Hope Justly

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Readings: Psalms 33; 146, Amos 3:1-11, 2 Peter 1:12-21, Matthew 21:23-32


The Old Testament contains over a dozen books named for prophets. Most of them contain the same message for the people of God: repent and embrace the justice God requires of you or the consequences of your actions will destroy you. God seems to have no desire to punish his people — why else provide them so many warnings? — yet when we read the words of the prophets we can’t help but feel the inevitably of their self-destruction.

Amos tells us “the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets” and says the people hear the lion roar yet do not fear. Rather, they content themselves with fulfilling the letter of the law while ignoring its purpose: to bring justice to God’s people. Nearly 800 years later, Jesus was the roaring lion the people chose to ignore. His message to the leadership of the time could have come from Amos: while paying lip service to the Lord, you are ignoring holy truths. When faced with the question of Jesus’s authority, they feigned ignorance rather than risk losing their grip on the people by telling the truth.

To what prophetic cries for holy justice do we turn a deaf ear today? In what ways are we trading the demands of justice for personal convenience? What groups of people do we allow to be vilified or victimized for political or financial expedience? In this age of information overload, any failure to recognize the voices which cry out for an end to poverty, racism, sexism, exploitation, and countless other ills requires a willful ignorance rivaling the pharisees. We are being warned. Will we be as hard-hearted as those who denied Amos and Jesus?

It’s not too late. Whether Christ returns tomorrow or a million years from now, today we can choose to be a people whose actions court blessing rather than wrath. Advent is a time to say: “I hear you. I see you. I long for the justice denied you, and tremble before God that I have been party to it.” Advent is the time to roar like a prophet.

Comfort: Christ comes into the world to deliver justice to the persecuted.

Challenge: Read about human trafficking and the seafood industry. Think about how you can value justice as part of the price for goods and services.

Prayer: Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm. (Psalm 33:8-9)

Discussion: Who does it seem God might be warning today? Through whom is God speaking?

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Hope Humbly

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Readings: Psalms 122; 145, Amos 2:6-16, 2 Peter 1:1-11, Matthew 21:1-11


What does it mean to wait for Christ? In one sense it means preparing our hearts and spirits for the promise of Christmas. Whether we all agree about the historical details of the nativity, we share a fairly common understanding about its message. In another sense, it means preparing ourselves for the return of Christ at some future time — and we have a lot less agreement about what that means. Some of us think of it as a literal embodiment of Revelation. Others are less certain of the details but envision a physical return. Still others think of it in metaphorical terms and don’t much separate the future Kingdom of Heaven from the present. Almost certainly none of us knows exactly, and Christ will continue to thwart expectations. It’s kind of his thing.

In Matthew 21, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem on a donkey. This gesture symbolized his defiance of both Roman authority and the expectations of the Jewish people. The Jews were expecting a warrior messiah, a political figure who would throw off the chains of Roman tyranny in bloodshed and battle. Instead, they got a man who refused earthly titles and allowed his persecutors to execute him. A donkey where they expected a stallion.

Jesus will throw over our expectations as well (if he hasn’t already). So how should we prepare? Maybe the best thing to do is carry on as if we don’t know exactly what to expect. Because we don’t.

The second letter of Peter advises us to cultivate the qualities describing a life in Christ, each quality laying a foundation for the next: goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. Without them  he says our vision of Christ is nearsighted and blind. Before we make the same mistake as Christ’s contemporaries and insist our understanding of the messiah must be the right one — or insist someone else’s must be the wrong one —let’s concentrate on working up the rungs of Peter’s ladder of virtues from goodness to love. Those rungs are held together between rails of humility and faith. As we hope for Christ’s return, let’s hold tightly to both.

Comfort: We can always grow while we wait to encounter Christ more fully.

Challenge: At the end of each day this week, reflect on where you might have better exercised humility.

Prayer: May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere him. (Psalm 67:7)

Discussion: How do you think your understanding of Jesus might differ from someone else’s?

