What Is Important

Read 1 John 2:15-17

There are some who make the statement that we live in a “throw away” world. The meaning of this statement is that as consumers, we purchase items not expecting them to last very long but instead expecting to replace the item in a few short years. Companies promote this idea by advertising new models and always making changes which make previous models obsolete. A prime example of this is the cellular phone which has a new model debuting at least annually. This is a significant change over the last fifty years. Prior to the 1980s, and especially for a generation who had lived through the Great Depression, a person took care of their possessions and tried to make everything last as long as possible. Yet even before this shift, the reality was (and is) nothing lasts forever.

The writer of our letter today makes a differentiation between the things of this world and the things of the Father. In these words we are told to not focus upon and cherish the aspects of earthly lives because these items do not last. Our time and energy should be directed towards living as God presents to us. The God-focused aspects of life are eternal. All which derives from a temporal focus has a limited existence.

The writer is not intending to dissuade us from living productive and useful lives in our earthly state. God’s intention is for us to live a full life, enjoying the fruits of our labor and the blessings which we are given along the way. 

The writer is intending to tell us that perspective and priorities are important.The eternal aspects of life such as love, compassion, belonging, mercy and grace, must always rank higher in importance than those aspects which will eventually be gone.

We live in a “throw away” world. What we know and experience from these earthly moments have a shelf life. The eternal aspects from God should not be thrown away but instead be the most important parts of our lives.

In Secret

Read Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

When I was in college, a donor gave a large sum of money to the institution which I was attending. With this money, the college would be able to build a partially underground building to house the school of business, a new dining hall with snack bar, a new technology center with mainframe computers, a new bookstore, a new information center, a new auditorium, new classrooms, new student organization offices and a new mail center. In addition to the new building, there would be money available to improve some of the existing facilities. The catch with the donation was that the donor wished to remain anonymous (this catch would be removed about five years later when the donor was revealed to be Harold Walter Siebens). There was much speculation about the source of the donation of such a large gift. The donor was adamant that he wished to do something good without hype and focus upon him. The focus should be on the students, faculty and education was the desire. An act of doing something beneficial not for the glory but because it was right seemed to be the donor’s thought.

Jesus is teaching the crowd in the passage which we read from Matthew. Three of his teachings focus on faith acts done in secret. Giving, praying and fasting are the actions which Jesus focuses upon here. He uses contrasts to communicate what behaviors the Father desires to be associated with what was seen as righteous or acts demonstrating faith. In all three examples the public exhibition of carrying out each action is presented as the undesirable method of completion. The contrast, and preferred method, is these acts are done in private with only the Father being aware of their completion.

Just as Mr. Siebens desired initially to act in secret, Jesus tells us that when we are acting as part of our faith, we should do so anonymously. The reason for this is due to the importance of the focus. If we make a fanfare or a great show or a visual demonstration of our actions, then the focus is on us as an individual. Giving to others, praying to God and practicing the spiritual discipline of fasting are all intended to place the focus on God. Jesus is teaching here that it should not be all about us but should be about the God in whom we believe. This proper focus is what truly makes these actions acts of faith.

As One

Read Psalm 133

In the 1970s if a person attended church camp or some church youth event, you stood a good chance to sing “Kum ba yah.” The song is an African American spiritual with an origin which is difficult to establish. The earliest version of the written music is from the 1920s. Translated from the Gullah, the song title is “Come By Here” in English. Today this song is seen as an example of a feeling of unity and goodwill. It is associated with the idea of harmony and warm fuzzies. Frequently it is used in a mocking manner. The view is that this unity and harmony is not real but an attempt to present a false image.

The passage chosen for today is also a song from the Hebrew hymnal. Psalm 133 is a song which would likely be sung by pilgrims on their journey to the Temple. This is a song of unity. The words communicate how pleasing it is to God when the people live united. Blessings come upon the people who live in harmony with one another. As they journeyed together,  this would be a binding song, all heading to the same place for the same purpose. 

