Setting Our Clocks

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 19; 150, Jeremiah 36:1-10, Acts 14:8-18, Luke 7:36-50


When Paul and Barnabas were evangelizing in Lystra, a Roman-occupied city in what is now Turkey, they met a man who had not been able to walk since birth. When they healed him, the locals proclaimed them gods in human form. The priest of the temple of Zeus tried to offer sacrifices to them. Despite their best efforts to persuade the people they were mortal representatives of God, Paul and Barnabas “scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.”

It’s possible to be a little too eager to put our faith in someone we believe represents God. Paul and Barnabas quickly deflected the adoration of the crowds, but not everyone in the business of faith is as strong. It’s very common for people, especially those in vulnerable states, to project strong feelings onto their ministers. Since a successful ministry relies partly on attracting people to listen, the line between persuasion and exploitation can easily blur. We might be tempted to blame ministers when this happens (and certainly there are an unscrupulous few who deserve it), but it can also happen with little to no encouragement. Even a good minister can head in a bad direction, and if she or he has developed a sort of cult of personality, people will follow.

Those of us not in ministry are responsible for being discerning about who we listen to and when. Cramming “Lord” and “Jesus” into every sentence doesn’t mean someone is directing our attention toward God more than toward themselves. We need teachers and preachers, but we don’t need idols. Elevating someone’s status too high tends to make us insufficiently critical of what they have to say.

Conversely, a worldview that divides people neatly into the righteous and the unrighteous also makes it difficult for us to hear truth and wisdom from people we’ve already dismissed. The saying is “a broken clock is right twice a day,” but aren’t we all – even the best of us – a little broken? Sometimes we’re right. Sometimes we’re wrong. The best faith leaders don’t convince us that we need to follow them, but that together we can learn to hear the voice which guides us all.

Comfort: No one stands between you and God.

Challenge: Be discerning about who you listen to and why. Don’t be too quick to dismiss their (or your) critics.

Prayer:  Gracious God I listen for you, however you may call me. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have any tendencies to agree or disagree with anyone just because of who they are?

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Harassed and Helpless?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, Jeremiah 35:1-19, 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:3, Matthew 9:35-10:4


When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them,
because they were harassed and helpless,
like sheep without a shepherd.

Domesticated sheep are not capable of thriving unattended by a shepherd. Some of them may survive for years, but they become unshorn, parasite-ridden, vulnerable, malnourished, painfully diseased creatures. It’s not really the sheep’s fault; centuries of breeding to maximize their economic potential have manipulated them so far away from their wild counterparts that they lack the strength and intelligence to flourish.

When Jesus looked at the crowds, he saw people who’d been manipulated for the economic benefit of both the empire and their religious leaders, then left to their own means of survival. To paraphrase Tiberius – a Roman statesman and contemporary of Christ – they had been skinned rather than sheared.

Reclaiming an abandoned or neglected flock takes a great sacrifice of time and effort, but we know Christ didn’t want a single one to remain lost.

Do we feel any less harassed and helpless today?  As corporate, religious, and political interests become increasingly entangled and mutually corruptive, it can certainly feel like we are used up for gain and then abandoned. Government “of the people, by the people, for the people” seems more like government despite the people. These forces are less concerned with tending us than commodifying us.

Fortunately, none of those entities or people is our Good Shepherd.

Christ calls and guides us through the wilderness to the pastures of compassion. We are of course expected to be more responsible and accountable than actual sheep, but Christ is there to help us with the things we just aren’t built to do. He can shear us of our anger, doubt, and fear when then have grown thick and burdensome. His words – in the Gospels and in our hearts – can talk us away from the cliffs and warn us of those wolves lying in wait.

Always remember that Christ is looking at you with compassion. Even if you think you’re a real mess – maybe especially then – he understands how you got there and calls you to come home.

Comfort: Jesus calls because you need help, not despite it.

Challenge: Read about what can happen to sheep who don’t have a shepherd.

Prayer:  I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart. (Psalm 138:1)

Discussion: When do you feel harassed and helpless?