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Hope Cautiously

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Readings: Psalms 24, 150; Amos 1:1-5, 1:13-2:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Luke 21:5-19


Advent is the season when we prepare for the arrival of Christ. This arrival has a dual nature, as we celebrate his birth and Bethlehem and anticipate his eventual return. Every year it is a cycle within a cycle.

The history of injustice similarly repeats itself. Ethnic tensions, disregard and abuse of the poor, corrupted court systems, war crimes, and other ills have existed throughout all of human history. Whether or not we like to admit it, no nation or people is immune. When the formerly oppressed gain power they may take their turn to become the oppressor, and are blind to it because they still think themselves righteous.

Such was the case with Israel when farmer-turned-prophet Amos spoke to them. Israel had struggled long and hard to become a prosperous nation, but Amos told them they were no better than the wicked nations surrounding them. Amos accused the Israelites of “selling the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals […] trampling the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and pushing the afflicted out of the way.” The leadership of Israel declared themselves righteous because they followed the rules of sacrifice and ritual, but they were indifferent to God’s greater demands of love and justice.

The theme for this first week of Advent is Hope. The flip side of hope is recognition that the world can be bleak, for why would we hope if we didn’t long for things to be better? Amos reminds us part of that recognition needs to be an examination of our own hearts, actions, and inactions. It’s human nature to believe our actions are justified … and to provide justification when we aren’t sure. We don’t always want to face ourselves when we’ve been part of an injustice or we’ve been willfully ignorant about our own contribution to societal problems. If in reading that last sentence you assumed it was accusing you of something specific … it wasn’t but maybe your consciences is. Maybe start there.

The good news of Advent is that we don’t end “there.” In the weeks ahead, we will live into the promise of Hope.

Comfort: Hope is promised to everyone.

Challenge: This Advent season, begin an examination of your conscience and begin owning up to the things that get in the way of hope.

Prayer: For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good (Psalm 122:8-9)

Discussion: There are countless things to hope for. Which is most pressing to you right now?

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The End Is Near

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Micah 7:11-20, 1 Peter 4:7-19, Matthew 20:29-34


The world has been ending for a very long time.

When I was a child, priests and Sunday School teachers, caught up in the atmospheric dread of the Cold War, terrified me by preaching the imminent end of the world and the threat of Russia. I confided my fears to my mother, and it turned out when she had gone to Catholic school at the same parish, the priest and nuns gave the students a specific date to expect the end. She too was terrified until the date came and went. There was supposed to be some lesson in that about being prepared, but all she seemed to learn was a distrust of the clergy.

Peter, like many disciples, genuinely believed Christ would be returning in his lifetime or shortly after, but it didn’t happen. The hundreds of predictions of the end of the world since then have been miserably wrong. One of these more recent debacles was blamed on faulty decimal placement.

On this last day of the liturgical year, we look forward to the beginning of Advent and the new year. Except we don’t traditionally welcome it with parties and feasts. It doesn’t have an equivalent of Ash Wednesday which precedes Lent. Instead, our scripture readings turn to apocalyptic themes and prophets of doom. The stores may be full of twinkling lights and cheerful music, but they represent the false promise of satisfaction via worldly accumulation. Without the rich contemplation of Advent, they offer little more than a picture of a feast offers a starving family.

The world will end someday. Until it does, we are left to contemplate how to balance living both as if it will happen tomorrow, and as if it will happen millennia after we have passed.

But how different do those lives look?

In either case, our neighbor struggling with depression will still need a kind shoulder. The bellies of hungry children halfway around the world won’t stop rumbling. We still need to forgive that person who wronged us sooner rather than later. Our sacrifices and our love and our faith are neither more nor less meaningful, and always necessary. Advent is the time we set aside to remember that while we mourn the broken nature of the world, we are also waking to the promise of its new life in Christ.

The end is near. We need not fear it, for so is the beginning.

Comfort: Christ makes the world new for us each day.

Challenge: Remember the past, live the present, shape the future.

Prayer: Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. (Psalm 63:3-4)

Discussion: Do you observe Advent in any way? If so, what does it mean to you? If not, do you see any value in it?

