Monday, July 28, 2014
Today's Lesson comes from Romans chapter 16 verse 1:
"I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church . . ."
This seems like such a simple and straightforward verse - Paul commending to the church at Rome a faithful servant member. But there is actually more to this verse, more in its actual words, than first meets the eye - in English anyway.
Paul is writing his letter to the church at Rome and has apparently sent this woman, Phoebe, as his courier. He asks the church to greet her and then goes on to tell them how she has aided Paul in his ministry as a "patron" - meaning one who out of their largesse in giving, helps to pay the way for others. She is wealthy and generous with her wealth and for that Paul calls her a "saint" and also a "servant".
Or, perhaps more. The word translated above is actually the Greek word "diakonon" which can be translated as servant, but is also often translated as "minister". And, it is the same Greek word from which we get our church word "deacon". That is right, the early church had a female deacon.
It is left to your judgement why it is that most versions of the English Bible have oftentimes chosen to translate the word "diakonon" as "minister" or "deacon" when it refers to or is presumed to refer to men while translating it "servant" when it refers to Phoebe. But let me just say the early church would not have been what it was without Phoebe; and today's church would not be what it is without the women like her.
Thank God for the Phoebes - saints, servants, ministers, and deacons.
Friday, July 25, 2014
Today's Lesson is from Joshua chapter 9 verses 22 through 25:
22 Joshua summoned [the Gibeonites] and he said to them, “Why did you deceive us, saying, ‘We are very far from you,’ when you dwell among us? 23 Now therefore you are cursed, and some of you shall never be anything but servants, cutters of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.” 24 They answered Joshua, “Because it was told to your servants for a certainty that the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you all the land and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you—so we feared greatly for our lives because of you and did this thing. 25 And now, behold, we are in your hand. Whatever seems good and right in your sight to do to us, do it.”
I was talking to a pastor friend the other day about a situation at a church we both know. Things aren't good there and haven't been good there for a long time. The church has gone through a lot of conflict and turmoil in recent years and several pastors have ended up as casualties. This has all been quite embarrassing for the church because it has a long and proud history. But that's just the problem. The church is too proud. "They just aren't desperate enough yet," my pastor friend said.
That goes for a lot of churches and organizations and people. Pride gets in the way; and they won't change because they just aren't desperate enough. In the end they may not be desperate enough to change until its too late.
I love this story from Joshua because it shows how getting desperate can save us. When the Israelites came into the Promised Land the Gibeonites, who lived on the land, knew they would be killed lest they pretended to be from someplace else and made a covenant of peace with the Israelites. By the time the Israelites figured it out that they had been deceived they had already made covenant with the Gibeonites to let them live so keeping their word they made the Gibeonites cutters of wood and drawers of water. When the Gibeonites were asked why they would deign to such a lowly station they responded by pointing to the alternative - certain death.
In other words, the Gibeonites got desperate enough.
There is an old saying, "Beggars can't be choosers." When we get desperate enough we'll get humble. We'll put away our pride and get ready really work for our salvation - even if it means chopping wood and hauling water, sizing down on the house, loosing the country club membership, taking a second job, cleaning our own bathrooms, closing a store, closing a whole division, or simply accepting responsibility for past failure. That's when we'll be ready.
Let's just hope it's not too late when we do it.
Thursday, July 24, 2014
Today's lesson is from Romans chapter 15 verse 4:
"For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope."
These last few weeks I have been studying the work of Brene Brown, best-selling author and professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. Brown studies what she calls "whole hearted" people, and their ability to survive and even thrive amidst struggle. One of the primary things Brown has learned in her research is that whole hearted persons are people of great hope. And what she discovered about hope - to her surprise and to mine - is that hope is something which is both taught and learned. In other words, hope is something that can be passed down, one generation showing another how to hold their hopes in spite of whatever circumstances they may find themselves in.
So I'm reading this 21st century researcher Brene Brown, and the open the Bible and see Paul saying the same thing 2,000 years before. Paul is writing the church in Rome, a church under persecution from both the Roman government and in conflict with certain parts of conservative Judaism. Paul knows they need hope and he tells them where to find it - in the scriptures, in the stories of those who have gone before, in the lives of those who in spite of great difficulties held on. Through their endurance, Paul says, we too find the courage to hope.
Hope is learned; and it is taught by the passing on of stories of hope-filled people. This is why for millennia the Scriptures have been such a source of power and inspiration to those forlorn, oppressed, and abused - because the strength of Hagar, or the courage of Esther, or the perseverence of Moses is literally passed down from one generation to another through the pages of the family Bible.
And it all just makes me think, in our current generation's Biblical and historical illiteracy we are in danger of losing more than a few good stories from times past; we're actually in danger of losing hope itself.
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Today's Lesson is from Psalm 49 verses 6 through 9 and 17 through 20:
6 those who trust in their wealth
and boast of the abundance of their riches?
7 Truly no man can ransom another,
or give to God the price of his life,
8 for rthe ransom of their life is costly
and can never suffice,
9 that he should live on forever
and never see the pit.