Unity is a word which is frequently misused and misunderstood. This leads to a sense of falseness when the word is employed. Much of the reason for this sense is due to the misconception that unity is a synonym of uniformity. When perceived this way, achieving such a state seems unrealistic and in many ways undesirable. These two words definitely are not synonyms. Uniformity is not pleasing to the Lord or what Psalm 133 is speaking of.

God created diversity in all of creation, most definitely among humans. This diversity is what created a beautiful weaving of the world. Also, diversity is what makes an efficient and effective meshing of all creation. Since diverse components are what was the Creator’s plan, uniformity is in resistance to the plan.

What does please the Lord is when the diverse aspects of creation live and work together in united ways. Including and valuing each unique component of creation is the desire. The Latin phrase found on most U.S. coins and in various government buildings, “E pluribus unum” (Out of many, one), is the concept of this unity. The idea is that our differences do not divide us but we are meshed as one like a jigsaw puzzle to create a whole picture. 

Let us cherish our diversity while we acknowledge our unity. This form of living and working as one is the true unity which pleases God and blesses each of us.

One of Us

Read Mark 9:38-40

There is a phrase which is frequently stated when a stranger comes into a new area, “you aint from these parts are you?” In the use of the phrase, the idea that the newcomer has done or said something which is unusual to the local culture is communicated. The person has been identified as an outsider, someone who does not belong. Since the individual is not “one of us,” they might be made fun of or even ostracized. This can cause the stranger to be denied certain privileges or opportunities.

The passage for today is found in Mark’s gospel shortly after the telling of Jesus’s transfiguration. A few of Jesus’s disciples come to him to let him know that an outsider was using Jesus’s name to cast out demons. The disciples indicated they had stopped the man. They anticipated words of appreciation and a pat on the back from Jesus. Instead, Jesus tells the disciples that their action was wrong. Anyone doing a positive act and attributing it to the power of Jesus is not inclined to speak ill about Jesus in the next breath. He says that a person who attributes their acts of love and compassion to Jesus is a benefit to the ministry.

Those who constitute the fellowship of the Church have at times acted like John and the disciples in this passage. Too often when word of a person or group who are making positive impacts within the community is received, those within the fellowship make disparaging remarks or attempt to sabotage the work. The expectation of a person having met a human-determined set of criteria as the only way to attribute the name of Jesus to their work has prevailed in the Church at times. Yes, a sense of caution is necessary to ensure that only actions aligned with the Lord’s teachings and purposes are associated with the Lord. But when this alignment exists, it is not our place or a benefit to halt the association. Afterall, all good things are from and a part of the Lord. The Church should be more concerned about the destructive nature of some of the actions which its members do while evoking the Lord’s name.  In these situations, we should seek to partner with those attributing their actions to the Lord.  

Simple Enough

Read 2 Kings 5:1-19

One of my employment opportunities in the past was in insurance sales. I was not very successful in this profession but I did acquire some beneficial training and skills. Early in my training, a colleague passed on some advice to me which I first attributed to him but later learned that the United States Navy noted it in the 1960s. My colleague shared an acronym to follow… K.I.S.S., keep it simple stupid. The principle points to how often we want to make something more grandiose or extended than it really needs to be. While I do not like the last word choice in the acronym, I have found the principle very applicable in many situations.

The reading for today is a Biblical story which applies the KISS acronym. We are introduced to a beloved Aramian commander who suffered from a skin disorder which was given the common name, leprosy. Naaman, the commander, learned of a Samarian prophet who may be able to cure his skin disorder. The king of Aram sends him to Samaria with his blessing and a request to the king of Israel to be sure Naaman is cured. When Naaman comes to the prophet  Elisha, he receives a message from Elisha to go and wash in the Jordan seven times (or completely). Naaman is angered by this because Elisha did not even come to see him. The commander expected some great action to take place for him to be healed. His servants convince him to at least give it a try and when he does, he is healed. Naaman then wants to reward Elisha but Elisha refuses to accept anything so Naaman vows to only worship God from now on. Naaman expected something elaborate but Elisha knew it only needed to be simple.

