Washing Our Hands of Mercy


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, Ecclesiastes 5:8-20, Galatians 3:23-4:11, Matthew 15:1-20

Christianity has existed for almost two thousand years. Over the centuries it has evolved in some ways into something Jesus might barely recognize. Or maybe it evolved into something he would find all too familiar: an institution whose highest priority is too often its own preservation;  an institution that claims a scriptural basis but predictably twists that scripture to justify human preferences and biases. If that criticism sounds harsh, consider today’s reading from Matthew.

The Pharisees and scribes criticized Jesus and his disciples for not performing the traditional hand-washing before meals. Jesus countered by condemning them for using man-made conventions to help people shelter their money through the temple when they didn’t want to “waste” it taking care of their aging parents. The letter of the law permitted this practice, but undermined the spirit of the commandment to “honor thy father and mother.” When the disciples later expressed concern he’d offended the Pharisees, he said:

Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions […] These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.

Twenty centuries have accumulated a lot of traditions which obscure the message of Christ. Many of them were intended to guide us, but often we have let them come to define us. Rules and practices specific to a time or culture are revered like commandments not because they honor God, but because they honor our self-righteousness.

“We take communion the proper way. We baptize the proper way. We say the proper Sinner’s Prayer. We don’t do X, Y and Z…” Jesus does not ask us only to avoid sin, he asks us to love proactively. What good is not taking the Lord’s name in vain if we don’t speak that same glorious name in love to others? How well do we serve God by condemning abortion but neglecting the hungry children of single mothers?

Law and ethics are separate fields of study partly because you can observe the first without having any concern for the second. Our duty as Christians is to love God and our neighbors. Often our disagreements about how to execute that duty are based more in traditions and biases than in love. When we are quick to discipline or enforce in God’s name, but slower to demonstrate mercy, we disrespect God’s character. As Psalm 103:8 tells us, “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.”

Let’s demonstrate our love for God – and by extension each other – with both our lips and our hearts.

Comfort: God’s love is bigger than our traditions.

Challenge: Sometimes to love, we must unlearn.

Prayer: Loving God, teach me the humility necessary to follow your will instead of human laws.

Discussion: Have you had to discard any traditions or customs to better follow your faith?

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Rewriting History


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 62; 145, Joel 3:1-2, 9-17, 1 Peter 1:1-12, Matthew 19:1-12

You’ve probably heard the phrase “History is written by the victors.” It means the winners of a conflict are generally the ones who get to define history by putting their spin on it. The winning side remembers and records its heroism and bravery, but downplays or outright ignores its own moral failings and shortcomings. History books may be biased, but history itself doesn’t change – and there are often people who remember what the winners would rather forget.

Evolving attitudes towards Columbus Day and Thanksgiving are relatively recent examples of how the parts of history we celebrate never quite bury the parts we’d rather forget. Indigenous peoples of the Americas have been working for years to raise awareness about the horrible price they paid for the European colonial dream. Every culture which subdues another portrays itself in a favorable light; nobody wants to be the villain of their own story.

This type of revisionism is not limited to military history. Without in-depth study, the history of the church can also be murky to us, and what we consider fundamental may be a more recent development than we’d like to admit. For example, when the Pharisees challenged Jesus on the legitimacy of divorce, Jesus responded with a more conservative answer than they expected, saying anyone who divorced and remarried committed adultery. When they argued Moses himself set up the conditions for divorce, he said, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” In this case divorce was the “winner” and people seemed to have conveniently forgotten it was not always so.

The church of today is very different than the church of a thousand years ago, which was very different from the church a thousand years before that. Even the church’s more fundamentalist branches, which style themselves as a return to the basics of Biblical faith and teaching, are a relatively modern phenomenon which approaches scripture and church community very differently than did earlier Christians. As the current “winners” of history, we are compelled to justify our present by reinterpreting the past. The danger in this is feeling the need to deny the truth when it returns to haunt us.

As important as tradition and doctrine are to understanding our faith, it’s just as important to understand the reasons behind them. Sometimes, like the Pharisees’ take on divorce, they are justifications for our failures. Not every change to how we understand faith and scripture – not every tradition we reevaluate – is a step away from “authentic” Christianity. Some of them may be a step back toward it. Those who define the church today are history’s winners. If the first really would be last, it might be a good idea to listen to the buried and forgotten truths we need to hear from the losers.

Comfort: Truth is a promise, not a threat.

Challenge: Do some research on how the Bible came to be.

Prayer: For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.  (Psalm 62:1-2)

Discussion: Have you ever learned something you thought you knew about history wasn’t correct?

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Following The Recipe


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Nehemiah 7:73b-8:3, 5-18, Revelation 18:21-24, Matthew 15:29-39

There’s an old joke about a new bride who wants to make her husband happy by learning to prepare a roast – his favorite meal – just the way his mother did. She spends time with her mother-in-law and memorizes every step of the recipe. One night she surprises her husband with a beautifully prepared roast. He enjoys it immensely but asks why she cut the ends of the roast. “That’s what your mother does,” she replies. “That,” he says, “is because she can’t find the bigger pan.”

