In Equity

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 56; 149, Isaiah 46:1-13, Ephesians 6:10-24, Mark 5:1-20


In his various letters, Paul reminds us again and again that in Christ all are equal. However, he also recognized that isn’t the way the world works. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells husbands to respect and love their wives, and wives to obey their husbands. By modern standards that’s a sexist stance, but at the time – when women were the property of their husbands – it was radical. He tells children to obey their parents, and fathers not to provoke their children to anger. In Christ, any authority granted us by culture is not ours to exploit or wield ruthlessly, but to execute justly.

Paul’s words for masters and slaves were controversial then and now, but for different reasons. He told slaves to obey with fear and trembling, and to serve with enthusiasm, and he told masters to stop threatening slaves and to “do the same to them.” Since he didn’t demand outright that slaves be freed, some people who aren’t fans of the Christian faith drag out this passage as if it we an overall Christian endorsement of slavery. (It may not help that some defenders of slavery actually did use this and similar scripture passages to support their position.)

We don’t know what Paul’s feelings about slavery were, since addressing slavery wasn’t his mission (though we do know he intervened on behalf of at least one runaway slave). Paul was introducing the gospel to people in their present circumstances; because he believed the return of the Lord was imminent, restructuring society would have been immaterial.

Of course slavery is utterly indefensible (and its abolition in the west was due in large part to Christian efforts), but let’s remember we still live with many social injustices that are dismissed even – and sometimes especially – by Christians as “the way things are.” From exploiting labor to dumping industrial waste on communities too impoverished to fight it, we are part of a world that turns blind eyes toward injustice. Changing society may be like turning the Titanic around, but what we are willing to tolerate or promote in our lives indicates how closely we take the gospel to heart.

Authority and privilege should be used – and if necessary sacrificed – in service to those who lack them. Unequal roles may be unavoidable, but expressing love, dignity, and spiritual equality within them is always an option.

Comfort: In God’s eyes, you are not defined by your position in life.

Challenge: Exercise any authority or privilege you possess as through it was entrusted to you for the purpose of spreading God’s love … because it was.

Prayer: God of mercy, teach me to be merciful. Amen.

Discussion: Has anyone shown you mercy when they didn’t have to?

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Rod and Staff

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 23; 149, Exodus 13:17-14:4, 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10, Mark 12:18-27


Psalm 23 is arguably the most recognized psalm in the psalter. It chronicles the typical day in the life of a shepherd and flock, through danger and safely home again. The metaphor of Christians as sheep may seem less than flattering; author Russell Banks once observed sheep were only slightly more intelligent than lawn furniture. Critics of the faith have said it accurately describes mindless followers, but the metaphor is not so much about following as about the relationship binding a shepherd and his flock.

At the end of the day, a shepherd uses a rod to count and inspect each sheep for injuries, a practice known as passing “under the rod.” The rod can also be thrown in front of a sheep to startle it back on course. Although other images of rods, such as “spare the rod and spoil the child” and Proverbs 13:24 (“He who withholds his rod hates his son,
But he who loves him disciplines him diligently.”) are more about discipline, the audience of this psalm knew the rod was not used to strike, but to tend.

Impulsive pursuits may leave us stranded in a spiritual bramble. We get caught up following other sheep and find ourselves in unfamiliar or even hostile territory. We tangle ourselves in gossip at work or church. We feel pressure to overspend in order to keep up appearances with friends and neighbors. As a result, we feel lost, overwhelmed, or out of control. At these times, depending on our relationship to our shepherd can literally save us.

To Jesus’ contemporaries the rod and staff were symbols of loving authority. When he called himself the Good Shepherd, Jesus was telling his listeners, “I have your best interests at heart, and often that will require a course correction.” Are we challenged when trying to integrate the ideas of “love” and “authority” into a unified whole? Have we learned to picture the rod in Jesus’ hand as an instrument of punishment or nurture?

We may not be immediately comfortable accepting the humility necessary to admit we need shepherding, but eventually we realize it is a true blessing that our God does not send us alone into the wilderness. Following Christ will always lead us home.

