Made to be Broken

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Jeremiah 16:(1-9) 10-21, Romans 7:1-12, John 6:1-15


You’ve probably heard the saying “Rules were made to be broken.” The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, phrased it a little differently: “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” It seems like wonderful news that the law, fulfilled in Christ, no longer condemns us. Isn’t that the kind of freedom we desire?

One might think so, yet we seem eager to impose new laws. Over the years Christians have forbidden everything from dancing to haircuts. We’ve twisted religion to enforce cultural traditions as though they were divine rules. Why do this? Maybe because it’s so much easier to understand and navigate a system of laws rather than a commandment to love.

But this isn’t the only reason it’s harder to accept living under grace than living under the law. Accepting grace means accepting a God of unconditional love. That means God is willing to forgive people we’d rather He didn’t: ex-spouses, people who’ve wronged us, terrorists, etc. In the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet wanted God to withhold forgiveness so badly that God had to deliver him to his enemies in Nineveh via the belly of a giant fish. There’s a little Jonah in all of us. Knowing God will forgive people we can’t (or won’t) rubs us the wrong way, so we return to the law even if God hasn’t.

It’s not like we’re any easier on ourselves. If we were eager to believe we could be unconditionally loved and forgiven, therapists would go out of business. The world teaches us we must prove ourselves in order to be valued. Jesus tells us we are already valued, and asks us to live lives that prove it. Sometimes we have to untie a lifetime of spiritual and psychological knots before are free to believe that. But once we are able to embrace it, we want it for others as well.

Maybe rules were made to be broken, but we were not. God desires wholeness for each of us. Christ teaches us how to mend our souls – to sand down the jagged edges and mend the cracks – by tending to each other’s brokenness. When the law is love, the penalty is more love.

Comfort: God’s love is unconditional.

Challenge: If you can’t bring yourself to forgive someone, at least pray for them.

Prayer: Gracious and Merciful God, I am humbled by and grateful for your love. Amen.

Discussion: Do you really believe God loves you unconditionally? Why or why not?

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Oops!

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 122; 145, Isaiah 8:16-9:1, 2 Peter 1:1-11, Luke 22:39-53


Shortly before Jesus was handed over to the authorities by Judas, he went to his customary place of prayer on the Mount of Olives.  The disciples joined him, but he prayed “about a stone’s throw” away from them. Luke says Jesus prayed so earnestly “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down.” When he returned to the disciples, they were exhausted from grief and therefore sleeping. He woke them and mildly chastised them.

As he was speaking, a crowd led by Judas appeared. When the disciples realized this was the moment of betrayal, one of them attacked a slave of the high priest and severed his ear. Jesus cried “No more of this!” and healed the man.

After three years of commitment to Jesus’s message, mission, and ministry, the disciples were still something of a disappointment: they couldn’t stay awake to provide moral support and didn’t understand Jesus intended to surrender himself. The entire length of their tour with Jesus had been punctuated by misunderstanding and error.

Would we have done better?  We may like to believe so, but if Jesus could have drafted better disciples, don’t we think he would have? Yet these people – who had plenty of disappointment yet to deliver – spread the gospel and founded the church. Like the disciples, let’s take heart in knowing our limitations are not God’s limitations. Grief, fear, and other factors may lead us to misstep, but we are still part of the body of Christ.

Just as importantly – maybe more so – let’s remember the shortcomings of the disciples and ourselves when we’re tempted to judge the mistakes of others. If we think we’d do better in their shoes, let’s remember Peter denied Christ three times but was suitable to be the Rock of the Church. Our biggest mistake may be operating as if we ourselves have no mistakes left to make!

When one of our sisters or brothers in Christ stumbles through sin or error, it’s not our place to write them off, for Jesus has already redeemed them. Rather, we can offer encouragement, support, and – when necessary – gentle correction. As the author of 2 Peter writes, let us bear one another’s burdens with endurance, self-control, and mutual affection.

Comfort: You’re going to make mistakes, and God is going to love and work through you anyway.

