Archive for September, 2017

Matthew 10:40-42

September 29, 2017

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” Matthew 10:40-42

Hurricane Harvey isn’t over in Houston. While it is possible for the vast majority of people to imagine that life is back to normal because their own lives are largely back to normal, the recovery has barely started for others. Many neighborhoods are still decorated with piles of debris for landscaping. School overcrowding has taken on a new meaning as many schools absorb the additional students whose own schools won’t reopen this year, if they reopen at all.

Here at my house, my daughter and her children continue to share a bedroom. But they are beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Kate is starting to imagine rebuilding the house. A new normal is just a few months away.

My own recovery continues as I impatiently experience the irritating aftermath of heart surgery. Every day something different hurts. It is weird how tiring it can be to do next to nothing. But I’m certainly getting better and I’m grateful that nothing at all has gone wrong. I’m right on schedule. In the midst of all of this, I can’t quit reading every news article written each day about the plight of those living in Puerto Rico and the islands.

What could be a better picture of the disparate realities faced by the poor and the well-to-do? Texas and Florida are both wealthy states. They are both populous and politically powerful. The state governments are well funded and the federal government’s response has been swift and overwhelmingly positive. Yesterday, my daughter told me that FEMA money suddenly showed up in her checking account.

Immediately I thought again about Puerto Rico. Families who are homeless now in a place without the basic necessities of life, with no idea how long it will take to even begin rebuilding. I read about the poverty and the burden of debt that makes solving any problem all the more difficult. And I read about decisions like keeping the Jones Act in place long after its original purpose was fulfilled, severely limiting Puerto Rico’s capacity to experience the benefits of free trade and competition.

This is the world into which Jesus sends his followers. He warns us that healing the brokenness of life will not come without a price. He says that pointing out and condemning – not simply noticing and explaining away – the disparities between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless – will be cause for rejection and oppression. He invites us into that fray and assures us that we won’t be alone.

He tells us that even the simplest act of welcoming the refugee, of serving the broken, even offering as little as a cup of cold water, will not go unnoticed. That line hit me particularly hard this morning. The ice maker in my refrigerator never quit working through Hurricane Harvey. I imagine the possibility that, this very morning, a father in an isolated village in Puerto Rico, also hosting his daughter’s family, is likely wondering when any of them will again taste a cup of cold, fresh, water. When that day comes, the father will thank not just the aid worker, or the construction company, he will thank God because that is how God will show up for him.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, let us never grow weary of doing the right thing. Let us never lose sight of our privileges and your call that we never lose sight of the oppressed. Bless every and all effort to bring hope and restoration into the lives of those devastated by hurricanes and earthquakes and every other sign of the groaning of your creation. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.


Matthew 10:31-39

September 28, 2017

So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. Matthew 10:31-39

This is a hard text because it requires us to look straight in the eyes of the hard realities of life.

First century Christians could read these words and immediately recognize what had been happening all around them. Christianity was born out of the death of a very difficult time in Jewish history. The resistance to Rome erupted in an unwinnable war that left Jerusalem in ruins and the historic temple destroyed. Some saw Jesus as the answer while others saw him as the cause. People took sides and families were split.

What makes this so hard is that it attacks our deepest longings. We want our families to be safe places in life, resilient teams that band together to face whatever is difficult. The new season of the television series “This Is Us” kicked off this week. Watching it is also a emotional experience because it draws upon this desire for togetherness and mutual support even as it exposes the many pressures and challenges that make life difficult.

All of this is amplified in the church. We want Christian community that functions as our “other family.” For many people, the expectation is that what was missing in their home life might be fulfilled in their relationships at church. In reality, what was missing in their home lives ends up fueling unmet expectations at church. People get divided and disappointed in painful ways.

People in recovery have long said that “expectations are seeds for future resentment.” They learn that most often as they review what life has been like for them along the way. Until they learn that, they aren’t able to live life on life’s terms, to accept the reality of letting go of expectations, letting go of the need to control, and letting go of pinning their hopes on how other people need to be in order for them to have an easier way in life.

This has less to do about choosing sides and dividing and more about choosing to slow down, to act rather than react, to love the best and leave the rest. It is about maturing. It is about finding a life that is really life.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we long for a sense of togetherness and connectedness because that is how you made us. That is your image in us, our hunger for relationships. But these can be so fragile, even among our closest family members and friends. Help us grow toward that place where we can accept life as it is. Help us find a life that is truly life, one step at a time. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 10:23-30

September 27, 2017

When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. Matthew 10:23-30

Remember who you are, and what you represent.” Those were the inevitable words part of many of the Friday night speeches given by the director of the Bible camp where I worked in college. Saturday was our one day off per week thus we heard those words before being unleashed upon an unsuspecting public. The camp staff were to be roving ambassadors of the values of our Bible camp. The value system of Jesus in real life.

