Coerced Faith?

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,               but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.  On that day many will       say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in     your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’  Then I will declare to them,      ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”                                                       Matthew 7:21-23

I read a news article this week about a mother in Phoenix, AZ, who used a taser to get her son to church on Easter morning.  The 17 year old boy wanted to stay home with his friends who were freed by their parents from mandatory church attendance.  His mother had a different idea.  When the boy refused to go with her, she ran to get her taser and, coming back into his room, tased him according to the boy, his brother and cousins.  Despite the mother’s denial, the taser marks could be seen on the boy’s leg by the police.

What kind of faith comes from coercion?  What kind of faith grows from enforcement?  I’ve counseled people who are struggling with their faith, and helped people discover ways to “fake it till they make it”, but it’s one thing to voluntarily go through the motions hoping to prime the pump of faith, and quite a different thing to be forced at the risk of bodily harm to act faithfully.  Coercion in the realm of faith is oxymoronic.  If I am forced to confess faith, then almost by definition, I have no faith.  If I only believe in order to avoid harm to myself or others, is that real faith?

This past Sunday we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We are asked to have faith in Christ and his resurrection.  This isn’t faith as a proposition we believe in intellectually, like 1 plus 1 equals 2. No, this is a call to put our trust in Jesus, to make his example and God’s will the guiding principles of our life.  Going to church is not faith – I’ve long said that sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in McDonald’s will make you a hamburger.  No, the Christian is the one who chooses to follow the lead of Jesus in their every day life.  While corporate worship, reading Scripture and praying are all important, the most critical element of our faith is the choice to act in a certain way, according to God’s will.  But if we are coerced, then there is no choice, and thus there is no faith.

So as we go through this Easter season, let us be reminded that no one can force another to believe.  Nothing we say or do can force faith on another.  It is our lives, the example of loving words and actions that may attract people to faith, never a taser.

Prayer:  O Risen Christ, you could have called down angel armies to coerce our faith; you could have engaged in splashy miracles far and wide to make us believe in you.  Instead, you invited our faith by your love and sacrifice.  Teach me by your example so that I, too, may lead others to you through loving words and deeds, and recognize that coerced faith is no faith at all.  Amen.

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Rowboats and Sailboats

Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of imagehosts.                                           Zechariah 4:6b

Are you a rowboat or a sailboat?  I recently read a description of churches distinguishing between rowboat churches and sailboat churches, and I think the analogy can be applied to people as well as congregations.*

A rowboat person takes stock of the gifts and talents God has provided, rolls up their sleeves, and says, okay, it’s time for me to get to work.  They are grateful for what God has provided, offer thanks, and then step forward to add their contributions.  They assess, can I do this.  If the answer is yes, They work hard, stay focused and get the job done.

A sailboat person, however, has a different approach.  They don’t pick up the paddle and start moving the boat forward under their own power in the direction their paddling takes them.  No, they set their sails to catch the wind of God’s Spirit.  Yes, they have to put up the sails and tend the tiller, but they leave room throughout their life for God’s Spirit to be present.  With God involved, they are always attentive to the way God is setting the direction of the wind and providing for forward momentum on God’s path, because when they move with the wind, they go farther and faster.

Sometimes, we get caught up in acting like rowboats, choosing the direction, working up a sweat trying to get where we want to go.  We listen for God’s call, and then decide if we’re equipped to do that.  If we decide to move forward, we’re grateful for the boat and our strength, give thanks to the Lord, and then forget about God as we start rowing.  Prayer becomes the bookends of our lives – maybe a short morning prayer or devotion, then a day of hard work followed by a short prayer at bedtime.  God set a direction, we waved goodbye, and headed out from port.

But God wants more for us.  God’s desire is to be in communion with us, to share the load in all we do, to fill our sails and help us set a direction by which we can go farther.  To become a sailboat, however, we have to be attentive to the wind throughout our journey, sensitive to shifts in the wind, looking for the new things God is doing, and always seeking to be faithful.  Prayer is no longer reciting words – it is seeking God and resting in God’s presence, doing our part but always aware of God’s leading, trusting the Lord.

Who will you be today?  A rowboat, thanking God and then intent on getting through the day by yourself?  Or a sailboat, tacking as needed to keep God’s Spirit filling your life and sending you forward?

