Very Best

Deuteronomy 26:1-15
 
First Fruits and Tithes
 

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

 

12 When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, 13 then you shall say before the Lord your God: “I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments: 14 I have not eaten of it while in mourning; I have not removed any of it while I was unclean; and I have not offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the Lord my God, doing just as you commanded me. 15 Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors—a land flowing with milk and honey.”
 
 
Before the Israelites enter the Promised Land, Moses passes along many teachings. They have been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years! For 40 years God has provided for them with Manna – bread from heaven, quail, and water. A steady diet. Forty years of Manna Stew, Manna Burgers, Manna Surprise and more!
 
But, now they will be farmers. As they enter the land and plant the crops, they will have fruits and vegetables, meats, bread and wine. God will provide in the land flowing with milk and honey.
 
As the harvest is brought in, Moses instructs them to bring the first fruits of the creation to God. Not crumbs from the table, but the best of the best.
 
I have shared the story of a woman who called the Butterball Turkey hotline in November before Thanks-giving. Butterball has a hotline number you can call to ask questions and it is quite busy around the holidays! The woman said she had a turkey in her freezer and wanted to know if it was still good. The turkey had been in her freezer for 25 years.
 
The person taking the call put her on hold and did some quick research with her fellow operators at Butterball. After consulting with others, the operator came back on the line and said that as long as it was frozen solid, and that the freezer had maintained a constant temperature, and that the turkey hadn’t been thawed out at any time, and the packaging was still intact, it is likely that the turkey was still okay.
 
But the operator stated that they recommend it not be used just in case. The turkey owner said, “That’s okay, I was going to give it to the church anyway!”

What do we offer to God? Is it the best? Doesn’t God deserve our very best?
 
Note the words that Moses shares. Giving involves more than just giving. It also involves remembering. Remember.
 
Remember who God is, and what God has done for you.
 
Moses tells the people to say these words, “A wandering Aramean…” Remember Abraham and God’s promises to Abraham and his offspring. Remember what God has done. Remember what God continues to do. Remember.
 

God gives us His very best – his ONLY son, so that we might have life and have it abundantly. God gives his best. In return, may we do the same!

 

Let us pray:

Thank you, God, for all you have given us – ourselves, our time and our possessions. All these are signs of your gracious love. In response to these blessings we give back to you what you first have given us. Thank you! We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 


Memories and Anticipation

Romans 1:8-15
 
Prayer of Thanksgiving
 
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, 10 asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you. 11 For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish 15 —hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
 
St. Paul hoped to visit his brothers and sisters in Rome, but was unable to make the journey. Does that sound familiar? How many journeys and visits and plans have been canceled over the past four (going on five) months in your life?
 
First and foremost, let us remember Paul’s words of thanksgiving. He commends the church for their faith that is proclaimed throughout the world. He is also eager to proclaim the gospel to them in person. It sounds like he would prefer an in-person gathering rather than a remote method of sharing the message.
 
I am going to go off on a tangent for a few paragraphs – stay with me…
 
Anticipation for being back together. This time of year is the time kids and parents and teachers are making plans to get back to school. Do you remember those days? Do you remember going shopping for new school supplies and clothes?
 
Last week in my weekly Bible Study (You all are invited to join us each week at 11 a.m. on Wednesday for a Zoom Bible Study, during which we discuss the Gospel lesson for the upcoming week. All are welcome!), I asked the participants to share a memory of buying items for school – what is the one item they remember as the most memorable or cherished?
 
One participant mentioned getting a new lunch box. That brought back a memory for me that I had forgotten about until then. In third grade, I bought a new lunchbox for school. I usually walked home from school for lunch (three blocks), but for this one year, overcrowded classrooms meant we took a bus to a neighboring school, so I had to pack a lunch.
 
The new lunch box was a Brady Bunch box. Here is a picture of the one I had.
 
 
It was pretty cool for a third grader in 1970!
 
What memories do you have of school supplies and getting ready for the new school year?
 
