Sunday, March 31, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Fourth Sunday in Lent

Scripture Reading: Matthew 17:1-27 (NRSV)

Today, we see the influence of Matthew's writing beyond the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70.  It is also the influence of knowing the story of Jesus ends in resurrection.

The miracle of the transfiguration reminds us of the baptism in that God is once again well-pleased with Jesus who is named again as "my Son, the beloved".  We see John the Baptist referenced again but this time he is named as Elijah who was to come again before the Messiah.

We imagine the transfiguration as mysterious.
What if it references something that is more about our daily walk?
Matthew uses the story to show that Elijah walked with Jesus and so John was not reincarnated but was figuratively "Elijah".  But the transfiguration could also appease literalists because the story shows that Elijah did come and walk with Jesus prior to his final trip to Jerusalem.

Jesus curing the epileptic boy reminds the current church that Jesus does not walk among us in the flesh.  We long for miraculous cures and yet they sometimes escape us.  When Jesus speaks of the faith we need - is he saying just a tiny amount (referring to the size of the mustard seed) or is he referring to the infectious quality (referring to the weed-like nature of the seed)?  I tend to look upon the latter.  It was the infectious nature that allowed Christianity to spread.  This may be what we need to remember for today's church.

We see how the disciples were distressed at the notion of the crucifixion and resurrection.  This would have been helpful to remember during the stress of the early church two generations removed that it was difficult for those who walked with Jesus on earth as well.

Finally, we have this rather bizarre story about paying the Temple tax.  Taxing in the days following the destruction of the Temple would have been very stressful.  What if it went not to the Temple anymore but to Roman authorities?  How should we pay for it?  While it seems like Jesus offers a miraculous solution (one almost similar to saying go buy a lottery ticket), we don't actually see Peter go and prove this out.  We know that Peter was a fisherman and it seems that Jesus was reminding them that they had the ability to produce the needed taxes so that this would not cause offense.  They had bigger fish to fry!

Today, we have similar stresses.  We have illnesses that toss us into the metaphorical fire and water that seem to have no cure.  We wrestle with taxes (especially this time of year if you are in the United States) and we wonder about what we should support.  Death still destresses us greatly.  But how does the resurrection speak to these things?

Just as it came to Jesus, it must come for each of us.  I don't just mean in the life eternal after we die.  We must experience the resurrection in ways here and now.  This aspect of our faith allows us to experience the impossible.  It is not literal as with the explanation of Peter and the fish.  Maybe the mountain that needs to be moved is the mountain that Jesus just descended from in the transfiguration.  The mountain where our faith was revealed is not a problem but a witness to be applied to the situation at hand.  If our faith was infectious, maybe we could move this mountainous witness to bear to the current need.

How does resurrection speak to your stress?

I invite you to pray on this question for a moment.

Prayer for the day:

God, there are many situations we endure.
We may, like Jesus, say to these things, "How much longer must I put up with you?"
We ask for goodness and life and blessing to come to those we love.
But we know that sometimes suffering comes instead.
As we weep with them and for them, help us to see resurrection abounding.
May our faith move this mountainous witness to stand firm in our midst.

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Saturday, March 30, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 22

Scripture Reading: Matthew 16:1-28 (NRSV)

As Jesus moves us toward inclusion of the Gentiles in the previous chapter, we see the Pharisees and the Sadducees asking Jesus for a sign.  Because of the placement (and the reply), I think it is likely that within the religious dialogue that rabbis engaged, they were asking for a sign from heaven justifying this teaching.

If Gentiles are to be included, where is the sign that this is so?

Jesus indicates the sign of Jonah.  He doesn't need to say anything else.

This may be the sign indicating where the 
yeast of the Pharisees will lead us.
Jonah was, of course, the reluctant prophet sent to the Gentiles.  Not just any Gentiles, but the hated Gentiles of Nineveh.  This was the capital of the Assyrian empire - the same empire that had conquered and scattered the northern kingdom of Israel.  At the end of Jonah, we see him sulking at his success.  He would rather have had God smite them!

The Pharisees were the group that would have been against Roman assimilation in the time of Jesus.  They doubled down on the cleanliness laws to fight against the creeping Gentile culture that sought to weaken their identity.  Thus, they would have greatly opposed any teaching that sought to include them in God's kingdom.

Jesus reminds them about Jonah.  This book ends in a question from God to Jonah saying, "Should I not be concerned about Nineveh?"

It would have been infuriating to the Pharisees to say the least.

Interestingly enough, we see Jesus refer to Peter as "Simon, son of Jonah".  This could be his father's name (Jesus calls him this in John's Gospel as well) or Jesus could be referring to the Jonah he just mentioned.  This would mean that Peter has similar characteristics to Jonah.  He has good intentions but sometimes gets it wrong.

We see this before the chapter is even finished as Jesus tells Peter, "Get behind me, Satan!"

Peter will also later fail in doing the right thing when he denies knowing Jesus.  Yet Peter eventually gets his message across or we wouldn't be reading this today!

Maybe we all need the sign of Jonah.  We are reluctant to offer grace.  Then when we do, we may not be happy with the results!

And we remember Jesus telling us today, "If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."

I would like to give over my anger and wrath and malice.  These are sometimes hard to drop - they get ingrained in us.  Maybe this is what Jesus is referring to when he speaks of the yeast of the Pharisees.