Comfort: Christ seeks to rescue every sheep, no matter how lost.

Challenge: If possible, visit a meditation labyrinth (or use a finger labyrinth). As you move to the center, meditate on a problem that has you feeling lost. On the way out, ask God to lead you home, and give thanks for Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

Prayer: Merciful and loving God, always lead me home to you.

Discussion: How do you feel about being disciplined? How do you react to it?

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The Good Consultant

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Genesis 24:28-38, 49-51, Hebrews 12:12-29, John 7:14-36


As a profession, consultants have a mixed reputation. After consultants have provided expensive professional expertise, employees commonly respond (correctly) with: “They didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.” If this is the case, is the service valuable or not? It can be — if what the business really needed was confirmation, not innovation. It may not sound as poetic as The Good Shepherd, but Jesus was also The Good Consultant.

When Jesus had grown popular enough that Jewish authorities began plotting to kill him, he had two choices: go into hiding, or follow his calling. Despite the danger, he began preaching openly in the temple during Sukkot, one of the most important festivals of the year. People marveled that he, who had not been taught, could teach so wisely. Jesus responded by saying his teachings were not his own but those of God. He advised anyone who doubted his credentials to apply a simple litmus test: was he speaking for his own glory, or for the glory of God? “Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own.”

In this particular case he was preaching about their hypocrisy when it came to applying the Law of Moses, but he wasn’t providing any new information. Many prophets before him told the people of Israel their observation of the law was meaningless — even offensive — to God if they weren’t offering mercy and justice to the least among them. Like many enterprises, they were too busy performing day-to-day operations to step back and ask whether they were really fulfilling their mission in the best way. They knew the right things, but needed Jesus and other prophets / consultants to spur them to change direction.

In our spiritual lives as in our work lives, we need to recognize when established authorities are glorifying themselves and the status quo over the mission, and when outside voices are telling us what we already know to be true. The Good Consultant steers us away from hypocrisy and ego toward mercy and justice.

Comfort: When your conscience tells you to choose mercy over the wishes of authority, you should probably listen to it.

Challenge: Oftentimes following Jesus means defying “business as usual.” Make time to step back and measure your beliefs and actions against the teachings of Christ.

Prayer: God, I will do my best to listen to your voice above all others – including my own. Amen.

Discussion: When you ask your friends or colleagues for advice, how often do you already know what the right answer is?

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King Makers

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 127:12-20, 1 Samuel 8:1-22, Acts 6:15-7:16, Luke 22:24-30


After the death of Joshua, who succeeded Moses, the twelve tribes of Israel fractured and many people – despite warnings from God – began to worship Ba’al in the custom of the other nations around them. Because of their unfaithfulness, God let their enemies overtake them. Eventually God pitied them and raised up a series of Judges (part military leader, part legal arbiter) to restore them. Both the people and the Judges were unsteady in their faithfulness, and often relapsed to Ba’al worship and corruption.

Samuel, a righteous man and Judge, was the father of the last two judges. His sons, nothing like him, “took bribes and perverted justice.” The people demanded Samuel instead appoint a King. Samuel and God were displeased  the people were rejecting God as their king. Speaking for God, Samuel told them what kind of king they could expect: one who took their property and harvests, conscripted their sons into military service, forced their daughters to labor for him, and generally abused them for his own gain.

The people refused to listen, saying “We are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

God let them have their king.

How often we choose affection for a king (or president, coach, etc.) over the blessings of the Lord. As long as we feel someone will lead our tribe to victory (be that in elections, ball games, or culture wars), we overlook that person’s ruinous flaws even when we’ve been warned about them. In the end the institution we claimed to want to protect is tarnished at best or gutted at worst.

We can do better than willful ignorance and hollow victory. Our triumphs don’t come from bringing our enemies low at any cost, but from holding our integrity high at every cost. Placing our trust in God rather than kings frees us to tell the emperor he has no clothes. The price we pay today will be much lower than one that comes due later.

Comfort: Choosing integrity is its own reward.

Challenge: Don’t follow authorities blindly, even when you agree with them.

Prayer: O continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your salvation to the upright of heart! (Psalm 36:10).

