Jesus told a story about a man who had two sons. The younger son decided that life would be better away from the family, so he asked for his half of the inheritance early. He didn't want to wait until his father died. In a brilliant show of either grace or naivete, the father sold half of the property and gave the money to his younger son.
That young man took the money, traveled to a foreign land, and squandered his wealth on wild living.
That life was short-lived. Soon the money was gone. Then the friends were gone.
He hired himself out for work, but with no friends or family, and since there he was a foreigner, there were very few job opportunities. The only job left for him was working with the pigs. He discovered that he was paid so little that the pigs were eating better than he was.
It was at that moment that he had a self-revelation. He remembered that his father treated the servants back home far better than he was being treated in that pig lot. He decided he would go home. While he knew he was unworthy of being a son, he might be able to stay there as a servant.
So he went home.
In yet another move of extreme grace, the father forgives the errant son and welcomes him back home. There is a celebration and the whole household is there rejoicing with the father that the lost has been found.
Everyone that is except the elder son.
The elder son pulls the father aside and rebukes him for this celebration, complaining that it is not fair that such expenses should be given, yet son, to celebrate his little brother.
The father responds, "Everything I have is yours and you had only to ask. Nevertheless your brother has returned and it is right for us to celebrate."
You may be familiar with this story from Luke 15. What if this was not the end if the story though. There is another story from scripture that takes place between two brothers trying to justify themselves in the presence of a father figure.
Genesis 4 recounts that Cain and his younger brother Abel both made sacrifices to God, but God showed his favor took Abel more than Cain. When Cain complained to God, he too was taken aside and reminded that he could obtain favor if he simply did what was right. His jealousy was unwarranted because God did not have a limited amount of favor to split between the two brothers. Furthermore, God told him to be careful because sin was crouching at his door, ready to overtake him if he did not gain control of it himself first.
The elder brother, in a spirit of jealousy, called the younger brother out into a field and murdered him. This first murder started with the same seed of jealousy that Jesus left us with at the end of the parable of the lost son.
So let's take a moment to trace this back,
Murder came from jealousy left unchecked.
Jealousy came from a feeling of unfairness.
The feeling of unfairness, particularly in the parable of the lost son came from placing greater value on possessions and experiences rather than relationships.
Both God in Genesis 4 and especially the father in Luke 15 demonstrate a consistent value of relationships. God comes across harsher perhaps in Genesis 4, but the emphasis is not on performing a specific ritual, which was Cain's focus, but rather on staying in relationship. Cain wanted the blessing his brother had, he didn't want God, the giver of that blessing.
I believe there is a clue in here to how we can end the power of violence in our lives. It is not about eliminating weapons, be they sticks and stones or words of hurt. It is not in pushing for complacency, thinking that if we hide our struggles away we can all just get along. I think the key to violence is to find new ways of dealing with jealousy and to promote the value of relationships over and above experiences and possessions. When I recognize the value, perhaps even my need, for those richer or poorer than I, it will be me, standing in the way of their own threats of violence. When we truly become brothers and sisters, we will keep one another and keep one another from harm instead of being the source of that harm ourselves.
So what would it take to bring us all together as brothers and sisters?
An act of God.
Somewhere along the way, we forgot how to sing.
In the Bible there are two Psalms that describe a vast range of emotion and experience as God's people, and they are encamped right next to each other. Psalm 137 is a lament and plea for justice about the fallen nation that is held in the grip of sinful people. It describes the mocking presence of rulers and tormentors who did not love or fear God, and called on the people to sing songs of praise and remembrance of Jerusalem, the city left in ruins. It was like rubbing salt in the wound. None of them felt like singing at all. Instead they felt as if God had left them.
Psalm 136, placed right before the lament found in Psalm 137 is just the opposite. It is a psalm of gratitude and thanksgiving. It encourages all who read it to raise our voices in thanks and praise to God as we remember everything He has brought us through. The two Psalms work together because it is most often the dark times that we go through, by God's grace, for which we are the most thankful. So the lament and gratitude go hand in hand as we worship our God.
What is the big deal then? Doesn't this just naturally happen? We have good days and we have bad days and a lot of days in between. Yes, but how do we honor and celebrate those victories and losses? Do we, like the psalmist, lift our voices and sing? I don't think so. No instead we too often throw parties for ourselves to celebrate our own works when things go well. When things go poorly, we hide it away, for fear of showing our pain, or we take it out on others, or sometimes even ourselves. We do not often have the courage to take tragedy and make music from it. In hiding our pain, we have lost our voice.
