Devotional – Acts 4.33

Devotional:

Acts 4.33

With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

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A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas, and it was the first time she ever asked what the holiday meant. He explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a kid’s bible and read to her every night. She loved it.

They read the stories of his birth and his teachings, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from Jesus, like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And they would talk about how Jesus teaches us to treat people the way we want to be treated. They read and they read and at some point the daughter said, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss, as was the figure that was nailed to it. The daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

He realized in that moment that he never told her the end of the story. So he began explaining how it was Jesus, and how he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and unnerving that they thought the only way to stop his message was to kill him, and they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of what Christmas meant, the Preschool his daughter attended had the day off in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. The father decided to take the day off as well and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. And while they were sitting at the table for lunch, they saw the local newspaper’s front-page story with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on it. The daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

“Well,” he began, “that’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

And she said, “for Jesus?!”

The father said, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said you should treat everyone the same no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The dad said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl was silent again for a brief moment, and they she looked up at her dad and said, “Did they kill him too?”

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50 years ago today, while standing outside St. Joseph’s Hospital, Assistant Police Chief Henry Lux announced, “Martin Luther King is dead.” Rifle-armed police were blocking the front entrances and immediately had to hold back a crowd that gathered quickly. The city of Memphis quickly went into a state of emergency as news of Dr. King’s assassination became public.

Dr. King was in Memphis to help organize a strike of sanitation workers for higher pay and the right to union representation. Though known for his work in the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King was active in regard to a number of subjects including the Vietnam War, capitalism, and unjust economic practices. And because he was so vocal in turning things upside down (read: the first shall be last and the last shall be first), he was murdered.

Dr. King’s legacy is one filled with hope and, at the same time, frustration. He certainly left the country better than he found it, but few would argue that his dream has truly come to fruition. We are still a racially broken country, we are still held captive to the drama and economics of warfare, and the income inequality is higher now than it has ever been.

Part of what made Dr. King’s words and work so powerful is that he did what he did as a testimony to the virtues made real to him in Jesus. The Lord he met in the pages of his bible spoke decisively to him about the need to be prophetic in a time such as his. Jesus was a savior concerned with those on the margins, and therefore Dr. King believed it was his duty to be concerned with those on the margins during his lifetime.

When you look through the old speeches, the videos of the marches, and you weigh out how much he was able to accomplish in his 39 years of life, it is clear that grace was with him. But Dr. King’s vision of a better world, Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God on earth, did not die with them. Those visions are now part of our responsibility, whether that means providing voice to the voiceless, or being in solidarity with those without power, or simply befriending the friendless, there is still work to be done.

Today we give thanks for the life and the witness of Martin Luther King Jr., we reflect on the last fifty years since his assassination, and we are bold to pray that God might use us like God used Dr. King knowing full and well what might happen to us in the end.

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God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

A guy was walking down a street when all of the sudden he fell into a deep hole. The walls were so steep that he couldn’t climb out and he began crying out for help. A doctor was passing by and looked down into the pit when the man yelled up, “Hey! Can you help me out?” The doctor thought about it for a moment, wrote a prescription, threw it down into the hole and kept walking.

Then a preacher came walking along and the guy shouted up, “Reverend, I’m stuck down here in this hole, can you help me up?” The pastor slowly put his hands together, said a prayer for the man, and kept walking.

Next, a sweet older woman from the local church came up and the man yelled, “Please help me. I’m stuck down here and I can’t get out.” The woman stared right into the man’s eyes and said, “Don’t you know that God helps those who help themselves?” And with that she went on her way.

Finally, a friend walked up and the man shouted, “Hey! It’s me down here! Can you help me out?” And the friend jumped right into the hole. The first guy said, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both stuck down here!” The friend said, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

A relatively recent poll found that better than eight in ten Americans think, “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible. In fact, more than half the people who responded to the poll were strongly convinced that it is one of the major messages of scripture.

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Guess what? It’s not in the bible!

Do you know where it actually comes from? There are hints of the phrase in ancient Greek mythology, but it became popularized by Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac published in 1736.

And yet, a majority of people in this country believe it is a major aspect of Christianity straight from the lips of Jesus.

Of course, there is some, very small, truth to the statement. After all, if we sit around our dinner tables praying for God to miraculously provide us with food, we’re going to be disappointed. We can eat because God has blessed creation with abundance and through things like employment we can afford to provide food for our tables. God helps us because we work to help ourselves.

Likewise, focusing in school, listening to our spouses, nurturing our children, these things result in our lives being better because we have worked for them to be better.

