Whom do you trust?


Today’s readings:
Psalms 62; 145, Isaiah 51:17-23, Galatians 4:1-11, Mark 7:24-37

Trust is at the core of faith. Whom (or what) we trust reveals where our true faith lies. We can say and believe we trust God, but when pressed, do we turn to God… or to something else? Under trying circumstances, do we grow more generous in response to the increased needs of others, or do we cling more tightly to what we have? Do we trust our savior or our financial advisor? Psalm 62 warns us not to trust in increased riches, but we often place practicality above generosity.

Jesus himself accepted advice that living a life of abundance means not hoarding resources, especially spiritual ones. When a Syrophoenician woman asked him to heal her demon-possessed daughter, he responded by saying it wasn’t fair to throw the children’s food to the dogs. The children were the Jewish people, and the dogs – an insulting term in his culture – were the Gentiles. When the woman reminded him even the dogs got crumbs that fell on the floor, he relented and healed her daughter.

In that moment, Jesus displayed trust in a God abundant enough to transcend his mission among the Jews. Do we trust God’s abundance enough to be open to those who are strangers or even foes to us, or does a narrow vision of our mission limit what God can accomplish through us?

Sometimes we need to undergo some self-examination to understand where we place our trust. Paul reminds the Galatians that a person who trusts in anything other than God, such as the Law or superstition, becomes enslaved to that thing. Today we may cling to the law instead of love, or make idols of creeds or ideas. We may define ourselves by our looks, popularity, intelligence, wealth or any number of things which are impermanent at best, rather than by our relationship with God. If we lost any of these – or all of them! – tomorrow, we would still have God.

What things are we enslaved to; that is, what unworthy things divert our trust from God? Let’s trust God now, so we have nothing to regret later.

Comfort: When everyone and everything are gone, God remains.

Challenge: Meditate on what you really trust. When you begin to fear or worry, remind yourself to trust God.

Prayer: God of abundance, I place my trust in You. Amen.

Discussion: When have you been disappointed by something you thought you could rely on?

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Whistle Blower


Today’s readings:
Psalms 108; 150
, Isaiah 51:9-16, Hebrews 11:8-16, John 7:14-31

The term “whistle-blower” is in the news a lot these days. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: “a person who informs on a person or organization engaged in an illicit activity.” How one feels about whistle-blowers and their activities can depend very much on which side of the event one falls. For example, whistle-blowers who expose health care fraud to the government can earn quite a bit of money depending on how much is exposed and recovered. On the other hand, government employees who become whistle-blowers are often subject to harassment and persecution the government prohibits in other entities. And then there are people who leak information for malicious reasons while trying to shelter under the cover of whistle-blower.

Among his many roles, Jesus was a sort of whistle-blower. He frequently and publicly exposed the hypocrisy of the religious leadership. In first century Palestine, the religious leadership was the equivalent of the local government, though they operated within the constraints of their Roman occupiers. Because their authority was grantedgbtly Rome, his disregard for such authority was also a direct affront to the empire. As is the case with many whistle-blowers, confronting his accusations would have led to confirming them. Unable to discredit Jeus on the facts, the authorities began retaliating against him through a whisper campaign among the Pharisees, who plotted to kill him.

Whistle-blowers are almost never the only people who know corruption is occurring. They are simply the first – and often only – people with the courage to bring it to light. If we are to follow Christ, we also need to call out corruption and injustice – in our churches, workplaces, homes, and governments – when we know about it. There will probably be consequences and retaliation, but an inauthentic relationship with God and one another is the much worse consequence of keeping silent.

Truth, even hard truth, is freeing. Deception requires increasing amounts of energy to maintain, and in the end leaves resources for little else. If telling the truth ostracizes us from one community, it joins us with the greater community of saints joined in the body of Christ.

Comfort: The truth sets your soul free.

Challenge: Speak truth to power.

Prayer: God of truth and love, give me the courage to be your witness. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever had the need or opportunity to come clean? How did it feel?

