Death, Taxes and God’s Grace

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But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us  even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-by grace you have been saved…”
                  Ephesians 2:4-5
We all know that old saying, “there’s nothing surer than death and taxes.”  But this year, as we continue in our Easter season, neither death nor taxes is sure.  On Easter Sunday we celebrated Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and today, what should be tax day – April 15th – we celebrate the IRS’s grace as they give us until Monday, April 18th to file our taxes.
Grace – a word that we often tend to misinterpret or misconstrue.  This year’s delay in tax day can help us better understand grace.  Grace is often defined as unmerited favor, or an undeserved break.  We didn’t do anything to deserve an extra weekend to file our taxes; the government just gave it to us.  In the same way, there is nothing we can do to earn God’s forgiveness since we are all sinners.  God, through grace, just offers us forgiveness.  It is by grace that we are saved.
But too often, we also think of grace as a pat on the head with God saying, “There, there; it’s alright.  I’ll forgive you no matter what you do.”  Grace then appears to be God’s acceptance of us just as we are, with no expectations of growth or change on our part.   If we consider grace in light of the tax comparison, however, we can say that just as the IRS has given us an extra weekend but still expects us to file our taxes, so God is willing to forgive us, but still expects us to grow as disciples.  We aren’t saved by grace in order to keep doing everything wrong and make no effort to do better.
Grace is God’s wonderful gift of forgiveness and mercy that wipes the slate of our sin clean and invites us to do better next time.  God does understand when we slip and fall back, but God is not inviting us to stay the way we were with no effort to be better.  There’s a saying from the black church, “Lord we ain’t what we should be and we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God, we ain’t what we was!”  That’s a good way to think about grace – we aren’t yet the heavenly angels we hope to be someday nor are we perfect in living our lives as disciples today, but thank God, we aren’t the sinners living apart from God that we once were.  The invitation from God is to grow closer to God, to grow deeper in relationship with the Lord, and to grow in our commitment and effort to live as God’s people every day, always by grace.
Prayer:  Loving God, by grace you have saved me from the consequences of my sin, and offered me entrance into your eternal kingdom.  May I recognize that gift, and in gratitude, live my life as your beloved child, always striving to honor you in all I do.  Forgive me when I fail, but give me the strength to try always to live as Jesus lives.  For it is in Jesus’ name that I pray.  Amen. 
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SENT

“Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
                  John 20:21
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Our daughter was just shy of three years old when our son was born.  I had stayed home with her, caring for her, playing with her, and reading to her.  There were books all over our house, and one of my greatest joys was reading to Jenny.
When Doug was born, Jenny came to the hospital to help us bring him home.  Once home, we tried to include Jenny in activities with her new baby brother..  Imagine my surprise when I peeked into the living room one day to find Jenny reading to Doug as he lay in his baby seat.  She was holding a book, running her finger under the words that she couldn’t yet read, just like I did with her.  She was telling the story we had read so many times, turning pages at just the right time. She was doing for him what I had done for her.
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” Jesus told his followers.  For three years his disciples had observed him, watching how he worked.  They saw him heal the sick, feed the hungry, preach good news and reach out to those on the margins of society to bring them into the circle of God’s love. Now Jesus was sending them to do for the world what they had seen him do.
You and I are sent in the same way.  We are invited to watch Jesus at work in the Scriptures and then go and imitate his work, caring for those Jesus cared about.  We have the portraits of Jesus in the Bible; we have images of a loving God in the lives of the saints, and we have the privilege of continuing the work of God as the Body of Christ today.  In resurrection power, we are sent to the world as Christ was sent, to share God’s promise of new life.
Prayer:   Eternal God, you sent your son to the world to bring the love and life.  In the power of his resurrection, he now sends us to the world to continue that work.  Help us to act in imitation of Christ, to heal and love, sharing good news that makes a difference in the world for good.  Amen. 

Rock Concerts

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“Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”  He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.””
                  Luke 19:39-40
That first Palm Sunday Jesus announced the first rock concert – the stones singing Jesus’ praise if needed!  The comment reminds us that Christ had come not just to save humanity but to restore all of creation.  As Paul says in the letter to the Romans, the whole creation has been groaning, waiting for redemption.  All creation hails Jesus as God’s anointed one, the one who will deliver us from the consequences of the fall.
So often we think of Christ’s work only in terms of human redemption.  While that is important, the story of salvation covers all of creation.  Revelation 21 tells us that a new heaven and a new earth will appear at the end of time; in other words, all things will be made new.  The cycle of decay and death has entrapped not only human beings but all living things and even much that is not living.  And so we celebrate not only what God has done for us, but for all of God’s creation.  We join trees and flowers, cats and dogs, everything that has breath and everything that God created in rejoicing over Jesus Christ.
So as we go through Holy Week, let’s not take a ho-hum attitude as if this is not important.  Because if we don’t shout out our praise, God will find another way to celebrate the Son’s love.  And I’d rather be part of the concert than sitting on the side watching a rock take my place.
Prayer:   Gracious Lord, fill my heart with praise today.  Let me join all of creation in celebrating your son.  My I not stand silent on the sidelines, but instead offer my praise and thanks to the one who redeems everything that has been created by you.  Amen. 

