Friday, February 29, 2008

Struggle and Strain 29 February 2008

Mark 6:47-56
Friday, 29 February 2008

It is a truism that people do not like to confront the unfamiliar. And I think that it is particularly difficult for us to be faced with the unfamiliar in the midst of a space that we think we know well. It's one of the reasons that church people have such difficulty with any change in the worship liturgy; it's a struggle and strain to acclimate oneself in a familiar space with what feels like a foreign experience.

Much of Jesus' activities thus far in the Gospel of Mark have taken place on or near the lake. Several of Jesus' disciples are fishers by trade. As today's scene opens, the disciples are crossing the lake with great difficulty, straining and struggling against an adverse wind. Jesus, though taking time for his own communion with God and solitude, has been keeping an eye on them, and when he sees their strain he approaches for a closer look. He intends to pass by, but they spot him. Jesus is familiar; the seas is familiar; even the adverse wind is familiar. But when you put all of them together, it all seems foreign. The disciples are afraid and they cry out. Jesus enters the boat and the adversity clears.

We have the advantage over the disciples in the text, since as Jesus' people we should always be expecting Jesus to show up. In fact, rather than being surprised at his arrival, we ought to be keeping our eyes open to see how and where he will make his appearance. Especially when we are struggling and strain against inevitable adverse winds, we can cry out for his help, not in fear but in faith.

Sing "Jesus Savior Pilot Me"

Pray Psalm 25

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Come Away and Rest 28 February 2008

Mark 6:30-46
Thursday, 28 February 2008

I bet you have noticed that with all of our time-saving, step-saving technology, we neither work less nor have more leisure time. Whereas we used to read during our commute, now we work. Whereas coming home from the office used to mean switching out of work mode, now our computers and PDAs make it possible to bring the office home with us literally and not just figuratively. The question we are all dealing with is When do we get a chance to rest?

Today's lesson really picks up where we left off in v. 12 before the interlude concerning the fate of John the Baptist. Jesus has given his disciples power and sent them forth, preaching and anointing with oil for healing. It is their activity that is setting the environment on fire; they are the ones whose ministries grab Herod's attention. It is safe to say that they have been very productive and very busy. Now they are touching bases with Jesus, and they are bringing the same excitement to their testimonies that they brought to their ministries. Jesus interrupts them with a command, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while."

Periodically, we need to be reminded that human beings require rest. Too often in the church we are so interested in and consumed by our desire to work for God and to minister to people that we forget that we cannot survive without a break. Church workers and professionals are notorious for burnout. To be sure, the people we serve may still come after us and we may shortly find ourselves involved in a miraculous demonstration of ministry and power, but right about now I think I hear Jesus' voice, "Come away and rest."

Sing, "In the Garden"

Let us pray:
We come to this moment of solitude, Lord, taking time from the hustle and bustle of life. We inhale deeply to embrace your presence. Allow us in these moments to glimpse the rest that you have promised for us. Refresh us in this respite so that we may return renewed to the work to which you have called us, in Jesus' name.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Fear and Liking 27 February 2008

Mark 6:13-29
Wednesday, 27 February 2008

One of the most interesting, confusing, and frustrating characteristics of human beings is our ability to hold two conflicting opinions at the same time. We can be endlessly fascinated by the same people we find unbearably annoying. We can love and not like someone. We can be afraid of people we like.

Herod is obviously a man controlled by his passions. Although it was unlawful to do so, his passions drove him to marry his brother's wife. Furious with John the Baptist for calling attention to his misdeeds, he has John arrested and imprisoned. At the same time, he handles John with care, not only because of the people's regard for John, but also because he himself recognizes that John is a man of God. He despises the truth that John tells; he fears John's spiritual and political power; but he also finds John's words compelling. He likes to listen to the same one he fears. So haunting is his memory of John the Baptist that even after he has him beheaded, his conscience troubles him and he sees John the Baptist resurrected in the ministry of Jesus and he hears John's voice in Jesus' words.

It's funny how life often causes us to revisit the very areas and relationships that we most would like to bury, forcing us to examine and reexamine our feelings and thoughts. Even kings get haunted by their misdeeds; even rulers have to give an account before God and in their own consciences. And for us, a big part of this Lenten journey is the opportunity to have our hearts, minds, emotions, and passions exposed before God so that God can make sense of them. Realizing this, as we listen to God's voice, we like Herod have conflicting responses. We are afraid and we are drawn closer. Unlike Herod, however, we are wise enough not to try to silence the voice.