But that pales in comparison to how “God helps those who help themselves” has been used by Christians to avoid our obligation to help others.

Like the woman walking passed the man in the hole, it blinds us from our responsibility toward others and frees us from feeling guilty for how broken the world is outside of our respective bubbles.

The truth is: some people cannot help themselves. Societal discrimination, generational poverty, institutional racism, and a host of other problems prevent people from helping themselves. Some people, in fact many people, are in holes so deep, with walls so steep, that they can’t climb out without help.

About a year ago, some of the pastors in Staunton got together to talk about ways we could minister to the homeless population in our community. We asked ourselves how our respective churches could work together to help the people that cannot help themselves.

At first we debated the pros and cons of establishing something like a computer lab to help individuals apply for jobs. The thought being that if they found work, they could have an income, and no longer be homeless. We discussed offering weekly classes in reading, mathematics, and financial management at the Valley Mission to teach important skills necessary for breaking free from the cycle of homelessness. But in the end, only after we finally connected with homeless community members in Staunton, we discovered what they really needed were showers and a place to do their laundry.

What we failed to realize was that all the best training and teaching would be meaningless if the individuals arrived to a job interview wearing the same clothes they had been sleeping in for months.

We, the pastors, had walked passed the hole many times and decided how to fix the problem from our vantage point, rather than jumping into the hole in the first place.

The Church, and I mean big “C” Church, cannot shrug off the responsibility to help others with the use of another trite and cliché sentence because God, over and over again, commands his people to take special care of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the needy.

A cursory scan through the prominent stories of the Old and New testaments leads us to the biblical truth that God helps those who cannot help themselves.

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In Leviticus, God commands the farmers to not harvest all the way to the edge of the fields. Certain amounts of the produce were supposed to be left for the poor and the immigrant. Instead of consuming it themselves, or selling it for a profit, a portion was to be left for those who were not able to make ends meet or for the strangers in the land.

In another part of the Old Testament, God says that compassion for others is itself a form of worship. There are times when the priest and the religious leaders heaped up sacrifice after sacrifice, they had the perfect worship services with all the right prayers and all the right songs, and God tells them their worship has become lifeless.

            What difference does it make if we show up at a place like this for an hour a week if we ignore the people God tells us to care about the rest of the week?

In the New Testament, Jesus is forever going from town to town and seeks out the last, the least, and the lost. And when he finds them, the sick and the needy, does he say, “God will help you if you help yourself?” When the crowds gathered to hear Jesus speak, did he command the disciples to tell the hungry 5,000 that God will give them food if they go collect it for themselves?

No. Jesus helps them. He connects with their brokenness and brings healing. He sends the abandoned back to the villages that disowned them, he feeds the hungry out of the abundant grace of God, and he helps people precisely because they cannot help themselves.

Have you ever felt like you’ve been the one down in the pit? Have you ever encountered a moment in your life that felt so suffocating and oppressive that you knew you couldn’t get out of it on your own? Have you lost a job, or a spouse, or a child? Have you received a frightening medical diagnosis, or a horrible tip for the stock market, or a habit that you couldn’t kick?

We can claw all we want, we can plead on our knees with our hands clasped in the air, but sometimes the only way out of the pit is if someone jumps in to help us find the way out.

From where will out help come? We lift our eyes to the edge of the pit and we see that our help comes from the Lord. The Lord who sends us a friend willing to jump down into the depths of our despair, the Lord who never abandons us even when we feel alone, the Lord who was willing to jump down into the pit of humanity and be born into this fractured world of ours.

That, my friends, is the whole point. We help others who cannot help themselves because God helps us when we cannot help ourselves. God came into the world as a baby in the deep pit of fear and suffering of a couple all alone in the world. God went to the margins of society in Jesus Christ to sink low into the stink of the world and offer hope. God went to the broken families and the battered spouses and the abandoned children and showed the way out. God went to the very depth of death just so that all of us could find the way to salvation.

Tomorrow, some of us who work will not have to because of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It is a day set apart to remember the man who led this country through a particularly horrible period of racial injustice. His life, his teachings, his marches, and his protests all bear witness to his willingness to jump into the pit of his people’s suffering, in order to find a way out.

A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas, and it was the first time she ever asked what the holiday meant. He explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a kid’s bible and read to her every night. She loved it.

They read the stories of his birth and his teachings, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from Jesus, like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And they would talk about how Jesus teaches us to treat people the way we want to be treated. They read and they read and at some point the daughter said, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss, as was the figure that was nailed to it. The daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

He realized in that moment that he never told her the end of the story. So he began explaining how it was Jesus, and how he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and unnerving that they thought the only way to stop his message was to kill him, and they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of what Christmas meant, the Preschool his daughter attended had the day off in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. The father decided to take the day off as well and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. And while they were sitting at the table for lunch, they saw the local newspaper’s front-page story with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on it. The daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

“Well,” he began, “that’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

And she said, “for Jesus?!”

