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Daily Devotion – January 31, 2017
01.31.17
Comfortable in My Seat
Lillian Daniel
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor…” – Luke 14:8
At a recent Interfaith Worker Justice board meeting, Naeem Baig, President of the Islamic Circle of North America, shared a story about a scene he witnessed on an airplane. A mother was traveling with three small children but for some reason, none of them were seated together. So the mother asked other passengers if they would move so she could stay close to her little ones.
Everyone agreed to move, except for one woman who seemed able to move, but was just unwilling. By way of explanation she added her reason: “You see, I’m comfortable in my seat.”
The story caused all of us to stop and imagine that awkward scene in silence. To me, the point was painfully clear. Sometimes we don’t do the right thing for the most mundane of reasons. We’re comfortable in our seats.
That woman who was so comfortable in her seat may not have been as comfortable later on in the flight. I imagine her seated next to a toddler, crying for his mother, loudly, interrupting her movie. Or maybe the kid was rejoicing in his new found freedom, far from parental supervision, giddily tipping his soda into the woman’s lap. How comfortable was her seat then?
We don’t want to move because we don’t feel the pain. Why give up a comfy seat for one that could possibly be worse? Why change things? Why shake things up?
But here’s the thing. Change happens anyway. God seems to like it that way.
Prayer

Jesus, thank you for giving up your comfortable seat in heaven to join us here on earth, and for revealing God’s ever-flexible seating arrangements. Amen.
 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lillian Daniel’s new book Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To: Spirituality without Stereotypes, Religion without Ranting is now available for purchase, but you can hear it all for free at 1st Congregational Church of Dubuque, Iowa.


Daily Devotion – January 24, 2017

Matthew 5:4

 

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’

 

Reflection by Duke Yaguchi

The beatitudes seem to be a list of contradictions. Why should we think that those who mourn are blessed? Are we to become sadists and want the worst-case scenario to happen so we can mourn and so be blessed with misery?

No, the beatitudes are citing a sequence of stations or steps in a process. Matthew is saying don’t be full of self-pity. One’s mourning will not be forever. God will come to those who mourn and comfort them. It is a scripture of hope in the future relationship with God.

It also is important to note what it does not say. It doesn’t say woefulness and sorrow are deserved. It doesn’t say bad things happen to bad people, therefore; if you are full of sorrow, it is your own fault and God will forsake you. No, God will not forsake you. In your mourning, remember you will be blessed by God’s comforting hand. It may be difficult now, but be glad in what the future holds for you!

Prayer

Dear God, it is difficult at times to keep our faith during mournful times. I pray that you continue to lead me to places and people that will help comfort me. I pray that I can be of comfort to others as they mourn so that they can know your gentle love through me. As we pass the peace each Sunday morning, let us bring peace to our mourning as well. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.



Daily Devotion – January 30, 2017
01.30.17

Surely
Mary Luti

“Surely God will save you from the fowler’s snare. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day…” – Psalm 91:3-5

We were solving the world’s problems, aided by beer, and making good progress until we came to Syria, flood-ravaged Louisiana, an attack on a trans woman two towns over, and a neighbor whose drug-addicted husband is missing in Chicago.

Somebody sighed, “I don’t know how people who don’t believe in God get through these things.” Which was a little embarrassing because I’d been thinking more or less the opposite: “I don’t know how people who go through these things still believe in God.”

I learned this much as a pastor: suffering kills faith as often as it strengthens it. Some suffering people feel uplifted by God. Others succumb under the weight of God. For some, faith confirms. For others, it defrauds.

Sometimes Christians too casually offer God as strength, solace, and solution, as if saying ‘God’ settles things. But it doesn’t always. For some people, the ‘surely’ of the psalm is a false promise. ‘Surely’ mocks their pain. And you can’t say it’s because there’s a weakness in them, a fault in theology or trust or character. You can’t blame the victim.

To disbelieve the psalm’s ‘surely’ may seem faithless, but it could also be brave—even, strangely, an act of faith. But whatever it is, it’s at least, surely, a great mystery. A mystery to be respected, not argued into submission. A mystery to be plumbed, not judged deficient. A mystery that deserves the company of our patient, wondering love.

