Thursday, November 27, 2008

Fill the House

The master said “Then go to the country roads. Whoever you find, drag them in. I want my house to be full!” (Luke 14:23 The Message).

Several years ago Marnie and I invited our congregation to our home for a Christmas open house. The family bedrooms were on the upper floor of the house, the living room, dining room and other public areas were downstairs. At one point in the afternoon a very precocious child came to me and asked, “Can I go upstairs?” I politely explained that we were all staying downstairs. That answer didn’t satisfy him. “The invitation said open house,” he replied. I was suddenly eager to help him find his mother.

The party Marnie and I hosted was not truly an open house. We kept certain rooms off limits. We didn’t intend for people to roam around checking out our dirty clothes hamper or the closets or the uncapped tube of toothpaste by the sink. We had not planned to exhibit the nitty-gritty details of our everyday living.

Not so with God. God wants to fill his house. When the invited guests decline to come to the banquet, the master isn’t satisfied with one effort to boost attendance. After gathering the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame there is still room. So once more the servant is sent to bring others to the party. God wants to fill the house.

This too is our mandate. What God wants, we also want. It’s not enough that we accept the invitation extended to us and find our own seats at the banquet table. God is actively filling the house, and we can be a part of what God is doing. It is for us to go out the streets and country roads and find others to bring to the party

This is where I make excuses. I gladly accept the invitation that God has extended to me. No excuses there. But when it comes to actively seeking others who will come and find a place in the Kingdom, I find excuses. Usually my excuses are the same as the ones Jesus identified in his parable: work concerns and the demands of family life dominate every waking moment.

But God intends to fill the house, and we are the means by which others will find their place at the table.

We are ending the “Upside Down” series this week on the threshold of the holiday season. It is a season of invitations, a time when houses are full. It is also a time when some around us have no place to be. There can be no better way for you to put flesh and blood on the Kingdom than by opening your house, placing one more chair at the table.

Those of us who have accepted God’s invitation must also accept God’s instruction. In the language of the King James Bible, “Compel them to come in.”

May the Kingdom of God be real in your hearts and in your homes as this blessed season of the year approaches.

We give you thanks O God for the way you have made everything ready and opened the fullness of your Kingdom to us. Let our gratitude find expression in obedience. Fill us with your Spirit that we might be sent into the world to bring others to the party that is your Kingdom. We ask all of this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Well, That Was Awkward

One Sabbath, when Jesus had been invited to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched” (Luke 14:1).

Jesus told the parable of the dinner party while attending a dinner party. Luke 14 begins by telling us that “one Sabbath, when Jesus had been invited to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched” (Luke 14:1). This opening verse wastes no time creating tension. When you combine careful scrutiny with a prominent host, you can sense that something is about to happen.

Luke doesn’t disappoint. As chapter 14 unfolds (read the whole thing) Jesus assumes an in-your-face posture at the table. He is not rude, but he isn’t shy. He is not concerned with tact or with protecting the feelings of his prominent host.

He begins by openly healing a man with dropsy – a condition marked by swollen joints (vv. 2-6). Remember, it’s the Sabbath. Jesus doesn’t do this discreetly. He openly confronts the other Pharisees there. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” No doubts about Jesus’ thoughts on the matter.

Jesus then speaks openly about people who show up at a dinner party and take the best seats at the table (vv. 7-11). He observed that those who presume to take the seat closest to the host are vulnerable to humiliation when someone important shows up and the seat of honor is given to them. Better to take the lowly place and wait to be called to the place of honor. Those already at the table couldn’t miss the point of the story. You can see them shuffling in their seats.

At this point another guest at the table tries to lighten the mood and cut the tension with a pious declaration of blessing on those “who will eat the feast in the Kingdom of God.” That statement only serves as a launching pad for Jesus’ parable about the feast – a story in which the invited end up missing out while the low life of the streets are given their places (vv. 16-24).

I can imagine that everyone was glad when that meal ended and it was time to go home. As the guests make their way home you can hear them saying, “Well, that was awkward.” And it probably was.

But such is the nature of God’s Kingdom. Jesus proclaimed a reality different from the reality we know and live in every day. He held forth practices that call into question our standard ways of doing things. The Kingdom of God is not this Kingdom with a touch of religion thrown in. It’s a different reality, a great reversal, an upside-down approach to life. And the truth of that ought to disturb us.

If the nature of the Kingdom doesn’t bother us at all we’re probably not paying attention. Jesus’ words have a way of calling us into question. To read Luke 14 is to confront my own proclivity for safeguarding tradition at the expense of people. Jesus reminds me that I really do like having the seat of honor. Jesus confronts me with the way my busy life becomes an excuse for not living the Kingdom way.

To invite Jesus into your life is to open yourself to disruption. Jesus is disturbing. What parts of your life is Jesus inviting you to take a look at today?

