Wednesday January 31 2018

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Scripture: Genesis 22: 1-18

Key verse: (14) “So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide”, as it is said to this day, “on the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”

Reflection: This story troubles and confuses me.  I don’t understand why God would require a human sacrifice when throughout scripture, God prohibits it.  One of my professors in seminary called this story – suspension of the teleological – the setting aside of the ethical. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrestled with this passage in his book Fear and Trembling in which he considered this story and the problem of understanding God.  He asked: Is there a higher law than the ethical law?  Is God this higher law?  These are deep theological and philosophical questions with practical implications. Killing one’s son is wrong no matter how you look at it.  So, how can God require a test of faith like this one?  We know the end of the story: God graciously provided a way out, but what about the three days it took Abraham and Isaac to get to the place of sacrifice?  It must have been a terrible burden for Abraham to carry.  Yet, his faith allowed him to accept the test in the midst of uncertainty.

As I have reflected on this story over the years, I have looked at it in many different ways.  First, life tests us and God allows this testing for reasons we can’t always understand.  Second, God provides something to help us survive.  It probably won’t be a ram in a thicket, but it could be a friend, a stranger, an act of kindness, a prayer, or just about anything that reminds us of God’s faithfulness.   Third, Abraham had a strong faith.  He believed and trusted God.  His faith was tested in the worst possible way.  God asked him to give up what he loved most – his son and his future.  Finally, what is God calling us to give up on the altar of sacrifice?  I wonder – do we have the faith we need to believe that in the testing a faithful, loving God will provide?  I pray so.

Prayer: Faithful God, there are times when we don’t understand what you are doing in the world or in our lives.  And, there are times when you ask us to do something we aren’t willing to do because we are afraid. Help us to yield ourselves to you and experience your love and grace so that when times of challenge or testing come we will have the resources we need to see your provision.  With gratitude, we thank you for your faithfulness to us.  May we learn to be faithful to you.  In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Author: Deborah Conner

[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].

 

Tuesday January 30 2018

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Scripture: Genesis 21:1-21

Key verse: (17) And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “what troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.”

Reflection: There is a pattern in scripture that reveals the extravagant grace of God. Over and over again, God unpredictably cares for the outcast. In today’s passage, we are reminded that Abraham and Sarah had been promised a descendant but when Sarah didn’t become pregnant, she offered her slave Hagar to Abraham to be a surrogate mother. Hagar gives birth to Ishmael but Ishmael is not the heir God intended. Later Sarah becomes pregnant and has a son named Isaac. Then Sarah becomes jealous. She doesn’t want to share the household with Hagar and she doesn’t want Ishmael to remain in the family and inherit any of Abraham’s blessings. She asks Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael out. Abraham is reluctant but he complies after God assures him that all will be well. Hagar and Ishmael travel into the wilderness and quickly run out of their meager provisions. God hears the cries of Ishmael and an angel tells Hagar that God has heard the boy.

Sometimes it’s tempting to think God only hears our prayers.  God only hears our cries. God is our God and we don’t want to share God with outsiders.  Scripture presents a different view. God hears the cry of Ishmael, God has mercy on the Ninevites which makes Jonah angry, God welcomes Cornelius and his family to baptism overcoming Peter’s concerns about cleanliness. God welcomes the outcasts and shows them care and mercy. God welcomes the “other” whoever that may be.

In his 1865 inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln said about the Union and the Confederacy: “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” In our own time, conservatives and liberals claim that God is on their side in the culture wars and the political tensions. Lincoln was able to see a bigger picture and recognize that God isn’t owned by one side or the other. How would it change our faith if we understood that God loves our enemies as much as God loves us? (ouch, it hurt to write that question) How would it change our behavior if we believed that God cares for the people we push aside?

Prayer: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea. There’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty. There is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in heaven. There is no place where earth’s failings have such kindly judgment given.

For the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind. And the heart of the Eternal is more wonderfully kind. If our love were but more faithful, we would gladly trust God’s Word, and our lives reflect thanksgiving for the goodness of our Lord.” Amen.

Author: Millie Snyder

(prayer is hymn #435 from Glory to God, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy”)

[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].

Monday January 29 2018

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Scripture: John 6:27-40

Key verses: (32-35) 32Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” 35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Reflection: The image of Jesus as bread is a powerful one. We lift it up regularly in our communion liturgy, and speak of the Bread of Life, Bread from Heaven, the true bread, breaking bread together, and on and on. But bread is most powerful for those who need it desperately. In her book Waiting for God, Simone Weil wrote: “The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.”

What are you hungry for today? Can you see and name your deep hunger for God? Can you identify the place in you that isn’t filled up by all the things you use to distract yourself from your need for God? This is where God meets us in Jesus Christ, the bread of life.