Then the “worldly” in us kicked into gear. The other value system. The one we have breathed in the air around us since birth. “It’s all about you so do your own thing.” “Perception is reality.” “Go along to get along.” “Keep your head down.” “You are the sum of your achievements.” “If you do it, don’t get caught.” “If nobody knows, it didn’t happen.” “If you get caught, don’t confess.” “Gaming the system IS the game of the system.”

It is clear that doing the “Jesus thing” in life will not be without opposition or persecution. It will always be challenging to us as it will always be challenging to the value system of the world. That’s a given. But do we have the eyes to see?

I read a great article the other day about the Christianity of Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick. My sense is that the wider public has long associated Tim Tebow with the Christian faith but few, if any, have tied Kaepernick’s public protest against racial injustice to him acting out of his own sense of following Jesus.

There is no question that Kaepernick has been paying a dear price for his actions. His name will ever be linked to sports figures like Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Click on that link to be reminded of that story and you will be surprised anew to remember that the third man on that podium was Peter Norman of Australia. He, like both Smith and Carlos, was wearing a badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Norman was particularly opposed to the White Australia movement in his own country.

That all happened in 1968. 46 years ago. Don’t we still have a long way to go?

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, inspire us anew to be in the world in a way that points beyond ourselves to you – to your own sense of what brokenness means and what wholeness needs. Bless those willing to suffer for those who suffer, to speak for those with no voice, to stand with those unable to stand on their own. Remind us that you are with us, that you know us down to each strand of our hair. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 10:16-22

September 26, 2017

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.

When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name.

But the one who endures to the end will be saved. Matthew 10:16-22

Next month will include the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. Like all birthdays, it will feel like a big deal in many corners of the world and like just another day in others. As a Lutheran, it means something to me. It means an opportunity to reflect on what it means for me to be a Lutheran, on what earthly good has come from this experiment. Today, reading these verses, I think first of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.

For the Roman Catholic Church at the time, the “church was where the bishop was.” The church was conceived of as a hierarchical structure. Something significant happened when a man was ordained to be a priest. He was given special authority and abilities that he hadn’t previously had. He was literally closer to God than he used to be. Luther found that fishy.

For Luther, the “church was gathered around Word and Sacrament.” Ordained bishops and pastors fulfilled a different function within Christian community. Every baptized Christian was ordained in their baptism – their first and primary ordination – to be a representative of Jesus in the world. This remains a sticky issue in ecumenical conversations today.

I say all of that because it is what came to mind when I first read about the suffering that the disciples could expect as Jesus sent them out. It reminded me of the things I was afraid about when I graduated from the seminary and got my first call to Zion Lutheran Church in Houston. I was afraid of many things, all of which could be described as “performance anxiety.” I worried about whether I had what it takes. Whether people would like me or not. Whether I would destroy any congregation foolish enough to extend a call to me.

What I did NOT fear was being handed over to councils or flogged in synagogues or dragged before governors and kings. Throughout history, in many corners of the world, for many different reasons, Christians have been so persecuted. That continues today. But not for me. At least not so far.

I certainly can appreciate trusting that God will give us the words to say when we are called upon to say them. That has been my experience for a long time now. I trusted that when I sat down at my keyboard this morning. But what this means for me is not the antidote to writers’ block but the reassurance that God is with us, in us, and working through us, every step of our baptismal journey. We don’t travel alone and we don’t travel unprepared. We just get confused by overpacking for the trip. We take too much stuff that we really don’t need.

And finally I appreciate the encouragement to endure to the end. That is increasingly meaningful today as virtually everything in our lives seems so voluntaristic and temporary, constantly playing off against our fleeting feelings, our sense of entitlement, and cold calculations of “what’s in it for me?” This text teaches me the value of hanging on, of hanging in there, and of hanging together. Jesus has grabbed us and he is not going to let us go.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, whatever role we play in your church, we trust that you are the one who leads and guides us. May we recognize you in the face of our neighbors and may others see you in us. Give us words when we need them, encourage us to act in loving ways when given the chance, and fill us with resolve when the going gets tough. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 10:1-15

September 25, 2017

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.

You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.

Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. Matthew 10:1-15

The first of five long teaching sections in Matthew, commonly called “discourses”, was the Sermon on the Mount. Here chapter ten begins the second teaching section, the Missionary Discourse. Let me warn you – if you are looking for a nice cushy comfortable Christianity that warms your heart and helps you feel good, you are either going to ignore what Jesus has to say or you will come away feeling chastised and challenged.

It begins by defining the mission to include naming and casting out unclean spirits and curing every disease and sickness. While a quick reading might seem to limit this work to exorcists and faith healers I think it goes much deeper than that. If the ultimate goal of Jesus is redemption and reconciliation – the healing of broken relationships that were clearly at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount – then we ought to expand our sense of what constitutes “unclean spirits” and “disease and sickness” to include anything and everything that would divide people from one another, or cut people off from access to the love of God and human community.

Then Jesus names the twelve disciples he has chosen to join him in his work. A quick reading here might suggest that Jesus would have benefited from a more robust Human Resources Department in making these hires. Two sets of brothers. Fishermen. A despised tax collector. The one who would ultimately betray him. We’re heard this time and time again but have we every really HEARD it? Not one person on that list was a religious professional, a Jewish scholar, or a person of political or religious prominence. No one had a track record as a faith healer or previous experience as an exorcist. Rather than assembling a dream team, Jesus surrounded himself with his own target audience. The only thing that united them was Jesus.

Then he sends them out with nothing but the challenge to live by the support that would turn up when they needed it and the warning that they would be vigorously opposed. Strange, isn’t it, that anyone would oppose casting out unclean spirits or healing diseases? Unless we took the more expansive understanding of this mission that I suggested earlier.

Watch for that as we listen to this chapter this week.

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, in our baptisms you have named and claimed us as your disciples. You challenged us that day, and every day since, to walk in the path that you chose. Yet far too often we get caught by voices that beckon us toward different, easier, less challenging paths. Teach us, as you taught those first disciples, to trust you and to follow as you lead the way. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

PS. I’m glad to say that I came through my open heart surgery last Wednesday just fine. After one miserable night in ICU and two nights in the hospital Kelley brought me home on Saturday. Now I’m looking at a couple of weeks of resting, walking, and healing up. Thank you all for your support. I don’t know if this surgery will fix my heart but it certainly has changed my appreciation for what people go through when they go through something like this. It was my first hospital stay and it was a doozy.

Matthew 9:35-38

September 19, 2017

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Matthew 9:35-38

What happened to the daily devotions? Rest assured, I think about that every day that passes without my taking a little time to sit with a Bible passage, run it through the filter of what is going on in and around me, and funnel all of that into a page of reflection and prayer. I have done this, off and on, for many years, knowing that there are a few people out there who appreciate it. But sometimes I don’t write.

Usually I fail to write when I get busy or distracted or I’m on vacation. That is what happened this month. First the hurricane and all that entailed. Then it was hosting some family members for a week as they waited for the water to go down so they could go back home. And then it was welcoming my daughter and her children into our house for the next few months as we work toward rebuilding their home.

In the midst of that I was going to doctor appointments and showing up for tests in preparation for a medical procedure that I’ll be having done this week.  So the devotions got left behind. Life happens.

Today’s text concludes the 9th chapter of Matthew. It closes with an image of Jesus that I want to hold and a description of his followers that I aspire to be.

Jesus spends his time doing good. He brings healing and encouragement and insight into the lives of the people he touches and teaches. He comes into the crowds from a place of compassion, with courage and conviction. He isn’t an untouchable (not to mention highly touched up) celebrity. This isn’t about a cult following. Jesus is an amazing man, full of love for the unlovely and hope for the hopeless. That is the Jesus who grabbed me by the back of the neck and refuses to let me go. I can appreciate feeling harassed and helpless. I need a shepherd like everybody else.

But one shepherd can only watch so many sheep. One farmer can harvest only so many acres. One fisherman can catch only so many fish. One teacher can teach only so many people. In both his wisdom and his humility, Jesus realizes that he will need help. He needs more people doing the sort of things that Jesus himself had been doing. That was always his plan. I aspire to be one of those people.

And so do you! If not, you wouldn’t have bothered to read all the way down to here. Jesus has you by the neck too! God needed you to BE, and there is a tiny little corner of the world that needs what you have to offer. When there is enough of us, across the world, each tending to our own tiny little corner, pretty soon the whole world is touched. Like salt. Like leaven. Like a flickering candle of light. Every devotion and every sermon I have ever written has been a variation on this same theme.

