9-30-14 - Good Stewards

Most landlords can tell horror stories of bad tenants – people who never clean bathrooms, who damage walls in riotous parties, allow animals to roam the basement, or cart off appliances when they leave in the middle of the night, six months’ rent unpaid. But the tenants in Jesus’ parable of the leased vineyard? This is like renting your property to a drug cartel.

What does the landlord desire in letting out his vineyard? He wants it to be well tended, to bear good fruit, of which he is due a portion. These are the terms under which the tenants are allowed to live in the beautiful land and produce good grapes and fine wine. But these tenants don’t honor their agreement, and they communicate their refusal violently. They want to seize the vineyard and own it outright.

Jesus was suggesting to the religious leaders hearing this that they, as stewards of Israel’s religious life, were like those tenants. They had not heeded the prophets. They continued to perpetuate a highly renumerative system of temple sacrifice, and left ordinary people thinking they could never be right in the sight of God. They had set themselves as arbiters of right and wrong instead of seeing themselves as stewards of God’s power and mercy.

Yesterday I said it was human nature to ignore warnings. It is also human nature to appropriate what has been offered on loan. Religious communities in particular can fall prey to this danger, to encourage people to focus their energy and resources on perpetuating their own life at the expense of a living relationship with the God of surprises.

If we assess ourselves as tenants of God’s vineyard, how do we measure up? Compared to the larcenous, murderous lot in Jesus’ story, we’re golden. But let’s look at ourselves straight on. God has entrusted us with the care of the earth, of our families, of our money and income, of our gifts, of our neighbors… how are we doing? Is there good fruit? Are we returning to God a portion of what we have received?

I invite you to take an inventory of all the areas of life in which God has entrusted you with resources or ministry. Name the fruit. For instance, if you think of your family, what good is discernible in and through the people with whom you share a home or a name? If it’s your body, what good fruit do you see from how well you care for blessing ? If it’s work, what fruit do you see?

Let’s name the fruits, and also the stagnant, unfruitful things connected to those areas. More prayer fodder.

Everything we have is a gift from God – a gift not to be seized but to be invested, nurtured, grown, and always ready to be shared when asked, in part or in full.
What kind of tenant on this earth do you want to be? 

What kind of steward of God's love can you become?

9-29-14 - Kill the Messenger

Another week, another vineyard. In this week’s parable, Jesus continues the conversation he was having with the priests and Pharisees we looked at last week. On a roll after putting them in their place with the tale of the two sons, he says, “Listen to another parable.” This time, he borrows from Isaiah 5:1-7, starting his story almost the same way.

A landowner plants, fences and equips a vineyard, and then leases it to others to run. As rent they owe a portion of the harvest. At picking time, he sends collectors – but the tenants won’t pay: “But the tenants seized his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.” They do the same to the next delegation, so the owner decides to send his son to collect the rent, “saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

Jesus is laying another trap for the religious leaders. In not-so-thinly-veiled language, he alludes to the reception which Israel’s leaders have traditionally given God’s messengers, the prophets. Most often, when they didn’t like what the prophets were saying, they tried to silence or even kill them. And what were the prophets usually saying?

“God doesn’t want your sacrifices and your legalistic rituals. God doesn’t want your lip-service about holiness while you cheat the orphan and the widow and dishonor God’s Sabbath. God wants your heart, your repentance, your compassion.” Or, as Isaiah says of the vineyard, “When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?”

It is human nature to turn away from messages that warn or challenge us to change. Witness the difficulty over the past fifty years in getting people to take seriously the ravages of climate change. On a smaller scale, think about how hard it can be for an addict to take that first step in recovery, or for many of us to begin a weight-loss program. Often we wait until we see the effects of what we’ve been warned about – and then it can be too late. And sometimes, seeing the danger we’ve feared come to pass drives our heads further into the sands of denial and over-consumption.

Are there messages you have you been trying to ignore? Messages from God, from the Bible, from friends, from your own gut? Take some time in quiet today and ask that question of yourself and the Spirit, and see what emerges. Write down the issues as they come up - good prayer fodder.

Are there issues on which you feel called to speak prophetically – i.e., messages that you believe God wants you to deliver? Are you offering them? How are they being received? Is there another way to communicate them?

This parable was a direct condemnation of the religious leaders of Israel in Jesus’ time. But its imagery resonates for us in many ways today, as citizens of the world and citizens of God’s realm. Isaiah tells us,
"For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!"

God’s call to us to be people of justice and righteousness still sounds. Let’s not leave those cries unheard.

9-26-14 - Get in Line

Nobody likes waiting in a line, especially not a line where people cut in ahead of you at the invitation of someone further up. So imagine how happy the Jewish religious leaders were when Jesus told them,
“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

This was how he summed up the parable of the two sons. The tax collectors and prostitutes presumably represented that first son, who said he wouldn’t work for his father, but then changed his mind and did. Sinners who repent, Jesus suggested, are closer to God’s heart than do-gooding, self-righteous holy people. As he saw it, the scribes and Pharisees were more like that second son, who mouthed the right words but didn’t give his heart to the father’s vineyard.

The leaders saw their fidelity in keeping the Torah, the Law, in minute detail, as evidence that they were more righteous than anyone. But Jesus had a different angle – for him what mattered most was how they responded to the revelation he brought, which he said was in line with what John the Baptist taught, and what the prophets before him had foretold for centuries. “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

The failure for which he knocked the religious leaders was their refusal to recognize that God offered righteousness through his Son, a redemption of the heart much deeper and longer-lasting than mere law-keeping could ever bring. They thought they’d be first in line by virtue of how well they stood in line! Jesus suggested that God was more interested in those who genuinely saw their faults and God’s mercy. If the leaders had acknowledged their need for God’s mercy, he would have liked them more.

We now live in a culture filled with people who have not been raised with church or with knowledge of God or God’s transforming love. We live in an age when churches are often seen as smug, rigid, prejudiced, oppressive, not to mention dull and irrelevant.

We need to be committed to our faith communities not because it’s the right thing to do or will “get us into heaven.” We need to help turn them inside out, making them incubators for new life, spiritual growth, transformation and healing. We need to make it easy for people with no church background whatsoever to find meaning and life in our midst. That means rethinking the way we worship, give, govern, preach – everything.

Today, let’s think of someone we wouldn’t be so thrilled to see jump the line on us, whether an individual or a type. Let’s pray for them, and let’s pray for us - and invite them.