Prayer: Lord, you are the bread of life. And I am hungry. Help me admit my need for you. Slow me down enough to recognize it. Then fill me with your bread. I pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Author: Julie Hester

[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].

Friday January 26 2018

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Scripture: Psalm 139

Key verse: (14)  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

Reflection: We are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are created by God, known by God and belong to God. That is the good news of this beautiful psalm. These bodies we abuse over and over again are the handiwork of God. Nadia Bolz Webber has a great suggestion: “the church should open a shop right in the middle of all the Botox and liposuction clinics where for free anybody could walk in and we’d tell them that their bodies are wonderfully knit together by God.  That their bodies are holy and beautiful to the one in whose image they were created.  And then maybe we could serve them bread and wine.”

Belonging to God is not just a feeling, this is spiritual. Our bodies, regardless of the flaws, are the same form taken on by God in the birth of Jesus. Jesus who reached out to sinners, told amazing stories and performed miracles that still baffle us. Jesus gave us communion where we eat and remember who we are.

When your body disappoints you or when you are hyper-critical, remember this psalm. When you wonder where you fit it, what life is about or even the nature of God, remember this psalm.  We are an incredible work of art, knit together by God with God’s own breath.

13For it was God who formed your inward parts; and knit you together in your mother’s womb.

14 praise God, for you are reverently and wonderfully made and wonderful are God’s works.”

We cannot argue with that good news.

Prayer: Creator God, thank you that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Help me believe these words and live accordingly. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.

Author: Michelle Thomas-Bush

[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].

Thursday January 25 2018

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Scripture: John 5:30-47

Key verse: (39) “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”

Reflection: Last week the American Bible Society of Charlotte released the findings of a Spiritual Needs Assessment conducted in our community last year.  Of the 2,000 people surveyed, 93% considered themselves familiar with Scripture.  I was stunned by that number.  While I’d love to believe it’s true, in my experience I do not find that 9 out 10 people I encounter have a basic understanding of the story of the Bible.  Perhaps “familiar” meant, “I’ve heard of the Bible.”  I don’t know.  60% of survey respondents claimed they attended church once or twice a month.  Again, I found myself wondering about the truthfulness of the responses to the survey.  In a metropolitan area of 1.9 million people, do 1,140,000 people attend church once or twice a month?  Perhaps.  50% of people who describe themselves as “regular church attendees” say they engage the Bible during the week.  As a reader of this devotional, you’re included in this number, so I’m preaching to the choir!

Our reading for the morning centers in a moment of controversy between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day.  They are angry with Jesus because he healed a man on the Sabbath. I would imagine that even more than 93% of religious leaders in Jesus’s day considered themselves familiar with Scripture.  And I bet more than 60% of them attended worship services regularly.  I’m fairly confident a lot more than 50% of them engaged Scripture daily.  Yet, they cannot rejoice that a man who has been ill for 38 years was healed.  Why?  Because he’s carrying his mat on the Sabbath.  Jesus wonders what Bible they’ve been reading.  He says that the scriptures they read “bear witness to me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”

Sometimes I wonder what Bible we’re reading.  I believe Jesus is the living Word of God. The Bible is authoritative because it is the unique witness to the revelation of God in Jesus.  Coming to him, we discover what life is all about.  What does it mean to come to him?  He’ll be very clear about that later in John’s gospel.  “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you.  By this they will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In John’s gospel, coming to Christ means living out love for one another.   Can you imagine if 93% of Charlotteans lived out our love for one another?  Can you imagine a city where 1,140,000 people lived out love for their neighbors as often as they went to church?  Would children in Charlotte born into poverty be more likely to stay in poverty than in any other city in the nation if we loved like this?  Would we be willing to do whatever it takes to provide early childhood education for every child in Charlotte if we loved like this?  Would the increasing epidemic of isolation and loneliness in our society exist if we loved like this? Could we imagine being vulnerable enough to our sisters and brothers in this congregation that we could develop meaningful relationships with one another if we loved like this?

Chapter 5 begins with Jesus asking the man who had been ill for thirty-eight years, “Do you want to be made well?”  It’s an important question for us all to consider.  By the end of chapter 5, he tells us what it takes.  In loving one another, we come to Christ.  Coming to Him, we discover what life is all about.

Prayer: “Lord, I believe.  Help thou my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)  Amen.

Author: Joe Clifford

[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].

 

 

Wednesday January 24 2018

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Scripture: Psalm 147: 1-11

Key verses: (2-3) “The LORD builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel, he heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.”