Challenge: Do an internet search on techniques for learning to withhold judgment.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for your patience with me, and bless me with patience for your beloved people. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever disappointed someone who gave you another chance? Or is there someone who has disappointed you that could use a second chance?

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Thud!

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 50; 147:1-11, Isaiah 6:1-13, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12, John 7:53-8:11


“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

So Jesus said to a group of scribes and Pharisees ready to stone a woman caught in the act of adultery. Before saying it, he bent to write in the dirt with his finger. One tradition says he was writing a list of the secret sins of her accusers. Whatever he wrote, one by one the crowd members dropped their stones and walked away. When all were gone, he sent the woman away without condemning her, but advising her to sin no more.

We probably prefer to identify with the woman in need of mercy, but we also all potentially have a rock in our hand ready to hurl. There’s an adage that what we dislike about others is a reflection of what we dislike about ourselves. We clench that private guilt or shame until its weight becomes so unbearable that we are compelled to fling it at others if only to find some relief from the burden.

We think of the woman as the one who finds forgiveness, but what if those stones dropped because the crowd realized that if this woman could be forgiven, they could too?  What if they no longer felt the need to hurt someone else to soothe their own feelings of guilt?

Imagine the sound of all those stones dropping to the ground.

Thud! My own infidelity is forgiven. Thud! My anger at my brother is forgiven. Thud! My thieving ways are forgiven.

Thud! … Thud! … Thud! Thud! Thud! like the slow, building thunder of a cleansing storm.

The prophet Isaiah describes a vision in which a seraph (a type of angel) places a live coal on his lips. The seraph tells him: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” The phrase “live coal” might be better translated as “glowing stone.” By trusting God to deliver him through the pain, Isaiah found forgiveness. We must find the courage to name and face the glowing stone of our own sin before we can ask forgiveness, but afterward we can drop it to cool in the dirt. When we no longer burn, we no longer desire to burn others.

Comfort: If you ask and repent, you are forgiven.

Challenge: When you are angry with someone’s mistakes or transgressions, ask yourself what that says about you.

Prayer: Merciful God, thank you for the abundant forgiveness of your love. Amen.

Discussion: What flaw in yourself most irritates you when you see it in others?

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Give ’em a break…

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, Deuteronomy 1:1-18, Romans 9:1-18, Matthew 23:27-39


The twenty-third chapter of Matthew contains some of Christ’s most scathing criticism of the scribes and Pharisees. He compares them to whitewashed tombs – spotless outside but full of decay. He calls them a brood of vipers. He accuses them of building tombs for prophets they had murdered while they claimed “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets” … on one hand denouncing a murderous tradition while enthusiastically embracing it with the other.

This is the part where we can sit back, think of all the vipers in our own lives, and enjoy Jesus really letting those hypocrites have it!

Or is it?

Maybe this is the part where give the Pharisees a break. Or if not a break, a little empathy. If we look at them and say “that would never have been me!” we make the same mistake they did. Of course we like to believe that even under identical circumstances we would be different – better – than people who have made bad choices. For a few noble souls it may even be true. But most of us are not exceptional; we are doing the best with what we have, and failing more often than we’d like.

If we can entertain the idea that we might have been pharisaical … that if we’d been less privileged by intelligence or class we might have found ourselves in prison … that we might have been in the crowd that loved Jesus right up until it began shouting “Crucify him!” … we may find it a little easier to show compassion and forgiveness.

Romans 3:23 tells us all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Short is short and all is all: since the scale of God’s glory is infinite, our relative distance from it is irrelevant. Thinking other people’s sins are greater than our own robs us of compassion. Believing our sins are greater than other people’s robs us of hope. To be heirs of the kingdom, rather than heirs to the murderous tradition, we only have to believe Jesus died for all of us equally.

Comfort: Jesus offers forgiveness to everyone, including you.

Challenge: Jesus asks us to offer forgiveness to everyone, including ourselves.

Prayer: God of mercy, help me to keep a humble and loving heart. Amen.

