Give It All

36 Simon Peter asked him, “Lord, where are you going?”

Jesus replied, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.”

37 Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

38 Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!

John 13:36-38 (NIV)

This is the day of the year when we pause to remember those women and men who have died while serving their nation. Memorial Day has changed a lot since it first began. There have been various dates and times which nations have set aside to honor the deceased military. Our current holiday came out of some local practices within communities. The former confederate states set aside a day to honor those who had died during the Civil War. Northern states soon followed suit. In 1868, General John A Logan, leader of the Grand Army of the Republic which was a northern Civil War Veterans organization, issued a general order setting May 30 as Decoration Day which was “for the purpose of strewing flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” This became the starting seed of what was declared a national holiday in 1971. Today the holiday has been moved to the last Monday of May and has become a day when all who have died are remembered and graves decorated. However, the original purpose of setting aside such a date must be remembered. This day is meant to recall those who “gave the last full measure of devotion” (Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1863) by giving their lives for their country.

Our passage from John comes in the midst of whatwereferto as the Last Supper. Jesus is sitting at a meal with his disciples. The ones who are closest to Jesus are beside him at the table. Judas has just left after Jesus identified him as soon becoming the betrayer. Jesus tells the disciples that he is to leave soon. Simon Peter asks Jesus where he is going and Jesus tells him that Peter cannot follow him now but will later. Peter wants to know why he cannot follow now and declares his willingness to lay down his life for Jesus. Jesus questions Peter’s true willingness since he knows Peter will soon deny knowing him.

It is easy for us to identify with Peter. Peter’s love for Jesus is strong, so strong that he declares his willingness to give his very life for Jesus. He is eager to give his all. However, Jesus knows the weakness in Peter. When the time came for Peter to risk his own life by acknowledging being a follower of Jesus, Peter was unable to follow through. Few of us have ever been put in such a situation so we are unable to say if we would choose as Peter did or not.

In the brave men and women who we honor on this day, we are given an example to follow and a challenge to accept. These military women and men loved their country and its ideals so much that they were not only willing but did give their lives in defense of them. This is an example for us to admire and emulate in our lives. The challenge set before it is to not only be willing to do this for our nation but also for our Lord. Are you willing to physically and/or metaphorically give your life because of your love for the Lord and the ideals which the Kingdom of God sets forth?

Shattering Norms

Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.

Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

17 “I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

John 4:1-26 (NIV)

Society has a set of norms or rules which are to be followed by all individuals. These norms govern the behaviors and interactions of those people living in the society. A majority determines and adopts these for a smooth functioning of the given society as they understand. Today there seems to be a reduction of the norms and rules in place, or at least they are much more centered on specific locations and not as widely adopted. Many of society’s norms have been based upon ethnicity, race, religion, sex and sexuality in earlier times. While some still exist, there have been leaders, movements and courageous individuals who have worked at eliminating discriminatory norms and rules.

Today as we read the passage, we encounter a rebel, who through actions, attacks some of the social norms of his day. Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well contains actions which people would have considered totally unacceptable. First, he had a lengthy discussion with an unfamiliar woman. Second, this woman was a Samaritan woman which meant that she was part of a group despised by the Jews for centuries. They despised them since they were unwilling to let the Jews pass through their country on the way to the promised land. Third, she was a woman who Jesus somehow knew had had many men in her life. The man who she was living with now was not even her husband. All of this was very scandalous which is why the woman questioned Jesus asking her anything. Their conversation focused on the worship of God but actually is more about the arbitrary division of people. Jesus makes it known that God is more interested in the spirit of people than any humanly defined differences. The location of the people no longer even matters. The Spirit binds all together.

The example of breaking social norms and rules here is part of the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus’s ministry was about introducing a new way of living. In the kingdom there will be no division because we all share in the same Spirit. The norms and rules based on old understandings and conflicts are not a part of the coming kingdom.

As followers of Christ, we are charged to be active participants in the coming of the kingdom. Whenever we say the words of the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Your kingdom come…” God has chosen us to be agents of bringing about the kingdom. We are to do as the rebel Jesus did throughout his ministry displayed in this passage. We are to challenge the norms and rules of our society which encourage division among people. Our challenge cannot be in mere words but must also be in bold actions. As we stand shoulder to shoulder with our Muslim or Jewish neighbors, or any who are harassed or ostracized because of their faith, we follow Jesus. As we walk alongside our neighbors who have a different skin color than our own in an effort to overcome unfair practices, we follow Jesus. As we learn from and embrace those of different sexual orientation, or those who have struggled with addictions, or those who have acted in ways deemed unacceptable to others, we follow Jesus. It is time to follow Jesus and be rebels in bringing forth the Kingdom of God on earth.