Oh, no.

Prayer for the day:

God, we seek to follow your will.
We lift you up in praise because we know you are ultimately good.
But we also have our own ideas about how we would like the world to operate.
Sometimes our two wills do not coincide.
We have a bad habit of interpreting your will until it fits nicely within our own.
Help us to know in these moments what it means to deny the self.
Let us see how blessing might arise from it.

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Friday, March 29, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 21

Scripture Reading: Matthew 15:29-39 (NRSV)

This seems like round two or more of the same.

We have already seen lots of healing and we have even seen a bigger feeding.  Why does Matthew seem to elaborate the point?

I believe that we pick up where we left off yesterday.  In hindsight, I should not have broken up the reading in chapter 15 but in order to make it through Lent there have to be some concessions!

Sometimes we are like the dog
when it comes to grace.  We don't
realize we have our own plate.
Jesus heals the Gentile woman who reminds him of his own compassionate stance.  Today he continues to heal the Gentiles that come before him.  We see the fantastic results of life that follow wherever Jesus goes.  We see importantly the second piece of verse 31 where "they praised the God of Israel."

Then we have a second miraculous feeding.  This time we see seven baskets left over.  While the earlier feeding had twelve, this was to represent the Good News reaching out to all of the tribes of Israel.  Seven seems to represent the blessing coming to all the Gentile nations.  Seven was the number of nations in the Promised Land that the Israelites displaced as recounted in Deuteronomy 7:1:
When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you     (NRSV)

What is interesting is that Jesus now reverses the stance against these nations.  Verse two of Deuteronomy seven goes on to state, "Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy."

And yet we remember the words of Jesus, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy."

This would not have been a popular stance in that day.

Some would have surely claimed, "We can only be merciful when we can afford to show mercy!"  As a subjugated people, they may have thought, "Let us become stronger first and then we can be more generous."  This seems like a natural instinct.  It has to do with protecting our own before sharing with our neighbors.

As we stress over our resources, what if we never have enough?

Can we go through all of life with an attitude that we will someday share but not today?

It reminds me of the sign, "Free hamburgers tomorrow."

Jesus seems to be saying, "Tomorrow has arrived!"

What if this were true?

Prayer for the day:

God, we like the idea of abundance.
We relish the sense of grace that emerges from our faith in Jesus Christ.
We are even bold enough to embrace the forgiveness we receive.
But sometimes, we want to close the store after we've claimed all the bargains for ourselves.
We can't imagine that the shelves will be re-stocked.
Give us a larger sense of grace so that we recognize there are seven baskets left over.

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Thursday, March 28, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 20

Scripture Reading: Matthew 15:1-28 (NRSV)

What become the priorities of our faith?

To begin to read this with 21st century sensibilities, one immediately sides with the Pharisees on the issue of hand washing!  Some may think, "Jesus, I hate to say it but you are just plain wrong on this."  Then they may follow up with, "Please forgive me for saying so!"

But the issue in the first century was not germs of which they were not aware but ritual cleanliness.  It was showing outward action to prove an inward spiritual righteousness before God.

He goes on to prove his point by showing that the concerns with observing dietary laws were not as important as cleansing the intentions that do harm.

In a mastery of humility, Matthew then shifts immediately to a story that allows Jesus to live out what he's been saying.

We have an encounter with a Gentile woman whose daughter is in need of exorcism.  A typical Jew's first thought in that day might be, "You're all in need of exorcism.  Every one of you is unclean!"

Jesus at least says nothing.  He's not wanting the words coming out of his mouth to defile as per his example above.

The disciples have a similar response as they did to the hungry crowds in the feeding of the multitudes in the previous chapter: send her (them) away.

But here we have a woman who is willing to step out of her place because of her love for her daughter.  She prostrates herself before Jesus and begs for help.

His answer prioritizes his own people (family) before those on the outside.  But Jesus has already moved beyond this in chapter twelve when he speaks of the ministries of Jonah and Solomon whereby Gentiles came to faith.  He also speaks in that chapter about the expansion of his own family to include intent of action over bloodlines.
Sometimes you can wash
but the whole system needs adjustment.

When we go against the grain and it is difficult, we must remember that systems try to pull us back into what is normal.  They all resist change.  There may have been subtle pressures on Jesus to ignore her.  But then he receives this gentle reminder from the Canaanite woman.  She is not telling him anything he hasn't already declared earlier in Matthew.

Jesus responds not with rancor or embarrassment at being instructed as many of us might do.  He shows us what our response could be in similar circumstances.  

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

And her daughter was healed instantly.  I love a happy ending!

How do our own systems defile us?

How does our participation in them keep us from seeing the larger picture?

How well do we pay attention to the harm that our words may cause?

Prayer for the day:

God, we may often speak our mind.
We don't think about it defiling us.
If others get offended, we can't be responsible for their heightened sensitivity, can we?
Or could it be that we are just embarrassed because we didn't mean to cause harm?
Help us to be strong like Jesus.
Help us to be a witness with our words and our ways.

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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 19

Scripture Reading: Matthew 14:1-36 (NRSV)

Grief is difficult for all of us - even Jesus.