Sing,"I am Thine O Lord"

Let us pray:
All-Knowing God, we both long for and tremble at your awesome presence. In your light, we see ourselves as we were and are - broken, unworthy, and sinful. By your light, we also see ourselves as we are becoming - healed, cleansed, and transformed. Grant us the privilege of remaining near enough to experience your perfect love casting out our fear. Lead us on the journey of exposure and restoration, we pray in Jesus' name. Amen

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Coming Home 26 February 2008

Mark 6:1-13
Tuesday, 26 February 2008

In recent years, I have become something of a baseball fan; I guess it is a function of living in a sports town like Philadelphia. Of course, I like things best when a player from my team scores. I love to watch a home run hitter round the bases and to see him met at home plate and in the dugout by his teammates. Basically, they're saying "Welcome home."

I am struck in this reading of Mark how regularly Jesus returns to his home in the early chapters. In chapter 5, Jesus has demonstrated the far reaches of his power, as a woman who simply touched him was healed and a young girl who had died was raised back to life. Jesus has hit the ministry home run. He goes into the synagogue and teaches with power and authority. People are amazed. Then they remember who he is. They tell themselves, "He's a homeboy." And then they stumble. It's just too much for them to allow the carpenter whose mother and siblings live among them to be more than they anticipated. The sad thing is that the loss was really theirs, as Jesus was unable to perform the deeds of power there that would have ministered to them.

We have all had moments when we came home with our accomplishments in hand and expecting that we would get the home run greeting from our family and friends. Sometimes they have done more to honor accomplishments than we could have imagined; sometimes they simply could not bring themselves to celebrate us at all. But the thing we learn from this is the lesson Jesus teaches, that the truth of who we are and of what we have to say does not change on the basis of whether there's a parade or not. And even when the people at our address or in our hometown do not know how to embrace us, Jesus himself demonstrates again and again that he is our true home.

Sing, "Lord I'm Coming Home"

Pray a prayer that focuses on the people of your home.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Has Jesus Dropped the Ball? 25 February 2008

Mark 5:21-43
Monday, 25 February 2008

I have been thinking a lot about the demands of pastoral ministry, particularly the challenge of balancing the competing needs and issues among the congregation. Problems and tragedies do not stand in line; new emergencies do not wait for the resolution of the previous issue. I am sure you can think of areas in your life in which you are juggling, with lots of balls in the air, each one as precious as the other, but it's all you can do to keep from dropping them all.

Throughout the gospel of Mark, Jesus has been negotiating the growing crowds who follow him because of the power and effectiveness of his ministry. You might even remember that in chapter 1, Jesus rose before it was even light in order to make some solitary time to commune with God through prayer. But when Peter found him, Peter simply reminded him that "Everybody's looking for you." Here in chapter 5, everybody is still looking for him; the crowds are pressing in and a ruling official of the synagogue makes an urgent request regarding his daughter who is ill. On this way to the man's house but still pressed by the crowds, Jesus stops to acknowledge the touch of another daughter - God's daughter - known to us as "the woman with the issue of blood." Unlike the rest of the clamoring crowd, this woman's touch has transferred healing and virtue from Jesus to her. She goes in peace. But during the pause, the other little daughter dies. I wonder what the synagogue official's thoughts are at that moment. Has Jesus dropped the ball?

Of course, you read the text so you know that Jesus has an answer even for apparent defeat and failure. Death for others is sleep to him. We can be inspired by this reality, as it is the essence of our faith. As our forebears sang, he may not come when you want him, but he's on time.

Sing, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands"

Let us pray:
Loving Savior, so much in this Lenten season reminds us of your infinite power to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat. Whether we find ourselves in the crowd desiring your attention or seek to be your ministers in a world that needs so much, help us to be mindful that while we may drop the ball, you hold the whole world in your hands. Teach us again by your death and resurrection to regard all of the tombs in our lives as temporary, in Jesus' name. Amen.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Storm Watch 22 February 2008

Mark 4:35-41
Friday, 22 February 2008

February is a good month for considering storms. Whenever I make plans to travel in February I am always prepared for a winter storm to upset them. In fact, just today I was scheduled to travel to Virginia for a conference, but the winter storm lasted just long enough to cause the airline to cancel my flight.

The disciples and Jesus are traveling by boat from one side of the sea to the other. The very human Jesus takes the opportunity away from the crowds to catch a nap. As he sleeps, a storm arises on the sea, highlighted by rough winds and swamping waves. Even the fishers aboard the ship begin to note the force of wind and the danger of the waters. Just then, somebody remembers that Jesus is on board. Awakening him, they ask, "Don't you care that we are about to die?" Nothing about their question suggests that they thought Jesus could do something about the storm. They were just curious about how he could sleep through the racket. The more than human Jesus surprises them. He rebukes the wind and commands the sea to be calm. Immediately, all is quiet.

There is much for us to learn in this story. But the lesson for me today is to stop watching the storm and know that there is no cancellation for the Lord's plans. When we focus on the storm, we forget our own past experiences and testimonies of deliverance from and in worse situations. Looking at the storm, we forget that Jesus is on board our ship. The only thing we ought to watch for in the storm is the response of the storm when Jesus speaks. Peace, be still.

