By Linda Rex
November 1, 2020, Proper 26 | All Saints—Recently I started an online course at Grace Communion Seminary on humans and salvation. I remember now why it’s been a while since I took graduate level courses—they take up time and require a lot of work and deep thought. But when I am immersed in this way in prayerful thought of God and his work in this world through his Son Jesus, I find myself wrestling in a good way with my motives and heart in pastoring and preaching the gospel.
One of the failures in the western Church today is that we enjoy all the trappings and benefits of the Christian faith while we miss much of the substance. Being relevant to the culture is one thing—being driven by our need for the approval and acceptance of people is another. When we have leaders claiming to be Christian in order to garner votes while their lives and words deny Christ, we are in a dangerous place, for this is something the Lord abhors.
If there is one thing Jesus criticized about the leaders of his day, it was their hypocrisy—their flaunting of the externals of religiosity and their catering to the approval and applause of the people, rather than humbly living out God’s love and grace. They loved the praise of those they lead and enjoyed the financial benefits and power of their positions, but did not always genuinely care about the suffering and struggles of the poor, needy, and disenfranchised, of those in lower social and economic strata than their own.
But I cannot point the finger at others without finding that I have several pointing back at me. In my own life, how have I been more concerned about the approval and respect of the people around me than I have been about their suffering, difficulty, and need? Do I say all the right things but fail to act on what I believe? Too often this has been the case—not because I don’t care, but because I have not always learned to act on what I believe to be true. There has been too often a disconnect between the spiritual realities I believe and trust in, and my living out of these realities in the world in which I live.
We tend to separate the secular or physical from the spiritual, not realizing that in Christ both have come together and have been joined in his person. In the living Word, God has come to dwell with and in man. He has become one of us while remaining fully himself. He, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, brings our humanity into the presence of the divine, enabling each of us by the Spirit, as we trust in Christ, to participate in that intimate relationship between the Father and the Son in the Spirit. Our participation in the Triune life is expressed in the way we love God and love others, walking by faith and in tune with the spiritual realities in a world which clings tightly to the tangible, physical realities.
What does this mean for each of us, me included? Living out the gospel in a gospel-resistant world means I may have to suffer the disapproval of those about me, even those I am close to and whom I love. I may have to give up some dearly held dreams or plans so that others may have what they need and so that God’s word can be brought to those who hunger and thirst for it. I may have to do without things I prefer to have so that others can enjoy the benefits of my loss and expense. Am I more concerned about my own financial and physical security than I am the needs and concerns of others? I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that, because I’m afraid the answer just might be yes.
Jesus brings us into the paradox of leadership where we find that we bear the responsibility of leading others but we do it humbly, as servants. We do it from a place of brotherhood—of joining others where they are so that we share in their life and struggles, as unique equals in a fellowship of oneness where we offer ourselves as those who serve, give, share, and help. What does this look like in a self-centered, self-absorbed culture? It looks foreign, like an alien in a new land—we don’t fit in, we are the focus of people’s distain, ridicule, abuse, and even rejection. It looks a lot like Jesus Christ.
Leadership in the way Jesus describes it is a humble laying down of one’s life for the sake of those being served. This willingness to be abased, to be the one to serve rather than be served, does not come naturally to us as human beings. But it is the path to genuine leadership. It infuses our leadership with a genuineness and sincerity that inspires others to follow, not because they are intimidated and forced to follow, but because they are compelled to do for others what has been done for them.
Quite frankly, I don’t blame young people today for rejecting organized Christianity, its denominations, and its distinctions. We are earning the consequence of teaching and preaching a gospel we did not live out individually and collectively in humble service and gracious compassion. We are receiving the full measure of payment for our sin, hypocrisy, and religious pride. We are not all guilty, I am sure, but we all can humbly admit that we need to start anew, in a place of grace and humility, beginning again in a spirit of service to love God wholeheartedly and our neighbor, no matter whom they are, as ourselves.
To pause and assess the motives of our hearts is a good thing. As leaders or simply as those who influence others in our lives, we can be so busy living or existing that we don’t take the time to look deeply at what is driving us and why we do the things we do. What is the reason we go to work each morning? Why do we battle the traffic each day? Why don’t we talk with our neighbors or family, or participate in the community barbeque? Could it be that we have never looked beyond ourselves long enough to realize there is a world out there God has included us in that we are called to make better by our humble service, compassion, help, and generosity?