This year is a tough one. The desire for the kids and parents and teachers to have the kids back in school is strong, as well as the concern for the health and well-being of everyone involved. There are many questions, and schools are offering many different answers. I am thankful that I am not responsible for making these decisions!
 
I would ask that you join me in lifting up everyone in the education process in prayer as this new year begins. God bless the teachers who instill knowledge to their students and care for their well-being. God bless the parents who have tough decisions to make as to how and where their children will be best served. God bless the administrators who have many decisions to make and many questions to answer. And God bless the students, who will need to follow new guidelines and structures this fall.
 
We all look forward with hope and anticipation of when we can be back together again. We don’t know when that will be. In the meantime, may we strive to live out the gospel message of love and forgiveness. May we reflect the hope and love given to us through Jesus Christ in how we speak of one another and treat one another and care for one another.
 

Let us pray:

Thank you, God, for the gift of knowledge and those who pass it on. Bless this new school year with your presence and grace! We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.


What a Gift

Isaiah 55:1-5 

An Invitation to Abundant Life

Ho, everyone who thirsts,

    come to the waters;

and you that have no money,

    come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

    without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,

    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,

    and delight yourselves in rich food.

Incline your ear, and come to me;

    listen, so that you may live.

I will make with you an everlasting covenant,

    my steadfast, sure love for David.

See, I made him a witness to the peoples,

    a leader and commander for the peoples.

See, you shall call nations that you do not know,

    and nations that do not know you shall run to you,

because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,

    for he has glorified you.
 
 
I love this passage from Isaiah for two reasons. The first, it begins with “Ho!” It is the cry of the merchant in the marketplace inviting the shoppers to his store. Come in and see the things I have for sale!
 
The second is that which is offered – the very best – the gift of God given without price.
 
Back in August of 2001, just three weeks before 9/11, our family went on vacation to New York City. While there, our family met up with an old friend. His name is Bobby. We have known Bobby for many years. He was in High School when we were on internship down in Fort Worth, Texas. Bobby was active in the youth group, and we have kept in touch over the years.
 
After high school, Bobby attended culinary arts school, became a chef, and then manager of the steakhouse at the Marriott Marquis, which is right on Time Square. Bobby made reservations for us, picked his favorite waitress to wait on us, and treated us like royalty. 
 
The waitress asked us what kinds of food we liked, what we didn’t like, and then gave us some tips on what to order. The prices on the menu were scary, let me tell you. We could do a month at McDonald’s with the money we could spend on one meal at this steakhouse.
 
We were given a sampler of a few appetizers, including salads, shrimp the size of your hand, and steak tartare, and other foods I can’t even pronounce. 
 
While we ate, we looked out the eighth floor window at Time Square, with all of its lights and all the people. We tried to imagine what it must look like on New Year’s Eve.
 
Then, for the main course, the kids had steaks, and Lisa had the pork chop with apple-butter glaze. I had chicken smothered in Parmesan cheese. Just like the appetizers, we had a sampler of the side dishes, which were wonderful. It was one of the most delicious and most enjoyable meals I have ever had. 
 
The table was cleared, and it was time to go. The waitress thanked us and said, “I hope you enjoyed your meal. The bill has been taken care of, and you are free to go when you are ready.”
 
What a gift. What a treat. It wasn’t because of our status, or importance in the company, or that New York had to get out of the way because the Woodwards are in town. No, it was a gift. I share this with you not to boast or brag. Rather, I share this with you because I was so moved by this gift. In a way, I was reminded of God’s love for us, and the greatest gift in love he gives for us.
 
Through Jesus Christ, we are given a gift of love, a place at the table, a meal that is beyond belief. Jesus is the host. We are the guests. The price has been paid. Through Jesus Christ, we are promised the best God can give. What else do we need? 
 

Let us pray:

Thank you, God, for your amazing grace! We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.


Got Questions?

Matthew 7:7-11 

Ask, Search, Knock

Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
 
What questions do you have? What is it that you hope to find? What is the door that you want to have opened?
 
