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Weekly Devotional 4 (Luke 21:5-19)

This devotion was published first in the IGRC for Unity weekly email. As the Communications Director for IGRC for Unity, I compose a weekly email with news, resources, and reflections. IGRC for Unity is a group of Illinois United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan for the United Methodist Church and are working to create a United Methodist Church that is truly open to all. These devotionals will be taken from a text from the Revised Common Lectionary, and will often have a theme of inclusion and welcome.
   The Gospel reading for November 17 in the Revised Common Lectionary is Luke 21:5-19. This is one of those weeks where the lectionary, and most of the subtitles of modern printed Bibles, do a disservice to the text. Many Bibles separate verses 1-4 from the story we have for today, which is a huge mistake. In fact, to truly see this passage and its power, the reader should go back to at least 20:45.
   But first, let’s look at the passage the lectionary gives us. In verses 5-19 Jesus predicts not only the Temple’s fate, which is disastrous, but also predicts the coming troubles for those who follow him. Verse 5 opens with people talking about the beauty of the Temple. Jesus responds that this beautiful structure will all come crashing down. What’s more, in the coming days things are going to get worse. He reminds his followers that remaining faithful to him will come at great cost. Many of the things Jesus mentions, earthquakes, famine, and epidemics were not altogether uncommon. These things however, were often interpreted as signs of God’s punishing judgment. Instead, Jesus is reminding them that even in the midst of trial, God’s plan is still unfolding. The disasters are not a sign of God’s wrath, but instead should serve as reminder’s of Jesus’ predictions. The disciples could take comfort in the midst of disaster knowing that their God is still with them.
   Of course, the destruction of the Temple did occur some 40 years later. It is difficult to overstate the trauma of this event, even to the early Christian church. Instead of seeing it as a disaster though, followers of Christ were called to see even this devastation as a sign that God was working in the world – not causing the destruction, but working even through such destruction to bring God’s Kingdom.
   Now, let’s get back to verses 1-4. This is known as “the widow’s offering.” Jesus saw a widow give the last of what she had to the Temple. In the very next scene, the people are marveling at its beauty. Jesus did not see its beauty – although it was quite magnificent. Instead, he only saw an institution that was taking a widow’s last coins. The beauty of the outside of the institution did not match the fruit that it was bearing. Instead of being a place where people were inspired to care for the widow, the orphan, and the alien, it was a place where marginalized were pushed farther away. In the verses immediately before the widow’s offering, Jesus warned against those who “cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers.”
   The widow’s offering and the beauty of the Temple served as a perfect object lesson for Jesus, and it should serve as a timely warning for us in the grand temples of Methodism today. We live in an institution that has appeared to have a beautiful facade. It is the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States. There are great cathedrals in our cities, first churches in our towns, General Boards and Agencies that wield power and influence. The Cross and the Flame is indeed a beautiful ornament dedicated to God. Perhaps on the inside though, something has been ill. Does the fruit of exclusion match the fruit that Christ calls us to bear?
   Jesus’ prediction against the Temple came on the heels of witnessing first hand the “devouring of widow’s homes.” What would he say about the Church who continues to marginalize and do harm to our LGBTQ siblings?

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Weekly Devotional 3 (Haggai 1:15; 2:1-9)

This is my weekly devotional, based on the Revised Common Lectionary, with a theme of inclusion. I started this exercise as a part of the IGRC For Unity newsletter. IGRC for United is a group of centrist and progressive United Methodists who have rejected the Traditional Plan (and its punitive exclusion of LGBTQ people and those who support them), and are working for a United Methodist Church that is truly for all.

One of the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary is from Haggai. This is one of the “Table of Contents” books of the Bible. If I had an actual printed Bible, I would be turning to the table of contents to find it. I know its somewhere near the back of the Hebrew Bible, but its short and easy to flip past. It’s safe to say that the pages of this prophet are not well-worn. This does not mean it’s not worth reading.

Like any of the prophets, Haggai’s historical context is important; and unlike some prophets, it Haggai’s context is remarkably clear. “The second year of King Darius” can be translated to August of 520 BCE. Darius was “noted for his administrative genius and for his great building projects” (Encyclopedia Britannica). Cyrus the Great officially ended the Jewish exile in 538 BCE, 18 years before Haggai. The people were trying to rebuild the Temple, but it was not going well. There were some who considered it of secondary concern. Some were conflicted over how it should get done.

Haggai came to try to set the people on the course of rebuilding. He saw the construction of the Temple as an essential part of their relationship with God, and the people were too busy on their own pet projects to get to work on what mattered. There were some that thought that building something new wasn’t worth the trouble because there was no way that they could recreate what had come before.

