Spit It Out

Spit

Today’s readings:
Psalms 46 or 97, 149; Isaiah 66:1-2, 22-23; Revelation 3:14-22; John 9:1-12, 35-38


Is mainstream Christianity too wishy-washy? Media hype about the “Culture War” between the faithful and the secular wouldn’t lead us to believe so. Conservative religious voices speaking out against abortion and same sex marriage are frequent, loud and shrill.

But in a time and nation where Christianity is by far the dominant religion and Christian businesses from dating services to investment firms flourish, are Christians really suffering from any threats or dangers we don’t fabricate ourselves? The only “persecution” we face in the USA is that people are free to speak against us if they so choose. Someone refuting our beliefs or calling us out for behavior they disagree with is in no way equivalent to oppression. Yet somehow we manage to convince ourselves we are victims, perhaps because on some level we know truly living one’s faith does invite persecution, but we don’t have the stomachs for the real thing.

The progressive church is not off the hook. Yes it frowns upon and occasionally speaks out against the more egregious activities of its conservative counterpart, but rarely since the civil rights movement of the 1960s does it insert itself in any meaningful way. Instead, content simply to disclaim the follies of its less sophisticated cousin, it leaves the secular culture to do the heavy lifting on progressive issues. Paralyzed by political correctness, it operates from a generic humanism wherein faith is at best charming, at worst pitiable.

Neither camp, though opinionated, is bold. Mostly they preach to their respective choirs. They are the lukewarm brew spit out by Christ. Passionate Christians cling to neither of these labels (nor a moderate one) because they are too busy feeding the poor, praying for their enemies, spreading the Gospel, and visiting the sick and imprisoned to worry about any politics that don’t hinder those efforts. Dedicating oneself to these works is still considered radical in all quarters because it is an implicit indictment of anyone not doing them. Christianity is the opposite of a cultural affiliation or confirmation (even its own): it is a light and fire that burns such distractions away.

Comfort: If your faith is somewhat lackluster, you’re not alone.

Challenge: Jesus wants you to do something about it.

Prayer: God, fill me with the faith and desire to do your will.

Discussion: Do you feel like you’re answering your Christian call?

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Epiphanies

CnCEpiphany

Today’s readings:
Psalms 72; 148, Isaiah 52:7-10, Revelation 21:22-27, Matthew 12:14-21
Epiphany readings:
Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12


Happy Epiphany! Today is the last day of the Christmas season. Our traditional reading is about the Magi: wise men who – led by a prophecy and a star – traveled from far lands to honor the infant Christ with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Some people wait until today to add the Magi to complete their nativity scenes and continue to display it until February 2nd, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord.

If you haven’t yet listened to “We Three Kings” this season, today’s your day!

But the story of the Magi has a darker side. On their way to Bethlehem, the Magi visited King Herod to ask where the newborn King of the Jews might be found. Herod, jealous and fearful, met with the chief priests and scribes to learn all he could about the prophesied messiah, and tried to pump the Magi for information. He told them “when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” In truth, he was less interested in homage than homicide. The Magi, warned in a dream not to return to Herod, went home by another route.

In our daily readings, the same crowd– still fearful of Jesus and all he represents – is conspiring to destroy the adult Jesus. For a time he goes underground, but continues his ministry of healing and justice. Jesus always is who he says he is; his enemies (and some of them claim to serve him) are not.

What exactly does “epiphany” mean? It is a moment of insight or revelation. One of the most important epiphanies in this story is when the Magi realize Herod’s intent differs from his words. We would be wise to follow their example. Often those who govern – religiously or civilly – publicly promote one agenda but follow another. From slapping misleading titles on legislation, to unnecessarily “protecting” a powerful group in order to suppress another more vulnerable one, to rewriting history that judges them unfavorably, people tell us what they think we want to hear in order to lull us into going along with something else. In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell called it doublethink, and it empowered tyranny.

Some epiphanies are spontaneous. Others are the product of critical thinking. As followers of Christ, let’s strive to be like the Magi and stay ready for both.

Comfort: Jesus is always who he claims to be.