Prayer:  Spirit of God, fill my life today.  Keep me always running before the wind, depending on you for direction and looking to stay focused on your presence every moment of my day.  Remind me again and again that apart from you, my accomplishments are empty.  With your power in my life, however, I can be an on-going  witness for the love and grace of God.  This I ask through Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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*The analogy comes from Joan S. Gray’s book, Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers, Geneva Press, 2009.

 

Ready With Heart, Mind, & Strength

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“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence”

1 Peter 3:15b-16a

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Wednesday morning Gordy and I had an adventure. We took the train into Philadelphia, riding for the first time on our $1 senior fare. What a deal that is! Then, we walked over to 17th and Vine for a tour of the new Mormon Temple. I had responded to an invitation extended to Philly area clergy to visit and tour the new building prior to its consecration this fall. Once a Mormon Temple is in use, only Mormons may enter it, so this was a wonderful opportunity to see the building before it was closed to visitors.

We began across the street in the meeting house where actual worship services will be held. The Temple itself is reserved for special services, weddings, proxy baptisms of deceased ancestors, and special instruction. Crossing the street, we entered the Temple after several volunteers helped us put coverings over our shoes to preserve the carpeting inside. The building is beautiful. The interior reflects the Philadelphia colonial period, the decor is gorgeous, and striking artwork adorned the walls. It was a treat to tour the four floors of the building.

What struck me more than the building was the knowledge of our tour guides. The husband had been a leader in the local church. He and his wife guided us through the building answering questions not only about the building but about the Mormon faith as well. They explained the theology behind the proxy baptism ritual, described Mormon beliefs about the afterlife, outlines the organization of the Mormon church and more. I was deeply impressed by their knowledge of their faith, but I realized he had been a leader in the church.

Following the tour, we entered a side building where refreshments awaited us, along with several dozen hosts and hostesses. I realized that throughout the tour, we had seen people on every floor to guide and direct. Altogether, there must have been nearly 100 people present assisting with the tours, all volunteers. There were young adults and youth providing music in the reception area, some young adults doing their 2 year mission assisting in various places, adults of all ages volunteering their time to help with the welcome across the street, the tours and the reception. It wasn’t just for one day, either. All of this will go on for several weeks as the Philadelphia area is introduced to the new Temple. And every participant is ready to speak of their faith, to explain why they are Mormon, and to offer God’s love, human hospitality and an invitation to faith.

As I looked around, I was struck by the knowledge and commitment of those who were involved, and I wondered, how would our denomination stack up? Each person we met yesterday seemed to feel honored to be present to extend hospitality to visitors. Each one was “ready to make their defense” and share their faith if asked. Could we say the same? Could we gather such willing volunteers and would they be ready to explain their faith, their church? In the Scripture passage above, Peter clearly believes that all of us who call Christ our Savior need be ready to explain the hope we have in him. Are we? Are we ready? Do we understand enough about our faith to give an account, do we know why we have hope or are we just blindly accepting a faith we don’t really understand?

As we move toward the start of school and the program year in churches, I encourage you to consider how you might deepen your knowledge of your faith. It isn’t a choice between knowing God or knowing about God; we need to do both. We are each responsible for working to grow closer to God through our own devotional life; but we are also called on to understand our faith, to explore it intellectually. I believe God is honored when we use our heart, our mind and our strength to know God. Perhaps we can best do that when we worship (heart – love), study (mind – knowledge) and serve (strength – service) the Lord.

Prayer: Gracious God, you have given us hearts to love you, minds to know you and strength to serve you in this world. Help us to offer you all of ourself, not holding back any part but giving our all to you. Open our hearts to receive your love and offer you our own. Open our minds to know you more fully. And open our hands to serve you in the world. May we find in knowing you that we love you more dearly and want to serve you, for we ask it through Christ our Lord 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. 

God and the Electoral Process

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“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
                                                                              1 Corinthians 13:1

Have you been watching the political process in our country as we’ve seen it acted out in the primary campaigns going on? Listening to the candidates, we might wonder if this is a country of liars or non-Christians who bicker and backbite! Truth and civility seem to be the casualties of the electoral process.  I listened as one commentator talked about his sons, one college age and one high school age, remarking that they would never consider running for office on the basis of the attacks and smear campaigns they are witnessing in this year’s electoral process.  Their reaction saddened me as I wondered, are we driving away the gifted by the nature of contemporary campaigns, and only getting candidates who are committed to misbehaving?

