Moses – Murderer, Fugitive…Prophet?

“Will all the world’s oceans wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, instead my hands
Will stain the seas scarlet,
Turning the green waters red.”
— Macbeth, Act 2 scene 2

William Shakespeare had a remarkable gift for translating mere concepts into emotional realities.  In the above scene, Macbeth is suffering from the guilt of killing his king in order to take over the throne.  We all understand the intellectual concept of guilt; these words of Macbeth help bring the experience to life. 

Sometimes we forget that before he became a hero and the greatest prophet and priest of ancient Israel, Moses himself personally experienced this kind of guilt (Exodus 2:11-15). He had committed murder.  He had hidden the evidence.  He was on the run from the king.  We can only imagine his thoughts and feelings as he ran from the luxury of his adoptive royal family and off into the desert.  What will he do now?  Will he ever see his friends and family again? What must God think of him — the same God who had rescued him as a baby — now that he is a man?  Moses’ guilt and shame cannot be underestimated.  

In that moment, Moses could have never foreseen what God had in store for him. He knew he was a murderer and fugitive, but he could not have known he would one day be God’s prophet and lead the Hebrews to freedom. He could not have known just how true it is that God reveals redemption through broken people.

One of the fundamental revelations in the Bible about God is that God shows mercy to sinners. God is so often remembered only for the portrayals as wrathful, but anyone familiar with the Bible will remember that God has mercy even on the world’s first murderer, Cain, by offering him protection. God has mercy on Abraham, who is lauded for his faith but still made many mistakes. God will have mercy on Moses, though he cannot see how. And in the 21st century we sometimes take for granted God’s supreme act of mercy, when he destroyed sin and death on Jesus’ cross.

But God’s mercy does not spare us the hard lessons, as God shapes us through our failures. Surely Moses had been shaped by God’s mercy toward him when he asks God to extend the same mercy to the impatient Hebrews. And of course we don’t always enjoy that shaping. Jesus referred to it with the metaphor of a plant being pruned so that we will bear more fruit. Ouch. But we know that failure is one of life’s best teachers, so it stands to reason that God would utilize our failures to help us mature.

In those painful moments, it’s crucial to remember that God’s plans for us are far greater than we can imagine. Sitting by that well in Midian, looking down at his guilty, murderous hands, being chosen by God to lead the Hebrews to freedom was probably as far from Moses’ mind as the east is from the west. But this is also the distance from which God is willing to remove our sins from us (Ps. 103:12). So putting our faith into action as we work through our guilt and shame can sometimes be as simple (though not easy) as gritting our teeth and remembering what God has done for us in the past, including the distant past through people like Moses.

For reflection:
1) Can you recall a time when guilt was weighing you down? Did you work through it? How?
2) Guilt for wrong actions can often transform into a sense of shame, which says, “There is something wrong with me.” Are you wrestling with self-messages of shame? Are any of those messages undeserved?
3) God never appears in today’s passage, just as God doesn’t appear in 2:1-10. Does it encourage you to know that sometimes God may not be obviously present, and nevertheless working behind the scenes?
4) We often feel paralyzed by our own guilt — has it ever occurred to you that God’s will is in no way disabled by our guilt?
5) Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christians believe that sin itself has been put to death (2 Cor. 5:21). While we still live repentant lives, how does this once-for-all act of Jesus change how we think about guilt?

Many blessings,
MM

Moses: By Faith

Our Lent series on repentance led us to Easter, where Jesus’ resurrection promises the forgiveness of sins, but also the believer’s entry into an entirely new world. So it’s fitting now to begin a new teaching series on Moses, who is perhaps most famous for his role in leading the Hebrews to a new land.

The New Testament book called “Hebrews” helps Christians understand our faith in the much, much broader context of the stories of “the ancients” — our predecessors in faith. In particular, Hebrews 11:23-29 recounts some of the most memorable moments of Moses’ life of faith. But many of us have not taken much time to consider what the ancients have to teach us. Rather, the modern mindset is often reversed, beholden to the assumption that what is younger and newer has more to offer than what is older and time-tested. This reversal of logic is fed by the ubiquitous consumerism in which we live, which preaches that it’s our right to have our unique needs met, and it’s our right to have whatever is new and updated.