Challenge: Maintain a healthy skepticism of those in power, especially those who tell you what you want to hear.

Prayer: God of truth and light, I will seek to follow you always! Amen.

Discussion: What’s the last epiphany you had?

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Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

Today’s readings:
Psalms 50; 147:1-11, Isaiah 2:1-4, 1 Thessalonians 2:13-20, Luke 20:19-26


“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar, and unto God what is God’s.”

This well-known saying was Christ’s answer to some people who asked him whether it was lawful for Jewish people to pay taxes to the emperor – a controversial subject because rendering taxes implied the emperor was divine and therefore an idol. While this reply has spawned many deep theological discussions, there are some more mundane but important lessons to be learned.

In Luke’s version of the story, the people who asked the question were spies pretending to be friendly, but secretly intending to trap Jesus into saying something their masters could use against him. A straight up “yes” would have angered many Jews, and a “no” would have been treasonous. Did Jesus realize their intent? Whether he did or not, Jesus skillfully sidestepped the whole predicament by giving what was essentially a non-answer.

In our dealings, we should be alert to those who say seemingly innocent things to conceal sinister intent. During the Jim Crow era of American history, many states introduced literacy requirements for voting. They argued someone who could not read could not properly use a ballot. Absent other circumstances, it makes a kind of sense, right? Then they introduced a grandfather clause exempting people who were allowed to vote before 1866, because if you’d been a voter it didn’t seem right to take that away. Except, though not named specifically, only white people could possibly qualify for the exemption. The new black vote was effectively eliminated for a generation under “race neutral” legislation.

This phenomenon is not limited to race. Even in church, groups in power may create rules to ensure they stay in power. Instead of Caesar’s coin, the currency of acceptance may be based on gender, politics, income, etc. The more sophisticated the powerful, the more subtle their discriminations, so we must remain vigilant on behalf of our sisters and brothers in Christ. The message of the Gospel expanded from Jews to Gentiles to all the corners of the earth. It expands still. When we see it start to contract, it’s time to start asking our own bold and honest questions.

Comfort: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

Challenge: Jesus advises us to “be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.” Know when to be loving and when to be skeptical.

Prayer: Lord of Love, use me toward the justice of all your people. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been subject to unjust discrimination?

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Gold or Sanctuary?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 12; 146, Numbers 35:1-3, 9-15, 30-34, Romans 8:31-39, Matthew 23:13-26


Jesus spoke harsh words against the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. He called them “blind guides” – people pretending to lead but actually walking the faithful and converts alike off a spiritual cliff. He had no patience for a temple where gold and gifts were revered more than the sanctuary and altar that made them holy, where tithes of spices were more important than justice, mercy and faith. He compared them to cups polished on the outside, but filthy inside.

Today Jesus might not find coffers of gold and cumin in our sanctuaries, but he could find plenty to criticize. While there’s nothing wrong with a beautiful sanctuary – God himself directed the creation of a beautiful temple in Jerusalem – there is a problem when the image outshines the substance. A church is holy because of its character, not because of its “success.” The scandal of some churches – regardless of denomination (or lack thereof) – is not that their leadership sins, but that they collude to cover it up.

Looking the other way when our house of worship bullies, excludes, discriminates, exploits, ignores, or otherwise abuses people is never acceptable. Teaching a prosperity gospel that impoverishes the congregation while filling the pockets and three-car garage of the pastor is a betrayal of the gospel. Yet people turn a blind eye to wrongdoing in a misguided attempt to preserve the dignity of the church. Making an idol of the reputation of a corrupt institution to attract and retain members is like handing out candy you know is poisoned.

Better to worship in an outhouse crowded with the shopworn meek than a cathedral packed with gleaming hypocrites.

Christians are often taught to be nice to each other, but nice is not the same as just. Nice transfers abusive clergy without causing a commotion; just disciplines them. Nice prevents us from calling someone out for discriminating; just knows embarrassment is not worse than discrimination. Nice makes sure the cup is polished, just makes sure the contents are safe. We don’t need the world to think we are nice; we need to show the world that even when we are flawed, we strive for the just.

