How can you welcome Jesus today?

“He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.” (Luke 19:1-6)

HOW CAN YOU WELCOME JESUS TODAY?

We aren’t in identical circumstances to those of Zacchaeus. Jesus isn’t walking around in the flesh, calling us down from the sycamore trees that we have just climbed. On the other hand, the risen Christ is around. How can you welcome the Christ in the same way that Zacchaeus did? I have some thoughts on that question.

You can seek out and welcome Jesus’ voice in the midst of the thousands of other voices that are clamoring for your attention. In my experience, hearing Jesus’ voice happens most often when we set aside some time for quiet, and we have an intention of hearing a word from God. That is, we are doing more listening than talking. Another great way to hear Jesus’ voice is to immerse yourself in even a short section of one of the Gospels each day. Read a section of Matthew or Mark or Luke or John, where we hear of Jesus’ actions and Jesus’ words. What I notice is that Jesus’ words are still relevant and powerful, 2,000 years after he first said them. What I notice is that - when I seek out Jesus’ voice - I hear something very different from 90% of the voices that I hear each day.

Since Jesus said one time that when you and I attend to the hungry or thirsty, when we welcome the stranger or clothe the naked, when we care for the sick or visit those in prison - when we serve “one of the least of these” (Matthew 25:40), we are serving him - then that means we can welcome Jesus anytime, by serving someone who has a need, someone who is easily overlooked. What stranger can you welcome today? When can you go serve a meal at the homeless shelter? Do you have a friend who is sick? Can you take him or her a meal, or pray with them prior to surgery? These are great ways to welcome Jesus.

Jesus also talked about taking note of the birds of the air and considering the lilies of the field. He also got up while it was still dark and hiked up mountains to pray. Don’t you suppose that he saw quite a few amazing sunrises during those times? You can also welcome Jesus by giving glory to God for the beauty of creation, and by thanking God for the various ways that you have been blessed.

Zacchaeus was changed by his encounter with Jesus. (Read the rest of Luke 19:1-10.) He did not get any taller, but he was changed spiritually, and he was reconciled to his brothers and sisters through his repentant actions. Jesus talked about all of this in the context of a lost person being saved.

These are just three ways to welcome Jesus. There are many others. What I know to be true is that when we welcome Jesus, our lives are transformed, too. And in the process of our welcoming him, God… or another person… or some other part of God’s creation… is loved.

Exalt the Lord As Much As You Can

“We could say more but could never say enough; let the final word be: “He is the all.”

Where can we find the strength to praise him?

For he is greater than all his works.

Awesome is the Lord and very great, and marvelous is his power.

Glorify the Lord and exalt him as much as you can, for he surpasses even that.

When you exalt him, summon all your strength, and do not grow weary,

for you cannot praise him enough.”


Sirach (Ecclesiasticus 43:27-30)

EXALT THE LORD AS MUCH AS YOU CAN

Our words are inadequate. The way we move our bodies in praise will be inadequate. The music we write and sing, the paintings we paint and the sculptures we sculpt, the churches and cathedrals that we design and build to honor and praise the Lord will always be inadequate.

But speak and move and write and sing and create and build we must, for when we contemplate the greatness of our God and the great works of our God, we feel a call inside our hearts and souls… to praise the Lord.

So when a prayer is answered… when you see a raptor soaring on a current of air… when you smile and think about a family member or a friend who has changed your life, dramatically and for the better… when you get away from the city lights and try to take in all the stars in the night sky… when you are singing with the faithful on Sunday morning and the words and the music move you… when you don’t know how you are going to pay the bills and somehow, in a way that you cannot explain, it all works out… when a dog approaches you and is wagging its tail like crazy, and you have never met him before, or you have petted her daily for 14 years… when you witness someone forgiving another person, or you find yourself doing something courageous, and know that those acts are only happening because of God’s grace… then give the Lord his due, and exalt him as much as you can!

In exalting the Lord, we are both reminding ourselves and acknowledging to others that there is One far greater than us, who is “the all” - the One who made it all and who makes being alive a wonderful adventure. We are finite and this One is infinite, and therefore anything we say or do, any movement we make, will fall short of what we are trying to express, will fall short of what we are hoping to offer.

