U.S. Independence Day and the Church

“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.” (Deuteronomy 10:17-21)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” (Matthew 5:43-46a)

INDEPENDENCE DAY AND THE CHURCH

According to "Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints", proper Psalms, lessons, and prayers were first appointed for the national observance of Independence Day in the Proposed Prayer Book of 1786.  But they were deleted by the General Convention of 1789, primarily because Bishop William White felt that the required observance would be inappropriate, since the majority of the Church’s clergy had been loyal to the British crown. (We see evidence of early tension between Church and State!) It was not until the Prayer Book of 1928 that the liturgical observance of Independence Day returned. ("Holy Women, Holy Men", p. 452)

What I find intriguing is the scriptures that have been selected as part of the propers for Independence Day.  The Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy is above, and focuses on worshiping God alone and loving the stranger - “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I have also quoted most of the Matthew reading (Matthew 5:43-48) from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which focuses on loving and praying for our enemies. (The other scriptures for the day are Psalm 145 and Hebrews 11:8-16.)  There is an acknowledgment in these passages of God’s love for us, God leading us into freedom, God caring for the orphan, widow, and stranger, and our calling to love in the same way that God loves us. It is God “who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.” (Deuteronomy10:21)

In other words, in the Church on Independence Day we still pause to give all the credit and praise to God - for our freedom, for loving us, and for God giving us the example of loving all people.

This is one of the reasons that I love being part of a church community. Where else are you likely to hear a word of Scripture and a reminder of where our true freedom comes from - on Independence Day? The Church and Holy Scripture continue to call us back to worshiping and praising God, for only God is God - “God of gods and Lord of lords.”

 

Joyful, Serving, Singing People

“Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands; serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song.”    (Psalm 100:1, from The Book of Common Prayer)

Joyful, Serving, Singing People

Be joyful - in the Lord.  The circumstances of your life may be up or down.  For me personally, I seem to be going through a lot of goodbyes right now - adult children moving away, friends and acquaintances moving away or making affiliations with other churches.  It is bringing lots of tears.  And… God is good.  The Lord is loving, merciful, a reliable guide and protector, amazingly generous and the Author of Life.  My joy, your joy comes by being connected to this Lord; our joy is rooted in God.  Joy transcends the circumstances of our lives, because God is present in all circumstances and transcends the circumstances of our lives.

Serve the Lord - with gladness.  When we serve anyone - family members, a neighbor who needs help, a visitor to St. Ambrose, a stranger who walks up to us and asks for help - we are doing more than serving that person.  We are serving the Lord.  Jesus said as much.  Truth be told, I am happiest when I am serving someone.  This is what we were put on earth to do.  It is a privilege that God gives us… this serving. Let’s do it with gladness!

Come before his presence with a song. I always pay attention when someone is whistling a tune or singing while they work or walk - partly because it is not that common, and also because it lifts my spirits. Sometimes I catch myself whistling or humming or singing a tune. I think it has something to do with the first part of this verse - joy in the Lord. And… how many people come before the Lord’s presence with a song anymore? Answer: Well, people who are part of a worshiping community get to do it on a regular basis!  How cool is that? Singing with other people, while we are all raising our voices in praise to God. Corporate singing is designed to raise our spirits, too.

The Psalmist was on to something.

Be joyful in the Lord.  Serve the Lord with gladness.  Come before his presence with a song.

Let’s be joyful, serving, singing people.  When we demonstrate all three of these traits, I’m guessing that some other people will notice.  They might even ask you, “What’s going on? What are you doing? Why are you so joyful?”  

And then you can tell them.

 

Welcoming Children, Becoming Like Children

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.” (Matthew 18:1-5)

Welcoming the Children, Becoming Like Children

Last weekend our family was in Grand Lake, Colorado to celebrate our son, Zach, marrying the love of his life, Jordan Anderson.  There were many moving moments. One of them was having our good friend and Zach and Hannah’s godfather, Roger Cauthon, serve as the officiant for the ceremony.  Another was seeing Hannah serve as one of Jordan’s bridesmaids. Still another special part of the ceremony was seeing my niece’s and nephew’s son, Linden, be one of the ring bearers.  Linden, you see, is 14 months old.  He was being helped by Jake, another ring bearer, who is 6 years old.  There were also two flower girls, Kylie and Katie, who are older sisters of Jake.  As attractive and joyful as Jordan and Zach were as a couple on their wedding day - and I have never seen them more joyful! - there was something special added to the wedding festivities because these young children were included.

When the disciples asked Jesus who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus put a child among them and told them they must change and become like children if they wanted to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Then he added, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Become like children.  Welcome children.  That’s what Jesus said to do.

As I write this, I have just heard that President Trump has signed an executive order that ends the administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the Mexico-U.S. border. Evidently the public’s outcry moved the President to do something.  But why did over 2,000 children get separated from their parents in the first place?  I can’t imagine anyone who has children of their own being so callous.  I certainly can’t imagine any follower of Jesus believing that this is something that Jesus would do - whether touting security reasons, the desire to discourage border crossings, or for any other reason.

The Jesus I know was always seeing and welcoming the outsider, the poor, the oppressed, the shunned, and yes - the children.  The Jesus I know made a point to say that we not only need to welcome children, but to change and become like them.  And the Jesus I know said that when we welcome children, we welcome him!