Each year during Ramadan, our Interfaith Council joins with local Muslim communities to host an interfaith Iftar, the meal Muslims enjoy at the end of each day in that season of fasting. And, though many of them have had no food and water since daybreak, the leader always tells his congregants to go last in the food line, to let us non-fasters fill our plates first. This is the kind of grace to which we are called.

As far as we know, everyone who wants to be a part of God’s worldwide, time-and-space-encompassing community of love, is welcome. We’ll know we’re steeped in God's love when, no matter how long we’ve been in line, no matter how hungry we are, we’re delighted to let someone get to that feast ahead of us. There will be plenty, and to spare.

9-25-14 - Religious, Not Spiritual

Jesus often told simple stories to make complex points. The parable we are considering this week, about a man and his two sons, is no exception. This one is bare bones. We're told who’s involved and what happened. No characterization, dialogue, insights into motivation; just the facts, ma’am.

They’re easy to tell: a man has two sons. He asks each one to go work in his vineyard. One says, “No way,” but then he goes and does it. The other says, “Sure, Dad,” and doesn’t go. Jesus asks, “Which did his father’s will?” The religious leaders answer, “The first.” Easy A. Seeing the work get done matters more than the intentions of the would-be workers. Isn’t that obvious?

Snap! They walked right into Jesus’ second trap. For they had built their reputations and their power base on being the “right people,” and on judging who else was a “right person.” For them, the “who” mattered much more than the “work.” The scruffy, the poor, the sick, the lame, the divorced, the sinful – need not apply. These guardians of Israel’s purity kept temple life shut against the unrighteous.

But they couldn’t keep Jesus out – his ideas flowed under the doors and through the walls, empowering all those spiritual “have-nots” to repent and be healed, to call God himself their “Abba.” And these, Jesus goes on to say, like those late-day workers, will enter the Kingdom ahead of the professionally holy. Even tax collectors and prostitutes, he says. Look out!

In real life, though, people are not so easily reduced to one kind or another, are we? We’re both of those sons, ready to commit at one moment, easily distracted and derailed the next. Some people's detours away from God’s vineyard are decades long, through other religious explorations, deep into consumerism, to the worship of other goods and gods - or simply into dells of doubt or despair.

Others of us hew closely to the way of Jesus and his church - and might find our enthusiasm siphoned off to managing buildings and accounts, worrying over empty pews, and lining up cooks for the next church supper. Is one more “right” than another? This week a friend was decrying the lack of interest in church and faith among so many people she knew. We rolled our eyes over the many who consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious,” as we religiously affiliated people often do. Then I said, “But look, our churches also contain many who are religious but not spiritual – no wonder we’re lacking vitality.”

Is there room in the Life of God for both types – and for us, when we are both types? For, in fact, these two sons Jesus talks about are really two parts of one person, two ends of a continuum. Some of us are closer to one end than another; some hug the middle. If you’re more definitely an over-promiser or an over-deliverer, are you able to love those on the other end of the spectrum? Today, might you bring to mind someone who irritates you because they don’t come through, and someone else who refuses to commit, but gets it done anyway… and pray for each one to be fully blessed? Even if that person is you? Especially then?

Jesus leaned toward the under-achievers in his parables – maybe because he knew the over-achievers didn’t need as much encouragement, or because he knew how easy it is for the righteous to judge others and he needed to remind them that it’s up to God, not us, to love whom God chooses.

Jesus doesn't suggest that the father in the story loves one son more than the other – one just helps him out more. That’s the one I want to be.

9-24-14 - Two Sons

The men interrogating Jesus about the source of his authority – “Who you working for?” – were good and righteous men, religious leaders. They were pretty sure, as are most righteous folks, that they knew what God did and did not approve of, and weren’t very keen on the way Jesus represented the Almighty. So they questioned him, thinking they could entrap him into saying something blasphemous.

But Jesus is two steps ahead of them. In response to their question, Jesus asks them one they cannot answer without getting in trouble with the people – and as they are reliant on the crowd's approval, they become unable to answer one way or the other. Check and mate.

Jesus does not give a straight answer to their question, but he does respond in his sly, elliptical way – with a parable. This one is about a man and his two sons. It's not the one about the Prodigal Son; this is shorter and far less complex:

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”

Before we get into how the Pharisees and Jesus interpret this little story, let’s explore it for ourselves. Many of us have teenaged children or have been teenaged children. It is not difficult to imagine either scenario – the one who, when asked to unload the dishwasher, refuses… and then, when no one is looking, cleans up the whole kitchen. And another, who, when asked to mow the lawn, says, “Sure, sure,” and never looks up from his video game till evening.

But why am I picking on teenagers? A Facebook meme I saw yesterday read, “Ladies, if a man says he’s going to fix it, he will. You don’t have to remind him every six months.” Promising more than we deliver and delivering more than we promise are pretty basic human behaviors. Is one more godly? Is one more fruitful than another?

Which of these two brothers do you gravitate toward? Put another way, which better describes you in your faith journey? Were you raised a Christian and have been half-hearted in your practice? Or did you come to it as a convert, now eager to participate in a life you’d either spurned or not known about before?

And how do we react toward people who fit either of these categories? A favorite charge leveled at churches is that they are full of hypocrites. Have we said or heard that ? I always answer that with, “There’s always room for one more.”

None of us gets it quite right, and none of us gets it all wrong. Thanks be to God, we are all sons and daughters of a God who judges with mercy and corrects with love. When we fully integrate that truth, we usually find we want to get out to that vineyard and get to work.

9-23-14 - Who's In Your Wallet?

I managed to confuse myself in yesterday’s reflection – I wandered into a different meaning of the word “authority” than I intended. Authority can mean “Who’s in charge?” But the sense meant by the temple leaders interrogating Jesus in Sunday's Gospel passage is more, “Who’s backing you? Who is ultimately responsible for what you’re saying and doing?”

We all carry bits of paper and plastic around with us, which we use to buy things. These derive their value from what backs them up. The dollar bill is only “worth the paper it’s printed on” because the U.S. Treasury has issued it. A letter of introduction to someone who might give you a job has value because of the person who signed it.

Jesus’ teaching and miracles had value because they were evidence of the power of the God who backed him. Those who believed that he represented the Living God were fine with that. Those who thought they knew God better had their doubts. Hence their question, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

It’s a good question for us, as we seek to offer love, peace, healing and justice in God’s name. We know our world is full of people doing all kinds of things in the name of God as they understand God – how do we justify our ministries in the name of a force no one can see or prove?

Well, the first answer is – we can’t. Not fully. Not to someone who is sure there is no God, or no creator who interacts with his or her creation. And we don’t have to try to “prove God.” We are only to bear witness to what we see and know, and to help generate evidence for others to respond to – and then be around when their questions burble up.