Comfort: You are allowed to speak up.

Challenge: Sometimes speaking up is hard; do it anyway.

Prayer: God of Justice, help us build a health church body. Amen.

Discussion: When have you spoken up, even though it might have been unpopular?

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Speechless

speechless

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Numbers 11:24-33 (34-35), Romans 1:28-2:11, Matthew 18:1-9


“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Jesus followed up these words with his famous teaching of tearing out an eye or removing a hand if it causes us to stumble away from him. He doesn’t mention the tongue, but it seems logical if our tongue causes us to stumble, we should tear that out also. The tongue may be doubly dangerous, as it can cause others to stumble also.

When our tongues tell people the church hates them (even when we’ve convinced ourselves we’re acting in love), they may find it impossible to believe Christ loves them. Too often the church focuses on a particular subset of sins (usually sexual in nature) and targets the people who commit them until they feel driven from the rest of the community. Paul warns us in Romans that by casting judgment on others, while we ourselves remain sinful, we condemn ourselves. Effectively we say: “Your visible sin is too terrible to tolerate, but my personal sin (which flies under the local radar) is more acceptable.”

Don’t think that’s true? Well, the church hasn’t developed a conversion therapy industry around unrepentant greed, and we don’t distribute scarlet J’s for judgment. Yet the greedy and judgmental can feel perfectly safe in a church that creates a climate hostile toward gay people and unwed mothers.

We are all sinners working toward transformation through Christ. We don’t always agree on what is sinful; that has been true for the entire history of the church, but the church survives because we work it out together. Scripture directs us to hold one another accountable, but the gossip-monger is as accountable as the murderer.

Repentance is a journey we take together. If we oust everyone who doesn’t meet someone else’s standards, soon the church will be empty. Better to enter the kingdom speechless than to have talked one of God’s children out of salvation.

Comfort: God loves you.

Challenge: God loves everyone else, too.

Prayer: Loving God, make me an instrument of your peace. Amen.

Discussion: How has your understanding of sin evolved as your faith has matured?

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Moving Target

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 54; 146, Ecclesiastes 2:16-26, Galatians 1:18-2:10, Matthew 13:53-58


The church is an easy target. As a human institution making the bold claim to represent Christ on earth, we paint that target on our own backs. Internal squabbling, failure to live up to our own standards, and outright corruption opens us to criticism from, well, everyone.

Because we are human we are often hypocrites, and because we are Christian we are charged with combating religious hypocrisy. Unfortunately our historical response to criticism of that paradox has been to double down on our own righteousness, thereby making the target ever broader. Calls to return to vague “traditional values” may feel satisfying to internal hardliners, but for those who are outside the church looking in, it only reinforces their perception of hypocrisy.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for Godly lives. Of course we should! But when we fail and are called out for it, our response should be to look inward as mature people of faith, not to lash outward like children shifting blame.

If we are introspective (rather than defensive) about the health of the body of Christ, we just might conclude the honest and humble response to criticism is admitting we have always fallen short of our ideals. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul addresses a church that is only twenty years old. Already there is infighting between Paul and Peter over Gentile inclusion. Rival (he calls them false) interpreters of scripture and doctrine have infiltrated Galatia. He has to refute claims that he lacks the endorsement of Peter, James and other Apostles. A mere two decades in, the church was providing much of the same fodder for criticism it does today.

Maybe the church should be a target. Our promise is not that we are righteous, but that we are forgiven. Honest criticism can be the swift kick in the back door we need to remind ourselves. We need to own the infighting, particularly around matters of justice. A homogenized church at peace with itself is stagnant; a church in conversation with itself – even heated conversation – is making room for the Spirit to be heard. Intentionally or not, the message we send is: “We are better.” Nobody believes that, nor should they. The story we need to tell is: “We don’t claim to be better, but God’s loving mercy redeems us.” When that is the story we also tell ourselves, it becomes true.

Comfort: Being honest about our failings is a testament to God’s love.

Challenge: When you hear criticism, of the church or otherwise, take time for introspection before defending yourself.

