The recent debates about immigration made me think of the ancient Israelites and their own mixed feelings on the topic.
When we think of Old Testament forms of justice -- of all the laws and ordinances outlined in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers -- most of us probably remember best the doctrine of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." With only that in mind we conclude that ancient Israel's judicial system was something grim and oppressive. The truth is that the heart of the Torah is a heroic attempt to reflect the love and justice of God in all human circumstances. The legal mandates in the Old Testament are unique among the other known Near Eastern judicial systems in their consistent and outspoken protection of "the stranger, the widow and the orphan" -- that is, the weakest, least protected members of the society. Again and again the statutes and ordinances of Old Testament law explicitly list those three groups as worthy of special kindness, extra thoughtfulness, and intentional consideration.
Equally revealing is the Old Testament insistence that there be only one law of the land -- with that law applying equally to both Israelites and to the "stranger that sojourns among you" (Exodus 12:49; Leviticus 16:29; 18:26). There was no double standard in God's Torah. For strangers and other resident aliens who chose to live among the Israelites, there was both equal responsibility and equal protection. "Strangers" were often listed with "widows and orphans" because these three groups shared a common handicap -- they lacked any kinship-connection that would naturally serve as a buffer between them and the harsh demands of life. They were alone and on their own in a time when one's whole identity came from the tribe or the clan.
Strangers or foreigners were entitled to certain protections and could claim some specific rights (such as gleaning), and were even in some cases invited to fully participate in the life of Israel, as shown in Deuteronomy 16:14 where the Lord commands "and you shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter and your male and female servants and the Levite and the stranger and the orphan and the widow who are in your towns." Yet, there was still a great chasm between acceptance as a stranger and acceptance as a member of the covenant community. This is vividly evident in Numbers 3:10, "And thou shalt appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall wait on their priest's office: and the stranger that comes near shall be put to death."
Paul recalls the depth of this rift when he begins our epistle passage by recalling what it used to mean to be a Gentile. They used to be "aliens," they had "no hope," they were utterly "without God in the world" (v.12). The remarkable, redeeming message for the stranger now is that "in Christ Jesus" there has been a miraculous joining together. A humanity that used to be fragmented has now been made whole by the gift of Christ's blood. When Christ died on the cross his one body became the means to "reconcile both groups to God" (v.16). Christ has "broken down the dividing wall" between all who come together in his name.
In the church there is no wall between rich and poor. In the church there is no wall between those who run the office during the day and those who seek shelter on the floor at night. In the church there is no wall between the youth group and the Survivors. In the church there is no wall between the church school teacher and the chair of finances. In the church there is no wall between the powerful and the powerless. In the church there is no wall between the eloquent and the hesitant. In the church there is no wall between the well-educated and the illiterate. In the church there is only one humanity, one body, one peace.
How can we bring this way of life beyond our circle of believers into the wider world? Ronald M. Paterson, a pastor in Dayton, Ohio, shares this story that could point the way for us: “The way of God is from closed to open. Recently I heard a woman talking about her fears for our nation. One of the things she said was that the loudest and most painful noise she hears in our beloved country is the sound of minds snapping shut all over America. Her point was that too many of us are becoming people whose minds are closed and whose opinions are set in a sort of fatal concrete which threatens to sink the fragile nature of our democracy. She pointed out that this beloved ship floats on the willingness of diverse people to work with one another despite their differences of opinion, to find ways to get along with one another. Do you remember Jesus seeking out strangers and the outcast? Do you remember the unconditional love which he showed and which he commanded of those who followed him? The way of God is the path which leads people to work together for the common good.
Our calling as Christians is to see strangers as brothers and sisters in Christ. Might there be danger in this? Of course! But the danger of not reaching out and engaging others with the message of our oneness in Christ is even greater. Rather than spreading the ethic of the Kingdom of God, we are pretending that the church is a Citadel to be isolated and protected from the world. What happens to a castle under siege? Eventually it runs out of resources and falls. No, we must be bold to believe what Paul told us, “For He is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us.” We need to courageously engage the world with the love of Christ, building a society that treats all people, native or alien, family or foe, as if they were beloved of Christ, because they are. Amen.