Still, we know what it means to recognize the impact of those who have gone before us — those who had to live by faith in a future they would never see. Consider the experience of looking through an old family photo album. These aren’t just people in weird clothes or with odd hairstyles. You’re looking into the eyes of our mothers and fathers, our recent ancestors who were then experiencing as much uncertainty (or more) as we are now. Reading stories of the ancients is like looking at the family photo album of our faith. And Moses is in a lot of the photos.

Moses’ faith was so influential that he is one of only two people who lived during the Old Testament period and then also appear in the New Testament, when Jesus meets with him and Elijah on the mount of transfiguration. Moses’ faith was so influential that Jewish people to this day retell the story of the exodus from Egypt, which Moses led under God, during Passover. Moses’ faith was so influential that it helped him persevere being hotly pursued by the most powerful army in the world. Moses’ faith was so influential that thousands were saved from bondage, thousands would come to know themselves as God’s people, and eventually through Christ countless billions through the centuries would become adopted daughters and sons of the most high God and be set free from the bondage of sin and death.

And ironically, Moses didn’t even physically make it to the land God promised his people.

For the next 17 weeks, we’re going to journey with Moses. We’re going to see what his story can tell us about our own stories, how his faith sets the stage for our faith, and how his life became the archetype for Jesus, who is the “pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

For reflection:
– Can you think of something an ancestor of yours did that you still benefit from? (Example: a great-grandparent that immigrated to the U.S.)
– Can you think of something you are doing now that is setting the stage for a future you may never see?
– When you think of Moses, what are the first things that come to mind?
– When you think of Moses, does anything distasteful or unpleasant come to mind?
– What does it mean to you, to “live by faith?”

Many blessings,
MM

Re:Lent – Recreate

Sometimes, we need to be reminded that there is truth about the world that we simply cannot yet see.

This week, Pastor Aaron recounted a (hilarious) story of a rigorous backpacking trip with his family and some friends. The 9-mile hike to the lake was grueling and Aaron honestly told us that several miles in, he was ready to quit! Of course, the group persevered and discovered, when the tree line parted in front of them, the grand beauty of the mountain lake. And they were able to enjoy a couple of days of heaven-on-earth.

“The worst thing is not the last thing.” –Frederick Buechner
Jesus’ disciples had just endured the worst thing they could have imagined — not an uphill mountain hike, but an uphill death march to Jesus’ crucifixion. For centuries, Christ’s followers have tried to imagine what it would have felt like to see the one they called Teacher, Master, and Friend betrayed, shamed, and executed. No wonder, then, that they all had to process Jesus’ resurrection in their own way. The gospel of John spends ample time on a disciple named Thomas, and the way he responded to the news: “So the other disciples told [Thomas], ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe'” (John 20:25).

The question is: what did Thomas really need? Was he doubting the news the way we typically think of doubt? Or was Thomas a pragmatist, unable to simply take his friends at their word (and a seemingly outrageous word at that!), and instead wanting to experience this news first-hand? In any case, Thomas’s realistic view of his world is one that most moderns like ourselves can certainly empathize with. We live in a post-Enlightenment, “scientific” age that claims everything we can know and need to know is attainable by way of empirical evidence and sensory experience. Many of us are like Thomas. So we can learn, as he had to learn, that there are truths (even facts, gasp!) about the world we inhabit that we have not nor cannot apprehend without God’s gracious revelation.

This is why Thomas utters such a profoundly repentant statement when Jesus does give him the gift of first-hand experience. Having touched Jesus’ wounds with his own hand, Thomas said: “My Lord and my God!” Is there any more profound way of turning away from trying to occupy a place of omniscience and turning toward the freedom of faith?

This Easter, and really every day of the year, God invites us to new experience of the resurrection life Jesus began, and therefore to a much larger vision of the paths that each of us are walking along. Jesus even gave a blessing to you and me, and countless people that would follow him in the years to come: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). What is that blessing? It is to have our vision widened from the small and temporary kingdoms of this world, to the large, eternal, and life-giving reign of God as we await the completion of the new creation begun in Jesus’ resurrection.

