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Daily devotions, written by the staff of Fourth Presbyterian Church,
are available via email (sign up online or send addresses to, Facebook (, Twitter (@FourthChicago), online, and in print (from the church literature racks)

November 1–2 | November 3–9 | November 10–16
November 17–23
| November 24–30

Friday, November 1, 2013

Today’s Reading | Revelation 7:9–17
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

     “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,

     “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
     and thanksgiving and honor
     and power and might
     be to our God forever and ever!

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

     For this reason they are before the throne of God,
          and worship him day and night within his temple,
          and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
     They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
          the sun will not strike them,
          nor any scorching heat;
     for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
          and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
     and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (NRSV)

Most people I know, clergy and laity alike, hold the book of Revelation at a distance. We do this because it has so often been used in a way that has excluded people. The beginning of this chapter proclaims the number 144,000—used by terribly conservative Christians as the number of people who will be accepted into heaven: a very exclusive group.

Revelation is a book of recorded visions. Visions, like dreams, that give a glimpse of God but aren’t to be taken word for word as truth and formula. I love how these verses describe a “multitude that no one could count from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb:a much more inclusive group.

A man once asked me if he would see his mother again in heaven. He was worried because he had never heard her say the words “Jesus is my Lord and Savior.” I don’t think God is as formulaic and prescriptive as that. I believe God has capacity for far more than 144,000 people.

My parents both died when I was in my thirties. While I missed them terribly, I didn’t spend much time wondering about where they were or if I would see them again in any real sense. But over the years, I have had many people tell me about their visions of loved ones after death—hearing a voice, having a dream, seeing a vision, feeling the loved one’s presence in a supernatural way. Those visions, shared with me, are much like this vision in Revelation. They give hope. One year I had my own vision. It appeared out of nowhere, in which I saw both of my parents singing joyously, in what appeared to be worship—worship beyond any worship any of us has experienced. That vision changed my ministry.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Thank you for the lives of those who have gone before us, who worship now day and night at your feet. Give us strength as we continue without them, and grant us confidence in your promises. Amen.

Written by Judith L. Watt, Associate Pastor for Pastoral Care

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Saturday, November 2, 2013

Today’s Reading | Matthew 13:24–30
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” (NRSV)

Often when I encounter this parable it is presented as a warning against damnation, that sinners will burn in hell. Not my idea of God’s kingdom by any means.

But who decides what is a weed? Kudzu is reviled in many places, but is also used to replenish soil nutrients, to feed livestock, to prevent erosion, and for food and medicine by people. Dandelions can cause much gnashing of teeth from those wanting a pristine lawn, but it has long been used for medicinal and nutritional ends (and is pretty as well).

Reading this as an allegory for humans, who can know what fruit will grow from people’s lives? No one, looking at the teenage years of Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, would have predicted he would become the beloved St. Francis. The list of such turned lives is long.

I am grateful that the kingdom of heaven is like a field. Tended by Christ, the master gardener, all growing things, I trust, will be put to his ends, and it is he who is the last word, for even that which is burned can become fuel for someone—and light.

O my gracious Lord, I ask that you make of us what you will; grant us the courage and strength and grace to embrace your care. Amen.

Written by Anne Ellis, Program Manager for Congregational Life

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Today’s Reading | Hebrews 12:1–2
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (NRSV)

A few years ago I officiated at the funeral of one of our members who was a retired minister. Jack, for that was his name, was a warm, caring man who had served his country in the military, trained for ministry, and then served faithfully for many years in parish ministry in downstate Illinois. He and his wife raised their family, who had all ventured out into the world with successful careers and raised their own families, all the while keeping close to their parents who had retired to Chicago. It was during retirement that Jack and his wife made Fourth Church their church home, and it was always a delight for me to spend time with Jack over a lunch or on Sunday after worship. He was a person of great wisdom.

As I was preparing for the funeral service and talking with his family we reflected on this life well lived. At one point, attempting to ground the discussion in reality, his wife interjected, “Now Calum, let’s remember that Jack is not a saint.”

I know what she was trying to say—that for all of his strengths, Jack was a human being with flaws, and we were not to pretend otherwise. However, I responded to her comment by saying, “Actually Jack is a saint. In the true biblical meaning, Jack is a saint.”

In the New Testament the term saint does not refer to a perfect, holy, special person, but to those who sought to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us”; those who seek to follow Jesus, however flawed they may be, knowing that those who went before cheer them on in that “great cloud of witnesses” of which saint Jack is now a part.

For all the saints, who from their labors rest, Hallelujah. Amen.

Written by Calum I. MacLeod, Executive Associate Pastor
    and Head of Staff

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Monday, November 4, 2013

Today’s Reading | Matthew 13:31–35
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:

     “I will open my mouth to speak in parables;
          I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”            (NRSV)

A friend filled with excitement and awe holds out a mustard seed in front of you. He says, “Bury this little seed in the dirt! Water it! Let the sun shine upon it! And bam! This seed will become a large tree where the birds can live.” He pauses for dramatic effect and then he finishes with, “How powerful is that?!” He’s excited. And you, well you say, in a more or less pathetic tone, “Yeah, I know.”

The small to the large idea is not that amazing and powerful to us—it’s the way our world works. We are familiar with seeds. We know this ecology. I almost wonder if we shouldn’t read the parable the other way: the mustard seed is like the kingdom of heaven. This kingdom seems small and insignificant and yet . . . what? Fill in the blank.

A man named Jesus with an unbelievable birth story, good teachings, miraculous powers, other worldly claims, big deal Father, flanked with a ragamuffin crew, dies on a tree; is buried; and three days later rises from the dead. Bam! The heavenly kingdom is born! Salvation accomplished and applied! How powerful is that?!

