Idol Tales

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 148, Exodus 13:1-2, 11-16, 1 Corinthians 15:51-58, Luke 24:1-12


In Luke’s telling of the story of the first Easter morning, several women who followed Jesus from Galilee – not just the two Marys – visit his tomb to finish preparing his body for burial with spices and perfume. Instead of Christ’s body they find two men dressed in dazzling clothes (presumably angels) who tell them Christ has risen. The women return to the remaining eleven disciples to deliver this astonishing news, “but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

Huh?

Several recent studies have shown the male brain processes male and female voices differently – essentially tuning out the latter. Unfortunately, the preponderance of responses to this study are about how women can help men listen better by altering their voices. Few if any responses (full disclosure: didn’t find one) teach men how to listen better to women; on the contrary, it almost becomes an excuse. How often do we dismiss the firsthand experience of others because they don’t communicate in our preferred manner? In the case of the women disciples, their firsthand experience was dismissed until it was verified by a man (Peter). People with disabilities, transgender people, ethnic minorities, and many other groups outside the “norm” know what it’s like to have their stories ignored or declared lies until someone from the “right” social group corroborates them.

It’s easy to dismiss someone’s story if – like the eleven – your frame of reference is a bunch of people sharing your worldview and hiding away from facts which contradict their assumptions. If we treat someone who begs us to listen as weak or a victim, we may be denying a prophet. When someone has actually been in the trenches perfuming a corpse, deciding which restroom won’t get them beaten up, or navigating a wheelchair through city streets with no cut-ins … we need to listen to the truths they tell, not sweep them aside until we can find a reason to personally relate.

The faces of the poor and oppressed may change over time, but Christ calls to us through them in the same voice across the ages.

Comfort: Listening to people who have different experiences than yours helps you to better understand the diversity of God’s creation.

Challenge: Learn about the struggles of people who suffer from hidden disabilities.

Prayer: Grant me, O Lord, ears to hear and eyes to see the stories of your children who struggle unnoticed. Let me never ignore the voice of Christ calling for justice. Amen.

Discussion: Whom are you prone to ignore or dismiss because of their social group?

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Not Against Us

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Exodus 4:10-20 (21-26) 27-31, 1 Corinthians 14:1-19, Mark 9:30-41


The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. claimed the most segregated hour in America was 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. Our chosen church communities tend to resemble us racially, politically, and economically. It’s comfortable and easy to be with people “like us” and erect tall walls on a foundation of small differences. However, comfortable and easy are not Christian virtues. Today’s readings contain lessons about being in community with people different from ourselves.

In Exodus 4, Moses meets his brother Aaron. Together they deliver the Lord’s message to the Hebrews. Moses was raised Egyptian, spent forty years living as a Midianite, and was slow of speech (possibly due to a speech impediment). Aaron was of the priestly Levite class of Hebrews and quite eloquent. Together they represented an effective marriage of substance and style.

In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul addresses the importance of the spiritual gifts of prophecy, speaking in tongues, and interpretation. While emphasizing the need for prophecy (defined not so much as making predictions but as speaking words of encouragement, rebuke, and consolation from God), he also asks the question: what good is speaking in tongues if no one understands? Without interpretation, a person gifted with tongues does not build up the community, and without something to interpret, a person so gifted doesn’t bring much to the table.

When the disciples complained about people who were casting out demons in Jesus’s name, yet were not following them, Jesus told them: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” He knew the common goal of spreading the good news overrode petty differences.

Insisting on our specific way merely protects our egos when other gifts and perspectives make us feel insecure about our own. When we build or join a community, do we seek those whose strengths and weaknesses complement our own? If a church wants to tackle poverty, but is mostly a lot of rich people deciding what’s best for “the poor” without knowing or even asking them, how effective can it be? A team of co-workers who all share the same perspective rarely create innovative solutions. Our diversity was not created to be a source of jealousy or conflict, but to help us help each other.

Comfort: Your weaknesses are an opportunity to appreciate someone else’s strengths.

Challenge: Make a point of attending a church service or social event with people you normally don’t interact with.

Prayer: Thank you, Creator God, for the great diversity of life. Teach me to appreciate the beauty in the abundant shapes and thoughts of your world. I praise your holy vision and creativity. Amen.