Having invited you into my life, Lord Jesus, I seem to prefer that you sit quietly while I manage things. But your words and ways call my life into question. Thank you for showing us a different reality. Thank you for the ways you challenge us without condemning us. Make us fit for the reality of your Kingdom, we pray. Amen.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Party Will Not Wait

Then the master told his servant, “Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full.” (Luke 14:23)

I can tell I’m getting older. I feel things aching that didn’t used to ache. Above my ears, around the temples, the hair is grey. Move a little higher up and the hair is nearly gone.
I used to do things that my kids found amusing. Now they’re embarrassed. All of this bears witness to the relentless march of time and how that march leaves tracks on mind, body and soul.

Perhaps one of the most telling signs of age is that I am less prone to mock and ridicule certain elements of my upbringing. Mocking betrays immaturity. Those who bemoan or belittle how they were raised haven’t really grown up yet.

One such element of my religious upbringing and faith formation was the altar call. I’ve been guilty of a dismissive laugh when it comes to the altar call. I’ve seen it caricatured, seen it done badly, and maybe that has caused me some shame. The shame gave rise to the occasional expression of disdain.

The truth is that altar calls were an important part of my religious life. I’ve seen my Dad extend more of them than I can remember – always with pastoral sensitivity and genuine care for the people to whom he preached. Never coercive or manipulative. They were always called “invitations” in the churches of my youth. At one such invitation I made my own response to the truth of God’s love for me in Jesus Christ. Thank God for the altar call.

Mock as you wish, say what you will, the altar call or invitation embodies a bedrock truth, a truth at the heart of Jesus’ story of the great banquet: The party will not wait.

The story Jesus told pictures the Kingdom as a party or great banquet, but the emotional impact of the story is not frivolity. While there is certainly celebration in the Kingdom, this story isn’t meant to evoke effusive joy. This is a story about urgency. It’s time for the banquet. You’ve been invited. Come, for God has made everything ready.

But some don’t come. They have other things to deal with first. Fine – but the party won’t wait. You don’t get to reschedule. The master will see to it that people come to the party, even if he has to go t the most unlikely places to find guests who will respond. The house will be full, every seat taken.

Those who think they have a free pass to get in will be left at the door, and those who never dreamed they’d be at the table will be welcomed and seated. The audience to which Jesus told this story didn’t hear it as promise of good times. They heard it as a warning – and that’s exactly how Jesus intended for them to hear it.

“Just one more verse . . . one more verse . . . you come now.” It may be a bit cliché. But it’s true. The time to respond is now. The party will not wait.

Many of you have said yes to Jesus. You believe in God. But somehow you’ve not fully embraced the life of the Kingdom. Excuses are easy to make. Other life concerns seem so much more urgent. But the life that God offers is truly urgent. What keeps you from coming to the feast that God has made ready for you? Consider this a written altar call.

We give you thanks, O God, for your invitation. We thank you for the life to which you call us and for the way you make everything ready, giving us what we need as we embrace your Kingdom. Kindle urgency in our hearts that we may respond eagerly – and make us urgent in calling others to the party, that your house may be full and your name honored in this world. Amen.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Kingdom in a Diner

A certain man was preparing a banquet and invited many guests . . . “Come, for everything is now ready.” (Luke 14:16-17)

Tony Campolo is the author of The Kingdom of God is a Party. For him that’s not just a book title. It’s something he lives.

In an earlier work of his, Campolo told the story of Agnes. Agnes was a prostitute. And it was her birthday. Campolo would often stop by a particular diner that also happened to be a gathering place for girls working the streets. On one occasion Campolo happened to overhear that Agnes was having a birthday. He conspired with the owner of the diner and some of Agnes’s “colleagues.” What resulted was a quickly planned surprise party, complete with cake, courtesy of the diner.

The next night when Agnes came to the diner there were friends who shouted “surprise!” and sang happy birthday. And then someone brought out the cake. “Cut the cake Agnes,” urged the owner of the diner.

With quiet tears and tight choked-up voice, Agnes replied “I’ve never had a cake before. If you don’t mind, I’d just like to keep it a while.” At this point Campolo said that he asked if everyone would join him in a prayer for Agnes. He prayed and thanked God for Agnes’s life and asked God’s blessings on her. Upon reflection, it never occurred to him how strange it looked for a bunch of prostitutes to be having a prayer meeting in a diner.

After the party the owner of the diner confronted Campolo. “Hey – you never said you were some kind of preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?”

Campolo answered, “I belong to the kind of church that throws parties for prostitutes at 2:30 in the morning.”

The owner was quiet for a moment and then said, “No you don’t. There are no churches like that. If there was, I’d join it.”

And he’s not the only one. That’s the kind of church Jesus would join too. The reason may be simple: that’s the kind of church that shows what the kingdom of God is like. Far too many people don’t see God’s kingdom as a party. Perhaps that’s because they don’t see joy in God’s people.

Campolo’s book title finds good support in the Bible. Jesus himself described the Kingdom as a party – a banquet or feast. The sad part of Jesus’ party parable is that some who have been invited find excuses not to attend. Interestingly, the party goes on anyway.