Rebuilding is not about re-creating what came before. Pining for the “good old days,” while neglecting what needs to be done now is the most toxic impulse connected to nostalgia. If the Church is to be in the business of renewal and revival, it should not be trying to recreate the 1950’s. We are to seek a relationship with the living God. We are not called to build a museum to what things used to be.

In this passage, God promises restoration and salvation. The promises are rooted in how God has saved in the past, but this does not mean God is doing the same thing as before. God saved and will save again. We are to do our part, rebuilding our hearts, rebuilding our communities, and yes, rebuilding our churches – not in the image of what was before, but in the image of God who creates all, redeems all, and sustains all.

 

 

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Thursday-Friday devotional, part 8

The next few posts are going to be a running devotional, reading through the Gospel of Mark, with short commentary and prayer.  I will post several of these over the next few days, leading up to the Easter.
SCRIPTURE

People walking by insulted him, shaking their heads and saying, “ Ha! So you were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, were you? Save yourself and come down from that cross!”

In the same way, the chief priests were making fun of him among themselves, together with the legal experts. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself. Let the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from the cross. Then we’ll see and believe.” Even those who had been crucified with Jesus insulted him. From noon until three in the afternoon the whole earth was dark. At three, Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you left me?”

After hearing him, some standing there said, “Look! He’s calling Elijah!” Someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, and put it on a pole. He offered it to Jesus to drink, saying, “Let’s see if Elijah will come to take him down.” But Jesus let out a loud cry and died.

The curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. When the centurion, who stood facing Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “This man was certainly God’s Son.”

REFLECTION

“My God, My God, why have you left me?” I’ve wondered the same thing.  “Why?” is a common question that is posed to God.  All too often the answer is left unanswered.  Some may find it disconcerting to think of Jesus asking this question while on the cross.  How can God abandon Jesus?  If they are one in the same, how is this possible?

Tomes have been written on the subject by people more learned and articulate than me.    So we discover another “Why” question in the midst of the ultimate “Why?”  There are a lot of explanations to Jesus’ cry.  Whole sects and heresies have risen and fallen based on different answers to this question.  In seminary, this is the part of the class that started throwing out words like “Neo-Platanism, Gnostics, and Arianism.”  This was the part of the class that my eyes got glossy, and I longed for the next coffee break.

I value my seminary education, and cherish every moment I spent immersed in the transformative learning that I experienced in seminary, yet I admit I am no Biblical scholar.  I would fail miserably as a seminary professor.

I speak only as a man of faith when I say that Jesus’ cry on the cross haunts me and comforts me.  It is both a great source of humility and a source of strength.  For one, I know the Psalm which Jesus is quoting.  When he cries out “Why have you left me?” he is quoting Psalm 22.  It is as if he is shouting out the title of a song, which starts with loss, isolation, and abandonment, but ends with assurance, comfort, and victory.

It is entirely possible that in Jesus’ last cry the whole of the Psalm is captured.  And thus, the whole of Jesus’ mission.  It is a call forward, not just of despair, but of promise that out of despair God will raise us up.  Psalm 22 is a promise to all generations, to the future people of God that God will be present.  Given the fact that crucifixion is meant to wipe out one’s future legacy, this is a bold statement.  To claim Psalm 22 is to claim the promise of God even in the midst of apparent loss.

I also feel though, that I have to be careful to not read too much into Jesus’ cry.  It is, on surface, a cry of lamentation.  I have to ask myself, is it okay to leave it that way?  Is it okay to leave Jesus on the cross alone and forsaken?  Is it okay to leave Jesus a man that is facing his own mortality as any other man would?  Is it okay to have a Savior that was that vulnerable?  Is it okay to let Jesus be abandoned?

When I have fallen on my knees in shame, when I have pounded the ground in despair, when I have let myself be vulnerable, only to be taken advantage of and wounded, when I have screamed at the top of my lungs in agony, is it okay?  There is a part of me that finds it reassuring to know that Jesus is not high up on a cross, dying with quiet dignity, above the fray.  I am comforted in knowing that when I am at my lowest, Jesus is there too.  When I feel beaten, battered, and bruised, I pray to a God who knows what I feel.  I pray to a God that has died with me.  When I scream at God in despair, I know that I do so in good company.  I am not going to be offered easy answers.  I am simply going to have a Savior that wraps his arms around me and whispers, “I am with you.”  And I will know that he speaks from experience.

PRAYER

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? It is a question I have asked before, and if I am honest, it is one I will surely ask again.  Even in my asking I know that it will never really be true.  Even in my struggle I know that you are always present, and for that I am forever grateful.  Amen.

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Thursday-Friday Devotional, part 7

The next few posts are going to be a running devotional, reading through the Gospel of Mark, with short commentary and prayer.  I will post several of these over the next few days, leading up to Easter.
SCRIPTURE

Mark 15:16-28.  The soldiers led Jesus away into the courtyard of the palace known as the governor’s headquarters, and they called together the whole company of soldiers. They dressed him up in a purple robe and twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on him. They saluted him, “Hey! King of the Jews!”

