Tag Archives: Social Justice

May 2, 2021 – Sunday Worship Service

Worship service premieres at 10:30 a.m. EST (-500 GMT)
on Sunday, April 25, 2021 on YouTube.

Welcome to our Sunday Worship Service for May 2, 2021. Today we will be discovering the importance of listening to God and leveling the playing field for others. Let us discover how this can bring us hope, healing, and wholeness.

Please support us by giving online: https://tithe.ly/give?c=1377216 or https://paypal.me/newtonumc Your support is vital, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic. You can also write and mail a check to First UMC of Newton, 111 Ryerson Ave., Newton, NJ 07860.

If you are from another church that is not able to host online worship, we would strongly encourage you give to YOUR church and support them. They no doubt need that support as much as we do. God bless you all for your generosity.

RECLAIM, Episode 8: Listening

RECLAIM premieres on YouTube every Saturday at 9:00 a.m. EST (GMT -400).

In this brand new video series, Pastor Todd of First United Methodist Church of Newton, NJ brings passionate awareness and helpful tips on various transformational Christian practices and theology. Each episode will inspire and motivate spiritual growth through time-tested practices and and wisdom.

This week’s episode invites you to RECLAIM seeking after justice as a God-given requirement. Pastor Todd discusses what justice is and what it means to seek it out.

A LOOK BACK: All Authority

Read Luke 9:1-5

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.” (Matthew 7:20, NLT)

magic_gateway_wallpaper_by_jerry8448d4nyul6For those of us who are Christian, how easy it is for us to call ourselves people of faith, right? We often set ourselves apart from the “non-believing world.” We often separate ourselves from those who “don’t believe” and/or those who “don’t have faith” and see ourselves in an “us versus them” kind of way. I am not pointing this out in order to point out Christians in a way that is different from any other human religion, institution or group. All humans see their group in an “us versus them” kind of way. That is, whether fortunately or unfortunately, the human condition.

What I am trying to point out, however, is that Christians do see themselves as being people of faith. I am pretty sure that all Christians, everywhere, would agree with that statement. Yet, in my own observance, many Western Christians (in American especially) do not live out their faith with much conviction. Sure, we are good at being convicted about certain things. I mean, many Christians will flip over backwards to tell you how we’ve fallen from God’s glorious standard (Romans 3:23), how Christ’s death was God’s plan to save us from our sins and close the chasm that lay between us and God, and that all we need to do to be saved is to say the sinner’s prayer (whatever that is) and accept Jesus into our hearts. Once that has been done, we are saved and no longer a slave to sin and death (Romans 8:1-2); what’s more, once we’ve been saved nothing can ever separate us from the love and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 8:38-39).

We are convicted to tell you that part of the Gospel story, but that is just about where our conviction ends. As a result, Western Christianity is rather shallow and completely skips over the ACTUAL end of the Gospel. Being forgiven of our sins is only a part of the Gospel story…and it happens to be the beginning of it, not the end. You see, anyone who has read any part of the Hebrew Scriptures could figure out we’re sinners and that God is working to forgive us of our sins. It’s not like God wasn’t forgiving sins before Jesus. Yes, Jesus sacrifice for us and the salvation that sacrifice brings is a part of the Gospel story, but not the whole of it; rather, when we accept Jesus and his atoning sacrifice, we also accept the authority Christ has given us.

What authority you ask? The authority to represent Christ in the world. We have been the authority to fight against injustice and oppression, the authority to care for and bring healing to the sick, the authority to be present with the lost, the depressed and the lonely. We have been given authority over the powers of darkness and over the inner demons that try to take us and others down. To accept Christ’s forgiveness, to attain salvation in Christ, is to accept the authority that Christ is giving us over such things. But that’s not the end of it either. Once we’ve accepted Christ, and Christ’s authority, we being sent out by Christ into the world proclaiming the arrival of God’s Kingdom. In other words, we are to proclaim to the world that the day of equality, social justice, mercy, compassion, peace, love, and God’s presence has finally arrived. This is exactly what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was doing when he spoke to the nation at the Lincoln Memorial. It was Mother Teresa was doing in Calcutta, India. It was what Bonhoeffer was doing in Nazi Germany. This is not an activity reserved for a few who are called; rather, ALL CHRISTIANS ARE CALLED to go out into the world and proclaim the Gospel. All Christians have been equipped with spiritual gifts to do such.

