Reflection: James and What We Get to Do

Martin Luther was not a fan of the book of James (today’s reading is James 1:17-27). For him, the entire book was too focused on what people do rather than on what God has done for us. The gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is how God has already done the hard work needed to make us faithful and faith-filled. The gifts of faith and grace are given to us through the Jesus who lived, died and rose for us. The gospel isn’t a list of things we have to do to get God to love and help us. Instead, the gospel is about what Jesus has already done and how Jesus changes everything. Since God has already done the work to keep us close to God, there’s nothing we have to do. There’s no trick to get God to love us more than God already does. The Christian life isn’t about what we have to do. Instead, it’s about what we get to do. And the book of James is part of the conversation trying to figure out what the Christian life looks like.

As we read through James, keep 1:17-18 in your mind. These verses are full of vivid metaphors describing who we, as baptized Christians, truly are. God’s gifts, such as faith, grace, mercy, and the specific spiritual gifts we looked at during these past seven weeks, are good. These gifts are made real when we gather together in community and these gifts are meant to be known to all. God is our “Father of lights” who, through baptism, gives birth (as a mother) to a new you. Since we are new, we need to look at ourselves in a new way. Instead of looking into a mirror and assuming everything we see is what’s holy and true, we’re invited to always return to scripture, prayer, and our faith community. These tools help us discover who we are meant to be.

Throughout James, we’ll see behaviors that are called proper and others that are not. We might even see James tell us to “not” do something. But instead of turning James into a book of rules, we’re invited to see James as a book of what we get to do. You get to live as a new you through this Christian community that loves and serves each other and the world. Knowing what this new you looks like is hard and even James will not be able to explain what the Christian life totally looks like. But James will, over and over again, return to the basics: as Christians we get to care for the orphans, the widows, the vulnerable and the marginalized. In other words, we get to be people who, at all times, just love.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/2/2018.

Reflection: A Hard Teaching

What’s difficult about faith?

We might answer this question by first focusing on what’s possible and what’s not. The question becomes a history and science debate. We read Genesis 1-2 (the creation of the world), and realize it doesn’t tell us that the earth is 4 billion years old. We move on from there to Jesus’ story and spend hours looking at star charts, trying to use astrophysics to prove that the Star over Bethlehem really happened. We can’t really do that so we move on, looking at Jesus’ life, and wonder about his miracles. We ask if he could really raise someone from the dead, heal a blind person, and feed over 5000 people with just a few loaves of bread. When these stories fail to match up with what we believe is possible, we start to struggle. The inconsistencies between scripture and “the real world” causes us to say, “I can’t believe.” This debate can feel like it’s a science vs faith issue. But it really isn’t. What we’re doing is taking what we know and wondering what our faith has to say about it. That impulse is completely normal, completely faithful, and is something people have done for thousands of years. Instead of focusing on the question of science and history, we should step back and look at why we’re doing. And that’s because, I think, we know that faith is hard. It’s not easy. Faith isn’t about trying to escape the life’s problems. Rather, faith is about living through them. And as followers of Jesus, what can make faith difficult is sometimes Jesus himself.

In today’s reading from the gospel according to John 6:56-71, the difficult teaching is Jesus’ promise about his body. The disciples do not question his abilities, his faithfulness, or that he’s a teacher from God. But what they can’t fathom is how Jesus’ body connects them to God. We know from our personal experience just how difficult bodies can be. They grow, change, and enable us to do amazing things. But our bodies also get sick, grow old, and wear out. Some of us, through cultural expectations and teachings, learn to dislike our body, wanting it to change. Bodies are very human and bodies do not last forever. Yet it’s through a body, Jesus says, that forms an eternal relationship with the Creator of everything.

For me, the difficult thing about faith is that faith is meant to be lived in our bodies. God chose to enter the world, live in a human body, and to experience life like we do. It’s through a body, through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, that God gives us the faith to trust that we are never on our own. This trust is meant to be experience in our current body, as we are right now. This faith is meant to flow into every nook and cranny that is our sometimes awesome, sometimes broken, body. Faith is not meant to be only an abstract thing. Faith isn’t something we keep in the back of our minds. Our faith is a gift from God lived through our bodies and our words. Jesus lived and died for you as you are. He didn’t live or die for the perfect version of you, the fit version of you, or for the most instagramable version of you. He lived and died for everything that makes you you – and that includes your body. And it’s through baptism, faith, prayer, and being fed ta the Lord’s table, that we discover how the eternal life can be lived, right now, in our non-eternal bodies.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 8/26/2018.

