Everything Old Is New Again

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 98; 149, Isaiah 26:1-6, 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2, John 8:12-19


Scripture challenges us to look at our fellow human beings from a different perspective that is often counter-intuitive to the one we are used to. In John and 2 Corinthians, Jesus and Paul tell us we need to stop seeing the world “according to the flesh” and start looking at it according to the spirit. Many people have interpreted this use of “flesh” to mean our bodies are evil, and somehow at war with our spirits—a sort of dualism that pits us against ourselves. Rather, Jesus and Paul use “flesh” as a metaphor for those things in the world and in ourselves that separate us from God. Sometimes that may mean our physical desires, but the desires themselves serve a purpose; our job is to direct them properly. Scriptures similarly use the word “world”—but God created and loves the world, just as he created and loves our bodies.

When Jesus tells us to see things according to the Spirit, what might that mean? It means we aren’t to judge anyone. Even Jesus—who is qualified to judge—has chosen to judge no one. This is a paradox of our faith: those who should not judge do, and those who might be worthy to judge choose not to. Of course we should be discerning in our associations, circumstances, and behaviors but judgment is strictly God’s purview. Any time we judge someone, we are seeing with the flesh, and not the spirit.

Paul tells the Corinthians that when we free ourselves from a human point of view, we will see Christians as new creations. The lack of judgment of others, from others, and of ourselves frees us to be entirely new. Ironically, it is this lack of need to conform to (or impose) worldly righteousness that transforms us into Christ’s righteous ambassadors.

In Christ we find not a religion—defined by those who measure up and those who don’t—but relationships. Immersing ourselves in Christianity takes courage, the courage of pioneers entering the wilderness of humankind and blazing trails to true relationship with others. Our true north is love. Our path is not the same as anyone else’s. Our adventure takes us places we can’t yet see.

Comfort: Your faith does not have to look like anyone else’s.

Challenge: When you judge people, forgive them and yourself.

Prayer: God of infinite love, lead me through the wilderness of faith. Amen.

Discussion: Are you more likely to judge others or yourself?

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Point of View

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 98; 150, Isaiah 62:6-7, 10-12, Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 1:18-25


Luke’s nativity story, which we read on Christmas, focuses on Mary, her faithful response to God, and her feelings about the birth of the Messiah. Now we read Matthew’s nativity story – a much shorter version which presents us mostly Joseph’s point of view. Reading both gives us a more complete picture of this story.

Luke says little about Joseph other than introducing him as Mary’s betrothed husband. He doesn’t mention Joseph’s internal struggles about the situation. Did Mary know about them? Matthew tells us that when Joseph learns Mary is pregnant, he decides to quietly divorce her. Under the law he would have been within his rights to punish her severely, but Matthew says Joseph is a righteous man with no desire to disgrace her. Perhaps Jesus remembered this bit of family lore when he stopped a crowd from stoning a woman caught in adultery.

An angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, and explains the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph stays married and raises the child as his own. This decision would have had repercussions long after it was made. People were just as skeptical of Virgin births and angelic dreams then as now. Gossip and whispers probably followed Joseph for a long time, though we don’t hear much more about him, except for how he keeps his young family safe.

Whatever your take on the virgin birth, this story can teach us a lot. We never really know how people arrive at decisions and situations. Our attempts to fill in the blanks are usually inaccurate at best, and judgmental at worst.

The person we think is a sucker for staying with a cheating spouse, or a young woman who got herself into trouble, or a hapless refugee family, has an entire backstory (or two, or twelve) that we don’t understand. They might not be raising the Messiah, but neither are we. Examining our own stories – the good and the bad – from different perspectives may just help us understand someone else’s story is not there for us to judge, but to hear. Joseph shows us righteousness is not always about seeking the fullest extent of punishment available under the law; it may just begin with taking time to learn the other person’s story.

Comfort: God knows your story.

Challenge: Think about someone you are prone to judge. How much of your judgment is based on what you know, and how much is supposition? Read this article on one school’s attempt to use restorative justice instead of defaulting to prescribed punishments.

Prayer: God of all stories, I will live my life for you alone. Amen.

Discussion: When have you found out your understanding of a situation was completely wrong?

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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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Speechless

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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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So You Had a Bad Day

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 62; 145, Ecclesiastes 7:1-14, Galatians 4:12-20, Matthew 15:21-28


This quote from Marilyn Monroe is all over social media: “If you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.” It’s frequently used out of context when someone wants to deflect criticism of  their own bad behavior. We don’t like someone telling us our behavior is bad, or even unhealthy. We might think other people need to hear criticism (again, reference social media for scathing comments about the scandal du jour) but when it’s leveled against us we call it “judging.” Since Jesus told us “judge not” we toss that out as a conversation stopper.

Except we take that out of context too: Jesus didn’t render us incapable of moral evaluation, but reminded us to be merciful to others because we want God to be merciful to us. We are allowed to call out injustice, and to be called out for committing it. While how we behave on our worst days isn’t the standard by which others should judge us, it’s also not above legitimate criticism.

When Paul wrote to the Galatians about the importance of including Gentiles in the Christian community, he reminded them they’d met him during some of his worst days, a period when he suffered from an unidentified ailment. The specifics are unknown, but it seems his condition was, at the very least, unpleasant. He wrote: “though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.” Was this because Paul told them: “If you can’t handle my worst you don’t deserve my best?” No. It was because even at his lowest points, Paul focused first on delivering the gospel message. His weakness was not a source of shame, nor an excuse for behaving badly, but evidence that Christ helps us endure all things.

No matter what, the world will find reasons to criticize us. We all have weak moments and bad days, so sometimes the world will be right to do so. How we handle criticism of our worst days tells people more about our character and our faith than a hundred of our best days.

