Friday, March 20, 2020

God and Your Neighbor in These Times

Admittedly, Old Testament books like Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus, filled with various arcane laws, the Biblical books I've been reading in recent weeks for my quiet time with God, can be slow-going.

It's important when reading these books to remember that there are three different kinds of laws in the Old Testament, only one type of which remains valid, the moral law.

The civil laws you find there have no standing because the nation to which the laws were given, ancient Israel, no longer exists, no longer is a theocracy under Yahweh.

The need for ritual/sacrificial law, including things purification rites and dietary rules also has ended. That occurred when Jesus became the final, definitive sacrifice for human sin.

The moral law cannot save us from sin, death, and separation from God because none of us is capable of perfectly keeping it. This is why our salvation depends on Jesus, Who offered His sinless life in sacrifice for our sins, taking the condemnation of death we deserve and Who gives us a share in His resurrection victory over all that separates us from God as a gracious gift we receive by faith in Him. Even our capacity to believe, to trust, in Him is a gift. (Trust doesn't come naturally to self-centered, skeptical sinners.)

But even the archaic civil and ritual laws can show us some things about who and what God values in humanity.

For example, during my quiet time with God today, I read and highlighted this passage:
If you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want, but do not put any in your basket. If you enter your neighbor’s grainfield, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to their standing grain. Deuteronomy 23:24-25
In other words, God was telling ancient Israelites, if you're walking somewhere through this country, are hungry, and come across grapes or grain, you're allowed to pick some of the food off the vines and eat. The owner will have no right to get mad at you or prosecute you for things like theft or trespassing.

At the bottom of this provision is the notion that God is the maker of everything and that He gives us "our daily bread" not for ourselves alone, but for others as well

But notice too, that God prohibited the ancient Israelites walking through someone's field to undertake an agricultural harvesting operation: They couldn't put a provision of grapes in their baskets or put a sickle to the grain. Only what they needed at that moment. There likely would be other fields through which they passed along the way and by this method, they would be fed and their benefactors wouldn't be cheated. God likes things like justice and mercy.

This probably has implications for us in these trying times. 

The other day, I read about an incident that took place just last week in a grocer's in England. An elderly woman and a teenager were shopping on the same aisle, for the same item. The teen was quicker and grabbed all the remaining items. But looking up, he noticed the elderly woman for the first time and realized she wanted the same item. The young man then handed the items to the woman. "Here, luv," he told her. "You probably need this more than I do." I imagine God smiled when He saw that, as I did when I read about it.

A similar concern for the neighbor is seen in another place in my reading for today, Deuteronomy 24:19-22:

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.

Here, God speaks to the owners of the farms and the vineyards through which people like "the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow," people bereft of power or possessions, might pass through. Don't be so efficient in your harvesting, God tells His ancient people, that you don't leave something for those with less. For poor "gleaners," the "leavings" in the fields of the prosperous, could spell the difference between life and death between the harvests. 

The provisions in these verses are predicated on the Israelites remembering that, like the foreigners, fatherless, and widows in their midst, their people had once been among the bereft and hurting of the world, slaves in Egypt. 

Here, God calls us to empathy, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, to remember that while you may be flush with the world's goods today, it wasn't always so, and to remember that everything, including your capacity to acquire the world's goods, comes to you as a gift from God. 

This same God also made your neighbor today. 

Your neighbor, just like you, irrespective of their current state, is made in God's image. 

And that neighbor, just like you, is one for whom Jesus Christ, God the Son, gave His life on the cross.

With the Coronavirus, we face a global catastrophe like the 1918 flu pandemic that killed between twenty to fifty million people, including 675,000 Americans. Our sinful human impulse is to be selfish, to look out for ourselves. I know that it's my impulse.

I ask that God will remind me again today that I can only be saved from sin, death, and darkness through Jesus. 

