No Harm, No Foul

offense defense

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, Proverbs 3:11-20, 1 John 3:18-4:6, Matthew 11:1-6

As Jesus’s ministry was beginning to really take off, John the Baptist was locked up by Herod. Even from prison John heard of the impact Jesus was having, and so he sent his own disciples to find out if this man really was the messiah. They asked Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Rather than answer with a simple yes or no (did Jesus ever answer with yes or no?) Matthew tells us Jesus instructed them to remind John of the signs he was performing, and concluded by saying, “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Does simply lacking offense seem like a pretty low bar for blessings?  Later in Matthew 12 he will say of false prophets: “Those who are not with me are against me,” but in Luke and Mark, when the disciples complain to Jesus about strangers casting out demons in his name, he tells them, “Those who are not against us are for us.” People who look for reasons to draw lines between “us” and “them” may tend to favor the Matthew passage, but Jesus was addressing people prophesying falsely in his name, not neutral or uncommitted parties. Regarding people who aren’t actively condemning Christians, today’s scripture and the Luke/Mark passages seem to say: “no harm, no foul.”

So how is it Christianity has become virtually synonymous with trumped up outrage over things which don’t truly impact us?  Why do some of us insist an inability to impose our brand of doctrine on others is a form of oppression? If we’re going to own accessories branded with “WWJD (What Would Jesus Do)?” we better be prepared to answer “Root out hypocrisy in our own institutions and stop worrying about people who prefer ‘Happy Holidays!'” In some countries Christians are actually silenced, imprisoned, or killed. That is oppression. The local public elementary school celebrating an inclusive “Winter Festival” is peaceful pluralism. Besides, do you really want public schools teaching your children religion? What brand of Christianity would it be – if it were Christian at all?

Jesus and Paul spoke to and taught believers who would were part of a small, oppressed minority. Embracing that persecution mentality in a country where over 70% of the citizens identify as Christian can twist the good news into something scary.

Let’s opt out of outrage culture, and redirect that energy toward Kingdom work: feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, clothing the naked. If we are not for them, we are against them.

Comfort: People are going to disagree with you, and that’s OK.

Challenge: Leave it for God to take care of.

Prayer: Merciful and gracious God, please help me let go of my own ego and insecurity so I may offer a glimpse of Christ’s love to all I meet.

Discussion: Do you ever mistake being persecuted for not being charge, or being censored for being challenged?

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Universal Precautions


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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Love Obediently


Readings: Psalms 33; 146,  Amos 7:10-17,  Revelation 1:9-16,  Matthew 22:34-46

When a Pharisee lawyer asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment, he replies:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. and a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

– Matthew 23:37-39

This famous passage is one of the most direct answers Jesus provides. These two commandments are simple, yet they lack specificity. Exactly how are we supposed to love our God and our neighbors? Or for that matter, ourselves? Is God commanding us to feel a certain way, and if so … is that even something we can control?

We like to say that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37), but we can also be assured God does not ask us to do the impossible. In the case of these commandments, “love” is not expressed in feelings; rather it is demonstrated in attitudes and an actions. Loving a creator we can’t see or hear may be challenging, but we can maintain attitudes of praise, gratitude, and a healthy kind of fear.

Regarding neighbors, we can love someone in a Christian sense without feeling any affection for them at all. We demonstrate it by respecting all persons as beloved creatures of God, offering charity when needed in a manner that respects the dignity of the recipient, and doing the hard work of forgiving offense. Some people will say being nice to someone we don’t like – maybe the opinionated brother-in-law who sucks all the air out of the room on Christmas Eve – is a form of hypocrisy, but that’s only true if we speak of or do ill to them when they aren’t around. The agape love Jesus calls us to is indifferent to our actual feelings. Otherwise, it’s not sacrificial at all. We’re allowed not to like someone. We are called to love them anyway.

And the “ourselves” part? It is perfectly fine to have boundaries and expectations that we will also be respected. Sacrificial love is about the betterment of others, not the abasement of ourselves. Sometimes we suffer because we love, but we don’t love because we suffer. To love is to approach the world and its inhabitants as though God has entrusted their care personally to us … because God has.

Comfort: Our loving actions can heal our unloving hearts.

