Psalm 66:8-20 – Celebrate

Red Wing Blackbird

Let the whole world bless our God
and loudly sing his praises.

Our lives are in his hands,
and he keeps our feet from stumbling.
You have tested us, O God;
you have purified us like silver.
You captured us in your net
and laid the burden of slavery on our backs.
Then you put a leader over us.
We went through fire and flood,
but you brought us to a place of great abundance.

Now I come to your Temple with burnt offerings
to fulfill the vows I made to you—
yes, the sacred vows that I made
when I was in deep trouble.
That is why I am sacrificing burnt offerings to you—
the best of my rams as a pleasing aroma,
and a sacrifice of bulls and male goats.

Come and listen, all you who fear God,
and I will tell you what he did for me.
For I cried out to him for help,
praising him as I spoke.
If I had not confessed the sin in my heart,
the Lord would not have listened.
But God did listen!
He paid attention to my prayer.
Praise God, who did not ignore my prayer
or withdraw his unfailing love from me. (NLT)

Those of us who utilize the Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings are familiar with having a psalm each day. In addition, the same psalm is repeated three consecutive days, following the pattern of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday readings preparing for Sunday – and Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday readings reflecting on Sunday. The Psalter has a prominent place in the readings because it is viewed as the Church’s Prayer Book.

Within the book of Psalms, we have the full range of human experience and emotion. Much like athletes in weight training putting in their reps (repetitions) so the Christian is to use the weighty Psalms with repeated use for spiritual growth and development. Prayer and praise along with lamentation and celebration are necessary equipment for the strengthening of faith and a healthy Christian life.

Today’s psalm is a song of thanksgiving for the community of worshipers approaching the temple and offering their sacrifices to God. Together as the people of God they proclaim what God has done for them. Through hardship and difficulty, they have realized abundance and joy. Personal witness and testimony are given to the congregation for answered prayer so that all may rejoice together in God’s steadfast and unfailing love.

Expressing celebration is important. Without it, our spirits are famished and find it difficult to be patient and persevere. With celebration, our spiritual muscles flex with joy and are in shape for the trials and tribulations which lie ahead. Corporate affirmation and personal appreciation are meant to work together in a grand profession of faith in God’s good guidance and help.

“Come and listen and I will tell you what God did for me,” benefits both the individual and the group. If all we ever hear and experience is hardship, our faith muscle will be overused and give out. We need stories to celebrate. We have got to hear testimonies of God’s enduring love.

So, what has God done for you? What celebrations do we have today? Are you willing to share your story? Both the smallest and biggest of celebrations are appropriate, along with everything in between.

While writing this at my desk, a majestic male red-wing blackbird perched himself on the bush in front of the window. Being only a few feet from him, I could see his feathers in detail and his glorious preening for the benefit of the females. On a grander scale, I participated today in celebrating the discharge of a COVID-19 patient from the hospital. With the long hallway lined on both sides with hospital staff, the patient left to a thunderous applause of front-line workers needing to express good news as much as the patient needed to receive it. “Let the whole world bless our God and loudly sing his praises.”

May the Lord grant you the answers you seek. May you express those answers with thanksgiving and celebration to others.

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ has overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant that, as by your grace going before us you put into our minds good desires, so by your continual help we may bring them to good effect; through Jesus Christ our risen Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Luke 15:1-7 – One Lost Sheep

The Shepherd and the Lost Sheep
“The Shepherd and the Lost Sheep.” By Peter Clarke, 1969

A lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They grumbled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their complaining triggered this story:

“Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue. (MSG)

Lost people matter to God.  They matter so much to him that one lost soul found is the grounds for a big celestial party.  Please note this simple observation of today’s Gospel reading: If there is rejoicing in the presence of angels in heaven over one sinner who repents, then who is doing the rejoicing?  God!  God himself is crazy giddy with joy over one lost person being found.

Celebration is an important activity for the Christian. God throws the best parties, filled with plenty of joy and recognition of persons restored to fellowship. As people created in the image and likeness of God, we are hardwired for celebration. If God can go uncorked with joy and celebration, I’m going to say with confidence that open unabashed blowouts rejoicing over people’s transformation and new life is welcome and expected. Folks baptized in pickle juice can join the grumbling of all the high mucky-muck dudes who smugly look down on the marginal persons among us. Hopefully, the party-poopers won’t be heard because of all the noise at God’s party.

This parable of Jesus is meant to give us a glimpse of God’s own heart.  He would do anything to find a lost person, to restore and reconcile a person back to himself.  God would go dumpster diving and wade through the stinky nasty garbage to find that one lost valuable person.