Discussion: In what areas of your life do you seek like company? Are these areas where it might make sense to diversify your community?

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Gathering the Sparks

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Today’s readings (click to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 147:12-20, Genesis 11:1-9, Hebrews 6:13-20, John 4:1-15


Though Charles Darwin did not write On The Origin Of Species as an attack on Christianity, many people interpreted it that way. The controversy of the seeming conflict  between natural selection and Genesis was not limited to Biblical literalists, but was also a concern for Christians who were not in theory opposed to more scientific theories of creation. The real danger of Darwin’s theory was what it said about the nature of life: it was not powered by love and redemption, but by competition and dominance. What did this reveal about God?

Maybe nothing as startling as it seemed. Another Biblical myth – the Tower of Babel – tells us that when God felt humans were growing too powerful and unified, he destroyed the tower symbolizing their potential, forced them to speak different languages, and scattered them across the world. God forced diversity upon his creation, setting tribes at odds with one another. Whether we read Darwin or Genesis, competition and diversity are central to the story.

In the Jewish myth of the Shattering of the Vessels, when God says “Let there be light” he sends forth his divine essence in ten vessels. The vessels are too fragile and they shatter, scattering divine sparks across creation. It is the duty of humanity to collect these sparks and repair the world. Division and scattering seem integral to our creation stories. We recognize the world as broken, and long to restore it.

Now consider Jesus at the well, talking to the Samaritan woman. They are separated by language and culture. As a woman and a Samaritan she is no one Jesus should be talking to, at least by the dictates of his culture. Yet he stops to banter with her, not to preach but to make a connection. They join their sparks to repair one tiny corner of the creation.

Other animals may be shaped by their environments, but humans can choose to shape the environment instead. When we choose cooperation over competition, we help repair the world. Each spark we collect illuminates what it means to be created in the image of a creator. Our brokenness offers the potential to create something divine in a way unquestioned wholeness never could.

Comfort: Brokenness is not a final state; it is the beginning of reconciliation.

Challenge: We have busy lives, and ignore many of the sparks of creation. Where can you slow down and make connections?

Prayer: Lord, make me an instrument of your divine reconciliation. Amen.

Discussion: Are you by nature more cooperative or competitive? Why do you think that is?

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The Journey Home

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, Ezra 7:27-28, 8:21-36, Revelation 20:7-15, Matthew 17:1-13


Do we recognize the distinction between technical freedom and equality and practical freedom and equality?

After King Artaxerxes decreed any Jewish people who wished to return to Jerusalem were free to do so – and to take with them an abundance of gold, silver, holy vessels and urns, livestock for offerings, and other supplies – the prophet Ezra led them home. Ezra did not ask for military protection because he’d boldly proclaimed the Lord would protect them from harm.

Over the next four months and nine hundred miles, the Jews did indeed manage to avoid enemies and ambushes and return to the city, where they began to rebuild.

How would we describe that time between the decree and the arrival in Jerusalem? The people were technically free, but they certainly weren’t yet an autonomous nation. They were surrounded by enemies and far from home. Almost certainly a few of them died before reaching the city. The joy of no longer being prisoners must at times have been muted or eclipsed by the dangers of freedom without security.

There’s a significant lag between the time people are legally decreed to be free or equal and the time it becomes a practical reality they can take for granted. The history of the United States is full of slow, jerky progress for many kinds of people. Slavery was outlawed over 150 years ago, but racial inequity persists to this day. Women are legally equal to men, but a long history (and present) of federal court cases are evidence the culture hasn’t caught up with the law. People with disabilities have legal protections, but struggle daily to be seen, heard, and accepted. One of our oldest guaranteed freedoms is freedom of religion, but people of all religions face discrimination to greater or lesser degrees. Undoubtedly you can think of numerous additional examples. That four-month, nine-hundred-mile journey seems short in comparison.

Just because someone has been declared free … doesn’t mean they are home free.

When someone who belongs to a group that has been oppressed or marginalized tells us they aren’t home free yet, instead of dismissing them with “you have equal rights” let’s be willing to listen to what is still wrong. Let’s listen to what enemies lie in wait to ambush them.