We're not sure what kind of relationship Jesus had with John the Baptist.  Luke tells us that they were cousins and we know that even distant family members were close in this culture.  We know that John baptizes Jesus which is significant.  Some believe that John was a kind of mentor to Jesus as he began his public ministry sooner than Jesus.  As Jesus gives him high praise, we know that he held him in great esteem.

When he hears about John's death, he goes away to be by himself.  We all have different reactions to grief.  Sometimes we need to be alone.  Other times we need to draw together as a community to express our loss.  This seems to be the case of the crowds as they come together and seek for Jesus to offer them words of comfort.

To put this in perspective, their spiritual leader was executed by their own government.  Herod was put in place by a foreign power to keep the peace.  It was a way for Rome to pacify the people, sending the message, "See, we are really looking out for your best interests!"  When your representative starts murdering religious leaders, something is going wrong.

Jesus begins to heal their ills.  When the hour grows late, the disciples want to send them away but Jesus responds "They need not go away; you give them something to eat."  This is a wonderful reminder of the Christian response of table fellowship.  There is something healing about eating together.  It bonds us together as community.  Within the miracle of the feeding, we see that there is enough left over for twelve baskets.  This symbolizes to us the twelve tribes of Israel.  There will be enough to sustain all of the people of God - those gathered and those scattered.

Feeding others bonds us in ways that
are so primal to who we are.
The disciples come to greater faith in Jesus as they worship him following his mastery over the water.

When people later come to touch the fringe of his cloak, this would signify that they identified him as the Messiah.  There was a tradition that the fringe or tassels of the prayer shawl worn by the Messiah would have healing powers stemming from Malachi 4:2 where "wings" and "corner of the garment" were translated from the same word.  

It is within this chapter that we see Jesus as divine and yet as very human.  Within our own moments of grief where we feel so vulnerable, maybe this is where we are also the most divine.

Vulnerability is so difficult for us.  What if we embraced it more often?

What kind of trust would this take?

As Jesus frees us from our ills, maybe Jesus can also free us from our posturing - even with ourselves.

Prayer for the day:

God, we are the happiest when we are really able to be ourselves.
We love the times when we gather with people with whom we can truly relax.
This creates a special kind of community that gives us life.
Unfortunately, these times may be rare.
Help us to lower our own inhibitions in being who you have created us to be.
Help us to create safe spaces where others may do the same.
May this be a way that we continue to reach out to touch the fringe of your cloak.

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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 18

Scripture Reading: Matthew 13:24-58 (NRSV)

Sometimes the miraculous comes with the suspension of our expectations.

There have been lots of times I got exactly what I expected.  Did my perception influence my understanding of reality?  Undoubtedly.

Are these weeds or flowers?
The parables in today's reading seem to remind us of this.  Matthew ends the reading by recounting how Jesus was rejected in his hometown of Nazareth.   Their expectation of Jesus was that he was more ordinary than extraordinary.  They knew him.  They grew up with his siblings.  What could he possibly do?

As we open with the parable of the weeds and the wheat, we see that our normal expectation would be to pull the weeds.  The fear is that the wheat will begin to resemble the weeds if we let them associate together.  But Jesus bids us to leave them together.  What if the opposite were true?  What if we were strong enough in our identity that the weeds may actually become wheat at the end of the age?

To continue down this path, both the mustard seed and the yeast are considered somewhat undesirable for a Jewish audience in that day.  The mustard plant could easily spread and take hold, choking out the plants that were meant to be there.  This could cause embarrassment as Leviticus 19:19 clearly states, "you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed."  (NRSV)  As far as yeast goes, Leviticus 2:11 tells us "No grain offering that you bring to the LORD shall be made with leaven."  (NRSV)

So we have two ordinary stories about the Kingdom of Heaven that would include items that would be unlikely in a polite comparison.  They defy our expectation (or would in the original setting)!

In the parables of separation at the end of the age such as the weeds and the wheat and the good and bad fish, the concern might be that we would end up in the fire.  However, in the time of Jesus, it was assumed that the scribes and Pharisees would be the chosen while the people Jesus associated with would be considered the chaff to be thrown into the fire.

As we see that his own townspeople took offense at him, we remember the admonition of Jesus earlier in Matthew (11:6) that "blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." (NRSV)

This begs the question, how often do we take offense when things don't go the way we expect?

Things may not be intrinsically wrong, but they may not fit into our neatly ordered universe.   Things like mustard weeds or yeast.

Might there be miracles we are missing?  

At times, can we somehow refuse to see what is before our eyes?

Prayer for the day:

God, we expect you to have some decorum.
We expect you to call the eldest before the youngest as dictated by society.
We expect you not to dally with weeds or mustard or leaven.
We expect you to shape up your followers!
But when we need a little mercy, we would invite you to offer it.
Just don't use it too freely with our neighbors lest you not have enough for us!
Or maybe we need to re-read these passages rather than try to put you in our box.

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Monday, March 25, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 17

Scripture Reading: Matthew 13:1-23 (NRSV)

I like how the sower in the parable throws seeds indiscriminately.

But wouldn't you be able to recognize the path?

Or where it is rocky or thorny?

Why bother with seeds for these areas?

I think sometimes we don't offer grace quite so freely because we make the decision on behalf of others.  We may decide that someone will not prioritize it correctly and it will be snatched away.  Someone may have no root for the grace received and they will fall aside.  Or someone may be too influenced by other things and we know they won't stick with it.