Discussion: How do you think our secular culture influences our ability to feel compassion?

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Seventy-Seven Times

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, Numbers 13:1-3, 21-30, Romans 2:25-3:8, Matthew 18:21-35


A slave owed his king an unpayable sum. The king decided to sell the slave’s family to collect the debt, but the slave begged for mercy. The king felt pity, released him, and forgave the debt. As the slave walked away, he met a second slave owing him a hundredth of what the king had forgiven. He demanded payment, and when it wasn’t forthcoming he had the second slave jailed. When the king learned this, he revoked his mercy and had the first slave tortured until he paid.

This parable was how Jesus answered Peter’s question: “how often should I forgive?” The story tells us whatever debt we feel someone owes us, God has already forgiven us a debt a hundred (or more!) times greater.

“Tough love” gets tossed around quite a bit. We seem to be firm believers in the power of consequences. It may be fine for parents fostering  the values of children, or managers coaching employees, but the further removed we are from someone personally, the less applicable it becomes. How easy it is to withhold mercy under the pretense of not enabling someone.

By the time we meet most people, life has had its way with them. They behave in ways they have learned best help them physically and emotionally survive. It’s arrogant to assume we would fare better under similar circumstances, and more arrogant to think our petty disciplines will change them.

Should we hand cash to gambling addicts? No. Should we allow co-workers to abuse us? Nope. But when someone is hungry or hurting, we should transcend our grievances to feed and care for them. We can’t fix people – they need to initiate that themselves – but we are called to show mercy to the broken, for we ourselves are broken and beneficiaries of the mercy of God.

Jesus didn’t instruct us to parent everyone. He did instruct us to forgive and love. A crust of bread offered to a starving thief doesn’t condone thievery; it says we trust in something greater we hope to share. Whether he hears that is not up to us.

Comfort: You aren’t responsible for parenting the world.

Challenge: When you feel like someone needs to suffer consequences, ask yourself why.

Prayer: Merciful God, guide me as I seek the balance between mercy and justice.

Discussion: Mercy is a personal matter, but it can seem at odds with civil justice. Have you struggled with this tension? Or do you disagree with the premise?

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Feedback

 

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 7, Ecclesiastes 8:14-9:10, Galatians 4:21-31, Matthew 15:9-39


Imagine you are going to ask your employer for a raise or a promotion. You’ve prepared a list of all the reasons you think you deserve it. Are you also prepared to hear your boss share any reasons she or he feels you don’t deserve it?

What about when we decide to offer unsolicited criticism to a friend or coworker? Are we ready for them to return the favor?

Real-life conversations are not like those in a movie or television episode where someone gets to say their piece without interruption and leave the scene with a dramatic exit. When we initiate a challenging or difficult conversation, we should be prepared to hear what the other party has to say. Sometimes that means things won’t turn out the way we want.

The author of Psalm 7 knew this. When asking the Lord to save him from his enemies, he must have been certain of his own blamelessness to say:

O LORD my God, if I have done this,
if there is wrong in my hands,
if I have repaid my ally with harm
or plundered my foe without cause,
then let the enemy pursue and overtake me,
trample my life to the ground,
and lay my soul in the dust.

Fortunately for those of us less confident in our own righteousness, Christ teaches us that we are not caught in a cycle of tit for tat – that God’s mercy isn’t contingent on our blamelessness, but on our own willingness to show mercy ourselves. Unlike asking for a raise, when we ask God for forgiveness, we don’t need to build a case for it so much as humbly acknowledge and repent of our wrongdoing. When we feel convicted of our sins and failings, the Spirit isn’t trying to beat us down into a place of guilt, but to lift us up to a place of renewal.

Eventually we all need to face difficult truths about ourselves. The difference between the world and God is that the world wants you to improve before it can love you, and God loves and forgives you so that you can improve.

Comfort: God loves us despite our flaws.

Challenge: Ask a trusted friend to suggest a way you could improve, then pray about it.

Prayer: Merciful and loving God, thank you for loving me where I am today, and loving me enough to lead me somewhere better tomorrow.