Children are trusting, playful, loving, vulnerable, curious, open to learning and - as Jesus said - humble.  These are all traits to be cultivated, if we want to respond to God’s invitation to embrace a whole new way of living, and enter into something called the kingdom of God, where we love God and love others at least as much as we love ourselves.

Whether we are conscious of why we are doing it, there is a reason that we often include little children in wedding ceremonies.  We give them a role to remind ourselves that we are called to welcome children - a symbol of welcoming some of the most vulnerable people in our world.  We give them a role to remind ourselves that we are to become not super-independent, blowing-our-own-horn adults, but children - children who need God and one another, too.

 

Seeking and Doing the Will of God

30 May 2018

“While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Matthew 12:46-50)

Seeking and Doing the Will of God

Jesus certainly extended his family circle when he said, “… whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (see above) It also reminds me of that portion of the Sermon on the Mountain when he said to his disciples: “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” (Matthew 6:9-10)

Someone has said that the perfect prayer, the always-answered prayer is “Thy will be done.”

“Thy will be done” is the prayer I am most likely to pray when I am willing to get out of the way - my own way - and be God’s vessel, God’s agent, God’s servant.  There is a certain letting go of ego… a certain recommitment to Jesus being Lord of my life… a certain kind of remembering that God knows best and that my “wisdom” isn’t in the same ballpark as God’s wisdom.  Perhaps another way to say that is that if I can be down to earth - i.e., humble - then I can allow myself to entertain the question, “Lord, what is your will for me today?” (Or this week, month, or year) And if I shut up long enough to wait for an answer, God’s will will be revealed to me.  And then the question becomes, “Am I ready to do what I hear God asking me to do?”  

I may be asked to initiate a difficult - but important - conversation.  I may be asked to share something about my faith in Christ with another person.  More often that not, I will be asked to serve someone in need or love someone.  Perhaps God will ask me to pray for an “enemy”, or work on something in myself that needs to be changed.

Whatever it is, when you and I step forward to do the will of our Father in heaven, we become full brothers and sisters of Jesus.  Maybe that is all the reward that we need. 

Help Us, Lord

“Help us, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from humankind.” (Psalm 12:1)

Help Us, O Lord

Do you ever feel like the Psalmist - that “there is no longer anyone who is godly”, that “the faithful have disappeared”?

I haven’t gotten to this point, and I am grateful for that.  I have been spared such an outlook because I know plenty of people who are faithful to God and to their calling. I also read about other people - people I will never meet - who are faithful.  Today in the newspaper I read about the Merriweather family of Pennsylvania.  Five years ago, 3-year-old Chase Merriweather got sick while visiting Disney World with his parents and older brother C.J.  After Chase was airlifted to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, doctors discovered E. Coli bacteria in his arms and legs.  His parents, Chad and Chisa, made the decision to allow the doctors to amputate Chase’s arms and legs.   Fast-forward to today, where 8-year-old Chase, with prosthetic limbs, plays all kinds of sports and generally doesn’t let anything stop him.  Along with his mother, the two give readings at schools and libraries of two children’s books that Chisa wrote, based on Chase’s superhero persona, called “Chaseman.” And the family has started a non-profit, Chase Ur Dream, to give grants to needy families with children who are amputees. (chaseurdream.com)

So… are there faithful, inspiring people in the world?  You bet!

And… I can totally relate to the Psalmist crying out to God for help.

There is a Source we can call on in our time of need, whether we are feeling that need as an individual, as a family, as a community, or as a nation.

There are plenty of faithful people around, but we also need God’s help - in the form of God’s wisdom, God’s strength, God’s protection, God’s love, God’s provision, and God’s grace.

Do you need some help, today - some super-powerful help?  Then cry out to the Lord!  And then listen and pay attention for how God will respond.

Help us, Lord.  Help us as we seek to be your faithful people, doing the work you have given us to do.

 

Thoughts on Unity

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:1-6)

THOUGHTS ON UNITY

In these opening verses of Chapter 4 in Ephesians, there is an emphasis on unity - unity within the body of Christ.  There are references to “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”, “one body and one Spirit”, “the one hope of your calling”, “one Lord”, “one faith”, “one baptism”, “one God and Father of all”.  I am reminded of the beginning of the liturgy of Holy Baptism in the Episcopal Church, when the celebrant and people do a sort of call and response, using these words from Ephesians:

Celebrant:    There is one Body and one Spirit;
People:    There is one hope in God’s call to us;
Celebrant:    One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism;
People:    One God and Father of all.      (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 299)

In other words, from the very beginning of the baptismal liturgy, we are being reminded that we are all in this together - we are all one in the Spirit, one in Christ, one in God. We are one body.  We are diverse individuals, but in this diversity, there is unity.

Another way to say this might be that we have way more in common than we do things that divide us.

And yet, we are a nation... perhaps we are a world... that likes to focus on the differences, and likes to put things in dualistic, either/or terms: I-you, we-they, Democrat-Republican, American-_________ (put every other nationality in the blank), black-white, rich-poor, white collar-blue collar, boomer-millennial, Jew-Gentile, Christian-Muslim, Catholic-Protestant, southern-northern, citizen-immigrant, East Coast-West Coast, dog person-cat person.... and on and on it goes.

