Who sinned?

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Jeremiah 24:1-10, Romans 9:19-33, John 9:1-17


As he [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

It is no surprise (to modern readers of the Gospel anyway) that Jesus restored the man’s sight. So instead, let’s focus on the disciples’ assumption that the man’s condition must have been a punishment for someone’s sin. Jesus quickly relieves them of this notion, but it’s part of a theology that persists. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism: if we can blame someone’s misfortune on their mistakes, we worry less it might happen to us. Unfortunately, we seem to extend that line of thinking in additional directions. While today we are less likely to blame the physically disabled for their condition, we are relatively quick to blame the poor, the mentally ill, refugees, and other groups for theirs. Some circumstances are certainly a result of poor choices, but we like a convenient excuse for responding with non-demanding judgment rather than with compassion insisting on action.

“But wait,” you may be thinking, “didn’t Jesus say the man was born blind for a purpose?” Yes … and no. What does it mean for God’s work to be revealed through the needy? Not that they’ve been capriciously selected for suffering so God can show off. If the work of God’s children is to love God and one another, then the greater the need we meet, the greater the revelation of God’s glorious work.

Christ’s message to the healthy and wealthy is not: “be kind to the needy.” The message is: “You are the needy.” Indifference, selfishness, and judgment erode the spirit every bit as much as poverty, illness, and oppression erode the flesh. And the remedy for poverty of the spirit is identifying with poverty of the flesh so closely that any unbound wound is felt as our own. Apart, we are a meaningless tangle of misery. Together, each of us is a knot reinforcing a tapestry woven from mercy.

Comfort: We are blessed with a purpose that unites us with each other.

Challenge: When we know someone who suffers, let us try to understand how we are related to both their suffering and their well-being.

Prayer: God of all creation, teach me to love all your children. Amen.

Discussion: How do you understand the relationship between sin and suffering?

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Long Suffering

Hogarth, William, 1697-1764; Christ at the Pool of Bethesda

Christ at the Pool of Bethesda – William Hogarth (1697-1764)

Today’s readings):
Psalms 67; 150, Isaiah 47:1-15, Hebrews 10:19-31, John 5:2-18


Today’s reading from John is significant for several reasons.

First, Jesus performs a healing on the Sabbath, which – according to the Pharisees – breaks the Mosaic Law. In this way he establishes that he understands the law better than they do.

Second, he commands the man he heals to get up and carry the mat he’d been lying on. This was also prohibited, so Jesus assumed authority to exempt others from the law.

Finally, Jesus refers to God as his Father, declaring himself beyond their ability to understand or judge. This only intensified the Pharisee’s desire to see him killed.

John tells us the man Jesus healed was only one of many invalids lying by a pool with alleged healing properties. When Jesus learned the man had been suffering for 38 years, Jesus asked him if he wanted to be made well, and the healing and its ensuing controversy unfolded.

But what about all the other sick people by the pool?

John skips ahead in the story so we have no idea whether Jesus interacted with anyone else. The Gospels tell us several times that Jesus healed crowds of people, but not this time. Yet it doesn’t seem likely Jesus simply wasn’t concerned with them.

The truth is, not everyone is healed. Most of us are more likely to find ourselves among the long-suffering than miraculously made whole.  Some theologians would blame it on a lack of faith. Others would say each healing miracle serves a specific purpose in Christ’s ministry.

We can find ourselves caught between seemingly contradictory ideas telling us on one hand that faith will heal us and on the other that suffering brings us closer to Christ. Can both be true?

We must remember that whatever our plight, Jesus still sees and hears us. He still moves among us. His love and compassion for us are as great as they are for anyone else who seems more “blessed.”

Until he died, even Paul suffered an unnamed malady, which he called the “thorn in his side.” Rather than torture himself about why, he considered his weakness a perfection of his strength.

Suffering is not a sign of disfavor. No one gets to impose their own meaning on your suffering, but both illness and health present opportunities to grow closer to God. Whatever the state of your life, God loves you and is with you.

Comfort: In sickness and health, God is with us.

Challenge: Do something – volunteer, donate, etc. – to support people with chronic illness.

