Pentecost 23, Monday, Year C

Inspired by 1 Samuel 2:1-10

“Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.  The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.  Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.”  1 Samuel 2:3-5a (NRSV)

As time moves ever forward, as years come and go and we as individuals and as a species grow with their passing, our knowledge of how our world works increases.  We understand many of the laws of science, and we comprehend cause and effect.  We can look at the available information, analyze it, and predict logical outcomes.  We use those predictions to plan our own actions, confident that things will always turn out as we expect.

But we do not know as much as we think we do.

The world operates on the assumption that strength and wealth are of paramount importance, and therefore those who possess such attributes are more important than those who don’t.  Those who are weak or poor are seen as expendable, perhaps even worthless.  But the weak and the poor are beloved children of the Lord’s as well, and even when everything we know tells us that the weak will always be weak and the poor will always be poor, God is able to reverse the fortunes of the lowly and the powerful alike.

We may have eaten from the tree of knowledge, but God created that tree, and all knowledge of good and evil ultimately comes from him.  Trust not in your own understanding, but turn instead to the Lord.  Consider the world according to his love, and not your own powers of analysis.

Let us pray.  God of knowledge, the world operates according to the processes you created for it.  Open our eyes to your ways, that we may be humble in our own understanding.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Reformation Sunday, Year C

Inspired by John 8:31-36

“Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’  They answered him, ‘We are descendents of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.  What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free?’”  John 8:31-33 (NRSV)

Much of our lives is shaped by our beliefs.  How we conduct ourselves, how we interact with loved ones, acquaintances, and strangers, what we prioritize and value—all of that is largely shaped by what we believe about ourselves, others, and the world in general.

But what if what we believe is wrong?

God rescued the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.  That event is the focal point of many of the psalms and prayers in Jewish worship.  But no one wants to be thought of as a slave, so the Jews of Jesus’ day denied that the children of Abraham had ever been enslaved, despite the existence of numerous sacred texts declaring otherwise.  And by doing so they declared themselves already free.

And since they believed they were already free, they believed Jesus had nothing to offer them.

They were wrong.

We want the freedom and the salvation that come from Christ, but first we must acknowledge that we are not already free, and that we’re in need of salvation.  These truths point to some ugly and uncomfortable aspects about ourselves, aspects we’d rather ignore, but they’re a part of us, whether we like it or not.  But Jesus is not put off by the ugliness of our past or the imperfection of our current state; those are the very reasons why he came.

There’s a truth about yourself that you wish didn’t exist; Christ can make that truth not matter.  In him you are set free, and while that truth may still be a part of you, it won’t define you.  The love of God in Christ will do that.

Let us pray.  God of truth, you know all things.  Embrace us in your mercy, that your truth will set us free.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Pentecost 23, Saturday, Year C

Inspired by Luke 1:46-55

“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  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 empty.”  Luke 1:51-53 (NRSV)

What does it take to topple oppressive regimes, right injustices, and improve the lot of countless disenfranchised people?  It takes hope.

Mary was a young Jewish girl in ancient Palestine, engaged to be married, who was told by the angel Gabriel that she would be overshadowed by the power of the Most High.  As a result she would become pregnant and bear a child who would be the Son of God.  Shortly afterwards, the newly pregnant Mary went to visit her relative Elizabeth, who was also miraculously pregnant with a child heralded by Gabriel.  And when the two women greeted each other Mary burst out in the song we call the Magnificat, in which she praises the God of Israel for fulfilling the promise he’d made so long ago.

But at this point in the narrative, God in Christ hadn’t done any of those things.  The infant Jesus was barely formed in Mary’s womb; he hadn’t yet been born.  The proud had not yet been scattered; the powerful were still on their thrones and the lowly were still low.  The hungry were still hungry, and the rich still rich.

But Mary had hope in the angel’s words, and in the power of the God of Israel.  She had no idea how her son would accomplish all those things, but she was certain that he would.  When he was born, she raised him with that hope, and Jesus has been fulfilling those promises ever since.