Also in Ephesians we read: “For he [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups [Jew and Gentile] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2:14)

Again, the emphasis is on unity.  Christ came to break down any and every wall that has been built between you and any other individual or group.  And guess what?  We are the ones who have erected those walls!  And, we so much want to keep them there, or to build them back after Christ tears them down.

The author of Ephesians is saying that the key to claiming and living into this unity is to hang on to our common bond in Christ, first and foremost.  And then, we must practice humility... gentleness... patience... bearing with one another in love... maintaining every effort to live in the unity of the Spirit, in the bond of peace.

I wonder: Whenever we are tempted to start thinking (or ranting and raving), “You ____ ! They _____! I don’t see it that way!  We see it differently!” - perhaps we do see it differently, AND... are we willing to step back long enough to entertain the truth that we are one Body and one Spirit, sharing the one hope in God’s call to us, with one Lord, one Faith (wonder about that for a while!), one Baptism (muse on that, too!), worshiping and serving one God, who is God... of.... ALL.

Wouldn’t the world be a very different place if we could shift our “preset” button to “How are we one?”, as opposed to “How are we different?” or “How are you wrong?”

Let’s try moving in that direction.

 

Experiencing the Grace of God

Experiencing the Grace of God

“He [God] destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:5-10)

The beginning of the letter to the Ephesians gushes with grace - God’s grace poured out for the benefit of humanity, as we are “destined for adoption as God’s children.”  Paul writes of the “glorious grace that he [God] freely bestowed on us in the Beloved”, speaks of redemption and forgiveness “according to the riches of his grace lavished upon us”, and God revealing the mystery of his will - “according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ... to gather up all things in him....”

Glorious grace... the riches of grace... lavished upon us... according to his good pleasure.

This is not a wrathful God.  This is a loving, generous, lavish, God who thoroughly enjoys blessing all of creation!

Grace is hard to define.  It has to do with blessings that are unearned and even undeserved. It has something to do with being overwhelmed and healed by love.  For me, I know it when I feel it; I know when God has lavished grace upon me or upon us.

Today is the 10th anniversary of Julia’s successful colon cancer surgery.  Her healing is grace.  The past 10 years together and the 31+ years that I have known Julia has been glorious grace.

I baptized two siblings this past Sunday - Charlotte (age 6) and Julio (age 4).  They both laughed while they were being baptized.  That was grace.  Every infant, child, teen, and adult I have been privileged to baptized into Christ - that has all been grace.

We said goodbye to a long-time member of St. Ambrose last Sunday.  Holly has lived all of her life in Boulder and spent 28 years of her life being formed, serving, singing, and being transformed in the St. A community.  She recently moved with her husband to another part of Colorado.  As most of the church came up to lay hands on her as we prayed for the next part of her journey, I felt the grace of God among us.

The birds nesting underneath the deck, just outside of our basement door, singing beautifully each morning and evening - that is grace.

The music I get to hear and participate in each Sunday, led by faithful, dedicated volunteers - that is grace.

The views I see as I walk, hike, drive around Colorado, or even as I sit in my living room - wow! - that is grace.

Friends who generously help me stay healthy, listen attentively when I preach, offer insights on Bible passages that we read together, love our children lavishly as they serve as godparents, give of their time and talents as they help me plan this crazy walk across the country - grace, grace, and more grace.

God giving me the dream of the walk in the first place - grace!

All the teachers, mentors, counselors, and coaches I have had over the years - grace.

My parents taking us hiking and camping, and also passing on their values, and taking us to church every Sunday - more grace.

Most of all - God claiming us as beloved daughters and sons, and coming in the flesh to show us how to live, how to love, and how to know joy - amazing grace!

Grace - I know it when I feel it!

What is your experience of God’s lavish, glorious grace?

 

How Are You Proclaiming the Good News of Christ?

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15)

HOW ARE YOU PROCLAIMING THE GOOD NEWS OF CHRIST?

I am glad “the longer ending” of Mark’s Gospel (Mark 16:9-20) made it into the Bible.  (Look this up if you want to know more.)  I suppose the leaders of Virginia Theological Seminary are glad it did, too.  For three years at VTS - for four mornings a week and on other occasions, too - I attended chapel and read these big bold letters on the back wall above the altar:  “Go into all the world and preach the gospel.”  People in my seminary class were from all over the United States, from Hong Kong and Kenya and Uganda.  We were women and men, younger and older, low church and Anglo Catholic, Episcopalians and from other denominations, too.  We were former lawyers and teachers and librarians and pig farmers and geologists and Peace Corps Volunteers, and some of my classmates were barely out of college, and when we graduated, we scattered far and wide.  (For my three years at VTS, I was the only student from Colorado.)  We were called to different places and began proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ - the Son of God - all over the world.  Graduates of VTS have been doing this since the 1820’s.  And that is just one seminary!

The “gospel” is the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  So says Mark, at the very beginning of his gospel. (Mark 1:1)  And today, on the 25th of April, we remember St. Mark the Evangelist.  There is a prominent church dedicated to him in Venice, and the Church of Alexandria in Egypt claimed Mark as its first bishop.  (See Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints, from Church Publishing Incorporated, pp. 345-345)

By the way, you are not off the hook if: a) you are not one of the four Gospel writers, or b) you have not been trained as a preacher. If you have been baptized, you promised to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305)  When asked if we will do this when we renew our vows in the Baptismal Covenant, we say, individually, “I will, with God’s help.”

