God Gives us the Kingdom
YEAR C – Proper 14
August 11, 2019
“Do not be afraid, … for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
I wonder as we gather this morning, what fears we may have. If you have fears in your life, consider what they are.
Are they fears for loved ones?
Fears for yourself -- your own needs and well being?
Are they fears for our country, our world, or where we are heading as a species and a planet?
Consider how these fears impact your life.
Do they shape your behavior?
Do they make material security your life’s goal?
Do they keep you focused on the past or the future?
We have many fears that are legitimate, yet these fears can kill our joy. Jesus’ ministry is all about God’s love and not fear. He wants his disciples – us – to know that… God longs for us to experience God’s kingdom.
There is a gap between the Gospel lesson that we read last week – about the rich fool who built barns for the wealth that he thought would secure his future – and today’s reading. In that gap, Jesus assures the crowds that, just as God cares for the lilies and the grass, God will care for us. Jesus’ followers knew well the world where a very few wealthy men stored up great riches. They lived in an empire fueled by the wealth that its subjects generated. So Jesus offered them a world and empire very different from what they knew. He offered his disciples, and us, God’s kingdom, or the ‘Kingdom of Heaven.” We often hear reference to the Kingdom of Heaven in scripture, and it is important to understand that in first century Jewish thought, this is not a kingdom in the clouds, only awaiting us on the other side of death. It is a kingdom we all are invited to live in now, by following God’s way.
How do we enter that kingdom? In part through our posture towards the world. There are those whose lives are about grasping – about clutching more and more. Like in last week’s Gospel, their barns and their purses may be full. But their hearts have become homeless. Their hearts come to be held by that which they have grasped.
Then there are those who do not grasp, but give. Their riches are in how they love; how they give; how they care for others. Their hearts have a home in love, relationship, and community. They are experiencing the kingdom that is the Divine’s good pleasure to give them. It is a kingdom that is woven into the fabric of creation. We are born into a world that offers us everything we need, so long as it is governed by Love. God’s kingdom is the only kingdom where our hearts can truly feel at home.
It is not a kingdom that protects us from eventually moving on from this life to whatever our Creator has planned next.
It is not a kingdom that protects those we love from leaving this life and returning to the Divine.
But by embracing what God has intended for us, we are entering into the Divine’s present and future desires for us now. Our hearts find a home in the kingdom.
Dress for Action
Fear binds us, but life in the kingdom allows us to see that we are created free. Nothing can enslave our heart. It is ours alone. Just a taste of the Kingdom reminds us that we are not prisoners or victims – we are free. We are dressed for action. We are created to be activists for love!
I heard a woman from Detroit – I wish I could recall her name – who had her water shut off when the water authority began its shut off policy. It put her children, their life as a family, and their health at risk. At some point, in working to get her water restored, she realized that she would not be a victim. Yes, Detroiters on average have one of the nation’s lowest average incomes. Yes, Detroiters on average pay some of the nation’s highest water rates. But she had the choice whether to be a victim and live in fear, or to dress for action and change. She could grasp at getting simply her water back, or give herself to the fight for water access for many. When any of us follow in Jesus’ example, when we put aside fear and remember that God created us free, we are clothed for action and ready to serve the kingdom. We are not a victim, but empowered to act.
Don’t Miss the Kingdom!
One of our struggles in this life is that it is easy to miss the kingdom.
We can become tired.
We can become distracted.
Like the servants waiting for their master to return from the wedding feast, we can fall asleep.
We can forget to be dressed for action.
We can forget to leave the light on for the coming bridegoorm.
I think Jesus knows that fear is what often causes us to be unprepared for and miss the good thing that is coming our way. As Thich Nhat Hanh has put it:
Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.
If we put fear aside, we move out of the past, out of the future, and into the present. We are alive. We see that there is so much goodness, even in the midst of suffering or hardship. And when we put fear aside and abide in the present, then:
We can experience the Divine Kingdom.
We can see how Love is made manifest in our lives.
We recognize the bridegroom returning to our home. We hear the knock at our door.
It is in being prepared, being ready and waiting to serve, that we are able to know when the Beloved is suddenly in our midst.
There is a wonderful reciprocity in God’s kingdom that this story captures. When we realize that life is not about grasping but giving, we are oriented towards both giving and receiving back. We give ourselves away in love, in attentiveness to another, in attentiveness to the creation God has placed us within, and yet so much more than we could ever give comes back to us. In our gospel lesson, the servants stay up for the master -- they keep their lamps lit, they stay ready to open the door. And when that beloved comes, he serves them!
“He will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.”
Sometimes as Christians we can pat ourselves on the back for doing good things for others; and yet, when we are in the midst of serving and loving, we experience that we are receiving far more than we are giving. I am reminded of a poem by George Herbert, that captures the Kingdom cares for us. Herbert writes:
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat;
So I did sit and eat.
This is the kingdom that it is God’s good pleasure to give us. When fear does not chain us to the past or future – when our lives set aside grasping and relax into giving – then we can welcome the kingdom and let Love in. Yet with love we both give and receive. Even as we give from our abundance, we are filled. This kingdom greets us in all sorts of ways and all sorts of people. It is present to us, if we are only wakeful.
Most Sunday’s that we gather together we share together that the meal where Love bids us to sit and eat. We are the servants at the gate, and yet we are also worthy guests because Love declares it. Love has spoken all things into being, and welcomes all.
The bread and wine we give for the meal, is from the abundance of God’s earth given for us.
The meal is born of Love’s reciprocity.
The love we give and share is also the love God gives to us.
It is the Spirit active within us, which brings us together in community.
It is Love which takes our hand, and smiles.
We come to this table invited by Love, and with eyes ever watchful for who we — in love — are meant to serve and invite to the table.
We are loved and we love.
We are blessed, and we give thanks.
There is no place for fear, which would pull us away from this moment.
Scripture reminds us again and again to not be afraid. Fears cast our gaze to the past and to the future, and we are no longer watchful for the present. Fear kills the joy that God intends for us. We have our concerns, but only if we meet them in the present can we help to address them, in some cases heal them, and in others simply journey faithfully as companions to lives we hold dear. This is the kingdom. This is the treasure that we can store up in our hearts – immune from rust and decay. Our hearts have a home in love, relationship, and community. This is what God offers us, and all of creation, and longs for us to receive.
Lose Fear: Be Watchful!
The challenge of this kingdom, which God is pleased to give us, is that it requires that we want to receive it: more than anything:
more than our purses or barns being full;
more than currying favor or maintaining personal power;
more than the fears that we may want to hang on to:
that we are comfortable with,
that we may allow to define who we are.
When these fears are released, our freedom is restored. We return to the present where the kingdom is knocking at our door. Love invites us into God’s goodness. It is God's good pleasure to give us the kingdom – everyone us of, those present, those not here, those we have not had a yet chance to invite to this table.
So remain watchful! The kingdom is near to us. Be ready to open the door to love! As Love enters, we will find that it has been Love waiting at the gate and bidding us welcome all along.
Keeping our Portfolios Balanced
Year C – Proper 13
August 4, 2019
This week I received a mailing about my retirement savings account. The cover looked wonderful! A healthy person, holding a yoga pose, in a beautiful setting overlooking the ocean. The message was clear: “If you just have the right investment portfolio, all this abundance will be yours.”
Abundance is a subject that resonates with me, in that Christianity is rooted in abundance:
Our creator has given abundantly;
God loves abundantly;
We are invited into grace and to let it overflow in all we do.
But how is God’s abundance different from what my retire brochure tells me? And what portfolio would the Divine recommend for you and me?
We don’t normally think about Jesus as a financial advisor, but he does not shy away from talking finances in the Gospels.
He is very clear that we are to give to Caesar what is Caesar's.
He tells parables on how servants manage their master’s money.
He speaks of borrowers, creditors, and just financial dealings.
He overturns the tables of the money changers.
Even the Lord’s Prayer speaks of forgiving debts.
Jesus was no stranger to economics.
And so in this morning’s gospel, a certain man in the crowd tries to pull Jesus into his family’s financial dispute. Is this request so surprising? Moses agreed to hear a probate case. Why not Jesus? But Jesus opts not to engage in this dispute; rather, he offers a warning:
“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life doesn’t consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Then Jesus tells the parable of the rich man, who, blessed with a bountiful harvest:
talks to his soul about what he should do with so much abundance;
decides to tear down his old barns and build even bigger ones; and then,
commits to eat, drink and be merry -- it is time to live the good life!
Of course, the bummer for him is that God calls him home that night. Jesus concludes with the warning,
“So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."
Wow! This parable runs so counter to most everything we hear in our world today. But:
Is there anything wrong in having a bountiful harvest? Don’t we want folks to work hard?
