The Scent of Hope

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Today’s readings:
Morning Psalms 22; 148, Jeremiah 29:1 (2-3) 4-14, Romans 11:13-24, John 12:1–10


As Passover approached, Jesus and some of his disciples visited the home of Lazarus, the man he had raised from the dead. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anointed Jesus’ feet with a pound of very expensive perfume, and dried them with her hair. Judas complained that the perfume could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor.  Jesus told him to let her be; the poor would always be with them, but he had only a short time left.

Jesus didn’t say, “I’m about to be crucified so I deserve some special treatment,” but defended Mary’s impulse to serve him. This wasn’t an impulse he indulged often. Only a few days later, he washed the feet of his disciples, despite their protests, to demonstrate servant leadership. He could have made the same point with Mary, but there was more going on.

Mary had purchased the perfume, which contained a fragrant herb called nard, for the purpose of anointing Jesus’ dead body. Perhaps she understood and accepted what was about to happen better than the disciples did.  But if it was for his corpse, why waste it on his feet?

Not long before, Jesus had instructed Mary and her sister Martha to open their brother’s tomb. Martha warned him there would be a stench, but instead Jesus called and Lazarus rose from the grave. It seems that at some point between the tomb and the visit, Mary understood what Jesus was about. If he had conquered death, what need was there to save the perfume?

Mary understood that the feeble efforts she might muster to make death more bearable – or for that matter to make life more bearable – were no longer necessary. In a very intimate manner, she showed how she understood that in Jesus there would never be the stench of corruption. Surrendering the perfume signaled that she had surrendered her own intentions to the fragrant hope found only through Jesus.

The scent of Mary’s hope filled her home. It can fill ours too. Let us deeply inhale that blessed scent as we surrender ourselves to our Savior.

Comfort: Our hope is greater than our own mortal plans; it is in Christ.

Challenge: Pray about what you have not yet surrendered.

Prayer: Merciful God, I surrender myself to Christ in all things. Amen.

Discussion: When do you feel closest to God?

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To Serve and Protest

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Today’s readings:
 Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Jeremiah 26:1-16 (17-24), Romans 11:1-12, John 10:19-42


What does loyalty look like?

To be loyal to people or institutions, do we have to defend them even when we think they are wrong? If we believe we belong to the greatest family, team, nation, or religion we understandably want to defend it from outside threats, but how do we deal with internal dissent? Is it possible to think something is great yet flawed – perhaps deeply?

The Jewish people comprised both a religion and a nation, two things which inspire intense loyalty. The prophet Jeremiah loved his fellow Jews and so spoke bluntly to them about the path of self-destruction they as a people were heading down. Because he dared to speak of Judah’s flaws, its officials decided to repay Jeremiah’s love and loyalty with a death sentence. By the (literal) grace of God he escaped, but another prophet named Uriah was not so lucky.

We look back on Jeremiah and Jesus and think how foolish were the people who did not heed them. Yet we are still not especially eager to hear criticism from people we don’t agree with. In the realm of politics, we prejudge legislation or even an idea based on which side proposed it, not on its merit. Progressive and conservative churchgoers follow a similar pattern. We spend a lot of time trying to convince, and very little trying to understand.

The truth is, the most revealing criticisms of our beliefs and behaviors will not come from the people who agree with us, but from the people who disagree. People can be patriotic, faithful, and loyal to the same institution and still disagree on many issues. Often it’s less a matter of disagreement than of perspective. We don’t improve when we listen to our cheerleaders; we improve when another team pushes us. If our solution to a serious challenge is to make sure the other team can’t play, we don’t improve at all.

To love a thing is to nurture it so it can grow beyond its flaws and weaknesses, and – if you can’t see them – to take a step back to make room for someone who can. Sometimes the greatest loyalty is risking exile.

Comfort: Disagreement, handled properly, strengthens a relationship.

Challenge: Listen carefully to criticism, and weight its merits before responding.

Prayer: Teach me, Lord, to walk humbly. Amen.

Discussion: When have you learned something about yourself from someone you didn’t agree with?

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Is this thing on?