Beyond that, I believe we should speak and act in the name of God often – that’s what it means to bear witness to what we see and know. So when we serve a meal at a shelter or spend time with a sad friend because we feel called by God to do so – let’s say so. When we hear of a situation over which we are powerless, let’s offer to pray, and say it’s because we believe God’s power is at work in the world.

How do we evaluate actions that are justified as being by God’s authority? Christians have been given criteria. One is, do we see evidence of the Holy Spirit? Do we see good fruit? That’s a mark of the Spirit. Is there more peace? That’s a mark of the Spirit. A religious organization may send out a hate-filled fundraising letter… just becomes it comes from a church does not mean it represents the authority of God. What spiritual fruit does it bear?

Another criterion: Is that action consistent with the revelation we received from Jesus, or in Scripture? This last is a pretty wide field – our scriptures contain all kinds of things I don’t think are the fruit of the Spirit. So I’d lean toward the Jesus side of that equation – is it consistent with what he did and taught? If you’re unsure, ask a brother or sister in community to help you discern.

By whose authority do we do the things we do? If it’s by the authority of God in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, let people know it. We have been given access to an incredible inheritance already, here and now – immense spiritual power. God didn’t mean for that to stay in a bank vault. We carry the cards, the cash, the checks to spread that spiritual wealth around. Let’s use it.

Who’s in your wallet?

9-22-14 - Authority

Last week we explored a subversive story Jesus told about laborers in a vineyard, in which those hired last got paid the same as those who worked all day. After telling this tale, he healed two blind men. This was all a bit much for the religious leaders whom he was always skewering; they had to confront him. 
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” they ask him. 
 (This week's passage is here.)

Authority. We live by it. We order our lives by it. And sometimes we expend considerable energy flouting it. Often, the less of it we have, the more we want to be sure other people know it – observe some maĆ®tres d or train conductors as they wield their very limited power over others.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day held authority by virtue of their positions in the temple, or were given it for their reputation as teachers. But their authority was very limited. The occupying Romans allowed a nominal Jewish king and religious life to continue to exercise power, but only under their close and watchful eye. Any affront to the temple council’s position as leaders of Jewish life threatened to undermine the whole system. That is one reason they were so antagonistic toward Jesus and his followers. Their question really was: “Who said you could come in here to our temple, teach and preach and flout our Sabbath laws and heal people right and left? Who do you think you are?”

Jesus doesn’t answer them directly in this instance, but usually his answer came down to one thing: My authority is from God. Which is fine, if you believe Jesus is intimately connected to God, and not so fine if you believe he’s a deluded fool, at best, and a master manipulator at worst. What Jesus cited as evidence for his claim was his works, his very miracles. In John 10:36-38, he says to the leaders,
“Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.”

Who's in charge of your life? Does God have authority for you? How do you feel it? In the evidence you’ve experienced of God’s activity? In the Bible? The sacraments? In your personal relationship with God in prayer? In the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in you, in your church? Take some time to reflect on this – it helps when we’re talking to others about our spiritual life to know where our faith is grounded.

I confess I cannot imagine a relationship with God in which we see ourselves on equal footing – the whole revelation Jesus unfolded, and which we’ve been unpacking ever since, assumes that we honor God’s authority over us, over life itself. How does that sit with you? Is it a relief or a burden?

We no longer live in an age when something is considered true just because the church says so, even for church-goers. But Christ-followers were never meant to promote a set of ideas – we are invited to make known a risen Jesus who said he was Truth, Truth made personal, Truth made knowable. As we keep getting to know him and making him known, we will find just how free we can be under authority.

9-19-14 - The Boss

All week, we’ve been hearing how the different characters in Jesus’ story might have experienced the event. I thought maybe we’d hear from the Landowner last… and then thought, I’m pretty sure the Landowner in this story is God. Parables are open to multiple interpretations, but it’s hard for me to conceive of this character as representing anyone but the Almighty. After all, it is God’s Kingdom that Jesus is trying to convey in his stories, a realm that cannot be depicted or even described except through story and symbol.

Does God come out to the marketplace of this world and invite those who are willing to work in his vineyard? Does God keep at it, knowing there’s more than enough work for everyone? Does God go after even those whom no one else has wanted to hire, or those who got there late? Does God compensate everyone at the same rate, knowing there is no “more” or “less” when you live in abundance?

If this is God, I think we’re in good shape. We can be frustrated, not always able to fully comprehend the ways of God, but we also in line for more blessings than we can fathom. Above all, this story Jesus told is about blessing, blessing that doesn’t make sense, blessing that doesn’t quit.

Around the year 400, St. John Chrysostom wrote a beautiful Easter Vigil sermon drawing on this parable to convey that, no matter what kind of Lenten fast people have kept, no matter what sin, they are welcome at God’s table. I’d like to give him the last word this week, in an excerpt (whole thing is here):

If any have toiled from the first hour, let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour, let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour, let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour, let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour, let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, as well as to him that toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not, rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

I pray you feast richly this weekend – it’s always Easter around God’s house, and the table is always richly laden.

9-18-14 - Not Lazy

Today we’ll let one of those “one-hour workers” tell his story:

I hope you don’t think I’m lazy. I tried all day to get work, but whenever someone came in hiring, other guys got to him ahead of me. I’m not as fast as some, but I’m not lazy. It’s hard to stand there all day hoping for a job. I’d rather be working.

Not sure why I was still there at 5 o’clock – certainly didn’t expect a job then. But this manager guy came along hiring for the big vineyard. “Why you standing around here doing nothing all day?” he asked us. “No one has hired us,” we said. Hey, it’s not like we were hanging out, guzzling beer, like some. He said they could still use some help to meet the day’s quotas, so come on. Hell, I figured, a few bucks is better than none.

Felt a little bad getting out there with these guys who’d worked all day, so we threw ourselves into it. Barely broke a sweat, though, before they called quitting time. The manager tells us to line up first – that seemed odd, but we did it. Figured we’d get our hour’s pay, and move on. But that’s not what happened. We each got a full day’s pay. Couldn’t believe it.

I don’t know why this owner wanted to treat us like that – most of them are looking to take as much as they can from you, half the time cheating you out of what they actually owe you. But this guy? He treated us as though we’d worked a full day, even coming in at the 11th hour like that. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone treat me so well. It actually made me want to get there earlier tomorrow, so I can work a full day.

