The Devils You Know

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 43; 149, Genesis 43:16-34, 1 Corinthians 7:10-24, Mark 5:1-20


Gospel stories sometimes raise more questions than they answer. While in Gerasene country, Jesus encountered a man living among the tombs because he was possessed by two thousand demons calling themselves Legion. Jesus healed him by driving the demons into a herd of pigs … who then jumped over a cliff into the sea. Now that’s a story that raises an question or two. Was the man actually possessed? Why does no map of that area show a sea? Was anyone reimbursed for the loss of two thousand pigs and a livelihood?

Many people read this story as an allegory about Roman occupation. Its use of “legion” – also a division of two thousand Roman soldiers – and other phrases supports this interpretation.* Given that framework the questions may seem less important, but the story works on multiple levels.

However we understand this story, the reaction of the local people is telling. After Jesus exorcised the man (and drove up the local price of bacon), they reported it to the authorities and “began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.” They treated him more as threat than savior. Despite his demonstration of power over the spiritual realm, fear of their occupiers was greater than their desire to be free. In retrospect we may call them foolish, but human nature often compels us to endure the hardship we know rather than risk the strange, however promising.

Freedom – from demons, from authority, from law – is a scary thing. Like Jesus, it can be wild and unpredictable and ask more of us than we realize we are prepared to give. It can bring down the wrath of those who feel threatened by our freedom, both political and religious. Does that sound overwhelming? When Jesus has presented us with difficult choices between the status quo and the unknown, have we ever asked him to leave the neighborhood? Do we prefer flying under the radar even if it means contributing to our own oppression? Those are the real questions.

Once we are truly free, like the Gerasene demoniac, we can’t imagine going back to life among the dead.

Comfort: It’s OK to be a little intimidated by Jesus. He’ll love you through it.

Challenge: When you feel like ditching Jesus for security, pray for strength.

Prayer: God of freedom, thank you for not leaving me to waste away in the tomb of security, but for breathing fresh, exciting life into me through Jesus. Amen.

Discussion: What unwanted forces “occupy” your spiritual life?

*For more about this topic, see this entry in Father Ted’s Blog, which points to some additional references.

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Healthy Fear

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 22; 148, Genesis 43:1-15, 1 Corinthians 7:1-9, Mark 4:35-41


What words describe your feelings about Jesus? Awe? Love? Gratitude? Comfort? How about… fear? The Bible uses the phrase “fear of God” or “fear of the Lord” to describe the proper reverence we owe God, but Jesus is generally portrayed as more immediate, more understanding, more human. His disciples found him sufficiently charismatic to leave behind jobs, homes, and families and follow him far and wide. He persuaded people through love, not fear. But is there a fearful side to Jesus?

One day Jesus and the disciples were on a boat after a long day of preaching to large crowds when a storm rose. Jesus might have slept right through it, but the disciples were afraid and woke him. He “rebuked the wind, and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still! ‘ Then the wind died down, and it was completely calm.” Afterward the terrified disciples asked each other who this person was, that he commanded nature herself. We might assume such a display would be inspiring, but when someone you think you know turns out to be entirely more powerful than you can understand, it is unsettling. Jesus changed from magnetic preacher to unknown quantity in a heartbeat.

Some disciples must have doubted the safety of continuing to follow this powerful figure. When we study Jesus, do we settle for “Jesus 101” – the introductory course with a benign, almost chummy Jesus? Or do we go for the advanced study: a Jesus who can be intimidating and demanding, but who offers a much richer life? Maybe we can synthesize the two: a Jesus who upends our expectations and draw us into new – sometimes frightening – lives, but loves and supports us through the demands of the new life he offers. When the Jesus who calmed the storm washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, he taught us true power bends itself toward service. How can we not be humbled? Remembering Jesus is more than a companion who walks and talks with us “in the garden” helps us realize the deep reality of who Christ is – and who we can become in him.

Comfort: Jesus is with us to ride out life’s storms.

Challenge: When you are in trouble and it seems Jesus may be “in the stern, asleep on the cushion,” trust he is still faithful to you.

Prayer: God of power and majesty, I am your humble servant. Give me the courage to serve as Jesus served. Amen.

Discussion: When has following Jesus been scary?

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From Fear to Faith

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, Genesis 25:19-34, Hebrews 13:1-16, John 7:37-52


Delayed gratification.

It’s not something that comes naturally to most of us. As a matter of fact, it’s often the opposite of our nature. We spend our lives in bodies that are convinced death lies around every corner. Because our bodies don’t know when food might be available again, they tell us to store energy by overeating now. Because they don’t know whether pain and discomfort will stop, they demand relief in the form of drinks and pills. Because they are desperate to reproduce they talk us into mistaking lust for love and connection.

Bodies can feel like temples to the gods of despair, where we sacrifice the future to survive the present.

Esau and Jacob were the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah. “When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents.” (Gen 25:27) One day Esau returned famished from the field, and demanded Jacob share his food. Jacob instead offered to sell it to his brother – in exchange for Esau’s birthright as the older son. Esau, caught up in his body’s hunger, agreed. “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” (v 34)

How often do we – like Esau – sell ourselves short to satisfy an immediate longing?

