With the Coronavirus hitting the world. There is a lot to freak out about. Geoff and Joe talk about how they are handling things. It is a great listen.
“By your endurance you will gain your souls.” (Luke 21:19)
For those living in Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. – the unthinkable happened as Rome responded to insurrection by sacking the city, enacting horror and brutality among the population. The Temple – the symbol of God’s eternal presence among God’s people and the center of faith and culture – was destroyed. Not one stone was left upon another (Luke 21:6) . What was thought of as eternal and unmovable was literally left in ruins. It was the most devastating of times. The shock and question on many people’s minds, hearts and lips would have shouted in lament, “Had God forsaken them?”
The history of the Jewish people since the sacking of Rome has been one of endurance and fortitude in midst of persecution, pogrom, holocaust, discrimination and dispersion from their homeland. While this passage is directed at the followers of Jesus, it is no secret that Christians are responsible for much of the hate and ill treatment of our Jewish neighbors. Occasions for reading this story – offer a time for remembrance and repentance. It is a time to seek others to share in both sorrow and joy in our shared humanity.
In our global age where religious persecution of any community of faith can happen anywhere; there are repercussions of dehumanizing hate and violence everywhere. Our witness as Christians calls us to renew the bonds of our shared humanity, compassion love and service whether or not our neighbors share in our tradition or not. Listening and learning deepens our understanding of others and of ourselves.
As the four Gospels in the New Testament were all most probably written decades after the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. – passages like this one served to encourage followers of Jesus not to lose heart when things looked bleak. For those first disciples (and the first few generations of what was becoming the Christian movement), there was no certainty whether the struggling church would survive or not. There was a great expansion as followers of the Way reached beyond Jerusalem and Judea and communities bringing together both Jews and Gentiles alike sprang up across the Roman world, but the Empire also responded with persecution and violence, resulting in death and martyrdom of many believers. It was not a safe thing to be a Christian. The apocalyptic hope of Christ’s imminent return provided courage and hope in the bleakest of situations as the church comforted one another and proclaimed a message of the crucified and risen Christ’s ultimate rule of both heaven and earth. The Temple might be torn down, you might be betrayed by loved ones, you may be persecuted, and your friends might be tortured and killed, but the message remained – “Jesus (not Caesar) is Lord.”
These are good reminders that when trouble comes, we are called to respond with faithfulness and endurance.
While on the worldwide stage the church is still rapidly expanding in places like Africa, South America and Asia, in the West the church is in precipitous decline. Churches sit empty (or are becoming more and more so). Active members are growing older. There appears to be less families and children who participate than in ages past. Communities beyond the church walls are less and less connected to these ministries because people have lost interest in what they offer as they have gotten busier; churches have become exclusive social clubs or nostalgic preservation societies; and outreach beyond the building is limited or seen as self-serving. Apathy is as dangerous as persecution (if not more). At least when there is persecution, the stakes are clear. In a culture that is less and less interested in institutions and organized religion, it becomes easy to lose heart for members and leaders alike.
Jesus speaks to this as well. Quick fixes always sound great in a consumer-oriented culture, and all kinds of people are eager and willing to sell them to struggling congregations. Success is often fleeting. Or the reaction becomes to build up the walls and resist change at all costs to protect what might be saved, but the stones are falling down faster than they can be erected.
What I see Jesus calling us to here is to admit that it is time to stop trying to save crumbling infrastructure and refocus our efforts on the practices of faithfulness. Endurance comes, not by resisting change or the culture but by knowing whose we are no matter what trouble or challenges we face; telling our stories, encouraging one another and revealing through our words and actions a perseverance rooted in joy and gratitude.
Let the Temples fall. Jesus is still there in the rubble waiting to embrace you. God willing, so will the church.
Luke 6: 20 “Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
In July 2013 I took my youth group to Washington DC for a mission trip. Instead of signing up for one of those prepackaged mission trip experiences we planned our own. We stayed at Mar-Lu-Ridge Summer Camp and they helped us connect with local places in the area to do mission work.
We also worked with Resurrection Graves who talked about her personal experience with homelessness and took us to Franklin Park where we would hand out bags full of things that are useful for people who are homeless (socks, body wipes, pack of Kleenex, maxi pads, toothbrush and tooth paste, band aids, chapstick, comb, mints etc.).
At Franklin Park our youth were split up into pairs and they asked the homeless, who were settling in for the night if they wanted one of these bags. That’s where we encountered a man I will never forget.
Two of our girls handed him a bag and he was so thankful. He then started to talk with them, he told them about his life and how he ended up homeless. Wishing 15 minutes over half of our group were with him listening to him. His stories were not negative and depressing, they were inspiriting and uplifting. Even though he was homeless he looked on the bright side of life. In the end he said “We are all blessed by the best.”
