The Moral Arc


Today’s readings:
Psalms 122; 149, Isaiah 51:1-8, Galatians 3:23-29, Mark 7:1-23

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” However, he was not the first to use this particular metaphor. In 1857 Unitarian minister Theodore Parker used it in a sermon against slavery. Between Parker and King, other religious leaders also referenced the “moral arc.” This image endures because it bears out across time. Over the years, as discrimination has become less acceptable, increasing numbers of people have gained access to freedom and justice.

Jesus constantly expanded the circle of justice to include the disenfranchised and despised. As Paul wrote to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Distinctions that separate human beings have no meaning in the kingdom of God.

Since Paul’s time, the church has traveled the moral arc to challenge divisions and champion justice in the form of abolition, civil rights, child labor laws, and other social movements. Like society at large, the church experiences an uneven ebb and flow of progress, but on the whole it moves in the direction of justice. What barriers to justice is it helping tear down right now?

Popular wisdom says we are more likely to think of individuals and groups as our equals after we get to know them. While this is generally true, and while it is desirable to broaden our understanding of the world, a hard truth remains: we simply don’t have time to understand all the people Jesus would have us love. Does Christian love – expressed in mercy and justice – require us to understand its recipients? It does not, and demands to be extended especially toward those who remain alien to us.

Perhaps the only real division is between people we understand and people we don’t. Can we rise to the challenge of loving people justly even when our lack of understanding create social or emotional barriers? The road to justice runs straight through those barriers and often beyond our ability to see, but it is where Christ waits to meet us.

Comfort: The Kingdom of God is always expanding.

Challenge: Read or listen to MLK’s Sermon at Temple Israel.

Prayer: Infinite God, share with me your vision  so I may see beyond the horizon of my own limited understanding. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been part of a group that was excluded by the church? Have you ever actively excluded any group from church?

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Well, well, well…

The Samaritan Woman at the Well – Annibale Carracci

Today’s readings:
Psalms 19; 150, Isaiah 43:14-44:5, Hebrews 6:17-7:10, John 4:27-42

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., said “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Many factors contribute to this phenomenon, including our natural inclination to congregate with people we believe are like ourselves. Almost instinctively we make religious, political, and cultural distinctions. Sometimes we intentionally gravitate toward groups that affirm our beliefs, but more often than not we’re happy to stay put where fate planted us. There is nothing necessarily wrong with being part of a group, but problems start when we are too eager to define who is not in the group.

Jesus was notorious for ignoring such boundaries. Like many famous rivalries, the bitter one between Jews and Samaritans was between relatives. Both tribes claimed a common ancestor in Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah. By Jesus’ time they had nothing to do with each other. When Jesus ignored this history of enmity and spoke with a Samaritan woman at a well, they had a frank conversation that left her wondering if he might be the messiah. When she told her story to her people, they invited Jesus to stay with them and he visited for two days. Upon his departure, many followed him because they recognized the truth in his teachings.

Who are our Samaritans? People we refuse to talk to because they are too different from us? People who are similar in almost all ways except the one we can’t bring ourselves to be flexible about? Or people we can just ignore because our lives are structured in such a way that we never encounter them?

If we are to follow Jesus, we have to follow him into both friendly and unfriendly territories. We must do our best to accept people as Christ did: across ethnic divides, up and down the economic ladder, beyond humanly imposed doctrine. We must welcome rivals into our group, and we must be prepared to be welcomed by our enemies.

A well is a place that draws together people who have a common need. If we can’t find one, let’s start digging.

Comfort: Christ’s family is not defined by anything or anyone but Christ.

Challenge: Everyone is someone’s “Samaritan.”Be honest with yourself about who yours might be, and whose you might be.

Prayer: God of all creation, teach me to love my neighbors even when we don’t like each other. Amen.

Discussion: Could you be somebody’s Samaritan? If so, whose?

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Run, Don’t Walk!

run fast

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalm 63:1-8 (9-11), 98; Ecclesiastes 1:1-11; Acts 8:26-40; Luke 11:1-13

The Acts of The Apostles, chronicling the formation and earliest days of the church, tells a story of an ever-widening circle of inclusion.