We preserve the grace we offer for the good soil.

What if we never ran out of seeds?
Except we rarely encounter any and so we keep it all to ourselves.

I guess when this happens, we are not multiplying thirty, sixty or a hundredfold.

If we are not multiplying it, this means we may not really understand that grace is never to be hoarded.  According to the explanation, those that do not understand are really the seed sown on the path.

This gets back to what Jesus says about judgment in the sermon on the mount.  It is how the Pharisees act because they don't want to waste their time with people that will never follow all of the Law.

I want to be like the Sower in the parable.  I want to spread God's grace indiscriminately.  It is not an easy task because I am good at seeing people for who they are.  Or at least I think I am.

Maybe that's what Jesus means when he says, "blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear."  When we try to see people as God sees them, our judgements fall away.

Prayer for the day:

God, the sower has come to me before.
Sometimes I've been hard like the path.
Other times troubles have seemed larger than my faith.
And if I am honest with myself, I do find that alternative voices are distracting.
But there are times when I've received this word well.
In these times, I've become the sower.
And grace abounds.
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Sunday, March 24, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Third Sunday in Lent

Scripture Reading: Matthew 12:33-50 (NRSV)

These verses are ideally taken in context with the first part of chapter twelve as it continues a conversation with the Pharisees.

We see the following seemingly unrelated passages in today's reading:

  • Good and bad fruit
  • Examples of Jonah and Solomon
  • A returning to possession by an unclean spirit
  • The expansion of our notion of family
While these may seem distinct, I believe that they relate overall to the ministry of the early church as adopting the call of God to be a light to the nations.  This means a broadening of how Jewish Christians related to Gentiles.

Earlier in this chapter, Matthew has Jesus quoting from the first four verses of chapter 42 of Isaiah.  It may be no coincidence that Isaiah 42:6 goes on to state:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
    I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
    a light to the nations,
Alternatively, the Pharisees were trying to lift up Holiness as the way for people to embrace their faith.  This should not be a surprising response considering that they were living under the occupation of Gentile "unclean" forces.  In order to keep our own identities, sometimes we double-down on the practices that make us unique.  Jesus seems to critique this practice in that it was straining out the mercy that was so intrinsic in Biblical teaching.

In this context, we see that his words of good and bad fruit would refer to the teaching of the Pharisees that were exclusive.

His examples of Jonah and Solomon were instances of ministry with Gentiles.

Siblings don't always see eye to eye.
The return of an unclean spirit might be that the Pharisees have cleaned out all of the riff-raff who were unable to obey all of the Law and may find that their house is now occupied by a lack of compassion which is more deadly than with how they started.

Finally, Jesus expands the Christian understanding of family.  Our brothers and sisters can include Gentiles.  We are happy to covenant with people who will covenant with us.  The idea that to follow Jesus is more important than circumcision emerges in the understanding of Christian baptism and the entrance into the body of Christ.

So as I examine this for my life, I need to think about the words I have spoken that have caused division.  I need to think about how I have disassociated myself with some to order my own house.  And I need to think about how I might truly embrace the whole family of God rather than just the ones with whom I agree.

Which of these needs resonates with you?

Prayer for the day:

God, we want to be the true followers of Jesus.
We see how Jesus critiqued the Pharisees and we justify our own dissolution with various factions.
Help us to see the irony in this stance.
Move us to cultivate good fruit from which all may feast.
Remind us that sometimes we fight with our brothers and sisters the most.

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Saturday, March 23, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 16

Scripture Reading: Matthew 12:1-32 (NRSV)

What rules are okay to break and when is it okay to break them?

A lot of the time, this is what we want to know when you get down to it.  As I am raising two teenagers, I find that they want to know how much leniency will be shown.  If they do get into trouble, what is the penalty?

I suppose at some level, we all want to know whether or not it is worth it to break the rule.

Are the benefits (to breaking the rule) greater than the cost?

Jesus begins this chapter with breaking the laws about work on the Sabbath.  It starts out with his disciples picking grain and then Jesus cures a man with a withered hand in the synagogue.  He does so to make a point about priorities.

We see the juxtaposition of Jesus and the Pharisees who both seek to teach the people about the observance of God's law.  Jesus is offering life and the Pharisees conspire in death.

They even try to excuse the miraculous healing of Jesus by declaring that his power comes from the devil.  Their slander looks foolish in comparison because Jesus is healing people who are broken.  Why would an evil being provide life, goodness and wholeness?

Their attempt to paint Jesus in a bad light stems from his breaking their interpretation of Sabbath rules.  He's making their interpretation look bad.

Then we see Jesus providing his own rules for what you shouldn't do when he declares that speaking against the Holy Spirit is unforgiveable.  For the rule-oriented among us, this has caused more than a little stress.  What if I speak against the Holy Spirit accidentally or unknowingly?  What if I slip up in a moment of weakness?  And exactly how do you do this in the first place (so I know exactly what not to do)?

I think we can all calm down when we read this in context.  Jesus is declaring this as a contrast to what is getting the Pharisees up in arms - breaking the Sabbath laws.  Jesus quotes from Hosea for the second time in Matthew reminding us of the priority of God.  This should tell us something about where our own behavior needs to focus if Jesus is emphasizing this verse on mercy.