More important than the questions, I believe, is the One of whom we are asking, seeking, knocking to permit our entry. God is not simply the great Google in the sky who is there to answer our questions, or the Amazon Prime dispenser of all we desire. God is so much more. God Is the One who desires to be in a loving relationship with you and me.
 
This is a relationship in which we can share the questions or concerns or worries or uncertainty that trouble our hearts and fill our minds. God wants to be included in the conversation. God wants to be with us in the questions and the answers.
 
The Message translation by Eugene Peterson phrases the verses this way: Jesus said, “Don’t bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need. This isn’t a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we’re in. If your child asks for bread, do you trick him with sawdust? If he asks for fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing. You’re at least decent to your own children. So don’t you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better?”
 
So I ask you again – what questions do you have? What is it that you hope to find? What is the door that you want to have opened?
 

Let us pray:

Almighty God, Loving Father, hear my questions. Walk with me in seeking the answers. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen. 
 


Excellent!

Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21 

 

The Lord is gracious and merciful,

    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

The Lord is good to all,

    and his compassion is over all that he has made.

 

14 The Lord upholds all who are falling,

    and raises up all who are bowed down.

15 The eyes of all look to you,

    and you give them their food in due season.

16 You open your hand,

    satisfying the desire of every living thing.

17 The Lord is just in all his ways,

    and kind in all his doings.

18 The Lord is near to all who call on him,

    to all who call on him in truth.

19 He fulfills the desire of all who fear him;

    he also hears their cry, and saves them.

20 The Lord watches over all who love him,

    but all the wicked he will destroy.

 

21 My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord,

    and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.
 

 

Like yesterday, I offer another illustration from the golf course.
 
Fred and his wife moved from Texas to Ohio to be close to kids and grand-kids. Fred was newly retired and looking for some new hobbies to fill his time. It had been several years since he had been on the golf course, but he had loved the game and decided to make the investment of new golf clubs.
 
Fred came and joined our church group, “A Swing and A Prayer.” Back at my previous church in Westerville, the group got together on Wednesday mornings for breakfast at a local restaurant. We read the Gospel for the coming Sunday, discussed it, and then prayed together. Afterwards, those who wanted to continue on to the golf course for a round of golf headed to the links.
 
Fred’s son and his family were members of my congregation. Fred and his wife quickly joined in the activities at the church, including A Swing and A Prayer. The first week he joined us, Fred brought his grandson, Scott, to come along. Scott was about 14 years old at the time. He was going to serve as Fred’s caddy for the day.
 
Scott had never been on a golf course in his life. So Fred gave him some rules to follow. He told Scott, “There are three rules that you need to know as a caddy. Number one, always stand behind the person hitting the ball. Number two, do not talk or move when someone is hitting the ball. And number three, always compliment the person you are caddying for on his shots.”
 
Scott did as he was told. He carried his grandfather’s bag and followed closely behind. He stopped talking and moving when any of the golfers were hitting the ball. And, he made sure to compliment Grandpa on his game.
 
That was all well and good, until we got to the third hole. Three times, Fred tried to hit the ball over the pond and on to the green. Three times, Fred hit his ball into the water instead. And three times, after each shot, Scott said, “Excellent shot, sir!”
 
The words of the psalmist are filled with words of praise of the Lord, proclaiming the wonders of the Lord’s steadfast love and compassion. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down. The Lord provides food in due season. My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord! Excellent work, Lord!
 
But there are times when we are hungry, bowed down, broken and wonder where God is when the words of Psalm 22 are instead on our lips: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22). How can we sing praises to the Lord when there seems to be only darkness and no light, brokenness and no healing, hatred and no love?
 
It is the image of the cross that gives us hope. Martin Luther speaks of the theology of the cross, that it is there at the cross where God meets us. Jesus is beaten, bruised and broken, alone and alienated. Psalm 22 is on HIS lips as he suffers and dies. God stoops down to the lowest of the low to be WITH us.
 