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The Moral Arc


Today’s readings:
Psalms 122; 149, Isaiah 51:1-8, Galatians 3:23-29, Mark 7:1-23

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” However, he was not the first to use this particular metaphor. In 1857 Unitarian minister Theodore Parker used it in a sermon against slavery. Between Parker and King, other religious leaders also referenced the “moral arc.” This image endures because it bears out across time. Over the years, as discrimination has become less acceptable, increasing numbers of people have gained access to freedom and justice.

Jesus constantly expanded the circle of justice to include the disenfranchised and despised. As Paul wrote to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Distinctions that separate human beings have no meaning in the kingdom of God.

Since Paul’s time, the church has traveled the moral arc to challenge divisions and champion justice in the form of abolition, civil rights, child labor laws, and other social movements. Like society at large, the church experiences an uneven ebb and flow of progress, but on the whole it moves in the direction of justice. What barriers to justice is it helping tear down right now?

Popular wisdom says we are more likely to think of individuals and groups as our equals after we get to know them. While this is generally true, and while it is desirable to broaden our understanding of the world, a hard truth remains: we simply don’t have time to understand all the people Jesus would have us love. Does Christian love – expressed in mercy and justice – require us to understand its recipients? It does not, and demands to be extended especially toward those who remain alien to us.

Perhaps the only real division is between people we understand and people we don’t. Can we rise to the challenge of loving people justly even when our lack of understanding create social or emotional barriers? The road to justice runs straight through those barriers and often beyond our ability to see, but it is where Christ waits to meet us.

Comfort: The Kingdom of God is always expanding.

Challenge: Read or listen to MLK’s Sermon at Temple Israel.

Prayer: Infinite God, share with me your vision  so I may see beyond the horizon of my own limited understanding. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been part of a group that was excluded by the church? Have you ever actively excluded any group from church?

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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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Fertile Ground


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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Choose Your Own Adventure


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Isaiah 41:1-16, Ephesians 2:1-10, Mark 1:29-45

According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s ministry quickly took off in a big way. In Capernaum he healed many people and drove out many demons, and word of his power spread quickly. Soon the entire city was at his front door. (Or more precisely, the door of Simon and Andrew’s place where he was staying.)  As he traveled with his disciples to spread his message to the neighboring towns in Galilee, “A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’”  And Jesus, moved with pity, said, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

Did Jesus ever choose not to heal? Did he ever choose to turn anyone away?

Some people may say yes. They may point to the rich young ruler who went away heartbroken when Jesus told him to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor. They remind us of the many people who abandoned Jesus after he presented them with a particularly difficult teaching. And they trot out the man who wanted to bury his father but was told to “let the dead bury the dead.”

Except Jesus didn’t turn any of those people away. They walked away. They chose to walk away.

Some preachers warn we soften the harsher truths of discipleship when we say Jesus accepted everyone. Maybe that’s so, but that doesn’t mean we should start deciding for ourselves whom Christ would reject, because we don’t know. A primary controversy of his ministry was based on fraternizing with “unclean” people the “righteous” people shunned. Once we decide we’re in the camp of the righteous, our view is skewed. Saul counted himself righteous and literally hunted Christians before he became the apostle Paul who wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

Rather than worry about other people’s choices, let’s direct our energies towards modeling our own choices after Christ. Without compromising our values, we can always find ways to choose mercy. Choose forgiveness. Choose to give the benefit of the doubt. Choose generosity. Choose to recognize dignity. Choose humility. Choose love.

Even when these choices are unattractive or difficult, they are still ours to make. The cost of making the right choices is a burden we voluntarily bear ourselves, not one we should force onto others.

Comfort: Jesus does not reject you.

Challenge: But that doesn’t mean you can’t reject Jesus.

Prayer: Loving God, help me make choices that reflect your love and righteousness. Amen.

Discussion: Have you made choices that other people have had to pay for?

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Evangelize vs. Evange-lies


Today’s readings:
Psalms 42; 146, Isaiah 40:25-31, Ephesians 1:15-23, Mark 1:14-28

Evangelists have an image problem.