In telling the story, Jesus doesn’t give any reason for why these last workers were hired so late in the day. He doesn’t suggest there was anything wrong with them. But in the parable, they stand in for the outsiders, maybe Gentiles or Samaritans; maybe the poor or the lame, or people too busy getting by in life to pay much attention to their religious life. They represent the sort that the religious leaders looked down on. And these, Jesus suggests, will not only receive the same reward as the “righteous" – they will be first in the kingdom.

Who do you relate to most in the story? The all-day workers? The manager? The one-hour folks? The boss? When have you been rewarded for what felt like insufficient effort on your part? How did it make you feel?

Do you ever extend that kind of generosity to another? Maybe praise someone who needs the affirmation, regardless of how well the job is done? Help someone accomplish something? Continue to offer your friendship when you are giving more than you receive back? It only works if we ask God to give that grace through us. If it’s us “being nice,” it can become manipulative. If we step out of the way, allow God to love through us, we get as filled as the other person.

Let’s pray today that God send someone our way who needs the gift of grace we can offer – of love and affirmation, of acceptance based on their identity as a child of God, not their resume or to-do list.

And if we’re the one in need, let’s pray we meet someone who treats us that way. Let grace abound!

9-17-14 - Not in Charge

Let’s hear how the vineyard manager might tell this story:

Let me get this straight right off the bat: It was not my decision to pay everyone the same. That was the way the boss wanted it, and I follow orders. To tell you the truth, I felt a little funny about it. I watched how hard those guys that got hired at dawn worked. The ones who came later worked hard too, but there’s a big difference between working for 12 hours and working for one.

When the boss told me to give out the full daily wage for everybody, I was surprised. I thought maybe he’d work out some kind of a bonus for the ones who picked all day. But no. It was like his generosity only went toward the ones who got hired late. More for them than expected; the amount agreed-upon for everyone else. He even paid them first. Fair…and not quite fair. Depends on how you look at it. Depends on who you’re looking at.

I don’t blame the all-day folks for being mad. But here’s what they don’t know: they were already at the top of the pay scale. That daily wage was way above the norm. The boss was paying out everything he was making off that vineyard. The only way to pay those workers more was to pay others less.. and that’s not how he rolls. Not how he thinks. He’s quirky, the boss… hard to understand at times. But I’ll tell you this: he knows what he’s doing.

Who might the manager in Jesus’ story represent? I think he stands for all who consider ourselves servants of God, who participate in what God is doing, carry out God’s mercy and God’s justice, speak God’s peace, who forgive and heal and love and tend. God’s ways don’t always make sense to us – we take a big leap of faith whenever we walk into the works God has prepared for us.

It can be hard to be God’s representative in the face of grief or crisis, to sit with someone in who feels God is not blessing her as God blesses others. It is a challenge to proclaim God’s love to someone who insists they have never known it, cannot feel it. I often have to resist the impulse to defend God when someone is disappointed or accusing, when something in the Bible or the church causes offense. Then I remember, God doesn’t need me to defend him. God only needs me to be true to what I believe God is telling or showing or leading.

And God needs us to be true to ourselves. We don’t leave ourselves at the door when we work for God - the Spirit of God works through us, and that means through our intellect, emotions, history, moods, our circumstances on any given day. God doesn’t want robots – God seems to want us.

Are you willing to be God’s “ managing agent” today? What vineyard have you been called to tend? Are there any difficult “orders” to carry out? If so, we don’t have to worry about doing it ourselves. We can simply pray, “Lord, if you want me to do this thing, or have that conversation, please work in me and through me.” And then pay attention to what happens.

I stand on the reminder I had in prayer one day, that God already loves me the most. There is nothing I can do or have to do to make God love me more, because God is already as delighted in me as can be. I could quit accomplishing and producing right now, and my God-salary would not decrease. I’m already at the top of a really generous pay scale. And so are you.

9-16-14 - Worked All Day

One way to “hear” parables afresh is to look at them from different angles. Today, let’s hear from one of those “all day” workers:

You think I’m wrong to be resentful? I was up and at the marketplace by 5 o’clock this morning, ready to work. This guy hired me and a bunch of others, told us we’d receive a good day’s pay. It was good pay, better than some. I didn’t mind working all day, knowing I was going to get paid well. I'm a good worker.

Every few hours, a few more joined us – Good, I thought, There’s plenty of work. I was a little surprised when a few more came in at nearly quitting time. Oh well, they’ll get paid for an hour. Enough for a beer. Why not?

Even with the extra hands, though, it was a long day, and the sun was hot. When the foreman finally called time, I was ready. But the boss said those who worked less time should get in front of the line; us all-day guys to the back. Okay, I thought, maybe he doesn’t want them to know what we’re getting paid. Then I saw they were getting the full day’s pay, even the one-hour folks. Wow, this guy is generous! I couldn’t wait to see what kind of bonus I was going to get.

But I finally got up to the front of the line, and got my pay… and it was exactly the same as everybody else. Exactly the same as we’d been promised at the start. Seemed okay at 5 o’clock this morning, but now, with the sun going down, knowing what everybody else got, I feel stiffed. You bet I do. I worked like a dog today, never looked up, never sat down. Why did I bother? It seemed okay, until I see others getting more for less.

A few of us spoke up, but the boss, he just said, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’”

I don’t want his stinking generosity – I want things fair. You work, you get paid. You work longer, you get paid more. Tell you this much, this is the last time I agree to a daily wage. You can just pay me hourly from now on. Then I'm in control.

So, this guy represents the religious rulers that Jesus was always tussling with, the ones who thought God’s rewards were only for those who kept the law like they did. They show up in a lot of Jesus’ parables – the older brother in the Prodigal Son story is another example. They want to be able to control the terms. And Jesus keeps saying, “No, God controls the terms. And God can welcome whomever God wants.”

Do you know anyone like this? Have you ever been someone like this, resentful when someone else gets rewarded? How are you at asking for help? Do you prefer to give gifts, or receive them?
These are some of the ways we know it’s hard for us to receive the generosity of God.

A prayer for today: Lord, open my spirit to receive your gifts. Open my heart to rejoice in the gifts given to the people around me, whether or not they’ve earned them. Open my eyes to see who wants to give me time or help today. Open my ears to those who want to share themselves with me. Open my hands to give and receive, in love and humility and gratitude. Amen.

There’s a lot to be said for getting paid hourly… but what Jesus offers is daily bread. Enough for the day. Take it.

9-15-14 - Unfair God

Now we come to one of my favorite parables – the workers in the vineyard. No blood or violence in this one, just grace beyond measure. And boy, does that make some people mad!