Reflection: This psalm of praise reminds us that God is stronger than any hardship we might face.  Many people around the world are suffering right now.  Some of these people are very different than we are – they live in different countries, speak different languages and have different customs.  And, yet we all share a common humanity.  We all can be wounded, downtrodden, or cast to the ground by the misfortunes and missteps of human life.  The Psalmist reminds us that the LORD who created the heavens and the earth and everything in it draws close to those who hope in God’s steadfast love.  In the good times, it is easy to give thanks to God for God’s great care.  In the difficult times, it is much harder.  But, there is one thing we can be grateful for no matter what may be happening to us and that is the LORD’s sustaining presence.  Sometimes we don’t realize this until we get on the other side of difficulty and look back.  Then, we realize that the LORD promises to bless us and give us peace no matter what is happening.  This doesn’t mean that everything will magically change and be better.  The struggles remain, but we are not alone.  We have God and we have each other.

If you are tempted to think you are the only one who struggles, think again.  We hide our hurts from each other, but God knows.  Lean on the LORD and remember God’s great power can lift you up and carry you through.

Prayer: We praise you, Lord because even in the hard times, you won’t let us go.  Help us to remember your steadfast love and to trust in your sustaining presence.  May all those who are hurting today, seek your face and find your blessing.  In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

Author: Deborah Conner

[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].

Tuesday January 23 2018

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Scripture: John 5:1-18

Key verse: (17) But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.”

Reflection: Generally I am a rule-follower. I prefer knowing what to expect. I like order and organization. So I notice when someone is breaking the rules and, if I don’t take time to think, I’m quick to judge them negatively for it. I’m like “the Jews” in this story from the gospel of John. According to the gospel writer, the Jews had focused on the rules of keeping the Sabbath. When Jesus healed a sick man on the Sabbath, the rule-followers were quick to judge. They judged the healthy man who was walking away carrying his mat (a Sabbath no-no) and they judged Jesus for healing him on the Sabbath.

Jesus answered them in our key verse above, reminding them that God doesn’t stop caring for creation and loving humanity just because it’s the Sabbath. And Jesus wouldn’t stop either! God and Jesus keep on working at loving people all of the time. The Sabbath rules were never intended to keep people from loving one another. Many of the Sabbath rules had become the focus or the end in themselves for the rule-followers, rather than the means to deepen worship and faithfulness.

When I look first at the rules and not at the people involved, I need to be reminded that God keeps on loving us all the time. When I am quick to judge someone, I need to slow down and ask myself what it would mean to love them instead. Some of the “rules” I have learned are more about my culture, my upbringing, my economic status and not about God’s will. God loves. God keeps on loving and never stops “working” to love us. We are called to do the same.

Prayer: Dear Lord, when I am more focused on the rules and not on caring for those around me, correct me. Show me how to love those around me, with disregard for what other people will think of me. Give me grace not to judge others harshly. Through Christ I pray. Amen.

Author: Millie Snyder

[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].

Monday January 22 2018

Monday

Scripture: John 4:43-54

Key verses: (46-50) 46Then he came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum. 47When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. 48Then Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” 49The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my little boy dies.” 50Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way.

Reflection: The father in this story is not alone. We all want to see signs and wonders. When a loved one is sick, or when our lives seem to be falling apart, we want the big miracles, and we are prepared to do almost anything for them. The royal official comes a long way to beg Jesus to heal his son, and we get it. We understand the desperate impulse that led him to walk an 8-hour journey, according to Google maps. Jesus understands this, too.

I am struck by the words of Jesus, and what happens next. Jesus says, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe,” which sounds like Jesus believes the man’s faith is dependent on a flashy miracle. But notice that the man believes the words of Jesus, when he says “Go; your son will live.” He believes him even before the healing happens, and starts back home in faith. On the road he is met by his slaves who bring news of the boy’s healing. Indeed, the story tells us that the boy was healed at the moment that Jesus was speaking to the father. The father believes Jesus, just his words, even before the miracle happens.

What if the signs and wonders are not the miraculous acts that we want Jesus to enact, and are instead, just Jesus himself? What if Jesus is the sign? Jesus is the one who shows us God’s love and grace, in every encounter, with or without miracles, from the beginning until the very end. When we encounter the Word, in Jesus, we are seeing the sign and the wonder. That’s what leads to faith. Jesus himself. Let’s keep our eyes open for him.

Prayer: Lord, you are the sign of love and grace. Keep my eyes open to your presence and action in the world. Teach me to see you, and strengthen my faith. In your name I pray. Amen.

Author: Julie Hester

[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].

Friday January 19 2018

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Scripture: John 6:1-15

Key verse: (7) Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

Reflection: Growing up in New Orleans, my family loved a community gathering and could feed hundreds. Everything was an event. If we had family over, fried shrimp would be made for hours. Crawfish boils were for any special occasion in late spring and sometimes the occasion was that it was crawfish season. Bags and bags of oysters were shucked when my dad had out-of-town business guests. The more the merrier!