When I think about blessings I think about this man and his outlook on life, I think about the time he spent on the streets, cold, afraid and alone but knowing that he is still blessed by God. I think about my life and how I believe I have difficulties but in no way do they compare to what so many other people have and continue to experience.
Even though you are having a hard time in some areas of your life you are blessed. I am reminded by this from a beautiful contemporary version of the beatitudes my friend and colleague Katherine Rohloff wrote this week. Read these words and think about them and the blessings you have in your life.
“Blessed are you when you come to church looking like a mess, hoping for gas money, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you when you’re feeding your kids unhealthy food because it’s also the cheapest and what you can afford, for you will be filled. Blessed are you when your throat closes up when you try to pray because your grief is overwhelming, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account who you welcome in the name of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets who welcomed the unwelcome before you. But woe to you who have much and give little, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you whose needs are filled and yet ignore the needs of others, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who laugh in the face of suffering, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all say how “nice” and “respectable” you are, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
“(Jesus) also told this parable to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.“Luke 18:9)
With a first read or view of this parable we can see the contrast between the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector quite clearly.
The Pharisee’s arrogance keeps him from truly needing God. In his own self-righteousness he proclaims his great discipline: he is not like the dishonest thieves, rogues, adulterers or tax collectors. He fasts twice a week. He is generous; giving away a tenth of his income (Luke 18:. Yet his problem (and blindness) is his arrogance. Everything is about him. He probably stood to pray in the Temple so his prayer (which is really a statement of his self-aggrandizement than anything about God) could be seen and heard by others. He probably hoped for their praise and admiration.
We also see this Tax-Collector’s pleading for God’s mercy. By his very profession he would have been seen as a collaborator with the empire in the systems of oppression. To make a living he would have taken more than what was required of him and would have been seen as dishonest and untrustworthy. According to most people he is a scum sucking loser. Yet in his plea, “Have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13) we see a humility that places not trust in himself, but rather places his past, present and future in God’s hands alone.
It is easy to condemn the Pharisee and praise the Tax-Collector.
But take a closer look this story and at yourself.
Too often we act exactly as the Pharisee even when we think of ourselves as the Tax-Collector. We try to do the right things, follow the rules, give our fair share and look down our noses in disgust that don’t keep up. We become smug in our own piety. We admire those who appear to have their lives on track, or don’t need others because of their personal success. We look down on those who struggle, are stuck in systems beyond their control, or are so arrogant they don’t seem to play by the rules the rest of us need to follow. We dismiss people we think do not belong, and we exclude ourselves because we do not think we are worthy of God’s love or the companionship of other people.
Who are you in this parable?
Look closer at what Jesus is trying to teach us.
1. We are never outside of God’s love, mercy and grace. No matter how much of a scum sucking loser people think you are or you may believe you are – God loves you. Return to the One who loves you and seeks to make you whole.
2. No matter how much you think you’ve got your life together or others envy you because they think you do; your life is still not all about you. We are all sinful, broken people who project our confidence (or more likely we try to compensate for our lack of it). Drop the pride, and return to the One who gives you everything. Learn gratitude and generosity.
3. See people as those made in God’s image. Everyone has value and has important and unique things to share and teach. And every single one of us struggles. It is very easy to judge either the Pharisee or the Tax-Collector depending on our perspective. Get out of yourself. Learn empathy and compassion. Listen. Help. Get to know your neighbor.
“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” (Luke 18:1)
Unlike a lot of Jesus’ parables that are purposefully open-ended; Luke tells us the meaning of the story Jesus tells as an introduction to what follows. The story introduces a widow – a person who would have little standing in her society (if she was even seen or regarded s a person at all) and a judge who would have been a man of power and authority in the community. She bests him not by trickery or clever arguments but by her persistence to gain the justice she desires. As hearers/readers of this re left. to speculate. what that injustice may have been, but in the end it is her. resolve and inner strength alongside his impatience and weakness that wins the day.
While the parable is about both prayer and persistence it seems a mistake to equate the judge character in the story with God; as if we just prayed long and hard enough we would eventually get God to give in to our demands (even the well meaning ones). We should also not infer that if and when we don’t get the things we want – including justice – it must mean that we have not prayed hard enough, sincere enough or persistent enough. Believing these fallacies about prayer and faithfulness is the road to despair.
By Jesus’ own words this judge has no fear of God or respect of anyone (Luke 18:4). He is representative of those who are drunk on their own power, influence and arrogance. It is better to associate him with the systems and institutions that oppress and dehumanize others than with the justice the widow craves. In his own way the judge may be the very opponent this widow overcomes. The promise comes that even if we fail God will make all things right in the end.