Again and again, they struck his head with a stick. They spit on him and knelt before him to honor him. When they finished mocking him, they stripped him of the purple robe and put his own clothes back on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.  Simon, a man from Cyrene, Alexander and Rufus’ father, was coming in from the countryside. They forced him to carry his cross.

They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha, which means Skull Place. They tried to give him wine mixed with myrrh, but he didn’t take it. They crucified him. They divided up his clothes, drawing lots for them to determine who would take what. It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. The notice of the formal charge against him was written, “The king of the Jews.” They crucified two outlaws with him, one on his right and one on his left

REFLECTION

Crucifixion was more than a death penalty.  It was total annihilation.  The purpose of crucifixion was to remove a person from existence.  By stripping a man naked, flogging him until he was covered with blood, hanging him on public display along a popular path, the Roman authorities knew that the one crucified would be wiped from consciousness.  Those crucified were made permanently unclean.  

No one could touch them from the moment they were hung, and yet no one could turn away.  Adam Hamilton, in his gripping Bible study 24 Hours that Changed the World, explains that one being crucified was not hanging high, isolated from those passing by.  The elevation of the cross, he claims, was actually only about 9 feet.  Jesus’ head would have been lower than a basketball hoop.  His majority of his naked, beaten, bloody, body would have been at eye level.

The humiliation of this death was complete.  It was meant to rob a person not only of his present life, but of his past and of his future.  There would be no legacy for those crucified.  The pain was such that memory would be purged.  The words and deeds of the crucified could not be remembered.  The loved ones and relatives of the crucified one would never claim him.  Crucifixion was a physical, emotional, and spiritual death.

This is what Jesus faced.  The Gospel of Mark does not soften the blow.  There are no redemptive words of forgiveness, as we have in Luke.  There is no tender moment of compassion, nor determined strength of a man carrying his own cross, as we have in John.  There is only a man too weak to carry on.  There is a only a man that is hung with outlaws, spat on and mocked.  There is no dignity in this death.  There is nothing good on this Friday.

On some level, this needs to be the message of Good Friday.  Allow that irony in that name sink in.  Allow the questions.  Allow the sadness.  Allow the reality of injustice hit you with all of its force.  The world is broken, and there is no greater evidence to that fact than the cross on Golgotha where a man was led to die.  God was made flesh, and we crucified him.  That is all we need to know about the human condition.

PRAYER

My soul cries out to thee, O Lord.  Out of the depths do I cry.  The injustice of this world is crippling.  It is paralyzing.  When I ponder for a moment the injustice and cruelty that people are capable, it causes me to tremble.  Tremble.  Tremble.  I seek no quick fixes or easy answers.  I seek only comfort and a promise that this is not the end of the story. Amen.

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Thursday-Friday Devotional, part 1

The next few posts are going to be a running devotional, reading through the Gospel of Mark, with short commentary and prayer.  I will post several of these over the next few days, leading up to Easter.
"They promised to give him money"

“They promised to give him money”

SCRIPTURE

Mark 14:10-11 “Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money.  So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him” (New Revised Standard Version)

REFLECTION

What motivated Judas to betray Jesus?  In Matthew, it seems as if Judas is looking for some kind of gain in order to betray Jesus.  In Mark, the reward money seems like an afterthought.  In both Luke’s and John’s gospel, the blame is placed on Satan, who enters Judas.  The passage we find in Mark comes immediately after a story of a nameless woman that anoints Jesus was very expensive ointment.  During this exchange, “some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way?’… and they scolded her.”  John’s gospel names Judas as the one that was angry, “not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief” (John 12:6).

So what do we make of Judas?  Was he possessed by the devil, not acting of his own accord?  Was he under some sort of demonic control?  Was he simply scheming for a way to make a little money?  Was he, as some posit, disappointed that Jesus was not gathering an army?  We don’t know what motivated Judas, but when I read “Satan entered him,” I understand this to mean that Judas was tormented.  I may not understand how or why Judas betrayed his friend, but it seems clear that Temptation overwhelmed him.

And I understand that.  I understand what it means to fall.  I understand what it means to fail someone I love.  I understand what it means to come up short when tested.  I may never know the heart of Judas. I don’t need to. I know my own.

PRAYER

Holy and gracious God, I have betrayed you.  I have forgotten your commands.  I have ignored your pleas.  I have turned away from the path that Jesus has shown us, and chosen my own path.  Forgive me.  Strengthen me in my weariness.  Though I do not deserve it, I seek the power of your love, forgiveness, and grace. Amen.

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