Is it possible to get elected and not lie?  Is it possible to get elected and be decent and civil in he process?  Can a real Christian who commits to truth-telling and love for fellow humans even run for office?  These are questions we need to be asking ourselves.  These are qualities we need to demand in our candidates.  No, it isn’t nearly as much fun to watch a civil debate as it is to see the fireworks in personal attacks; it isn’t nearly as entertaining to hear policy descriptions and factual information as it is to see candidates tear each other apart with innuendo and half-truths.  But we, the American people, will get what we demand, and if we don’t demand civility and truthfulness in our electoral process, we’ll get the alternative – half truths and personal demonization.

Regardless of politics, it pains me to see someone like Gen. Colin Powell step away from the political process because of the potential cost to his family. Are we losing the opportunity to benefit from the gifts of truly gifted candidates because of the process we have created? It may be that the candidate who truly espouses Christian virtues cannot be elected in this country.  That would make me very sad, but I have to consider that possibility.  But I would love to see somebody try; I’d love to see a candidate tell the truth to the best of their ability and refrain from personal attacks.  Wouldn’t that be a novel approach? Perhaps the problem, however, is not in the candidates but in us, the electorate.  Perhaps we get the behavior we reward. So maybe we need to ask ourselves, what do we really want in our election process, because it may be that despite our protests to the contrary, we are getting exactly what we want

 

Prayer:    Almighty God, you have gifted and equipped some to be leaders in the civic arena, and called them to exercise their gifts for the good of all people.  And yet the very process by which we select leaders seems to deny your law and discourage some truly gifted candidates from entering the arena. Help me by my actions to encourage a process that conforms to your expectations of how we are to live together.  Let me not only affirm community with my lips, but let me live it with my life, so that those who are gifted and called will be willing to share their gifts without risk to themselves and their families.  Amen. 

Memories

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“But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. ”
Luke 2:19
Yesterday I woke up with a tune running through my head. Over and over I found myself humming a tune that seemed to come from nowhere. Suddenly, after about an hour, I realized what the tune was – a song I learned in 5th grade at Girl Scout summer camp! It had been buried in my memory and for some reason just popped into my head as I woke up. I realized I could sing the song all the way through – all the words – and as I did, I remembered the camp experience, the lake where we canoed, the platform tents where we lived. All of that came back to me as I sang through the camp song.

I wonder if Mary had a tune to him or sing as she remembered that first Christmas. Maybe she had a lullaby she sang to the baby Jesus, or a traveling song she’d hummed as they fled Bethlehem for Egypt. However she made connections, she had a lifetime of memories treasured in her mind. There were memories of the shepherds crowding into the stable on the night of his birth, Jesus hitting his thumb with his hammer as Joseph taught him carpentry, of her son’s Bar Mitzvah, of girls flirting with him in the village, and of that trip to Jerusalem when Jesus got left behind. So many memories to cherish, so many ways to perceive God at work in her life, in Jesus’ life, and in the world.

As we begin our new year, I invite you to take a moment to recall the joys of 2015, the places where you saw God at work in your life, at Grove, and in the world. Pause to give thanks tonight as the ball in Times Square descends. Commit 2015 to God with thanks for what has gone well and with repentance for where we have failed the Lord. And then seek God’s presence in your life right from the beginning of 2016. Let this be a year for all of us to treasure and ponder in our hearts.

Prayer: Loving God, as we come to the end of this year, I thank you for all the ways you gave been active in my life. I am grateful for the ways you have enabled me to make a positive difference in the world. And where I have failed you, I pray that you will take my feeble efforts and transform them so that you might yet be glorified. Let 2016 be a year in which I am attuned to your presence, and ready to do your will for the good of your people and the glory of your kingdom, for I ask this in Christ’s holy name. Amen.

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The Light of Christ

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
John 1:3b-5
A 7-year old child was drawing a picture of the Nativity. The picture was very good, including Mary, Joseph and, of course, baby Jesus. However, there was a fat man standing in the corner of the stable, that just did not seem to fit in. When the child was asked about it, she replied, “Oh, That’s Round John Virgin.”