Of course, this will not make Christians the most popular people in a world that wants to keep the have-nots in their places. Yet, if we are truly convicted in our beliefs, if we are truly a people of faith, then we will bless those who hear and accept the proclamation of God’s Kingdom and shake the dust off of our feet when it comes to those who refuse to. The latter is not intended to be our judgment against them; rather, Christ is telling us to leave the opponents of God to God and is calling us to focus on those who would ally themselves with God and with the arrival of God’s Kingdom of hope, healing and wholeness. The question for us is this, how convicted are we? How much faith do we possess. God knows what tree we are by our fruit.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
It is much easier to call oneself “a person of faith” than it is to ACTUALLY live a life of faith.
PRAYER
Lord, strengthen me and continually work in me so that I may move beyond my fear and accept the authority you have given me. Amen.

God’s People, part 249: Agabus

Read Acts 11:27-30

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.”  (John 13:34, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Part 249: Agabus. There’s not much to be said about Agabus, as there are only several verses in the entire New Testament, all with in Acts, that are in reference to him. In today’s Scripture, we learn that prophets from Jerusalem were coming to the city of Antioch in Syria and prophesying to the people there. Before we talk about Agabus himself, we must first understand a little bit about Antioch.

Though there were other cities named Antioch in the ancient world, the one described in Acts 11 is the city was located in what is now the modern city of Antakya, Turkey. Syrian Antioch, as it is known by historians and scholars, was the seat of the governor of the Roman Province of Syria. This city was a major center of early Chrisitanity and it was traditionally first evangelized by Peter and, later, by Barnabas and Paul. It was a beneficial to be located because it existed along the silk road, the spice trade, and the Royal Road, making it a major travel hub.

Christianity utilized such routes and major hubs to spread from city to city throughout the Roman empire; thus, it is not shocking that the first major center of Christianity outside of Jerusalem would be Syrian Antioch. It also makes sense why Jewish prophets from Jerusalem would travel to Antioch, which was the region’s example of Hellenistic culture and Roman rule. Again, we don’t know much about these prophets, but every indication is that they were Jewish Christians.

Agabus was one of these prophets and he came to the city of Syrian Antioch in order to warn the citizens there that a great famine would be falling upon the entire Roman Empire. While, I am sure that many in Antioch laughed at Agabus and his prophecy, and Luke shares that it wasn’t fulfilled until sometime during the reign of Claudius (41-54 AD), the Christians in Antioch from taking him and his prophecy seriously.

The early Christians had plenty in Antioch and, out of concern for their mother church, they sent supplies to Jerusalem to ensure that they had enough to survive the famine. What an amazing act of faith and self-sacrifice. They didn’t horde what they had in order to make sure they were safe and sound; rather, they shared their resources with those they knew were less fortunate than them.

First, what a blessing that Agabus answered his call to warn people of the coming famine. Second, how amazing is it that the earliest Christians heeded that warning, even if others didn’t, and shared their resources with their sisters and brothers in Jerusalem. We should be challenged by this. We who are the church, we who are followers of Christ, should be willing to share what we have with other Christians who are in need. If we are to take care of those who do not currently belong to our divine family, we must first be willing to take care of fellow family members.

What a witness to the world we would be if we, as Christians, made such hospitality and mutual love a part of our identity. Such a church would attract people like a magnet, just like the church in Antioch attracted many to it. Imagine a world where we care for each other and, together, we care for the least of these regardless of who they are or what creed they do or don’t follow. Such a church would certainly begin to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Let us be such Christians who make up such a church.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
LOVE is the order of the day, every day, for all days.

PRAYER
Lord, humble me and create in me a loving, generous and hospitable heart. Amen.