The party will guide our thinking next week about God’s kingdom. Seems fitting as most of us will be getting ready for a feast on Thursday. What kinds of excuses keep you from finding your place at the table?

Lord Jesus, use your story as a way of once again inviting us into the joy of your kingdom. Help us to confront our excuses. Give to us the joy of the kingdom so that others will be eager to join us in the great celebration that is life with you. Amen.

(I found Campolo's story in John Ortberg's The God Life)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Good Soil: A Reflection on Landscaping the Soul

But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop (Luke 8:15).

It’s been one of those mornings. I’ve been sitting here for nearly an hour absolutely stumped. The daily reflection for Friday morning needs to be written. I’m in meetings all afternoon and then planning to leave this evening for a weekend commitment. So the writing needs to be happening now. Problem is, it isn’t.

While sitting here I’ve been hearing voices and commotion outside. I finally opened the blinds on my office windows to see four men with shovels (I kid you not) digging up massive piles of soil. They’ve made big holes in the ground and the dirt they’ve churned up looks like good soil to me.

The material for today’s reflection on good soil is happening right outside my window. I only needed to open the blinds and take a look.

I went out and spoke to one of the landscapers. He explained that those holes were going to be filled in with eight foot Holley trees. That’s one way to make a garden. Take the fully grown plant and drop it in the ground. Pack the dirt around it. Water faithfully. And there you have it.

If only spirituality were the same way. That would be a very appealing way to do the life of faith. But the soul cannot be landscaped like a garden. We don’t get to take a mature faith and place it in our lives right where we want it. No, the life of the soul is formed over time, cultivated.

To be fair, so are those eight-foot Holley trees. We have friends in North Carolina who own and operate a nursery. They deal with the plants before the landscapers get them. Every plant that gets placed in a hole along the side of a building was grown and nurtured somewhere.

Landscaping the soul, becoming more like Jesus, is the Spirit’s work of slowly cultivating Christ-likeness in us. That happens as the word of God falls on good soil.

The Greek of Luke 8:15 literally says that the word of God “bears fruit in patience.” The NIV Bible renders that phrase with the word “persevering.” The basic idea is the same. Even in good soil, in a good heart, the word of God works slowly. Immediate results are not a good litmus test of the condition of our hearts.

Jesus tells us there are three ways the seed of God’s word shapes our lives and brings forth life: Hearing, retaining, and patience or persevering.

So stay at it. Do the hard work of landscaping the soul. Don’t look for shortcuts that try to fill holes with fully developed faith. Grow in faith by the word and by prayer. Hear the word, use your mind and memory to retain it, and patiently walk with Jesus through every circumstance of your life.

God, a master landscaper, will use the seed of the word to bring beautiful things out of your life. Thanks be to God.

Merciful God, by the work of your Spirit form your likeness in me. Use the seed of your word to cultivate the attitudes and thoughts and actions that reflect Jesus’ presence in my life. Help me to hear and to hold fast what is heard. And in all of this teach me to patiently endure, knowing that you are at work in all things. Amen.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Crowded Soil

The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature (Luke 8:14).

My daughter has a small cactus plant in her bedroom. I have no idea why. It sits on her desk looking harmless. It appears to be covered with little bristles, something not unlike peach fuzz. Those nearly microscopic hairs lured me into carelessness not long ago. While retrieving a pair of soccer socks for my daughter I knocked over her cactus plant and picked it up with my bare hand. I probably shouldn’t admit that, but there it is.

I spent the next few minutes trying to visually identify and then surgically extract tiny cactus thorns from my fingers. Good times.

This element of Jesus’ parable is interesting in that it isn’t directly concerned with the soil upon which the word of God has fallen. In fact, the soil involved here is good soil. The seed takes root. It yields healthy growth. Trouble is, God’s word isn’t the only thing growing there. Thorns are growing too. And those thorns choke the word.

The soil that gladly receives God’s word is often crowded soil. The worries of this life, riches and pleasure, these things are found in good soil. And these thorns are like the hard to see stickers of a little cactus plant. We know they are there, but they are not obviously threatening. We grow careless with them. At some pint, our fingers and hands get scraped and bloodied. All we feel is the thorn. God’s word has been choked.

The worries of this life: schedules, children, children’s schedules, tuition payments, business deals, strained relationships, roofs that leak and cars that quit, health issues, employment issues, razor sharp thorns all.

Riches: these do not threaten the wealthy only. All of us want things. All of us worry about money, the money we have or the money we lack. The news these days braids a wicked crown of money thorns and worries-of-this-life thorns. Daily reports press it onto our furrowed brow.

Pleasures: pleasures we chased that let us down, pleasures we’ve yearned for and fear we’ll never have. Pleasures we regret. Pleasures we keep trying to re-live.