For many people, both inside and outside the church, the word “evangelist” evokes revival tents packed with fake healings and snake oil salesmen. The world of televangelism, with its shiny suits, big hair, and pledge drives for private jets, hasn’t done them any favors. The stereotype of the modern evangelist doesn’t have much in common with John the Baptist and his camel hair tunic. For as long as we’ve had religion we’ve had people trying to make a buck off faith and fear. That’s not evangelism.

When Jesus recruited his disciples, he did so with an eye toward the future and the evangelizing they would be called to do. Even in his day, people were wary of the clergy. Jesus didn’t start his search among religious leaders: he chose fishermen. These fishermen – Peter, Andrew, James, and John – were men of the world, hard-working businessmen who could get dirty when necessary and be salesmen when needed. If they had good news to spread – news good enough to make them leave their old lives behind – people would listen.

We are all called to evangelize, to spread the good news of the Gospels. Few of us are called to do it from the pulpit. Members of the New Monastic movement do it by becoming part of inner city communities. Jay Bakker – son of infamous televangelists Jim and Tammy – started Revolution Church in a bar where many patrons had fewer addictions, tattoos, and piercings than he did. Some people spread the good news through volunteering to help the elderly prepare income tax statements and others take youth to rebuild after disasters.

Real evangelists exist everywhere; you can recognize them because it’s obvious they’ve dropped their nets to find new lives following Christ.

Saint Francis allegedly said: “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Less famously he also said:  “If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.” Each of us is equipped to evangelize the moment we have a story to tell.  Whether we share it through words or actions, it is a recognizably true story. The truth eventually withstands all image problems.

Comfort: Thanks to God, you have important truths to share.

Challenge: Ask friends how they’ve seen you share the Gospel; their answers may surprise you.

Prayer: God of the Good News, I will spread your word through the gifts you have given me. Amen.

Discussion: What’s your preferred way to share your faith?

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Many Waters, One God

Baptism of Christ, 1481-1483 - Pietro Perugino

Baptism of Christ, 1481-1483 – Pietro Perugino

Today’s readings:
Psalms 5; 145, Isaiah 40:12-24, Ephesians 1:1-14, Mark 1:1-13

The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist is present in all four Gospels as the beginning of Christ’s ministry. Scriptures don’t tell us conclusively whether Jesus himself baptized anyone, but his disciples certainly did. Baptism in water – and later in the Spirit – is an essential element of the Christian tradition.

Yet somehow it’s one more thing Christians can’t agree on. Many denominations practice infant baptism. Others practice a believer’s baptism only for people who are of age and confess to salvation in Christ. Both find Biblical support for their position. Some others, particularly among Evangelical and non-denominational churches, don’t require it. Methods vary from sprinkling to total immersion. Beliefs about baptism range from an absolute necessity for salvation to a symbolic act of publicly acknowledging one’s faith. Beliefs about re-baptism are all over the map.

This devotional isn’t about convincing anyone about the meaning of baptism … but perhaps we can use it as a model to examine how we might reframe contentious conversations. Some people try to convince us their understanding of baptism is correct because they just have to be right, but many – particularly on the side of baptism as an absolute necessity – are actually adamant about their position because of love. If you believed you could save someone from death or suffering by pointing out the speeding train, wouldn’t you? And if you believed the train someone pointed out was a false alarm, would you be angry at them for being wrong or would you appreciate their concern?

No one wants someone else’s beliefs forced on them, but is it possible we can become so eager to take offense and to assume intent that we perceive every expression of a different opinion as a point to be argued?

Whether we choose to hear “your soul is important to me” or “you’re going to hell” is often a decision (sometimes unconscious) that makes a difference in how we respond. We can say “I disagree” instead of “you’re wrong!” We can listen. And if we believe it’s a matter of life or death, our most convincing evidence may be how we love.

Comfort: Disagreement without disrespect can be real…

Challenge: … but we might have to be less defensive for it to happen.

Prayer: God of Love, where this is discord, may I sow peace. Amen.

Discussion: When has changing your attitude changed a conversation?