Offer it anyway. Exalt the Lord as much as you can!

“When you exalt him, summon all your strength, and do not grow weary, for you cannot praise him enough.”

Forsaking the Lord, and False Speech

“The blow of a whip raises a welt, but a blow of the tongue crushes the bones.

Many have fallen by the edge of the sword, but not as many as have fallen because of the tongue…

It has no power over the godly; they will not be burned in its flame.

Those who forsake the Lord will fall into its power; it will burn among them and will not be put out.

It will be sent out against them like a lion; like a leopard it will mangle them.”

(Sirach 28:17-18, 22-23)

FORSAKING THE LORD, AND FALSE SPEECH

I begin with a few words of commentary from Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann about this passage.

“Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) is powerfully aware of false speech and its destructive power… One falls into the power of such speech if one forsakes God. Thus he draws the practicality of speech into the orbit of God’s rule… Attentiveness to God situates us in a context of abundance that invites gratitude. Conversely, false speech gives us a context of scarcity that breeds resentment. Ben Sira [Sirach] makes clear that speech is different because of the reality of God.” (Gift and Task: A Year of Daily Readings and Reflections, p. 347)

“… speech is different because of the reality of God.”

In other words, if one has a relationship with the loving, guiding God, that relationship affects our outlook and also the way we speak, the way we use words. If we forsake God… turn our backs on a relationship with God, we can rather quickly fall into the habit of destructive speech - the kind of speech that attacks and hurts others, including lying or speaking in such a way that our words incite others to violence.

Given the recent events that have happened in our country leading up to the mid-term elections, including the killing of 11 members of the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh on Saturday, we see that words matter. Our words have power to either build up or to destroy.

People who use words to demean or attack people because of their race, faith, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation are not - in those moments - acting from a place of connection to God. Anyone who claims to speak such words in the name of God is deluding themselves, and does not know God.

If we want to work for the common good, if we want a more unified nation, one of the lessons then, for all of us, is to seek out this God who is loving, merciful, and wise, who is about the work of reconciliation - bringing people back into unity with God and with one another. Seeking and finding and coming to know this God will transform our relationships, transform our speech, and transform us!

Conversely, if our speech is about attacking others, if we speak in a way that is designed to mislead or to sow discord, then that is a really good indicator that we have forsaken the Lord.

May God send loud noises and warning lights to go off in our brains when our speech is false and/or destructive. May we hear God say, “Hello, (insert your name here). God to ________! You have turned away from Me, you have forsaken Me, you are very far from Me right now. My followers do not speak like that! You have not been taught to speak that way by Me. Repent and return to Me, and learn My ways anew. Return, and help me bring about the reign of God.”

Wisdom, Intentions, and Following Through

“Do not grow weary when you pray; do not neglect to give alms.

Do not ridicule a person who is embittered in spirit, for there is One who humbles and exalts.

Do not devise a lie against your brother, or do the same to a friend.

Refuse to utter any lie, for it a habit that results in no good.

Do not babble in the assembly of the elders, and do not repeat yourself when you pray.”

Sirach 7:10-14

WISDOM, INTENTIONS, AND FOLLOWING THROUGH

The quote above is from the book of Sirach (sometimes called Ecclesiasticus), a book of wisdom found in the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books of the Old Testament. This book has similarities to other wisdom literature in the Old Testament, books like Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. This scripture is a portion of the first lesson for today’s Daily Office.

When I read a passage of scripture like this, I think of the wisdom of the elders being passed down through the generations. I hear something like this: “Do you want to be wise? Do you want your life to go well? Then do these kinds of things, and don’t do these kinds of things.”

More specifically, when I contemplate the above verses, I hear:

Keep praying, each day… every day. It is a practice that will bear fruit. It will bring you closer to God; praying on a consistent basis will change your life, will change you. (I also think of Jesus’ “Never give up” parable about prayer, the one about the widow and the unjust judge - Luke 18:1-18.)

