It is easy to see the impact of greed on a culture when the economy falters. We forget that greed was often embraced, even encouraged during the boom days of the past.

During both our economic ups and downs the scriptures have given us consistent warnings of the high price greed. The ancient book of Amos proclaims that our love of money and stuff will destroy our core relationships.

Relationship with Others:

Amos 2:6-8

This is what the Lord says:

“The people of Israel have sinned again and again,

and I will not let them go unpunished!

They sell honorable people for silver

and poor people for a pair of sandals.

They trample helpless people in the dust

and shove the oppressed out of the way.

Both father and son sleep with the same woman,

corrupting my holy name.

At their religious festivals,

they lounge in clothing their debtors put up as security.

In the house of their god,

they drink wine bought with unjust fines.

When we love stuff, we begin reducing other people to either a means to or an obstacle to getting more stuff. We can continue de-humanizing others to the point that we begin viewing people as just stuff, good stuff and bad stuff. We see this today in everything from neglected children, to work conflict, to sex and labor slavery.

Relationship with God:

Amos 5:21-24

“I hate all your show and pretense—the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.

I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.

I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.

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.

Our loves direct out lives. When we love stuff we pattern our lives around stuff, not around God. As a result, our religious worship is empty. God is not interested in religious pomp and circumstance if our lives are not right. I am afraid that this is at the root of much of the superficial spirituality of our modern religions culture.

Relationship with Self:

Amos 4:1-3

Listen to me, you fat cows living in Samaria,

you women who oppress the poor

and crush the needy,

and who are always calling to your husbands,

“Bring us another drink!”

The Sovereign Lord has sworn this by his holiness:

“The time will come when you will be led away

with hooks in your noses.

Every last one of you will be dragged away

like a fish on a hook!

You will be led out through the ruins of the wall;

you will be thrown from your fortresses,”

says the Lord.

We become less than human when our lives revolve around stuff. While there will be divine judgment for greed, much of the punishment is self-imposed by living life outside of the design of the universe. We see this today in the empty eyes of teens who have every item that they want and in rampant chemical abuse found in wealthy communities.

While money and material goods are important, we must always keep them in right perspective. We can not allow the love of stuff to stifle our greatest calling to love God and to love others as we love ourselves.

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In sixth grade, I noticed that two of my classmates drew large crowds by break dancing at football games. I decided that I would get in on the action, and I bought a book on “how to break dance.”

Yeah … that did not really work. I was not a break dancer.
We often fail when we focus on what other people instead of being who we are. This happens even, maybe especially, within Christianity.

We see an example of this in John 21:20-22

Peter and Jesus had just finished a remarkable conversation clarifying their relationship and Peter’s role in the mission.
Peter turned around and saw behind them the disciple John.
Peter asked Jesus, “What about him, Lord?”
Jesus replied, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? As for you, follow me.”

Most of us can relate to Peter in this story. We have taken our focus off of Jesus and our calling, and become consumed with looking at and evaluating others. Focusing on other people’s walk with God and their calling takes a few different expressions:
We Compare Ourselves to Others
We Copy Others
We Criticize Others

All of these expressions of  looking to others do damage to our calling and relationship with God.

I suspect that when we ask Jesus, “What about that person?”
Jesus still responds as he did to Peter, “What is that person’s calling and relationship with me calling to you? I will take care of them. You are called to follow me. Stay focused on me.”

May we be people who keep our focus upon Jesus and who he calls us to be.

I love my idealized self. The me that I imagine in my head is really amazing.

I have a far more difficult time loving the self who actually exists in the real world. The real me has weaknesses and flaws.

The story of Jesus shows us that God loves us, the real us, weak and flawed.

Tom Wright helped me see this in Jesus’ appearance to Peter in John 21:9-17, in ways that are not obvious in many of our English translations.

Setting of the Story: The smell of a charcoal fire burning was in the air as Jesus cooked breakfast. Peter had smelt a charcoal fire burning earlier in the Priests Courts where he had denied Jesus three times.

Jesus: Peter, do you love me?

Peter: Yes, Lord I am your friend.

Jesus: Feed my lambs.

Jesus: Peter, do you love me.

Peter: Lord, I am your friend.

Jesus: Feed my sheep.

Jesus: Peter, are you my friend?

Peter was grieved that he could not say more, and that Jesus had to adjust the question.

Peter: Lord, you know everything. You know that I am your friend.

Jesus: Feed my sheep.

A couple of observations on this story:

First, Jesus meets Peter where he is. Surely, both men would have preferred for Peter to say that he loved Jesus. He could not do it.  Jesus accepted what Peter could give.  Likewise, Jesus graciously meets us were we are.

Second, Jesus’ forgiveness comes in the form of a commission for Peter. That pattern still holds true today. We are forgiven and we are sent. All authentic ministry is rooted in the forgiving love of God.