For God is with us on the mountaintops and in the valleys. God is with us in the joys and the sorrows. God is with us when the shot is on the green and even when we put another one in the water. God is with us.
 

Excellent, Lord. You are excellent!

 

Let us Pray: 

Dear God, thank you for your promises and presence. May we never fail to sing your praises. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.


God Doesn’t Miss the Mark

Philippians 4:10-15

Acknowledgment of the Philippians’ Gift

10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. 11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.

15 You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone.
 
 

I am a golfer. I enjoy playing a round of golf with the church league or our weekly “Swing and A Prayer” group. Even though those activities have been sidelined as church-related functions due to COVID-19, the groups still are getting together to play each week. 

Phil Mickelson plays a six-iron from the pine straw on the 13th hole during the final round of the 2010 Masters at Augusta. Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images

When it comes to golf, there are times I think I should be able to play like Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson. They make the impossible shots look so easy. I know I am not alone. Here’s a golf illustration for you today. 
 
One afternoon a few years back, I went out to the golf course when I had a few hours to spare. I figured if I hurried and played very fast, I could get in nine holes before I had to head home. Just as I was about to tee off, who should show up, but Bob, a member of my congregation, who came onto the tee and asked if he could accompany me on the links. Bob’s nickname was Corny, because he always told very corny jokes. Corny was retired, a jovial soul and quite a talker. I thought he would slow me down, but I wasn’t going to turn down his request to join me. I invited Corny to join me.
 
To my surprise, Corny played fairly quickly. He didn’t hit the ball far, but he plodded along consistently and didn’t waste much time. Finally, we reached the 9th fairway and I found myself with a tough shot. Directly between my ball and the green, there was a large pine tree right in front of my ball.
 
After several minutes of debating how to hit the shot, Corny finally said, “You know, when I was your age I’d hit the ball right over that tree.”
 
Just like the pro golfers on TV, they can do it, so why not me? And with that challenge placed before me, what was I to do? I couldn’t back down now. So I approached the ball, I swung hard, hit the ball up, right smack into the top of the tree trunk and it thudded back on the ground not a foot from where it had originally lay.
 
That’s when Corny said, “Of course, when I was your age, that pine tree was only three feet tall.” 
 
The things we think we can do, but we aren’t always able to accomplish them. The beautiful designer cake that should look like the picture after we bake it, the Halloween costume that should look like the picture after it is sewn together, the painting that the teacher led the class in painting should be as lovely as the teacher’s prototype. We think we can do it, but we fail. We fall short, no matter how hard we swing. 
 
St. Paul thanks the church in Philippi for their gift and support. In his message of thanks, he shares some powerful words: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” While that may not apply to the golf course, the kitchen or arts and crafts projects, I do believe it applies to living out our faith, and following where God leads. On our own, we will stumble and fall. We will swing hard and miss the mark. But with God’s guidance, strength and support, all things are possible.
 
What is God calling you to do and be today? How can God’s strength empower you to be what God is calling you to do and be? 

 

Let us Pray: 

Dear God, because of your love, forgiveness and hope, I know that I can do all things you would have me do because you strengthen me. Empower me to do YOUR will today. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
 


Great Results

Mark 4:30-34 

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
 
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
 
 
“What shall we say the Kingdom of God is like?” Jesus asked one day. “The Kingdom of God is like, well, it’s like a tiny mustard seed.” That’s what we heard in today’s gospel. The Kingdom of God is like that tiny, insignificant mustard seed, the smallest seed in the world. But that tiny seed will germinate, and grow and grow, until it becomes a large bush.
 
A bush? The Kingdom of God is a mustard bush?
 
“Yes,” continued Jesus, “a plant so impressive that small birds can perch in its branches and make nests in its shade.”
 