Prayers for a Nation

On this day when our nation inaugurates a new President and Vice President. I have chosen to pause my regular Scripture-based devotional. Instead, I am moved by the Spirit to share two prayers from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Common Worship.

The first is for our newly elected and installed government leaders:

O Lord, our governor, your glory shines throughout the world.  We commend our nation to your merciful care, that we may live securely in peace and may be guided by your providence.  Give all in authority the wisdom and strength to know your will and to do it.  Help them remember that they are called to serve the people as lovers of truth and justice; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

The second is a prayer for our nation:

Almighty God, you have given us this good land as our heritage.  Make us always remember your generosity and constantly do your will.  Bless our land with honest industry, sound learning, and an honorable way of life.  Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way.  Make us who come from many nations with many different languages a united people.  Defend our liberties and give those whom we have entrusted with the authority of government the spirit of wisdom, that there might be justice and peace in our land.  When times are prosperous, let our hearts be thankful; and, in troubled times, do not let our trust in you fail.  We ask all this through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

May our prayers be heard as we begin on a new path.

(Photo courtesy of kiplinger.com)

Trust

Praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord, my soul.

I will praise the Lord all my life;
    I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
Do not put your trust in princes,
    in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
    on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God.

He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
    the sea, and everything in them—
    he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
    and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
    the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
    the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the foreigner
    and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
    but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

10 The Lord reigns forever,
    your God, O Zion, for all generations.

Praise the Lord.

Psalm 146 (NIV)

Trust is something which is earned. Through consistent actions, an individual can acquire the trust of others. Children are quicker to trust others because they have less life experience involving people not demonstrating actions consistent with their promises. Many of us may struggle on both sides of the trust coin. We see unfulfilled promises and lose trust in individuals and human institutions. At times, we are incapable or choose not to fulfill promises which we make to others. In both situations, trust crumbles. We become wary of others. Once trust deteriorates, it takes time and effort to rebuild.

The psalmist speaks to us today about trust. In the words of the psalm, we are warned not to place our full trust in humans and human leaders. Even the most trustworthy have a finite ability to follow through on plans and promises. The psalmist tells us to place our trust in the Lord. This is followed by a litany of how the Lord has consistently cared for the most vulnerable of our society. By listing these consistent care patterns, the psalmist is making a case to support trusting in God. In addition, we are reminded that the Lordis faithful, the faithfulness endures forever because the Lord is forever.

All of us experience challenges in our lives. The Lord places individuals in our lives to assist us during these times. Institutions have been created out of necessity to address larger issues. The important thing to remember is humans, and the institutions which we create, have limits and will fail at times. Trust in these will be broken, rebuilt, and then broken again. Only the Lord can be trusted every time. First, and foremost, trust in the Lord who is forever and consistently provides for all in need. As the Lord works through humans and our institutions, good is provided. A healthy perspective is important. Remember, humans and institutions will have times when they do not carry out the Lord’s work and will break our trust. Only God can be trusted completely so place your trust in the Lord.

A Celebration

Lord, you are my God;
    I will exalt you and praise your name,
for in perfect faithfulness
    you have done wonderful things,
    things planned long ago.
You have made the city a heap of rubble,
    the fortified town a ruin,
the foreigners’ stronghold a city no more;
    it will never be rebuilt.
Therefore strong peoples will honor you;
    cities of ruthless nations will revere you.
You have been a refuge for the poor,
    a refuge for the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the storm
    and a shade from the heat.
For the breath of the ruthless
    is like a storm driving against a wall
    and like the heat of the desert.
You silence the uproar of foreigners;
    as heat is reduced by the shadow of a cloud,
    so the song of the ruthless is stilled.

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
    a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
    the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
    the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
    from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
    from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.

In that day they will say,

“Surely this is our God;
    we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the Lord, we trusted in him;
    let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”

Isaiah 25:1-9 (NIV)

This is the time of year when we are engaged in a lot of celebrating with a lot of food. The year in which we are in  has seen a lot more modification to our celebrations due to the pandemic. Still, many reports indicate that people are making a lot of food at home this year. Celebrations have moved from public venues to more intimate and private gatherings in homes. Either way, the celebrations continue.