Is there anything wrong with saving for the future? Don’t we want to be doing yoga by the ocean? Aren’t I being unfair to my kids if I don’t at least try to plan for my future?
Is there anything wrong with celebrating or enjoying a good meal?
Jesus isn’t condemning these things; nevertheless, the rich man is foolish, because his “portfolio” is:
long on material goods and the here and now, and
short on others and their long-term well-being.
This is not a recipe for being rich towards God.
One thing that stands out about this parable is that the rich man is the only character in the story until God tells him, “Time’s up!”
The rich man only consults with himself.
He doesn’t consider those who helped him plant and harvest so successfully.
He doesn't consider who may be in need that he could share with. He plans to be merry alone.
This guy could have been the inspiration for the Beatles’ song -- I ME MINE!
He has stored up plenty for himself and seems to have no connection to God and others. And so this wealthiest of men is poor in what really matters. If you will, he desperately needs to rebalance his investment portfolio.
Earthly v. Spiritual Economics
As many of you know, I work as an economist for an accounting firm. Modern, western economics sees scarcity as a key economic driver. We have unlimited wants (or so the thinking goes,) but there is not unlimited supply. This is the economics behind our rich man’s investment strategy.
In a world with scarcity, he suddenly has an abundance.
Now his problems are solved.
But there is a different economy that Jesus professes -- a spiritual economy rooted in Divine abundance. In spiritual economics, the driver is not scarcity -- it is abundance. There is no limit on love and Divine goodness. But the challenge is that we cannot truly experience such riches unless we share with others.
In our earthly economics, the more we give away, the less we have.
In our spiritual economy, the more we give what we can, the greater our health and our wealth.
Whether we are rich towards God has a lot to do with how each of us balances our life between the material and spiritual economies. So put differently, what does your spiritual investment portfolio look like? Our faith lives move into a spiritual recession when we allow our portfolios across these two economies to get misaligned.
In earthly economics, one of the ways economic downturns are predicted is based on “interest yield curves.” If interest rates in the short run start to be significantly higher than interest rates in the long run, we may be headed towards financial troubles. When we hear this morning’s parable, we are reminded that there is a Spiritual interest curve as well. It doesn’t have to do with interest rates, but what we decided to be interested in — where we decide to invest ourselves.
The rich man is heavily invested in his short-term interests:
What he wants now.
How he is feeling now.
Being merry now.
His interests are in his present desires, and his alone. They don’t extend any further. He is invested only in his present self.
By contrast, healthy spiritual investing keeps its interests focused on:
both the present and the future;
self and others; and
what is happening now and what needs to happen for a bright future for those who inherit the world we leave behind.
When we think about our spiritual portfolio and the dividends it could yield, the picture on my retirement mailing is actually a good one. The reason that a photo of a healthy earth and a healthy person is because well-being — not wealth — is the end goal of the spiritual economy. It is about having life and life abundantly. The catch is that Divine wealth is not found in our material goods. True, a certain level of material stability is essential to our well-being: clean water, food, shelter, clothing, education, and healthcare. But we know that moving beyond a certain level of material wealth is not what makes our lives satisfying. Investing ourselves in others – on a healthy planet, in a just society – these things bring the real depth and divine dividends in our lives.
We look at those who have touched our lives through the years and know that we don’t need wealth or power to bless another person.
We only need to love, be present, and invest ourselves in others, not just ourselves.
Casting our Bread
While not one of our readings this week, Ecclesiastes 11:1 captures where material and spiritual economies intersect.
“Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.”
We need our daily bread, but we can give of our abundance. We do this by sharing, by not taking more than we need, by knowing in all things we can live out grace and graciousness. In so doing, we meet our needs through God’s abundance, and we also create an environment where others can have their needs met too.
Our giving of ourselves supports others.
Those we invest in may invest in others.
Before we know it, goodness comes back full circle and we recognize how others enrich ourlives.
It is not that we are giving because we want to get something in return. Rather, it is just that in giving our love and attention to others, we align ourselves with grace and become aware of how grace comes back to us. The rich man in his house with his barns full is invested only in himself. He is alone. But the Luke’s Samaritan who helps the injured, the widow who gives what she can, the father who welcomes back his younger prodigal son and continue to love his overly serious/joyless older son – these individuals offer examples of experiencing plenty in the Spiritual economy.
Rebalancing our Portfolios
So how is your portfolio doing? Are you feeling “rich towards God?” This isn’t a question based on how God sees us, but in how we are experiencing our lives.
Are we living life abundantly?
Is life fulfilling?
If we aren’t comfortable with the answers to those questions, then it may be time to check in with our spiritual investment advisors. Those advisors may be a friend, a counselor, a long walk, some quite - whatever allows you the space to consider where you are investing yourself. How much of your investing is in yourself? How much of it is in others? Both investments are needed, but are they balanced?
A metric for assessing your portfolio is “gratitude.” Are you feeling thankfulness in your life? The shocking thing about the man in today’s story is that he has no gratitude:
towards the earth for the abundant harvest;
to those who reaped and sowed the crops;
to those who tend his barns.
He expresses no gratitude, and that is a sign his portfolio was all about self.
If we are experiencing gratitude, we are aware of those around us and open to the goodness our Creator brings. When we experience gratitude, we want to offer thanks - by sharing, caring, and passing on to others our good fortune. Experiencing gratitude, grace flows freely in our hearts.
Be Rich Towards God
In the end, there is really nothing that we have or enjoy that our loving Creator has not given: our life, the air we breathe, our ability to love, and the gifts we can offer others. God has already made us rich; we claim those blessings:
when we give thanks and then share them with others, and
when we make sure that all are allowed to know the goodness that God intends.
God is abundance; our only task is to share it.
Prayer and God’s Abundance
Year C – Proper 12
July 28, 2016
“Jesus was praying in a certain place…”
This is a scene we see often in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus regularly takes time for renewal and prayer. As we touched on last week with Martha and Mary: we all need our “Mary moments” -- time of renewal -- so that we are ready to act with love in the world.
Our times of renewal and prayer are essential to who we are made to be, but prayer can be hard. We may feel we don’t have the time. Or we may wonder, “Are my prayers even being heard?” What if we don’t see what we pray for happen? Are we somehow praying wrong?
So it is as though the disciples are speaking for us when they say to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples to pray…”
Our Gospel Lesson
To this simple question, Jesus not only tells them how to pray, but he speaks to God’s loving character with:
words of encouragement, and then
Let’s start first with the story and the analogy, because they help to put prayer into context.
Imagine we live in a first century Galilean Village. We all grind our flour together. We all share a common oven to bake our bread. This means we each know who is running low on bread and who has bread to give!
Along with sharing an oven, we share our belief in the sanctity of hospitality. Our people were once travelers in a foreign land, so when someone comes to us in need of hospitality, we would be ashamed not to give it. We always welcome a guest; we always care for their needs; and -- be it night or day -- we always provide food when they arrive.
So the friend hosting guests that arrive late at night knows whose door to knock on for bread. He knows there is plenty to be shared. And the neighbor in bed – well, we can totally empathize with his not wanting to get up. And yet, he will. He will not bring shame on his neighbor or shame upon himself by showing a lack of hospitality. [The New Interpreter’s Bible offers a great write up on this passage.]
Jesus offers this story to say, “Not only are you like this. God is like that and even more! When we knock on God’s door, we know we are knocking at a house that has everything to give!”
Or again, consider parents. Whether they are having a good day or a bad day, they want to give good things to their children. If we are like that -- then the Divine is that and so much more!
So before praying, it is helpful to remember who we are praying to. God is abundant goodness active in the world and eager for us to seek, knock, and ask.
Given this nature of God, what do we make of the prayer Jesus gives his disciples? First, prayer is clearly not about getting the words right. The prayer Luke’s community recalled in this Gospel is much shorter than what Matthew’s community recalled (which is the prayer we say each week). So if the prayer is not about the words themselves, what is the prayer about? One way to understand it is that:
This prayer, and all prayer, is about changing us!
It is about molding our hearts and hopes.
God’s Name and Kingdom
Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer begins by refocusing our vision. It reminds us that God really is holy -- “Hallowed be your name.” We hear this as a description of God’s name, but really it is a verb -- saying that God is acting to make creation good and holy. God’s love is at the heart of our world, in which we, everyone, and everything belongs. God’s goodness inhabits creation. Prayer invites us to see and remember this.
Jesus then invites us with -- “God’s kingdom come” -- to join God’s good work. Jesus’ ministry is not about making passive disciples who simply pray, “God do something!” No, he says again and again, “Follow me!” “Do what I do!” In other words, “You do something! You are the body!” For Jesus, God’s kingdom is not otherworldly. It has come near to us. Through prayer we see that:
Our God is one of abundance that really does provide enough for all.
