And while we’re on the topic of foundations:

The Church’s One Foundation

Who gives the growth?

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The Sermon on the Mount, Sebastiano Ricci

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 147:12-20, 1 Kings 22:29-45, 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:15, Matthew 5:1-10


One of the challenges of resolving petty disagreements is we disagree on what’s petty. What seems like a harmless, off-the-cuff remark to me may feel like a biting comment to you. What seems like a minor annoyance to you may legitimately irritate me to tears. If we come from different parts of the world, something as simple as ordering five hot dogs with a palm facing outward instead of inward might be the insult that sets the lifelong tone of our relationship.

Paul knew petty squabbles could tear apart the early church. When the faithful in Corinth began to divide along lines of who had been converted by Paul and who by Apollos, he knew he needed to push them back together. He told the church that he had planted the seed of faith and Apollos had watered it, but both were only servants of God – the source of the seed and the actual growth.

After a couple thousand years of growth, we are still responsible for tending it, and sometimes we still need to be reminded we are not its source. The nature of the God we serve is deeper and more vast than we can possibly comprehend individually or collectively. Paul describes his role as the builder of a solid foundation upon which many others will build. Everything that people add to that foundation will eventually be tested, and what is not worthy will burn away.

Are we focused on adding things that will endure?

The church has outlasted bad doctrine, power struggles waged on a global scale and in the choir loft, corruption, and schism. What endures? The peacemaking. The mercy. The meek and poor in spirit. Those things, as Jesus preached in the Beatitudes, which are not about leaving our own bold though impermanent mark like graffiti across the face of the foundation, but about serving God by serving others.

We will, accidentally and intentionally, hurt each other. It is in the extending and accepting of olive branches – specifically when we would rather not – that we water and tend the growth. Better to set one small stone of mercy wisely and firmly in place than a great boulder which crumbles because we’ve carved our name too deeply into it.

Comfort: Even if only in a small way, you are adding to the foundation.

Challenge: Think about what you are adding and whether it serves you or God.

Prayer: Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. (Psalm 80:3)

Discussion: Has God ever used you or someone you know to turn a petty squabble into a moment of grace?

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Listen Like an Ambassador

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, 1 Kings 22:1-28, 1 Corinthians 2:1-13, Matthew 4:18-25


War – whether it be physical or cultural – is a failure of diplomacy. Diplomats bridge the gap between cultures whose differences might otherwise seem irreconcilable except through violent conflict. No embassy is a one-person operation. Usually the ambassador is supported by a staff of cultural, legal, press, military, and other diplomatic attachés. If we are citizens of heaven traveling in a foreign land, we need to determine whether we are tourists or representatives of a higher authority. If we are public about our faith, we have chosen to serve as representatives. That thought should be intimidating, but it doesn’t need to be, if we are observant of those who have served successfully before us.

One of the most important diplomatic skills – arguably the most important – is the ability to listen. When Paul first visited the Corinthians, he did not pretend to have all the answers to their problems. Instead he “decided to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Paul knew that the mission of diplomacy is not to dominate and to impose, but to understand and relate. He didn’t even attempt to impress the Corinthians, but approached them “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” This may not sound like an auspicious beginning, but in the end he delivered his message successfully and established the church in Corinth.

Paul succeeded because he lived his core mission with integrity. People perceived no difference between his words and his life. Because Paul’s message was one of salvation through redemption rather than perfection, his flaws did not undermine that message. As Christian “attachés,” we should find two important lessons here. First, we should never present ourselves as perfected or somehow better than non-Christians. Otherwise, the first time we cut someone off in traffic while sporting a Jesus-fish bumper sticker, our message becomes one of hypocrisy. Second, we need to be serious about living lives that reflect the Spirit within us. Again this doesn’t mean unattainable perfection, but a heart full of the love, peace, mercy, and humility of Christ. A humble example is worth more than a million lofty instructions.

Comfort: Perfection is the enemy of progress.

Challenge: Each day, reflect on how your example could be better.

Prayer: God of the journey, give me ears to hear and words of love.

Discussion: What is the difference between diplomacy and politics?

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Playing God

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 123; 146, 1 Kings 21:17-29, 1 Corinthians 1:20-31, Matthew 4:12-17


Imagine a great crime has been committed against you – one that cannot be made right. The perpetrator is apprehended and found guilty. When the perpetrator demonstrates he’s really sorry, the judge defers the sentence until after perpetrator’s death, at which time his son will suffer the penalty. If you’d have a hard time feeling like justice was being served, you’re probably not alone.