The key to meeting challenges is prayer and persistence. There is much about the world we live in that is morally bankrupt and oppressively unfair. There are things that remain out of our control that affect us personally along with those we care about the most. This parable seems to ask us – so how will you respond when things are not right? Will it be to curl-up, lash-out or fall-apart? Will we fall-in, comply and accept things are the way they are and we have little to say or do about them? (I suspect we often have done all of these.)
-Will we be bold and courageous?
-Will we fight the good fight – not with our fists and strength but on our knees and the resolve that finds us there?
-Will we build-up others rather than pull them down only to show how weak the powers of this world are by our persistence?
Keep praying and keep at it. God is with you. Follow the widow’s lead.
“Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:19)
At a first glance this appears to be a straight forward little story. Jesus heals ten lepers; one of them returns to praise God and thank Jesus; and Jesus commends him for his faith.
Yet there is a lot going on in these few verses.
1. Jesus transcends boundaries. The setting is the border between Galilee and Samaria on the way to Jerusalem (Luke 17:11). While it is unclear if the ten lepers calling out to Jesus are all Samaritans or a mixed group, they recognize that he can help them as they call out, “Master, have mercy on us” (Luke 17:13). At the end of this scene, Luke is quick to point out is a Samaritan who returns to give thanks (Luke 17:16). Luke’s message is that faith and gratitude can come from anywhere and that Jesus is Master of us all. Remember it was the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable (not the priest or the levite) who stopped to help the injured man on he road (Luke 10:25-37).
This little story reminds us that there is no one unworthy of our attention, care and inclusion in God’s reign. While for good reasons the lepers were excluded from the community and lived outside of it – it is to them that Jesus visits, responds and whose lives are transformed. This story reminds us also that inspiration can also come from the least of these among us.
Are we open to them as Jesus is?
2. “Show yourselves to the priests” (Luke 17:14). Leviticus 13-14 highlights the way to handle in the community. While leprosy was a blanket term for just about any skin condition, the health concern was that it would be contagious. Practical steps of removing. the person from contact with others was the standard, and as medicine was much different in he ancient world, the responsibility rested on priests to determine wellness. It becomes easy to infer that mixing physical wellness and spiritual leadership could become confused. As in our own day, being labeled “unclean” carries with it a moral judgment as much it does a medical diagnosis. When one gets sick or injured people often ask what they have done to deserve it or feeling guilty about something else justify why God did it to them.
Jesus challenges all of our assumptions, as he heals them without question and restores them to community. By telling them to show themselves to he priest, they will be given a clean bill of health and allowed to return home. Jesus essentially gives them their lives back. These lepers would have lived outside of the community, likely without much assistance or resources. Others would have been afraid of them. They either would have to get well on their own, help one another, or die. This is a death and resurrection story.
Where do we respond to needs out of fear and judgment?
Where do we respond to others like Jesus out of compassion and mercy?
3. The nine and the one. Jesus asks the one who returns, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:17) and it may become easy to dismiss or judge them for not coming back also. It sounds like Jesus is scolding them. However, we are not told anything about them, other than Jesus healing them and sending them home.
Jesus told a story of searching for a lost sheep while ninety-nine are accounted for and searching through the house for a missing coin when one has the other nine. There will be great rejoicing in heaven Jesus claims when what was missing one is restored (Luke 15:1-10). Here too, the story is more about the one who returns to praise God and thank Jesus than the nine who simply followed Jesus’ directions who were made clean as they went (Luke 17:15). It becomes easy to judge them as ungrateful or as focused only on themselves, but perhaps that is a better indictment of our own ingratitude than theirs. These healed lepers were given the gift of new life by Jesus and there is no reason to assume they went anywhere else than to their families and communities which is in itself goodness! But he message of this story centers on the gratitude of the one who returned as an example of faith.
In an age where so many of us are burdened by the pain and suffering we see all around us or experience ourselves the question becomes for us: for what can we be grateful?
Our calling becomes to call out to Jesus for mercy, while also laying at his feet giving thanks. We may find that placing our faith in mercy and thanksgiving is restorative in more ways than we can imagine.
“We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.” (Luke 17:10)
The apostles (sent ones) have what appears to be a justifiable demand “increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). Jesus shares what he excepts of them: 1.) to live in a way that is not a stumbling block to others (Luke 17:1-2); 2.) to forgive and keep forgiving others (Luke 17:3-4); 3.) to be servants (not masters) and do the jobs that serving requires (Luke 17:7-10). Seeking more faith to accomplish these tasks makes sense; just as it would be advantageous to have a big breakfast in order to get through a busy morning rather than leaving the house on an empty stomach. The apostles see faith as a quantifiable something they want more of in order to meet these expectations.