How are you proclaiming - by word and example - the good news of God in Christ?  How have you experienced that good news?  How have you experiencing Christ’s reconciling love?  How do you experience living “in Christ?”  How is God helping you to proclaim this good news?

We are reminded - on this day - that all of us who claim Jesus as Lord and follow in his ways, are also following in the footsteps of all the saints who have proclaimed him over the centuries.  I’m guessing that you became a Christian because the Spirit of God worked through someone - or a group of someones - who proclaimed Christ to you.  And now the Spirit of God works though you and me to bring the gospel of Christ to others.

Thank you for being an evangelist... for bringing the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to others.

 

YOU CAN'T DO ANYTHING APART FROM CHRIST

“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5)

You Can’t Do Anything Apart From Jesus

I have written reflections on these words from Jesus before.  They keep calling me back, pulling me in.  (And one or the other of the Church’s lectionaries keeps putting them in front of me.)

Part of me wants to argue with Jesus.  I can do nothing apart from you?  Really?  Can’t I comb my hair or fix myself a sandwich or go for a run without you, Jesus?  Can’t I serve somebody or be rude to somebody or be hard on myself without you?

And then I pause, and reflect some more.  I think about the prologue to this same Gospel of John.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people… And the Word became flesh and lived among us… From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1:1-4, 14a, 16)

Through Jesus Christ, the Word of God, all things came into being.  You, me, and all of creation… your goals and dreams, my goals and dreams, your family, my family, your job, my job, your next breath, my next breath, your abilities to think and walk and talk and give thanks, my abilities to think and walk and talk and give thanks.  You get the idea.

Jesus isn’t just making a suggestion here.  He is posing a truth.

Can you find your next job without abiding in Jesus? No.

Can I walk across the country without abiding in Jesus? No. 

Can you find and marry the love of your life without abiding in Jesus? No.

Can the earth keep spinning on its axis and revolving around the sun without abiding in Jesus? No.

Can you make it through the loss and grief that you have recently experienced without abiding in Jesus? No.

Can you learn how to really celebrate and dance through life without abiding in Jesus? No.

He is the vine.  We are the branches.  Without abiding in Him, we can bear no fruit.  Even more than that, apart from Him you and I can do nothing.

Think about that.  Really ponder it!  Put the words of Jesus alongside of your own life experience, and see if what he says is not profoundly true.

We live in God… we abide in Christ… we love in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  We think in God… we play in the Spirit … we weep in Christ… we are sustained in God… we create masterpieces in Christ… we are guided in the Spirit.

We live in God.  Nothing happens in your life outside of Christ or Spirit.

How would our lives be different if we acknowledged this every morning, gave thanks, and pursued the work that God has given us to do?  What kind of fruit would we bear?

I don’t know the details of the answer to that question, but Jesus said we would bear much fruit, and you and I both know that - because of God’s grace - it would be sweet, beautiful, nourishing fruit!

Abide in Christ as Christ abides in you.  And then go crazy - living your life and bearing fruit.

 

THE REV. DR. KING - AN AMAZING EXAMPLE FOR ALL OF US

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:27-36)

THE REV. DR. KING - AMAZING EXAMPLE FOR US

When I was 10-1/2 years old - and I believe all the way through high school - my bedroom was populated with pictures of my sports heroes.  They were mostly baseball players - Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Pete Rose (Hey, this was before he bet on baseball, and my name was Pete, too!), and Billy Williams.  There were a few football players, too.  I remember posters of Gale Sayers and Paul Warfield.  But I also was living in Charleston, South Carolina, and I remember watching the NBC nightly news on a regular basis with my parents.  I was aware - as aware as I could be as a white, privileged 10-year-old boy at the time - of the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.  I had some awareness of the sit-ins and the bus boycotts, the firehoses and the police dogs and the beatings, church bombings and unsolved murders, many people going to jail, and riots, too..  At that young age, I think I recognized that Dr. King was amazingly courageous, spellbinding as a  preacher and public speaker, and so determined to speak to all of American society as he worked for justice.  Admittedly, much of this sunk in for me at a deeper level later on, well after Dr. King was killed, when I read a biography of his life and one particular book of his sermons, Strength to Love, that had a profound influence on me when I was serving as a Peace Corp Volunteer in the 1980’s.  I didn’t have a poster of Dr. King on my wall when I was ten, and I don’t have one on my wall at home now.  But I can tell you this:  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has had a much bigger influence on my life than Willie Mays or Hank Aaron or Pete Rose ever did!  Those three baseball legends made me want to become a professional baseball player.  Dr. King inspired me - and still inspires me - to be a man of character, a man of faith, a man of courage, a man who works for justice, a man who loves and prays for and forgives his enemies, a man who works for peace and practices non-violence, a man who sees and responds to the needs of the poor, a man who might inspire others though his preaching.  If I could demonstrate any of those traits at 25% of the level that Dr. King did, then perhaps I will have inspired someone else to be the kind of follower of Jesus that Dr. King was.