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Jeremiah 25:30-38, Romans 10:14-21, John 10:1-18


Unless you’re a recording artist (and possibly even then), the sound of your own record voice probably disarms you a little, especially the first time you hear it. When what we believed to be our umber tones turn out to be more a reedy beige, or when we discover we use “like” and “um” more than we use nouns, it plays with our self-image just a little bit.

If we are without speech or hearing, a similarly disorienting experience might be something like seeing ourselves walk on video for the first time – that’s how I move my hips? Suddenly it becomes obvious to us the whole world experiences us very differently than we experience ourselves.

Today’s scriptures use the metaphor of voice in very different ways. John’s gospel compares Jesus to a shepherd, and his disciples to sheep who recognize their true shepherd’s voice. This is how the author of Psalm 5 describes the voices of his enemies:

For there is no truth in their mouths;
their hearts are destruction;
their throats are open graves;
they flatter with their tongues.

Contained in both metaphors is the common idea that how something is said may be equally or more important than what is said.

When we speak about our faith, or anything that is important to us, it might be a good idea to take a step back and find out how we really sound to people. When we are attempting to reassure someone that God loves them despite their sinful nature, do our chosen words and tones really come across as “God loves you” or do they emphasize condemnation? Granted some of the interpretation is on the listener, but given how you just found out your charming laugh sounds like a goose that stepped on another goose, asking a friend for some candid feedback couldn’t hurt. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Jesus dispatched seventy disciples to spread the gospel in pairs: for a bit of a sound check.

We have good news to share. Jesus is calling. Let’s make sure we deliver his message with the best voice we can.

Comfort: When you listen for someone’s truth, you help set them free.

Challenge: Whether you like or dislike a story, its most important element is the truth it contains.

Prayer: Lord of truth and light, teach me to be discerning and fair. Amen.

Discussion: How do you react when you feel like someone isn’t listening to you?

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Palms to Palms

A leave (frond) @ mom's portico

Daily readings:
Psalms 84; 150, Zechariah 9:9-12, 1 Timothy 6:12-16, Matthew 21:12-17

Palm Sunday readings:
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Matthew 21:1-11, Isaiah 50:4-9a, 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 26:14-27:66


For most Christians around the world, today is Palm Sunday. It’s the Sunday when we remember Jesus’s triumphal arrival in Jerusalem as he rode a donkey down a road covered in branches – traditionally palm fronds – placed there by a cheering crowd. We also remember how the same crowd, at the urging of their religious leaders, later turned on him and demanded his crucifixion.

For English speakers, “palms” figure into this story again, but this time as the traditional site where the nails were driven through Christ’s hands. Since the gospel texts were originally written in Hebrew or Greek, this similarity is a mere accident of language, but it highlights the mixture of highs and lows of Holy Week.

As Good Friday and the cross draw nearer, like Peter we reaffirm our commitment to Christ, but we must admit that, also like Peter (and the rest of the Twelve), we have and will inevitably fail him in some capacity. Like the crowds who greet Christ as a King, our community celebrates the victory we anticipate our Messiah will deliver. And also like the crowds, we must confront our failures to follow him when we let our leaders – religious, political, or cultural – persuade us the difficulty, danger, or sacrifice will be too great.

This is a week to remember strangers we have rebuffed, the poor and sick we have neglected, the tribalism we’ve used to justify withholding mercy, the times we have asked forgiveness in advance because we’d rather sin than suffer.

Holy Week exists because the triumph of the resurrection is at hand, but – painful though it might be to admit – it also exists because we are the people who crucified Christ. During the time between the cross and the empty tomb, the disciples were lost, left to grieve their failures and shattered hopes. Can we spend a week in that space where they were and contemplate what it means to be utterly lost? It’s a challenge to imagine, because while we know what comes next Sunday, they thought Christ was gone forever. Palms to palms, contemplating what it means to have lost Christ might deepen our appreciation when that Easter victory arrives.

Comfort: Christ is triumphant.

Challenge: Read the passion narrative from Matthew a few times this week, putting yourself in the place of a different character (Peter, Judas, Simon, Pilate, Mary, etc.) each time.