God’s kingdom and abundance is ours to share with others.
We are called to work in God’s kingdom, for God has given all of us the power to love abundantly.
Next, within God’s kingdom, Jesus says to “pray for our daily bread.” This is as much about what we need as what we don’t need.
It recalls to mind the image of the Israelites receiving daily manna to sustain them in the wilderness.
The need for daily bread reminds us of our dependencies. We have not made ourselves or created our own talents. They have been given to us.
Further, we cannot get our daily bread alone. We need each other. It reminds us to remember all of those whose daily toil we rely upon for our well-being.
Manna was also not something you could store up to accumulate wealth.
And so, God’s kingdom does not require us to earn a fortune, but to envision a world where everyone’s needs are met.
It is founded on love and not on wealth.
Like the neighbor asleep in his bed, we share with a neighbor, so that they can share with a guest… and the kingdom keeps paying goodness forward within the community.
It then follows that if God's kingdom and our daily bread require a healthy community, forgiveness is essential. Forgiveness is that precious commodity that keeps the inner workings of our relationships well oiled and reduces friction. Prayer reminds us that relationships are too important not to be restored. So in praying about forgiveness, we are praying to change and refocus our hearts.
Time of Trial
Luke’s presentation of the Lord’s Prayer ends with “And do not bring us to the time of trial." This is a hard line, as it implies God may lead us into trials to test us. Yet I think for most of us, that is not how we have experienced God to be, nor is it Jesus’ meaning. So, in understanding this verse, it may be helpful to notice something about this prayer. The focus is never “me.” but always “us.” This journey is not one we are to take alone, but together.
Together we get our bread
Together we forgive, and
Together we work to avoid trials.
Jesus understood first hand that to be human means to experience serious trials. When we hurt, we can stop believing there is goodness around us. We may feel that God has forsaken us. We can lose sight of the divine spark within us and others. We can become overwhelmed.
Whether a horrible situation shatters our faith or shakes the foundations of our life has a lot to do with whether we face our trials alone or together. What often will overwhelm us individually -- illness, disaster, even oppression or violence -- can reinforce our faith and connection to the Divine when tackled as “we” and “us.” Jesus did not travel to Jerusalem alone. He did not go to Gethsemane to pray alone. He did not send out his disciples alone. Even Paul and Peter could rejoice in prison when they were not alone, or when they knew the community still remembered them and prayed for them.
In the end, Jesus isn’t offering prayer as a magical incantation to make our trials go away; but, prayer can reshape our vision as to what it is to be community, to be in relationship with each other, to live in harmony with God’s creation, and to know the gracious abundance of the One who is in all that is. As a community, trials can be lived with grace.
Seeking, Asking, Knocking
Jesus’ words to the disciples today are words of encouragement. We are encouraged to keep asking, to keep searching, to keep knocking for God’s presence within and around us. As Jesus says at the end of the lesson:
“How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Prayer is much less about our hoping God will change the people and events around us; rather, it is about freeing the Spirit to be active within us. Richard Rohr has noted that:
“What is happening in prayer is that you are allowing God to recognize God’s self in you and that’s what God always loves and cannot not love.” RIchard Rohr’s Daily Meditation email, Ultimate Mirroring, Friday, February 21, 2014
It is the divine spark in us that seeks God in prayer. It is that same Spirit, that same love, that responds back to us. Prayer changes us.
It reconnects us with the image of God in which we are made.
It reconnects us to the abundance of the Divine that surrounds us.
It remakes us and renews us.
It brings us back to who we are.
Help and Thanks
The Christian writer Anne Lamont has commented that she primarily relies on two prayers: “Help me, help me, help me!” and “Thank you, thank you, than you!” We can probably relate.
Sometimes we are in a “Help me! Help me! Help me!” mode. That’s okay. If we take the time for prayer, we can express all of our fears. God knows we have them, but we cannot address them or get perspective on them until we admit to them. And then prayer can change us -- help us see our struggles in a new light.
There may be lots of people and situations we are praying for. Just the act of praying can change how we understand them.
We may have conflicts with others that we are praying about. Prayer can change our own heart. That is key, for it is our own heart that we have to live with!
Eventually through prayer, our initial cries for help can become expressions of “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
Prayer opens us to see how the Divine is active within us and around us.
Prayer can change our entire understanding of our inner selves and our outward lives.
Prayer really is not about getting God to wake up and come to the door. The Divine is always awake and moving. It is about taking time ourselves to seek and to knock, and to receive God’s presence and abundance.
This asking, seeking, and knocking aspect of prayer is a little bit like – okay, a lot like – exercise.
You have to do it to reap its benefits. No one can do it for you.
Once we do a little, it becomes easier to do more.
On the bright side:
Prayer doesn’t require a gym membership – just some time -- and
When you are done, you don’t need to budget time to take a shower. You will likely already feel refreshed and renewed!
The disciples wanted to know how to pray. Jesus wanted them to know God’s abundance! God’s abundance is within and around us. In prayer, our vision changes so we can see God’s abundance, soak it in, and let it empower and renew us. So let us keep knocking at that door… God’s abundance seeks to be released within us.
Sit Down for a While: You could Change the World
Year C - Proper 11
July 21, 2019
A Knock at the Door
Imagine when you go home from church today that you are enjoying a quiet, calm moment, when you hear a knock at your door. You open it, and you are shocked by what you see. There is a dusty guy in a robe and sandals, accompanied by seventy other dusty guys in robes and sandals. They want only a few things from you:
a place to spend the night, and
breakfast in the morning.
How would you respond?
Apologize, but explain that you and your family have just contracted the plague and that they would be wise to come no further?
Point to your neighbor’s house and say they have much better beds and are planning to barbecue tonight?
Slam the door and call the police? or
Welcome them into your home?
If you did the later… what would your spouse or family or friends say? You are crazy! Imagine if you have a neighborhood association, how you will be the first agenda item at the next meeting. That kind of hospitality would surely turn your world upside down.
This is the scene we encounter in this morning’s gospel. We have been journeying with Jesus for a number of Sundays now, as he and his followers make their way towards Jerusalem.
Two weeks ago, he and the 70 or so he sent out to different villages reconvened and discussed what they had experienced.
Last week, Jesus was tested by a lawyer, and we heard the story of the Samaritan who was neighbor to a man beaten by the side of the road.
Now at the start of this morning’s passage, a certain woman -- Martha -- is neighbor to Jesus and his followers, and welcomes them into her home.
Last week it was an unexpected twist for Jesus’ listeners that a Samaritan -- someone so despised -- would be the embodiment of love in the parable. Now this morning there is another unexpected twist. It is not a man who invites Jesus and his followers into hospitality, but a woman. Unlike Abram inviting in the angels of God, it is not Lazarus (who is Martha and Mary’s brother at least according to John’s Gospel) -- that invites Jesus in. Martha is breaking some boundaries and turning the world upside down by extending the hospitality, and Jesus does the same by accepting. He models what he taught last week -- we are all neighbors to each other.
Then things get crazier! Jesus starts to teach, and Mary (Martha’s sister) goes right up to Jesus and sits at his feet. Let’s be clear: only men would sit at the feet of a teacher and learn. This was not a posture for a woman to take -- sitting at the teacher’s feet. Mary is turning the world upside down by deciding she has the right to listen too. Jesus does the same by accepting her.
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, things are starting to go awry on the hospitality front. Martha is getting stressed and angry. She is doing this HUGE dinner and Mary is not lifting a finger! Have you ever gotten into Martha’s state of mind? I know I have. You can start to play a tape over and over again in your head about how you are doing so much, and someone else isn’t doing enough. This isn’t fair; and this isn’t right. To make matters worse, Jesus isn’t even calling this injustice out! He is as bad as Mary!
Martha, who has offered such an amazing gift of hospitality, can’t bear it any longer and takes Jesus, her guest, to task for not telling Mary to help. Jesus’ response perhaps blows away our modern day, workaholic sensibilities. He responds:
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary had chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
What do you think about Jesus’ word to Martha? Are they fair? What if Martha just sat down too? Would anyone eat that night? Can we really afford to be Mary -- is that really the better part?
Are You a Mary or a Martha or Both?
I wonder where you may find yourself in this morning’s story. Do you empathize with Martha’s complaint? Do you feel defensive for Mary?
