Above Our Heads

Jewish Yarmulke

Scriptures

Isaiah 6:5 And I (Isaiah) said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Psalm 138:2 “I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness; for you have exalted your name and your word above everything.”

I Corinthians 15:9 “For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the church of God.”

Luke 5:8 “But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Thought for the Day

The prophet Isaiah, the Psalmist, Paul, and Peter react to God’s presence with startle, awe, reverence, an overwhelming sense of smallness, a deep awareness of the ways they offend God, and deference to God. Isaiah experiences a profound woe of despair. The Psalmist bows toward the holy temple. Paul understands he is unfit for his ministry were it not for the grace of God. And Peter can’t hide from the knowledge Jesus has of his inner life. Even though each of them experiences the presence of God in varying ways, all of them submit to the sovereignty of God over their lives and above their heads as the Holy Spirit enables them.

Isaiah urges Israel to radical trust and faithfulness to the Lord. The Psalmist thanks God for deliverance and calls upon Israel to trust in the Lord’s continuing salvation. Paul is sent to take God’s name to the Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel (Acts 9:15). Peter becomes the shepherd of the Church after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (John 21:17; Acts 2:41).

While in Israel last week, I asked our tour guide why Israeli men wear skull caps or yarmulkes and why Israeli women wear head coverings. He said that Israeli men wear yarmulkes and women head covers as a reminder to themselves and as a sign to the world that God is above their heads. I do not know whether Isaiah, the Psalmist, Paul, or Peter wore a yarmulke as a sign that God was above their head. But we can observe from the witness of scripture that they lived out their mission in obedience under the sovereignty of God over their lives.

As Christians, we do not wear head coverings to express the sovereignty of God over our lives to the world. Nevertheless, we now belong to Christ Jesus who brought us close to God through the cross. Through our faith in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and our baptism, we now live under the sovereign Lordship of Christ. ‘In Christ,’ as Paul said to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers at the Aeropagus in Athens, ‘we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28).

We remind ourselves and bear in the world that Christ is sovereign over our lives and above our heads by daily scripture reading, study, and prayer, and by regular worship. We live out our submission to the Lordship of Christ over our lives by fostering a deep sense of connection and relationship with people, seeking ways to love and serve people in ways that bless their lives, break bread together, and share our faith to give people a glimpse of God’s goodness and unfolding love in Christ.

Activity for the week

Wear something all day this week that reminds you that Christ the Lord is “above your head” and that your life belongs to him.

Praying Psalm 138

I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise; I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness; for you have exalted your name and your word above everything. On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul. All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O LORD, for they have heard the words of your mouth. They shall sing of the ways of the LORD, for great is the glory of the LORD. For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away. Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me. The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands. Amen.

Servants of God's Nurture – 6th Sunday of Epiphany

God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7

Scripture: What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.  1 Cor. 3:5-9

Reflection: Reading the lectionary scripture from Corinthians on this 6th Sunday of Epiphany brings me to give thanks today for Floyd Patterson. Floyd and I played football for the Stephen F. Austin State University Lumberjacks. We were assigned as roommates for a season whenever we traveled to play an away game. I was not exactly fervent in my faith during the season that Floyd and I roomed together. God knew I needed someone at that time in my life to help light the path that would lead me back into a living faith. Floyd was the person God assigned and sent to me. 

Floyd and I were teammates but not friends off the field. When we roomed together, we never talked about our faith, but we did not have to. Floyd simply read his bible every night in our hotel room during our away trips. He would then kneel by his bed to pray for several minutes. I haven’t seen or heard from Floyd in 40 years. Floyd probably does not even remember me. Nevertheless, Floyd was one of God’s many servants sent to me to nurture and water my parched soul, to remind me of God’s presence, and to light my way back to Christ.

Prayer: Thank you God of saving mercies and patience for all the people you assign and send to help us grow in our faith. Your servants are not always aware of how you are using them to shed your light upon a lost and searching world. Enable them with your Spirit to never give up shining their faith even when it is not appreciated or welcomed.  Amen.

Action: Remember and give thanks today for all the people God assigned and sent to help you grow in faith, hope, and love. Send a note to someone that has been assigned by God to help you grow in faith, hope, and love. 

