Startled by Peace

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Daily readings:
Psalms 93; 150, Exodus 12:1-14, John 1:1-8, Isaiah 51:9-11, Luke 24:13-35, John 20:19-23

Easter readings:
Acts 10:34-43 Jeremiah 31:1-6, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, Acts 10:34-43, John 20:1-18, Gospel Matthew 28:1-10


Hallelujah! Christ is risen!

The tomb is empty, the cross undone. Where will we find him?

Mary Magdalene found Jesus just outside the tomb, though she mistook him for the gardener until he called her by name and she looked at his face. Cleopas and his companion found Jesus on the road to Emmaus, though for hours they thought he was a stranger. They recognized him once “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” After he vanished, they went to tell the disciples all they had experienced. When Jesus just as quickly appeared to the Eleven and announced, “Peace be with you!” the disciples, believing they were seeing a ghost, were “startled and terrified” until he reassured them of his presence by showing them his hands and feet bearing the wounds of crucifixion.

It seems we find Christ when we look in the face of one we take for granted.

It seems we find Christ when we welcome and break bread with the stranger.

It seems we find Christ when we accept that the wounds he bore for us – even when we could not bear to stand by him – are not a cause for shame and fear, but a source of peace.

Is it Christ who startles us, or do we surprise ourselves when we discover he’s not trapped in the Bible, the church, or the places we look for him … but on the road and at the table beside us?  Like Mary, Cleopas, and the disciples, we won’t see him if we don’t expect him. Fortunately he calls to us, too.

When we hear our name called unexpectedly, conflicting reactions may arise. We can have glad anticipation that someone we want to see has found us, and we can simultaneously be anxious about why we have been singled out. When Christ calls to us from an unexpected place, he calls us to participate more fully in the body of the resurrection. That new life will look different from our old, maybe different enough to startle us, but it promises to be one of peace.

Comfort: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

Challenge: Look for Jesus not just where you remember he was, but where he is and will be.

Prayer: Holy and Living God, I praise your name. Hallelujah!

Discussion: What startles you?

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No Time Like The Present

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 135; 145, Proverbs 10:1-12, 1 Timothy 1:1-17, Matthew 12:22-32


Paul did not start out sympathetic to Christians. He was born to  Jewish parents with Roman citizenship, an unusual status. As a devout Jew he considered followers of Jesus a threat both to both the faith and to the relatively secure status of Jews under Roman occupation. For years he persecuted Christians, literally hunting them down and delivering men and women for imprisonment and execution. As he wrote to Timothy: “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.”

Yet he was the greatest evangelist in the history of the church.

Can you imagine the resistance Paul faced from other Christians as he began his ministry? He was the embodied scourge of Rome across the backs of those who followed Christ. Why would anyone believe him when he said he was reformed? When people claim to change their minds or begin to behave differently, we suspect insincerity and our suspicions are often confirmed. But Paul persevered despite his critics, who included such important Christian figures as Peter. The zeal which had once driven him as “a man of violence” had been redirected.

If God could reform a villain like Paul, the rest of us should have great hope indeed.

When we try to change for the better, people will inevitably bring up our pasts and question our credibility. We may be embarrassed when that happens, but like Paul we can use that opportunity to testify to God’s grace. Whether we’ve decided to improve in a small way, like declining to indulge in office gossip, or in a more significant way, like seeking reconciliation with an estranged family member, our past does not need to be a source of shame.

Rather, by humbly acknowledging our past sins – not excusing them  or getting “holier than thou” – we can speak a powerful truth about how God’s grace has transformed our present. Paul was humble, but not ashamed. Persistent, but not defensive. His faith eventually became undeniably obvious to all. Whatever your sin or past, God can do the same for you.

Comfort: God wants to free you from the prison of your past.

Challenge: Forgiving your own past is an important step in forgiving others.

Prayer: Merciful God, thank you for your gift of grace. May my life be a testimony to the power of your saving love. Amen.

Discussion: What parts of your own past have you not been able to forgive? Do you think you need to forgive yourself before you can believe God forgives you?