Prayer

Stay near us in the mystery of pain and faith, O God. Keep us near each other, too, whether our prayer is ‘Surely’ or ‘Surely not.’

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mary Luti is a long time seminary educator and pastor, author of Teresa of Avila’s Way and numerous articles, and founding member of The Daughters of Abraham, a national network of interfaith women’s book groups.



Sermon: Following Jesus Handbook–Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:1-12) [1/29/17]

So.  Some things happened this week.  Lots of things.  Are you wondering how to follow Jesus in the new circumstances in which we find ourselves in our country?  I sure am.

Some folks throughout history have found the Sermon on the Mount to be a helpful handbook for following Jesus in troubling times.  Mahatma Gandhi read it every day.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s best-known book, The Cost of Discipleship, is an extended essay on it.  It guided Martin Luther King, Jr., as well.  If the Sermon on the Mount guided Gandhi in addressing the injustices caused by colonialization, Bonhoeffer in confronting the Nazi regime in World War II, and Martin Luther King, Jr., in transforming the Jim Crow South, perhaps it also can guide us as we seek to follow Jesus in the new reality in which we find ourselves.

To figure out what the Sermon on the Mount means for our 21st century context, it might help to look at the 1st century context into which Jesus first uttered the words.

First century Palestine was occupied by an oppressive Roman regime.  Race prejudice was prevalent.  The steep taxes paid to the occupying government were so high, many people struggled to buy food and basic necessities.  The gap between rich and poor had widened to the point that there was no middle class.  For those living on the margins, life was grim.

What were they to do?  Some said the best way to survive was simply to go along and not complain.  Others–the Zealots–advocated overthrowing the government.  Religious leaders, like the Saducees, compromised.  If you can’t change things, they figured, use the system to your advantage.  The Pharisees cast their lot with God.  They thought that if you just followed God’s law, God would reward you.  (Clarence Jordan, The Sermon on the Mount)

Jesus offered a different way, a way summed up in a one-line sermon:  “Repent, for the kindom of heaven has come near.”

Repent.  Now, there’s a scary word.  Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia, says in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount that when Jesus “called on people to repent, he demanded that they change their way of thinking, abandon their false concepts, forsake their wrong methods, and enter upon a new way of life.”  “Forsaking the wrong way,” he said, “is only half of repentance; accepting the right way is the other half.”  (13)

What is the right way?  The right way is whatever leads to the kindom of heaven…which, for the longest time, I assumed was where you go after you die…pearly gates, streets of gold, harp-playing angels, and all that…

But as we spend time with the Sermon on the Mount this year, you’ll see that Jesus wasn’t nearly as concerned about what happens after death as he was with what happens before it.  Jesus cared deeply about the circumstances in which people were living.

For Jesus, the kindom of heaven is in the here and now, at least to the extent to which we work with God to create it.  In fact, that’s the whole point of following Jesus—doing what we can to help create the world God envisions.  “Thy kindom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” right?

How do we repent and create the kindom of heaven?  What will inspire us to “change our thinking, abandon false concepts, forsake wrong methods, and enter upon a new way of life?”

Jesus’ method was to turn everything on its head.  Reading the Gospels is like taking a stroll through Opposite Land.  Jesus seems intent every step of the way on upending assumptions about how to get along in the world.  He preached mainly to the poor—society’s least powerful people—and called on them to turn the world upside down.  No wonder he got killed.

“Repent, for the kindom of heaven has come near!”  Man, I’d love to preach one sentence sermons…but I’m not sure I could.  And if I did, I’m not sure anybody would understand them.

I suspect the same was true for Jesus.  He probably had all kinds of folks asking after hearing his one-line sermon asking, “Um, Jesus?  I don’t get it.”  His response is the Sermon on the Mount, an extended explanation of “Repent, for the kindom of heaven has come near.”

So, if you’re preaching a sermon that’s going to inspire people to turn the world upside down, you’ll need to start with something that will grab their attention, something catchy, something shocking.  That’s why Jesus starts the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes.

In 1991, author Phillip Yancey was preparing to teach a Sunday school lesson on the Beatitudes.  His prep work involved searching for film clips of Jesus speaking the Beatitudes.