Thankfully, when we experience the reality of our failures to love, give, and share with others, we have the grace of God to cover us and enable us to begin anew. Jesus comes to us by the Spirit to offer us new life, a new start—the ability to begin again in him, living out the reality of who we are as the adopted children of our heavenly Father. Paradoxically, as leaders, we can commit ourselves again to the humble service of others in the Spirit of Christ, turning away from our self-centered preoccupation with ourselves, our own comfort and benefit, toward the care and help of those we lead, and therefore serve.
Heavenly Father, thank you for being our true father, the Source of all. Thank you, Jesus, for being our leader, our teacher, Savior, friend and brother. Grant us the grace and humility to lay down all our hypocrisies, self-centeredness and pride, replacing them with your real presence, genuine love and service. We receive anew your grace and peace, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“You are witnesses, and so is God, how devoutly and uprightly and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers; just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children, so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.” 1 Thessalonians 2:9–13 NASB
See also Matthew 23:1–12.
By Linda Rex
October 25, 2020, Proper 25—What is your sphere of influence? Is it merely your toddler and four-year-old? Is it the annoying neighbor who never cleans up the trash in his backyard? Is it the guy at the next desk who likes to tell funny stories but doesn’t follow through on his assignments? Perhaps it is simply the boss who comes by your desk each morning to wish you a great day.
We may only have a small number of people we affect each day. But there are some people in this world who have been given a much larger sphere of influence—that of leading towns, cities, states, nations and large organizations or companies. The effect their decisions have on large numbers of people shows the great extent of their influence. Sometimes this influence is for the better and others for the worst. There are people from the past whose lives and choices still affect the world today—we remember them with gratitude or anger, depending on how we have been affected by the decisions they made.
Our spheres of influence, great or small, are places where we have the privilege, even the responsibility, to participate with Christ in furthering his work of healing, wholeness and renewal in this cosmos. We can abdicate this task to others, or we can embrace it as part our identity as humans created to reflect the image of God and to follow Jesus Christ. To be an influencer of those around us by living out the gospel is a way we participate in Christ’s leadership in this world.
Christ first came as a suffering servant, laying down his life for each and every person on earth. He calls each of us to the same type of servant leadership—in whatever sphere of influence we may have. As followers of Christ, we share the gospel with those people who are close to us and we share our lives with them as well. It is our participation in Christ—our dying and rising in him—that gives others evidence of the miracle of grace and makes the gospel come alive, drawing them into the triune life.
As we live in face to face relationship with God as Moses did, we receive wisdom and God’s grace for our lives. Our active participation in the triune life is reflected in the way we live, the choices we make, and how these decisions impact the people in our sphere of influence. Do they see the radiance of God’s glory reflected in our faces, in our attitudes, words, and conduct? When all of these reflect God’s holy, loving nature, then the people around us are influenced to do the same, maybe even to seek the source of our Christlikeness.
Our participation in Christ resembles the other-centered perichoretic giving and receiving of the Father, Son, and Spirit. In the triune life, each pours into the other and receives from the other, as participants in the divine dance. Likewise, every human being has been given a place in this dance in and through Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. In the giving of the Spirit, each may personally join in by faith, trusting in the finished work of Christ. As we trust in Jesus, centering our lives and faith in him, we find the faith, hope and love to effectively influence our family, our community, our nation and all of creation for the better.
In an ideal world, as in the kingdom of God, our leaders would be Christ-centered, seeking the heavenly realities rather than the power, authority, wealth, and popularity of this broken world. They would be seeking the benefit and best of those they served rather than their own pleasure and desire. Even though they are faulty and frail, our human leaders today still can choose to lead out of God’s Spirit of wisdom and love rather than the fleshly values of greed, lust, indifference, and selfishness. But will they?
Our effort, as we make decisions regarding electing our leaders, is to seek out and choose those who will most likely exemplify and support that which is good, true, and holy. This is a challenging task, for we must accept that we are dealing with people who are just as broken and faulty as we are. This is why we seek God’s direction and instruction, and take into consideration the issues and complications involved in electing leaders.
