Choose Your Own Adventure

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Isaiah 41:1-16, Ephesians 2:1-10, Mark 1:29-45


According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s ministry quickly took off in a big way. In Capernaum he healed many people and drove out many demons, and word of his power spread quickly. Soon the entire city was at his front door. (Or more precisely, the door of Simon and Andrew’s place where he was staying.)  As he traveled with his disciples to spread his message to the neighboring towns in Galilee, “A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’”  And Jesus, moved with pity, said, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

Did Jesus ever choose not to heal? Did he ever choose to turn anyone away?

Some people may say yes. They may point to the rich young ruler who went away heartbroken when Jesus told him to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor. They remind us of the many people who abandoned Jesus after he presented them with a particularly difficult teaching. And they trot out the man who wanted to bury his father but was told to “let the dead bury the dead.”

Except Jesus didn’t turn any of those people away. They walked away. They chose to walk away.

Some preachers warn we soften the harsher truths of discipleship when we say Jesus accepted everyone. Maybe that’s so, but that doesn’t mean we should start deciding for ourselves whom Christ would reject, because we don’t know. A primary controversy of his ministry was based on fraternizing with “unclean” people the “righteous” people shunned. Once we decide we’re in the camp of the righteous, our view is skewed. Saul counted himself righteous and literally hunted Christians before he became the apostle Paul who wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

Rather than worry about other people’s choices, let’s direct our energies towards modeling our own choices after Christ. Without compromising our values, we can always find ways to choose mercy. Choose forgiveness. Choose to give the benefit of the doubt. Choose generosity. Choose to recognize dignity. Choose humility. Choose love.

Even when these choices are unattractive or difficult, they are still ours to make. The cost of making the right choices is a burden we voluntarily bear ourselves, not one we should force onto others.

Comfort: Jesus does not reject you.

Challenge: But that doesn’t mean you can’t reject Jesus.

Prayer: Loving God, help me make choices that reflect your love and righteousness. Amen.

Discussion: Have you made choices that other people have had to pay for?

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Homeland

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 111; 146, Genesis 28:10-22, Hebrews 11:13-22, John 10:7-17


“All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.”

– Hebrews 11:13-14

Do you feel like you have a homeland? For most of us, it’s the nation we live in. Or maybe, if you were born in a different land, it’s your country of origin. Some people feel an affinity for places they’ve only ever visited, or perhaps never been. For the faithful described in today’s passage from Hebrews, the homeland was a place which didn’t exist except as a promise from God.

As citizens of the Kingdom of God – a place which is very real yet not found on any map – perhaps we should always feel a little displaced. When we are too comfortable in an earthly kingdom (or republic or federation or whatever form that “kingdom” may take), we may confuse it with God’s Kingdom and begin to equate patriotism with fidelity to Christ. As a result we look at other nations – also full of God’s children – as morally inferior, and think of our own institutions as somehow divinely ordained.

Yes, there are a few Biblical passages that can be interpreted to mean worldly authorities have been ordained and placed by God, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be corrupted. Even the United States, which prides itself on religious freedom, was founded in rebellion against existing authorities, and is itself subject to very un-Christ-like behavior.

Any government claim to divine authority is dangerous propaganda created to convince us we shouldn’t question all-too-human authority.   When, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said, “my greatest concern is to be on God’s side,” he wasn’t claiming God would back the winner, but that God’s purposes are greater than we can imagine. Though they may occasionally overlap, the concerns of an earthly nation are not equivalent to the concerns of Christ.

Our homeland is nowhere – and everywhere. We find it wherever we are by following Christ. Our responsibilities to God’s justice , peace, and love don’t fluctuate with the whims of nations, but our commitment (or lack thereof) to those responsibilities may be revealed when those whims are at odds with discipleship. Our flag is the coat we give to our neighbor, our anthem the words of forgiveness spoken to our enemies, our border the limitless reach of God’s love.

For additional thoughts on today’s reading from John 10, see Our Shepherd’s Voice

Comfort: Your citizenship in the kingdom of heaven is constant.

Challenge: Pay attention to discern when someone is trying to exploit your faith for personal or nationalistic purposes.