For reflection:
– In what ways are you like Thomas today, facing obstacles to your belief in Jesus’ resurrection?
– Beyond intellectual “faith,” what obstacles might be standing in your way of letting go of your vision for your life and beginning to learn about God’s vision for your life?
– Is there a relationship in your life that needs to be reconciled?
– Is there a disappointment in your life that you need to confront God about?
– Is there a wrongdoing you’ve committed that you need to confess and be free of?

May you know new life this Easter!
Pastor Mike

Godspeed: Names

The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep — He calls his own sheep by name

Pastor Aaron revealed this morning that when he was a young child he decided to run away from home. His first stop? 7-11. After gorging himself on candy, he remembered seeing his mother coming down the street.
“Aaron David Stewart!” she called. His mother was justifiably angry (and probably scared), and to this day, even though he was only four years old, Pastor Aaron recalls the importance of hear his mother call out his name. In what was undoubtedly unpleasant in the moment, it would become an unforgettable moment of grace and mercy.

Consider also the amount of time and energy we put into naming our children. We know it matters! In our day of increased disconnection and loneliness, the presence of God to us, represented by God the Son Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Spirit, is so often represented by our connection with each other. Especially when we practice that connection by name. Isn’t this part of the reason why visiting a new church can be so daunting — because no one yet knows your name? And isn’t it the reason that belonging to a community of faith is so joyful and liberating?

In today’s passage, John 10:1-6, Jesus uses the metaphor of sheep and shepherd to illustrate this intimate relationship. In the middle east, the shepherd will walk into the middle of sheepfold and call them by name. And they come to him! He knows them each individually: their coloring, their tendencies. But those sheep will not respond to the voice of someone else, who is not their true shepherd. People were wondering, “Is Jesus the Messiah or what?” To give them assurance, Jesus likens himself to the ideal image of a benevolent king — the shepherd.

In our most honest moments, what do we really want? No matter how much theological prowess we may have, no matter how much money in the bank, no matter how many people we influence or how much attention we warrant…In our heart of hearts, we want our Good Shepherd to call us — to know us — by name.

But if I want the sound of that voice to be comforting, I must be willing to “go out” with him. I must be willing to leave the comfort of my pen and go where he leads. Psalm 23 reminds us that he leads us in paths of righteousness. He leads us beside still waters. He also leads us to the cross, to lose ourselves for his sake, only to have him restore to us our complete and full identity in him.

Here’s an oxymoron — “Impersonal Church.” Such a thing should not exist! Because if the Church is to embody the hands and feet of Jesus, the voice and tenor of Jesus, the love and healing touch of Jesus, then it must be a place where we are known — and know others — by name.

For reflection:
– In what communities are you known by name?
– Are you known by name in a community of Jesus’ people? If not, what risks could you take to be known?
– Do you want to be part of a community who knows you by name? Why or why not?
– If you are well-known by name in your community, how could you challenge yourself this week to know others by name?

Many blessings,
MM

Godspeed: Rooted

In any culture, we are shaped by forces which we don’t choose but which have enormous influence over our lives, our perceptions of ourselves, our world, and even God. Today, one of those forces appears to be “individualism,” otherwise known as the “self-made person.”

But that’s just not how things work, is it?

Consider the human body, as one basic example. As a metaphor (there are always exceptions if we take this analogy too literally), it reminds us that a single living organism is actually a series of interdependent living things. In fact, when the body isn’t operating interdependently, it is said to be in a state of “dis-ease.” So it is with the Church, which Paul called the “Body of Christ.”

The health of the interdependent Body is largely determined by its stability. If the parts of the Body aren’t stable, then the whole Body becomes less stable. Benedictine monks understand this when they take their vows, one of which is the vow of “stability,” that is, the willingness to live in a particular community for the rest of their lives, through thick and thin, and to renounce the endless (and fruitless) search for greener pastures elsewhere.