Prayer: God of mercy, thank you for freely bestowing the grace I can not earn. Amen.

Discussion: What character in the Passion story do you most identify with?

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Discredit Check

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 34; 146, Jeremiah 25:8-17, Romans 10:1-13, John 9:18-41


After Jesus gave sight to a man who had been blind since birth, the Pharisees didn’t want to believe it happened. They called Jesus a sinner (because only sinners worked on the Sabbath) and claimed no sinner could have performed a miracle. They tried to deny the man had been born blind, but his parents, though too afraid to offer any explanations as to how he could see, testified he had indeed. They mocked and belittled him to try shaming him into recanting his story, but when he stuck to it they drove him out.

We don’t like it when the facts undermine our beliefs, so we’ll work very hard to discredit inconvenient truths.

Perhaps we want to believe the world has less bigotry than it does, so when we are confronted by it our first reaction is to explain it away, or to derail the conversation by attacking the messenger or the way the message is delivered. Many people will complain about a protest that turns violent or merely “disrespectful” without ever having complained about (or simply considered) the decades of injustices that precipitated it (and persist afterward).

Sometimes we dismiss someone’s story because it makes us uncomfortable: “oh no, our pastor wouldn’t do that” or “learn to take a joke” or “that’s just how men are.” We are gullible when we like a story and skeptical when we do not, but we should try to be inquisitive regardless.

Countless conflicts and injuries occur and reoccur because we are not willing to face facts we don’t like. Almost daily we can read news items about multiple people who had been silent (or silenced) coming forward to report a crime or injustice when one person is finally brave enough to speak up and another brave enough to listen.

Other people’s stories can be frightening because they contain the power to change our understanding of ourselves and our world. If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, doesn’t that include listening as we’d like to be listened to? Entering a difficult truth is like entering a dark room: it’s only scary until we turn on the Light.

Comfort: When you listen for someone’s truth, you help set them free.

Challenge: Whether you like or dislike a story, its most important element is the truth it contains.

Prayer: Lord of truth and light, teach me to be discerning and fair. Amen.

Discussion: How do you react when you feel like someone isn’t listening to you?

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Who sinned?

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Jeremiah 24:1-10, Romans 9:19-33, John 9:1-17


As he [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

It is no surprise (to modern readers of the Gospel anyway) that Jesus restored the man’s sight. So instead, let’s focus on the disciples’ assumption that the man’s condition must have been a punishment for someone’s sin. Jesus quickly relieves them of this notion, but it’s part of a theology that persists. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism: if we can blame someone’s misfortune on their mistakes, we worry less it might happen to us. Unfortunately, we seem to extend that line of thinking in additional directions. While today we are less likely to blame the physically disabled for their condition, we are relatively quick to blame the poor, the mentally ill, refugees, and other groups for theirs. Some circumstances are certainly a result of poor choices, but we like a convenient excuse for responding with non-demanding judgment rather than with compassion insisting on action.

“But wait,” you may be thinking, “didn’t Jesus say the man was born blind for a purpose?” Yes … and no. What does it mean for God’s work to be revealed through the needy? Not that they’ve been capriciously selected for suffering so God can show off. If the work of God’s children is to love God and one another, then the greater the need we meet, the greater the revelation of God’s glorious work.

Christ’s message to the healthy and wealthy is not: “be kind to the needy.” The message is: “You are the needy.” Indifference, selfishness, and judgment erode the spirit every bit as much as poverty, illness, and oppression erode the flesh. And the remedy for poverty of the spirit is identifying with poverty of the flesh so closely that any unbound wound is felt as our own. Apart, we are a meaningless tangle of misery. Together, each of us is a knot reinforcing a tapestry woven from mercy.

Comfort: We are blessed with a purpose that unites us with each other.

Challenge: When we know someone who suffers, let us try to understand how we are related to both their suffering and their well-being.

Prayer: God of all creation, teach me to love all your children. Amen.

Discussion: How do you understand the relationship between sin and suffering?