Discussion: Have you ever found yourself questioning someone you once put on a pedestal?

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Fire From Heaven

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Ezekiel 4:1-17, Hebrews 6:1-12, Luke 9:51-62


When a Samaritan town refused to receive Jesus, the disciples James and John asked, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”  Luke says Jesus rebuked them. They simply moved on to the next town.

Could “rebuked” have been an understatement? After Jesus had taught them about peace, love, and reserving judgment for God, what made a consuming fire seem like a reasonable option?

James and John were just being human: even a little authority and power seems like it’s there to be used. Since Jesus isn’t physically present today to stay our hands, it’s good we can’t summon heavenly fire at will. Yet here in the west, particularly in the United States, many Christians seem to make a habit of wielding power. We take the commandment to make disciples of all nations and twist it into coercion. Never did Jesus force anyone to follow him – or even to respect him. Rather, he let some potential followers know they might not be ready. Have someone to bury soon? Want to finish up a few things? Maybe this isn’t for you yet. This was neither coercion nor rejection, but a free choice. Jesus moved on his way, and they moved on theirs.

So why do many Christians today find it difficult, when someone rejects Christ, to move on? We boycott (which may seem like moving on, but is decidedly aggressive), legislate against, picket, and ban people who don’t share our values, then wonder why our ranks dwindle. Such behavior doesn’t just fail to win people to Christ; it distorts the message of the Gospel into something repellent. Jesus warned us we’d be rejected, but now we have the numbers and influence to reject, condemn, and oppress … and too many times we choose to.

As we enter the week before Pentecost, let’s remember the last fire God sent from heaven was the Holy Spirit. Its flame rested visibly on each disciple’s head, and made it possible for all to understand them. Let’s choose our flame more wisely than James and John. Or move on.

Comfort: You aren’t bound by the law of rejection, but freed by the law of love.

Challenge: When fellow Christians speak in terms of rejection, speak up for love.

Prayer: Lord, light a fire in my heart to spread your good news to all. Amen.

Discussion: What’s a memorable example you know of Christians responding in love when they could have chosen rejection?

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Authority? Figures.

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Jeremiah 32:36-44, Romans 13:1-14, Luke 8:16-25


[Note: This post originally appeared on July 16, 2016. I’ve never re-posted an item on this blog, but given the current political climate, this reflection on Romans 13 seems to bear a repeat appearance. Peace. – JJS]

In Romans 13 Paul writes that earthly authorities are appointed by God, therefore we should submit to them. He asserts that anyone who has good conduct has no reason to fear the authorities. He claims “the authority does not bear the sword in vain” – that it does not punish people without good cause. Paul goes so far as to say resisting authority is equivalent to resisting God, a behavior worthy of wrath.

Does this accurately reflect our experience of authority?

Paul wrote this letter during a time when political and civil unrest threatened the status of the Jewish People in the Roman Empire. He wanted to prevent them from committing acts that would invite retaliation. This attitude must have been a divisive one, since so many of Jesus’ teachings and actions were aimed directly against the abuses of the Roman government. How could Paul bring himself to defend the empire that crucified his Savior?

Paul offered no qualifiers, but Biblical commentaries usually advise us his words apply only to just authorities. The problem is this leads to circular logic: the ones we like are just, the ones we don’t are not. After the last several presidential elections, whether the winner was a conservative or liberal, many people who supported the opposition claimed the winner was illegitimate. We take a similar view of federal judges: when we agree with their rulings, they are upholding the constitution; when we disagree, they are judicial activists. And in non-democratic countries it’s even more complicated.

What to do? One option might be to withdraw from the political process altogether, as some denominations do. Yet this option doesn’t seem to reflect the actions of Jesus, the many martyrs, and other advocates of justice who died standing up to authority. We might be better off to remember the only authority to whom we owe any allegiance is God. We’re going to disagree about what that means, but each of us is obligated to act as we believe God calls us to. If we have ears to listen, Christ and the Spirit will point us toward true authority.

Comfort: You don’t answer to anyone but God.

Challenge: You still have to live with authority.