Sing, "Master the Tempest is Raging"

Let us pray:
Almighty God, your voice quiets all the storms in our life. Forgive us for our lack of trust in your guiding and guarding us toward our destination. Grant us grace in the midst of the storm and faith until it passes over. May we follow Jesus and be at rest even when the storm is raging and the billows roll, we pray in his name. Amen

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Under Surveillance 21 February 2008

Mark 4:21-34
Thursday, 21 February 2008

Something fundamental changed in our culture in the transformation of communication and surveillance. While we once might have had the illusion of privacy, now we are aware that our every move can be and probably is being watched. You can place your home address in the computer and at any hour of the day see a satellite-generated picture of your house at that moment, with your car parked out front.

Continuing his conversation with his followers about how to maximize their effectiveness and reach in a sometimes hostile world and environment, Jesus offers an illustration from commonplace, every day experience. No one who lights a candle then obscures its light by placing it under a basket or under a bed. Rather, the person positions the light on a lampstand. Unlike the parallel text from Matthew in which Jesus used the same illustration to discuss his followers' visibility and influence as the light of the world and salt of the earth, this time Jesus uses the image of light as an implicit warning. Everything eventually will be exposed. Everything will come to light. Everything?

Let's be honest. Most of us have good reason to be uncomfortable at the prospect that EVERYTHING will come to light. But we are only uncomfortable to the extent that we forget that Jesus is the Light and that the Light is also the Love. Jesus is not the police, looking for a reason to arrest us or to destroy us. Rather than viewing the promise that light will shine as a curse, we ought to view it as a blessing. God does not expose us to the light in order to condemn us but to heal us.

Sing, "Yes Jesus Loves Me"

Let us pray:

While we are down here praying, please search our hearts. Shine the light of your Holy Spirit upon us. Help us not to shrink away but to walk toward the light. And as we draw nearer to you, allow us to reflect the light. May our lights so shine that people will see our good works and glorify you. Amen

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

What Kind of Ground? 20 February 2008

Mark 4:1-20
Wednesday, 20 February 2008

In light of current events, much is being made of the means by which political candidates are or are not effective with their words, how they connect better or worse with potential voters, and who their natural constituents are. As a preacher, I too wonder how well or how poorly I am connecting. But unlike political candidates, we who minister the gospel or even who witness concerning it most often have no idea whether the message we advocate will bear the fruit we hope for. We never know how well we're doing because we never know what kind of ground we're finding.

Having recently called his disciples, Jesus gathers them along with the lingering crowds for a lesson about sowing seed. The sower goes out and broadcasts the seed. The results vary. Some ground is too hard. Some ground is too shallow. Some ground is overrun with weeds. Some ground is ideal for planting. The thing is that the sower doesn't know. All the sower does is sow. When the disciples ask for the mystery of the parable to be explained to them, Jesus informs them that the seed is the word of God. There are several worst case scenarios for the word: Satan steals it, trouble chokes it, the world distracts and detracts from it. The one good case: it bears fruit. The question Jesus doesn't answer is why the sower is not more discerning about the ground. Why didn't the sower prepare it or scout it out in advance? It's because the disciples are the sowers.

I suppose it would seem to be a better business plan for us to target the people and environments where the word would seem to us to be most likely to take root. We could do focus groups, as political candidates do, to figure out who would be most receptive to our message. We could poll our families, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, "What kind of ground are you?" lest we waste our time with lost causes. The problem with this is that the gospel sowers' job is not to judge the ground but to sow the word, to broadcast it. The ground is not our business anyway.

Sing, "Bringing in the Sheaves"

Let us pray:
We long, O God, to be your faithful witnesses. But we confess that sometimes the uncertainty about the ground we are finding makes us hesitant to share even the wonderful message of your love expressed in Jesus Christ. Help us to remember that the result is not ours to control. Help us simply to be diligent and faithful in fulfilling our call and charge. When we go out sowing precious seed, remind us of your promise that some of it will find ground and produce fruit in Jesus' name. Amen.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Family Values 19 February 2008

Mark 3:19-35
Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Just today, while speaking with a student in one of my classes and hearing her story, I had the opportunity to revisit one of the most disappointing moments of my early life. I had just been accepted at Harvard and was soliciting scholarship money from local organizations. My aunt happened to be on one of the committees and noticed that my application said that I was planning to major in theology. She informed other family members that I appeared to be abandoning my childhood commitment to the legal profession. Although all of most of my family members are faithful and committed Christians, several of those who were closest to me expressed their disappointment and disapproval of my apparent choice to enter the ministry. Almost in the same words that my students' relatives used on her, they asked me why I would waste such a magnificent opportunity as Harvard provided by training for the ministry. Turns out that my family sometimes just didn't get it.

