5-22-19 - Always Another Way

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

I once knew someone whose life had become a living hell. So many traumas and losses had accrued, exacerbated by and exacerbating physical and mental illness, family and financial troubles, she was like a fly caught in the web of a very busy spider. Listening, I didn’t know where to begin; she was sure no good outcome was possible.

Isn’t there always a good reason things won’t improve? We don’t have the support we need; something derailed us; we’re in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people. The sick man in this week’s gospel story laid the blame for his continued infirmity on the other sick people around him who, he said, never let him get into the healing waters when they were stirred.

The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”

I love Jesus’ response: he says nothing about the pool. He doesn’t tell the man to stop feeling sorry for himself. He doesn’t advise how to compete with the other people. He sidesteps the whole process in which the man has put his hope, and gives a command that has the power to effect what it commands: “Stand up, take your mat, walk.”

How did these words land on this man, so sure there was only one dim possibility for reversal, if only he could get into that pool at the right moment? Did he think Jesus was mocking him? Crazy? Or did he feel a sensation in his body and limbs that told him something was awakening, something had changed? Did he worry people would think him insane if he attempted to stand? We don’t know; we’re told only that he did stand and began to walk.

This man did not heal himself. He did not exercise faith and become more open to healing. This was entirely Jesus’ faith at work. That’s important for us, both as we seek healing for ourselves, and as we minister to others. We don’t have to put ourselves or others into the right frame of mind. We only have to bring Jesus into the picture and believe in his presence. And if we hear a command – and we may or may not – we should act on it.

If you were to tell Jesus in prayer today about the most “stuck” area of your life, the one about which you feel the most despair, what would it be? Try it, and try listening inwardly for a response. It might come through a word that fixes in your mind, or an image or scene. Or you might find yourself sitting or walking with Jesus in your imagination. Whatever unfolds, go with it. Might Jesus give you insight on the stuckness? Might he command you to be free?

In the life of God there is always another way healing can come. We cannot assume it will come only through prayer or medical care or neither or both. We are to take the actions before us, but not get tied to them. At any moment, even thirty-eight years later, Jesus can come into our picture and set us free. He doesn’t have to untangle the web; he has only to command in love, and the bonds fall away. And if we invite him in, we can experience release that much sooner.

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5-21-19 - Do You Want Healing?

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

It can be scary to ask for healing. Alarmed as we might be by illness, symptoms, loss of freedom and mobility, or even impending death, it can be more daunting still to ask for God’s transforming power to effect a change. What if God doesn’t act? Then, in addition to the scourge of illness, our faith has taken a hit. This fear is enough to keep many people stuck in infirmity.

One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”

It’s a fair question. I have wanted to ask it of quite a few people, and I’m sure some have wanted to ask it of me. Thirty-eight years seems like a long time to endure illness, but dis-ease can easily become a habit. I’ve known robust, active people rendered prematurely homebound by pain or constrained mobility; it seems to the people around them that they’ve given up way too soon. But the shock of limitations deals its own blows to the psyche.

We don’t know the circumstances of the man in our story. He comes off as a bit of a whiner – and as we learn in the next part, he snitches on Jesus to the temple authorities, which doesn’t make him very likable. But whiners take to whining when no one listens to them, and this man may have had good reasons why his illness became chronic. Once that became his way of life, and possibly his livelihood through the charity of others, he may no longer have been able to imagine himself well. After all, when we are sick all our energy goes into getting through the day; we don’t have much left for imagining wellness or praying for healing.

But God can always imagine us well. God’s desire for us is wholeness. Perhaps the first prayer we make is not “Heal me,” but “Show me your vision of me whole.” Perhaps in prayer we imagine Jesus looking at us and asking, “Do you want to be made well?” in whatever area of our life we feel broken or wounded.

And answer honestly. Do you want to be healed? Do I? Are there advantages to our conditions, be they physical, emotional or spiritual – attention we get, or ways in which expectations are comfortably lowered, other people taking responsibility for things? Are there relationships that would be upset if we were healed and whole?

I believe the power to heal comes from God, and has already been given to us, as Christ lives in us through baptism. The question for us is what impedes the flow of that healing stream in and around us? What keeps us on the sides of that pool, afraid to jump in? Knowing that can help release the Love that restores us to wholeness.

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5-20-19 - Faint Hopes

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

Context is everything. With Memorial Day Weekend just ahead, to read about a pool with a bunch of people lying around it every day, we might think it a place of joy and leisure. This place was anything but. This was a spot where invalids gathered, drawn by a tradition that healing could be found when the pool’s waters were stirred.

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.

The invalids may have been there for several reasons, perhaps parked for the day by caregivers. People blemished or infirm in any way were considered ritually unclean, and thus unfit for entry into the temple courts where they might defile others. It was a harsh, isolating life for the blind, lame, paralyzed in Jesus’ day, with no promise of medical treatment. The man at the center of our story had been ill for thirty-eight years; how many of those had he spent in this place? This faint hope of healing in the pool must have kept them going, one day to the next, a community of invalids stuck together by misery and occasional blessing.