God and the Electoral Process

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“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
                                                                              1 Corinthians 13:1

Have you been watching the political process in our country as we’ve seen it acted out in the primary campaigns going on? Listening to the candidates, we might wonder if this is a country of liars or non-Christians who bicker and backbite! Truth and civility seem to be the casualties of the electoral process.  I listened as one commentator talked about his sons, one college age and one high school age, remarking that they would never consider running for office on the basis of the attacks and smear campaigns they are witnessing in this year’s electoral process.  Their reaction saddened me as I wondered, are we driving away the gifted by the nature of contemporary campaigns, and only getting candidates who are committed to misbehaving?

Is it possible to get elected and not lie?  Is it possible to get elected and be decent and civil in he process?  Can a real Christian who commits to truth-telling and love for fellow humans even run for office?  These are questions we need to be asking ourselves.  These are qualities we need to demand in our candidates.  No, it isn’t nearly as much fun to watch a civil debate as it is to see the fireworks in personal attacks; it isn’t nearly as entertaining to hear policy descriptions and factual information as it is to see candidates tear each other apart with innuendo and half-truths.  But we, the American people, will get what we demand, and if we don’t demand civility and truthfulness in our electoral process, we’ll get the alternative – half truths and personal demonization.

Regardless of politics, it pains me to see someone like Gen. Colin Powell step away from the political process because of the potential cost to his family. Are we losing the opportunity to benefit from the gifts of truly gifted candidates because of the process we have created? It may be that the candidate who truly espouses Christian virtues cannot be elected in this country.  That would make me very sad, but I have to consider that possibility.  But I would love to see somebody try; I’d love to see a candidate tell the truth to the best of their ability and refrain from personal attacks.  Wouldn’t that be a novel approach? Perhaps the problem, however, is not in the candidates but in us, the electorate.  Perhaps we get the behavior we reward. So maybe we need to ask ourselves, what do we really want in our election process, because it may be that despite our protests to the contrary, we are getting exactly what we want

 

Prayer:    Almighty God, you have gifted and equipped some to be leaders in the civic arena, and called them to exercise their gifts for the good of all people.  And yet the very process by which we select leaders seems to deny your law and discourage some truly gifted candidates from entering the arena. Help me by my actions to encourage a process that conforms to your expectations of how we are to live together.  Let me not only affirm community with my lips, but let me live it with my life, so that those who are gifted and called will be willing to share their gifts without risk to themselves and their families.  Amen. 

Memories

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“But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. ”
Luke 2:19
Yesterday I woke up with a tune running through my head. Over and over I found myself humming a tune that seemed to come from nowhere. Suddenly, after about an hour, I realized what the tune was – a song I learned in 5th grade at Girl Scout summer camp! It had been buried in my memory and for some reason just popped into my head as I woke up. I realized I could sing the song all the way through – all the words – and as I did, I remembered the camp experience, the lake where we canoed, the platform tents where we lived. All of that came back to me as I sang through the camp song.

I wonder if Mary had a tune to him or sing as she remembered that first Christmas. Maybe she had a lullaby she sang to the baby Jesus, or a traveling song she’d hummed as they fled Bethlehem for Egypt. However she made connections, she had a lifetime of memories treasured in her mind. There were memories of the shepherds crowding into the stable on the night of his birth, Jesus hitting his thumb with his hammer as Joseph taught him carpentry, of her son’s Bar Mitzvah, of girls flirting with him in the village, and of that trip to Jerusalem when Jesus got left behind. So many memories to cherish, so many ways to perceive God at work in her life, in Jesus’ life, and in the world.

As we begin our new year, I invite you to take a moment to recall the joys of 2015, the places where you saw God at work in your life, at Grove, and in the world. Pause to give thanks tonight as the ball in Times Square descends. Commit 2015 to God with thanks for what has gone well and with repentance for where we have failed the Lord. And then seek God’s presence in your life right from the beginning of 2016. Let this be a year for all of us to treasure and ponder in our hearts.