The Pharisees don't seem to care if their strict observance hurts people as verse seven points out their condemnation of the guiltless.  Jesus is healing through the Holy Spirit.  If they are slandering the giving of life, they are the ones in need of forgiveness rather than Jesus.  This reminds us that providing life and wholeness to people is larger than our rules.

Where is a place in your life when the rules worked against you?

Which laws of God do you find yourself prioritizing?

Do these match up with this text today?

Prayer for the day:

God, we want to do the right thing.
We want others to know and follow what is just as well.
We believe that we should help people walk with you in righteousness.
And we also acknowledge that there are times when we haven't maintained our own walk.
Help us to be sure we are following in the path just as we invite others to walk with us.
In this way, we see that you are smiling at us.

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Friday, March 22, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 15

Scripture Reading: Matthew 11:1-30 (NRSV)

As I read today's passage, I am reminded that Matthew is writing from a later perspective than when these events actually took place.

We see this no more so than in verse 12:
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. (NRSV)
Jesus and John the Baptist are still conversing by message at the beginning of this chapter but verse twelve implies a great time between John and the present.  Matthew wrote his Gospel following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 which would have greatly impacted how he wrote it and how people received it.

Matthew seems to be regretting how people could be witnesses to all of the miracles of Jesus and still not embrace him as the Messiah.  The "wise and intelligent" refuse to see.  Has God really hidden these things from them or is it more likely that they had the most to lose?  Those in power would not have appreciated Jesus leveling the playing field in regard to healing and acceptance of sinners.  This would diminish their own hold on the top of the social food chain.  They also apparently didn't appreciate John's asceticism either as he called them to repentance!
What do infants or children see 
that adults often miss?

Jesus offers rest to the weary.  We see this at the beginning of the chapter when he reminds John's disciples of what they see and hear.  His yoke or teaching is something that will give us life if we would only set down our need to lord it over our fellows.

How do we emulate Jesus by developing gentleness and humility in our hearts?

If I am honest, my own sense of self-importance gets in the way of this all too often.

I find that I am like the wise and intelligent.  I can see the things going on all around me but I am unable to perceive the miracles that are right in front of me.

How would it look if we stepped back from our own sense of being and tried to see with new eyes?

Prayer for the day:

God, we find that we are often weary.
We are carrying heavy burdens.
We don't even realize that we are carrying them and yet they weigh us down.
Help us to set them aside, even if just for a little while.
And as we practice walking without them, may this help us to find rest.
It may be that we become accustomed to it.

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Thursday, March 21, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 14

Scripture Reading: Matthew 10:1-42 (NRSV)

The words of Jesus in today's reading reflect the conflict that his followers were experiencing at the time of Matthew's writing.  This would have been the time in history when the Christian presence in synagogues was transitioning throughout the world into separate church communities.

There were persecutions not only on this front as the Christians would have been the minority view among the Jewish societies of the day, but also within the wider Roman world where Christianity was beginning to take hold among the Gentiles.

This is not the theology of the Church.
The initial instructions to go nowhere among the Samaritans or Gentiles was not because Jesus had no compassion for them.  It was not to exclude them from the Good News.  It was because he was sending out his disciples who were counting on the recipients to know the hospitality of Abraham.  The judgment comes to the places who will not offer it as they have been taught.

This harkens back to the idea that those who hear the word but are not active in pursuing it have built a house on sand rather than a firm foundation.

Our passage today ends with the reward for those who offer a welcome.  You'll notice that those places who received the disciples in those towns at the beginning found that their sick were cured, the dead were raised, their lepers were cleansed and their demons troubled them no more.  Those who offer the welcome receive life.  Those that are stingy with their hospitality remain sick, dead, cut-off and possessed.

What does this say about the church today?

How can we offer a cup of cold water to the thirsty?

What does it look like in our household?  Is there a way that we can be more hospitable to one another?

What does it look like personally for me?  How do I welcome Jesus into my life?

We will find that Jesus later identifies in Matthew as the stranger among us.  Maybe we need to adopt a sense of welcome so that strangers quickly become friends.  I hope that people will comment about us, "They never met a stranger!"

Prayer for the day:

God, we are thankful for a sense of belonging.
When we are connected with family and friends, 
we recognize that blessings abound.
We pray for those who are cut-off.  We also know
what it feels like to stand outside the door while it remains shut.
May we find ourselves opening the door more often until 
we leave it open.  And may our joy come quickly as we realize
that you are the one we receive!

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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 13

Scripture Reading: Matthew 9:2-38 (NRSV)

Is there a connection between sin and sickness?

For people living in first century Judea, this certainly seemed to be the case.

Similar to the leper asking to be made clean, Jesus forgives the paralytic of his sins.

In contrast to the spirit of mercy, the scribes thought ill of Jesus for this action.

Jesus then states that the evil in the room is not in the paralytic or in the friends who brought him before Jesus or even in Jesus for taking this authority.  The evil was in the hearts of those who thought ill of Jesus for making a declaration of forgiveness.

Jesus then doubles down on the restoration of human beings as he calls a tax collector to be a disciple.  He quotes from Hosea which reminds the people of God's deep mercy in the midst of their unfaithfulness.  Hosea was the prophet who married a prostitute as a sign-act to remind Israel of God's faithful devotion to them even in the midst of their idolatry.