During Christmas time we sing a hymn that says “let every heart prepare him room.” That’s the task that confronts us when it comes to the thorns of worries, riches and pleasures. We need to clear room so that the thorns don’t choke the life out of the God’s word to us. In yard-work terms, this is the tedious work of weeding.

Prayer is our best tool in the soul-work of weeding. In prayer we identify the thorns that keep God’s word from being productive in our lives. In prayer we name our worries and we confess the desires that rival God’s claim on us. To neglect prayer is to grow careless and pick up the cactus plant with your bare hands. That kind of pain can be easily avoided. It just requires being attentive.

What thorns most threaten God’s word in your life today?

Gracious God, our hearts are crowded with so many things that choke the life of your word. We are a tangle of worries and desires. Remind us today that in our worries and desires, your grace is sufficient for us. Help us to prepare room in our hearts for you as we come to you in prayer, bringing our fears and longings. Amen.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Shallow Soil

Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root . . . in the time of testing they fall away (Luke 8:13).

Back in June we lost a tree in the backyard. By “lost” I mean it came down, falling across the back fence and scraping gutter off the back side my neighbor’s house. The tree was big – very tall, very big around.

What amazed me more than the size of the tree itself was the size of the root ball. When the tree came down it pried up a massive knot of earth and exposed a root system that looked like Medusa’s head. Some roots were massive and thick, others smaller and wiry, it seemed the tree should have stayed upright but it didn’t.

What brought the tree down was a brief but intense thunderstorm. As the storm approached, I surfed TV channels looking for weather warnings. But there was no hurricane watch, no wind advisories. Nothing. Just an intense storm that brought a burst of wind against that tree and down it came.

Jesus explained that when the seed of God’s word falls on shallow soil it appears to produce healthy growth. As best we can tell the seed has taken root. There are signs of life that look promising. But then the storm comes. A moment of testing. When the day of adversity comes it exposes the truth about the soil. It couldn’t sustain long term growth because it had roots that weren’t deep enough to hold or draw nourishment from the ground.

When God’s word falls on soil that lacks depth it produces faith of the same kind.

Shallow soil isn’t known for what it truly is until the day of testing comes. Before that, all seems well. You believe in God and rest in God’s faithfulness, you go to church, you pray from time to time. Your spiritual life seems firmly rooted. And then it happens.

You lose a fortune. You lose a career. Your body begins to fail you. Your spouse leaves you. What you dreamed of and expected never seems to happen. What you’ve dreaded and never expected starts to happen all the time. The day of testing comes, and you wither. The roots that should have sustained you never went deep enough to draw life in the dry season.

Psalm 1 describes a blessed life, the kind of life we all want, as a tree planted by streams of water. The person who lives this kind of life is one whose “delight is in the law of the Lord and in his law they meditate day and night” (Psalm 1:2).

That’s how our roots go deep. Continually meditating on God’s word. This is what pushes the seed to the core of our being so that when the day of testing comes we don’t dry up.

To meditate is to think or dwell on. You can do this in conversation with others, by memorizing, by writing – any practice that allows you to dwell on and explore God’s word. Start today, because a time of testing is here. If it’s not here, it’s on its way.

O God, plant your word deep in my heart and mind so that in the day of testing I will be able to stand – and not simply stand but flourish. Make me “like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither” (Psalm 2:3). Amen.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Hard Soil

As he was scattering his seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on and the birds of the air ate it up (Luke 8:5).

Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts (Luke 8:12)

We can’t get grass to grow in our back yard. There’s a bit of green here and there, but for the most part the backyard is hardscrabble and bald. During the summer when I try to mow what little grass we have back there, the mower spins a dust storm worthy of The Grapes of Wrath.

About four years ago I tried using an aerator. I rolled this massive spiked cylinder around the yard, peppering the ground with holes. Then I put down some seed. Later I noted a few sprigs of grass making a valiant effort to establish their presence - a valiant effort, but one short lived.

Last summer we tried putting down sod, the horticultural equivalent of a wig. Again, a noble effort, but the bald spot remains in the back yard. Laying down a grass carpet and throwing seed on top of the ground doesn’t mean that grass will take root in the earth. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen.

Human hearts are much the same way when it comes to the word of God. Sometimes the word is read or heard, but it sits there on top of the ground, never taking root, never getting down deep. Birds come and eat it, or as Jesus explained, the devil snatches it away.

The enemy of our faith can foil the work of the seed in any number of ways. Sometimes the word perishes because we’re ignorant of it. Lack of knowledge means seed is wasted. Sometimes the word fails to go deep because we won’t let it get any further than the surface. We’re not open to hearing what it might say to us.

Hostility and ignorance are fairly obvious explanations for our failure to hear the word and thus discern the voice of Jesus speaking to us. But there’s another one that may be more common. In fact, my guess is that if you’re even bothering to read this daily reflection, ignorance and hostility are not the main reasons the word perishes on the surface of your life.

A more common problem is familiarity. We’ve heard it before, over an over. We’ve read it until we can almost say it by heart. We’ve heard plenty of sermons or lessons. We know what it means, so we stop listening. We no longer have ears to hear.