I should be back writing regularly in another couple of weeks or so. Meanwhile…

Let us pray: Dear Jesus, as children we were taught to sing that you have the whole world in your hands. We believe that. We trust that. But far too often we forget that your hands extend through our own. Keep us willing to serve as you served, to love as you loved, to have compassion toward all who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Use us, as you will, always to your glory and the welfare of your people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 9:27-34

September 8, 2017

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, crying loudly, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he entered the house, the blind men came to him; and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you.” And their eyes were opened. Then Jesus sternly ordered them, “See that no one knows of this.” But they went away and spread the news about him throughout that district.

After they had gone away, a demoniac who was mute was brought to him. And when the demon had been cast out, the one who had been mute spoke; and the crowds were amazed and said, “Never has anything like this been seen in Israel.” But the Pharisees said, “By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.” Matthew 9:27-34

It feels like just the other day we were glued to weather reports, feeling the anxiety of Hurricane Harvey, slowly but surely, methodically meandering toward the Texas coast. It looked like it was going to be really bad. It was. But it could have been much worse. Now we’re watching Hurricanes Irma and Jose. We’re watching what happens when wind damage precedes flooding. Our hearts go out to those living on the islands and the mainland as they prepare and evacuate. Have mercy on us, Son of David!

Yesterday Mexico was hit by an earthquake. That created some tsunami waves that affected some coastal regions. And along with the hurricanes now in the Atlantic, Hurricane Katia is threatening the southern Mexican coast. Have mercy on us, Son of David!

I’ve been in several flooded houses lately. We’ve been working in the homes of the members of our congregation and their neighbors. Yesterday marked the first time that we were able to get into and begin cleaning the only house I ever bought in my life. My daughter and her family live there now. It is both heartbreaking and cathartic to pry open your grandchildren’s dresser drawers with a crowbar in order to throw their still soaking things into a trash bag. Their toys, old Halloween costumes, stuffed animals, Disney sheets, and all of the books that put them to bed and opened their minds to the world.

The heartbreak is the end of one kind of childhood innocence. The catharsis is realizing that they had a ton of stuff that they don’t use or need anymore. Some will be replaced but they are OK and that is all that matters.

Then to come home and catch up on the news. Seeing again what hurricane winds can do, realizing suddenly that a flooded house is an extremely disruptive and expensive inconvenience but a home reduced to splinters is devastation. Have mercy on us, Son of David!

We’ve been hosting a camp for children this week at church. The first day of school was pushed back a week and we knew that one way we could care for families was to provide care for their kids. In our chapel service the first day I raised the question that people always ask in times like this, Why do bad things happen to good people? Even children ask that question, in their own way. I don’t have an answer except to say, bad things happen to good people because bad things happen to all people. I’ll ask the same question later this morning and I know that I will hear a chorus of 80 children echoing that line. They learned, and accepted, it immediately.

Then I said, And what do people who follow Jesus do when bad things happen to people? We do the best good things for them that we can do. Why? Because that is what Jesus did.

The blind see. The mute talk. The flooded recover. The crowds are amazed. The Pharisees mock.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, suffering and fear abound. Still the storms. Protect the people. Guide the authorities and first responders and all in a position to help their neighbor. See us through this season. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 9:18-26

September 6, 2017

While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples.

Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well.

When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, “Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And the report of this spread throughout that district. Matthew 9:18-26

They laughed at him. What were they laughing at?

A crowd has gathered outside of the home of a local religious leader. His daughter has just died. We can well imagine the speed at which that story churned through the neighborhood. Everyone slows down when driving by a deadly accident on the highway. The local news usually opens with the latest body count. We love football even if it means ignoring the potential long term consequences of young men banging their heads into each other. Then Jesus showed up – and the gathering crowd laughed at him.

Jesus had said, “Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” That’s why they laughed. Was he making a joke? What he just cold stone stupid?

On the way to the house Jesus was touched by a woman who had been suffering for twelve long, lonely, painful, and tragic years. Her bleeding, absolutely no fault of her own, rendered her ritually unclean and socially unacceptable. Her natural suffering was intensified by the unnatural reaction of her community. They didn’t understand her bleeding. Maybe they thought it was contagious? Far better to ostracize her than to accommodate her – after all, that is what the ritual purity laws demanded. Jesus was her last chance. She pushed to the front of the crowd and grabbed him by the fringes of his robe.