Artaxerxes was wise enough to understand he needed to make restitution to restore the possibility of opportunity to the Jews. Just as Ezra did not ask Artaxerxes to rebuild or even protect the Jews in their new freedom, communities still seeking full freedom and equality today only want what has been taken or withheld from them and the opportunity to build themselves up. The least we can do is figure out how to get out of their way.

Comfort: God desires justice for everyone.

Challenge: Make a point of listening to the experiences of people who differ from you, particularly people who have been historically oppressed in ways you have not.

Prayer: The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. (Psalm 145:8-9)

Discussion: How diverse is your church? Your employer? Your dinner table?

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Chairity

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 130; 148, Nehemiah 12:27-31a, 42b-47, Revelation 19:11-16, Matthew 16:13-20


When Jesus asked his disciples who the people thought he was, they answered Elijah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah, and other prophets. He then more pointedly asked them “But who do you say that I am?” Peter quickly answered “the Messiah” and Jesus told him this knowledge came not from flesh and blood, but from God. Then Jesus instructed his disciples to tell no one else.

Who do you think Jesus is?

Like Peter we can answer “the Messiah” because it’s definitely not a secret any more … but what does that mean to us? After the crucifixion and the resurrection, the role of “the Messiah” meant something very different to Peter and the disciples. Christians unite around the idea of Christ as Messiah, yet given the variety in our expression of faith and belief, mostly derived from the same Biblical sources, we don’t all mean the same thing when we say it.

Is there a perfectable understanding of Christ we all strive toward? Plato had a theory of ideal forms. Summarized in a simple example, there exists a metaphysical ideal form of any object, such as a chair, which is the standard by which we recognize other less-than-ideal objects in the physical world as chairs. Is there an ideal form of Christ (which would be, one supposes … Christ himself) which helps us recognize expressions of Christ in this world we presently inhabit?

Chairs can be plush, wooden, yielding, rigid, wheeled, or rocking. They can have various numbers of legs or – in the case of bean bags – no legs at all. Yet in all their variety they hold in common factors which define them as chairs.

If Peter and the disciples who knew Jesus personally underwent a transformation in their understanding of Jesus, let’s not be too quick centuries later to declare one earthly expression the only real thing. This isn’t some wishy-washy excuse to turn Jesus into whatever we’d like him to be. To the contrary, encountering Jesus changes us, never the other way around.

The same Christ can inspire one person to a conservative worldview and another to a progressive worldview. Both probably believe the other to be misguided, but there will be central issues – such as feeding the hungry and caring for the ill – upon which they agree. Why do we find it so much easier to focus on the areas where we disagree, when areas of agreement are where we find Christ?

When it comes to discipleship, we all get some right and some wrong. Moving toward that ideal form of discipleship – that understanding of who Christ is and what he asks of us – is a lifelong endeavor. Let us undertake that journey with humility, love, and mercy. Isn’t that who we say we are?

Comfort: Christ’s love is greater than we imagine.

Challenge: So let’s not limit him to what we can imagine.

Prayer: I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope (Psalm 130:5)

Discussion: What words describe Jesus for you?

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Roots and Fruits

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148, 2 Kings 19:1-20, 1 Corinthians 9:16-27, Matthew 8:1-17


The surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall
again take root downward,and bear fruit upward.
– 2 Kings 19:3

How deep are your spiritual roots? Deep enough to keep you healthy during times of spiritual drought? Whether your answer is “Yes”, “No” or “Good question…” you can always deepen them. One good way is to set aside time for regular spiritual practices. As with anything, the time you dedicate to spiritual practice will improve the results. A neglected garden is soon choked out by weeds and devoured by pests, and a neglected spiritual life is soon choked out and devoured by the demands and distractions of daily life. When we attempt to pluck fruit from either of them, we will very likely be disappointed.

But what does spiritual practice look like? And what if you don’t like gardening? Approaches to spiritual practices can range from the Biblical classics of prayer, meditation, and fasting to hiking, music, journaling and – yes – even gardening. A spiritual practice is anything that puts in your touch with your connection to the holy. Regular, intentional practices help our spiritual roots grow deeper and prepare us to better weather hard times and celebrate joyous ones. Find a practice that speaks to you, rather than trying to conform to one someone else prescribes, and it will be easier to maintain.