Honestly, it feels foolish. It feels unbelievable. Yet as Christians, this is the story we hold fast to—it is the tree we live in. As the Apostle Paul writes, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” If today this story of salvation, this kingdom of heaven, feels profoundly outlandish, then may I suggest, go look at a mustard seed, hold it in your palm: it’s amazing what it does.

Lord God, today, right now, by your Holy Spirit, melt my cynical heart and help me to believe in your heavenly kingdom, again—like a child. Amen.

Written by Daniel Holladay, Senior High Youth Coordinator

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Today’s Reading | Matthew 13:36–43
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!” (NRSV)

It’s interesting how a parable that Jesus told earlier about weeds and wheat growing side by side in a field gets boiled down to a warning about ultimate consequences. Asked to explain the parable, Jesus reduces the message to this: at the end of time, weeds will be separated from wheat. “Children of the evil one” will be separated from “children of the kingdom.” Evildoers will be burned up with fire, and the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of God.
The imagery is stark. The consequences of doing evil and being righteous couldn’t be more dramatically imagined. Images are powerful; they have a way of affecting our psyches immediately, and once imprinted in our imaginations, they have a way of lingering for years, even from childhood into adulthood.

I think that is why we have to take care with the religious images at work in our lives. The images upon which we most readily rely make a difference in how we make sense of the world and of our lives. So it may be worth asking ourselves which religious images come easily to mind, and upon which images do we easily fall back either in daily life or at critical moments in our lives?

The Bible and Jesus offer a wealth of different images from which we can draw, not all of them as stark and scary as that of evildoers being burnt up in a furnace of fire. It is unfortunate, I think, that sometimes the church has selected certain images, like this one, at the expense of the many other images in the Bible. In doing so, it has risked perverting our religious imaginations to view this amazing life of ours with fear rather than with wonder. Perhaps all we need to do is widen our eyes with wonder and take in more of what God wants us to see.

God, forgive us when we fasten our view on things that make us fearful. Open our eyes to see more—more of your wondrous grace, love, and providence. Amen.

Written by Joyce Shin, Associate Pastor for Congregational Life

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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Today’s Reading | Psalm 117
Praise the Lord, all you nations!
          Extol him, all you peoples!
For great is his steadfast love toward us,
          and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.
Praise the Lord! (NRSV)

I am blessed to have a wonderful roommate with whom I can share my faith. On a recent Sunday, we were singing “One Thing Remains” at the beginning of worship. My friend looked over at me with a huge smile and a few tears in her eyes. Afterwards I asked her what moved her. She said. “I used to listen to talk radio before work and just recently started playing Christian music. It has now carried over into my workday. It is amazing to me how much of a difference it makes in my day. This song is the one that I have been listening to for the past two weeks.”

I have always enjoyed contemporary Christian music but have never listened to it on a regular basis outside of church. So after seeing how great she felt, I decided that I would change up my music as well. So last week, every morning while getting ready for work, I listened to that song. I am a hummer by nature; I love to hum and sing to myself all day. After listening to that song for two weeks every day, all day, I was humming those lyrics: “Your love never fails; it never gives up; it never runs out on me.” It gets into your conscience and brings a huge sense of comfort. Rather than humming something from the radio, my singing has turned my thinking towards worship.

Psalm 117 declares the Lord’s faithfulness, proclaiming God’s lasting love. When I read “the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever,” I immediately thought of the lyrics I have been repeating in my head all week: “his love never runs out on me.” God so desperately wants us to think of and seek God during our days: how do we each make that effort? What will you and I do to make that happen?

Lord, your love is great and unfailing. I pray that you help me never to overlook the little ways that you try to become a part of my day. Amen.

Written by Ashley Elskus, Co-Director, Center for Life and Learning

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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Today’s Reading | Matthew 13:44–52
 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (NRSV)

There’s a bit of context about this passage, from biblical scholars, that I’ve always liked. According to an ancient law, items left on property that was sold reverted to the seller. Take that idea into account and read Matthew 13:44 again: “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all he has and buys that field.”

What is the man so excited about? After all, he is mistaken. The kingdom of heaven will not be his. Such is the grace of God. The more we pursue the idea of having it for ourselves, the more elusive it becomes. But in seeking not to have grace for ourselves but share it with others, its presence grows in our lives.

How many of us spend too much time wondering about God’s grace towards ourselves and too little time extending grace to others? Today make an effort to reverse that trend. Take time to be graceful toward someone else, and may the grace of God fill your life as well.

Gracious God, thank you for your grace and gifts. Help me to be less interested in gaining grace for myself and more interested in filling my life by giving grace to others. Amen. 

Written by Adam H. Fronczek, Associate Pastor for Adult Education and Worship

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Friday, November 8, 2013

Today’s Reading | Matthew 13:53–58
When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.

He came to his hometown and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.” And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief. (NRSV)

“Who does this guy think he is?” “He’s too big for his britches.” Jesus intentionally went to his own hometown, where he initially taught with as much wisdom and performed deeds with as much power as anywhere else. No one doubted that he spoke with authority. However, those who knew his family, what house he had been raised in, who his parents and siblings were, took offense at him. They couldn’t imagine that he could have acquired such stature from the familiar people and surroundings they knew. They thought they knew him and his kin. Therefore, they assumed he was a fake and did not accept or believe in him.

We may have our own experiences of not being invited to share or not being received for what we have to offer when it is in our own setting. Others think they already know us and place limits on our gifts or knowledge. We’ve all had moments when another person says the same thing we said earlier but the other was heard in a way that we were not. The definition of an expert is “someone from the outside.”