In tough times, the artists are often the first to be cut from the public square. Yet it is just as often the arts that pull us all out of our places of despair into new light - and there have been times where the Church inspired those artists. I'm concerned today though, that the artists are not being inspired by us, for we have failed them, and ourselves. We have forgotten how to sing and lost our voices. Because we could not sing our laments, we cannot sing our songs of thanksgiving and praise, and our spirits, which the psalmists tied to our very breath, remain stagnant and unmoved.
Lift up your voice and sing, whatever you find yourself going through today. It will stir your soul and bring you closer to God, out of the darkness and into the light.
You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
How do you change the flavor of the earth and shine God's light in the world?
Give. Fast. Pray.
Bank with God, not with the world… and don't spend your days worrying about all the details.
It's not complicated. Everything we do comes back to the questions…
Do you truly trust God?
How does that affect the way you live on a daily basis?
Let's break this down a little bit more. Jesus calls us to give as we love. We give to our neighbors as we are called to love them. We become neighbors to those we find in need and give, not because it is our quick and easy response, but because giving is a part of loving. If our loved ones were in need, we would give to help them. We would not stop an analyze our giving. We would not begin a tally of what we might be owed back. We give because we are called to love.
We give to God as well though. What can we give the one who already has everything? We give ourselves. We take away from the things we want and waste it lavishly on Him, not because He needs it, but because we want to show Him love. We give our time, energy, strength… We turn off the television and we hand the remote to God. We find ways to stop doing our own business and focus in entirely upon Him. We give like this because we love God. This is fasting.
What is easy and what is difficult for you to give to show love to others?
What is easy and what is difficult for you to give to show your love to God?
When we pray, we don't pray with empty words. We pray to the one who created us, who knows and loves us more than any other. He is our hiding place, no matter where we find ourselves, and there is no place else that we come alive the way we do when we are in God's presence. We do not speak His name in hushed tones. We rejoice in it! All the desires of our heart pale and melt away into the single plea that God would come establish His kingdom here among us. We do not pray for revival. We pray for heaven to come down here, so that when the day comes that we pass from this life into the next, we don't miss a beat. We will do whatever it takes for God to have His way with us here. We know that life comes from God and we are dependent upon Him, so we ask for whatever we need to be strengthened and inspired to serve Him well today. We freely release the debts of those who owe us as we ask forgiveness for our own debts that we have yet to repay to God. We will not let the problem of debt hold any of us back, or anyone around us, from serving God to their full capacity. We ask for guidance, not trusting our own understanding but acknowledging that He is the one who directs our path. We ask that He release us from the snares and pits of the enemy.
Looking at this model of prayer, what kinds of small prayer types would you divide it into?
Which of those types of prayers do you find yourself praying most often/least often?
Our world is on life support and it is fighting to pull the plug on itself. There is nothing in this world that will last. There is nothing in this world that will truly satisfy us. There is nothing in this world that will make us secure. There is nothing in this world that will save us. Every dollar we invest outside of God's will is a dollar lost. Every drop of sweat we spend trying to build something in this world apart from God is a wasted effort. We proclaim that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13) not because He somehow gives us superpowers, but because apart from Him, I can do nothing (John 15:5).
It's not just our actions that demonstrate our faith either. It is our thoughts as well. When we dwell upon things that do not matter or are outside of our control, instead of seeking God and trusting in His provision, we are tossed about like waves, unstable in all we do, and should not expect to receive what we ask because we are full of doubt, instead of full of faith. (James 1:6-8) We either believe that God created us in love, watches over and provides for us with love, and will never forsake us… or we don’t. Oh but we all worry every day you say! Perhaps, but we do many things every day that we do not let linger in our lives. Worry is spiritual uncleanliness that will lead us in spiritual sickness the way a household that is unable to dispose of sewage will soon become filled with disease, not only unlivable itself, but contagious to those around it.
What is one thing you have found helps you stop worrying and trust that God will provide?
- from Matthew 6
I have wondered over the years why the gospel writers were so critical of the Pharisees compared to the other groups of Jewish people that lived in Israel, let alone the Gentiles. There are some moments when Jesus seems to stop his lessons about God and God’s Kingdom start picking on the Pharisees. (See Matthew 23) Why would the early Christians have been so critical of this particular group of Jewish teachers.
One thought is that it was because they were so wrong. I think there is some merit to this, particularly to the Early Church as they grew in Gentile territories. Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome demonstrated a close evaluation of the purpose of the Law of Moses in the life of the Christian. Both in that letter, as well as in Philippians, where he specifically identifies himself as a former Pharisee, as well as in Galatians, he concludes that both Jews and Gentiles find equality through faith in Jesus Christ. (Romans 3; Philippians 3:1-11; Galatians 3, 5:1-6). The Pharisees were a big deal to Paul and his ministry to the Gentiles. Yet it is not Paul calling these Pharisees out by name in Asia Minor and Rome. It is Jesus calling them out in Jerusalem.