Notice how Jesus addresses this woman. He calls her “daughter.” Not stranger, not outcast, not unclean. He chooses one of the most wonderful words in the world. Daughter. I am blessed with both a beautiful daughter and step-daughter. I would do anything I could for Kate and Ron would do the same for Emma. I know both are strong and gifted young women, fully capable of carrying their own weight, but they are daughters and I am a father and I know there will ever and always be a vulnerability about them that needs their father’s love and support. Which we gladly give.

Can you imagine how wonderful it felt to that woman to be addressed as daughter?

Then, having touched her emotional pain with his term of endearment, Jesus healed her physical pain. Instantly. His holiness made her whole.

And the crowd laughed at Jesus? Yes, they did. How could he be so stupid?

Jesus walked through their laughter to the bedside of the other daughter in this story. He took her by the hand and she got up. Who got the last laugh?

I read these twin stories still pondering the headlines about the vicious decision to kick the fates of 800,000 young people down the road because they are being punished for the crime of being born to parents who sought a better life for them. I presume half of them are daughters. And this coming on the heels of another cruel and misguided policy that further seeks to shame people born with gender identity issues who seek to serve their country.

Jesus tells me to love, to welcome, to serve, to heal, to defend, to feed – and this always on behalf of the most vulnerable ones. Is he stupid? Or are we?

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, please protect the children caught in the midst of disasters and diseases and tragedies not of their own making. Create safe places and welcoming, softened hearts, for those who are misunderstood and ostracized. Use us to amplify the voices of the few who cry out for protection and justice. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 9:14-17

September 5, 2017

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.

No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” Matthew 9:14-17

Over the past several years I have noticed something troubling that I had not noticed before. Once I noticed it, I couldn’t “un-notice” it anymore. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on just what it was until I read something that finally gave me the vocabulary word that I was missing. Whataboutism.

Whataboutism is a rhetorical move that allows us to evade any uncomfortable issue by deflecting attention away from ourselves to someone else. There need not be any real or even logical connection between our behaviors and those to whom we deflect. That doesn’t matter. All that matters is how deftly we bludgeon our opponents (I would say conversation partners here but this kind of verbal sparring doesn’t even pretend to be meaningful discourse) with our whataboutism.

If you’re not familiar with this term, here’s an example. You tell your child that they need to be home by 10:00 PM. When they show up at 10:35 PM you express your displeasure and tell them what the consequences will be. They fire back at you – “10:00 PM is a ridiculous curfew. What about Tommy? His parents let him stay out until midnight.” Effective parents don’t bite. We’re not talking about Tommy or his parents, we are talking about you! Now you can see it. I hope you can never un-see it again.

The disciples of John approach Jesus with a whataboutism. We and the Pharisees fast. What about your disciples? Why don’t they fast? Jesus doesn’t bite. Jesus is not there to prop up an old system that has long ago lost its meaning and godly purpose. Jesus is about doing something radically new. He isn’t going to engage in a meaningless debate about the spirituality of “going without” when his purpose is to bring life and light into a dead and dark world.

Living at ground zero of Hurricane Harvey has been an emotionally trying experience for everybody. The newness that has come upon us is painful. Especially the newness of a once beautiful home becoming a soggy, moldy, shell, landscaped by a mountain of debris. This brings out the best in us and also the worst from us.

The public outcry against Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church has been appalling to me, yet not surprising. As far as I’m concerned, everyone had decisions to make about how they would handle the hurricane and flood. Osteen’s critics have him hit hard with whataboutism, all rooted in their ideas of Jesus. “You live in a mansion, what about Jesus who had nowhere to lay his head?” they cry with self-righteous indignation. You’re rich, what about Jesus who was poor and cared about the poor? That’s nothing new. It is just another way to evade the reality that many congregations are largely self-centered, serving only their own, throwing a few bones of generosity somewhere so they can feel good about themselves, yet are unwilling to risk really and truly putting the poor first, or attacking the systems that create and sustain poverty because that would mean really putting their own skin in the game.

I might have plenty of theological differences with Osteen but I also have great admiration for a ministry that has long proven willing to try new things, in new ways, to help new people come to a new place in their relationship and understanding of God. Most of that happens behind the scenes, away from the lights and cameras, in the lives of people. Which is what matters most.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you alone are our guide and model. You alone define what matters in our lives, what matters in the care we extend to others, what matters in our following you. Forgive us for holding too tightly to our precious old wineskins lest we waste the newness that you would bring into our lives. Encourage all of those who have lost so much. Give them patience and bring the support they need to recover. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Romans 12

September 1, 2017

This is how we will recover from Hurricane Harvey.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.

We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.

Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, one day at a time, lead us in love. Your love conquers all. May your love conquer us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.