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Idol Tales

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 148, Exodus 13:1-2, 11-16, 1 Corinthians 15:51-58, Luke 24:1-12


In Luke’s telling of the story of the first Easter morning, several women who followed Jesus from Galilee – not just the two Marys – visit his tomb to finish preparing his body for burial with spices and perfume. Instead of Christ’s body they find two men dressed in dazzling clothes (presumably angels) who tell them Christ has risen. The women return to the remaining eleven disciples to deliver this astonishing news, “but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

Huh?

Several recent studies have shown the male brain processes male and female voices differently – essentially tuning out the latter. Unfortunately, the preponderance of responses to this study are about how women can help men listen better by altering their voices. Few if any responses (full disclosure: didn’t find one) teach men how to listen better to women; on the contrary, it almost becomes an excuse. How often do we dismiss the firsthand experience of others because they don’t communicate in our preferred manner? In the case of the women disciples, their firsthand experience was dismissed until it was verified by a man (Peter). People with disabilities, transgender people, ethnic minorities, and many other groups outside the “norm” know what it’s like to have their stories ignored or declared lies until someone from the “right” social group corroborates them.

It’s easy to dismiss someone’s story if – like the eleven – your frame of reference is a bunch of people sharing your worldview and hiding away from facts which contradict their assumptions. If we treat someone who begs us to listen as weak or a victim, we may be denying a prophet. When someone has actually been in the trenches perfuming a corpse, deciding which restroom won’t get them beaten up, or navigating a wheelchair through city streets with no cut-ins … we need to listen to the truths they tell, not sweep them aside until we can find a reason to personally relate.

The faces of the poor and oppressed may change over time, but Christ calls to us through them in the same voice across the ages.

Comfort: Listening to people who have different experiences than yours helps you to better understand the diversity of God’s creation.

Challenge: Learn about the struggles of people who suffer from hidden disabilities.

Prayer: Grant me, O Lord, ears to hear and eyes to see the stories of your children who struggle unnoticed. Let me never ignore the voice of Christ calling for justice. Amen.

Discussion: Whom are you prone to ignore or dismiss because of their social group?

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Joy and Fear

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Exodus 12:40-51, 1 Corinthians (15:29) 30-41, Matthew 28:1-16


When Mary Magdalene and the other Mary visited the tomb of Jesus on that first Easter morning, they found the tomb empty and the stone rolled away. A young man robed in white greeted them by saying “Do not be afraid!” He explained Jesus had risen and gone ahead to Galilee. Matthew tells us they left the tomb filled with fear and joy. They were overjoyed when Jesus met them on their way to find the other disciples and deliver the angel’s message. He greeted them and also said “Do not be afraid.”

Many of our most joyous life experiences also include a degree of fear.

Cold feet before marriage. The impending birth of a child. Graduating school and entering the adult world. Such events contain within them the promise of renewed life and hopes, but also an element of the unknown. The two Marys and the other disciples were overjoyed their messiah was alive, but his resurrection also created a change in their entire worldview and set them on a path of faith no one had ever trod before.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia and first woman president of an African nation, wrote in her memoirs: “If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough.” The power of the resurrection allows us to have enormous dreams, so if we aren’t a little afraid, we may not be embracing all things made possible through Christ.

Not often, one suspects. But that reassurance can prevent fear from paralyzing us. When the risen Christ tells us not to be afraid, he’s not a drill sergeant yelling “Suck it up, buttercup!” because we have to tough it out on our own. He is telling us we don’t need to be afraid because he is with us. Beyond death. Always.

Like the two Marys rushing down the road to spread the good news, joy and fear travel hand in hand. We have a word for that: Hope.

Comfort: Christ is with us always, ready to transform our fear to joy.

Challenge: Do something that scares you, but be sure to invite Christ to do it with you.

Prayer: God of Hope, give me strength in my fear, and hear my words of praise for you in my joy. In you all things are possible. Amen.

Discussion: How does fear hold you back?

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Rolling Away the Stones

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window): 
Psalms 97; 145, Exodus 12:14-27, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Mark 16:1-8


When Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James visited the tomb of Jesus, they found the stone rolled aside and the tomb empty, nothing but a shroud left behind. A young man in a white robe told them Jesus had already gone ahead to Galilee.

