Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 50; 147:1-11, Isaiah 2:1-4, 1 Thessalonians 2:13-20, Luke 20:19-26


“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar, and unto God what is God’s.” This was Christ’s answer to some people who asked him whether it was lawful for Jewish people to pay taxes to the emperor, a controversial subject because rendering taxes implied the emperor was divine. While this has spawned many deep theological discussions, there are some more mundane but important lessons to be learned.

In Luke’s version of the story, the people who asked the question were spies pretending to be friendly, but secretly intending to trap Jesus into saying something their masters could use against him. A straight up “yes” would have angered many Jews, and a “no” would have been treasonous. Did Jesus realize their intent? Whether he did or not, Jesus skillfully sidestepped the whole predicament by giving what was essentially a non-answer.

In our dealings, we should be alert to those who say seemingly innocent things to conceal sinister intent. During the Jim Crow era of American history, many states introduced literacy requirements for voting. They argued someone who could not read could not properly use a ballot. Absent other circumstances, it makes a kind of sense, right? Then they introduced a grandfather clause exempting people who were allowed to vote before 1866, because if you’d been a voter it didn’t seem right to take that away. Except, though not named specifically, only white people could possibly qualify for the exemption. The new black vote was effectively eliminated for a generation under “race neutral” legislation.

This phenomenon is not limited to race. Even in church, groups in power may create rules to ensure they stay in power. Instead of Caesar’s coin, the currency of acceptance may be based on gender, politics, income, etc. The more sophisticated the powerful, the more subtle their discriminations, so we must remain vigilant on behalf of our sisters and brothers in Christ. The message of the Gospel expanded from Jews to Gentiles to all the corners of the earth. It expands still. When we see it start to contract, it’s time to start asking our own bold and honest questions.

Comfort: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

Challenge: Jesus advises us to “be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.” Know when to be loving and when to be skeptical.

Prayer: Lord of Love, use me toward the justice of all your people. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been subject to unjust discrimination?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group or follow @comf_and_chall on Twitter. You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

One year later…

Blogging – especially about faith – has been a humbling experience. Pretty quickly I learned that I’m not writing to instruct, but to learn. Each lesson I draw from scripture is one I need to internalize; sometimes I can, sometimes … not so much. Every  day I realize how far short I fall from being the person I think Jesus and God want me to be. 

But that’s a good thing. More than once I’ve paused before doing or saying something to think: “Be the person your blog thinks you are” and made a (hopefully) better choice. James warns us about the dangers of calling ourselves teachers, the struggle with hypocrisy. So I’m happy to be a flawed student sharing my notes and homework with you.

Today marks the one year anniversary of Comfort & Challenge. I haven’t missed a day, though some have squeaked in just under the midnight wire, and that surprises me. I have you to hank for that. Thoughtful, kind, and challenging reactions here and in the Facebook group help me feel like this is a conversation, and it would be rude to quit in the middle. Plus I am genuinely interested in what you have to say.

Because the blog is based on the daily lectionary, and the lectionary takes us through the bible in two years, we have reached the halfway point of Comfort and Challlenge, at least in its current format. I am excited for the downhill leg, and blessed to share it with readers who have been with me from the start and those who meet us along the road.

Thank you for reading, and God bless you.

Heroes and Villains

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 33; 146 , Isaiah 1:21-31 , 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12 , Luke 20:9-18


Have you ever seen those online quizzes with names like “Which Seven Dwarfs character are you?” or “What comic book figure are you?” Generally they ask silly questions (while secretly gathering marketing information) then reveal why you are most like Bashful or Batman. Although meaningless and generic, the results never seem to be especially surprising. Most of us have a pretty good idea of who we are.

Parables are another story. We think we know which character represents us because we want to identify with the lost sheep or the repentant sinner, but maybe that’s because we know which characters are “supposed” to be admirable. Take the parable of the Wicked Tenants, for instance. An owner leased his vineyard while he was out of the country. When he sent a slave to collect his share, the tenants beat the slave and sent him back. They did the same thing to the next two slaves he sent. Finally he sent his son, whom they killed. The owner would come to destroy the tenants, and give the vineyard to others. With (very) little analysis, we can conclude the owner is God, the wicked tenants are the religious leaders He entrusted with His people, the beaten slaves are the prophets, the slain son is Jesus, and the new inheritors of the vineyard are Christ’s followers. Easy right?

