Love Selfishly


Readings: Psalms 50; 147:1-11, Amos 8:1-14, Revelation 1:17-2:7, Matthew 23:1-12

In the midst of adversity, we may find it difficult, almost impossible even, to practice love. Imagine being a widow or beggar during the time of Amos, when the religious leaders were “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat*” (Amos 8:6). Consider what it must have been like for the faithful of Israel when their leaders put heavy burdens on the people while never inconveniencing themselves (Matt 23:4). Why would the common people bother loving their enemies when their own leaders preached righteousness and practiced hypocrisy? Can we imagine? Or do we call that “the evening news?”

Yet in both eras (and may we assume today as well?) through his prophets and the messiah God cried for redemption through justice, mercy, and charity – the practices of agape love.

One stumbling block to practicing this type of love is the notion that the recipient should deserve it. We may understand on an intellectual level that all people are deserving because they are children of God, but part of us chafes at the idea that not only have some people not earned it, but they have squandered any right to it. Vindictive ex spouses. Violent criminals. Hate mongering racists. Duplicitous politicians. In human terms, none of these people may merit mercy, but the divine demands it.

It can seem so very unfair. But is it?

What if the command to love our enemies – foreign, domestic, and familial – isn’t just about the dignity of our enemies? What if it is also about the state of our own souls? In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche said “be careful when you fight monsters lest you become one.” Fred was no friend of Christianity, but he wasn’t wrong. When we allow feelings of fear or anger to override the convictions of our faith, and when we sacrifice those convictions of peace and love to protect our money, our homes, or even our lives, we have lost what God values most in us.

We love our enemies not only for their sake, but for our own.

* When the harvest was taken, the scraps were supposed to be left in the field to be gathered – or “gleaned” – by the poor and alien in the land.

Comfort: We are not burdened with determining who deserves our love.

Challenge: For an entire day, when you wish to complain about an enemy, instead say a silent prayer for them.

Prayer: O Lord, teach me to rely not on my limited capacity to love, but upon your unlimited promise of love. Amen.

Discussion: Do you pray for your enemies? If so, how? If not, why not?

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Love Obediently


Readings: Psalms 33; 146,  Amos 7:10-17,  Revelation 1:9-16,  Matthew 22:34-46

When a Pharisee lawyer asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment, he replies:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. and a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

– Matthew 23:37-39

This famous passage is one of the most direct answers Jesus provides. These two commandments are simple, yet they lack specificity. Exactly how are we supposed to love our God and our neighbors? Or for that matter, ourselves? Is God commanding us to feel a certain way, and if so … is that even something we can control?

We like to say that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37), but we can also be assured God does not ask us to do the impossible. In the case of these commandments, “love” is not expressed in feelings; rather it is demonstrated in attitudes and an actions. Loving a creator we can’t see or hear may be challenging, but we can maintain attitudes of praise, gratitude, and a healthy kind of fear.

Regarding neighbors, we can love someone in a Christian sense without feeling any affection for them at all. We demonstrate it by respecting all persons as beloved creatures of God, offering charity when needed in a manner that respects the dignity of the recipient, and doing the hard work of forgiving offense. Some people will say being nice to someone we don’t like – maybe the opinionated brother-in-law who sucks all the air out of the room on Christmas Eve – is a form of hypocrisy, but that’s only true if we speak of or do ill to them when they aren’t around. The agape love Jesus calls us to is indifferent to our actual feelings. Otherwise, it’s not sacrificial at all. We’re allowed not to like someone. We are called to love them anyway.

And the “ourselves” part? It is perfectly fine to have boundaries and expectations that we will also be respected. Sacrificial love is about the betterment of others, not the abasement of ourselves. Sometimes we suffer because we love, but we don’t love because we suffer. To love is to approach the world and its inhabitants as though God has entrusted their care personally to us … because God has.

Comfort: Our loving actions can heal our unloving hearts.

Challenge: Pay attention to whether your emotions are dictating your actions, or vice versa.

Prayer: Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you. (Psalm 33:22)

Discussion: Do you feel you can love someone without liking them?

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Love Equally


Readings: Psalms 122; 145, Amos 7:1-9,  Revelation 1:1-8, Matthew 22:23-33

Mosaic law contained rules about marriage which we consider unusual today. If a man died childless, his brother had to marry his widow. The intent behind this law was to protect the widow from poverty and disgrace as she would have no means of support. In a modern society, where women hold jobs and own property equally with men, this is an outdated and rarely practiced idea.

The Sadducees were a Jewish sect who did not believe in the resurrection as Jesus taught. Fearing his influence on the people, they tried to trip him up to diminish public opinion of him. They thought the following scenario would do the trick.

A man with six brothers died childless. Per the law, his brother married his wife. The second brother also died childless, and she married the third brother, and so on until eventually she had married  all seven brothers. Who, the Sadducees asked, would be her husband in the resurrection?