We didn’t know a crowd until Hurricane Katrina, when thousands had lost everything and gathered for whatever food was being offered. The need was overwhelming. Facing overwhelming need has become routine for us after fires, mudslides, flooding and a multitude of hurricanes. Whatever we have to offer seems so small in the face of the need. Yet, we see from this passage that what we have to offer given to Jesus becomes so much more.

The community gathering together in response is not enough. The two fish and five loaves in addition to anything else the crowd had stashed away were not enough. We occasionally interpret this passage to mean that if we pull together, we become the miracle.  Even when we pull together more than enough, Jesus brings about the transformation.  Jesus binds people together in a community, in love and hope.

Prayer: God, help us keep you at the center of everything. Amen.

Author: Michelle Thomas-Bush

[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].

Thursday January 18 2018

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Scripture: Genesis 11:1-9

Key verse: (4) “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens. And let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

Reflection: “What we’ve got here, is a failure to communicate.”  That famous line from the 1967 classic, “Cool Hand Luke” aptly describes the story of the Tower of Babel.  Babel represents the close of what scholars call Genesis’ primeval history.  Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad suggests the first eleven chapters of Genesis can be understood as a succession of four falls paired with four acts of grace on the part of God. Eden is the first fall, leading to Adam and Eve’s expulsion. Grace is found in that God gives them skins to protect them, softening the sentence.  In the second fall, Cain murders Abel, and is cast out to the land of Nod.  In grace God marks Cain for his protection. He becomes the founder of cities and music and culture.  In the third fall, the earth is corrupt with violence, so “God pulls the ultimate CONTROL-ALT-DELETE,” as my friend Jarret McLaughlin describes it, by flooding all the earth. Yet the ark embodies God’s grace as a remnant is preserved.

In von Rad’s assessment, Babel represents the fourth fall.  So what is the sin?  “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.”  What could possibly be wrong with this?  Wouldn’t it be great if the whole world could get together on something?  Can you imagine if we all spoke the same language?  That would make things so much easier.  And what could possibly be wrong with everyone sticking together and settling in the land of Shinar? A hint is found in that the Hebrew word Shinar grows out of a root word meaning, “We shall rebel.”

There’s something about this togetherness that represents rebellion.  What is this rebellion?  In the first ten chapters of Genesis, time and time again God calls humanity to spread out.  “Be fruitful and multiply … fill the earth,” says God to Adam and Eve.  “Be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it,” God says to Noah and his family as they exit the ark.  After the flood, the nations scatter over the earth; a good thing as far as God is concerned.  Yet at Babel, the whole earth has one language and the same words, and they all come to Shinar and settle there.  The rebellion of Babel is not unity, it is homogeneity.

They gather together around sameness and seek to make a name for themselves by building a tower.  Christian ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr described this kind of sameness as a type of faith.  He called it “henotheism, that social faith which makes a finite society …the object of trust [and] loyalty. …In henotheism, the community’s continuation, power and glory are the unifying end of all its actions.”   It is essentially when a culture or a cause becomes a god.  So it was in Babel.  To make a name for themselves, the people seek to build a city with a tower reaching to the heavens, “lest they be scattered abroad upon the whole face of the earth,” which is actually what God told them to do.  What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

So God mixes things up by confusing their language.  God will not stand for the homogeneity of language and culture that keeps people glommed together in the same place building a name for themselves.  That’s God’s work.  At Babel God shatters the self-fashioned idol of sameness, scattering the people over all the earth, giving birth to the multiplicity of language and culture that will never be flattened into homogeneity.

That’s the fourth fall of the Primeval narrative, as von Rad describes it.  So where’s the grace?  It begins with the next chapter, with the call of Abram and Sarai to leave what they know, to trust God’s vision for their tomorrows and go to a land God will show them that God might make of them a great nation, and bless them, and bless all the nations of the earth through them, and make their name great.  So begins the unfolding story of God’s grace in response to the fall at Babel, the story that is the rest of the Bible.  At Pentecost, this story continues to unfold.  Some see Pentecost as a reversal of Babel, but that’s not what it is at all.  By the end of the miracle at Pentecost, the people are not all back to speaking the same language.  Rather each person hears in their own language the mighty acts of God.  Their unity is in God, not in their own homogeneity.

This is a powerful word for the church.  In a time when churches are organizing more and more around like-mindedness, I wonder if we’re not creating homogenous temples of henotheism.  Our diversity of thought at MPPC is a gift.  Our unity is not in any political ideology or socio-economic circumstance or shared life experience.  Our unity is in Christ.  Our diversity is what keeps us from fashioning idols forged from homogeneity. It’s a God-given gift.  May we be faithful stewards of this gift.

Prayer: You are one, O God.  We are many.  Our unity is in You, Your love, Your claim upon our lives.  Help us live as sisters and brothers in the family of faith united in you.  Amen.

Author: Joe Clifford

[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].