Speechless

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Numbers 11:24-33 (34-35), Romans 1:28-2:11, Matthew 18:1-9


“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Jesus followed up these words with his famous teaching of tearing out an eye or removing a hand if it causes us to stumble away from him. He doesn’t mention the tongue, but it seems logical if our tongue causes us to stumble, we should tear that out also. The tongue may be doubly dangerous, as it can cause others to stumble also.

When our tongues tell people the church hates them (even when we’ve convinced ourselves we’re acting in love), they may find it impossible to believe Christ loves them. Too often the church focuses on a particular subset of sins (usually sexual in nature) and targets the people who commit them until they feel driven from the rest of the community. Paul warns us in Romans that by casting judgment on others, while we ourselves remain sinful, we condemn ourselves. Effectively we say: “Your visible sin is too terrible to tolerate, but my personal sin (which flies under the local radar) is more acceptable.”

Don’t think that’s true? Well, the church hasn’t developed a conversion therapy industry around unrepentant greed, and we don’t distribute scarlet J’s for judgment. Yet the greedy and judgmental can feel perfectly safe in a church that creates a climate hostile toward gay people and unwed mothers.

We are all sinners working toward transformation through Christ. We don’t always agree on what is sinful; that has been true for the entire history of the church, but the church survives because we work it out together. Scripture directs us to hold one another accountable, but the gossip-monger is as accountable as the murderer.

Repentance is a journey we take together. If we oust everyone who doesn’t meet someone else’s standards, soon the church will be empty. Better to enter the kingdom speechless than to have talked one of God’s children out of salvation.

Comfort: God loves you.

Challenge: God loves everyone else, too.

Prayer: Loving God, make me an instrument of your peace. Amen.

Discussion: How has your understanding of sin evolved as your faith has matured?

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Gleaning Compassion

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Leviticus 19:1-18, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28, Matthew 6:19-24


Sometimes it can feel difficult to reconcile the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament. Even if we consider Christ’s sacrifice a watershed event (the moment when we were freed from the law and its harsh demands), the God who wiped out entire nations to make room for the Israelites seems very far from the God of Christ who wants us to love our enemies. But even in the hundreds of laws laid out in Leviticus and Deuteronomy we see glimpses of Christ’s teachings.

Amid rules like being cast out for eating sacrificed food after three days, God commands his people not to harvest to the edge of their fields, and not to pick up the fallen crops and grapes. This is so the poor and alien among them – those whom Jesus might call “the least of these” – can find food. This practice, called gleaning, was a mandate to the nation. God tells his people to render justice impartially, without regard to poverty or wealth, foreshadowing Paul’s message that in Christ there is no slave or free. Perhaps most tellingly, God instructs them to “love your neighbor as yourself.” When most people use that phrase they’re thinking of the Gospels, not rule-laden Leviticus.

In 1 Thessalonians Paul advises: “test everything; hold fast to what is good.” When tackling difficult portions of the Old Testament, the standard against which we can test them is Christ’s message of love. Even though Christ tells us to refrain from judgment, we must be careful not to set the standard as “all is forgiven so anything goes.” The Old Testament, even the parts that seem barbaric by modern standards, contains many valuable lessons and we do ourselves a disservice if we dismiss or ignore them. At the very least, they help us understand how our perception of and relationship to God has evolved over the years.

Paul also tells them “to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.” From gleaners to Thessalonians, in every age God teaches us to love and care for all his children.

Comfort: God always loves us.

Challenge: Be open-minded about weakness, whether yours or another’s.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for allowing me to test all things. Teach me what is good, that I may hold fast to it. Amen.

Discussion: Are you patient with people you see as weak, idle, or fearful? What weaknesses do you have that you wish you could hide from others?

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The Rest of the Story

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Exodus 12:28-39, 1 Corinthians 15:12-28, Mark 16:9-20


The phrase “history is written by the victors” is usually attributed to Winston Churchill or Walter Benjamin. The implication is that each culture or civilization gaining prominence rewrites history as propaganda flattering itself. Some facts may be inconvenient or unavoidable, but over time the need to define ourselves as the good guys spins them; consider recent proposed textbook revisions redefining slaves as “immigrants” and the slave trade as the “Atlantic triangular trade,” or Canadian First Nations peoples mutually agreeing to “make room” for European settlers.