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Your Best Self

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 84; 150, Jeremiah 23:16-32, 1 Corinthians 9:19-27, Mark 8:31-9:1


There’s a type of message that seems to pop up frequently in social media. It generally says: “Take me as I am or watch me as I go.” Intended as a phrase of self-empowerment, it may be exactly that for people who’ve suffered rejection for something beyond their control. However, when it’s used to deflect criticism, dismiss self-reflection, or justify one’s own needlessly abrasive behavior … it’s the message of a child. Mature people remain open to change and growth. They also realize other people’s feelings do actually matter.

But it’s a balancing act. Considering other people’s feelings doesn’t mean betraying our own values. Cursing like a sailor at a church bake sale (or proselytizing at an explicitly secular event) is merely offensive, not principled; on the other hand defending free speech may require us to offend some people. Being authentic doesn’t mean expressing every thought that comes into our heads regardless of circumstance. We all learn to moderate ourselves around our bosses so we don’t lose our jobs; we should have the same respect for people who don’t hold power over us.

The Apostle Paul was too devoted to his mission to simply make controversial proclamations and end with: “Take me or leave me.” Rather, he developed relationships by empathizing with – and perhaps more importantly building relationships with – those he wanted to reach. As he wrote to the church in Corinth, to the Jews he became as a Jew, to the weak he became weak, to those under the law he became as one under the law. He never sacrificed his core message, but customized his delivery for the sake of the Gospel. Paul knew relationships supersede religion. We don’t persuade by judging; we persuade by engaging.

Our lives are more fulfilling when we find ways to point our core values and true selves toward service. If we have a big mouth, we can speak for the voiceless. If we are flamboyant, we can draw focus where it will do good. If we have a dark sense of humor, we can bridge the gap between suffering and ignorance. Don’t ever be ashamed of your story and truth, but remember you share space with other equally deserving stories and truths.

Comfort: It’s good to be yourself.

Challenge: It’s not so good to use “being yourself” as an excuse to be hurtful to others.

Prayer: Lord, I know you have created me for service. Help me to let let my gifts shine in ways that honor you and the creation you love. Amen.

Discussion: Do you ever struggle to balance being authentic with being loving?

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Bandwagon

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 43; 149, Jeremiah 23:9-15, Romans 9:1-18, John 6:60-71


After Jesus declared that those who ate his flesh and drank his blood would have eternal life, murmuring broke about among the Jews. Many struggled to understand his meaning. Others said more directly: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Jesus replied: “Does this offend you? […] The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” As a result, many disciples turned away from him.

We can draw a couple lessons from this.

First, be careful about pledging yourself to a person or cause. Once you’ve jumped on a rolling bandwagon, it will be difficult to jump off with dignity while it’s still moving. Eventually preachers, politicians, denominations, parties, etc. will take a stand you can’t agree with. Pragmatism, pressure, and pride regrettably sway people who want to retain influence. If you followed them out of a sense of tribal loyalty, you may feel betrayed by that difference in opinion, possibly needing to turn away from them entirely. It’s wiser to attach ourselves to issues and principles rather than affiliations so we feel free to agree or disagree with a person or group without feeling conflicted.

Second, God is going to make demands of us we won’t like. In such cases, our own opinions and preferences matter little. As God said to Moses, and as Paul recalled in his letter to the Romans: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” In other words, it’s God’s show to run, not ours. The consequences of doing the right thing may seem mysterious or unfair, but since our one true loyalty lies with God, we still need to do it.

We don’t know something is right and true because our favorite preacher or candidate said it; hopefully we select our favorite preachers and candidates because they try to speak what is right and true. Whether we hear something we like or something we don’t, these words of the Twelve remain our clear standard: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Comfort: Jesus offers the words of eternal life.

Challenge: We must accept them even when they seem hard.

Prayer: Lord, teach me to lean not on my own understanding, but to trust you with all my heart. Amen.

Discussion: Does your faith ask anything of you that you don’t particularly enjoy?

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Revival Arrival

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 22; 148, Jeremiah 23:1-8, Romans 8:28-39, John 6:52-59


The Bible story reveals a consistent cycle: God sets something good in motion … people take it for granted and screw it up … God offers redemption.

