Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What belongs to God?

When Jesus said, give to God what's God's and to Caesar what's Caesar's he invited his friend to full lives in 2 worlds. The story behind this maxim reveals Jesus' ability as a teacher and gives us an invitation to imagine God's place in our lives as Christ's followers today. Matthew, Luke, and Mark (even the Gospel of Thomas) all tell this same maxim (Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20:20-26, Thomas 100).

Matthew says the Pharisees, hoping to trap him, came forward with a simple sounding question ... about taxes. The pharisees buttered Jesus up and then posed this concrete sounding question. “Are we to pay imperial taxes or not?”(Matthew 22:17) On the outside this question looks boring and mundane. Nobody likes taxes. But Jesus' gives guidance in his answer that matters to somebody building a new and better life based on Jesus' life, death, and rising. What Jesus says about giving to God what belongs to God and giving Caesar what's Caesar's (Matthew 22:21) opens up a whole lot of space to imagine how we live, work, and serve today as permanent citizens of heaven and people living full lives on earth today.

The Pharisees were hoping for a yes or no response. If Jesus said yes pay the tax he'd find trouble with the crowd tired of paying Roman taxes. If he replied no he would face wrath from Herod and imperial authorities. But Jesus gave no simple yes or no reply. Instead he asked for a coin and then asked seemingly innocent questions. “Who's image is on it?” “Who's title is on it?” The pharisees gave an honest answer—Caesars. Now Jesus replied—give Caesar what belongs to him and God what belongs to God.

Christian imagination is given space here to run. What does it mean to give back to God what's God? What does it mean to give back to the world and it's powers? Jesus offers no pat answer. He didn't give out forms to file every April. Instead he invites us to live with the very same questions that he asked 2000 years ago.

  • What is God's?
  • What belongs to this world?

Jesus gives guidance—but there's no clear accounting system differentiating God's things from the things of this world. How we live that under his guidance isn't set in stone. And that's where faith and imagination, trusting in the guidance of the one who has given us everything, takes shape in our lives.
Peace and thanks for reading,
John

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

living in the Father's vineyard Isaiah 5:1-7, Matthew 21:33-46

God the Father wants the best for his daughters and sons. He does not want what we want or think best; rather God desires to give the best. God's been calling his people to the best way of living. It started with the law and prophets. Isaiah spoke this call and it continued in the words of Jesus. This is a word of law that pulls away a whole lot scar tissue and lays open a hurt soul. It's this opening that can bring the rest that comes from Good News.

Both Isaiah and Jesus explained the relationship between the Father who loves so much and people who turn away with vineyard stories. Why not? Vineyards made sense, people planted and worked in them. They enjoyed the grapes and wine made from grapes. Two parables about vineyards define God's love for his people through the image of a vineyard that had lost God's protection.

Isaiah told of a friend who planted grapevines on a hillside with rich soil Isaiah 5:1. He did everything right hoping good grapes would come Isaiah 5:2-3. Instead the harvest came and there were only bad ones Isaiah 5:4. Isaiah's parable gets me thinking: What should be done with the bad grapes. The response frightens me. All the protection God provided could be taken away Isaiah 5:5-6. Isaiah wasn't speaking about a vineyard. These blunt words from God were for Israel and Judah. He came looking for justice -- but he didn't find it.

Jesus spoke of a vineyard too. It was rented out Matthew 21:33-34. When time came the land owner sent servants to collect his share of the produce. The tenants beat some and killed others Matthew 21:35-36. And last of all the landlord sent his son. The tenants, some commentators think, were scheming to take over the land by squatters rights. After all the landlord's heir was dead. They must have assumed they would now have control.

Jesus left the story unconcluded. He asked the chief priests and the elders of the people what they thought would happen. They responded the renters would be put to death and the land rented again Matthew 21:40-41. That wasn't Jesus answer. And this is the real twist. We don't know what the landlord did. But we do know what God the Father did when His Son was rejected. He raised him up on the 3rd day.
Peace, and thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Forgiveness Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiveness matters to Jesus. And it will invariably matter to anyone who follows in Jesus' steps—if you don't believe that's true just listen close to what Jesus said to his friend and close follower Peter. When Peter asked, “How many times should I forgive a brother who sins against me? Isn't 7 going to be enough?”

I think Peter picked 7 because it seemed to him, like it does to me, that 7 was an outrageous number of times to forgive somebody. Forgive somebody—yeah seven times is enough. Even for Jesus 7 times would have been enough, Peter likely thought. But Jesus said no.