Isaiah speaks of the greatest celebration yet to come. He shares how the Lord has broken down the ruthless powers of the world. The manner in which God has looked out for the disadvantaged is recalled. All of this leads up to the time when the Lord will prepare a massive celebration. Isaiah tells us that at this banquet, the best food and drink possible will be set before us. The party favors include the destruction of death and the end of sorrow. All will be honored and lifted up. He tells us that at this celebration the Lord’s saving actions will lead to great rejoicing.

Many of us long for an end of the pandemic. I am sure that when the virus finally is under control, there will be celebrations to the magnitude which have not been seen since the day World War II ended. Yet, even as large and impressive as our celebrating might be on that day, there is no comparison to the celebration of which Isaiah foretells. Try to envision singing and dancing of all people together without any conflict or animosity.  Let your mind taste the richness of the food and drinks of which you will partake. Imagine never having to fear illness, grief or death ever again. These are the promises of the Lord. Your invitation to the party is waiting.

Making Requests

May God be gracious to us and bless us
    and make his face shine on us—[b]
so that your ways may be known on earth,
    your salvation among all nations.

May the peoples praise you, God;
    may all the peoples praise you.
May the nations be glad and sing for joy,
    for you rule the peoples with equity
    and guide the nations of the earth.
May the peoples praise you, God;
    may all the peoples praise you.

The land yields its harvest;
    God, our God, blesses us.
May God bless us still,
    so that all the ends of the earth will fear him.

Psalm 67 (NIV)

We are quickly approaching our Christmas celebration and the end of another year. Many people have been sending greetings to one another. Usually these greetings communicate a desire for the receiver to have a merry Christmas and a blessed new year. When people think about what would make a merry Christmas, they may consider time spent with family and friends. The stronger thought which enters many minds is the hope to receive just the right gifts. Similarly, a blessed new year conjures thoughts of no problems, being prosperous, and maintaining positive physical and financial health. What truly is a merry Christmas and a blessed new year?

The writer of this psalm speaks of blessings from the Lord. The psalm begins with a familiar benediction, a hope that God will be gracious, will provide blessings, and be present. The reason for this request is so that the Lord’s ways will become known. Then the requests continue with a focus on the praise of God. Concluding the psalm is an acknowledgement of what the Lord has already provided with an additional request that God continues to bless the people.

Reading this psalm, it almost appears like a Christmas request list from a group of believers. A list given to God instead of Santa Claus. There is nothing here which would be misaligned with the hopes of all of God’s children. Yet I am stopped in my thoughts by a set of nagging questions…

  • What am I doing to make this wish list a reality?
  • How am I seeking God’s face?
  • In what ways do I encourage others to praise the Lord?
  • Am I showing God gratitude for the blessings already given?

Maybe these questions might be yours as well. Take a moment to ponder these questions. How do you respond? Are there changes you may need to make? What do your Christmas requests to God look like? How are you working to fulfill those requests?

Leadership Transitions

22 After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. 23 Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized. 24 (This was before John was put in prison.) 25 An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. 26 They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”

27 To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ 29 The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. 30 He must become greater; I must become less.”

John 3:22-30 (NIV)

One of the hallmarks of the way in which our nation is governed is the peaceful transition of power following an election. This is a closely followed tradition at every level of government from the President of the United States to the members of our local school boards. This type of transition sets our nation apart from many other countries. Nations which have adopted a variety of forms of democracy have emulated this quality of the United States. Even in very contentious elections, this hallmark has always been honored. The transition of power is a well-orchestrated process. How smoothly this occurs is based on the character of the individual in leadership prior to the election.

The passage from John’s gospel is about a transition of power. Prior to John baptizing Jesus, John had been the heralder of the Messiah and the one chosen to prepare the people for the coming of God’s kingdom. John was a leader who drew many people to himself. Once Jesus had been baptized by John and had begun his ministry, the process of transition was placed in motion.

Today’s passage brings Jesus in close physical proximity to John. Both men were continuing to teach and baptize the people who came to them. Because they were in the same area, a person came to John to point out that more people were going to Jesus than John. This is when we get to see the nature of the leadership of John. He reminds them that he had already said he was not the Messiah but instead he was to point others to the Messiah. Then John indicated that it is proper for the transition to take place. Jesus is to be the one who gathers more people to him while John’s influence is to diminish.

Transitions can be easy or very difficult. When the transition involves power and influence, the nature of the transition is amplified among humans. John, the Baptist, provides an excellent role model for leaders. Instead of fighting to retain power, control, and influence, a strong leader acknowledges the need for transition. The leader gracefully lessens the role which they now play and welcomes the new leader. This is the model which has been followed in our country since George Washington. This is the model of a servant leader. May we always see this model followed by all our leaders this day and forever more in our nation.

