Thanks In Advance

steadfastlove

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 12; 146, Isaiah 52:1-12, Galatians 4:12-20, Mark 8:1-10


Why do we say, “Thank you?”

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.  Usually we say it after we’ve received something, such as a gift or a compliment. The sentiment behind our thanks varies widely. Much (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. Though 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 idea of saying grace is tied to meals because people were literally praying the food would not kill them, but 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 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 (click below to open in new tab/window):
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 (click below to open in new tab/window):
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.” This phrase is used most often with journalists and informants. 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 the harassment and persecution the government prohibits in other entities. And then there are people who leak information for malicious reasons then try 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 occupation. His disregard for their authority as granted by Rome was also a direct affront to Rome. As in the case with many whistle-blowers, confronting his accusations would have led to confirming them. The retaliation against him began as a whisper campaign among the Pharisees, who plotted to kill him.

Whistle-blowers are 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 inauthentic relationships 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 (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, Isaiah 51:1-8, Galatians 3:23-29, Mark 7:1-23


The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” 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 referenced the “moral arc.” This image endures because it bears out across time. Over the years, as prejudices 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 moral arc has led the church 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 are eroding 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 makes us uncomfortable? The road to justice arcs 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 (click below to open in new tab/window):
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 (click below to open in new tab/window):
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 to stop instructing and to let a child act on the lesson. Until we actually do something ourselves, we haven’t really learned. Some would save 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 get 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 (click below to open in new tab/window):
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 (or Cephas in Aramaic), he was socializing and eating with gentiles. 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

burdenshared

Photo Credit: John (“Dad”) Schultz

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
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 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. Even more he teaches us we need each other.

Comfort: The less you own, the more you have.

Challenge: The more you own, the less you have.

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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Worthy

loveandbeloved

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, Isaiah 48:1-11, Galatians 1:1-17, Mark 5:21-43


Every one of us feels insecure about something. Our physical appearance. Our weight. Our ability. Our lovability. Our faith. Secrets we keep. Secrets we can’t keep. Things we’ve done. Things we’ve left undone. Sadly, human beings have an infinite capacity for reasons to feel insecure. Left to fester, such feelings can quickly grow into feelings of unworthiness. Do we know anyone who feels unworthy to be loved by themselves, by others, or even by God? Where do we get these ideas we might be unworthy?

In today’s gospel story, a woman who suffered with a hemorrhage for twelve years touched Jesus’s robe and was healed by her faith. Under Levitical law, this woman was unclean, and therefore unworthy of touching a rabbi like Jesus. Societal norms might have kept her from being healed, but Jesus had no words of rebuke for her – only words of praise for her faith. Jesus demonstrated unworthiness is a concept we use to hold each other back but it places no limitations on God’s love for us. We must never let anyone tell us differently.

Feelings of unworthiness may also spring from actions we have taken and lives we have led. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul reminds them that before he evangelized for Christ, he was a destroyer of Christians – surely a matter of no small regret. He also points out that once God chose him, he “did not confer with any human being” but set directly about his calling. We learn at least two things from his experience. First, we are worthy because God tells us so, not because we or someone else decides it. Second, we don’t have to wait for approval from others to behave as though we are worthy: if that were the case, Paul would never have gotten started!

If God felt a notorious persecutor of Christians was worthy of being their greatest evangelist, how much ego does it take to believe our own offenses make us unworthy of God’s love? When we don’t have faith in our own worthiness, let’s remember our God has faith in us!

Comfort: You are no more or less worthy of God’s love than anyone else.

Challenge: Meditate on how we must not equate our human worthiness with the worthiness of Christ.

Prayer: Creator of all, thank you for creating me to love and to be loved. Amen.

Discussion: “Worthy” can be a loaded term if we use it with pride instead of humility. Often we emphasize our unworthiness before God to reinforce that humility. What do you think are healthy and unhealthy ways to think about our worth?

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Long Suffering

Christ at the Pool of Bethesda

Christ at the Pool of Bethesda – William Hogarth

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 67; 150, Isaiah 47:1-15, Hebrews 10:19-31, John 5:2-18


Today’s reading from John is significant for several reasons. Jesus performs a healing on the Sabbath, which breaks the Mosaic Law. He commands the man he heals to get up and carry the mat he’d been lying on; this was also prohibited, so Jesus assumed authority to exempt others from the law. Finally, Jesus refers to God as his Father, declaring himself equal to God. This only intensified the Pharisee’s desire to see him killed.

John tells us the man was only one of many invalids lying by a pool with alleged healing properties. When Jesus realized the man had been suffering for 38 years, Jesus asked him if he wanted to be made well.

What about all the other sick people by the pool?

John skips ahead in the story so we have no idea whether Jesus interacted with anyone else. The Gospels tell us several times that Jesus healed crowds of people, but not this time. Yet it doesn’t seem likely Jesus simply wasn’t concerned with them.

The truth is, not everyone is healed. Most of us are more likely to find ourselves among the long-suffering than the miraculously healed.  Some theologians would blame it on a lack of faith. Others would say each healing miracle serves a specific purpose in Christ’s ministry. We can find ourselves caught between contradictory ideas telling us both that faith will heal us and that suffering brings us closer to Christ. We must remember that whatever our plight, Jesus still sees and hears us. He still moves among us. His love and compassion for us are as great as they are for anyone else who seems more “blessed.”

Paul suffered an unnamed malady (he called it a thorn in his flesh) until he died. Rather than torture himself about why, he considered his weakness a perfection of his strength. Suffering is not a sign of disfavor. No one gets to impose their own meaning on your suffering, but illness and health both present opportunities to grow closer to God. Whatever the state of your life, God loves you and is with you.

Comfort: In sickness and health, God is with us.

Challenge: Do something – volunteer, donate, etc. – to support people with chronic illness.

Prayer: God of compassion, I will seek you even in my suffering. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever found meaning in suffering? If so, how?

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