So. Much. Bread.

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Galatians 4:21-31, Mark 8:11-26


If we experienced an event – not once but twice – where a few loaves and fishes miraculously fed a multitude, would it have a lasting impact on us?

Today’s Gospel reading takes place after that second feeding of the multitudes, yet the disciples don’t seem quite able to process the meaning of what has happened. Does their thick-headedness frustrate us? Certainly Jesus felt frustrated as his time on earth grew shorter and his need to teach them more urgent. When they later mistake Jesus’s metaphor of yeast for yet another bread shortage, he responds:

“Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears and fail to hear? And do you not remember? […] Do you not yet understand?”

In other words, “What are you not getting about all this bread?!”

While the disciples were amazed both times the loaves and fishes multiplied, they failed to internalize the accompanying lesson: God’s abundance frees us for concerns beyond bread. It seems the impact of miracles on our faith and spiritual maturity is fleeting at best. This is an easy lesson to forget, because so many “ministries” promise a life full of miracles if we pray, repent, or donate enough. So much so, that when we don’t experience logic-defying miracles in our lives, we think something is wrong. Signs and wonders, or more accurately the lack of them, become an impediment to faith.

Who can say with authority why, when, or if miracles happen? They don’t define our faith – if they did, wouldn’t miracles alone have been sufficient for the disciples? Rather, Gospel miracles illustrate what life is like in God’s kingdom.

Apart from the odd cursed fig tree, Jesus’s miracles are about healing, abundance, and wholeness. We don’t have to be able to cure by laying on hands to contribute to this kingdom. When we forgive others, nurture the sick and feed the hungry, or embrace the alienated, we build God’s kingdom. When we live in Christ, each of us is a miracle waiting to bless the world.

Comfort: Our God is abundant in love and grace.

Challenge: God’s abundance can be expressed through our generosity; ask yourself where you might be more generous.

Prayer: Thank you God for filling me with the Bread of Life and satisfying me with Living Waters. Amen.

Discussion: Sadly, many people are genuinely in need of bread and clean water. How would you speak with them about God’s abundance?

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Casseroles and Compassion

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 143; 147:12-20, Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:3, Galatians 3:1-14, Matthew 14:13-21


When we study the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, we usually focus on the most obvious part – namely, fives loaves and two fishes feeding five thousand men plus women and children. It’s an important and miraculous story on its own, but since the Gospels have been broken into chapters, verses, and headings (absent from their original format) we often read a section without considering the context of what comes before or after.

The first sentence in Matthew’s version of this story – “now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself” – is more meaningful when we remember “this” was the beheading of John the Baptist. More than a prophet announcing the Messiah, John was (depending on which scriptures you read) Jesus’s cousin, teacher, and friend. He prepared the way of the Lord. John’s death was a signpost on the road to Calvary.

How eager would we be to learn thousands of people had followed us to the place where we sought to mourn in private? Many of us would have turned them away. Jesus though “had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Even after he was done – probably many hours later, as it was evening by then – he didn’t choose to turn them away.

John’s parents were probably dead already. Jesus was possibly his only family, and many people who sought Jesus on that day were undoubtedly John’s disciples. According to legend, John did not get a traditional burial, so this gathering may have been as close to a funeral as things got.  What happens after most funerals? Friends of the grieving family bring food and offer support. Note that Jesus did not distribute the food himself: he instructed the disciples to do it, as they would have traditionally done if visiting Jesus in his home after a loss. John may not have had a funeral, but the meal afterward was thousands strong and presided over by Christ … in the only home he had … among his followers.

In the face of death, Jesus responded with healing, nourishment, and generosity – and persuaded the crowd to do likewise.  Whether we grieve or support someone who does, Christ offers hope and new life in ways we can’t imagine until we live them.

Comfort: We never grieve alone.

Challenge: At times we may be called to be compassionate when we really want to be left alone. At those times, can we remember that service is sometimes a path to healing?