Because of others’ lack of reception and faith, Jesus chose not to do many deeds of power in their midst. He deemed that to be a waste of his time and energy. Even God’s power and wisdom won’t have full impact without an openness by people. Reflect on where your own assumptions about God or your own doubts limit what God is willing and able to do in your life.

Make me aware, almighty God, where my own doubts shut out the impact of your presence and influence in my life. Strengthen my belief in you, that I may trust and receive your transforming power. Amen.

Written by Victoria G. Curtiss, Associate Pastor for Mission

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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Today’s Reading | Matthew 14:13–21
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (NRSV)

This passage is often heard detached from the events that immediately precede it. Reading this scripture alone, one might easily consider it to be about Jesus performing one of his many miracles. However, in the larger context it tells of Jesus being asked for his service and compassion after losing one of his dearest friends, his cousin—John the Baptist. Despite losing his friend, Jesus continued to serve those in need. He healed the sick and willingly fed the crowds his disciples thought should be on their way. This limitless effort and compassion that Jesus offers makes us wonder how we can continue to give of ourselves when we think there is nothing left to give. When we believe we have been through the worst, have been knocked down to our lowest point, how do respond to those who ask more of us? How do we model Jesus as true followers of Christ?

Jesus shows us that his love and grace is stronger than human strength can bear. After losing his dearest friend, he summons the ability to serve his people and leave them with full hearts. How can we follow Christ’s example and continue to give of our hearts and our faith when we find ourselves broken and lost? We must remember that Jesus can always be our source of strength, and that his love and grace continuously multiples, like the loaves and fishes, through our own good deeds and compassion for one another.

God, help me to remain present to others’ needs, even when I believe my own concerns are more important. Help me to be a true follower of Jesus, being ever-willing to love and care for others whose hearts are heavy and needs are great. Amen.

Written by Jackie Lorens, Associate Program Manager,
    Elam Davies Social Service Center

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 14:22–36
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. After the people of that place recognized him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed. (NRSV)

If you’re like most people (and statistically, you probably are) you don’t exactly relish the challenge of public speaking. Even people who do it all the time are not immune to a touch of glossophobia, which is not the fear of shiny surfaces but rather the fear of public speaking. Some of the most famous actors in history—Laurence Olivier, Helen Hayes—eventually succumbed to the “stage fright” manifestation of this condition.

If there is one major risk factor for this fear, it is simple self-consciousness. When someone stops thinking about what they are doing and starts thinking about how they look and how they sound and whether people like them—well, that just feeds all the fears. Once someone feeds their fears instead of their intentions, they are pretty much sunk.

This account is a literal example. Peter—good old “lead-with-his-mouth” Peter—says he wants to walk on water too. Jesus says, “Come on,” and what do you know? It works. He can—at least until he stops thinking about walking and starts looking at the waves and thinking he might sink. Once he loses focus on what he’s doing and starts to think about himself, he’s done.

That lesson is the whole point of walking on water, which you’ve got to admit is about as showy as anything Jesus ever does (I mean, aside from the transfiguration and resurrection). He’s showing them the importance of focusing on what they are doing and not on themselves. He knows what kind of storm is coming for them and is giving them a practical reminder that if they don’t keep their focus on him, they’re sunk.

There’s a challenge in this for us, too. Can we keep our focus, our commitment, our intention on the work we have in front of us, or will we let our attention go to our self-interest? Move or sink: it’s that simple.

Lord, remind us that our work is the world outside of ourselves. Helps us move forward, and in our moving forward, keep us from sinking. Amen.

Written by Rob Koon, Coordinator of Fine Arts

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Monday, November 11, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 15:1–20
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
     ‘This people honors me with their lips,
          but their hearts are far from me;
     in vain do they worship me,
          teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” (NRSV)

In today’s reading we have two passages in which Jesus confronts the religious leaders and traditions of his day. In both cases he subverts the tradition with not so subtle challenges to the guardians of those traditions.

It is good to be reminded that Jesus was a revolutionary. He was passionately committed to reforming the Pharisaic version of Second Temple Judaism that he himself was most likely associated with. We tend to forget this fact by assuming that Jesus was starting something completely new or that he was rejecting all of Judaism for this new movement called Christianity—a term Jesus himself never used.

We also tend to avoid considering whether or not Jesus the revolutionary might also confront and subvert the religious traditions of our day. It is natural for religious communities to become set in their ways and far too easy to become complacent with the status quo.

But the Spirit of Jesus compels us to always challenge the received tradition and wonder if we too have lost sight of how God is moving in the world today. God is not static, but always dynamic. So too must we be, in the words of Presbyterian tradition, reformed and always being reformed.

Living God, stir within me restlessness with the status quo and an openness to change. Remind me that you are always active in the world and that you persistently draw us forward to an unfolding future bigger than we could ever imagine on our own. Help me to avoid complacency and hypocrisy, and give me the courage to join in your ongoing revolution and transformation of the world. Amen.

Written by John W. Vest, Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 15:21–28
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (NRSV)

I am in awe of this woman. She bravely approaches Jesus, not only from the humblest place but with an enormous request—not for herself, but for her suffering daughter. She’s turned away by Jesus’ own disciples, and Jesus himself reminds her of her low “rank” both as a woman and as a Canaanite. Yet she won’t back down and continues to ask for his help. She won’t be discouraged!
So many times, when I begin a prayer I hear that familiar, negative voice in my head, telling me “How can you ask for help? You didn’t do enough on your own. This is too big, or too small to bother God with,” etc., etc. And then I hear the words that trouble me the most when I’m struggling with prayer. They are my own doubtful words telling me I don’t believe my prayers are heard or that they will be answered—that prayer is like throwing pennies in a wishing well, especially for someone like me.
Yet it’s hard to miss the resounding message in Matthew 15:21–28. “Ask! And expect an answer!” That is exactly what the Canaanite woman did, and Jesus praised her faith and healed her daughter. The next time I pray and those doubtful words creep in, I will remember this story and take courage that I am a cherished child of God, as we all are, and that my prayers are heard.

