Worthy

loveandbeloved

Today’s readings:
Psalms 57; 145, Isaiah 48:1-11, Galatians 1:1-17, Mark 5:21-43


“Worthiness” is a concept that gets thrown around lot in certain Christian circles. When we thank God for loving us despite our sinful nature, we call ourselves “unworthy” of that love. That may be true in the sense that God’s love is not something we can earn. It may even be necessary to keep our egos in check.

But the world already does too good a job of convincing far too many people they are without worth, so the wrong type of focus on our “unworthy” nature can cause yet more damage. In some cases, it can be exploited in very un-Christ-like ways. Christ taught people who thought they were forever outside of God’s love that God loved them too. Shouldn’t that be our focus also?

Every one of us feels insecure about something. Our physical appearance. Our weight. Our ability. Our love-ability. 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. We all know people who feel unworthy to be loved by themselves, by others, or even by God. Deep-seated feelings of unworthiness, left unaddressed, can result in destructive and self-destructive behavior.

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

Hogarth, William, 1697-1764; Christ at the Pool of Bethesda

Christ at the Pool of Bethesda – William Hogarth (1697-1764)

Today’s readings):
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.

First, Jesus performs a healing on the Sabbath, which – according to the Pharisees – breaks the Mosaic Law. In this way he establishes that he understands the law better than they do.

Second, 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 beyond their ability to understand or judge. This only intensified the Pharisee’s desire to see him killed.

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

But 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 miraculously made whole.  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 seemingly contradictory ideas telling us on one hand that faith will heal us and on the other that suffering brings us closer to Christ. Can both be true?

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.”

Until he died, even Paul suffered an unnamed malady, which he called the “thorn in his side.” 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 both illness and health 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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In Equity

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 56; 149, Isaiah 46:1-13, Ephesians 6:10-24, Mark 5:1-20


In his various letters, Paul reminds us again and again that in Christ all are equal. However, he also recognized that isn’t the way the world works. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells husbands to respect and love their wives, and wives to obey their husbands. By modern standards that’s a sexist stance, but at the time – when women were the property of their husbands – it was radical. He tells children to obey their parents, and fathers not to provoke their children to anger. In Christ, any authority granted us by culture is not ours to exploit or wield ruthlessly, but to execute justly.

Paul’s words for masters and slaves were controversial then and now, but for different reasons. He told slaves to obey with fear and trembling, and to serve with enthusiasm, and he told masters to stop threatening slaves and to “do the same to them.” Since he didn’t demand outright that slaves be freed, some people who aren’t fans of the Christian faith drag out this passage as if it we an overall Christian endorsement of slavery. (It may not help that some defenders of slavery actually did use this and similar scripture passages to support their position.)

We don’t know what Paul’s feelings about slavery were, since addressing slavery wasn’t his mission (though we do know he intervened on behalf of at least one runaway slave). Paul was introducing the gospel to people in their present circumstances; because he believed the return of the Lord was imminent, restructuring society would have been immaterial.

Of course slavery is utterly indefensible (and its abolition in the west was due in large part to Christian efforts), but let’s remember we still live with many social injustices that are dismissed even – and sometimes especially – by Christians as “the way things are.” From exploiting labor to dumping industrial waste on communities too impoverished to fight it, we are part of a world that turns blind eyes toward injustice. Changing society may be like turning the Titanic around, but what we are willing to tolerate or promote in our lives indicates how closely we take the gospel to heart.

Authority and privilege should be used – and if necessary sacrificed – in service to those who lack them. Unequal roles may be unavoidable, but expressing love, dignity, and spiritual equality within them is always an option.

Comfort: In God’s eyes, you are not defined by your position in life.

Challenge: Exercise any authority or privilege you possess as through it was entrusted to you for the purpose of spreading God’s love … because it was.

Prayer: God of mercy, teach me to be merciful. Amen.

Discussion: Has anyone shown you mercy when they didn’t have to?

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A Quest for Questions

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 36; 147:12-20, Isaiah 45:5-17, Ephesians 5:15-33, Mark 4:21-34


Human beings like answers. It was true thousands of years ago in the time of the prophet Isaiah, it’s true today, and (if we are still around) it will be true thousands of years from now. Uncertainty vexes us. Sometimes we are more content to grasp at false answers than to have no answers at all. Yet sometimes the answer is simply … there is no answer.

When the exiled nation of Israel cried out because it seemed God had abandoned them, Isaiah challenged their right to take God to task. He compared them to lumps of clay questioning the choices of the potter. The God of Israel declared he “made weal and created woe” as he saw fit, and human beings should not strive to comprehend why.

