Hard Choices

choices

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, Numbers 22:1-21, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 21:12-22


According to the Gospel of Matthew, the first thing Jesus did after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem was drive merchants and customers out of the temple, and turn over the tables of the money changers. Matthew tells this story quickly and makes it clear Jesus is upset because: “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” Once the temple was cleared, blind and lame people came to Jesus there, and he healed them.

Notice that Jesus didn’t kick out just the sellers, but also the buyers. The sellers and money changers may have been exploiting religious pilgrims, but the buyers were also participating in the corruption of the temple. Surely many of the customers, if asked, would have said they had no choice; without offerings they could not enter the temple. But when their practices finally caught up with them, they were driven from the temple anyway.

Often when we say we don’t have a choice, what we really mean is we don’t have an attractive choice. “If I say something about this unethical practice, I’ll lose my job.” That’s a choice. “I know this business treats its employees more fairly, but their prices are too high so I shop elsewhere.” Also a choice. “I know this song-sharing site is illegal, but money is tight right now.” Choice (and theft). Principles are  not cheap. They can cost us money, respect, and friendships. If we aren’t willing to risk these things, we don’t have principles, we have preferences – and not even strong ones.

Of course these are examples of choices available to the reasonably comfortable. Sometimes our choices actually are restricted by circumstances such as poverty and ability.  Many of us are crowded out by the “buyers and sellers” going about their daily, unexamined business. It is on the shoulders of people who have many options to consider how they are impacting those with fewer options. Luke 12:48 tells us: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.”

When a system is corrupt or unjust, we have the choice to opt out, even if it causes us inconvenience or harm. Jesus opted out all the way to the cross.

It’s never too late to start behaving more ethically. We might need to jump-start that change with a purging of our inner temple, a ruthless examination of our own participation in evils small and large. Clearing them out makes room for the healing spirit of God. There is nothing more valuable in the world.

Comfort: You will always have a choice.

Challenge: You won’t always like the choices you have.

Prayer: God of wisdom, grant me the discernment to make good choices, and the courage to follow through on them. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever felt like you didn’t have a choice? Was that really the case?

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Questions Beyond Borders

Chain Link Border Fence

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post that started about the Handmaid’s Tale and ended up a reaction to the Attorney General using Romans 13 to justify the zero-tolerance policy implemented on our southern border, and by extension its effective separation of children from their parents. I don’t get a lot of comments on my blog (read into that what you will), but I did get a private Facebook message from someone.

This person – a childhood neighbor, fellow Christian, lover of beauty and creativity, and in my humble estimation an all-around good and generous egg – asked my thoughts on a couple questions.

  • What do think would happen if hundreds of thousands of Americans decided to enter some other country without “papers” (for lack of a better word)?
  • What if a child born in the United States (parents from another country) decided to leave the USA and take up residence in the Country of his or her parents?

These questions are sincere and important and immediately sent my mind spinning in a dozen directions. I want to answer (and expound on) them sincerely and respectfully. I am grateful to her for thoughtful engagement.

WITHOUT PAPERS

The author of The Handmaid’s Tale – the source material for the television series which was the genesis of my original sidetracked post – actually does tackle the idea of a sudden onslaught of refugees from the (former) United States into Canada. The Canadians accept anyone who can make it across the border. The hope of these refugees is to eventually to reclaim and resettle to their homes, but there is no indication that will be soon. However the question was what do I think would happen. Try as I might I can’t come to a more solid answer than … it depends.

But on what?

First, it depends on the destination country.

Different nations have different philosophies and policies around immigration, refugees, and asylum. The legal distinction among those classes is important. Germany, for instance, doesn’t admit just anyone outside the European Union as a migrant for economic or personal reasons, but it has been famously accepting millions of refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. Italy, on the other hand, has been less willing to accept such refugees. Both countries are party to the 1951 Refugee Convention – as is the United States, but only per amendments as of the 1967 Protocol which actually expands the definition of refugee – but all interpret their corresponding responsibilities differently.

Second, it would depend on the reason.