In yesterday's lesson, Jesus retreated with his closest followers, drawing them close in preparation for sending them forth. Today he has returned home, and is greeted by the usual crowds and skeptics. This time, however, another group shows up on his doorstep: his family. The last time we encountered Jesus' family was around Christmas time, when Joseph protected baby Jesus and Mary pondered all things in her heart. Joseph has disappeared from the scene. Mary is now accompanied by Jesus' siblings. Rumor has it that Jesus is losing it, and his family seems to believe the rumor. "They went out to restrain him, for people were saying 'He has gone out of his mind.'" Wonder of wonders,Jesus' family just doesn't get it.

I guess I should say that most of my family has come around by this time, as the trajectory of my ministry has led me in directions and toward opportunities that were unimaginable twenty years ago when I was a high school senior. But part of the reason I am able to stand today is that I was able to withstand the well-meaning discouragement of those who were closest to me in those days. Following Jesus means acknowledging that the will of God is more important even than the will of those who love us and whom we love most. We have to make up our minds that as long as Jesus is with us, we have the best company.

Sing "All the Way My Savior Leads Me"

Let us pray:
Loving God, again we express our gratitude that in Jesus Christ you became one of us and experienced the most challenging aspect of human life. Even rejected and misunderstood, you demonstrated the way of faithfulness for us. We pray for our families that they and we may always value most what pleases you. Amen.

Monday, February 18, 2008

There's Always One 18 February 2008

Mark 3:7-19
Monday, 18 February 2008

A few memorable cuts still crop up from my childhood attention to the Sesame Street Book and Record. Who could forget Kermit the Frog's haunting ballad whose lyrics begin, "It's not easy being green"? Then there's the song about all the body parts that we have two of: "I've got two eyes and they're both the same size." But the real challenge on the album is found in "One of these things is not like the others."

Jesus' ministry has been making waves in the communities where he travels, with almost every move and miracle closely scrutinized and roundly criticized by the religious officials of his people. Reading the early chapters of Mark, one is struck by how often Jesus seems to be trying to get away from the crowds only to find himself in the middle of them again. In today's text, however, Jesus has finally got enough distance from the hoards and the multitude that he is able to conduct significant business for the kingdom with his disciples. These are the people in whom the gospel will rest undiluted. Called first to be with him and then sent forth by him, entrusted with the message and the authority. Look at the Twelve. Simon Peter, James and John, Andrew, Phillip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James, Thaddeus, Simon, and Judas Iscariot. One of these men is not like the others: "Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him."

The amazing thing is not that there was one in the number who proved unfaithful or perhaps even viciously disloyal. Let's face it; there's always one. What is astounding about the Lord is that then and now he does not discriminate between us, just because he knows what is in us. He still knows we fail. He still knows our indifference. He still knows that we want our own way, and that when we do not get it, we may act out destructively. But he still calls us to be with him and sends us out from him. He still prepares for us a sacred meal. He still washes our feet. He does not permit us to try to sort one another out.

Sing, "I Need Thee Every Hour"

Let us pray:
Gracious God, we confess that not one of us is worthy in ourselves to be called one of your disciples or to be sent with your message in our mouths. Yet we give you thanks that knowing when, where, and how we would fall even before the sinful thought formed in our minds or the words formed in our mouths, you still have called us. Cleanse us and make us whole. Do not allow our lot to be that of Judas who died without repentance. We need instead the grace of restoration, through the atoning blood of Jesus the Christ. Amen

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Faith Counts 17 February 2008

Romans 4:1-17
Lent 2
Sunday, 17 February 2008

I learned a lot of wonderful phrases when I lived in New York. One of my favorites was a retort used to signal useless or valueless opinions and information: "That [information or opinion] and a $2.00 will get you a ride on the subway." I usually used it in a self-deprecating way, when I would offer someone advice. I'd give them my best guess and then I'd say, "But that and $2.00 will get you a ride on the subway."

Romans is one of Paul's most purely theological letters. In it he lays out the foundation of the faith and explains what it means and what it costs to be a Christian. In the Romans 4, Paul returns to the ancestor of the faith and the faithful, Abraham. In the midst of his discussion (v. 3) he quotes one of most astounding verses of scripture from Genesis 15:6, "Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." What makes this verse so striking is that it asserts something God and God's relationship with human beings that we ought always to remember, that is, that God loves us so much that the little we can offer (namely, our trust and faith) mean everything to God. Our faith may not be worth a lot to other people but it counts for everything with God.

The truth is that we all spend a lot of time trying to figure out whether what we say, know, think, and believe mean anything in the grand scheme of things. Many of us are surrounded by people who dismiss us, our ideas, and commitments. How wonderful it is to know that God, who has invested so much in giving us Jesus Christ the Son of God, embraces and counts what we have to offer back -- our faith.