You don’t have to be blind, lame or paralyzed to know the power of faint hope. In fact, usually when people say, “I’m hoping for the best…” they have long since abandoned any hope for the best, and have settled for a dim “maybe things will change…” I know many a church in decline where that thinking operates. Often we will endure unhappy or unfulfilling circumstances for far longer than we should because of our stubborn hope that something could change. And often the only thing likely to bring a positive change is our changing the way we engage that situation.

As we begin to explore this story, let’s bring to mind the places we feel stuck or running on fumes. Where in your life might clinging to a faint hope be blocking movement toward a more robust change?

Who do you know who puts up with circumstances that could perhaps be altered – enduring pain or misconnection or half-life because it seems too scary or difficult to seek a better strategy? This story offers some clues into how we might facilitate movement in others.

The invalids gathered at that pool were hoping for the best, without knowing what the best really was – that the Best had walked into their midst that day when Jesus showed up. Even we who know his power sometimes hesitate to hope for his best in our lives. And to us he whispers, “Let me show you!”

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5-17-19 - A Bigger Box

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's reading is here.)

Even to the Gentiles. That is what the Jewish Christian believers in Jerusalem concluded when Peter finished his story about why he was keeping company with the “uncircumcised.” God has extended “even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” This was shocking, unprecedented (well, not really...), outside their categories. And what convinced Peter and, through him, the other leaders, was evidence of the Holy Spirit.

"And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

We see the scene in Cornelius’ house in greater detail in the previous chapter. Peter has arrived, noted that it would not ordinarily be lawful for a Jew to enter the home of a Gentile, described the supernatural occurrences that led him there, and then begins to preach to them. His opener is startling: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him." Wow. Is God really that accepting? Even Peter had trouble holding onto this truth, and Christ’s church has ever struggled with it.

As Peter winds into his sermon, something even more extra-ordinary happens: the Holy Spirit comes upon those listening, though they are not Jews nor, as yet, Christians. They begin to speak in tongues and praise God, just as the disciples did at Pentecost. Peter and his companions are astounded. 

Then Peter said, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Jesus had told Nicodemus that the Spirit blows where it will. But we’re still surprised when that wind of God carries seeds into ground we did not think prepared to receive it. Where else have we been thinking too small or limiting the way we share the Good News of Jesus Christ? One of the primary excuses people give for not sharing their faith is “people have perfectly good religions of their own.” Some do, some don't - and maybe all might receive the Holy Spirit if we go where God sends us and bring our faith and our love.

It is not our job to persuade, only to witness to our own experience and our joy. New grandparents will tell anyone they meet their good news. They're not trying to make other people into grandparents; they’re just sharing their joy. That's our call too.

I wrote yesterday that it is human nature to sort and categorize people. It is also human nature to try to define God and God’s activity. So we read our texts and repeat our stories and make our definitions and pronouncements and try to put God in a box that is manageable and vaguely comprehensible. And the history of God in humankind tells us this: We will always need a bigger box.
Make more space for the Holy Spirit, and maybe we’ll also need bigger baptismal fonts.

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5-16-19 - No Distinctions

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

My friend Peter says, “The one place the Holy Spirit can’t hide is in the timing.” There is Holy Spirit timing all over the book of Acts. People in different places are given instructions by the Holy Spirit more or less simultaneously, or in such a way that the timing dovetails perfectly. Each has to act on the instructions, exercising more than a little faith, and then finds confirmation when the other party is revealed. This happens with the centurion, Cornelius, when he is visited by an angel who instructs him, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter…” Then we learn that his messengers arrive at Peter’s lodging at the very moment his vision of unclean foods ends. As Peter tells it,

At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 

There are so many remarkable details in that paragraph – angels, messengers, divine timing, salvation. But perhaps the most startling is what Peter reports the Spirit saying to him: go with these Gentile strangers, and do not "make a distinction between them and us.” Much of Jewish law and identity lay in making distinctions between Jew and non-Jew, sacred and secular, clean and unclean. In times of persecution, allegiance to these identity markers became even more pronounced; the early church was struggling with whether and how to integrate "uncircumcised" - i.e., non-Jewish - believers in Christ. And now God tells Peter to make no distinctions between these Gentiles and himself?

It is not only Judaism which excels in making distinctions. It is human nature to define oneself and one’s tribe in ways that welcome some in and rule others out. I would go so far as to say it is human nature to make distinctions, and to rank people based upon them. Could we function with no distinctions at all, seeing every person as equally worthy of our love and attention and provision? What a wonderful world that would be! Or would it be total chaos?

And what about Christians? We’ve made a fine art of distinctions with our multiple denominations and their variations and permutations. Are we not to distinguish ourselves from those who do not follow Christ? Jesus said his followers were to be known by their love for each other; that assumes they should be recognizable as Christ-followers.

Once again, love is the answer. It’s not that we shouldn’t note, even celebrate, differences. We’re just not to judge one more worthy than another, and we certainly are not to decide that we can consort with some and not others. Every person is worthy of our company and attention, no matter their background, beliefs, even behavior. Peter’s experience tells us that the Spirit may indeed lead us to people who do not know Jesus as Lord. And often that is because he wants us to make the introduction.