We’ve gotten mileage out of this joke before, but this time let’s consider it in the context of today’s passage from Nehemiah.

After the people of Israel returned to Jerusalem after decades in Babylonian exile, they rededicated themselves to their Lord and their Law. The priests wanted to help the people understand the law, so while all the people were gathered “they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”

They didn’t just read verbatim, they provided context. Part of God’s previous displeasure with the people, which had culminated in the exile they had just concluded, was their tendency to follow the letter of the law without valuing or considering the principles of mercy and justice behind it. Nobody wanted to that to happen again.

Yet a little less than five hundred years later when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem many people had forgotten the lesson and repeated the mistakes of the past. It seems we are much better at following and enforcing rules, even misunderstood or twisted versions of them, than looking at what’s behind them.

Christians seem to be caught in the tension between following a savior who fulfilled and freed us from the law and defining Christianity through a whole new set of rules grown from tradition and interpretation. We should not abandon our principles and values simply because they fall out of fashion, but we also benefit from regular examination of what principles determine why we do what we do – in everything from the arrangement of the sanctuary, to decisions about which sins to condemn most loudly, to daily personal practices – and from asking whether what we do and proclaim actually conforms to the Spirit rather than the letter. Biblical literacy is about more than knowing what the Bible says; we should always strive to deepen our understanding of why it says what it does. A faith that doesn’t stand up to examination and challenges isn’t a faith; it’s a tissue of superstitions.

Before you cut the ends off the roast, think about who that means you won’t be feeding.

Comfort: Our faith has rich history and tradition.

Challenge: Some of them have outlived their usefulness.

Prayer: I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety. (Psalm 4:9)

Discussion: Have you ever realized something you did regularly was pointless or counterproductive?

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Lost Gospels


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, 2 Kings 22:1-13, 1 Corinthians 11:2 (3-16) 17-22, Matthew 9:1-8

Josiah was only eight years old when he became king of Judah, but he was the best king to come along in a while. He tried his best to restore the honor of The Lord to his kingdom. During a restoration project at the Temple, the high priest found the book of the law (probably Deuteronomy) and had it delivered to the king. Josiah was outraged to discover his people had not been following the Lord’s commands for quite some time, and immediately set about making things right.

Whether the book had been lost for a long time or simply rediscovered is up for debate, but one thing is clear: by the time of Josiah’s reign, the Jewish people had strayed from the core of what defined them. From the time they insisted on being ruled by kings as were their neighbors, they began more and more to resemble those neighbors in so many ways – including the gods they worshipped – that they could comfortably neglect and eventually forget to do what God had commanded. They still identified fiercely as a people … but what did that really mean?

Being a Christian today is not nearly as well-defined as being a Jew of Josiah’s time, and that may be all the more reason to take a valuable lesson from today’s scripture.

It’s easy for the Gospel to get buried under everything we’ve borrowed from our neighbors. Sometimes it’s obscured by well-intended effort, such as trying to make the faith more “relevant” by assuming the trappings of culture instead of meetings its emptiness head-on. Other times it may take a renovation – of our church community or personal spiritual life – to understand we’ve inherited a Gospel clad in a fortress of bias, tradition, superstition, and ignorance. So much so that not only can’t outsiders find a way in, our central message – assuming we can find it – can’t find its way out.

The Gospel is sufficient on its own. We study a lifetime to understand it, but there’s nothing we can do to improve on it. Grace defines us as a people, yet it cannot be defined. God’s love contains us, but trying to contain it thwarts love. We can domesticate the Gospel and settle for being nominally Christian but otherwise unidentifiable as followers of Christ, or we can let it work its radical change upon us to be seen by all who would seek it.

Comfort: The Gospel speaks for itself…

Challenge: … but if we are to hear, we must be committed to changing.

Prayer:  As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.. (Psalm 42:1)

Discussion: As you mature in your faith, what aspects of Christian culture do you find more or less important?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, 2 Samuel 14:21-33, Acts 21:15-26, Mark 10:17-31

Since Jesus first challenged the Pharisees and their application of the law, his followers have struggled with our relationship to custom and tradition. Some, like Paul, look beyond tradition to a wider ministry. Others like the church in Jerusalem have a harder time letting go. Today Christians don’t observe many Jewish traditions or customs, but we have added many of our own which can make us seem as rigid as Pharisees. How do we know when to hold on, and when to let go?

Paul’s efforts to gather Gentiles under the umbrella of Christ’s grace caused many to doubt his commitment to his Jewish identity. Like many efforts at inclusiveness, Paul’s acceptance of “the other” was interpreted by his existing community as a rejection. To assuage their concerns, Paul went through the Jewish rituals of purification, but he understood his salvation was in Christ, not ritual. Modern churches experience something similar when leaders reach out to new people with different customs. From new musical styles to liturgical revision to more inclusive language, some people will resist change – and possibly grace.