It is possible that the Gospel writers, Luke in particular whom we know traveled with Paul, may have been influenced by him in writing that gospel account. I think that may have defeated some of his attempt to write an orderly and accurate account if he was intentionally adding in some verbal jabs Jesus gave to the Pharisees on behalf of Paul and his frustrations that occurred years after Jesus ascended to Heaven.
That brings me to a third alternative. It is possible that Jesus did indeed make those verbal jabs not because the Pharisees were so wrong but because, out of all the groups of Jews out there, they were so close to getting it right. If you read the comments Jesus makes about the Pharisees closely, you will discover that much of his criticism of them is not about their beliefs or their verbal teaching - it is about their practice. In fact, he explicitly tells His disciples to do as they say, but not as they do. (Matthew 23:2-3).
We know that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were both Pharisees that followed Jesus - so it was possible to be both, it just presented its own challenges. In fact, given that the Pharisees eventually conspired to end the life of Jesus, I think the Pharisees had much more problems with Jesus than He had with them. Joseph and Nicodemus had to be careful, not of Jesus or His disciples, but of their fellow Jewish community leaders. For them, it was not just a matter of religious differences, it was an issue of political alliances.
There is also one final reason for the abundant presence of Pharisees in the gospels. They were simply more prevalent in the region of Galilee than the Sadducees were. Although Jesus spent a significant amount of time in Judea, he grew up and spent the majority of his three years in ministry in Galilee. Whether they came out from the towns and villages he visited, or actually followed him on the road, it was simply more convenient for the Pharisees to have access to Jesus, so it makes sense that, of all the Jewish groups near him, the Pharisees would have been better represented.
I think, in light of these reasons, that the Pharisees may well have deserved their part in those woes Jesus pronounced upon them. However I think they also in part were representative of all the groups in Israel at that time. They represented those who know what is right, but do not do it. At the end of the day though, as critical as Jesus was about the Pharisees, He let them follow Him… and He made disciples out of some of them.
I've been doing some reading up on Frederick Douglas this week. He has been a breath of fresh air in the midst of the tragic violence our nation has faced and the turmoil occurring in our political parties. President Obama continues to call for unity, but our nation, our culture, our lives are incredibly divided. Read these words, delivered to Congress in the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War.
"It is no disparagement to truth, that it can only prevail where reason prevails. War begins where reason ends. The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion. What that thing is, we have been taught to our cost. It remains now to be seen whether we have the needed courage to have that cause entirely removed from the Republic."
Truth does not prevail in violence. Emotion does. Personal agendas and ambitions do. Certainly sin and evil do as well. But Truth does not prevail in that. Instead, it prevails in reason.
Take a step back and ask, why now? Why do these attacks happen in the heat of summer and in times and places where the economy struggles? Why do we hear about these attacks in places with greater population density and not in the rural villages that predominate our country? We get hot and stressed... and our frustration overides our reason, so we find someone to take it out on. That someone is almost always the wrong person, not the person with whom we are truly frustrated.
I don't know about Frederick Douglass's faith, so I cannot comment on that, but I noticed he applied some of the spiritual warfare principles of Jesus to politics in the 1800's. He taught us to name the root cause, the evil spirit tormenting us, and to have the courage to cast it out instead of just dealing with the symptoms. It reminds me of the demoniac of Gerasene that was chained outside the town, near the tombs because he was so enraged that he would wound himself and anyone around him. Jesus, was not afraid of him, but asked the demons their name. They replied "Legion, for we are many". Jesus then cast them into a herd of pigs when they begged him not to send them away and the man was restored to sanity. (Mark 5:1-20)
We need to name those root causes, those spiritual evils that are tormenting us and have the courage to cast them out. I don't mean the evils our neighbors have, I mean the ones that we have in our own lives, in our own houses, in our own hearts. I'm sure the devil loves nothing more than a bunch of tormented fools taking out their distress on one another, all the while being blind to the root of our strife.
I've not seen any quotes of Frederick Douglas posted but I encourage you to check him out as he spoke from a place of peace, grace, strength, and unity, in a time when those qualities were most lacking in our nation. We may be in times like those again.