17 For when he dies he will carry nothing away;
his glory will not go down after him.
18 For though, while he lives, he counts himself blessed
—and though you get praise when you do well for yourself—
19 his soul will go to the generation of his fathers,
who will never again see light.
20 Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish.
In his funeral oration for King Louis XIV of France, in he presence of some of the world's richest and most powerful, Jean Baptiste Masillon famously began his sermon with these straightforward words which put all of the pomp of so grand an occasion in perspective: "Dieu seul est grand. (Only God is great.)
I have over my years as a pastor been blessed to know many very wealthy people who keep things in perspective. They know that things could have turned out otherwise. they know what the writer of Ecclesiastes says is true:
"The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor riches to men of understanding; but time and chance happen to them all."
Those who are rich in things and also rich in soul know keep it all in perspective. They know their riches are a blessing to be used generously for the good of their families and also others. They know they have been blessed to be a blessing. And in the end they know that their wealth can never purchase the pearl of great price - which is what Jesus called the kingdom of heaven. Entry there can never be bought, but must instead be humbly received.
In that sense, whether rich or poor, in the end we're all beggars because only God is great.
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Today we have two lessons:
Joshua chapter 8 verses 21 and 22:
21 And when Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had captured the city, and that the smoke of the city went up, then they turned back and struck down the men of Ai. 22 And the others came out from the city against them, so they were in the midst of Israel, some on this side, and some on that side. And Israel struck them down, until there was left none that survived or escaped.
and Matthew 26 verse 52:
“Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword."
We see the images on television and the Internet. Gaza burning. Hundreds killed in just a matter of days. Refugees making their way through streets of rubble and ruin. We see these images and we know this is not the way to peace.
They say that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again with the expectation of different results. Yet again and again the results are the same - more death, and more destruction, and another generation of enemies made.
The just peace Palestinians are looking for will not come through bombs and rockets and the mustering of its people into intifada. Israel will not allow itself to be bowed by war and neither will its backers. On the other hand, the peace Israel seeks will not be gained by erecting more settlements in the name of security. Creating more enemies is not an effective means of security.
It is insanity, this living by the sword.
In the coming days I pray a ceasefire will be declared which will last more than just a few hours. When a ceasefire is declared there will be a period of mourning. In that mourning I pray leaders from both sides will see the insanity - that in trying to live by the sword they are actually dying.
Until then, Gaza burns; and her children pledge vengeance.
Monday, July 21, 2014
Today's Daily Lesson is from Joshua chapter 7 verse 13:
“There are devoted things in your midst, O Israel. You cannot stand before your enemies until you take away the devoted things from among you.”
In the book of Joshua, just after the fall of Jericho, there is a little-remembered story about a man named Achan, whose selfishness nearly cost the Israelites their claim in the Promised Land.
The story goes that when Jericho fell to the Israelites the LORD gave a strict command to all the Israelites that they were not to take the city's silver and told for themselves, but instead they were to give all the valuables unto the treasury of the LORD. As it happened, one of the Israelites, Achan, acted selfishly, taking some of Jericho's devoted things for himself. As a result, in the next battle at a place called Ai, where the Israelites should have won handedly, they were instead routed and dozens of their men lost their lives. The Bible says the Israelites were deeply grieved and their hearts melted and became "like water". Then the LORD spoke to them and told them why it was that they were so roundly defeated. “There are devoted things in your midst, O Israel. You cannot stand before your enemies until you take away the devoted things from among you.”
We will never know the victory so long as we remain devoted to anything other than the LORD and the LORD's will for our lives. We cannot serve God and mammon. We cannot serve God and our ego. We cannot serve God and also serve what is safe, or politic, or popular.
The LORD requires our complete devotion; and the divided heart of even only one may cost us all.
Friday, July 18, 2014
Today's Daily Lesson comes from Romans 12 verse 15:
"Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep."
Last year I saw something beautiful. It was during prayer time on at Wednesday night fellowship. Everyone was gathered around the tables and we were sharing prayer concerns and thanksgivings as we always do. Two women were seated at tables next to one another. One of the women's husbands had been diagnosed with a particular form of cancer which would likely take his life within the next year. Tests were being run on the second woman's husband but doctors suspected he too had the same virulent form of cancer. It was a very sad time for both families and also for our church.
But then the second woman stood up during prayer time and announced that the test results had come back on him and that he was cancer free. The congregation broke out in spontaneous applause and celebration. And at just that moment from where I was standing at the lectern, I could see the face of the first woman - the one whose husband really did have cancer. She too was clapping, and her face was wide with a smile, and her eyes were full of the light of good news. And then I saw as the second woman, he one whose husband was proclaimed cancer free, looked over at the first woman with a knowing and caring look and reached out her hand in sympathy. I could see that tears began to fall from both women's eyes. Tears then welled up in mine also.
We were rejoicing with those who rejoiced and weeping with those who wept and like I said, it was beautiful.