Prayer: God of compassion, be with me when I grieve, and help me support those who suffer loss. Amen.

Discussion: What (if any) parts of– funeral rituals do you find most comforting?

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Make Time for Miracles

 

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, Proverbs 8:22-36, 3 John 1-15, Matthew 12:15-21


So often our faith is tangled in doctrine, politics, and other distractions. We rely on it in (or find it lacking) in times of difficulty or sadness. The church emphasizes sin, sacrifice, and the cross. When we focus on the glory of resurrection, it is inevitably linked to the suffering that led up to it. These are all realities in our life, but they are not the only realities.

God called the creation good. We are loved enough to be saved. There is beauty all around us but most of our busy lives permit so little time to appreciate it and draw spiritual sustenance from it. Scriptures like Psalm 104 are important because they remind us the story of creation is not all about battling the forces of evil and repenting of our own wickedness; it is also about the marvels God has showered on this world.

When we have the opportunity, we need to take time to simply appreciate the wonders around us. When we are tired or hurting, it strengthens us to understand there is something glorious happening. The seasons themselves are cyclical miracles of rebirth, growth, maturation, and rest. Winter snows melting into spring rivers; summer harvest yielding to autumn abundance; no matter what time of year, we are in the middle of a miracle.

In addition to the seasons, the psalmist writes about the diversity of life, from birds to fish to cattle to trees to flowers. He writes about valleys with rushing rivers, majestic mountains, and lush fields. Day and night and everything they each reveal has a purpose. Between the tiniest creature creeping on the ground and the moon illuminating us from high above, the world is full of beauty that exists because God is good.

This goodness is not always foremost in our minds. When we experience disease, poverty, oppression, or any of a host of ills, it may seem far away, even impossible. Yet it exists alongside us at all times. Finding time to find the good may not solve our problems, but ignoring the good makes God seem all the more distant.

Comfort: You have permission to take time out from everything else to find beauty in the world.

Challenge: Each day this week, write down three beautiful things you have observed.

Prayer: God of Creation, thank you for the wonders all around me. Amen.

Discussion: In places of war or extreme poverty, beauty may seem absent entirely. Can it be found there?

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Fish Story

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 65; 147:1-11, Ezra 10:1-17, Revelation 21:9-21, Matthew 17:22-27


When Jesus and the disciples stopped in Capernaum, one of the temple tax collectors asked Peter whether Jesus paid the temple tax. Peter said he did, but when he got home Jesus posed the following question before Peter could speak:

“What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?”

This question cut right the heart of who Jesus was. If, as he claimed, he was the son of God, he was no more obligated to pay taxes for the temple than a prince was to pay taxes for the king’s castle. Peter replied “From others” so Jesus continued:

“Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”

The passage establishes Jesus’s identity and authority while promoting the model of servant leadership.

But what’s up with that fish?

Several commentaries refer to this incident as the Miracle of the Coin in the Fish, but there’s no actual miracle recounted. There’s talk of a miracle, but unlike most of the other ones (walking on water, water into wine, multiplication of loaves, curing diseases) it happens off-screen. It’s notable this story appears right after one where Jesus told the disciples their lack of faith was the reason they couldn’t cure a demon-possessed boy.

So did Peter find the fish and the coin or not?

The gospel is silent on the outcome, but Jesus said it was going to happen. Peter, very likely still stinging from having the size of his faith compared unfavorably to a mustard seed, didn’t question it. Apart from a few scholars who think this may have been Jesus making a joke or speaking symbolically, most Christians speak and write about it as if it did.

Before becoming Christ’s disciple, Peter made his coin as a fisherman. Suddenly that mundane act was imparted with meaning beyond the ordinary. That’s a big part of faith: trusting that the Lord can transform the ordinary acts we perform into something greater than we can understand. We don’t always see or know the outcome. It may seem a little weird. It can be physical or metaphysical, literal or symbolic, convoluted or simple … or any and all of these things and more. The seed of faith, without a little mystery mixed in to nurture it, doesn’t grow. Faith is not trusting what we know, but trusting when we know not.