The corporate nature of life in Christ is emphasized throughout scripture. In other words, salvation is not just personal. We are saved into something greater. We are baptized into something greater. We eat the Communion meal in the presence of something greater, as we anticipate something greater, that is, the fulfillment of God’s kingdom.

Sometimes our lives are thrown into seasons of instability, when we feel uprooted. Failing health and the death of loved ones; struggling relationships and divorce; corporate lay-offs, or corporations moving employees to new locations; military families moving every three years; these are legitimate and real reasons we can become uprooted. The call to be a rooted people is not meant to indict our real-life situations, but rather, to acknowledge that ultimately we need stability in a community with deep and healthy roots as we seek to know ourselves, our God, and our place in God’s world.

For reflection:
1) Are currently feeling “rooted” or not? What are the factors contributing to your answer?
2) Is there a way to feel “rooted” if forces outside of our control (job, health, etc.) are making us feel unrooted? What ways might there be?
3) Do you know someone whose life has recently been “uprooted?” Pray and ask the Holy Spirit to guide what you might do to bless that person this week.


Godspeed: Pace

God is a great gift-giver, even though we often neglect or refuse his gifts. One of the most famous is this invitation from Jesus: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Right away in the next verses, Jesus shows us one of God’s main gifts — Sabbath.

Sabbath basically means “rest,” and ever since the beginning, it is the way God has set the pace of our lives. It’s even one of the ten commandments! Over the centuries, there have been countless interpretations of what it means to honor the Sabbath, and during Jesus’ earthly life there were two basic approaches, which I’ll call External and Internal.

The external approach is like the “letter of the law.” You consciously choose to do what it says, regardless of circumstances. The internal approach is like the “spirit of the law,” when the focus is on whether or not the law’s goal is being met, and then adjusting your practice accordingly. These two basic approaches are the crux of many arguments about how to honor the Sabbath: either an objective or subjective approach. But an either-or misses the mark.

Jesus’ approach to Sabbath was both-and: we both make intentional, measurable choices to shape our lives around the Sabbath (external), and we remember the purpose of Sabbath and make occasional adjustments so the purpose is being met (internal).

When Jesus’ followers picked grain on Sabbath, they weren’t abandoning God’s law. They were hungry. And Jesus used the occasion to show us that in every situation we can shape our lives around God’s pace — we can intentionally set aside time and adjust when we need to.

One of the most helpful ways to understand Sabbath comes from the Jewish theology of the temple. In the Godspeed documentary series, N.T. Wright highlights that “The Jews will tell you that the Sabbath is to time what the temple is to space…the temple is the place where heaven and earth meet, and the Sabbath is when our time and God’s time intersect.”

Are we accepting God’s invitation to experience this intersection of the divine and earthly? To fully know that God is both transcendent and imminent; both beyond us and intimately near? This is the gift of Sabbath, and we’re being invited back to set our pace by it and live at Godspeed.

For reflection:
– Take a look at this week’s schedule. Consider canceling one appointment or somehow opening up just one hour to create Sabbath-space.
– Consider what you might do in your Sabbath-space that lifts your spirit heavenward (plain old idle time rarely does the trick); make a list and fill your Sabbath-time with those activities.
– As you make a habit of creating small Sabbath-spaces in your schedule, challenge yourself to gradually increase that space with the goal of having a full day each week that is an experience of God’s presence.

Godspeed: Presence

If you heard there was a disease that was rampant throughout your community, would you want to know more about it? Given the emergency status of the measles outbreak in Washington state alone, my guess is you would.

There is a problem that is robbing people of a sense of ease in their daily lives: a “dis-ease” called busyness. Busyness may even be more harmful than most physical diseases because unlike those, busyness often feels good while we experience it. Being busy can make us feel important or productive. And most of us do little or nothing to become less busy.

Spiritually, one problem with busyness is that it also robs us of our ability to know God’s presence. Last week, we looked at the notion of “Place” and remembered that while we often ask “Where is God?” God is asking the same — “Where are you?” In a culture that is increasingly competitive and socially networked, our answer might all too often be “Where am I? Well I’m busy, of course.”