We all need resurrection.
But we may be the ones Jesus needs to awaken.
Jesus is challenging the fabric of society.  All societies have caste systems.  Some are overt like in India but most are less obvious.  When those lines get blurred, people get nervous.  And so we see the Pharisees declare that his powers are demonic rather than divine.  When we feel our social structures threatened, we move to assume that God is not happy about it.  However, if Jesus is breaking these down, we may need to reexamine our own assumptions about insiders and outsiders.

This is necessary for us because Jesus calls us in the last section to begin to go out into the world.

The harvest may be riper than ever.

God, may it begin with me.

Prayer for the day:

God, we may be blind to your grace.
It is often easy enough to see in our lives, but...
we may not identify it as readily in others.
Jesus, open our eyes.
And as we begin to see, 
may you also loosen our tongues that we might witness to the world.

Photo by Pedro Ribiero Simões via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 12

Scripture Reading: Matthew 8:1-9:1 (NRSV)

There's a new sheriff in town!

We can all identify with what this dog is feeling.
Jesus begins to show what living out the Sermon on the Mount looks like today in chapter eight.  He is doing more than providing healing physically.  Jesus is restoring people relationally.

In the first miraculous healing, Jesus encounters a leper.  Notice that the man doesn't ask to be made well but to be made clean.  In that day, lepers would have been removed from society.  In fact, approaching a non-leper like this could have gotten him stoned to death.  The Law was very clear on the matter:

  The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.”  He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.
                                                                      Leviticus 13:45-46 (NRSV)

So this is why Jesus tells him to show himself to the priests.  This is part of the Law.  Jesus has come to fulfill the Law as in Matthew 5:17.  It was the duty of the priests to declare a person clean again and fit to rejoin society.

Within the very next segment, Jesus heals a foreigner.  Not only is this a foreigner, it is a centurion.  He is a leader of soldiers that are occupying their country!  So when Jesus says to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, he puts his money where his mouth is.

The last story of the demoniacs may be a kind of play of Matthew's on the admonition not to cast your pearls before swine lest they turn and maul you.  Jesus is in foreign territory and shows that just as has power over the sea prior to this, he also retains power outside of Judea.  He casts his power (pearls) before swine and they ask him to leave.  At least they don't turn and maul him but they are not interested in the disruption.  This rebuke may be indicative of his own people who will later crucify him.

The story shows that reconciliation is often costly (a whole herd of swine meant the loss of a lot of wealth).

To be in relationship has been shown by Jesus to sometimes be expensive.  But what is it worth in human lives saved?

What kind of relational healing do you need in your life today?

What do you think it would cost?

Prayer for the day:
God, we sometimes feel separated from our friends and family.
It is as if we've been yelling, "Unclean, unclean!"
And there are other times we've been doing the ostracizing.
Sometimes it has been accidental and sometimes we were quite conscious of what we were doing.
We pray to you in Christ that Jesus might heal the brokenness among us - that of our own making and that which has visited us without cause.  Amen.

Photo by Will Lin via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 11

Scripture Reading: Matthew 7:13-29 (NRSV)

Jesus brings us to the end of the Sermon on the Mount today.

Matthew's Gospel has much more of a tone of works righteousness over that of righteousness by faith.  It finishes by reminding everyone that those who merely hear the word without following up with action are lacking in the transformation needed by each Christian.

It reminds one of the epistle of James (2:17) stating, "Faith without works is dead."

As the sermon takes a judgmental turn we see this in the following:

  • The narrow gate and few find it
  • The tree that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire
  • Not everyone who says "Lord, Lord" will make it into heaven
  • Not following through is like building your house on sand

Castles made of sand fall into the sea eventually.
Some Christians point to these passages and declare that Jesus has high expectations for us and that we shouldn't try to water down God's word.  The only trouble is that those who point this out are often not paying attention to the first part of the sermon.

As I read over the parts leading up to this, I see Jesus trying to shape us in humility, peacemaking, doing what is right no matter the cost, foregoing anger and lust, loving our enemies, sharing our light with the world, not amassing wealth for ourselves, praying, fasting and giving alms for the right reasons, trusting and relying on God, not judging others and following the golden rule.  

These are the foundations for building our house on rock.  So it is quite ironic that the very Christians pointing out how bad you are doing are missing the point!

This doesn't mean that we can't call out behavior that is sinful and causing harm.  But it does mean that we need to ask ourselves if we are communicating the message in a way that will be heard.  If we are sharing judgment with a world where transformation can never take hold, we are the ones saying, "Lord, Lord!"

When have you found life on the hard road?

Prayer for the day:

God, we get nervous about hearing you say that you might reject us.  It sounds awful to live outside of your grace.  And yet, if we choose to hold onto bitterness, wrath and malice, we seem to be already doing that.  Forgive us for hearing your instruction and promptly ignoring it.  We know that the times we listened and acted were times of blessing.  Help us to find these more often.  Amen.

Photo by Gary J. Wood via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Second Sunday in Lent

Scripture Reading: Matthew 7:1-12 (NRSV)

The Sermon on the Mount can seem contradicting at times - no more so than in today's reading.  We begin with "Do not judge..." and then in verse six we move to calling people dogs and swine.