Not so fast! 4th Sunday of Advent, December 21, 2019

Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife (Mt. 1:20)

Matthew 1:18-25 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Reflection: Joseph is confronted with a pressing and perplexing situation that frightens him and calls for a rapid decision. Mary, his fiancée is pregnant and not by him. He enters into a period of anguishing discernment, relying on his spiritual and social resources to make the best possible decision for himself, Mary and her parents, and his community. Joseph is a righteous man (1:18) and seeks in the end to please and give the most glory to God with his actions. 

As a righteous man, we can assuredly imagine that Joseph slows down to diligently searches Scripture for guidance. He searches the law. He searches his heart. He searches for wise counsel. He speaks with people that will be affected by his decision. He prays. He meditates. He fasts. He searches his motives and values. He considers his future and his options as he seeks to arrive at a decision that most glorifies God. He may have even made a list of the pros and cons of staying with Mary. Mary, meanwhile, anxiously, powerlessly, and prayerfully awaits his decision. 

Joseph, the gospel of Matthew says, concludes that it is ultimately in both his and Mary’s best interest to separate. After all, in Joseph’s way of thinking, Mary would avoid public disgrace through a quiet separation; or would she? It would be impossible for a young unmarried Mary to hide a rapidly enlarging abdomen on the way to full term with child. It would be impossible for Mary to offer satisfactory answers to the spoken and unspoken questions of nosy people, or to avoid harsh and harmful present and future social judgement and consequences. Although separating himself from Mary seems like a noble resolution to Joseph’s dilemma, the truth is that such a decision would be devastating for a single young mother of a fatherless son in a patriarchal society. 

Our decisions, if we are honest, are normally biased in our favor. Seldom are we comfortable or even willing to make decisions that go against or subordinates our own self-interest. When we make decisions, the operative goal is to have things turn out the best possible way for ourselves. 

Joseph’s hasty decision to separate from Mary, while seemingly benefitting to himself, would not bring honor and glory to God. God intervenes and sends an angel to Joseph to redirect Joseph’s decision to separate from Mary. The angel appears to Joseph in a dream and sheds light on what is really happening, stopping and diverting Joseph from his intended course of action. Joseph is first admonished to stop being afraid. He is then directed to take Mary as his wife and raise the child she carries as his own. Joseph wakes up from his sleep and did as the angel commanded him; he took Mary as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. 

As Christ-followers, we seek to bring the most glory to God in all we do. That means that our difficult decisions are deliberately entered into with a dependence on the Holy Spirit for guidance. Our discernment and decision-making are filtered through a deep love for God and for the people being affected by our decision. While we discern, we pray that the Holy Spirit will avert us from a self-centeredness that will side-track us from what God is pointing us to do. In time, the Holy Spirit will lead us to make decisions that please us, sometimes our decisions will not bring us pleasure. Some of our decisions will enrich us, some will not. Some of our decisions will bring us comfort, some will bring us suffering. The personal outcome of our decisions made with the end of glorifying God do not really matter because we do not belong to ourselves, we belong to God and our chief purpose in life is to glorify God with our lives and enjoy God forever.

Are you struggling with a pressing and aguishing decision this Advent season? Pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance. Pray for a deeper love for God and the people that are affected by your decision. Ask the Holy Spirit to avert you from self-centeredness. Wait for God to point you to what you need to do. Perhaps someone in your life will be like an angel of the Lord to you that comes to you in your darkest hours and sheds new light on your situation – who is that person for you? In time, you’ll know God is leading you when you experience joy, enthusiasm, deeper faith, greater hope and trust, greater love, confidence, and courage even if you decide against your own self-interest. 

A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition (Contemporary Version) 

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you,
Praised for you or criticized for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service.
And now, O wonderful and holy God,
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, 
you are mine, and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it also be made in heaven.  Amen.

The Wait is Over! Third Sunday of Advent December 15, 2019

Are you the one?

Scripture

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Matthew 11:2-6 

Reflection

John the Baptist is in prison. His life is difficult and weighed down with anxiety. He had predicted and expected a fire-breathing Messiah that would separate the wheat (the repentant) from the chaff (unrepented). John envisioned a Messiah that would gather the repentant (wheat) unto himself and burn the unrepentant (chaff) with an unquenchable fire (Mt. 3:12).  