Comfort: Your worst days are some of faith’s greatest opportunities.

Challenge: It can be tempting and easy to use stress as an excuse to be dismissive or abusive. Remember that your bad day does not give you latitude to ruin someone else’s.

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

Discussion: Are you able to take constructive criticism?

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Unhappy Medium

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Proverbs 6:1-19, 1 John 5:1-12, Matthew 11:16-24


Let’s face it: personal standards can be pretty arbitrary. Consider safe driving speed. For many, a reckless driver is someone who passes us, and a timid driver is someone we pass. Unless our cruise control is set exactly to the current speed limit (itself often a relatively arbitrary standard), what basis do we have for this judgment?

Jesus faced similar artificial standards from religious leaders. They complained he was a drunkard and glutton who fraternized with sinners. When they confronted him about their concerns, Jesus reminded them that when John the Baptist fasted and abstained, they accused him of being possessed. You just can’t please some people.

“But wait,” you might say, “isn’t there such a thing as a happy medium?” Certainly there was some acceptable range for drink and dining that might have pleased his detractors, but they almost as certainly would not all have agreed on the upper and lower limits of that range. My happy medium is to the left of yours, and to the right of the next person’s. Whatever our rationale for a standard, there is always personal bias involved.

Supreme Court Justices who agree with our interpretation of the constitution are “impartial,” and those who don’t are “activists.” The same goes for scripture: those who aren’t literal about the sames passages we choose to take literally are “cherry picking” (and there’s no one who is literal about all of it). Even within a political party adopting one platform, or a denomination which follows a single creed, your mileage will vary from your neighbor’s. If Jesus announced his return standing in a bar and with a beer in hand, some Christians would cheer and others reject him. And if John the Baptist was… well, John the Baptist, he’d be too holy for some and not enough for others.

If there were only three people on Earth we’d have four religions, so let’s try to overcome the perverse urge to focus on meaningless differences.  Christians are one body; the least we can do is learn to share the road with each other to caravan behind Christ.

Comfort: You don’t have to please other people …

Challenge: … and they don’t have to please you.

Prayer: Lord I thank you for the beautiful diversity of your creation. Please help me to see all things first with love. Amen.

Discussion: Which of your standards have you had to adjust over the years? Which do you refuse to adjust?

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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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East, West, and In Between

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Joshua 1:1-9, Ephesians 3:1-13, Matthew 8:5-17


One of the great things about being a Christian is knowing your salvation is in the bag.
Or is it?

A Roman centurion once approached Jesus and asked him to heal an ailing servant. Jesus offered to come and cure the servant, but the centurion said it wasn’t necessary to go there: he had faith that if Jesus said it would happen, it would happen.

Jesus was amazed (the Bible’s words, not an exaggeration) at the faith of the centurion. He told his followers:

“Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Mind you these followers were all Jews, and therefore considered heirs of the kingdom. The centurion was an integral cog in the Roman machine which oppressed them. That had to chafe.

There’s a saying that being in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than being in a garage makes you a car. We don’t inherit the kingdom by being born into a Christian family; we enter the kingdom through grace and faith. If the centurion is any example, our assumptions about what makes a faithful Christian may not be the same as Christ’s – and his is the opinion that counts. Is it possible that agnostics from the east coast and new agers from the west coast might find their way to the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob before we middle of the road Christians do?

The lesson here is not “it doesn’t matter what you believe.” It’s more like “don’t be too quick to make assumptions either way.” In a kingdom where the first are last and the last are first, discipleship can be a balancing act; humility is the narrow beam we must walk. Rather than insist we already know each twist and turn leading to Christ, let’s unfold the map together.

Comfort: You are officially relieved of the duty of deciding whether someone is Christian enough.

Challenge: Listening to people who disagree with your beliefs is not a threat.

Prayer: Gracious and merciful God, set my feet on the path toward salvation. Amen.

Discussion: What can you learn from other faith traditions? What do you think Jesus might say about it?

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Logs and Specks

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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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Sunshine and Rain

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 92; 149, Exodus 40:18-38, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12, Matthew 5:38-48


Turn the other cheek. When sued for your cloak, offer your coat too. If forced to go one mile, go a second one. Give to everyone who begs from you. Loan to anyone who asks. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. In these teachings, Jesus is telling his followers, I know you know the minimum legal requirements, and that’s fine, but actually loving involves so much more

Who actually does these things – all or any of them – all the time?

Would it be unfair to say “Nobody?”

We spend a lot of effort justifying why we don’t  do them, and throw around words like “enable” and “systemic” and “accountability.” We make our giving conditional on the perceived worthiness of the recipients. In the same passage Jesus tells us God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” If God is not doling out sunshine and rain based on merit, maybe we aren’t as qualified to make those distinctions as we’d like to believe. Resenting that our generosity is “wasted” on someone says more about our ego and need for control than it does about their worthiness.

Of course we should steward our resources wisely when battling systemic poverty and need, but that is not in opposition to the individual acts that Jesus promotes. Loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, and parting with our money are not just about helping other people: they are about perfecting the state of our hearts. Love is sacrificial. If our every act of generosity involves an intake evaluation and a cost-benefit analysis, we’re simply swapping one set of rules for another, creating divides between the clean and unclean. Since we are as dependent on God for our own gifts as we are for the sun and rain, should we really be acting as if we know better than God who does or does not deserve them? Love is humble. Jesus says so.

Ironically, selfless love has selfish benefits. As we learn to love unconditionally, we better understand just how much God loves us – worthy or not.

Comfort: You have God’s love, regardless.

Challenge: God expects you to love others, regardless.

Prayer: Loving God, may my love for others reflect your love for them also. Amen.

Discussion: Is your generosity ever tinged with resentment?

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