Prayer: God of compassion, I will seek you even in my suffering. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever found meaning in suffering? If so, how?

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Universal Precautions

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 148, Jeremiah 31:27-34, Ephesians 5:1-32, Matthew 9:9-17


“As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.” – Matthew 9:9

What does “tax collector” mean to you? In Capernaum where Jesus met Matthew, tax collectors were not exactly IRS agents. They were Jews who collaborated with the occupying forces of Rome to tax the Jewish people for the privilege of being oppressed. If you’re of a Libertarian bent you may not think that’s so different from the modern tax collector, but many Jews considered them traitors to the nation of Israel. The Pharisees lumped them into the same category as the other “sinners” Jesus frequently dined with and challenged the disciples about his choice of companions.

Jesus responded by saying: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. […] For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Paul warned the members of the Ephesian church not to associate with those who are disobedient to God. Paul named many kinds of disobedience – so many, in fact, that most of us have been guilty of at least one. Between Jesus dining and drinking with sinners, and Paul warning us to avoid them altogether, what example are we to follow?

When a physician or nurse tends to patients, s/he takes certain precautions to avoid infection. These universal precautions are applied equally whether a patient is obviously ill or not, because one never knows all the facts. Healers can do their work while avoiding contamination, but not while avoiding contact. Every sick patient deserves the dignity of being treated as a person, but boundaries are crucial. So it is with the gospel. We are called to share it with those who need its healing message. To do that, we need to go where they are. We need to share with them common human experiences such as meals, conversation, tears, and laughter. In no way are we permitted to treat them with less dignity than Christ would. We probably shouldn’t even think in terms of “them” as it only fosters dehumanizing division.

We can’t offer comfort to the sick without knowing them, or without recognizing it is only by grace – not our own superiority – that we ourselves have been healed. Faith is not a barrier to isolate us from them, but the protective gear that makes contact possible.

Comfort: No matter how sick you are, Jesus wants you to be well.

Challenge: Don’t shun anyone Jesus didn’t shun.

Prayer: Gracious and loving God, thank you for the healing presence of Christ, and for the opportunity to share it with others.  Amen. 

Discussion: When do you find yourself avoiding people instead of loving them?

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Forgiveness First

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Genesis 39:1-23, 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:15, Mark 2:1-12


Jesus was speaking to a large crowd gathered in and around his home. “[S]ome people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and […] let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.'” The scribes present were offended that Jesus felt he had the authority to forgive sins. The man lowered through the roof may have been disappointed his faith was rewarded with forgiveness and not healing. His friends were probably not looking forward to carrying him back.

As he always seems to do, Jesus turns the situation on its head.

To demonstrate to the scribes the level of his authority, Jesus commands the man to pick up his mat and walk. What’s a little forgiveness compared to a miracle? While we have a suspicion Jesus intended to heal the man all along, his decision to first emphasize forgiveness is a powerful statement. In the text leading to this moment, Jesus seems increasingly frustrated the people follow him only for healings and miracles. While these are signs of his authority, they are only signs – which exist to point to something more important, something beyond our own satisfaction.

The most important healing Jesus offers is not of our mortal bodies, but of our eternal relationship with God. Some of us are convinced we are irredeemable (even though we hail Christ as our Redeemer!), and live our whole lives as if that was true. Others place blame on everyone else and live lives of petty grudges. Both situations demonstrate a lack of faith in forgiveness. These mindsets can be nearly impossible to shake. When we can fully accept that love and forgiveness are at the core of our beings and the center of our relationship with God, well … there’s the miracle.

Healing is not the end of the story, but the beginning. Once we accept God’s love and forgiveness, we can in turn love and forgive ourselves and each other. We heal the world. We are resurrected.

Comfort: The only thing standing between you and forgiveness … is you.

Challenge: Forgive someone. Don’t confuse it with excusing or justifying them. Forgive them as many times as you need to until it sticks.

Prayer: God of forgiveness, I step into your welcoming embrace. Thank you for loving me when I can’t forgive myself. I will accept your love even when I feel unworthy, because only your love heals me so I may forgive others. Amen.