For Jesus forgiveness can happen 7 times sure. But it can also happen 77 times or 70 times 7 times. Jesus' math seems so strange to our earthbound ears—why because forgiveness costs us something—but we way to often miss what forgiveness gives us in return. Forgiveness in truth changes who we are—and forgiving like Jesus says 77 times or 70 times 7 will always sound so over the top. But it's that over the top life transforming gift of forgiveness that opens us up towards the new future that God has in store.

Forgiveness matters to God the God of Easter Morning; just listen close to Jesus' story in Matthew 18:23-35. This man was forgiven so much by his king. But then that same man couldn't or wouldn't forgive someone who owed him so much less. The king was upset—he heard that this forgiven man wouldn't let this small matter go. And the king had this forgiven man locked up until he could make right a debt that he'd never be able to pay back. There's power in this story. We've been forgiven a great deal by God. Don't ever think other wise—and it's with that reality in mind as forgiven people given a fresh start that Jesus invites us to forgive others who have hurt us.

It's clear listening to Jesus that forgiveness matters to the God who loves us enough to die for us. Forgiveness was one of the words on Jesus lips as he died on the cross. Make no mistake real forgiveness isn't the resumption of an old broken way of being. Ask anyone who has lost a loved one because of anyone else's terrible choice if they will ever forget the person they've lost. No they won't and God isn't asking them to either. Forgetting isn't forgiveness. Instead forgiveness is opening up the door towards the future. Forget forgetting—forgiveness is opening up the door to the future that God has in store for all his people. Forgiveness is opening up the door so that even those who do wrong to others—which in simple truth is everybody here and everybody alive today—can rediscover who they were meant to be at the start of all times—people made in the image and likeness of God.
Peace and thanks for reading. John

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cross Carrying Matthew 16:21-28 Romans 12:9-21

Jesus has a way of reversing, what to a human, seems logical and natural. Humans might think of power as the answer to the world's problems -- but Jesus sees the cross. When Peter heard Jesus speak of his suffering and death he was stunned. He replied back, never Lord Matthew 16:22. It broke Peter's heart to think Jesus would die (as David Lose wisely observes). Jesus wasn't fooling around--this was the mind of God at work Matthew 16:23. An instrument of humiliation and torture that lead to death was God's very answer to evil and death. Pushing the point Jesus invited his friends to pick up their crosses and follow him Matthew 16:24.

Jesus laid out his plan: lose your life in order to find it Matthew 16:25. His followers must have been confused. Their teacher and friend was reordering everything they knew. Truth is Jesus had a plan more beautiful than we can imagine. It's a plan to find who you really are not in terms of this world -- but in the next Matthew 16:26.

Jesus earliest followers, like Paul, picked up the thought. When Paul invited the early church to genuine love he was casting a vision of living like and for Jesus in this world Romans 12:9. Jesus followers can live today like heaven is for real. We can act towards those who would be our enemies with love and compassion. We can live today knowing that evil can be overcome by good Romans 12:21. God's plan is a total reversal. He invites believers to live in the light of God's kingdom. Even as believers deal with those do harm today there is still freedom to live close to Jesus and in the light of his love. Believers are blessed to know the love of God that changes them and that allows them to regard all people--even those who do them harm--as people with God given dignity. It's through this Christ like love that kingdom of heaven comes closest to the people of this world.

Have no doubt. Jesus still invited his friends to pick their crosses up and follow him.
the question I find myself asking today is not if Jesus followers will pick up the cross but when?
Peace and thanks for reading, John

Monday, July 28, 2014

open hands Matthew 14:13-21

Reading the first half of Matthew 14 I find two stories, one I dread and one I love. Up first is John the Baptist's beheading. And next comes a great unplanned banquet for 5000. It strikes me most how this meal that revealed Jesus' power came at the end of an absolutely awful day. Jesus heard the terrible news. His co-worker in the kingdom, his cousin, the man we call John the Baptist, was dead. His head was chopped off at King Herod's order at the end of a great palace banquet Matthew 14:1-12.

Matthew says Jesus went off to solitary place. I assume he went away to grieve and pray alone. And a huge crowd came on foot seeking him out Matthew 14:13. When Jesus saw other hurting people searching for healing he came ashore. Matthew says compassion moved Jesus to come back and heal the hurting.

Jesus' followers came along with the crowd. A troubling "reality" dawned on the disciples. They were in a isolated place. The crowd was huge, hungry, and they needed to be sent away soon. As a sometimes hardened cynic, my perception of "reality" limits me. Perceived "reality" limits me and maybe others from seeing all God could possibly do. Jesus heard the disciple's worries--but he didn't share their limits. He said there was no need for them to leave. He invited his friends to be part of a miracle with the words, "You give them something to eat." Matthew 14:16.

