My Love is Your Love

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 22; 148, Jeremiah 5:1-9, Romans 2:25-3:18, John 5:30-47


My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

These opening verses from Psalm 22 don’t inspire many feel-good sermons, yet they contain the essence of faith. The psalmist who wrote these words had a very realistic view of the world. He saw that evildoers often have the upper hand, and that the faithful suffer unfairly. He felt like a worm, like prey hunted by lions and trampled by oxen. Yet in his pain and despair, he continued to cry out to God. He continued to believe God would ultimately deliver him, as so many before him had been delivered.

The psalmist, despite his misfortune and persecution, refused to believe God was anything but just.

Many people believe personal wealth and comfort are signs of God’s favor, and that poverty and illness are signs of disfavor. If this was the case, why is it that God always seemed to be sending prophets to defend the widow and orphan against the abuses of the wealthy? Why is it the hypocrisy of the powerful elicits God’s wrath? The psalmist endures his troubles by trusting that God will ultimately prevail; his current status is not the barometer of a capricious creator’s mood swings, but of the corruption of the society around him.

When we cry for justice, do we think of it as something to be delivered to us or something delivered through us? It can be either or both, but if our cry for justice ends when our own bellies are filled while others remain empty, what we’re seeking isn’t justice. The psalmist’s hope for himself is inseparable from his hope for his community. He prays to belong to a kingdom that expects is citizens to feed the poor rather than despise them.

When we believe God is just, we behave justly. If we want to be the recipients of God’s justice; we must also be the instruments of it.

Comfort: God is always the source of justice.

Challenge: When you feel you are the victim of injustice, ask yourself how you are also part of changing that.

Prayer: God of justice, I seek your way for myself and my neighbor. Amen.

Discussion: What do you think is the relationship between sin and suffering?

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Knotted Up

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 34; 146, Deuteronomy 9:(1-3) 4-12, Hebrews 3:1-11, John 2:13-22


All four gospels include the story of Jesus cleansing the temple of money-changers and merchants. That coin with Caesar’s likeness that Jesus was willing to render unto him? It wasn’t welcome in the temple. The money-changers charged exorbitant exchange rates to trade the currency of the empire for the currency of the temple. The merchants sold sacrificial livestock to travelers and charged typically inflated tourist prices.  Jesus was furious God’s house of worship had been turned into a center of exploitative commerce, so he drove out the animals and flipped the tables.

Only John’s gospel tells the part of the story about Jesus fashioning a whip from cords. Doing so would have taken some time, enough for people to notice what he was doing. With all the livestock nearby there were probably whips handy, yet he took the time to make one himself. As he knotted the cords in the crowded temple, somebody – probably several somebodies – must have noticed. Did they brush it off as business as usual? Did they take moment to wonder why it was happening? Did they think he couldn’t possibly be about to do what it seemed he would? Maybe there were even a few people thinking, “It’s about time.”

How many injustices being perpetrated right now, right in front of us, right in the hearts of our communities, do we ignore because business is booming? While we buy and sell, while we mingle our economy and empire with our faith, what retribution builds? While we fail or refuse to see the impending repercussions, the knots multiply. And our daily lives our casual attitudes towards “that’s just how business works” or “you can’t expect me to risk my security over someone else’s injustice” can’t be untangled from living our faith.

People might have left the temple peacefully had they stopped for a minute to ask if the man in the corner was the face of justice delayed. Let’s take some time this Lenten season to step back and look at how our own business as usual exploits our neighbors. The consequences of injustice are inevitable, but injustice itself is not. Perhaps Jesus doesn’t want to finish that whip any more than we want him to, and that’s why he gives us time to turn the tables before he turns them over.

Comfort: It’s not too late to do better.

Challenge: Pick one consumable item (coffee, chocolate, etc) and for the remainder of Lent buy it only from direct trade or fair trade sources.

Prayer: Open my eyes, Lord, to where I have been blind to injustice. Amen.

Discussion: What is the difference between feeling guilty and feeling accountable?