The Episcopal Church has a book for remembering our “saints”.  It used to be called Lesser Feasts and Fasts.  More recently the name of the book has been changed to Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (The Church Pension Fund, 2010).  April 4 has been set aside as the day to remember Martin Luther King, Jr., “Civll Rights Leader and Martyr.” Today is the 50th anniversary of his assassination.  One of the readings selected for us, as we remember Dr, King, is the one quoted above.  Doesn’t it seem fitting?  (In case you want to look them up, the other readings selected are Genesis 37:17b-20, Psalm 77:11-20, and Ephesians 6:10-20.). Surely Dr. King lived out Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain” from Luke, the companion to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.  Love your enemies?  Check. Do good to those who hate you? Check.  Bless those who curse you? Check. Pray for those who abuse you? Check. Do to others as you would have them do to you? Check. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other one, too?  Check.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - prophet, preacher, pastor, husband, father, civil rights leader, dreamer, worker for justice, faithful servant of the Lord, friend of the poor.

“From its earliest days the Church has rejoiced to recognize and commemorate those faithful departed who were extraordinary or even heroic servants of God and of God’s people for the sake, and after the example, of their Savior Jesus Christ.  By this recognition and commemoration, their devoted service endures in the Spirit, even as their example and fellowship continue to nurture the pilgrim Church on its way to God.” (Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints, p. ix)

I suggest to you that if you are looking around for a heroic servant of God to model your life after, look no further than Dr. King.

Who will you encourage or sustain today?

“The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” (Isaiah 50:4)

WHO WILL YOU SUSTAIN OR ENCOURAGE TODAY?

The quote above is from the third of the four “servant songs” in Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1-9, 49:1-6, 50:4-11, 52:13-53:12).  In the original writings, the servant seems to be the nation of Israel.  But after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, it didn’t take take long for those in the early church to identify the servant as Jesus - the Messiah who had come to fulfill various prophecies from the Hebrew scriptures.  As such, the servant songs are featured prominently during Holy Week, especially since the servant in these passages is often portrayed as a suffering servant.

This Suffering Servant brings healing to others - by his words, by his sacrificial love, by his passion (that is, by his willingness to be acted upon by others, for the ultimate benefit of the world.  The witness of Jesus is once again counter to the ways of the world:  it is not might and violence that redeem and reconcile, but a non-violent love that is willing to suffer and also forgive.

The Suffering Servant offers special words… words that are a balm to the body, the mind, and the soul.  This was always true of Jesus’ ministry on earth:  His words brought healing to others.  Even when he confronted people, it was done in love.  HIs confrontational words were designed to break through the defenses of men and women, so that they could be healed of their blindness and reconnect with the God who loved them.

Our words are SO important!  With our words we can urge people to do great destruction and violence; with our words we can bring peace, healing, forgiveness, encouragement, understanding, and reconciliation.  Jesus brought John and his mother together while he hung from the cross.  While there, he also offered forgiveness!  He demonstrated that - even in the worst possible circumstances - we always have a choice about how we speak… how we use our words.

We are followers of Jesus.  As we proceed through this Holy Week, pay attention to your words.  Who can you encourage?  Who can you sustain with a word?  Who can you forgive?  Who can you offer up to God in prayer?  To whom can you listen and offer your healing and peace… as you utter hardly any words?  To whom will you offer a generous appreciation, a heart-felt thank you, or words of deep gratitude?

When we use our words in ways that build up and heal, we are being teachers, too.  We are modeling something for our children and grandchildren, as well as for our peers.  We are demonstrating the truth that words can bring healing and love - any day, at any time, in any situation.

 

Hardened Hearts and God's Love

“Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them as the Lord had said.” (Exodus 7:13)

HARDENED HEARTS AND GOD'S LOVE

From very early on in the Moses/Israelites/Exodus story, we start to hear about Pharaoh’s heart being hardened.  There is a reference to Yahweh hardening Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 7:3), but one gets the impression that the Lord knew Pharaoh had already hardened his own heart, and that it was going to take something really big - or many big things in a row - before Pharaoh relented and let the Jews leave Egypt.  And so, with each of the plagues leading up to the last one, we hear that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (See, e.g., Exodus 7:22, 8:15, 8:19, 8:32, 9:7, 9:12, 9:35, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10).  This is a tremendous amount of heart-hardening!

This part of the pre-Exodus story leads me to the following observations and questions:

God knew Pharaoh’s heart, God knew Moses’ heart.  God knows our hearts, too.

I wonder why it is that sometimes I do things that are akin to hardening my heart toward God.  I can be resistant to God’s guidance.  I can be reactive if I think God is asking me to do something that seems too hard to do.  I can, in effect, put God on the witness stand and accuse God of not being available, not being powerful enough, not caring, etc.  These are all ways that I can harden my heart toward God.

Perhaps worse than any of the things that I just mentioned, I can ignore God; I can think that God is irrelevant, or act as if God doesn’t exist.

If I act this way toward God with any kind of frequency, does God leave me to own devices?  That is, does God allow me build a heart that is gradually harder and harder?

Fortunately, what I know - beyond all of these things that I can do to build a wall between God and me - is that God is “... merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness...” (Exodus 34:6)  If we show but a hint of an opening... if we open up our hearts to God, God swoops in... God forgives... God restores... God blesses... God does what God always does - God loves us, right back into wholeness.