The United States is a wealthy nation offering more economic and personal security than most countries typically known for displaced refugees. Were that to change (a la The Handmaid’s Tale) due to natural disaster, civil war, economic collapse, or other circumstances, and if such changes created groups of people who were endangered with no recourse through the national government, U.S. refugees would probably be received as sympathetically as other refugees. But – and this is a big but – the last couple centuries of history of the U.S. as an extension of Western European development is that of the colonizer far more than of the oppressed. Native Americans brought to the brink of extinction, enslaved African Americans, and Japanese Americans interned during World War II would have certainly qualified as refugees from the United States under the definition of the Refugee Convention, but when we picture the possibility of “Americans” approaching foreign borders is that really who we’re thinking of? Under present circumstances, an approaching horde of Americans of Western European descent seems more likely to be seizing than fleeing. God forbid our fortune changes, but unless it does, people leaving the United States in droves is a far different scenario than people fleeing countries which have descended into violent narco-states ruled by murderous gangs.

Third, and this may seem like part of the first but I think it’s important enough to warrant its own consideration – what has been the extralegal, “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” history between the United States and the country in question?

Has it recently changed? For decades the U.S. has largely looked the other way when migrants from Mexico and other nations provided cheap labor to shore up industries like construction, hospitality and agriculture because no one wants to pay fifteen dollars per pound for apples picked at the legal minimum wage. As immigration authorities clamp down on such labor, many farmers are struggling to deal with labor shortages. This relationship has been symbiotic for many years. It hasn’t changed because of economics or danger, but because of politics. It seems to me the concern about “the illegals” has grown proportionately not with the number of Mexicans immigrating to the U.S. (the net is actually negative), but with the so-called “browning of America” – the increasingly large portion of legal, permanent (and native) Latinx residents as compared to whites.

It’d be disingenuous not to note the number of non-Mexican Latinx immigrants is increasing, but a large portion of those are seeking refugee or asylee status. If United States residents started migrating in large numbers to a country where we had been welcomed under the table for years and that country experienced an economic downturn, I expect we’d be far less welcome than we were when the country needed us to continue its flow of cheap products. Even if we weren’t taking the jobs people wanted, we’d be scapegoats. Xenophobia is ever only waiting for the right conditions to reveal itself. Populist movements in the U.S. and Europe are largely about the fear of foreigners changing the cultural and literal complexion of a nation.

BACK WHERE YOU CAME FROM

I don’t necessarily have to speculate about answers to the second question. There are at least a dozen countries that will grant you citizenship if you can prove your parents (and in some cases grandparents) were born as citizens of that country. Other nations would treat you as they treated anyone else who wanted to migrate.

To me, the more interesting part of the question is how we think of borders.

Particularly the borders of the United States. When Europeans began settling North America, the continent was already populated with people and their established territories. Borders didn’t seem to matter much to us as we acquired land through war and genocide. When we annexed Texas and invaded Mexico to expand into territory they would not willingly cede to us, we weren’t too worried about the sovereignty of borders. Until 1882 – nearly a century after the establishment of the US Constitution – there were no immigration laws. There were requirements for citizenship and naturalization, but when we were expanding westward and needed labor, whether people crossed our borders didn’t seem to matter much to us. The first U.S. immigration law – the Chinese Exclusion Act – was not because we wanted the limit the total number of immigrants, but because of the fear of the “Yellow Peril” – that is, Chinese people overwhelming our European heritage – as if somehow Europeans were more deserving of the land we’d stolen than were the Chinese. Other groups were excluded for various reasons, including health, literacy, and anarchist political activity. But we weren’t so worried about borders: we were worried about non-white people.

It wasn’t until 1921 – 134 years after the establishment of the nation – that we began instituting immigration quotas which roughly resembled the ethnic composition of the country at the time. (As an aside, that means anyone claiming their family immigrated “legally” before that time is making a moot point; everyone but Asians were allowed in through established ports of entry).

So what changed during those years?

There are many reasons for secure borders, but those didn’t change. What did change was that we outgrew the sense that we were in a state of constant expansion and unlimited resources. Stretched from coast to coast, bound on the North and South, we realized our limits of geography and resources and decided we didn’t want to share them with just anybody who showed up on the continent.

We basically shut down immigration during the Great Depression, and actually coerced hundreds of thousands of Mexican citizens to repatriate to Mexico. Not the Irish or Germans or English mind you – only the people who were native and who’s ancestors were here before the Europeans and just happened to involuntarily end up on our side of the border after the Mexican-American war.