And as we think of our own spheres of influence, how we are we doing in providing leadership which reflects the nature of Christ? Are we holy, as God is holy, living in that loving unity of equal yet different persons we were created to reflect? Do we love God with all of our being and love our neighbor as ourselves?
Any change in government, in society, and even in our world, has its roots in the finished work of Christ. For us to experience it within our own sphere of influence, we turn to Jesus and receive his gift of the Holy Spirit. Turning our face away from the values and idols of this world and back towards God is an important start. As our Lord did, laying down our life for the sake of those nearest and dearest to us is another. Accepting that choosing the high road of holiness, service, and obedience to God is going to require a cost, even a sacrifice on our part, is another step. And following Christ in spite of all that may distract or afflict us needs to be our constant decision.
There is a price to pay to have the world we wish we could have. Resisting evil requires effort. Choosing a different path is a great challenge. Continuing in persevering effort is tough. But as we do this individually and collectively, we will find that the people in our spheres of influence will be affected and slowly begin to change. There may be resistance, even severe resistance to any effort on our part to be reflections of God’s goodness, love, and grace in this broken world. But if we hold on to Jesus as he holds onto us, walk in the Spirit and trust in his love and grace, we will find that ultimately the world around us will begin to change for the better.
Holy Father, in our world today, it seems we are too often influenced by evil, sin, and death rather than by your love and grace. We are grateful Jesus, that not only did you come and stand in our stead, offering your life for our life, your death for our death, but you also sent your Spirit to enable us to share even now in your divine life and love. Thank you for forgiving us our sins. Thank you for turning our faces back to yours, Abba. Spirit, thank you that you transform our hearts by faith, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Now Joshua the son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him; and the sons of Israel listened to him and did as the LORD had commanded Moses. Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, for all the signs and wonders which the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh, all his servants, and all his land, and for all the mighty power and for all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.” Deuteronomy 34:9-12 NASB
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” … you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.’ ” Leviticus 19:1-2, 19b NASB
“…just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. … Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians 2:4, 8 NASB
See also Matthew 22:34-46 NASB.
by Linda Rex
This season of year has its ups and downs. It can be so heartwarming and inspiring, while at the same time full of stress and anxious care about shopping and decorating and family complications. I have a special fondness for this time of year since God has awakened me to the wonder of its deep meaning. Understanding the mystery of the incarnation (can one truly understand a mystery?) carries me through all the hassle and frustration which can come from the external efforts to celebrate Christmas.
At this time of year I’m especially mindful of the time in my life when I distained Christmas as being a pagan holiday we should not celebrate if we are true Christians. While I’m still trying to determine exactly what a “true Christian” is (as compared to a “false Christian”), now I see a whole lot more clearly how we can get so caught up in a religious paradigm we cannot see what is right in front of us. We can be so focused on the “truth” that we miss seeing the living Truth who has entered our world and has begun to transform it from the inside out.
Today is Epiphany, and the gospel reading from the lectionary for today is Matthew 2:1-12. Here we read about the magi from the east who traveled many miles seeking to find a newly born king of the Jews. They followed a star and ended up in Jerusalem. I’m sure it was quite unnerving for King Herod to have these men asking about a king he knew nothing about. And no doubt it made him feel quite insecure about his throne.
So Herod called all together the chief priests and scribes—the ones who were supposed to know the Hebrew scriptures and history—and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. The high priests and scribes were the ones who probably would know the answer to the magi’s question, so Herod addressed the question to them.
They told the magi to look for the Messiah in Bethlehem. Now, it seems to me, if they had a real interest in knowing about the Messiah or in seeking him out, they would have been alert to what was really going on. They would have joined the search party, or would have maybe even led it. But King Herod sent the magi to Bethlehem and told them to look for the child and to tell him if or when they found him. And the magi left all by themselves, with no Jewish people in their party.
These people who were trusting in astrology to guide them, who were in essence, pagan Gentiles, were seeking to find a child who was Jewish. Now there were some Jews who were pagan enough that they believed the stars ordained certain events. But the Jews had nothing to do with the Gentiles, and because of this they missed something very important which was happening in their world. Their religious paradigm did not allow them to believe that someone other than a Jew might know something about the Messiah they had been expecting for centuries.
Is it possible to have the light of God available to you and still wander around in darkness? Apparently so.