Philip the Evangelist was one of seven people selected by the Apostles to care for poor Christians in Jerusalem. One day, Acts tells us, an angel instructed Philip to go to a certain place. In that place was a eunuch who served as a court official to Kandake, queen of Ethiopia. The Spirit urged Philip to run to the chariot where the eunuch was reading aloud a passage from Isaiah. Philip offered to explain the passage, and the eunuch gratefully accepted. After Philip used this scripture to share the good news of Jesus, the eunuch was eager to be baptized. When they saw some water, the eunuch stopped the chariot, then Philip baptized him and went on his way leaving a joyous convert behind.

Because of their modified genitals, eunuchs were considered impure under the Levitical code and therefore not allowed full participation in the life of the temple. They could wait in the outer courtyard with women and non-Jews, could but not go in with the other men. Baptism, by contrast, signified full participation in the body of Christ. This man was a Gentile, an African, and a member of an “impure” sexual minority, yet because of Christ, Philip eagerly welcomed him. Before you say, “well of course,” remember we still draw lines in the sand over Biblical interpretation. This type of inclusion was – and still is – radical.

Who are today’s eunuchs? Certainly there are parallels with the exclusion of the LGBT community, and churches continue to be some of the most racially segregated institutions in America. In most places, bilingual church services – including sign language – are a rarity. The list of human-made division goes on. Our exclusion may be less explicit, but our implicit lack of inclusion speaks volumes. Where are the Philips running to greet them? When we do encounter them, do we brand these present-day Philips as evangelists or heretics?

Did Jesus ever condemn anyone for being too inclusive? Rather than ignore our modern eunuchs, let’s run to them with the good news. The worst that can happen? Someone hears it.

Comfort: We’re all outsiders to someone. We’re all insiders to Christ.

Challenge: Start a discussion within your faith community about who you are intentionally or unintentionally excluding, and brainstorm ways to be more inclusive.

Prayer: God of love and abundance, teach me to see Christ in all your children.

Discussion: Who do you have trouble accepting into the body of Christ?

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Common Ground


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Leviticus 26:1-20, 1 Timothy 2:1-6, Matthew 13:18-23

Politically speaking, Christians are all over the map. Conservative, moderate, or progressive, we all believe the principles of our faith inform our decisions about how to vote. How can it be we vary so widely? The Southern Baptist Convention and the United Church of Christ read the same Bible, but arrive at very different conclusions about gay marriage. Jimmy Carter and Mike Huckabee are famously Christian, but agree on little when it comes to the moral implications of federal budget making. These organizations and people are passionate about their faith, but understand it in very different ways. How should we respond to such a polarizing environment?

If we are to find common ground, we need to start from the ground up, rather than the top down. For example, both conservative and progressive Christians should want to address poverty, since Christ tells us to take care of the poor and the sick. One side endorses a free market solution, while the other relies more heavily on social programs. Both approaches could benefit from insights of the other, but in the top-down scuffle to impose ideology on actual lives, the poor are treated more like turf than people. Whatever end of the spectrum we fall on, Christianity is not about winning, it is about serving, and the tribalism of politics make us lose sight of that.

The first letter to Timothy advises believers “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” When it comes to modern politics, “dignity” doesn’t exactly spring to mind. In a culture where winners say “respect the office” and losers claim “the officeholder is illegitimate,” the message remains revolutionary.

Even when a candidate we despise wins office, we should pray for them to be successful in serving the people well. Our actions in the public sphere should reflect a humility to serve, not the viciousness of campaign rhetoric. Christians have always disagreed. Our role is to model how to disagree with love.

Comfort: Standing up for your beliefs doesn’t have to mean alienating those who believe differently.

Challenge: Spend some time listening to or watching conservative or liberal radio or television – whichever one you tend not to agree with. Do so with an intent of discovering common ground.

Prayer: God of diversity, help me hear truth, even when it is spoken by those I am inclined to disagree with. Amen.

Discussion: Do you extend a fist or an handshake to those who disagree with  you?

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The Truth about Crumbs and Dogs


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Genesis 49:1-28, 1 Corinthians 10:14-11:1, Mark 7:24-37

Not many people win an argument with Jesus. In Mark’s gospel there is only one example. She was both a Gentile and a woman, neither of which Mark’s audience would normally find persuasive. Yet she manages to change Jesus’ mind. When she asks him to rid her daughter of an unclean spirit, he tells her the food he offers should go to the children (of Israel) and not the dogs (a slur on her people). When she replies even the dogs get the children’s crumbs, her words stir him to help her daughter. What does it tell us that Jesus not only changed his mind, but was convinced to do so by someone considered a lowly outsider?

