A recent trip to a place called Dinosaur World was highlighted by a stop at a gem-finding place. It is one of those venues kids love, where you purchase a bag of dirt and pour it into a sluice box. Water runs through the box and washes away the dirt to reveal the hidden gems. Rose quartz, red jasper, amethysts, and other beautiful stones emerge with each washing.
We are like that in a way. Each time we go before the Lord to confess our sins, we are washed in the sluice box of his forgiveness. The beauty of our potential is revealed through repentance. We emerge from this experience as humbled, forgiven people.
Today’s psalm uses a beautiful image of God as the Rock of our salvation. It is fitting. In the bag of rocks at the gemstone place, each gem is a small piece that was broken off from a bigger rock. To realize that God is our Rock is to acknowledge that he is our stronghold, our place of origin, and our constant source of strength and rescue. We are made in his image.
We are invited to come before our Rock with joyful shouts and singing.
Psalm 95 (New King James Version)
Oh come, let us sing to the Lord! Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation. 2 Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving; Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms.
God’s greatness is our hope. Everything in heaven and on earth is his.
3 For the Lord is the great God, And the great King above all gods. 4 In His hand are the deep places of the earth; The heights of the hills are His also. 5 The sea is His, for He made it; And His hands formed the dry land.
There is nothing for us to do but bow down and worship.
6 Oh come, let us worship and bow down; Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. 7 For He is our God, And we are the people of His pasture, And the sheep of His hand.
Where in your life do you need to go before the Rock and find his salvation? Are you feeling broken, separated, small, or fragile? Do you need forgiveness to wash over you like a gentle tidal wave?
Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. In HIS hand is everything we need to make it through one more day.
Let me tell you about my friend Lisa. Lisa is the co-author of a book on grief that we wrote together several years ago. (Mourning Break) She is actively engaged in prison ministry. Her dedication to the women in the Georgia state prison system is incredibly admirable. She visits them, writes emails to them, prays with them, prays FOR them, and has helped one write a book on devotionals from prison. With all the ways that she is a true Barnabas who supports and encourages others, she is first and foremost obedient to what Christ has called ALL of us to do.
In this passage in Matthew, Jesus explains how we all will be evaluated at the end of our days. The king in the story has separated the people into two groups: those who are righteous, who are positioned on the right, and those who ignored his call, whom he placed on his left.
Matthew 25 (Common English Bible)
34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
This clearly is the standard by which the world will be judged. Those who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and gave the cool cup of water to the thirsty will inherit the kingdom. Taking care of the sick and visiting people in prison also enable believers to receive all the good things the father has to bestow upon his people.
37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’
I think about my friend and her prison ministry when I read this passage. Jesus explains that when we do loving and caring things for others, we are doing them for Christ himself. Can there be a higher goal in life than to do acts of beauty and kindness for Jesus?
You may not have a way to visit someone in prison like Lisa does, but you probably know someone who is imprisoned by their situation, their defeat, their hopelessness, their poverty, or their choices. Can you make a difference? Can you reach out in non-judgmental love and offer a plate of love, a cup of justice, a coat of warm acceptance, or a handshake of welcome? (OK, maybe a wave from six feet away…)
Take this scripture to heart. In a world that is imprisoned in despair, be a Lisa. And when you do, you’ll be serving Christ himself.
The phrase “sheeples” has become the dirty word of 2020. Used when people have opposing views, it is a derogatory way of saying one group is vapid enough to believe things that the other group finds offensive, false, or ridiculous. In this mindset, if you are “so stupid” that you hold a particular opinion, you might be called a sheeple by someone who holds the opposite opinion.
The underlying thought behind this put-down is that sheep are supposedly simple-minded. Come on now! Y’all are giving sheep a bad name. Sheep may be dumb, but they would never be mean enough to engage in name-calling. I’m here to stand up for the sheep!
In all seriousness, there is beautiful language in scripture that uses images of sheep-like behavior in a very positive ways. If you look closely, these scriptures usually end up being more about the shepherd than the sheep. When people are compared to a flock that is ready to follow the care and concern of a Shepherd, it is a comforting image and a humbling lesson.
Most Bible readers are familiar with the Good Shepherd imagery that Jesus used in John 11:
14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.
