Jesus who?

Boy & the Bench

Today’s readings:
Psalms 43; 149, Jeremiah 5:20-31, Romans 3:19-31, John 7:1-13

Anonymity and privacy are quickly becoming obsolete. We carry identification for many purposes; our online activity is tracked and traded; our purchasing data allows marketers to target us directly; cameras and surveillance equipment feed the nightly news; and we voluntarily document almost limitless information about our lives on social media.

Life in the first century was very different. Because there were no photographs or even binoculars, many (if not most) of the people who followed Jesus wouldn’t know him if they met him. Thus, when the annual Festival of Booths arrived, he was able to wander it unnoticed and listen freely to what people were saying about him. Even his close friends didn’t know he was there. When they tried to convince him to go so he could increase his fame and reputation, he said “my time has not yet fully come” and told them he was remaining behind. What they didn’t fully understand was that he was referring to his time to die; the authorities were already plotting to kill him, and public appearances would only hasten that time.

Jesus knew how to pick his battles. He was focused on his mission and avoided distractions. However, that focus didn’t always translate into action; sometimes it meant working out the timing. It was no accident he turned over the money-changer tables in the temple just before Passover when it would have had maximum impact. The Festival of Booths (or Sukkot) was about six months later, and his crucifixion occurred at the following Passover. In one carefully orchestrated year he planted the seeds and tended the fruits that would be harvested at the resurrection.

As we move through life, we don’t have to constantly announce the minutia of our every intention and action, particularly for personal and important matters. Sometimes we need to hang back and weigh the available information (minus distracting if well-intentioned commentary) before deciding how best to live out our own calling. That way, when the time for action arrives, we are clear-headed and committed. Let’s try to recognize when things are best kept between us and God.

Comfort: You don’t have to be answerable to everyone all the time.

Challenge: Spend some time each week in a setting where no one knows you.

Prayer: Loving God, teach me when to reap, when to sow, and when to lie fallow. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever shared too much information about yourself?

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My Love is Your Love


Today’s readings:
Psalms 22; 148, Jeremiah 5:1-9, Romans 2:25-3:18, John 5:30-47

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

These opening verses from Psalm 22 don’t inspire many feel-good sermons, yet they contain the essence of faith. The psalmist who wrote these words had a very realistic view of the world. He saw that evildoers often have the upper hand, and that the faithful suffer unfairly. He felt like a worm, like prey hunted by lions and trampled by oxen. Yet in his pain and despair, he continued to cry out to God. He continued to believe God would ultimately deliver him, as so many before him had been delivered.

The psalmist, despite his misfortune and persecution, refused to believe God was anything but just.

Many people believe personal wealth and comfort are signs of God’s favor, and that poverty and illness are signs of disfavor. If this was the case, why is it that God always seemed to be sending prophets to defend the widow and orphan against the abuses of the wealthy? Why is it the hypocrisy of the powerful elicits God’s wrath? The psalmist endures his troubles by trusting that God will ultimately prevail; his current status is not the barometer of a capricious creator’s mood swings, but of the corruption of the society around him.

When we cry for justice, do we think of it as something to be delivered to us or something delivered through us? It can be either or both, but if our cry for justice ends when our own bellies are filled while others remain empty, what we’re seeking isn’t justice. The psalmist’s hope for himself is inseparable from his hope for his community. He prays to belong to a kingdom that expects is citizens to feed the poor rather than despise them.

When we believe God is just, we behave justly. If we want to be the recipients of God’s justice; we must also be the instruments of it.

Comfort: God is always the source of justice.

Challenge: When you feel you are the victim of injustice, ask yourself how you are also part of changing that.

Prayer: God of justice, I seek your way for myself and my neighbor. Amen.

Discussion: What do you think is the relationship between sin and suffering?

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Never on a Sunday


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Jeremiah 3:6-18, Romans 1:(26-27) 28-2:11, John 5:1-18

Do you play by the rules?

In theory we’re all expected to, but in practice they seem to apply to some of us more than others. How frustrating it is when people with wealth or influence can buy their way around the rules or the consequences of breaking them.