People of the Closed Door

Read Matthew 23:13-36

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'”  (Matthew 23:37-39, NRSV)

Hardened-HeartMy heart, brothers and sisters, is extremely heavy. As many of you already know, I am an ordained elder in full connection in the United Methodist Church. This is the church I was baptized into, the church who prayed for me when I was in critical condition in the hospital at age 3, the church my wife and I were married in, the church I returned to when I came back to my faith in the early 2000s, and the church I finally answered my call in.

When I first came back to Christianity, I tried one other denomination prior to settling in the United Methodist Church. When I walked in that fateful Sunday, I was greeted by people as one often is at church on Sundays. When I asked the usher at the door what the difference was between them and a different denomination with a similar name and background, the person responded to ask me what my view on homosexuality was. He then proceeded to tell me that they split from their “heathen” sister church because of their acceptance of gays and how the Bible said gays were all going to hell.

Friends, I walked right out of that church and never looked back because I knew that such a judgmental denomination was NOT for me. It is following that experience that I found my way back into the United Methodist Church. At the time I didn’t know the language that is currently in our Book of Discipline. What I did know was that I was welcomed by a loving community that accepted me for who I am and not what I came in believing or not believing. They welcomed, they encouraged me, they loved me and my family, and they supported me in answering my call.

That church didn’t just welcome me but welcomed all people. They were a home for the broken, the outsiders, the lost, and the needy. They openly accepted all people, no matter their sexual orientation, no matter socio-economic status, no matter their hurts and/or hangups, no matter what they were or weren’t addicted to. They accepted and LOVED EVERYONE! That witness to Christ’s love is what brought back to the United Methodist Church.

I found my place in the UMC while learning of John Wesley and his belief in radical, omnipresent grace, his push for a balance between social holiness and social justice, and his openness to new ideas that were grounded in the Biblical witness of God’s love and grace. I knew, by this point, that we as a church had a position on human sexuality that I disagreed with; however, there was hope that things would change over time. To be clear, I understood and respected the fact that social change takes time because it involves the changing of hearts and not just minds. I still understand and respect that.

What happened during the Special Session of General Conference (February 23-26, 2019), deeply saddens me as I know it deeply saddens many United Methodists. The decision to pass the Traditional Plan over and above the One Church Plan, means that the denomination has decided to double down on its unholy ban on LGTBQ marriage and service in the Church. It diminishes their sacred worth, and hangs that up over their sexual orientation.

While the United Methodist Church touts having “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors”, the People of the United Methodist Church have shown the world something completely different. We’ve become a people with closed hearts and closed minds. We’ve become a stick that is breaking because it refuses to bend. We’ve become a people of the closed door.

With all of that said, it is important to note that while the global church as a whole voted to adopt the Traditional Plan, it must be said that it only passed by a very, very small margin. There were more than 800 delegates from around the world who voted and if a mere 28 people had voted differently the Traditional Plan would have been defeated. In regard to the inclusive One Church Plan, if 26 people had voted differently it would have passed.

These numbers only show that the vote is not reflective of the people called Methodists as a whole, and that gives me room for MUCH hope. My heart is heavy, my sadness deep; however, my HOPE is very much ALIVE. The church has always been in wrestling with Jesus’ call to be ambassadors of God’s inclusive, loving, and grace-filled Kingdom. We often fail at doing so; however, Christ still loves us and lifts us back up out of the mud we sink ourselves into. I have hope that the people called Methodists will find a way to move forward from the tragic steps backwards we just took.

Right now, Bishops, church leaders, pastors such as myself, and laity are working toward building a path forward to becoming a people of open hearts, open minds, and open doors once again. In fact, many of us never stopped being that in the first place! We will find a way forward to become a people of one church that accepts diversity in all of its richness, complexity, and sacred possibility. Please join with me in prayer for the people of the United Methodist Church and the people of all denominations as we seek to live out the Gospel commission of making disciples of ALL people (not just some), baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Inclusivity has always been a struggle in the church, as it has for all of humanity. Here’s the Apostle Paul recalling a confrontation in his fight for Gentile inclusion: “But when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong. When he first arrived, he ate with the Gentile believers, who were not circumcised. But afterward, when some friends of James came, Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision. As a result, other Jewish believers followed Peter’s hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.” — Apostle Paul of Tarsus (Galatians 2:11-13, NLT).