People wanting to come to America were no longer seen as fellow pioneers in the Great American Experiment, but as threats. The quality of people outside our borders had not changed, but our jealousy of our resources had. Outside a slight concession to refugee resettlement in the 1980s, the focus of our immigration policy has been on maintaining employment and ethnic mix.

Now that we’ve got ours, borders matter to us.

Of course the economy is of national concern, but we need immigrants to maintain the economy. That makes the deciding factor ethnicity. There are plenty of successful people from countries which are mostly non-white, but in my experience proponents of “merit-based” systems rarely use them as examples, and are instead quick to point to mostly wealthy white countries which people have little desire to leave anyway. Our quotas and other immigration policies make implicit judgments about worthiness based on where people are from. Our talk of “merit-based” immigration is also disingenuous to the American ideal: no longer are we here for the huddled masses yearning to breathe free… but come on in if you’ve already made it big!

To me that doesn’t seem very “all men are created equal.”
It doesn’t seem very Christian.
It doesn’t seem very American Dream.

How many of us are here because our ancestors fled something?
How many wouldn’t make the cut today under the same circumstances?
How many railed against the discrimination and persecution they experienced here?
How are we more deserving of this stolen land than people facing the same situations?

THE QUESTION BEHIND THE QUESTIONS

Thinking about immigration as a matter of justice requires thinking about a much larger story than what is legal or illegal, convenient or inconvenient, or profitable or not profitable at this moment in history. Before I get to what I think is the big question behind the original two questions, I want to make a few things clear:

  • I don’t believe in lawless, open borders; I don’t personally know anyone who does.
  • I do believe we need to recognize the basic human dignity of everyone – not just citizens.
  • I don’t have a problem with prosecuting and deporting criminals.
  • I do have a problem with indefinitely separating and/or detaining children and families.

That last point shifted the focus of my prior blog post, which in turn raised the questions addressed in this one. My post was about exploiting scripture to defend the indefensible, and how that is neither conservative nor liberal but dangerously fundamentalist. I specifically didn’t advocate any policy, yet it raised policy-related questions for at least one reader. And the connecting thread between these questions was a deeper question…

What would other countries do?

My short answer to this question behind the questions is: I don’t think it matters.

I want us as a nation to do what is right and merciful, regardless of whether other nations would reciprocate. I’m not going to pretend I personally have the prescription for what is right, but it’s certainly something better than what we have now. As a Christian – as a human being – I can’t look at something as artificial and shifting and arbitrary and historically cruel as a border to restrict my compassion. I’m not advocating for some liberal theocracy (that would be hypocritical), but I think if Christianity does influence American politics it should be through values like mercy and sacrifice.

Make no mistake, I love my country. Heck, it allows me the freedom to write critiques of it, which in this world is no small thing!  But loving something doesn’t mean excusing everything it’s done or is doing. That’s flag-waving tribalism, which leads to stagnation, collapse, and – at its worst – genocide. We need to be vigilant about avoiding tribalism, about valuing or devaluing others based on their ethnicity, and about dehumanizing notions à la Manifest Destiny.

We may not have any more opportunities for geographic expansion, but we can still be pioneers of justice and dignity, even when it requires sacrifice. At its heart, that will be what keeps us a nation worth seeking.


Note: Regarding the history of U.S. immigration law, I drew heavily from this Wikipedia article. Yeah it’s Wiki, but they’re all sourced.

The Promise of History

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 130; 148, Numbers 20:1-13, Romans 5:12-21, Matthew 20:29-34


Despite leading the Israelites through the desert for forty years, Moses was forbidden by God to enter the Promised Land. Why? At Meribah the people had quarreled with Moses because they lacked sufficient food and water. The Lord had commanded Moses to speak to a rock, and waters would gush forth. Once before God had produced waters from this rock and had instructed Moses to strike it. This time, instead of speaking, Moses struck the rock with his staff twice, and seemingly took credit for the miracle.

Some people believe this direct disobedience caused God’s rebuke, though all things considered this seems like a pretty minor infraction. God is entitled to do whatever He wants, but He is not petty. Thirty-eight years earlier the Israelites had balked at God’s orders to enter the Promised Land, and instead sent spies ahead to make sure it was worth the effort. In His anger God decreed none of the current generation – including Moses – would enter the Promised Land. Their children would see it after their deaths.