Deep down, I know that being just and loving to my neighbor is the right thing to do. But I won't be just or loving if I don't, once again today, surrender my whole life to the God I know in Jesus, trusting in Him no matter what, trusting that His perfect obedience has won salvation that I do not deserve but that He gives to me as a matter of grace and love. Jesus must live in me if I am going to love others the way He has loved and still loves me. (See here and here.)

And then, I pray, remembering that, like the ancient Israelites, I have been freed from slavery--chained to sin and death and condemnation--I ask God to teach me, once more today, how to love.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

[Ruth, one of my heroes, was a foreign widow forced to glean in ancient Israel at one point. She became the great-grandmother of the nation's greatest king, David.]

Thursday, March 19, 2020

A Prayer

I shared this prayer request with the prayer team of our congregation, Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, a short while ago. Would you join us in praying?
Please offer up prayers of thanks for all doctors, nurses, hospital personal assistants, physicians’ assistants, lab workers, scientists, medical researchers, public health officials, and first responders and all that they are doing to mitigate and conquer the Coronavirus.  
Pray in Jesus' name that all those seeking to speed up the production and distribution of tests, respirators, and a vaccine will be successful.  
Pray that God will give wisdom to leaders of governments and that God will open their hearts, minds, and wills to that wisdom so that they will act on it.  
Pray that the Church, in this time of necessary social distancing, will exploit other means--such as email, phone calls, cards, letters, and social media--to be about the mission that Christ has given to us: to be and to make disciples.  
Pray that God will open up the way for our congregation's small groups to continue meeting using online technology. 
Pray that the Lord of the Church will guide the bishop of The North American Lutheran Church, Dan Selbo, and our entire denomination in lifting Christ up to the world.  
Pray that the Holy Spirit will guide each of us into behaviors that display good stewardship of the lives God has given to us and a love for neighbor that keeps us mindful that even if we ourselves aren't ill, we can be carriers of a virus that is especially hard on the old, those with medical conditions, and the very young. 
Pray that God will keep the members of our congregation healthy and above all, focused on Jesus Christ. We know that there is one virus that afflicts the entire human race, the virus of sin. It will have its way with each of us. But all who put their trust in Jesus Christ as their only hope for life with God now and in eternity have a Great Physician Who has conquered sin, death, and the grave.  
Pray that in all times and circumstances, we will share Christ and His Gospel of new and everlasting life for all who repent and believe in Christ, faithfully, persistently, reverently, considerately, lovingly.  
Pray that God will use our online worship to bring new believers to faith in Christ and to strengthen the faith of our members and of other Christians. 
For Christ's Church, this is a moment of opportunity as well as of danger. May Christ find us faithful. Thank you for praying.


Be still...

A good word from God in the midst of a lethal pandemic: "[God] says, 'Be still, and know that I am God.”

God is still sovereign and as we place ourselves in the loving hands of the crucified and risen Jesus, God the Son, we have nothing to fear.

That, of course, is not a license to take stupid risks. And it doesn't mean that we should not listen to the medical professionals and public health officials when they tell us to maintain social distancing, self-quarantining, frequent hand-washing, and the use of sanitizer.

After all, Christians believe our bodies are the Holy Spirit's temple over which we are called to exercise good stewardship.

Nor does God promise that believers in Christ are immune from the realities of this imperfect and fallen world.

But in the midst of it all, we can be still, knowing that we belong to the God Who saves all who trust in Christ for life with Him that begins now, even in the midst of uncertainties and grief and will be made perfect in the day of the Resurrection.

"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-39)

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

How to Pray (Back to the Basics: Revisiting the Catechism, Part 3)

[Online worship from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, continues to be posted on YouTube during the coronavirus epidemic. Here's this week's midweek Lenten focus on the basics of Christian faith.]

Matthew 6:9-15

One phrase is likely to bring silence to even to the most verbal group of Christians. It’s this: “Who would like to offer a prayer?”