PRAYER
Lord, help us to be a people who do not become closed doors seeking your loving embrace and help us to not become closed doors on people seeking to your call on their lives and serve you. Amen.

God’s People, part 146: Anna

Read Luke 2:36-38

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Soon afterward Jesus began a tour of the nearby towns and villages, preaching and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom of God. He took his twelve disciples with him, along with some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases. Among them were Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons; Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s business manager; Susanna; and many others who were contributing from their own resources to support Jesus and his disciples.”  (Luke 8:1-3, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

anna-rembrandtPart 146: Anna. In the last devotion, Jesus’ parents brought Jesus up into the Temple to be circumcised on the eighth day, according to Jewish custom. Following the ceremony, they ran into an old man named Simeon who blessed the child and prophesied on the significance of his birth. This man had been promised by God that he would see the coming of the Messiah and now, having witnessed the Christ-child, he was content to die.

The story does not end there; rather, it continues on in a woman named Anna. Before getting into Anna’s story, there needs to be a basic awareness of the social norms of first century Judaea. Typically, society did the value that women had in society was relegated to childbearing, childrearing and housekeeping. The women were responsible for passing down the faith to her children as a part of her childrearing duties; however, that was the basic extent of women’s value in first century Judaea.

Men, on the other hand, had the real voice. Thus, it makes sense that someone like Simeon, in the context of the times, would be the one to prophecy and proclaim the coming of the Christ. It makes sense, within the first century social framework, that visions and proclamations would come from men and not women. In fact, if you look at the Gospel of Matthew you will notice that the visions and actions were done on the part of Joseph, not Mary. Mary has absolutely NO VOICE in that Gospel.

But Luke is not Matthew and his Gospel operates counter to the way the other Gospels operate. Sure, Simeon gets his moment in the Temple to see visions and proclaim the Christ child; however, he is merely a common person. He’s no prophet or soothsayer; rather, he is just an old man holding on to the promises of God.

Anna, on the other hand, is described by Luke in the following way: “Anna, a prophet, was also there in the Temple. She was the daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher, and she was very old. Her husband died when they had been married only seven years” (Luke 2:36, NLT). Simeon was a common man, and Anna was the prophet. As is always the case, Luke flips the social conventions of his day on their head.

While Simeon saw a vision and shared that vision with Mary and Joseph, Anna began praising God and proclaiming to the whole Temple that the Messiah had arrived. While Simeon was blessed with holding the child and praising God before the child’s parents, Anna was tasked by God with proclaiming the Good News to the whole Temple that day.

Luke lets us know that Anna was an old woman, who had been widowed for many years. Widows with no sons to care for them often became homeless. This may have been the case for Anna, who is said to have NEVER left the Temple day or night since the death of her husband. But there’s more to it than that. The reference of never leaving the Temple also suggests that Anna was in close and never-ending communion with God! Wow, right?

This aged widow, this “nobody” in terms of first century social standards, was in direct communication with God through fasting and prayer. Rather than having been voiceless, Anna is the one who tells everyone the GOOD NEWS! You see, God cannot be imprisoned or contained by our social standards. God transcends them and empowers those we would rather keep in their place.

The challenge for us is to reflect on this. We are being to challenged to reflect on the ways in which we try to keep people in their places by placing our social standards like giant cinder blocks around the necks of the voiceless. Remember, God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s wisdom far surpasses our own. Let us be a people who step out of the way and defer such judgment to God.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  – Paul of Tarsus in Galatians 3:28

PRAYER
Lord, help me to see past my own biases and the biases of my society in order to see people as you see them. Amen.

God’s People, part 118: Malachi

Read Malachi 2:1-16

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“I have always loved you,” says the LORD. But you retort, “Really? How have you loved us?” And the LORD replies, “This is how I showed my love for you: I loved your ancestor Jacob,” (Malachi 1:2)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Prophet-MalachiPart 118: Malachi. It is hard to believe but we have arrived at the final prophet in the Old Testament. We know very little about Malachi, as is the case of most of the minor prophets. For instance, scholars are not really sure who wrote the book attributed to Malachi, or if Malachi was the prophet’s name or a sort of alias for someone else.

