Never on a Sunday

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Jeremiah 3:6-18, Romans 1:(26-27) 28-2:11, John 5:1-18


Do you play by the rules?

In theory we’re all expected to, but in practice they seem to apply to some of us more than others. How frustrating it is when people with wealth or influence can buy their way around the rules or the consequences of breaking them.

Still, most of us try to follow the rules.  Maybe not the same rules, but generally speaking our behaviors fall into patterns that we apply consciously and subconsciously. Some rules are taught to us by our families, some by society, and some by simple observation. Most are created for good reasons, but over time circumstances change and the rationale for many rules—including religious ones—grows distorted.

Rules can become so integral to our identities that breaking them, even when they cease to have meaning, threatens our sense of self. If that happens, we may find ourselves existing to serve the rules, rather than the other way around. When this happens, we begin to observe the technicalities of the rules rather than their spirit. Sometimes this looks like doing the bare minimum, and sometimes it looks like obsessive behavior.

The Sabbath healings of Jesus presented just such a threat to the Pharisees, whose identity depended on rules.

Since Sabbath healings – which were against the rules – appear in all four Gospels, we can assume the message of these stories is important. Rather than judge the Pharisees, let’s learn from their example.

Our expectations of other people’s behavior are often based on the rules we’ve imposed on ourselves. We may become offended when such expectations are not met, regardless of whether or not we’ve made said expectations clear. When this happens, we choose how to react: we can dig in our heels, or we can examine the reason for our offense. We needn’t automatically assume we are wrong, but self-examination never hurt anyone. Like Jesus, we need to consider when rules are appropriate, and when they should be superseded by compassion, justice, or love. In Christ we are a people of love, and not a people of law—even self-imposed law. Is the Sabbath made holier by offering mercy or withholding it?

But Christianity is not a free-for-all! Christ has expectations of his followers. Determining these expectations can be hard work, because “love your neighbor” is not nearly as explicit as a list of forbidden activities. Loving someone doesn’t absolve them – or us – of accountability. Christ didn’t offer formulas for faith, but principles for relationships with our God and our neighbor. Our rule is love, and its accompanying expectations can change with each person we encounter.

Comfort: You are more than the rules you follow.

Challenge: When someone doesn’t meet your expectations, ask yourself whether you made that person aware of them.

Prayer: Merciful God, teach me when to be merciful, and when to stand strong. Amen.

Discussion: Has assuming someone should “just know” something ever caused trouble for you?

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Carpenter’s Son

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 93; 150, Leviticus 8:1-13, 30-36, Hebrews 12:1-14, Luke 4:16-30


How do you feel about high school reunions? Your answer probably depends on how much you enjoyed your high school experience. The older we get the less we are like our high school selves, but stepping into those locker-lined hallways and through those gymnasium doors shifts a part of our brain back into those teenage dynamics. Some part of us expects people to be like they were then, and they expect the same of us. When we know someone as a youth, we can have trouble seeing how they are different as adults. All of us are both victims and perpetrators of this phenomenon.

Jesus had the same problems. His ministry began with a big splash in Capernaum, and then he returned to his hometown of Nazareth. In Nazareth people wanted to see the signs he’d performed in Capernaum. Part of this might have been excitement over the hometown boy made good, but some of it was because they couldn’t imagine the son of Joseph the carpenter as the Messiah. Anticipating their doubt, Jesus told them: “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” After he got warmed up and started doing what prophets do – namely telling them what they needed to change – “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” They drove him out of town and tried to push him off a cliff.

In the end, Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way” as though they weren’t there. Now there’s a lesson in maturity. Jesus did not surrender to the outdated expectations of people who couldn’t see him in the present. It can be tempting to lower ourselves to expectations (“I cheated because I got tired of you accusing me of it!”) and blame others. Jesus knew what he was about, and also knew Nazareth would hold him back. At one point even his own family called him crazy, but he just kept doing what needed to be done. What only he could do. Don’t settle for the expectations the world places on you; graduate into the person God has prepared you to be.

Comfort: Other people may not see you for who you are, but God does.

Challenge: If you are tempted to blame someone else for your failings, spend some time in prayer about it.

Prayer: Thank you, loving God, for allowing me to grow into the gifts you have given me. Help me to see others as you see them, not through the lens of my preconceptions. Amen.