This Portland art piece by Andy Rosen
gives a better view of how first century 
Middle Easterners looked at dogs.
Since a pig was an unclean animal and dogs were associated with eating the dead (which would make them unclean in a secondary sense), these were not terms conveying admiration.  The structure of the sentence reads contempt.

Jesus is referencing holiness and wisdom.

While the first verses on judgment could reference "Blessed are the meek" we could see verse six refer to being persecuted for righteousness' sake.  Or maybe this advice is how to avoid being persecuted for righteousness' sake.

While verses 1-5 and 6 are often broken by a heading, maybe they are meant to flow together.  I've heard verse six quoted in the singular but maybe Matthew structures it to follow as it does so that we do not take this bit of wisdom lightly.

Isn't the outcome of verse six exactly what happens to Jesus on the cross?

God has given what is holy to the dogs and thrown pearls before swine and has been crucified for the effort.

So as we are having difficulty with discernment - is this a dog or a child of God? - we must remember to ask God as in the continued instruction.  We are not asking for something for ourselves as we often imagine but we are asking for clarity on human relations.  Is this person a pig?  What would God's response be?

Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Maybe this is not so contradictory after all.

Prayer for the day:

God, human relationships can be difficult.
Often when we extend an olive branch, we are rebuked for our good faith.
It is easy to feel trampled under foot.
So we ask for your grace to heal us.
We search for a way to extend forgiveness.
We knock on the door of reconciliation.
And we believe that you will give us these good gifts.

Photo by Don Shall via Used under the Creative Commons license.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 10

Scripture Reading: Matthew 6:1-34 (NRSV)

I think there is a reason Jesus
said to look at the flowers.
Today's reading deals with the popular spiritual disciplines of the first century: alms giving, prayer and fasting.  Jesus reminds us that we should follow these practices with the right mindset.  The proper outlook is to put God first in our lives - even ahead of our worries.

Through each of the three activities, Jesus reminds us to keep our disciplines between us and God.  The temptation is to try to impress our fellows by showing them how pious we really are.  When we do this, we lose our focus and the self takes over.  Our vanity becomes our true object of devotion.

Jesus mentions this when he talks about the eye being the lamp of the body.  When our eye is on God, we are full of light.  When our eye is on ourselves, our own wants become needs and grow larger in priority.  This is why we cannot serve two masters.

The focus must stay on God.

Jesus knows this is not easy.  Our lives are full of distractions such as what people think of us, our possessions, our clothing and our future.

I would argue that some of these are necessary to the human condition.  If we never worried about what people thought about or our clothing, we might wear some pretty strange things to work or school.  This would obviously be problematic for our regular interactions and would interfere with our effectiveness!

What I think Jesus is moving us toward is the prioritization of God over all these things.  If God is primary and these things are subservient, it becomes easy not to worry as often or to think about how others should see how good we are being.  Our trust becomes primary and this is helpful for us in all stages of life.

Think about something that is troubling you.  Examine it through the lens of prayer.  Breathe in and breathe out.  While placing our problems next to the light of God may not make them dissolve, it might allow us to see them in a way that it doesn't loom quite so large.

Prayer for the day:

God, we would like to imagine that we don't mind what others think about us.
We would like to set possessions and wealth aside as unimportant.
We would like to never worry about what comes or what may come.
But we know that these things are a part of our lives.
And so we ask that you help us to lessen their importance that you might increase.
In this may our eyes become healthy.

Photo by Rosmarie Voegtli via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 9

Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:27-48 (NRSV)

Wow, there are five topics here that would each make for a good blog by itself.

Just as Jesus changes our emphasis from murder to anger (identifiable to all), here Jesus changes the emphasis from adultery to lust.  Well there goes all my superiority over those who have broken their wedding vows...

This is the hard stance that the church took on divorce for years.  It was first given when the gender discrepancy regarding power heavily favored the men.  Notice that the verbiage surrounds men divorcing women.  It wasn't even considered that it could go the other way.

With oaths, this is an expansion of another of the ten commandments: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (Exodus 20:16, NRSV).  This deals with personal integrity and harkens back to the old handshake days.  My word is my bond.

Protesters often tape their mouths
to show they've been silenced or ignored in
an attempt to restore the power dynamic.
To be struck by a person on the right cheek was likely a back-handed blow to demean and put one in his or her place.  Masters struck slaves in this way.  To turn your other cheek to the abuser forced this person to treat you as an equal.  This is about standing up for one's dignity.  If you lived in a land occupied by foreign soldiers, there were lots of opportunities for you to be slighted.

For Jesus then to ask his listeners to love their enemies and pray for those who are persecuting them, is not said in the abstract.  It was far more concrete than what most Americans live with in the 21st century.  Yet we often get caught up in loving only those who love us.

We are polarizing in the world today over lots of issues.  The nuances are lost and people are forced into one camp or another that may not truly represent them.  We see it most often in our politics.  What would it mean to extend love or even respect to someone across the aisle?

What would it mean to listen to someone offer a different opinion without thinking about your response while they talk?

What if relationships were not a contest in which there were winners and losers?

What if we tried to identify and name all of the things we had in common with someone who seems philosophically opposite to us?