You can read the whole story for yourself – Here's the “nutshell” version. A landowner hires day laborers for his vineyard, agreeing to a standard wage. They’re happy, he’s happy. As the day progresses, he goes back out to the marketplace at intervals and hires more workers, even at 5 in the afternoon, when the workday is nearly done. At quitting time, he instructs his manager to pay everyone a full day’s wage – what could be more fair than that? But the ones who worked the whole day feel they should get more than those who worked less time.

"And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’"

Now, we might argue that their workload grew less as more workers were added to the vineyard… but even so, they have a point, don’t they? We almost always have a legitimate grievance when we compare ourselves to other people. When we stand before God’s grace alone, though, we are apt to find ourselves grateful for the abundance of mercy, as well as other gifts we receive.

Like many of Jesus’ parables, this one is aimed at those who believe they are “in” in God’s realm by virtue of their hard work and righteousness. If we all get the same reward no matter how hard we work, what’s the point of working hard? Precisely!

The Kingdom of Heaven is not for strivers – it is for what we become when we’ve finally reached the end of our striving and give up. Give in. The currency of the Kingdom of Heaven is grace, unmerited love and forgiveness in abundance. Grace goes beyond contract. By its very nature, it is “unfair.” We cannot earn it. It is totally up to God to give, to whomever God wants, no matter how much or how little we try to please God.

How does that sit with you? On our best days, we say, “Whew!” because we know we get a pass. On our worse days, we say, “Hey! How come that one got a break?” What kind of day are you having? A “thank God for grace” day or a “I want them to get what’s comin’ to them” day?

If you’re in the former position, amen! You are in in the Life of God. Spend some time in prayer today giving thanks for all the ways you see and pass on God's grace.

If the idea of mercy for another – even a heinous monster – is troubling you, that’s fine too. We feel what we feel. What we can do with those feelings is pray for those undeserving people (Vladimir Putin, anyone? ISIL?) Pray that they would somehow feel the fullness of God’s true blessing. That’s the only force I know of that can transform the blackest heart. It's happened before...

I-Tunes users this week received a free gift of the new U2 album, whether or not they wanted it. In honor of that gift, let’s end with an old song of theirs, “Grace,” especially these lyrics:
What once was hurt / What once was friction / What left a mark / No longer stings /
Because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things

9-12-14 - Forgiving Others

Lest we think this story Jesus told was hopelessly out of date, I learned that we still have debtors’ prisons in this country. One in Alabama just got closed down by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Threatening punishment for those who cannot pay is an old strategy. Jesus even seems to employ it in the end to his parable:

“So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” The lord in the parable hands over the unmerciful servant to be punished (“tortured”) until he can pay the whole debt. Forgive, or else, is that Jesus’ message? Let’s hope this is another of his hyperbolic turns, where he drives home a point by exaggerating it.

Whether motivated by fear or love, the call to Christ followers to excel at forgiving others is clear. So today I invite you to pray through a Litany of Forgiveness I crafted a few years ago. Take your time with it. Be specific in naming those whom you are called to forgive:

Litany of Forgiveness

“Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” 
(Luke 6:37-38)

Lord, release in us forgiveness for our enemies in the world. “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28)

For those who hate us for who we are – and those whom we disdain;
for those who use violence to gain their ends – and for the times we do the same;
for those who seek vengeance, not peace – and for us, when we do the same;
Help us to forgive those enemies we name before you now, especially…
Forgive us, Lord, and help us to forgive.

Lord, please release in us forgiveness for ourselves.
“Jesus said, ‘But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Then he said to the woman, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’” (Luke 7:47b-48)

For the ways we have disappointed ourselves;
for the things we have said that we cannot un-say;
for the things we have done that we cannot undo;
for the opportunities we have let go by;
for the hurts we have inflicted on those whom we love:
Help us to forgive ourselves for those things we name before you now, especially…
Forgive us, Lord, and help us to forgive.

Lord, please release in us forgiveness for people who have hurt us.
“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)

For grudges we have held and bitterness we have fed;
for the people who have hurt us by what they’ve said to us or about us;
for the people who have hurt us by not valuing us;
for those who have taken from us and not given back;
for those who have abused our trust – and even those who have abused us
Help us to forgive those people we name before you now, especially…
Forgive us, Lord, and help us to forgive.

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (II Corinthians 5:18-19)


9-11-14 - Community of Forgiveness

This week’s Jesus story still isn’t over – there is another turn to it. (You know, Jesus’ story is never really over!) The injustice wrought by the newly forgiven slave is not the last word. After he refuses to release his fellow-slave from his debt, the other servants turn the mean guy in:

“When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.”

Okay, I’m not so down with the torture part. God is not in the torture business – though I do think we endure a kind of spiritual pain when we withhold forgiveness. But here Jesus explicitly links forgiveness in and forgiveness out, as he does in other teachings on prayer. We can’t get away from it – and we can’t fully experience God’s love if we can’t forgive ourselves and others.

What I like in this story is the way the community watches the situation, and calls out the injustice. Having witnessed the great mercy shown this slave, they were not about to let him get away with holding someone else to harsh terms.

Injustice can be perpetrated and perpetuated in communities, and misdeeds swept under the carpet. But in healthy communities, a light is always on and members are accountable to each other. When someone acts in a destructive or prideful way, a healthy community has people of integrity who can remind her of the mercy she has received, and invite her to align her values with those of the community. In Christian communities, that means the values Jesus taught and lived.

Think of how our police departments and military units and financial institutions might function if they were communities of accountability and justice. Many recent news stories would have been non-events.

Have you ever been called on your behavior or treatment of another? Was the message delivered in a way that you could receive it? How did you respond?

Have you ever spoken to another about the way they are acting or speaking? Perhaps a notorious gossip or someone who routinely sows discord? Those are hard conversations to have. But when we put the health of the community and of each person in it – including the one who’s being destructive – above our social discomfort, we can move forward. And if we pray it through beforehand, and during, those conversations often go much better than we anticipate.

If there is someone you think you need to talk to about behavior that damages the community, I suggest praying for that person for awhile before having the conversation – it gives us more peace and gives the Spirit a chance to prepare the ground. And if, as you speak, you can talk about times you may have been less than wonderful, and speak with humility, it might help keep the walls from going up. And if you’re able to pray with the person you’re having the conversation with, so much the better.

God set us into communities, starting with families, classrooms, workplaces, memberships… Community can be one of the hardest aspects of human life, and one of the richest. This story Jesus tells invites us to be active in keeping our communities as healthy and life-giving as we can. That includes speaking the truth in love.