13 “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
- The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Mt 5:13–16). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
I am helping out with Vacation Bible School this week, using the Cave Quest curriculum from Group. During our lesson tonight on a few verses from the Sermon on the Mount, our lesson teacher passed out popcorn to demonstrate the value of salt. All but one of the children (and there is always one) said they liked the salted popcorn better than the unsalted. Salt, among its many values, makes thing taste better and so we are to share our faith in a way that makes life better around us. (And preserve life, etc. for the bible scholars out there...)
Jesus goes on to talk about light though, which was the next example our teacher tried to explain. She asked the children, "Jesus wants us to be salt and ______?" and in one big voice they all said, "Butter!". So much for a smooth transition. I wonder if Jesus had as much trouble the first few times He preached the Sermon on the Mount.
There may be a lesson in here. Salt and butter have a way of making things easier to swallow. Butter is very different from the concept of light, which is not about making things easier to take, but about revealing truth to us. Contrary to our own desires, sometimes the truth is painful.
We have a duty to be salt and light, and to do so in love. This applies to our relationships at home, at work, among friends, among neighbors, and also with our leaders. We struggle with that in all areas of our life, but today, we especially struggle with that in regard to those who lead us. I have read and heard many criticisms of leaders, often made disrespectfully. I have also witnessed others refuse to stand up and speak truth when something was wrong for fear of being disrespectful. It is not easy to be salt and light to those authority figures in our lives. There is an excellent example of this in the Acts of the Apostles.
24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. 27 And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, 28 for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.
- The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Ac 18:24–28). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Priscilla and Aquila discovered a problem with the leadership of Apollos and they chose to be salt and light to him. They pulled him aside and explained what he was still lacking. It was not a scolding or shaming, nor were they hesitant in reaching to them. It was not done for the sake of saving the congregation, it was done out of love for the Truth and love for Apollos. They did not turn the light on him, they turned the light on the blind spot in his vision, and everyone was blessed by their efforts. They chose to be light rather than butter.
It must have worked well because the church there wrote him a letter of recommendation when he was ready to move on to his next church and Luke records that his amazing ministry continued there as well. That would not have been possible if Priscilla and Aquila had kept quiet and refused to be light. Our words to one another should be salt and light - love and truth, not just one or the other.
Disclaimer: I am personally a terrible example about the following subject.
I'm coming close to 20 years of experience serving in churches. One of the common stories I have heard told or seen demonstrated in almost every congregation I have been a part of is the growth toward becoming Pharisees. Depending on how my day is going it strikes me as either funny or sad the way it seems everyone, and I mean everyone tells this story on someone else. It goes something like this...
Once upon a time, I was a young Christian who had just discovered the love of Jesus for the first time and was reveling and excited about the freedom and forgiveness I found in His grace. I couldn't understand all these "older" Christians who were always reading from the Old Testament and talking about the Law. Come on people! Jesus died so that we could get away from all the Law stuff that only holds us back from God. It was offensive to me how complicated they were making the simple love and grace of God out to be. They were just like the Pharisees in the Gospels.
To make matters even worse, I found out that they were still sinners. Not only were they keeping people out who were the ones who really needed God, they weren't even following all the rules they were so insistent on others keeping.
This story often ends with a call to ministry, perhaps a church split, or some other form of starting ministry from a fresh new perspective. The world turns, and another generation arises. Those who were once adamant that grace theologically outranks works every time have grown a few years older, and perhaps more importantly taken up the mantle of leadership and their perspective changes.
Suddenly, they are not sure that everyone deserves grace all the time. Now, they should only receive that forgiveness and acceptance if they apologize... and not just a half-hearted apology. They need to really mean it. It needs to be actual repentance, so everyone knows they will never do it again. They should also pay for whatever pain or damage they caused if at all possible. The list goes on...
The funny thing is that so much of this depends on context. It is not age that makes people Pharisees, it is responsibility. I have seen young adults in college ministry be so pro-grace/anti-law in their college ministry groups on campus who, when put in charge of a cabin of middle school students at camp, suddenly transform into the master of parliamentary procedure for the Sanhedrin Council of the Pharisee sect.
Why is this? Simply put, we would rather receive grace than give it. Even those of us who struggle with our own pride and desire to earn our keep... we certainly don't want to give out more grace than we have access to ourselves. That cuts us to the core. Yet what did Jesus say about giving and receiving? Freely you have received, freely give. (Matthew 10:8) or more pointedly in Luke 6:30 - Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.
Jesus didn't deal with what was fair. He dealt with what was right. Those are not always the same thing. It is those moments when it is not fair but it is right that we probably cringe the most. Especially when it is unfair to us.
The question today is not, where do you stand? Where we stand depends on the day and how much responsibility we have. The question is: how are we giving out grace?
Trying to hear the music in the din of many voices.
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