I am God. I will bring you out from under the cruel hard labor of Egypt. I will rescue you from slavery. I will redeem you, intervening with great acts of judgment. I’ll take you as my own people and I’ll be God to you. You’ll know that I am God, your God who brings you out from under the cruel hard labor of Egypt.” (MSG)

The Israelites were slaves in a foreign land. Pastor John told us that to be a slave to the Egyptians was to be completely stripped of one’s dignity; it was as though even their rights to be seen as a person were removed. They were living—calling it “living” is a stretch—in a land they were not created for. They were far from home. They were seen as less than human and they began to forget their identity. They forgot that they bore the Imago Dei–the very image of God.

Sometimes we forget that, too.

We are all image-bearers of our Creator. Every one of us who has ever lived and will ever live bears the image of the one who made us. Everyone. Full stop.

When we meet the love of Jesus, the image of God comes alive in us. It changes how we think, what we say, what we do, how we see, and—more than anything else—how we love. As we grow in him, we begin to look more like him. We follow in the steps of our self-emptying God and as we are emptied of ourselves, we become like Jesus.

But sometimes we lose our way.

Sometimes the pull of power, fame, wealth, safety, health, security—all branches of the tree of selfish ambition—feel too strong for us to resist. Instead of emptying ourselves to be filled up with the Spirit and her kingdom fruits, we gorge ourselves on the bread of self-indulgence and find ourselves enslaved in a land we weren’t made for. This land erects walls around us, holding us hostage to the god of consumerism, conquering us with promises of safety, getting us drunk on the wine of power and wealth. The walls keep rising, holding us captive, blinding us to what lies just beyond. The pace keeps quickening, we’re out of breath; our gods demand more and more from us as we become further enslaved to them. They stuff us full of lies and strip us of our hope. The noise level keeps rising, the cacophony is maddening—

Until, suddenly, a voice breaks through…

“The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14:14, NIV)

“I will rescue you…I will redeem you…” (from Exodus 6:6-7)

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you [from captivity]; I have called you by name; you are Mine!” (Isaiah 43:1b, AMP)

The walls fall, the mountains crumble. The gods who held us captive are nowhere to be found.

It is silent.

All that exists is us and the God who pursues us even when our mouths are too full of our own gluttony to utter a single cry for help. The rescuing, radical, extravagant love of God comes to us personally to deliver us from our bondage—whatever that bondage might be. Because that’s what love does. That’s Who love is.

We are in a unique season, all of us. It looks different depending on our physical locations in the world, but the whole of humanity is experiencing this tragedy together. We are finding ourselves more isolated and less connected in spaces where there is less noise. We are being forced to slow down. . .

When we pause, when we get quiet, hidden things can rise to the surface. Tragedy, crisis, fear, grief—when imposed upon us, these things can be very revealing. Our response to them can uncover our bondage. Many of us may be coming face-to-face with the truth of what we have been enslaved to, the things that have tried to crush the image of God out of us.

It can be hard to face the truth. But Jesus is the author of truth. He is the truth that sets us free. And when we look into his face, we see eyes of compassion, eyes that weep with us, that see into our darkest corners and choose to look at what they find there. Eyes that reflect into our own the truth of who we are–if we have the courage to behold him, to look up at the one who always comes for us.

There are some suggesting that God shut down the stadiums, the concert venues, the economy, even our churches because we made idols of celebrities, money, and leaders, because we worshiped them instead of him. There are voices yelling loudly of God’s jealousy and refusal to come second in our lives, saying that what the world is experiencing is a result of our wickedness and idolatry. There is more being said, words that point a finger at certain people groups and wag it hard in judgement of specific sins. I won’t repeat some of what I’ve heard and read because I don’t want to further spread the hate and arrogance that sometimes masquerades as righteousness. There are many voices clamoring to be heard–theories abound and flourish in the fertile soil of fear.

I can’t subscribe to the picture of God these assertions paint.

I can, however, run into the open, welcoming arms of the God who is weeping with a hurting world, speaking peace to anxious hearts, standing by the bedside of those dying alone, and guiding the minds and hands of those providing care. I can trust the God who, as Pastor John said Sunday, can bring beauty, goodness, and wholeness from even the worst of circumstances. This God—the God I know is kind and good and full of compassion. He pursues us with a reckless love and brings us tenderly back into his arms while we still reek of the perfume of other lovers.