Reflection: Eternal in John

Last Monday, we hosted an interfaith event called “Welcoming the Stranger.” The event focused on faith and immigration, letting scripture interact with the personal stories of immigrants. After a piece of scripture was read, a reflection was offered by someone who went through the immigration process (including those who were undocumented) or who work with people currently in detention centers. Videos from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service were used to show how Lutherans from several different denominations have responded over the years to the surge of unaccompanied minors and families who have sought asylum in the US. None of the clergy in attendance preached. Instead, we invited the words of scripture and the words of personal stories to swirl in the air around us. It wasn’t an event designed to provide answers. Rather, it was an event inviting us to, in every experience, ask faith filled questions.

One of the common themes in the stories we heard was food. Throughout the immigrants’ journey, from its start to their time in detention centers, the food was always poor and there was never enough of it. We know how the lack of food impacts our body and mind. We lose energy, have difficulties processing what other people are saying, and struggle with simple day-to-day tasks. The lack of food increases our stress levels as we worry about where our next meal is coming from. Hunger takes a physical, mental and spiritual toll on us, impacting every area of our life.

As we listen to Jesus’ words today in John 6:51-58, it’s easy to latch onto the word “eternal” and think “forever.” For us, eternal is a measurement defined by duration. Eternal life is about trying to live forever. There’s a truth to that but there’s another aspect to eternal we sometimes forget. The eternal life Jesus offered wasn’t just about living a long time. Rather, a life with Jesus is filled with value and worth. This kind of life isn’t without struggle. Even those of us who share in Holy Communion will, eventually, die. Yet this life with Jesus is one where our purpose, identity and joy is made real and secure in a savior who is never far from us. We don’t always know what life will bring. We don’t always know when, through no fault of our own, we might need to take a journey that leaves us hungry, scared, and full of doubt. But when we cling to Jesus, trusting that he is with us, we can face our troubles knowing that the struggles we face are not the limit of who we are. We belong to Christ; we are eternally valued; we are loved; and we are, even right now, living our eternal life.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 8/19/2018.

Reflection: Living Bread

I usually don’t like my bread when it’s alive. I have a bad habit of buying a baguette and leaving it on my kitchen counter for too long. I always plan to eat it quickly but that plan rarely comes through. After a few days, the baguette evolves and comes alive. Mold forms, usually in a place I can’t see at first. When I finally pick it up, I see the mold and toss the bread into the garbage. I swear I’ll eat the bread sooner next time. We’ll see if I ever listen to my own advice.

In today’s reading from the Gospel according to John 6:41-51, Jesus is “the bread from heaven” and “the living bread” at the same time. As Lutheran Christians who share communion every week, the words “bread from heaven” are understandable. Every Sunday, we gather in Jesus’ name and wait to be served at His table. He comes to us through words, songs, bread and drink. We eat his body, and we are physically (and spiritually) fed by him. We will never be able to fully understand the mystery that is holy communion, but we know that when we eat Jesus, we are connecting with a savior who gives everything to us. His life, death and resurrection showed that God will go through anything so that God can love and serve us. God has (and will) feed us spiritually and physically. But have you ever held the piece of bread at communion and think it’s alive?

By calling himself the living bread, Jesus reminds us that he is with us right now. Jesus isn’t only important to us in our past or in our future. He is with us in this moment. There is no moment in our lives when Jesus doesn’t care about us. And there is no point in time where he isn’t with us. He invites us to live a life responding to his presence, mercy and love. God has, and will, give everything to God’s people and God’s world. The question is whether we will do the same?

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 12th Sunday after Pentecost, 8/12/2018.

Reflection: Re-frame

What was the last thing Jesus did for you?

An interesting part of today’s reading from John 6:24-35 is Jesus’ willingness to engage that question. These verses follow what we heard last week. Jesus fed 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. The crowd tried to make Jesus their king so he fled into the mountains. While there, his disciples decided to get in a boat, leaving Jesus on the seashore. Jesus, though, refused to stay behind. He walked on water, meeting his disciples where they were. They cross the sea and the crowd is not thrilled that Jesus left them. They assemble a small fleet, sail after him, and find Jesus on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. They asked Jesus when he arrived. And Jesus refused to answer the question. Instead, he wondered why they were there in the first place.

I think it’s easy to listen to Jesus’ rebuke of the crowd and automatically assume we’re not a part of it. As followers of Jesus, we gather at His church every Sunday because we believe. The communion we share is a physical connection to our God. When we participate in holy communion at this church, we are automatically feeding on the bread of eternal life. Just by being here, we feel as if we are in the right crowd.

But if we examine the motivations in this text seriously, we discover that we are not different from the crowd at all. The crowd came to Jesus because Jesus did something amazing. They felt God in their life and they wanted more. They were fed real food and since we need to eat every day, it would be silly for them to not find Jesus’s. Yet Jesus took their motivations and re-framed it. He knows they are looking at him, wanting to be fed again. So Jesus reminds them they’ve already been fed. They asked for a sign to prove what Jesus could do. But it’s not about what God will do. Rather, faith is fed by what God has already done.