“Do not neglect to give alms” says to me that we are all in this ride on planet earth together. The haves are supposed to help the have-nots, not because there may be a tax deduction, but because it is an act of love and connection and solidarity, a recognition that we are all in this together. It is also a way of dethroning money and warding off the waiting-at-the-door sins of greed and blame.

“Do not ridicule a person who is embittered in spirit” says to me that I haven’t walked in that person’s shoes and I don’t know their whole story. “… there is One who humbles and exalts” is a reminder that God is the one who is to be the Judge, not me. My judgment will never be as wise, loving, or merciful as God’s, because of my owns sinfulness and limitations. I am to be wise and discerning, yes. But I am not to condemn anyone. It simply is not my job, because I don’t have that authority. Jesus said that only God is good! My job is to love, listen, forgive, and be an agent of God’s healing.

Don’t lie, “for it is a habit that results in no good.” I think “don’t lie” means a number of things. It means don’t stretch the truth, don’t “fudge the story” so that I put myself in a more favorable light. There is the corollary of not lying, which is to not withhold the truth. (I heard a powerful teaching about this one day from Katie Hendricks, where she basically said that withholding the truth has the same impact on a relationship as lying.) If someone says something that is inappropriate or damaging or racist or sexist or __________, and I sit there in silence, it is as if I am condoning what is being said. And if I withhold some of what is going on inside of me from my spouse or a close friend or a co-worker, I am throwing a monkey wrench into things. I must pray and find my courage in such moments, and speak up - speaking the truth in love.

“Do not babble in the assembly of the elders, and do not repeat yourself when you pray.” This reminds me of that whole section of the Sermon on the Mount that we hear on Ash Wednesday, which begins with Jesus saying, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…” (Matthew 6:1) He then goes on to talk about how we should give alms, how we should pray, how we should fast. (Matthew 6:1-17) And babbling, well, that is just talking to hear myself talk. There is a neediness and a narcissism in that. It doesn’t serve others; it doesn’t serve the reign of God. It is much better to be discerning when we speak, to bring a spirit of prayer into our speaking. Then our words might actually build up the body and elevate the community or national dialogue.

Seek wisdom. Another way to say that: Seek God. Set an intention to pray and give and be with others and speak of others in ways that imitate Jesus’ love. Then do your best to follow through with those intentions.

That is what I hear in this reading for today.

God's Part, Your Part, My Part

“Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal... The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are in a deserted place.” But he said to them, You give them something to eat.”” (Luke 9:1-2, 12-13a)

GOD’S PART, YOUR PART, MY PART

Jesus sends out his twelve disciples on a ministry of proclamation and healing. First he gave them power - a point not to be missed. And they went out and proclaimed the good news of God being among the people (cf. Luke 4:16-21), and healed folks! When they came back, Jesus tried to take them away for awhile, but the crowd found them, and then Jesus did the same ministry of proclamation and healing. (Luke 9:11) As it grew later, the disciples wanted Jesus to send the crowd away. To be fair to the disciples, they seemed to be concerned about the welfare of all of the people in the crowd. Jesus simply reminded them that they could address the needs of the crowd - with his help. And somehow, with the disciples being guided by Jesus into how they could participate, and with Jesus’ power, five loaves and two fish were enough to feed five thousand!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what is my part to do, what is God’s part to do, and what is someone else’s part to do. Perhaps that is what happens when you set out to do something quite big, like walking across the country. I may be planning to do the walking and some speaking and some writing, but I am VERY aware that I cannot do everything. And I am even more aware that without a ton of help from God - orchestrating meetings and people and details in ways that I cannot begin to imagine - there is no way that this walk is going to be successful.

Jesus is sending all of us out into the mission field. Our mission is the same as that of those first twelve disciples: to proclaim the good news of Gods’ presence and God’s love among us, and to be willing agents of God’s healing power. A similar mission does not mean we all have the very same job to do. I don’t help lead the music on Sunday morning, as some of you do. I don’t bake the communion bread, as some of you do. I don’t tell stories to the children during Godly Play, as some of you do. I do not make the coffee and offer yummy treats after worship, as some of you do.