He comes to us in our bondage and he is relentless and extravagant with his love until we are freed. When nobody else can see us, he sees. When no one wants us, he would do anything to win our hearts back. When we are afraid and enslaved to gods of our own making, he doesn’t send plagues to set us straight, he tells us we need only be still and fear not—he is with us. All of us. He can’t bear the thought of losing even one, because his radical, rescuing, extravagant love is a personal love, strong enough to deliver us from anything. Anything. Even ourselves…

–Laura

Laura emphasizes an excellent point– one that I want to begin with. God is not cruel. God is not mad, and [God] comes to us in our bondage and he is relentless and extravagant with his love until we are freed.

God. Is. Love (1st John 4:8)   

Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives upLove never stops loving. (1st Corinthians 13:4-8 TPT)

God. Is. Love.

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. (Colossians 1:15) Jesus is love. 

AND… as Laura reminded us above…Jesus is truth (John 14:6) and, through knowing Jesus, we can know the truth and the truth will set us free. (John 8:32) Jesus will set us free.

The above truths are what everything else I write today will be founded upon: Jesus is God, God is love, God’s love looks like 1st Corinthians 13, and Jesus (THE Truth) sets us free. 

Let’s go back to Exodus 6 and the situation of slavery that God’s people had suffered under for 400 years. Was it God’s fault that the Israelites were slaves, or was it because the human heart, when left to its own ways leans toward oppression, acquisition, control, and violence? I believe it’s the latter.

So, Exodus 6 begins with God introducing himself to Moses, who’s been in exile for a number of years because he killed an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite putting his own life in danger so he ran away. (Using violence to solve violence doesn’t lead to good outcomes). Yet, God, who is love, comes to this exiled murderer and introduces himself, then invites Moses to be the leader of Israel’s deliverance. Moses’ first commission as deliverer is to relay a message to the Israelites, the message of Exodus 6:6-7 that Laura wrote out above. In that message God says:

I am the Lord…

I will bring you out…

I will deliver you from slavery…

I will redeem you…

I will take you to be mine…

I will be your God…

You will know I am the Lord your God…

You will know I brought you out from under your burdens…

Moses delivered the message, and the Israelites “did not listen to him because of their discouragement and harsh labor.” (Ex. 6:9)

If we’re familiar with the story, we know that things got even harder for the Israelites, but eventually they were set free and Moses led them; however, there were still obstacles, still hardships, still uncertainty, still foes and battles, still fear–so much so that at one point the people wanted to choose a new leader and go back to Egypt. (Numbers 14:4) . Slavery felt safer, slavery felt more certain, at least as slaves they knew what to expect, and I think they had forgotten what bondage felt like.

We can scoff at that mindset until we realize we have it too. In the Exodus rescue, an entire people group, a nation, was being set free. Nations are made up of individuals, and as Moses, Joshua and Caleb demonstrate, there were those in the people group who trusted God and wanted to follow God’s ways, and others who weren’t. As we move through the Old Testament, we see over and over that when the nation (or the kings) got enamored with wealth, power, acquisition–or when there was no king and “the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.” (Judges 17:6 & 21:25), God raised up a prophet to draw the people’s hearts back to their loving, rescuing God. Over and over the people (as a whole) ignored the prophets, imprisoned the prophets, killed the prophets, and continued their self-sufficient, self-destructive pursuits, which led them into bondage, and over and over, God embraced them with his love and rescued them.

Finally, the ultimate rescue came when God almighty clothed himself in flesh, and lived on earth as one of us. Jesus showed us what God looks like. Jesus showed us what God acts like. Jesus shows us how God sees. Jesus shows us how God loves, and Jesus laid down his life, conquered death and through his resurrection established his people, his kingdom, his nation. Brian Zahnd, in his book The Unvarnished Jesus, says of the crucifixion: “The cross refounds the world. When we see Jesus lifted up on the cross, perfectly displaying the love of God by forgiving the sin of the world, we find the place where human society is reorganized. Instead of a world organized around an axis of power enforced by violence, we discover a world organized around an axis of love expressed in forgiveness.”

Jesus and his ways reorganize society around an axis of love. Those of us who identify with Christ are no longer citizens of the world, we are citizens of the kingdom of God and yet, we are (I am)  drawn to the systems and structures of the world. They feel more certain. We know what to expect. And most of the time, we (I) don’t even realize the bondage we’ve placed ourselves in, the axis on which we’re spinning–until we’re faced with huge uncertainty.