When John hears of Jesus’ works of healing, mercy, and preaching to the poor, he questions whether Jesus is the awaited Messiah because Jesus’ works do not fit John’s expectations of what the long-awaited Messiah would or should be doing. He sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 

Jesus sends the disciples back to John with a response indicating that Jesus’ works correspond and echo Isaiah’s vision of a Messiah that would come to give light to those in gloom and darkness, give fresh joy to the meek, lift up the neediest of people, and wipe away their tears and disgrace (Is. 29:18-19; 25:8). 

Jesus’ response to John’s question, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense [emphasis mine] at me,” implies that John has taken offense at Jesus. The Greek word Matthew uses 12 times in the gospel for the word offense is skandalivzw or scandalize.  John becomes scandalized because Jesus was not fulfilling Messiah’s mission as John understood it or wanted it to be. John’s misunderstanding challenges his faith and brings him to miss out on the blessing and joy of Jesus’ ministry. Instead of receiving a blessing and joy, John questions Jesus and his works of evangelism and mercy with the poor and the vulnerable. For John, the expected Messiah is a hardliner, not a healer, a harsh judge, not a heart warmer. For John, the Messiah has some serious and urgent spiritual and social sifting to do if the world was going to become clearly ordered. That urgent mission, in John’s view, is being left unattended because Jesus – if he was the Messiah – was occupied, fellowshipping with the outcasts and the vulnerable. Jesus’ response, while not meeting John’s immediate expectations of Messiah, was meant to assure John and strengthen his spirit with the knowledge that Jesus was indeed the Messiah he and the world waited for.  

Matthew does not follow up with a report about the effect Jesus’ response had on John’s faith. Matthew does, however, write that Jesus honors John and says that no one born of women was greater than John the Baptist (Mt. 11:11). We can trust that John did find spiritual consolation, assurance, and strength from Jesus’ message affirming that the wait for Messiah was over. 

Sometimes our faith is shaken when our expectations of Jesus Christ are unmet, especially when we want Christ to show up in a quick and powerful way at times when our lives are troubled. Maybe you find yourself in a place of questioning your faith this Christmas. We’ve all been there from time to time in our pilgrimage of discipleship. My prayer for you in this Advent season of faith-building is that you will encounter Christ in a new way that reveals the depth of his expansive love for you and others. I pray that Jesus Christ, God with us, would give light to the areas of gloom and darkness in your life, give you fresh joy, lift you up, and wipe away your tears and disgrace (Is. 29:18-19; 25:8). Above all, I pray that the Holy Spirit will assure you that Jesus is the one you have been waiting for; there is no other.

Prayer from James 5:7-10 

God, we are impatient. We pray for the grace of understanding and patience with your mysterious ways. Draw near to us, stand by us, and strengthen our hearts. Save us from grumbling against you and others. Help us to draw strength in our times of troubles from the prophets who suffered for speaking in your name and from your holy passion. Amen.

Help Wanted! 1st Sunday of Advent December 1, 2019

One will be left … to join Christ in doing God’s
will on earth as it is in heaven.

Scripture: Matthew 24:36-44 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken, and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Reflection: I am in Cambridge, UK for a training on reflective supervision sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry as I write this reflection for the first Sunday of this beautiful season of Advent. We celebrate and remember every Advent season that into a world filled with despair and darkness, Jesus Christ, God’s gift of salvation, came to save us and enjoin us to his mission of doing God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven (Mt. 6:10). 

The story Jesus tells in the gospel of Matthew is one of many stories Jesus told about the end of times and his second coming to establish God’s kingdom of righteousness, justice, and peace. In the story, people are going about their daily activities. They are eating, drinking, marrying, working, and sleeping when all of a sudden and without warning, their routines are interrupted by Christ’s coming. In Matthew’s vision of the second coming, Jesus does not remove the faithful from the earth, he leaves them to do God’s will, just like Noah was left by God after the flood to do God’s will. In Matthew’s vision, Christ leaves the faithful ones on earth to do the will of God on earth like it is in heaven. This added responsibility is not a burden, it is an honor and privilege to be handed more missional responsibility by Christ because ‘those who are faithful with a few things will be put in charge of many things and share in Christ’s joy!’ (Mt. 25:21). Our response is not to reject Christ’s invitation to added missional responsibility, but to receive Christ’s call and discharge the mission with confidence and joy. The mission we are called to is not burdensome, it is made light because we are yoked with Christ (Mt.11:29).