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The Moral Arc

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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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Chaotic Peace

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 51; 148, Isaiah 42:(1-9) 10-17, Ephesians 3:1-13, Mark 2:13-22


Justice.

To twenty-first century, Western sensibility, that word implies a certain type of order: punishment for wrongdoing, restitution for injury, recovery of one’s property. We use it in an almost exclusively legal sense. Phrases like “economic justice” spark debate and raise complaints about wealth redistribution, entitlements, and merit. We want justice to be blind, orderly, and swift.

God doesn’t always do “orderly.” When Isaiah describes the arrival of God’s justice, the scene he paints is chaotic. God’s justice lays waste to mountains, cries out like a woman in labor, and turns rivers into islands. Yet his servant doesn’t raise his voice, break a bruised reed, or even snuff a faint wick.

As the embodiment of God’s justice, Christ upends the Pharisees’ expectations about the messiah. He tells crazy stories about patched-up wineskins. He dines with tax collectors and other “undesirables.” He eats and drinks more than they think a messiah should. When challenged about the company he keeps, Christ tells them straight up he is here for the sinners, not the righteous.

If we broaden our definition of justice to include building a world where the most vulnerable are taken care of, do we see justice reflected in our modern world? Do we spend our collective energies and resources primarily on punishing the guilty, or on helping transform desperate communities to foster hope and alleviate the poverty that leads to crime?

The latter often requires acts of civil disobedience outside the realm of the strictly legal. Susan B. Anthony, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi each participated in non-violent protest in the name of justice. Each nudged their corner of the world into slightly better alignment with the kingdom of God, where the last are first and no opportunities denied because of gender, social status, or ethnicity.

We tend to think of blessed lives as quiet and orderly, but God’s justice scrambles our carefully crafted plans and lives. Followers of Christ spend time on the margins of society, living with and working on behalf of the disenfranchised. According to each of our means and talents, we work for the type of justice that seeks to include rather than exclude, to practice mercy rather than revenge, and to raise to messy life systems that are orderly but soulless. Justice does not lock things down; it cracks them open.

Comfort: We don’t have to crack skulls to open hearts.

Challenge: Read some biographical material about people who have engaged in non-violent resistance.

Prayer: God of peace, teach me to serve with love. Amen.

Discussion: Many Christians have differing perspectives on pacifism and non-violence. What’s yours?

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Waters of Baptism

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 104; 150, Isaiah 40:1-11, Hebrews 1:1-12, John 1:1-7, 19-20, 29-34

Baptism of the Lord readings:
Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17


John the Baptist dedicated his life to boldly preparing the way for the Messiah. Yet when Jesus came to be baptized, John hesitated and said he was unworthy – that Jesus should be baptizing him. Jesus reassured him all was as it should be. According to the Gospels of Matthew and John, the heavens opened, the Spirit came to rest on Jesus, and a voice declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

This story begins a consistent portrait of Christ throughout the Gospels. Though he is the Messiah, Jesus remains humble. Despite his disciples’ protests, he washes their feet at the Last Supper. As the crucifixion draws nearer, he doesn’t seek to be exempt from the laws or the courts. When we accept the baptism of the Spirit, we accept that to be our greatest, we must become the least.

Christ-like leaders – followers of Christ in general, really don’t expect special treatment, see themselves as above the rules, or shift blame and accountability. They don’t expect more of others than they do of themselves. Recognizing leadership as a servant’s burden, they accept the consequences of doing and saying the difficult but necessary things, and approach the role with humility rather than hubris. In baptism we are made equal, and whether our role is prince or pauper we are endowed with dignity and enslaved to service.

But equal in theory is not the same as equal in practice. John the Baptist, quoting the prophet Isaiah, says valleys must be filled and mountains leveled to make straight the path of the Lord. Justice doesn’t begin with equality, but with recognizing everyone doesn’t start from the same situation. Asking two people to each roll a boulder a mile sounds equal, but when one is facing uphill and the other down, it just isn’t so. Justice is never a simple declaration, but the difficult construction of a wide road, then the willingness to travel side-by-side.

