One of the effects of the church growth movement and our current loss of membership is to bring to the fore experts who emphasize goal setting. I like the wisdom offered by Robert M. Persig, “To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.” As we look for shalom, we’ll keep coming back to this basic concept that inner peace can’t be located elsewhere. It’s not in a future goal, like a paid off mortgage. It’s not over on a Hawaiian beach or up in heaven. Have you ever hiked a wooded path with a friend and just talked and found the conversation to be satisfying? Shalom is in that moment.
The Bible is a big book, but much of it is repetition. God speaks common sense in triplicate. But, real self-revelation from the divine is doled out very sparingly. To compensate for this, God has gifted people in every era and location to be storytellers, artists, musicians, and dancers. Wherever an inspired work helps people to live more wisely, to seek for healing in their relationships, and to grasp that there is something beyond this material world, there the voice of God is heard. By being both multicultural and multilingual, God does an end run around our tendency to associate religion with our pet dogmas. When the Apostle Paul paid to visit to Athens, he stood in very spot where Socrates had taught some four hundred years before. Paul made a point of complimenting the Greeks for their diligence in pursuing both philosophy and religion. In his mind the search for shalom was a universal activity something that both united and challenged all human beings. He said, “[God] is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’” (Acts 17:27-28). In our world of polarization and religious fanaticism, we need to once more speak about the common grace that God gives to all nations.
For: 
May 21, 2017
Acts 17:22-31

Who are these guys and why are they going to Emmaus? Recent archeology puts Emmaus at 19 miles from Jerusalem (160 stadia), not seven (60 stadia).  This agrees with some of the oldest texts. Early scribes dropped the one hundred stadia, perhaps because it seemed incredible that someone was trying to walk that far, in sandals, without GPS or an MP3 player. These dudes were motivated.  Even though the women were saying, “Jesus lives,” they were hitting the road, hard. I guess witnessing a crucifixion does that. Especially when you are afraid of being tarred with the same brush.

 

For: 
April 30, 2017
Luke 24:13-35
Easter 3
Communion

What was Jesus’ first word to his friends when he came to them the evening of Easter? It was Shalom. This is a word that means more than just peace. Wholeness, healing, living a life that has integrity and consistency. Shalom speaks of God’s providence. It means that we are fruitful in our work and loving in our relationships. It means that we have our material needs met, and that we can care for the needs of others. Further, it means that we have this for eternity.

Jesus showed the disciples his hands and side, so that they would know it was him. He had risen from the dead and he wants us to know that there is shalom on the other side. The disciples and women had carried him into the dark, cold, gave on Friday. They saw him alive on Sunday. He showed them that there was a new pattern; life-death-and life again. He said one word, shalom.

Then he gave his disciples and his friends the command that they carry shalom out into the world. He sent them into world that only knew this pattern; life-suffering-death. He gave them good news. There is a new pattern; life-suffering-shalom-suffering-death-shalom. Shalom is the word. It blesses us. It blesses others. When we encounter people suffering in this world, we bring them shalom.

Jesus then gave to his disciples one additional meaning for shalom. Shalom is forgiveness. Shalom is the promise of healing in our relationships. Shalom is the promise of peace between the broken factions of our world. Shalom embraces the ISIS terrorist and the sister who stole money from you. Shalom embraces the boss who abuses his office and the child who is sent to school without lunch money. These are Jesus’ words:

For: 
April 23, 2017
John 20:19-23
Easter 2

If you read John chapters 12 - 13 and Matthew 26 together, you get a much fuller picture of Judas. It’s almost too good of a snapshot for Judas’ motives and ours line up. Judas values money, security, and always being seen to do the right thing. Hey, those are my values too. While it may be convenient to say “the devil made Judas do it,” or that it was fate, this isn’t biblical.

 

Like a prosecuting DA, we must lay out a case based upon the facts. Unfortunately, Matthew and John have a different order to their stories. But the character of Judas, and its implications for our own propensity for betrayal, has veracity.

 

The events are as follows:

For: 
April 9, 2017
Matthew 26:14-30
John 12 - 13

Jesus is friends with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. It is a relationship that exceeds the one he has with the twelve disciples. The intimate phrase that Martha uses when she calls Jesus to come to Bethany is “the one whom you love…” The disciples don’t question Jesus’ love for Lazarus. They simply think that going to a village two miles away from Pilate, Herod, and the Sanhedrin is insane. Love for our friends can be insane. 

I suspect that Jesus has known these people from childhood. I am currently working on a novel about this friendship titled “Bethany’s People” (look for it in Lent of 2018). John’s Gospel has Jesus going frequently to Jerusalem; and Jesus doesn’t go as a tourist. He seems to know the place like a native. Bethany is only two miles from Jerusalem. It was Jesus’ habit to stay there. 

For: 
April 2, 2017
John 11:1-45
Lent 5

In the classic Sci-Fi book, Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein imagines a world where people train to become “fair witnesses.”  A fair witness is prohibited from speculating or repeating what they haven't seen for themselves. They only speak about what they know from direct experience. For example, when asked to describe the color of a house seen in the distance, the fair witness responds, “It’s white on this side.” 

 

The blind man who is healed and made to see by Jesus is a “fair witness.” When asked by the Pharisees to explain how he came to see, he says, “Jesus put mud on my eyes. I washed. Now I see.” The Pharisees don’t like this. Mud hasn’t been approved as a treatment for blindness by the FDA. Nor was Jesus a healer they could believed in. 