Prayer: God of forgiveness, teach me to tell the story of your love. Amen.

Discussion: What hypocrisies of the church bother you the most? Where do you find productive places to discuss your concerns?

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Logs and Specks

do-not-judge

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 148, Leviticus 23:1-22, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-17, Matthew 7:1-12


[H]ow can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Matthew 7:3-5

Hypocrisy is one of Jesus’s biggest targets. When he criticizes the hypocrisy of religious leaders, we cheer him on. However, his admonitions are not limited to authority figures: they apply to us also. When he spoke of logs and specks, it was to his followers in general.

We are still quick to point out the hypocrisy of politicians, religious leaders, and the self-righteous, but we are often slow to recognize it in ourselves and even try to rationalize it away. Some of the most blatant examples are in politics. When the “other” side uses dirty tricks or displays unethical behavior, we point condemning fingers and demand accountability. When “our” side does something similar we attempt to explain it away or justify it as a necessary evil – often blaming the behavior of the other side as forcing our hand. Cliched as it may be, two wrongs don’t make a right. A principle we are willing to sacrifice for convenience or expedience is not a principle at all. “They did it first!” is a child’s excuse.

We can also be quick to judge others for qualities we don’t like about ourselves. Maybe that’s why there is no shortage of “family values” candidates caught in adulterous affairs and other unseemly behaviors. But our eagerness to judge them in kind (or worse to celebrate their undoing) is a hypocrisy of its own. The line between personal accountability and unholy judgment can easily blur. To bring it into focus, we can look at it through a lens of compassion: reconciliation may require consequences, but the former is a priority and the latter merely a tool.

Regarding judgment Christ tells us: “the measure you give will be the measure you get.” Being honest about our own flaws makes us less likely to judge others.

Comfort: Judging others is exhausting. Let it go, and feel yourself refreshed.

Challenge: Be slow to judge. Maybe so slow you forget about it.

Prayer: Merciful God, teach me to be humble and merciful. Have mercy on my soul. Amen.

Discussion: What are the flaws you are most likely to condemn in others? What does that say about you?

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Impractically Possible

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Exodus 16:10-22, 1 Peter 2:11-3:12, John 15:12-27


After his resurrection, Jesus commanded his apostles to carry on his mission of love for the world and one another.He unflinchingly told these newly appointed bearers of love how the world would receive them: people who hated him would hate them; authorities who persecuted him would persecute them. Imagine similar words coming from a corporate recruiter looking for top talent, or a politician trying to build grassroots support: follow me and you’ll be hated and persecuted! Why would anyone sign up?

In the case of the apostles, they were motivated by love. Their leader had laid down his life for them – for the whole world – and in doing so overcame death. He wasn’t asking them to do anything he hadn’t done. Experiencing such love straight from the source left them unable to deny that the mission was worth any risk. The eternal life that Jesus promises doesn’t begin after our deaths, but in the moment we realize the willingness to lay down our lives down for one another frees us to love as Jesus loves.

Except for John, all the apostles died as martyrs. Most of us will not be tested to this extreme, but there are other ways of laying down our lives than death. Taking the smallest slice of cake or dropping spare change into a charity bucket is good but not enough. Following Jesus makes impractical and dangerous demands that may  require us to risk our finances, reputations, and livelihoods. Love that requires us to take in strangers and to decline striking back in revenge seems positively scandalous. In a culture where Christians are the default authority, we will be at odds with fellow believers who would cling to the dominance of Christendom so blindly they cannot recognize when we are no longer the light revealing the corruption of the empire, but the empire itself casting long shadows of injustice. We value security above faith at our own spiritual peril.

Jesus does not prioritize the safety of our bank account, good name, or physical person. He does call us to sacrifice all these things in service to each other.

Comfort: In the long run the sacrifices we make to follow Jesus do not deny us of anything, but help him give us everything.

Challenge: Almost all of us have a point where our desire to be safe impedes our desire to be faithful. Discuss this with some fellow believers.

Prayer: Loving God, give me strength to follow in the steps of Christ. Amen.

