Stewards

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Poverty of Ideas

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Proverbs 17:1-20, 1 Timothy 3:1-16, Matthew 12:43-50


Americans have a schizophrenic attitude toward people living in poverty. On one hand we canonize Mother Theresa for her work with the poor, and missionaries who feed starving Ethiopian children. On the other, we tend to think less charitably of the poor at home, and frequently require them to justify their poverty because we can’t stand the idea that someone somewhere is taking advantage of the “system.” Among Christians and nonbelievers alike, the poor are too often vilified rather than loved, torn apart rather than restored.

Do we honestly believe poor people “over there” are somehow different from or more deserving than people sleeping under bridges in Chicago? Poverty is a product of injustice and bad luck. America may have more resources and opportunity than many nations, but we can’t ignore the social, political, and economic structures that intentionally or unintentionally conspire against the poor. Jesus may have pointed that out once or twice.

We all know examples of people who’ve risen above – maybe we’ve done it ourselves – but lifting oneself out of poverty, especially generational poverty, usually requires exceptional talent. Hard work alone does not guarantee success. Your able body, sound mind, ethnicity, gender, and looks are all matters of chance helping or hindering  you. People who possess socially favorable variations of these traits have the opportunity to earn more, but do they inherently deserve more?

We treat intelligence and strength – and the success they engender – as virtues, but they are not something we choose; they are unearned gifts God has entrusted to us. Aren’t they meant to serve more than our bank accounts? Whether comfortable or afflicted, we should all do our fair share, but Christ taught if we have two coats and our neighbor has none, we should give them one. How often do we instead grill them about why they are too irresponsible to have a coat?

Who among us dares volunteer to tell Jesus we know who is deserving and undeserving, and the poor but unexceptional just don’t make the cut? Yet we do that with our votes and checkbooks every day.

The problem of poverty is complex, but the solution is never to dismiss poor people as weak or lazy. Both Old and New Testament scriptures have very clear positions on loving the poor. Why look for so many reasons not to?

Comfort: Whatever your financial or social status, in God’s eyes and heart you are equal to all His children.

Challenge: Examine what biases, hidden or overt, you might have against the poor. How do you think Christ would respond?

Prayer: God of love, open my heart to those in need. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways do you think America effectively works to alleviate poverty? In what ways is it ineffective?

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Generosity and Grace

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Today’s readings (click to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 67; 150, Genesis 13:2-18, Galatians 2:1-10, Mark 7:31-37


When Jesus healed people, he didn’t treat just their physical ailments; he also acknowledged them in a way that restored the dignity they had been denied. Charity and mercy should not be top-down experiences where the more fortunate look pitiably upon the less fortunate. They are more like the closing of a circuit through which grace flows and connects us all in the Spirit.

It’s easy to squeeze the grace out of our generosity. We insist on knowing who is worthy of it. We decide what is best for people without getting to know them. If it gets uncomfortable, we distance ourselves socially and emotionally from the people we are helping. Sometimes we dismiss the efforts of people who take a different approach than we do. Our focus can be too much on how charity makes us feel, rather than on the need we are meeting.

How Jesus healed a man of deafness and a speech impediment (a common combination, since it is difficult to mimic what we can’t hear) is a wonderful model for works we do in Christ’s name. First, he didn’t try to determine worth or blame, but accepted a person who came to him in faith. Next, instead of making a public show of his kindness, he took the man aside, thereby giving him a choice of whether to tell his own story. Then Jesus literally got his hands dirty and put them on the man in an intimate way, because sometimes love has to be messy. All the while Jesus was prayerful, but confident that God would guide him. He comprehensively addressed both the root of the problem (the man’s deafness) and the symptoms (his speech impediment). Finally, after word of his generosity spread, Jesus humbly gave the glory to God.