This is pretty much what happened after Ahab, who along with his wife Jezebel had a man stoned under false pretenses to take his ancestral land, humbled himself before an angry God. After Ahab put on some sackcloth, fasted, and put on a sad face, God decided punishment could wait.

Unfair as it seems, God – being almighty and all – gets to call the shots. We don’t have to agree, like, or understand it. But it does teach us something about the practical application of Biblical principles: just because God gets away with it doesn’t mean we can or should.

Punishing the children of the guilty, instead of or in addition to the guilty themselves, is not a just system for human beings to administer. We can’t point to books like Joshua, wherein God commanded virtual genocide, to justify our own tribal violence against people of a different faith or ethnicity. When the psalmists beg God to smash out the teeth and kill the children of their enemies, we can’t assume that’s the sort of behavior God encourages us to pursue. When we twist scripture to justify our worst impulses, who exactly are we serving?

Over and over, God offers redemption and forgiveness to the very people we would expect God to punish. Saul the oppressor of Christians becomes the Apostle Paul. The Ninevites who enslaved Israel are sent the reluctant prophet Jonah and they repent (much to Jonah’s disappointment).  God will do what God will do. Who among us dares to say when God should punish and when God should redeem?

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote: “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.” Let’s walk and act humbly, leaving God’s choices to God.

Additional Reading:
For more on today’s passage from 1 Corinthians, see Fool Me.

Comfort: You don’t have to figure out what God would do; God will do it.

Challenge: Be cautious when using scripture to justify your actions.

Prayer: Merciful God, in my foolishness lead me to your wisdom. Amen. 

Discussion: What actions of God in the Bible are hard for you to understand?

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An Old-Fashioned Sin

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 135; 145, 1 Kings 21:1-16, 1 Corinthians 1:1-19, Matthew 4:1-11


Covet isn’t a word we use a lot unless we are quoting the Ten Commandments. It can be a difficult concept for us to wrap our brains around. We often treat it as a synonym of envy or desire, but it’s more intense than that. Those are feelings, and God’s commandments don’t waste time telling us what to feel. We can’t covet something unless it belongs to someone else. When we covet our neighbor’s livestock or spouse, we don’t just wish we had one of those too, we dwell on the idea that the one they have should be ours. It’s more than wanting it – it’s convincing ourselves we somehow have more right to it than they do.

King Ahab coveted the land of a man named Naboth. The land, which Naboth used as a vineyard, was his ancestral inheritance. Ahab wanted to turn it into a garden so he offered to buy or replace it, but Naboth declined his offer. Ahab – who as king was wealthy beyond measure and could have built more gardens than he could have visited in a lifetime – became so depressed he wouldn’t eat or leave his bed. Ahab’s wife Jezebel was having none of it. She arranged for false charges of blasphemy to be brought against Naboth and the people stoned him. Ahab didn’t waste any time taking possession of the land.

Coveting may be an old-fashioned word, but it has many modern practitioners. Nations justify war by convincing themselves they deserve what someone else already has. Gentrification drives poor people from their homes into even poorer neighborhoods. In some cases when a person can’t get what they covet – a relationship, a reputation, or even peace of mind – they settle for destroying it.

Coveting isn’t a passing glance or stray thought. It’s a cultivated intention. It’s replacing the only true object of our devotion with something that will not only fail to satisfy, but ultimately diminish us.

Perhaps if we are tempted to covet, we can remember Jesus being tempted by the devil in the desert. Jesus drove him away saying, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” We can’t control our thoughts, but we can choose which ones to follow.

Comfort: Coveting is something  you can avoid.

Challenge: Once a day say a prayer of gratitude for something you have.

Prayer: Merciful God, teach me to be content with what you have seen fit to entrust to me. Amen. 

Discussion: What do you think of when you hear the word covet?

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. . .

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 19; 150, 1 Kings 19:8-21, Acts 5:34-42, John 11:45-57


When we find ourselves in a verbal disagreement, most of us have a natural tendency to raise our voices. As the discussion becomes more heated, we try to convince each other through sheer volume. However, many communication experts tell us the best way to be heard – in an argument, or whenever we need to emphasize a point – is to speak more softly. Doing so decreases aggression in others, and compels them to focus and listen.

The prophet Elijah learned God did not always speak through mountain-cracking winds, rumbling earthquakes, or roaring fires … but was also present in the still silence that followed. When Jesus needed to rest in God’s presence, he often retreated to quiet isolation. Paul exhorted the faithful to speak only those words that build up, certainly not the sort of words that are loud or argumentative. In a world where even religious voices are often shrill, are we placing enough value on silence?

