COUNTING THE COST

Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? [Luke 14:27-28 (RSV)]

Station of Cross 3 - loretto - santa fe NMHaving often watched the condemned walk to their tortuous deaths while carrying the crosspieces of their crucifixes, Jesus’ followers knew exactly what it meant to carry a cross. When Jesus told them to count the cost of being His disciple, he wasn’t offering a ticket to Easy Street; He was offering one to eternal life. The cost, however, was high: the giving up of self and all that might come to mean—loss of status, relationships, family, possessions and even life.

Some of us, looking at the cost, would prefer a watered down gospel. We want to be Christians without Jesus having any effect on our lives. We’re happy to bear his name and celebrate both His birth and resurrection, but we’re not anxious for His yoke. Wanting to guarantee our final destination, we want salvation without the sacrifice. Unwilling to surrender to God’s will, we figure a few good deeds can make up for our lack of faith and obedience. We want what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.”

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer]

While free, God’s grace is not cheap; it cost God His only son. Jesus was the gift of God’s grace by which all of mankind could be saved. Accepting His name means far more than taking a spot in a church pew. We can’t just listen to a preacher, we must practice what Jesus preached! God’s grace expects us to follow Jesus wherever He leads us and to do whatever He asks. God’s grace expects us to love the unlovable, forgive the unforgiveable, reach the unreachable, and do what often seems impossible. God’s grace demands that we grow smaller while He grows greater; it is taking up our cross and losing our lives in complete commitment to Him.

Costly grace…is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer]

Jesus knew the price He’d pay when He threw the money changers out of the temple, healed on the Sabbath, and confronted the Pharisees; nevertheless, He did His Father’s will. Over 2,000 years later, He still calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him. These last few weeks, I have watched as a young man did just that. He stood up for what is right and, while he’s not being hung on a cross, he is suffering both professionally and financially. After prayerfully counting the cost and consequences, he followed where God led him because he was not about to settle for cheap grace. Let’s never settle for cheap grace either. Our lives won’t necessarily be easier when we take on Jesus’ yoke but they definitely will be better!

And he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. [Matthew 10:38-39 (RSV)]

For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world. [Titus 2:11-12 (RSV)]

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STAND YOUR GROUND

Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. [1 Corinthians 16:13 (NLT)]

So be strong and courageous, all you who put your hope in the Lord! [Psalm 32:24 (NLT)]

Queen butterflyYesterday I addressed abuse of power; today I address those who are ill-used or victimized. In the book of Esther, we meet King Xerxes, the king of Persia, whose reign spread over 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia. One of the wealthiest men in the world, he hosted a six-month long celebration to display the wealth of his kingdom. At its conclusion, he held a lavish week long banquet for all the men in attendance. There were no limits on the wine consumed and, after seven days of hard drinking, the King (said to be “in high spirits”) commanded that his queen, Vashti, come to the men’s banquet. Wanting his guests to gaze on her beauty, she was to wear the royal crown on her head. Since Vashti was specifically commanded to wear her crown and no other attire was mentioned, rabbinical tradition interprets this as meaning only her crown. Whether naked or dressed, it was against custom for a woman to appear in a gathering of men and hardly fitting for a queen to be paraded like a piece of meat in front of a group of drunken rowdy men. Knowing full well the consequences of denying the arrogant king, Queen Vashti refused to be exploited as part of his debauchery.

What became of the beautiful  queen who refused to be intimidated by a king or demeaned in front of a bunch of lustful men? Her brave defiance meant she was banished from the king’s presence forever. Having traded her crown for her self-respect, no more is heard of her. Of course, her disobedience opened the door for the orphaned Jewess named Esther to become queen. Although we know nothing more of Vashti, I suspect her banishment and the king’s intimidating temper was the talk of the royal harem.