Prayer: God of all creation, my allegiance is to your Kingdom. Amen.

Discussion: What are the dangers of mixing national identity with religious identity?

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Love One Another

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 34; 147:1-11, Proverbs 8:22-30, 1 John 5:1-12, John 13:20-35


Though the Christmas season lasts through Epiphany (January 6), once the celebration of the Nativity is over, the lectionary readings don’t waste any time getting back to serious business. The day after Christmas we read about the first martyr, and today we read about the Last Supper and the betrayal of Judas. Do we long just a little for an emotional break, a few days to bask in the glory of Christ’s birth?

Except that’s the thing: there really is no break. No matter how strong our faith, life is a mixed bag.

Take the Last Supper, for example. Jesus knows Judas is about to betray him, and Judas knows it, too. But the Last Supper is also the origin of Communion, which unites us with Christians across time and place. And it also gives us these words from Christ:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Think for a moment what it means that this was a new commandment. What had the disciples been doing during all the preceding years they’d been following Jesus? Were they surprised he felt the need to say it out loud to them? Perhaps it’s a lot harder to do – and comes a lot less naturally to us – than we think.

What a gift that commandment is though. When we practice it, that love is a constant, steadying presence in the ups and downs of life. When we practice it, that love helps us celebrate with each other, mourn with each other, and support each other through difficult times. More than agreeing with one another or liking one another, loving one another with the sacrificial love of Christ is a conscious choice. Our obedience to that commandment – or our disobedience – tells people whether we are truly disciples or merely parrots of the Word.

Life in Christ, at least in our present world, will always be a mixed bag. No matter our state, let us choose to love and be loved. Jesus said so.

Comfort: Christ’s love is constant.

Challenge: Listen to They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love.

Prayer: Merciful God, source of all love, teach me to love your children as Christ loves me. Amen.

Discussion: Are you able to love someone you don’t like?

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Be Prepared

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 24; 150, Isaiah 13:1-13, Hebrews 12:18-29, John 3:22-30


As we reach the mid-way point in our season of Advent, today’s scripture readings appropriately focus on preparation.

Psalm 24, written a thousand years before Christ’s birth, uses the metaphor of a king returning victorious from battle to describe the Lord assuming his place among his people. Not written about Jesus specifically, this psalm sets the stage for the hoped-for Day of the Lord.

Isaiah also describes the Day of the Lord (prophetically speaking, there were several such days), but from a differing viewpoint. Rather than describing a glorious victory, Isaiah warned the Babylonians of the destruction awaiting them for turning away from God and oppressing God’s people.

The letter to the Hebrews, written after Christ’s death, warned its audience to listen for the word of God so they would be prepared for Christ’s return. Its author claims that on the Day of the Lord his voice will shake heaven and earth, and he will return like a “consuming fire” burning away unrighteousness.

Our passage from John is more gentle. It tells us how John the Baptist willingly stepped aside when Jesus – the one for whom he had been preparing the way – began his ministry in earnest. John was content to have played his role faithfully, and sought no further adulation. Unfortunately, retirement would not be kind to John; because he had angered too many powerful people by telling the truth, he would soon be executed.

As common-sense as “failing to plan is planning to fail” may sound, we also have to accept that events of our lives, community, and globe are frequently unpredictable. The Jews and Babylonians, despite prophecy, weren’t ready for what happened. The audience of Hebrews was preparing for Christ’s literal return, but had to keep going when that didn’t happen. Like John the Baptist, we must be content with having faithfully done our part. We can’t control whether the world responds accordingly. When the Day of the Lord seems distant and unrighteousness all too near, our best preparation occurs in our own hearts, where God provides us the faith and strength to face what we must.

Comfort: Relying on God is the best preparation …

Challenge: … but be ready for God to ask you to do some challenging things.

Prayer: Loving God, I have prepared for you a room in my heart; may you dwell within me always . Amen.

Discussion: Isaiah and Hebrews both mention mount Zion – Isaiah as a spot of military-like victory, and Hebrews as a place triumphant through grace and mercy. How do you think about these contrasting visions of the Day of the Lord?