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One Body to Heal

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, 2 Kings 23:36-24:17, 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, Matthew 9:27-34


If one member suffers, all suffer together with it;
if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
– 1 Corinthians 12:26

Today’s reading from 1 Corinthians can be read on many levels. It is often used to describe the importance of each person’s role in the body of Christ and to celebrate the many gifts they contribute. It also describes the importance of diversity within the church.

Read in context with today’s healing story in Matthew, there is yet another meaning. When Jesus healed two men of blindness, they were not passive recipients, but participants in the process. He asked them if they believed, and when they said yes he told them, “According to your faith let it be done to you.” Christ does not just do things to us, he does them with us.

When one part of the body is sick, it depends on the others for healing. An ailing tooth does not walk itself into a dentist’s office, but relies on the feet. A foot with a splinter cannot remedy itself, but depends on the hands to remove it. Hands that tremble from hunger cannot feed themselves, but rely on the mouth and teeth to chew and swallow. Each part is not only equally important, it is equally interdependent.

As members of the body of Christ, we must rely on each other and be present for each other in times of illness and distress. None of us is completely self-sufficient. We receive care when we need it, and we offer care when it is needed. And as the feet don’t feel burdened by the tooth, and the hands don’t feel burdened by the feet, we do so not out of obligation nor to secure help for ourselves in the future, but because we are one. The well-being of one is inseparable from the well-being of others.

Christ was extravagant in his love for all people. Christ was extravagant in his healing. As we are now his body, we are called to the same extravagance. Let us heal not out of duty, but out of extravagant love.

Comfort: It’s okay to rely on other people when you need to.

Challenge: Mental illness is often met with less sympathy and support than physical illness. Make an effort to learn more about how you can appropriately support people with mental illnesses.

Prayer:  Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

Discussion: How do you feel when people ask you for help?

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Uncommon Good

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, 2 Kings 23:4-25, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, Matthew 9:18-26


President Theodore Roosevelt is credited with saying “Comparison is the thief of joy.” The Apostle Paul spent a good chunk of time assuring members of the early church that they need not compare their spiritual gifts: each one – wisdom, prophecy, healing, tongues, etc. – had its own important role to play. He wanted them to understand “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

“Common good.” That’s a phrase that’s become loaded. Though it was a principle of the earliest Christian communities, today it’s as likely to be associated with socialism. And like socialism, common good is a slippery term which not everyone can agree on. Perhaps there’s no real incentive to find agreement; the common good often demands the personal not-as-good.

But all those spiritual gifts Paul lists (and some he doesn’t) have something in common: they are useless until we employ them in service to someone else. Healing, wisdom, and prophecy aren’t too impressive if no one benefits from them. For that matter neither are generosity, empathy, and patience. It seems the common good is inherent in the activities of the Spirit.

Christianity is a full contact sport. If we are not willing to encounter people – via whatever gifts we’ve been given – in spirit, mind, and body how can we possibly be servants to all? We say we are blessed by things like talents, resources, and relationships, and while we may legitimately benefit from them ourselves, they are meaningless until we use them to bless someone else.

Maybe you don’t feel like you have blessings to share. If so, could that be because you’re unfavorably comparing what you have to offer with other people’s gifts? If we can’t seem to find our gifts, maybe instead of looking inward at what we lack or sideways at what someone else has, we should look outward to see what other people need. If we want to feel the charge of the Spirit moving through us, we might have to establish contact with someone else to complete that circuit. Only by getting to know people do we learn what good needs to be done.

Comfort: You have something someone needs.

Challenge: Be open about your needs so that others might feel more comfortable letting you know about theirs.

Prayer:  I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; I keep the LORD always before me. (from Psalm 16)

Discussion: Have you ever assumed you knew what someone needed and later learned you were wrong?

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Good Luck, Bad Luck, Pot Luck

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, 2 Kings 22:14-23:3, 1 Corinthians 11:23-34, Matthew 9:9-17


Today’s reading from 1 Corinthians is probably familiar to anyone who has celebrated communion in a Christian church. Paul’s recounting of Christ’s words over the bread and cup at the Last Supper are often called the Words of Institution, and are shared as a priest, minister, deacon, or elder breaks the bread.

