Give ’em a break…

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, Deuteronomy 1:1-18, Romans 9:1-18, Matthew 23:27-39


The twenty-third chapter of Matthew contains some of Christ’s most scathing criticism of the scribes and Pharisees. He compares them to whitewashed tombs – spotless outside but full of decay. He calls them a brood of vipers. He accuses them of building tombs for prophets they had murdered while they claimed “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets” … on one hand denouncing a murderous tradition while enthusiastically embracing it with the other.

This is the part where we can sit back, think of all the vipers in our own lives, and enjoy Jesus really letting those hypocrites have it!

Or is it?

Maybe this is the part where give the Pharisees a break. Or if not a break, a little empathy. If we look at them and say “that would never have been me!” we make the same mistake they did. Of course we like to believe that even under identical circumstances we would be different – better – than people who have made bad choices. For a few noble souls it may even be true. But most of us are not exceptional; we are doing the best with what we have, and failing more often than we’d like.

If we can entertain the idea that we might have been pharisaical … that if we’d been less privileged by intelligence or class we might have found ourselves in prison … that we might have been in the crowd that loved Jesus right up until it began shouting “Crucify him!” … we may find it a little easier to show compassion and forgiveness.

Romans 3:23 tells us all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Short is short and all is all: since the scale of God’s glory is infinite, our relative distance from it is irrelevant. Thinking other people’s sins are greater than our own robs us of compassion. Believing our sins are greater than other people’s robs us of hope. To be heirs of the kingdom, rather than heirs to the murderous tradition, we only have to believe Jesus died for all of us equally.

Comfort: Jesus offers forgiveness to everyone, including you.

Challenge: Jesus asks us to offer forgiveness to everyone, including ourselves.

Prayer: God of mercy, help me to keep a humble and loving heart. Amen.

Discussion: How do you think our secular culture influences our ability to feel compassion?

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Speechless

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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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Universal Precautions

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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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Lament

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Lamentation 1:1-2, 6-12, 2 Corinthians 1:1-7, Mark 11:12-25


The Book of Lamentations was written in response to the destruction of Jerusalem hundreds of years before Christ’s birth. We revisit it during Holy Week because its theme of spiritual self-destruction is timeless. The author(s) of Lamentations believed God allowed the ruin of his people and their land because they had abandoned God and sinned shamelessly. Exiled and oppressed, the Jewish people sought vainly for consolation and mourned their foolishness.

Our modern understanding of salvation and sin as personal episodes distances us from the experience of communal lamentation.

Every so often some televangelist blames a natural disaster on  the sin of a community, but they always seem to be disasters “over there” – in New Orleans, Haiti, or some other place the preacher doesn’t live, and they always seem to be sins the preacher doesn’t commit – or admit. But the biblical prophets tell us the sins which most angered God weren’t attributable to individuals, and the just weren’t spared the repercussions. Hypocrisy, mistreatment of widows, orphans, and the poor, and other injustices – these angered God. We can’t point to one person and blame them for the plight of widows and orphans, so it’s easy to blame “the system.” But what is the system if not the cumulative response or neglect of individuals?

Our choice is simple: Repent now or lament later. Do we really believe no spiritual implosion looms on the communal horizon when we let industrial toxins disproportionately poison the poor? Or when our justice system prioritizes revenge over rehabilitation? Or when the most popular religious voices are teaching us faith is a means to tap into God’s limitless ATM? When no one is accountable, everyone is responsible.

By the time Jesus starts flipping the tables in our temple, it will be too late. The system will implode. But beyond that horizon is the promise of resurrection. As God eventually returned a contrite nation to Jerusalem, Christ restores our contrite hearts to the kingdom. Jesus taught that when we pray, we should forgive so we can be forgiven. Let’s recognize what we as a community need to be forgiven for.

Comfort: Resurrection is always on the horizon.

Challenge: It’s tempting dismiss injustice as “that’s the way things are.” You can’t fight every injustice, but can you pledge some of your time, talent, or money to combating at least one that doesn’t impact you directly?

Prayer: God of Mercy, accept my sacrifice of a contrite heart. Open my eyes to the ways I carelessly or ignorantly neglect the least among us, for in your kingdom they are the greatest. Amen.

Discussion: How do you feel about salvation as a community experience?