Comfort: Faith doesn’t mean you have to have the answers.

Challenge: Look for Gospel stories about fish and meditate on what they have to say.

Prayer: By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas. (Psalm 65:5)

Discussion: What unanswered questions have you learned to live with?

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Too Good to be False

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, 2 Kings 20:1-21, Acts 12:1-17, Luke 7:11-17


[H]e did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real;
he thought he was seeing a vision.
– Acts 12:9

Have you heard the one about the pious man trapped on his roof by a rising flood? The army, the navy and the marines all came by in boats and offered to rescue him, but he said he was waiting for the Lord to save him. Eventually the flood overwhelmed him. When he got to heaven, he asked God why his prayers went unanswered. God said “I sent you three different boats!”

Peter – Jesus named him “the rock” for a couple reasons – wasn’t much better. When an angel came to rescue him from prison, he thought it was a vision; luckily – having experienced visions before – he followed instructions anyway and was freed. When the prophet Isaiah told King Hezekiah the Lord would spare him from death for 15 years so he could lead his people out of bondage, the King wouldn’t believe him without any less a sign than the sun moving backwards.

Sometimes the Lord’s ways aren’t all that mysterious, and for some reason that seems to be a stumbling block to faith. We are called to be the hands and feet of Christ, but when those hands and feet aren’t pierced with nails or emitting a holy glow, we can struggle to recognize ourselves and others as the answers to prayer. How would it change your perspective on life to realize the answer to your prayer might not be divine intervention, but divinely-inspired human intervention? Or to realize that your action (or maybe just your presence) is the most miraculous thing someone could hope for? After all, the Spirit dwells in each and every one of us. Think on that for a moment…

We are wary of offers that sound too good to be true. A miracle around every corner sounds like one of those. Maybe the wonderful truth is miracles of hope, healing, reconciliation, generosity and comfort are as common as dirt … as long as we are willing to get our hands dirty.

Comfort: You are a miracle.

Challenge: Recognize the miracle in yourself and others.

Prayer:  Thank you Lord for the opportunity to be an answer to someone’s prayer. Amen.

Discussion: What is your general perspective on miracles?

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Made to be Broken

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Jeremiah 16:(1-9) 10-21, Romans 7:1-12, John 6:1-15


You’ve probably heard the saying “Rules were made to be broken.” The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, phrased it a little differently: “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” It seems like wonderful news that the law, fulfilled in Christ, no longer applies. Isn’t that the kind of freedom we desire?

Maybe not, since we seem eager to impose new laws. Over the years Christians have forbidden everything from dancing to haircuts, and enforced cultural traditions as religious rules. It’s so much easier to navigate a system of laws rather than a commandment to love. But this isn’t the only reason it’s harder to accept living under grace than living under the law.

Accepting grace means accepting a God of unconditional love. That means God is willing to forgive people we’d rather He didn’t: ex-spouses, people who’ve wronged us, terrorists, etc. In the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet wanted God to withhold forgiveness so badly that God had to deliver him to Nineveh via giant fish. There’s a little Jonah in all of us. Knowing God will forgive people we can’t (or won’t) rubs us the wrong way, so we return to the law even if God hasn’t.

It’s not like we’re any easier on ourselves. If we were eager to believe we could be unconditionally loved and forgiven, therapists would go out of business. The world teaches us we must prove ourselves in order to be valued. Jesus tells us we are already valued, and asks us to live lives that prove it. Sometimes we have to untie a lifetime of spiritual and psychological knots before are free to believe that. But once we are able to embrace it, we want it for others as well.

Maybe rules were made to be broken, but we were not. God desires wholeness for each of us. Christ teaches us how to mend our souls – to sand down the jagged edges and mend the cracks – by tending to each other’s brokenness. When the law is love, the penalty is more love.

Comfort: God’s love is unconditional.

Challenge: If you can’t bring yourself to forgive someone, at least pray for them.