The waters of baptism wash the scales of injustice from our eyes. Like Christ, let us see beyond a status quo that settles for fair into a future that is truly just.

Comfort: In Christ we are all equal.

Challenge: Each day this week, ask yourself how you can be a better servant.

Prayer: Bless the Lord, O my soul; praise the Lord! Amen.

Discussion: Have you known of examples of where treating people “fairly” is different than treating them justly?

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The Impotence of Power

Today’s readings:
Psalms 20; 147:1-1, Exodus 3:1-5, Hebrews 11:23-31, John 14:6-14


“By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.”

– Hebrews 11:24-25

Injustice demands reaction.

Do we pray about it? Discuss it with friends? Ignore it?

Or like Jesus and Moses, do we actively confront it?

Most approaches fall into one of two camps: working within the system, or working outside it. Depending upon the unjust “system” – which may be a government, church, business, or culture – our circumstances may determine which path is available to us. However, as a Hebrew adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter into the Egyptian ruling class, Moses had choices. He could have lamented but otherwise ignored injustice that didn’t affect him directly. He could have lived a comfortable “insider” life and used his influence with Pharaoh’s family to incrementally ease the injustice suffered by his people. Wisely, he chose to act as an outsider.

People in positions of power – boards, elected offices, etc. – often seek that power to change unjust systems. However, insiders can influence change only to the extent that those controlling the system will tolerate it. The more one works to change the system, the greater the risk of being ejected from it.

Even those uncorrupted by power frequently find themselves maneuvered into working to retain that power more than actually using it. The more they hold, the more reluctant they are to lose it. Can the rich and powerful promote justice? Only if it is more important to them than the wealth and power the possess. To truly use power to fight injustice, one must be willing to lose it completely.

What if we are on the outside? If we feel helpless because we lack institutional power, let’s look to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets as inspiration for the ability of outsiders to effect change. Having nothing freed them to say everything. Because they didn’t dedicate their resources to maintaining wealth and power, they could dedicate them to justice. Do our own attachments hinder our willingness to do justice?

Let’s remember, Moses had to descend from the mountain of power before he climbed the mountain of the Lord.

Comfort: You don’t have to be powerful to be full of power.

Challenge: List three ways you can influence the world around you.

Prayer: Merciful God, teach me to exercise power mercifully and for justice. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever solved a problem by giving up control?

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Nuggets

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 18:1-20; 147:12-20, Isaiah 7:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Luke 22:1-13


A popular nugget of folk-wisdom circulates among us. Wording varies, but the message boils down to: “People come into your life for a reason” or “to teach you lessons.” Maybe it’s true. It’s certainly comforting. But we want to be careful how we use it. If we look at people through a lens of “what purpose do you serve in my life?” they can stop looking like people with their own lives and agency and start looking like props in our personal story.

Another nugget suggests distancing ourselves from people who bring negative energy into our lives. If that energy manifests as abuse or manipulation, follow that advice. Flee. But for Christians to live lives of service … some negative energy is part of the package. Expecting people in genuine need – people living with serious physical, economic, social, or mental disadvantages – to meet our expectations of “positivity” doesn’t resonate with the Beatitudes blessing the poor and grieving. Many people are working so hard to physically or emotionally survive they can’t muster any more strength for our standards of positive – or sometimes even tolerable – attitudes. We serve them anyway, because they suffer and Jesus calls us to solidarity with the suffering.

When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, he sent Peter and John ahead to arrange a place for the Passover meal. He told them they would meet a man carrying a jar of water, and to follow him to a house where they would find a room available and furnished for their needs. We never learn the name of the man carrying water, or the man who owned the house, but both their lives were touched by Christ. They are not mere plot devices. The mission of Peter and John – of Jesus – was about just such people … people like us.

Isaiah and Paul are separated by about 700 years, but both address the need for communities to go through difficulty together, rather than going around it separately. God’s justice is bigger than any individual life. We experience it most fully when we share it with those who experience it the least.

Comfort: You are part of something bigger, in many small ways.

Challenge: Find ways to replenish your strength for when others may need it.