9-10-14 - Strained Mercy

What a heart-warming story we heard yesterday in Jesus’ parable about debt forgiveness. The king had pity on his poor slave and forgave his debt, all 10,000 talents of it. In fact, Jesus says, “he released him and forgave him the debt,” which makes me wonder if he was even set free from his servitude. It must have been a good day for that debtor. One would like to think he continued the chain of mercy. Ah, but the story was not finished. Plot twist – turns out the debtor was also a creditor:

“But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.”

So the one who, in effect, just gained 10,000 talents he no longer has to repay refuses to even extend the collection period on a mere 100-denarii loan. Liberals like me tend to think, “Oh, if everyone just received merciful treatment, they’d treat others that way.” This parable suggests it’s not so automatic. I’ve preached to guys on the street who I’m pretty sure have required major forgiveness in life – and some of them really didn't approve of the parable of the prodigal son. They prefer justice to mercy, hard as it is.

In this story, Jesus suggests that, when we refuse to forgive our fellow human beings for the offenses they have committed, we are being exactly like that wicked slave – because the forgiveness we have received from God is so much greater than anything that is asked of us. Do you buy that? we need to accept at least two conditions for it to make any sense to us:

1. That we are sinners in need for forgiveness by God, and have received that grace.
2. That, no matter how serious another’s offense against us is, it pales in comparison to humankind’s offenses against our Creator.

At the time we are wounded or insulted in some way, it’s hard to see anything but our pain and righteous anger. We’ll talk about it to anyone who will listen – often to anyone except the perpetrator. The idea that in God’s Big Picture our betrayals and shortcomings may be just as serious, or more, seems inconceivable in that moment. We lose perspective.

I’m not going to try to persuade you which forgiveness is bigger. I’ll just invite us to put ourselves in the shoes of the first debtor, the one whose huge debt is removed, who has been set free. I believe that the more we really integrate that spiritual gift, the better able we are to keep perspective when we are sinned against. When we really “get” how blissfully off the hook we are, we might just be more inclined to want other people to enjoy that feeling, even those who’ve hurt us most. Especially them.

Yesterday, we did some confessing of our sins. Today, let’s think about people we still need to forgive for hurting us, letting us down, lying about us. Bear in mind the person you’re keeping on the hook might be yourself. It might be God. What would it feel like to release that person?

It can take a lifetime to accept God’s forgiveness and freedom, to live into the change in status conferred upon us in Christ: no longer a slave, no longer a debtor; now a daughter, a son, free. But what a life we can have if we accept that gift right now.

9-9-14 - Mercy

Jesus said there is no limit to the number of times we must be prepared to forgive someone in our community. Then, to illustrate the point, he told one of his trademark stories. This is a longer parable, with multiple characters and scenes. As is often the case with the way Matthew tells Jesus’ stories, this one has a violent cast to it. The story in a nutshell goes like this:

A king is settling his accounts with his slaves. Apparently this king not only has slaves, but is like their loan-shark. And the terms of non-payment are pretty severe – you’re sold off, along with your wife and children, and have to sell all your belongings, with the proceeds going to service your debt. Nice. One guy owes ten thousand talents. He begs the king for mercy – and receives it. Wow! That was unexpected, right? What he does in response to having his massive debt forgiven we’ll talk about tomorrow. Today, let’s focus on this king who is capable of such mercy.

Jesus starts the story by saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” Is he saying that GOD may be compared to such a king? Not necessarily – he says the realm of God may be so compared. At the very least, we surmise that in the economy of God’s realm, the “slaves” or servants owe the king quite a bit, and that settling these accounts is a normative occurrence.

Do we owe debts to God? Some theologians, like Anselm of Canterbury, argued that every sin we commit is akin to stealing from God. If God is perfect and has given us perfect life in his image, then every blemish on that perfection is an offense against the creator, an offense for which we must make restitution. That’s one way to look at it.

Or we might use the language of stewardship, which asserts that everything we have in this life, including our life, our gifts and resources, our relationships, our abilities, is on loan from our heavenly father, for us to use and enjoy and to nurture into growth. In this sense, every time we claim something as ours, from money to credit for things we’ve done, we are snatching what was freely offered us to use. There is no “mine” in this view – and we are always to be ready to account for our use of God’s gifts.

That's a way of seeing the process of repentance and confession – a daily settling of our accounts with God. Do you make a regular practice of confession? We all do it in church, with or without much thought. Some people do it in their own prayer times. Others visit a confessor for the sacrament of reconciliation. To be honest before another person and hear the words of God’s forgiveness is a powerful grace.

Today, we might take an inventory, thinking through our relationships, our work and activities, our use of our gifts, communities we belong to. Incidents of self- centeredness or wounding of self or others sometimes come to mind as we do this, and we can offer them to Jesus for forgiveness.

Or read through a Prayer Book litany like the one for Ash Wednesday – that’ll stir up some repentance.

And when we find we’ve taken more out of the kitty than we can replace, when we have committed too serious an offense to repay – which may be all of them – we rely on God’s great mercy. If it’s anything like the king’s in this story, though the consequences could be extremely dire, we can walk away with our books balanced, nothing hanging over our heads. How great a feeling that is!

9-8-14 - Forgiveness Without End

Last week we explored what happens when one member of the community is hurt or offended by another. Jesus laid out a process of confrontation leading to resolution, positive or negative. Peter must have been thinking ahead, for he realized it wasn’t enough to be able to address conflict or banish offenders… if what Jesus had been saying all along meant anything, reconciliation was going to have to include forgiveness. How far was that supposed to go?

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”  (This week's gospel passage is here.)

In another gospel, it’s translated “seventy times seven.” I once wrote a short story called “The 489th Wrong,” about a woman who finally reaches that number of times she feels she’s forgiven her husband, and she’s thrilled that she doesn’t have to do it anymore (wrong!). But it’s not about the math. Seven is one of those infinite numbers, so Jesus is basically saying, “As many times as needed.” There is no end to the number of times Christ-followers are called to forgive.

The deeper the wound, the more forgiveness costs us. I see forgiveness as “giving for.” Someone has taken something from you; they owe it, and you pay yourself for them – in effect, you lose twice. Why do that? Because it cancels the debt, clears the field, resets the clock, frees you and the other person. That’s one reason.

The other, as we’ll see from the parable Jesus uses to illustrate his point, is that while we’re busy trying to decide whether or not to forgive someone, somebody else is no doubt wrestling with forgiving us. And even if we’ve offended no one on earth, chances are we’ve done, said or thought something that makes us less than who God intended us to be, and therefore we need God’s forgiveness. When we think about how many times we ask God to forgive us, often for the same darn thing, we’re more inclined to cut each other some slack. That’s what the great hymn “Forgive our sins” reminds us.