We can look at the state of our world, feel hopeless, and give up on ever making it better.  Or we can cling to the hope that we have in Christ Jesus, and partner with him to spread God’s love and justice throughout the world.

Let us pray.  All powerful God, you gave Mary the opportunity to partner with you in bringing about the world’s salvation.  Inspire us to be as open to your will as she was, that we may work with your Son to fulfill the hope people have in him.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Pentecost 23, Friday, Year C

Inspired by Jeremiah 9:17-26

“Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.”  Jeremiah 9:23-24 (NRSV)

Some of us are blessed with great intellect and wisdom, with which we can understand the ways of the world and how to operate within it to our best advantage.  Some of us are blessed with great strength, with which we can fight and win battles for resources.  Some of us are blessed with great wealth, with which we can purchase power and influence, directing the systems of the world to benefit our own interests.  But none of these things impress the Lord, and none of these things can be used to win his favor.

The Lord God has no objection to someone being wise, strong, or wealthy.  But he does object to that wisdom, strength, or wealth being worshipped as a God, or extraordinary power being attributed to them.  The Lord is Lord of all, and his desire for the world is that all experience his steadfast love, justice, and righteousness.

If you find yourself blessed with great wisdom, strength, or wealth, do not trust in these attributes to ensure your wellbeing, and do not use them for your own gain.  Use your wisdom to recognize systemic problems that oppress and exploit the vulnerable for the convenience of the powerful, and work to correct them.  Use your strength to protect and fight for those who cannot protect or fight for themselves.  Use your wealth to ensure all people live in dignity and health.  These are the things in which God delights, and these are the things of which we should be proud.

Let us pray.  God of wisdom, might, and wealth, all good things come from you.  Enable us to recognize our gifts and use them for your good purposes, that we may understand and know your ways and serve you faithfully.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Pentecost 23, Thursday, Year C

Inspired by 2 Timothy 3:1-9

“You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come.  For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power.  Avoid them!”  2 Timothy 3:1-5 (NRSV)

Reading this passage it’s easy to wonder if Paul was talking about his own time or ours.  From Paul’s other letters it’s clear that these ‘distressing times’ were the lived reality of many people in first century Palestine; yet this descriptive list also accurately portrays the lived reality of many people today, nearly two millennia later.  So when are the last days?

Part of the problem arises from a difference of understanding about what ‘last days’ actually means.  Today many Christians understand that phrase to mean the literal end of the world: the cessation of natural human life as it has always been and the advent of a new world order in which God himself will come down to earth and rule his people.  They look at the sorry state of our society and believe we must be in the last days of depravity, and that Christ is surely coming to establish his reign.

But that’s not what Paul and the people he was writing to understood the term to mean.  They understood that society could not function when the rule of the day was greed, injustice, and falseness.  Any society badly enough infected with those attributes could not continue to exist, and daily life as they knew it would change radically.  There would be turmoil then a new social structure—still fully human but hopefully more humane—would rise up and replace the old, unjust one.

Indeed, first century Christians did expect Jesus to return in their lifetime, but God has his own timetable to which we are not privy.  In the meantime many societies have experienced many last days, and witnessed the rise of new social structures rising up to replace the old.

Let us not wait for an apocalyptic cataclysm to summon God from on high to come down and fix our society.  If greed, injustice, and falseness are the rule of the day, then we as Christians are called to challenge that rule with love, justice, and truth, demonstrating the power of God with our lives.

Let us pray.  God of the ages, you desire justice and peace for your people.  Inspire us to work for those principles, that we may help establish your kingdom on earth.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Pentecost 22, Wednesday, Year C

Inspired by Luke 22:39-46

“Then [Jesus] withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’  Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.  In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”  Luke 22:41-44 (NRSV)

Some of our prayers to God are vague: prayers for peace, wisdom, strength, etc.  But some of our prayers are very specific; we know exactly what we want and that’s precisely what we ask for.  Both types of prayers are welcome to God’s ears.