When Esther’s cousin Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, the king’s pretentious vizier, the pompous man hatched a plot to slaughter not just Mordecai but all the Jews. Mordecai asked Esther to approach the king and plead for her people. Aware of Xerxes’ temper and knowing that anyone who approached him without being invited was doomed to die, she balked. Not to be dissuaded, Mordecai reminded her that she may have been made queen just for that opportunity. For three days, Esther fasted, prayed and pondered her decision. I wonder if she thought of Queen Vashti—the woman who boldly stood up to the king in spite of the consequences. How could Esther do any less for the Jews?

We’re not likely to be asked to make a display of ourselves before a group of intoxicated men, bow down to an official, or save an entire race. Nevertheless, Vashti’s, Mordecai’s and Esther’s actions teach us about standing up for what is right, refusing to do what is wrong, speaking up when something is amiss, not accepting abuse, and daring to take a stand, no matter what the consequences. Refusing to compromise our ethics, betray our faith, or lose our self-respect is not easy. Being the one who resists exploitation, reports abuse or blows the whistle is difficult and putting the welfare of others over our own security may come at a high cost. Queen Vashti lost a kingdom, Mordecai nearly lost his life, and we may lose our jobs. On the other hand, Mordecai and Esther’s story ended well. Mordecai became the prime minister and Esther continued as queen. Vashti, Mordecai and Esther bravely stood their ground and refused to retreat in the face of evil. Can we do any less?

Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. … Don’t be intimidated in any way by your enemies. This will be a sign to them that they are going to be destroyed, but that you are going to be saved, even by God himself. For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him. [Philippians 1:27, 28-29 (NLT)]

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POWER

But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.  [Matthew 20:25-27 (NLT)]

red-shoudered hawkRecently, the news has been filled with stories about powerful men who have misused their influence to prey on others. Unfortunately, abuse of power is nothing new. Consider our Biblical hero King David. While strolling on his roof late one afternoon, he looked down on the city below and spotted a beautiful woman taking her ritual bath. Even though he knew she was married, David sent for her. With at least six wives already, he wasn’t lacking for female companionship. Nevertheless, he wanted the beautiful Bathsheba. The Bible tells us the two had sex, she got pregnant, and David killed her husband to conceal their adultery. The Bible, however, tells us nothing of Bathsheba. We know she didn’t ask David to invade her privacy and, obedient to her king, she went to his palace. How could she refuse and to whom could she complain? Whether David managed to seduce her with his charm or forced himself on her doesn’t matter. He was her king and she had no choice. He wrongly took advantage of his power when he sent his men to get her, had sex with her, and manipulated events so that her husband was killed in battle.

This is not a male-bashing devotion; it is a reminder to us all that power and authority of any kind is a privilege. We are told to be good stewards of our wealth and use it wisely. When we are blessed with positions of authority or power, we should use that wisely, as well. If we’re not millionaires, CEOs, politicians, producers, or celebrities, we might think we have little or no power, but we do. We have the power to make someone else’s day good or bad and we have the power to affect their future. We can badger or intimidate co-workers, baby sitters, interns, clerks, sales people, bus drivers, assistants, neighbors, care givers, maintenance people, spouses and even children. It’s not just sexual abuse; there are many other ways to abuse, demean, mistreat, manipulate, or exploit people. Bullies aren’t found just on the playground; I’ve seen them berate wait staff, receptionists, and students. Threats aren’t made just by bosses; I’ve seen them made by irate customers. Politicians aren’t the only ones with clout; many of us have the ability to put in a good (or bad) word that can change someone’s future. We can make or break someone’s reputation with a few keystrokes. Having the upper hand never gives us the right to hit with it and having the power to do something doesn’t necessarily mean we should.