For one thing, it tells us we ought to be cautious about being overly sure of ourselves. If Jesus can change his mind, we can too. Closing our minds, especially when we are called to be merciful, betrays both the ministry of Jesus and what we ourselves are called to do. The moment we declare boundaries around the realm of God’s grace, we have placed our own wisdom above that of Christ.

It also tells us outsiders can be insightful critics. Individuals and communities often dismiss valid criticisms because they come from “outsiders” who couldn’t possibly understand, or perceive objective yet unflattering observations as attacks. Instead of absorbing facts and asking ourselves hard questions, we dig in our heels and counter-attack. And it doesn’t take much for us to tag someone as other: Christian communities do this both with non-Christians, and fellow believers who are in different denominations or understand scripture differently. Not so with Jesus. When an outsider presented a valid perspective, he responded not with defense or attack, but reconciliation and healing. That must be our model as well.

We don’t want to change our beliefs or practices like a reed swaying in the breeze of every opinion, but if continuing those beliefs and practices requires us to ignore or reject challenging truths … they were never very strong anyway. Weak faith shrinks by rejecting truth; strong faith expands by accepting it.

Comfort: Truth will only make your faith stronger.

Challenge: Consider how do you deal with challenges to your beliefs? Do you calmly consider other opinions, or do you immediately seek to dismiss or refute them?

Prayer: God, you alone know all truth. Help me to love the world as you have truly created it, and not as my limited human understanding has tried to define it. Amen.

Discussion: Some might argue Jesus already knew he was going to reconcile with the woman. If this is the case, why might he have at first denied her? Does it change our understanding of the lessons in the story?

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Clashing Symbols


Today’s readings (click to open in a new window):
Psalms 123; 146, Genesis 9:1-17, Hebrews 5:7-14, John 3:16-21

When the great flood ended, God made a covenant with Noah and his family never to drown the world again. He set his bow – the rainbow – in the sky to remind him of the covenant every time he gathered clouds. All who saw the rainbow were reminded of God’s promise not to destroy the world again.

Symbols are important to us. A simple image can evoke complex ideas, emotions, and memories. The most prominent Christian symbol is the cross. It reminds us of death and resurrection. It identifies fellow believers. It marks a spot where we can lay down our burdens. Like all effective symbols, it is easily recognized – two simple lines! – and is rich with meaning.

Corporations spend millions of dollars to develop recognizable logos that communicate the essence of their business and inspire loyalty. Who in America doesn’t immediately recognize the Golden Arches and what they stand for? We wear clothes with symbols to telegraph our status, cultural or counter-cultural affiliations, team loyalties, and peer groups. We exchange a lot of information in the shorthand of symbols.

How do we distinguish truly meaningful symbols from the visual noise bombarding us each day? Are religious symbols nothing more than a brand logo? Let’s consider the rainbow. It only appears in the rain, the very thing it is meant to protect us against. And what about the cross? It was an instrument of death, but it is now a symbol of new life. We revisit and ritualize these symbols because they are about transformation, and about movement from struggle to victory. The Nike swoosh can only aspire to such heights.

Let’s use our symbols wisely and appropriately. If the rainbow was in the sky 24/7, it wouldn’t be nearly as powerful. If we slap a Jesus fish or “John 3:16” on everything we own, its power to transport us to a deeper emotional or spiritual frame of mind is diluted, as is the message it sends to others. They are not like flags or team jerseys that define Team Jesus. The symbols of our faith should be like beacons inviting others home.

Comfort: The symbols of our faith can bring us comfort and help remind us of important things.

Challenge: Symbols can confuse or alienate people who don’t understand them. Be thoughtful about using them to welcome rather than to exclude.

Prayer: God of truth, help me to see beyond symbols to the truths behind them. Amen.

Discussion: What symbols are meaningful to you? Why?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Jeremiah 37:3-21, 1 Corinthians 14:13-25, Matthew 10:24-33

Slang. Jargon. Idiom. Argot. Dialect. Lingo. These words all have slightly different definitions and connotations, but have something in common: they often determine whether you are in a group or out of it. Slang is largely generational; when you’re no longer up on the latest – or worse, desperately fumbling with it – you’re old. Jargon and argot have a more professional context; try to fake your way around a profession you don’t know, and your vocabulary will betray you soon enough. Idiom and dialect are perhaps the most tribal of the group, as they are defined primarily by geographic location; nobody in Georgia is fooled when someone from Connecticut drops a “y’all.”