Our sense of history can be short. When we experience a painful event – a revolution, a shooting, a divorce, a riot – we tend to look to recent circumstances to explain it. We find comfort in assigning blame to the easiest – and usually closest – targets, but we frequently do so hastily, lazily, and mistakenly. The roots of our troubles often run deep in time: generational poverty, unredressed discrimination, legacies of domestic abuse, complicated political histories, etc. Understanding the world is difficult work, but willful ignorance leads to yet more difficulty. Even if we can’t solve these problems in our lifetimes, we should reject quick-fixes and easy answers and provide thoughtful, faithful leadership to deliver the next generation into the Promised Land.

Comfort: The world is a complicated place. You don’t have to form quick opinions about it.

Challenge: Few answers are both easy and correct. Don’t settle.

Prayer: Eternal God, grant me wisdom and patience to be a steady, healing presence in a sometimes thoughtless, broken world. Amen.

Discussion: What opinions about the world have you had to revise based on more evidence or better understanding of history?

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Ask? Away!

HearAnswer

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 147:12-20, Numbers 17:1-11, Romans 5:1-11, Matthew 20:17-28


James and John were brothers and apostles. One day their mother asked Jesus: might her sons sit at his left and right hands in heaven? Jesus said the favor their mother asked was beyond his power to grant. The other ten apostles were outraged when they learned of the request, but Jesus assured them that in God’s kingdom, leaders were not masters but servants. They were upset not that the favor had been granted, but that it was asked.

A church that was active in resettling refugees, particularly people fleeing the violence of the Congo with nothing but the clothes on their backs, sometimes posted lists of needed household items. One woman – who was not ungenerous and frequently delivered baskets of groceries to the food pantry – would look at the lists and mutter, “Always looking for a hand out.”

We get offended when people ask for things the “wrong” way. One of the first lessons I learned on missions trips is that what we are prepared to give may not be what people need. Someone who arrives with the skills to replace a damaged roof can be taken aback when instead they they are asked to scrub floors, as if that task is somehow beneath them. We can talk a good game about being servants, but unless we are willing to surrender control and serve under someone else’s terms, it’s just talk.

Most adults don’t like to ask for things because we fear being characterized as weak or lazy. We resent what people ask of us when they are things we are ashamed to ask for ourselves. John and James were devoted. Refugees are in need. Hurricane survivors are perfectly capable of prioritizing tasks. To be able to ask, to lovingly consider what is asked … these are signs of servant leadership.

Comfort: It’s OK to ask for what you need.

Challenge: Watch this TED Talk on the Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer. It’s been criticized for being class- and context-blind, but pay careful attention to your own reactions.

Prayer: God of generosity, give me the courage to ask for what I need, and the loving heart to respond graciously to the needs of others. Amen.

Discussion: What are you afraid to ask for? Why?

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For Prophet

for_prophet

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Numbers 16:36-50, Romans 4:13-25, Matthew 20:1-16


Several years ago my boss asked me to implement a survey of our board members and executives. When the due date for responses had passed, and only eight percent of the people had responded, he extended the due date. This happened twice more, and each time I grew increasingly frustrated and felt we were coddling the late respondents. When I asked why we were rewarding bad behavior, my boss explained: “The goal of this project is not to hold people to a schedule. It is to maximize participation so we have the best and most complete result.” His explanation changed my whole perception of the project.

One imagines people might have felt much the same way after Jesus told the parable of the workers in the vineyard. In that story, the owner of a vineyard hired men at various times of day, from early morning until just before evening, to work the remainder of the day. Regardless of when they started, all the men agreed to work for a denarius, roughly a day’s wages. The men who worked all day cried “unfair!” when the men who worked for an hour received the same compensation. The vineyard owner reminded them they’d all been paid what they’d agreed to and it was his money to distribute as he saw fit.

The full day’s wages represent the grace of God, which is available to us in full no matter when we receive it. Those who receive it later in the day – or in life – receive the same as those who arrive early.

The goal of this divine project is not to hold people to a schedule, but to maximize participation for the best and most complete result.

In a kingdom where the last are first, we may need to adjust our concepts of “fair” and “just.” Christ seems less concerned with efficiently doling out wages, than with extravagantly meeting needs. Having that vineyard owner for a boss might chafe our sense of fairness, but the business of the Kingdom is not business. Grace and mercy are not limited currency for us to earn and divide, but infinite light for us to reflect and multiply.

