The Ways of Love

Julie E. Hinz

For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:2-4, 8-9)

Well, let’s just say that the final bit of this reading packs a wallop. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” We are convicted. There is no wiggle room here. Love your neighbor or…

We’ve spent these last week’s learning about the Lenten Disciplines. Reflecting back, I see a common theme; they all pertain to relationship, our relationship with God or our relationship with God’s beloved. We are encouraged to confess (admit our sins, those committed against God and those against our neighbor), repent (show sorrow and commit to changing), pray (be in conversation with God), fast (an act of subduing and controlling our bodies and our minds, making room for God), give alms (charity), and to practice acts of mercy (show God’s love to those in need.)

Today’s verse sums up these last weeks and sets us up for the days to come in a rather striking way. We have brought these disciplines to light so that you might practice them, weave them into your everyday faith and life. Why? Because doing so strengthens your relationship with God and ultimately, it is God’s greatest commandment in action. When we confess our sins, we acknowledge that we have fallen short of God’s expectation that we love each body he has created: black, brown, Latinx, transgendered, married, single, tall, short, fat, thin, able-bodied or specially abled, Republican, Democrat…it matters not. LOVE THEM. In repentance we commit to changing our ways, softening our hearts away from hate, dissension, bigotry, bias, individualism and into ways of love and leaning into those things that make us each special and unique. Prayer is our personal primary means of being in conversation with God which builds relationship. Almsgiving and Acts of Mercy are then the tools to creating and tending to the needs of God’s beloved children, our love for God in action.

As we follow our Savior to the cross in the next few days, let us cling fast to the reality that everything that happens was done out of love for us. It is our faithful response to now turn and give that love to the rest of the world in every way we are able.

Prayer: Dearest dying Savior, on the eve of your Passion we begin to recognize how we have fallen short. Our sin has convicted us, and you now journey to the cross in our stead. Give us steadfastness that we might cling to that love, carry it with us throughout our days, and give it away so that the world may know your sacrifice and your unfathomable love for your creation. Amen.

The Larger Table

Katie Maxwell

But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. (1 John 3:17-20)

Not long ago, I sat down for a conversation with Sheli Massie, founder of The Goldfinch Cafe in Aurora, Illinois. The Goldfinch Cafe is Aurora’s first pay-what-you-can cafe. Once it opens, it “will offer locally sourced food, bringing dignity back to the table and offering a solution to what people are hungry for today, sustainable change.”

I love the food imagery in that vision statement. I love it because Sheli realized she could address food insecurity in her community by centering inclusivity, kindness, and dignity around the practice of breaking bread together. She talks a lot about “making the table longer,” which I believe is a beautiful embodiment of loving our siblings in Christ through action.

No matter how much money you have, no matter your gender or sexual identity, no matter if you have been questioning your faith, you belong at God’s Table. God’s Table is about abundance rather than scarcity—where everyone is loved and accepted as they are and where everyone has access to the resources we all need to thrive. God’s Table isn’t simply for those who have returned to our Creator, but it is present in the sacraments and in moments when partnering with our siblings to meet their needs transforms all of our lives. 

Prayer: God, open my heart to a vision of abundance and transformational love this Lenten season. Grant me the courage to pay kindness forward, to invest in my community, and to build a bigger table. Amen

What is required?

Rev. Robert Shaner

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.  (1 Peter 3:8, 13-15)

Acts of Mercy —  doing what is right! 

So, what does the Lord require of you/me?  Micah (6:8) answers, in part, “do mercy.”  St. Peter (3:13-14) simply states, “do what is good…what is right…do not be intimidated…sanctify Christ as Lord.”  So it is, scripture reminding us that expected and heroic behavior is found in simple acts of mercy: doing good (St. Peter), welcoming the stranger (Matthew 25:44), tending the sick, giving a cup of water, feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, befriending the refugee, orphan, widow, the lonely—basically “doing unto others as you would have them do to you!” (Matthew 7:12)  In today’s devotional St. Peter writes that the faithful are to have “unity of spirit” (to be clear of who we are and what we are about) together with a tender heart and humble mind…to have sympathy, to feel for, be with and love the other.  We are admonished to give “an account of the hope that is in us,” i.e., “that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto God’s self and entrusting to us this ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:19)   We are agents of reconciliation in solidarity “with” our neighbor, doing good, what is right, rendering simple acts of mercy without fear or intimidation—all of which is the godly thing to do!

As people of God, marked (branded as it were) with the cross of Christ, we become cross-bearers:  identifying with the works of Christ, modeling our Lord’s behavior with all people, letting the light shine through us to God’s glory, becoming what Luther said was the Christian’s behavior—to be “little Christs” in the world.  Belonging to God, we bear witness to his way, which is our calling (our duty.)  Our faithful behavior will attest to how we live out our belief.  

