Friday September 22 2017

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Scripture: Matthew 5:11-16

Key verse: (14) “You are the light of the world.”

Reflection: Today’s reading begins with the end of the Beatitudes. People remember “Blessed are the poor in spirit … blessed are those who mourn … blessed are the peacemakers.”  We don’t often remember, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”  When you’re being insulted or persecuted or lied about because of your Christian witness, that does not feel good.  Yet Jesus says we’re blessed when that happens.

He goes on to tell the church that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  Scores of thoughts have been offered about the meaning of these metaphors.  What strikes me about them is that Jesus is clear in saying the church exists for the sake of the world, not the other way around.  The world does not exist to provide members for the church.  Rather the church exists for the sake of the world; to offer salt to preserve and flavor and purify; to offer light to warm and comfort and enable us to see.  This is who we are.

Sometimes the world doesn’t want any salt.  Sometimes the world prefers to remain bland, or refuses the purifying agents we need.  Sometimes we’d rather stay in the dark than have our lives illumined by the radical call of Jesus to love God with all we are and love our neighbors as ourselves.  Sometimes when we apply the gospel to the situations of the world, it causes trouble.  Sometimes it makes people uncomfortable. And sometimes it leads people to insult and persecute and lie about you. Jesus says when that happens, we’re blessed.

Sometimes I don’t want to deal with that.  Sometimes I want to go along to get along.  Sometimes I prefer a low light environment—it’s easier on my eyes.  Yet what’s the consequence of that?  Ultimately the world will suffer because of our lack of witness.  The world won’t taste the salt it needs.  The world will continue to live in the dark.  Jesus doesn’t say, “You should be like the light of the world.”  He says, “You ARE the light of the world.”  We’re it.  If we don’t shine, how will people see?  “Let your light so shine,” says our Lord.

Prayer: This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, Lord.  Even if the light hurts my eyes.  Even if it compels me to see what I’d rather not see.  Amen.

Author: Joe Clifford

[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].

 

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Thursday September 21 2017

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Scripture: 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:15

Key verses: (3:6-7) I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.

Reflection: I have served with three different congregations during my time as an ordained pastor.  Notice the preposition “with.” I choose not to say that I served “for” them or even just served those congregations. I believe that God has called me to serve “with” lots of wonderful people.  Some are ordained colleagues, some are not. Some are my peers, and some are not. Some of them are easier to like than others.  Together we serve God.

The distinctions get muddy sometimes and we forget who is serving whom. That was true in the Corinthians church. They had become focused on particular leaders and clearly had their favorites. Some liked Paul best; others liked Apollos best. Paul was distraught by their divisions. He knew that faithful leaders aren’t competitors but are companions in service. He didn’t want a fan club. He wasn’t tallying his followers or checking how many people liked his sermon posts. Paul wanted people to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Paul planted seeds of faith in Corinth.  Apollos came along and gave those seeds encouraging water and fertilizer. But God gave the growth.

Pastors face this temptation.  Whenever a group of pastors gathers, we are tempted to slide into conversation about how many members we have, how large our budgets are, even how many services we must do on Christmas Eve to accommodate everyone (always said with a groan, like we are making a huge sacrifice). I wonder if that’s true for church members too.  Maybe we compare churches. Maybe we compare pastors. Maybe we have our favorites. Let’s remember who gives the growth. Only God gives the growth that helps me to be more faithful. Only God gives the growth that helps you follow Christ.

Prayer: O God, when I focus on the wrong things, correct my vision. When I fixate on the divisions, correct my steps. When I forget my calling to follow Jesus, correct my path. Keep my eyes focused on you, keep my faith fixated on your way, and keep my steps following only Jesus. In his name I pray. Amen.

Author: Millie Snyder

[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].

Wednesday September 20 2017

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Scripture: 1 Corinthians 2:1-13

Key verses: (1-5) 1When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

Reflection: I’ve got a new Bible Study meeting weekly here at the church. With a great group of women, some stellar small group facilitators, and good material, we have a year of growing in faith ahead of us. I’ll admit to a little trepidation, however. It’s been a couple of years since I taught a weekly study to adults. I fear that my talking-to-grownups teaching skills are rusty. My instinct is to want to cram for the teaching portion of the study. I might need to refresh my memory on the origins and structure of the book of Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch, since I’m a little fuzzy on recent scholarship on the four-source theory I learned in seminary. And where exactly was Abram when God made that amazing promise to him for a people, and a place, and God’s own presence? Shechem, Bethel, Canaan? (But ask me about teaching Abraham and Sarah to kids, and I’m good.)