Prayer: Thank you, Loving God, for the gift of Community. Grant me the wisdom to feel blessed by both its benefits and its responsibilities. Amen.

Discussion: When do you find it most difficult to be charitable? What do you think that says about you?

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The Best Defense

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 90; 149, Isaiah 4:2-6, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Luke 21:5-19


“He who represents himself has a fool for a client.”
– Abraham Lincoln

“We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ.
 – 1 Corinthians 4:10

Jesus warned his disciples about what difficulties to expect in the future. He talked about wars, natural disasters, and persecution. If they were dragged into court, he told them, “This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

How many of us would feel confident entering a courtroom as a defendant with no preparation? Our legal system is a minefield of technicalities few of us can navigate without years of education. We call it our system of justice, but the truth is “justice” can be largely a matter of wealth, influence, and privilege, a system that favors deep pockets and shallow empathy. Where in such a system does faith find a role?

If Jesus and disciples like Paul provide answers to that question, it becomes clear faith is not about victory, at least not in a legal sense – both of them were unjustly condemned! The wisdom Christ promises our opponents can’t “withstand or contradict” may not carry the day in court, but it expresses truths which are – over time – undeniable. In a courtroom, and really in all of life, the purpose of our testimony is not to save our own lives, but to transform the world by introducing – and, as many times as necessary, re-introducing – it to Christ. We don’t have to prepare, because the truth of Christ speaks for itself.

However, if we are living for Christ, we are not really without preparation. We are called to confront the injustices of the world on a daily basis. Seeking solidarity with people who are poor, oppressed, and marginalized teaches us the true meaning of justice. Being a witness for Christ is a lifelong burden, but it is a light and joyful burden because “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

Comfort: God’s justice is for everyone.

Challenge: With your money or time, support a group that confronts injustice.

Prayer: God of Justice, I trust in you and not the world. Grant me wisdom to be your effective and loving witness. Amen.

Discussion: Is there an injustice you have seen righted in your lifetime?

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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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Moving in the Direction of Justice

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, Joshua 2:15-24, Romans 11:13-24, Matthew 25:14-30


Have you ever heard anyone label a certain type of thinking or theology as “Old Testament” or “New Testament?” Sometimes we like to believe there’s an easy distinction, a clean break between the people of the law and the people of grace. However, many Old Testament prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah, etc. – foreshadowed Jesus’s teachings by commenting on the need for justice and mercy over sacrifice. Conversely, we can be tempted to soften Jesus’ language to make him seem less OT and more WWJD.

Many, if not most, translations of the Parable of the Talents refer to the characters in the story as “servants,” but a more accurate translation is “slaves.” This is true for many Biblical passages in which the word “servant” appears. Some critics of Christianity use these passages as evidence Jesus condoned or even promoted slavery, especially since some Christians have made the same mistake.

Though we accept his teachings as universal, we understand Jesus was speaking to a specific culture at a specific time. So what can we make of problematic passages like Jesus’s casual references to slavery? First, many of the people in his audience were slaves. Using them as examples of righteousness elevated them spiritually beyond their societal stations, and was a revolutionary statement of their worth as children of God.

Second, Jesus is an example of a faithful life in the world as it is. When we acknowledge what we can do for the poor and oppressed today, we are not condoning or promoting poverty and oppression, nor are we foolish enough to pretend these conditions will cease to exist. Though Christ did not actively speak against slavery, the abolitionist movement sprouted from Christian churches. Third, as Paul says in several of his letters, in Christ there is no distinction between Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female, etc. We are all slaves to each other and to Christ. Softening the language diminishes its radical message.

Slavery is certainly not the only difficult topic in the Bible. If we are willing to understand scripture in the larger context of the world and tackle its more challenging texts head on, our faith only deepens.

Comfort: God is present even in the most unpleasant places and times.

Challenge: Find out if there are an resources in your community to combat human trafficking. You may want to start at traffickingresourcecenter.org.

Prayer: God of the Known and Unknown, let me know you as you are and not just as I’d like you to be. Amen.

Discussion: What Biblical passages make you uncomfortable?

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