The father said, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said you should treat everyone the same no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The dad said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl was silent again for a brief moment, and they she looked up at her dad and said, “Did they kill him too?”

If we are serious about following Jesus, it’s going to cost us. It might cause embarrassment, or ridicule, or shame. It might cost us money, or time, or status. But jumping into the pit comes with a cost. Thanks be to God.

 

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Devotional – Psalm 63.3

Devotional:

Psalm 63.3

Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
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When we saw the article in the newspaper we knew we had to do something; the local Valley Mission was in desperate need of items for young children and babies. They were thankful for all of the food and adult clothing they had received over the years, but what they really needed were diapers, toys for toddlers, and an assortment of other items.

Two couples at St. John’s are currently pregnant and we decided to harness the excited energy the church is feeling about new life and channel it into blessing the children at the mission. For weeks we have talked about the items needed during worship, we have sent out email reminders, and it has been an integral part of our prayers. Yesterday was the conclusion of the “baby shower” drive and we encouraged everyone to bring their items into the social hall and enjoy some food and fellowship as we prayed over the items before dropping them off.

Honestly, when we make pleas like this from the pulpit, they can often fall flat. It’s not that the congregation is unwilling to bless others; it just falls in among the many needs the community faces. When we hear about how much someone needs something on a weekly basis, it is very easy to just assume that someone else will take care of it.

Therefore, when I entered the social hall after worship yesterday and saw the tremendous amount of items donated I was shocked: Diapers were falling off the tables, crayons and coloring books were stacked on the floor, baby clothes were neatly arranged, in addition to all the other things that were brought in. It was a holy moment seeing all of the material that had been generously donated to bless others.

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When we can connect a need with something tangible, (when we see pregnant women in the sanctuary and imagine how badly other people might need baby supplies) it encourages a profound generosity within us. When we can remember how badly we needed those types of items for our children, it encourages us to do more than usual. When we can truly proclaim that God’s steadfast love has changed our lives, it encourages us to use our lips and our lives to change others.

God’s steadfast love is revealed in the people around us. Whenever we need something and a friend steps up to help out, that is God’s love in action. But God’s steadfast love is also revealed in scripture through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. This week, as we continue on the way that leads to life, let us look for ways to act like Jesus so that others may experience God’s steadfast love through us.

Devotional – Genesis 28.16-17

Devotional:

Genesis 28.16-17

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” 

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Next Sunday, after worship, a group from St. John’s will be leaving for Raleigh County, West Virginia for a week of mission work. Mission trips were foundational for my own faith development and I am excited to share a new experience with some of the youth from our church. Part of our time will be spent doing physical work for people in need, but a large portion of our trip will be dedicated to nurturing and fostering relationships with the children of the community. It is my hope and prayer that the youth will have their eyes opened to the ways we are called to serve our brothers and sisters.

One of the problems that faces many mission trips is the idea that, as the “missionaries,” we will be bringing Jesus to these people. I have seen it happen far too often when a group of privileged Christians make the false assumption that the people they are serving are devoid of God and it is their fundamental responsibility to bring God along as if God was something that they had packed in their suitcases.

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The truth that we often fail to recognize is that God is already in that place! We are called not to bring God along with us, but instead to open our eyes to the way that God is already working in the world. When a mission trip has gone incredibly well, when the proper theology has been outlined for the participants, they come home with a different perspective about their faith; they come home having been helped by the people they served rather than the other way around. God is not something that we can compartmentalize, ship around, open at will, and exchange in a consumeristic program. If that is our idea of mission than we have failed the God we serve because we have wrongly believed that we get to decide where God goes and who gets to experience God’s majesty. God is already in that place! God has gone on ahead of us (just like Jesus went ahead of the disciples to Galilee) and will be made known to us as we serve others.

Jacob, after running away from his angry brother Esau, assumed that he had left everything behind. In a way, he believed that he could not only run away from his family and responsibilities, but that he could escape the God of his father and grandfather. How blessed was he to awake from his dream and discover the truth of God’s grace! “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it! How awesome is this place!”

As we prepare to take steps into a new week let us wake up from the dream that we get to control God and discover the truth, like Jacob did, that God is already in this place! God has been working through the family and friends around you for longer than you can imagine.

Wherever you go this week be assured that the Lord is with you.