Adam and Eve start in a perfect garden, but can’t resist the one thing forbidden to them. God frees the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, but they succumb to fear and doubt so wander for forty years before reaching the promised land. They reach the promised land and establish a great kingdom, only to fall into corruption and exile. (Sometimes it’s a cycle within a cycle, with individuals rather than whole peoples experiencing glory and courting catastrophe). Restored to their homeland, they once again fall into corruption. Jesus sacrifices himself to save the world, and Christians repeat the cycle, in large ways and small, throughout the history of the church. Rinse and repeat.

Fortunately, God has more revival to offer than we have faults to deplete it.

One of the greatest dangers to a faith community is complacency. We can stray from the path God intends for us by sticking too closely to the path we’ve always trodden. Every tradition starts out as something new; it only becomes old when we grow satisfied with simply observing it, rather than asking why we do it. For example,  tithing – in addition to being a sacrifice to the Lord – was a means for the temple to take care of widows, orphans, and disabled people. Jewish people faithfully kept tithing long after temple officials started keeping most of the offerings. According to Jeremiah and other prophets, the Lord wasn’t pleased.

What traditions and habits that may need revisiting do we and our communities observe? During these cycles, God generally seems to be concerned with the welfare of the lost and neglected, and harsh to the comfortable and complacent. Do we have a beautiful building with a hollow soul? Is our congregation reaching out or turning inward? Is it in the business of condemnation or service?

The winds of revival are always on the horizon. When they arrive, may our necks not be so stiff that they snap like reeds in a gust.

Comfort: God is constant…

Challenge: …but our understanding of God does change and grow.

Prayer: Gracious Lord, teach me to appreciate the creation constantly unfolding from your love. Amen.

Discussion: What current attitudes and beliefs do you think are going to end up on the “wrong side of history?”

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“Is not this to know me?”

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Jeremiah 22:13-23, Romans 8:12-27, John 6:41-51


Many teachings of Jesus, especially about justice and mercy for those who are poor, echoed the words of the prophets before him. Consider these words from Jeremiah:

  Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
          and his upper rooms by injustice;
     who makes his neighbors work for nothing,
          and does not give them their wages;
who says, “I will build myself a spacious house
          with large upper rooms,”
     and who cuts out windows for it,
          paneling it with cedar,
          and painting it with vermilion […]
     Did not your father eat and drink
          and do justice and righteousness?
          Then it was well with him.
He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
          then it was well.
     Is not this to know me?
          says the LORD.
But your eyes and heart
     are only on your dishonest gain,
     for shedding innocent blood,
          and for practicing oppression and violence.

Fair wages. Dishonest gain. Excess ignoring need. Oppression. Social justice is inseparable – perhaps indistinguishable – from faith. Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul … these Biblical voices seem far less concerned with whether we hold other people accountable for their misdeeds than with whether we hold ourselves accountable for doing mercy and justice. Jeremiah’s audience probably thought their cedar-paneled wealth was a sign God favored them, when the opposite was true.

Lyn White of Animals Australia wrote: “The greatest ethical test that we’re ever going to face is the treatment of those who are at our mercy.” She was referring to animal cruelty, but this idea applies to people as well. If we are financially comfortable, lots of people are at the mercy of how we choose to use our resources. The pennies we save choosing cheap prices over fair labor practices; the time we spend evaluating the merit of the poor and needy rather than helping them; the violence we allow to continue because confronting it is inconvenient; Jeremiah could easily be addressing these sins today.

Only a couple more weeks remain in this Lenten season. Let us take time to reflect on how Jeremiah still speaks to us – not some general “us” but us personally.

Comfort: God craves justice for the poor and oppressed.

Challenge: Work on thinking of justice not as punishment for those who steal bread, but as contributing to a kingdom where no one goes hungry.

Prayer: God of Abundance, teach me to be generous with all I have, and stingy with my judgments. Amen.

Discussion: Would you pay more for something if the extra cost guaranteed someone would not go to bed hungry?

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