6-28-17 - Sent

I didn’t think I could squeeze one more word out of this this week’s Gospel passage, but I might just manage one: Sent. It is implied in what Jesus says about people welcoming those who come in his name as prophets and righteous folks, that they are sent, as he was sent.
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

What does it mean to be sent? Messengers are sent, ambassadors are sent, representatives are sent, teams are sent out on the field, troops to war, ambulances to accident sites… To be sent means to be deployed for a specific purpose. Most often our being sent bears some relation to our skills or connections.

Jesus sent his disciples to proclaim Good News of God’s activity in the world, to announce freedom to the poor and those in captivity, to heal the sick and raise the dead. Those are still pretty much the reasons he sends his followers out today. Do you feel sent to any particular place or people? Where do your skills and connections and passions point you?

I felt very much “sent” to my current ministry, and now find is coming to an end sooner than I’d planned or expected. Suddenly I’m waiting to know where God is sending me next. In that waiting I have an opportunity to discern what or who is calling to me, to see what big “God dreams” might have been waiting to emerge in me while I busied myself with the many ongoing tasks in a large and busy parish.

Wherever God sends me, I know God will also lead and equip me. Unlike a courier who goes out and reports back, apostles of Jesus Christ get to carry his presence and power with us as we go. It takes off some of the pressure, if we can only allow the Spirit to do the work and stop taking it on ourselves.

When have you felt sent by God, short or long-term?
What inner urges are you discerning – or trying to push down? 
Where would you like to be sent? Afraid to be sent?

Being sent starts, like everything in the Christian life, with relationship. We strengthen our relationship with Jesus through the Holy Spirit so that we can better understand God's prompts. They might come through our own desires, or through discerning a need or a lack. Sometimes God makes it clear through dreams and “coincidences” that cannot finally be denied. We can check with others if a calling seems really odd or risky – and if we go forward, know it will be most fruitful as we are aware of going with God, not for God.

And wherever we are sent by God, when we get there, we find God there too. Funny how that works.

6-27-17 - Ministry With

“…And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

People often take Jesus’ remark about bringing cups of water to “these little ones” as a prompt to do outreach. While Jesus is big on caring for people in need, that’s not his meaning here. He is saying that those who do ministry with us, “in the name of a disciple,” will also be blessed.

In my previous church, when we provided a monthly meal at the city's shelter for men, I would bring my guitar and sing a few songs while the crew was readying the meal in the kitchen. The gentlemen waiting for dinner were generally appreciative; “dinner and a show!,” some remarked. But I liked it best when someone there could play. I’d hand over the guitar and let him entertain the group.

People need to be invited to participate when we’re out doing “good works.” We can offer ministry to, or we can offer ministry with – and “with” is much more inclusive and empowering. Just think which you would prefer if you were in need. Inviting other people to join us as we go about ministries of help and transformation is one of the most powerful ways to share the Gospel with others. It makes the Good News visible as people see a community of Christ-followers in action – that witness is often as vivid and appealing as the work being done.

Many churches are finding they draw more congregants by giving people opportunities to serve than by trying to entice them to worship. That puts the onus on us to be open to relationships as we serve meals and deliver clothes and visit those in prison, to get out from behind the counters and talk to the people we are serving, find out what their gifts are. I dream of a church where the well-fed and the hungry worship and serve together in one diverse community. That is what the first community of Christ-followers looked like.

What forms of helping or outreach or volunteering are you involved in? Is there room for inviting recipients of that help to participate in helping others? Can you think of ways to form community with the givers and the receivers until we are all aware of being both? No "us" and "them?"

In what ways do you sense God inviting you to work with God in bringing light and life to someone? Have you had a conversation with Jesus about that? Want to bring that up in prayer today?

It makes sense to do ministry with the ones for whom we offer our time and resources, because God has invited us to do ministry with him. We don’t work “for” God either – we work with God, at the direction and power of the Spirit moving through us. If we give someone else the opportunity to offer a gift to someone in need, we have given them a chance to live more deeply.

From God’s perspective, we are all “these little ones,” and we are all in need of the water of life.