For us, it is easy to relate with Naaman. We often view events in life as the old adage which says… Go big or go home! In some ways it seems logical to us that the Creator of the universe and all that is in it would choose to use a powerful and noticeable action to get things accomplished. However, we quickly discover that God acts in quiet and simple ways much more often than in loud and attention-getting ways. Our God does not need a flashy show to establish a presence and affect change. God’s power and authority is best experienced in the quiet surprises and subtle changes. Seems like a pretty good example for us to follow.

Influencers

Read Matthew 5:13-16

Influencing others carries a high level of responsibility. With the advent of social media, there is a new profession which has emerged. This new profession is a social media influencer. These individuals have built an audience on a variety of social media channels and platforms. They have built a reputation of being an expert with trusted knowledge through their regular posts on a specific topic. By establishing credibility they can influence how people view a topic which can include everything from spending decisions to the vote a person casts in an election. Social media platforms and media in general will pay these influencers to post and speak on their platforms. If traffic increases on the sites and/or networks because of the influencers appearance, the company can increase charges for advertisement.

Jesus speaks of influence in the verses which we read today. He uses the imagery of salt and light as he instructs his disciples to be influencers of their day. They are told they must make a difference. He warns that if they stop making a difference in the world, they will lose their ability to serve God in a meaningful way. The influence which they are to make through their lives is to prompt people to come to the Lord in praise.

We are called to be influencers. Like the social media influencers of our day, we are to prompt people into action not by our knowledge and expertise but by the way we live our lives. Jesus tells us that as people witness our actions and choices, they should be prompted to move towards the Lord who we profess to follow and believe in. It is not about what we say as much as it is about how we live. We are to flavor people’s lives in positive ways and be a guiding light towards the Lord.

Watch the Words

Read James 1:19-21

A cornerstone to a healthy relationship is communication. Whether the relationship is an intimate one or more casual in nature, communication is significant. Whenever we interact with another human being, we have initiated a relationship, brief or in length. The relationship might be between two people on a sidewalk, between a customer and clerk, or between two people on a date. The setting can be a rally event, in our home, in a store, or on the commuter train. Anytime we interact with one another, some form of relationship occurs. In all of these situations, how we communicate influences the relationship and the outcome of the encounter.

As we read the passage today, we engage in advice regarding communication. The words were written to a group of believers in the first century but have value even today. First piece of advice is to be quick to listen. This indicates to us the importance of listening before beginning to speak. Defer to the other person to hear their information and/or perspective. Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus said,” We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” This is echoed in the advice from James which continues by saying we should be slow to speak.

The third piece of advice is to be slow to become angry. Anger does not fit what God wishes to see in human relationships. The usual outcome of anger is the expression of damaging words. Anger does not build up a relationship. While the emotion of anger is unavoidable at times, managing and controlling it is a valuable skill. Many difficult situations can be avoided if we do not rush to anger and the harsh words it produces.

Finally, the advice states to remove moral filth and evil from our thoughts and communication. Instead, we are to focus on the words planted in us by the Spirit. These are words which build one another up. These are words which communicate the love of God into our relationships. By focusing on and using these words, we save ourselves from destructive communication which destroys relationships.

No Fear

Read 1 John 4:16-18

Over the course of human history, there have been leaders who sought full control over the people who they were to lead. These leaders have employed a variety of tactics to establish and maintain this control. One of the methods utilized by every one of these leaders is the employment of fear. They establish techniques which will instill in the people a fear which prevents them from acting in any manner not prescribed by the leader. This fear is based on witnessing or anticipating repercussions if the leader’s desires are not met. Such repercussions  may include banishment, imprisonment, torture, seizing of assets, dismemberment, loss of statics, financial ruin, or even death. The people follow the leader not out of trust but out of fear.

The writer of I John presents a leader who has an opposite approach. In the midst of a discussion which equates God with love, the writer speaks of a relationship between humans and the Divine. Because we live in love, we have no fear in our relationship. The writer points out that love and fear are incompatible. We do not have to fear anything from God. In fact, since God is love, fear is pushed out of our relationship.