Discussion: Do you react maturely in the face of low expectations?

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Expectation Management

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window): 
Psalms 84; 150, Reading Genesis 48:8-22, Romans 8:11-25, John 6:27-40


How often does life unfold the way we expect? It’s a question without a truly quantifiable answer, but one suspects: far less than we’d like.

Jacob was a very old man when he met his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh. The lives of Jacob and his family, particularly his son Joseph, were full of twists and turns, deception and separation. Many of these familial wounds were self-inflicted, such as when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and faked his death. They didn’t like his predictions that one day he – the youngest – would rule over them, and ironically their actions set him on a convoluted path to power over not only themselves but all of Egypt.

When Joseph presented his two sons to Jacob for a blessing, the surprises continued. Joseph had positioned them so the older boy, Manasseh, was at Jacob’s right hand, traditionally the hand of greater blessing reserved for the oldest son. Jacob crossed his hands and – despite Joseph’s protests – instead gave the greater blessing to Ephraim, who was destined to father a “multitude of nations.”

Hard to believe the prophetic Joseph didn’t see it coming. After all, he was the youngest when his brothers betrayed him. And Jacob was a younger son who’d stolen the blessing of his older brother by deceiving his blind father. Down the line, Jacob’s great-great-grandson Moses survived to lead the Israelites back out of Egypt and slavery because of deception surrounding his birth. The nation of Israel survived and thrived because God isn’t limited by human expectation.

Christ upended expectations as a messiah of peaceful submission rather than bloody revolt. He taught us God loves and forgives all the “wrong” people. Could it be that the thing standing between us and the fully realized kingdom of God is our own expectations? Perhaps God waits to meet us around those twists and turns we fear and avoid. Those apparent flaws we condemn in ourselves and others could be keys to grace. Some days the map of faith is nothing but detours. When we stop placing expectations on God, we learn to expect God everywhere.

Comfort: You don’t have to know God’s plan.

Challenge: You just have to be open to it.

Prayer: God of creation, I seek to meet you where you are, and not where I would demand you be. Give me eyes to see and ears to hear your presence wherever you would have me encounter you. Thank you for the wonder of life, and its countless unexpected blessings. Amen.

Discussion: What expectations are frustrating you right now? Are they necessary expectations? Is anything but ego making you hold onto them? If you let go of them, would your life be better?

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The Joy of the Unexpected

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Readings: Psalms 18:1-20; 147:12-20, Isaiah 60:1-6, Galatians 3:23-4:7, Matthew 1:18-25

Every year at Christmas time we revisit the Nativity story in scripture readings and carols. The words and melodies bring us comfort and joy in part because they are so familiar and meet our expectations. This comfort in the familiar is kind of ironic considering the Nativity story itself is one of upended expectations and surprises.

First we have Mary, the mother of Jesus. Of everyone in the story, she has the most to be surprised about. No one expects a visit from an angel who announces God will create a child in your virgin womb. Then there’s Joseph, Mary’s betrothed. He doesn’t expect Mary to become pregnant, and he doesn’t expect divine intervention in the form of a dream telling him to stay with her. In an important subplot, we have Mary’s relatives Elizabeth and Zechariah. These two are both surprised by Elizabeth’s late-in-life pregnancy. All of these people have a trait in common (though Zechariah took a little while to come around): they all adapt to the unexpected. Every one of them had reasons to be doubtful, frightened, or resentful. Instead they chose to alter their plans to reflect their new circumstances, and thus ushered into life John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ.

The message of the Nativity is this: God enters the world in unexpected ways. If we insist on our own plans rather than God’s, we may never notice opportunities to share in the greater plan unfolding across history.

The unexpected can be frightening, but it is both inevitable and constant. When confronted with the choice to resist or embrace the unexpected, the former limits us, and the latter unlocks our potential. The quick decision to befriend a stranger we might have avoided may be where we both see Christ in action. An invitation to lead or serve in unfamiliar ways may reinvigorate a flagging ministry. An unplanned job termination may result in a meaningful vocation we never considered. It seems God rarely calls the prepared, but prepares the called. Let us joyfully meet Christ where he shows up, instead of missing him because we insist on looking only where planned for him to be.

Comfort: The unexpected is often a blessing waiting to be claimed.