If you Google “Are you a Mary or a Martha?”, you will get all sorts of websites about leadership styles, discipleship styles, etc. Over time Mary has been associated with religious contemplatives -- hermits, nuns, etc. Martha has been associated with religious “doers.” She has also been criticized as someone who does too much, or as a complainer. To those who extol the Protestant work ethic, Jesus’ words “Mary has chosen the better part” create consternation. What will happen to society if everyone just sits around like Mary and no one does anything like Martha?
It is helpful to hear this story in light of last week’s parable of the Samaritan. Doing so reminds us that today’s Gospel is not about ministry or leadership styles. It is not about who is in the right and who is in the wrong. Rather it points us to… what it is to know life abundantly and to follow where Jesus leads.
I wonder how you hear Jesus’ voice when he speaks to Martha? Is it tender? Is there a note of humor? Is it gentle and loving? I don’t think Jesus is scolding Martha, but calling her back to her true self -- to that center of love that extended such hospitality. After all, Jesus doesn’t say to Martha, “You are too busy,” but “you are worried and distracted.” He isn’t worried about her actions, but her inner being. He is asking her to put aside her worries and fears, and to instead, see:
what is really going on;
what Mary is doing by confidently seeking Jesus’ word;
what He is doing, welcoming her among the men and affirming her right to know his love and wisdom.
There had to be a deep reservoir of love and kindness within in Martha to welcome Jesus and his entourage into her home. This love is at the core of Martha. The worry and distraction she now feels -- these anxieties are really not who she is or who she is meant to be. Meanwhile, Mary is taking in Jesus’ teachings. She is experiencing his love and his acceptance of who she is. It is as though Jesus says to Martha,
“Let Mary fill her reservoir of being and love as well. Slow down, Martha. Remember the love that lives deep within you. That can never be taken away.”
He may be inviting Martha to take a break and listen too.
Today’s passage doesn’t call us to be a Mary or a Martha, but to understand that when we are spiritually healthy, we are both. We listen and look; then we act or create out of what we know and who we are. We listen and look; we create. We listen and look; we create. It is a repeating cycle of rest and creation. That is how we keep our very being healthy while turning the world upside down.
Contemplation and Action
The Franciscan priest and writer, Richard Rohr, founded an organization in New Mexico, the Center for Contemplation and Action. This is a wonderful name, because it captures who we are being called to be this morning, and who we are called to be each day as Christians. We cannot be Martha at her best; we cannot be the Samaritan in last week’s lesson, if we have no center, if we lack contemplation, if we do not have our time as Mary.
Contemplation means, at its root, to look deeply. How we each look deeply -- how we each sit at the feet of the Christ -- may vary based on our gifts and ways of learning.
We may listen and look deeply at life through nature,
We may listen and look deeply through scripture, song, or poetry.
We may sit in silence.
We might walk the labyrinth.
How we take a break from “doing” and look deeply, will depend on who we are. But it is our time of in-action (when we are “breathing in” if you will) that shapes our actions (our “breathing out” if you will). The writer and Buddhist, Thich Nhat Hanh, has put this beautifully:
“When people say, ‘Don’t just sit there, do something.’ they are urging you to act. But if the quality of your being is poor -- if you don’t have enough peace, understanding, and equanimity, if you still have a lot of anger and worry -- then your actions will also be poor.”
“Being is non-action, so the quality of action depends on the quality of non-action.” (How to Sit, Thich Nhat Hanh)
When we are sitting at the feet of the teacher, the Creator, the Christ, the Spirit, we are not “doing nothing” -- we are caring for our very being. This is the non-action that shapes and defines all that we do. It is our time of non-action that prepares us to act with love, and not with anger or worry. And when we do begin to act with anger and worry, we know it is time to stop doing, and recharge again.
This is how we are created. This is why Sabbath rest (and not Sabbath laws) are so fundamental in our tradition. And it is why Sabbath time is presented as a right by the God of Israel. Everything that lives -- human, animal, field, free, slave, male, female -- requires and is entitled to renewal. To sit at the feet of the teacher, the Christ, that Spirit that unites and renews all of creation is in the fiber of our being. When we sit we can come to see the creation around us with God’s eyes. We can see our neighbor as God sees them. Through our non-action we become healthy enough inside to help the world heal.
It is our nature to get tired and, like Martha this morning, to worry. We want to do things right. We are afraid of making mistakes or not being good enough. But Jesus brings the good news that everyone is entitled to sit and be renewed, to learn of love and wisdom. Rooted in this, our being can bring forth the gifts of Martha’s hospitality and the Samaritan’s compassion.
It is our Christian right and calling to care for our very beings, and then to act from the goodness that arises from a spirit well-tended to. When we lose sight of this -- when the worry and the complaining overtake the good intentions that made us take on a task in the first place -- we are invited to listen to that voice tenderly saying “Martha, Martha,” “Bob, Bob,” “Matt, Matt,” “Sharon, Sharon” -- come back to where you are always welcome. Sit with love. Know again the deep love resides within you. Be renewed.
Without that time of renewal you will never be ready to entertain those seventy people that just might knock at your door this afternoon!
So sit down for a while -- in doing so, you could change the world.
The Gospel is About You Today!
Year C - Proper 10
July 14, 2019
Today I have to ask you to forget the name that you have heard for today’s Gospel lesson -- The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Two reasons for this:
First, this morning’s Gospel is about something far more powerful than being good.
Second, this morning’s Gospel lesson is not about a Samaritan -- it is about you! You are the subject of today’s Gospel! Pretty cool, right?
Calling today’s lesson “The Parable of the Good Samaritan” sells the story short. Good and bad are about morality. This is about so much more. It is a story that promises us life. So, as the comedian Seth Meyer would say, it’s time for a closer look...
A Closer Look
Our Gospel begins with “a lawyer” questioning Jesus. Oddly, we don’t know a thing about this lawyer. He could be anybody. We don’t know exactly why he wants to test Jesus, but he asks a question that all of us have probably asked to ourselves: “What do I have to inherit eternal life -- to truly live? How can I know what it is to live in that eternal kingdom of God?"
Jesus responds to the question as many good rabbi’s would -- with a question. “What does Torah say? What do you think?” The lawyer gives a textbook response from Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18: We live when we love God and love our neighbor.
To this Jesus tells him, “Good News! You nailed it! Yes, it really is that simple. Go love! In loving you will experience eternal life.”
Yet this good news isn’t enough for the lawyer. He just has to press Jesus again in hopes of justifying himself - maybe showing how smart he is. He asks, “and who is my neighbor?” It seems like a legitimate question, except it is really about putting boundaries on love?
So to this question Jesus tells the parable that we know so well…
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”
Note that Jesus doesn’t say if the man was a Jew, Gentile, or Samaritan; good or evil. He could be anyone. He is naked, so no clothing can give a clue about his nationality, wealth, or work. He could be me, or you.
“Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.”
Like the injured man, we don’t really know a thing about the priest or the Levite. We don’t know:
If they were usually kind or indifferent;
If they lacked what was needed to help;
If they were in a hurry to help someone else;
If they were having a bad day and just couldn’t deal with one more thing.
Also, this road was dangerous. Maybe they feared for their own safety. Could stopping be a trap? All we know is that they went on their way. We know nothing about their intentions.
“But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, `Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
This part of Jesus' story had to shock his hearers. It is like when we hear a joke along the lines of “there was a priest, a minister, and a rabbi.” His hearers would have been expecting “there was a priest, a Levite, and an Israelite.” Instead, Jesus inserts someone his listeners would detest as the hero of the story - a Samaritan.
Unlike the priest and the Levite, details of the Samaritan emerge.
He had wine and oil to offer.
He had an animal to carry the man.
He possessed at least a couple of days’ wages that he could give the innkeeper until he returned.
We don’t really know why the Samaritan was moved to pity. Maybe coming down from Jerusalem as a Samaritan, he knew what it meant to be marginalized. After all, the people in Jerusalem despised Samaritans. But when faced with a stranger in need, he acted in love -- as God would love, as we would hopefully love -- loving neighbor as one’s self.
Jesus told this story when the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” But when Jesus was done, he asked the lawyer a different question: “Who acted as a neighbor to the injured man?” The poor lawyer hates Samaritans so much, that he cannot even say, “The Samaritan.” He can only admit, “The one who showed mercy [or love].”
Now we are back to where the exchange began.
The lawyer asked how to experience life in God’s Kingdom.
The answer was to love God and neighbor, and Jesus encouraged him to “go and do it.”
Now again, Jesus tells the lawyer “Go and do likewise.” “Love like the Samaritan loves. This is eternal life.”
Jesus, through his parable, also answers the question, “Who is our neighbor?” It is anyone who we are in the position to love or help.