On July 5th we will gather in church either at the E3 Service or at the Traditional 11 a.m. Service to hear Bob Clendening sing Patriotic Anthems and be inspired to love and serve God. As the 4th of July approaches, recent events make me recognize how important it is for us as Christians to hold our nation accountable to God's standards seen in the life of Christ. With the racially motivated murders at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, we see how far we have to go to be "a city on a hill," lighting the way for the rest of the world. Churches were in the forefront of the abolition movement that led to the end of slavery 150 years ago, and we can continue to be prophets to a world of hate that the love of Christ is the answer to the problem of racial, ethnic, socio-economic, and any other division among us.
The people of Emmanuel AME Church are an inspiration to me. They freely offered forgiveness to the perpetrator of the heinous crime that took the lives of nine of their loved ones, including 3 of their ministers. In listening to their testimony, I understand that the motivation for their forgiveness was not because it would ease their pain by letting go of their anger and hurt. That pain will never go away, though in time it may become more bearable. Their motivation was to be faithful followers of their Lord, who forgave those who took his life.
Standing up to hatred and violence with love and forgiveness is one of the hardest and riskiest things one can do. It takes courage, strength, and a belief in a loving and merciful God for it to make any sense to react to violence in this way. Our natural inclination is to react in kind, demanding revenge. We hear loud voices clamoring for the death penalty for the perpetrator, and we think it only fair. But our Lord said, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also....You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you can be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." (Matt. 5:38-39, 43-45)
Jesus understood that limiting violence to reciprocity was an improvement to escalating violence (that was the purpose of the eye-for-an-eye injunction in Leviticus). But to overcome violence rather than simply to limit it, we need to meet it head on with the only power that is stronger than it is, God's love. To overcome evil we need to meet it head on with the only power that is stronger than it, God's goodness. If we are to be children of God, it is our calling to take up arms - that is, arms that hug and arms that uplift others - in order to confront those with arms that kill.
Being a Christian is not for the faint of heart. It takes the courage of Christ to oppose those with evil intentions with the weapons he has given us, the whole armor of God: "Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." (Ephesians 6:14-17)
As Christ liked to say, "Go and do likewise."
Grace and Peace,
DAY SEVENTEEN John 9:1-12 Kenneth Good,
Stockton Presbyterian Church
As we prepare to engage in a day of mission work and focus on the theme of Love the World, it is easy to read this passage and think of the people who we can help who are like the man born blind. We want to work, as long as it is day, to help those who have hurt and pain. We see people who live in the midst of deep struggle and difficult circumstance, which has not come from sin. Nor from their parent's sin. And so we envision the people that we want and can help. Simple enough.
But perhaps we should look at ourselves, not the ones we are about to serve, as the ones born blind. As we follow the instructions of Jesus (going to wash in the Pool of the Sent), we start to see. It is our neighbors who look at us as ones healed. Rather than our neighbors feeling we come to help them, they see that we have been healed. We were the ones who couldn't see, and now do, because of Jesus. We then have the chance to say to those who wonder if we are who we say we are, "I am indeed that person". And when they asked how we were healed, we, like the one born blind, can say, "Jesus told me to go and wash, so I went and washed." Simple enough.
Action Step: Go. Wash. Repeat.
Prayer: Lord, help me to be your servant this day. Thank you for your gift of salvation. Thank you for your call upon my life, and the lives of neighbors near and far. Amen.
DAY EIGHTEEN John 9:13-41
Anchor Presbyterian Church
Once again, in spite of seeing Jesus perform miracles, overwhelming evidence that Jesus must be from God, the Pharisees refused to accept the obvious truth. They were more caught up on the fact that Jesus had performed unlawful "works" on the Sabbath. Instead of praising God for a miracle, they sought to prosecute Jesus.
But isn't that like many of us today? It is often easier to categorize others based on a few legalistic behaviors. "Oh, they couldn't be Christian because they have tattoos," or they smoke, or because of the way they dress. We forget to apply God's standard to evaluate individuals and instead use public opinion.
