Radical Faith

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab):
Psalms 34; 150, 1 Samuel 1:1-2; 7b-28, Colossians 1:9-20, Luke 2:22-40


Today’s reading from Samuel introduces Hannah, one of Elkanah’s two wives. Hannah had no children, but Elkanah’s other wife did.  Like many women in her situation, Hannah was sorrowful about her inability to conceive. She went to the temple and prayed for a child. Because her lips moved but she made no sound, the priest Eli assumed she was drunk and reprimanded her, which was ironic because she had promised if God gave her a son she would dedicate him as a nazirite – a sect that abstained from strong drink. When God rewarded her faithfulness and she gave birth to a son, she followed through on that promise.

When we follow our faith, people may look at us like Eli looked at Hannah. Actions of faith may seem crazy even to other believers, especially if our actions disturb the status quo. The person who suggests displaying grace to those taking advantage of a congregation’s generosity is as likely to be mocked as thanked. Someone who quits a secure job to follow a risky calling will be judged favorably by critics only if the results are successful by standards the critics set. Any member of a denomination who decries its corruption or injustices – racism, sexism, clergy abuse, homophobia, fraud – risks rejection and attacks from both the leadership and the laity. Like Elkanah trying to comfort Hannah by saying “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” many people will pressure us toward quiet acceptance. And also like Elkanah, who already had children by another wife, people seldom understand the need for actions of faith against injustices which do not affect them directly.

As a childless wife, Hannah was distinctly disadvantaged in her culture. Our faith history, from Moses to Jesus to the Civil Rights Movement to today, is the story of God’s justice delivering the oppressed. It always seems crazy to those in power, because by worldly standards there’s nothing in it for them. For those of limited privilege, radical faith actions may be the only sane response. For those who enjoy privilege, some radical faith may be unexpectedly liberating.

Comfort: God desires the liberation of the oppressed.

Challenge: Ask yourself what injustices you tolerate – or possibly participate in – because they don’t affect you.

Prayer: Lord, help me to see the world as you do, especially the places I’m not prone to look. Amen.

Discussion: What convictions have you followed despite negative backlash?

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Hands, Eyes, and Butterflies

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Today’s readings (click to open in new window):
Psalms 2; 145, Isaiah 49:13-23, Isaiah 54:1-13, Matthew 18:1-14


If your hand caused you to sin, would you be able to cut it off, as Jesus suggests in today’s passage from Matthew? Would you be able to pluck out your own eye to avoid damnation? More importantly, does Jesus actually expect us to do these things? Certainly not. If we heard of someone who mutilated himself for religious reasons, we would consider that person to be deeply disturbed, and rightly so. Most of us are not physically capable of such acts. What then might Jesus mean to tell us with such harsh imagery?

Hyperbole and extreme examples are teaching methods common to Jesus’ time. He didn’t intend to create a flock of one-handed, half-blind followers, but he does want us to understand true commitment means cutting out the parts of our lives that undermine or overshadow our relationship with God. Becoming part of God’s kingdom is a transformational act, and like butterflies emerging from cocoons, we must leave behind all that would hold us back.

As caterpillars metamorphose into butterflies, their bodies break down into imaginal cells – undifferentiated and similar to stem cells – and reform into something entirely new. When we truly embrace faith, or feel the call to a deeper level of it, our spirits need to undergo a similar process. All we have to work with are our original materials, but surrendered to God’s hands they can be repurposed and reborn. We won’t welcome every change, and some will even be painful, but we must be willing to rigorously examine the difference between who we are and who we are meant to become, and abandon the parts that either don’t fit or can’t be re-shaped.

God loves and accepts us whether we are in the caterpillar or butterfly stage, but God’s hope is that we fulfill our potential. One advantage we have over butterflies is our ability to metamorphose again and again, throughout our whole lives, each time getting closer to becoming our best selves. We don’t need to lose our eyes or hands, but we may need to remake them into tools of love and grace.

Comfort: God loves us when we try, when we fail, and when we succeed.

Challenge: Metamorphosis requires both time and energy. Assess the gap between who you are and who you believe God wants you to be, and set aside the time and energy necessary to create that change.

Prayer: God of life and change, teach me to be the person you created me to be. Amen.

Discussion: What are some of the most important positive changes you’ve made over your lifetime?

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Christmas Every Day

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Readings:  Psalms 2; 148, Micah 4:1-; 5:2-4, 1 John 4:7-16, John 3:31

Today is the day! The long-awaited Christ has come. We shout “Emmanuel!” because God is with us in the flesh. The spirit of this holiday is expansive enough to include many other traditions like brightly lit trees and gift exchanges which, while not uniquely Christian, reflect our joyous celebration.

Tomorrow, or maybe even as early as this evening, we will begin thinking about the clean-up. Most Christmas trees will be down before the new year begins; a few may make it until Epiphany – the day marking the end of the twelve day season of Christmastide. The annual “War on Christmas” will declare its annual 11-month cease-sire as merchants clear the way for Valentine’s Day and summer fashions. Many people who thought it was crucial for cashiers and baristas to say “Merry Christmas” during the entire season of Advent will stop caring on December 27th without realizing the irony.

The intense activity of Christmas – or at least the effort we invest in its more secular aspects – is not sustainable all year long. We may talk about keeping the spirit of Christmas in our hearts all year long, but we aren’t all that good at it. After the holidays, donations to food banks and other charities drop dramatically, but the needs they serve do not diminish. Christmas as a special day of celebration is wonderful, but Jesus did not remain an infant forever, and after Christmas the way we celebrate him must also mature.