The hard soil and the hard heart do not belong solely to those who have rejected faith in Jesus. The hard soil can be found in those who believe, but have heard so often and so much that they’ve stopped listening.

This might be a day to test the soil of your own heart for the resistance that comes from familiarity with the word. Ask God to give you ears that hear the word in a fresh way. This may be something we need to pray every day. Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. When it comes to God’s word, familiarity breeds . . . actually it breeds nothing.

Help me to hear your word afresh, O Lord. Take what is old and familiar, and place it deep within my heart. Forgive my casual neglect of your word and plow again the hard places in my heart and mind, I pray. Amen.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Seed and Soil

The seed is the word of God . . . therefore, consider carefully how you listen (Luke 8:11, 18).

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” There’s another one of those peculiar and enigmatic Jesus-isms. At times I’ve thought I had a handle on what that means, at other times not a clue. Everyone has ears to hear, don’t they? Apparently not.

Seeds of faith were planted in my life in different ways. One of those ways was listening to my parents talk when we were on long car trips. I remember a family vacation that involved hours on the road. My mom read a book to my Dad, John Claypool’s The Preaching Event. This was before the day when kids could disconnect from their surroundings with the help of ipods and earphones. I tried to act bored and aloof, but I heard every word of it.

And on one occasion they talked about how people hear the word of God when it is proclaimed from the pulpit. Is it an equal playing field, everyone hearing the same message with the same capacity to respond to what they hear? My mom’s answer was “no.” I can’t quote her, but basically she told my Dad that she’d sat in the choir for years while he preached and it seemed to her that some people seemed open to what was being said, almost hungry for it. Others were obviously bored. They couldn’t wait to get to lunch.

In other words, different soils. The seed of God’s word is scattered about but it falls on different kinds of soil.

After telling and explaining the parable of the seed and the soils, Jesus told his followers to consider carefully how they listen (Luke 8:18). We might think that everyone listens the same way, that everyone hears the same message. That’s not so. I often blame myself for that. As one who preaches occasionally and teaches often, I feel like I’ve failed if someone doesn’t “get it.” That might be the case, but not always. The word of God falls on different soils and whether it brings forth life depends on where it falls.

This week we’re going to spend some time thinking about the different soils, and asking what it means for us to consider “how we listen.” Some soil is hard and tightly packed. Some soil is shallow. Some soil is crowded. And some soil is good and productive.

As for how the seed is scattered, preachers are by no means the only ones who sow the seed of the word. The word comes through teachers, through our own reading, through conversation with friends in a small group, through a colleague or co-worker. God will see to it that the word is sent out. Ultimately, scattering is God’s work.

The question for us is about how we receive it. Something more than mere hearing is required. We need to listen. Having “ears to hear” means being able to truly listen to the word so that God’s voice is heard. That’s not always easy.

In his book The Voice of Jesus, Gordon T. Smith says that every Christian should be able to answer two questions. First, what is God saying to you at this time in your life? Second, how do you know it’s God? Good questions. Smith maintains that discerning the voice of Jesus is a critical spiritual skill. This week we’ll try to learn about how we can develop it.

Lord Jesus, give us ears to hear. Let your word impact our lives in productive and transformative ways. Teach us how to detect your voice behind the word written and proclaimed. We are eager for you to speak to us. Help us to listen, even now in these moments. Amen.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Jesus, History, and a Drive to School: A Post-Election Meditation

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world . . .” (John 18:36).

The ride to school takes about twenty minutes on a good day. Just long enough for me to try and do some on-the-fly teaching to my two pupils in the back seat. I knew they wouldn’t engage my civics lesson for twenty minutes so I had to get right to it.

It was the morning after we had elected our nation’s first African-American President. My kids had done a mock election at school, but did they understand the significance of what was happening in the country? This is huge. Obama’s election is profoundly significant for all Americans regardless of how we voted on Tuesday.

So I told them a story, a story I’ve told here before. I told them about my buddy in second grade, the kid I most enjoyed at recess time – a black kid. This was the late 60s in Camden, South Carolina. I told them about how my teacher had phoned my parents to express her concern over my recess association, suggesting that perhaps I needed to widen my circle of friends. I remember it well.

I wanted my kids to hear how significant Tuesday was because when I was in second grade, Tuesday would have never been dreamed of – at least not by my school teacher.
History was being made, and we were watching it.

The apostle Paul wrote that Jesus came “in the fullness of time.” That phrase gets at the far reaching historical significance of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus came to change the world. God is sovereign over history, and Jesus had a keen awareness of what God was doing and how people needed to respond. “The Kingdom is at hand.” That’s they way Jesus put it.

What ought to grab our attention is the way Jesus went about defining the times and calling people to participate in the movement of history. Jesus was surrounded by others who were trying to do the same thing; define the times, shape the lives of people and nations. Jesus was not alone in his task – but his method was singular.*

Herod’s legacy was alive and well in Jesus’ day. Herod shaped people by force and manipulation. He didn’t participate in history, he made history. The way of Herod was the way of raw power used to reach goals determined by Herod himself. His way was harsh, but it got things done.