Responding to their request, Jesus says all one needs is the faith the size of a mustard seed. By faith a whole tree will be uprooted and moved (Luke 17:6). Jesus reveals not only that a little faith can go a long way; but he also lets us in on another truth – faith isn’t about us. Faith is not about how much we have of “it” whatever the substance of faith might be; faith is not a secret superpower used to dominate others nor is it something fainted or earned.
N.T. Wright commented, “It’s not great faith you need; it is faith in a great God. Faith is like a window through which you can see something. What matters is not whether the window is six inches or six feet high; what matters is the God that your faith is looking out on” (N.T. Wright. Luke for Everyone. [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001, 2004], 204). in other words, faith is not about how big or small it is. Rather faith reveals God above ourselves.
If we are focused on ourselves as our primary source of resilience, wisdom or vision – is it any wonder why we so often feel overwhelmed and/or inadequate?
A small little gaze through the window of faith sees that the mulberry tree can be uprooted and planted in a new place – and then takes notice of the garden tools at your feet to make it happen.
Having caught a glimpse of what is on the other side – faith compels us to start digging.
Discipleship becomes about not only doing the things “we ought to have done” (Luke 17:10) by starting to develop the “eyes to see” and “hear to hear” bit seeks a focus on what is on the other side of the window – especially when we can’t see or hear it yet still face danger.
Eventually, deep rooted disciples may not need the window at all, because the more we train to see, hear and touch the God who continues to reach out to us (and this world through you), the less we are dependent on the window (or its size) as we grow closer to what is on the other side of it. The letter to the Hebrews declares it this way: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1). That confidence is not a matter of quantity or size; it is a reflection of the relationship that sees no barrier at all between sacred and secular, human and divine. There is only one reality of dwelling within the Triune God who connects us, restores us and brings us into that divine life.
Take up your calling as God’s sent one (apostle) Pick up your shovel. Move trees. Serve as you ought to serve with joy and gratitude. Forgive with a loving heart. Model what it means to look through the glass until others don’t need it either to trust in the living God who you see everywhere.
What do you see through window of faith?
Where do you see, hear and touch the God of love, mercy and grace reaching out to you?
How can you start digging?
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered in sores.” (Luke 16:19-20)
Jesus tells an apocalyptic story of the afterlife where the fortunes of the two characters in death are reversed. A rich man, who lived a lavish style overlooking the need of a suffering poor man named Lazarus finds himself in the place of torment in the afterlife; while poor man Lazarus who went hungry and had dogs licking his sores, was carried by the angels to live with Abraham. Even with “a great chasm that has been fixed” separates them (Luke 16:26); what Jesus shares is the conversation between them and Abraham. Even in torment, the rich man orders Lazarus and pleads with Abraham to help him and warns his family. Abraham responds, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
What does this story mean?
If you are among the poor, the downtrodden, the despised, the trampled on, the forgotten, the hungry, the ill, and the poor – there is hope in this story. In our culture and throughout history, humans have assigned greater value to the wealthy, powerful and prestigious people, regardless of how many other people’s lives are crushed to keep them there (both by individual wickedness and by systemic oppression). In this story it is the poor man, Lazarus who is named while the rich man remains nameless. There is a reason Christian faith tends to grow vibrant among the impoverished and oppressed and becomes weak among the comfortable and elite. Following Jesus brings hope to the hopeless and always challenges our notions of who doesn’t belong. Jesus ate with the tax collectors and sinners; fed the hungry; cared for the sick; exorcised the evil holding people’s lives hostage and raised the dead. When we are Lazarus in this story – salvation is coming.
There is something about this story that suggests the rich man gets what is coming to him. His blatant extravagance and luxurious lifestyle ignored the real human suffering and need right at his doorstep. This lack of compassion catches up with him. As the prophets called for justice, and caring for the poor, oppressed, orphaned, widowed and exiled, Israel ignored this calling to pursue its own wealth, prestige and power in the world. Judgment came. Destruction came. Exile came. As Jesus tells this story we see a similar path to destruction. The rich man who gave no mercy receives no mercy. The overlooked and forgotten poor man is restored and made whole. There is no comment on what either character believed. Justice has been served. The great reversal is fulfilled. The last are first and the first are last. Mary’s song of God’s reign has arrived. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away hungry” (Luke 1:52-53). When you are among those who look past the suffering of others by your own comfort this story serves as a warning of the cost of ignoring those in need around you. Judgment is here. Exile is coming.
Like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, there is still hope for the condemned. Scrooge became the most generous of them all. We too can repent, turn away from our selfishness and enter into God’s kingdom of mercy and grace. When we meet our neighbors with the same relentless love and compassion God gives us in Christ our lives become richer, our purpose clearer, the kingdom more present around us. When the church stops pursuing all the frivolous things we do to feel comfortable and starts giving itself away we become more and more the the body of Christ.
What will the religious leaders who ridiculed him (Luke 16:15) say to that?
What will we say? do? change? hear?