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A Stone’s Throw from Grace

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, Genesis 26:1-6, 12-33, Hebrews 13:17-25, John 7:53-8:11


You don’t have to be a Christian to recognize the quote, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” It’s the pivotal line from a story in John’s Gospel. In this story, the scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman who’d been caught in adultery. The prescribed Mosaic punishment was death by stoning, but the Pharisees – knowing that stoning wasn’t exactly Jesus’s style – asked him what should be done. They hoped to trap him into contradicting the law so they could bring charges against him. Jesus paused for a bit, wrote something on the ground, and then gave his famous answer. One by one her accusers slipped away until only Jesus was left. He refused to condemn her, saying only “Go and sin no more.”

The inclusion of this story in John’s Gospel is not without controversy. It doesn’t appear in the earliest manuscripts, and many editions of the Bible are sure to note this. It’s kind of ironic that such a questionable story became one of the most recognizable. Why does this story compel us?

Perhaps because – authentic or not – it embodies an idea that it seems we need to hear and learn over and over again. If our relationship with God is about pointing out what other people are doing wrong, instead of humbly examining our own hearts, we aren’t getting the message.

Do we as a faith community need to hear about the reality of sin and immorality? Absolutely. Do we as a faith community need to point to and single out and shame it everywhere we (think we) see it? Absolutely not.

Why is it so many non-Christians (and former Christians) see the faith as full of people ready to cast stones? Well … they’re not entirely wrong. The loudest messages shouted from beneath the Christian banner tend to be ones of condemnation. Now loudest doesn’t mean exclusive or truest or most frequent, but it does disproportionately influence what people perceive and remember.

Christ’s message isn’t one of condemnation; it is of love. We all know John 3:16 and wave it around a lot to point out who is “saved” and who isn’t, but for some reason we don’t spend nearly as much time on 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Condemnation cuts people off or turns them off, and neither wins anyone to Christ. But we like it. We struggle with (and succumb to) the same temptation as the Pharisees to twist scripture to justify punishing or imposing our will on others. Once Christianity became the dominant force of the Western world, we seemed to forget forcing the Good News on people is bad news.

Grace invites us in and asks us to leave the door open; religion is an excuse to shut people out. When Jesus tells us what is sinful, it’s not so we know when to punish or control other people; it’s so we know when we are creating a rift between ourselves and God. If other’s people sin does not affect us or exploit the innocent, it’s none of our business. In a culture where the Christian majority has learned to take offense at the idea of sharing public space with people who don’t share our faith or values (and we forget even within Christianity they are nuanced), it affects us far less than we like to think it does. Every one of us has enough planks in his or her eye to keep us too busy to worry about someone else’s speck.

We are forgiven. That is a thought that should be so humbling we can’t conceive of throwing stones. Instead, let us pass on the message of grace and love by being Christ’s open hands to the world.

Comfort: God’s love will deliver us from fear.

Challenge: Ask yourself what temptations you find hardest to resist, then ask what need is still not being met by giving in to them.

Prayer: In you O Lord I seek refuge and peace. Amen.

Discussion: What fears drive your behavior?

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An Old-Fashioned Sin

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 135; 145, 1 Kings 21:1-16, 1 Corinthians 1:1-19, Matthew 4:1-11


Covet isn’t a word we use a lot unless we are quoting the Ten Commandments. It can be a difficult concept for us to wrap our brains around. We often treat it as a synonym of envy or desire, but it’s more intense than that. Those are feelings, and God’s commandments don’t waste time telling us what to feel. We can’t covet something unless it belongs to someone else. When we covet our neighbor’s livestock or spouse, we don’t just wish we had one of those too, we dwell on the idea that the one they have should be ours. It’s more than wanting it – it’s convincing ourselves we somehow have more right to it than they do.

King Ahab coveted the land of a man named Naboth. The land, which Naboth used as a vineyard, was his ancestral inheritance. Ahab wanted to turn it into a garden so he offered to buy or replace it, but Naboth declined his offer. Ahab – who as king was wealthy beyond measure and could have built more gardens than he could have visited in a lifetime – became so depressed he wouldn’t eat or leave his bed. Ahab’s wife Jezebel was having none of it. She arranged for false charges of blasphemy to be brought against Naboth and the people stoned him. Ahab didn’t waste any time taking possession of the land.