Discussion: When does your faith inconvenience you? Does it ever put you in harm’s way?

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24/7 Church

calendar-1192688-1599x1227Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 34; 146, Genesis 49:29-50:14, 1 Corinthians 11:2-34, Mark 8:1-10


First century Christians had a different experience of church than altars, organs, choirs, and pews. For safety and other reasons, they gathered in private homes and spaces. Before celebrating The Lord’s Supper, they often had a full meal called a love (agape) feast. Everyone brought food and wine according to their means, and the bread for the Lord’s Supper was taken from the remnants of the earlier meal. The potluck may be one of the earliest Christian traditions.

Paul was disturbed by what he heard was happening at these gatherings in Corinth. Some wealthier members brought a lot of food, but didn’t share it with those who could bring little or nothing. Others were drunk by the time the real purpose of the gathering – celebrating the Lord’s Supper as a community in Christ – could begin. Paul told them whatever these people were celebrating, it certainly wasn’t the Lord’s Supper, because they were in no way honoring the Lord with their mindset or behavior.

Today the agape meal is a far less common form of church gathering, but we are vulnerable to the same types of problems. Participating in communion and worship while we are indifferent to the needs of our neighbors undermines the message of Christ. We may not be drinking wine during Sunday services, but if while we are gathered we indulge our excesses of gossip, vanity, and judgment we are no more focused on Christ than the drunk Corinthians were.

Church is the body we live in constantly. We can’t neglect or abuse the body and expect it to remain healthy. The Sabbath is meant to be a day of rest and worship. Waiting to exercise our faith one day a week is doing exactly the reverse – like sitting on the couch all day Monday through Saturday then trying to run sprints on Sundays – not only aren’t we prepared, we’re doing the body more harm than good. Our week should prepare us for Sunday as much as Sunday prepares us for the week.

Comfort: Jesus is with you all week long.

Challenge: Try to approach every person and situation as if it is a test of your faithfulness. It is.

Prayer: Merciful God, make me ever-mindful of your presence, grace, and will. May my every act be one of worship and gratitude. Amen.

Discussion: When are you on your “best behavior?” When are you not? Why not?

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The Good Consultant

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Genesis 24:28-38, 49-51, Hebrews 12:12-29, John 7:14-36


As a profession, consultants have a mixed reputation. After consultants have provided expensive professional expertise, employees commonly respond (correctly) with: “They didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.” If this is the case, is the service valuable or not? It can be — if what the business really needed was confirmation, not innovation. It may not sound as poetic as The Good Shepherd, but Jesus was also The Good Consultant.

When Jesus had grown popular enough that Jewish authorities began plotting to kill him, he had two choices: go into hiding, or follow his calling. Despite the danger, he began preaching openly in the temple during Sukkot, one of the most important festivals of the year. People marveled that he, who had not been taught, could teach so wisely. Jesus responded by saying his teachings were not his own but those of God. He advised anyone who doubted his credentials to apply a simple litmus test: was he speaking for his own glory, or for the glory of God? “Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own.”

In this particular case he was preaching about their hypocrisy when it came to applying the Law of Moses, but he wasn’t providing any new information. Many prophets before him told the people of Israel their observation of the law was meaningless — even offensive — to God if they weren’t offering mercy and justice to the least among them. Like many enterprises, they were too busy performing day-to-day operations to step back and ask whether they were really fulfilling their mission in the best way. They knew the right things, but needed Jesus and other prophets / consultants to spur them to change direction.

In our spiritual lives as in our work lives, we need to recognize when established authorities are glorifying themselves and the status quo over the mission, and when outside voices are telling us what we already know to be true. The Good Consultant steers us away from hypocrisy and ego toward mercy and justice.

Comfort: When your conscience tells you to choose mercy over the wishes of authority, you should probably listen to it.

Challenge: Oftentimes following Jesus means defying “business as usual.” Make time to step back and measure your beliefs and actions against the teachings of Christ.

Prayer: God, I will do my best to listen to your voice above all others – including my own. Amen.

Discussion: When you ask your friends or colleagues for advice, how often do you already know what the right answer is?

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