Cracked

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 116; 147:12-20, Isaiah 54:1-10 (11-17), Galatians 5:1-15, Mark 8:27-9:1


It’s always darkest before the dawn. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. No pain, no gain. These and other clichés remind us most successes are preceded by a period of hard work, struggle, and failure. We usually hear these when someone is trying to offer us  comfort, or when we are doing the same for someone else. Unfortunately, they aren’t always helpful when we are in the thick of the darkness, the brokenness, or the pain.

As Jesus neared the end of his ministry, he spoke more bluntly with his disciples. He knew hard times were coming and he wanted them to be prepared. They had not been especially insightful when he taught through parables, so he told them in no uncertain terms he was going to suffer, be killed, and rise again.

The disciples didn’t welcome this news. Peter went so far as to pull him aside and rebuke him, prompting Jesus to utter his famous reply: “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus knew fulfillment of his mission would require great sacrifice, and Peter’s misguided attempt at redirection embodied all the temptation he had resisted from the beginning of his ministry.

Are we willing to face the work and struggle it takes to follow Jesus (or any worthwhile goal), or are we listening to the Peters in our lives who may mean well but misdirect us to an easier but ineffectual path? Maybe our own inner voice is our Peter, the Satan loudly rebuking us in one ear while our more angelic conscience whispers urgently in the other.

It’s always easier not to voice the unpopular opinion, not to deny ourselves something we desire, not to risk losing what we’ve worked so hard for. The easy way is indeed tempting, and on extremely lucky days it may be the right way, but those cliches are common because they are true: success – especially spiritual success – requires sacrifice. Sacrifice of ego, comfort, money, time … whatever it is that stands between us and God. We have to crack that shell before we can get to the gold.

Comfort: This too shall pass.

Challenge: We offer clichés when we don’t know what else to say. Sacrifice a little time to think about and prepare for what you might say the next time someone you know is experiencing a difficult time.

Prayer: Thank you God for giving me the strength to endure so I may be triumphant in you. Amen.

Discussion: What’s something you’ve worked hard to achieve?

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So. Much. Bread.

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Galatians 4:21-31, Mark 8:11-26


If we experienced an event – not once but twice – where a few loaves and fishes miraculously fed a multitude, would it have a lasting impact on us?

Today’s Gospel reading takes place after that second feeding of the multitudes, yet the disciples don’t seem quite able to process the meaning of what has happened. Does their thick-headedness frustrate us? Certainly Jesus felt frustrated as his time on earth grew shorter and his need to teach them more urgent. When they later mistake Jesus’s metaphor of yeast for yet another bread shortage, he responds:

“Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears and fail to hear? And do you not remember? […] Do you not yet understand?”

In other words, “What are you not getting about all this bread?!”

While the disciples were amazed both times the loaves and fishes multiplied, they failed to internalize the accompanying lesson: God’s abundance frees us for concerns beyond bread. It seems the impact of miracles on our faith and spiritual maturity is fleeting at best. This is an easy lesson to forget, because so many “ministries” promise a life full of miracles if we pray, repent, or donate enough. So much so, that when we don’t experience logic-defying miracles in our lives, we think something is wrong. Signs and wonders, or more accurately the lack of them, become an impediment to faith.

Who can say with authority why, when, or if miracles happen? They don’t define our faith – if they did, wouldn’t miracles alone have been sufficient for the disciples? Rather, Gospel miracles illustrate what life is like in God’s kingdom.

Apart from the odd cursed fig tree, Jesus’s miracles are about healing, abundance, and wholeness. We don’t have to be able to cure by laying on hands to contribute to this kingdom. When we forgive others, nurture the sick and feed the hungry, or embrace the alienated, we build God’s kingdom. When we live in Christ, each of us is a miracle waiting to bless the world.

Comfort: Our God is abundant in love and grace.

Challenge: God’s abundance can be expressed through our generosity; ask yourself where you might be more generous.

Prayer: Thank you God for filling me with the Bread of Life and satisfying me with Living Waters. Amen.