Like the ancient Israelites, we often want to know why God has allowed bad things to happen to us (and isn’t it funny how we are less likely to wonder why we are deserving of the good things?). Some people’s faith evaporates when it does not protect them from the bad things and the world stops making sense to them. “How can a loving God let evil things happen?” they wonder. That question can feel threatening to people of faith. An entire industry of apologetics, creationist “proofs,” and theological musings has evolved to address that question. In the end, most of them are overly pat and largely unsatisfying. But “we’ll never know” doesn’t exactly sell books and videos.

Questioning is healthy, but some questions will remain unanswerable. Isaiah, Job, Proverbs: these scriptures and others advise us energy spent on unanswerable questions could be put to better use. If we can accept the paradox that God is good and bad things still happen, we can move on to address questions of a faith lived in the world as it really is: Whom shall we serve? How shall we love? Where is God leading us?

Folk wisdom tells us the journey matters more than the destination. If an answer is a destination, perhaps finding the right questions to ask matters more than getting there.

Comfort: Asking the right questions makes all the difference.

Challenge: We must learn to live with the reality that we’ll never have all the answers.

Prayer: God of mystery, may your love be answer enough. Amen.

Discussion: Do any unanswered questions really bug you?

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Fertile Ground

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Isaiah 44:24-45:7, Ephesians 5:1-14, Mark 4:1-20


In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus tells the story of a man who scatters seed across several types of ground. Only one type is good soil where the seed may find purchase and bloom. The seed, Jesus explains to the disciples, is the Word and the different types of ground represent the hearts and convictions of those who hear it.

As Christians, we believe we are the good soil where God’s word takes root and “bears good fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” That may very well be true, but it may also be true that God hasn’t yet sown all the word He has for us. Does any serious farmer reap one successful harvest then stop tending the plot? Of course not. There’s a lot of work that goes into preparing for the next one. Are we still fertile ground for the new things God might do, or have we borne all the fruit we care to?

Good soil requires a lot of care. It needs to be tilled regularly. It needs water. It needs fertilizer. It needs to be weeded so its nutrients aren’t needlessly depleted. Sometimes it needs to lie fallow for a season to be restored to health.

In other words, good soil is no accident. We may have gotten lucky once – or perhaps more accurately, been the beneficiaries of God’s grace – by being born or reborn into the faith, but are we putting in the necessary work to prepare for the time when God would scatter new seed our way?

The insights resulting from prayer and study help us keep our faith freshly turned over. Worship and praise feed and water our souls. Self-examination and confession reveal the weeds we’ve let overrun our hearts and habits. Being open to new information helps us understand how we best function in a changing environment. And rest – the kind of rest that occurs only when we finally turn our worries over to God – gives us the strength we need to be fruitful during the more inhospitable seasons of life.

When we do this work, we are better prepared to receive and nurture whatever God throws our way: a new mission, a new journey, a new understanding. They can sink their roots deep into our hearts, and grow to their potential. The sower is generous with the seed; let’s give it somewhere to land.

Comfort: God is always doing something new.

Challenge: Select a spiritual discipline, such as fasting or prayer, and stick to it for a month. Note any changes and growth it promotes in you faith life.

Prayer: God of new life, I will do my best to be ready to receive your Word. Amen.

Discussion: When have you felt God pulling or pushing you to grow in a new direction?

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Float

Today’s readings:
Psalms 123; 146, Isaiah 44:9-20, Ephesians 4:17-32, Mark 3:19b-35


Stepping into faith is like walking with fists full of gold coins into a deep lake. The first few steps are invigorating – a refreshing dip for our weary soles. The sand may slip and shift beneath our feet, but if we feel unsteady the familiar shore is only a stumble away. As we go deeper, we feel more buoyant, lifted by a force far greater than ourselves.

But at a certain point, perhaps around the point the water becomes level with our hearts, we begin to notice the drag of those gold coins. And now we have to choose: settle for going no further, turn back in defeat, keep going and drown … or start getting rid of the gold.

Those gold coins have names engraved on them. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells us some of those names: theft, corruption, lust, falsehood, bitterness, wrath, slander, anger, malice. Maybe we’re having difficulty letting go of them; they seemed so valuable so useful! on the shore. We want to hold onto them in case these living waters won’t really support us, but it’s the holding on that makes us seem like we’re slipping under the waves.  Their illusion of safety ultimately leads to the deep, cold darkness.

Maybe we’re feeling foolish for not leaving them on the shore, or for forgetting our hands were not empty. The good news is, we can open our fists at any time. If we let these waters swallow our burdens, we will feel lighter. More free. Risen. Can we let go?