Imagine if we reframed how we viewed the world. Instead of looking for what God can give us next, what if we looked back at what God has already done? If we noticed all the different ways God feeds us, if we took time to count our blessings, then our present and our tomorrow might be less about what Jesus can do and more about how we can be like Jesus to the crowd around us.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 11th Sunday after Pentecost, 8/5/2018.

Reflection: John is Different

There are actions and stories in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John that are similar to each other. Jesus is constantly teaching, healing, and feeding people. We sometimes take these stories about Jesus and reduce them to one sentence. This process of condensing stories is helpful. It reminds us of what Jesus did in the past and what he does for us today. But these stories are not always exactly the same in all four gospels. And that difference matters. Today’s reading from John 6:1-21 has two stories that are also in the Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Jesus feeds thousands of people and then walks on water. If we focus only on that one sentence summary of what Jesus does, we miss the details that reveal who Jesus is. For example, in Mark’s version of the feeding of the 5000, Jesus’ disciples are the ones that feed the crowd. But John does things differently. In the gospel according to John, Jesus, not the disciples, is the one who feeds everyone. That a difference and a contradiction. It’s also not the only one. We also notice that, in John, this story takes place around Passover. But in Mark, Passover isn’t to be found. The feeding of the 5000 is an important story but each author of the gospels told the story differently. These differences and contradictions are hard to hold together. But they’re also very important. So why did John write the story in this way?

John is focused on the question: who is Jesus? And his Jesus is the One who has been with God since before the earth was made. Jesus has all the attributes of God, including knowing how the story will turn out. And since Jesus knows the story, Jesus is always in control of it. John’s version can sometimes feel as if Jesus is too divine; like he really isn’t as human as you and I. But all writing about Jesus will fall short because it’s impossible to fully express (and understand) everything there is about Jesus. He is always 100% human and 100% God at the same time. Our words will always struggle to explain this detail of Jesus’ identity. But this struggle is also a gift because it allows Jesus to be as expansive as we need him to be. There are times when we need to know that Jesus knows what it’s like to be hurt, betrayed, and cry. And there are times when we need Jesus to be the One who knows the end of every human story. The different of the stories about Jesus help us discover the many different ways Jesus matters to us. His story, like all our stories, is full of nuance and what looks like contradictions. Yet the constant theme in all our stories about Jesus is who he is, and forever will be, Emmanuel – God with us, for us, and who will never stop loving us.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 10th Sunday after Pentecost, 7/29/2018.

Reflection: Imperfect but Whole

There’s a gap in our reading from the gospel according to Mark 6:30-34,53-56 today that is unfortunate but understandable. The lectionary, the 3 year cycle of readings we hear on Sunday mornings, skips Mark’s version of the Feeding of the Five Thousand and Jesus’ walking on water. The lectionary does this, I think, for two reasons. One, we hear a version of these stories in Matthew and Luke so the lectionary doesn’t feel like we need to repeat it. Two, starting next week, we’ll hear John’s version of these two stories. The lectionary made a choice to keep some versions of Jesus’ stories in our worship and to move others to the side. But these kinds of choices are artificial. We made them. The author of Mark and the Holy Spirit wanted these stories to be together. When we see Jesus’ compassion because the crowd “was like sheep without a shepherd,” we need to know that Jesus is going to do more than teach. He’s also going to feed, confront their fears, and heal everyone. Jesus (and his disciples)make people whole.

This Wholeness, however, does not mean being comfortable. Last week’s reading showed us what the apostles were doing and teaching. They traveled into villages, casted out demons, and told everyone to repent. They invited everyone (poor, rich, and powerful) to reorient their lives towards God. This reorientation is more than a change of beliefs. This reorientation is a change in priorities. And this is scary. It scared the people who heard it. It also scared King Herod. The words reminded him of what John the Baptist told him and he imagined Jesus to be John the Baptist back from the dead. The reorientation of our life will break down our prior assumptions, priorities, and way of life. It pushes us away from what we think makes us whole and instead compels us towards the Jesus who makes a whole.

This wholeness isn’t riches or wealth or being so healthy that people assume we do CrossFit everyday. The wholeness Jesus offers is the wholeness the apostles model. They do not always understand what God is up to. They make mistakes. And they have their doubts, concerns, and fears. Yet they do what Jesus did: teach, feed, and heal by connecting people to each other and to their God. Jesus knows he will never get perfect disciples. But he knows that his imperfect disciples can always love.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 9th Sunday after Pentecost, 7/22/2018.