In the early church, the symbolic or sacramental communion meal was frequently accompanied by a more literal meal, called an Agape Feast (that is, Love Feast). This meal was intended to be shared equally among everyone in attendance. Unfortunately the intent and practice of the meal soon parted ways. People who could bring the most ended up gorging themselves while others got little, and the wine flowed more freely than it should have. Paul reprimanded the church community at Corinth, reminding them of the purpose for these meals, and to keep their lustier appetites in check.

In modern churches, communion is usually a dignified event, but the tendency for some people to think they have more right to the community’s resources and decision-making because they bring more to the table can linger. In some congregations the currency of influence is literal cash, but it can also be seniority, sweat equity, piety, or other factors. When we have contributed much, we can struggle to remember what it means for the first to be last.

Matthew tells us of another meal where Jesus, much to the dismay of the Pharisees, deliberately sat and ate with tax collectors (Jewish people in the employ of their Roman oppressors) and sinners. Though he owed them no explanation, he said “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Jesus extended compassion, grace, and mercy where the religious – the righteous – would not. At other times Jesus did eat with Pharisees, but unlike the tax collector crowd they needed to be reminded they too were sinners, just a different variety.

When we break bread with Jesus, regardless of the size of our contributions or self-righteousness, we are all equal. Our present fortunes, for good or ill, do not make us more or less beloved by God. We are called not to push our way to the head of the line for the largest portion, but to serve each other. As Paul advised the Corinthians, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” Through the waiting we learn grace is not for those who deserve it, but those who need it. And that’s all of us.

Comfort: Jesus calls  not to the righteous, but sinners.

Challenge: Volunteer at a soup kitchen, food bank, or other charity.

Prayer:  Our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help and shield. Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. (Psalm 33:20)

Discussion: Do we have to admit to being sinners before we can hear Christ’s call?

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Lost Gospels

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, 2 Kings 22:1-13, 1 Corinthians 11:2 (3-16) 17-22, Matthew 9:1-8


Josiah was only eight years old when he became king of Judah, but he was the best king to come along in a while. He tried his best to restore the honor of The Lord to his kingdom. During a restoration project at the Temple, the high priest found the book of the law (probably Deuteronomy) and had it delivered to the king. Josiah was outraged to discover his people had not been following the Lord’s commands for quite some time, and immediately set about making things right.

Whether the book had been lost for a long time or simply rediscovered is up for debate, but one thing is clear: by the time of Josiah’s reign, the Jewish people had strayed from the core of what defined them. From the time they insisted on being ruled by kings as were their neighbors, they began more and more to resemble those neighbors in so many ways – including the gods they worshipped – that they could comfortably neglect and eventually forget to do what God had commanded. They still identified fiercely as a people … but what did that really mean?

Being a Christian today is not nearly as well-defined as being a Jew of Josiah’s time, and that may be all the more reason to take a valuable lesson from today’s scripture.

It’s easy for the Gospel to get buried under everything we’ve borrowed from our neighbors. Sometimes it’s obscured by well-intended effort, such as trying to make the faith more “relevant” by assuming the trappings of culture instead of meetings its emptiness head-on. Other times it may take a renovation – of our church community or personal spiritual life – to understand we’ve inherited a Gospel clad in a fortress of bias, tradition, superstition, and ignorance. So much so that not only can’t outsiders find a way in, our central message – assuming we can find it – can’t find its way out.

The Gospel is sufficient on its own. We study a lifetime to understand it, but there’s nothing we can do to improve on it. Grace defines us as a people, yet it cannot be defined. God’s love contains us, but trying to contain it thwarts love. We can domesticate the Gospel and settle for being nominally Christian but otherwise unidentifiable as followers of Christ, or we can let it work its radical change upon us to be seen by all who would seek it.

Comfort: The Gospel speaks for itself…

Challenge: … but if we are to hear, we must be committed to changing.