God, grant me the courage to back my prayers with faith and keep my eyes open to the countless ways that you prove to me every day that you are always listening. Amen.

Written by Patty Donmoyer, Receptionist

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 15:29–39
After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” The disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” Jesus asked them, “How many loaves have you?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” Then ordering the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Those who had eaten were four thousand men, besides women and children. After sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan. (NRSV)

When I was a kid, trick-or-treating together meant my brother and I ended up with pretty much identical stashes of candy. Each day after that, we got to choose one or two items to eat. I loved to hoard away the prize morsels. My brother’s strategy was different: eat the best stuff first, worry about the rest later. When his best candy was gone, he’d start eyeing mine, complaining to our parents that, “Hardy isn’t sharing.” But why was it my problem that he hadn’t planned ahead?

It’s hard to understand or to believe Jesus’ miracle stories, including the feeding narratives. We’ll never be able to confirm or dismiss the details of a story where Jesus feeds several thousand people with seven loaves and a few fish. But we can be sure of this: when you’re stuck with barely enough to take care of your own needs, your first impulse isn’t to give up what little you have to help out those who haven’t planned ahead.

This is what Jesus and his disciples do. They take stock of the little that we have and then, in spite of their own need, offer it up so the people might be comforted. You and I can both sit in front of our computers, considering this challenge in the context of hunger, housing, health care, education, security, and so many other issues in our world today—and we can tell ourselves why the example of this story makes no practical sense. Still, Jesus and the disciples, who gave up their food in the face of their own hunger and who fed thousands, urge us to see different possibilities. If we can set aside our realistic views of the world long enough to consider those possibilities, maybe that would be miracle enough for today.

Holy God, in Jesus Christ you came and took compassion on us. And in him you withheld nothing from us, not even your own life. Help us, who seek to follow Jesus, to stop clinging so tightly to the little that we have. Make us more compassionate toward the needs of others, so that we might give to one another freely and participate in your ministry of miracles. Amen.

Written by Hardy H. Kim, Associate Pastor for Evangelism

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Scripture Reading: 2 Timothy 2:14–17a
Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth. Avoid profane chatter, for it will lead people into more and more impiety, their talk will spread like gangrene. (NRSV)

“Rightly explain the word of truth” admonishes the letter writer. For many people today this is a more complex exhortation than it might seem on first reading. In this era, which the culture-watchers call postmodern, claims of truth-telling as an objective action are likely to be examined critically. Questions will be asked, questions such as What are the historical, social, or cultural contexts for the statement? What power structures underpin the truth-claim? What are likely outcomes?

Now before I receive a barrage of reply emails accusing me of being a dangerous relativist, it is worth remembering an important line from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Brief Statement of Faith. In describing ways in which we disobey God, this indictment is offered: “We accept lies as truth.”

At the very least, this is a warning that what is told as truth can be a manipulation designed to serve particular interests. Remember Orwell’s 1984 and 2+2=5? The history of our faith shows us examples of this, obvious ones being the vilification of Jews and the oppressive treatment of women.

When faced with the prospect that what we hold to be a truth can turn out to be the opposite, we might hear echoes of Pilate’s encounter with Jesus in John’s Gospel. “What is truth?” asks Pilate of Jesus at the end of his interrogation. No reply is uttered from Jesus’ lips. Why? Perhaps because the answer is not a statement or a formula. Perhaps because the question was asked of the one who had once said, “I am the truth.”

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life: such a way as gives us breath;
such a truth as ends all strife; such a life as conquers death.
(Prayer written by George Herbert)

Reflection written by Calum I. MacLeod, Executive Associate Pastor
   and Head of Staff

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Friday, November 15, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 16:21–28
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (NRSV)

This woman of great faith is described as a Canaanite, a people who were one of ancient Israel’s fiercest opponents and someone who would have been roughly equivalent with the Samaritans in the eyes of the Jewish people. Jesus’ response that he was sent only to the house of Israel is actually in keeping with the early stages of the Gospel of Matthew (this mission is expanded in Jesus’ charge to the disciples at the conclusion of the Gospel), but his comparison of the Canaanites to dogs is quite troubling for us as external observers.

“Never judge a book by its cover,” the old English proverb goes. “Appearances can be deceiving.” Ancient Israelites would likely have had a visceral reaction to a Canaanite identity similar to the one that Jesus offers, but the text pulls the rug out from under that viewpoint. Just as the centurion’s servant was healed earlier in Matthew, the worldwide vision of God’s plan is already cracking through the cultural barriers and prejudices present in the world.

Jesus’ metaphor may have been harsh, but his response is not: our faith will demand that we overcome all boundaries and misconceptions we have about others. We are each products of the world we live in—shaped by culture and circumstance—but this remarkable story reminds us that we are each called to look beyond that toward something greater.

Dear Lord, help to open my eyes that I might see beyond the boundaries that have been set in front of me and the boundaries that I myself have placed. Amen.