Hope In Despair

Hear my prayer, Lord;
    let my cry for help come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
    when I am in distress.
Turn your ear to me;
    when I call, answer me quickly.

For my days vanish like smoke;
    my bones burn like glowing embers.
My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
    I forget to eat my food.
In my distress I groan aloud
    and am reduced to skin and bones.
I am like a desert owl,
    like an owl among the ruins.
I lie awake; I have become
    like a bird alone on a roof.
All day long my enemies taunt me;
    those who rail against me use my name as a curse.
For I eat ashes as my food
    and mingle my drink with tears
10 because of your great wrath,
    for you have taken me up and thrown me aside.
11 My days are like the evening shadow;
    I wither away like grass.

12 But you, Lord, sit enthroned forever;
    your renown endures through all generations.

Psalm 102:1-12 (NIV)

This year has been filled with times and situations which can bring great despair to people. The last nine months of dealing with the effects of a global pandemic has taken a noticeable toll on the mental health of our nation. The economic distress which is a result of the pandemic has placed many businesses and people in a perilous state. Social unrest, unmasking of inequality, and dangerous human interactions have caused us to question our national institutions and behaviors. A very contentious election cycle has shaken our understanding of democracy and the principles which have sustained our nation. We cry out for an end to this pandemic. We beg for a better way to live out the words of the Declaration of Independence in regard to all people being equal. Our desire for honesty and adherence to the democratic principles which have made our nation a beacon of hope in the past, leads us to shout a heartfelt plea. All of this year’s events drive us to our knees in prayer and lament before our Lord.

The words of the psalmist found in Psalm 102 can be our words as we reflect on this year. The psalmist writes from a point of great despair. This psalm begins with a plea to the Lord to listen to this musical prayer. There is a sense of urgency found in the plea. Then the psalmist lists all the afflictions in life which lead to despair. Following the listing of hardship and feelings, the psalmist shifts direction by acknowledging the greatness of the Lord, a greatness which extends throughout all generations. Clearly the psalmist is raising up the source of hope in the midst of despair.

As I pointed out, this can easily become our own song. We can clearly list before the Lord all aspects of life which lead us to despair now. Our list will be both personal and corporate in nature. We desire deeply the Lord’s willingness to hear us and to respond quickly. In coming before the Lord with our pleas, we are affirming that we believe the Lord is great enough to turn the events of this year around. The greatness the Lord has displayed in previous generations is still present today. This greatness is truly what gives us hope.

Give Thanks

Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors. Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you.

Observe the commands of the Lord your God, walking in obedience to him and revering him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.

10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.

Deuteronomy 8:1-10

Today our nation pauses to give thanks for all the abundance and positive aspects of our lives, This particular year has been a very difficult one for our nation and our world. The global pandemic has touched every one of us in some manner. In addition to the effects of the virus, we have witnessed all forms of disasters. The economy has taken a heavy hit with a record number of unemployed and hundreds of small businesses, and even some long-existing corporations, closing or declaring bankruptcy. Our country has experienced violence, protests, and a very contentious election cycle. This year’s events could easily cause people to ask what there is to be thankful for as we reflect. Yet we are not the first group to encounter a year of significant hardship and pain. Folklore indicates that after a year of death and great hardships in the New World, a surviving group of Puritan settlers held a festival of thanksgiving in their new land. The story even includes an invitation to Native Americans who had provided the newcomers with skills that aided in their survival. These settlers gave thanks for what they had been given which allowed them to live.

In today’s  passage, the Israelites are preparing to arrive in a land which God had promised them. Moses speaks to them about their journey through the wilderness. He reminds them of all which God had done for them during this leg of their journey. He tells them to keep God’s commands as a response of thanks to God. Then Moses speaks to the people about their entrance into a land full of abundance. Again, he tells them to keep God’s commands in this new land. He instructs them to offer praise to God for this land of abundance once they have been filled. They had experienced many years of hardship and God provided during those years. They would experience a land of great abundance which God has provided now. Moses makes it clear that God’s giving in both situations should give reason for the people to offer thanks both in praise and in action.

Now we pause for one day, like many generations before us in this land and others throughout the world. During this year’s hardships, God has provided. Through people reaching out to assist during a natural disaster, God provides. In the dedicated service of healthcare workers, emergency responders, teachers, grocery store employees, delivery drivers, restaurant employees, and countless others, God provides. The hundreds of researchers and health science departments who have worked tirelessly for answers, God provides. This is when we must take time to reflect on God’s abundance and offer our thanks in praise and action.  We have even more reason to do so when life is difficult.