Discussion: What flaw do you struggle to change?

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No Time Like The Present

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 135; 145, Proverbs 10:1-12, 1 Timothy 1:1-17, Matthew 12:22-32


Paul did not start out sympathetic to Christians. He was born to  Jewish parents with Roman citizenship, an unusual status. As a devout Jew he considered followers of Jesus a threat both to both the faith and to the relatively secure status of Jews under Roman occupation. For years he persecuted Christians, literally hunting them down and delivering men and women for imprisonment and execution. As he wrote to Timothy: “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.”

Yet he was the greatest evangelist in the history of the church.

Can you imagine the resistance Paul faced from other Christians as he began his ministry? He was the embodied scourge of Rome across the backs of those who followed Christ. Why would anyone believe him when he said he was reformed? When people claim to change their minds or begin to behave differently, we suspect insincerity and our suspicions are often confirmed. But Paul persevered despite his critics, who included such important Christian figures as Peter. The zeal which had once driven him as “a man of violence” had been redirected.

If God could reform a villain like Paul, the rest of us should have great hope indeed.

When we try to change for the better, people will inevitably bring up our pasts and question our credibility. We may be embarrassed when that happens, but like Paul we can use that opportunity to testify to God’s grace. Whether we’ve decided to improve in a small way, like declining to indulge in office gossip, or in a more significant way, like seeking reconciliation with an estranged family member, our past does not need to be a source of shame.

Rather, by humbly acknowledging our past sins – not excusing them  or getting “holier than thou” – we can speak a powerful truth about how God’s grace has transformed our present. Paul was humble, but not ashamed. Persistent, but not defensive. His faith eventually became undeniably obvious to all. Whatever your sin or past, God can do the same for you.

Comfort: God wants to free you from the prison of your past.

Challenge: Forgiving your own past is an important step in forgiving others.

Prayer: Merciful God, thank you for your gift of grace. May my life be a testimony to the power of your saving love. Amen.

Discussion: What parts of your own past have you not been able to forgive? Do you think you need to forgive yourself before you can believe God forgives you?

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Reset

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 93; 150, Leviticus 25:1-17, James 1:2-8, 16-18, Luke 12:13-21


If you know anything about agriculture, you probably know “fallow” earth is ground that has not been seeded for at least one growing season, for the purpose of letting the land recover moisture and reduce disease. In Leviticus, God commands the Jews to observe a Sabbath for the land, leaving it fallow one year of every seven.

God also commanded a Jubilee observation every fiftieth year. During this Jubilee year, debts were forgiven, property was restored, and slaves were returned to their families. The nation did not sow or reap, but lived off what the land produced on its own.

Every seven days a Sabbath. Every seven years a fallow year. Every seven times seven years a Jubilee. God’s command for rest was echoed and magnified in this pattern.

Fallow years have mostly been replaced by crop rotation. For varied theological and cultural reasons, the Jubilee year does not have a modern equivalent, even among the Jewish people. That sense of extended rest and replenishment has been all but lost.  While some professions such as ministry and academia allow for extended sabbaticals at regular intervals, and such periods are a relief from regular work, they often carry expectations of a different sort of productivity.

Inspired by Leviticus, the Roman Catholic church has developed a tradition of 25-year Jubilee celebrations for forgiveness of sins and also the punishment due to sin. These Jubilees bring many people into reconciliation with the church.

Perhaps an advantage to not following the Jubilee schedule of Leviticus is the freedom to schedule our own. Keeping track of the financial, personal, and/or spiritual debts owed to us may be exhausting, so maybe we should consider scheduling one to begin soon. If it seems unfair to simply forgive such debt, ask whether holding onto it really serves your relationship with God or your neighbor. A Jubilee relieves us of the burden of having to work ourselves up to a state of forgiveness by giving our egos permission to unclench. God has given us an opportunity to “reset” our lives; let’s find a season to be fallow and forgiving.

Comfort: It’s ok to rest. God desires it for us.