Still, most of us try to follow the rules.  Maybe not the same rules, but generally speaking our behaviors fall into patterns that we apply consciously and subconsciously. Some rules are taught to us by our families, some by society, and some by simple observation. Most are created for good reasons, but over time circumstances change and the rationale for many rules—including religious ones—grows distorted.

Rules can become so integral to our identities that breaking them, even when they cease to have meaning, threatens our sense of self. If that happens, we may find ourselves existing to serve the rules, rather than the other way around. When this happens, we begin to observe the technicalities of the rules rather than their spirit. Sometimes this looks like doing the bare minimum, and sometimes it looks like obsessive behavior.

The Sabbath healings of Jesus presented just such a threat to the Pharisees, whose identity depended on rules.

Since Sabbath healings – which were against the rules – appear in all four Gospels, we can assume the message of these stories is important. Rather than judge the Pharisees, let’s learn from their example.

Our expectations of other people’s behavior are often based on the rules we’ve imposed on ourselves. We may become offended when such expectations are not met, regardless of whether or not we’ve made said expectations clear. When this happens, we choose how to react: we can dig in our heels, or we can examine the reason for our offense. We needn’t automatically assume we are wrong, but self-examination never hurt anyone. Like Jesus, we need to consider when rules are appropriate, and when they should be superseded by compassion, justice, or love. In Christ we are a people of love, and not a people of law—even self-imposed law. Is the Sabbath made holier by offering mercy or withholding it?

But Christianity is not a free-for-all! Christ has expectations of his followers. Determining these expectations can be hard work, because “love your neighbor” is not nearly as explicit as a list of forbidden activities. Loving someone doesn’t absolve them – or us – of accountability. Christ didn’t offer formulas for faith, but principles for relationships with our God and our neighbor. Our rule is love, and its accompanying expectations can change with each person we encounter.

Comfort: You are more than the rules you follow.

Challenge: When someone doesn’t meet your expectations, ask yourself whether you made that person aware of them.

Prayer: Merciful God, teach me when to be merciful, and when to stand strong. Amen.

Discussion: Has assuming someone should “just know” something ever caused trouble for you?

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Not For Prophet


Today’s readings:
Psalms 34; 146, Jeremiah 2:1-13, 29-32, Romans 1:16-25, John 4:43-54

Popular culture, and even some corners of Christian culture, portray prophets as a breed of mysterious oracles revealing the future through puzzle-like symbols and coded language. Modern self-styled prophets are famous for predicting the end of the world, and infamous for batting zero while collecting millions. We lump this distorted image of prophets in with psychics, clairvoyants, and fortune tellers.

The Biblical prophet, however, was not on a road to popularity and wealth. Prophesying was dangerous work; some prophets paid with their lives for confronting a community that had lost its way to idols and injustice.

Prophets like Jeremiah used language and symbols that may need clarification today, but would have been familiar to their audience. Their ultimate goal was not to mystify and condemn, but to convict and save. The warning of a harsh future came with a promise: God loved his people too much to abandon them, and when once again the people learned to properly love him back there would be reconciliation. It was never about God leaving the people, but about the people leaving God.

Consider these words of the Lord delivered by Jeremiah:

          They have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
that can hold no water.

These words were about more than disobedience; they addressed how the people brought ruin upon themselves. When we substitute our own values and plans for those God has given us, they will ultimately fail us. Like cracked cisterns, they may seem to hold water for a while, but eventually we will find them to be empty and we will be desperate for the real thing.

Jesus also referred to himself as the living water. His message echoed the messages of the prophets who preceded him, and he knew “a prophet has no honor in the prophet’s own country.” When a prophet tells us what we don’t want to hear, it’s not time to get defensive: it’s time to seek hope through repentance. Christ’s message of radical justice and inclusion was most difficult for those who believed they had a lock on God and religion. When listening for prophetic voices, humility serves us well.

Comfort: God would rather forgive us than condemn us.

Challenge: We have to seek forgiveness before it can be granted.

Prayer: Merciful God, I will listen for your authentic voice. Teach me to hear it. Amen.

Discussion: When have you benefited from hearing something you didn’t want to?