Discussion: Sadly, many people are genuinely in need of bread and clean water. How would you speak with them about God’s abundance?

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Thanks In Advance

steadfastlove

Today’s readings:
Psalms 12; 146, Isaiah 52:1-12, Galatians 4:12-20, Mark 8:1-10


From childhood we are taught to sprinkle conversations with a generous seasoning of “thank yous” until they become more of a reflex than a thoughtful response. But why do we say “Thank you?”

Usually we say it after we’ve received something, such as a gift or a compliment,  but the sentiment behind our thanks can vary in meaning. Maybe most of the time we are genuinely grateful for what we’ve received. Other times we are humbled. And then there are those times we feel unworthy of what we’ve been given. Like many phrases which seem simple and easy to interpret, “Thank you” can turn out to be quite complicated.

When Jesus asked the disciples to feed thousands of people with a few fish and loaves of bread (for the second time), he began the meal by giving thanks to God. This may seem little different than the grace said before a church pot luck, but there is one important difference: Jesus hadn’t received anything yet. When we say grace in advance of a meal, we know there is a meal waiting to be had. For what was Jesus thankful? Perhaps for the faith that God would provide.

Some people believe pre-emptively thanking God or the universe is a formula for actualizing your desires. Beginning from a place of thanks is simpler than that: it helps us acknowledge that what we have is enough – and when we have enough we find it easier to share with those who do not.

The origin of saying grace is tied to meals because long ago before eating (and before the FDA) people would pray the food would not literally kill them. What if we said a prayer of thanks before a wider range of activities? Thanking God for the time, money, resources, and love in our lives – in advance of the time we receive, need, or share them – can greatly improve our attitudes and outlook.

Let’s not reserve our thanksgiving until after we have received. Let’s give thanks in advance for whatever it is God may place in our lives, and we will be prepared to put those gifts to use in ways beyond imagining.

Comfort: Gratitude can change your life.

Challenge: Even on bad days, try to find one thing for which you can offer a prayer of thanks.

Prayer: Thank you for being a loving and generous God. I will trust in your abundance. Amen.

Discussion: What do you take for granted?

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Whom do you trust?

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 62; 145, Isaiah 51:17-23, Galatians 4:1-11, Mark 7:24-37


Trust is at the core of faith. Whom (or what) we trust reveals where our true faith lies. We can say and believe we trust God, but when pressed, do we turn to God… or to something else? Under trying circumstances, do we grow more generous in response to the increased needs of others, or do we cling more tightly to what we have? Do we trust our savior or our financial advisor? Psalm 62 warns us not to trust in increased riches, but we often place practicality above generosity.

Jesus himself accepted advice that living a life of abundance means not hoarding resources, especially spiritual ones. When a Syrophoenician woman asked him to heal her demon-possessed daughter, he responded by saying it wasn’t fair to throw the children’s food to the dogs. The children were the Jewish people, and the dogs – an insulting term in his culture – were the Gentiles. When the woman reminded him even the dogs got crumbs that fell on the floor, he relented and healed her daughter.

In that moment, Jesus displayed trust in a God abundant enough to transcend his mission among the Jews. Do we trust God’s abundance enough to be open to those who are strangers or even foes to us, or does a narrow vision of our mission limit what God can accomplish through us?

Sometimes we need to undergo some self-examination to understand where we place our trust. Paul reminds the Galatians that a person who trusts in anything other than God, such as the Law or superstition, becomes enslaved to that thing. Today we may cling to the law instead of love, or make idols of creeds or ideas. We may define ourselves by our looks, popularity, intelligence, wealth or any number of things which are impermanent at best, rather than by our relationship with God. If we lost any of these – or all of them! – tomorrow, we would still have God.

What things are we enslaved to; that is, what unworthy things divert our trust from God? Let’s trust God now, so we have nothing to regret later.

Comfort: When everyone and everything are gone, God remains.

Challenge: Meditate on what you really trust. When you begin to fear or worry, remind yourself to trust God.