This is understandable in a way. In the New Testament, Paul says, “We do not know what we ought to pray for…” (Romans 8:26) And Luke says that Jesus’ apostles, the ones He chose to send into the world with His message of new and everlasting life with God for all who repent and believe in Him, felt incompetent in prayer. That’s why they ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” (Luke 6:1)

Jesus gives them (and us) what we call the Lord’s Prayer, which is the subject of the third part of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, our topic for today.

But before digging into the Lord’s Prayer, it’s good, as Luther does in The Large Catechism, to consider why we should pray at all. Luther says that there are two reasons. 

The first is that God commands that we pray. That command inheres in the Second Commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” Why would God tell us not to use His name vainly, that is, uselessly, purposelessly, or selfishly--or as Luther puts it, “superstitiously, or to curse, swear, lie, or deceive,” if He didn’t intend for us to use His name, to “call upon Him in every time of need, and [to] worship Him with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving”?

The second reason we pray is because God makes promises to those who do. The apostle Peter, quoting the Old Testament, told the Jerusalem crowd on the first Pentecost after the risen Jesus’ ascension to heaven, “...everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved…” (Acts 2:21) And Jesus, God Himself, tells us, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)

So, God commands that we pray and gives promises to those who do pray. 

That’s why we pray. But how should we pray? 

Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer as both a good and useful prayer and as a model for our praying. To those who say that reciting this prayer is “vain repetition,” I would point out that Jesus Himself says of this prayer: “This, then, is how you should pray…”

The Lord’s Prayer is composed of: 
  • an introduction, “Our Father, Who art in heaven…,” 
  • seven petitions, and 
  • a conclusion, “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.” 
The conclusion, though not taught by Jesus, is a doxology, that is, a word of glory, that comes from King David’s prayer in 1 Chronicles 29:10-11. (You can look it up.)

The significance of the introduction, “Our Father, Who art in heaven,” is this: By teaching us to pray to God as “our Father,” Jesus is sharing all the benefits and privileges of being God’s Son with those who believe in Him. All who believe in Jesus are “co-heirs with Christ” of His victory over sin and death. 

By telling us to call God “our Father,” God, Luther says, “encourages us to believe that He is truly our Father, and that we are truly His children, so that we may boldly and confidently pray to Him, just as beloved children speak to their dear Father.”

The first three petitions of the prayer--”Hallowed be Thy name,” “Thy kingdom come,” “Thy will be done”--are all things, as Luther explains it, that will happen even without our prayer. But we pray that His name will be hallowed by us; that His kingdom will come to us; and that His will is done in our lives

In these petitions, we refuse to stand in judgment over or pretend to be superior to the rest of the world. We own that we are in as much daily need of God, His will, and His kingdom, brought by the crucified and risen Jesus, as anyone else!

In the fourth petition--"Give us this day our daily bread”--we acknowledge, as Luther says, that “God indeed gives daily bread to all, even unbelievers, without our prayer.” But we pray in this petition to remind ourselves that everything we need for life--our daily bread--comes from God and to receive it “with thanksgiving.” 

Luther’s insistence that God gives us everything we need to live from day to day, is a good reminder in this time when people are (of all things) hoarding toilet paper, that we don’t have a supply problem in our world; God supplies all. We have a share problem. May God teach us to share!

In the fifth petition--”And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have sinned against us,” we seek God’s forgiveness for our sin and recognize that we cannot be forgiven by God if we are unwilling to forgive those who have hurt...or who we think have Luther says, “We know that we have not earned, nor do we deserve” the forgiveness for which we pray. But, he goes on to say, we ask for it because of the grace that God extends to those who trust in Jesus. At the same time, in this petition, we “heartily forgive, and gladly do good to those who sin against us.” And for us to do that, we really need God’s grace.

In the sixth petition, we ask to be protected from the temptation to sin that comes from “the devil, the world, and our sinful nature,” that we won’t be led “into false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins.” 