Abuse of power has consequences; conceived in adultery, David and Bathsheba’s child died and we’ve recently seen numerous successful careers crash. We may not make the tabloids when we shortchange the sitter, take out our anger on the secretary, or threaten someone out of spite. Nevertheless, there will be consequences for us as well—if not in this world, then in the next. In the parable of the talents, Jesus tells us that we’ll be held accountable for the way we use our gifts. We tend to think of those gifts as money, time and skills. They also include knowledge, relationships, privilege, power and authority and we should use all of them with love and compassion. Moreover, when we use our influence or authority to mistreat those less powerful, let us remember that we are mistreating the most powerful one of all!

And the King will say, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” [Matthew 25:40 (NLT)]

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HALLOWED BE THY NAME

So you shall keep my commandments and do them: I am the Lord. And you shall not profane my holy name, but I will be hallowed among the people of Israel; I am the Lord who sanctify you, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the Lord. [Leviticus 22:31-33 (RSV)]

water lilyFor several years, a well-known and highly regarded actor/comedian’s name was synonymous with fatherhood and family values. After becoming the subject of sexual abuse allegations, spanning more than fifty years, by more than fifty women, his name went from respected to scorned. Several universities rescinded the honorary degrees awarded him, removed him from their boards and fund-raising campaigns, and eradicated his name from buildings and scholarships. His statue was removed from a Disney theme park, reruns of his shows were cancelled, there was a petition to revoke his Presidential Medal of Freedom, and he was dumped by his agent. No one wanted their good names tarnished by any association with such disgraceful behavior.

Names and reputations are important and none of us want our names to be besmirched by someone else’s words or actions. Apparently, God felt the same way when He gave us that often ignored commandment about not taking His name in vain. Some Bibles translate “in vain” as misusing, using thoughtlessly or irreverently, or making empty promises in God’s name. Whatever Bible we use, the meaning is clear; we must honor God’s name and never use it in a disrespectful, false or blasphemous way.

When Jesus taught us to pray, after addressing our Father in heaven, He said the words, “Hallowed be thy name.” Although some Bibles translate that sentence as, “May your name be kept holy,” the King James’ words are the ones most of us use in the Lord’s Prayer. I used to think those words were a call to worship and pretty much dismissed them as part of the preface to the actual prayer. I hadn’t realized that they are the first petition (or request) the prayer makes. In those four prayerful words, “Hallowed be thy name,” we are appealing to God to help us keep His commandment about not dishonoring His name! That sentence, however, means far more than just not cursing or committing perjury after promising to tell the truth.

If we call ourselves Christians—followers of Jesus Christ—whenever we act or speak shamefully we are not keeping God’s name holy. If we distort God’s word with our witness or actions, His name is not hallowed. It’s not just blasphemy, irreverence or profanity; hypocrisy, deception, treachery, insincerity, falseness, and immorality of any kind profane His name! We don’t have to be celebrities and have our transgressions blasted across the tabloids; we disgrace His name whenever we speak or act in any way that dishonors Him.

If we never get beyond those four little words, “Hallowed be thy name,” we’ve said enough. In that one sentence, we ask God to make our words and actions reflect His holiness. We express our desire to live godly lives and ask Him to enable us to live in a way that makes His name holy. Heavenly Father, hallowed be thy name!

We always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his call, and may fulfil every good resolve and work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. [2 Thessalonians 1:11-12 (RSV)]

Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name! [Psalm 103:1 (RSV)]

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THE MEANS TO AN END

The human mind is the most deceitful of all things. It is incurable. No one can understand how deceitful it is. I, the Lord, search minds and test hearts. I will reward each person for what he has done. I will reward him for the results of his actions. [Jeremiah 17:9-10 (GW)]

Dame's rocketIn Leviticus, we find Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, offering incense to worship God. Although their goal was good, priests were required to fulfill their duties without variation and the brothers disregarded the method specified by God. Worshiping God was the right intent but using prohibited fire was the wrong way to do it and they were consumed by God’s fire. Bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem was a good goal but using a cart to transport it was the wrong method and Uzzah was struck dead when he reached out to steady it.

