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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Learning from Fools


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, Numbers 9:15-23, 10:29-36, Romans 1:1-15, Matthew 17:14-21

After Israelites fled Egypt, the Lord instructed them to build a tabernacle (a tent or dwelling place) where he could reside with them. During the day the Lord appeared above the tabernacle as a pillar of clouds, and in the evenings he appeared as a pillar of fire. When the cloud moved, the people knew it was time to pack up the tabernacle and the rest of the encampment and follow it to the next destination.

The Lord knew it was important to be visible to the people of Israel all the time; they were frightened and fickle and needed reassurance of his constant presence. As God he owed them nothing, but as a creator loving his creatures, he chose to be present in ways they could understand.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes: “I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.” Paul also understood the importance of tailoring his approach to the realities of a situation. In his case though, it was a two-way exchange. To share the gospel he adapted his style (but not his message) to reach his listeners, but he also understood the gospel more deeply as a result of listening to them. Admitting he owed something to fools took real humility.

How flexible are we when attempting to share the gospel? Is our approach more an agenda or an invitation? How about when we evaluate the quality of a worship service that doesn’t align with our preference in musical or pastoral style? Do we try to learn from the differences, or do we work on justifying our preconceptions? Are we at all willing to hear the wisdom of those we consider foolish?

Too often the church approaches evangelism like colonialism, where we play the “advanced” civilization forcing a particular vision on  ignorant barbarians. If Paul was flexible enough to learn from those he sought to teach, we should be too. Whether communicating inside the walls of the church, or taking the gospel to the streets, humility is the key to living the message.

Comfort: You don’t have to have all the answers to share the good news.

Challenge: Listen to some religious music that’s in a style you don’t especially like. Try to transcend the style to hear the message.

Prayer: God of the living gospel, I humbly seek to share Christ’s message of salvation, and to listen to the needs of your children. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways do you find it difficult to be flexible?

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East, West, and In Between

always north

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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The Law, Weakened By The Flesh


Today’s readings (click below to open in new window/tab):
Psalms 84; 150, Genesis 44:1-17, Romans 8:1-10, John 5:25-29

Paul’s letter to the Romans builds a complex theological argument slowly and at length, so examining a small piece of it doesn’t give us a flavor of the whole text. That disclaimer aside, let’s consider the following (half) verse: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.” Paul was talking about Christ fulfilling the law in a spiritual way that no mere human ever could. Notice Paul does not judge the law itself, which was given by God, but on how humans managed to corrupt it.

If human beings can corrupt God’s law, imagine what we’ve done with man-made ones.

How many laws and institutions have we elevated to nearly sacred status, only to abuse them from the inside out? Most major Christian denominations we know today exist because people insisted agreement on a specific human interpretation of God’s will was more important than learning to live as Christ’s one body. History has borne bloody witness to the corruption and danger of religions seeking to govern rather than serve.

For many Americans the ideas of democracy and capitalism have mingled with Christianity in an unhealthy way, much like divine right of kings and feudalism have been rationalized in the past. Faith has been used to justify democracy and tyranny, capitalism and socialism. God’s law – fulfilled in Christ – is beyond limited political and economic definitions.

We want Jesus to be on our “side” and can’t imagine that he’s not, but whenever we splice the flesh of  political and economic philosophies onto our faith, we weaken it. When we conflate human laws, constitutions, authorities, and systems with faith in Christ, we tend to mold our Christianity to fit our politics – liberal or conservative – when we should be doing just the opposite. Christian faith must stand outside any government or economy, because we are called to challenge them when they are unjust – and they are all eventually unjust.

All human laws and institutions will fade. The ones we support right now are no exception. If we are going to campaign for something, let it be God’s eternal Kingdom.

Comfort: Jesus has freed us from the obligations of perfection.

Challenge: Work hard to read the Gospel for what it is, not what you’d like it to be.

Prayer: God of justice, I dedicate myself to you before any human institution. Guide my thoughts and actions to serve you and not my own limited perspective. Thank your for the eternal gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Discussion: What political, economic, legal, or other beliefs have you spliced onto your faith? In what ways does that keep you from being open to God’s larger law of love?

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Barnacle-Free Faith

barnacles and crustations

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, Genesis 29:1-20, Romans 14:1-23, John 8:47-59

One characteristic of an effective movement, whether religious or secular, is an ability to stay focused. Unfortunately, the older and larger a movement grows, the more likely it is to lose focus. We need look only as far as the church to see a primary example. Early Christians were focused around the idea that Jesus was the savior, and through him all sin was forgiven. They had de facto leaders but no real bureaucracy, and were more focused on freedom than restriction.

Is that what the church looks like today? Can we imagine Peter poring over investment policy revisions, or Paul reading the latest theories on why you should have one third more seats than you do members? These activities aren’t wrong in and of themselves, but if we’re not careful we may start thinking and behaving as if the point of church is to perpetuate church, rather than to serve God.

One of Paul’s purposes in writing to the Roman (and other) churches was to encourage them to stick to the basics of the faith. Like present-day churches, the simple ideas and practices that bound them as a community began to accumulate individual and cultural restrictions. Like barnacles on a ship – sometimes known as fouling organisms – these additions adversely impacted the performance and structure of the church. Paul told the Romans they needed to scrape off “fouling” ideas.

Today’s church can be just as prone to fouling ideas. Most of the time we can recognize them because they separate us from each other or the world around us. Any time we decide someone who professes dedication to Christ is not a “real” Christian because their denomination, practices, or identity don’t fit our mold, we are probably victims of fouled faith. Rifts have developed over everything from whether coffee is allowed in the sanctuary to politically correct language in hymns to the proper order of a liturgy. As Christians, we are called to find ways to rise above such trivialities and unite rather than divide.

Paul adds a wrinkle though: we can’t just write off people with sincerely held belief in more rules than we believe as silly or misguided. In Paul’s example, the “strong” who believed no food was unclean didn’t need to make a show of eating certain foods to the “weak” who clung to prior practices. Relationship with Christ and God is central to faith and community, so causing someone to feel they were undermining that relationship was not “walking in love;” if someone believed something was unclean, it was indeed unclean to them. Your stumbling blocks and someone else’s may differ.

Of course, if it’s our belief-barnacle we will struggle to recognize it as such, and the older and bigger it is, the more difficult it will be to scrape off. Then there’s the danger that in our zeal to tear off the non-essentials we carelessly go too far and scrape away part of the hull; we don’t want to damage or discard what is necessary and true. And there’s the balance of community: learning to respect each other’s sincerely held beliefs and practices without imposing them on each other – and over time stripping away all that is not part of Christ.

Faith is not always simple, but let’s resist the temptation to complicate it unnecessarily. If we focus on winning souls instead of winning arguments, the barnacles on our faith fall away much more easily.

Comfort: Christ is the lens that focuses our faith.

Challenge: What barnacles have you accumulated? Scrape them off.

Prayer: God of Abundance, I will keep my eye on Christ. Amen

Discussion: If you’re not a sailor, barnacles may not mean much to you. What are some other metaphors for religious or spiritual “clutter?”

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