The story of Ruth is well-known among students of the Bible, but you rarely see it on wall posters or verse-a-day calendars. And yet it is one of the most powerful stories of commitment to presence in scripture. Ruth herself is a widow with a chance to start over. She has every reason to think of her own best interest. But instead she sets that aside and chooses to live fully present with her mother-in-law Naomi, for the rest of her life: “Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.” (Ruth 1:17)

To be sure, there are many demands on our daily lives that we cannot run from. Life happens. Nevertheless, we are invited, and even commanded, to keep an account of the lifestyle we can choose and decide whether or not we will choose to be open to experience the presence of God.

For reflection:
– Make a list of the things in your life keeping you the most busy; which do you have the power to change (don’t forget to include how you spend your spare time).
– What is standing in the way of being fully present to God? Being fully present to the people in your life?
– What are some simple choices you could make to become more fully present, even just for the next week? Journal about your experience.

Many blessings,
MM

Godspeed: Place

“There’s no place on this earth without the potential for unearthing holiness.” –Eugene Peterson

This Godspeed concept challenges us to live at “Godspeed” – a way of life that puts us in the place to be face to face with God and with each other. And ever since our human parents were infected with sin, we as a human race have been hiding from God and yet, in the depths of our hearts, desiring to know where we can find God.

This tension is found in John 4:19-26. Jesus is in the middle of an exchange with a woman who had been running, hiding through a maze of relationships, an outcast who was seeking water from a well in the middle of the day. Jesus has just had a very direct conversation about her personal life. Jesus in essence is saying, “where are you in your life right now?”

Ironically, the woman shifts the awkward personal conversation to the hot topic of the day– which location is the place where God is to be found? I think the original hearers would see the humor in this. She’s staring the God son in the face… proposing where he can is found.

And of course Jesus gets right to the point: God is not in Rome or Mecca. Not in the places where you think you must go to find God, Jesus said. “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (4:24).

I’ll never forget a moment 5 years ago when in the middle of the week, a couple came into our sanctuary and was right here on the stairs weeping, full bodied grief and they were desperate. They were pleading with God to take care of their baby girl, just months old, who passed away in her sleep the night before. They were stricken with overwhelming grief and even though they weren’t people of faith, they sought the only place they could think of to find God. This place. And they met God here through the people of this church.

But was more profound was that the concept of where God was found (here in sanctuary) was changed when I shared that I was actually standing outside their home the night before. As it so happened, I was helping my brother move and his home was down the street. I had heard the wailing and went over, praying in their front yard. I had unknowingly been part of God’s bringing many people to them over that awful time. God was present, God was moving toward them. Not only in a sanctuary but their home. You see Jesus is revealing the way of Holy Spirit as fundamental about this sanctuary as it is everywhere else:

Jesus redeems the idea of Place not by making it insignificant but by making all places significant because of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is here. Spirt is here. In fact, part of the point of Jesus’ mission, to bring the life of heaven to birth on earth, was that from now on holy mountains wouldn’t matter that much. The Holy places wouldn’t have a monopoly on the encounter with God.

For Reflection:
– Do you have any “sacred” places in your life? What makes them so special?
– Can you envision the place you are right now as a sacred place? What would have to change to make it seem sacred?
– This week in prayer, each day make yourself fully available to God, like Isaiah did, and pray: “Here I am, Lord.” Journal about your experience.

This week’s post comes straight from UPPC senior pastor, Aaron Stewart.

The concept of “Godspeed” is inspired and informed by the work of Matt and Julie Canlis in their documentary film and study sessions. Learn more at http://www.livegodspeed.org

The Manger Is the Message

In Philippians 2:6-7, we read about the second person of the divine Trinity, the Son of God, “making himself nothing.” What does Paul mean? The theological term for this is kenosis which essentially means “emptying.” But it doesn’t mean Jesus was no longer divine, but rather that Jesus refused to take advantage of his divinity as he lived out his human life. He fully entered the brokenness of humanity — the brokenness we do and don’t create ourselves.