The gospel story we read in the Bible shows us that these Jewish leaders were a whole lot more interested in retaining their positions of power and influence and in restoring the Jewish nation to prominence than they were interested in finding out if the messiah had arrived and had something important to say to them as his people. Their paradigm assured them the messiah would appear in a certain way, he would do certain things, and he most certainly would not look, talk or behave anything like Jesus Christ.
When I was growing up, I was told a lot of things about the Christmas holiday and what it meant and why it shouldn’t be observed, but no one ever told me the truth. I was told a lot of superstition, a lot of hearsay, and a lot of heated explanations of why observing Christmas was a sin, but none of those things turned out to be based on facts or on a mature, well-examined explanation of Christian history.
I remember one afternoon sitting in the audience at the Ambassador Auditorium listening to a performance of Handel’s “Messiah”. It stirred something deep within me. I knew the event of Jesus Christ coming to us and dying on the cross was significant, but I still missed the crucial point—God came into human flesh to live and die and to rise again, and now he bears our perfected humanity for all eternity in the presence of the Father. Forever, we are with God, in Christ by the Spirit. We are embraced, held, in the life and love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by God’s infinite grace through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
We can focus on whether or not something is pagan, and miss the light of God in the midst of the darkness. Whatever we observe as human is bound to be pagan in some way because we are all broken people. All our righteousness ends up being filthy rags to God—we must never forget God reconciled all things to himself in Christ Jesus.
Whatever we offer to God is broken and flawed—our efforts to get it right are feeble at best. This is why we follow the lead of the Spirit and the guidance of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We count on God’s grace to carry us. We need to be alert to the living Truth in the midst of all our darkness and brokenness. The Light has come—we need to pay attention, turn to the Light and allow him to show us what is really going on, and to follow where he leads us rather than stay in our misguided paradigms.
Who we listen to is crucial. The magi listened to God when he spoke to them in a dream (would we ever consider doing that)? These people who the Jews distained listened to God and obeyed him, and went home a different way, and in the process, they were kept safe from King Herod’s evil plot. They had followed the light of a star, had worshiped the Light who had come and offered him gifts, and by the light of the revelation of God in a dream, found their way safely home.
When Jesus grew older, the scribes, the high priests—this group of people who should have known, recognized and received him as the Light of God—were the very ones who rejected him and crucified him. As John wrote in his gospel: “There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” (John 1:9–11 NASB) Their preconceived notions of how things were supposed to be, and their preoccupation which the things of this life—money, power, prestige—blinded them to the true Light which was in their midst.
On this day of Epiphany, it would be good to pause for a moment and to consider this Light of God who has entered our world and brought to us a whole new way of being—the life of God in human flesh. It would be good to ponder the ways in which we close our eyes to the light he wishes to bring into our world: What paradigms do we need to set aside? What old ways of thinking and believing do we need to suspend in order to embrace the possibility we could be wrong or might need to change? What things are we trusting in which have nothing to do with God’s values and God’s desires and what he wants to accomplish in this world?
God’s Light has come, and he is renewing our broken world and existence from the inside out. We have a wonderful opportunity to embrace this New Year in a new frame of mind and heart—one in which Christ is the center rather than us. May your 2017 be full of an abundance of all God’s blessings in Christ!
Abba, thank you for the gift of your Son, and for the gift of a new year ahead of us. You are always working at creating new beginnings. Grant us the grace to keep our life and our being centered in your Light, in Christ your Son, and to stay in tune with and obedient to your Spirit of Life, through Jesus our Lord, amen.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth and deep darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you and His glory will appear upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. … No longer will you have the sun for light by day, nor for brightness will the moon give you light; but you will have the Lord for an everlasting light, and your God for your glory.” Isaiah 60:1–3, 19 NASB
by Linda Rex
I was sitting by the pool one day chatting with a colleague about kids and life when the conversation drifted, as it often does in such cases, into the topic of childrearing. I often feel like I have an unpopular view on this topic since I prefer to approach childrearing through the portal of grace. Because when grace comes into play, things can get really messy, and most people are uncomfortable with the chaos that comes with the mess.
Personally I think we tend to forget that our human condition is, at its base, pretty messy. Humanity, with its laws and governments and programs and institutions, is constantly trying to cope with and fight the chaos that comes with our proclivity to sin, corruption and selfishness. Allowing people the freedom to do whatever they wish whenever they wish however they wish creates anarchy and ultimately, self-destruction. Or does it?