Here is another scripture to reflect on today:  “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)

Give us that heart of flesh, O Lord. Heal us! We want to be your people - people who heap love on You... people who heap love on others... people who heap love on our enemies... people who heap love on all of your creation. Give us new hearts so that we can love as you love us.   Amen.

 

"God Intended It for Good"

But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.  (Genesis 50:19-21)

“God Intended It for Good”

The story of Joseph and his brothers - chapters 37 and 39-50 in the book of Genesis - is so good that they made a musical out of it... a very good musical, at that!  It has so many things - sibling rivalry, throwing the annoying little brother into a pit and then selling him to traders on their way to Egypt, lying to one’s father, Joseph being falsely accused and spending time in prison, his rise to becoming Pharaoh’s right-hand man, years of plenty and years of famine (as Joseph predicted), Jacob sending his sons to Egypt to buy grain, Joseph withholding his identity from his brothers for awhile, and the final reunion of Jacob with Joseph, as well as Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers. [Men, take note:  Real men shed tears!]

After Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers are basically thinking, “”Okay, now that dad is gone, Joseph is going to let us have it for what we did to him all those years ago!” (See Genesis 50:15)  But Joseph has matured.  He is no longer the stupid, annoying “baby brother.”  He has learned to trust himself, but mostly he has forged a relationship with Yahweh - the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Isaac and Rebekah, the God of Jacob and Leah and Rachel.  And what he has learned, more than anything else, is that God is good... God is wise... God is powerful... God is loving and merciful... and God can be trusted.

And so he replies to his brothers, “Do not be afraid!  Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.  So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” (see above)  

Joseph is way beyond grudges or resentment or payback.  He has forgiven his brothers - a long time ago, in fact.  Now that he has been reunited with his family of origin, there is nothing to do but love.  And he has perspective - the kind of perspective that comes with years spent growing up... with God’s help.

“Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good...”

God has a way of bringing good out of evil, life out of death, reconciliation out of brokenness - because that is how God works.

What about you?  How have you witnessed - or been the direct beneficiary - of God’s grace, compassion, and wisdom?  Do you want to offer up a prayer of thanks to God today?  Yeah.  Me, too.

 

Knowledge vs. Agape

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” (1 Corinthians 8:1b-3)

KNOWLEDGE VS. AGAPE

In the quote above, Paul is addressing the topic within the Corinthian church about food that has been sacrificed to idols, and whether it should be eaten.  But as he discusses this (in all of chapter 8), it is clear that the issue is not about certain foods, and whether to eat them or not.  The issue comes down to love and concern for other people of faith, especially those for whom eating such food goes against their conscience.  It’s as if Paul is answering the question:  What is the most loving thing to do in this situation?

The word that Paul uses here for love is agape, the Greek word for selfless, unconditional love... and a word to which he devotes a whole section of this letter in what we refer to as 1 Corinthians 13.

I am intrigued with how we can use any kind of knowledge - even spiritual knowledge - to “puff ourselves up”... to act like we are better than others... to look down on others - who are, in our minds - less knowledgeable and... therefore, ahem... inferior.  I was sharing with someone the other day that when I was in my 20’s, I had some interactions with Christians who had “been baptized in the Spirit”, which - in their case - meant that they had received the gift of speaking in tongues.  Some of these folks were incredibly condescending when speaking about this gift.  You weren’t REALLY  a Christian if you had not received the gift of tongues! (Interestingly enough, this was one of the issues that Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians.)  I wasn’t especially interested in receiving the gift of tongues anyway, but after encountering these folks, I really wasn’t interested!

I suppose we can do this with any “special knowledge” that we have received.  Perhaps you have met medical doctors or college professors who never introduce themselves without saying “I’m Dr. so-and-so.”  I, for one, find it much more interesting to discover how wise or spiritual people are from our interactions, rather from them telling me what their credentials are.  I like how Eugene H. Peterson translates this in The Message:  “... sometimes our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds.” (1 Corinthians 8:1b-2)

I guess what I am saying is that if we have to choose between being really smart and really loving - and maybe we don’t! - go for the agape!  The world doesn’t need more really smart people who are arrogant, unkind, and wanting to be right - at all costs.  What we need is more people who are like our Lord - truly humble, as in “down to earth”, and not flaunting your stuff just to be noticed or recognized or celebrated... AND who are loving, kind, compassionate, and quick to serve.

Smart or loving?  If you were to force me to choose one, I’d choose loving... every single time.

What Is God Sowing in You?

He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow...” (Mark 4:2-3)

WHAT IS GOD SOWING IN YOU?

“The Sower” is one of Jesus’ more famous parables.  You can read the entire thing (Mark 4:3-9 ) and Jesus’ interpretation of it for the disciples (Mark 4:13-20) as you choose.  Today I would like to reflect on the question:  What is God sowing in you, at this point in your life?

God is sowing in me a deeper sense of trust.  As I prepare for a walk across the country next year... as I prepare to relinquish the work that I have been doing for over 26 years... as I prepare for that time next year when I will be apart from Julia - except for brief reunions - for nine months... as I start looking into the logistics of where I might stay and where I might speak during those nine months... as Julia and I wonder how my income is going to be replaced, or mostly replaced, during that time... I hear God saying, “Okay, Peter.  This is a time to go deeper.  Do you really trust me?”