Prayer: God of abundance, I place my trust in You. Amen.

Discussion: When have you been disappointed by something you thought you could rely on?

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Whistle Blower

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 108; 150
, Isaiah 51:9-16, Hebrews 11:8-16, John 7:14-31


The term “whistle-blower” is in the news a lot these days. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: “a person who informs on a person or organization engaged in an illicit activity.” How one feels about whistle-blowers and their activities can depend very much on which side of the event one falls. For example, whistle-blowers who expose health care fraud to the government can earn quite a bit of money depending on how much is exposed and recovered. On the other hand, government employees who become whistle-blowers are often subject to harassment and persecution the government prohibits in other entities. And then there are people who leak information for malicious reasons while trying to shelter under the cover of whistle-blower.

Among his many roles, Jesus was a sort of whistle-blower. He frequently and publicly exposed the hypocrisy of the religious leadership. In first century Palestine, the religious leadership was the equivalent of the local government, though they operated within the constraints of their Roman occupiers. Because their authority was grantedgbtly Rome, his disregard for such authority was also a direct affront to the empire. As is the case with many whistle-blowers, confronting his accusations would have led to confirming them. Unable to discredit Jeus on the facts, the authorities began retaliating against him through a whisper campaign among the Pharisees, who plotted to kill him.

Whistle-blowers are almost never the only people who know corruption is occurring. They are simply the first – and often only – people with the courage to bring it to light. If we are to follow Christ, we also need to call out corruption and injustice – in our churches, workplaces, homes, and governments – when we know about it. There will probably be consequences and retaliation, but an inauthentic relationship with God and one another is the much worse consequence of keeping silent.

Truth, even hard truth, is freeing. Deception requires increasing amounts of energy to maintain, and in the end leaves resources for little else. If telling the truth ostracizes us from one community, it joins us with the greater community of saints joined in the body of Christ.

Comfort: The truth sets your soul free.

Challenge: Speak truth to power.

Prayer: God of truth and love, give me the courage to be your witness. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever had the need or opportunity to come clean? How did it feel?

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The Moral Arc

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 122; 149, Isaiah 51:1-8, Galatians 3:23-29, Mark 7:1-23


The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” However, he was not the first to use this particular metaphor. In 1857 Unitarian minister Theodore Parker used it in a sermon against slavery. Between Parker and King, other religious leaders also referenced the “moral arc.” This image endures because it bears out across time. Over the years, as discrimination has become less acceptable, increasing numbers of people have gained access to freedom and justice.

Jesus constantly expanded the circle of justice to include the disenfranchised and despised. As Paul wrote to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Distinctions that separate human beings have no meaning in the kingdom of God.

Since Paul’s time, the church has traveled the moral arc to challenge divisions and champion justice in the form of abolition, civil rights, child labor laws, and other social movements. Like society at large, the church experiences an uneven ebb and flow of progress, but on the whole it moves in the direction of justice. What barriers to justice is it helping tear down right now?

Popular wisdom says we are more likely to think of individuals and groups as our equals after we get to know them. While this is generally true, and while it is desirable to broaden our understanding of the world, a hard truth remains: we simply don’t have time to understand all the people Jesus would have us love. Does Christian love – expressed in mercy and justice – require us to understand its recipients? It does not, and demands to be extended especially toward those who remain alien to us.

Perhaps the only real division is between people we understand and people we don’t. Can we rise to the challenge of loving people justly even when our lack of understanding create social or emotional barriers? The road to justice runs straight through those barriers and often beyond our ability to see, but it is where Christ waits to meet us.

Comfort: The Kingdom of God is always expanding.

Challenge: Read or listen to MLK’s Sermon at Temple Israel.

Prayer: Infinite God, share with me your vision  so I may see beyond the horizon of my own limited understanding. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been part of a group that was excluded by the church? Have you ever actively excluded any group from church?