We can bring light into dark places through acts of kindness and attitudes of love. We can offer gifts of time, talents, and money so we love people in need as children of God more than once a year. Instead of seeking meaningless offense at otherwise well-intended holiday greetings, we can speak loudly against words and actions of actual oppression and injustice. Like the infamous inn, our lives can become so full we turn away the arrival of Christ without realizing what we’ve done. We can create room by living as if Christmas is not the end of a season, but the beginning of a life where Christ dwells within and among us.

Comfort: Christmas is more than a day; it’s a life of hope, love, peace, and joy.

Challenge: Over the next 11 months, plan a monthly Christmas “celebration” to bring the light of Christ into places and lives that need it.

Prayer: [Read Psalm 96 or Psalm 98, aloud or to yourself].

Discussion: Do you have any Christmas traditions that you could revisit throughout the year?

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Eat it! It’s good for you!

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 148, Ezekiel 1:28-3:3, Hebrews 4:14-5:6, Luke 9:28-36


After God bestowed upon Ezekiel a fantastical vision of four-faced heavenly beings, God commissioned the prophet by presenting him a scroll and instructing him to eat it. The image of consuming a scroll may be less cinematic than multi-limbed giants emerging from a storm, but it is also rich with meaning. The scroll was covered with words of lament and mourning, and Ezekiel was commanded to share those words with the rebellious nation of Israel.

When God tells Ezekiel “eat what is before you,” he is confirming Ezekiel’s obedience, in direct contrast to the rebelliousness of the people. In Ezekiel’s time, scrolls were not made of paper, but papyrus (the same basic material as sandals and baskets) or parchment (the skin of a kosher animal); neither would have been an appetizing proposition. Yet the scroll was sweet as honey in his mouth. Like Ezekiel, we may find the tasks to which God calls us less than appealing, but in the end we may find they provide us with a sweet fulfillment only discovered when following God. A popular riddle asks: “How do you eat an elephant?” Answer: one bite at a time. The stumbling block for most efforts is motivating ourselves to take the first step. If we can bring ourselves into obedience and choke down that first bite of scroll, who knows how sweet the rewards might be!

Would it have been easier for Ezekiel to hold onto the scroll and read it to people? Probably. Yet as a prophet, Ezekiel was called to literally internalize the word of God, to let it nourish and become part of his being. Do we consume God’s word and let it fuel us, or are our scrolls lying around, collecting dust? The answer is the difference between a living relationship with God and Gospel that we can’t help but share because it’s part of us, and devotion to an eternally external text that is an object of study but not sustenance.

God does not offer us merely a recipe for salvation, but the bread of life itself. Let’s devour it with gusto!

Comfort: Faith is lived, not just studied and kept to ourselves.

Challenge: At each meal, offer a prayer of thanks.

 

Prayer: Holy God, let others see your spirit filling me up! Amen.

Discussion: Do you feel God is preparing you for anything you are hesitant to take on?

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We should be committed!

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 54; 146, Ruth 1:15-22, 2 Corinthians 1:12-22, Matthew 5:13-20


If today’s passage from Ruth sounds familiar, you may have heard it during a wedding ceremony. Ruth’s pledge of fidelity to Naomi is so moving, many select this scripture to reflect the commitment intended in marriage. The relationship between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law is very different from that between spouses, yet this scripture touches on something common to both.

Ruth has no legal or cultural obligations to her mother-in-law. Why would she choose not only to stay with the destitute Naomi, but to promise “Where you die, I will die?” In any relationship, there are three parties: the first person, the second person, and the relationship itself. Ruth, like a spouse would, commits herself not only to Naomi, but to the relationship between them. This may seem like a subtle distinction, but a relationship has needs distinct from the needs of either party. Absent an effort by both parties to meet those needs, the relationship will not survive. We all know couples who love each other but can’t make the relationship work, or friends who, despite best intentions, drift away over time. We describe such people as “growing apart,” but these words frequently mask an inability or unwillingness to nurture a relationship.

We can only commit to other people – whether through a marriage, a friendship, a faith community, etc. – when we recognize and honor that a relationship exists to serve not only our individual needs, but a greater purpose. When we don’t, we hold commitments lightly and break them easily. But when we do, we grow into the challenges and joys that are part of surrendering to something greater than ourselves. Sometimes this looks like foolishness to the world, but we know better in our hearts.

Through his letters to the church at Corinth (and other places) Paul is constantly telling the faithful their role in God’s larger realm transcends individual desires. A large part of Christ’s message is about being in right – and true – relationship with each other. Making a commitment to Christ means recognizing the needs of relationship do not extinguish but transform the desires of the individual.

Comfort: Being part of something larger helps us grow as people.

Challenge: Meditate on your relationships. Which require more or deeper commitment?

Prayer: Loving God, teach me to fill the space between me and other people with love. Amen.

Discussion: What are the common needs of platonic and romantic relationships?

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Master Plan

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Exodus 1:6-22, 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, Mark 8:27-9:1


The story of Joseph, his many brothers, and his father Jacob is very near its end with today’s reading. The journey to Egypt for Jacob (also called Israel) and his sons has been a long and twisted one.While Joseph and Pharaoh’s favor allowed the fledgling nation of Israel to settle freely in the Egyptian land of Goshen with all the food they needed, the other residents of Egypt were not so lucky during this seven years of famine. After giving Pharaoh all their money one year and their livestock the next, they had nothing left but their land and bodies. In exchange for food, they offered themselves up as Pharaoh’s slaves and had to pay a tribute of a fifth of all they harvested. Continue reading