Sing, "My Faith Looks up to Thee"

Pray Psalm 25

Friday, February 15, 2008

Sealing the Deal 15 February 2008

Mark 2:13-22
Friday, 15 February 2008

Is it just me or is food really important to what it means to be human? I don't say this just because we are 10 days into Lent and I am continually aware of what I eat and don't eat. The reality is that we know a lot about a person or a group by observing what, how, and with whom they eat. Eating together creates a kind of intimacy that makes getting to know someone easier (as in a date)and that caps off a celebration (as in a banquet). We also frequently use a shared meal to facilitate and even seal business deals and partnerships.

Every time I read the Gospel of Mark I am struck anew by the pace of Jesus' activities. From setting to setting, town to town, healing to healing, Jesus and those who follow him are swept up in a stream of activity that culminates in the Passion narrative. In today's reading, Jesus has been teaching by the lake and observes a tax collector at work. Although tax collectors were universally despised, Jesus offers an invitation. "Follow me." Levi immediately responds. The next scene finds Jesus at Levi's house. It turns out that Levi is not unique in the band of disciples. The dining room is filled with tax collectors and other "sinners." Righteous indignation arises in the scrutiny of the scribes. They know what we all know, that dining together solidifies bonds and enhances fellowship. They saw the scene for what it was; Jesus was indeed sealing the deal with the most despised in the community. "I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."

Whenever we encounter the Pharisees or their associates in a text, we church people ought to see them as a mirror of ourselves. Although in truth we are no better than the vilest sinner, we often employ a calculus that justifies us and condemns others. How blessed we would be by simply rejoicing that Christ in mercy abides with us and shares table fellowship without critiquing Christ's other dinner companions.

Sing "Pass Me not O Gentle Savior"

Pray Psalm 51

Thursday, February 14, 2008

What Kind of Friend Are You? 14 February 2008

Mark 2:1-12
Thursday, 14 February 2008

Although I would never be mistaken for Emily Post, I am, however, something of a stickler for maintaining boundaries and decorum. Rather than asserting myself in a new setting, I much prefer to be introduced by someone else. I don't show up unannounced even at the homes of my closest friends and certainly not uninvited to the home of a stranger. But if one of those same friends were in trouble and needed my help, decorum and boundaries would have to take a hike.

That's what is so impressive about the commitment and audacity of the four men in the text whose assessment of their friend's need epitomizes the saying, "Desperate times call for desperate measures." After a series of successful healing and teaching campaigns in the surrounding area, Jesus has returned home. Quickly his house fills with needy persons petitioning for his assistance and listening attentively to his teaching. In the midst of this scene comes the unexpected as four faithful friends remove the roof, dig through the ceiling, and lower a paralyzed man into the presence of Jesus. The Bible does not say much about either the man or his friends, except that the four friends had exceptional faith. By the end of the scene, the paralytic man who had to be carried in by four others is not only able to walk out on his own two legs, but is also able to carry his bed with him.

There is a place of godly audacity, a space of holy passion that is kindled in compassion for others. Sometimes we discern that Jesus is in the house and we determine to do whatever it takes to bring the petitions and needs of others before his presence. Faith and faithfulness require that we exercise our desperation on behalf of others. In this way, we truly show what kind of friend we are, just as Jesus through his sacrifice demonstrated what kind of friend he is.

Sing, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus"

Let us pray:
Loving God, we exult in the privilege we have to be known as friends of God. We give thanks for the atoning sacrifice that restored fellowship between God and humanity and healed our brokenness. Inspire us in your loving example to push past the boundaries that would divide us and keep us diseased. Help us to be faith-filled friends of God and faithful friends to one another, through Jesus Christ who loved us and tore down all the barriers to our friendship. Amen

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

God Wants To

Mark 1:29-45
Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Several of the devotions in this Lenten season have focused on the difference between God's agenda and ours. Thus far, the theme of my musings could be encapsulated in the oracle of Isaiah, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, declares the Lord." (Isaiah 55:8) And yet today I sense a need to recall that there are some desires about which God and I agree.

In our text, Jesus' ministry is in its full swing. He has ministered to Peter's mother-in-law and has entertained a whole community, healing all the people's diseases Early in the morning, Jesus stole away for some solitary time of refueling and centering in the presence of God, I suspect, in order to make certain that with all of the people who were tugging at him he never lost sight of the divine agenda. Armed with this clarity,he expands his ministry into other regions where he encounters a man with leprosy. The man's supplication is simultaneously faith-filled and uncertain. "If you want to, you can make me clean." He is a person who knows what Jesus is able to do, but is unsure about what Jesus wants to do. Jesus' voice resounds, speaking both to the man of two millennia ago and to us today, "I want to."