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The Gospel Dance


Today’s readings:
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Jeremiah 1:11-19, Romans 1:1-15, John 4:27-42

Paul had been evangelizing for almost twenty years before he set his sights on Rome. Several Christian communities were established there, and he intended to visit with them on his way to Spain.  Since the early church was not in agreement on all matters, Paul wrote them a letter to make sure they understood his stance in advance of his arrival. We don’t know for certain whether he ever made it to Spain, but the epistle he wrote to the church in Rome is considered by many to be his masterwork. More than a mere introduction, it builds a rich and complex theology of salvation through Christ.

But Paul knew he didn’t know everything. Near the beginning of the epistle he writes:

For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you — or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.

When we share the gospel, we receive as well as give. Left to our own devices, we can make only so much spiritual progress. Despite our best intentions and discipline, in spiritual isolation our own biases eventually overtake us. Like a self-taught musician or artist, we won’t know what we don’t know. As part of a Christian community, we can challenge and be challenged, grow and foster growth. Reaching across Christian communities only multiplies that growth.

Not everything we have to learn will necessarily come from other Christians. When we share our personal stories and the Gospel story with non-Christians, we learn something from their responses, and also from our reactions to those responses. If someone reacts unexpectedly, negatively, or even violently to our efforts, our commitment to sharing the gospel may be revealed. Do we try to understand why? Do we insist on our own way? Do we examine our approach and motives? Do we resort to force?

The gospel is not a solitary endeavor. Sharing it is not the same as delivering a monologue about it. Letting it unfold between us and someone else is like laying out a dance floor where we move together under the light of Christ to the rhythm of the Spirit.

Comfort: You don’t have to know everything.

Challenge: Don’t be afraid to talk about the gospel with people who differ in good faith.

Prayer: Loving God, let me find the right words and steps to share the Gospel. Amen.

Discussion: Where do you find opportunities to grow your faith by sharing it?

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Words Matter


Today’s reading:
Psalms 84; 150, Jeremiah 1:1-10, 1 Corinthians 3:11-23, Mark 3:31-4:9

Consider these words from the Lord to the young prophet Jeremiah:

Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.

Words, especially those inspired by (or attributed to) the Lord, are powerful. The right words can bring down nations and establish new ones. Jesus was crucified because Jewish leadership and the Roman empire both knew words are sparks that can ignite a revolution from seemingly nowhere; institutions that hide behind false words are tinder waiting to burn.

Healthy institutions welcome exchanges of words and ideas. Good ideas and true words do not need defending; they can withstand scrutiny and welcome constructive criticism. When governments and religions fear their people, they try to silence those people. Authoritarian governments and legalistic religions enforce silence through threats, imprisonment, and even death. Institutions which are less authoritarian (or wish us to believe they are not) may act more subtly yet still silence people through lies, legal action, and propaganda. The most malevolently skilled institutions get us to silence each other.

To the corrupt and fearful, the most truthful words are the most threatening. When Galileo persisted in advancing heliocentrism – the now undisputed theory that the earth revolves around the sun – the Catholic church put him under house arrest for the heresy of contradicting scripture. Under the Third Reich and the Cultural Revolution, artists and writers who expressed “unacceptable” ideas were arrested and executed. The words we hear – or are permitted to hear – shape our understanding of the world. Truth is often not in the best interest of the powerful, so they suppress it.

Don’t fear words and ideas. Don’t trust leaders who fear them. Instead, learn to listen critically so you can discern the good from the bad, the true from the false. If someone answers a question by saying you shouldn’t have asked it … ask again. Speak plainly and truthfully, and expect the same of others.

Jesus was the Word made flesh. All true words lead back to him.

Comfort: Truth is always from God.

Challenge: Not everything we think is true really is.

Prayer: God of truth, grant me the words to share your truth with others, and grant me ears to discern the good word from the bad. Amen.

Discussion: When is the last time someone spoke a truth that changed your worldview?