Not so fast. We don’t always get to be the hero.

Twenty centuries later, the Christian establishment works the vineyard, and the powerful don’t fare well in parables. On the whole, the church doesn’t like prophetic voices of dissent. We declare them apostate or stop carrying their CDs in our bookstores. When they demand too much inclusiveness, we’d rather leave them spiritually bruised and empty-handed than consider we might have tried to assume ownership of the grace that is only God’s to claim. Today we are the tenants. Who are we beating?

Advent is the perfect time to try viewing yourself from a different perspective. If it turns out you’re The Evil Queen or The Joker, you can probably turn that around before Jesus gets here.

Comfort: There’s time to change your story.

Challenge: Ask yourself who might see you as the bad guy, and whether they have a point.

Prayer: Oh Lord, teach me to be humble and help me to be kind. Amen.

Discussion: What fictional character do you relate to, and why?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group or follow @comf_and_chall on Twitter. You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Flip The Mattress

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 145, Isaiah 1:10-20, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Luke 20:1-8


As a mattress ages, it slowly loses its ability to properly support us. Even though it’s less and less comfortable, it’s familiar so we work with what we’ve got. And while we learn to avoid low spots and bad springs, we wake up a little less refreshed every morning. Eventually, we arrange ourselves to fit the mattress when it’s supposed to be the other way around. Very often we wait until we are physically pained before going to the trouble of getting a new one.

Religion has something in common with a mattress: the very act of inhabiting it, distorts it. During Advent we read from the book of Isaiah because it calls God’s people to look at how they twisted their religion until it no longer supported their once vibrant, living faith. The sacrifices they once made to honor God became an abomination, because the people managed to follow the rules without showing compassion and mercy to the least among them. Over time, the people contorted themselves to rest on the comfortable parts of the law and avoid the harder demands of mercy, all the while failing to realize how seriously they were damaging the spine of their faith.

According to Isaiah, the Jewish people were driven into Babylonian exile, despite ample warnings, because God withdrew his favor. Because Advent is a time for looking both backward and forward, the words of Isaiah should prompt us to reevaluate how we live out our own faith. Are we relying exclusively on rules and ritual? These are not bad things, but alone they do not meet God’s expectations for us to seek justice and rescue the oppressed. It doesn’t take long for us to settle into a routine and forget why we adopted it in the first place. Does our faith practice refresh us to live in love, or does it only equip us to sleepwalk through life?

We can settle for a slowly dilapidating mattress, or we can give a new one a try. Faith doesn’t need to be reinvented, but every so often it does need to be renewed.

Comfort: In the end, renewal is more refreshing than it is inconvenient.

Challenge: This Advent season, look at how you might renew your faith practices. Consider participating in a Reverse Advent Calendar.

Prayer: God of all that is, may I never forget you are the reason for all I do. Amen.

Discussion: What are some habits or practices (religious or otherwise) you have abandoned or reworked because they no longer served a purpose?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group or follow @comf_and_chall on Twitter. You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Beautiful version of an Advent classic.

 

Blink and you’ll miss it.

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 24; 150, Isaiah 1:1-9, 2 Peter 3:1-10, Matthew 25:1-13


The world ended today. Did you notice? Probably not … if it wasn’t your world. But someone’s did. Someone’s divorce was final. Someone received a terminal diagnosis. Someone’s home was bombed to the ground with loved ones inside. The world ends every day.

We all long for a day when things will be just and fair and simply better. We’ve never been patient about it either. Today’s letter from Peter dealt with both those who used the promise of Christ’s return for their own gain, and scoffers who said if it hadn’t happened yet it wasn’t going to – and only a few decades had passed. Was the author’s response that to God “a thousand years are like one day” any more satisfying then than it is centuries later? It seems we are left to conclude that Jesus and those who claimed he would return are simply wrong. But if the world ends every day … maybe Jesus returns every day too.