Jesus told them they were asking the wrong questions, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

That must have been a showstopper. Until very recently most people did not marry for love, but there have been rules about fidelity and ownership for a long time. The concept of women who did not need to rely on men was almost unthinkable. Jesus was saying, “I know the rules, but the current social structures are not the equality God ultimately has in mind for you.” While not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Equal Rights Amendment, it sent the message that once the world was made anew, women would be independent.

Today in the western world, the equality shared legally (if not practically) by men and women makes love-based marriage the norm. Viewing others as equals – as fully human beings – makes other types of love possible as well. Empathy requires us to identify with another person, and if we don’t think of them as equal, that empathy is stunted. The church has traditionally promoted the values of faith, hope, and love as described in 1 Corinthians, but the Greek word (agape) for the type of sacrificial “love” intended can just as legitimately be translated as “charity.” English doesn’t really have an equivalent word. Maybe that’s why we struggle with understanding current social structures as anything other than vertical, with the “haves” obliged to show charity to the “have nots.”  When we realize we are no different, giving and receiving charity are no longer sources of obligation or shame, but acts of sharing between children of God as any loving family might perform.

Empathy and equality release us from the slavery of convention into the freedom of love.

Comfort: God loves you equally to kings and paupers, friends and enemies.

Challenge: What groups of people do you have trouble empathizing with? Make an effort to get to know them.

Prayer: The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. (Psalm 145:9)

Discussion: What prejudices do you struggle with?

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Love Better


Readings: Psalms 24; 150, Amos 6:1-14, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12, Luke 1:57-68

Traditionally the theme of the second week of Advent is Love. Often “love” evokes warm feelings of family, friends, and romance. However, depending on a person’s life circumstances, those feelings may be mixed with longing, loneliness, hope, and other emotions.

Sorting out feelings about feelings? Well, love is complicated. Advent adds yet another wrinkle: love as the world falls apart.

The prophet Amos and the apostle Paul both share harsh words about the future. Amos tells the people of Israel they have offended God so mightily that He is “raising up against you a nation, O house of Israel, […] and they shall oppress you from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi Arabah.” Paul in his second letter to the church in Thessalonica tells them they who do not obey the Gospel “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” While these passages definitely drive home the message that God desires righteousness, they don’t much describe a God who define Love as a gooey confection of simple affection.

Except in these examples, God’s anger exists because people are too focused on false righteousness and not enough on love. The people of Israel were making ritual sacrifices like clockwork, but ignoring and exploiting the poor. “Obeying the Gospel” wasn’t about rules but about loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. These prophets warned us separation from God occurs when we fail to love God and each other.

Throughout the Bible, God sends warning after warning about the consequences of failing to love. He sends us Jesus so we may be reconciled to him in love, and before that sends us John the Baptist to tell us Jesus is on the way. Love is complicated. Think about your own relationships where love has been broken: it’s rarely a sudden snap, but a slow dissolution with opportunities for one or both sides to repent. God begs us to love better.

Advent is a season for reflecting on how well we love God and each other. Before the world falls apart, God call us to love. Afterward, it is the only thing that saves us.

Comfort: God loves us even in anger.

Challenge: Work on a relationship where love has been broken.

Prayer: Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. (Psalm 25:4-5)

Discussion: How has your understanding of love changed over time?

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The Jumble


Celebrating Christmas without observing Advent is like taking a victory lap before the race starts.

At least, that’s how I’ve felt about it for many years.

Most of the rest of the world – both secular and Christian – begs to differ. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the whole country seems to flip a switch that turns on  the Christmas twinkle and bustle with Advent getting barely a nod from those chocolate-laced calendars which start on December 1st whether that’s the actual beginning of the season or not. Maybe we feel we’ve done enough Advent-ing when we hold off on dropping the Baby Jesus into the nativity scene until the morning of. Our Christmas expectations have grown so extravagant that we spend a liturgical season of solemnity with decorating, shopping, wrapping, baking, and singing when we could be mourning a broken world. Okay, not a great selling point, but it is why Jesus showed up.

I’ve been a lot more concerned with the War on Advent than the War on Christmas (which by the way was  decisively won by retailers decades ago – you might be glad to know Christmas won). I find a certain perverse glee in reminding people Christmas Day wasn’t a federally recognized holiday until 1870, and that in the 17th century Christians campaigned to keep Christmas celebrations illegal in several of the original colonies and in England.

For all their faults, Puritans really understood the importance of observing a Bleak Midwinter.

And yet ironically … I find being a prophet of doom about Advent does little to advance the pro-Advent agenda. So instead, I have come to realize – reluctantly at first and more gratefully these days – that in the midst of all that inappropriately-timed caroling (hey, I’m working on it!), people are indeed facing the brokenness in our communities and our world. They’re just not putting as somber a face on it as my narrow vision demands.