I think it is no accident that the injured man has no identify beyond needing help. Who is our neighbor doesn’t depend on country, wealth, where we live, what we believe, how we worship. Our neighbor is anyone one we are in the position to love. They may be nothing like us, other than -- like us -- they are God’s beloved.
Who are You in This Morning’s Gospel?
This morning’s gospel isn't about making the Samaritan into a saint, or a morality story about who is “good” and who is not. Jesus never judges anyone in today’s story.
He doesn’t judge the lawyer, he just keeps telling him to go and love.
He doesn’t condemn the priest or the Levite.
He doesn’t even call the Samaritan good.
This parable is about so much:
It tells us that everyone is our neighbor and our concern.
It promises that we inherit eternal life when we give ourselves over to love.
Sure this story offers an important moral if we just focus on the Samaritan. But it becomes life-changing, when we realize we are all the characters in the story. We could use this parable as a way to reflect on each day. Which characters were we today and when?
When are we like the lawyer? Sometimes we want to test other and to justify our own worth. To that side of us, Jesus says this morning, “Let it go. You don’t need to be justified. You only need to love yourself and others.”
When are we the priest and the Levite? There is no end to the people who need our help.
Sometimes we may be indifferent to them. Sometimes we may think “They are not my problem.”
·Sometimes we may not have the oil and wine for the wounds.
Sometimes we may not have the animal to help carry the injured to safety, or the denarii to pay the innkeeper.
Jesus doesn’t seem to judge. But we know that when we are the priest or the Levite, we aren’t fully alive. It is worth asking what is going on inside us in those moments.
When have we felt like the one left for dead by the side of the road? We can be overwhelmed by physical or emotional struggles. When we are truly hurting, we are not so particular about who comes in love as neighbor to us. Be they Samaritan, priest, Levite, Jew, Gentile, Christian, Muslim, citizen, immigrant, straight, or gay, black, white, etc, we just need their compassion. Who has crossed boundaries of separation to help us?
When are you the innkeeper? Maybe you didn’t start a good work, but you have helped to carry it on and continue it. Rejoice in those moments!
Of course, on our best days, we are the Samaritan. We are loving others as God loves us. And when we love -- time can start to slow and stands still. We are focused on the one we love and our being present together. We begin to step into eternity. Love comes back and sustains us, even when our beloved is not present or with us. It is in loving that we know we are living in God’s eternal grace and life.
The Road is Dangerous
We may wonder on our best days, why we have our bad days. One thing that was true about the road from Jerusalem to Jericho (and is true about the road we travel today), is that life’s journey is dangerous! To be alive is to risk. One way to avoid risks is to put up boundaries -- walls that keep us safe. But the walls that keep us safe shut out life as well. The answer for healing in our lives and our society is to break down walls, to cross the road, and lovingly engage with others.
In today’s Gospel, the Samaritan is fully alive because he sees the common ground he shares with a stranger. We share that same common ground with all we encounter. Our situation in life changes over time. Who we are in the position to love and build relationship with constantly changes. Yet our ability to love continues.
We can love those we encounter -- whether we are caring for them or them for us.
We can seek out strangers and be kind.
Our challenge as individuals and as the church is to continue to ask.
How can we engage with those we know and heal hurts?
Where are we invited to engage a stranger and offer them any love we can?
Where are we being invited to recognize common ground and testify to others that they are truly beloved?
Who we are in today’s Gospel will vary from day to day and within a day. We will have our moments when we are the priest, the Levite, or the lawyer. Jesus doesn’t condemn us on those days; but he does invite us to journey with vulnerability and love. This journey doesn’t ask that we justifying ourselves. God already loves us. But we are invited to take risks and live evermore fully into love. When we love the stranger, when we truly love our neighbor, when we love ourselves as God loves us, we move out of time into eternal life. Today we are not invited to simply be “Good Samaritans.” We are called to taste and enjoy the eternal life made known through love. The Samaritan exemplifies what it is to know eternal life. Let us go and do likewise.
Freedom to Become
Year C - Proper 8
June 30, 2019
Freedom From v. Freedom to Become
This week is a celebration of freedom. We have Canada Day across the river tomorrow. We celebrate the 4th of July on Thursday. It is finally summer and kids are out of school and families are celebrating the freedom that gives them. In the midst of this time of celebration, it is worth taking a moment to consider, “What is freedom? “
Freedom can mean different things? In our Declaration of Independence, our nation’s founders declared a “freedom from.” The founders detailed what was intolerable about British rule, and that the colonies must be freed from such tyranny to experience the rights given to them by their Creator. They declared a freedom from foreign rule.
There is another kind of freedom that we hear in our scripture lessons today. It isn’t a “freedom from,” but a “freedom to become.” Our lessons model how our journey with God is meant to give us a freedom to become something new. We are a mystery: we share God’s image and yet we are created beings and constantly changing. It is through change that we are invited to embrace God’s gift of freedom to become who God has created us to be.
This morning’s Gospel lesson marks a fundamental change in Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus knows it is time to head in a new direction.
It is time to “turn his face” to Jerusalem.
He is going to risk giving his life away, because that is how he can most truly live it.
I don’t think change was any easier for Jesus than it is for us. The phrase “turn his face” in the NRSV captures the determination and resoluteness he required to approach what lay ahead. Jesus can’t think twice -- he needs to commit and go.
As Jesus journeys along, some people offer to follow him and some people Jesus explicitly invites to follow. But are they ready to make the changes in life necessary to do so? Following where they are called will help them grow into who they are in God. It will help them experience that God’s Kingdom, which has drawn near. But can they do it?
One fellow volunteers to follow. Jesus warns him that "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."
Then Jesus invites another man to join him, who gives what seems like a reasonable response. “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Can you imagine how the poor man’s jaw dropped when Jesus says: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Finally, another says, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” That seems fair, but Jesus’ replies: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
What are we to make of these exchanges? There seems to be a common theme. If you are going to make a change -- just go ahead and do it now.
To the first man, it is as though Jesus is saying, “Don’t worry about booking hotels on Expedia or getting a rewards card from Marriott. We can't know where this new journey is leading. If we wait until we figure everything out, we will never get moving.” Make a change now.
The second man only asks to fulfill Jewish law: a child owes it to their parents to bury them. But Jesus seems to be saying, “Friend, you have a gift to proclaim the kingdom of God. If you go back now to do what is a good thing, you may never get around to what is the best thing for you to do.” Make a change now.
The third man’s request could not have surprised Jesus -- he only want to say farewell to those at home. Again, Jesus seems to be warning him that the present is the best time for a break with the past. Make a change now.
It is also helpful to put this morning’s passage in the context of the rest of the Gospels.
When we read about Jesus and his disciples, we don’t read about them sleeping on the streets; but they did have to travel with trust. One Samaritan village wouldn’t take him at the start of this lesson, but they found another village.
Regarding the second man and his father, well… I don’t think any of us would be Christians today if Jesus wasn’t pastoral. He healed those in need. He wept over Lazarus. I am convinced that if the second man chooses to follow Jesus, the first thing Jesus will do is ask, “Now what do we need to do for your family and your father.”
This is further borne out by the third exchange. Jesus did not prevent his disciples from seeing family again. Jesus clearly had contact with his family. The disciples stayed at Peter’s house. They visited with their friends, Mary and Martha. This image of the hand to the plow calls to mind the calling of Elisha in 1 Kings. Elisha is plowing his field when Elijah runs up and put his own mantel on him. What Elisha does next is telling. He follows Elijah. He runs after him immediately! He then says, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” Elijah doesn’t object. Elisha goes home. He offers up his oxen for a sacrifice and community feast. He says goodbye to his family and his old way of life, but only after he took those first few steps to follow.
An Invitation to Change
Jesus’ words are perhaps more frank this morning than we would like to hear. But he is giving some loving and sound advice.
If we want to be most fully ourselves, if we want to experience life as the Kingdom of God, we likely need to make some changes.
If we are going to make a change, let’s do it now. Otherwise, we will always find very good reasons not too.
I don’t know about you, but I am blessed with the gifts of procrastination and rationalization -- of saying, “I can make that change tomorrow as a good night’s sleep.” It is so easy to stick with what is good, rather than accepting a change for something even better. Sometimes we stay in a job too long, stay in our house too long, continue a behavior too long, invest in a hobby too long, hold a belief too long because they are comfortable and they are good. But often our path to growth requires letting something go.
Jesus was fully human. He knew how hard it is to make a change. But he is encouraging those who hear him to accept change if it will free them to more fully become who they are called to be.
Change and Freedom
A key point that our lessons model for us today, is that we aren’t asked to face change alone.
Jesus was in ministry with his disciples.
His disciples always went out at least two by two.
Paul always traveled with colleagues.
Elisha had Elijah to mentor him.