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Modern Samaritans


Today’s readings:
Psalms 43; 149, Deuteronomy 11:18-28, Hebrews 5:1-10, John 4:1-26

During our two year journey through the Daily Lectionary, we return to the story of the Samaritan woman at the well eight times.  When she first meets Jesus she has no idea who he is, and she would have been scandalous by the standards of first-century Jews. First, she was a Samaritan, a people who shared common ancestry but a bitter feud with the Jewish people. Second she’d had five husbands, and her current companion was not her husband. Yet when she learned Jesus was the Messiah, she became an evangelist to her people, who then invited Christ to teach them.

Eight times a year we are reminded that Jesus fostered reconciliation with his people’s enemies and outcasts.

That’s probably not enough.

One sad truth about human nature is that we segregate ourselves into tribes and consequently define the world as us and them. Team Us likes to blame all our problems on Team Them; after all, why wouldn’t any and all decent people be part of Team Us? A common enemy gives Us purpose, and sometimes even helps Us survive. Team Them takes our jobs, our land, and our self-respect … or at least we know they’re trying to! So that justifies why Team Us – naturally the more righteous side – needs to do those things first.

Are there people who really intend us harm? Certainly. But statistically speaking we’re in more danger physically and economically from those like us or close to us than from outsiders. We don’t like to admit that our wisecracking, churchgoing uncle is more likely to assault us than is a stranger in a bathroom, or a Sikh we’ve mistaken for a Muslim. Samaritans didn’t crucify Jesus – his neighbors did.

Historically there has always been a new group of ethnic, political, religious, or sexual Samaritans we can dehumanize to serve as scapegoats for our fears and as distractions from our own failings. We always believe we have a good reason to consider them the villains of Team Them.

The history (and present) of all nations and cultures (including our beloved US of A) is riddled with examples of not just disproportionate responses to real and imagined threats, but preemptive attacks and domination of people who had nothing against Us until we moved into Their territory (be it physical, political, or spiritual) … and then declared them dangerous enemies for defending themselves. Creating a “Them” is an awfully convenient way of justifying our own sins.

If Christ is our example, shouldn’t we be doing good to them even when we are afraid?

No matter who our newest Samaritans are, Jesus died for them too.

Comfort: Jesus doesn’t require you to have enemies…

Challenge: …but he does tell you to love the ones you do have.

Prayer: God of peace, teach me to take the plank from my own eye before condemning the specks of others. Amen.

Discussion: Has your view of any social group evolved from unfavorable to neutral or even favorable?

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Relationship Status: It’s Complicated


Today’s readings:
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Jeremiah 4:9-10, 19-28, Romans 2:12-24, John 5:19-29

Emotions can be knotty experiences. Rarely are they tidy, discrete, easily identified conditions that we can distill to the smiley and frowny emojis punctuating our text messages. Usually emotions are interdependent and tangled and deep and as hard to unearth as ancient tree roots.

Anger may be the most complicated of all, because it is almost always a secondary emotion that develops as a defense against fear or pain. Anger, while not inherently bad, can be destructive in our relationships firstly because most of us are not skilled at identifying its true root, and secondly because we are not comfortable cracking the shell of anger to expose the soft underbelly of “weaker” emotions it protects. Divorces, for example, are so bitter partly because it takes a lot of anger to mask a lot of pain.

When Jeremiah describes God’s anger at Israel, he compares their relationship to unfaithful lovers or ungrateful children. The imagery communicates the anguish underlying God’s wrath. The Israelites have pained him in terrible ways. Damage in this relationship is deeper than a breach of contract between business partners, or resentment between master and servant.  God is not imposing a calculated transactional penalty like an employer docking wages or a bank revoking credit. He is mourning a broken relationship and its inevitable consequences.

Jeremiah’s call for repentance raises anger among the people. Their anger is a defense around their shame. Their shame comes from knowing they are not in right relationship with God. We repeat this pattern many times, in many relationships, with many people. Repentance means accepting we have been wrong at a level so fundamental we must change our way of thinking, and that is a fearful thing to do. If we respond to that fear with anger – by hardening our hearts – we have little chance of repenting.

To be in right relationship with other people, including ourselves, we must first be in right relationship with God. To be in right relationship with God, we must risk being vulnerable. That crack of vulnerability is all God needs to flood our hearts and transform our souls

Comfort: All your emotions are allowed.

Challenge: Don’t be afraid to explore emotions that make you feel vulnerable.