Grace-filled generosity does not insist on its own way, but responds to the needs of others. Unlike enabling, it empowers recipients to make their own decisions about what to do next. Once someone’s ability to hear (or eat or sleep warmly) is restored, they are free to speak the good news as they will.

Comfort: Sometimes we offer assistance, sometimes we receive it, and at all times we are worthy of dignity.

Challenge: Do some volunteer work that allows you to interact with the recipients of the work. Try to see them not as people who need something you have, but as people who are equally in need of God’s gifts as you are.

Prayer: Gracious and generous God, I will do my best to give as you would have me do, not as my fears and doubts would. Amen.

Discussion: When you give someone a gift, what expectations accompany it?

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Love Obediently

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Readings: Psalms 33; 146,  Amos 7:10-17,  Revelation 1:9-16,  Matthew 22:34-46


When a Pharisee lawyer asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment, he replies:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. and a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

– Matthew 23:37-39

This famous passage is one of the most direct answers Jesus provides. These two commandments are simple, yet they lack specificity. Exactly how are we supposed to love our God and our neighbors? Or for that matter, ourselves? Is God commanding us to feel a certain way, and if so … is that even something we can control?

We like to say that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37), but we can also be assured God does not ask us to do the impossible. In the case of these commandments, “love” is not expressed in feelings; rather it is demonstrated in attitudes and an actions. Loving a creator we can’t see or hear may be challenging, but we can maintain attitudes of praise, gratitude, and a healthy kind of fear.

Regarding neighbors, we can love someone in a Christian sense without feeling any affection for them at all. We demonstrate it by respecting all persons as beloved creatures of God, offering charity when needed in a manner that respects the dignity of the recipient, and doing the hard work of forgiving offense. Some people will say being nice to someone we don’t like – maybe the opinionated brother-in-law who sucks all the air out of the room on Christmas Eve – is a form of hypocrisy, but that’s only true if we speak of or do ill to them when they aren’t around. The agape love Jesus calls us to is indifferent to our actual feelings. Otherwise, it’s not sacrificial at all. We’re allowed not to like someone. We are called to love them anyway.

And the “ourselves” part? It is perfectly fine to have boundaries and expectations that we will also be respected. Sacrificial love is about the betterment of others, not the abasement of ourselves. Sometimes we suffer because we love, but we don’t love because we suffer. To love is to approach the world and its inhabitants as though God has entrusted their care personally to us … because God has.

Comfort: Our loving actions can heal our unloving hearts.

Challenge: Pay attention to whether your emotions are dictating your actions, or vice versa.

Prayer: Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you. (Psalm 33:22)

Discussion: Do you feel you can love someone without liking them?

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Hope. Always.

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Readings: Psalms 90; 149, Amos 5:18-27, Jude 17-25, Matthew 22:15-22


Ever since the world began, people have been predicting its end. For many that “end” is not so much a final obliteration, as a renewal when the evil, violence, and injustice will be swept away to make room for something better. The prophet Amos speaks of the day when God will “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” When we read headlines and watch the news, don’t we long for the same?

We can react to adversity with despair or with hope. While we may naturally tend toward one or the other, it is ultimately a choice. In the midst of suffering hope may seem futile or naive, but it has real consequences. Repeated studies show that a positive attitude promotes healing from illness and surgery. On a fundamental level, hope is essential to survival; hunger, thirst, and fear may seem like negatives, but they are hard-wired into us with an assumption that we will continue to live.

Though hope is more than a belief in continued existence. Despair also assumes existence but resigns us to inaction and victimhood, where hope spurs us to positive action. Hope makes charity possible, because it allows for positive change. Without the promise of hope could we even contemplate mercy?

In an age when tragedy around the world is broadcast into our homes 24 hours a day in high definition, hope can be hard to maintain. The truth is that on the whole violence in the world has been decreasing steadily for decades. Data and statistics are not necessarily comforting in the face of immediate crisis, so how do we work (and it is intentional work) to maintain hope? Minister and children’s television host Fred Rogers famously quotes his mother who told him the best thing to do in times of disaster is “look for the helpers” – people who move toward a tragedy to improve the situation. While it seems counterintuitive, could the Kingdom actually be ushered in when we move nearer to tragedy, where we are also nearer to mercy and charity? That is the end we hope for.