These verses from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians remind me that faith rests not on human wisdom, including my own or any other teacher, but on the power of God. While it’s part of my job to share teaching that helps bring God’s Word to life, it doesn’t have to be with lofty words, or a perfect grasp of centuries of Bible history. Instead, we come to our task in humility and faith. All that any of us teach must point to Christ, and any wisdom that comes is from God’s own Spirit. Paul knows that it is the Spirit of God that calls forth faith, and illumines the Word made flesh. If we bear witness to Christ on the page, and in our classrooms and worship spaces, and in our lives, we will all grow in faith and in wisdom, through the grace of God. Abraham himself set out on a journey with nothing but a promise that God would be with him. Maybe we can do the same in whatever tasks lie ahead of us all this year.

Prayer: Lord, you know what I worry about, my insecurities and fears. And yet you call me to tasks that further your kingdom. And you promise to be with me. Your Spirit equips me to do whatever it is you call me to do. Teach me, once again, faith and trust in you. Use me. In the name of Christ, the Holy One, I pray. Amen.

Author: Julie Hester

[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].

Tuesday September 19 2017

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Scripture: Matthew 4:12-17

Key verse: (16)  the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.

Reflection: This is a verse that Matthew quotes from Isaiah. It is not quoted correctly. In the ninth chapter of Isaiah, we read of a people who “walked in darkness”.  Matthew tells us of a people who “sat in darkness.” Walking is active as if they are moving out of or through the darkness.  Sitting seems passive.

I think Matthew misquoted Isaiah on purpose. I have learned a lot of things in the dark that I could never have learned even in the daylight. We all want to walk through the darkness, if not run.  Sometimes, we need to sit down right in the middle of our darkness because that is the only place we can feel, experience or see the light.

Light is the promise that one day things will be different. Light is love that overcomes hatred. Light is peace.  Even when the world looks dark, we claim the hope that Christ offers to us in this verse from Matthew, “Light has dawned.”

Prayer: God of all times, may we know your presence and claim the hope your offer to us again and again and again. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

Author: Michelle Thomas-Bush

[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].

Monday September 18 2017

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Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:1-19

Key verse: (17) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

Reflection: I have seen more statues than I can count, one trip to any city in Europe will fill that bingo card, and frankly they are all pretty much the same.  Whatever side of history they fall on, statues always get it wrong.  Like Facebook that captures a picture on your best day, or thanks to filters and lack of context, what appears to be your best day, statues forever fix someone, quite literally, in a position of authority, elegance and power.  Despite memorizing Shelley’s famous Ozymandias poem in grade school, we still keep erecting statues and fighting for them thinking that they preserve something when statues can only ever distort something. They are fixed, and we my frail fleshy friends are never fixed, never still, never one thing forever.  Statues rob us of our history and humanity and I would vote for every one of them coming down. Well, except for one.  Find it on the corner of Queens and Providence (and Queens and Providence – lord have mercy).   Hugh Pharr McManaway dressed for every celebration and occasion, forever directing traffic with great intent and determination. He’s been knocked down but always gets back up on that semi eternal perch.

Some of you knew this curious man, he used to worship at Myers Park Pres, and I have heard several good stories about his hiding in trees, hopping in to cars and speaking in rhymes.  He was I think a holy fool, a jester, an odd duck.  And thank God we not only made room for Hugh, but we erected a statue to remember him and in doing so remember that we are all a little foolish, a little off, a lot imperfect.  It’s good for a neighborhood like ours to embrace some absurdity.  It’s good for all of us to remember that Hugh was trying to do and be his best and that made him look foolish.  God needs fools, people who will love recklessly, forgive liberally and give generously.  Let’s be fools for Christ.  As Frederick Beuchner quipped, at least we won’t be damned fools for once.

Prayer: Lord make me foolish for you.  Amen.

Author: Derek Macleod

[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].

Friday September 15 2017

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Scripture: 1 Kings 18:20-40

Key verse: (21) “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?”

Reflection: In a recent Gallup poll, 77% of Americans said they see the influence of religion declining in our nation, the most negative evaluation of the impact of religion in over 40 years. Ironically, the same poll indicates 75% of Americans think it would be positive for society if more Americans were religious. And that’s not just religious people either.  Over half of those who seldom or never attend worship say more religion would be positive for society.   In addition, roughly 77% of Americans describe themselves as “Christian.”  So, 77% believe religious influence is declining.  75% think it would be good if it went up.  And 77% identify as Christian.  These certainly aren’t the same three-fourths of Americans, but I find the parallels striking.  Our convictions do not necessarily come through in our actions.  If 75% of Americans really believed it would be a good thing if society paid more attention to religion, then why don’t we?  Especially if 77% of us claim we’re Christian?