Reflection: A Platter

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark 6:14-29 is rare because Jesus isn’t in it. He doesn’t heal. He doesn’t teach. Jesus says nothing. But Jesus is the center of the story because King Herod is disturbed by what Jesus’ disciples are saying. In last week’s text, we saw Jesus send his disciples away. They were told to preach, teach, and heal. They took nothing with them – no bread, no bag, and no money. Instead, all they had were the words and power Jesus gave them. The text says they went out and “proclaimed that all should repent” (Mark 6:12). King Herod heard what Jesus’ disciples were doing. And King Herod was scared.

The story of John the Baptist’s beheading is a little gruesome. Herod is impulsive, calculating, and trapped in a system where he isn’t as politically powerful as he wanted to be. He is the king of Galilee but he’s not on top. Rome is still in charge. But that doesn’t mean that Herod didn’t have opportunities to gain more power. So in an attempt to strengthen his political position, Herod married his brother’s wife. John the Baptist heard about this political move and he won’t have it. John tells Herod that his marriage is unjust. This makes Herod (and his wife) upset. So John the Baptist is sent to prison and, eventually, killed. The text implies that Herod is regularly manipulated by Herodias, his wife. But we shouldn’t act as if this gets Herod off the hook for his actions. Herod made the choice marry Herodias and he is the one who made the decision to kill John the Baptist. Herod is an active participant in John’s beheading (he even says “John, whom I beheaded…”). Herod, like the others around him, will do everything he can to fulfill his impulsive behavior, including his desire for more power. He is participating in a system that is violent, aggressive, and harmful. And it’s this system that John, Jesus, and Jesus’ disciples speak out against.

One of the reasons why they speak out against this system because of what this hunger for power does to the people. We see the outcome not only in what happened to John the Baptist. We also see the evil this can cause in the words Herodias’ daughter uses. After King Herod is seduced by Herodias’ daughter, he makes an impulsive (and destructive) promise. The daughter takes this promise to her mother. Her mom wants the head of John the Baptist so that’s what her daughter asked for. But instead of only asking for the head, the daughter asked for it to be served on a platter. This system of power devours the people who stand up to it and corrupts the people who are living within it. The banquet of the rich and powerful requires the taking of a life. But next week we’ll discover what Jesus’ banquet of love, grace, and Godly power does instead.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 8th Sunday after Pentecost, 7/15/2018.

Reflection: The Third Heaven

I have no idea what Paul is talking about when he mentions the Third Heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2-10). Our modern conceptions of heaven do not usually imagine a hierarchy in heaven. But this leveling is a new idea. There are texts in the Bible that imagines heaven as a layered cake where each layer brings us closer to God. Paul, in today’s letter to the Corinthians, is playing a game. He’s boasting about himself. He does this first by name dropping that he knows someone who ascended to the third heaven. Paul doesn’t give us any details but that’s because the third heaven isn’t the point. Paul is boasting because his opponents are boasting as well.

We don’t know much about Paul’s opponents. Pau was one of several different missionaries traveling throughout the Roman Empire. These missionaries all had different thoughts (and experiences) about what this Jesus thing was all about. As these missionaries wandered around the Roman Empire, they would form new faith communities. When a different missionary entered these faith communities later on, big disagreements would start. We don’t know what Paul’s opponents were like since we only have his descriptions to fall back on (and he is not an unbiased observer). Paul described his opponents as boastful, braggarts, who only wanted to see influence and gain power. They bragged about what they knew, who they knew, and why the Corinthians should follow them. Paul is never one to back down from a challenge so he plays their game as well. But instead of boasting about his strengths, he boasts about his weakness.

Now when was the last time you boasted about what you can’t do? We usually don’t describe that as boasting. Instead, even our humble brags are about pointing out how awesome we are. Paul, however, feels compelled to talk about his weakness. Weakness is defined as something we can’t do. But weakness can also mean something else. As Professor David Fredrickson writes, “To be strong means to be self-contained and self-identical, even as the world is falling apart around you. [Weakness – in the ancient Greek], on the other hand, means coming undone. It frequently referred to sickness and disease, but it also points, in a more general sense, to what we know about but can’t quite define: “human weakness,” which might be thought of as the failure of resolve or the lack of fortitude in the face of despair.”

Paul is boasting about coming undone. Paul is saying that he has been given a power that isn’t about having strength over the people around you. Real power and real strength, as Jesus defines it, is about loving others to the point where we personally come undone. We rarely want to become undone and there is a danger when the relationships we are in causes us to fall apart in unhealthy ways. Yet, when we are in a healthy relationship with each other and with Jesus, we are drawn closer to the one that brings us a full, connected, and generous life. When we boast about Jesus, we’re pointing out how he is giving us a new identity: one that celebrates us, loves us, and unites us with the world and every bit of heaven.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 7th Sunday after Pentecost, 7/8/2018.