Why should reaching out to marginal people with the grace and love of Jesus Christ be a high priority?  Because restoring lost people is a high priority for God.  God has placed the highest of priorities on recovering those who are spiritually lost and wandering around life without a purpose or a place to call home. Such people matter so much to him that God sent his Son, the Lord Jesus, to this earth.  Jesus went to the greatest lengths possible through enduring a cruel death on a cross in order to reconcile a broken lost relationship between people and God.

I can still remember what it felt like to be separated from God and estranged from the church – it was lonely and sad, like being in a deep black hole with no way of getting out and no one around to help.  But God, in his great mercy, sent spiritual commandos to extract me from my captivity of the soul. So, my greatest desire is to live my life basking in the grace shown to me, grateful for new mercies which come every day, and giving that same grace to others – especially those considered as the lost, the least, and the lonely in society.

In leaving the ninety-nine and going after the one sheep, God gave preferential attention to the lost. So, because of this, I ask a sincere and probing question which I believe needs to be asked:  Can you live with that?  My own answer is: “I sure can, because I was once that lone lost sheep!”

Jesus, you are the Good Shepherd.  Thank you for going after me when I was lost.  Help me to remember that you will often leave my pasture to go after others. I’ll be willing and happy to go with you when you do. Let’s also take the Spirit with us.  Amen.

Click Compassion Hymn by Keith and Kristyn Getty to remember the lengths of love God went to in restoring us.

Isaiah 25:6-9 – Celebrate!

village in front of the mountains
Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh on Pexels.com

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.” (NIV) 

Mountains are a prominent and symbolic part of Holy Scripture. Abraham sojourned to a mountain where the pinnacle of faith was exhibited. The Law was given on a mountain. Elijah met God on a mountain. Jesus preached the most famous sermon ever on a mountain. From such references, and more, we routinely refer to extraordinary events as “mountaintop experiences.”  

The mountain is a great contrast and antithesis to the valley of death below. It signifies God’s power and reign over all earthly rulersOn the mountain we enjoy a great feast of the soul, not to mention an actual meal full of celebration. After all, food and celebration always go together in God’s kingdom. 

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Whenever healing and/or emancipation happen, it is time for celebration. To celebrate significant events, and even to ritualize them so we remember them, is not only wise – it is much needed and vital to how we are wired as humans. The lack of celebration creates spiritual amnesia. When we need support in the future, we don’t recall the mighty acts of God. Yet, if we consistently practice celebration, the redemption experienced in the past is constantly fresh, like a sumptuous meal which is always before us. We can eat of it anytime we want. 

Banquets are rightly associated with hospitality, generosity, and fellowship. Meals in the ancient Near East culture were much more than utilitarian; eating together was (and, frankly, still is in most parts of the world) a deeply spiritual event which communicates acceptance, encouragement, and love to one another.  

God is the ultimate host. He throws the best parties. God ensures that there is plenty of food, fellowship, and fun. God’s joy knows no bounds. In the middle of a world beset with sadness, loss, and grief, God’s boundless generosity swallows up people’s disgrace and mourning. At God’s Table, no one cries alone; everyone is comforted; nobody walks away hungry; and, every person is waited upon, no matter who they are or where they have come from. Indeed, there is always room at the Table. 

Through Christ’s resurrection, “death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54). Death no longer has any power to control, humiliate, or shame us into submission. Death’s threats are emptyThe Grim Reaper’s teeth have been pulled and his scythe has been broken. He is the party-pooper who is barred from entry. Conversely, there is life and abundance for all who ascend the mountain and feast with God at his Table. The invitation has gone out. The Table is spread. We need only to come. 

In the joy of your Son, Jesus Christ, through his mighty resurrection and in expectation of his coming again, we offer ourselves to you, Almighty God, as holy and living sacrifices. Together with all your people everywhere and in every age, we proclaim the mystery of the faith: 

Christ has died! 

Christ is risen! 

Christ will come again! 

Send your Holy Spirit upon us, we pray, that the bread which we break and the cup which we bless may be to us a sacred communion, a holy celebration of Christ’s body, blood, and victory over death. We declare: 

God has spoken! 

God has acted! 

God has provided! 

May you gather all into your hospitable and abundant kingdom; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy SpiritOne benevolent God, now and forever. Amen. 

Click Celebrate Jesus to keep the Easter songs coming in this season of celebrating new life.

What Will It Take to Change the World?

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Recently, I stood among a gathered group of people, most of whom I did not know.  I was there for a memorial service.  A few short months ago, a fellow colleague received the kind of news that no one wants to hear.  In a matter of weeks, she was gone.  Not every funeral I attend (or even officiate) is beautiful.  This one was.  And I’ll state from the outset why I believe it was: the collective experience of both joy and sorrow.