On Christmas Eve we’ll join our voices to sing “Round yon virgin mother and child” as we hold our candles high. The light of the candles will begin as only a few points of light in the darkened sanctuary. From just the light of the Advent and Christ candles, the light will spread across the room from hand to hand until the room is alight. The candle light will fill the room, allowing us to read the words of the hymn and see one another’s faces. That light will be enough for us.

A young mother, a child born in a stable, a rag-tag group of sheepherders…not the beginning that we would expect for the Son of God. A small beginning, not too different form the light of one candle, but a light and a beginning that cannot be overcome by the darkness that threatens it. As the faith is passed from person to person, just as the light is passed from hand to hand, the darkness recedes. We might not have total light in the world anymore than the we will have total light in the sanctuary, but just as the candle light is enough for us to see one another, the light of Christ is enough for us to see each other in the world, to recognize and care for fellow children of God. The light of Christ promises life, grace and a new future for all who believe.

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light,
Radiant beams from thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

May the light of Christ fill your life this Christmas, and may you pass it on, hand to hand, person to person, until the world is alight with the grace of Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas!

Broken Hearts at Christmas

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“When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.'”
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Wednesday night many of us were glued to our television sets watching events unfold in San Bernadino, California.  We learned to our horror that multiple shooters had opened fire in a reception hall hosting a holiday party. We followed the developments as police chased a dark SUV and as shots were fired killing the two occupants of the car.  We watched as police went door to door looking for other assailants, and as commentators spoke by phone to terrified residents barricaded in their homes.
This morning we still have many questions – was this a terror act, a disgruntled employee, or some combination of the two? Why did the perpetrators leave the site of the initial shooting after a relatively short shooting spree, and why didn’t they leave the area to escape police?  We may never know the answers to all of our questions, but all of us should feel our hearts breaking for the families of those who were killed, for those who were injured, and for the bereft family of the couple who appear to have carried out this shooting.
On Thursday morning, the New York Daily News ran a large headline reading, “God Isn’t Fixing This!”  Earlier our president made a statement we all need to hear, regardless of your stance on his policies, when he pointed out that saying that our prayers and thoughts are with people is meaningless if we don’t do anything to help. I don’t know what the answers are to these horrifying mass shootings, but it is time that we do more than simply wring our hands and say isn’t that terrible.  It is time to do more than pray for the victims and think about the injured.  It is time for us as a nation rise up and tell politicians and the NRA that we won’t stand any longer for their platitudes.  The majority of NRA members favor tighter gun controls, but the NRA hierarchy won’t give an inch, sure that it will result in a slippery slope.  Politicians who are funded by significant NRA donations dare not vote for gun control.  We cannot, however, as people of faith, simply stand by and let this ‘do nothing’ response continue as it has after Sandy Hook, after Columbine, after Virginia Tech and on and on.
We may not be able to prevent every gun death, but surely there are things we can do that will decrease the number who die by gun violence.  Whether mandatory background checks or refusal of guns to people on terror watch lists which Congress refused to pass this week, whether reducing the size of legal gun clips or creating smart guns that are sensitive to fingerprints, there are options that will lead to fewer gun deaths, including the 2/3 of gun deaths that are suicides.
We often forget that the Scripture cited above is one of the readings for the Sunday after Christmas.  When we think of the holiday, we think of holly jolly Christmas, tinsel and presents, cookies and egg nog.  But at the heart of Christmas is the broken heart of God, a heart that ached on Wednesday night.  Christmas is the affirmation that Emmanuel has come, God With Us, in Jesus Christ.  Through him, God has experienced not only the joys of human life, but also the pains and sadness.  And yet, even amidst the incredible pain of the death of Jesus, God remained faithful and acted to save.
As we approach this Christmas, let’s give thanks for a God who cared enough to be with us fully, to live our human life, but who calls us to be more – to act for those who cannot act for themselves, to imitate the gracious action of the divine creator, and to be about the work of God today, not just praying empty words but acting as the instruments of God’s saving love..
Prayer: O God, our joyful approach to the celebration of Christ’s birth was jarred by the tragic news of this mass shooting.  I wonder how such sadness could enter into the season of light.  And yet I know, Lord, it was precisely to this world of darkness that Jesus came to bring hope and love. Let the light of Christ shine in me, through my actions and my words, as I work to bring hope and love into the darkness in your name.  Amen.
 