There’s something comforting about sharing a special, almost secret language. It immediately establishes common ground, even with strangers, in a positive way. Yet even as language draws a circle of inclusion, it excludes everyone who stands outside the circle. This exclusion isn’t necessarily intentional, but it’s an unavoidable byproduct.

Which brings us to “Christianese.”

Paul was concerned about the Corinthian church’s tendency toward an inward focus. They seemed to have a real fondness what may be the ultimate insider language, speaking in tongues (which, let’s be honest, is pretty easy to fake if you can’t hone in on your spiritual gifts). Paul tried to make them aware of how an unbeliever might feel walking in on a service where everyone seemed to speak independent gibberish:

If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind? […] in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

We may not be speaking in tongues, but when churchgoers casually throw around words like “narthex” (what’s wrong with “lobby”?), acronyms like “VBS,” or phrases like “slain in the spirit” without explanation we erect a language barrier between us and newcomers or strangers. It’s not bad to let people know our culture is different – if it wasn’t, why bother? – but the differences we want to emphasize are compassion, inclusion, and forgiveness. Even “grace” can be a mystery word to the uninitiated, but “love” is universal. Let’s show it by saying it clearly.

Comfort: There can be great comfort in being part of a community with common culture.

Challenge: Don’t make assumptions that people know what you know, or understand everything you say.

Prayer:  Teach me, O Lord, to speak with love and thoughtfulness. Amen.

Discussion: When you don’t understand what people are talking about, are you comfortable asking for clarification?

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Invitation: Preemptive Strike


Earlier this week, I had a brief exchange with a stranger on Facebook.

He’d made a comment claiming that he couldn’t talk to liberals because as soon as they learned he was a Republican, they accused him of being a racist, anti-gay, hateful, gun nut. I responded that I am a liberal Christian and didn’t make any of those assumptions about him.

He replied, “Good for you for not being like all the rest of them.”

I don’t think he saw the irony of defending himself against stereotyping by promoting more stereotyping.

I’ve had similar online and face-to-face exchanges with people who claim Christians do nothing but promote intolerance and then dismiss countless examples of charitable and loving efforts as “exceptions that prove the rule” – which, by the way, isn’t really what that phrase means.

Right now we live in an atmosphere that promotes division. It encourages us to assign one label to a person – conservative, liberal, Christian,  atheist, feminist, socialist, capitalist, whatever – and assume they possess all the attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs of the most extreme people who claim those labels.

That there is some lazy thinking, and even lazier loving. It gives us permission to stereotype and perceive ourselves as victims of stereotyping at the same time. It even recycles language formerly associated primarily with racism, such as “That Joe is one of the ‘good’ ones.”

This kind of thinking is not fair or welcoming. We can’t express it in our churches and homes and expect anyone to take us seriously when we say all are welcome at Christ’s table.

On the flip side, we shouldn’t assume others are thinking that way. If you suspect someone may want to judge or stereotype you because they identify as liberal or conservative, don’t preemptively do their job for them by being pre-offended. Let them do their own dirty work of exclusion. Or – better yet – be pleasantly surprised that they don’t hate you because you’re different.

There will always be some people who want to deliberately exclude or oppress others, and we will stand up to such injustice.  There will be many more people – myself included – who will always be in a state of learning about how we can better relate to and learn from our fellow human beings.

At Christ’s table, we manage to put our differences on hold for the duration of a single, communal meal. One bite, one sip. Whatever else is going on in our lives, we find common purpose and need at Christ’s table. Can we take that moment and expand it? Throughout the week, can we preemptively assume we will accept and be accepted? We very well might do so and be wrong, but otherwise we will miss every chance to be right.

May the peace of our lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

Invitation: Resentment


Today I’m angry with Jesus.

Not because of anything he did or didn’t do.
Not because of some disappointment or unanswered prayer.
Not because something bad happened to me or someone I love.

Though something terrible did happen in Charlottesville.