Doing simple acts of mercy may often feel as if one were simply placing a band-aid on the symptom and thus not treating the causative factor. Yes, but we also have a corporate witness, our congregation and the church. Together as the church or with other kindred spirits we are enabled and empowered to be “little Christs” speaking and acting with greater voice addressing (fixing) the systemic (root) causes of so much suffering, pain, and injustice surrounding us. 

Taize Prayer— repeat several times:
Take, oh, take me as I am. Summon out what I shall be.
Set your seal upon my heart, and live in me.

Doing Matters

Rev. Frank C. Senn

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead. (James 1:14-17, 26)

Martin Luther regarded Christian works as faith active in love. He is reported to have said, “God has taken care of my salvation, so I am free to take care of the needs of my neighbor.” He proposed that towns set up community chests to take care of the needy poor. Through the church we support social service agencies, homeless shelters, food banks, soup kitchens, etc. But personal almsgiving should be a part of our response to our Lord’s injunction, “Whenever you give alms…” I knew a young man who kept coins and bills in his car cup holder so that whenever a homeless person was begging at intersections, he could grab whatever he could and place it in the outstretched plastic cup. That’s faith with works.

Prayer: Lord, open our hearts to the needy poor and open our hands to help them, for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, who opened his heart to us and extended his hands on the cross to save us. Amen.

Go! Do!

Linda Street

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
(Colossians 3:12-13)

As we contemplate the theme for this week, we hear a very clear call to DO something. Although there is a meaningful place in the Christian journey to “pray” for those in need or to “contemplate” what might be the best course of action, this message is about DOING.  Check out the action verbs: feeding, clothing, visiting and caring. We are to move into the world as a force for good, a reflection of the hands-on work Jesus did when he walked among us. We are called as a church to “leave the building.”

In Colossians we read not only are we to DO good things, Paul directs our attitude or our temperament as we are doing. We are to be compassionate, kind, humble, meek and patient. We are to be forgiving and bear with one another. This includes those we serve as well as our co-workers in the field—as the Lord has forgiven us.

Even more convicting is that the verse is an imperative sentence, a command. In school we were taught to put the word “you” in front of imperative sentences. You “put on then…” This verse is a personal note from God directly to each of us. he has gifted us with talents and expects us to use them.

Prayer: Father God, embolden us to move out into your world.  Help us to be sensitive to the direction of your Holy Spirit as we seek where best to use our gifts and talents in your service. Amen.

Fight the Cynic

Rev. James Brooks

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10: 29-37)

It can be frustrating to give all I have in fighting for equality and justice and realize things seem to be getting worse rather than better.  Moreover, frustration comes when I continue to witness firsthand black lives being taken by the droves. While writing this devotion I heard gunshots out of my clinic’s office. A young man had been shot while driving his car. On top of that, a few weeks ago I witnessed a young man get shot in the head. Feeling helpless, all I could tell him was to hold on. Time and time again, gunshot after gunshot, crisis after crisis, trauma after trauma—no change. Soon cynicism knocks on the door.  

I find myself thinking: “Things will never change.” “I’m not really making a difference.” “Does prayer really work?” This is dangerous thinking and antithetical to God’s promises. It caters to Satan’s plan to kill, steal and destroy (John 10:10).

Cynicism is that dreadful disdain toward all things meaningful. It crushes your faith and destroys your hope. Its subtle contempt contaminates the great moments of cheer and contentment.  In a Desiring God article, Pastor Jonathan Parnell writes, “Cynicism is the thick smoke of pessimism toxifying the oxygen in the lungs of our hope.”

In a world filled with sin, cynicism will perpetually knock at the doors of our souls.  This is something none of us can avoid.  However, rather than denying it, we should face it. Anything that we are not willing to face will never be fixed. Pastor Parnell continues by writing, “In the beauty of Christian paradox, maybe the best way that we might overcome cynicism is not to evade it, but to face it head on. Rather than dodge cynicism, what if we go right after it, look it straight in the eyes, and ‘out-cynicize’ cynicism itself?”

How do you do that? When cynicism knocks on the door – let faith answer.  Faith in God’s promises can conquer any cynical thought. “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ”
(2 Corinthians 10:4-5).

When cynicism says, “Give up!,” faith says “I walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).  When cynicism says, “Things are not looking good,” faith says, “All things work together for those who love the Lord and who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). When cynicism says, “I feel so inadequate,” faith says, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). Cynicism may come, but always introduce your cynicism to your Christ!  Feed and nourish your faith and you’ll drive cynicism from your door. 

Prayer: Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.                                          

A Little Abundance

Deb Maxwell

“‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)

My fifth-grade teacher had a box on her desk for loose change that we collected and sent to an overseas children’s mission. We learned the children received food, clothing, vaccines, and were also baptized as a result of our offerings. One day, our teacher said that our offerings had lagged, and the children were not getting the help they needed.

Around the same time, my mother allowed me to take some quarters out of her wallet for my new bank. However, my mother did not give me permission to start stealing quarters for the alms box on my teacher’s desk. The once empty box soon overflowed with quarters. (Ironically, I was always THAT kid, the one who never had her lunch money or library fines.)