Discussion: What do you need to forgive yourself for? Are you able to ask God to forgive you before you can forgive yourself?

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Breaking the Law

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Today’s readings (click below to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 54; 146, Genesis 15:1-11, 17-21, Hebrews 9:1-14, John 5:1-18


The fourth commandment is “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath.” For most Christians Sunday is the Sabbath but after church is over it’s not much different than the rest of the week. We are free to go shopping, eat out, and do as we please. Therefore we may underestimate the enormity of Jesus’ decision to perform a healing miracle on the Sabbath. This wasn’t someone declining an opportunity to “take it easy” – it was an act of defiance punishable by death.

For observant Jews, the Sabbath is a day of rest and worship, beginning at sunset on Friday and ending with the appearance of the first three stars on Saturday evening. Sabbath is rich with traditions, prayers, obligations, and rules. One key Sabbath concept is that no work is to be done: even candles must be lit and food prepared in advance. Today it is a strictly religious tradition observed more closely by some Jews than others, but among Jesus’ contemporaries there was no distinction between religious and secular law.

What might have been important enough to Christ to merit this act of disobedience? Mercy.

Could he have waited to heal the ailing man? Possibly. People had walked past and over this lame man for decades. Jesus didn’t break rules just for the sake of breaking them: by choosing mercy over law on the Sabbath, he demonstrated that mercy is always God’s highest priority. No excuse – our own need to be “holy” or even the threat of punishment – justifies withholding it.

For all our claims to be a people freed of legalism, Christians have developed plenty of rules to stand between us and mercy. From baptisms to funerals and everything between, we have our own unclean persons, our own restricted privileges, and our own inviolable traditions. Conscience tells us when mercy is the right response, but fear of breaking the rules and being punished by our social group may keep us from exercising it. When the Spirit prompts us, let’s be brave enough to break a rule or two and touch that “untouchable” person with our hands, hearts, and words.

Comfort: The Lord wants us to love mercy – that means receiving as well as giving.

Challenge: Critically consider whether  rules you have set up for yourself get in th way of being merciful to others.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Discussion: What does our willingness (or unwillingness) to show mercy say about our relationship with Christ?

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Generosity and Grace

Santorini Skyline

Today’s readings (click to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 67; 150, Genesis 13:2-18, Galatians 2:1-10, Mark 7:31-37


When Jesus healed people, he didn’t treat just their physical ailments; he also acknowledged them in a way that restored the dignity they had been denied. Charity and mercy should not be top-down experiences where the more fortunate look pitiably upon the less fortunate. They are more like the closing of a circuit through which grace flows and connects us all in the Spirit.

It’s easy to squeeze the grace out of our generosity. We insist on knowing who is worthy of it. We decide what is best for people without getting to know them. If it gets uncomfortable, we distance ourselves socially and emotionally from the people we are helping. Sometimes we dismiss the efforts of people who take a different approach than we do. Our focus can be too much on how charity makes us feel, rather than on the need we are meeting.

How Jesus healed a man of deafness and a speech impediment (a common combination, since it is difficult to mimic what we can’t hear) is a wonderful model for works we do in Christ’s name. First, he didn’t try to determine worth or blame, but accepted a person who came to him in faith. Next, instead of making a public show of his kindness, he took the man aside, thereby giving him a choice of whether to tell his own story. Then Jesus literally got his hands dirty and put them on the man in an intimate way, because sometimes love has to be messy. All the while Jesus was prayerful, but confident that God would guide him. He comprehensively addressed both the root of the problem (the man’s deafness) and the symptoms (his speech impediment). Finally, after word of his generosity spread, Jesus humbly gave the glory to God.

Grace-filled generosity does not insist on its own way, but responds to the needs of others. Unlike enabling, it empowers recipients to make their own decisions about what to do next. Once someone’s ability to hear (or eat or sleep warmly) is restored, they are free to speak the good news as they will.

Comfort: Sometimes we offer assistance, sometimes we receive it, and at all times we are worthy of dignity.

Challenge: Do some volunteer work that allows you to interact with the recipients of the work. Try to see them not as people who need something you have, but as people who are equally in need of God’s gifts as you are.