Is there someone whom you have been unable to forgive? A resentment that sits there within you? Chances are that wound remains unhealed, and gets reopened periodically, either by that person or by similar feelings. What feelings come up when you think about forgiving that person, releasing that debt?

If you don’t yet feel ready to forgive, might you be willing to let God do it? That’s one way we can pray toward forgiveness, by praying, “Lord, I can’t forgive this person… but if you want to, I guess that’s okay.” Just praying that will shift the landscape a bit, generate some space, and the Holy Spirit will work with whatever space we give. If you're willing to go a little further, pray, "And if you want me to, please give me a desire to forgive..." That's another opening.

Our “forgiveness muscles” need to be exercised just like everything else in us. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get to the point where we thank those who hurt and bother us for giving us the opportunity to practice forgiveness, over and over and over again? Practice makes perfect...

9-5-14 - Promise of Presence

Sometimes I wish Jesus would show up and set a few things straight in this messed up world of ours – if people would pay more attention than they did the first time around. But that idle wish misses a big ol’ point: He is here. He said he would be. It’s up to us to discern him and to make him known.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” is a promise. A promise of presence. To unfold that promise, though, requires a few steps of faith on our part.

First, we must be able to distinguish between flesh and spirit. Jesus said that fleshly reality was limited, and spiritual reality never-ending. Jesus’ enfleshed presence was time-and-space-limited, 33 years or so, give or take, in one region of the world. His presence in a resurrection body lasted about 40 days. His spiritual presence is eternal, and still going strong among those who choose to believe in his promise.

The other article of faith we need to affirm is the idea of Jesus living in us. I tend to take the promises of baptism at face value - the promise is that we are united with Christ, made a new creation, given a new heart and a new spirit – his spirit. So Paul wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” But we are not filled with his spirit in an “invasion of the body snatchers” way. Rather, his spirit joined with mine brings forth a new person, that most true “Kate” (fill in your name) that can possibly be.

If Christ dwells in us, abides in us, then he is real in us. And when we gather with others in whom Christ lives, his presence can become even stronger and more real. By believing and joining together, we make Christ present in our world, not just a suggestion of presence, but fully here, spiritually speaking. (We have to supply the flesh and blood.)

How might it change our lives and ministries if we brought this reality more fully to our consciousness? If, when we gathered together, we knew Jesus was among us, and spoke and acted and prayed like we knew we were in the presence of the all-powerful God? If, when we engaged in ministry, we made sure we were in teams of at least two, so that the power of Christ’s presence would fill and empower our work in his name? At the shelter, with a depressed friend, at a meeting. Don’t get me wrong – Christ is present when we’re alone too. But he said when two or three of us – our more – gathered in his name, he would be in our midst. That's huge!

Where do you think it would be great if Jesus showed up this weekend? It might be a place, a person, a situation… Do you have any idea how you might bring him there, with two or three others?

Going deeper… where do you think he might want to go? You might get quiet in prayer today or Saturday morning, and ask him: “Jesus, where do you want me to take you today, to make you known?”

I can’t wait to hear how those prayers turn out. I do know the world needs a lot more Jesus, and we’re just the ones to help make him known.

9-4-14 - Agreement

Some promises are dangerous, offering more than can seemingly be delivered. This statement of Jesus’ strikes me that way: “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” Anything? If even just two of us agree?

Is this a promise with a back-door clause – is it so unlikely that two people on earth would ever fully agree about any request, God has an automatic out? No, let’s assume Jesus was being straightforward. Which might leave us doubting God, knowing that we have prayed for outcomes with many people in whole-hearted agreement as to their desirability, without seeing them come to pass. Exhibit A are prayers for healing that are not visibly answered.

This is one of those bible verses that cannot be separated from the one that follows. It only accords with both faith and experience when seen in tandem with this: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Ah, now we’re not only talking about human agreement. We’re talking about being gathered as the Body of Christ, in his very presence. To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray as Christ; to pray from inside, as it were; to invoke the power that his very name makes known. To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray in agreement with him, and thus to pray with perfect faith. Our own is far from perfect, but Jesus’ is 100%. When we pray with Jesus, not only to Jesus, we have all the faith we need.

So why are some of our prayers not answered as we desire? Perhaps we weren’t quite praying in Christ. Maybe we were bringing forward our desires and seeking Christ’s blessing upon them, like a pie at the county fair. “Here, isn’t this one good?” Sometimes that yields answers we recognize. But our prayers feel more effective when we pray what Jesus is already praying for; his prayers come pre-blessed.

What are some of those “unanswered prayers” in your life?
I think most of us have some, and they often put distance between us and God. Call one to mind today.
Have you ever asked God what God thinks about that prayer? Ever discussed it with Jesus? Ever paid attention to the Spirit in you when you pray about that?

We might even try asking God: "What is your desire for me in this area?" We might be surprised at how God answers us. We might have to stay still for a time, and attend to what words or images or songs arise in us. Or it might hit us later.

Prayer isn’t about getting what we want; it’s about deepening a relationship, one that will last forever. We need to speak our desires - that's just good communicating, being real. But the more we cultivate intimacy with Jesus, the more we’ll find ourselves truly praying in his name, his will, his mind, his heart.

And sometimes, as Garth Brooks reminds us, there are reasons we only discover later for what feel like Unanswered Prayers.

9-3-14 - Free to Set Free

Do we want this much power? Several times Jesus sets the authority to offer or withhold forgiveness into a cosmic framework, saying that what we do in this world is mirrored in the heavenly realm. “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Yikes.

Maybe Jesus teaches this process of confrontation and reconciliation because there are such cosmic consequences to ignoring conflict and pain. When we bury our hurts, sweep our conflicts under the rug, not only do we stay bound, we keep the perpetrators of hurts bound to us. No one is free.

I have said before, and will again, that I believe what God wants most for us is freedom. And I have seen the process of healing and forgiving result in amazing freedom for people, huge releasing of energy and giftedness, new ability to see, to hope, to live. As I reflect on this, I keep thinking of stories of survivors of sexual abuse and trauma. (There is nothing explicit in the next few paragraphs, but if this is a sensitive area for you, read with care.)

I was once in a group praying for months with a friend who was a survivor of sexual abuse throughout her life – it’s not unusual for people who have been victimized as children to suffer similar abuse in adulthood. This woman saw herself more as victim than survivor, and harmed herself as well. One time I said something about moving toward forgiveness. She turned on me in fury and said, “They told me in my support group that I don’t ever have to forgive!” I backed down, thinking, “That is true – but then will you ever be free?” Forgiveness cannot be rushed, but to close ourselves to it leaves us bound to people who have hurt us.