So here we are, in unprecedented times. There is a global pandemic taking place. All over the world people are quarantining, people are without paychecks, some have lost their jobs, some have lost their health, some have lost their lives. Others are risking their lives on the front lines without the protective equipment that they need, or the medical equipment they need to keep people alive. In some nations, lives are being valued over the economy. In others, the economy is being valued over lives. There are those who believe the virus is a political ploy. There are those who believe the virus can be blamed on a certain ethnic group, and conclude that people of that ethnicity should be mistreated. There are those trying to control what they can, and there are those taking their own lives because things feel so out of control. There are those desperately trying to maintain life as normal, there are those numbing out in order to keep fear at bay, and there are those living in so much fear that they can’t eat or sleep. There are those, like my middle child’s dear friend, who have loved ones (his mother) in the hospital alone fighting for her life, and the isolation and grief they are both experiencing at not being able to be together. So what do we, the people of the kingdom of God, who live right here on the “foreign soil” of planet earth do?

First, we need to seek our hearts and ask the Holy Spirit what earthly things we’re clinging to, what is holding us captive? In the USA, we have printed on our currency “In God We Trust”. Do we? Or do we trust the currency on which that’s written?  I’m not going to lie–I struggle here. I’ve been breathing consumeristic, capitalistic air my whole life. Success in this nation is defined by possessions, or at the very least, being able to pay our own bills so that we don’t have to be dependent upon anyone else, which leads to another thing we may cling to…

Self-sufficiency. We admire the “self-made man”, the rags to riches stories. Independence and “I did it my way” are things we value. Interdependence causes us to feel weak; we don’t like that, and yet the system in God’s kingdom is extremely interdependent as we each offer our gifts to one another, pray for one another, share in each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and work together to establish God’s kingdom on earth.

We excel at “doing” rather than “being”. We’re not good at stillness. We go, go, go and rarely take time to sit and be. When we sit, we watch TV, scroll through our social media accounts, read books, text. We run from being alone with ourselves, and from being alone with God.  Even our “godly” focus on others can be a way to deflect from ourselves. You all, I’m not pointing fingers…I do this. And this week, I was stopped in my tracks.

A friend sent me a 15-minute meditation to listen to. As I listened to the encouragement to face my fears, let them go, and sit in the safety of Love, I could feel discomfort rising in me. I wanted to push it away, to move onto something else but chose to sit with it. I asked God to show me my deepest fears. He did. Pain. Loss. Suffering.  Mine, yours, the world’s. Many of you know that I lost my mother to cancer when I was eleven. That type of loss at that age wreaks havoc on one’s ability to feel safe–it’s like a gut punch that causes one’s mind to bend toward worst-case scenario thinking. It also makes one more apt to try to run from grief–which never works. The more we (I) run, the tighter the chains of bondage become. They can take the form of self-destruction or self-absorption;  of anger or denial; of clinging too hard to others, or not clinging to others at all; of blame or resignation; of living by our emotions, or numbing our emotions, and a myriad of other coping strategies.

So what do we do?  We acknowledge those things and turn from those ways. We seek the face of God (2nd Chronicles 7:14). When we seek God’s face, we look right into the face of Jesus who stood outside the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus, knowing full well that he was about to bring Lazarus back to life, and he wept, actually sobbed with real tears, and entered into the grief of those mourning. Jesus did not deny their pain, just like Jesus did not deny his own wrestling and anguish in the garden of Gethsemane. He felt pain deeply. He never called anyone faithless for grieving.

He also continued to minister in the midst of pain.

In the account of Lazarus, Jesus brought him back to life–can you imagine the rejoicing that ensued? In his own life, Jesus experienced death, conquered death and came back to life, providing us the opportunity to live in the power of his resurrection both here on earth and for eternity–that’s reason to rejoice– but not reason to ignore.

My counselor taught me a few years ago,  that life happens in the tension of the “and”.  This season is full of “ands”.  I’m enjoying a slower life pace, and I am deeply aware of the seriousness of the situation we are in. I am a deeply committed follower of Jesus and I have fear and doubts. I have full faith to believe that God can heal and I am fully aware that God works on God’s timetable, and sometimes healing doesn’t mean what I want it to mean. I have no doubt that God could wipe out the virus in a millisecond and I am aware that we are facing a global pandemic that God hasn’t wiped out yet. I know that there is truth in the statement that we are safe in God’s love, and I don’t always feel like God’s love is safe, at least not the way I define safety.

Therefore, it’s wise to acknowledge the ands, feel what we need to feel, move through our wrestling by wrestling, then land on the things that we know are true. God is love. God is good. God meets us where we are without condemnation. God doesn’t mind our questions. God is okay with our wrestling. God joins us in our suffering. God joins us in our laughter. And in the midst of it all, as we seek His face, God gives us the opportunity to join Him in his loving work of rescuing, redeeming, suffering with, laughing with, praying for and embracing the world as we allow God to embrace us. In this way, a nation–a world, can be saved.

–Luanne

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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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