The lesson of these first days of the Lenten season is one of aligning our desires with God's design. Like Jesus we seek out the solitary place for communion with our God and Savior. In this space, our prayers are being conformed to the will of God, so that we learn to ask for the things that God most wants to provide. Here we realize that we need to be cleansed and that God wants to wash us. We need to be delivered and God wants to save us. We need to be restored and God wants to bring us back. We need to be focused and God wants to direct us. No "ifs" about it. God wants to.

Sing "Search me O God"

Pray the prayer that emerges from your own solitary space. As you offer your requests, meditate on the words, "God wants to...."

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Time Has Come 12 February 2008

Mark 1:14-28
Tuesday, 12 February 2008

I know that it is still the first week of Lent, but I have to admit that I'm getting anxious. The problem is not a craving for the various foods I have "given up." The food and the fast are just signs of a deeper issue. I said it already a few days ago. I have come to this Lenten season with some concerns, with an agenda. And while I am anticipating God's great work in my life, I am not known for my patience. Indeed I have been requesting the prayers of those who are closest to me. Pray, I say to them, that neither my faith nor my patience fails. And I know that I'm not the only one who struggles with the waiting.

Following Jesus' baptism, John the Baptist was arrested and placed in prison. At that very moment, Jesus' public ministry began with his entrance into Galilee announcing the words that every anxious person longs to hear. "The time has come." The implications of his statement intensified along with the delight of his audience. "The kingdom of God has come near." Initially, Jesus' hearers must have anticipated that the kingdom of which he spoke represented the overthrow of the corrupt empire epitomized in the actions of evil king Herod who imprisoned John. The season of waiting was finally over. God would arise and God's people would be free. But wait. Jesus was not proclaiming the overthrow of the Roman empire or even the rescue of John from the chopping block. "Repent and believe the good news." From that time on, Jesus called disciples, "Follow me."

Confronted with the truth of the text, I have to admit that most of the time the work that God most desires to do is the internal work on me. I want God to avenge the righteous and overthrow the evil. God wants to pick me up, turn me around, and place my feet on solid ground. Indeed the time has come, not for God to chase after my enemies, but for me to follow after my Christ. The time has come to repent and believe. That is, after all, the primary agenda of Lent.

Sing "Where He Leads Me"

Let us pray:
Loving God, we confess that sometimes in our hurry and anxiety we miss the crucial lessons that you are trying to teach us. Help us to take one day at a time in this Lenten season, slowing down to listen for your voice and giving our attention to the call to follow you. Continue to confront us with the truth that we need to repent and believe. Help us to trust that in following you we will find the fulfillment of everything else in its own, in your own time, we pray in Jesus' name. Amen

Monday, February 11, 2008

Open Mike 11 February 2008

Mark 1:1-13
11 February 2008

Here's an oft-repeated scenario in churches around the country. Guests come to service for the first time and are invited to introduce themselves to the congregation. Bashfully they rise slowly from their seats, prepared to give their names, their places of residence, and perhaps their church homes. And then they get the microphone. Suddenly what would have been a 15-second simple introduction becomes an extended testimony bordering on sermon as the opportunity to be seen and heard overcomes all shyness and propriety, proving again that some people simply can't handle an audience.

By the time we encounter him here in Mark 1, John the Baptist has developed quite a following. His voice echoes through the wilderness, amplified by his passion and sense of mission. His spectacle draws stadium-sized crowds from all over Judea and his message of repentance prompts them to submit to the waters of baptism. But Mark is clear that John is not the star of the show. This is after all "the beginning of the gospel [good news] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (v.1). And no one is clearer about this reality than John himself. At the heart of his message is the assertion that a mightier voice with a greater message is on the way. The spectacle and gifts of John always point to the preeminence and spirit of Christ.

Each of us has gifts and talents that bring us to the attention of others. Perhaps our oratory will never fill the Wachovia Center, but even the most obscure person is the center of someone's show. We rise, sometimes bashfully, to the occasions when others look to us and hand us the microphone, either literally or figuratively. The spotlight is on us; this is our moment to be seen and heard. The chance is ours, either to arrogate glory for ourselves or to give glory to God. The test is to know what to do with the mike.

Sing "My Tribute"

Let us pray:
Mighty God, we give you thanks for the witness and example of John the Baptist, who when given an audience chose to divert attention from himself and point towards the Christ. Help us likewise to resist the temptation to give a self-centered performance in order to be seen and heard. May we maximize the opportunities through our relationships, gifts, talents, successes and even failures to magnify you and glory your name, through Jesus Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Getting What We Want 10 February 2008

Lent 1
Matthew 4:1-11
Sunday, 10 February 2008

Nothing inspires the righteous indignation of adults more quickly than spoiled children who belong to someone else. What we despise in such children is their ruthlessness. No trick is too low, no public display too embarrassing, no decibel of crying or pitch of whining too high, so long as they get what they want.