“How long will you go limping with two different opinions?”  That’s the question Elijah poses to the people of Israel at Mt. Carmel. If Elijah were with us today, he wouldn’t pose this question to “The Nones”—those who claim no religious faith, he’d be asking the 77% of Americans who identify themselves as Christian.  It’s not posed to the prophets of Baal in order to win their souls for Yahweh.  No, it is posed to Israel, to the people of God in order to challenge them to be who they say they are.  “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?”  That’s how the NRSV translates it.  The Hebrew is literally translated, “hobbling upon two branches,” likely referring to a bird hopping between branches.  How long will you hobble along hopping back and forth between Baal and Yahweh?

Baal was the local fertility god.  Baal worship was attractive to them, offering a cure for every ailment.  Crops not yielding what you need?  Make an offering at the local fertility temple.  Baal will turn things around for you. That’s how idolatry works.  In Baalism, as with all idolatry, there is a prescribed remedy for every malady, and that remedy lies within your hands.  If it’s to be, it’s up to me.  If I do the right things the right way, life will be a-ok, because Baal will bless me.  Not satisfied with your life?  Take these seven steps and discover your best life now. The only problem?  It doesn’t work.  It wasn’t working for the Israelites.  There had been three years of drought.  They’d done the prescribed remedies, and no rain.  No crops.  No harvest.  No blessing.  So Elijah, the Dr. Phil of ancient Israel’s, asks, “How’s that Baal stuff working for you?”

This leads to the epic contest at Mt. Carmel.  It’s like something out of the WWF.  “Let’s get ready to RUMBLE!” Elijah sets up a contest to reveal the living God and expose the impotence of idols.  He taunts the prophets of Baal as they put on their show.  “Maybe Baal’s meditating,” he cries to them.  The Hebrew suggests something more like Baal’s taking a bathroom break.  And when Elijah’s turn comes, he offers a simple prayer, and the fire of the Lord consumes all the offering, licking up even the leftovers, leaving no doubt that the Lord is indeed God.

How long will we hobble upon the many branches defining our life?  I remember a comment made once in a Bible study I attended as a lay person.  My friend said, “I feel like I’ve got all these different boxes in my life: a work box, a family box, a friend box, a God box.  I guess I need to take the God box and pour a little of it into all the other boxes.”  To which another friend replied, “Or maybe we need to realize it’s all in the God box.”  Put another way, all the branches belong to God.  Imagine what could happen in our world if the 77% of people who claim to be Christian actually lived into Christ’s great command—to love God with all we are, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Hopping between the demands of life and work and family and friends and church is a reality we all know.  But in the end, there is only one God.  That’s what Elijah wants us to know.

Prayer: Forgive the many ways I put my trust in the idols of our world, O Lord.  Help me live into the faith I proclaim.  Amen.

Author: Joe Clifford

[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].

 

Thursday September 14 2017

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Scripture: Matthew 2:13-23

Key verse: (13) Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

Reflection: My Christmas Nativity set doesn’t include this part of the story.  I don’t have a King Herod figurine and no soldiers brandishing weapons to kill infants.  But the stained glass window in the balcony of the sanctuary includes it.  In one corner we see the prophecy “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

170725 Sanctuary Window 2

In the other corner we see the horrible slaughtering of the innocents.

170725 Sanctuary Window 1

From the very beginning, indeed from his birth, Jesus inspired fear among the powerful. Herod knew that an infant born as “king of the Jews” would be a threat. Perhaps this king of the Jews would be a political or military leader who tried to overthrow Herod’s regime.  Or perhaps this king of the Jews would be a spiritual leader who called the people to an allegiance to God above all human rulers.  Herod responded with horrific violence.

Over and over again in history, the gospel of Jesus Christ confronts the powers of the world and then power responds with violence. Prophets and visionaries have been killed. Peacemakers have been struck down. Voices crying out for justice have been silenced. Where are we in this? Where is our allegiance? Honestly, some days I may be a follower of Jesus and other days I cling to the ways of the world in fear. My violence isn’t physical and doesn’t involve weapons, but I am violent in my desire to hold on to my power and to avoid the change that justice demands.

It’s been part of the story since the beginning.  I’m glad the church’s stained glass windows don’t let me avoid the truth about the world, and about myself.

Prayer:  Dear Lord, your power is the power of love not of violence. Your love casts our fear.  When my fear controls me, forgive me and set me free. Deepen my trust in you as my Lord and my Savior. Amen.

Author: Millie Snyder

[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].