Challenge: Pay attention to whether your emotions are dictating your actions, or vice versa.

Prayer: Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you. (Psalm 33:22)

Discussion: Do you feel you can love someone without liking them?

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Hope Astutely


Readings: Psalms 102; 148, Amos 5:1-17, Jude 1-16, Matthew 22:1-14

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of volunteers arrived to help the residents of New Orleans recover. Among them were con artists who accepted large down payments for construction work then skipped town. Every year Americans with terminal and/or chronic diseases spend hundreds of millions of dollars on unproven and frequently dangerous “cures.” People who can barely afford to eat donate money they can’t afford to televangelists who teach a  fraudulent prosperity gospel. Politicians convince generation after generation to blame the latest wave of immigrants (Irish, Asians, Jews, Syrians, etc.) for societal ills because they know fear mongering is good campaign strategy.

When people are desperate or afraid, they are especially vulnerable to the false comforts of people who tell them what they want to hear. The author of Jude warned early Christians to be wary of people spreading false doctrine that taught self-glorification over submission to Christ: “These are grumblers and malcontents; they indulge their own lusts; they are bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage.” Today we don’t worry much about the religious orgies contemporary with Jude’s audience, but we should be wary of leaders who conflate secular concerns like capitalism (and other economic systems), democracy (and other government systems),  or nationalism (and other tribalist systems) with Christianity in order to exploit our fears and insecurities.

In the parable of the wedding banquet, Jesus describes the wedding of a king’s son where many were invited but chose not to attend, and this lack of commitment resulted in their deaths as commanded by the king. The king’s slaves collected a second round of guests including everyone they found on the street, but even these guests were not all safe, “for many are called but few are chosen.” Those chosen few sought hard truths over a diluted and convenient message.

Our world can be scary. Our instincts can be base. Many will take advantage of that combination to spread beliefs that are not in our best spiritual interests. False comfort is the enemy of true hope. Let us be wise and make sure our hope is placed in Christ.

Comfort: We can identify true hope by comparing it to Christ’s example.

Challenge: Be wary of people who would exploit your faith for their own gain.

Prayer: I keep the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. (Psalm 16:8)

Discussion: Are there any parts of your life where your secular expectations are in conflict with your religious ones? If not … why not?

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Hope Humbly


Readings: Psalms 122; 145, Amos 2:6-16, 2 Peter 1:1-11, Matthew 21:1-11

What does it mean to wait for Christ? In one sense it means preparing our hearts and spirits for the promise of Christmas. Whether we all agree about the historical details of the nativity, we share a fairly common understanding about its message. In another sense, it means preparing ourselves for the return of Christ at some future time — and we have a lot less agreement about what that means. Some of us think of it as a literal embodiment of Revelation. Others are less certain of the details but envision a physical return. Still others think of it in metaphorical terms and don’t much separate the future Kingdom of Heaven from the present. Almost certainly none of us knows exactly, and Christ will continue to thwart expectations. It’s kind of his thing.

In Matthew 21, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem on a donkey. This gesture symbolized his defiance of both Roman authority and the expectations of the Jewish people. The Jews were expecting a warrior messiah, a political figure who would throw off the chains of Roman tyranny in bloodshed and battle. Instead, they got a man who refused earthly titles and allowed his persecutors to execute him. A donkey where they expected a stallion.

Jesus will throw over our expectations as well (if he hasn’t already). So how should we prepare? Maybe the best thing to do is carry on as if we don’t know exactly what to expect. Because we don’t.

The second letter of Peter advises us to cultivate the qualities describing a life in Christ, each quality laying a foundation for the next: goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. Without them  he says our vision of Christ is nearsighted and blind. Before we make the same mistake as Christ’s contemporaries and insist our understanding of the messiah must be the right one — or insist someone else’s must be the wrong one —let’s concentrate on working up the rungs of Peter’s ladder of virtues from goodness to love. Those rungs are held together between rails of humility and faith. As we hope for Christ’s return, let’s hold tightly to both.

Comfort: We can always grow while we wait to encounter Christ more fully.

Challenge: At the end of each day this week, reflect on where you might have better exercised humility.

Prayer: May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere him. (Psalm 67:7)

Discussion: How do you think your understanding of Jesus might differ from someone else’s?

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