Parables about the kingdom of heaven, like Matthew’s tale of the bridesmaids and the oil lamps, are never only about some future “rapture” or judgment; they also instruct us on what the kingdom is like right now. Unlike the foolish bridesmaids, we prepare for the groom’s return not just because we fear being excluded from the banquet, but because delays and midnight arrivals are par for the course. Jesus returns when someone accepts a 3 a.m. call from an abused spouse and offers a safe place to stay. Jesus returns when a Hospice volunteer sits with someone who is afraid. Jesus returns when combatants choose reconciliation over revenge. Our lamps must be filled with the oil of compassion and ready to light when the phone rings, the stranger cries, or the enemy uncurls a fist. Otherwise when Christ comes calling we – like the foolish bridesmaids – will be left in our own darkness, having missed the opportunity to join the groom and represent him to the world.

Today the world ended. Today Christ returned. If your lamp is full, you’ll get to see it all again tomorrow.

Comfort: Jesus returns every day.

Challenge: Look out for opportunities to show the Christ’s love to people in crisis.

Prayer: Loving and merciful God, I thank you for daily renewal. Amen.

Discussion: When have you felt like the world ended?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group or follow @comf_and_chall on Twitter. You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Invitation: Graduation

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Today is the first Sunday of Advent. It’s a solemn season when we reflect on the past and look toward the future. Advent reminds us why Christ needed to come into the world, and why we need him to return. As the world observes the approaching Christmas holiday by urging you to buy more, eat more, and do more, the church asks you to slow down, to remember, to mourn. The world’s message is a lot more fun, but all it seems to get us … is more of the world. The conflict. The need. The emptiness.

No one wants to be a wet blanket tossed over the Christmas party buffet, but Christmas without Advent is like celebrating a graduation for someone who never went to school: the cap and gown are nice for a day, but ultimately there’s nothing inside. The season of Advent is our preparation for the Christmas graduation. It is a time for exams – examination of ourselves, examination of our relationship with Christ, and examination of the world in all its brokenness. At the end of our forty-day term, we understand why the world needs Christ. And like graduation, Christmas is a watershed moment. It marks the completion of one journey, and the beginning of another. What we learn during Advent is celebrated on Christmas, but then we have the responsibility of putting that knowledge to work to better ourselves and the world.

Advent means we have the opportunity to prepare and graduate every year. Like any school experience, you get out of it what you put into it, especially if you are wise enough to retain and build on what you learned before. Every year we learn what more we can contribute, and understand better how that all depends on surrendering ever more completely to our dependence on our God. The wiser we get, the less we know.

So if Advent is our school term, the communion table is our study group. Here we check in with our adviser, and learn from our fellow students. But we can’t just sit in the room with our noses buried in our own books; we must become invested in each other’s success. To know when to tutor, and when to be tutored. To dedicate ourselves to one another, because that is the condition of the full ride scholarship paid for with the life of Jesus. Whatever our life circumstances, the offer is available. Communion is the ultimate student union.

Pop quiz: Who does Christ invite to the table? Answer: Everyone.

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

Your Humble Servant

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Zechariah 14:12-21, Philippians 2:1-11, Luke 19:41-48


The media often portrays Christians as some sort of monolithic hive-mind, acting and reacting in unison. The truth is, we are all over the map on social and political issues, and understanding or representing anything deeper than a caricature of us takes more work and nuanced thought than the average broadcaster or viewer will invest.

The fault may be partially our own. We each have an assumption of what it means to be Christian, and by default tend to project it onto other Christians until they prove otherwise. Now that doesn’t mean we necessarily buy into the definition we are projecting; some of us assume other Christians will agree with us, and others assume we will be opposed on some issues. It can be tempting to say someone isn’t a “real” Christian if they think differently than we do, or to quickly make it clear we aren’t one of “those” Christians. Either way, too often we limit what it means to be Christian, making it that much easier to stereotype us.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul advises them to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” In our diversity, have we betrayed that advice? Is it any longer possible for the diverse universe of Christians to be in “full accord?” It is if we look at how Paul defined it:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

There isn’t one word of dogma in there. No specific religious practice. It says to look out for others first. That means listening more than convincing. Learning more than preaching. Serving more than insisting. Loving more than condemning. If I’m putting you first, and you’re putting me first, we aren’t even agreeing on who is first – but we are acting in accord. Following Christ isn’t about insisting others believe exactly as we do, but on serving them exactly as we believe Christ would have us do.