Rest in the Lord

“The Lord protects the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.”
                                                                imagePsalm 116:6-7
Our family has a new member – Wesley, a 9 week old toy poodle.  We are all worn out from days of chasing around this little ball of fur, and short nights punctuated by the need to walk a dog with a tiny bladder.  It’s like having a new baby in the house.  But my heart melts every time I hold this little handful of energy and fur.
Wes, as we call him, is full of energy when he wakes up.  He chases after our feet, jumps up on legs like springs, and keeps us on our toes running after him.  He’ll go non-stop like an Energizer Bunny for two hours, and then let out a yawn, curl up and fall asleep on my lap.  He lets go of all effort, and rests on me with complete trust that he will be safe.  His body limp, his eyes closed, Wes rests on me with utter contentment, confident that I will be there to care for him while he is asleep, and still there when he wakes up to feed him, to play with him, and to love him.
God invites us to rest in the Lord with the same trust and confidence in the Lord’s love and care.  We work hard at jobs, at caring for family and loved ones, at school.  From time to time, we need to let go of all of our effort and rest in the Lord, recognizing that the world will go on without us and life continue without our help.  We can let go of all our work and effort, and trust in the Lord to keep things together while we sleep or rest from our labor, and to be there to love us when we resume our activity.  That is the meaning of sabbath, the ability to relinquish control in the recognition that life doesn’t depend on us.  We don’t carry the world on our shoulders. God is in control, and we can rest in God’s care just as innocently as Wesley rests on my lap after two hours of crazy activity.
So work hard and play hard, and then rest in the everlasting arms of God’s love to be renewed, revived and restored by the one who has dealt bountifully with us.
Prayer:  Eternal God, when I was just a thought in your mind, you created all that is, and even now your power controls all of creation.  Your power is exceeded only by your love, the quality that most defines your being.  Help me to rest in you, to let go of all my strivings and trust in your power and love.   Renew my soul and restore my spirit so that I may continue to work for the glory of your kingdom, trusting in you and doing my part to achieve your will.  Amen.
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Pope Envy and Radical Discipleship

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“Whoever is not against us is for us.
                    Mark 9:40
Did you watch the Pope yesterday?  I sat in front of the TV yesterday morning, hunched forward, listening and struggling a bit with his accent, but fascinated by his remarks.  Later in the day I saw a headline, “Pope Envy,” and I understood the sentiment expressed.  Oh, I have no intention of becoming a Catholic, but I admit I admire Pope Francis.  I don’t agree with everything he says, but he calls us to live a radical discipleship that I believe is closer to what Jesus intended than the faith many institutional churches promote.
The Christian life is not one that fits easily with the mores of society.  It wasn’t in 30 AD when Jesus proclaimed the gospel, and it isn’t any easier today.  The Bible calls us to care for the least, to protect the widow and orphan, to value all life and care for the creation, to love even the Samaritans among us, and to open our gates wide in welcome of the stranger as God has welcomed us into God’s kingdom.  Those are all challenging ideas.
I remember years ago reading about one southern governor, a devout Christian and a Republican in a Republican state, who saw a poll showing that his state was near the bottom in test scores for school children.  He proposed a small tax increase in order to pay for improvements to the educational system, citing his Christian faith as the motivation for helping children.  He was attacked for raising taxes, and voted out of office at the next opportunity.  The people of his state were overwhelmingly Christian, but only as long as there were no tax increases!
Jesus’ words were radical, and following the gospel way of life means radical change.  I know we can’t turn our lives upside down in one instant, but I challenge you to consider one way you might take a step forward in living that radical gospel of Jesus’.  Jesus did not die on a cross so we could enjoy prosperity; he did not suffer so that we could ignore the needs of the rest of our world.  Jesus gave himself for us and calls us to go and do likewise – to give our time, our talents, and, yes, our treasure, to be the living Body of Christ, continuing the work of Jesus caring for God’s people and creation, offering hope and love.
 
Prayer:   Lord Jesus, you have proclaimed a radical gospel, a call to live my life in a different way from the rest of the world around me.  But I don’t want to be different, I want to be like everyone else.  I don’t like being different, I don’t like the demands your gospel makes on me.  Remind me today of what you have done for me.  Help me to understand the magnitude of your sacrifice and let that inspire me to make small sacrifices in my life, so that I may embody your radical gospel in my own life.  Amen.