I play a part in God’s healing work of love. You play a part in God’s healing work of love. And God - Creator, Redeemer, and Spirit - plays a HUGE part in bringing healing to our world. God, in fact, is the Author of all healing. With all of us doing our part, transformation happens. People are healed, the earth is cared for, enemies are reconciled, and the poor have good news brought to them.

We’re all in this healing enterprise together - with God and with one another. Thank you for the part that you play!

What We Appreciate Appreciates

“To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.’ For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” (Luke 7:31-35)

WHAT WE APPRECIATE APPRECIATES

One of the easiest things to do in life is to stand on the sidelines and criticize others. It doesn’t take very much energy or even thoughtfulness to have an opinion and judge someone else, especially to point out their shortcomings.

Jesus gives a very concise summary of how much people enjoy criticizing when he talks about how the people of his day viewed John the Baptist and himself. “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” This is what my parents used to describe as “You’re damned if you do; you’re damned if you don’t!” The deeper point is this: In all of their criticizing, these folks missed the opportunity to hang out with and be transformed by the one who prepared the way for the Messiah and the One who was the Messiah.

There is a better way, and it is called the path of appreciation. Appreciation is a form of love, and love for God, others, ourselves, our enemies, and all of creation is what Jesus calls us to be about.

It takes a little more time, effort, and thoughtfulness to appreciate someone. You might have to pause for a few seconds and ask yourself, what does this person do really well? What do they bring to the world when they show up, which makes the world a little better?

I notice that many wise teachers in our world today have a version of this proclamation: “What you appreciate, appreciates.”

When you appreciate the earth, you take care of it more, and the earth appreciates in value. It becomes healthier, if you will.

When you appreciate something about your spouse or a child or a parent or a friend or a co-worker or a fellow church member or a stranger, that person appreciates in value - in your eyes, perhaps in the eyes of others, and maybe in that person’s own sense of self-worth.

Not only that, if you practice the art of appreciating, you will not only get better at this spiritual practice, but you will find more and more things to appreciate - from bees to beekeepers, from trees to park rangers and biologists, from technology to scientists, from children to parents, from students to teachers, from foster parents to social workers, from people who are honest enough to be vulnerable to the folks who reach out to offer them help. And on and on it goes. Your practice of appreciation will appreciate!

Here are my two concluding questions for today’s reflection.

What value can you add to the world today by appreciating God, appreciating another person, appreciating some part of nature, or appreciating yourself?

How would your life and your relationships be different if you spent way more time appreciating others and way less time criticizing or judging them?

The Testing of Our Commitments

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.” (Luke 4:1-2)

THE TESTING OF OUR COMMITMENTS

Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan River. This is generally seen as the act which begins his active ministry. The Holy Spirit descended on him and a voice was heard from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22)

But before the ministry of healing and proclaiming the good news of God begins, Jesus is sent out into the wilderness. “Led” by the Holy Spirit, according to Luke (see above). Driven out by the Spirit into the wilderness, according to Mark (Mark 1:12). In whatever way that the Spirit sent him, Jesus was sent into the wilderness. It was a time of contemplation, a time of fasting, a time of testing and temptation.

I believe this pattern is present in our lives, too.

Whenever you or I hear some kind of call from God, and we make a firm commitment to move forward in response to that call, that commitment will be tested. And the test usually comes sooner rather than later!

You hear a call from God to get married. It won’t be long before some challenge arises in your marriage. God is testing whether or not you are fully committed to those vows you made on your wedding day.

You and your spouse hear a call to become parents. That commitment will be tested, usually right away. What does it look like to act with love and patience, when you have not slept well for a number of weeks in a row? Did you realize how much and how often you would be putting this tiny little child’s needs ahead of your own?

You take on a new job, perhaps even your dream job. In the first year there is a steep learning curve (maybe even in the first five years). Oh yeah, you realize. I still have a lot to learn!

You hear a calling to do something new with your life, and you fully commit in that new direction. You had a certain picture in your mind of how it was all going to unfold. A few weeks or a few months or a few years down the road, you hear yourself saying to someone, ‘Wow! I never realized that I would be getting into all of this!”

