Sunday, July 30, 2017

Jesus, The Model of Self-Giving

Matthew 14:13-14 (NRSV): Jesus, The Model of Self-Giving
13Now when Jesus heard [of John’s death], he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
Living in the modern world is not easy, for we are stretched in many ways by busyness, stress, and exhaustion. In this context, it is challenging to help others and be supportive. Jesus experiences the same human challenges in Scripture, however. And his example is one we should notice. Christ’s moments of self-giving love shine during his most difficult human challenges.
In the above passage, Jesus receives the news that John the Baptist is dead. This is significant to Jesus on many levels -- John was Jesus’ cousin and the herald of his mission among the people. Learning about John’s senseless death at the hands of Herod would have been devastating to Jesus. So what does Jesus do? He does the same thing most of us would do in this situation, grieve and pray: “[Jesus] withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself” (13).
Throughout Scripture, however, Jesus always puts others first. And this moment is no different. Through his humanity, Jesus experiences every human emotion, even the grief and loss of a dear friend and family member.  Jesus, moreover, models what self-giving looks like. Instead of isolating himself in prayer and dealing with his grief and deep sense of loss, Jesus sees “a great crowd; and he [has] compassion for them and [cures] their sick” (14). Jesus never misses a moment to serve others, even in the depth of his human emotional weakness.
As disciples, we are to learn from and imitate Jesus’ love in the world. How does this moment prepare us to better serve others and imitate God’s love? There are times when we, too, experience trial, grief, and emotional emptiness. But the world does not stop needing our love, our healing, and our care. As educators, parents, family members, and friends, we are called to love in the midst of our personal suffering. We are called to imitate Jesus in the small things we do by putting others first.
I pray that we follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ by loving others even in the depths of our own pain. And in giving ourselves away in love, we may find that our pain, too, is healed by the reciprocated love of others.
Have a blessed week!


Sunday, July 23, 2017

God is the Only Just Judge

Matthew 13: 29-30a (NRSV): God is the only Just Judge
29 But [Jesus] replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest . . .”
I am fascinated by Christian-themed tattoos, and in my recent Googling, I unearthed an interesting trend. Many Christian-themed tattoos include the following words: “Only God can judge me.” Initially, my thoughts centered on the personal baggage of the tattoo bearer. Their life struggles may invite the judgment of others. Then, however, I considered the message itself and the truth therein: We are often tempted to judge others, which is hurtful to all involved. No matter who we are, our lives are a mixture of virtue and vice.
Jesus’ parable of the weeds and wheat points to God’s mercy and gives us hope. When the sower of the seed tells the slaves to not gather the weeds and wheat until the harvest, we are reminded that God has the power to judge us at any moment. However, God gives us the chance, through grace, to choose and develop the way of self-giving love (our wheat-ness) over the way of self-serving sin (our weed-ness). As flawed humans on the path to discipleship, we are both weeds and wheat, for to uproot one is to uproot the other. To elaborate, the late Jesuit scholar Frank Doyle states:
Each one of us is a combination of wheat and weeds. In each one of us there are elements of the Kingdom and elements that are deeply opposed to it. Paul recognised that struggle within himself (cf. Romans 7:21-25). So we need to learn how to be tolerant with our own weaknesses. God told Paul that it was precisely through his weaknesses that he could reveal his glory. “My power is made perfect in [your] weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
We know through Jesus’ teaching and Paul’s struggle that we are given the grace to grow stronger in Christ. And God cultivates us through time to bear good fruit in his name. The temptation, however, is to pass judgment on the “weeds” of the world, and that we all harbor our own “weeds” gives us no right to judge others. Instead, we should mirror the mercy of God.
The image of the tattoo resonates: Only God can judge any one of us. And his way is that of mercy, love, forgiveness, and grace. Can we, like the loving sower, practice mercy, refusing to uproot the wheat and the weeds?
Let us pray:
Heavenly Father, we pray to choose the path of love. And in choosing that path, we pray for the grace to mercifully forgive others as you forgive us. For you, dear God, teach us that we can only receive forgiveness when we give it. Cultivate each of us to be the loving, fruit-bearing wheat in your Kingdom field. In Jesus Christ we pray, Amen.