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Continental Divide

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 102; 148, Isaiah 7:10-25, 2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5, Luke 22:14-30


A continental divide is a geological boundary which, simply put, separates rivers and streams draining toward one body of water from those draining into another. For example, the North American Great Continental Divide roughly marks the border between rivers flowing east toward the Atlantic Ocean and rivers flowing west toward the Pacific Ocean. “Going with the flow” has a different meaning on each side of the divide. If you want to navigate waterways successfully, you need to know where the divide lies.

To successfully navigate a spiritual life upstream we might want to think of it as having a similar divide, but instead of East versus West, it’s more internal versus external. When facing the internal – that is, ourselves and the things we can control – we should try to be objective critics of our own attitudes and behaviors. We progress by identifying where and how we can change, and accepting God’s grace and mercy to help us work toward that change. When we are facing the external – that is, other people and the world beyond our control – we instead need to reflect God’s grace and mercy, and withhold judgment.

Upstream isn’t always the easiest path. Isn’t it more pleasant to let the current carry us downstream? It’s less work. We can go with the flow and let our natural inclinations to excuses ourselves and to condemn others carry us downstream. But that’s the wrong direction.

Even at the Last Supper, Christ’s followers tended toward the easier, backward route.

After Jesus revealed that the one who would betray him was at the table with the disciples, he didn’t name a name. Did any of them (other than his actual betrayer, Judas) focus inward and ask “Could it possibly be me? Why or why not?”  No, each immediately denied the possibility it could be him and started trying to figure where to point the finger. This curiosity is natural, but if Jesus didn’t identify Judas, why did the disciples seek the right to condemn him?

After only a short time, the conversation devolved into an argument over who among them was the greatest.  We don’t get details, but judging from Jesus’s reaction, it was a lot of self-promotion. Nobody was arguing “No, I’m nothing; you’re the greatest.” The external focus was on dominating others rather than elevating them.

Jesus offers us rivers of living water (John 7:38). We need to learn to navigate them with inward humility and outward mercy to carry our faith where it needs to be.

Comfort: You are both the recipient of grace, and its reflection in the world.

Challenge: Though it’s almost cliched, be the change you want to see in the world.

Prayer: God of grace and mercy, I rely on you for all things in my life, and will share all things from you in the lives of others. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have any tendency to impose your faith on others when you should be asking questions of yourself?

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Vigilance

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Romans 10:14-21, Matthew 24:32-51


vigilant (adj.): 1. keenly watchful to detect danger; wary; 2. ever awake and alert; sleeplessly watchful (dictionary.com).

Are we vigilant about our spiritual lives? What might such vigilance look like? Jesus offered various examples of vigilant (and non-vigilant) people. Regarding vigilance he was speaking specifically of the day of judgment, but the lesson is applicable to other important events that will occur at an unknown time – including our own deaths.

Two workers in a field, but only one taken at the end. Two women grinding grain, but one left behind. A homeowner unprotected against thieves in the night. Jesus gives no details about what separates the field workers and women who are taken from those who are not. The homeowner has no way of knowing which night to stay awake to catch the thief. These examples tell us why we need to be vigilant, but not how. In a longer parable, he tells us about a good slave who is performing his job admirably while awaiting his master’s return, and a bad one who is wasting time and money that do not belong to him.

In a nutshell, vigilance is doing what we’re supposed to be doing, every day. None of the vigilant people are making extraordinary “holy” efforts. None are busy trying to figure out when the big event is most likely to occur. None are in a worship service others neglect. They are working. Grinding. Living.

Perhaps this is how we are to exercise vigilance: do our best to discern how God wants us to live, and make it our daily practice to do so. Waiting for the “right day” to stop gossiping or to start caring for the poor is a dangerous gamble: like the bad slave, we don’t know when our time might be up.

Many of us assume (with either fear or hope) that God’s demands will require extraordinary effort, and therefore put off our attempts to fulfill those demands until everything is in place. Does a preoccupation with extraordinary efforts distract us from the true vigilance of daily living? Instead of being overwhelmed, let’s find comfort in Jesus’s use of common laborers, rather than prophets or priests, as his examples of the vigilant. We don’t need to be scholars, seers, or sages to be vigilant. We just need to be the people God created us to be.