Most scholars recognize that whoever wrote the book of Malachi, it was written by a prophet who was living during the time of the Persian Restoration period following the return from exile. The text seems to be consistent with the time period following the rebuilding and rededication of the second Temple, and the rebuilding of the wall. In fact, it seems that it may have been written around the time of, or shortly after, Nehemiah’s second return from Persia to Jerusalem (See the devotion on Nehemiah to refresh your memory on him).

Malachi’s prophetic book focuses on the lackadaisical religious and social behavior of the Israelites, especially the priests, in Jerusalem following the return from the exile. For instance, Malachi calls the priests out for making less than desirable sacrifices, as if performing their priestly duties is a chore or a bother for them. Evidently the priests were sacrificing any old animal rather than making sure the animal was without any blemish. In fact, they were sacrificing lame and sick animals. When you think of it, sacrificing a lame or sick animal, which will most likely die anyway, is not much of a sacrifice. If the priesthood cannot lead faithfully, how can the people they lead grow in their faith?

Another issue raised by Malachi was the issue of divorce. Malachi saw this both as a religious and a social issue. In fact, the two really could not be separated. The Israelite men were evidently divorcing their wives (of which the priests were allowing) in order to marry foreign women. Socially, divorcing one’s wife brings shame upon her and her family. Often times, divorced women were shunned by their families and left to fend for themselves in a man’s world. This, often times, led women destitute and prostitution was often the only means available for survival.

The religious end of this is that the men were then marrying women who worshipped a foreign god. Thus, they were not only being unfaithful to their Jewish wives, but they were being unfaithful to their God as well. In fact, divorcing their wives for such a ridiculous reason is not being faithful to God either.

What Malachi shows us, as God’s people, is that it is not hard for us to fall into laziness, complacency and unfaithfulness. Whether we are leaders, or we are laity, we all have the tendency to fall away and to lead others to plummet with us. The challenge for us is to remain loyal (aka faithful) to God and to Jesus Christ. In order to do that we must maintain our spiritual disciplines such as reading and studying scripture, attending worship, participating in the Sacramental life of the Church, serving, praying, giving and witnessing to others. Those things keep us in connection to, and knowledgeable of, our Lord God. May you ever grow in your love of God and your desire to seek God out through daily spiritual discipline.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Those who do not see the mandate to be socially just, and to seek out social justice, in the Bible are simply not reading the Bible.

PRAYER
Lord, make me a vessel of your love, your peace, your hope, and your justice. Amen.

God’s People, part 92: Amos

Read Amos 5:1-25

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living.” (Amos‬ ‭5:24‬ ‭NLT‬‬)‬‬

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

img_1061Part 92: Amos. Again, with the prophets, little is known about their lives. With the exceptions of Elijah and Elisha, of which narratives were written, all that we have left of the prophets are their prophecies. This is certainly true of Amos. We have the book of prophecy that is attributed to him and little else.

With that said we know, by his own account, that Amos was from the Kingdom of Judah, although his ministry was spent in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. What’s more, he was not always a prophet. Prior to his call, he was a shepherd and a sycamore fig farmer (Amos 7:14).

This is important to note. All of the prophets whose books are in the Bible, found the need to mention how they were called to their prophetic ministry. None of them were trained, professional prophets. What this tells us is that there was suspicion among the common people for the prophets of their day and age. Why, one might ask? Because the professional prophets who were hired by the leaders were giving flowery words and accolades to their leaders rather than being honest, holding them accountable, and steering them back toward the LORD.