My mother soon approached me about my pilfering. I was afraid of her quick temper, and I knew stealing was wrong. Yet, when I explained my fears that these children would starve or might even die unbaptized without her quarters, her look softened and I was not punished.

I had ministered to my mother at that moment, and she to me. Money had been tight since my parents’ divorce, and our cupboards were sometimes sparse. Despite our circumstances, she saw Christ’s love for others and his love in action through my impassioned, nine-year old eyes. We had, through a few handfuls of her quarters, fed and clothed orphans, prevented their sicknesses, and most importantly, “welcomed them into the Lord’s family” through Holy Baptism (LBW).

Prayer: Loving God, we ask for pure hearts and grace to see the world through a child’s eyes. May we be so bold as to help others without first thinking of ourselves. May we give of ourselves freely to those who hunger and thirst; to those who are strangers and those who separate themselves from you; to those who lack basic necessities; and to those who are in prison or are imprisoned in any way. Kindle in our hearts, Lord, a desire to put your love into action in our world. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen

The Banquet

Acts of Mercy: This week we focus our meditations on Acts of Mercy which may involve almsgiving but also include feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, and caring for the widows and orphans all of which reveal faith and show, through our actions, Christ’s love to those in need.

Rev. Bruce Modahl

Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner but blessed is he who is generous to the poor. (Proverbs 14:21)

By Jesus’ death and resurrection God is ushering in God’s kingdom. One of the ways Scripture shows us what God’s kingdom is like is by describing a lavish banquet. The high and mighty, the lowly and poor have places at the table. God blesses them with an abundance.

The banquet table is the altar around which those baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection are gathered by the Holy Spirit. Out of the abundance God supplies, we bring our gifts to God. We bring bread and wine, praise and thanksgiving, and money. God gladly receives our gifts. God blesses the bread and wine and returns them to us as the very means by which he has redeemed us, the body and blood of his Son. Our praise and thanksgiving God gives back to us to make our lives Eucharistic, lives of thanksgiving. God blesses our monetary gifts, multiplies them, and returns them to our hands so that we might use them to bless those in need of bread and the Bread of Life. 

In the Small Catechism, Luther says God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done without our prayer, but we ask that these “may also come about in and among us.”

Prayer: Even so, we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.” You have blessed us this day with your gifts. Turn us to be a blessing to others. Amen.

The Life That Really Is Life

Rev. David Heim

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
(1 Timothy 6:17-19)

For many years, my wife and I have received a Christmas letter from a former neighbor, now in her 80s, updating us on her life. The letter is invariably about her involvements in her church, her housing association, service agencies, and political campaigns.

Each year, I put down the letter thinking: what a rich life for a person of any age—rich in good works and rich in sharing life with others. Habits of generosity she learned long ago continue to shape her. Or as the writer of First Timothy would say, she is “taking hold of the life that really is life.”

That line about “the life that really is life” is one I keep returning to. Who doesn’t long for a life that is the opposite of false, empty, and inauthentic? Though the passage starts out as a rebuke to the wealthy for being arrogant and trusting in riches, which are fleeting, it ends with a gracious invitation to take hold of the life truly worth living.

As I think about our friend’s Christmas letter and about these words of scripture, it seems clear that the capacity to be generous grows out of being part of communities in which we recognize our dependency on each other and on God.  The ultimate foundation for such a way of life is hope in God, and every generous deed helps build up our storehouse of hope.

Prayer: Generous God, help us to set our hopes on you that we might truly live. Amen.

Costly Generosity

Dr. Jill Peláez Baumgaertner

We want you to know, brothers and sisters about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints—and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you. Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. (2 Corinthians 8:1-7)

In this letter Paul describes the generosity of very poor but overwhelmingly generous congregations in Macedonia. At the Jewish feast of Purim there is a regulation that however poor a person is, he or she must find someone poorer and give that person a gift. My friend Lizzie, who made her living cleaning houses, did not have any wealth. She could barely read and write. She was a single mother of two until her 16-year-old son was killed by a gunshot. That left her, her daughter, and her daughter’s baby—oh, yes, and Lizzie even took in the baby of a friend who could not care for the child herself. Every year at Thanksgiving Lizzie had open house all day—for anyone from the neighborhood who wanted to come:  she would pile her table high with the food she had spent several days preparing. She’d bring them all in and feed them until they were satisfied—Lizzie, who didn’t own a car, who had nothing, gave everything she had.

Giving alms means making the needs of others our own, especially the needy of our world. And they are here—all around us. We don’t have to go far to find them:  children, the elderly, the sick, the suffering, our next-door neighbors. What can we give them?  Our time, our talent, the food they need, the money that will help them out of a pinch. Whatever we give, however, should be something that costs us—not because we are trying to work out our salvation with good works—but because costly generosity is the only appropriate response to the gift of Life that Christ has given us.

Prayer: Lord God, help us to do better—to recognize the needs of others and to respond to them, realizing that we exist for others and to glorify you. In Christ’s name, Amen.