When you make any kind of significant commitment in your life, one that involves taking vows and taking action, your commitment will be tested. Your commitment may be tested by God. Your commitment may be tested by Satan. (see Luke 4:1-13) So be prepared! And when the time of testing (or temptation) comes, you can think to yourself, “Oh, right. I am being tested right now. God wants to know if I am really committed to this path, if I am fully “in”.”

There is another piece of this pattern. When we are being tested, God is available to us - in one form or another. I think that is a huge part of what the testing is all about. When you encounter the test, when you encounter the days or months of struggle, to whom will you turn? Will you rely only on your own strength and wits? Or will you reach out to God, and to others - for people are often God’s ambassadors - even more?

In Mark’s story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, we read this: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” (Mark 1:13)

Are you in a wilderness time right now? If so, does that relate to a commitment that you have made? How might Satan be trying to pull you away from your path, from your calling? What are your “wild beasts”? Who are your angels? And how are you experiencing God’s presence with you - in the midst of the wilderness?

Dying to Live

“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” (John 12:25-26)

DYING TO LIVE

These words of Jesus follow his words about dying - and bearing much fruit.

These are related concepts, Jesus says. Following him... dying to self... serving Jesus... bearing fruit... eternal life... being honored by the Father.

What does your following of Jesus look like these days? How are you walking in his steps?

How are you serving Jesus? Another way to ask this, perhaps: What do you hear God asking you to do, and are you doing it?

How is God using you to bear fruit? What lives are being touched by you; who is being visited in their time of need? How are children or your friends or the elderly or the oppressed or the voiceless or Mother Earth being seen and served - by you?

What are you dying to? What have you given up? How have you released your ego or your need to be right or your desire to be seen as a “winner”, so that you can submit more fully to God? What “old treasure” have you released so that you can find “the pearl of great price”?

How are you experiencing a new kind of life - a more complete, more joyful life - thanks to God’s guidance and grace?

How do you feel honored by God?

Perhaps on this day we can meditate on just one of these questions.

Perhaps on this day we can pause and give thanks for God’s presence in our lives, and for all the opportunities we have to love and to follow in Jesus’ steps.

God's Power to Give New Life

“If mortals die, will they live again?” (Job 14:14a)

GOD'S POWER TO GIVE NEW LIFE

The quote above is one of the questions that Job has, when he is in the midst of his misery. You’ll recall that Job lost just about everything - his property, his sons and daughters, his health. (See Chapters 1 and 2 of Job.)

On the one hand, Job is hoping that he can be hidden in Sheol (Job 14:13) and be left alone by God for a while. On the other hand, he believes that once humans die, they “do not rise again.” (Job 14:12)

I know people who have had close calls with death and it has been a kind of wake-up call. Once restored to health, they become resolute on living life to the fullest, including the pursuit of the things that they believe they are supposed to do before they die. (I have also known a few people who have gotten the wake-up call and not changed anything about they way they lived, prior to the accident or health scare. You might say that they didn’t wake up.)

For us as Christians, we can be both/and people. But that I mean this. We can strive to make the very most of the life we have been given on the earth, to love and serve others as we worship and glorify God. AND, we do not believe, with Job, that this life is the only one we will live.  We believe that the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead will raise us after we die, too, and that we will have some kind of body - some kind of recognizable body that reflects the uniqueness of who we are - in the next life.

We die, and - you might say - we are deader than dead. And then God, because of who God is, gives us life… all over again. There is new life, resurrected life, in a similar way to the way that God gave us life the first time around, when we were born on this earth.

Perhaps you have heard these words from the poem The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver:

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it that you plan to do

 With your one wild and precious life?”

What DO you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Are you doing it? Does what you are doing have something to do with what you hear God calling you to do?

And… are you open to the possibility that God has a second wild and precious life waiting for you, one that will never end, one that will be lived in the nearer presence of the Lord - once this life is over?

 

 

Are you in "prep time" or "go time"?

“Jesus said to them, “... Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” After saying this, he remained in Galilee.” (John 7:8-9)

Are You in “Prep Time” or “Go Time”?