Challenge: Ask yourself which of your plans are in conflict with God’s plans for you.

Prayer: God of mystery and grace, I will seek you wherever you lead. Amen.

Discussion: What unexpected event or encounter has influenced your life?

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Sow Bountifully

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, Deuteronomy 29:2-15, 2 Corinthians 9:1-15, Luke 18:15-30


“The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”

Paul wrote these words to the church in Corinth to encourage them to give generously to the church in Judea, which needed much assistance. He told the Corinthians that God, who was the ultimate source of all they had to give, would reward them for their faithful generosity. What the audience of Paul’s letter may have missed was Paul’s generosity toward them. The generosity Paul exhibited toward the Corinthian church was not one of pocket, but of spirit. We can see this in his words:

Now it is not necessary for me to write you about the ministry to the saints, for I know your eagerness, which is the subject of my boasting about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that [you have] been ready since last year; […] But I am sending the brothers in order that our boasting about you may not prove to have been empty in this case, so that you may be ready, as I said you would be.

Paul simultaneously praised them for their generosity and gently nudged them to fulfill their promise. He could just have easily written “I’m not sure you’re keeping up your end of the bargain, so I’m sending some heavies to follow up.” This blunt approach has a certain appeal, and it may even get results, but it is not relationship-oriented. In the long run it leads to giving that is more fearful than cheerful.

Do we sow our seeds of faith in others as bountifully as we sow material seeds? Would you rather hear “I’m counting on you; I believe you can do it!” or “I’m counting on you; don’t let me down!” One may ask what the difference is, but the first implies an expectation of success and the second an expectation of failure. People’s behavior is influenced by the expectations we set for them. Intentionally and bountifully sowing seeds of high expectation, even when we doubt, is a sign of a generous spirit.

Comfort: Generosity is its own reward.

Challenge: Treat people as if you believe in their willingness to do well, even when you doubt.

Prayer: Create in me a generous heart, O God! Amen.

Discussion: What’s the difference between being optimistic and being gullible?

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Guess Again

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148, Zechariah 14:1-11 , Romans 15:7-13 , Luke 19:28-40


Jesus used many parables to describe the Kingdom of Heaven: great banquets, lost sheep, bridesmaids, poor but generous widows, scattered seed, and on and on. What he didn’t do was provide a literal description. We can assume this was intentional, and for good reasons. However, while we wrestle with those reasons and interpret parables, we continue to disagree on the details. Perhaps the best, if most trite, advice we have is: “Expect the unexpected.”

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, he confounded both Pharisees and Roman officials by mocking the authority of empire. He also defied the expectations of his own Jewish people, who were anticipating a military-style messiah but got a radical peacenik. Because he was not limited by assumptions, he embodied an unpredictable threat to both the status quo and the hoped-for change.

The Apostle Paul also operated outside acceptable social parameters. As a Jew and Roman taking the gospel to the Gentiles, he expanded the Christian world beyond the imaginations of Christ’s original Jewish disciples. Furthermore, in his letter to the Roman church, he justified it using the words of their own prophet Isaiah: “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

Most of us have some idea of the type of justice we hope to see in Heaven’s fully realized Kingdom. For some, it is the righteous elimination of sin and restoration of goodness. For others, it’s an inclusive realm where the marginalized find their place at the table. There may be as many visions as there are Christians, and somehow the diversity of creation simultaneously supports and disavows each of them. The only thing they all share in common is their incompleteness. Whatever the true Kingdom looks like, it is beyond our imagination – not just in the sense that it is greater than our hopes, but also that it is beyond our ability to conceive.

Insisting on our own vision of the Kingdom is like having a roadmap but never unfolding it; we can only understand the places we’ve already been.

Comfort: The justice you long for is part of the kingdom…

Challenge: … but is it only a part.

Prayer: Gracious God, I will be open to your Kingdom and humble in my expectations. Amen.

Discussion: When did something turn out different – but better – than you expected?

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Invitation: No Expectations

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You can’t advertise an open house and then be irritated when unexpected guests show up. Several weeks ago I wrote about the interlopers, a couple cats who now eat the food we originally began to set out for one specific cat, who doesn’t visit us much anymore. A couple other cats have joined them and there’s at least one very well-fed squirrel frequenting our back yard. Continue reading