This was in ancient times, before Netflix streaming—so, Yancey was searching for scenes on VCR tapes.  While fast-forwarding or rewinding, he’d flip to CNN.  It was January 1991 and in a press conference, General Norman Schwartzkopf was explaining how the American military had defeated the Iraqi forces in the first Gulf War in just five short days.

Yancey flipped back and forth between Jesus movies and the news conference until he abandoned the VCR altogether– “Stormin’ Norman proved entirely too engaging,” Yancey said.  “He told of the ” end run” around Iraq’ s elite Republican Guard, of a decoy invasion by sea, of the allied capability of marching all the way to Baghdad unopposed… Confident in his mission and proud of the soldiers who had carried it out, Schwarzkopf gave a bravura performance.”  Yancey remembers thinking, “That’s exactly the person you want to lead a war.”

When the briefing ended, Yancey went back to the Jesus movies.  As he watched Max von Sydow’s Jesus slowly recite the Sermon on the Mount in The Greatest Story Ever Told, then compared it to General Schwarzkopf’s briefing, he was struck by the irony that, in Stormin’ Norman’s briefing, he’d been watching the Beatitudes in reverse.

“Blessed are the strong, was the general’s message.  Blessed are the triumphant.  Blessed are the armies wealthy enough to possess smart bombs and Patriot missiles.  Blessed are the liberators, the conquering soldiers.”

“The bizarre juxtaposition of the two speeches gave Yancey a feeling for the shock waves the Sermon on the Mount must have caused among its original audience, Jews in first-century Palestine.  Instead of General Schwarzkopf, they had Jesus, and to a downtrodden people yearning for emancipation from Roman rule, Jesus gave startling and unwelcome advice.  If an enemy soldier slaps you, turn the other cheek.  Rejoice in persecution.  Be grateful for your poverty.  The Iraqis, chastened on the battlefield, got revenge by setting fire to Kuwait’s oil fields; Jesus enjoined not revenge but love for one’s enemies.  How long could a kingdom founded on such principles survive against Rome?”  (The Jesus I Never Knew)

Last week, one of our young people told us what a thrill it was to shake the hand of U.S. Representative John Lewis.  I’ve just finished reading the first volume of the comic book version of Lewis’ life called March.  In it, he says that from the age of 4, he felt called to preach.  Though his life took a different turn, his love for his Christian faith and commitment to living that faith in public still guides everything he does.

One of the things Lewis talks about in March is his love of chickens.  At home on the farm in Alabama, it was Lewis’ job to care for the chickens.  He fed them, tended them…and preached to them.  Nearly every night, he’d gather the chickens into the henhouse, settle them on their roosts, and “lay” a sermon on them.  “They would sit quietly,” he said. “They would bow their heads.  They would shake their heads.  But they would never quite say ‘Amen.’”

In the book, amid pictures of chickens on their roosts, conversation bubbles contain one of Lewis’ sermons:  The Beatitudes.  “Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart.”

When I read the last two bubbles:  “Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kindom of heaven,” another picture flashed in my mind — a picture of Lewis lying on the ground near the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  It was March 7, 1965, the day the people’s march to Montgomery for voting rights was stopped nearly before it began.  In the ensuing chaos, Lewis’ skull was fractured in a beating.

Image result for rep john lewis picture

In another section of the book, Lewis talks about the extensive training in nonviolent resistance he and many others received.  In the sessions, they’d role-play scenes, like enduring abuse while sitting at lunch counters.  A key part of the training was that everyone would play every role…which meant that every person played protester, witness, and attacker.

The most difficult role for any of them to play was attacker.  Can you imagine being a person committed to love and justice having to spew hatred at people who were your friends…to shove them and spit at them and pour things on them?  Some people couldn’t take it and left.

The training sessions helped the protesters learn how to protect themselves, how to disarm their attackers by connecting with their humanity, how to protect each other, how to survive.  “But the hardest part to learn,” Lewis writes, “the hardest part to truly understand, deep in your heart, was how to find love for your attacker.”  “Do not let them shake your faith in nonviolence,” they were told.  “Love them!”

“Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kindom of heaven.”  John Lewis found it, he found the kindom of heaven.  He found it by putting his body on the line for the sake of justice.  He did it by standing up for what is morally right in the face of laws that were morally wrong.   He did it by becoming a part of the solution.  And he did it all, every last bit of it, as a disciple of Jesus.

So…how will you follow Jesus?  As the country and the world change, how will you work with God and others to create the kindom of heaven here on earth?  How will we all, working together, act the world into wellbeing?  How will we, we who want to follow Jesus, help create the world of God’s dreams?

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2017



Daily Devotion – January 29, 2017
01.29.17

Whatever Makes You Ready
Jennifer Garrison Brownell

“As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” – Ephesians 6:15

The author of Ephesians is quite clear as he instructs the new Christian what to wear each morning. His sartorial advice paints a striking picture of the person of faith, outfitted not in the armor of the occupying Romans but in the shining panoply of the Way. The belt of truth.  The breastplate of righteousness. The shield of faith. The helmet of salvation.

But when it comes to footwear, the author is uncharacteristically vague-ish.  Whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace will be the proper shoes for your feet.

Maybe this is because different conflicts call for different approaches to peace, as much as different weather calls for different footwear.  Sometimes the path to peace is navigated by activism, sometimes by intentional conversation, sometimes by quiet prayer. As you dress this morning, you may lace up your brogues of boycott, or pull on your mukluks of mediation or slip into your stilettos of stillness. Whatever you put on your feet, be ready, exhorts Ephesians.  Be ready to stride forth, proclaiming peace with every step.

Prayer
Peacemaker, shod us in the shoes we need to travel the road you have placed before us today.  Amen.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Brownell is the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Vancouver, Washington, and the author of Swim, Ride, Run, Breathe: How I Lost a Triathlon and Caught My Breath, her inspiring memoir.



Daily Devotion – January 28, 2017
01.28.17

Addicted to Guilt
Marchaé Grair

“I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I did not hide; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”; And You forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah.”Psalm 32:5

“You’re addicted to feeling guilty,” she said.

“You are so used to living with guilt that you find reasons to feel guilty for everything, even if you don’t really feel guilty. That’s where you find yourself most at home.”

I stared at my therapist in silence.

Of course, I’d heard of alcohol and drug addictions. Sex addictions. Money addictions.

But addictions to guilt? This one was new.

“So what do I do then?” I asked.

“Start living in reality,” she said. “If you stop feeling guilty for everything without reason, you’ll start seeing how you really feel about what’s happening around you and actually have a chance to be happy.”

I couldn’t just let it go. I never let anything go without an argument.

“But what if I actually feel guilty about all these things?” I asked.

“Then realize you can’t change the past, forgive yourself, and do better next time,” she said. “But I still don’t think you even feel guilty. You’re just not used to taking care of yourself. But keep doing it, and the feeling of guilt will go away.”

That conversation was what some would call an “Oprah aha!” moment, but what I call a God moment.

Sometimes, living with dysfunction and self-doubt is a lot easier than choosing to live the redeemed life our Savior intended.

Look in the mirror, shed your shame, and commit to being the best you anyway. Lay yourself bare before God, and know that even on your worst days, you are enough.

Prayer
Help me release my need to martyr myself through guilt and shame and know that I’ve been set free through the power of your precious name. Amen.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marchaé Grair is the editor of the United Church of Christ blog, New Sacred, and the UCC social media associate.



Who Do YOU Say that I Am?
01.27.17

Image result for who do you say that I am picture

Until 15 years ago, I was a Baptist.  A progressive Baptist…which isn’t an oxymoron, as many would suppose.  In truth, the phrase is redundant.

True Baptist values are best described in terms of freedom–freedom for the individual to interpret Scripture for him or herself, freedom of conscience, freedom for congregations to govern themselves, and religious freedom (manifest in a strong commitment to the separation of church and state).  It was and is my belief that any exclusive or coercive policies or beliefs espoused by Baptists or their institutions is a departure from true historic Baptist principles.