Saint Francis of Assisi is sometimes credited with saying: “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” It’s not really his saying, but is very much in the spirit of his teachings. Our society emphasizes the persuasiveness of words (thus the steady appeal of talk radio and blogs), but relatively few people are “talked into” faith. We listen most eagerly to words that echo what we already believe. Attitudes and beliefs are changed most often by experiences. If we are to be the hands of Christ, perhaps those hands are most authentically experienced when they are offered silently in comfort or prayer.

Of course there is nothing inherently evil about words, even those spoken loudly if they are for a just cause, but we must remember they are merely symbols of the ideas they represent.  If they become a stumbling block, we can dispense with them. If our actions betray our words, we are better off not using them. If we want to teach someone about our faith, quiet, loving actions are a solid beginning. Jesus is the Logos – the Word made flesh: what other words could possibly serve us better?

Comfort: You can speak softly and still carry a big witness.

Challenge: In your prayer life, stop speaking long enough to listen.

Prayer: [Observe one full minute of silence] 

Discussion: What makes you raise your voice?

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Idols of Virtue

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, 1 Kings 18:41-19:8, Philippians 3:17-4:7, Matthew 3:13-17


John the Baptist was the antithesis of the scribes and Pharisees in both his message and his appearance. Rather than the elaborate and expensive garments favored by the religious elite of his day, he wore a rough, inexpensive, and probably itchy garment made of camel’s hair. When he wasn’t fasting, he ate locusts and honey. His commitment to humility and simplicity was a physical representation of his message of baptism and repentance. It’s no surprise that when Jesus came to him and asked to be baptized, John humbly objected, saying “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” When Jesus said “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” he consented.

Though he briefly questioned Jesus’ instructions, John was more committed to Christ than to humility.

Can we always say the same? Maybe it’s not humility we turn into an idol. Maybe it’s tithing. Or virginity. Temperance. Or – in an oddly paradoxical progressive twist – moralizing against the foibles of Christian culture (guilty).

Such spiritual disciplines can be excellent means of exploring and expressing our faith – many of them are even direct commandments – but we must remember they are tools and not currency; they do not buy us God’s favor – rather, they help us build an understanding  of God’s goodness and our relationship with our creator. We must remember they are tools and not weapons; when Christ and Paul talk to us about what is right and wrong it is so we can change our own hearts, not so we can aim those words at others who fail to fall in line.  Currency and weapons, even in a spiritual sense, are seductive idols; they offer us a false sense of control and power when we should be seeking to surrender.

So are we free to do whatever we wish? Of course not. But our moral successes and failures do not save us; Christ already did that. We can accept or reject that redemption, but we can’t diminish or improve upon it. Be generous. Be chaste. Be sober. But be these things out of grateful obedience, not because you think they can save you.

Comfort: Jesus has already done the work of your redemption. 

Challenge: Meditate on whether your spiritual impulses are motivated by gratitude or fear.

Prayer: God of Mercy, thank you for Christ the Redeemer. Amen. 

Discussion: When do you feel like you let God down?

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Blood and Fire

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The Sacrifice of Elijah before the Priest of Baal, Domenico Fetti, c. 1622

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, 1 Kings 18:20-40, Philippians 3:1-16, Matthew 3:1-12


Today’s readings from 1 Kings and Matthew give us two very different perspectives on sacrifice.

When after three years of exile, drought, and famine the prophet Elijah returned to confront the corrupt king Ahab, he had to get past the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal with whom Ahab and his wife Jezebel had aligned themselves. Elijah challenged them to a contest: we’ll each sacrifice a bull, and whoever’s god manages to set it on fire is the winner. To attract their God’s attention and favor, the prophets of Baal marched around their bull until they were limping.  “They cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them.” If anything their bull only grew cooler as evening approached. Elijah was so confident in his God that he soaked the wood four times before offering his prayer. The fire of the Lord consumed the bull, the wood, and the stone and boiled off the water.

In the gospels, John the Baptist is closely associated with Elijah. Like Elijah he wore rough clothing of camel’s hair and a simple leather belt. John survived on a diet of locusts and honey. He was probably a little scary, living on the edge of his community and inviting the wrath of both the Jewish and Roman authorities by declaring the coming of the messiah. John, who would ultimately be imprisoned and executed, suffered for his faith.

Other than the fact that the prophets of Baal followed the wrong god, what differentiated their sacrifices of self-mutilation from John’s self-deprivation?