Jesus was no doubt aware of the example of Ciaphas the High Priest. Here was a religious man who was skilled at adapting secular methods for spiritual purposes. This makes sense and has wide appeal today. Watch what works in the culture and then do the same thing in the place of worship with a little God sprinkled on it.

Jesus also lived with an awareness of the Essenes. These were the spiritually elite among the Jews, seriously devout persons who responded to their times by withdrawal and seclusion. They were totally focused on God, waiting on God to act in history. They removed themselves from the worldly culture so that they could give adequate attention to the Holy.

Jesus had plenty of role models for impacting the world – and he rejected all of them. How then did Jesus bring heaven to earth? How did he live in the Kingdom he proclaimed? He did simple things that you and I can do right now. He lived in the intimacies of a small community, he prayed, he worshiped, he loved people, he engaged them in conversation, and he told them stories about God that intersected their own stories.

And he says to us, “Follow me.” We are invited to do what Jesus did. The Jesus way is the same now as it was eight years ago, as it was two-thousand years ago. It’ll be the same in January. That hasn’t changed. And we can live that way right now.

Show us how to walk as you walked, Lord Jesus. Go with us through the details of this day so that our ways and your ways will be the same. Teach us to follow you, we pray. Amen.

(Again, I am indebted to Eugene Peterson’s The Jesus Way, pp. 193-242.)

Thursday, November 06, 2008

From Taxes to the Trial

But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge – to the great amazement of the governor (Matthew 27:14).

It worked for a while. Jesus answered the question about taxes in a way that left his duplicitous questioners astonished. Luke concludes the story by saying “they became silent.”

But they didn’t stay that way. And the answer that had allowed Jesus to side-step the trap being set for him didn’t work for long. Sadducees soon came asking theological questions. God and politics. If they couldn’t get him with one, they’d get him with the other. Finally they arranged for an inside job of betrayal and arrested him under the cover of darkness.

Eventually Jesus was on trial – standing before the chief priests, standing before Pilate, standing before Herod Antipas. Again, all asked questions. This time Jesus barely answered them at all.

From the question about taxes to the trial that would lead to his execution, we see a remarkable consistency in Jesus and his response to the power of the state. In a word, he is indifferent.*

The “render unto” answer about taxes paid to Rome is saturated with indifference. Jesus won’t be pulled to the agenda of one side or the other. He doesn’t shake his fist and spew anti-Roman rhetoric. And he doesn’t seem the least bit interested in endearing himself to governing authorities, hoping that they can help him further his agenda for the poor and disenfranchised.

At his trial Jesus appears indifferent to the rulers who question him. Jesus doesn’t seize the opportunity to make his case to those in power. Absent is the anger and anxiety that might have moved the accused to seek help from the governor. Rather, what we see is something almost dismissive (John 19:11).

How are we to understand this? The four gospel writers describe it with varying detail, but none of them explain it. Perhaps what we see in Jesus is his deep awareness of the reality of a different Kingdom. This Kingdom was so real that the government had little to offer by way of threat or help. Jesus isn’t hostile to the state, just indifferent.

For many of us the “Kingdom of God” is shiny with a veneer of unreality. The more ethereal this Kingdom is, the greater our propensity to identify it with a Kingdom we can actually see. When Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God was at hand, his announcement was not contingent on decisions being made in Rome. He didn’t look for help from those who implemented Roman policy in Judea. It was a declaration of a reality that existed alongside Roman authority, but in no way depended upon it.

Once again, the example of Jesus challenges us, even rebukes us. Other Kingdoms seem far more real to us: The corporations that employ us, the government under which we live, the school from which we seek a degree. Without even knowing it we seek validation from so many little kingdoms.

What would it mean for the God’s Kingdom to become the defining reality of your life? How does the Kingdom of God become real in the daily-ness of your life? We’ll end the week tomorrow by looking at the Jesus way and what it would mean for us to do what he did.

Lord Jesus, you taught us to pray for the coming of the Kingdom. We pray the words, but we lack expectancy. Teach us to pray, and having prayed, help us to live in the reality of your presence among us. Amen.

(I am deeply indebted to Eugene Peterson’s excellent treatment of this in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, pp. 287-96).

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Image

“Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” (Luke 20:24)

Let’s not make it harder than it has to be.

Jesus responded to a controversial and complex question with a simple and straightforward answer. The question was about paying taxes to Rome. It was the kind of question that could label you, define you, endear you to some and alienate you from others.

Jesus answered by not speaking of taxes. He asked for a coin and spoke of the image it bore. His answer sounds evasive. And in a way, it was. It was obscure enough to slip the trap posed by the questioners. While evasive, Jesus’ words were also obvious, plain as day for anyone to see.

You belong to the one whose image you bear.