Can you see what has happened here? From something very small has grown a large bush. Evidently God looks at things differently from the way we look at things. From what we have heard today, that comes as no great surprise. He chooses the least amongst Jesse’s sons to be a king. He rescues the least among the nations to make them a great nation. And all this, of course, points to the greatest example of all: Jesus and his cross. A man who appeared to be the least among all other men — despised, rejected, and treated as a common criminal — is the greatest of all. He is the Lord of all — the conqueror over sin, death and Satan — our Lord and Savior. God chooses what is seemingly weak to accomplish his purposes. Doesn’t Paul say that God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1:27)?
 
One of the things that characterized Jesus was his ability to see beyond outward appearance to the possibilities and potential of an individual. He viewed others not so much as what they were, but what they could become.
 
An ordinary fishermen (Peter) became the rock on which the church was built.
 
A dishonest tax collector (Matthew) became a trusted friend and disciple.
 
An angry Pharisee (Paul), who was a persecutor of the church, became the apostle to the gentiles. And again, as we have seen before, it was not that these men were great themselves; it was God who used those small beginnings to do great things.
 
And that is what Jesus is saying in his parable. He is inviting us to look at the kingdom of God with new eyes. The outside appearance may seem insignificant and so small that you can hardly see it, but the results are great. If you believe that this is how God does things, then you will not be too quick to dismiss the small and insignificant. You will not give up on yourself, on others, on the church, or even the world, just because all you see are signs of weakness and insignificance. Rather, you will believe that with God all things are possible, even if all you see is a tiny mustard seed, something small and insignificant.
 
To believe this is to see yourself in a new light. Your faith may be as small as a mustard seed, but if you take it seriously and use it, mountains can be moved. You can do great things for God if you are willing to offer your love, generosity, kindness and abilities, however small and insignificant you may think they are.
 
The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, began an orphanage with such a vision. She told her superiors, “I have three pennies and a dream to build an orphanage.”
 
“Mother Teresa,” her superiors chided gently, “You cannot build an orphanage with three pennies … with three pennies you can’t do anything.”
 
“I know,” she said, smiling, “but with God and three pennies, I can do anything.”
 
The parable of the mustard seed reminds us that God’s beginnings may be small, but his results great.

 

Let us Pray: 

Dear God, it is said that big things come in small packages. Help us to celebrate the greatness in the small treasures you plant in our lives. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
 


On The Grace of Dogs

1 Kings 4:29-34 

29 God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore, 30 so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 He was wiser than anyone else, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, children of Mahol; his fame spread throughout all the surrounding nations. 32 He composed three thousand proverbs, and his songs numbered a thousand and five. 33 He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish. 34 People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon; they came from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom.
 
 

Wisdom.

I share with you these words of wisdom that I heard shared by Lutheran theologian Dr. Andrew Root at a conference a few years ago. He wrote the story in his book “The Grace of Dogs.”
 
When the family dog named Kirby passed away, Root’s son, Owen, asked his dad whether he would see Kirby in heaven. Root found some help in his answer in the 1928 writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young pastoral intern in Barcelona who had faced the same question.
 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian known for his opposition to National Socialism. His ties to the July 20, 1944, conspiracy to overthrow the Nazi regime led to his execution in 1945. His theological writings are regarded as classics throughout the Christian world.
 
Here is the excerpt from the book:
 
One day, a ten-year-old boy came to see Bonhoeffer. Breaking down and crying, the boy explained that his beloved German shepherd, Mr. Wolf, had just died. The boy sobbed as he told the story, but soon his tears stopped and he asked Bonhoeffer, with deep intensity, “Tell me now, Herr Bonhoeffer, will I see Mr. Wolf again? He is surely in heaven?”
 
Bonhoeffer explained in a letter to a friend that he was dumbfounded. He didn’t know what to say. Never before had one of his astute professors or gifted fellow students made such an inquiry, a question that Bonhoeffer could see meant so much to this grieving boy.
 
Bonhoeffer sat with the boy, feeling small next to his important question. Clearly Mr. Wolf had meant so much to the boy. The overly confident protégé, who had always been told he had a brilliant answer for every theological question, now sat humbled by the boy’s love for his dead dog.
 