No, I’m angry with Jesus because he wants me to love people. People I can’t find lovable. People who use his name to justify their bigotry. People who hate – or, maybe worse, people who cynically brew a toxic mixture of fear and faith to to poison our hearts against each other.

My sincerely held belief that Christ’s table is open to all is at odds with my limited ability to love.

Being angry with Jesus sounds like a terrible thing for a Christian to admit, but maybe that’s where it needs to be directed. It’s easy to nod on Sunday morning when a minister says each of us helped drive those nails through Christ’s hands … easy to be part of a metaphor that says we all sin. It usually seems abstract. Yet today my knuckles are white from gripping the hammer so tightly.

I am not a fan of atonement theology, yet somehow I still believe in the redemptive power of the cross. I’ve often wondered how that can be. And today I think I get my first real inkling.

This anger isn’t going to simply disappear, yet Christ asks me to forgive and love and do good to those who would persecute me and those I love. So for now, for right or wrong, Christ has to absorb that anger so my mind and heart can be focused on figuring out how to love white supremacists enough to accept them – but never their hate! – should they show up to Christ’s table. I’m too human to not resent being asked to do that. My resentment is a cold, hard spike and it needs to be buried somewhere before I can move toward love.

And that, my friends, is exactly where I pierce the flesh of Christ.

That is where I finally understand how all that nodding on Sunday mornings has been so much lip service. How the cross is redemptive in a very concrete way.

This morning, my invitation to Christ’s table comes from an especially humble place. Who am I, bearing these nails and resenting my savior, to invite anyone? Yet I do, because I believe more than ever Christ’s table is the only place where all the pieces of this story make sense.

The invitation is not actually mine to offer. Christ has already done that. Perhaps the only way we can truly accept it is to pass that offer along when we least want to. For what but love will change us for the better?

All are welcome. All are welcome. God help us, all are welcome.

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

Invitation: Between The Lines


When I was a kid – junior high and high school aged – I made money in the summers by mowing grass. I mowed lawns all over the neighborhood. In retrospect I undercharged, so that may have been why I had so many customers. Most places I used my own mower and gas. One day the husband of an older couple only two doors down from my house asked if I would do his lawn. He normally did it himself, but he was laid up for a few weeks because of a surgery. I hauled my mower over got started. Though they were on the same block, their back yard seemed really long, especially compared to other lawns I did. When I was done, he said: “You got everything, but those lines aren’t very straight.”

At the time I was a little confused. This wasn’t a ballpark. By the next afternoon the stripes wouldn’t even be visible. But apparently they were important to him. As a myopic thirteen-year-old with a push mower, those were about as straight as I was going to get them. He hired me a second time, and I slowed way down to get the lines straight as I could. In my mind, it was tedious and frustrating. When I was done it seemed markedly straighter than my previous effort and I asked him how I did. He shrugged and said, “A little better I guess.” I was deflated.

When he asked a third time, I thanked him but told him I had too many lawns to add another customer. To this day, I have no idea why straight stripes with less than a 24-hour lifespan were so important to him, but if I met my thirteen-year-old self I would tell him to stick with it.

In a weird pre-adolescent way, I felt unfairly judged. But in my own way I was judging him. After all, he did ask me back twice, and I was the one who severed the relationship, at least on a lawncare level.

To some people, it makes perfect sense that straight mowing stripes are important. To other people, they will never be important. We’re not going to understand each other on this controversial subject. Yet we all have to keep mowing.

We seem to get stuck on the idea that we have to understand each other to coexist peacefully. Certainly we should make an effort, but sometimes we just won’t. Sometimes we just need to agree the grass needs tending, and deal with each other’s quirks.

As we gather around Christ’s table, we’re not all going to agree on everything. We will feel very strongly about some of these areas of disagreement – we may even think they should be obvious to anyone calling themselves a Christian – but there are much bigger things we need to accomplish together.  Maybe when you’re recovering after surgery and I bring you a casserole, you would have preferred a salad. Maybe when you makes posters for the bake sale, I would have preferred stenciled letters over freehand. So what? In the end we’re working for the same cause.

During the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century, Lutheran theologian Rupertus Meldenius wrote: “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity.” You may have heard it attributed to Augustine … but let’s not make a thing out of it.

Our Essential is Christ’s table. Let’s start by gathering around it freely and charitably. We’ll work the rest out … or we won’t. The table remains.

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.