Prayer: Gracious and generous God, I will do my best to give as you would have me do, not as my fears and doubts would. Amen.

Discussion: When you give someone a gift, what expectations accompany it?

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Spit, Mud, and Healing

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new window/tab):
Psalms 20; 145, Joshua 3:14-4:7, Ephesians 5:1-20, John 9:1-12, 35-38


All four gospels tell the story of Jesus healing a blind man on the Sabbath. The mechanics of it are simple: he spits on the ground, makes mud, and rubs it on the man’s eyes. Afterward the man rinses the mud off and can see. Mud and spittle were a common enough medical treatment in the Greco-Roman world of the period, so it’s very likely someone had tried this remedy before, maybe more than once. What was so different about Jesus? We could say “He was the magic son of God!” and be satisfied with that answer, but the story reveals more.

Jesus started from a different perspective than the people around him: they believed the man was blind because he had sinned, but Jesus told them that was not true. Instead, he saw an opportunity to reveal God’s glory by helping someone who hadn’t even asked for help.

How much dirt and spit have we wasted by pre-judging a situation? How could a different perspective help transform the most common, mundane elements in our lives into opportunities to reveal God’s love to the world? Residents of Cateura, Paraguay are a fine example. Their survival depends on harvesting recyclables from an enormous trash dump just outside one of the poorest slums in South America. But in this, they have found beauty: they have crafted a world-renowned children’s orchestra of instruments made from discarded articles pulled from the dump.

A blind beggar turned into a prophet. Broken pipes turned into flutes. The people and things in our lives that seem broken or useless transformed by the power of the Spirit into … what? We may not restore someone’s sight, but we can help restore hope, peace of mind, or the simple comfort of a hot meal and a warm bed. What if we have dirt or spittle (metaphorically speaking) but not both? Then we have an opportunity to combine our resources with another person’s, and the invitation for the working of the Spirit is doubled (or tripled, or…). Looking with Christ’s eyes, we see brokenness as only the first step toward wholeness.

Comfort: No matter how broken we may be, God can put us back together.

Challenge: What relationships or situations in your life have you written off as too broken to fix? Ask a friend or mentor how you might change your perspective on the situation to better resolve it.

Prayer: Gracious God, teach  me to see opportunities instead of problems. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever witnessed or experienced healing where others had written off any such possibility?

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Love Dangerously

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Readings: Psalms 90; 149, Haggai 2:1-9, Revelation 3:1-6, Matthew 24:1-14


Love hurts.

More than a pop song cliche, it’s a truth which is unpleasant and unavoidable – unless we opt out of love altogether. Whether we cause the pain or feel it, every relationship is eventually tested. Marriages struggle. Children leave home. Children fail to leave home. Friends let us down. The songs are usually about romantic love, but it’s true even of the agape love practiced by followers of Christ.

How many times heard someone say (or said ourselves), “I just don’t want to be hurt … again?”  Maybe they were cheated on. Maybe they were taken advantage of. The reasons for hurt are endless but here’s the thing: we already hurt, because we are already broken people in a broken world. There is no “again;” there is only “still.”

The pain of love is different from the pain of brokenness. The pain of love is like a bone being set, a wound being drained, or the pain of pouring out our secrets to a therapist. It is a productive pain and if we choose to avoid it, healing eludes us.

When Christ asks us to love God and to love one another, he promises us a spiritual comfort but does not promise us a life free of pain or danger. To the contrary, he warns us our choice to follow him into a life of agape love will cause many to scorn us and possibly put us in harm’s way. That harm isn’t always physical. Sometimes it is an injury to the spirit that occurs precisely because we have chosen to help others. Loving leaves us vulnerable.

Like our bodies, our spirits have an instinct to recoil from that which hurts us. As the Great Physician, Jesus tells us the remedy often means taking a greater risk and putting ourselves in danger of more pain – not to become victims or masochists, but to improve our spiritual health. Eventually love mends the breaks and wounds in our spirit, but we must take risks.

Love hurts. Not loving hurts more, because improperly set spiritual bones leave us as hobbled as physical ones.

Comfort: It may take a long time, but loving others heals our own brokenness.