But today’s lectionary takes us back to Ezekiel, well before Jesus arrived. This was written during the time of Israel’s exile in Babylon, when the people were scattered all over the place. Note the connections between the prophet’s writings and Jesus’ own words:
Ezekiel 34 (Common English Bible)
11 The Lord God proclaims: I myself will search for my flock and seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out the flock when some in the flock have been scattered, so will I seek out my flock. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered during the time of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will gather and lead them out from the countries and peoples, and I will bring them to their own fertile land. I will feed them on Israel’s highlands, along the riverbeds, and in all the inhabited places.
Call me a sheeple, but this is exactly where I want to be. I want to be in the care of a gentle leader. I want to be sought out when I stray. I want to be rescued and led into the fertile land.
I want to be fed.
14 I will feed them in good pasture, and their sheepfold will be there, on Israel’s lofty highlands. On Israel’s highlands, they will lie down in a secure fold and feed on green pastures. 15 I myself will feed my flock and make them lie down. This is what the Lord God says.
16 I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice.
Your Shepherd is calling you, too. He himself is ready to feed you and provide you with rest.
Is the Lord seeking you? Are you lost? Wounded? Weak?
All you have to do is follow. God tends his sheep with love, mercy, kindness, and justice.
I don’t know about you, but I just wanna be a sheep.
Open the eyes of my heart, Lord
Open the eyes of my heart!
I want to see you.
I want to see you.
I can’t recall the first time I sang that contemporary praise song, but I will always remember the clarity that it brought to me as I sang it. Praise songs are often criticized for being simple and repetitive, but others would say that is exactly the point. Repeating a phrase in music is a way to ensure that the meaning takes hold in your mind and in your heart. Repetition is a technique that helps a concept to be easily remembered. Do you remember singing the ABC song? I rest my case.
In this simple chorus, we ask the Holy Spirit to come and open “the eyes of our hearts” in order to see, know, and experience God more fully and more completely. The juxtaposition of heart and eyes is clever in the way that it encourages us to make a visual connection between being open to God’s presence and thus seeing him in his complexity. I think the challenge is to see God in the world around us….in the circumstances, places, and the people in our purview.
Where do you see God today? Where is he active in your daily routine?
It’s interesting to remember that this is exactly what Paul prayed for his beloved church in Ephesus. He longed for them to see God with the eyes of their hearts, too.
Ephesians 1 (Common English Bible)
15 Since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, this is the reason that 16 I don’t stop giving thanks to God for you when I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that makes God known to you.
18 I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, 19 and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers. This power is conferred by the energy of God’s powerful strength.
Note that when he lists the things we will see in our hearts, hope is the first thing mentioned. The hope of God’s call, his glorious inheritance, the greatness of his power, and the power of his strength are things that we see when we open the eyes of our hearts.
What do you need to see today? Have your circumstances clouded your vision? Has abuse, depression, addiction, despair, or hopelessness blinded you to God’s activity in your midst?
It happens. Those are the times when we need to blink away distractions and focus on what happened when Christ died on the cross.
20 God’s power was at work in Christ when God raised him from the dead and sat him at God’s right side in the heavens, 21 far above every ruler and authority and power and angelic power, any power that might be named not only now but in the future.
Christ is far above anything that distresses us today. He is stronger than any stronghold, deeper than any well of sorrow, higher than any artificial high, mightier than any words of condemnation, and more powerful than the evil one who would love to keep his hands firmly pressed against your eyes in order to blind you to the reality of God’s mercy and grace.
Open the eyes of your heart, and you will see God. He is in every circumstance…just keep looking.
Everybody knows so much these days! Google has enabled us to become instant experts on every subject. Just ask someone a question and they will have an answer. But that has been our undoing, in a sense. If person A is quoting resource A to person B, who is only reading resource B, a disagreement is likely to ensue. A and B will never agree because they don’t trust the other’s resources.
Stop and think a moment…what do you REALLY know? I’m not talking about education, research, or reading copious articles on a subject. What do you KNOW?
We know the sun rises every morning and sets every night.
We know the earth revolves around the sun and fall follows summer.
We know that things freeze at 32 degrees Fahrenheit and there is a certain level of humidity that is guaranteed to frizz a girl’s hair.
You know what else we know?
We know that the Lord is God and he made us. We know that we are his people.
Psalm 100 is a beautiful tribute to what we really know. It contains the everlasting truth of what can be known with certainty.