Change is the one constant in our lives, and scripture encourages us not to take it on alone. We need each other to know if a change is a good change, if it is the right change, and to help us recognize when we need to change our lives but cannot or don’t want to see it. We best exercise our God-given freedom to live into the beloved person God knows us to be, when we do it together.
It takes a community to be a healthy individual.
Let us always feel welcome to reach out to others and seek advice in the face of change.
A second point to consider, is that freedom often requires taking on more responsibility -- exercising certain options and giving up others -- so that something good can be born.
Jesus, St. Paul, Elijah, and Elisha all gave up freedoms so that they could become who they were called to be.
Parents do this when they have children.
People do this when they commit to a job or to volunteer.
If we make life about preserving our “freedom from,” or our autonomy, we risk closing off the connections that make us most fully alive.
This isn't just true for individuals but for communities as well.
We can focus on “freedom from:” from paying taxes; from constraints on own consumption (even if it harms others); from recognizing our neighbor's struggles as our own.
Or we can focus on “freedom to become:” to become a society where all are given the chance to be who God has created them to be; where all have a place; where compassion leads us closer to God’s kingdom.
Whether as an individual or a society, the greatest freedoms come in giving oneself away -- deciding to follow, deciding to accept change when it is needed, to more fully live into the goodness God longs for us to know.
Exercising our Freedom
To experience the Kingdom of God is to experience who we are within God. We are created in God’s image, and that image shines more brightly as we walk in love. Jesus invites those he meets to walk on that journey with him.
But the Kingdom of God that he preaches does not promise a “freedom from” but a “freedom to become.”
He is not offering a first century Declaration of Independence that will throw off the tyranny of Roman rule.
He is not offering a freedom from the law to do whatever one feels like.
He is offering a freedom to love more deeply, and live more fully.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t judge the people he encounters; he loves the people he encounters. He is honest in telling them that there is no time like the present to embrace the freedom to become who God has created them to be. Something great about how Luke wrote this morning’s Gospel is that we don’t know if the individuals went home or joined in and followed Jesus. Our Gospel sits as an open invitation to us -- to put aside whatever might inhibit our living into God’s love more fully.
God has created us with a great freedom to love. We are invited at all stages in life to delight in that freedom, giving ourselves away the very best that we can. In that process, we become the child of God, the community of God, that the Divine has always created us and seen us to be.
Trinity -- Experiencing the Divine
Trinity Sunday, June 16, 2019
How would you describe God?
If asked, how would you describe God? What words would come to mind?
I wonder if “delighting,” “rejoicing,” even “shouting out to all that live!” might come to you? I love how these words are used in Proverbs today -- as the feminine image of God -- Wisdom -- speaks.
What about “peace,” “hope,” and “perseverance” -- all words we hear from Paul today? Do any of these words speak to your experience of God?
And then, there is our passage from John -- how the Father is in the Son, and the Son in the Spirit.
The Divine is love.
The Divine is relationship.
The Divine is mystery.
Today is Trinity Sunday. It is the only Sunday feast day I can think of in our church calendar named for a doctrine rather than an event or a person. I wonder -- what the Trinity means to you?
The Scriptures and Trinity
Typically at this point in a sermon, I would dive into the Gospel lesson, or maybe the epistle or the Old Testament, to try and draw out the meaning of the day. But an interesting thing about the Trinity -- at least as we know it as a doctrine -- is that it is not immortalized in Scripture. Don’t get me wrong. It is not that there aren’t scriptural passages that speak to how the Divine is present to us in our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Sustainer -- or in the Father, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, as we hear this morning. Yet Moses never comes down the mountain with a tablet that says, “God is one, yet in three persons.” Jesus never picks a shamrock to explain how God is one yet three -- as St. Patrick is said to have done. No… the Trinity is a human expression of how Christians in the 2nd and 3rd century began to articulate their experience of the Divine. It doesn’t mean that the expression isn’t true -- but this expression will resonate more deeply with some than with others.
So how do we make sense of the Trinity -- you and me? How do we describe something that is so much bigger than our words? The writer Paula D’Arcy has commented that “God comes to us, disguised as our lives.” That statement is between the lines of all three of our passages this morning.
Proverbs - Delight
In Proverbs, we are called to see the Divine in all of creation. Divine Wisdom was and is present in the creation.
When the Creator established the heavens,
When the Creator drew a circle on the face of the deep,
When the Creator made firm the skies above,
When the Creator established the fountains of the deep,
When the Creator assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command,
When the Creator marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I, Wisdom, the Spirit, was beside him, like a master worker; and
I was daily his delight,
As one commentator has noted, it is as though the Creator is the architect and the Spirit the engineer:
They rejoice in each other.
They rejoice in what they have made.
They delight in us!
What a wonderful understanding of us and the world that we live in. Proverbs 8 does not see creation as fallen at its core -- it is a delight and something to rejoice in!
Romans - Trials
Of course, that creation is good is not also a promise that life will always be easy. Paul writes to the Romans about his sufferings. And yet -- Paul is not weighed down. Paul lives a life that is faithful to Jesus’ example. Through this pattern of living he is able to know peace in imprisonment. He knows hope even in trials. Paul is not claiming to be superhuman or trying to put himself on a pedestal. Rather, he has experienced that:
Resting in God, there is peace.
Hope is sustained.
God’s love is poured into our hearts.
We aren’t alone.
There is always love -- even when there is sorrow.
Many of us have probably met someone with a terminal illness, or who has lost so much in life, and yet finds their life to be filled with grace and thanksgiving. That is the life Paul lives in Jesus.
John - Relationship
Jesus and the disciples are in a similar place to Paul this morning. They are struggling. Life is filled with fear as the disciples try to imagine life without Jesus. But he assures them that, just as he has revealed God’s love, the Spirit will be within them and continue to reveal Jesus’ way of love. They don’t have to know everything now. God will come to them, though disguised as their lives.
And so God is experienced in the Wisdom revealed in creation and our Creator, in the hope and grace of Jesus, in relationships, and even deep within ourselves as the Spirit. These are all such different ways of describing the Divine, and yet it is the Divine -- that single unity of creative power, of love, or relationship -- that all these passages reveal. The Trinity -- this threesome of Father, Son, and Spirit which is also one God -- isn’t really rooted in logic, though theologians try to explain it. It is rooted in experience. It is beyond our reason; it is embedded in life. It is action and motion -- it is not a thing that we can ever pin down or adequately name.
How do We Experience God?
So how do you experience God? Maybe you have had a mystical experience. Maybe you haven’t. Hopefully you have experienced times of peace and times of wonder.
I myself have not had mystical experiences, but...
Yesterday I awoke at 5:00 am. I heard wonderful birds singing outside my window. It sure felt like Wisdom was saying "good morning" -- lightly disguised in nature.
When I went to go downstairs I was greeted at the top landing of our stairs by Levi -- our younger Australian shepherd. He is an amazing representation of the joy and delight of the Spirit. Each morning he looks at us with an expression that says: “What good things are we all going to do together today!” The Spirit can most certainly be disguised within the shining eyes of a good dog.
Then Beth and I went to the Eastern Market early after Levi and I had walked. I love that time together. I enjoyed running into friends and visiting. Similarly today, it is a joy seeing all of you, and even better, seeing how delighted you all are to see each other each week. Most certainly God is revealed in our loving relationships.
For me -- I can find the Divine in Father’s Day -- in the wonderful Dad I had as part of my life, and in the amazing experience of seeing our children grow. For those without similar experiences, or for whom God as Father does not resonate, know that the language you prefer for the Divine is no less valid and no less inspired.
In the end, it is hard to sum up the ways we experience grace and hope and love in simple words -- but our faith journey is all about opening our eyes to the way God is present to us, takes delight in us, and offers peace.
This week in Michigan was the end of school, with lots of commencement ceremonies. Today we -- in the church - have a bit of our own commencement ceremony. Commencements -- of course -- are not about something ending (like high school or college). Commencements are about what is beginning.
We have traveled through Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and celebrated Pentecost. Now we begin what is often referred to in the church calendar as “ordinary time". It is so named because the Sundays from now until the start of Advent are numbered:
Today is the first Sunday after Pentecost;
Next week the second Sunday after pentecost; and so forth.
And yet -- a lot of life seems like ordinary time. So many of our days are filled doing all the practical things needed to keep ourselves and our loved ones going. The challenge in this “ordinariness” is to keep asking ourselves:
Where we are experiencing God in our lives?
Do we see the Divine in the creation around us?
Can we find peace and hope as we seek to love others as Jesus has exemplified love?
Do we know that the Spirit delights in us?