Comfort: We don’t have to keep track of each other’s spiritual debits and credits.

Challenge: We are asked to keep track of each other’s needs.

Prayer: God of grace and mercy, teach me to love abundantly and generously. Amen.

Discussion: In what situations does a seeming lack of fairness bother you most?

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Camels and Needles

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 123; 146, Numbers 16:20-35, Romans 4:1-12, Matthew 19:23-30


Few of Jesus’s teachings conflict more with our desires than his teachings about money. When he told his 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 were flummoxed, and asked who then could be saved. Jesus assured them all things are possible through God, so if the simple fact of possessing wealth does not disqualify us from salvation, what’s the problem with being rich?

Wealth is not just a privilege, it is a burden. We are reluctant to part with it, and spend many resources maintaining and growing it. Few of us, unless forced, intentionally downsize our homes, cars, or lifestyles – yet that is exactly what Jesus told his original followers they needed to be prepared to do.

People of a certain age and temperament will refer to youth as naive and idealistic; while this may be somewhat true, it’s not just our bodies that grow inflexible with age. Once we have something to lose, taking chances becomes far less attractive. Our four-bedroom condos and five-figure bank accounts are not problems – unless we are unwilling to part with them when Christ calls us to. Justice movements are almost always spearheaded by the young, poor, disenfranchised, or monastic … who have nothing to lose.

Some people, especially prosperity preachers, have tried to explain away the camel and needle in order to feel more comfortable about holding wealth, but comfort is a step toward apathy. At the very least, we need to be prayerfully wrestling with the tension between the “practical” approach toward life, and the reckless generosity to which Christ calls us.

Wealth buys access, but it also builds walls. We work hard to live in “good” neighborhoods, but Christ demonstrated a clear affinity for the poor of spirit and pocket. Time and again he told the disciples “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” If in our comfortable lives our relationship with the poor becomes one of charity but not kinship, our place in line will be very far back indeed.

Comfort: Your wealth is not a sign of your success.

Challenge: We tend to think of the “wealthy” as people who have more than us. If you have a roof, a full belly, and a dollar … you are wealthy to somebody. Meditate on what Christ might want you to do with what you have.

Prayer: God of generosity, help me to remember that wealth is not the ability to acquire, but the ability to give away. Help me be a worthy steward of all you have entrusted to me. Amen.

Discussion: When faced with global poverty, it’s tempting to claim wealth is always relative in order to feel less guilty about what we have, and to feel less helpless about what others don’t. In what moments, if any, have you realized a desire to maintain a certain standard of living conflicts with your faith?

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Present Imperfect

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 135; 145, Numbers 16:1-19, Romans 3:21-31, Matthew 19:13-22


The story of the rich young man is generally reduced to the beginning when the man asked how to be good, and the end when he left grieving because Jesus instructed him to sell all his many possessions and follow him. We commonly interpret this story to mean discipleship requires abandoning everything but Christ. This understanding is consistent with parables like the pearl of great price, but the middle of the story is the meat in the sandwich which provides more insight to sink our teeth into.

The man’s original question was: “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus responded: “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” In other words: wrong question, buddy. Jesus followed with: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” When the man asked which commandments (the full Mosaic law had hundreds), Jesus named a few common sense ones under the general category of “love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said he kept them all, yet asked what he still lacked.

Sense a theme? The man sought a formula for salvation. He persisted in insisting his salvation would be his own accomplishment. We are saved by grace and not deeds, but the rich young man couldn’t comprehend a system where he was not in control of his own destiny.

Jesus’s final words to the man begin with: “If you wish to be perfect …” Ouch! Now the man had a completely avoidable burden of perfection laid on him. No wonder he grieved!

What if the man had been satisfied with “Love your neighbor as yourself?” If he could have accepted there wasn’t a salvation equation, but instead unearned grace, Jesus could have stopped right there.

Like the rich young man, we struggle to let go of that one last possession: a need for control. We claim grace, but insist on formulaic rules that give us an illusion of power.

“If you wish to be perfect” is not an introduction to advice on attaining perfection, but an indictment of any belief that we can or need to be. Faith is not an excuse to sin, but life under the law leads to grief. Life under faith leads to grace.

Comfort: God doesn’t expect perfection.

Challenge: Neither should we.