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Tomorrow begins the season of Advent – the beginning of the church’s new liturgical year. That makes today a sort of New Year’s Eve. As we begin both a new year and – as we complete our journey through the two-year daily lectionary – a new phase of Comfort & Challenge, I thank you for the blessing of your company on these last seven hundred and thirty-five days.

New Year’s Eve is a time for looking both backward and forward. “The Closing of the Year” was introduced to the world 25 years ago as the opening song of the strange and beautiful movie Toys starring Robin Williams. This song performed by Wendy & Lisa captivated me then, and still speaks to me about how we can bring each other love and hope. I hope you enjoy it as I do.

Blessings to you in the closing of one year and the beginning of the next!

Closing of the Year

I Want That

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148, Isaiah 24:14-23, 1 Peter 3:13-4:6, Matthew 20:17-28


If you didn’t tell people you were a Christian, would they feel compelled to ask about your hope?

The First Epistle of Peter, written to an audience spanning the Roman provinces of Asia Minor, is concerned largely with the relationship between Christians and the surrounding culture. In response to a growing sense among non-believers that Christians were troublemakers, dissidents, and generally immoral the letter encouraged Christians to respect authority and to face discrimination and persecution for doing what is right as opportunities to achieve solidarity with Christ’s suffering.

The letter advises: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

Why should people care enough to ask about someone’s hope? Because when we follow Christ, it should be obvious we “do not fear what they fear.” When we don’t fear what other people do, it makes them uncomfortable until they know why. And what are these things people fear? Radical forgiveness (both human and divine). Disregard for public opinion. Willingly becoming a servant to all. Death. Life.

If we never mention being a Christian, people should still see these traits in us. And any unease it causes them should fade when, with gentleness and reverence, we explain our faith.

A good friend of mine, raised without religion, arrived at faith not because Christians tried to talk her into it but because, in her words, “I saw a light in them and thought, I want that.” This light was evident in their everyday attitudes and actions, and buoyed them up through both difficulties and celebrations. Strong-armed evangelistic tactics would have been wasted on her, but the fruits of the Spirit were a compelling witness.

It’s not for us to judge whether the light of Christ dwells within the heart of any individual, but Christians can certainly create barriers to obscure it. Anger, fear, hostility, condemnation, self-righteousness, and stubbornness are all like shades we draw around our hearts. Each one makes it harder for the light to shine into the world; draw enough, and it is obscured entirely. Then no one has anything to ask about, because we look the same as or worse than the rest of the world.

We can positively influence the world’s (and our own) perception of the faithful without making demands or forcing ourselves upon it. The witness of a servant full of hope and without fear is a remarkable thing. Let us strive to be a people who cause other people to say, “I want that.”

Additional reading: for thoughts on today’s passage from Matthew, see Ask? Away!

Comfort: The light of Christ shines within you.

Challenge: Let is shine in the world as well.

Prayer: As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God. (Psalm 40:17)

Discussion: Have you known anyone who lights up a room without saying anything?

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Last Man Standing

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 116; 147:12-20, Zephaniah 3:1-13, 1 Peter 2:11-25, Matthew 20:1-16


Jesus told a parable about a landowner who hired some men to work in his vineyard. He hired one group in the morning, another group around noon, and a third group late in the afternoon. Each of them agreed to the same payment of one denarius, an average day’s wages. The first group grumbled when they were not paid more than those who had worked only an hour, but the landowner reminded them they had agreed to a sum, and he was free to be generous with his money as he saw fit.

This parable is about how God’s grace is not something earned, but something given freely and equally. There’s a short bit in the middle that might deserve a little more attention than it usually gets. When the landowner asks the late shift why they stood idle all day, they answered “Because no one has hired us.”

There’s no indication they were less worthy of being hired. It seems the landowner himself had passed them over without notice earlier in the day. We don’t know why they were left waiting. The fact that they were demonstrates something we tend to minimize: not everyone is treated the same. It’s tempting to start rationalizing why they might not have been hired – what it was they might have done differently – but why is that? We are attracted to the prospect of getting what we deserve. Random unfairness offends us; it jars us when people who work less hard get more (though we’re less bothered by people who work harder and get less).