Psalm 100 (New King James Version)
Make a joyful shout to the Lord, all you lands! 2 Serve the Lord with gladness; Come before His presence with singing. 3 Know that the Lord, He is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.
Did you notice that before we are assured that God is God, we are invited to make the joyful shout, serve with gladness, and come into his presence with singing? In Methodism, we call that prevenient grace. Before we are even aware of him, God comes to us with his grace. His unmerited favor, his unconditional love, and his offer of salvation come before we even know who God is. This indeed is a reason to rejoice.
4 Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, And into His courts with praise. Be thankful to Him, and bless His name.
Do you hear the invitation continuing? This Psalm is like a door that is being held wide open so that everyone can come in and set a spell. Come into the gates! Enter into the inner court! You belong here where the truth is made known. The Lord is God, and the Lord is good.
5 For the Lord is good; His mercy is everlasting, And His truth endures to all generations.
So maybe we don’t know as much as we think we do. But if we know the goodness of the Lord, then we know everything we need to know.
There is a lady at my church who is exceptionally good at anything having to do with hospitality. She can organize a kitchen full of cooks, is able to serve food while hot, has the ability to decorate the entire place like an events coordinator, and she can always make herself available to do whatever we need. She is a BLESSING.
What are you good at doing? Can you teach? Sing? Do finances? Talk with teenagers? In church language we call these talents “spiritual gifts.” We understand that everyone is good at something. God is the one who gives you the ability, and he calls you to use it for the good of the kingdom. We encourage people to discover their gifts and to serve in places that match their special abilities. We also encourage people not to volunteer in an area that they are not gifted to do! Trust me, nobody wants me on the Finance Committee. My eyes glaze over if you show me anything with numbers.
In the book of Matthew, Jesus tells a lengthy parable about a master who entrusted three servants with different financial gifts. He left them on their own to decide how to invest what they had been given. It went well for two of them….
Matthew 25 (The Message)
19-21 “After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them. The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’
22-23 “The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master’s investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’
But woe to the last servant, who was given the smallest amount. He chose a very strange place for his investment…
24-25 “The servant given one thousand said, ‘Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.’
This man squandered his gift.
Are you squandering yours?
26-27 “The master was furious. ‘That’s a terrible way to live! It’s criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.
28-30 “‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.’
Jesus is not playing here. When you receive a gift or talent, God wants you to use it for his glory. To bury what you are good at doing is a terrible waste. The play-it-safe life is not acceptable.
Maybe you’ve been told you don’t have a spiritual gift that’s worth anything. You’ve been told wrong. Everybody is somebody in the Body!
Whatever you’re good at, do it. Do it joyfully. Do it gracefully. Do it obediently. When you invest your talents in the service of the Lord, it comes back to you with eternal rewards.
These are trying times. That may be the understatement of the year. I don’t need to list all the reasons that I write that because you are living it. In my lifetime, nothing has been this hard, divisive, confusing, and in many ways, dangerous. The list of don’t do this,don’t go here, don’t engage in this behavior is endless. In my state, the governor just reduced indoor gatherings from 25 to 10. We are hunkering down for the next tidal wave of infections, which have already started…just in time for winter.
I know of two families who will not be able to share a Thanksgiving dinner together because younger members are not willing to isolate prior to that day. They have decided that going to the bars, gyms, and other social events is something they aren’t willing to give up for two weeks in order to be together safely. Another friend reports that she hasn’t seen her parents in months because they won’t wear masks when they go out and they continue to attend a monthly club dinner where nobody is wearing masks as they sit side by side at large tables.
Like I said, these are trying times. And trying times can bring out the most selfish tendencies that people have. It makes me think that I have been sleepwalking all of my life until 2020 reared its challenging head. Well, I’m woke now.
The lectionary assignment for today is (once again) startling in its accuracy. I had a wonderful chat with a colleague about the power and the relevance of the lectionary selections for this cycle. God is always ON POINT in scripture, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, the lectionary assignments written decades ago keep bringing the living word right into our current situation.
Take a look at Paul’s letter to his church at Thessalonica. If we didn’t know better, we might think he wrote it last night.
1 Thessalonians 5 (The Message)
5 1-3 I don’t think, friends, that I need to deal with the question of when all this is going to happen. You know as well as I that the day of the Master’s coming can’t be posted on our calendars. He won’t call ahead and make an appointment any more than a burglar would.
