Scylla and Charybdis

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“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”                                                                     Matthew 11:18-19

 

My little dog is afraid of storm sewers.  We go out for a walk every morning, and when we get near a storm sewer, he sits down in the street and looks up at me, as if to say, ‘How are we getting around this one?’.  If I’m lucky, he’ll let me walk him out to the middle of the street (if no cars are coming) to pass by the storm sewer and then return to the side of the road.  Sometimes, there is only a sewer on one side of the street. But often there are sewers across from each other.  When we come to them, the dog simply will not go any further; I have to pick him up and carry him past the storm sewers before he’ll proceed.  Like Odysseus sailing past Scylla and Charybdis on his way home from the Trojan War, dangerous sea monsters who lured sailors  from the left and the right, my puppy and I navigate the way between dangers to the left and the right!

In the passage from Matthew, Jesus reminds us that it is very easy to fall into the same trap.  We may condemn something only to sail so far in the other direction that we are ensnared in an equally dangerous position.  Whether it is condemning Jesus or John, criticizing a political figure, starting a diet or anything else, there is always the possibility that by swinging too far one way or the other, we may end up in danger.  Years ago I watched a friend who had struggled with her weight for years go on a diet.  She lost weight, and then she lost more, until she began to look like a walking cadaver.  Overeating wasn’t good for her, but neither was anorexia.

Today we inaugurated a new president.  Some love him, some claim to hate him.  But whatever your opinion, let’s be careful not to swing so far to extremes that we end up losing our humanity.  All of us have good and bad.  Let’s applaud the good and challenge the bad.  We will probably disagree on what is good or bad, but we need to avoid the extremes between which we sail.  We should never idolize a political figure as if they could save us – only Jesus can do that.  And we should never demonize a person, forgetting that Christ died for them and they, too, bear the image of God.  Let’s sail carefully between idolatry and demonization and find our way safely through the coming years.

Prayer:  Almighty and everlasting God, who alone has the power to save us, and whose love is what gives value to our lives, help me this day to see this world as you do.  Let me stand for justice, but not by becoming unjust myself.  Let me call for love, but not with hate towards anothern my heart.  May I walk between righteousness and mercy in ways that reflect your grace.  When I am tempted to condemn, remind me of my own sin and show me the path that veers neither to the right nor the left, but follows your way of salvation.  This I pray through Christ, my Lord.  Amen.

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A New Year’s Prayer

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William Sloan Coffin taught at Yale Divinity School while I was a high schooler up in Connecticut.  Our Congregational church had him as a speaker numerous times.  These words of his, beginning with the Leviticus’s blessing, express my hopes and prayers for you as we stand on the cusp of 2017.

“May the Lord Bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
May God give you grace not to sell yourselves short,
Grace to risk something big for something good,
Grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.
May God take your minds and think through them.
May God take your lips and speak through them.
May God take your hands and work through them.
May God take your hearts and set them on fire.”

–William Sloane Coffin

A Happy New Year to all.

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Imitate Me!

“I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me. ”                                                                      1 Corinthians 4:16

Before I went into ministry, I worked in the corporate world.  I rode the train into Philadelphia every morning. This was a time when both men and women wore business suits every day.  I had suits with skirts and suits with pants.  And many of the men wore 3 piece suits, mostly with however, white or tan shirts.  These were the uniforms of the day.

One year, we hired a new senior executive from outside the company.  From the very beginning, he set a new style.  He wore pink shirts, and frequently sported a bow tie.  Almost every day, while others wore ordinary white or neutral business shirts, he wore a pink shirt and bow tie with his suit.  And despite his colorful wardrobe, he also began to move up in the company, receiving promotions and gaining power and status.  It wasn’t long before pink shirts started showing up on junior executives in his own and other departments.  They wanted to be like him!

Imitation, it has been said, is the purest form of flattery.  It’s also a natural reaction to seeing another’s success.  When basketball stars wear a particular brand of shoe, there are many who go out and buy that same shoe, hoping to be like LeBron James or Stephan Curry.  When a movie star endorses a beauty product saying she uses it, women will flock to the store to buy the same product.  And unfortunately, when a powerful public figure spews hate and discrimination, there are some in our society who will rush to imitate.

Just this summer, the Wellesley, Mass. school system reported that racist, anti-immigrant, and homophobic online posts had been made by Wellesley High School students.  This is in an affluent, upscale suburb of Boston, and this kind of language had never been an issue there before.  Over the last year, we have heard too many racist comments and slurs against people groups, words that were likely imitated by these youth.  Is this what we want our culture to become?

The Apostle Paul says “Imitate me!”  And in 1 Corinthians, he expands that: “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ!”  We don’t imitate Paul because we want to be like Paul; we imitate him because we want to be like Christ.  God sent us not a book of instruction, but a person, the Son, to show us how to live.  He is to be the one we imitate.

Paul makes it clear in Philippians what that kind of life looks like.  “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”  Let these attitudes fill your heart and direct your life.  Let us keep our focus on the God of Jesus Christ who calls us to live holy lives of love, grace and truth..

Prayer:  Heavenly master, help me to keep my eyes on you and your son, Jesus Christ.  Let my life reflect your love.  Let my heart be filled with your goodness.  Let those who look at me see a child of your kingdom who strives each day to be worthy of the grace you have given me.  For I ask it in Christ’s holy name.  Amen.   

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Death, Taxes and God’s Grace

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But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us  even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-by grace you have been saved…”
                  Ephesians 2:4-5
We all know that old saying, “there’s nothing surer than death and taxes.”  But this year, as we continue in our Easter season, neither death nor taxes is sure.  On Easter Sunday we celebrated Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and today, what should be tax day – April 15th – we celebrate the IRS’s grace as they give us until Monday, April 18th to file our taxes.
Grace – a word that we often tend to misinterpret or misconstrue.  This year’s delay in tax day can help us better understand grace.  Grace is often defined as unmerited favor, or an undeserved break.  We didn’t do anything to deserve an extra weekend to file our taxes; the government just gave it to us.  In the same way, there is nothing we can do to earn God’s forgiveness since we are all sinners.  God, through grace, just offers us forgiveness.  It is by grace that we are saved.
But too often, we also think of grace as a pat on the head with God saying, “There, there; it’s alright.  I’ll forgive you no matter what you do.”  Grace then appears to be God’s acceptance of us just as we are, with no expectations of growth or change on our part.   If we consider grace in light of the tax comparison, however, we can say that just as the IRS has given us an extra weekend but still expects us to file our taxes, so God is willing to forgive us, but still expects us to grow as disciples.  We aren’t saved by grace in order to keep doing everything wrong and make no effort to do better.
Grace is God’s wonderful gift of forgiveness and mercy that wipes the slate of our sin clean and invites us to do better next time.  God does understand when we slip and fall back, but God is not inviting us to stay the way we were with no effort to be better.  There’s a saying from the black church, “Lord we ain’t what we should be and we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God, we ain’t what we was!”  That’s a good way to think about grace – we aren’t yet the heavenly angels we hope to be someday nor are we perfect in living our lives as disciples today, but thank God, we aren’t the sinners living apart from God that we once were.  The invitation from God is to grow closer to God, to grow deeper in relationship with the Lord, and to grow in our commitment and effort to live as God’s people every day, always by grace.
Prayer:  Loving God, by grace you have saved me from the consequences of my sin, and offered me entrance into your eternal kingdom.  May I recognize that gift, and in gratitude, live my life as your beloved child, always striving to honor you in all I do.  Forgive me when I fail, but give me the strength to try always to live as Jesus lives.  For it is in Jesus’ name that I pray.  Amen.