How high are your spiritual fruits? Probably about as high as your roots are deep. If you aren’t sure what gifts you have to share, spend some time discovering what feeds your roots. Chances are your gifts are closely related. And don’t waste time comparing them to other people’s gifts: it would be pretty foolish of a Granny Smith to spend time regretting it wasn’t a watermelon. Different plants thrive under different soil conditions and varying amounts of water and sunlight. People’s spirits are no less diverse. Your unique gifts are part of a well-balanced spiritual diet for the world. Feed your roots well, and you won’t be able to help producing fruits for all to share!

Comfort: Your gifts are meant to be shared…

Challenge: … so tend them with love and gratitude toward the one who gave them.

Prayer:  Thank you Lord for the many gifts you have given me. I will use them to honor your name. Amen.

Discussion: How do you tend to your spiritual roots?

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Baby Steps

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 143; 147:12-20, 1 Kings 3:16-28, Acts 27:27-44, Mark 14:12-26


A famous story about King Solomon’s wisdom involves two women who bore sons within days of each other. After one of the sons died, one woman claimed the other had switched the infants while she slept. Each insisted the living child was her own. Solomon proposed to treat the matter like any other property dispute by physically dividing the infant in half. One woman immediately relinquished her claim so the child might live; the other agreed to his decision. Solomon declared the true mother to be the woman most concerned with the child’s survival.

There is a big difference between loving something, and loving to own it.

Is there anything we claim to love which we are willing to see destroyed rather than let it continue existing outside our control? Does the church come to mind? The innumerable denominations of the Christian church exist because people would rather divide over doctrine than live without control. When we sing “One Bread, One Body” is it more longing than truth?

Then there is public space – the civic and social realm in which we all interact. Americans say we value freedom of speech and religion, but our behavior doesn’t always align with those ideals. For most of our history, the default expectation of religion in the public space was Christian (and usually a homogeneous kind of Christian). As the public space grows more diverse – the inevitable outcome of the American experiment – some people find they don’t care to share it. From enacting laws that cross into theocracy to shutting down speech we find offensive, we seem determined to strangle freedoms rather than let them survive outside our control.

Like the grieving mother, we are more vulnerable to demanding control when we grieve. If we grieve the passing of a way of life we treasured, perhaps what we really grieve is not having our control challenged. If we grieve a past that left us voiceless, we can’t enforce silence and call it reconciliation.

Not everything we love, once let go, fully returns to us. If that stops us from loving it, maybe we never really did.


Comfort: You don’t have to control everything. 

Challenge: You don’t have to control everything.

Prayer: God of Mercy, unite your children in love. Amen. 

Discussion: Have you ever left a community over a disagreement? Have you ever been forced out because of a disagreement? How are they similar and how are they different?

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Follow the leader?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 135; 145, 1 Samuel 5:1-12, Acts 5:12-26, Luke 21:29-36


Leaders, no matter how powerful or influential, are only human. Unfortunately, the more power they wield, the more their inevitable flaws are magnified. As Peter and the other apostles preached the good news of the resurrected Christ, many people flocked to them; “they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by.” The Sadducees – whose flaw was jealousy – had the apostles arrested and imprisoned with seemingly no thought to the people who were being cured.

After the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant, their leaders put it in the temple of Dagon. When over the course of two nights the statue of Dagon was first toppled then dismembered, did they rid themselves of it? No, they moved it to Gath where the inhabitants were then afflicted with deadly tumors. Then they moved it to Ekron, which fared no better.

Whether our government leaders are monarchs, clergy, or elected representatives their willingness to do right by the people usually extends only as far as their grip on power. That’s not to say they are bad people, just that they are as susceptible to the corruptions of power as any who seek it. Very few who scrape their way to first also desire to be least.

The people didn’t want Peter and company arrested. Ekron certainly didn’t want the Ark and a plague of tumors. Gath did volunteer to take it, but had no idea what was in store. When we experience the magnified flaws of leaders – especially those of a different nation, faith, or political affiliation  – we should be careful not to generalize those flaws across the people they represent.  The typical Christian is no better or worse a person than the typical Jew or Muslim. No political party has a monopoly on virtue or vice. Communists love and want what’s best for their children the same as capitalists.