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Riding out the Storms

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 88; 148, Isaiah 50:1-11, Galatians 3:15-22, Mark 6:47-56


The Gospels contain a few different versions of stories about Jesus walking on water. In today’s reading from Mark, he begins striding across the Sea of Galilee when he notices the disciples in their boat are struggling against the waves. He came towards them to reassure them, but the shortest sentence in this story may be the most revealing: “He intended to pass them by.”

Jesus climbed into their boat only after they grew afraid because they thought he was a ghost. Until that point, it seemed he expected they would be capable of fending  for themselves. Only a few minutes away from his presence, and they lost courage and – it seems – the ability to recognize him. When we are struggling and afraid, it’s easy to lose our clear line of sight toward Christ and imagine all manner of horrors are approaching.

In those times, we need to remind ourselves and each other God has not abandoned us. What if – like Jesus walking past the disciples in the boat – God has more faith in our ability to weather the storms than we do? Our strength derives from the knowledge (if not necessarily the feeling) God is always with us, but he does not literally need to be in the same boat. Could it be possible that when God is moving in a direction we don’t expect, particularly one that is diverging from us, we might fail to recognize the movement as His?

Jesus was teaching his disciples more than how to follow him: he was teaching them to lead others to him. He left them (and us) the Holy Spirit, but he also left them with the reassurance he believed they were capable of feeding his sheep (John 21:15-17). It took a lot of stormy moments – culminating in the crucifixion – for the disciples to understand this lesson. If we are to be witnesses for the good news, we must not despair every time the boat rocks. During the worst storms, even if we are to drown, God walks the waters to lift us out.

Comfort: God is with us. Always.

Challenge: Try to live into the spirit of Courage which God has given us.

Prayer: God, I trust that even when you see far away, you are closer than I can imagine. Amen.

Discussion: Are you a worrier? If so, what about?

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“You feed them!”

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 143; 147:12-20, Isaiah 49:13-23 (24-26), Galatians 3:1-14, Mark 6:30-46


Effective teachers and parents know when it is time to stop instructing and let a child act on the lesson. Until we actually do something ourselves, we haven’t really learned. Some would say we haven’t mastered a thing until we can teach that thing to someone else.

After a long day of preaching and healing, Luke tells us, the disciples thought the crowd of five thousand men (perhaps ten thousand people counting women and children) needed to disperse into the surrounding area to find food and lodging. When they asked Jesus to dismiss the crowd, he surprised them by saying: “You feed them.” How five loaves and two fish then fed the multitude is one of the Gospel’s most famous miracles. The miracle sometimes overshadows another important element of the story: Jesus told the disciples to do it themselves.

Folk wisdom says God answers all prayer, and sometimes the answer is “No.” Let’s expand on that; maybe sometimes the answer is: “Great idea! Get to it!” At some point we need to move beyond listening to and talking about faith, and get to living it. Jesus does not offer a faith of heady concepts, but one of relationship and love. He does not teach a faith limited to Bible study, bake sales, and church attendance, but one of being present and caring for “the least” of our sisters and brothers. Understanding what Christ wants us to do is only the beginning of getting it done.

The apostles were not a particularly perceptive lot. They were probably either hungry themselves, or beginning to hear rumblings from the people gathered. The concern they brought to Christ seemed overwhelming, but with God’s help it was not beyond their abilities. How many of the concerns we bring to Christ might be addressed by opening ourselves to the possibility of God working through us? If God doesn’t seem to answer our prayer, maybe God is waiting on us. If we entrust our actions to God, and if we make an effort to be perceptive, the answer to a prayer may start when we get off our knees.

Comfort: God leaves us to our own devices out of trust, not neglect.

Challenge: Be ready to act on the lessons of the Gospel.

Prayer: Loving God, make me ready to be the answer to a prayer. Amen.

Discussion: When have you learned that the only thing standing between you and what you wanted or needed … was you?