Written by Matt Helms, Minister for Children and Families

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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 17:14–21
When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (NRSV)

Why is Jesus so irritable? I’m not convinced Jesus is talking to the father or to the son in regards to a “faithless and perverse generation.” I think Jesus is looking at the crowd and, by default the reader, who lack faith. The faith the crowd lacks isn’t necessarily about healing (though it might include it), but a faith in a God who is merciful such that brokenness is restored, healing is offered, and relationship is strengthened. Perhaps the crowd dismissed this man and his son, or looked down on the son as “poor thing, bless his heart,” or worse, “he must have done something wrong that brought him all this,” a theology that continues to plague us into our own day.

Jesus’ words are directed at us each time we pity others rather than show compassion, or impart judgment and condemnation rather than advocacy and grace, or when we don’t partner with God, who is uninterested in seeking retribution against us but instead refuses to accept the world and leave it as is—in a radical acceptance, God seeks to change the world for the better.

One side note: I’m always struck by the characters that approach Jesus, especially the nameless ones. Perhaps it’s because I can more easily fill in the blank name with my own. I can’t help but to think that the man who brings his son is a lot like some of us. We don’t come to faith out of some noble act but out of desperation. Jesus welcomes us too.

Grant us faith, O Lord, even a desperate one, that we might see the world not as it is, but as it could be, and that we might act into that new, gracious reality, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Written by Edwin Estevez, Pastoral Resident

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 18:1–5
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (NRSV)

I spent a year in Daejeon, South Korea, after graduating college. I was very excited to be a young adult, venturing off on my own to experience the world. What I found was that I was soon humbled by the fact that I could not manage simple tasks such as going to the grocery store on my own. Talk about humbling experiences.

When I arrived in Korea, I did not speak a word of Korean. I think it took me about a week to learn how to say hello. Therefore I was completely dependent on the charity of the people around me to help me navigate this new world. I felt like a young child, stifled by lack of vocabulary to express my needs. I was ecstatic to finally be able to navigate the city bus on my own and order for myself at a restaurant.

How often we fight to be independent and self-sufficient. It starts at a young age, when the three- year-old at the supermarket stubbornly tells her mother that she is going to do it “all by myself!” But here Jesus tells us to be humble, like a lowly child, dependent on God to fulfill our needs, to rebuke our society’s ideals of success being a measure of status.

Lord I pray to be six again . . . to be excited by freshly fallen snow, or the changing of the leaves. Return me to the unconditional lover, before fear and prejudice. Give me the strength to share my weakness with others, to laugh when I am happy and cry when I am sad. Lord, make me your child. Amen.

Written by Katie Patterson, Junior High Youth and Mission Coordinator

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Monday, November 18, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 18:10–14
 “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost. (NRSV)

There are a lot of classic little “Danny” Holladay stories. I am not sure I remember dancing on the center of the stove top naked with all the burners on high, but because I have heard the story so many times, I have a mental picture of it. All that to say, from what I have heard, when it came to my childhood you needed to always keep an eye on where I was going and what I was doing.

One time when I was at a department store with my mom, I decided to slide under one of the circle clothing racks and hide. Quickly my mom realized I was gone, and so the search began. After a while, store employees began to search, and then after a longer while, shoppers began to search. From the sounds of it eventually everyone in that department store was trying to find me. And good news for me—they found me.

Who knows what I was thinking or doing while hiding in that circular clothes rack, but one thing was for certain: my mom wasn’t going to go home until she found me. Yeah, I was a squirrely little curious kid who was hard to keep track of but I was her squirrely little curious kid and she loved me and she was going to do everything in her power not to lose me.

In our Bible reading today, that is what Jesus is saying: God is like my mom—actually it probably goes the other way—my mom was God-like that day. I was her kid and she wasn’t going to lose me. In all honesty, there are plenty of days that I try to hide from God, but because God loves me and I am his, God always comes looking for me.

Heavenly Father, thank you for loving me enough to come looking for me. Please help me to see that staying with you is better than going my own way. Amen.

Written by Daniel Holladay, Senior High Youth Coordinator

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 18:21–35
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (NRSV)

There have been times in my life when I have prayed that God would grant me the gift of forgiveness about one issue or another or one person or another. Sometimes the only way we find the ability to forgive is when God answers our prayers about forgiving. The hurt, the anger, and the resentment suddenly dissipate. I don’t think it happens often this way, but when it does it is a God-given miracle.

The words from Matthew tell us that if someone in the church wrongs us, we are to forgive that person not just seven times but seventy-seven times—in other words, as much as is necessary. Jesus set the bar really high. Not many of us measure up. In any community, church or otherwise, harboring grudges and hurts and resentments and hate causes immense harm. And yes, there’s a difference between forgiving someone and letting someone hurt you over and over again.

I don’t think Jesus wants us to forgive in some surface, meaningless way, dispensing cheap grace as though nothing matters and we are impervious to hurt. I don’t think Jesus wants us to put ourselves in harm’s way. I do think Jesus wants us to engage with one another, to be honest about when we’ve been harmed, to be courageous in the telling, to listen and try to understand, to hear the other side. What is so hard about forgiving someone is that it entails letting go of the idea that the score can be evened up. To forgive means that the forgiver has to give up something—the need for due payment.

God loves us way more than any of us can imagine, way more than we ever love God. God has forgiven us for that and has given up the idea that the score can ever be even.

Dear Jesus, give us courage to ask for our hearts to be softened. Give us wisdom about our need to forgive and our need to ask for forgiveness. Help us to forgive ourselves. And most of all, help us to understand the magnitude of the forgiveness you have granted to us. Amen.