Comfort: God has given us lives that prepare us for His presence.

Challenge: At the end of the day, make notes of when you were and were not spiritually vigilant.

Prayer: Gracious and Merciful God, thank you for your presence in my daily activities. Amen.

Discussion: When do you feel like you’re living as God would have you live? How do you struggle with that idea?

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Burying The Dead

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, 1 Samuel 16:1-13a, Ephesians 3:14-21, Matthew 8:18-27


One day, when Jesus was preaching on the shore, the crowds grew so large he told them to move to the other side of the lake. One of the disciples wanted to first bury his father. Jesus replied:

“Follow me, and let the dead bury the dead.”

There are different opinions on the context and meaning of this odd phrase. One is that the man’s father was not yet dead, so the time until his burial was uncertain. Another is that “burying” him would have included acting as executor for his father’s affairs. The common theme across these theories is that to follow Christ is to pursue life, and that postponing our discipleship for the affairs of the world and tarrying among others doing the same is to wallow in death. When Christ calls we are to follow. Period.

If we are honest with ourselves, can we admit that deep down (or maybe not so deep) we know our lives will never be completely in order? Yet we use that reasoning as an excuse for putting off all kinds of things: starting families, launching new careers, jettisoning bad habits, getting in shape, going back to school, pursuing dreams, etc. We pretend there is a noble purpose of order behind our stalling tactic because it’s easier than admitting to laziness or fear. All too often the end result of our self-delusion is that we never get around to what we’d rather be doing, and our lives are still not orderly.

Your life will always be messy. There almost certainly will never be a “right time” – or even a better time – to walk away from the trappings of death and follow life. Voices – both internal and external – will tell you not to shirk your worldly responsibilities; these are the moans of ghosts who can’t move on and don’t want to be left behind and alone. Our true responsibilities are to the priorities Christ has taught us, and it is following him that makes us feel truly alive.

Christ does not cruelly demand we abandon our lives; he graciously invites us to find them.

Comfort: Christ has given you permission to let go of the things that keep you from true life.

Challenge: Egyptians pharaohs were buried with household goods, pets, servants, and even family members. They could not imagine life that didn’t look like what was actually holding them back. Pick one thing in your life that you could put down to lighten your load when following Christ. If it feels good, pick another…

Prayer: God of freedom, I will follow wherever you lead me. Amen.

Discussion: What do you need to put down before you can follow Christ unhindered? What’s stopping you?

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East, West, and In Between

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Joshua 1:1-9, Ephesians 3:1-13, Matthew 8:5-17


One of the great things about being a Christian is knowing your salvation is in the bag.
Or is it?

A Roman centurion once approached Jesus and asked him to heal an ailing servant. Jesus offered to come and cure the servant, but the centurion said it wasn’t necessary to go there: he had faith that if Jesus said it would happen, it would happen.

Jesus was amazed (the Bible’s words, not an exaggeration) at the faith of the centurion. He told his followers:

“Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Mind you these followers were all Jews, and therefore considered heirs of the kingdom. The centurion was an integral cog in the Roman machine which oppressed them. That had to chafe.

There’s a saying that being in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than being in a garage makes you a car. We don’t inherit the kingdom by being born into a Christian family; we enter the kingdom through grace and faith. If the centurion is any example, our assumptions about what makes a faithful Christian may not be the same as Christ’s – and his is the opinion that counts. Is it possible that agnostics from the east coast and new agers from the west coast might find their way to the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob before we middle of the road Christians do?

The lesson here is not “it doesn’t matter what you believe.” It’s more like “don’t be too quick to make assumptions either way.” In a kingdom where the first are last and the last are first, discipleship can be a balancing act; humility is the narrow beam we must walk. Rather than insist we already know each twist and turn leading to Christ, let’s unfold the map together.

Comfort: You are officially relieved of the duty of deciding whether someone is Christian enough.

Challenge: Listening to people who disagree with your beliefs is not a threat.