Coveting may be an old-fashioned word, but it has many modern practitioners. Nations justify war by convincing themselves they deserve what someone else already has. Gentrification drives poor people from their homes into even poorer neighborhoods. In some cases when a person can’t get what they covet – a relationship, a reputation, or even peace of mind – they settle for destroying it.

Coveting isn’t a passing glance or stray thought. It’s a cultivated intention. It’s replacing the only true object of our devotion with something that will not only fail to satisfy, but ultimately diminish us.

Perhaps if we are tempted to covet, we can remember Jesus being tempted by the devil in the desert. Jesus drove him away saying, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” We can’t control our thoughts, but we can choose which ones to follow.

Comfort: Coveting is something  you can avoid.

Challenge: Once a day say a prayer of gratitude for something you have.

Prayer: Merciful God, teach me to be content with what you have seen fit to entrust to me. Amen. 

Discussion: What do you think of when you hear the word covet?

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Compromising Positions

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 56; 149, 2 Samuel 1:1-16, Acts 15:22-35, Mark 6:1-13


The word “compromise” has multiple meanings. In one sense it refers to the give-and-take between parties negotiating an agreement. For example, if a couple planning a wedding disagrees on whether the event should be held at the beach or in a hall, they may compromise on an outdoor venue which faces the beach but provides shelter from inclement weather.

In another sense, compromise means to weaken or undermine someone’s strength or credibility. If a pharmaceutical researcher fails to disclose his study is funded by the company who wants to take the drug to market, we might say his conclusions about drug safety are compromised.

We may be willing to compromise. We are almost never willing to be compromised.

In the first case, active participants seek accord. In the second, the consequences are one-sided so it may seem like the comprosmised party is a passive participant, but very often they are a victim of their own misdeeds.

As more and more gentiles converted to Christianity, Jewish disciples didn’t agree on whether these believers needed to follow Jewish customs, particularly circumcision. In the end, they officially agreed that the rules for gentile believers were “abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.” Why was circumcision taken off the table? Because Peter reminded the Jewish Christians that they were saved by Christ’s grace since they had failed to bear the yoke of the very law they were trying to impose.

Having compromised themselves, the disciples learned to compromise.

We don’t need to impose our rules on the world around us. Let’s not blame Christ for our compulsion to condemn and shame others we call sinful.  Didn’t Jesus say “judge not lest ye be judged?” Your sins and mine helped pave the road to the cross just as much as anyone else’s … and Jesus died for all of us.

Yet overlooking the broken state of the world does it a disservice. Perhaps the compromise between ignoring sin and condemning people is sharing with them the good news that Christ loves us all.


Additional Reading:
For thoughts on today’s passage from Mark, see A Burden Shared, Faith in the Familiar, and Expect the Unexpected.

Comfort: Compromising is not the same as selling out.

Challenge: In the newspaper, look for stories that result from people’s unwillingness to compromise. How could they be handled differently?

Prayer: O Most High, when I am afraid, I put my trust in you. Amen. (Psalm 56:2)

Discussion: When have you felt good about a compromise? When have you felt bad?

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‘Fess Up

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 19; 150, 1 Samuel 4:12-22, James 1:1-18, Matthew 19:23-30


While nearly all Christian denominations now consider the Book of James an official part of the New Testament canon, it can still be controversial. It mentions Christ only twice, and never in the context of his resurrection, but does refer to many of his sayings. Scholars don’t agree on its author, timing, or structure. Still it contains great wisdom which doesn’t rely on complex theological understandings (though it is not without its own theological stance). Simply put, James wants us to live with the integrity of a disciple of Christ.

Not everyone embraces this common-sense approach. Here’s some of what James has to say about temptation:

No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.

We like to push the blame for our temptations onto external sources. It’s part of the earliest stories of our faith, when Eve blamed the serpent and Adam blamed Eve. We blame the devil. We blame God. Yet James tell us we can’t be tempted by something we didn’t want to begin with.

If we dodge responsibility for our own temptations, we never overcome them. It’s like denying a need for bifocals by saying the television won’t focus any more.

When we say confession is good for the soul, we’re usually talking about sins already committed. What if we practiced confessing our temptations before they matured into sins? Shame tells us to shove them in the closet, but then we end up struggling so hard to keep them behind the door that they consume all our energy and eventually wear us down, escape, and trample our lives.