Last year during John and Anna’s spring break we went with some friends to Washington D.C. One afternoon was spent at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The tour allowed us to follow the complex process by which money is made. We began with a stack of paper, a very particular kind of paper, and walked the route by which that paper became money.

It was a painstaking process. Inks were applied and the paper was cut with precision. All of this was carefully watched and assessed at every step until eventually the paper bore the imprint of the Unites States government and the face of a president. It was currency.

What Jesus asked about a coin is worth asking about our lives. Whose likeness do we bear? Whose image do people see when they look at us?

God wants to shape the image of Jesus in us. When people look at us, his is the likeness they should see. It’s a not a quick process. Some steps are missteps. The formation of this likeness requires attention. We don’t acquire the image of Jesus easily. The image is sometimes pressed upon us in hardships and affliction. But the end to which we are headed is the perfection of that image.

In the aftermath of the election it’s a good time to be reminded of a basic truth: We belong to Jesus. The public dialogue surrounding the election tends to identify people with candidates and parties. Followers of Jesus have affinities for parties and candidates – but it is the image of Christ that marks us. We belong to him.

Maybe you woke up this morning a winner. Maybe you woke up a loser. But your calling this day remains unchanged. Will people see a candidate in your demeanor, or will they see the one to whom you truly belong?

In all that I do and say this day, Lord Jesus, may your image be plain for all to see. Remind me of whose I am and give me grace to live this day in a way that draws others to you, that your image may mark their lives too. Amen.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Voting as Sacramental Act

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:25).

I rendered unto Caesar last week. I went to vote early and rendered about two and a half hours of my morning. Other people in other places rendered more, some less. All of us could have thought of other worthwhile things to do with that time. I almost ditched the line and the waiting, but now on Election Day I’m glad I stayed. All of us who stuck it out did our civic duty and exercised our right to vote and rendered the morning unto Caesar. Some of you will render a piece of today.

The long lines said “this is important.” And it is. The length of the lines matches the depth of our frustration over what is and the height of our hope for what can be. Things like elections and policy positions and leaders really do matter. But as much as they matter, they can only matter so much. John Ortberg gets it right when he says

Imagine that we elected all the right people to all the right offices – President, congress, governors, right down to the school board, city council members, and dog catcher (is that still an office anyone gets to vote for?).

Let’s imagine that all these ideal office holders instituted all the right policies . . . Every piece of legislation – from zoning laws to tax codes to immigration policy to crime bills – is just exactly the way you know it ought to be. Would that usher in the Kingdom of God?

Would the hearts of the parents be turned towards their children? Would all marriages be models of faithful love? Would greed and pride be legislated out of existence? Would you finally be the man or woman you know you ought to be?

In the words of theologian McCauley Culkin: “I don’t think so.”

Because no human system has the ability to change the human heart.*

I find voting to be a very moving experience. I show up at the polling place eager to get it done, and then in the midst of it I’m struck by the gravity of the moment, the beauty of it, the privilege and responsibility. That we’re able to pull this off as a nation is remarkable.

But as remarkable as it is it has its limitations. It’s a system we’ve devised and as such there are some things that will never be accomplished by voting or legislating.

What if there were a place and process that could change human hearts? I’d gladly stand in that line for as long as it took. I’d camp out. But there’s no line for that. No place to go, no process to engage.

Voting is sacramental in that our choosing is a profound reminder of our need for grace. We check a box or pull a lever or whatever, knowing all the while that the act of voting is a gift that leaves us needing something more. We confront our need for help from beyond ourselves. God is sovereign. Jesus is Lord. Always has been, always will be, no matter what happens today.

So vote. Thankfully, humbly. Celebrate the vocation of citizenship. Experience solidarity with all those people in line with you. And ask for grace. The vote will not heal us. That is work for another leader and he will be faithful to do it. Thanks be to God.

Gracious God, for the right and privilege to elect our leaders we give you thanks. For the freedom to discuss and debate and disagree yet live as one people, we give you thanks. For the knowledge that you govern all things and your purposes will be fulfilled, we give you thanks. The work of salvation is yours to accomplish. Work through us as you see fit, we pray. Amen.

*(From John Orteberg, “Non-Prophet Preaching” in the Summer 2008 issue of Leadership Journal, p. 30)

Monday, November 03, 2008

Competing Claims

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:25).

“So, what’s your favorite bible verse?”

I struggle with that question, probably because I’m not able to answer it. For one thing there are too many passages of scripture that I find meaningful. Identifying a single text as a favorite feels like choosing a favorite child. Choosing favorites is for things like movies and NFL teams and songs on the radio, not the Bible.

While I have a hard time choosing a favorite scripture, it isn’t too hard for me to come up with a collection of least favorites. It might be those pesky texts that convict me or inconvenience me. Most often it’s a scripture I struggle to understand. Case in point: Jesus being asked about paying taxes to Caesar and his proverb-like “render unto” answer.