Prayer:  As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.. (Psalm 42:1)

Discussion: As you mature in your faith, what aspects of Christian culture do you find more or less important?

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Faith and Friction

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, 2 Kings 21:1-18, 1 Corinthians 10:14-11:1, Matthew 8:28-34


Early followers of Christ lived in a culture where a temple or idol to one deity or another lurked around almost every corner. Even within the Christian church, Jews and Gentiles had backgrounds and beliefs which were not always in agreement. This created complicated social situations where believers had to balance being a loving neighbor (or business partner or customer) against upholding their principles.

In today’s reading from Corinthians, Paul writes about eating meat sacrificed to idols or demons – which would have been forbidden under Jewish law. Instead of declaring such actions sinful or not, he wrote: “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” He advised them their actions should be chosen in accordance with their convictions, yet not to undermine their witness to the people around them. He didn’t want them leading anyone into behavior that other person thought was a sin.

We face similar challenges. Every day we are called to follow our principles even when they run contrary to social pressures, politics, employers, friends, family, foreign cultures, and fellow people of faith. In some situations, particularly matters of personal ethics, we may simultaneously be judged by some people as too pious while others see us as terrible sinners. If we remain loving, it doesn’t matter. Christ didn’t worry about being called a glutton or a drunkard, and John the Baptist was just fine being a holy freak. Isn’t it liberating to know our allegiance is never to public opinion, but to God, “for why is [our] freedom being judged by another’s conscience?”

We are not a people bound by laws and technicalities of action and thought (no matter how much some people might cling to that model). We are a people freed by love and meant to love freely. Our faith is in constant friction with the world. We are called to live our faith, but never to impose it. It is up to us to decide whether that friction is a source of irritation like sandpaper on skin, or a source of warmth like two hands rubbing together as if in prayer.

Comfort: You don’t need to worry about how other people judge you.

Challenge: Seek common ground rather than the upper hand.

Prayer:  Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. Amen. (Psalm 82:3-4)

Discussion: Where do you encounter the most friction between your faith and the world?

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Too Good to be False

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, 2 Kings 20:1-21, Acts 12:1-17, Luke 7:11-17


[H]e did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real;
he thought he was seeing a vision.
– Acts 12:9

Have you heard the one about the pious man trapped on his roof by a rising flood? The army, the navy and the marines all came by in boats and offered to rescue him, but he said he was waiting for the Lord to save him. Eventually the flood overwhelmed him. When he got to heaven, he asked God why his prayers went unanswered. God said “I sent you three different boats!”

Peter – Jesus named him “the rock” for a couple reasons – wasn’t much better. When an angel came to rescue him from prison, he thought it was a vision; luckily – having experienced visions before – he followed instructions anyway and was freed. When the prophet Isaiah told King Hezekiah the Lord would spare him from death for 15 years so he could lead his people out of bondage, the King wouldn’t believe him without any less a sign than the sun moving backwards.

Sometimes the Lord’s ways aren’t all that mysterious, and for some reason that seems to be a stumbling block to faith. We are called to be the hands and feet of Christ, but when those hands and feet aren’t pierced with nails or emitting a holy glow, we can struggle to recognize ourselves and others as the answers to prayer. How would it change your perspective on life to realize the answer to your prayer might not be divine intervention, but divinely-inspired human intervention? Or to realize that your action (or maybe just your presence) is the most miraculous thing someone could hope for? After all, the Spirit dwells in each and every one of us. Think on that for a moment…

We are wary of offers that sound too good to be true. A miracle around every corner sounds like one of those. Maybe the wonderful truth is miracles of hope, healing, reconciliation, generosity and comfort are as common as dirt … as long as we are willing to get our hands dirty.

Comfort: You are a miracle.

Challenge: Recognize the miracle in yourself and others.

Prayer:  Thank you Lord for the opportunity to be an answer to someone’s prayer. Amen.

Discussion: What is your general perspective on miracles?