Comfort: You can love and serve Christians who think differently than you do.

Challenge: You have to love and serve Christians who think differently than you do.

Prayer: Lord, teach me to be your humble servant to all people. Amen.

Discussion: Beyond accepting Jesus, do you think there is a minimum set of beliefs necessary to be a Christian?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group or follow @comf_and_chall on Twitter. You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Guess Again

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148, Zechariah 14:1-11 , Romans 15:7-13 , Luke 19:28-40


Jesus used many parables to describe the Kingdom of Heaven: great banquets, lost sheep, bridesmaids, poor but generous widows, scattered seed, and on and on. What he didn’t do was provide a literal description. We can assume this was intentional, and for good reasons. However, while we wrestle with those reasons and interpret parables, we continue to disagree on the details. Perhaps the best, if most trite, advice we have is: “Expect the unexpected.”

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, he confounded both Pharisees and Roman officials by mocking the authority of empire. He also defied the expectations of his own Jewish people, who were anticipating a military-style messiah but got a radical peacenik. Because he was not limited by assumptions, he embodied an unpredictable threat to both the status quo and the hoped-for change.

The Apostle Paul also operated outside acceptable social parameters. As a Jew and Roman taking the gospel to the Gentiles, he expanded the Christian world beyond the imaginations of Christ’s original Jewish disciples. Furthermore, in his letter to the Roman church, he justified it using the words of their own prophet Isaiah: “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

Most of us have some idea of the type of justice we hope to see in Heaven’s fully realized Kingdom. For some, it is the righteous elimination of sin and restoration of goodness. For others, it’s an inclusive realm where the marginalized find their place at the table. There may be as many visions as there are Christians, and somehow the diversity of creation simultaneously supports and disavows each of them. The only thing they all share in common is their incompleteness. Whatever the true Kingdom looks like, it is beyond our imagination – not just in the sense that it is greater than our hopes, but also that it is beyond our ability to conceive.

Insisting on our own vision of the Kingdom is like having a roadmap but never unfolding it; we can only understand the places we’ve already been.

Comfort: The justice you long for is part of the kingdom…

Challenge: … but is it only a part.

Prayer: Gracious God, I will be open to your Kingdom and humble in my expectations. Amen.

Discussion: When did something turn out different – but better – than you expected?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group or follow @comf_and_chall on Twitter. You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Invest Wisely

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 116; 147:12-20, Zechariah 13:1-9, Ephesians 1:15-23, Luke 19:11-27


Jesus told a parable about a rich man who traveled out of town to secure a royal title. He gave ten of his servants equal sums of money to manage in his absence. The man was not popular, so the town sent messengers to ask that he not be made king, but he received his title. While he was away, one servant doubled his sum and another increased it by half. The new king was pleased and rewarded both with proportionally greater responsibilities. A third servant had buried his sum. Because the king was displeased, the servant explained he feared punishment had he invested the money and lost it. The king took the sum and gave it to the servant who had invested most wisely. The moral is that those who are trustworthy with a little will be given more, and those who are untrustworthy will have it taken away, so use your time and talents to the best of your ability to further the kingdom of God.

Most discussions of this parable focus on using our talents wisely, but let’s ask what it means that the servant buried what was given him, instead of banking it as his master would have preferred. The man was gambling on the hope that his master would not return a king – and maybe not return at all. Banking it left it in his master’s name; burying it in secret gave him a chance to claim it. If we devote our time and talents only to personal gain, and not to the greater purposes of God, we are in effect stealing what has been entrusted to us; we are betting against the ultimate righteousness of God.

Christ drives this point home in more than one parable. No one’s gifts are too meager to be put to good use. While taking a chance with them can be scary, these parables don’t condemn those who try then experience setbacks – they demonstrate disfavor toward those who do nothing. What you have to offer will be multiplied when you put it to use. Trust God to trust you.

Comfort: Your gifts and talents are meaningful when you give them meaning.

Challenge: One talent most of us have is the ability to encourage others in the use of their talents. Be generous with your encouragement.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for the many gifts and talents you have given your people. Guide me to use them to glorify you. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been surprised to discover a talent you didn’t know you had?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group or follow @comf_and_chall on Twitter. You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!