Challenge: Forgive someone a spiritual or financial debt. Try to think of it as also relieving a burden from yourself.

Prayer: God of renewal, thank you for the new life offered to me through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Discussion: Where in your life do you most need a reset? How could you arrange for that to happen?

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Pass the Peace

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Exodus 34:1-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:13-20, Matthew 5:21-26


Most church services include The Passing of The Peace (or a similarly named practice). At that time, members of the congregation greet each other with phrases such as “The peace of Christ be with you.” Depending upon the denomination and character of the congregation, the greeting may be anything from a brief handshake with your immediate neighbors to several minutes of walking around the sanctuary hugging everyone you’re happy to see again. Liturgically it is usually placed shortly before the offering. Do you know the scriptural reason for this ritual?

Jesus told his disciples:

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

– Matthew 5:23-24

The intent of passing peace is not to greet people because we are happy to see them, but to reconcile with the people we are probably less than happy to see. Imagine a moment in church where approaching someone, or being approached, was an admission of conflict. Not a very comfortable situation, is it? But Christ advises us to make amends quickly so we can offer our gifts without judgment hanging over our heads. Note that Jesus makes no distinction about whether we are in the right or the wrong – just that we need to be willing to take the first step toward reconciliation.

Jesus repeatedly emphasizes the connection between our willingness to forgive others, and our ability to be forgiven. In the next chapter of Matthew he teaches us to pray The Lord’s Prayer, which includes the line: “Forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors.” And in the next chapter he tells his followers: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” No offering, no matter how generous or perfect, makes up for the grudges we bear. We don’t have to accept, condone, or forget – we may even be called to offer loving correction – but Jesus makes one thing clear: we must forgive.

Comfort: Christ’s path is one of love, truth, peace, and reconciliation.

Challenge: When you “pass the peace,” pass it somewhere it hasn’t been in a while.

Prayer: Loving God, forgive my sins as I forgive those who sin against me. Amen.

Discussion: Whom do you need to forgive? Can you do it before Sunday?

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Holy Friday

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 22; 148, Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-33, 1 Peter 1:10-20, John 13:36-38

Readings for Good Friday:
Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Psalm 22, Hebrews 10:16-25, John 18:1-19:42


If “Good Friday” seems like an odd name for a day commemorating a crucifixion, understand that good used to mean holy. All over the world, Christians re-enact Christ’s journey to Golgotha (also called Calvary) and his terrible execution. From congregations reading the passion together, to prayer groups walking the stations of the cross in troubled neighborhoods, to entire towns becoming Jerusalem for the day, Christians feel compelled to relive the story.

Because we know how the story turns out, we may find it easy to judge the crowds whose cheers turned to condemnation, or Peter, who – as Christ predicted – denied knowing him not not once, not twice, but three times. Certainly we would not have shouted “Crucify him!” We could never deny him … could we?

Let’s assume we could. Actually, let’s assume we have – because it’s true. None of us lives perfectly. That being the case, isn’t it comforting to know the person Jesus hand-picked to found the church was as flawed as we are? Maybe that’s why in passion stories most of us play the angry mob: to be reminded each of us is in need of forgiveness, and so don’t have the right to judge anyone. Christ later assured Peter he was still loved, but surely the knowledge of that moment of fear, weakness, and betrayal never left him. And almost as surely that memory helped forge the compassion and mercy for others that would have been necessary to speak for Christ.

When we feel like judging, let’s remember Peter – weak, frightened, impulsive, imperfect Peter. Then let’s remember Christ forgave him, as he forgives us, and calls us to forgive. It was the sin of the world that Christ forgave on that cross, including the sin of our own imperfect mercy and tarnished compassion.

From noon this day until Sunday morning, the disciples were without Christ. They thought the story was over, and despaired. This holy Friday and Saturday, let’s contemplate what it would mean to live without hope of forgiveness for ourselves and others. Today Christ hangs on the cross. We shouted “Crucify him!” Now we weep.

Comfort:

Challenge: Pray for forgiveness.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Discussion: What does Good Friday mean to you?

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