As followers of Christ, we are called to love people not as a reflection of their leaders, but of ours.

Comfort: You don’t have to make enemies just because someone tells you to.

Challenge: Spend time seeking shared values, and it will be easier to manage differences.

Prayer: Lord, give me eyes to see all people as your beloved children. Amen.

Discussion: Are there any groups of people you used to stereotype, but no longer do?

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“One of the good ones.”

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Ezekiel 18:1-4, 19-32, Hebrews 7:18-28, Luke 10:25-37


We all know one. A relative, friend, or co-worker who isn’t a terrible person but can’t completely shake off remnants of bigotry. When conversation touches on race (or religion, sexual orientation, political affiliation, etc.) they make unkind blanket statements. And when we ask them how they can say that when they are friends with Sammy (who is Korean or Muslim or whatever), they say, “Oh he’s one of the good ones.”

The parable of the Good Samaritan is a story about “one of the good ones.” There was no love lost between the Samaritans and the Jews, so when one of them became the hero of a parable answering the question “Who is my neighbor?” many Jews probably considered him the exception rather than the rule.

What’s the difference between “the good ones” and the rest? Most of the time, it’s simply that we know them. When we eat lunch every day with Sammy, or when he helps us change a flat tire in the parking lot, or when he brings a casserole to our house because our spouse is ill, our conscience won’t let us lump him into a category of people we stereotype. But somehow, sometimes, we can’t make the leap to realizing Sammy isn’t an exception.

When someone categorically condemns a class of people we happen to belong to, based on the bad behavior of a few, we leap to point out, “Not all of us.” Historically (and ironically) we are less likely to be as understanding of other groups as we expect them to be of us. It’s only after we get to know people who are different from us that we recognize our similarities. Anyone who’s been in a high school cafeteria knows that’s not something we do naturally.

The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us God made Melchizedek a high priest not because he was born to the priestly class, but because he was righteous. God sees beyond categories and into hearts. Christ invites us all to the same table. We all live in God’s neighborhood, so why not get to know each other?

Comfort: Differences are not threats but opportunities.

Challenge: Rather than make assumptions about people different than you, befriend and ask them about their lives.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for the beauty and diversity of your creation. Amen.

Discussion: What’s a stereotype you once believed but learned wasn’t true?

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These Boots Were Made For Preachin’

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 130; 148, Isaiah 45:18-25, Ephesians 6:1-9, Mark 4:35-41


In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul created one of the most popular extended metaphors in Christian literature: the armor of God. He writes about the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit. He also mentions shoes, but is noticeably less specific about them: “put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”

What do we put on to make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace? As a society we design and purchase shoes specific to a countless number of functions. Sneakers are now court shoes, cross-trainers, running shoes, walking shoes, water socks, driving moccasins, and on and on. We buy shoes specific to occupations, seasons, and recreational choices (a tip of the hat to all you bowlers!). Perhaps we really don’t need so many kinds of shoes, but each makes its corresponding activity easier, safer, and more comfortable. That may be a good model for proclaiming the gospel.

Not everyone is open to hearing the good news in the same way, so we might want to think about stepping into their shoes. Some prefer an intellectual approach. Others respond to a more emotional testimony. And others learn more from observing our actions than listening to our words. There are probably as many ways people hear the gospel proclaimed as there are people … or styles of shoes. Our natural tendency is to proclaim the gospel in a way that fits us most comfortably: “If I am touched by emotional stories, you must be too!” Sharing the gospel with someone in a way that does not speak them can be awkward and even painful. Just as we might check the weather before deciding on flip-flops or snow boots, we should take time to get to know someone rather than forcing an inappropriate (and ineffective!) style of witness on them.

We can each become a collector of “proclamation” footwear – it’s free, takes up no space in our closets, and the more we have the more we can spread the good news!

Comfort: Your favorite style is a good fit for lots of other people…

Challenge: … but not for everyone.

Prayer: Thank you God for the diversity of creation; help me to understand people as they are, rather than expecting them to be like me. Amen.

Discussion: What’s your favorite style of Gospel shoes to wear?

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