Confessing a temptation to a trusted friend or counselor helps us put it into perspective and manage it. If, as Justice Brandeis said, sunlight is the best disinfectant, let’s not suffer alone in the darkness.

Read more on today’s passage from Acts in Camels and Needles.

Comfort: Temptation is a part of life. It doesn’t make you a bad person.

Challenge: Be brave enough to deal with your temptations before they become reality.

Prayer: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer (Psalm 19).

Discussion: How do you fight temptation?

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Favor or failure?

1494384383919Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Jeremiah 30:10-17, Colossians 1:15-23, Luke 6:12-26


Jeremiah is a complex book containing poems, history, and prophecies from multiple authors. It does not tell a linear story, but describes the experience of a people whose faith in a protective God is strained to breaking when enemies defeat and enslave them. Jeremiah alternately claims Judah’s people have been wicked and lost God’s favor, and also that God loves and will save them. The result is less a clear picture of their relationship with God than a reflection of their confusion and search for answers.

Today’s psalms also show us a God who both punishes and rescues. For the Israelites, everything from harvests to the outcome of battle was a sign of God’s favor or displeasure. This view seems simplistic, but complicates and even makes contradictory our relationship with God. Unless one is a prophet, such a belief structure makes it hard to determine whether we are in the middle of punishment or deliverance.

Yet many self-styled prophets are quick to blame personal and public disasters on God’s disfavor. From  hurricanes to terror attacks to uncontrollable children, one doesn’t have to wait long for someone who blames specific “sinners.” And while the world is indeed broken in ways that need to be named and addressed, those who speak with eagerness and certitude about the people God is punishing never seem to consider their own sins might bring about such action. On the contrary, they often point to their own prosperity as a sign of favor.

Jesus’ words in Luke turn that notion upside down. He calls the blessed poor, hungry, and mournful. The mirthful rich are the ones in trouble. So what are we to do? If the state of our pocketbooks and bellies doesn’t tell us whether we are living according to God’s plan, what does? Jesus calls us to be loving people no matter our external state. He assures us God always loves us, and is with us through both sorrows and joys. A godly life is constant in its humility and charity regardless of fortune. Living such a life renders the question of God’s favor moot.

Comfort: God’s love for us is constant.

Challenge: Think of the times you’ve asked “Why me?”

Prayer: God of Grace and Mercy, thank you for your constancy. Amen.

Discussion: How do you feel when someone blames misfortune on its victim?

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Not a Checklist

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 150, Jeremiah 6:9-15, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Mark 5:1-20


“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.

Paul wrote these words to the church in Corinth to address a heresy that taught our actions don’t matter because we have been redeemed by Christ. Some extremists claimed those who sinned the most boldly were holier because they were forgiven the most. Modern Christians are unlikely to adopt this twisted logic, but it was appealing in a city where prostitution was not just common but part of religious worship.

Paul went on to condemn fornication as the only sin committed against one’s own body. Christianity has embraced the anti-fornication message, though studies showing Christians are having only slightly less non-married sex than non-Christians raises the question whether we are good at separating the lawful from the beneficial.

We sure seem to like developing sets of rules for being a good Christian. We especially seem to like exploring how far we can bend them before they are technically broken. Yet it is very possible to do what is religiously “legal” and still be doing the wrong thing. This is one of the real challenges of the Christian life: whether we are obeying a rule, breaking it, or operating in an arena without rules, we are responsible for figuring out whether our choices are beneficial, or at least not harmful.

As we grow in faith, we should constantly challenge ourselves to think more and more with the mind of Christ. Paradoxically, this can leave us with more questions than answers – but the questions keep improving. Our concept of sin grows from a checklist of laws to an understanding of what damages our relationship with God. Some things are universally wrong, but what is perfectly harmless for others may be sinful for us, and vice versa. For example, depending on the person, video games can be a benign pastime, or a source of addiction; there’s no rule to determine that line.

We are never done growing closer to God. Don’t let the rules tell you otherwise.

Comfort: Jesus understands your struggles; lean on him.

Challenge: Be honest with yourself about when you’re bending the rules.

Prayer: Merciful God, forgive me my sins, and help me to sin no more. Amen.

Discussion: What are the signs you know you’re about to make a bad decision?

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