God is sowing in me me a deeper confidence - a word that means “with faith.”  I hear God saying, “Be confident in your preaching, and in your ability to inspire, challenge, and comfort.  Be confident that you can form a 501(c)(3) and have it approved by the IRS.  Be confident that you can give feedback to others as well as you receive it. Be confident in Me - that I will continue to lead you, protect you, and guide you. Be confident in the overall goodness and generosity of human beings.”

God is sowing in me an awareness of the areas where I still need to grow.  For example, how can I - as an introvert - develop my outgoing side?  How can I learn - this year and next year - to ask for money without apology, and even see that asking as giving people the opportunity to be generous?  And how can I expand my ability to receive?

These are a few of the things that I see God sowing in me right now.

What is God sowing in you?

 

What We Need Is the Wisdom and Power of God

My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God... Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. (1 Corinthians 2:4-5, 12)

What We Need Is the Wisdom and Power of God

In addressing any of the significant issues of our time - racism, mass shootings, violence against women and children, immigration, the growing disparity between rich and poor, climate change, etc. - we don’t need more opinions or more human wisdom that is divorced from the wisdom of God.  No.  What we need is the wisdom and power of God.

Paul writes to a rather new Christian community in Corinth - one that he helped found.  In a short amount of time, the people there had already divided into factions based on who they liked the best.  Paul? Apollos?  Cephas?  Christ?  They were also full of themselves after they have received supernatural gifts of the Spirit from God.  They were more focused on their particular gifts than on the common good of the community.  (Read 1 Corinthians and you will get the background on all of this.)  So, rather early in the letter, Paul starts contrasting the “foolishness of God” with human wisdom and the ultimate “wisdom from God”, which is Christ Jesus. (See 1 Corinthians 1:18-31)  Paul goes on to say that he did not come to them “proclaiming the mystery of God... in lofty words of wisdom.”  No. He came proclaiming Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 2:1-2), and - of course, Christ resurrected.

It is the Spirit that descended upon Jesus at his baptism... the Spirit that drove Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan before he began his ministry... the Spirit that sustained Jesus through his Passion... and the same Spirit of God that raised Jesus from the dead.  And the message of Jesus and the Gospel writers is this: God freely gives that same Spirit to us.

This is the wisdom and the power that we in the world need to be tapping into - the Spirit of God (or the Spirit of Christ).

If we rely on our own wisdom, we are going to quickly fall into sin - either the sin of arrogance or the sin of thinking that we are inadequate or the sin of ego, which revolves around the sin of wanting to be right and thinking that we alone have the truth.

God gives different gifts to the people, partly to remind us that we need each other.  We are members of a body, Paul says - the body of Christ - and members of one another.  We either get to the Promised Land together - or not at all.  If we get there, we are going to discover that Buddhists are there, and Jews, too, as well as Sikhs, Muslims, Baha’is, Mormons, environmentalists, and probably a whole bunch of people who don’t know what they are or whose they are, but recognize the truth that all of us are in this together.

All I know is that right now we need a revival - a revival based in people seeking the wisdom and power of God, a revival based in people living in the Spirit.  According to Christian tradition, that Spirit has already been given, and continues to be given.

Whatever issue we are tackling, let’s approach it by seeking the wisdom and power of God.  That requires a stance of humility, and an openness to learning that includes a willingness to not only be taught but also corrected by God.

If we try to solve the problems of the world without God’s wisdom, we won’t get there.  If we seek God’s help, then all things are possible.

 

One Choice for Love This Lent

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.” (Isaiah 58:6-9a)

ONE CHOICE FOR LOVE THIS LENT

Kathy Reed said at the noonday Ash Wednesday service today that the last time Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day fell on the same day was in 1956.  (Then she emailed me later and said it was actually in 1945.)  Either way, it seems appropriate that this should happen once in a while - at least every 60-70 years... at least once in the average lifespan.  On a date when the focus is all about love, isn’t that a great way reminder for the first day of Lent?

In the various readings for the Ash Wednesday liturgy, we are invited to a time of self-examination, and we are reminded to be people of love and compassion... people that work for justice. (See, for example, the portion of the Isaiah 58 reading, above)

If you are anything like me, you can be tempted to try to amend your life in all sorts of ways - simultaneously!  Instead of trying that, and not succeeding, perhaps we can focus on one thing this Lent.  Let’s listen for the nudges of the Holy Spirit and see what one thing God might be calling us to address this Lent.  It might be:

- spending more time hanging out with God, and falling in love with God again!
- working to be reconciled with a family member or a former friend.
- taking a courageous look at yourself, seeing one thing that you would like to improve, and striving to address that one thing, with God’s help (and maybe with the help of someone that you really trust, too).
- trying one thing that pulls you out of your comfort zone, but which you hear God asking you to try.

How might you love God?  Or... how might you love another person?  Or... how might you love and be gracious to yourself?  Yes, what one choice could you make this Lent - something that may indeed require 40 days of prayer and/or 40 days of beginning a new habit - so that, come April 1 (Easter Sunday), both you and God will have another thing to celebrate?

 

 

From God to You to Others

“For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.” (Romans 12:4-8)

FROM GOD TO YOU TO OTHERS

How is your gift-giving going?  