Jesus friend told him what little they had, just five loaves of bread and two fish. And Jesus said, "bring them here..." Jesus didn't see the situation like His friends did. He didn't see the same limits. They brought what little they had with open hands and a miracle began. Jesus invited the crowd to sit down. He blessed and broke the bread. He passed it to his friends to pass on to others. Everyone ate and they were all satisfied. Everyone in that huge crowd and it all started with five loves and two fish.
May we see the potential of what God can do and not just the limits of what we can do. AMEN
Peace, and thanks for reading. John

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

yoked in Matthew 11?

Jesus offers each individual person a promise of rest and peace. No matter what Jesus offers you rest for your soul in Matthew 11:28-29.

For 2000 years these words of promise have given peace to Jesus friends. Jesus invitation couldn't be simpler. He's speaking to every person who has too much to carry. If we're honest we could all talk about the burdens we have to carry. There are so many burdens people try to shoulder alone:

  • unrealistic religious systems
  • guilt and shame over the past
  • unanswered prayer or unhealed part of your life
  • grief over loss

When Jesus says to come and walk with him he used a very common everyday image that most everyone in Palestine 2000 years ago might understand: a yoke. It was the wood placed across an animal so it could pull. When Jesus says we should take on his yoke everybody knew what he meant. I am a city kid, a graduate of good old South High in Minneapolis. I don't know much about horses. But I have seen two horses yoked together that had amazing power.

When I was first a pastor a member of the church, a retired airline pilot, invited out the kids for wagon rides and slay rides. He had two great big old Belgian horses. I couldn't reach up to the top of their backs they were so big. When these two old horse, both a good 20 years old, were yoked together they had such amazing power. A wagon load of kids or a slay filled with two families was no trouble for these two beautiful animals to pull.

Jesus says, come along side of him and take his yoke on your shoulders. Jesus invitation isn't an invitation to drop everything and run away from the struggle. No he's offering you and me an invitation to enter the journey through our lives starting now with him sharing his yoke.. He says we should take his yoke on your shoulders. Jesus was telling the people a profound truth of a life of faith in a language everybody in his day understood. They all knew the power of two animals who shared a yoke walking side by side. Jesus doesn't say the load will disappear. Instead he spoke of sharing his yoke. Jesus didn't say every trouble will be gone if you just believe. He said come and learn from him. Jesus offers us a very vivid image of the Christian life walking side by side with someone who is gentle and humble in heart. We are meant to walk close to Jesus, shoulder to shoulder close, just like those two old Belgian horses who pulled together. Riding along people could hear their hoofs landing in rhythm with one another. Jesus invites us to that close of a walk with him. Come and learn his gentle and humble pace.
Peace and thanks for reading, John

Monday, June 16, 2014

what are humans Psalm 8

The Psalms brim with human attempts to define God. This book has been handed down from generations so long ago, in no small part, because it help us understand who God is, who we are, and what God is up to for real in this world broken by sin and death.   The Psalms often start out with a person speaking at the very end of human language. And other times they start out with the truth of human need and brokenness heard as someone calls out to God.

Psalm 8 starts out with awe,

1 O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
It's one thing to consider the wonders of God. But it's completely different to think about that same God coming to die for you and me. We aren't perfect people or ever close to perfect.
For centuries we've look on and wondered why God cares about us. And here's the great mystery of our Faith. This great question shows up in the middle of Psalm 8.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
Over the past year I've spent more time in the book of Psalms than any other book. It's there, right about the center of any Bible—this book of 150 prayers and songs. Often when I sit with people in the Hospital who will be there for a while I encourage them to talk to God. If they are struggling to know how to start I point them to the Psalms. It's okay to borrow a language of prayer if you know that it will help you learn how to connect to God. It's okay to start with prayers trusted for generations when you have something big to say and you just don't know where to start.

The way I see it is there are 150 Psalms and not every one is going to fit you right now. Some Psalms are words of praise like Psalm 8 that we read today and others are Psalms of grief and lament like Psalm 88 that call out into darkness wondering out loud if God's real and even cares about our pain. 150 prayers and songs.

The Psalms are inspired and inspiring words. These are 150 prayers and songs written to God. And anytime you don't have a prayer language of your own to speak to God it's okay to turn to the Psalms and borrow somebody else's. These are soul level communication between one person—a human—seeking an encounter with another being who is so wonderfully different than any human being you or I have ever met on this planet.

Peace and thanks for reading, John