We all have those days when we wonder, “Where God is?” Bad things can happen which make us wonder “IF” there is a God. Sometimes we in the church will feel like certain doctrines don’t resonate with us. Likely this is because they don’t resonate with what we have experienced, and that is okay. It is fine to have doubts about God. Sometimes we may hear someone say that, “They simply don’t believe in God -- it is irrational — nothing more than superstition.” Sometimes we may feel that way ourselves. In such instances, it is helpful to ask about the nature of this God. For example, if talking to someone who cannot believe there is a God, we will usually find that the God they describe is not one we can believe in either. For me, I cannot reconcile the presence of the Divine in life with a belief in a God that could:
Be vengeful or vindictive;
Condemn a person for how God has created them;
Hate a people, or race or country.
It also seems that so many times when we describe God with nouns -- as though God is an old man with a beard, a judge, a king, a governor -- these descriptions ring hollow. We do better when we speak of the Divine with verbs: loving, living, healing, hoping, creating, redeeming, sustaining. It may still be inadequate, but it is more consistent with our own lives that are — in the end — less about objects and nouns, and more about actions and relationships.
In this season of Ordinary time, we are challenged to live with our eyes open to the extraordinary — to wonder at how God comes disguised as our life. In honor of this Trinity Sunday commencement, try praying about and creating your own descriptions of God -- how Divine love is made manifest in your life. If you come up empty-- if God seems far away -- no worries.
Pause to consider what fears or distractions might be obstructing your creativity.
Sit with or call a friend or family member.
Look at the world outside your window.
Go mend something that needs mending.
Do something that needs doing.
You may suddenly, faintly hear again that voice that is calling out to all that live, that rejoices in this inhabited world, and that delights in you -- a beloved part of the Divine’s constant creating. God comes to you disguised as your life, and the Divine invites us to open our eyes anew so that the disguise falls away.
Year C - Pentecost
June 9, 2019
Prologue - Luke 4:16b-21
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty, those that are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
Jesus rolled up the scroll [of Isaiah], gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus, at the start of his ministry, took the scroll of Isaiah to make clear to all what his ministry and mission were about.
Good news to the poor;
an end of oppression; and
living into the acceptable year of the Lord -- the Jubilee -- where are all restored to their place in the community.
This was a description of the kingdom of the Lord drawing near to us. This is good news.
This morning in Acts, we find the disciples and others gathered together in a house.
They have experienced Jesus ministry.
They have suffered through his execution.
They know the joy of his resurrection.
They have seen his ascension.
Now, they are waiting as he has told them to do. Waiting for a Holy Spirit that Jesus has told them will come.
All of a sudden, it does! From heaven there comes a sound like the rush of a violent wind! Divided tongues as of fire appear, and a tongue rests on each of them! This coming of the Spirit is a tangible experience!
It fills the whole house.
It is like wind and like fire.
It isn’t a doctrine, theology, or something to be studied. The Spirit is something to be felt and lived!
And when the Spirit is lived, who knows what can happen! For example:
All in the house are filled with the Holy Spirit (not just the disciples). The Spirit is a gift to the community not just to individuals.
Then within that community, all begin to speak in other languages. The gift isn’t about them, it is really about others.
A crowd gathers, amazed that a bunch of Galileans -- you know, “those people” -- are speaking to each in their own unique language.
This Spirit is about action. It animates who Jesus’ followers are empowered to be and the possibilities of what they can do. It is only natural that everyone is rightfully amazing!
Of course, even in the midst of an amazing event, there are always those who have to find fault - who see in a cup that is not just half-filled but overflowing as another mess to be cleaned up. The skeptics claim the disciples are drunk: “Filled with new wine!”
To these naysayers, Peter -- suddenly emboldened by the Spirit -- quotes the Prophet Joel:
That God will pour out the Spirit on ALL flesh
The young will see visions
The old shall dream dreams
Son, daughters, men, women, slaves and free will prophesy.
The disciples aren’t drunk. They are filled with the Spirit, and God’s spirit is overflowing. It cannot be contained. It will go wherever and to whomever it wills. All flesh shall receive it!
And yet… as biblical scholars have noted.. on a different level, the critics are right. Jesus taught in Luke 5 that new wine must go into new wine skins. Old wineskins would simply burst and the wine would be lost. These disciples are filled with a new spirit! They are ready to do things in a new way.
The Good News is suddenly in everyone’s language.
All are welcomed for who they are. Regardless of their language, their culture -- they are desired by God.
It is fitting that the Spirit would come at Pentecost -- a joyful festival where the first fruits of the harvest were celebrated. As the Rev. Dr. Aymer has noted, Jesus has said that the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. In Acts, Pentecost becomes a Spiritual harvest festival, with the Spirit emboldening new laborers (the disciples, and all those with them) to bring in God’s harvest.
And the Spirit isn’t done! It is just getting started!
On Pentecost, it was only Jews in Jerusalem hearing the wonders of God.
Later in Acts, Samaritans -- if you can believe it -- receive the Spirit.
And then again, Greeks give themselves over to the way of Jesus and receive the Spirit.
The Spirit cannot be bound up in old wine skins -- it is bursting forth and doing something new. It is presenting new dreams and new visions in new peoples. It is reshaping the Jesus community. They are no longer about themselves (huddled away safely in a room), but they are about those around them. And so with Pentecost the church begins its extraordinary mission: to exist first and foremost for those who are not yet a part of the church rather than for those who are.
Pentecost doesn’t have the same place in the our secular calendar as Christmas or Easter:
We don’t send Hallmark Pentecost cards;
No jolly old elf one comes down chimneys with gifts; and
No cotton-tailed bunny delivers candy.
In our Episcopal Church Calendar, Advent, Lent, and Easter, for example, all get nice long liturgical seasons. Pentecost - on the other hand -- is just a day. It is a sudden event. One morning the disciples are waiting, and then suddenly -- they are empowered! They are ready to get to work. There is no season to ponder what the Spirit means: the Spirit is about the here and now and what we are called to do.
Pentecost is a moment that is meant to reshape all that follows. Life can happen pretty fast, and we don’t always get a lot of time to plan. One minute we may have a vision of how things can be; we may have a powerful experience and a deep sense of the Divine! Then the next -- the car won’t start, the phone rings, the laundry needs to be moved along, a friend calls for help, you name it. The challenge in Pentecost is to take be open to the Spirit as all of life unfolds. It is the challenge not to become like the skeptics who cannot believe God would empower us -- such unlikely disciples. it is the challenge to continue to dream dreams and to see visions. With Pentecost, the Spirit comes to rest on each of us. Then the Spirit calls us:
to be the source of Good news to the poor,
to be a source of release to those held captive (regardless of by what),
to be a source of release to those oppressed; and
· to work towards a just and loving society -- that year of the Lord written into the law of Moses, that Isaiah called Israel back to, and that Jesus calls us to bring forth.
Pentecost changes us and makes us the church. As the Pastor and author Danielle Shroyer has noted:
“Without Pentecost, we’d just be people who tell Jesus’ story. With Pentecost, we’re people who live into Jesus’ story.”
Pentecost isn’t just a remembrance, it defines us. It makes clear our calling -- that we are not simply to tell people about who Jesus is. We are to live out Jesus’ story. As Jesus tells his disciples in John’s Gospel lesson today:
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, …”
We don’t just point to the Christ, we are to be the body of Christ. We don’t do this alone -- it is not our individual burden. In Acts, the Spirit comes to communities and empowers them. A great example of this was our Episcopal election last week. As our Nativity representatives reported back at coffee hour, when the diocese elected a new Bishop, there was no politicking. There were no “Vote Bonnie,” “Vote Grace,” “Vote Paula” or “Vote Ruth” signs. There was just a lot of prayer, singing, and a gradual consensus that formed as the Spirit led a community. We as a community are empowered to dream dreams, to see visions, and to be good news.
When did you last dream a dream?
When did you think of something so wonderful and good and true, that it cannot be accomplished alone, but takes a community?
When did you last have a vision of where God calls us to be Good News?
If it has been a while -- remember that dreaming is part of your Christian calling.
Pentecost is only a day but it is meant to prepare us for all of our days. To do this, we are invited to make time to sit with the Spirit -- to know that it is in us, eager to work with us, leading us into community to be Christ’s body.
Take time daily to listen for the Spirit in your life.
Give yourself permission to dream dreams.
Consider your vision of what God’s love intends for all in our world, and share it.
Envision what it will look like when all daughters, son, women, men, weak, powerful, poor, rich, old, young, LGBTQ, straight, are free to live fully into who God has created them to be?
It is not self-indulgent to do this -- to stop, listen, and to have dreams. Turn off that voice in your head that may say,
“Why don’t you do something productive.”