I find I need to pray this petition the most just after I’ve received God’s forgiveness, right after God covers me with His righteousness, as I repent in Jesus' name. 

That’s because once God has forgiven me, I forget that it’s He Who makes me righteous; I start to think what a righteous, wonderful guy I am all by myself.  

When that happens, I don’t see the bear trap of temptation right in front of me. “ the gospel,” Paul writes in Romans 1:17, “the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith [in Christ] from first to last…” In the sixth petition, we ask God to help us to remember that our righteousness is from Christ alone and to protect us from the delusion of our own intrinsic goodness.

In the seventh petition, Jesus teaches us to pray, “But deliver us from evil.” Luther’s full explanation is worth quoting: “We pray in this petition, as in a summary, that our heavenly Father would deliver us from every type of evil--whether it affects our bodies or souls, property or reputation--and at last, when our hour of death comes, would grant us a blessed end to our earthly lives, and graciously take us from this world of sorrow to Himself in heaven.”

I planned this series some weeks ago, long before the coronavirus upended our lives. But I can’t help but feel that God had already planned for me to talk with you about the Lord’s Prayer during this week in Lent. If you’ve never seen your need to regularly pray, including praying the Lord’s Prayer, I hope you see it today

The public health people say to wash our hands for twenty seconds frequently throughout our day. A friend has reminded me that twenty-seconds are about how long it takes to pray the Lord’s Prayer. So, I invite you in the days ahead to pray the Lord’s Prayer as you wash your hands. Every time you pray it with trust and honest helplessness, you will bless yourself and the world for which you pray. And you will be ready for all that may come to you, in this world or the next. Amen 

Monday, March 16, 2020

Known...and Loved Anyway

[Like many churches across the country and around the world, Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, where I serve, has suspended all church-related activities. The original plan was to do so through March 31. But recent directives and advisories from state and federal officials intimate that the suspension could last longer. As the video and message below indicate though, we are continuing to offer Sunday worship of a sort and will continue to keep in touch with our members. We also will be posting midweek Lenten messages on Youtube.]

John 4:5-26

Ty Cobb was a phenomenal baseball player and a horrible human being: violent, racist, selfish. But in Ken Burns’ amazing documentary on the history of baseball, a story is told about the summer day when a retired Cobb dropped into a saloon for a cold beer. Behind the bar was Shoeless Joe Jackson, the disgraced Chicago White Sox player who helped throw the 1919 World Series for gamblers who paid him off. 

Cobb ordered his beer. Jackson wordlessly filled a mug from the tap and served it. 

Flustered, Cobb asked Jackson, “Don’t you know me, Joe?” “I know you,” Jackson answered, “I didn’t know if you wanted to know me.”

Have you ever been there? Have you ever been at a place so low that you thought no one would want to have anything to do with you? 

Or maybe it isn’t people you’ve thought would reject you. Maybe you’ve thought God would have nothing to do with you. 

During my internship, we conducted monthly Holy Communion services at a nursing home. One woman would come to the services, but not receive the Sacrament. In private conversation one day she told us why. When she was seventeen, she’d had an abortion. 

Although she believed in Jesus, loved God, and was conversant with the Bible, she could not believe that God could forgive her or want her.

Have you ever believed that God could never forgive you? 

That you’re so bad that not even God’s gracious love could reach you?

That God could never have anything to do with you?
The encounter recorded in today’s gospel lesson, John 4:5-26, is well known. Jesus and His disciples are headed to Judea from their native region of Galilee and pass through Samaria to get there. Samaritans, you know, were generally hated by Jesus’ fellow Jews. But Jesus, we’ll see, has an agenda for passing through their territory. 

Worn out from their walking, Jesus sits beside a well outside the Samaritan town of Sychar while the disciples go into the town to get some food. It’s noontime, the hottest part of the day, a time when nobody goes to the village well if they can avoid it. The women usually go out in the early morning or at dusk to fetch the water they need. But as Jesus sits, a woman shows up at the well.