But change simply for its own sake isn’t good either. When Jesus, using wine as a metaphor, declares “The old is good,” (Luke 5:39) he is talking about the very old – the love and purpose of God that predate even the law. We tend to forget customs and traditions were once new, and after a time we may focus more on a tradition than its purpose. In some churches, a misstep during the offertory, a bungling of the Words of Institution, or an improperly stored card table can cause great consternation. When this happens, it’s time to examine whether our traditions serve the very old, or if we – like the Pharisees – have lost sight of their true purpose. In the latter case we do not necessarily have to change our traditions, but we do need to renew our relationship to them.

As faithful followers of Christ, we should respect what he respected, and challenge what he challenged. To do this well, we must know why we do what we do.

Comfort: Traditions can bring us much comfort and sense of order. 

Challenge: Question traditions that don’t positively inform your faith life.

Prayer: I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 89:1)

Discussion: Families and groups of friends also form traditions. What are some of these traditions you value most, and why?

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A Bigger Pan


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 143; 147:12-20, Job 8:1-10, 20-22, Acts 10:17-33, John 7:14-36

A young bride wanted to make a roast just like her mother. To her husband’s dismay she cut off the ends – what he called “the best part” – because that’s what her mother did. When asked why, the mother who replied: “That’s how your grandmother taught me.” So she asked the grandmother who replied: “So it would fit in the pan.” Variations of this joke span many cultures, because it tells a truth about human behavior. One version isn’t so funny: the one where we cut away people who don’t fit in our church.

Peter’s action of eating a meal with Gentiles in a Gentile home – after the Lord sent him a vision about clean and unclean food – scandalized his Jewish contemporaries. Peter didn’t shatter this taboo to be outrageous; he did it because God made it clear the old traditions no longer served God’s purpose. How often do we run into this problem in our own faith communities? From the arrangement of chairs to the arrangement of the liturgy, we stick with what we’ve always done without examining whether it still serves God’s purpose. Sometimes our reluctance to change keeps people out or drives them away.

Jesus laid a firm foundation for this upheaval of tradition. For example, when Jewish leaders attacked him for healing a man on the Sabbath, Jesus pointed out they themselves performed circumcisions on the Sabbath to uphold Moses’ command. We should note he never broke tradition just to shake things up, but to serve a compassionate, higher purpose.

Traditions are an important part of faith and life. We shouldn’t change them merely to be popular or current. The church must be wise enough to offer people what they need, not just what they want. We should, however, periodically examine our traditions to ask why we observe them. If we don’t know, maybe a change is needed. If we realize a tradition – for example, sexist roles – excludes people from the faith community, are we willing to sacrifice some of the best parts because someone in the past used a smaller pan? Challenging ourselves: it’s a Christian tradition!

Comfort: Many traditions exist for a good reason.

Challenge: When the reason is not so good, we must be willing to listen for God’s new direction.

Prayer: Loving God, we live in an ever-changing world. Help us to value the things you value, and to embrace the changes you would have us embrace. Amen.

Discussion: What changes  – at church, home, work, or school – really bugged you? Which turned out to be better after all?

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We interrupt our regularly scheduled Advent broadcast … or do we?


As we embark on the the fourth and final week, I want to acknowledge I’ve received some questions about the Advent themes and the “traditional” order they’ve fallen in. For some people and traditions the themes of Hope, Love, Peace, and Joy are familiar, but the expected order is different. For others the actual themes themselves may vary.

It’s all OK.

Traditions like Advent wreaths, candles, and the season itself don’t exist for our slavish dedication. They are rituals we have created to periodically remind ourselves of certain aspects of our faith. The point of them is not whether the pink candle is for Joy or the fourth week is for Peace, but to help us reflect on our need for Christ to enter our lives and the world.

Maybe mixing it up is a good thing. When people ask whether I get tired of reading the same scriptures every year, of hearing the same story of Jesus being born,  or of celebrating them same seasons over and over, my answer is always: “No, I don’t, because even though the stories don’t change, I’m in a different place in my life and faith journey, so I am always hearing and learning something different.” Mixing up the weeks of Advent provides another opportunity for fresh perspective, while at the same time providing a familiar and comforting framework.

In a couple days our readings will include the Magnificat, the words of Mary as she praises God for using her as a vessel to redeem her people. Mary’s prayer speaks new messages to me every time I read it. It doesn’t change, but I do. For some people though, it will be the same every time, and that’s fine. They made need a slight change to hear new meaning, and an unexpected difference in the order of themes or a fresh Biblical interpretation like The Message may provide the catalyst.

So if your regular broadcast of Advent has been interrupted, I hope that has helped you see, hear, feel, consider, and learn new things. Christ enters the world in unexpected ways. Expect that.