That is the same voice that led the skeptics to see Pentecost and its inclusiveness as nothing but drunkenness. Remember, prayer is what the disciples engaged in prior to receiving the Spirit. It is hard to have our hearts open to God without taking that essential time to listen for God's still, quiet voice. Once we listen, in our quiet, we may know that the spirit is within us and it seeks to empower us, so that we do not just live as the people who tell the story of Jesus, but as people who live the story of Jesus.
Know that Pentecost is not just about Jesus’ first disciples. It is about you, me, and our community.
We are called to be dreamers.
We are called to be visionaries of God’s love.
Can you give yourself over to this vision of who you are?
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon you,
because he has anointed you,
to bring good news to the poor.
God has sent us to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty, those that are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
Dream and proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Today, Pentecost, this promise is fulfilled in you!
YEAR C - Seventh Sunday of Easter
What Must I Do to Be Saved?
Today in our reading from Acts we get a whopper of a question from a jailer:
“What must I do to be saved?"
There’s a big question to start our Sunday and week! But it is a question that leads to more questions:
● What do I want to be saved from?
● Is it the same things that the jailer in Acts wants?
● Is it the same for everybody?
● Does it change during my life?
What do we make of this questions: “What must I do to be saved?”
Everyone in our Acts reading today needs to be saved in one way or another. To set the stage, as we mentioned last week -- with no synagogue in Philippi -- Paul is having to find a new way of doing church. It turns out, everywhere he and Silas go, a slave girl with a spirit of divination follows yelling: “THESE MEN ARE SLAVES OF THE MOST HIGH GOD.” At least they have free advertising, but frankly, this gets on Paul’s nerves. So Paul impulsively casts the spirit out of the girl. Now she has no special gift.
· I wonder what will happen to this girl, as what value does she have now to her owners?
· How will she be saved?
The owners of the slave girl are furious, as Paul has just destroyed their valuable asset. I suspect they are wondering about salvation also. How they will be saved financially.”
Angry, the owners have no trouble whipping up a mob that disapproves of these foreigners and their un-Roman ways. The magistrates don’t even give Paul and Silas a trial. They order them to be severely beaten -- this alone could have killed Paul and Silas -- and then thrown into the darkest prison cell and locked in fetters. Paul and Silas have no idea what might happen to them in the morning. Paul’s being annoyed has almost gotten him and Silas killed. They may be praying and singing in the night, but they need to be saved from a potentially deadly situation.
Then there is an earthquake -- a sort of resurrection story if you will. Paul and Silas, sorely beaten, locked in a metaphorical tomb, are suddenly freed. All the prison cells open. Yet in light of this resurrection, suddenly the jailer needs saving!
● If a prisoner has escaped, he will likely be killed or worse by the magistrates.
● Any maybe even more dangerous, earthquakes are often seen in the first century as an act of a god. Clearly the God of Paul and Silas has acted on their behalf. What hope does this poor jailer have against a God like that?
He needs to be saved and fast! But what exactly does he want to be saved from?
● The God of Israel?
● Torture or death for failing in his job?
● The scorn of his society?
As you read through today’s Act’s lesson, you realize, it is not just the jailer who needs to be saved. The entire story is a cry for help -- one big SOS -- if you will.
In the midst of all of this need, Paul’s answer to the jailer is perhaps surprising:
"Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household."
Now if I were writing Acts as dialogue for a movie you would wisely interrupt me with feedback:
· “Wait Bob, what kind of an answer is that?
· "What does it even mean to “Believe on the Lord Jesus?”
· “How is that going to save the jailer, and
· "You haven’t even said what it is saving the jailer from?”
The challenge is that we hear this morning’s lesson with very modern, Western ears. We have all probably had a stranger ask us at some time -- “Are you saved?” (I drove under a sign on the freeway today asking that question.) When we hear that, we know they mean, “Are you going to heaven or hell when you die?” But this is a very 19th and 20th century, American question. It is surely not what the jailer -- in a moment of panic -- is thinking about.
Another thing about our modern, Western ears, is that we often think of belief as something that is intellectual. It is about knowing the right things - agreeing with the right teachings. To modern, Western ears, faith is a noun and not a verb. It is about accepting particular ideas and not about taking action.
So what does Paul mean by belief?
I went to a lecture by the New Testament scholar Marcus Borg. He encouraged us to think of belief as “what we give our heart over to.” For example, when we say the creed on Sunday mornings, we aren’t really saying -- "I intellectually agree with the following." Rather, we are saying, “I give my heart over to God, the creator of heaven and earth…” and then what follows are ways in which that God has been experienced.
I think this is the kind of belief that Paul was talking about. Salvation for the jailer is about what or who he gives his heart to.
What is Our Kingdom?
A little more background on today’s passage -- this story is about the clash of two kingdoms.
● The spirit that abided in the slave girl is, in Greek, a “pythian spirit” (I can tell you more about it at coffee hour if you like). Its powers come from the Oracle at Delphi. This was Apollo’s oracle.
● Apollo was Caesar Augustus’ patron God. Caesar built a temple to him in Rome. That which points to Apollo points to Ceasar.
● And Philippi -- it is a Roman colony that Augustus created for his faithful soldiers -- sort of a Roman Legion retirement community. It was as Roman as you could get, without being in Rome.
So when Paul casts out the spirit from the slave girl it is about far more than silencing her. It is a statement that Paul’s Lord is greater than the Empire’s Lord. That Paul’s God is greater than Caesar’s god. He is saying there is something much bigger, more powerful, much greater than Rome and its worldly kingdom. He proclaims great kingdom of God, with Jesus as its incarnation.
● The worldly kingdom holds power through fear and death.
● The kingdom of God holds power through love and life.
The jailer’s life is ruled by fear of punishment and death. Yet Paul and Silas, root in a different kingdom -- can still pray and sing, even as they face punishment and potentially death. So to believe in the name of Jesus is to enter into a new kingdom. Paul tells the jailer, “give yourself over to this kingdom of love - you and your whole family.”
And the jailer does! He does this not by stating a creed, but by living in a new way. Cruelty gives way to caring for Paul and Silas’ wounds and hospitality. Who knows what may have been done for the other prisoners that aren’t the focus of the story. Belief is an action -- it is love that the jailer is giving himself over to.
Love is what can save the slave girl. Perhaps her owners will see her as who she really is and not for the spirit of divination that she lost. In this process, they may save her and themselves.
Love is what can save the magistrates, when they eventually learn that in flogging Paul and Silas, they have just beaten Roman citizens. Paul makes them come and apologize, but he does not take further legal action to press his worldly rights over those who had wronged him.
The Good News
On this last Sunday of the Easter season, this love we are called to give ourselves over to is given greater clarity and definition in the Gospel lesson. One verse captures so much:
"I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them."
Jesus’ love and life models the love of his Father, the Divine. If we want to know what God is like, look at how God’s love shine in Jesus' loves. Further, the same love of God in Jesus is in us!
● We aren’t separated from God.
● We don’t have to go find God.
● God is here with us, in us. As Paul puts it in the next chapter of Acts: in Him “we live and move and have our being.”
The challenge is to give up our own desire for control -- our desire to “make it” in the world's kingdom -- and give ourselves over to this different kingdom, this different reality, this different way of being who we are created to be. It is giving ourselves over to a God that abides within us.
In light of that Good News, I wonder how we may want God’s love to save us today? From what do we hope to be saved?
● Maybe like the slave girl we feel like we have lost what made us special.
● Maybe like the slave owners, we have some priorities we need to realign.
● Maybe like the jailer, we are living in fear - and don’t want to fear anymore.
● Maybe we hope that all of our fears can give way to compassion.
We don’t know the reality that others live in life. We cannot easily know what others deeply hoped to be saved from. What someone in their 90s may hope to be saved from may differ from someone in their 70s or 50s or 20s. Yet it is worth asking ourselves from time to time, in any stage of our life:
● What do we want to be saved from?
● How can acting in love renew us?
● How can we give our hearts to the God of the Most High - the one whose love -- like the air we breathe -- is within us and all around us?
● How can our love free others?
As this Easter season moves towards a close, Paul and Silas remind us that resurrection is not a one time event. It is not just reserved for when we die. It happens in prisons. It happens in healing and hospitals. It happens over shared meals. It is the pattern of life. As one fear dies, an new future is born.
To believe in Jesus - to give ourselves to Jesus - is to give ourselves to love.
● Loving transforms us.
● Loving renews us.
● Loving saves us.
So -- are we ready to be saved and to care for others today, tomorrow, and beyond? This is the way of love that lives within us and around us. For this we give thanks to God.