For an instant we let them drag us below the surface. We are suspended between two worlds – one that offers a familiar, inevitable death, and one that promises life if only we grab it … and nothing else. Each finger we uncurl, each coin we release, is a movement toward life. As the last coin slips between our fingers, we break the surface.

Hands free, we can spread our arms, lay back, and relax into the gentle surface of the lake and the certainty it will cradle us … and let the face of the sun shine upon us.

Comfort: The Living Waters of Christ will sustain  you.

Challenge: Grab a handful of coins. Name them for the things you need to let go in order to rest in Christ, and throw them in a lake or fountain.

Prayer: God of the Living Waters, let my spirit rest in you. Amen.

Discussion: What are some things you need to let go of?

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Well, well, well…

The Samaritan Woman at the Well – Annibale Carracci

Today’s readings:
Psalms 19; 150, Isaiah 43:14-44:5, Hebrews 6:17-7:10, John 4:27-42


The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., said “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Many factors contribute to this phenomenon, including our natural inclination to congregate with people we believe are like ourselves. Almost instinctively we make religious, political, and cultural distinctions. Sometimes we intentionally gravitate toward groups that affirm our beliefs, but more often than not we’re happy to stay put where fate planted us. There is nothing necessarily wrong with being part of a group, but problems start when we are too eager to define who is not in the group.

Jesus was notorious for ignoring such boundaries. Like many famous rivalries, the bitter one between Jews and Samaritans was between relatives. Both tribes claimed a common ancestor in Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah. By Jesus’ time they had nothing to do with each other. When Jesus ignored this history of enmity and spoke with a Samaritan woman at a well, they had a frank conversation that left her wondering if he might be the messiah. When she told her story to her people, they invited Jesus to stay with them and he visited for two days. Upon his departure, many followed him because they recognized the truth in his teachings.

Who are our Samaritans? People we refuse to talk to because they are too different from us? People who are similar in almost all ways except the one we can’t bring ourselves to be flexible about? Or people we can just ignore because our lives are structured in such a way that we never encounter them?

If we are to follow Jesus, we have to follow him into both friendly and unfriendly territories. We must do our best to accept people as Christ did: across ethnic divides, up and down the economic ladder, beyond humanly imposed doctrine. We must welcome rivals into our group, and we must be prepared to be welcomed by our enemies.

A well is a place that draws together people who have a common need. If we can’t find one, let’s start digging.

Comfort: Christ’s family is not defined by anything or anyone but Christ.

Challenge: Everyone is someone’s “Samaritan.”Be honest with yourself about who yours might be, and whose you might be.

Prayer: God of all creation, teach me to love my neighbors even when we don’t like each other. Amen.

Discussion: Could you be somebody’s Samaritan? If so, whose?

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Ideology or Idolatry?

idolschooseyou

Today’s readings:
Psalms 104; 149, Isaiah (42:18-25) 43:1-13, Ephesians 3:14-21, Mark 2:23-3:6


Ideology is a sneaky devil. When we are born into one, we usually don’t even think of it as an ideology, but simply as the way things are – or should be. For example, capitalism is the dominant economic ideology of the western world. We talk about it as though it is an actual entity, but in truth it is a collective agreement to adhere to a set of principles. No one still living was party to the original “agreement,” but centuries later we all (for the most part) continue to operate under its rules.

As with any ideology, over time there has been a subtle but consistent shift of how we think about it: those who originally adopted the principles did so to serve society; today we consider those principles essential to our identity, and often behave as though society exists to serve them.

Unadulterated capitalism – like any economic theory – is neither practical nor, in the long term, beneficial so we have tempered it with some socialist practices, yet we can’t even bring ourselves to call them that. To sustain an ideology we must turn a blind eye to its faults, often at our own peril.

In many Gospel stories, Jesus rejected cultural ideology in order to serve humanity. After he plucked grain and healed a man on the Sabbath, in violation of Hebrew ideology, the Pharisees started conspiring to destroy him. His admonition that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” did not move them. Jesus knew that their ideology had become idolatry: they placed the letter of the scripture above the intent of God.

What ideologies have we turned into idolatries? The Pharisees were certain of their rigid interpretation of scripture. Should we be as sure of our own? Have we ever defended or attacked an idea simply because the “other side” criticized or promoted it? The worst examples may be when we let political, religious, and economic ideologies blend into an unexamined hodgepodge that corrupts faith into an excuse to neglect and abuse our fellow humans.

When we are most sure of our ideologies, we are least able to consider them wisely, so they are the most dangerous. Wisdom tells us mercy trumps idolatrous laws. By example Christ teaches us to examine them and use them to serve, not to blindly bend to them. God trusts us to think. Let’s trust God enough to do so.