About the time everybody’s walking around complacently, congratulating each other—“We’ve sure got it made! Now we can take it easy!”—suddenly everything will fall apart. It’s going to come as suddenly and inescapably as birth pangs to a pregnant woman.
Although Paul is referring to the end times, the image of people walking around complacently declaring that “we can take it easy” is an accurate portrait of what’s happening in pandemic ridden post-election America. We’re just tired. We want it all to be over. Our vigilance in many areas of society has slipped, and the numbers are surging.
4-8 But friends, you’re not in the dark, so how could you be taken off guard by any of this? You’re sons of Light, daughters of Day. We live under wide open skies and know where we stand. So let’s not sleepwalk through life like those others.
Let’s keep our eyes open and be smart. People sleep at night and get drunk at night. But not us! Since we’re creatures of Day, let’s act like it. Walk out into the daylight sober, dressed up in faith, love, and the hope of salvation.
I love how Paul encourages us to keep our eyes open and be SMART. We can’t be taken off guard by this. Families are making hard decisions about gathering together. We may have to face the reality that our holiday meals will look much different than the festive tables we took for granted in the past.
But it won’t always be this way, so maybe it’s better to look beyond the immediate. Even in this struggle, we are alive in Christ…and that’s the good news.
9-11 God didn’t set us up for an angry rejection but for salvation by our Master, Jesus Christ. He died for us, a death that triggered life. Whether we’re awake with the living or asleep with the dead, we’re alive with him!
So speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so you’ll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind. I know you’re already doing .
Paul gives the best advice. Speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope! Make the sacrifice to quarantine so that you can be with your family members. We are all in this together, and together we can ensure that no one is left out. Let’s not sleepwalk through this. As Paul says, be smart!
How many times have you heard that or said that in a lifetime?
Life’s too short, so eat dessert first.
Life’s too short to stay angry at your spouse.
Life’s too short, so spend the money now for that trip you’ve always wanted to take.
Life’s too short to be miserable all the time, so change your situation.
In a Psalm written by Moses, we see this theme in a different context. In his view, life’s too short and then you die. In the meantime, all we get to do is experience God’s wrath and anger. Now that’s a sobering and discouraging thought! According to this, we toil and trouble all of our lives and in the end, we just fly away. Yikes!
But focus on the first and the last verses of this Psalm:
Psalm 90 (New Revised Standard Version)
Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. 2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
This is beautiful language. The image of God being our dwelling place in all generations is a word of comfort. From everlasting to everlasting, God is God and we are his! In the midst of toil and trouble, remembering that God is GOD (and we are not) helps tremendously.
3 You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” 4 For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.
9 For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. 10 The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Moses appropriately calls attention to the “life’s too short” conundrum and brings a certain focus to the situation. It begs the question of what you intend to do with this too-short life. Can you answer that today? Life IS too short. How are you going to number your days wisely? What changes should you make?
Moses reminds us that God is angry when we sin and are disobedient.
11 Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
So in this too-short life, we need to count our days and use them well. In this too-short life, we should seek wisdom and righteousness. Having acknowledged the anger that follows sin, we should strive every day of this too-short life to walk in holiness. Life’s too short for regrets.
What are you doing with your too-short life? Spend it well.
12 So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
We are moving back into our sanctuary for the first time since March. The pandemic forced us to take our worship services online, out to a ball field parking lot, over to our front yard, onto the beach, and even to a graveyard. We are beginning to feel like the early Hebrew nation that followed the pillar of fire and cloud all over the desert, setting up a temporary tabernacle each time they stopped.
Standing in one corner of the chancel area is our Lenten Cross, which is usually up from the beginning of Lent until Easter Sunday. On Easter it is covered with a white scarf and a white dove and then is removed when the service is over. Seeing the Lenten cross still up as we are preparing for this upcoming Sunday is bittersweet. This certainly has been the Lentiest Lent of all Lents….the never-ending Lent, the Lent that won’t relent, the Groundhog Day movie-remake in 3D-Lent Vision. We’ve had more than enough Lent for one year!
Whether you are in the camp of people who feel that we didn’t do enough to flatten the curve when we had the chance, or the camp that thinks it just needs to run its course, COVID-19 has been a daily struggle for individuals and institutions. The national anger that is bubbling just beneath the surface of society is bursting out in riots, property destruction, marches, and an abundance of hate speech. We are left with a feeling of gloom as we try to muddle through it.