Jesus’ brothers ask him if he is going to the Festival of Booths in Jerusalem, an annual harvest festival observed in October. He says, “I am not..., for my time has not yet fully come.” Jesus’ time or Jesus’ “hour”, in John’s Gospel, is a reference to his crucifixion. In fact, Jesus does end up going - a little after his brothers do - to the Festival of Booths. (See John 7:10) So his response to his brothers did not have anything to do with the Festival of Booths. (This also occurs frequently in John. The person he is talking with is speaking on one level, and Jesus is speaking about something seemingly related, but on a very different level. See, for example, Jesus and his mother in John 2, Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3, or Jesus and the Samaritan women in John 4.)

In any event, Jesus had a sense of timing, specifically with regard to when his crucifixion (“my hour”) was approaching. My sense is that he understood both when the level of opposition to his work was reaching a level where people were going to respond violently, and, more importantly, when God, his Father, was saying, in effect, “Now is the time.”  For Jesus, his connection to the Father was incredibly close, and being obedient to his Father’s will was his primary concern. This led, I believe, to him being very clear about the difference between a time of preparation and a time of action, when it came to fulfilling his mission.

As always, I am interested in what you and I can learn, as followers of Jesus. When is it the time to do the preparatory part of a task, and when it is time to do the main task itself?

I notice that quite a bit of life is preparation, both in the short run and the long run. I have the time of preparing a sermon, but way before giving the sermon, there was the preparation of my general education, the preparation of going to seminary, the preparation of studying the Bible over time, the preparation of developing the spiritual practice of prayer, the preparation of paying attention to life - my life and the lives of others.  There has been a similar amount of preparation for you in your chosen field. For most people, there is a lot of preparation before they run in their first race or run for political office or become a top athlete, musician, or writer. There is the preparation for marriage (some do more than others!), the preparation for having a baby, etc.  What I notice, too, is that these preparatory steps involve a lot of action, a lot of “doing”. Jesus hung out in a lot of synagogues, observed the Sabbath and Holy Days, observed nature, observed people, and even engaged in a lot of praying and teaching and healing and debating before it was time for him to go to the cross.

Maybe this is why you and I are most frustrated when we are engaged in some form of waiting. We don’t think we are doing anything “productive”, unless there is some kind of active work that we can do... while we are waiting.

Like Jesus, we can be listening for guidance from the Father - through the Spirit that has been given to us - as to when the time is ripe for stepping into a bigger task.  Think about marriage, think about advanced education, think about saying “yes” to parenting or “yes” to a particular job, a particular leadership role, or a particular calling. Most likely, it was when you had a sense of the Spirit whispering (or shouting) in your ear, “Now is the time!”, that you knew it was time to act.

Up until those moments, you were likely in a time of preparation, and could have said to another person, “No, I am not going to do that right now, for my time has not yet fully come.”

Today - August 29, 2018 - has your hour come? Has the time come for you to say “yes” to something that God is calling you to do? Or, are you still in a time of preparation?  If you are still preparing, how will you know when it is time to leave the preparation behind, and “go to Jerusalem”?

 

The Gift of God

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10)

THE GIFT OF GOD

The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:1-42) is one of the great stories in the New Testament. It is a story about the power of real conversation... a story about moving past initial misunderstandings... a story about what can happen when we are willing to break the current “rules” of society... a story about faith... a story about transformation... a story about sharing good news with others. I urge you to read and contemplate the entire story.

For today, though, I want to focus on one of the ways that Jesus describes himself to the woman - “gift of God.”

Jesus was and is God’s gift to the world.  

In sending his Son, God gave himself - for us. (It is mid-August, but the Christmas readings are ringing in my ears right now. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us... and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” - Isaiah 9:6; “... I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” - Luke 2:10b-11)

Jesus was sent for us; Jesus is God’s gift - for us!

Jesus is the gift of God who shows us how to love.

Jesus is the gift of God who saves us from our foolish, death-causing ways, and leads us into abundant, never-ending life.

Jesus is the gift of God who calls us out of our egocentric ways, to serve others and God’s creation, in ways that we could not have imagined.