In this story, we see the courage of a man who didn't give in to the standard of public opinion. Even when his parents were too fearful of speaking the truth, he courageously spoke the truth to the angry Pharisees about who healed him. In return they kicked him out.
Nevertheless, John explains, Jesus heard they had put the blind man out and wasted no time in finding him. Then he issued a call to faith. The blind man was given both physical and spiritual sight because of his faith. The Pharisees had their physical sight and thought they also had spiritual sight. However, they were blind to the truth.
Action Step: This week, focus on where you make choices about Christ and other areas of your life. Do you clearly see the truth of who Jesus is? Is He your guide, Counselor, Friend?
Prayer: Lord Jesus, you challenge us to be like the blind man, help us to make the right choice, even though it goes against the standard of public opinion, to put you first in our lives above all other things. Amen.
DAY FOURTEEN John 7:25-52
First United Methodist Church of Fairless Hills
The Church Has Left the Building
In 1972 Richard K. Avery and Donald S. Marsh wrote, We are the Church: 'The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people. I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together. All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we are the church together.'
Musicians and poets grasp the message. One song writer questions "Art Thou the Christ?' While another counters with "God sent his son", "they called him, Jesus". The crowd described in John 7:25-52, the Pharisees, the elders, and the temple guards when face to face with Jesus had great difficulty dealing with the messages of Jesus. Verse 28: "you know me and where I'm from", "but you do not know him who sent me?" Many believed. Verse 35: "I am with you for a short time; then I go to the one who sent me." Are you really the Son of God? More believed.
Verse 38: "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. "Whoever believes in me, streams of living water will flow from within you." The Holy Spirit indwells believers. The people questioned, is this Christ? The leaders allowed the teaching to occur. Did they believe or could they really do nothing about it? The temple guard reacted to what He said; ignoring their charge 'to capture Him and bring Him in'. The scriptures tell us, "no man cometh to the Father except through the Son." Believe! Receive!
Action Step: Let us go forth in Jesus' name with conduct that represents you in a constructive way for the world, so that they know us by your name, "Christian."
Prayer: Almighty God, aid our belief. We are the church. Amen.
DAY SIXTEEN John 8:31-59 Ernest Kelly,
Fairless Hills First United Methodist Church
Freedom, people write and sing about it. They fight and die for it. Every person wants to be free from slavery, poverty and ignorance. Jesus spoke of another kind of freedom. He referred to a freedom from the power of sin, a freedom to know and serve God. That freedom is not found through any religious activity. Nor is it obtained as a birthright, as some ancient Jews thought. Instead, true freedom comes through a relationship with the One who is the embodiment of the true path to salvation, Jesus Christ.
When Jesus lives within a person, he liberates that person from enslavement to sin and death. If you've struggled with sin, and we all have, you know about its oppressive hold. You've felt its tight, vise-like grip on your soul. In this passage of scripture Jesus offers freedom from sin's oppression in our lives. All we need to do is to "hold to his teachings" through the power of the Holy Spirit and become his true disciples in thought, word and deed.
As we prepare for our Sunday of outreach may we deepen our relationship with God as a true disciple and share God's love with the community.
Action Step: Remembering what Jesus did for us is not recalling His sacrifice, but the acceptance of true freedom that changes us. May it be clear to the World that we are children of God by everything we do and say.
Prayer: Lord, we lift you up in praise and thanks for all you have done for us, may we share your love and true freedom with the world. Amen.
DAY FIFTEEN John 8:1-30 Diane Coyle,
St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church
"Let the one among you who has no sin be the first to cast a stone at her."
Who among us could cast the first stone? In today's society, as it was in the society of Christ, it is so easy to judge without thinking. Emotions, stress, life's circumstances, and temptations have all caused us to stray and make decisions that we later regret. Christ did not judge nor did he condemn. He did reach out to the adulteress and asked her to avoid sin.