Written by Judith L. Watt, Associate Pastor for Pastoral Care

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 19:13–15
Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” And he laid his hands on them and went on his way. (NRSV)

I was ten years old when my sister was born, so I was in a way like a second mother to her. Our relationship always took that path. You would think the age difference would create more of a distance in our relationship, but that is quite the opposite. She is my best friend. Since I moved to Chicago five years ago, our relationship has changed. She needs me less and less. She was thirteen when I moved here, and she is now eighteen years old. I would call to bug her a lot when I was walking around the city and she always answered. Now when I call, she is in college and studying and going out with friends—all exciting things for her.

I wonder if that is how God feels with us? As we grow up and become independent people, does God fear that we will need our God less and less? We are children of God and as children we are to obey. I have always loved this quote by Pablo Picasso: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” As we grow up, we are always learning and acquiring new perspectives on life. The challenge is being humble to the teacher, Christ. Humility is what he asks of us, for us to go out and learn and build the life he wants for us.

Lord, thank you for providing me the strength to always lean on you. Help me to always be humble to your teachings and open to whatever path you have set before me. You are my greatest teacher, and I must never forget that. Amen.

Written by Ashley Elskus, Co-Director, Center for Life and Learning

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 19:16–22
Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (NRSV)

It’s easy to look at this passage as a story about a guy who really loved money and how that kept him from a relationship with God. There is something interesting about this passage, though, and it’s Jesus’ list of the commandments. When asked which commandments to keep, Jesus lists No Adultery, No Stealing, No False Witness, Honor Mom and Dad.

But that’s only four of the ten. What gives? Doesn’t Jesus know the Ten Commandments? Are these more important than No Other Gods or Remember the Sabbath?

Well, of course he does and of course they aren’t, and the point is not the checklist. This young man knows the checklist; he’s been checking stuff off diligently. But Jesus reminds him that the important thing is how he treats others—the commandments Jesus lists are the ones dealing with the treatment of others—and at the end he slides in a new one: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself. The kid says, “Yeah, yeah, I do that.” And Jesus says “Oh? Well, if you’re really serious, do this—liquidate all your holdings and provide for the poor.”

There’s an old Texas saying: “Don’t let your mouth write a check your behind can’t cash.” And clearly, the young man had never been to Texas, since his mouth was writing more than his assets would cover. Jesus knew it and called him on it.

At its core, love means giving yourself up for others. Love doesn’t say “I got mine.” Love doesn’t say “Why should I take care of you?” And yet, in one form or another, we say these things all the time, even when we say “Love one another.” Jesus reminds us that our mouths are writing a check and asks how serious we are about paying off on it.

Lord, remind us that “love” is not just a word; it is an act. Keep the challenge of love before us, and help us rise to meet that challenge. Amen.

Written by Rob Koon, Coordinator of Fine Arts

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Friday, November 22, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 19:23–30
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. (NRSV)

Don’t worry, Jesus isn’t talking about you. This was only directed toward some specific people a long time ago. And it’s all metaphorical anyway, so don’t even think about taking this literally. Jesus doesn’t want you to change anything about your priorities or how your use your resources. You’re doing just fine. Amen.

That’s what we want to hear, right? When we encounter a difficult passage of scripture like this, we try our best to figure out a way to conclude that it doesn’t really say what it says or it is really isn’t about us. We try our best to strip Jesus of his provocative challenges. We like our comfortable way of being disciples and don’t want to think too hard about the kind of commitment Jesus asked of his followers.

But maybe we shouldn’t dismiss these passages so quickly. Maybe we should take a harder look at the kind of life Jesus lived and the way of life he encouraged among his disciples. Maybe we should think about what this kind of Christian life would look like in today’s world, different as it is from the world Jesus knew.

Instead of explaining this teaching away or ignoring it altogether, let’s challenge ourselves to really engage it. Instead of putting aside this passage until it appears again in a devotion or a sermon, months or even years from now, let’s live with it for a while. What if we read it three times a day—morning, noon, and night—for a whole week? What might we hear God saying?

Challenging God, don’t let me off the hook too easily today. Let these provocative words haunt me as I try my best to follow the way of Jesus. Amen.

Written by John W. Vest, Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 20:1–16
 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (NRSV)

In a modern world where we’re told to succeed and get ahead by putting in extra hours, we may often find ourselves feeling unfulfilled and dissatisfied. We were sure that, with the sacrifice of our personal time, staying up late and getting to the office extra early, we’d come out on top. I’ve personally been subject to this thinking for as far back as I can remember, especially when it came time for final exams in college. We expect that we’ll be rewarded even more, that the extra hours poring over tedious details will get noticed, and in the end, we submit the final product just like everyone else, but we may never see that extra acknowledgment we so often desire.

This parable calls us to higher expectations than the input of time and labor. It calls us to put forth our heart and our faith. God, the landowner, paid each of the workers equally, regardless of the hours each put in. God paid them equally based on their effort, or their heart, for the work at their hands.

It is difficult to translate modern values of productivity, efficiency, and competency to that of our faith. Just like the laborers, not all of us put in the same number of hours and tangible effort in our faith and relationship with God. But the beauty of God’s grace is that it’s always readily available to everyone, no matter if we are the first to wake up in the morning for early prayers or the last to go sleep, asking for forgiveness. God is eagerly generous to us all.

God, remind me to be present to my faith and know that your love is a perpetual gift. Help me to pause in my daily routines to put forth the effort of my heart rather than the effort of my desire to succeed by earthly means. Amen.

Written by Jackie Lorens, Associate Program Manager,
   Elam Davies Social Service Center

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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Scripture Reading: Colossians 1:11–20
May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (NRSV)

Albert Einstein wrote, “A human being is part of the whole, called by us Universe; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison.”