The prophets of Baal injured themselves in order to entice their god to do their bidding. John suffered because he wanted to do God’s bidding. With all our talk of Christ’s blood and the cross, we Christians sometimes seem to blur those lines. Our God is not one who demands sacrifice and suffering for the pleasure or cruelty of it. Needless suffering is something Christ asks us to remedy – not to perpetuate. Yet there are times we will suffer for staying true to our faith. The prophets of Baal limped and yelled and bled because they believed in a God who needed to be persuaded to want good things for them. We stay true to our God and find redemption in hardship because God’s love is a fire already burning within us.

Comfort: God doesn’t desire your suffering, but when you must God is with you. 

Challenge: Watch Paul Bloom’s video Against Empathy.

Prayer: Loving God, I turn my suffering over to you that you may transform it into redemption. Amen. 

Discussion: Do you think of your own suffering the same way you think of other people’s? Are you more likely to ask “Why me?” or “Why not me?”

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Collateral Mercy

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, 1 Kings 18:1-19, Philippians 2:12-30, Matthew 2:13-23


Many action and suspense movies have something in common which, when you think about it, is pretty disturbing. As they follow the hero or heroine from one dangerous situation to the next – be it natural disaster, shootout, or car chase – the body count of disposable and background characters climbs. As long as our main character (and perhaps a love interest rendered increasingly inappropriate by the mounting death toll) survives to the end, we’re meant to feel good has triumphed. Granted these movies are fictional, but doesn’t entertainment reflect our cultural priorities?

Of course this trope was well established long ago. When God inflicts three years of drought and famine on the land to punish King Ahab, the story focuses on the prophet Elijah and the one widow who survives to shelter him while countless unnamed people (who neither married Jezebel nor worshipped foreign idols) die miserably. And after the magi decided not to tell Herod where the infant Jesus was, “he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.” But Joseph has a dream to flee with his family to Egypt, so Jesus survives so … that ended well?

For the most part history remembers generals and not foot soldiers; sole survivors and not the unfortunate and numerous departed. You and I are probably going to die uncredited characters from central casting.

But the adult Jesus – the Jesus who ate with the drunks, the sinners, and the disreputable – had some good news for us extras: God loves us just as much as the featured players. Heck, he says it’s the least of us who will be first in the kingdom. The collateral damage and slaughtered innocents? God suffers along with every one of them. Does that make their suffering more fair? Not by human standards at least. But it does make it remarkable. Christ reveals (or possibly just reminds us of) a God whose mercy and compassion operate on both the largest and smallest of scales.

Whether we shape the fate of nations or barely survive day-to-day, God is with us.

Comfort: You and your suffering are not insignificant to God. 

Challenge: In entertainment and news, pay attention to who is affected but neglected.

Prayer: Lord, we thank you for loving the least of us as much as the greatest of us. Amen. 

Discussion: Most of the time do you feel like the hero/ine of your own story, or a player in someone else’s?

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Buzzkill

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, 1 Kings 17:1-24, Philippians 2:1-11, Matthew 2:1-12


Jesus once said, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” If Elijah is any indicator, maybe that’s because they’re royal pains in the neck. And in Elijah’s case … a pain in the royal neck. God sent Elijah to tell King Ahab the land would be subject to famine and drought until Elijah said otherwise. After that Elijah went into hiding in the wilderness where he was fed by ravens and drank from a wadi (riverbed that is dry except in rainy seasons) until it dried up. After that he lived with a widow whom God had commanded to take him in. Her meager portions of grain and oil held out for as long as Elijah stayed with her, but living with the prophet took an emotional toll on her. When her son fell so ill he stopped breathing, she thought Elijah was punishing her sins, until through prayer he restored the boy to life.

Prophets never show up to tell you you’re doing a good job. They are single minded and obsessive. They threaten your sense of security and control no matter how powerful you may be. They keep you off balance. They don’t care if your feelings and desires are incompatible with their mission.

And they are absolutely necessary.

Not every prophet is on a mission like Elijah, challenging the blasphemy of a king. Some of them are more low key annoying. They’re pulling recyclables out of the trash when we’re trying to clean up after the potluck, and asking us to volunteer at the food pantry when they know we just did it last weekend, and interrupting our gossip sessions by suggesting we pray for those people instead. We want them to just lighten up once in a while. They don’t get invited to a lot of parties.

Yet by refusing to let us get too comfortable, these people further the work of the kingdom in a mostly thankless way. The courage of conviction may feel like a real buzzkill, but our reaction says more about us than about them. These prophets are the conscience of a community. If we lean into the discomfort they cause us, we just may find reasons to thank them.

Comfort: A call to repentance is sign of love. 

Challenge: Listen to the voices that remind you to better, even if they are annoying.

Prayer: Lord, teach me to listen well when you speak through others. Amen. 

Discussion: What do you think today’s prophets are saying?

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