Challenge: For an example of love that valued risk over comfort, read this perspective on Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Prayer: Loving God, give me the courage to love, even when doing so is dangerous. Amen.

Discussion: Different people have different methods of expressing love and recognizing when they are loved. What are yours? (If you’re not sure, maybe take a look at the The 5 Love Languages site of Dr. Gary Chapman).

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One Body to Heal

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, 2 Kings 23:36-24:17, 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, Matthew 9:27-34


If one member suffers, all suffer together with it;
if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
– 1 Corinthians 12:26

Today’s reading from 1 Corinthians can be read on many levels. It is often used to describe the importance of each person’s role in the body of Christ and to celebrate the many gifts they contribute. It also describes the importance of diversity within the church.

Read in context with today’s healing story in Matthew, there is yet another meaning. When Jesus healed two men of blindness, they were not passive recipients, but participants in the process. He asked them if they believed, and when they said yes he told them, “According to your faith let it be done to you.” Christ does not just do things to us, he does them with us.

When one part of the body is sick, it depends on the others for healing. An ailing tooth does not walk itself into a dentist’s office, but relies on the feet. A foot with a splinter cannot remedy itself, but depends on the hands to remove it. Hands that tremble from hunger cannot feed themselves, but rely on the mouth and teeth to chew and swallow. Each part is not only equally important, it is equally interdependent.

As members of the body of Christ, we must rely on each other and be present for each other in times of illness and distress. None of us is completely self-sufficient. We receive care when we need it, and we offer care when it is needed. And as the feet don’t feel burdened by the tooth, and the hands don’t feel burdened by the feet, we do so not out of obligation nor to secure help for ourselves in the future, but because we are one. The well-being of one is inseparable from the well-being of others.

Christ was extravagant in his love for all people. Christ was extravagant in his healing. As we are now his body, we are called to the same extravagance. Let us heal not out of duty, but out of extravagant love.

Comfort: It’s okay to rely on other people when you need to.

Challenge: Mental illness is often met with less sympathy and support than physical illness. Make an effort to learn more about how you can appropriately support people with mental illnesses.

Prayer:  Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

Discussion: How do you feel when people ask you for help?

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Pain Management

Pietà – Michelangelo

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 135; 145, Isaiah 44:6-8, 21-23, Ephesians 4:1-16, Mark 3:7-19a


When a person sustain an injury to one part of their body,  they can do further harm if they overcompensate with the use of other parts. For example, limping for an extended period of time can strain the back and good leg and require additional treatment. Another example of the interconnectedness of our parts is the phenomenon of referred pain, which occurs when injury to one area of the body causes pain in a seemingly unconnected one. We could experience pain in an arm without realizing the injury was actually to our spine; identifying the proper diagnosis and treatment under such circumstances can be difficult.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul compares the structure of the body of Christ to the human body. He emphasizes the importance of each part, and the need for unity in a healthy body. For the body to grow in love, all parts must function properly. Sometimes, though, we may not be able to easily determine which part we’re meant to be. What then?

Our “diagnostic test” is this: do our actions (or inaction) contribute to the spiritual unity of the body? If we unnecessarily cause other parts to falter or carry an unfair share of the load, we may need to reexamine our role. However, any physical therapist knows pain in the cause of healing is sometimes unavoidable. When it occurs in the body of Christ, we must ask ourselves whether the pain is a price to pay for unity. After all, we are called to voluntarily carry each other’s burdens, and infirmity is no sin. If it is, the body will be stronger for enduring it; if not we must seek or offer relief. When the body is brought back into balance, pain for all members of the body is minimized and the use of our gifts is maximized.

Like physical health, spiritual health is not founded on quick fixes. A mature approach encourages healthy, balanced decisions benefitting the body, not just ones satisfying localized  whims and short-term comfort. We all depend on each other, and must provide and accept support accordingly.

Comfort: The Body of Christ is meant to be a healthy one.

Challenge: With people you trust, have a frank discussion about what pains the Body of Christ is experiencing, and what we can do to make them better.

Prayer: God of healing, teach me to bring your wholeness to the body and the world. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever learned you caused someone pain without knowing it?

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