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Waters of Baptism


Today’s readings:
Psalms 104; 150, Isaiah 40:1-11, Hebrews 1:1-12, John 1:1-7, 19-20, 29-34

Baptism of the Lord readings:
Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

John the Baptist dedicated his life to boldly preparing the way for the Messiah. Yet when Jesus came to be baptized, John hesitated and said he was unworthy – that Jesus should be baptizing him. Jesus reassured him all was as it should be. According to the Gospels of Matthew and John, the heavens opened, the Spirit came to rest on Jesus, and a voice declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

This story begins a consistent portrait of Christ throughout the Gospels. Though he is the Messiah, Jesus remains humble. Despite his disciples’ protests, he washes their feet at the Last Supper. As the crucifixion draws nearer, he doesn’t seek to be exempt from the laws or the courts. When we accept the baptism of the Spirit, we accept that to be our greatest, we must become the least.

Christ-like leaders – followers of Christ in general, really don’t expect special treatment, see themselves as above the rules, or shift blame and accountability. They don’t expect more of others than they do of themselves. Recognizing leadership as a servant’s burden, they accept the consequences of doing and saying the difficult but necessary things, and approach the role with humility rather than hubris. In baptism we are made equal, and whether our role is prince or pauper we are endowed with dignity and enslaved to service.

But equal in theory is not the same as equal in practice. John the Baptist, quoting the prophet Isaiah, says valleys must be filled and mountains leveled to make straight the path of the Lord. Justice doesn’t begin with equality, but with recognizing everyone doesn’t start from the same situation. Asking two people to each roll a boulder a mile sounds equal, but when one is facing uphill and the other down, it just isn’t so. Justice is never a simple declaration, but the difficult construction of a wide road, then the willingness to travel side-by-side.

The waters of baptism wash the scales of injustice from our eyes. Like Christ, let us see beyond a status quo that settles for fair into a future that is truly just.

Comfort: In Christ we are all equal.

Challenge: Each day this week, ask yourself how you can be a better servant.

Prayer: Bless the Lord, O my soul; praise the Lord! Amen.

Discussion: Have you known of examples of where treating people “fairly” is different than treating them justly?

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 46 or 97; 149, Isaiah 52:3-6, Revelation 2:1-7, John 2:1-11

Jesus performed his first public miracle at a wedding he attended with his mother. When Mary told him the wine ran out, at first Jesus replied it was none of his concern. Still Mary told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” After that, Jesus turned over a hundred gallons of water into surprisingly good wine. The servants who drew the water knew what happened, but the wine steward assumed the bridal party had been holding back.

A lot of the world is like that wine steward, ignorant of how Christ and his church are at work in the world, yet benefiting just the same. Christians hear a lot of criticism about the church. Some is justified, but a lot of people refuse to see the good the church does because they are committed to viewing it only through the lens of lurid stories of abuse and corruption. Others make over-simplified claims like “religion is responsible for more wars … blah blah blah.” We must be honest with ourselves about our flaws, but we should not be shamed about what the church is and what it does when we are actually following Christ.

Faith-based organizations feed, shelter, clothe, heal, rebuild, resettle, and otherwise positively impact the lives of hundreds of millions of people in need every year. The stereotypical “sermon before soup” model is not the norm for most of these institutions; we meet needs regardless of the particulars of someone’s faith. We should avoid engaging in pointless (and impossible to settle) debates about whether religious people are more or less generous than non-religious people, because we aren’t in competition. Our efforts, imperfect though they may be, help people who would otherwise suffer with no hope of relief.

The church’s primary business is spreading the Gospel, but the Gospel directs us toward service. That service benefits communities in ways many never (or refuse to) recognize. They focus on scandals and frauds rather than shelters and food pantries because not seeing the homeless and hungry begging on the streets doesn’t make news. We may be servants, but we can spread the Good News about where our good wine comes from.

Comfort: You and your church are not defined solely by your faults.

Challenge: Visit the web-sites of Church World Services, Heifer InternationalCatholic Charities, or Week of Compassion to read about the good work the church does, and how you might participate in it.

Prayer: God, may your people and church ever grow in love and generosity. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have a favorite faith-based organization to donate to or volunteer for?

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