Could this idea influence our reading of the Passover story in Exodus?

Moses had been trying to convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrews leave captivity to worship in the wilderness. Every time Pharaoh refused to free them – the text says God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” – God sent another plague upon Egypt. These escalated in severity until finally, in the dead of night, God slew all the firstborn of Egypt. Through Moses God warned the Hebrews to mark their doorways with blood, so their houses were passed over for death. As grief devastated Egypt, Pharaoh finally relented.

Exodus was written by the Hebrew people for the Hebrew people. Of course they are its heroes … but God also created the Egyptians. They were estranged from Him and worshipped other Gods, but surely He took no joy in slaughtering His children. Our Christian story traces its roots through the history of the Hebrew people, so we celebrate this victory, but can we imagine the horror of this story from the perspective of an Egyptian peasant family losing their only son?

In numerous biblical passages, God forbade the Jews to return to Egypt. Yet when the infant Jesus was in danger of being killed by Herod, God instructed Joseph to flee to Egypt, where he and his family stayed for years. Moabites, Uzzites, and Samaritans were similarly vilified, but God raised heroes from them and Christ spoke freely with them. When we wrestle to reconcile texts like the Passover narrative to God’s loving nature (and we should), we should also be wrestling with our own attitudes about personal, cultural, and historical enemies. People on the losing side of history have stories too.

Comfort: It’s OK to think critically and ask questions of difficult Biblical material. God will always be able to handle your questions and doubts.

Challenge: Do some research into history as relayed by people who didn’t fare so well.

Prayer: God of the past, present, and future, guide me so my contributions to the story of humankind are just and merciful. Amen.

Discussion: What parts of your national history are subject to “whitewashing?”

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Risen and Recognized

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Easter readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Acts 10:34-43, Luke 24:1-12

Today’s daily readings:
Psalms 93; 150, Exodus 12:1-14, John 1:1-18, Luke 24:13-35


Jesus Christ is risen today! Alleluia!

Where will we encounter him? Cleopas and another disciple (possibly his wife, who was present at the crucifixion) were on the road to Emmaus when they met him. Surprised that he didn’t seem to know about recent events in Jerusalem, they spoke of the crucifixion and the empty tomb. Though he interpreted for them the meaning of everything that had happened, they still did not know who he was. When he sat down to eat with them and blessed bread and broke it, “their eyes were opened” and they knew the risen Christ. “He had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

Like the disciples who met him on the road, or the boat full of disciples who later saw him on the shore but didn’t recognize him, our vision of Christ can be limited by our expectations.

When we limit Christ to what we already know of him, we are not following the living Christ, but worshiping a lifeless photograph. Christ didn’t rise so we could wrap ourselves in a shroud-like faith that preserves but does not reveal.

To find the living Christ we often have to take time away from the safe and familiar worship at the foot of the cross – because he is no longer there!

The risen Christ may seem like a stranger, but we will recognize him by his love. When he breaks bread with our enemies. When he stands on a cold street corner protesting injustice. When he holds the hand of a lonely friend with a terminal diagnosis. When he digs a well on a desert reservation so people don’t have to drive two hours for water every day. When he welcomes refugees fleeing violence into his home for weeks at a time. Christ does all these things when we, as his only body here on earth, do these things. It is then when others who do not know him may see his nature revealed in us. It is then we can declare our redeemer lives.

Jesus Christ is risen today! Alleluia!

Comfort: Our savior lives, and he lives in us!

Challenge: Today of all days, greet everyone with love.

Prayer: Dear LORD I give thanks for the Risen Christ! May I live ever more deeply into the love you have shown us through his sacrifice and resurrection. Your grace and mercy are endless. May my praise be endless as well. Amen.

Discussion: Despite being a resurrection people, we often entomb our faith by confining it to church. How can you let yours free in the world?

 

Inside Out

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 43; 149, Lamentations 3:37-58, Hebrews 4:1-16, Romans 8:1-11


How do you go on?