If we open ourselves to God’s love and forgiveness, resurrection is a process as native as breathing. We can see it at work in addictions recovery, mended relationships, and lives rebuilt after disaster or tragedy. The difference between surviving and thriving is our daily willingness to embrace the possibility of resurrection – of an entirely new life in God’s love.

The stones that entomb us – grudges, disappointments, anger, bitterness, hate – can seem difficult or impossible to roll away. What if they only seem heavy because we refuse to let go of them? A light stone, if held long enough, becomes a tiresome burden. The most difficult roadblock to resurrection can be our unwillingness to simply let go of burdens we have clung to because their weight anchors us to a familiar place. Change – even good change – is something we tend to resist. Resurrection is a hand open to possibility, and you can’t open your hand while holding on to something else.

On a mission trip to Lake Charles, Louisiana we were helping repair the damage done by Hurricane Rita. Miz Stanley’s home was scheduled for light repairs, but once there we learned the trauma of the storm and the death of her husband had driven the elderly owner to develop a hoarding compulsion. The hoarding and accompanying health hazards had estranged her from her children and grandchildren. One woman in our group had experience helping people transition from independent to assisted living, and knew how to coach someone to let go of possessions. Talk about resurrection! Over the course of a week we cleared out an entire floor of her house, and Miz Stanley continued to progress long after we left. Her relationship with her family was renewed, all because she literally let go of the old. The same possibility exists for all of us.

Comfort: The possibility of resurrection is always within arm’s length.

Challenge: When you pray this week, pray with your arms outstretched.

Prayer: Merciful and loving God, I am open to all the possibilities you offer!

Discussion: What stones do you refuse to let roll away from you?

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Risen and Recognized

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Easter readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Acts 10:34-43, Luke 24:1-12

Today’s daily readings:
Psalms 93; 150, Exodus 12:1-14, John 1:1-18, Luke 24:13-35


Jesus Christ is risen today! Alleluia!

Where will we encounter him? Cleopas and another disciple (possibly his wife, who was present at the crucifixion) were on the road to Emmaus when they met him. Surprised that he didn’t seem to know about recent events in Jerusalem, they spoke of the crucifixion and the empty tomb. Though he interpreted for them the meaning of everything that had happened, they still did not know who he was. When he sat down to eat with them and blessed bread and broke it, “their eyes were opened” and they knew the risen Christ. “He had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

Like the disciples who met him on the road, or the boat full of disciples who later saw him on the shore but didn’t recognize him, our vision of Christ can be limited by our expectations.

When we limit Christ to what we already know of him, we are not following the living Christ, but worshiping a lifeless photograph. Christ didn’t rise so we could wrap ourselves in a shroud-like faith that preserves but does not reveal.

To find the living Christ we often have to take time away from the safe and familiar worship at the foot of the cross – because he is no longer there!

The risen Christ may seem like a stranger, but we will recognize him by his love. When he breaks bread with our enemies. When he stands on a cold street corner protesting injustice. When he holds the hand of a lonely friend with a terminal diagnosis. When he digs a well on a desert reservation so people don’t have to drive two hours for water every day. When he welcomes refugees fleeing violence into his home for weeks at a time. Christ does all these things when we, as his only body here on earth, do these things. It is then when others who do not know him may see his nature revealed in us. It is then we can declare our redeemer lives.

Jesus Christ is risen today! Alleluia!

Comfort: Our savior lives, and he lives in us!

Challenge: Today of all days, greet everyone with love.

Prayer: Dear LORD I give thanks for the Risen Christ! May I live ever more deeply into the love you have shown us through his sacrifice and resurrection. Your grace and mercy are endless. May my praise be endless as well. Amen.

Discussion: Despite being a resurrection people, we often entomb our faith by confining it to church. How can you let yours free in the world?