To do the will of God on earth as it is in heaven means that we join Christ to alleviate suffering caused by hunger, violence, injustice, abuse of power, joblessness, eradicable diseases, and bottomless grief. Stories about the second coming of Christ do not have to be embarrassing or frightening. They are compelling and hopeful. They call us to be watchful for the way Christ’s out of love for the world, interrupts the routines of our lives, calls out to us, and invites us to join him in seeking God’s righteous kingdom where nations live in peace, and where people are taught the ways of God and walk in the paths of God.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come!

A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
Exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. And now, O Glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

 

Thy Word – October 20, 2019

Photo by Gelgas

Scripture: Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8).

Reflection: Today’s lectionary readings point out that God’s people know God’s word and act on it with faith and hope because it acts in and through them.

The prophet Jeremiah proclaims the Lord will ‘put in writing God’s law on people’s hearts’ so that they will sin no more (Jeremiah 31:33). The Psalmist says that the Lord’s words are “sweeter than honey in his mouth” because they make him wise, give him understanding, and hold him back from every evil way (Psalm 119:97-104). Paul instructs his young apprentice Timothy to continue in what he has learned and firmly believed because God’s inspired word will equip him for every good work (2 Timothy 3:14-17). The persistent widow in Jesus’ parable continues to seek justice from the mulish judge because she knows the law of God, she knows her rights, and she courageously perseveres until the judge grants her justice from her opponent. 

When we read God’s word, study it, meditate upon it, and memorize it, it acts in us through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit enables us to courageously enter and more fully live into the meaning of the God’s Word dwelling in us for ourselves and for others even when confronted by fear in the face of pain, danger, uncertainty, intimidation, and suffering. This is the kind of active faith Jesus is seeking to find when he returns (Luke 18:8). In your moments of prayer, speak to God about what God’s word is calling you to be or do. Perhaps you can pray for a desire to fall in love again or for the first time with God’s word.

Prayer: Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long. Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is always with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts. I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word. I do not turn away from your ordinances, for you have taught me. How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way (Psalm 119:97-104).

Table Fellowship – The Starting Point for Discipleship – Sunday, September 15, 2019

Table Fellowship by Sieger Köder (1925–2015) 

Luke 15:1-10 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Reflection: The religious leaders consider themselves favored by God in their own rights. They despise “sinners” in the name of God. They grumble and express disdain, a low opinion, and a disrespectful attitude toward Jesus when they see him approaching and partaking of table fellowship with sinners; those considered lawless, lost, cursed, and separated from God’s love and care. Jesus’ acts of presence and table fellowship with sinners, signals to those that would exclude them that no one is worthless and beyond God’s mercy, love, and care.

As Christians and United Methodists, “We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self (Article 4 – the Inclusiveness of the Church and ¶161.G) Human Sexuality, The Book of Discipline).

Jesus’ table fellowship action in this morning’s gospel reading proclaims the sacred worth of both the “righteous” and the “sinners” to God. His table fellowship actions are a starting point for our faith and discipleship. They are instructive, inviting us by his example to intentionally seek to do the same. Through his acts of mercy, love and care to the lost, he corrects and counters our self-righteous impulse to despise others and separate ourselves from them in the name of God because such hatred and exclusion does not reflect the value of the other and contradicts Christ’s redemptive work in the world. His table fellowship actions hold a mirror up to us, inviting us to examine and repent of our tendency to so easily and willfully draw dividing lines that isolate and fracture rather than restore the human family and community.

Prayer of Praise: Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, I was blind but now I see. Amen.

More about the painting Table Fellowship by Sieger köder (1925–2015) –

Sieger was a German soldier in World War II who was captured while fighting on the front lines in France. Upon his release, he first trained as a silversmith, then enrolled in Stuttgart’s State Academy of Art and Design.

Köder painted and taught art for twelve years before beginning a new course of study in Tübingen: Catholic theology. Ordained as a priest in 1971, he pastored until his retirement in 1995, but he never stopped painting.

Drawing from both vocations, Köder’s art flourished during his years of ministry. His altarpieces, paintings, frescoes, and stained glass windows can be found throughout Germany and beyond. His interpretations of the crucifixion, of innocent suffering, have a clarity born of his own history of war and captivity. Some have called him a “preacher with pictures.”