6-26-17 - Welcomed

Permit me to rant… yesterday’s Gospel was 315 words of dense, challenging, provocative, hard-to-find-the-Good- News-in teaching from Jesus. And next Sunday’s? 82 words in 2 sentences, four clauses, saying not all that much. Come on! On the other hand, if I could reframe all that talk about swords, surely I can dive in and welcome the gifts of this very brief passage… which is all about welcoming.

After Jesus gives his followers hard instructions about going out to proclaim the Good News and heal the sick, he softens a bit, saying of those among whom they would go,
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

Jesus stressed welcome in his sending talk, because his followers were to go out to villages and towns taking nothing along, no extra tunics, no clean underwear, no toothbrush, no money. They were to rely on the hospitality of those who welcomed them – and if they were not welcomed some place, they were to move on, save their breath.

This is important for us to hear. So often we express anxiety about discussing our faith with others; we assume that conversation will not be welcomed. Well, so what? Some will want it, some won’t. Move on, Jesus says, because you will find someone who does want to talk about matters of spirit and will be grateful that you had the courage to engage them in a conversation of the heart.

Our culture makes little room for the spiritual (though in the form of mindfulness, spirituality is starting to work its way from the margins into corporate retreats and yoga weekends - maybe because Christians have left such a vacuum?). When we introduce spirituality and faith into a conversation, whether with a friend or stranger, we are making space for a holy connection. We rely on the hospitality of the other person to welcome us into that space. If the other person doesn’t want to, no problem. Try again with someone else. Be open to the conversation if someone else introduces it. Let’s invite people to see our connection to God.

Do you anticipate rejection when you contemplate talking about your faith with someone, or do you expect welcome? Either way, we can be surprised…
Can you think of a person with whom you might want to start that conversation? 
What do you think his or her reaction would be if you raised a spiritual subject?

Here’s the thing: we don’t have to go out cold-calling people. We can respond to the Spirit’s prompts about who might be open. We can ask God in prayer, even over a period of weeks or years, “Shall I talk to that person about my faith? What’s the right approach? When do you think I should do it?” I think that’s a prayer that God will answer… maybe with a sign of some kind, or by our getting a feeling of “wait” or “go,” or there being an opening to talk. That very prayer will open our spirits and prepare us.

Jesus implies that someone will welcome us as we go about the mission of God to restore all things and all people to wholeness. And when they do welcome us, as we go in Christ’s name, they are welcoming Him, and in welcoming Him, they are welcoming God himself. It’s like bringing the CEO on a sales call, or having the chief of surgery giving a shot. We get to be the advance folks; God does the work.

6-23-17 - Family Values

I am amused when “family values” are equated with a 1950s American two-parent nuclear unit, as though that were a perfect reflection of Christian virtue. In fact, Jesus dissed his own mother publicly when she showed up with his brothers to quiet him down and bring him home. Jesus also said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Jesus clearly redefined family; it’s not blood kin, but the fellowship of Christ-followers. Loving God comes first, no matter what.

As a pastor frequently frustrated when the claims of nuclear family impede involvement in church family activities, I read those words with a certain grumpiness. Sigh! It’s been a hard week in Water Daily Land, trying to interpret one hard teaching about priorities after another. Putting Jesus first is more counter-cultural all the time. Our culture says family comes first, no matter what. And we are much more formed by our culture than by what Jesus taught.

You may be familiar with the Jesus Doll, a rag doll with brown hair and a beard, a tunic, coat and sandals. He's soft and squishable and great for kids. In my previous parish, we let kids bring Jesus the Doll home for a week. They were encouraged to take Jesus everywhere they went, and to write in the journal that accompanied him. Where did Jesus go this week? Gymnastics class? The swimming pool? Walking the dog? Kids loved it. Mothers found it more wearing.

“Oh my God,” one said, “It’s unbelievably stressful having Jesus! I was afraid the dog would eat his sandals, or him. I was afraid we’d leave him somewhere!” Another, unable to get Jesus back to us for several weeks, wrote an apologetic email. She’d been sick, the kids had been sick, her husband had been away on business, Jewish friends visited, some other things happened… she concluded, “It just wasn’t a good week to have the Son of God at our house!”