 

It Takes a Village to Raise a Lazarus

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 146, Jonah 2:2-9, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 11:17-27, 38-44
Eve of Epiphany Readings:
Isaiah 66:18-23, Romans 15:7-13 


Is  faith sufficient as an individual experience, or does it need to be shared among a community of believers? When Jesus returned to Bethany because his friend Lazarus had died, the grief of Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, was certainly shared. Neither knew what to expect, but they shared faith in Jesus. They only knew that in their time of great grief, they needed to be with him. Even after he told them he was the resurrection and the life, the sisters didn’t imagine he would bring Lazarus back to them. When he asked the mourners to roll back the stone covering the tomb, Martha said four days had passed and there would be a stench. Yet moments later Jesus commanded Lazarus to walk out of the tomb, and he did.

Jesus was the source, but it was a community that made his final sign meaningful.
Mary and Martha, each with an imperfect but united faith, together believed that whatever Jesus thought fit to ask, God would deliver. At least a few mourners must have volunteered to move the stone, as it was large and heavy enough to cover the mouth of a cave. The gathered crowd  listened to Jesus loudly giving thanks to God for their benefit so they might believe. Finally, Lazarus arose and returned to his friends and family, restoring their community.

Experienced in isolation, faith may be a comfort to us but it’s of little use to the greater body of Christ. When a community shares its faith – when one person answers Christ’s call to dive into the stench and darkness of tombs like poverty and disease, and another person trusts God to provide even when a loved one is caught in the hopeless living death of addiction, and the rest of us are inspired by and act because of their belief, and therefore sisters and brothers we thought lost forever return to us – that community finds new life as no individual could.

Faith requires community to achieve its fullest expression. Our own imperfect faith is a gift because it reminds us to seek others.

Comfort: When you have faith you are never alone.

Challenge: Explore a faith community that is unfamiliar to you.  Perhaps a charity, or another congregation. If you can, spend some time helping them with their mission.

Prayer: Thank you God for easing my burden by making me only one member of a larger body in Christ. Amen.

Discussion: What do you find most rewarding about community? Most difficult?

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Love Equally

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Readings: Psalms 122; 145, Amos 7:1-9,  Revelation 1:1-8, Matthew 22:23-33


Mosaic law contained rules about marriage which we consider unusual today. If a man died childless, his brother had to marry his widow. The intent behind this law was to protect the widow from poverty and disgrace as she would have no means of support. In a modern society, where women hold jobs and own property equally with men, this is an outdated and rarely practiced idea.

The Sadducees were a Jewish sect who did not believe in the resurrection as Jesus taught. Fearing his influence on the people, they tried to trip him up to diminish public opinion of him. They thought the following scenario would do the trick.

A man with six brothers died childless. Per the law, his brother married his wife. The second brother also died childless, and she married the third brother, and so on until eventually she had married  all seven brothers. Who, the Sadducees asked, would be her husband in the resurrection?

Jesus told them they were asking the wrong questions, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”

That must have been a showstopper. Until very recently most people did not marry for love, but there have been rules about fidelity and ownership for a long time. The concept of women who did not need to rely on men was almost unthinkable. Jesus was saying, “I know the rules, but the current social structures are not the equality God ultimately has in mind for you.” While not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Equal Rights Amendment, it sent the message that once the world was made anew, women would be independent.

Today in the western world, the equality shared legally (if not practically) by men and women makes love-based marriage the norm. Viewing others as equals – as fully human beings – makes other types of love possible as well. Empathy requires us to identify with another person, and if we don’t think of them as equal, that empathy is stunted. The church has traditionally promoted the values of faith, hope, and love as described in 1 Corinthians, but the Greek word (agape) for the type of sacrificial “love” intended can just as legitimately be translated as “charity.” English doesn’t really have an equivalent word. Maybe that’s why we struggle with understanding current social structures as anything other than vertical, with the “haves” obliged to show charity to the “have nots.”  When we realize we are no different, giving and receiving charity are no longer sources of obligation or shame, but acts of sharing between children of God as any loving family might perform.

Empathy and equality release us from the slavery of convention into the freedom of love.

Comfort: God loves you equally to kings and paupers, friends and enemies.

Challenge: What groups of people do you have trouble empathizing with? Make an effort to get to know them.