Prayer for the day:

God, I am thinking of a person that I don't like very much.
Often if I do manage to pray for my enemies, I pray that they will change.
Today, I simply pray that you would bless them and their lives.
Let them see goodness and know happiness today.
I pray this in the strength of Christ.  Amen.

Photo by Nathan Rupert via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 8

Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:13-26 (NRSV)

Today's material is pretty heavy as far as our ability to pay attention to it.

You definitely see Matthew writing to a Christian community with Jewish origins as Jesus speaks of the importance of the law.  We don't see that emphasis in other gospels.

For literalists, there has been a lot of interpretational gymnastics (wait, I thought they read it all literally) for today's Gentile Christians on verses 18-19.  Of course, we read our 21st century understandings of science and measurement into it.  A rabbinical reading of this would include the idea of setting priorities of certain scriptures over others.

Case-in-point, Jesus moves us past murder as a sin (still bad) to the act of anger in verses 21-22.  "Thou shalt not kill" is one of the ten commandments that most people are sure they have definitely not violated.  But when Jesus moves the location from murder to anger, well, all bets are off.  Everyone gets angry now and then.

Is anger always bad?

There were a lot of angry people following the recent United Methodist General Conference on both sides of the debate surrounding LGBTQ marriage and ordination.

All primates exhibit anger.
I have even seen a quote on social media by Sister Joan Chittister, a Roman Catholic nun, saying, "Anger is a holy fuel.  It can strengthen you in the face of evil."  Now I'm guessing she wasn't addressing a Methodist feud when she said this but it could certainly be applied.

As you read this quote, I would guess that no matter which side of the issue you are on, you would feel like you have access to the righteous sense of anger she presents.

What if both sides read verses 22-24 about enmity and reconciliation and took them to heart?

The argument I would hear is "Well, I have really good cause to be angry!"

I think that's the point.  We can always rationalize it.  I've never been in the middle of a rage and thought, "I'm really over-reacting."  That usually comes later when I've calmed down.

But what if people are being hurt?

All the more reason to come to terms with those doing the hurting.

Maybe our day of prayer prior to General Conference should have included scriptures like this.  I bet both sides would have been doing their own interpretational gymnastics in order to ignore this passage.  And if I sound like I'm on a soapbox, I put myself right there with them.

Where are you most likely to rationalize your anger?

What would the situation look like if you didn't?

Prayer for the day:

God, we do get angry sometimes.
Help us to examine our feelings rather than cover them up.
If the feelings come from injustice, help us to set it right.
If the feelings come from merely perceived injustice, help us to know the difference.
If the feelings are magnified from previous wounds, help us to understand our intensity.
And may we give our enemy the same grace we show ourselves.

Photo by Navaneeth KN via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Daily Devotion for Lent 2019 - Day 7

Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:1-12 (NRSV)

This is the beginning of what is commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount and it encompasses chapters 5-7 of Matthew.  I once had a sermon series on each of the eight blessings (I am a lumper rather than a splitter and consider verse eleven's as an extension of verse ten) where I took other text from later in the sermon and used it to explain each beatitude.

While the final five beatitudes are logical in a more conventional way, the first three are more challenging to our worldview.

Some faithful dogs seem to have each
of the three traits discussed today.
The term "poor in spirit" can have all sorts of connotations.  At first glance, we might think of it as having a lesser share of the Holy Spirit which really doesn't make sense.  But I look at it as a reliance on God first and foremost.  When we have some means to support ourselves and to get through with savings if trouble comes our way, we may not look to God as often as someone who doesn't know from where their next meal will come.

The blessing of mourning is difficult as well.  Who wants to grieve?  After losing both parents within the span of several months last year, I can tell you that the loss of loved ones makes it difficult for people to be at their best.  There are times when I didn't really deal with my emotions (usually because I was too busy) and there are times when I honestly explored them.  The latter is more painful but ultimately leads to acceptance and thus, blessing.  To cover them up is to live in denial.  This false sense of reality is not healthy for anyone.

Another way to think about this blessing is to remember the Tennyson quote, "It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."  While we often apply this to romantic love, we can see how it is true for any relationship.  We are shaped by the people we love.  We grieve because of the depth of our loss.  To never mourn is to never have significant relationships.  In this case, we become self-centered in the extreme which is the opposite of blessing.

Meekness is another difficult attribute for us to really understand a correlation with blessing.  Gentleness or humility is another way to think about this.  In Monty Python's Life of Brian, there is a scene where Jesus is preaching on the Beatitudes and the people on the fringe of the crowd are having a difficult time hearing him.  They begin to bicker and fight with one another which eventually leads to violence.  In this scene of great irony, we see how the opposite of gentleness does not lead to blessing at all.  This beautifully illustrates the point that Jesus makes in verse five.  If we can be meek or gentle of spirit, this does lead to blessing.  How often do you appreciate a person who is conceited, vain and goes on about their own accomplishments?

As you consider these eight blessings, which of them would you identify with the most?

And to contrast this, which one causes you the most struggle?

Prayer for the day:

God, we do seek your blessing.
If we are honest, we would like to have it without changing anything about ourselves.
Help us to remember that this is what we call grace and that we believe that you do love us as we are.
But to have greater blessing, help us to live into the love that you show us.
In this way, we open ourselves to your work in the world that we might be a blessing.

Photo by Patrick Berry via  Used under the Creative Commons license.