News flash: it’s never a good week to have the Son of God around! Life is a whole lot easier with the priorities the world presents us: “Take what you want, when you want it, with whom you want it.” Chances are, if you’re reading this, you have already decided that is not your choice. Maybe you’ve entered the relationship into which Jesus invites you, or you are curious and exploring it. Maybe you’ve already discovered what Christians have known for 2000 years, that life is infinitely richer – though no less painful – when we are aware of having the Son of God around our house.

Jesus did not come to make us feel better about our lives. Jesus came to draw us closer in the one relationship we will have for eternity, in intimacy with God. Starting that relationship here and now makes our lives more purposeful – and often more stressful. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” Jesus says at the end of this teaching.

What are some of the ways Jesus’ claims have caused you to “lose your life,” or at least to give up some patterns that felt easy but were not life-giving? What are some of the ways you are resisting putting God in first place in your life? Who or what would have to be moved to second or third? Can you offer that to God in prayer, inviting the Spirit in?

The gift – which we can only discover by doing it – is that when we move our God-life into first place, we engage our other priorities more fully, because we don’t try to own them. We appreciate them as gifts, and can stop ranking them. Maybe that’s what Jesus means by “finding our life…”

6-22-17 - Jesus' Sword

I wonder if Jesus knew how much carnage would be wrought in his name because of these words attributed to the Prince of Peace, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Would he have said them? Did he say them? By the time Matthew wrote his account of Jesus’ life, these words would have passed through quite a few reporters. Maybe they got skewed? How I wish they had never been written down.

So much blood has been shed between Christians and Jews, Christians and Muslims, Christians and indigenous peoples, Christians and other Christians. There have been crusades and counter-crusades, attacks and massacres and reprisals and counter-reprisals. Rivers of blood have flowed as corrupt politicians hungry for land, oil, power, vengeance and money have joined with zealots to cloak their murderous agendas in religious language. There is enough violent rhetoric in the scriptures of many religions, including our own, to fuel endless bloodshed.

And Jesus isn’t even talking about conflict between enemies but in families. He goes on to say, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” What?

I don’t think Jesus was saying he came to bring conflict, but that conflict would be an inevitable consequence of following him in his mission. Jesus came to wield God’s love against the evils of this world, injustice and oppression, corruption and complacency. That doesn’t make for a peaceful life. Those whose mission is peace often provoke conflict and die violently.

Notice, Jesus did not say, “I have come not to bring peace, but violence.” He said "not peace but a sword." Look at some of the other ways “sword” is used in the New Testament: The sword of the Spirit is one of the defensive weapons we take up against the devil. In Hebrews we read that the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, “…dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow …” That is surgically sharp!

The sword Jesus refers to can be a sword of discernment, distinguishing good from evil, what will bless us and make us effective as disciples from what will harm us and make us complacent and weak. He is saying there is evil in the world, and His followers need to be ready to distinguish the Kingdom of Light from the realm of darkness. That does divide families sometimes. Jesus demands our fidelity over all other claims. The priorities of this world – family, wealth, convenience, distraction – do not make us effective disciples. Jesus is just calling it. We can be fuzzy, or we can be clear. Jesus came not to bring peace but reality and radical freedom to move in God’s Spirit.

Have you ever had to make a choice to disassociate from people or practices that were destructive for you? Do you face such dilemmas in your life now?
Might we ask for the Spirit's help to marry “mission clarity” with our calling to be peacemakers?

Jesus paid the ultimate price for his mission, at least in worldly terms. In eternal terms, he was just getting started.

6-21-17 - A Public Faith?

We are often judged by the company we keep. Are we willing to let the world know we hang out with Jesus?