Comfort: It’s perfectly acceptable to question what you’ve been taught to believe.

Challenge: Ask questions.

Prayer: God of truth and mercy, I will serve the law of love and the gospel of peace. Amen.

Discussion: Some people assume questioning something will lead to rejecting it. How do you feel about that?

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Chaotic Peace

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 51; 148, Isaiah 42:(1-9) 10-17, Ephesians 3:1-13, Mark 2:13-22


Justice.

To twenty-first century, Western sensibility, that word implies a certain type of order: punishment for wrongdoing, restitution for injury, recovery of one’s property. We use it in an almost exclusively legal sense. Phrases like “economic justice” spark debate and raise complaints about wealth redistribution, entitlements, and merit. We want justice to be blind, orderly, and swift.

God doesn’t always do “orderly.” When Isaiah describes the arrival of God’s justice, the scene he paints is chaotic. God’s justice lays waste to mountains, cries out like a woman in labor, and turns rivers into islands. Yet his servant doesn’t raise his voice, break a bruised reed, or even snuff a faint wick.

As the embodiment of God’s justice, Christ upends the Pharisees’ expectations about the messiah. He tells crazy stories about patched-up wineskins. He dines with tax collectors and other “undesirables.” He eats and drinks more than they think a messiah should. When challenged about the company he keeps, Christ tells them straight up he is here for the sinners, not the righteous.

If we broaden our definition of justice to include building a world where the most vulnerable are taken care of, do we see justice reflected in our modern world? Do we spend our collective energies and resources primarily on punishing the guilty, or on helping transform desperate communities to foster hope and alleviate the poverty that leads to crime?

The latter often requires acts of civil disobedience outside the realm of the strictly legal. Susan B. Anthony, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi each participated in non-violent protest in the name of justice. Each nudged their corner of the world into slightly better alignment with the kingdom of God, where the last are first and no opportunities denied because of gender, social status, or ethnicity.

We tend to think of blessed lives as quiet and orderly, but God’s justice scrambles our carefully crafted plans and lives. Followers of Christ spend time on the margins of society, living with and working on behalf of the disenfranchised. According to each of our means and talents, we work for the type of justice that seeks to include rather than exclude, to practice mercy rather than revenge, and to raise to messy life systems that are orderly but soulless. Justice does not lock things down; it cracks them open.

Comfort: We don’t have to crack skulls to open hearts.

Challenge: Read some biographical material about people who have engaged in non-violent resistance.

Prayer: God of peace, teach me to serve with love. Amen.

Discussion: Many Christians have differing perspectives on pacifism and non-violence. What’s yours?

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Breaking Barriers

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Isaiah 41:17-29, Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 2:1-12


What do you get when you cross an argument about circumcision with a paralyzed man lowered through a hole in the roof? You get today’s scripture readings from Ephesians and Mark.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul addressed the reconciliation of Jewish (circumcised) and Gentile (uncircumcised) Christians. This was a major controversy within the early church, because Jews considered circumcision a sacred and necessary sign of their covenant with the Lord.  They weren’t yet convinced non-Jews could even be Christians, let alone disregard centuries-old tradition, but Paul taught them about the new life that unites all people who followed Christ.

In Mark, a paralyzed man had friends who wanted him to encounter Christ. They couldn’t get through the crowd surrounding the house where Jesus stayed, so they broke through the roof and lowered the man on a mat. Moved by their faith, Jesus told the paralyzed man his sins were forgiven. When the scribes questioned by what right he forgave sins, Jesus also healed the man of his paralysis as a demonstration of his divine authority (though one suspects the healing was on its way all the while).

And when we cross these stories, we see a consistent theme of how faith in Christ removes barriers between people. Paul said of Christ, “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Because of faith, the paralyzed man’s friends broke through a physical barrier, and Christ broke through a religious barrier.

Religion can be the source of a lot of barriers. Jesus, the Apostles, and Paul spent decades tearing down the false barriers religion created between God’s children, but we’ve spent centuries building replacements. We try to wall God inside our creeds, denominations, and dogma. We convince ourselves it’s because we want to preserve something – our version of the circumcision, perhaps? – but in the end we use them to reinforce a tribal mindset declaring who is inside and who is outside.

Relationships – at least the kind Christ calls us to – are a lot messier than religion: they refuse to be defined by walls. All those stones Jesus discourages us from throwing? Let’s use them to build bridges instead of barriers.

Comfort: Christ is breaking barriers for us right now.

Challenge: Meditate on your beliefs. Which ones are walls, and which ones are bridges?

Prayer: God of all creation, let me build no obstacles where you would not have them. Amen.

Discussion: When have you found yourself excluded on “religious” grounds?

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