Prayer: God of Mercy, thank you for the gift of unearned grace. Teach me to extend that love to others. Amen.

Discussion: What rules do you have trouble letting go?

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Seventy-Seven Times

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, Numbers 13:1-3, 21-30, Romans 2:25-3:8, Matthew 18:21-35


A slave owed his king an unpayable sum. The king decided to sell the slave’s family to collect the debt, but the slave begged for mercy. The king felt pity, released him, and forgave the debt. As the slave walked away, he met a second slave owing him a hundredth of what the king had forgiven. He demanded payment, and when it wasn’t forthcoming he had the second slave jailed. When the king learned this, he revoked his mercy and had the first slave tortured until he paid.

This parable was how Jesus answered Peter’s question: “how often should I forgive?” The story tells us whatever debt we feel someone owes us, God has already forgiven us a debt a hundred (or more!) times greater.

“Tough love” gets tossed around quite a bit. We seem to be firm believers in the power of consequences. It may be fine for parents fostering  the values of children, or managers coaching employees, but the further removed we are from someone personally, the less applicable it becomes. How easy it is to withhold mercy under the pretense of not enabling someone.

By the time we meet most people, life has had its way with them. They behave in ways they have learned best help them physically and emotionally survive. It’s arrogant to assume we would fare better under similar circumstances, and more arrogant to think our petty disciplines will change them.

Should we hand cash to gambling addicts? No. Should we allow co-workers to abuse us? Nope. But when someone is hungry or hurting, we should transcend our grievances to feed and care for them. We can’t fix people – they need to initiate that themselves – but we are called to show mercy to the broken, for we ourselves are broken and beneficiaries of the mercy of God.

Jesus didn’t instruct us to parent everyone. He did instruct us to forgive and love. A crust of bread offered to a starving thief doesn’t condone thievery; it says we trust in something greater we hope to share. Whether he hears that is not up to us.

Comfort: You aren’t responsible for parenting the world.

Challenge: When you feel like someone needs to suffer consequences, ask yourself why.

Prayer: Merciful God, guide me as I seek the balance between mercy and justice.

Discussion: Mercy is a personal matter, but it can seem at odds with civil justice. Have you struggled with this tension? Or do you disagree with the premise?

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The One and the Ninety-Nine

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Numbers 12:1-16, Romans 2:12-24, Matthew 18:10-20Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Numbers 12:1-16, Romans 2:12-24, Matthew 18:10-20


“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.”
– Mr. Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

“The needs of the one … outweighed the needs of the many.”
– Captain Kirk, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Humankind has always struggled to balance individual need against the need of the greater community. The modern tool of choice is economic system: capitalism, socialism, communism, etc. Lying along a continuum from individualism to collectivism, these models have achieved various levels of success – if measured economically. Measured spiritually, all fall short because they are not ends, but means. How do we approach this struggle of knowing what and when to sacrifice?

Sacrificial living does not necessarily lead to a literal cross. In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd leaves behind ninety-nine sheep to find one. Fine if you’re the one, but most of us are among the ninety-nine left on the mountain. Do we grumble about being temporarily inconvenienced and blame the one’s misfortune on its own failure to keep up? Are we willing to sacrifice a little convenience so the one may survive? Often our answer depends on whether we’ve chosen freely or been coerced … but the shepherd doesn’t bother to survey the sheep.

Sacrifice is valued mostly via lip service. We “sacrifice” trips to the movies or our usual pricy selection at Starbucks to keep our debt down or to save for our children’s college. Rarely outside the military are we asked to make true sacrifices in the sacred sense of giving without expecting anything in return. Or maybe the opportunities are abundant but we value merit over mercy. Does the shepherd seem concerned with whether he is giving the lost sheep “a hand up or a handout?” Are we prepared to make the real sacrifices necessary to save the lost in our society? Because in the end, the hands up demand more personal cost in time, money and comfort than do the handouts.

When it’s our turn to be the one sheep, how will we want the ninety-nine to respond? That’s what we should be prepared to sacrifice.

Comfort: No matter how lost you feel, Christ is searching for you.

Challenge: Remember that lost sheep started out part of the flock. They are family, so their burdens are our burdens.

Prayer: Merciful God, I trust you to find me when I am lost. Amen.

Discussion: When you’ve felt lost, how did you know God had found you again?

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Speechless

speechless

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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