Prayer: The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. (Psalm 145:9)

Discussion: What prejudices do you struggle with?

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Finding Jesus

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 116; 147:12-20, 1 Samuel 16:14-17:11, Acts 10:17-33, Luke 24:36-53


After his resurrection, nobody seemed to recognize Jesus. Mary visited his tomb, and until he called her by name she thought he was the gardener. Cleopas and his wife walked and talked quite a way down the road with him and invited him to dinner, yet didn’t realize who he was until he blessed and broke the bread. He stood among the gathered disciples, who were in the middle of talking about him yet did not see him, then startled them by saying, “Peace be with you.” After rising from the dead, the Word-Made-Flesh seemed far more recognizable by his words than by his flesh. While we might expect a resurrected savior to virtually shine in glory and triumph, it seems Jesus was almost … unremarkable. His body still carried the scars of the cross, but it no longer bore the burden, the weight of the world’s salvation lifted from his shoulders.

That’s often how it is with Christ. Someone unremarkable – socially invisible perhaps – escapes our notice until Christ says, “I am here. See me. Break bread with me. Share peace with me.” Only then do we realize Christ is among us and waits to be served in a food pantry, visited in the hospital, invited to Bible study, welcomed as a refugee, or loved through a bout of mental illness. When Christ says whatever we do for the least of his brothers and sisters we do for him, he’s not speaking metaphorically.

We worship Christ. Write many beautiful songs about him. Raise extravagant monuments and cathedrals. Conquer nations and claim to do it in the glory of his name.

But that’s not what he asked us to do. That’s all us.

Christ can be seen in the beauty of God’s creation, but his word echoes among the suffering and the needy, the lost and the lonely, the broken and the bullied. It echoes among the merciful and the humble and the generous and the kind. Let’s listen for his voice, because he’s not always going to be where we’re looking. He calls us to look where he is waiting.


Additional Reading:
For thoughts on today’s passage from Acts, see A Bigger Pan.

Comfort: Christ is in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary.

Challenge: Make a list of the things Christ asked us to do. At the end of each day for the next week, see how many you’ve done.

Prayer: O LORD I am your servant. Amen.

Discussion: In what unexpected places have you encountered Christ?

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Undone

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Deuteronomy 8:11-20 (or Deuteronomy 18:15-22), James 1:16-27, Luke 11:1-13


“Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”

What sobering words from James. Don’t we all have the capacity to work up a righteous (or self-righteous) anger? Shouldn’t evil and injustice make us angry?

Though wrath is reserved for the Lord, anger is an inescapable part of the human condition. We may spend a lifetime trying to master it – or trying to make sure it doesn’t master us – but on some level we cling to the belief that anger gets things done. Maybe we need to ask if they are the right things.

Anger is the beast that rips the wings off the better angels of our natures; the saboteur that dismantles our mechanisms of compassion and reason just when we need them most. Anger is the self-devouring fear we experience when forced to face the truth of one power we all lack: the power to undo. We get angry because something has happened, something we would have prevented if we could go back. When we are angry about what may happen in the future, it’s because we can’t change an event in the past. If that event is of our own making and anger turns inward, we find ourselves caught in a barbed net that draws tighter the more we struggle.

But Christ … Christ redefines the past. Christ transforms the cross – the murderous embodiment of the anger of an entire corrupt empire – into a sign of new life. Christ tames the beast, foils the saboteur. Submitted to Christ, anger is resurrected and refocused as a drive for justice, an energy for radical love, a passion for mercy, a courage for truth. Our anger does not produce God’s righteousness, but God’s righteousness can produce amazing things from an anger we are willing to turn over.

In the heat of the moment, anger may be unavoidable, even necessary for survival, but the most necessary armor will eventually suffocate us. Know when to peel it off, when to seek the breath of life, when to beat the sword into a plowshare. What we cannot undo, Christ will not leave undone.

Comfort: Your anger does not have to define you.

Challenge: Read some articles or books on managing anger.

Prayer: God of peace, take my anger and resurrect it as love. Amen.

Discussion: How do you usually deal with being angry? Shouting? Silence? Violence? How do you feel about it?

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