Comfort: We are closer to the promises of the God’s Kingdom every day.

Challenge: You can’t help everyone, but somewhere nearby there is a tragic situation waiting for you to inject hope into it. Find it and act.

Prayer: Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. (Psalm 80:7)

Discussion: Is hope something that comes naturally to you?

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Poverty Line

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 62; 145, 2 Chronicles 6:32-7:7, James 2:1-13, Mark 14:53-65


The 2017 Federal Poverty Level – a factor in qualifying for some federal benefits – is $12,060 for an individual, and $24,600 for a family of four. We often call this threshold the Poverty Line.

Unfortunately many people make a host of assumptions based on a person or family’s financial position relative to the Poverty Line, which tells us one and exactly one thing. Assumptions multiply if people use the benefits available to them. Somehow the American Dream – and its bastard child the Prosperity Gospel – have managed to frame poverty as a moral failing, despite Christ’s consistent solidarity with the poor.

Jesus talked a lot about the poor. More importantly, he talked to and with the poor, assuring them their circumstances did not reflect God’s love for them. As Christianity gained favor with the affluent, the church found it necessary to counsel those who carried biases about the poor into their faith. In his epistle James wrote:

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Today’s judgments and evil thoughts are more subtle. Our attitude toward charity waxes and wanes according to our judgment of whether people in need are deserving or undeserving. Somehow their decisions and actions seem to warrant more scrutiny than our own. We mask the stinginess of our hearts and wallets behind otherwise noble concepts like stewardship and accountability.

Jesus didn’t make distinctions among people in need based on their worthiness. As Paul reminds us in Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Perhaps the biggest mistake we make when talking or thinking about the poor – is thinking of them as “the poor.” To follow Christ is to be a servant to all; there’s no service in washing clean feet.

Additional Reading:
For more thoughts on today’s scripture from James, see Solidarity.


Comfort: Poverty is not a sign of God’s disfavor. 

Challenge: Pay attention to what aspects of life and society unnecessarily favor people of greater means over people of lesser means.

Prayer: Gracious God, teach me to see all persons as you do. Amen. 

Discussion: What are the differences and similarities between tackling poverty on a national or global scale, and loving the poor on a personal level?

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Solidarity

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 56; 149, Joel 3:9-17, James 2:1-13, Luke 16:10-17 (18)


I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.

The author of James would probably have appreciated these words from Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano. James was very aware that people struggle to see everyone as equal without regard to social and economic status. He wrote:

For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Maybe we don’t make such distinctions on Sunday mornings, but the ever-present barriers between classes is very real. One common way to handle poverty is to push it out of sight. Many a generous soul who volunteers at a food bank or homeless center would not be keen to find one on their own block. We all like to hear a struggling neighborhood has been improved, but do we ask whether the improvements are positively impacting the people most in need, or are just forcing them away to create a new playground for the more affluent? In many ways, we are tolerant rather than inclusive. Tolerance starts from an assumption that we own social (and sometimes physical) space and have the authority to grant others permission to enter it; inclusivity assumes we all have equal right to that space and requires mutual respect and actual relationship to thrive.

Our faith communities should be places where we remove barriers and distinctions. By choosing solidarity and inclusivity over charity and tolerance, we remake part of the world in the image of the Kingdom. Whether our personal poverty is one of pocket, spirit, or status … we have a lot to learn from other people.

Comfort: All members of the Body of Christ are equal.

Challenge: Spend time with people who are different from you.

Prayer: Lord of Creation, may my heart be open to all. Amen.

Discussion: Are there any ways you are tolerant where you could become inclusive?

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