For: 
March 26, 2017
John 9:1-17
Lent 4

Martin Buber said, “The world is not an obstacle on the way to God, it is the way.” I am a person who hates interruptions. Telephone solicitors are the worst. Then a friend of mine was out of work. After a year, the only job he could find was in a call center. I encouraged him to take it. “It’s a stepping stone to something better. You need to get back in the process of working everyday.” Sure the job wasn’t his goal. But, it was the next step on the flow of life for this person. Often obstacles and interruptions get demonized, when really they are part of the journey. Often the people who distract us from our task get abused. How hard would it be for us to be compassionate? To see the world, not as an obstacle, but as the way to God?

 

For: 
March 14, 2017
John 4:5-42
Lent 3

Jesus says in John 3:5 that we come into the Kingdom of God by water and spirit. This makes me think of baptism, both the water kind that is common in worship, and the baptism of Pentecost that is less common these days. Water and spirit, here might also be related to the birth process. Water surrounds a baby for nine months. It gives way at birth to the spirit — in greek the same word also means breath and wind. When a child takes that first breath, they are inspired. We each re-spire until we die, or expire.  The word spirit and the words we use to talk about being creatures of the air, have deep linguistic connections. Think of it sequentially. The world was dark and void and God parted the waters. Then he breathed his breath into each creature and made us born again to a new life.Physical birth and spiritual birth have much in common.

 

Jesus goes on to say about the spirit that it is like an unexplained and unexpected wind. God is constantly involved in our world. We don’t stop to think about this as often as we should. What events are purely natural, and what events are spiritual?

For: 
March 12, 2017
John 3:1-17
Lent 2

There are fifty-nine national parks in our country, but most Americans suffer from a lack of wilderness. Most of us have the ability to skip a meal anytime we want, yet Christianity today is suffering from a great neglect of spiritual disciplines, including fasting. Jesus went into the wilderness, as the song says, to fast and pray for us. We each have people that we should be fasting and praying for. Our spiritual disciplines this lent, should be brave enough to do what ever it takes to gain the moral high ground in our lives.

 

My cousin Giselle recently asked me if Protestant’s fasted for Lent, or if that was just a Catholic thing. I replied as follows:

 

For: 
March 5, 2017
Matthew 4:1-11
Lent 1

Last week I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico with my cousin, Ron. The Unitarian Church there always has something interesting on its marquee. Last week the sign had only three words, it read, “Spirituality without God.”  My cousin Ron asks me what that sign meant. I said, “I think they’re just trying to being honest.” The UU church advertises itself as place where people can find spirituality without God. People who enter that church will probably find a warm and loving fellowship. They will find a pastor that listens to their problems and visits them in the hospital. They will find a rich educational program where there are activities for their children and youth. As a visitor to that church passes through the narthex they might see a place where the people drop off donations for the food bank and sign up for work trips and volunteer to knit items for the local nursing home — doing good is probably something that this church in Albuquerque does well.  

 

What is missing?  Is it really possible to have spirituality without God?

For: 
February 26, 2017
Matthew 17:1-9
Epiphany 8

In today’s world, it’s rare for someone to ask you to walk two miles. Nobody has asked for my coat lately, and I can’t remember the last time I was slapped on the cheek. When pastors deal with Matthew 5:38-48, they tend to wax historical and provide details like the Roman laws governing how far you had to carry a pack and how much the ancient people hated to use their left hand. This misses the point. Jesus always draws his examples from the daily lives of the people he was talking to. They knew what it was like to be a minority people group governed by an oppressive occupying force. 

 

For: 
February 19, 2017
Matthew 5:38-48
Epiphany 7

Jesus sometimes sets the bar so high that it seems out of our reach. He tells us to turn the other cheek when we are struck, to constantly assume the humbler position (wash each other’s feet), and here in Matthew 5:21-37, to take the ten commandments so seriously that we might maim ourselves to find holiness. It seems prudent and scholarly to downplay Jesus’ words. To say that just like the bit about camels going through the eye of a needle, Jesus is using hyperbole. But, not so quick. Jesus is speaking to the simple country folk coming with their families out to a gentle hill for the afternoon picnic and lecture. He doesn’t want to confuse them or us. What he wants is to set them on a pathway towards personal holiness. 

    The threshold to the kingdom of God is extremely low. The kingdom of God is already among us, we only need to believe in order to enter. But the daily life of a Christian is extremely hard. It begins with our family. When we flirt with a coworker, we put at risk multiple families and potentially harm the children in our care. Adultery is such a serious problem that Jesus says pluck out your eyes if you need to. Don’t go down that wrong path.

For: 
February 12, 2017
Matthew 5:21-37
Epiphany 6

It is a New Year. A new broom is sweeping. The fox is in the hen house. We  have this image as we face the New Year of an old man being pushed off of life’s stage by an infant. Meanwhile, in the Bible, we find the baby, Jesus, being brought by his parents to the temple on the first Sunday after Christmas and there are these two old geezers blocking the way to the altar. Simeon and Anna are both older than eight track tapes. Yet, they don’t speak about the past, they tell of the future. God has intruded into our cycle of birth - innocence - rebellion - maturity - midlife - old age - and death. He has given us something eternal. What we see is not a generational division, but a timeless unity.

 

For: 
February 5, 2017
Luke 2:22-40
Presentation of the Lord

In my workshops, I often show a slide of Steve Jobs introducing us to the first iPad. Then I ask the question, “How should we design our life together, as a congregation, so that we become what Christ has in mind?” The analogy is simple. The success of Apple Computer stems from the vision that Steve Jobs had for insanely great products. Jobs was a tyrant, constantly berating people who were content to make “pretty good” computers and cell phones. The corporate culture at Apple, the work habits of each employee, and the image the company presented to the world all grew out of the vision that Jobs expressed in that one phrase, insanely great products. I believe that Jesus also has a powerful new vision for his people. The Beatitudes, which begin Jesus’ teaching ministry in Matthew 5, is Jesus’ insanely great vision.

 

For: 
January 29, 2017
Matthew 5:1-12
Epiphany 4

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