After one of your closest companions betrays your beloved teacher …
After fear has driven you to deny your friend and savior …
After the messiah to whom you dedicated your life lies in a tomb…

… how do you go on?

The disciples would have begun observing the weekly Sabbath shortly before sundown on the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Candles would be lit. Prayers would be said. Songs sung. Meals eaten. Outward signs of mourning were forbidden on the Sabbath. Everything would have looked normal on the outside, but inside … grief and chaos.

Whatever activity or (this being the Sabbath) inactivity occupied their bodies, the disciples’ minds must have been on the tomb, not far away, with a body freshly lain and a stone newly rolled across it. From the outside it would have looked like any other tomb, but inside … incomprehensible injustice.

The scribes and Pharisees, Herod and Pilate, and everyone else who feared or hated Christ’s teachings were settling back into a sense of restored order, perhaps even contentment that they had successfully squelched this would-be king and prevented rebellion. The world looked the same as it had before, with the same people holding power, but deep inside … the rules of victory were being rewritten.

We spend a lot of time in this state, appearing one way to the world while, for better or worse, experiencing a wholly different inner life. Holy Saturday represents the tipping point of that experience. On that day, the disciples were resigned to the calm and ordered injustice of the flesh, while their souls were in torment. After that day, they were willing to sacrifice themselves on the altar of the Gospel, because nothing could shake the peace they had found in Christ. What a remarkable change!

What state are we in today? Is our world orderly but our faith easily shaken? Is our world in turmoil but our faith a rock? Or are we somewhere in-between, living an extended Holy Saturday moment, broken but hoping despite the evidence that justice will reign?

On the outside today may seem like any other day, but inside …

Comfort: The story isn’t over.

Challenge: Sometimes we have to give up exterior respectability to find interior peace.

Prayer: God of hope, today we mourn the injustice of the world. Send us peace. Send us love. Send us Christ. Amen.

Discussion: When has your outward stability masked inward change?

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Holy Friday

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 22; 148, Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-33, 1 Peter 1:10-20, John 13:36-38

Readings for Good Friday:
Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Psalm 22, Hebrews 10:16-25, John 18:1-19:42


If “Good Friday” seems like an odd name for a day commemorating a crucifixion, understand that good used to mean holy. All over the world, Christians re-enact Christ’s journey to Golgotha (also called Calvary) and his terrible execution. From congregations reading the passion together, to prayer groups walking the stations of the cross in troubled neighborhoods, to entire towns becoming Jerusalem for the day, Christians feel compelled to relive the story.

Because we know how the story turns out, we may find it easy to judge the crowds whose cheers turned to condemnation, or Peter, who – as Christ predicted – denied knowing him not not once, not twice, but three times. Certainly we would not have shouted “Crucify him!” We could never deny him … could we?

Let’s assume we could. Actually, let’s assume we have – because it’s true. None of us lives perfectly. That being the case, isn’t it comforting to know the person Jesus hand-picked to found the church was as flawed as we are? Maybe that’s why in passion stories most of us play the angry mob: to be reminded each of us is in need of forgiveness, and so don’t have the right to judge anyone. Christ later assured Peter he was still loved, but surely the knowledge of that moment of fear, weakness, and betrayal never left him. And almost as surely that memory helped forge the compassion and mercy for others that would have been necessary to speak for Christ.

When we feel like judging, let’s remember Peter – weak, frightened, impulsive, imperfect Peter. Then let’s remember Christ forgave him, as he forgives us, and calls us to forgive. It was the sin of the world that Christ forgave on that cross, including the sin of our own imperfect mercy and tarnished compassion.

From noon this day until Sunday morning, the disciples were without Christ. They thought the story was over, and despaired. This holy Friday and Saturday, let’s contemplate what it would mean to live without hope of forgiveness for ourselves and others. Today Christ hangs on the cross. We shouted “Crucify him!” Now we weep.

Comfort:

Challenge: Pray for forgiveness.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Discussion: What does Good Friday mean to you?