Prayer: Loving God, as we come to the end of this year, I thank you for all the ways you gave been active in my life. I am grateful for the ways you have enabled me to make a positive difference in the world. And where I have failed you, I pray that you will take my feeble efforts and transform them so that you might yet be glorified. Let 2016 be a year in which I am attuned to your presence, and ready to do your will for the good of your people and the glory of your kingdom, for I ask this in Christ’s holy name. Amen.

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Rest in the Lord

“The Lord protects the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.”
                                                                imagePsalm 116:6-7
Our family has a new member – Wesley, a 9 week old toy poodle.  We are all worn out from days of chasing around this little ball of fur, and short nights punctuated by the need to walk a dog with a tiny bladder.  It’s like having a new baby in the house.  But my heart melts every time I hold this little handful of energy and fur.
Wes, as we call him, is full of energy when he wakes up.  He chases after our feet, jumps up on legs like springs, and keeps us on our toes running after him.  He’ll go non-stop like an Energizer Bunny for two hours, and then let out a yawn, curl up and fall asleep on my lap.  He lets go of all effort, and rests on me with complete trust that he will be safe.  His body limp, his eyes closed, Wes rests on me with utter contentment, confident that I will be there to care for him while he is asleep, and still there when he wakes up to feed him, to play with him, and to love him.
God invites us to rest in the Lord with the same trust and confidence in the Lord’s love and care.  We work hard at jobs, at caring for family and loved ones, at school.  From time to time, we need to let go of all of our effort and rest in the Lord, recognizing that the world will go on without us and life continue without our help.  We can let go of all our work and effort, and trust in the Lord to keep things together while we sleep or rest from our labor, and to be there to love us when we resume our activity.  That is the meaning of sabbath, the ability to relinquish control in the recognition that life doesn’t depend on us.  We don’t carry the world on our shoulders. God is in control, and we can rest in God’s care just as innocently as Wesley rests on my lap after two hours of crazy activity.
So work hard and play hard, and then rest in the everlasting arms of God’s love to be renewed, revived and restored by the one who has dealt bountifully with us.
Prayer:  Eternal God, when I was just a thought in your mind, you created all that is, and even now your power controls all of creation.  Your power is exceeded only by your love, the quality that most defines your being.  Help me to rest in you, to let go of all my strivings and trust in your power and love.   Renew my soul and restore my spirit so that I may continue to work for the glory of your kingdom, trusting in you and doing my part to achieve your will.  Amen.
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Pope Envy and Radical Discipleship

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“Whoever is not against us is for us.
                    Mark 9:40
Did you watch the Pope yesterday?  I sat in front of the TV yesterday morning, hunched forward, listening and struggling a bit with his accent, but fascinated by his remarks.  Later in the day I saw a headline, “Pope Envy,” and I understood the sentiment expressed.  Oh, I have no intention of becoming a Catholic, but I admit I admire Pope Francis.  I don’t agree with everything he says, but he calls us to live a radical discipleship that I believe is closer to what Jesus intended than the faith many institutional churches promote.
The Christian life is not one that fits easily with the mores of society.  It wasn’t in 30 AD when Jesus proclaimed the gospel, and it isn’t any easier today.  The Bible calls us to care for the least, to protect the widow and orphan, to value all life and care for the creation, to love even the Samaritans among us, and to open our gates wide in welcome of the stranger as God has welcomed us into God’s kingdom.  Those are all challenging ideas.
I remember years ago reading about one southern governor, a devout Christian and a Republican in a Republican state, who saw a poll showing that his state was near the bottom in test scores for school children.  He proposed a small tax increase in order to pay for improvements to the educational system, citing his Christian faith as the motivation for helping children.  He was attacked for raising taxes, and voted out of office at the next opportunity.  The people of his state were overwhelmingly Christian, but only as long as there were no tax increases!
Jesus’ words were radical, and following the gospel way of life means radical change.  I know we can’t turn our lives upside down in one instant, but I challenge you to consider one way you might take a step forward in living that radical gospel of Jesus’.  Jesus did not die on a cross so we could enjoy prosperity; he did not suffer so that we could ignore the needs of the rest of our world.  Jesus gave himself for us and calls us to go and do likewise – to give our time, our talents, and, yes, our treasure, to be the living Body of Christ, continuing the work of Jesus caring for God’s people and creation, offering hope and love.
 
Prayer:   Lord Jesus, you have proclaimed a radical gospel, a call to live my life in a different way from the rest of the world around me.  But I don’t want to be different, I want to be like everyone else.  I don’t like being different, I don’t like the demands your gospel makes on me.  Remind me today of what you have done for me.  Help me to understand the magnitude of your sacrifice and let that inspire me to make small sacrifices in my life, so that I may embody your radical gospel in my own life.  Amen.