There are church leaders who attempt to use fear much as the world leaders mentioned earlier. These leaders create fear as a way to control while masking it as an attempt to “save” people from God’s wrath. This originated with the Jewish leaders and has come down over centuries to the Church. Jesus spoke against this technique during his ministry. In our passage, we see the incongruity of using fear in regards to a relationship with God. Instead, the message we receive, and should pass to others, is that it is love which draws us into a relationship with God. Love is the source of all of God’s actions, teachings, and promises. Love not fear emboldens us to be in relationship with God. Our actions, teachings and promises should flow out of love.

Protect the Core

Read Proverbs 4:23

The Mississippi River is the second longest river in North America. It begins in northern Minnesota and flows south to the Gulf of Mexico, south of New Orleans. The origin of the river is Lake Itasca, a small glacial lake. Being a glacial lake, the water is cold and clear although as the Mississippi River flows south on its journey to the gulf, it acquires much of the sediment and objects flowing into it from tributaries and land on its path. Keeping the origin of the river free from contamination is an important goal of volunteers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The verse chosen for today comes from the Book of Proverbs. This book of the Bible is a collection of wisdom sayings, many attributed to King Solomon of Israel. This particular verse makes reference to our hearts. Of course, the writer is not referring to our biological heart but instead is referring to the core and origin of our life. The wisdom here is to guard this core since it is the source of all which flows through and out of our lives. Keeping the core undamaged and free of contamination is important so we can experience and contribute positive aspects into our lives and the lives of others.

Like the people who strive to keep Lake Itasca healthy as the source of the great Mississippi River, we are charged in Proverbs to diligently keep our center of life healthy. The Mississippi River provides life to millions of humans and animals along its path and for hundreds of miles in each direction from its banks. Our heart does the same for all with whom we come in contact. Any contamination can and will have a negative impact. We must be mindful of any influence we allow on our hearts.

Temptation

Read Matthew 4:1-11

All types of temptations confront us in life. When a person is on a diet, there seems to be endless opportunities to eat foods which are packed with unhealthy calories. If you are trying to conserve or save money, advertisements on social media surface attempting to entice you to buy something you want badly. When in college, the availability of credit cards tempted me to spend money which I did not have. Temptation comes in a variety of forms from a variety of sources. How a person responds to temptation has a strong impact on one’s ability to overcome the temptation.

In today’s passage from Matthew’s version of the gospel, we witness Jesus going to the arid area near the Jordan River. Prior to this passage we hear of Jesus being baptized by John. This is the starting point of Jesus’s earthly ministry. The transition from growing up while working with Joseph and his mobile ministry of healing and teaching is marked with these two stories. While in this barren area without resources of food and water, Jesus is tempted by the tempter, or devil. The three mentioned temptations are taking care of the physical needs of food and water, testing if the Father’s protection is real, and obtaining controlling power by worshiping someone other than God. Jesus’s response is always to rely on his understanding and following of God’s directions. This response allowed Jesus to overcome the temptation.

Each of us encounter the same types of temptations as presented here. There are times when we are tempted to place our perceived needs ahead of everything else. We are tempted to take matters into our own hands to satisfy our need instead of trusting in God to provide.

The temptation to want to challenge God to see if the promises are real can surface occasionally. We may make reckless choices and say to ourselves, “if God truly loves me, I will be kept safe.” The expectation that God will get us out of perilous situations is best illustrated with the moral story of the man who drowned in a flood because he kept refusing the help God was sending.

A hunger for power and authority along with all the earthly benefits associated with them can easily creep into our everyday life. We place people and objects in the center of our lives to obtain that power, authority and benefits. These items take the place of God who deserves to always be in the center of our lives.

Jesus again provides a way to respond when these, and other temptations, confront us. Relying on the directions of the Lord is the way to overcome temptation. We can obtain this direction by understanding and applying Scripture. The fellow believers and faith leaders which God places in our lives can assist in providing God’s direction for us. Being in communication with the Lord through the Spirit also opens this direction to us. Temptation will always come our way but if we seek God’s direction as our response when it does, we will overcome it.