Charities of all kinds depend on the generosity that wells forth in the Advent/Christmas season for their very survival. In places of employment, colleagues take collections and pool resources to make Christmas day special for the less fortunate (whose wish lists often include household supplies and other things many of us can take for granted). The Marines deploy their Toys for Tots campaign to bring joy to children, and civilians make extra efforts to remember those deployed around the world under unthinkable conditions.

Are these kindnesses a bit of Advent-like awareness? Yes. Do they address the larger injustices that prophets like Amos and Isaiah – perennial Advent favorites – warn us about? Not as much as they could.

But it’s all a start. Despite my affection for a neatly structured liturgical calendar, Advent and Christmas and all those other seasons are not how life plays out in the real world. In the real world, every day – every hour – is a jumble of hope, joy, expectation, repentance, mercy and all the other things that make up existence. Advent preparation isn’t just for Christmas. And Christmas celebration isn’t just for December 25th.

That saying about having Christmas in our hearts all year around? It’s also true for the lessons of Advent, Easter, Pentecost, and every other season and holiday of our faith.

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

Hope. Always.


Readings: Psalms 90; 149, Amos 5:18-27, Jude 17-25, Matthew 22:15-22

Ever since the world began, people have been predicting its end. For many that “end” is not so much a final obliteration, as a renewal when the evil, violence, and injustice will be swept away to make room for something better. The prophet Amos speaks of the day when God will “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” When we read headlines and watch the news, don’t we long for the same?

We can react to adversity with despair or with hope. While we may naturally tend toward one or the other, it is ultimately a choice. In the midst of suffering hope may seem futile or naive, but it has real consequences. Repeated studies show that a positive attitude promotes healing from illness and surgery. On a fundamental level, hope is essential to survival; hunger, thirst, and fear may seem like negatives, but they are hard-wired into us with an assumption that we will continue to live.

Though hope is more than a belief in continued existence. Despair also assumes existence but resigns us to inaction and victimhood, where hope spurs us to positive action. Hope makes charity possible, because it allows for positive change. Without the promise of hope could we even contemplate mercy?

In an age when tragedy around the world is broadcast into our homes 24 hours a day in high definition, hope can be hard to maintain. The truth is that on the whole violence in the world has been decreasing steadily for decades. Data and statistics are not necessarily comforting in the face of immediate crisis, so how do we work (and it is intentional work) to maintain hope? Minister and children’s television host Fred Rogers famously quotes his mother who told him the best thing to do in times of disaster is “look for the helpers” – people who move toward a tragedy to improve the situation. While it seems counterintuitive, could the Kingdom actually be ushered in when we move nearer to tragedy, where we are also nearer to mercy and charity? That is the end we hope for.

Comfort: We are closer to the promises of the God’s Kingdom every day.

Challenge: You can’t help everyone, but somewhere nearby there is a tragic situation waiting for you to inject hope into it. Find it and act.

Prayer: Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. (Psalm 80:7)

Discussion: Is hope something that comes naturally to you?

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Hope Astutely


Readings: Psalms 102; 148, Amos 5:1-17, Jude 1-16, Matthew 22:1-14

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of volunteers arrived to help the residents of New Orleans recover. Among them were con artists who accepted large down payments for construction work then skipped town. Every year Americans with terminal and/or chronic diseases spend hundreds of millions of dollars on unproven and frequently dangerous “cures.” People who can barely afford to eat donate money they can’t afford to televangelists who teach a  fraudulent prosperity gospel. Politicians convince generation after generation to blame the latest wave of immigrants (Irish, Asians, Jews, Syrians, etc.) for societal ills because they know fear mongering is good campaign strategy.

When people are desperate or afraid, they are especially vulnerable to the false comforts of people who tell them what they want to hear. The author of Jude warned early Christians to be wary of people spreading false doctrine that taught self-glorification over submission to Christ: “These are grumblers and malcontents; they indulge their own lusts; they are bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage.” Today we don’t worry much about the religious orgies contemporary with Jude’s audience, but we should be wary of leaders who conflate secular concerns like capitalism (and other economic systems), democracy (and other government systems),  or nationalism (and other tribalist systems) with Christianity in order to exploit our fears and insecurities.

In the parable of the wedding banquet, Jesus describes the wedding of a king’s son where many were invited but chose not to attend, and this lack of commitment resulted in their deaths as commanded by the king. The king’s slaves collected a second round of guests including everyone they found on the street, but even these guests were not all safe, “for many are called but few are chosen.” Those chosen few sought hard truths over a diluted and convenient message.

Our world can be scary. Our instincts can be base. Many will take advantage of that combination to spread beliefs that are not in our best spiritual interests. False comfort is the enemy of true hope. Let us be wise and make sure our hope is placed in Christ.