May we learn to accept the love of the God who has taken our denials and our imperfections and has graciously dealt with them in Jesus.

My faith became real to me in high school. In my excitement, I took in all the information about God I could get. If someone said that God said something, I took their word for it. I thought that was they way to growth – just accept what you are told.

Those were the days of the first Gulf War. I occasionally watched “bible prophecy” preachers on TV. They claimed that the war was fulfilling a long list of prophecies from the Bible. They insisted that the war was the beginning of the battle of Armageddon, and that Jesus’ return was just around the corner.

The preachers on TV said that it was all in the Bible. I wanted all the Bible that I could get, so I believed them.

Then I was faced with the reality of events. The predictions that the prophecy preachers made did not occur! Jesus didn’t return in 1991. The first Gulf War ended, and it was not the Armageddon of the Scriptures.

Then I was faced with the reality of what the Bible actually said. I majored in Bible in college, including a semester in Jerusalem. I discovered that the TV preacher’s favorite bible prophecies had nothing to do with the Gulf War.

Reality taught me some difficult, but important lessons. When a person declares that the Bible says something, it doesn’t always mean that is what the Bible really says. A preacher shouting that God says something, doesn’t always mean that is what God really says.

While I once believed that the most spiritual thing you can do was to accept everything you were told without question, I have learned that sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is to ask questions about what you are told.

I am not referring to hostile, fearful agenda-driven questions. Those normally do more harm than good.

I am speaking of the questions that you ask when you hear things said about someone you love, the questions you ask when you hear things about someone you long to know more fully. I would not believe everything said about my wife. Nor will I believe everything said about God.

In that spirit, I have discovered one of the best spiritual disciplines and one of the greatest acts of worship is to question what we are taught about God. God will be delighted to meet you in your questions.

Should you run away from a church that is involved in social justice?

A popular media figure recently pleaded with people to do just that.

But, what do the scriptures say?

Here are just a few of the many scriptures that speak to God’s thoughts on faith and justice:

Isaiah 58

6 “This is the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke.

7 It is to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood.

Micah 6

8 He has shown all you people what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Matthew 25

40 “Jesus will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

45 “Jesus will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

James 1

27Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Should you run away from a church that is involved in social justice?

No.

In fact, I believe that the scriptures call us to the opposite action.

You should run away from your church if it is NOT involved in social justice.

The God revealed in the bible is not interested in any faith that does not include justice and mercy for the poor, oppressed and marginalized.

Why do people do good things?

We are often moved by external motivators.

–          Positive motivators or  “Carrots”

–          Negative motivators or “Whips”

We can also have internal motivators.

–          We want to do something because we see value in it.

–          It is our natural reaction.

External motivators are a lousy way to live a good life.

Philemon 14: so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will.

Paul was about to make a big request of Philemon. However, he was not only interested that Philemon do the good thing. He wanted him to do the right thing for the right reason.

Paul did not want Philemon to do the right thing because he was coerced. He was not interested in people being feared, shamed, or seduced into conformity.

Paul wanted Philemon to do the good out of his own free choice. He wanted people to live lives of grace and peace because they were touched by the grace and peace of King Jesus.

God does not call a people who simply conform out of external pressures. God calls a people who are changed internally and therefore live different lives.

I have asked myself this question a lot recently: Why do I do good things?

I am often tempted to act certain ways or say certain things because of the response of others – either gaining praise or avoiding conflict or shame. It is an act that cannot be sustained.

I need something more, something internal. I need the grace and peace of God to mold me so that I naturally live grace and peace, regardless of the praise or conflict that it might bring.

Why do you do good things?

To gain external praise, acceptance, blessings?

To avoid shame, conflict, punishment?

Life under king Jesus can be more free and more powerful than navigating external motivators. God’s grace and peace can transform  us into new people, a good people who do good.

Recently, on the way to the car …

Jackson (age 6): Dad, I want to be a prophet of God when I grow up.

Jim (age 36): Oh yeah? What would you like about being a prophet of God?

Jackson: I would like to travel around and give people messages from God, like – “Be nice to each other.”

Jim: That is great Jackson. That sounds important, and you would be good at that.  You know that first thing that you will need to do is know God, and listen to God, so that you know what God has to say.

Jackson: Yeah, but dad, it is hard to listen to God. Sometimes it is just silent.

Jim: You are right. Sometimes is it hard to know what God is saying. That is why we spend a lot of time talking to God and listening to God, so that we get to know God better. It is also why we read what God has said in the Bible. That helps us know what kinds of things God says. Does that make sense?

Jackson: Yeah dad.

Jim: And Jackson, knowing God is the most important thing, even if you are not a prophet.

Jackson: That is right dad!