Often parents and adults alike can be more concerned with having order and control than they are with allowing children to be free to be creative and to learn by failing. It’s embarrassing when a child is less than perfect in public, especially when the expectations are high and we want to impress everyone with the glory and goodness of our children and our family. When our child starts screaming in the supermarket and everyone turns to look, the question we can ask at that moment is: Am I embarrassed for myself and worried about everyone’s opinions, or am I concerned about the well-being of my child? For our response at that moment is crucial.
When children are first born, we invest ourselves in them, I hope, by pouring into them love, affection, and attention. We have our own ways of dealing with their need for diaper changes, bedtime stories, and play time. We have a profound influence on their personality, attitudes and approach to life and to freedom, for this is the time we begin to set appropriate boundaries for them. And we begin to give them the freedom they need to learn and to be creative within those boundaries.
If we never give our little children boundaries such as a bedtime or respect for elders, then they can begin to assume that they are free to be the lord of their little universe—a false belief that isn’t healthy. That’s because there is only one Lord of the universe, and he doesn’t share that title with anyone. He is the only Being who is truly free, and even his freedom is freely expressed within the boundaries of his perfect love, a love that is one and the same as his Being. All of us as human beings need to understand that our freedom only exists within the confines of God’s freedom, and our freedom is always and ever meant to be lived out within the confines of God’s love and lordship.
Then there also comes a time when a child outgrows his or her boundaries and begins to chafe at the limits. At this point a parent can begin to tighten their control and suffocate their child by restricting them even more, or they can begin to free their child from restrictions so they can develop greater maturity and self-control. Whether or not a parent can easily do this often depends on their ability to influence their children, which is often determined by the depth and quality of the relationship they’ve built with them over the years. And it depends on the parents’ ability to cope with chaos and mess. And how they handle that has a lot to do with how well they understand and have themselves experienced grace.
Grace is essential to any human development because it provides the freedom to mess up and to be less than perfect. A child falls a lot before he ever comes to understand how to walk. A child has many messy faces and bibs before she learns to get the spoon of food into her mouth without spreading it all over herself and everything else first. This is all a part of our existence as human beings. We all go through the process of growing up and experience the mess that goes with it.
But when a child is free to mess up, that means that they can also be embarrassing to parents, or irritating, or even infuriating. They can create havoc in relationships by telling the wrong story at the wrong time. They can isolate us from neighbors by climbing fences to steal apples off of trees. At what point do we draw the line? And that’s where I have to say—it depends on who is the parent and who is the child. Each person and family is unique. That’s the way God made us. And we each, in relationship with God and with each other, grow up in Christ to the full maturity of Christ in our own way. There is no specific formula, ritual or program that works best in every situation.
Because just as kids grow up by messing up, learning from their messes, and developing maturity over time, the same is true of each of us as adults. Some of us are still trying to learn the basics we were never taught by our parents about the simple boundaries of love and respect. Others of us are learning that the apples on the other side of the fence aren’t really worth the trouble of stealing. And others of us are still tripping over our feet and falling, because we haven’t learned how to walk by faith rather than by sight. It’s all of grace.
I’m personally thankful that God is not a strict, controlling parent who is unforgiving of our faults and failures. He does what he can through our human institutions and governments to try to give us boundaries when we need them (and often we don’t need the boundaries we tend to create). But he gives us great freedom as well. I’m grateful he gives us room to grow, and even allows us to spit in his face on occasion without slapping us down. And most of all, he gives us Jesus, to share our humanity and to, by the Spirit, live his life within us and to transform us into his nature and way of being. He offers us Christ’s perfected humanity in our place. And that’s true grace and love.
Thank you, Heavenly Father, for being the perfect parent, and for parenting us with such grace and love. Thank you for nurturing us and mothering us as we grow up in Christ. May we each be as gracious with one another and with our children as you are with us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
“Start with God—the first step in learning is bowing down to God; only fools thumb their noses at such wisdom and learning. Pay close attention, friend, to what your father tells you; never forget what you learned at your mother’s knee. Wear their counsel like flowers in your hair, like rings on your fingers.” Proverbs 1:7–9 MSG