One has to believe that she saw the light after this and became a thoughtful and forgiving person who tried hard to do what was right. Perhaps we should do the same. Instead of judging our fellow human beings, let us reach out to them and offer understanding and support. Together we can help one another to follow the correct path. The one lit by Jesus Christ.
Action Step: Today reach out to someone who is struggling and offer them support and understanding.
Prayer: Lord, help us to love one another and together follow your guiding light. Amen.
DAY NINE John 5:1-15 Mike Matlack,
Titusville Presbyterian Church
Faith in Action
"Pick up your mat and walk!" As Jesus speaks these words in the passage, imagine that He is speaking these words to you. In life, we are often challenged to get up and live for Christ, whether it be because of our jobs, our circumstances, our fears, or our complacency. Like the man in the story, despite our greatest needs and desires, it is easy for us to become comfortable and immovable from our current condition, even if that condition is less than desirable.
If we truly want to be healed by the forgiving grace of Jesus, and to share His truth and His love with others, we need to allow Christ to move us, both in a physical and spiritual sense. We need to leave behind the comforts we cling to and not be afraid if a few worldly rules and perspectives get challenged along the way, aka the Pharisees' disapproval of Jesus' miraculous work.
Know that God is bigger and stronger than anything else in this world, and when your faith is in Him, mountains will move, the paralyzed will walk, and hearts, maybe even your heart, will be changed!
Action Step: Don't get stuck - get up and walk! Walk with Jesus, and walk towards the world so desperately in need of His love.
Prayer: Lord, mold us and move us, for Your Kingdom and for Your glory. Amen.
DAY SIX John 3:22-36
Narberth Presbyterian Church
When Less Really Is More
People crave attention and power, whether its roots be in celebrity, politics, or business. We are fascinated by stories of how the rich and famous rise to power, and riveted when they stumble and fall. So when Pope Benedict surprised the world and resigned the papacy, the media was confounded: Was there a scandal behind the scenes? Was he ill and about to die? Why would a person willingly let go of such power and fame?
The disciples of John the Baptist had a similar question for their teacher: "What should we do about this Jesus movement?" John had built up quite a following by the Jordan River; even the leaders in Jerusalem were coming out to see him because of the crowds. But now the people were leaving him and going to Jesus. John's response: "He must become greater, I must become less." He knew that the veneration he enjoyed was not his own, but came from heaven. And he experienced fullness of joy in turning it all back over to the Lord of heaven, Jesus Christ. When "He must become greater, I must become less" is the prayer of our hearts, we are able to experience this joy also.
Pope Benedict is now being hailed for his humility in relinquishing power to Pope Francis, who in turn has become renowned for his own demonstrations of humility. While we Presbyterians do not submit to these Catholic leaders, we can appreciate their examples of humility and follow suit by submitting more of our lives to Jesus.
Is there something you need to let go of so that Christ can become greater in your life? Prayer: Lord, help me become less so that you can become greater in my sight. Amen.
DAY FIVE John 3:1-21
Morrisville United Methodist Church
The Whole World?
A Pharisee named Nicodemus comes under the cover of night to ask his questions. We can only assume that he will either be embarrassed or punished by his peers for seeking out Jesus. Though he is a Pharisee Jesus treats him like a seeker, not an enemy. What Nicodemus hears seems to be mysterious to him. "You must be born again." And then "For God so loved the world...." The whole world? Some people seem to think God only loves some of the people. Or loves some a bit more than others. And later "that the world might be saved..." Not just a select few, but the world.
Believers sometimes feel alienated from the world, with all of its conflict, sin, and injustice. Sometimes we just want to condemn and withdraw from the world around us. It's understandable, but not in the spirit of the one who loves the world and continually reaches out with the offer of grace.
"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."
What happened to Nicodemus? He apparently took the message to heart, and shows up at the end of the gospel when he assists Joseph of Arimathea in burying Jesus. Loving is our business, not condemning. What would happen if we really loved the world, as God loves the world?
Action Step: Reflect on the situations that make you want to withdraw from the world. How can you offer or practice God's love in those situations?
Prayer: God of love, show me how I can love the world that I live in, the world that you love. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Shannon Smythe
United Presbyterian Church