But as his work gained worldwide recognition, he refused to take credit himself. In one interview, he said, “People come to Ellwangen asking to see the painter. If they’re that interested in the painter, then they haven’t understood the paintings.”

The Calculus of Discipleship – Sunday, September 8, 2019

Sit down first and consider

Luke 14:25-33 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Reflection: I use the calculator app on my cell phone to add up, multiply, subtract, or to divide costs, materials, payments, discounts, or reconcile accounts that require accurate numbers. I use a different, much more sophisticated type of calculator for discerning my response to difficult decisions that factors in my values, my theology, my faith, scripture, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, prayer, the wisdom of friends, my personal and social ethics, laws, my relationships, the probabilities of gain or loss, the impact my decisions will have on others, and so on. This type of discernment calculus is patient, complicated, and often risky because it depends on numerous interdependent and independent, known and unknown variables, many of them beyond my direct and indirect control.

The builder in today’s gospel sits down to estimate the cost of building a tower. The calculus is rather simple. The problem to solve is whether she could cover the cost of a building project with the needed resources of labor, materials, money, and time. If the answer is yes, she can begin building with confidence that the project will complete. If the answer is no, then her options are to wait until the resources for the completion of the project are secure, she could scale down the project to make it more affordable, or she could scrap the build altogether to avoid bankruptcy, the negative impact a large-scale failed project will have on others, and public ridicule.

The king in today’s gospel has to calculate the probability of victory or the risk of defeat in a war with his enemy. He factors into his discernment calculus his advantages and disadvantages, the conditions of the battlefield, and the superiority or inferiority of his army’s weapons and training in comparison to his opponent. He discerns whether he can fulfill his national interests by winning the battle with resources and the right battle strategy. He asks his officers if they have the right tactics to attain the objectives of the battle plan. He ponders whether diplomacy and peace talks are his best option to procure the safety of his people. If the king thinks he can win, he fights. If he determines he will lose, he seeks peace with his enemy through diplomacy so to not endanger the people that depend on him for safety.

Jesus must have discerned that many in the crowd following him were calculating the cost and considering whether or not to become his disciples. Jesus cuts to the chase. He turns to them and tells them that discipleship is not a fair-weather venture; it is not something that can be set aside when things or life gets tough (Luke 9:23-25). Discipleship of Christ requires our surrender because it demands loyalty and allegiance to him over all competing loyalties, including family, self-interest, and possessions.

For many, discipleship requires a lot of figuring out and long consideration. Some people need to have all the answers beforehand as to how their life will be or turn out if they follow Christ. Discipleship is not like that. It is based on a trusting relationship with Christ and trust in his promise to walk with us throughout our lives, especially when life gets tough. As St. Patrick prays, when we surrender to Christ, we can arise with strength every day and carry our cross because Christ will be with us against every cruel and merciless power that oppose our body and soul. Christ promises to be with us, go before us, behind us, in us, beneath us, above us, on our right and on our left, when we lie down, sit down, when we arise, in the hearts of everyone who thinks of us, speaks of us, in every eye that sees us, and every ear that hears us. If we put the pencil to discipleship we’ll soon figure out that it is indeed a demand but is also a priceless gift.

Prayer:  I arise today, through God’s strength to pilot me, God’s might to uphold me, God’s wisdom to guide me, God’s eye to look before me, God’s ear to hear me, God’s word to speak for me, God’s hand to guard me, God’s shield to protect me, God’s host to save me, from snares of devils, from the temptation of vices, from everyone who shall wish me ill, afar and near. I arise today as a disciple of Jesus Christ through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation.*

* From an excerpt of the Lorica of St. Patrick, also known as the St. Patrick Breastplate Prayer.

The Absent, Matter – September 1, 2019

Who do we need to invite?

Luke 14:1, 7-14: On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Reflection: Jesus observantly watches the invited guests take their places at a sabbath meal hosted by a leader of the Pharisees. A dinner with distinguished guests functioned as more than sharing in a common meal. Sabbath dinners gave opportunity for a guest of honor, in this case Jesus, to discuss a topic of interest followed by dialogue about the presentation. Those nearest to the speaker were seated in honored positions which allowed them to better see and hear the speaker than those seated or standing behind them.