But just because we prayerfully ask for something doesn’t mean God is going to give us what we ask.

Jesus prayed to his Father that the cup be removed from him; he wanted to be spared the persecution and crucifixion he knew were coming.  In response to his prayer for deliverance, an angel came and gave him strength.  Jesus didn’t ask for strength; strength was what he would need for the events to come, and those were the very events he was praying to avoid!  He was so distressed by this that his sweat became like blood as he prayed all the more earnestly.

God didn’t give his Son what he wanted, but he gave him what he needed.  In Luke’s gospel Jesus never cries out from the cross his sense of abandonment.  Matthew and Mark both show Jesus’ last words to be “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  In Luke, when he has received strength from the angel to face what must occur for the salvation of the world, Jesus’ last words are, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Bring your requests to God in prayer, vague ones if you’re not quite sure what you want to happen, specific ones if you know exactly what you want God to do for you.  But be open to hearing God; he may give you something entirely different from what you ask, because he knows better than we do what we need.  And he will always give us what we need as we live in the grace purchased by his Son’s sacrifice on the cross.

Let us pray.  Omnipotent God, all things are within your power.  Enable us to accept what you give us, that we may boldly proclaim your will with our lives.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Pentecost 22, Tuesday, Year C

Inspired by 1 Samuel 25:23-35

“David said to Abigail, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who sent you to meet me today!  Blessed be your good sense, and blessed be you, who have kept me today from bloodguilt and from avenging myself by my own hand!’”  1 Samuel 25:32-33 (NRSV)

When we’re searching for guidance from the Lord, we often look for burning bushes or thundering voices from the sky.  God has used such dramatic effects to proclaim his message, but much more often he’s simply worked through ordinary people.

When David was journeying with his soldiers, he passed through the lands of a man named Nabal.  David’s men had protected Nabal’s shepherds in the fields, and now David was requesting some food for his soldiers.  Nabal responded to David’s request with insults, inciting David to march on him with the intent to kill him and every male in his household.  David did not seek the Lord’s guidance in this; he was certain he was justified, and marched out to exact his revenge.

When Nabal’s wife heard what her husband had done, she hurried to prepare food for David and his soldiers and rushed out to meet him.  She never received instructions from the Lord; she heard about the situation, used the good sense God had given her, and acted as she saw fit, even though it meant disobeying her husband and risking her life by confronting David.  But David recognized the hand of God in Abigail’s actions.  David recognized that God was working through this woman to prevent him from making a grave mistake, and David heeded the guidance he received from Abigail, understanding that God had sent her to him for this purpose.

God speaks to us through ordinary people, too.  Even when they don’t realize they’re acting as messengers of God, God has given gifts of good sense, wisdom, and articulation to many people, and uses them to proclaim his will.  Be attuned to the voice of God in all things and in all people; you’ll be surprised by how often you’ll hear him, and by the ways in which he makes himself heard.

Let us pray.  God of the universe, you are with us at all times.  Grant us wise and discerning hearts, that we may recognize your voice in the words of ordinary people.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Pentecost 22, Monday, Year C

Inspired by 1 Corinthians 6:1-11

“In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.  Why not rather be wronged?  Why not rather be defrauded?  But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that!”  1 Corinthians 6:7-8 (NRSV)

All we have is a gift from God.  There is nothing we possess that we achieved entirely our own; we use the mental and physical gifts God gave us to acquire all that we have.  And there is no possession in the world that is more valuable than the wellbeing of another human being.

When we focus so heavily on what is mine and what is yours, especially within a community of believers, we are elevating the worth of material objects above the worth of relationship and harmony.  It’s true that no one should wrong or defraud someone else, but so often it happens unintentionally.  We carefully account for and justify our ownership over something, but the lines of ownership aren’t always as clearly defined as we’d like them to be, especially when we work cooperatively, as the body of Christ is called to do.  Which is more important?  Maintaining our ownership of a mere thing, or maintaining our relationship with a brother or sister in Christ?