Just as Jesus had completed the traditional forty-day fast that the great prophets of his people had observed, Satan arrived with the tests, each representing something in the catalog of Jesus’ desires, passions, or ambitions. Jesus was hungry; Satan suggested that Jesus make bread from stone. Jesus wanted affirmation; Satan suggested that Jesus test God and the angels’ commitment to his life. Jesus wanted to exercise his rightful dominion as the Messiah; all he had to do, Satan said, was to perform one simple act of obeisance – to Satan. Each test contributed to the larger temptation for Jesus to use illegitimate means for necessary or laudable ends, to get what he wanted the petulant and childish way.

It is curious that bread and hunger would figure into a scene in which much more significant matters were at stake. After all, the act of changing stone to bread would have been harmless, when compared with suicide or idolatry. Jesus had fasted forty days, and his hunger derived from his original obedience to leading of the Spirit. No one would have been injured, no commandment violated, if he had simply changed the stones to bread. But apparently the ethic of faithfulness is more complicated than simply refusing to do harm or break a specific commandment. In resisting Satan’s suggestion, Jesus modeled an unwillingness to exploit kingdom gifts to satisfy even legitimate self-centered desires. When Jesus prepared a table, it would be for us not for himself.

For us, the crucial act of self-denial in this consecration is the denial of some things that are not technically bad for us. We draw near to the crux of our faithfulness when give up more than just those things that make us sick. In so doing, we can learn that we do not live by bread alone but by everything that comes from the mouth of God. In the fast, we learn that no matter what we want superficially, our deepest longing is only for that which God provides.

When we long most for what God wills, when we want what God wants, we exhibit the maturity and discipline needed to handle spiritual and ecclesiastical power and its responsibilities. We have learned the obedience that makes us trustworthy; we are no longer spoiled children doing tricks for our own satisfaction or others’ entertainment. We have passed the test and the angels can attend us.

Sing "Yield Not to Temptation"

Let us pray:
We come to you, O God, in this season of Lent opening ourselves to your Spirit and desiring that you would conform our desires to your perfect will. Forgive us for our sometimes petulance. Grant us grace to use our God-given talents and gifts in a way that advances your work, not our agenda. And when we have passed the test send your ministering angels so that we might be restored for the next round. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen

Friday, February 8, 2008

It's My Turn 8 February 2008

Ezekiel 18
Friday, 8 February 2008

There is no question about it; I am definitely an extrovert. Unlike some of my closest friends, I find the presence of other people energizing and focusing rather than draining and distracting. This reminds me of another thing that I like about Lent, that is, the fact that I am not the only one on the journey. I am accompanied by a host of people, neighbor and stranger, known and unknown, of different languages, races, and stations. All over the world believers are contemplating the meaning of Christ's passion for the world and for our lives. But I am not fooled. Although I have treasured companions on the journey, the walk itself is intensely personal.

In today's lesson, God has striking words for the prophet Ezekiel, disputing and condemning the tendency to identify spiritual status on the basis of relationships with other people, particularly in one's family. In Israel there was a proverb,"The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge" intended to confirm for parents just how deep their responsibility goes. To be sure, the actions of parents profoundly affect the destiny of children, just as the community with whom we ally ourselves makes an indelible impact on us as individuals. But God refused to allow a determinism that would keep one person either from being held accountable or from being exonerated because of their relationship with another individual. The soul that sins is the soul that is condemned. Even so, the text concludes with the assurance that it is not God's will that any should perish. God has no pleasure in our condemnation or death. Indeed God's entire intention, made known to us in Jesus Christ, is for all of us to turn and live.

Journeying together as family, friends, and community can never replace the need for each of us in solitude to make our calling and election sure. Introvert or extrovert, each of us must step up for our turn, our moment of repentance when we signal by our changed behavior our intention to follow Jesus. And so while I appreciate the company in the season, I am determined to take my turn, whether anyone joins me or not.

Sing "Standing in the Need of Prayer"

Pray Psalm 139

Thursday, February 7, 2008

No Matter What 7 February 2008

Habakkuk 3:1-19
Thursday, 7 February 2008

As is almost always the case, I am entering this season of Lent with an agenda. There are areas of my life in which and for which I need answers, direction, and breakthrough. I likewise am aware of the needs of those around me, my family, friends, and acquaintances whose issues differ from mine in their particulars but bear a great resemblance in their urgency. And so I am using this holy season as a time for focused and attentive prayer and seeking, with the expectation that by Easter some extraordinary deliverance or insight will emerge.