We assume idling is laziness, but the truth is many people through no fault of their own are left standing in life’s line while others are invited to skip ahead of them to participate more fully in life’s bounty. This line jumping is not always random; the invitations are extended by other people, and people are not without bias. Throughout history through the present day, ethnicity, gender, ability, and social standing have influenced who gets an invitation, but we’ve always wrapped those biases in a veneer of merit.  Any given individual might be an exception, but the trend holds.

When for decades upon decades bias has consistently left entire communities standing until late in the day, it is not just in a Biblical sense to insist they figure out on their own how to make do with a fraction of what others have had many more generation’s opportunity to earn. When real-world equivalents of the landowner seek to offer them what is just in the long term instead of what we seems fair in the short term, those among us who were hired early in the day (as individuals or as members of a community that’s been making the selections) ought not grumble like we’re the ones who’ve been cheated out of wages.

A full measure of grace is extended to all who show up to accept it. If we are to conform our hearts to Christ’s heart, shouldn’t we learn the first person hired is not more deserving of generosity than the one left to wait?

Comfort: Whether you are first or last in line, God offers the same grace.

Challenge: When you assume someone is lazy or undeserving, challenge your own assumptions. about their life experiences.

Prayer: I love the LORD, because he has heard my voice and my supplications. Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live. (Psalm 116:1-2)

Discussion: When has someone made incorrect assumptions about you? What were the consequences? Did you correct them?

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Dear Jesus … Define Rich

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, Obadiah 15-21, 1 Peter 2:1-10, Matthew 19:23-30


One of the favorite ornaments on our family Christmas tree is in the shape of a letter to Santa. Its message is short: “Dear Santa … Define good!”

“Good” is one of those terms which can seem eternally undefinable. Good compared to whom? When a rich young man asked Christ what good deed would guarantee him eternal life, Jesus replied, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.”  After pressing Jesus on the matter, the young man left grief-stricken because Jesus told him to sell all his many possessions and give his money to the poor. When Jesus then told the disciples, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” they wondered if anyone could be saved. Jesus responded with a warning and reassurance that God made it possible.

“Rich” is another one of those words which seems to reside on a sliding scale. Most of us define “rich” in terms of wealth which definitely exceeds our own. How rich do we think the young man was? How many possessions is “many?” These concepts are skewed by the community and culture in which we live.

I consider my family to be solidly middle class, but compared to say the billions of people in the world without safe access to toilets, we are almost obscenely wealthy. During conversations about relative wealth, some friends and co-workers have suggested that it isn’t fair to compare first- and third-world standards. It’s almost as if they (and, I must admit, I) are reluctant to admit that in the overall scope of the human family, we are – as a fellow churchgoer described us in a way that was less than flattering – rich as $#!%. Of course to some other friends struggling to get by, that fellow churchgoer enjoyed a highly enviable level of comfort.

Since it’s all relative, the question then becomes not do we think we are rich, but does Jesus think we are rich? If we can consider his conversation with the young man to be an indicator of that standard, the threshold seems to be whether we retain anything we could part with to better follow him. We should probably be pretty aggressive about answering that.

Do we need to part with absolutely everything? Jesus didn’t require that of everyone around him. Do we need to be willing to part with anything that stands between us and Christ? Absolutely.

We may not be able to agree on a textbook definition of “rich” … but valuing something more than we value Christ is a price too high for any of us to pay.

Comfort: The most valuable thing we have was given to us for free.

Challenge: Consider donating to WaterAid or similar charities which help deliver clean water and facilities to people living in poverty.

Prayer: Merciful and loving  God, teach me to appreciate what I have in terms of how I might spend it to help others in need. Amen.

Discussion: In your opinion, how rich is too rich?

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Childlike Wealth

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 12; 146, Nahum 1:1-13, 1 Peter 1:13-25, Matthew 19:13-22


The two stories in today’s passage from Matthew can be read independently, but taken together they provide a greater lesson. In the first, Jesus rebukes the disciples for preventing children from coming to him. He welcomes and blesses the children, and tells his disciples “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” In the second, a rich young man who believes himself virtuous because he keeps the law asks Jesus what he lacks to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells the man he needs to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow him. The young man leaves in shock and grief.