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Where is bread and wine?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Lamentations 2:10-18, 1 Corinthians 10:14-17; 11:27-32, Mark 14:12-25


Maundy Thursday is the day Christians traditionally observe The Last Supper, when we received the gift of communion from Christ. No matter our particular practices and beliefs around communion, all Christians can recognize it unites us across time and place. The significance of celebrating a salvation accomplished through a broken body and shed blood has been contemplated for lifetimes, yet its power and mystery are undiminished.

The book of Lamentations speaks of infants crying “Where is bread and wine?”as they faint weakly on their mothers’ bosom. These elements have been staples throughout recorded history. Their presence represents abundance, and their absence despair. The author, who was referring to physical bread and wine,  probably could not have imagined a crucified messiah. Yet in Christ’s sacrifice abundance and despair are united in a way that assures us the divine is present in all things, even the worst life has to offer. Even sitting at a meal with a friend you know will betray you to excruciating death.

Some days we can’t see the bread and wine.

Where are they when disease robs us of our comfort and dignity?
Where are they when senseless accidents rob us of our loved ones?
Where are they when the world burns at the hands of madmen?
Where are they when children are abused, abandoned, and sold into slavery?
Where are they when depression shrouds our souls in darkness?

They are at the communion table. The Lord’s Supper is powerful because it gives us a taste of bread and wine when we can’t find them on our own. It acknowledges that – right now – life is hard and tragic and seemingly senseless … but because that bread is Christ’s broken body, and that cup is filled with Christ’s shed blood, it reminds us God is present among us – and revealed – in life’s tragedy. Our pain is as real to God as it is to us.

We have been wandering the wilderness for so long we can’t see our way out. For now the bread may taste like ash and the wine like tears, but Lent always surrenders to Easter.

Comfort: God is present with you right now.

Challenge: Today, allow yourself to grieve.

Prayer: God, my creator, make known to me your presence. Amen.

Discussion: What does communion mean to you?

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Only Tenants

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Lamentations 2:1-9, 2 Corinthians 1:23-2:11, Mark 12:1-11


The Parable of the Tenants is a difficult story, which forces us to confront our unwillingness to put God’s desires above our own. A landowner entrusts his vineyard to tenants while he travels abroad. After the harvest the landowner dispatches servants to collect his share, but the tenants greet the servants with violence that ranges from beatings to murder. Finally the landowner sends his son, and they kill him too.

In the common interpretation of this story the landowner is God, the tenants are the appointed religious leaders, the vineyard is Israel, the servants are prophets of the past, and the son is Jesus. The leaders hold the people captive and forget the true head of the vineyard is God. They destroy any and all who oppose their claim to power, even those sent by the true owner. The death of the son foretells the crucifixion.

Contrast this parable with the second chapter of 2 Corinthians. The Biblical narrative tells us Paul visited Corinth three times. The first visit was to establish the church. The second one – which he refers to in his letter as “the painful visit” – was to reprimand church leadership for acting immorally. One man seems to have been particularly troublesome. In this letter, Paul says he is not going to visit again at this time precisely because he feels his corrections had been too harsh and wants to avoid causing any more pain for the church or himself. He asks the Corinthians to forgive the troublesome man and punish him no longer.

When Paul realized his approach was not true to his mission … he gave it back to God. A more stubborn man might have dug in his heels and justified his actions, maybe even returned to Corinth to double down. Paul knew spreading the Gospel was more important than defending himself. Refusing to surrender his plot of land might have broken the Corinthian church. Whether our plot is a ministry, a family, or an actual vineyard, we are all only tenants tending it best we can until the time comes to give it back to God.

Comfort: You don’t have to tend the whole world…

Challenge: … but tend your plot well and surrender it timely.

Prayer: Generous and loving God, teach me to care for your world as you have called me to do, and grant me the humility to change and grow with your seasons. Amen.

Discussion: When does your urge to punish endanger your willingness to forgive?