The theological language of the Apostle Paul can often be confusing. For most of us, it is not the language of everyday life, and it is increasingly not the language of our culture. But what Paul is talking about in today’s passage is a problem that is universal to human experience and that has plagued us for ages. How do I connect with the vast world around me? What is the meaning of my presence in the midst of it all? How do I break through my feelings of isolation and connect myself to deeper meaning?

Paul’s intention is to say that God understands that we have this problem of meaning-making and sent Christ to help us with it. Christ has “rescued us from the power of darkness.” It was through Christ that “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,” so that we might “be made strong” and “endure everything with patience.” Don’t get caught in the prison of thinking that you are alone. Christ came to reconnect us to one another and to our Creator. Thanks be to God.

Gracious God, thank you that I am not alone, that none of us are. Help me to be more aware of my connection to my human family and to you, and help me to live this day full of that awareness. Amen.

Written by Adam H. Fronczek, Associate Pastor for Adult Education and Worship

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Monday, November 25, 2013

Scripture Reading: Psalm 103
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
          and all that is within me,
          bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
          and do not forget all his benefits —
who forgives all your iniquity,
          who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,  
          who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live
          so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

The Lord works vindication
          and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
          his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
          slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
          nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
          nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
          so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
          so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
          so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
          he remembers that we are dust.

As for mortals, their days are like grass;
          they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
          and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
          on those who fear him,
          and his righteousness to children’s children,
to those who keep his covenant
          and remember to do his commandments.

The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
          and his kingdom rules over all.
Bless the Lord, O you his angels,
          you mighty ones who do his bidding,
          obedient to his spoken word.
Bless the Lord, all his hosts,
          his ministers that do his will.
Bless the Lord, all his works,
          in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul. (NRSV)

Psalm 103 not only provides a beautiful expression of thanks to God, acknowledging all God does and is, but it paints the perfect picture of the God I have come to know.
I’ve always read the Bible (admittedly more sporadically than regularly), but it wasn’t until I read the book The Shack that I began to truly see the incredible love, compassion, and acceptance in its words. The Shack tells the story of one man’s reconciliation with God, over both the tragic murder of his daughter and over the sin and hatred in his heart. If there was one overriding message that I took from The Shack, it is that God’s love and forgiveness are endless, no matter where we are in life or what sins we have committed. God knows us completely, right down to what lies within the darkest depths of our hearts, and loves us anyway, unconditionally. Psalm 103 expresses the same message of love and acceptance and goes a step further to God’s healing power and the promise of everlasting life and joy.

Lord, thank you for your endless, unconditional love, despite all my sin. Help me to live my life according to your will and to accept your promise of forgiveness and eternal life. Amen.

Written by Patty Donmoyer, Receptionist

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Scripture Reading: Psalm 65
Praise is due to you,
          O God, in Zion;
and to you shall vows be performed,
          O you who answer prayer!
To you all flesh shall come.
When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
          you forgive our transgressions.
Happy are those whom you choose and bring near
          to live in your courts.
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
          your holy temple.

By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
          O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
          and of the farthest seas.
By your strength you established the mountains;
          you are girded with might.
You silence the roaring of the seas,
          the roaring of their waves,
          the tumult of the peoples.
Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.

You visit the earth and water it,
          you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
          you provide the people with grain,
          for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
          settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
          and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
          your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
          the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
          the valleys deck themselves with grain,
          they shout and sing together for joy. (NRSV)

What a fitting psalm for this week leading up to Thanksgiving—a psalm that offers thanks for the God who created us and sustains us. The language of this psalm echoes the first verses of Genesis, in which God gives shape to the formless void while using that shaping as a demonstration of God’s sustaining hand with us, and many scholars speculate that this psalm was one closely related to the harvest.

I will readily admit to not being much of a “nature person,” but the language that springs forth out of the text reminds me of the still mornings on the camping trips I used to take as a child. I have a memory of unzipping the tent door one morning and being overwhelmed by the sense of stillness and peace that hung in the cool air and morning fog, perhaps a bit like Elijah standing on Mt. Horeb. There wasn’t really anything terribly remarkable going on at that moment, and yet it was an incredible reminder that God is in the mundane as much as the miraculous. We need not wait for large moments of transcendent beauty, for we are surrounded by small moments of transcendent beauty all of the time.

May we count those little moments in abundance this week, ever thankful to the God who sustains us each and every day of our lives.

I am grateful, O Lord, for all of the ways in which your hand has subtly shaped my life. Please continue to guide and sustain me, and give me a deep awareness of the richness that surrounds me. Amen.

Written by Matt Helms, Minister for Children and Families

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Scripture Reading: Psalm 100
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
          Worship the Lord with gladness;
          come into his presence with singing.

Know that the Lord is God.
          It is he that made us, and we are his;
          we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
          and his courts with praise.
          Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good;
          his steadfast love endures forever,
          and his faithfulness to all generations. (NRSV)

Enter his courts with praise. But what is God’s court? I have traveled through the grand cathedrals in Europe, and with all their gold and marble grandeur it only seems appropriate for God to be sitting on a throne in one of them awaiting our praise, for God is the King of kings and Lord of lords.

But that is not how Jesus came to us; he was a man of the streets. So wouldn’t God’s court be more of a simple stable than the grand cathedrals of Europe?

I have been truly fortunate to have been a part of numerous mission experiences, and when I walk through remote villages in Third World countries or around the streets of Chicago at night, that too is God’s court. While this psalm easily lends itself to worshiping God in an opulent cathedral, I challenge you to read the passage again and think about worshiping God in the slums. God is there too, and that is worthy of our praise.