The hope and promise of a vaccine became part of our conversation yesterday with the announcement of an experimental vaccine that has shown up to 90% efficacy. Over the last several months, real strides have been made in labs, on white boards, in research facilities, and with the brave volunteers who have been participating in early trials. Science is talking back to the virus in a meaningful and hopeful way.
Through all of this, we have always known where to look. We know to look to the one who rules heaven, and fix our eyes there until God has mercy on us.
Psalm 123 (Common English Bible)
I raise my eyes to you— you who rule heaven. 2 Just as the eyes of servants attend to their masters’ hand, just as the eyes of a female servant attend to her mistress’ hand— that’s how our eyes attend to the Lord our God until he has mercy on us.
It will be important to remember to continue to look to the Lord. It will be important to continue to be vigilant in our self-care practices. As a community and as a country, we will need to double down on our hand washing/sanitizer using/mask wearing/social distancing behavior.
Because we’ve had more than enough of this pandemic. We’ve had more than enough of misinformation. We’ve had more than enough death. We’ve had more than enough shame.
3 Have mercy on us, Lord! Have mercy because we’ve had more than enough shame. 4 We’ve had more than enough mockery from the self-confident, more than enough shame from the proud.
So keep looking UP. Don’t look to any one person, group, party, or institution to save us. We’ve been doing that since Lent and it hasn’t worked. It’s time to take the Lent cross DOWN.
I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? 2 My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. 8 The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore. (Psalm 121 New Revised Standard Version)
The stories in the Bible that portray strong female leadership are few and far between. There are a lot of arguments about how the Bible ended up this way. Some folks reason that it was written in patriarchal times by patriarchal people. Others look to the leadership that was present when the Bible was canonized. Whatever the reason, it is an unexpected joy when we find a story of a strong female leader.
Let me digress for a moment and insert a little personal history here. In the beginning of my ministry I experienced resistance based on the fact that I am female. There are many stories, but one in particular sticks out that always makes me chuckle when I remember it. It actually involves my mother.
Mom was at a business meeting with colleagues from all over the state. At dinner, people were chatting about their families. A man sitting next to her asked her what her daughters did for a living. When she told him that I was a pastor, he gasped in horror. “How do you feel knowing that she is disobeying everything the Bible stands for?” he asked. Mom looked at him, annoyed and confused. “What are you talking about?” she replied. “Well, clearly in the Bible women are forbidden to preach. Just look at Jesus and his disciples!!! He only picked men!! Only men are allowed to be preachers! I’m a Baptist, and my church only ordains men.” Mom leaned across the table and replied, “Yes. And Jesus only picked Jews. Are Jews the only ones allowed to become preachers in your denomination? How exactly does THAT work?”
He changed the subject.
So to continue, take a look at this marvelous nugget involving a brave judge named Deborah.
Judges 4 (The Message)
4 1-3 The People of Israel kept right on doing evil in God’s sight. With Ehud dead, God sold them off to Jabin king of Canaan who ruled from Hazor. Sisera, who lived in Harosheth Haggoyim, was the commander of his army. The People of Israel cried out to God because he had cruelly oppressed them with his nine hundred iron chariots for twenty years.
4-5 Deborah was a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth. She was judge over Israel at that time. She held court under Deborah’s Palm between Ramah and Bethel in the hills of Ephraim. The People of Israel went to her in matters of justice.
There are two things to note here. First, the Israelites kept doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord. Is anyone surprised? Second, there was no king leading the people of Israel at that time. Pretty soon they would demand one, but at this point in time they were supposed to be following God’s rule, with earthly judges serving as the leaders of the people. And here we see a GIRL in charge.
6-7 She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “It has become clear that God, the God of Israel, commands you: Go to Mount Tabor and prepare for battle. Take ten companies of soldiers from Naphtali and Zebulun. I’ll take care of getting Sisera, the leader of Jabin’s army, to the Kishon River with all his chariots and troops. And I’ll make sure you win the battle.
Deborah was a wise leader. She was a political and military strategist. She was a spokesperson for God, and the people trusted her. She knew how to bring her people together and inspire them. That’s what good leaders do.
Tell your daughters. Tell your wives and sisters and mothers and grandmothers. There are stories in the scriptures of strong female leadership…you just have to look a little harder. The lesson here is a good one for today: never underestimate the power of a woman.