If one judges by Habakkuk's opening oracle (1:1), the prophet had nearly come to the end of his rope. "O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?" he began, apparently after an extended season of seeking without any visible progress. The injustices and corruptions that had driven him to his knees continued unabated. The power and resources of his enemies were expanding, and God's deliverance appeared distant and tardy. Yet when we come to our text at the end of the book, we discover Habakkuk's song that burst forth in response to his encounters with God in the intervening chapters. The prophet was aware that things might well get worse before they got better. But by chapter 3 the breakthrough that emerged was in his own commitment that no matter what happened he still would rejoice and give God praise.

Our anticipation that God will meet us in the Lenten season is worthwhile. It is not a sign of deeper piety to expect little from God, as if God is somehow feeble and must be coddled but cannot be trusted. Jesus invited his followers to ask, seek, and knock. At the same time, we do well to seek the deeper trust that points us toward unrestricted rejoicing and praise without contingency. How wise it would be for us to commit on this second day of our Lenten journey that no matter what we will still exult in the God who is our salvation and our strength.

Sing, "It is Well with My Soul"

Let us pray:
At your word, O Lord, we ask for deliverance and breakthrough. We seek your face longing to be empowered by your wisdom. We knock desiring entrance into your presence. We have an agenda in prayer during this season, but we submit our goals, plans, wishes, and programs to your will. Even now, before we know all or what you will do in response to our prayers, we commit ourselves to rejoice and offer praise in plenty and want, in joy and in sorrow, in fulfillment and in disappointment, for you are our strength and our salvation. Help us to live up to our commitment, in Jesus' name. Amen.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Who Chose this Fast ? 6 February 2008

Isaiah 58:1-8
Ash Wednesday
6 February 2008

My appreciation for the Lenten season began in earnest during my seminary years as I discovered the beauty and intensity of choosing a period of consecration and penitence in anticipation of Holy Week and Easter. Since an especially intense and spiritually fruitful time of Lenten fasting in 1999, I have learned to look forward even to the inconveniences that arise with the self-denial of Lent. The question no longer is whether I will observe Lent, only what fast will I choose.

In this traditional Ash Wednesday passage,Isaiah flouts conventional wisdom by decrying Israel's most pious observances of worship. Echoing the famous passage from the prophet Amos in which God rejects acts of worship until justice rolls down like waters, Isaiah catalogs the observances performed by those who purport to seek God. Fasting, sackcloth, ashes, kneeling, and bowing all were acts of humility chosen to get God's attention and to induce God's favor. To Israel's surprise and ours, God responded to their piety with the condemning question, "Is this the fast that I chose?" What God wanted most was to have a people who demonstrated justice, freed the oppressed, fed the hungry, housed the homeless, and clothed the naked.

Isaiah certainly was not implying that prayerful acts of piety are out of place or unnecessary. He was, however, pointing out that the service we owe to God consists not just in our chosen feasting or fasting but in giving attention to the totality of what God commands. Even as we begin our Lenten observances we must carefully and prayerfully contemplate what God wants from us and for us. In doing so, we fully join Jesus in the wilderness and in the Garden of Gethsemane, and pray "Not my will, but Yours be done." Not my choice, but yours.

Sing "Lead Me to Calvary"

Pray Psalm 51

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Trustworthy 3 February 2008

2 Peter 1:16-21
Epiphany 4/Transfiguration
3 February 2008

This is the season of political primaries when promises abound and uncertainty flourishes. This month we also celebrate African American contributions to our common life, reflecting on the hills and valleys we have traversed and celebrating the bridges that have brought us over. But we also remember the promises made and broken and with that memory comes the challenge to know who to believe and what is trustworthy.

The Christians addressed in 2 Peter struggled in knowing who they should trust. Then as now the community was awash with multiple and competing voices holding various and contradictory positions. Offering guidance and direction, the writer draws the saints’ attention back the source of the community itself, namely God’s work in Christ Jesus. In Christ, God has given to believers everything that we need for the life that God calls us to live. Sourced in and endorsed by God, Jesus Christ is the word of the prophets made more certain in whose light we bask until that same light sets us aglow.

Knowing that Jesus himself is the word that we can trust solidifies our confidence in the word of welcome that he offers all who would believe on him. We hear again, anew, afresh his invitation: “Come unto me.” Welcome to the family. Welcome to the church. Welcome to the Body. Welcome to the Blood. Welcome to the table that God has prepared in the presence of our enemies and in the company of our brothers and sisters. We hear the welcome and we know it’s trustworthy. We know it’s for real.

Sing “’Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus”

Let us pray:
Faithful God, in a world full of promises made and broken, how grateful we are that in you we find a trustworthy word. Make us likewise faithful and honest in our character and most especially in our proclamation of your grace. In the midst of all the confusion around and within us, in the dark places of our lives, we pray that we might focus ever more on the light of Christ while we await the dawning of perfect day and the rising of the morning star. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.