Jesus was born into an ethnic minority that had experienced the ravages of persecution and genocide throughout the generations. Jesus reveals a God who identifies with refugees, the poor, and the underprivileged. If you’ve ever had a personal experience of a truly impoverished person, you’re not likely to forget it. Pastor Aaron shared a story of meeting a boy named Pedro in Mexico who had only two things to his name: one square of toilet paper a day, and a tattered toy bear. That was it. Something runs deep within each of us that screams “This just isn’t right.” Not because the goal of life is to have more stuff. But because of the injustice of a child living without the essentials of a healthy life. And Jesus himself claimed to be Pedro’s servant by taking Pedro’s form.

In Luke 4:17-21, Jesus himself recalled the words of Isaiah, who described the purpose of the Messiah. And as followers of the Messiah, we the Church have not only a lot of work to do, but a clear manner in which to do it: with humility. Thomas Merton wrote: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire about whether or not they are worthy.”

As we move into 2019, consider the impact of not only bringing the good message of Jesus to the broken world, but embodying that message in the same way Jesus did: with humility.

For Reflection:
– What would it look like for you to take a step toward serving your community with more humility that you did last year?
– What might be holding you back from serving more humbly? Money? Time? Fear? Consider bringing those obstacles honestly to God in prayer.
– If you live in the UPPC community, consider new upcoming opportunities to serve.  Visit UPPC.org > Serve

Down to Earth: Flesh Comes Down

I’ve noticed a disconnect in our midst.  Pretty much everything I’ve read and everyone I’ve talked to bemoans the divisiveness in our culture these days.  No one seems to be celebrating it.  But on the other hand, most people seem to also agree that the divisions are increasing, not decreasing.  So, why the disconnect? 

One possible reason is because of all of the talking.  Beyond interpersonal dialogue, the internet has become a free-for-all of anyone’s ideas about anything.  So much talk that can lead us to create our identities around ideas, rather than actual issues.  And these “identity-based ideologies” are “by the far the more potent predictor of social distance.”*

In his brief letter to the Philippians, Paul is writing  to a church struggling with divisiveness, and he offers one of the most theologically and poetically rich passages about Jesus in all of scripture, and maybe in all Christian literature.  In only 3 verses, Paul describes the lengths to which God went to surpass mere talk of love and instead show his love to us in the flesh.

In Jesus, God is present in the flesh. 
Jesus’ birth in the manger is much more than just the arrival of a great prophet or teacher.  And Paul describes God’s presence in Jesus in two distinct ways.

1) In Jesus, God is present in the flesh as God.  
Jesus “very nature” is God, and he shares “equality” with God.  Paul begins this way because if we miss Jesus’ divinity, we miss the miracle of Jesus’ birth in the flesh.  It is precisely because Jesus’ very nature is divine that his birth fulfills the promise of Isaiah, that God would dwell with us.  Jesus’ birth as God among us fulfills the deepest human longing to be near the Creator.

2) In Jesus, God is present in the flesh as human.
God’s choice to be human does not empty him of his divinity.  The phrase in the NIV “made himself nothing” can be misleading.  The Greek verb kenoō denotes an emptying but is used figuratively to connote a neutralization of effect, or an emptying of significance.  So Jesus did not relinquish his equality with God, but rather chose to lay his divine power aside in his life in the flesh.  N.T. Wright puts it this way: “The decision to become human, and to go all the way along the road of obedience — this decision was not a decision to stop being divine. It was a decision about what it really meant to be divine,” which is to offer self-sacrificial love.**

Jesus’ human life reveals what it means to be divine, and also what it means to be human.  It is to be God’s image-bearers, capable of loving our communities as God loves — in the flesh.  

Faith in Action: 
1) What is one practical step you could take this Christmas season to embody God’s loving kindness in person?  Who needs to hear in your voice or see in your face God’s down-to-earth love?
2) Maybe even more challenging — from whom are you longing to experience that in-person kindness?  Is there someone who should know that you need to reconnect, even reconcile with them? 

Many blessings this Advent,
MM   

*”Why Has America Become So Divided?” Psychology Today, 9/5/18.
**N.T. Wright, NT for Everyone, Philippians 2:6-8.