Jesus is the gift of God who sees us as we are, loves us continually, and calls us beyond our fears and self-imposed limitations. (“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” - John 4:29)

The woman left the well, went back to her city, and began telling others of this man she had encountered, this gift of God. And he offered himself to those folks, too.

How has Jesus been the gift of God in your life? How have you been rescued, guided, and transformed by Him? How has your life been enhanced and even radically changed, because you encountered and then latched on to the gift of God?

And - perhaps you thought I was going to stop right there - how has God worked through you, so that YOU have been the gift of God to someone else, or the gift of God to another part of God’s creation? How have you become a “little Christ”?

 

We Have Found the Messiah

“One of the two who heard John speak and followed [Jesus] was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed).” (John 1:40-41)

WE HAVE FOUND THE MESSIAH

Some disciples of John the Baptist hear John say, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”, as Jesus walks by. They follow Jesus and Jesus asks them what they are looking for. One thing leads to another, and they end up spending most of the day with Jesus. One of those who followed Jesus was Andrew. He went and found his brother Simon, and exclaimed, “We have found the Messiah.” (I imagine that there should have been an exclamation point at the end of that proclamation - “We have found the Messiah!”)

If you have become a follower of Jesus, then you have found the Messiah, too.  “Messiah” - the anointed one of God… the Son of God… God-in-the-flesh… God-with-us. And, if we have found the Messiah, then we ought to be telling others the good news. 

We have found the Messiah, the One who…

  • Forgives sins, or “takes away the sins of the world.”
  • Heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, makes the mute speak, unstops the ears of the deaf, sets the prisoners free, brings good news to the poor and oppressed.
  • Is worthy of our ultimate allegiance, praise, and worship.
  • Guides and leads us into all truth.
  • Teaches us how to love, not just by his words, but especially by his actions.
  • Conquered death forever, and promises us eternal life.
  • Lays down his life for others.
  • Came - not to be served, but to serve.
  • Came - that we may have life in abundance.

Many people in our world are hurting, “missing something”, but often are not sure what they are missing. Many people in our world are making gods out of money or power or being busy or being famous. Many people in our world are addicted to food or drugs or alcohol or adrenaline or drama. Many people in our world are deeply lonely, even though they are “plugged in” and can “friend” someone on Facebook or follow people on Instagram or Twitter.

And all the while, there is a Messiah among us, offering to lead us into a life of deep connection to God, others, self, and all of creation.

We, like Andrew, need to tell some of these folks that we have found the Messiah. Or, perhaps more accurately, we can tell them how the Messiah found us!

Who can you tell today, in one way or another, “Hey! We have found the Messiah! Come and see for yourself!”

 

Proceeding From Faith in God

“... for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23b)

Proceeding From Faith in God

Paul writes the words quoted above to the Christians in Rome. The context involves him advising believers to not cause other believers to stumble in their faith by eating foods that others consider to be unclean, even if those foods are clean.  “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat...” (Romans 14:20) The broader context is one of love (see Romans 13:8-10) and of living in a way that builds up the community (see Romans 14:19).  Love, by definition, takes others - and their well-being - into account.

I am also interested in the impact of Paul’s words, standing alone. “... for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”

If my actions are not proceeding from faith in God, and what I hear God guiding me to do - which, by the way, will always be grounded in love - then I am doing something sinful, i.e., my actions are “missing the mark”. Another way to discern if something I am doing is sinful is to ask if it is having the effect of separating me from God, another person, or creation.

So... if my actions proceed from greed, that is sin.

If my actions proceed primarily from fear, and not faith, that is sin.

If my actions proceed from resentment or bitterness or wanting revenge, that is sin.

If my actions proceed from a desire to be right, and I am putting that ahead of the health of the relationship, that is sin.

If I hear God calling me to do something, and I ignore that call or I am lazy or apathetic or make excuses for why I cannot do the thing that God is calling me to do, then that is sin.

There is an implication in Paul’s words, and the implication is that we will be listening for God’s direction, God’s guidance, God’s words to us. There is also an implication that we will be familiar with the commandments of God and the actions and teachings of Christ. For being faithful to God/Christ/Spirit means doing the same type of things that God/Christ/Spirit does.