And yet … Christ’s promise of eternal life helps us to rise above the limitations of our mortal bodies. Perhaps part of being born again is reclaiming the birthright we have despised through sin. When we the hungry know the assurance of the bread of life and the living water, we are no longer driven by fear, but by love. Our bodies, gifts from God, become instruments of service rather than masters of need.

To become servants in the image of Christ, we have to learn to put the needs of others before our own desires – to take that which was once first to us and make it last. Our longings may still tempt us, but we can choose better when not gripped by fear. We can be cooperative instead of competitive. Our temptations can help us develop empathy for those who still fear, for we were once in their place and it was humble love, not force or intimidation or arrogance, that saved us.

Delaying gratification for the purpose of retaining our birthright will always be a struggle, but that struggle is where we can identify in some small way with Christ crucified. It is where we learn to be more than bodies and find the fulfillment of being part of The Body. It is where perfect love casts out fear “So we can say with confidence ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’” (Heb 13:6)

Comfort: God’s love will deliver us from fear.

Challenge: Ask yourself what temptations you find hardest to resist, then ask what need is still not being met by giving in to them.

Prayer: In you O Lord I seek refuge and peace. Amen.

Discussion: What fears drive your behavior?

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Attitude of Abundance

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Today’s readings (click below to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 88; 148, Genesis 17:15-27, Hebrews 10:11-25, John 6:1-15


Our culture promotes irony and cynicism. These can be useful and enlightening, but many times they simply mask an underlying state of fear. When push comes to shove, we tend to hoard the resources we have rather than trust them to God’s abundance. Even in faith communities simple optimism is often characterized as simple-mindedness.

God told Abraham and Sarah, at 100 and 90 years old respectively, they would conceive a child. Abraham laughed in disbelief. When their son was born, they did as God had instructed and named him Isaac, meaning “he laughs.” With God in the mix, irony became hope.

When thousands gathered at the Sea of Galilee to hear Jesus preach, he asked his disciple Philip where they could buy bread to feed everyone. We don’t know if Phillip laughed, but it’s easy to imagine a dismissive chuckle when he told Jesus they would need more than six months’ wages to buy enough food. And it seems likely there might have been some eye rolling when Andrew mentioned a boy with five loaves of bread and two fish. Yet from this tiny bit, upon Christ’s instructions, they managed to feed everyone with twelve baskets left over.

At first glance the common theme between these stories seem to be that God is most visibly present in the impossible. Unfortunately this idea pushes God outside our normal expectations into a realm where we can only experience his blessings through reality-warping events.

An important lesson in these stories is that God has created us not be starved by fear and doubt, but to feast on possibilities and faith. The approach we take affects the quality of our lives, and the lives of others. More than a simple “can-do” attitude, faith that God’s world is abundant opens us up to true generosity. If we stop worrying that what we have is not enough, we grow comfortable with being generous even in uncertain times. Individuals with this faith can have a positive impact, and communities that cultivate this attitude will find endless doors opening. Behind them is revealed God’s presence in our everyday lives.

The world teaches fear. An abundant faith – focusing not on scarcity and stinginess, but on hope and generosity – is countercultural and revolutionary. Live on the edge.

Comfort: You need less than you think you do. You can give more than you think you have.

Challenge: Embrace hope.

Prayer: Loving God, please help me to remember there is far more to your gifts in the world – seen and unseen – than I could ever comprehend. I will trust you. Amen.

Discussion: In what areas of your life – money, time, affection, etc. – do you take an approach of scarcity? How can you become more generous?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

 

Threats Both Foreign and Domestic

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 88; 148, Esther 8:1-8, 15-17, Acts 19:21-41, 4:31-37


A pack of foreigners and their radical leader – well known for recruiting people to his strange and potentially dangerous religion – wander into town. Locals worry these men will change the character – perhaps the very foundation – of their society. Merchants are projecting exactly how the influence of these aliens will negatively impact local jobs, revenue, and tourism.  First there are angry murmurs, then protests about this evil religion, then angry mobs ready to forcibly evict these strangers, though doing so means sacrificing civil rights on the altar of security.

You know who we’re talking about.

That’s right – Paul and his merry band of Christians wandering into Ephesus. The Greek city was famous for its grand temple to Artemis. Artisans there sold a lot – a lot – of silver shrines and other souvenirs to pilgrims and tourists. They were worried Christianity was going to be bad for business, so they nearly started a riot to drive Paul and his companions out of town. The local authorities talked some sense into them and explained the courts were available but there wasn’t any justification for charges let alone a riot. There aren’t many stories older than the one about people who hold privilege rationalizing their hostilities toward people who don’t.

Christians might be tempted to look at this story and say: “But… those Ephesians have nothing to do with me; their religion was wrong and ours is the right one. Those Christians weren’t actually dangerous.” Nope. Like it or not, Western Christianity is compromised by privilege, because every group that rises to power eventually believes both that it deserves to be at the top and that sharing said privilege is a threat to its security.

Remember when Jesus said: “Blessed are you who value safety above mercy?” Of course not, because he actually said: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” Real faith offers love, mercy, and forgiveness because Jesus has offered them to us. It’s hard for the last to be first if we insist on starting from the top.

Comfort: When we feel threatened, Jesus is still beside us.

Challenge: Read this article on 30+ Examples of Christian Privilege.

Prayer: God of mercy, teach me to be merciful. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been confronted by your own privilege?

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