Finally, turning to the boy, Bonhoeffer said, “Well, we know you loved Mr. Wolf, and we know that God loves you. And we know that God loves all the animals. So, yes, yes, I think you will indeed see Mr. Wolf in heaven, for I believe that God loses nothing that God loves.”
 
God loses nothing that God loves.
 
Bonhoeffer’s point was that when persons relate in love, it is an eternal act that transcends biology, chemistry, and history. Only love lasts forever. Spirit returns to its source in a personal God. Because “soul” is based in our personal relatedness, rather than being some kind of isolated substance, any being that participates in this kind of loving relatedness belongs to God, and will return to God.
 
This is the grace we are offered, in this world and the next. Grace is the invitation to share in the mind and heart of God; it can never be earned, but it comes to us always as a gift. So maybe heaven is a “place” of personal relatedness, where our relationships can never again be interpreted or corrupted by death, fear, or hate. Maybe heaven is where we are free from all that might threaten our sharing in the mind of one another and God. It is where our bodies are free from all that could upend or damage what we yearn for most, to be shared in and share in others.
 
All who participate in the gift and grace of deep personal relatedness are never lost. God will never let them go; for this deep connection rooted in love does not disappear when a loved one dies. When Jesus on the cross entered death, he built from within it our relationship with God and with one another, a relationship rooted in a love that is eternal and over which death no longer holds power.
 
These days I tell my son that he will see Kirby again. Like all those who have shared in his mind and heart through love, I tell him, Kirby will be resurrected again through the power of the God who is the eternally personal relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
 
This is a theological conviction that I hold by faith. I teach it to my son so that Owen can feel his way into this reality, can begin to have words for the experience of love and grace.
 
Of course, reality is always putting our convictions to the test. At a deeply emotional level, whether we are people of faith or not, we all struggle with the grief of absence and wonder where our loved ones go when they leave us. If, in a moment of doubt, you were to press me to answer the question “Do you really believe that Owen will see Kirby again?” I might answer more tentatively. Still, I know in my soul — like Owen on the floor of the vet’s office … that the love of a dog is strong enough to last both in this world and in the next.
 
“No one knows for sure,” I’d tell you. “But I’ve studied this, and I think so. My answer is yes. The grace of God is echoed by the grace of dogs. And grace is eternal.”
 

“The Grace of Dogs: A Boy, a Black Lab, and a Father’s Search for the Canine Soul.” Copyright © 2017 by Andrew Root. Published by Convergent, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

 

Let us Pray: 

Thank you, God, for the gift of dogs and cats and others you place in our world. As these creatures you created offer us unconditional love, may we so love one another. Thank you for your eternal love. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
 


Wisdom

James 3:13-18 

Two Kinds of Wisdom

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
 
Charlie (not me, another guy with the same name) is one of the wise saints I had the privilege of getting to know as his pastor for several years.
 
Charlie worked for nearly 40 years at Battelle as a physicist. He loved the inquisitive nature of his job and was proud of the work he did. He was a brilliant man and a gifted scientist.
 
Charlie used his gifts in the church as well. He held several leadership positions in the church, and as a lover of history, he compiled and cared for much of the historical records of the congregation. When I first arrived at that church, Charlie told me that he wanted to share what he could about the church with me, because he was starting to forget. He knew his memory was getting worse. Alzheimer’s was the diagnosis.  
 
I had the privilege of participating in several Bible studies with Charlie on Thursday mornings. Some would tell you their interest in Bible study stemmed from a greater desire to participate in Millie’s rolls and pastries (Charlie was married to Millie), but still, we studied scripture together. More than once, when we were trying to make sense of some difficult passage or aspect of God in scripture, Charlie would caution the group that sometimes we just cannot completely understand it all. Sometimes we just have to accept things by faith. 
 