Cornelius had to take a step of faith to believe that angel and send for Peter. Peter had to take a step of faith to believe that the Spirit had urged him forward, and then to go with the messengers and enter the home of a Gentile. Both men responded in faith – and created space for God to show up. And boy, did God show up! Stay tuned…

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5-15-19 - Kill and Eat?

(You can listen to this reflection here.)

We’ve spent two days on Sunday’s Gospel reading. For the rest of the week, let’s focus on the reading from Acts, which amplifies the message of “love one another.” Just what happened to the apostle Peter while he sojourned in Joppa?

We hear these tales as Peter reports them to his brethren in Jerusalem. Many of these Jewish believers were suspicious about Gentile converts to faith in Jesus Christ, fearing this was too great a departure from their tradition (it's only been a short while since Jesus’ resurrection, and they are already defending the tradition…) So Peter goes to Jerusalem to explain to these “circumcised believers” why he eats and drinks with Gentiles, or non-Jews. Have they already forgotten Jesus having to defend his eating companions?

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision…”

Peter relates a bizarre vision in which a sheet is lowered from heaven containing mammals, reptiles, and birds, as a voice says, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter protests that he has never eaten anything non-kosher, but the voice replies, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happens three times, and the moment he emerges from his trance, he receives word that some men want to see him. They ask him to come and speak to those gathered at the home of a Roman centurion, Cornelius. (These stories appear in greater detail in Acts 10 - what we have here is Peter’s re-telling). Peter would not normally have met with Gentiles, but with this vision fresh in his mind, and the Spirit’s nudging, he goes.

We’ll explore later what wondrous things happen in the home of the centurion. Today let’s stay with the vision and message Peter received, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Do we have here a hint of how the Holy Spirit expands our understanding of God’s word? The extension of the Good News to Gentiles, and the early church’s grappling with that in light of earlier interpretations of their scriptures, is instructive for us in our church conflicts over biblical interpretation and social issues. Christians on the more progressive end of these tensions believe that the Spirit has enlarged our interpretative lens, if you will, while those on the more conservative side feel that tradition must be narrowly honored and upheld. Yet it seems to me you can’t get a more radical expansion of Mosaic food laws than, “Do not call profane what God has made clean.” What else might the Spirit be inviting us to re-examine?

What are some areas in which you have had to wrestle with scripture, traditional interpretation of that scripture, and a call to a more expansive view? Does this vision of Peter’s help or hinder your struggle?

For Peter, this experience provided critical data that he needed right away when called to a Roman centurion’s home. What happened when he got there confirmed the vision a thousand times. That’s how God works – God shows us something new, leads us into the unfamiliar, and then lets us know we are exactly where he wanted us to be.

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5-14-19 - Commanded To Love

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

We don’t tend to think of love as something one must be commanded to do. Isn’t a commandment to love a contradiction? Love by its nature is freely given. Yet we know that when love is only a feeling and not a choice, it can fluctuate the way feelings do, resulting in chaos and heartbreak. So we put structures around love with vows and norms and tax laws. People pledge commitments to one another for the days when they don’t feel so loving.

Jesus must have known it wouldn’t be any easier to be his church than it is to be married. The commandment he gave his disciples on his last night with them was directed to those who would carry forward his name in the world, the community of Christ-followers. And he was direct:

"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Love is to be the mark of Christian community. Not church size or feeding programs or missionaries supported or protest marches participated in. Love. For each other.

How are we doing by that measure, 2000+ years later? Does it surprise us that many churches have more real estate than people? Poll after poll shows that many, especially the Millennials everyone wants in their churches, see the Church as judgmental, commercial, hypocritical, greedy, intolerant and/or irrelevant. If Christians are not in the papers for offending someone, we’re boring people to death. The liberal/conservative fault lines are so deep, there are such discrepancies between how certain scriptures are interpreted, and even which scripture to focus on – have we lost the heart of Jesus in the scramble to represent him?

I believe in God's dream for the Church, the mystical Body of Christ, his hands and feet and voice and conscience given for the life of this world. There is still power in this ancient idea, this sacred community across time and space. I believe this is the way God has chosen to make his love abundantly real to the world, the vessel through which God’s transforming love can work the most powerfully.

And the only message the world will truly understand is love. But how do we live into Jesus’ command to love our fellow Christ-followers, even when they seem to flout or distort his commands? We can only get there by allowing God to love us, to fill us with his love. We can only get there by acknowledging the ways we judge and belittle others. We need to invite God to show us what she treasures about our brothers and sisters who offend us, to see the wounds that might cause behavior or words we consider harmful.

Today, think of a Christian you have trouble with. Hold him or her in your mind’s eye. And then pray for her or him to be blitzed with God’s blessing. Rinse and repeat tomorrow.

Friends. Jesus said his disciples were no longer servants, but friends, chosen in love, appointed to bear fruit, enduring, life-changing fruit. If we want to do that, be that, we need to learn how to love one another. God is counting on us.

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