Prayer: Gracious and merciful God, set my feet on the path toward salvation. Amen.

Discussion: What can you learn from other faith traditions? What do you think Jesus might say about it?

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Higher

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Daniel 7:9-14, Hebrews 2:5-18, Matthew 28:16-20

Ascension readings:
Acts 1:1-11, Psalm 47:1-9, Ephesians 1:15-23


Today is Ascension Thursday, the feast when we celebrate the gospel accounts of the resurrected Christ’s ascent into heaven. Theologians understand this event in many ways, from a literal rising into heaven, to a symbolic reunion of Christ with the Creator God. Whatever our personal understanding, there is a common paradox: by departing from all of us, Christ is able to be with any of us.

In Matthew’s gospel, Christ shared these words with his disciples shortly before he departed: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” After the resurrection, Christ appeared to many people, yet his presence was still limited to those in his immediate vicinity. The idea of every follower building a personal relationship with Christ may have been inconceivable – when he was busy walking and talking with others, he was by definition not walking and talking with you. But the risen and ascended Christ? That is a transcendent and inexhaustible presence not limited by time or space. You and I and everyone else have equal access to him all the time.

If a transcendent Christ seems too abstract to relate to, remember that for a time he shared all our human experiences. The letter to the Hebrews tells us: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” Feeling temptation? Don’t beat yourself up about it; so did Christ. Feeling angry? The gospels give us several examples of an angry Jesus. Feeling despair? On the cross Christ asked why God had forsaken him. Feeling afraid? In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus sweat blood while asking if the cup he was to bear could be taken from him. Whatever terrible thing you feel, Jesus has felt it also. And – living in human form – he overcame. We don’t have to be superhuman to imitate Christ, but we do have to follow his teachings to be fully human in a way that transcends the flesh.

We are a resurrection people. We are an ascension people. We are Christ’s body on earth, and therefore can never be apart from him.

Comfort: Christ is with us to the end of the age.

Challenge: Meditate on the wonder of the Ascension.

Prayer: God of life and possibility, I will trust you to be with me at all times. Amen.

Discussion: What does the Ascension mean to you?

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Balancing Act

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Leviticus 16:20-34, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 6:7-15


Paul told the Thessalonians the Day of the Lord would arrive like a thief in the night or the pains of labor. Those living in darkness – that is, without the light of Christ – would be caught unawares in a false sense of security and suffer the consequences. Those living in the light would be prepared and rejoice. But how exactly is one to prepare? First century Christians expected Jesus to return any moment, and abandoned many earthly pursuits. As a couple thousand years passed, it became more apparent Christ’s return would be less … immediate.

Every century – maybe every decade – had its share of “prophets” declaring the end was nigh. So far they are batting triple zero. Even today some Christians believe Jesus is returning so soon it may be foolish to buy groceries a week in advance. Most of us are a little more skeptical. Should we be?

Living in anticipation of the Day of the Lord is a balancing act. On the one hand, experience says we probably have a way to go, and should steward our resources wisely. On the other hand, any one of us could meet Jesus tomorrow, if only individually. Does anyone want to have to explain why that never-touched rainy day fund was a better use of our money than charity would have been?

Perhaps that tension is useful. When we lose that sense of immediacy, it’s easy to slip into a comfortable routine which resembles resignation more than anticipation. If we’re so zealous that we focus only on “the end times,” we lose sight of doing the things Christ asked us to do – feed the hungry, visit the sick, etc. A while back there was a popular humorous but pointed bumper sticker: “Jesus is coming. Try to look busy.” Are we merely busy, or are we about the business of discipleship? If Jesus shows up today, would you be happy with where he finds you? If we live today as through Christ could show up tomorrow, and he doesn’t … let’s try not to be too disappointed we’ve made the world a little better.

Comfort: Whether Jesus returns tomorrow or in a thousand years, the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Challenge: Set aside some time to contemplate or discuss the balance between faith and works in world waiting for Christ’s return.

Prayer: Eternal God, thank you for the promise of the future, and the opportunity of the present. Amen.

Discussion: Where can you strike a better balance between what is practical and what is faithful?

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