What I appreciated about Charlie is that this gifted, incredibly intelligent scientist exemplified in his life that science and religion CAN go together. It doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. In science, Charlie saw the wonder of God, in God’s creation. Through God and in God’s handiwork, Charlie saw the wonder of science. Not that we can explain it all, but we certainly can marvel in it, and that is what Charlie shared with me.
 
Wisdom. Sometimes wisdom is knowing that we don’t know all the answers. Sometimes wisdom is about dwelling in the questions.
 

Let us Pray: 

Thank you, God, for the saints who have come before us, the saints who will follow us, and the saints that are on the journey with us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.


Three Words of Promise

Romans 8:26-39
 

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
 

God’s Love in Christ Jesus

31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,
 

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;

    we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
 
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
 
 

Promise #1 – God Loves You

A few years ago, 132 people came together to play in the Bad Golfers Association tournament in Kansas City. The aim of their game was to reward the absolute worst golf player among them. In this organization, everyone is a loser, and that’s okay. (“The Big Five-Oh!: Facing, Fearing, And Fighting Fifty” by Bill Geist, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1997, pp. 152-154)
 
It is okay just to play golf for the sheer joy of playing. Some people beat themselves up if they can’t play like Tiger Woods.
 
Some people bring that same competitive spirit to religion. They feel they must win God’s love. Listen, you ARE loved. You are already a winner with God. Be a super-Christian if you are so inclined, but it won’t change the way God feels about you.
 
Which brings me to Promise # 2.
 

Promise #2 – You Belong to God

We read Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” God has always had us in mind. 
 
The term used by Paul is that we are predestined to be God’s children. 
 
So what about predestination? Martin Luther himself struggled with this one. When he was a monk studying God’s word, he was mentally and physically tormented by the question, “Am I one of God’s elect? Am I one predestined to be saved?”
 
His superior, Johannes Staupitz, grew weary of Luther’s questions and concern. He told Luther, “Martin, you are trying to peer into the divine majesty, as if you were God and could know the mind of God. You are not God and cannot resolve everything about the nature of God. You are starting at the wrong end of the sequence of questions. You are beginning with the unknown. Instead, start with the known, which means the wounds of the suffering Christ, the knowledge of God’s act of love. Let the rest flow from there.” (“Lutheran Questions Lutheran Answers: Exploring Christian Faith” by Martin Marty)
 
Later in his life, Martin Luther came to this conclusion: “Since God has taken my salvation out of my hands into his, make it depend on HIS choice and NOT mine, and has promised to save me, not by my own work or exertion but by his grace and mercy, I am assured and certain both that God is faithful and God will NOT lie to me, and also that God is too great and powerful for any demons or adversities to be able to break him or to snatch me from him!” (LW 33:289)
 
John 3:16 states that God so loved the world, and John 3:17 states that God’s desire is not to condemn, but to save.
 
Promise #3 – Nothing Can Take That Away
 
Did you see an asterisk at the end of St. Paul’s words above? Neither did I!
 
There is NOTHING that can take away the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing!
 
Several years back while visiting my parents at their Assisted Living facility, I saw a woman who was staring at her car with a worried look on her face. I asked if she needed some help. I hoped that it was not too difficult because I am definitely NOT a mechanic! The woman told me she had locked her keys in the trunk of her car.
 
She said she was trying to take things out of the back seat of her car to see if she could move the seat and get to the trunk. 
 
I asked, “Is there a trunk release lever in the car?”
 
She thought for a moment and said, “Why yes, yes there is.” 
 
She went to the front seat, lifted the lever, and the trunk popped open. Voila!
 
So often we make it harder than it needs to be! We make it harder than it is.
 
Hear again the good news – There is NOTHING that can take away God’s love for you and me. NOTHING.
 
This is of GREAT VALUE. For God sees in YOU great value. 
 
This is what we believe. This is what we proclaim. This is what we are called to share – the great gift of God – Christ has died, Christ is Risen. Christ will come again. The tomb is empty, and death is defeated, once for all! 
 

Promise!

 

Let us Pray: 

Thank you, God, for these promises. Help us to stop making it harder than it is. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.


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