Jesus asks the woman for a drink and she’s mystified. “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) (John 4:9) 

She will soon learn that this strange man at the well doesn’t give a rip about social norms. For Jesus, people--all people--are more important than all our social norms. 

She will also learn that He’s initiated this conversation with her not to get something from her, but to give her something more valuable than all the water on this earth

If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10) 

The woman, like Nicodemus in last Sunday’s gospel lesson after Jesus told him that all who want to be part of God’s kingdom must be born from above, is dumbfounded by Jesus’ words. She asks how Jesus can possibly give her this living water He mentions when He doesn’t even have a bucket. I can be like that sometimes, wondering how God can do something for me that I can’t do for myself.  

Jesus tells her, “Everyone who drinks this water [meaning, the water in the well] will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14) 

The woman, still thinking of water she can tote back home, asks Jesus, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:15) 

You see. she goes to the well when nobody else is there in order to avoid the wagging tongues of those who know all about her past and her present. She would love a source of water that would allow her to stay away from the pain of encountering others.
When we think that we can never be accepted or forgiven, it hurts too much to face God or people. We just want to fetch our water, go through our lives and not be embarrassed or humiliated by our sins, missteps, and failures. The woman’s reaction is understandable. 

She still doesn’t understand what Jesus is offering to her. So, Jesus, Who I have found to be infinitely patient with me when I don’t get it, takes another tack to reach this woman. He tells her to go get her husband. She answers that she doesn’t have one and Jesus says, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” “Look,” Jesus is telling her. “I know you. I know everything about you. Yet I’m offering this gift of eternal living water to you.” 

The woman now says, “Oh, you’re a prophet,” as though she’s got Jesus figured out.

I have this happen to me all the time: I’m having a wonderful conversation with someone at the Kroger deli counter or in line at a store or on an airplane. Then they learn I’m a pastor and they start talking religionspeak as if to show me that (1) they now know everything about me; (2) they’re OK with God in their own way; and (3) they don’t need to hear any religious jaw, even though I haven’t been offering one. 

The woman yammers on for a while in this vain and tells Jesus, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” (John 4:25) “You see,” she seems to be telling Jesus, “I learned my Catechism well. I don’t need whatever you want to tell me.” 

So, here’s this woman, in deep need of the love, forgiveness, and grace of God, talking with God in the flesh, but deeply resistant to laying down all her defenses--like hiding from other people, clinging to her ethnic religion, holding onto this world’s uncertainty rather than facing the truth about her sin and taking the certain grace of God offered in Christ. 

In that moment, confronted by God’s Law that condemns our sin and by God’s grace that forgives our sin through our faith in Christ, the Samaritan woman is at risk of not taking hold of the gift of new life that Jesus came into this world to die and rise to attain for her. For you. For me. 

And so, when she says that she knows that when Messiah comes, He will explain everything, making everything right, Jesus tells her, “I, the one speaking to you—I am [Yahweh, I AM] he.” (John 4:26)

It’s no wonder that this woman, so recently frightened of encountering anyone, runs back to the village to tell everyone she can find, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (John 4:29) 

Friends: The God we meet in Jesus Christ knows everything about you and wants you anyway

He calls you out of the shadows into His light. 

He calls you away from the parched provinces of sin, death, and condemnation, a furtive world in which we fear and avoid God and others. 

Then He calls you to a life of constant refreshment by the living water that only the one true God of all creation can offer, a life in which we are set free to be loved and known God, to love God back, and to love our neighbors as God has loved us. 

In Jesus Christ, we are known already and we are loved already. 

When we respond to His Word of love and learn from the Holy Spirit to trust in Him, our sins are forgiven and we walk in the freedom and dignity of His grace. Even now. 

May His living water give you the life that wells up to eternal life with Him today. Amen

[This icon of Jesus' encounter with the woman at the well was created in Antioch in the eighth-century.]