Prayer: Creator God, Lord of Heaven and Earth, I am your creature, and will follow you before all others. Amen.

Discussion: When does authority rub you the wrong way?

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The Peter Principle

1469066900563.jpgToday’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):

Psalms 36; 147:12-20, Joshua 9:3-21, Romans 15:1-13, Matthew 26:69-75


Have you ever been asked to provide an employment reference? One of the most common questions is: “Would you hire this person again?” Based on today’s reading from Matthew, if you were Jesus, would you hire Peter again? After all, he fell asleep on the job several times, and when the pressure was high he denied even knowing his boss. Yet Jesus named Peter the rock solid enough to found his church.

How do we feel about Peter denying Christ three times? We might like to think we would have been stronger, but we have the advantage of hindsight. More humbly, we might be grateful our performance hasn’t been similarly tested. We might find relief that, rather than place his trust in the perfect, Jesus placed it in those who loved him and whom he loved.

This was not the first or last time Peter would stumble. When an authority figure fails (or merely fails to please us), our reaction can be disproportionate. We expect them to know more, do better, and be stronger than we ourselves are. If they have purposely projected such an image, their failings invite that much more criticism. Maybe we become silently resentful of a minister who hasn’t provided as much attention as we feel we deserve. Maybe we gossip to our co-workers when our boss makes a mistake we could just as easily have made. Maybe we resent our parents because we simply know we could have done a better job.

No one is above honest criticism, but our standards should be fair to everyone. If today Jesus appointed any one of us to lead his church, that person would be a fool not to be more intimidated than honored. Positions of authority, handled responsibly, are enormous burdens. Yet the people who hold them are only people. Let us be at least as forgiving of them as we would like them to be of us. Our minister has overwhelming priorities. Our boss needs support more than criticism. Our parents are still growing as people. Peter needed a lifetime to grow into his job too.

Comfort: Jesus never expects perfection, only love.

Challenge: Ask a minister, employer, parent or other authority figure to describe their responsibilities to you.

Prayer: God of all Creation, thank you for the gift of forgiveness. Amen.

Discussion: Are you more, less, or equally critical of authority figures as you are of others?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Authority? Figures.

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, Joshua 6:1-14, Romans 13:1-7, Matthew 26:26-35


In Romans 13 Paul writes that earthly authorities are appointed by God, therefore we should submit to them. He asserts that anyone who has good conduct has no reason to fear the authorities. He claims “the authority does not bear the sword in vain” – that it does not punish people without good cause. Paul goes so far as to say resisting authority is equivalent to resisting God, a behavior worthy of wrath.

Does this accurately reflect our experience of authority?

Paul wrote this letter during a time when political and civil unrest threatened the status of the Jewish People in the Roman Empire. He wanted to prevent them from committing acts that would invite retaliation. This attitude must have been a divisive one, since so many of Jesus’ teachings and actions were aimed directly against the abuses of the Roman government. How could Paul bring himself to defend the empire that crucified his Savior?

Paul offered no qualifiers, but Biblical commentaries usually advise us his words apply only to just authorities. The problem is this leads to circular logic: the ones we like are just, the ones we don’t are not. After the last several presidential elections, whether the winner was a conservative or liberal, many people who supported the opposition claimed the winner was illegitimate. We take a similar view of federal judges: when we agree with their rulings, they are upholding the constitution; when we disagree, they are judicial activists. And in non-democratic countries it’s even more complicated.

What to do? One option might be to withdraw from the political process altogether, as some denominations do. Yet this option doesn’t seem to reflect the actions of Jesus, the many martyrs, and other advocates of justice who died standing up to authority. We might be better off to remember the only authority to whom we owe any allegiance is God. We’re going to disagree about what that means, but each of us is obligated to act as we believe God calls us to. If we have ears to listen, Christ and the Spirit will point us toward true authority.

Comfort: You don’t answer to anyone but God.

Challenge: You still have to live with authority.

Prayer: Creator God, Lord of Heaven and Earth, I am your creature, and will follow you before all others. Amen.

Discussion: When does authority rub you the wrong way?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!