Thus, Amos defended his prophetic ministry by pointing out that he wasn’t such a “hired prophet”, but a true prophet hand picked by the LORD. “But Amos replied, ‘I’m not a professional prophet, and I was never trained to be one. I’m just a shepherd, and I take care of sycamore-fig trees. But the Lord called me away from my flock and told me, “Go and prophesy to my people in Israel.”’” (Amos‬ ‭7:14-15‬ ‭NLT‬‬)‬‬‬‬

Out of all the prophets, Amos spoke up the most about social justice. Actually, he wrote at a time of relative peace; yet, he wrote of the growing disparity between the wealthy and the poor. He was the first to push people “beyond thoughts and prayers”, and taught that prayers and empty rituals do not make up for bad deeds. He also taught about “privilege” and how it leads to apathy and escapism (Amos 4:4-5). He proclaimed God’s disgust at the empty rituals and he called out the 1% of society for making their profits off of the backs of the poor.

Ultimately, Amos believed that by oppressing the poor and failing to practice justice, Israel was not living righteously. And he gave voice to the proclamation of God, “Away with your noisy hymns of praise! I will not listen to the music of your harps. Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living” (Amos‬ ‭5:23-24‬ ‭NLT‬‬)‬‬

Clearly, Amos’ message made people of privilege and wealth feel uncomfortable. In fact, I am sure Amos’ message was a threat to them, much like it is to those of us who have it better than others in our own society. This is so true that the word “privilege” has become a trigger word for people who do not see themselves as privileged. People get incensed when they even hear the word; yet, the reality is that such people, myself included, have been afforded benefits that others have not been afforded.

The challenge for us is to try and understand the message without taking offense to it. It is God who is taking offense at those of us who are calling ourselves by Christ’s name, but opposing the justice and compassionate love that Christ embodies. Let us be a people that stand up for God’s justice and allow our prayers, which are important, to move us into action. Let us open up the floodgates to God’s river of righteousness, so that the waters of justice may roll on down. Let God’s Kingdom come, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked “let justice roll down like water” (Amos 5:24) in his famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

PRAYER

Lord, help me to stand up for your justice and not stand int he way of it. Amen.

The Beatitudes, part 2: Poor in Spirit

Read Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon Me, for the LORD has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent Me to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed.” (Isaiah 61:1 NLT)

wealth-gapIn the Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus, with his disciples gathered around him, stood up before a crowd of people and began to teach them. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit,” he began, projecting his voice for the multitude to hear, “for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” The crowd was in shock as Jesus uttered these words and, no doubt, the sounds of gasps and whispers could be heard moving from mouths to ears throughout the crowd.

It’s not that the crowd was unaware that God takes the side of the poor. Surely, there is Scripture throughout the Old Testament that shows God favoring the poor. In Isaiah 61:1, the prophet writes that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him in order that he might bring the good news of God’s favor to the poor. Also, the wise, sagely, author of Proverbs wrote that God’s justice will fall swift and hard on anyone who tries to take advantage of the poor, for God is their defender (Proverbs 22:22-23).

What was most shocking to the crowd was that Jesus proclaimed, with authority, that God was not merely the defender of the poor, which ultimately defends the status quo; rather, God is their liberator. It’s one thing for God to “defend the poor” against people who try to “take advantage” of them, but it is something entirely different for them to be the heirs to the Kingdom of Heaven, as this suggests that God rejects the place the poor have been put in, despite the fact that the world wishes to keep them in that place. This puts the world at odds with God.

Some have mistakenly taken Matthew’s use of the phrase “poor in spirit” to be a “spiritualization” of Jesus’ proclamation of blessing upon the literal poor found in Luke. However, phrase “poor in spirit” does not exclude literal poverty from the equation; rather, it shifts the emphasis to what it means to be the people of God. What Jesus is doing is pointing to a quality within the poor that sets them a part from the rich and, in Matthew, Jesus uses the phrase similarly to how it was used in the War Scroll found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. This scroll, written about 80 or so years prior to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, utilizes the phrase “poor in spirit” (1 QM 14:7) to denote God’s true people in contrast to the rich and powerful heirarchy of Jerusalem.

The poor, therefore, are people who are not in a position to be proud and independent. By virtue of their poverty, they are humble and their spirit has been crushed. They have to daily rely on their faith and hope in God’s promise to bring them justice and liberation from their plight. It is such people who, in their humility, recognize their need for God, while the rich and proud look to their own power, status and capabilities to attain what they believe they need. Jesus’ use of the phrase “the poor in spirit” both points us to God’s solidarity with the impoverished and to the kind of spirit they possess as a result of their poverty.