 

In the last decade before I joined the United Church of Christ, I found myself frequently responding to folks who were surprised to learn I was Baptist.  “I’m not that kind of Baptist,” I would assure them.

 

A lot of what I’m reading from progressive Christians these days feels familiar.  “I’m not that kind of Christian,” they say.  I get where they’re coming from.  Statements some folks who call themselves Christians make–especially those that belittle or demean others–leave me in a constant state of rage.  But is telling the world what kind of Christian I am not going to help the world to heal?

 

Jesus once asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  They said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  But that question was just a set-up for his real question:  “Who do you say I am?”  In one of his better moments, Simon gets it right when he says: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

 

Ding!  Ding!  Ding!  Ding!  Jesus says.  (That’s a rough translation.) “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but God in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

It wasn’t in describing what the other people said of Jesus that Peter became the rock upon which the church was built.  It was in describing his own personal understanding of who Jesus was.  Peter was named only as he named Jesus for himself.

I know it’s frustrating to hear the hate-filled rhetoric and see the terrifying patterns of behavior of those who call themselves Christians.  Even so, I suspect the question that still most interests Jesus is not, “Who do people say that I am?” but “Who do you say I am?”

So, who is Jesus to you?



Daily Devotion – January 27, 2017

 

Matthew 5:7

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

 

Devotion by Julia Shiver

According to Wikipedia, mercy is defined as “compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one’s power;” and also “a blessing that is an act of divine favor or compassion.”  “To be at someone’s mercy” indicates a person being “without defense against someone.”

God, I ask only that I can be as merciful to others as you have been merciful to me.

Agnus Dei

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace.

 



Daily Devotion – January 26, 2017
01.26.17

Matthew 5:6

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

 

Devotion by Lynne Buell

The craving of sustenance comes nowhere close to what I was craving in 2010 prior to my first visit to Pilgrimage.  I really didn’t know what I wanted.  I was restless, unhappy, frustrated, and most of all, scared.  It was only a matter of time after I walked through the church entryway that August morning before I started to feel the stress and dissatisfaction with my life melt away.  The Holy Spirit had to give me a nudge, but I was open to the correct path that I needed to be on to begin my faith journey.

 

Prayer:

Thank you, dear God, for blessing me with friends and family who lift me up in ways that I have never experienced.  Thank you, dear God, for protecting me and for keeping me safe by helping me to make better choices.  You are my God, and I will continue to listen to you when you speak.  Amen.



Daily Devotion – January 25, 2017
01.25.17

Matthew 5:5

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

 

Devotion by David Burns

Jesus loves to turn our assumptions on their head.  So much of the Gospel is about the great reversals – the blind are the ones who see, poor become rich, sinners are welcome, last becomes first, greatest among us is the one who is servant of all, the meek will inherit the earth. Really?!

I can see exactly nowhere in our culture that rewards or honors the meek.  We reward the bold and the brash, the movers and shakers, the confident and assertive.  We encourage our children to speak up for themselves, to be competitive and aggressive, and to not let anyone push them around.  We want to be seen as “take charge” people and we are drawn to the athletes and politicians who boldly say the most “in your face” things.  When we look for role models for successful living, we rarely look for the most unassuming among us or those who tend to defer to others.

But there it is…” Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

I am not sure the earth will be such a prize in 100 years, but I think Jesus means to suggest that inheriting the earth is a good thing.  Maybe Jesus means to suggest that those who walk meekly on the earth are the ones who will behave in such a way as to preserve the earth.  Maybe Jesus wants us to see that while the bold and the brash may try to take what is theirs, they will not last. The ones who will eventually enjoy the earth are those who receive the gifts of the earth as an inheritance rather than take it for themselves.  Those who try to take from God the things they want may end up empty handed.  God is a gift-giver, not a victim of theft.

In the kingdoms of people, the bold and the brash are honored and rewarded.  But there is another realm alive and well – the kindom of God – where the blessed and celebrated are the humble, kind, grateful ones who are slow to promote themselves and who walk gently and humanely upon the earth.  Lord help us who are trying to navigate life in both realms at once!

 

Our God, awaken in us gospel values that honor the meek and mild among us, and help us walk in that way ourselves.  Amen.