Jesus notices the guests settling into their seating arrangements. It is likely that those with a higher opinion of their social status challenged and elbowed away from the best seats others they viewed as socially inferior. Jesus notices something is amiss. Before he begins teaching, he tells the gathered a parable, a story that illustrates a spiritual lesson. In the story, people who seat themselves in places of honor are humiliated in public when re-assigned by the host to lower places and people at the lower places are honored by the invitation to take the higher places. The spiritual lesson is that those that seek to live in harmony and right relation with God will concern themselves with those who are absent from the liberating, Passover table of God.

When we are invited to partake of the elements of Holy Communion at a United Methodist Church, the presiding celebrant invites those gathered to receive the bread and cup by proclaiming, “This is not the table of the United Methodist Church. This is the table of our Lord Jesus Christ and you are welcome.” Christ is the guest of honor, inviting all that repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with God and one another to come and partake of God’s spiritual food and love without regard to age, ethnicity, gender, or language.

Through the partaking of the Holy Mystery of Communion, Christ calls us to live in peace with God and one another through acts of evangelism, justice, and unity. First, we are called to be hospitable guides consciously identifying and seeking out the absent who feel unworthy, the poor, those who are not yet Christ followers, the victims of prejudice, and others who are oppressed or neglected, and invite them to become part of the body of Christ. Secondly, as we gratefully receive God’s abundant grace, we are called to accept fully our responsibility and accountability for renewal of our broken and contentious world and the coming of the realm of God. And third, as the sacrament of Holy Communion expresses our oneness in the body of Christ, we are called to anticipate Jesus’ invitation to feast at the heavenly banquet and strive for the visible unity of the church through the work of the Holy Spirit in response to Jesus’ prayer that “they may all be one” (John 17:21).

As we partake of Holy Communion on this first Sunday of the month, may Christ’s Spirit send us out into the world to live lovingly and justly as his servants by conscientiously seeking the absent, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the gospel” (BOD, ¶ 122).

Prayer: Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery of Communion and Table Fellowship in which you have given yourself to us. Grant that we may go into the world in the strength of your Spirit, to give ourselves for others, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Be Open to Receive – Sunday, August 25, 2019

Be open to Christ today.

Luke 13:10-17 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

Reflection: This passage in gospel of Luke tells of a woman afflicted by a crippling condition that had crippled her for eighteen years. She attends the synagogue as probably was her custom to continue building upon her faith formation through the worship and praise God. Jesus is also present in the synagogue that particular Sabbath. He is scheduled to teach the gathered. Jesus then sees her, has compassion on her, lays his hands on her, and heals her. She immediately stood up straight and began praising God. She leaves the worship service, freed of her affliction, to live in her community as a witness of God’s grace through Christ.

Have you ever had such an experience?

Worship is powerful because all the means of God’s grace are available to the gathered; be they 10 or 10,000. We really never know how Christian hospitality and fellowship, songs of praise and worship, prayers, silence, meditation, the reading of Scripture, opportunities to give, liturgies, the sacraments of baptism of Holy Communion, even church architecture and art, will proclaim and make near and accessible to us the glory, grace, and power of our triune God. Such a multi-dimensional spiritual presence of God’s grace is a gift of God to the people of God. Through these spiritual means, or conduits of God’s glory and care, the spirit of God mysteriously opens and penetrates our inner life to save, free, liberate, and fill us with God’s presence and power for living. In turn, we live in the world as an open channel of God’s glory and grace, led and used by God, to illuminate the hearts of those we meet.

Regular worship is vital to our spiritual formation and our daily living. The progress of our faith formation is often subtle, barely noticeable on a day to day or week to week basis. We cannot appreciate just how profound our formation has become through years of openly practicing and partaking of God’s means of grace until we face a crisis. It is in the difficult seasons of our lives, when we are weighed down with life’s problems, worries, and cares that we find ourselves deeply grounded and strong in our trust of God’s goodness and promises to be our very present help in our time of trouble (Ps. 46:1). Then there are those expected but rare moments when we are in worship and we experience an abrupt and powerful breakthrough or transformation in our lives that opens and frees us of whatever is bending our spirit, just like the woman today’s gospel.