If we wish to inherit God’s Kingdom, we need to stand in solidarity with our Lord, who stands in solidarity with the poor. The only way to do so is to let go of our pride, to stop seeing ourselves as being “independent” and above those who are not, and begin to embody a spirit of humility. It is in such humility that we will recognize our need for God, and it is in such humility that we will trust our Lord enough to follow him. While the world scoffs and criticizes the poor, while the world mocks their need for help and assistance, the challenge for us is to embrace the poor, as well as their humble spirit. In doing so we will certainly be embracing our lowly Lord himself.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest. “ – Nelson Mandela
PRAYER
Lord, empty me of my pride and fill me with humility so that I may be counted among the poor in spirit. Amen.

THE CHRISTIAN MANIFESTO, Part 11: God’s Favor Realized

Read Luke 4:14-21

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE “And then [Jesus] told them, “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone.’” (Mark 16:15 NLT)

 Recently, a fellow colleague and friend of mine got into a conversation about the scripture passage I was preaching on at the church that I serve. The passage is Luke 4:14-21 and is on Jesus’ first recorded visit to the synagogue in Nazareth following his baptism and wilderness experience. In that passage, Jesus is handed the scroll of Isaiah and he opens it up to the following passage: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, for He has anointed Me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the LORD’s favor has come.” Inspired by the conversation, I have decided to devote a series of devotions on this particular passage, which has become known as “The Christian Manifesto”.

Part 11: God’s Favor Realized. It’s truly hard to put the Christian story into perspective. By Christian story, I don’t mean the Gospel story of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, the Son of God. What I mean by “the Christian Story” is the story of the rise of Christianity. In the faith-based film, “Risen”, the filmmakers try to tell account of the Resurrection of the Christ, but they do so from the perspective of the Roman Tribune who led the legionnaires responsible for crucifying Jesus. While, I am not about to give away the film for those who may not have seen it, what is great about it is that it really shows the Gospel message coming into contact with Rome.

While the film doesn’t span but 40 days past the Resurrection event, the reality is that, in a relatively short amount of time (only 400 or so years), Christians went from a hunted group of outcasts to being funded by the Roman Empire. How did this happen? How was it possible that a rag-tag group of disciples of a peasant Jewish mystic rabbi would found what ultimately would become the largest of the world religions? How did the one crucified by Roman Empire become the one venerated by that same Empire in less than half of a millennium? Surely, God’s that is evidence of God’s favor realized, right?

Wrong. While that historical tidbit is totally awesome and exciting for historians and theologians such as myself, it is more or less evidence of how politics can often take unexpected turns (just look at our current political climate) and that sometimes the most unlikely group can end up benefiting (sort of) from that. But when we look at the Christian Manifesto, we see that God’s favor was not coming to set up a religion, or to create yet another religious “establishment”; rather, God’s favor was falling on those who were poor, captive, blind, and oppressed, as well as to those who choose to bring that favor to them.

Who are the people to which God’s favor is extending to? The answer is simple, to all of the people of the world! For God created us all, God loves us all, and God (in the form of Jesus Christ) sacrificed it all so that we may be free from sin, death, and the things that hold us down, burden us, possess us, oppress us, blind us, enslave us and destroy us. Whether we are poor or rich, whether we are oppressed or the oppressor, whether we are blind or think we can see, whether we are poor in spirit or rich in self-righteousness (not a good form of wealth, by the way) God’s favor is upon us. We just need to realize it, accept it, turn from the things that keep us from it, and share it with everyone in our lives, in our neighborhoods, in our towns, in our states, countries and world! It takes you, yes YOU, for God’s favor to be realized. Fulfill the words of the Christian Manifesto, “that the time of the LORD’s favor has come.”

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

As Christians, we should witnessing to Christ’s love by standing against oppression and evil in whatever forms they take.

PRAYER

Lord, raise me up into a representative of your love, your grace, your justice and your compassionate mercy. I pledge myselfyou’re your manifesto of hope, healing, and wholeness. Amen.