This faithfulness business can get down to the little things, the day-to-day “basics” of our lives.  On any given day, I may hear the Spirit say “You should call so-and-so right now.”  I might hear Jesus say, “The person who is standing in front of you right now: Listen to her! Encourage him! Don’t be rushed or preoccupied. Spend some time with him.” I might hear God say, “It’s time to pay attention to your finances again - to your spending, to your saving, to your giving.  This is part of the spiritual life.”  I meet hear the Spirit say, “No technology or TV tonight. I don’t even want you to read. It’s time to connect with your spouse (or child or sibling or parent or friend).” Or, maybe I’ll hear Jesus say to me, as he said to the disciples now and then, “Come away to a deserted place and rest a while.”

If I hear something like that, and I act on what I am hearing, then I am being faithful.  If I hear a message from God, and act from some other motivation, especially one that is not based in love, then I am being sinful.

“Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”  What do you think?  Do you agree with Paul?

If you do, then it makes sense that you and I would pay close attention to the motivation for our actions.

May you find us faithful, O Lord.

 

Welcome/Connect/Restore/Serve

"Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ "(Matthew 25:37-40)

Welcome/Connect/Restore/Serve

The Vestry (board of directors) and staff of St. Ambrose Episcopal Church in Boulder, where I serve as priest, have spent a good chunk of 2018 discussing these questions: What is the “why” of St. Ambrose? Who are we and why has God called us together? What difference do we make in the world?

The words we landed on back in February, and which we are now using to guide us as we move forward, are these:  Be welcomed. Connect. Be restored. Serve. These are all done “in Christ”. That is, Christ has called us together, Christ is the one we are following, and Christ is the one who empowers us to do the work of welcoming, connecting, restoring, and serving.

And it seems that these four words tie in quite nicely with Jesus’ little story about the judgment of the nations, “when the Son of Man comes in his glory...” (Matthew 25:31) We want to feed the hungry - whether those folks are physically or spiritually or relationally hungry. We want to give the thirsty a drink, in the same way. We want to welcome the stranger AND the long-term friend, and we want to welcome all, no matter what our differences might be. We want to connect with and help restore those who are sick or in prison, no matter what the sickness (body, mind, or spirit) or what the prison might be. We want to clothe the naked, and offer comfort to anyone who feels vulnerable, isolated, or alone. We especially want to be on the lookout for the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40), for we know that God has a special fondness for the least, the last, and the lost, and we know that we could be among the least with any sudden turn of events.

We know that when we “lose ourselves” by connecting with others, that is when we tend  to find ourselves. We know that when we allow ourselves to be instruments of God’s light, love, and healing, we experience our own healing. And we experience God’s deep love for us.

I know of a children’s home and school in La Libertad, El Salvador. It is called REMAR. The staff of REMAR live with the children in various dorms that have been built.  They have welcomed in children who have been abused or neglected, or who have been living on the street. They feed these children, love them, laugh with them, cry with them, counsel them. A school has been built on these grounds, and the students - from both the children’s home and the surrounding community - have found a place where they can learn in a safe, respectful, loving environment.

When I joined some of the members of St. Ambrose on our first trip to REMAR in 2015, we met the Director or REMAR, Mary Gonzalez, the very small staff at the home, and many of the children.  We worked with them on a building project, taught a few classes, played with the children, went to church with them on Sunday morning, and were treated to a paella feast on the last night that we were there.  I bought a REMAR mug before I left, and when I got home, below the REMAR logo, I noticed a scripture citation on the mug.  It read “Matthew 25:31-46.”

The staff and teachers of REMAR are living out the parable that Jesus told. We, the staff and members of St. Ambrose, aspire to do the same thing.

How will you welcome Christ into your life today? How will you welcome others, whomever they might be? What will you do to make a connection with someone, to love and listen to him or her? How might God be using you to restore someone else and bring them to wholeness? Whom can you serve on this day?

When you serve one of the least of these in any of these ways... for that matter, when another person serves you... then Christ is being served. Ponder that for a few minutes!

Yes, God gets very excited over such deeds of love! (See what Jesus says in Matthew 25:34)

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.