When Jesus speaks about being like little children, he does not simply mean we should be naïve or innocent. Children own nothing, and depend on their parents for everything. To receive as children, we must realize that all we have is from God, and that our lives apart from God are empty. This takes us to the young man, who has many possessions. To abandon them all is unthinkable to him. His body and actions conform to the law, but his heart belongs first to his possessions. Not only does he fail to recognize all he has does not truly belong to him, he has allowed his attachment to wealth to become a barrier between him and God.

Idealism is associated with youth for a reason: as we grow older and establish our lives, it becomes ever more difficult to stand up for principles that may cost us everything, because we have so much more to lose. As we mature, it’s easy to claim experience has made us practical about matters that threaten our livelihoods. Is it possible we are rationalizing (more than) a bit? It’s a lot easier to stand up for principles at your job or city hall when all you have to lose is a 1998 Ford Fiesta than when your new house and Lexus are on the line. Must we, like the young man, sell everything? At the very least, we must be willing to part with anything in our lives – wealth, reputation, pride – that stands between us and God. Only then will we have room to receive the kingdom of God, and all the gifts which lift us up instead of weigh us down.

Comfort: We are all God’s children.

Challenge: Pick out a children’s book to read, and ask yourself what lessons it has to teach that you may have forgotten in adulthood.

Prayer: How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.  (Psalm 36:7)

Discussion: When did people start seeing you as an adult? When did you start thinking of yourself as one?

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Rewriting History

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 62; 145, Joel 3:1-2, 9-17, 1 Peter 1:1-12, Matthew 19:1-12


You’ve probably heard the phrase “History is written by the victors.” It means the winners of a conflict are generally the ones who get to define history by putting their spin on it. The winning side remembers and records its heroism and bravery, but downplays or outright ignores its own moral failings and shortcomings. History books may be biased, but history itself doesn’t change – and there are often people who remember what the winners would rather forget.

Evolving attitudes towards Columbus Day and Thanksgiving are relatively recent examples of how the parts of history we celebrate never quite bury the parts we’d rather forget. Indigenous peoples of the Americas have been working for years to raise awareness about the horrible price they paid for the European colonial dream. Every culture which subdues another portrays itself in a favorable light; nobody wants to be the villain of their own story.

This type of revisionism is not limited to military history. Without in-depth study, the history of the church can also be murky to us, and what we consider fundamental may be a more recent development than we’d like to admit. For example, when the Pharisees challenged Jesus on the legitimacy of divorce, Jesus responded with a more conservative answer than they expected, saying anyone who divorced and remarried committed adultery. When they argued Moses himself set up the conditions for divorce, he said, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” In this case divorce was the “winner” and people seemed to have conveniently forgotten it was not always so.

The church of today is very different than the church of a thousand years ago, which was very different from the church a thousand years before that. Even the church’s more fundamentalist branches, which style themselves as a return to the basics of Biblical faith and teaching, are a relatively modern phenomenon which approaches scripture and church community very differently than did earlier Christians. As the current “winners” of history, we are compelled to justify our present by reinterpreting the past. The danger in this is feeling the need to deny the truth when it returns to haunt us.

As important as tradition and doctrine are to understanding our faith, it’s just as important to understand the reasons behind them. Sometimes, like the Pharisees’ take on divorce, they are justifications for our failures. Not every change to how we understand faith and scripture – not every tradition we reevaluate – is a step away from “authentic” Christianity. Some of them may be a step back toward it. Those who define the church today are history’s winners. If the first really would be last, it might be a good idea to listen to the buried and forgotten truths we need to hear from the losers.

Comfort: Truth is a promise, not a threat.

Challenge: Do some research on how the Bible came to be.

Prayer: For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.  (Psalm 62:1-2)

Discussion: Have you ever learned something you thought you knew about history wasn’t correct?

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