Prayer: Loving God, give me the courage and wisdom to know myself. Amen.

Discussion: How would you describe your relationship with your emotions?

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The dog ate my excuse.

Image result for dog ate my homework meme

Today’s readings:
Psalms 22; 148, Deuteronomy 10:12-22, Hebrews 4:11-16, John 3:22-36

In the letter to the Hebrews, the evangelist writes:

“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Isn’t that a comfort? Our high priest, Jesus, knows exactly how difficult temptation is. After forty days in the wilderness before his ministry began, he resisted the devil’s promises of power. On the cross, he forgave those who crucified him. In between, he faced every manner of temptation the rest of us do. His triumph over temptation could seem intimidating since none of us can hope to live up to it, but it is an assurance  of sympathy, mercy, and grace.

On the other hand, it gives him an excellent baloney detector.

Certainly he was tempted to make excuses just like we do. To pretend having no pleasant choice is the same as having no choice. To write off the difficult as the impossible. To blame other people for our own behavior. To dismiss those who opposed him as wicked.

Jesus chose the cross; we choose the bottom line. Jesus turned Paul the Christian-hunter into his greatest evangelist; we won’t hire an ex-felon. Jesus entered enemy territory to share bread and salvation; we create an economy dependent on foreign laborers then vilify them for accepting our invitation. Jesus showed grace to his executioners; we legislate against those who don’t share our dogma “for their own good.”

Grace and mercy aren’t granted because we cling to convincing excuses; they are available when we humbly admit no excuse is good enough. It is impossible to seek forgiveness while justifying our sin. When we fail to the love the poor, the sick, or the alien among us – even if we feel they persecute us – we must not blame them for our failure.

Grace is ours for the asking. We just have to stop explaining why we deserve it.

Comfort: Jesus understands your trials.

Challenge: For one week, don’t justify your mistakes to anyone. Just own them.

Prayer: Merciful God, boldly I approach you, humbly I lay my sins before you. Shine your merciful face upon me. Amen.

Discussion: When are you prone to make excuses? How do you react when others make excuses?

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Rest Easy?


Today’s readings:
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Deuteronomy 9:23-10:5, Hebrews 4:1-10, John 3:16-21

Rest requires a lot of work.

In the fourth chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews, the evangelist compares the rest that waits for us in God’s presence to the rest experienced on the Sabbath. A first-century Jewish audience would have thought of a Sabbath very differently than we modern Christians think of a traditional Sunday. The command to honor the Sabbath was not merely a suggestion to take it easy – it was a command (actually a whole lot of them) about exactly what could and could not be done. Because so many types of activities were explicitly and implicitly forbidden, lots of things – such as meals, stove fires, and candles – had to be in place before sundown on Friday. Without proper preparation, one would spend the Sabbath hungry, cold, and in the dark.

That’s the difference between idleness and rest. Idleness is inactivity when and where there should be activity. Idleness now can actually make it almost impossible to rest comfortably later. Proper rest re-energizes our bodies, fuels our creativity, and focuses our spirits. When we don’t prepare time and space for such rest – when mundane demands creep into the space and gobble up the time – we end up more tired than when we began.

Just because we aren’t toiling doesn’t mean we’re resting; vacations can be exhausting! And rest isn’t necessarily unproductive. Jews observing the Sabbath can share festive meals together, take walks, read, sing, pray, play games, and make love. Each of our lists of restful activities may vary, but we still need to be intentional about them: cramming them into random spare moments reduces their benefit.

The author of Hebrews suggests that if we want to enter eternal rest with God, we ought to be preparing now. There’s no set checklist to accomplish before the time comes, nor a minimum number of brownie points to acquire. Through grace is given freely, the choices we make now prepare us to better receive it. Let’s prepare so as not to leave any unfinished business, any nagging worldly concerns, when that day of rest is finally offered to us.

Comfort: You are allowed to rest.

Challenge: Be deliberate about your periods of rest. Mark specific times/daysRest  for it on your calendar.

Prayer: Loving God, I look forward to the day when I rest in your presence. Amen.

Discussion: Are you able to rest/relax? If so, how? If not, why?

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