Comfort: We can identify true hope by comparing it to Christ’s example.

Challenge: Be wary of people who would exploit your faith for their own gain.

Prayer: I keep the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. (Psalm 16:8)

Discussion: Are there any parts of your life where your secular expectations are in conflict with your religious ones? If not … why not?

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Hope Realistically


Readings: Psalms 18:1-20; 147:12-20, Amos 4:6-13, 2 Peter 3:1-10, Matthew 21:33-46

Wouldn’t it be nice if people of faith were assured peaceful, healthy, uncomplicated lives? Some preachers – mostly of the “send us your money to pray over” variety – claim disease and difficulty can be overcome by faith alone, and that adversity simply fills a void where faith is lacking. The prophet Amos, describing God’s attempts to use drought, famine, and plague to convince the people of Israel to return to him, would claim differently. The faithful and the wicked suffered the consequences of the wicked together. When the world experiences similar troubles today, whether we believe they are sent directly by God or the natural consequences of our own misguided actions, faith is not guaranteed to shield us.

In Jesus’s parable of the landowner, tenant farmers kill the blameless servants who have come to collect the agreed upon share of the harvest on behalf of their master the landowner. One might expect the aura of authority lent by their master would protect the servants, but it does not. One can find many parallels in our modern world, where Christians continue to be persecuted for their faith. From actual martyrdom and execution to depression, addiction, illness, and crime,,, our faith exempts us from none of it.

If we are not spared suffering, why have faith at all?

Faith is the source of hope. We believe in God’s eternal plan of justice and salvation, and trust our sufferings are finite. As part of a larger body, we know the suffering and even destruction of one part does not have to mean the death of the whole. We stand in the center of the wreckage and devastation – and sometimes the wreckage and devastation dwell in the center of us – but we do not allow them to define us. In the face of seemingly endless disaster, is there anything realistic about hope? There is if our hope is dependent not on this moment, but on the faith that the Kingdom of God will not be denied. The ailing body of humankind will be raised to true life again. A stumble is still a step forward.

Comfort: God is with us through suffering, whether or not it is of our own making.

Challenge: When others suffer, let’s offer support instead of empty words.

Prayer: Guard me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings, from the wicked who despoil me, my deadly enemies who surround me. (Psalm 17:8-9)

Discussion: Do you think there is anyone who hasn’t somehow caused someone else to suffer?

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Hope Authentically


Readings: Psalms 50; 47, Amos 3:12-4:5, 2 Peter 3:1-10, Matthew 21:12-22

In the New International Version of the Bible, the word “hypocrite” (or some variant of it) appears roughly four dozen times. About half of those instances are attributed to Jesus as he chastised the self-righteous. Amos and other prophets condemn example after example of the hypocrisy of God’s people. They say God finds it so detestable that no quantity or quality of sacrifices can make up for it.

As we hope for the coming of the Kingdom, let’s do what we can to eliminate the hypocrisies in our own lives. We all have them; they’re virtually inescapable. Maybe we don’t feel we are capital-H hypocrites like those who troubled Jesus, but condemning them while ignoring our own failings is … well … hypocritical.

These behaviors are insidious, because often we justify our hypocrisy enough not to be bothered by it. Like when we rail against the sleazy tactics of the opposing political party, yet turn a blind eye toward less than honorable actions of our own side because they are doing it “for the right reason.” Or when we compromise our principles (“I believe in sustainability!”) because they might cost us money (“But fair trade coffee is a dollar more per pound!”). And when we claim to follow Christ, then find reasons to blame the poor, the alien, the imprisoned, the sick, and the sinful for their plight rather than love and serve them as we’ve been told.

The Kingdom we hope for is not one where everyone else changes and we get to bask in the satisfaction of how right we’ve been all along. To be good citizens of the Kingdom — now or in the future — we can’t assume we’ll be better people because the world will be a better place. That’s like saying: “I’ll learn to turn the other cheek when you cease to offend me.” To the contrary, the world will be a better place because we will be better people living into the fullness of Christ’s love.

It’s not easy to face our own hypocrisy, nor realistic to think we will eliminate it entirely, but the nearer we draw to Christ the more authentic we become.

Comfort: God loves us as we are, and because God loves us we can be better.

Challenge: Ask someone you trust to point out an area where you can be hypocritical.

Prayer: Hear a just cause, O LORD; attend to my cry; give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit. (Psalm 17:1)

Discussion: What hypocrisies have you discovered within yourself?

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For the record…

… Since the Lectionary is cyclical, the recent and upcoming Advent posts are polished up versions of ones written two years ago. It was a very different political atmosphere, so please don’t read too much about current events into their intent. But maybe don’t read too little into them either; the prophetic cry for justice is ongoing and timeless.