Parts of this story are clear enough. In Luke’s gospel Jesus has told a story about the owner of a vineyard who entrusts his land to tenants who then reject him. It was obvious to the professional religious types that Jesus was telling this story about them. They’ve had it up to their phylacteries with Jesus and they want to take him into custody, but they don’t have a good reason and besides, he’s very popular with the people (Luke 20:19).

At this point they devise a plan to trap him, get him to say something subversive, something that threatens the public good and shows him to be a traitor. Luke tells us that “spies” were sent, posing as admirers, speaking flattery to Jesus, acting like eager students of the rabbi. They ask a question about paying taxes to Caesar. Jesus sees through their duplicity and gives his non-answer answer.

“Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

Checkmate. Clever. Obscure. Non-committal. Maybe all of the above. Jesus’ opponents are stumped by this and the conversation ends. We may be stumped as well.

Rather than trying to get at what Jesus means we might do well to simply observe what he says. Both the state and God make claims upon our lives. What’s more, these claims can’t be neatly compartmentalized, God things listed in one column, state things in another. The claims of the state and the claims of God are mingled in our lives in ways that are not always neat and clean.

Some try to make it clean by making the claims of the state an expression of the claims of God. They want elected officials and legislation and court decisions that are “Christian.”

Others make a clean break by assuming a defensive posture, convinced that Government is hostile to faith. They have given up on the state and turned to militias or other fringe groups that are preparing for the inevitable show-down between the faithful and the fooled.

Whatever Jesus meant by his “render unto” statement, he didn’t allow a clean break between the competing claims of the state and God on our lives. The state makes claims on us and so does God, and somehow both are to be honored.

And it doesn’t stop with the state and God. Today multiple claims are being made upon you. Your employer makes claims upon you, your spouse and children make claims upon you, your tennis team makes claims upon you – and you spend your days “rendering unto.” We render unto someone all the time.

The question today is this: how will you “render unto” while honoring God in all of the claims made upon you?

Many are the claims and demands made upon us, O Lord. But you alone are God. Give us grace today that we might honor the claims made upon us as citizens, as family members, as employees – and yet serve you in all things. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

All Kinds of Greed

“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed . . .” (Luke 12:15)

At the risk of sounding like a kill-joy, I’m glad last night is over. I don’t find Halloween to be the least bit fun. I don’t say that as hyper-spiritual overly anxious parent. I say it as one who just doesn’t get it.

When my children were very small it was a joy to dress them up and walk them from house to house so other people could see how cute they were. They’re still cute, but it’s different. Gone is the spongy full-body lady bug outfit that we wrapped our daughter in when she was not quite a year old. My son’s Bear in the Big Blue House outfit is still in his closet. I have no idea why. He outgrew that thing six or seven years ago.

And then there’s the candy. Greed manifests itself in a peculiar way at Halloween. Forget about witchcraft and the underworld. Plain old fashion greed is the real evil on this night. My kids will don’t come home from 'trick or treat' uttering dark incantations. But they do look at who got what and how much and what one has compared to the other. And then the abundance of it all goes ignored and sits around the house for days, tempting their Dad like the apple in Eden (“one Reese’s peanut butter cup can’t hurt”).

It’s striking that Jesus warned us about “all kinds” of greed. I’ve always associated greed with money. Greedy people were people who would do anything for a buck; they usually had plenty but wanted more. For that reason I’ve never felt the pangs of conviction when the scriptures mention greed as a spiritual problem. I know it’s a problem. It’s just not my problem.

But then Jesus mentions “all kinds” of greed, and suddenly it is my problem. I don’t have a voracious appetite for more money, but I’m greedy for other things.

I can be greedy for attention, for words of affirmation. I can be greedy with my time and resentful of those persons and things that interrupt and disturb the time I had set aside as “my own.” I can be greedy with ideas, keeping thoughts tucked away until just the right time when I can display a particular insight to impress the right people.

The “all kinds” bothers me because it makes me ask what kinds of greed I’m most vulnerable to. The answers force me to confession: I’m greedy.

But then Jesus tells a story about man and his possessions, a story about stockpiled resources. He tells the story of a man who gets rich. Doesn’t that let many of us off the hook? We’re not rich. We’re not raking in the profits. This parable is for someone else isn’t it? No, it isn’t.

We fight our greed for intangible things (attention, time) by giving away and letting go of the tangible things (money, grain). The soul is exercised in a particular way when you give. You need not give a large amount.

What happens when you give of your money will impact your soul. It makes you free: free to not get all the attention or guard your “down time” from others. The act of giving cultivates a generosity of spirit that permeates your life. Jesus spoke of the soul in a story about grain. They’re very closely connected. What you do with your grain shapes your soul.

What kinds of greed do you struggle with? Fight against it with a simple strategy. Give.

Loving and Giving God, help us to recognize all kinds of greed, and help us to be honest about the kinds of greed we struggle with. Make us bold to give of what we have, and use the giving to nurture a whole, healthy and generous soul –a soul that looks like Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.