Prayer: Gracious and Merciful God, I am humbled by and grateful for your love. Amen.

Discussion: Do you really believe God loves you unconditionally? Why or why not?

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Here’s your sign.

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 150, Jeremiah 14:1-9 (10-16) 17-22, Galatians 4:21-5:1, Mark 8:11-21


For Jesus, signs were a double-edged sword. They demonstrated his authenticity, his power, and his priorities. However, for some people, the signs themselves became more important than his message. When the Pharisees asked him for a sign to test him, “he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.’”

Just a little while later, when he tried to make a point about the influence of the Pharisees and Herod by comparing it to the contaminating properties of yeast, the disciples fixated on literal bread. Jesus asked why they were still talking about bread – had they forgotten all about how he fed not one but two multitudes with few resources but plenty of faith?

Aggravating circumstances often accompany his miracles: before he wants to reveal himself his mother goads him into changing water into wine at a wedding; the disciples are shocked he can feed a multitude with a few loaves and fishes … the second time; his closest friends doubt him even as he raises Lazarus from the dead; Peter begins to sink beneath the waves when he doubts the Christ who helps him walk across the water. Christ hopes for faith that doesn’t depend on miracles, yet sometimes he resigns himself to the “necessary evil” of providing a sign.

Many of us have hoped for signs. Who couldn’t use a little reassurance now and then? For some of us they provide a kick start to spiritual experience. But the real measure of faith is what we do in the absence of signs. How pleasing must it have been for Christ when peopled followed him not because of what he could do for them, but because of who he was and what he taught? The second time the disciples presented him with loaves and fishes, he commanded them to feed the crowd themselves, and they were successful. Faith is not just believing in what Christ can do for us, but in trusting that he will accomplish miraculous things through us.

Comfort: God is with us regardless of whether we see signs.

Challenge: The next time you want to ask for a sign, try instead to pray for faithful discernment.

Prayer: Lord of all things, I will trust you always. Amen.

Discussion: How do you feel about signs?

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Out of Thin Air

Today’s readings: Psalms 93; 147:1-11, 1 Kings 17:17-24, 3 John 1-15, John 4:46-54

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Why do miracles happen? American Christianity often portrays them as rewards for diligent prayer and great faith. The Gospel of John tells a different story. Jesus performed seven miracles – John called them “signs”- before he was crucified. The second was the healing of a royal official’s son. The official met Jesus in Cana, about 25 miles southwest from where his son lay dying in Capernaum, and asked Jesus to save him. While Jesus did heal the official’s son, his initial response seems almost perturbed: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” Jesus was coerced by his mother into the first sign at the wedding in Cana, grumbled about the second, and things didn’t improve much for the next five.  When he raised Lazarus, he wept over his friends’ lack of faith. According to John, signs were performed for the unfaithful.

For some people, faith in God rests on miracles. Jesus, on the other hand, treated miracles as necessary disturbances to the natural order used to persuade people.  God’s presence is not extraordinary, but an ongoing relationship during ordinary life. Like air, it is a life-sustaining presence constantly surrounding us and within us. We don’t normally think about air unless we can’t breathe. John’s Jesus delivers miracles like he’s performing spiritual CPR on those who can no longer inhale God’s presence on their own.

Isn’t it better not to need it in the first place? Like air or water, our spiritual environment can become polluted. Sometimes we trash it ourselves, and sometimes we are downwind from the spiritually toxic. When our faith feels choked off, it may be time to start cleaning up and preventing more damage. This could be a slow process: anger, hate, greed, fear, and poisons like them take time to remove. They are dangerous and unpleasant to handle, but with God’s help handle them we must. The alternative is spiritual suffocation.

Still prefer to wait on a miracle? Neither miracles nor CPR are a permanent fix: if our habits don’t change, our old problems will return. God is always present; live clean and breathe deep.

Comfort: God is as close as the air we breathe.

Challenge: Take an inventory of what’s polluting your spiritual environment.