I walked away from my friend’s remembrance with a clear conviction – one that had been percolating and forming within me for quite some time.  This conviction might seem exaggerated, yet it by no means is meant to be.  It’s just what I have come to believe about the universal human experience.  It comes from the confidence and experience of a lifetime of observation and ministry.  It is neither merely a heartfelt sentiment nor a passing feeling.  No, it really is a conviction, a firm principle or persuasion.  It is this:

Crying with strangers in person has the power to change the world.

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I think I’ve always known this.  It just crystallized for me through this experience.  After all, I have watched with awe the privilege I have to walk into a dying patient’s room, full of tearful family, and enter with them into their pain.  The sharing of stories is powerful, eliciting both great joy, reminiscent laughter, and profound gratitude; as well as tremendous sorrow, grinding grief, and sad lament.  Tears and celebration mix in a sacred alchemy producing a kind of care which transcends description.

It’s one thing to observe other’s joy and sorrow on the news, or even from afar.  It is altogether a different reality to participate up close and personal.  It’s something akin to watching a travel documentary on Yellowstone Park versus visiting the place in person; there’s just no comparison.  Shared human experiences of grief will nearly always translate into new and emerging capacities for empathy.  And where empathy exists, there is hope for all humanity.  Being with another person or group of people in their suffering creates a Grinch-like transformation in which our hearts suddenly enlarge.  A single tear from a singular small little Who in Whoville had the power to penetrate years of hardness of heart and change what everyone thought was a shriveled soul full of garlic and gunk.

Image result for well in whoville they say the grinch's heart grew three sizes that day

If I need to say this a different way, I’ll do it: The spiritual and emotional heart of a human being is able to shrink or expand.  It shrinks from spending far too much time alone and/or holding others at bay, at arms-length, while playing the armchair critic to those whom are out rubbing shoulders with real flesh and blood people.  Conversely, the heart can grow and expand.  The Grinch never went back to his isolation.  Instead, he did what Whoville thought was the unbelievable: The Grinch fully participated in the joy of the community, up close and personal.  It was full-bore holding of hands, singing, and eating – which illustrates a conviction I’ve held for a long time:

Hospitality, that is, showing love to outright strangers through celebration and participation with food and drink has the power to change the world.

And if I need to be demonstrative, I will: Hospitality cannot happen from afar; sitting around the table with strangers and interacting with them is needed; it alters our perspectives so that we live our shared humanity.  It is rather difficult to hate someone when you get to know them and discover their loves and joys, hurts and wounds.

This all leads toward asking one of the most fundamental and basic biblical questions that must be asked by every generation and considered by everyone who respects God and/or the Christian Scriptures:

Am I able to see the image of God in someone very different from myself?

The Christian doesn’t have to go very far to answer this one, at least from an objective cerebral perspective.  Jesus saw the humanity in everyone he encountered, from Jew to Gentile, from sinner to saint.  In fact, Jesus saw this image so deeply within another that he sat around the table and ate with people whom others saw as not worthy to eat with.  Jesus’ willingness to participate in the hospitality of strangers was downright scandalous.  It isn’t a stretch to say that it got him killed.

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What’s more, Jesus wept.  He cried in public with strangers.  For followers of Christ who seek to emulate him in his practical ministry, that point ought to be noticed.  After all, we choose to remember and participate in the life of Christ through the elements of bread and wine at the Table.  God’s radical hospitality toward us is truly meant to translate to an open heart toward those who look and act differently than me.

Public policy and even public theology are necessary and important.  Yet, unless policies and theologies and philosophies are buttressed with a foundation of basic human respect and dignity that has been borne of lived experience with strangers, those policies, philosophies, and even theologies have the power to denigrate and destroy rather than build-up and support.

The great fourteenth century mystic, Julian of Norwich, a female devotee of Christ and an influential theologian in her own right among a world of men who tended to see the image of God in women as flawed, understood what it would take to reawaken image-bearing humanity.  She stated, “All that is contrary to peace and love — is in us and not in God. God’s saving work in Jesus of Nazareth and in the gift of God’s spirit, is to slake [lessen] our wrath in the power of his merciful and compassionate love.”

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The Apostle John put it this way: “We love because he [Christ] first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

Don’t think for a minute that crying with strangers is an easy thing for me.  Truth is, crying is not something I typically do, or even like to do.  Yet, constrained by the love of God in Christ, and putting myself in a position to feel with the emotions of others in front of me, I have come to allow and embrace those tears.

We now know that the act of crying produces endorphins which is the body’s way of bringing emotional comfort.  When we apply that understanding to a collective group of people sharing tears together, we end up with a communal sense of solidarity and succor.

Yes, collective experiences of emotion have the power to change the world.  Yet, this occurs only if we show up.  Perhaps this is the reason for the Christian doctrine of the incarnation: Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us, the One who is present.  He showed up, and salvation happened.