In a court of law there are winners and there are losers, but that’s not the way it works in the kingdom of heaven.  As followers of the living Christ, we’re called to live on earth as though the kingdom of heaven were already here.  That means not viewing each other as winners or losers, or sacrificing relationships with people for the sake of claiming exclusive ownership of possessions.  All that we have is a gift from God, and we ourselves can be gifts from God to other people with our generosity and our love.

Let us pray.  God of justice, you created enough resources for all your people to live abundantly.  Save us from the sin of greed, that we may value unity over personal material gain.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

Inspired by 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”  2 Timothy 16-17 (NRSV)

How are we to understand the bible?  Is it a rule book?  A history book?  A science book?  A prayer book?  Is every part of it applicable to all people in all times and in all cultural contexts?

The bible tells the story of God’s interaction with humanity, particularly his establishment of and involvement with ancient Israel, the saving work of Jesus Christ, and the establishment and spread of early Christianity.  It does include some rules (commandments).  It does describe some historical events.  It does attempt to explain some natural sciences.  It certainly includes some prayers.  But it was written by many people over many years, writing about how they understood and interpreted God to be working in the world.

It was inspired by God, but it is not the literal, dictated word of God.

Some of the commandments were specific to a certain cultural context that no longer exists.  Most of the history was told from only one perspective, and may lack some important facts established by archaeology or other contemporaneous texts.  Much of the science has been improved upon with the advancement of technology.  The prayers can help us find words to express our deepest pain, desire, or gratitude, but are by no means the only acceptable words with which to approach our God.

The bible can point us to God, but it is not an object of worship or reverence in and of itself.  Just because a commandment may now be irrelevant or a historical narrative incomplete doesn’t mean we can’t still learn from the testimonies of our ancient forebears.  The bible is something we are to approach prayerfully and thoughtfully, as we attempt to understand how God worked in people’s lives throughout history, and as we attempt to discern how he continues to work in our lives today.

Let us pray.  God of the ages, you have been active in the human experience from the beginning of time.  Give us the wisdom to understand your activity, that we may use the bible for our edification as it points us to you.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Pentecost 22, Saturday, Year C

Inspired by Genesis 32:3-21

“The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, ‘We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.’  Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people that were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two companies, thinking, ‘If Esau comes to the one company and destroys it, then the company that is left will escape.’”  Genesis 32:6-8 (NRSV)

Actions have consequences.  Jacob cheated his older brother Esau out of their father’s blessing, then fled for his life.  Twenty years later he journeyed home, and heard that his brother Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred men.  The messengers never relayed Esau’s intentions towards Jacob; perhaps they never spoke to Esau and just reported what they’d observed.  But Jacob interpreted his brother’s actions as hostile, and prepared for the worst.

He sent droves of animals ahead of him with servants, hoping to appease his brother’s wrath with gifts.  But his brother kept coming toward him, and Jacob’s fear increased.

But when they were finally face to face, Jacob discovered that Esau was not wrathful.  He did not want Jacob’s gifts; despite not having their father’s blessing, he still had enough for himself.  Esau had only been coming to greet his long-absent brother and welcome him home.

Jacob’s actions toward Esau had been deceitful and deserved retribution.  Jacob recognized that and expected his brother’s justifiable wrath, but Esau showed him mercy instead.

When we wrong someone, we must be willing to face the consequences of our actions.  But when we ourselves have been wronged, we have the power to show mercy and forgiveness.  May we always be more willing to forgive than to exact revenge, even when retribution is justified.

Let us pray.  Merciful Lord, you desire justice tempered with mercy.  Grant us the wisdom to recognize our own guilt and the courage to hold others guiltless, that we may demonstrate your lovingkindness to the world.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.