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Roots and Fruits

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148, 2 Kings 19:1-20, 1 Corinthians 9:16-27, Matthew 8:1-17


The surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall
again take root downward,and bear fruit upward.
– 2 Kings 19:3

How deep are your spiritual roots? Deep enough to keep you healthy during times of spiritual drought? Whether your answer is “Yes”, “No” or “Good question…” you can always deepen them. One good way is to set aside time for regular spiritual practices. As with anything, the time you dedicate to spiritual practice will improve the results. A neglected garden is soon choked out by weeds and devoured by pests, and a neglected spiritual life is soon choked out and devoured by the demands and distractions of daily life. When we attempt to pluck fruit from either of them, we will very likely be disappointed.

But what does spiritual practice look like? And what if you don’t like gardening? Approaches to spiritual practices can range from the Biblical classics of prayer, meditation, and fasting to hiking, music, journaling and – yes – even gardening. A spiritual practice is anything that puts in your touch with your connection to the holy. Regular, intentional practices help our spiritual roots grow deeper and prepare us to better weather hard times and celebrate joyous ones. Find a practice that speaks to you, rather than trying to conform to one someone else prescribes, and it will be easier to maintain.

How high are your spiritual fruits? Probably about as high as your roots are deep. If you aren’t sure what gifts you have to share, spend some time discovering what feeds your roots. Chances are your gifts are closely related. And don’t waste time comparing them to other people’s gifts: it would be pretty foolish of a Granny Smith to spend time regretting it wasn’t a watermelon. Different plants thrive under different soil conditions and varying amounts of water and sunlight. People’s spirits are no less diverse. Your unique gifts are part of a well-balanced spiritual diet for the world. Feed your roots well, and you won’t be able to help producing fruits for all to share!

Comfort: Your gifts are meant to be shared…

Challenge: … so tend them with love and gratitude toward the one who gave them.

Prayer:  Thank you Lord for the many gifts you have given me. I will use them to honor your name. Amen.

Discussion: How do you tend to your spiritual roots?

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When In (or occupied by) Rome…

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148, 2 Kings 19:1-20, 1 Corinthians 9:16-27, Matthew 8:1-17


The main conflict in the Gospels is between Jesus and the leaders of the Jewish faith. In Acts and the epistles, conflict arises as Jewish and Gentile Christians struggle to become one church. On a larger scale, the backdrop of the entire New Testament is the occupying Roman empire. Christ’s teachings threatened upheaval not just to the Jewish religious leaders, but to the greater social and political order enforced from Rome.

In his lessons and parables Christ used imperial imagery such as kingdoms and victories in a way that turned conventional systems of power and justice upside down. By turning this language on its head in the service of God, he was telling people the existing social structure was not meant to last. Because Judaism was practiced at the pleasure of the emperor, and Jesus was the kind of rabble-rouser who drew the wrong kind of attention, many Jews wished to silence him and his original followers lived under this constant imperial threat. Modern readers of the gospel need to seriously consider how cozy we want to get with the empire – whatever form it takes – today. Then and now, seeking the approval and the favor of the worldly powers-that-be never makes them more just; rather it compromises our integrity and puts us at their mercy. It is when they convince us they are on our side that we are most susceptible to compromising ourselves to share their power.

However, true to his inclusive nature, Jesus did not draw firm lines between the Romans and the Jews when it came to mercy and faith. When a Roman centurion asked Jesus to come heal his beloved slave, Jesus declared it was the faith of the centurion – and not the slave – that dwarfed the faith he had found in Israel. This declaration made it clear that God’s grace was not confined by ethnic or cultural boundaries, and also that Jesus’ Jewish disciples should not become too complacent about their own spiritual situation.

The Roman Empire may be long gone, but imperialism in its many forms is alive and well. Our relationship to the world remains complicated. Are we sharing Christ’s message even when it makes us vulnerable outsiders, or are we selling out the rabble rouser to live comfortably under the empire he confronted?

Comfort: God’s kingdom continues to transform earthly realms.

Challenge: Meditate on what “imperialism” we must stand up to today.

Prayer:  Teach me, Lord, to be faithful to your kingdom above all others. Amen.

Discussion: What do you consider the value of separating church and state?

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