Jesus lays it on the line in this week's passage. After telling his disciples to go forward boldly, proclaiming the good news, healing the sick, he says, "Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

It’s hard when Jesus raises the stakes like that. Where’s the mercy, I ask? It seems, from things he is recorded as having said in the gospels, that Jesus was short on mercy for religious insiders who refused to accept the good news of “God-With-Us” that he had revealed to them. His mercy ran more freely to outsiders or underdogs than to his own peers. It is unsurprising that people in need would more readily accept Jesus’ revelation of his messiahship than the “insiders” who were so sure they knew what God would look and act like. And Jesus cuts the insiders no slack.

Jesus is not in a “slack-cutting” mode in this training talk. He knew time was short; that those who said “Lord, Lord” really had to stand by their allegiance to him, and not go quiet when the association proved inconvenient or dangerous. Would he go any easier on us?

A few years ago I read the The Tenth Parallel, by Eliza Griswold, on clashes between Christianity and Islam in Muslim and Christian communities in Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. In Malaysia she met an indigenous Orang Asli who was a convert to Christianity (many Orang Asli are trying hard to hold on to their traditional beliefs and practices under threat of extinction, but some do convert). Christians and other religious minorities suffer harsh persecution in Malaysia, which has a vigorously conservative and oppressive Muslim majority.

This pastor said to her, "Americans don’t care what’s happening in other places, do they," a sentiment she encountered among persecuted Christians elsewhere too. "He pondered aloud if need kept people closer to God and God closer to them. ‘I wonder, is there a place for God’s word in the lives of people who have everything?’”

It’s a good question. In my fairly privileged segment of Christendom, proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord is often muted; to some, even saying “Jesus” smacks of fundamentalism. Some Episcopalians are hostile to the word evangelism, as though there were only one (obnoxious) way to share faith. Others are happy to be affiliated with Jesus – in church on Sundays – but reluctant to let that be known in the circles they travel the rest of the week.

Are we willing to be public about our affiliation with Jesus, the Christ, to acknowledge his Lordship in our lives? Or does it make us uncomfortable? Is Jesus, and proclaiming wholeness and peace in his name, important enough to us?

We sit under the judgment of Jesus’ words as well as the promises they contain. What is the place for God’s word in the lives of people who have everything?

6-20-17 - Splitting Hairs

“Have no fear of them,” Jesus says, as he tells his followers of the enemies they may encounter on God’s mission. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

So, God knows the number of hairs on our head and values us even more than precious sparrows. That does not mean God promises us physical protection (read Psalm 79 sometime). I believe it means simply that we are of infinite value to God, whose love for us is not diminished by our physical death.

It is a hard balance we seek as followers of the One who promised eternal life: to live fully in this life, loving its gifts and pursuing God’s mission in the world, while holding this life lightly, knowing it is not our final destination. People who have encountered death, in near-death experiences, often say they no longer fear death. And it is the fear of death that so often holds us back in fully living our lives.

I don’t think Jesus is minimizing the trauma of physical death. He is inviting his followers to weigh that against the greater trauma of spiritual death, apathy or even allegiance to the enemy who seeks to degrade and destroy God's creatures. If fear of death, or fear of losing income or time or reputation, keeps us from giving our hearts to God, we place ourselves in spiritual peril. Following Jesus does not mean that nothing else in our lives matters; it means we gradually allow ourselves to put God first, above every other thing and person who claims our love. It’s not either-or; it’s both-and… and in the order of priority. God comes first.

And if God comes first, it lowers the stakes for everything else. We can be more confident taking risks when we value our God-Life more than our physical life. Not caring so much about our physical existence – while still investing in it; I did say it was a balancing act – sets us free to discover who we most fully are, how exquisitely and uniquely we are made. Rather than seeing Jesus’ words as warning, might we take them as invitation to greater freedom?

Today let's examine what holds us back from making God our number one priority, if God is not.
What fears impede our proclaiming to those we know our allegiance to God in Christ?

If we can name our fears, we can invite the Holy Spirit to transform them into freedom. “Perfect love casts out fear” is a promise we are given in scripture. Wherever we feel fear, we might invite God to sow love… envision the place of your fear and God planting a seed of love in that spot.

Then we can sit with the sparrows and watch our fear wither like a weed and the love grow strong and beautiful, knowing that God is keeping an eye on us... and counting the hairs on our heads, however few or many there may be.