We may be tempted to sin in order to achieve an important aim and then rationalize our behavior by saying that the noble result justified the questionable method. As unfair as it seems, those men’s deaths at God’s hand tell us that the end, no matter how worthy the goal, never justifies the means if the means require a compromise of our faith or ethics. It is never acceptable to do something against God’s law. Right and wrong are not determined by a situation; they are determined by God! No matter how honorable or well-intentioned the goal, doing anything in sin to achieve an objective is not honoring God. Moreover, as worthy as we may consider our motives, they’re probably nowhere near as noble as we think they are. More often than not, those motives have more to do with ourselves—our desires, relief or convenience—than we’d care to admit.

Father, sometimes we’re tempted to let a situation justify sinful or questionable behavior. Thank you for showing us that even the most worthy purpose never justifies disobedience to your Word. If it’s not what Jesus would do and done the way He would do it, then it doesn’t honor you. Remembering that the end never justifies the means if the means offend you, show us how to achieve your goals in the way you have commanded. May we let your Holy Spirit guide us in all we say and do.

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord!” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the person who does what my Father in heaven wants. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name? Didn’t we force out demons and do many miracles by the power and authority of your name?” Then I will tell them publicly, “I’ve never known you. Get away from me, you evil people.” [Matthew 7:21-23 (GW)]

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THE ENEMY – FEAR

Laudermilk Park Naples FLWe, therefore, can confidently say: ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’ [Hebrews 13:6 (PHILLIPS)]

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” said Franklin D. Roosevelt in his first inaugural address. It was 1933 and the nation was in the dark days of the Great Depression. Although the reason for our nation’s darkness differs, his words still hold true.

Like many others, our church spent last week discussing and implementing security measures. How can a house of worship—a place that welcomes the lost and the least, the weary and the burdened—protect itself from the violence that increasingly surrounds us? As so many schools do, should we require everyone to have laminated ID cards for entrance through our doors? Do we pat down people or pass them through metal detectors? Should we carry guns in shoulder holsters and purses? Do we cease welcoming strangers? Will we refuse entry to anyone involved in a domestic dispute lest their angry spouse chooses to vent his anger on our doorstep?

Will we allow fear to stop us from attending church? If we do, we might as well stop going to concerts, schools, theaters, shopping centers, street festivals, airports, parades, marathons, or sporting events—all of which are perfect targets for both terrorists and the mentally ill. No place is entirely safe, especially when cars and trucks can become weapons with just a turn of the wheel and a little pressure on the gas pedal.

I admit to being more cautious nowadays. I look for exits and avoid confrontations but that’s being sensible rather than afraid. Told to say something if we see something, I am attentive to my surroundings but for what are we supposed to look? The concert goers in Las Vegas never saw the shooter and, by the time the parishioners in Texas saw the gunman, it was too late. Once it was easy to identify the deranged—they were the ones talking or screaming to themselves, gesturing wildly, or dancing to their own inner music. Now, because of cell phones, blue tooth, and iPods, many on the street seem unbalanced when they aren’t and terrorists don’t wear t-shirts announcing their hateful plans.

Admittedly, we live in a world of random violence but it’s not nearly as violent as we think it is. The odds of dying of either heart disease or cancer are more than 30,000 times greater than dying at the hands of a terrorist. While those odds are of no comfort to the families who have lost loved ones to terror, they tell us to be watchful rather than afraid.

There is more to FDR’s quote: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to turn retreat into advance.” When we allow fear to keep us from our daily routine, when fear keeps us from attending  our children’s football games or  flying on a plane, when we become too afraid to go the beach or even to church, we are retreating from the real enemy—Satan. Rather than arming ourselves with weapons, let’s put on the armor of God and, as Christ’s soldiers, bravely advance onward into battle.

Never be afraid of those who can kill the body but are powerless to kill the soul! Far better to stand in awe of the one who has the power to destroy body and soul in the fires of destruction! [Matthew 10:28 (PHILLIPS)]

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