Have a blessed week,


Sunday, July 16, 2017

Conquering the Enemies of Discipleship

Matthew 13:19-23 (NRSV): Conquering the Enemies of Discipleship
19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit . . .
Jesus teaches us to beware of three common enemies that thwart our Christian living: Doubt and skepticism, trouble and persecution, and the world and lure of wealth.
The first enemy is the “evil one,” Satan himself. As much as we try to laugh off the existance of the devil, he is very real and does exist. Most of his work is done in stealth, worming his way into our subconscious by encouraging our doubt and skepticism. Skepticism and doubt, moreover, snatch away God’s truth that is sown in our hearts (19).
The second enemy is “trouble and persecution” (21). When we are threatened and made to feel uncomfortable as Christians in public, the temptation to back off, grow tepid, and fall away is very real. Many Christians living in ISIS occupied countries, for example, confront this same enemy daily. And although we hear about the martyrs who have kept their faith and paid the price with their lives, there are many who have fallen away or renounced their faith due to the threat of violence to themselves and their families.
The third enemy, “the cares of the world and lure of wealth” (22), dissolves our internal motivation toward loving God and neighbor by replacing it with a motivation for wealth, power, and notoriety. This enemy banks on our pride and ego and encourages us to build a tower of personal accomplishments that yield temporal comfort in this world. The pursuit of world and wealth, moreover, leads us into a trap of false thinking: All that truly matters is what we have and gain for ourselves in this world.
Doubt and skepticism, trouble and persecution, and the world and lure of wealth are imminent, but often ignored, threats to Christian discipleship. However, I continue to experience each one of these threats in my walk with Christ. Earlier in Matthew 13, Jesus tells his disciples that they have been given a great gift: “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (16). We, too, are given the gift of open eyes and ears to God’s word, but we must combat the threats to our taking in, being changed by, and acting on God’s word in love. When, through grace, we combat these enemies and cooperate with God’s will in our lives, we reach the “good soil” Jesus mentions (23), hearing and understanding God’s word. But even more than that, we bear and yield good fruit by imitating God’s love and mercy in the world.
I pray that we both recognize and combat the comfortable enemies of doubt, persecution, and worldly gain. And in that victory we stand in the light of Jesus Christ, radiating his word, mercy, and love in our world.
Have a blessed week.


Sunday, July 9, 2017

Unity is Without Limit

Matthew 11:28-30 (NRSV): Unity is Without Limit
28 Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”
We are in the middle of a beautiful ecumenical Christian movement. Most Christian denominations are seeking to reconcile their differences and be unified as one in Christ. For instance just a few days ago, the World Communion of Reformed Churches agreed to the 1999 Catholic-Lutheran agreement on Christian salvation. This may seem too theological, but the question of salvation was one of the main dividing points during the Reformation. And now, most churches agree that we are unified by God’s grace and our faith in Christ. Unity is a beautiful thing.
Jesus never meant for his love and forgiveness to be a difficult burden. However, some theological purists make salvation and Christian love burdensome and limited. Jesus reminds us that his teaching is that of inexhaustible love, unity, gentleness, and humility. He calls us to shirk off the limitations of a legalistic approach to faith and instead to take on his easy, light way of love.
I pray that we all be unified in the beautiful mystery of God’s love for each one of us.
Have a blessed week!


Sunday, July 2, 2017

Life Change

Romans 6:13 (NIV): Life Change
Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness.
When God touches our lives and changes us, we have no other choice but to respond to that change. Being brought into a new life in Christ means abandoning those habits that hurt God, others, and ourselves. When, through God’s grace, we embrace a new life of love, the world changes, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are strengthened to become “instrument[s] of righteousness.”
The Cross and the Switchblade (1962) chronicles the events of David Wilkerson, a young country pastor who answers God’s call. That call leads him to the heart of the New York City youth gang culture. It is an unbelieveable but true story about how God uses one man to begin a revolution in helping the abandoned, lonely street kids whose lives are enmeshed in violence, drugs, and prostitution. This pastor eventually teams up with other people of faith to found Teen Challenge homes across the country. God uses David and his team to love society’s loveless and welcome the world’s unwanted. In the memoir, some of the most hardened criminal gang members miraculously change. They go from being “instrument[s] of wickedness” to “instrument[s] of righteousness” through the power of the Holy Spirit. David’s memoir is a moving testimony to how God can use each of us to change the world.
In Christ, let us pray to change the world together:
“To say that 'prayer changes things' is not as close to the truth as saying, 'Prayer changes me and then I change things.' Prayer is not a matter of changing things externally, but one of working miracles in a person's inner nature."
--Oswald Chambers, from My Utmost for His Highest
Lord Jesus, we pray to be “instrument[s] of righteousness.” For when our lives imitate your love in this world, they not only change the lives of those around us, but more intimately draw our own lives to you. Amen.
Have a blessed week,