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Paulitically Correct

Today’s readings (click  below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 34; 146, Lamentations 1:17-22, 2 Corinthians 1:8-22, Mark 11:27-33


Remember the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials where one person walked down the sidewalk carrying chocolate, another person rounded the corner carrying peanut butter, and they collided? “You got your chocolate in my peanut butter! You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!” Then smiles as a voice announced: “Two great tastes that taste great together!” Religion and politics are the opposite of whatever that was: mix them together and it leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

The chief priests, scribes, and elders of Jerusalem were politicians first and religious leaders second. When they asked Jesus by whose authority he cleared the temple of moneychangers and merchants, he responded with a question of his own: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” If they chose heaven, they would have to explain why they hadn’t believed him. If they chose human, the crowd would become angry. Their response did not hinge on what was true,  but on what was politic. We don’t even know what they believed, because they said: “We don’t know” – the “I do not recall” of its time. The political press conference hasn’t changed much since then.

Because their politics undermined their moral authority, Jesus did not feel compelled to answer their questions. Perhaps we should take a similar approach to modern day religious leaders who rely on popularity to maintain authority. Many a pastor – regardless of personal beliefs – has refused to challenge a congregation on issues of inclusiveness for fear people might object and leave. Such silence is almost always interpreted as consent for the status quo. Religious leaders – ordained or self-proclaimed – seeking political office must depend on popularity to succeed, and that often means sacrificing  integrity on the altar of electability.

Jesus did not compromise his mission, even as his followers turned on him. Paul may have adapted his style to suit an audience, but his message remained consistent. Neither dodged the difficult questions.  We are wise to reserve our respect for religious leaders who do not pander, but tell us what they believe. Even when we disagree, integrity is a foundation for building relationships.

Comfort: It’s all right to question religious leaders when you question their motives.

Challenge: God has given you the ability to think for yourself. Use it.

Prayer: God of wisdom, grant me ears to hear the words of the just and righteous. Help me turn away from voices that lack integrity. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever felt like you sold out your values?

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Lament

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Lamentation 1:1-2, 6-12, 2 Corinthians 1:1-7, Mark 11:12-25


The Book of Lamentations was written in response to the destruction of Jerusalem hundreds of years before Christ’s birth. We revisit it during Holy Week because its theme of spiritual self-destruction is timeless. The author(s) of Lamentations believed God allowed the ruin of his people and their land because they had abandoned God and sinned shamelessly. Exiled and oppressed, the Jewish people sought vainly for consolation and mourned their foolishness.

Our modern understanding of salvation and sin as personal episodes distances us from the experience of communal lamentation.

Every so often some televangelist blames a natural disaster on  the sin of a community, but they always seem to be disasters “over there” – in New Orleans, Haiti, or some other place the preacher doesn’t live, and they always seem to be sins the preacher doesn’t commit – or admit. But the biblical prophets tell us the sins which most angered God weren’t attributable to individuals, and the just weren’t spared the repercussions. Hypocrisy, mistreatment of widows, orphans, and the poor, and other injustices – these angered God. We can’t point to one person and blame them for the plight of widows and orphans, so it’s easy to blame “the system.” But what is the system if not the cumulative response or neglect of individuals?

Our choice is simple: Repent now or lament later. Do we really believe no spiritual implosion looms on the communal horizon when we let industrial toxins disproportionately poison the poor? Or when our justice system prioritizes revenge over rehabilitation? Or when the most popular religious voices are teaching us faith is a means to tap into God’s limitless ATM? When no one is accountable, everyone is responsible.

By the time Jesus starts flipping the tables in our temple, it will be too late. The system will implode. But beyond that horizon is the promise of resurrection. As God eventually returned a contrite nation to Jerusalem, Christ restores our contrite hearts to the kingdom. Jesus taught that when we pray, we should forgive so we can be forgiven. Let’s recognize what we as a community need to be forgiven for.

Comfort: Resurrection is always on the horizon.

Challenge: It’s tempting dismiss injustice as “that’s the way things are.” You can’t fight every injustice, but can you pledge some of your time, talent, or money to combating at least one that doesn’t impact you directly?

Prayer: God of Mercy, accept my sacrifice of a contrite heart. Open my eyes to the ways I carelessly or ignorantly neglect the least among us, for in your kingdom they are the greatest. Amen.

Discussion: How do you feel about salvation as a community experience?

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