Lord, we are thankful for everything that you have given us. Thank you for all you do for us in our lives. Thank you for being not only in the cathedrals but in the homeless shelters and in the slums. We are grateful to be your sheep and are blessed by your mercy, grace, and unconditional love. Amen.

Written by Katie Patterson, Junior High Youth and Mission Coordinator

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Scripture Reading: Psalm 95:1–7
O come, let us sing to the Lord;
          let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
          let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!

For the Lord is a great God,
          and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
          the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
          and the dry land, which his hands have formed.

O come, let us worship and bow down,
          let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
For he is our God,
          and we are the people of his pasture,
          and the sheep of his hand.

O that today you would listen to his voice! (NRSV)

The psalmist urges us to praise God, to sing, make joyful noises, to give thanks, kneel, bow down and worship. Why? Because God is great and rules over all. God created all that is from the depths to the heights, from the land to the sea. All belongs to God, for God fashioned and made it. We ourselves belong to God—God created us as “the people of his pasture, the sheep of his hand.”

All of us have a fundamental need to belong. When we venture into new groups of people, we watch and question if we really belong with them. When we feel we don’t quite fit in, are not quite at home, we are likely not to interact much with those others. Loneliness and a crisis of identity may haunt us.

The great news of this psalm is that you do have a place you belong. You belong to God who made you. You belong to God who loves you and claims you as God’s own. God cares for you—abundantly. You don’t need to earn your identity. You don’t need to prove anything to receive God’s love.

On this Thanksgiving Day, take time to praise and gives thanks to God. Open your eyes to behold the vastness and beauty of creation, all shaped by God’s hand. Name specific blessings you have received. Humble yourself in God’s presence as you recount the many ways God has abided with you and provided for you. Make joyful sounds because you know who, and whose, you are. Your identity is grounded in your relationship with the One who lovingly created and sustains you.

We praise you, God, from whom all blessings flow. Thank you for your love. Thank you for the wonders of your grace. Amen.

Written by Victoria G. Curtiss, Associate Pastor for Mission

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Friday, November 29, 2013

Scripture Reading: Psalm 138
I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
          before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple
          and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;
          for you have exalted your name and your word
          above everything.
On the day I called, you answered me,
          you increased my strength of soul.

All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord,
          for they have heard the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of the ways of the Lord,
          for great is the glory of the Lord.
For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly;
          but the haughty he perceives from far away.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
          you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies;
you stretch out your hand,
          and your right hand delivers me.
The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me;
          your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
          Do not forsake the work of your hands. (NRSV)

“With my whole heart.” Anytime I read something like that in the psalms, I think about the cost of faith. Cost? Yes, faith requires your heart, all of our being. This is the essence of an intimate God—we are invited into intimacy.

We struggle with that, don’t we? I know I do—not just with God. We shun vulnerability. We create defensive walls and sometimes for good reason. We don’t want to be fully known, not with all of our stuff. If we open up, we may fear that God, who says that we are loved, might not find us so loveable after all. Just imagine everyone else!

We put on a front to seem put together, but inside we’re at war with ourselves. Some of this comes out at the holidays as we sit at table with those we’ve sometimes been hurt by or whom we’ve wounded. It can sometimes look ugly.

God issues the call, not we, and we’re invited and welcome. God refuses to just be the divine counsel you seek when you’re in a bind, or the God for whom you perform social justice acts. God wants to be the God of all of you. This is precisely why life in the church invites you to give of your finances, your time, and your energy—because God calls your whole heart.

It is only when we open our whole heart to God that we can then open it up to others and to the world in such a way that our vulnerability becomes a strength based in the power of God’s love.

God, help us to live with our whole heart as an act of faith, in response to your grace. Help us to do it when it’s most challenging and when we’re experiencing peace, so that our giving thanks might come from our whole heart. In your name. Amen.

Written by Edwin Estevez, Pastoral Resident

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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Scripture Reading: Psalm 111
Praise the Lord!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
          in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
Great are the works of the Lord,
          studied by all who delight in them.
Full of honor and majesty is his work,
          and his righteousness endures forever.
He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds;
          the Lord is gracious and merciful.
He provides food for those who fear him;
          he is ever mindful of his covenant.
He has shown his people the power of his works,
          in giving them the heritage of the nations.
The works of his hands are faithful and just;
          all his precepts are trustworthy.
They are established forever and ever,
          to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
He sent redemption to his people;
          he has commanded his covenant forever.
          Holy and awesome is his name.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
          all those who practice it have a good understanding.
          His praise endures forever. (NRSV)

Today I personally have so many amazing things to be thankful for: family, shelter, food, a job I enjoy, and many other things. But what I especially am thankful for today is what the psalmist says in Psalm 111:2: “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.” As the whole of Psalm 111 says, the story of our lives fit into a greater story, the story of God’s work: redemption.

What I love about the Bible is that God tell us who God is and who we are by telling us stories. As William Kilpatrick says, “Christianity is not an ethical system. It is not meant to be a prescription for good behavior, although good behavior is one of its side effects. [Christianity] is a story.”

We have a book filled with stories about a God who has crafted us in God’s glorious image. A book that tells us we have amazing dignity and purpose. We have a book that tells us that yes, the ship wrecked and our world is filled with sin, but it also tells us that our gracious God did not burn it all down and start over—rather God intervened, God came down and brought redemption through his Son.

Yes, today we have much to rejoice over but most of all we have the story of redemption, a story that tells us that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them a light has shined (Isaiah 9:2). What a story! What a God!

Thank you, God, for not leaving us in darkness but by your mercy sending us a great light—your Word, Jesus. Amen.

Written by Daniel Holladay, Senior High Youth Coordinator

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