Paul says that those of us in the body of Christ have been given different gifts by God.  (see above)  In another letter, he says that we have each been given “... the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:7)  Some have been given the gift of prophecy... some the gift of ministry (service)... some the gift of music or writing or visual art... some the gift of teaching... some the gift of exhortation... some the gift of generosity... some the gift of leadership... some the gift of compassion... some the gift of hospitality... some the gift of accounting... some the gift of encouragement... some the gift of counseling... some the gift of building or fixing things, etc.  Any of these gifts, and many not named here, can be used for the good of the body of Christ and for the good of the world.

It’s a giving chain, if you will.  God blesses us with gifts, so that we can use those gifts to benefit others.  And - in the process of our giving - we are blessed, too.  We receive something, especially with respect to the connections that we make with others.  We become what Paul calls “members one of another.”

So... how is it going with your gift giving? Are you using the gifts that God has given you?  Do you ever get sidetracked with trying to do things that aren’t really your gifts?  (Me and plumbing, for example.)  Sometimes we do those other things because we want to help out or because we want to learn a new skill.  That’s fine.  But we are most effective when we are offering the gifts that God has given to us.  When we do those things, there is flow... there is a certain “humming along”... there is a certain ease.  And there is apt to be joy in the midst of the offering, too.  And when we are all offering those gifts - simultaneously - then the body is well, and the community really hums!

Thank you for your particular gifts that you offer for the common good.  This community is blessed because you offer them!

 

How Do You React When You Don't Understand?

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69)

HOW DO YOU REACT WHEN YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND?

Some in the larger group that had been following Jesus decided to stop following him.  (See above)  This happened after Jesus described himself as “the bread of life” (John 6:48) and “the living bread that came down from heaven”... after he said that “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51b)  He went on to say, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53)  This is the parallel passage to the story of the Last Supper in the Synoptic gospels - Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

From this and similar passages in scripture, all sorts of theology - eucharistic and sacramental theology - has developed in the Church.  It was part of the controversy and disagreement during the time of the Reformation in the 1500’s.  How is Christ present in the eucharist?  How does the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ?  People were declared “unorthodox” and even killed if they were thought to have heretical views.

Notice that even during the time of Jesus, people were having a hard time understanding.  They said things like, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52) and “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (John 6:60)  (It is best to read all of chapter 6 in John to get the broader context.)  For some, the teaching was so difficult that they stopped following Jesus.

How do you react when you don’t understand something?  Do you get frustrated?  Do you throw up your hands and say, “This doesn’t make sense, so it must not be true?”  Are you someone who “digs in” and studies harder?  Are you someone who understands that some things are quite mystical, and are not meant to be understood on a purely rational level?  Are you led is such instances to pray, “Lord, I don’t really get this.  Help me understand this in time.  Lead me into your truth... in your time.”  

I have probably adopted all of these attitudes at one point or another in my life, and in my life of faith.  Not everything in life - or in a life of faith - is easily explained.  We cannot tie up everything into neat little bows and come up with a perfect “systematic theology.”  Perhaps this is simply because we are finite and God is infinite.

One of the ways that I totally resonate with Simon Peter is when he says “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)

I may not always understand Jesus’ teachings.  But I have found him to be the Bread of Life... the One who loves me, watches over me, guides me, and leads me to a life of meaning and purpose, to an abundant and eternal life that began the moment that I said, “I believe, Lord.  I believe you are Lord and Messiah, and I want to follow you.”

Not everything can be explained with logic - with an analytical mind.  My friend Julie says, “Your mind is not always your friend! Don’t always believe your thoughts!” (Here’s an example:  You make up a story about someone when you have almost no information about that person or their motives.)

What do you KNOW to be true - in your heart, in your gut, and in your soul?  Who is God for you - based on your experience of God?  How has your life been transformed over the years, because you have stepped out in faith, trusting that Jesus is the Holy One of God?

These are the kinds of questions that really interest me!

 

Thanking and Glorifying the God Who Delivers Us

“Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High.
Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
(Psalm 50:14-15)

Thanking and Glorifying the God Who Delivers Us

When I read these two verses from Psalm 50, I am reminded of Anne Lamott’s lovely little book, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.  These verses cover all three prayers.  “Call on me in the day of trouble” equals “Help!”  “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving” equals “Thanks!”  And, “I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” equals “Wow!”

These are three prayers that should become part of our regular repertoire.  As Lamott says, they are essential!

Are you someone who tends to not ask for help?  If so, toss that notion aside - in general, and especially when it comes to God.  God is waiting for you to cry out!

Have you ever forgotten to say “thank you”?  (If you grew up with even one attentive parent, I would think that would be almost impossible.  But sometimes we still forget!)  God enjoys our appreciation and gratitude, too, for it is an acknowledgment of the truth that God has been there faithfully... on every occasion of our need.

And when you have something amazing happen in your life, make a deep connection with another human being, see a spectacular sight in nature, or experience God delivering you in some way, what is there to do but give glory the God?  So we say “Wow!” or “Hallelujah!” or “Look how beautiful that is!” or “God is good!” or “I don’t have words to capture how amazing I feel right now.”  (Or maybe we start dancing around.)

Is there some help that you need from God today?

Has something happened that leads you to say “Thanks be to God!”

Or, is there a “wow” or a “hallelujah” ready to bust out of you?

Share with God whatever is true for you on this day.