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Keepin’ It Real

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 65; 147:1-11, Isaiah 49:1-12, Galatians 2:11-21, Mark 6:13-29


Do you know anyone who doesn’t tolerate your nonsense? Most of us know at least one person – maybe a friend, a co-worker, or a rival – who won’t let us get away with anything. For Peter, the rock upon whom Jesus built his church, that person was the apostle Paul. (Before Paul it was Jesus, but those are other scriptures…)

Peter, Paul, and James the brother of Jesus were the leaders of the early church. All of them had different ideas about how to spread and live out the gospel, so while they were brothers in Christ, they were also caught up in a little game of power politics.

When Paul visited Peter (called Cephas in Aramaic), he found him socializing and eating with gentiles. Many Jewish Christians – including James! – would have found this behavior intolerable. After word came that James, who was not yet convinced anyone but Jews could be Christians, was going to visit, Peter and his followers quickly resumed their Jewish customs and rituals so as not to give James any political ammunition to use against them. Paul, who was very invested in spreading the Gospel to the gentiles, didn’t hesitate to call Peter out on his hypocrisy by saying: “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

We all need a friend (or frenemy?) like Paul to keep it real with us. A good friend knows when to offer a shoulder to cry on, and when to tell us the hard truth no one else will. In the workplace, a yes-man may be good for stroking the ego, but strong servant-leaders surround themselves with people who aren’t afraid to respectfully speak their minds when needed. Across the conference table or over a beer, the truth may sting a little (or a lot), but it’s often an inoculation against future mistakes.

Find that friend. Be that friend. The friend who shines light on the darkness not to expose or humiliate, but to clarify and disinfect. Christ was that kind of friend (and of course infinitely more), and as “little Christs” we can be too.

Comfort: You can be honest with your friends.

Challenge: Your friends can be honest with you.

Prayer: Thank you God for good friends, and please help me to be a friend like Christ. Amen.

Discussion: What’s a hard truth you had to hear from a friend?

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A Burden Shared

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Photo Credit: John (“Dad”) Schultz

Today’s readings:
Psalms 54; 146, Isaiah 48:12-21 (22), Galatians 1:18-2:10, Mark 6:1-13


When Jesus felt the disciples were finally ready to travel and spread his teachings, he dispatched them in pairs. He told them to bring nothing extra: no food, no luggage, no extra clothes, and no money. For shelter they were to rely on the hospitality of the communities they visited, and in its absence they were to rely on the open road. Though his commands sounded harsh, Mark reports the disciples had successful journeys depending only on the bare minimum.

As technology evolves, the “bare minimum” has become anything but: smart phones, tablets, fitness bands, bottled water, etc, etc.  Today we can barely imagine going on a mission trip without a GPS and the Bible on an e-reader. Imagine Jesus unpacking your purse or backpack or luggage and saying: “You won’t be needing this charger. Or this phone. Or different shoes for hiking and digging. Or this pencil. Or…” until eventually you have nothing but a walking stick, the clothes on your back, and a single companion.

Yet what a gift it is when two people are separated by no distractions and joined by a dedication to the Good News. On our own we can easily wander down the wrong path, but a companion keeps us accountable and on track. Our fear is less when someone has our back, and our strength is greater when we are responsible for and with another. Scriptures contain many examples of prophets and leaders who were at their best when they had a partner sharing the burden: Moses and Aaron, David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, Elijah and Elisha.

Relationships are formed in the absence of distractions. Being fully present with another person while you both are working for the Kingdom of God is a uniquely bonding experience. That work can be anything from digging wells in Africa to praying together for someone in need. It can’t be done as well if we are juggling unnecessary items that distract us from the task at hand. Jesus teaches us again and again that we don’t need possessions to be content. Even more he teaches us we do need each other.

Comfort: You are designed to go it alone, so don’t feel like you have to.

Challenge: Be intentional about being present to those around you, particularly during shared experiences such as meals or worship. This may mean putting away your phone, camera, or other distractions for longer than you’re used to.

Prayer: God of peace, shape me into a suitable companion for those who would walk with me to share your Word. Amen.

Discussion: Even within Christianity there are divisive factions. Have you ever found yourself joined in a common purpose with someone  you had previously considered an opponent?

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