The woman in today’s gospel attended the synagogue that Sabbath expecting to make her prayers known to God, to hear sound teaching about God’s nature and ways, and to be with her friends. She not only gave her worship to God, she was open to receive whatever God had for her in return. On that seemingly ordinary Sabbath, she received more than what she expected when she powerfully encountered God’s indescribable gift (2 Cor. 9:15), the one the prophets declared, the one spoken of in all Hebrew scripture, her deliverer, her peace, her healer, Jesus Christ.

As we worship this Sunday to strengthen and form our faith, may we be open to encountering Christ’s saving, healing, and liberating power through God’s means of grace.    

Prayer: Powerfully encounter us, blessed and compassionate Lord, in our times of worship through your abundant means of grace. Open our hearts and minds to receive what you have for us today so may declare your glory and praise you with our lives in the world.

In Which Direction Are We Walking? Sunday, August 18, 2019

Fire at Night by Francisco Goya, 1794

Luke 12:49-56 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Reflection: I succeeded Rev. Francisco Gaytan as pastor of El Buen Pastor (The Good Shepherd) United Methodist Church in Edinburg, TX. He served the congregation for 19 years and a total of 52 years as a Methodist pastor prior to retiring in 2010. Rev. Gaytan was a mentor, friend, and an active ministerial assistant to me during my ten years at El Buen Pastor. He was always willing to preach, officiate at weddings and funerals, and help with visitation. He continues to serve Christ as needed to this day.

One day, he shared his story of how he came to be a Methodist pastor. He attended Lydia Patterson Institute in El Paso, Texas and there he strengthened his faith in Christ and experienced a call to ordained ministry. He discerned, while still a high school student, that the present time had come for him to believe the good news and follow Christ as a disciple and ambassador of the gospel. The problem was that he did not know how his father would react to the news.

Francisco decided to break the news to his father one afternoon as they walked down a street in downtown El Paso. He said that his father stopped walking and stood still after Francisco told him he was going to be a Methodist minister. He turned to Francisco and said, “Hasta aqui tuviste padre,” translated in English to mean, “Up to now, you had a father.” His father, said Francisco, with a far-away look in his eye, then turned around and walked the other way. Francisco rarely spoke to his father afterward. He paid a high cost for his faith and for answering the call to ministry. He heard and followed a different rhythm that charted a new life path and caused a division between himself and his family.

Those of us who come from Hispanic culture and contexts understand this reality personally. Often, Hispanics and Latin Americans become estranged from their kin and community because their Protestant faith and ethics put them at odds with their family’s generational religious tradition and culture. Christians in other parts of the world such as North Korea, India, China, Indonesia, and parts of Africa also experience opposition and estrangement because of their Christian faith. That is why passionate worship, small discipleship groups where people find belonging, and authentic Christian fellowship are vital for sustaining, retaining, and equipping new disciples in their walk of faith.

The words of Jesus, “I came to bring division,” are uncharacteristic and hard to hear. But these words and reality are part of the whole of his saving message. It is not that Christ divides, but that people take offense at his teachings, claims, and promises, thereby separating their lives and wills from him and others who follow him. Those who receive Christ as Savior and Lord, follow and believe his teachings, claims, and promises are at times shunned from family and community because they come to see life, their purpose in life, and their values differently in the light of God.

The story of Francisco’s stand for Christ and obedience to Christ’s calling upon his life despite the division and estrangement it caused between him and his family is painful to hear. For God’s ultimate purpose in Christ for all human families is peace and unity in all things, especially in matters of faith. On the other hand, his story is inspirational to those who walk the same costly path of discipleship and experience hardships because of it. Its inspirational because whom Christ calls to follow Christ enables – by his own example as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (12:2) – to “run the race set before them with perseverance” (Hebrews 12:1). Even though Francisco’s faith and walk in Christ estranged him from family, friends, and community, he found belonging in the family God creates through Christ’s life, death and resurrection; the church.

Prayer: Christ, you are the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before you endured the cross and disregarded its shame. We thank you for all the faithful cloud of witnesses whose life and memory inspires us to trust in your promises despite hardships as we run the race you have set before us. Today we remember and bring before you all your faithful disciples in our world today – young and old, people from every nation, race, and language – that are experiencing estrangement, suffering, and violence because they walk in your ways and toward the abundant and eternal life you promise. Enable them with your Spirit to be strong and courageous, not afraid, not discouraged, and let them know that you are always with them wherever they go. Amen.