Years later I met another woman. She and her two sisters had been sexually abused throughout childhood by her father and grandfather, who were still alive and in the family. She had done the excruciating work of addressing those wounds and moving toward healing, and had come to a place of forgiveness of her abusers. She did not trust or get close to them, and worked to ensure the safety of children in the family system, but over time she released the awful burden of their crimes. And then she was no longer psychically connected to them – forgiveness meant freedom from them. Her sisters refused to do this work; one was deeply alcoholic and the other suicidal. As brutal as it is to work at healing from trauma, it is a movement toward freedom, and life.

Many of us have not experienced trauma this severe – but we might feel bound in some way by a hurt we have suffered or anger we continue to hold. Usually the anger is justified; it can still be corrosive over time. Today, we might let some of those stuck places come up in our mind, and pray about forgiving people who have hurt us, or asking forgiveness of those whom we have hurt. If we ask the Spirit to show us those things, they often emerge from the muck.

Inner healing is a powerful process of bringing the love of God to bear on our emotional wounds. I have witnessed tremendous transformation result from the healing of memories and specific areas of woundedness. (If you want to know more about this process, please contact me.)

As we release that healing stream of God’s love and power to seek out the hidden wounds and resentments, life returns to parched places, and old knots become unwound so that peace can flood in. “It is for freedom that Christ has made us free,” Paul wrote. Jesus has won for us freedom to release ourselves and others. Let’s set the captives free.

9-2-14 - Cast Out

In our gospel passage for this week, Jesus lays out a three- step process for dealing with conflict in the community of faith, by which someone who has inflicted hurt is invited to participate in repentance and reconciliation. And he provides a contingency for those occasions when the offending party is unable or unwilling to be reconciled: “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

On the face of it, this approach seems realistic, if a bit harsh. If trust has been breached in the community and attempts at repair have failed, perhaps wholeness can only be gained by isolating the offender. No doubt this is the teaching that gave rise to the practice of shunning and excommunication in some Christian traditions. Separating an offender from the community at large can be an act of punishment or protection, or both. It is also itself an act of aggression, even if warranted at times, perhaps in the case of an abusive spouse or parent whose presence in the community would make it impossible for the survivor to feel safe.

I wonder, though, if Jesus meant something different by these words. I remember years ago my friend Aldon noting that the way Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors was to eat with them and heal them, invite them to repent and to join his community. The people he seemed to have no desire to be in relationship with were the "holy men," the religious leaders. Is Jesus inviting us to go deeper into reconciliation than seems comfortable? Is he suggesting we open ourselves to the Other who has hurt us, see his wounds and distorted perceptions, reach across the divide with love that has the power to transform?

That is an intriguing read of this passage. As a strategy, it leaves room for growth, where distancing and isolating offenders does not. Of course, each situation demands its own discernment. Reaching out must be accompanied by true honesty, within safe boundaries for those hurt. I think of the Truth Commissions set up in South Africa during the dismantling of apartheid. Reconciliation was forged not by burying grievances, but by bringing them into the light, speaking them in truth and clarity, with the perpetrators there to hear the effects of their actions and invited to repent. Healing for victims can happen without the repentance of perpetrators, but when you have both, you have seeds for deeper engagement, deeper community.

Think of someone who you have shut out of your life or community because of harm they have caused.
Can you imagine reconciliation on any level? If so, pray for a vision of how. 

If not, can you pray for that person to be healed and even blessed? 
When someone is blessed, she is much less able to hurt.

I knew a community in which a new member was found to have been viewing internet pornography involving minors. He did not hide from law enforcement when he was discovered, but entered willingly into the justice process and into therapy, hoping to find deliverance from this compulsive behavior. But people in the church were unwilling to have him around, except under very stringent guidelines – rules which ensured he could never become part of that otherwise loving community in which he might have found healing and transformation. I believe safety for all could have been ensured without this degree of exclusion – but we’ll never know. He did not stay long under these strictures, and neither he nor his wife continued their exploration of the Christian life. And some members of that church missed an opportunity to expand their capacity to love the sinner – and so to experience God’s love more fully.

None of this is easy, nor simple. But I believe it is the Good News which we are called to live.

9-1-14 - Conflict

Conflict is a fact of life – or at least a fact of human nature. Wherever two or three are gathered, there are likely to be four or five competing desires (sometimes within one person.) We don’t all see things the same way; each has her own lens borne of her own history and circumstances and brain chemistry. We don’t all want or feel we need the same things. inevitably what one person wants gets in the way of some other good, as, say, a desire for untrammeled speed will compromise the safety of others.

Christian communities are not immune to conflict. In some ways, they are conflict incubators, since people come to them hoping for the idyllic family they never had, dragging along their thwarted, dysfunctional baggage. Conflict within a church family is a given. It’s what we do with it that makes the difference. As my friend Peter likes to say, “Conflict doesn’t kill churches. Suppressed conflict kills churches.”

Jesus knew that the community of his followers would include hurt and conflict – witness the infighting among his disciples while he was yet with them. So he provided a process for dealing with it:

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” (This week's Gospel passage here.)

Jesus’ teaching makes so much psychological sense. First we are to have the courage and respect to speak privately to the person who’s hurt us. Don’t triangulate conflicts by talking to a third person before sharing your feelings honestly with the first. How many conflicts could be quickly deflated by this simple step – and yet, many of us have been conditioned not to confront people, so we let it escalate.

If that conversation goes nowhere because the other person isn’t open to hearing how you feel, Jesus says to bring in that third or fourth person – but in the presence of the one who’s hurt you, not behind his back. Now it becomes a community issue, and out in the light. 

And if that doesn’t work, he says to bring your grievance before the whole community. What happens when we do that? We model openness and vulnerability and transparency. We’ve invited prayer for ourselves and the person who’s hurt us. We’ve offered a wound for healing and opened ourselves to the transforming power of love. Can this get messy? Sure it can. But not nearly as toxic as a conflict that is allowed to fester.

Can you think of a time when you were hurt by someone in your community of faith? Were you able to speak it? Did you speak of it to others before you spoke to that person? I’m guilty of that. Did you distance yourself from that person or the community? Have you forgiven?

If the memory is still painful, that means it’s not healed – that’s something to invite the Holy Spirit into. It’s never too late to forgive and be set free, even if that person is no longer in your life.

Of course, this teaching assumes relationship and intimacy within the Body of Christ. Many of our congregations are far from that. Maybe that’s where we start – by getting close enough that hurts can happen. And loving enough to forgive and heal.