9-30-15 - Law / Grace

Want to see people get legalistic in a hurry? Bring up a “life-style” issue. It even happened around Jesus. In his remarks on marriage, divorce and adultery, we hear the Law emphasized more strenuously than with many of his teachings. He says that the Torah, the Law of Moses, provided a way for men to divorce their wives, but implies that this “out” was only given because of they were so incapable of love. Talking to his disciples in the privacy of the house, he does not offer any wiggle room.

To which we might reply, “Yeah, well, he wasn’t married, was he?”

No, we don’t get to play that card. Jesus knew the human condition well enough, and no doubt had enough married friends to understand how challenging it is for two people to put their lives together for a lifetime. Yet he offers little grace in his teaching on divorce, he who was so forgiving of people who squandered their gifts in loose living, and even those who hoarded wealth and cheated others.

This is one reason it’s never advisable to “proof text,” to find one passage of scripture to back up a position. Chances are another passage will contradict it or provide a broader context in which multiple interpretations can thrive. I think there’s a reason Jesus said these things to his disciples in private rather than to the general public – perhaps he was holding up for those who were leaders, who represented his movement, an ideal standard which he knew people less committed to God-Life might not manage.

That’s a big, wild guess, of course, if a comforting notion. The truth is, I don’t know why Jesus said these things, and why he didn’t say them publicly. What I do know is that the Law is God-given and beautiful – and can crush the life out of us if misused. The Law (at least in abstract) is God’s pure gift, given to impure human vessels who cannot live it fully. This puts us in rather a bind, as Paul wrote about so movingly in Romans 7 (you might read 7 and 8 in full...)

Realizing we cannot meet the demands of God's Law can inspire different responses:
  • We can give up, and toss it out altogether, living by our own instincts and reason.
  • We can bear down harder, trying to legislate and control what the heart doesn’t seem capable of doing willingly.
  • We can carry its standards in tension with the forgiveness of the loving and merciful God we’ve been taught to worship, and invite the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to help us live into it. Gee, which one do you think I favor?

Lawlessness leads to highly subjective ethics and often to licentiousness and heartache.

Legalism distorts God’s gift and focuses us on penalties, and then we lose sight of the Spirit and often find ourselves trying to control other people’s behavior more than our own.

Living in the light of God’s amazing grace leads us to freedom, fostering an environment of love and forgiveness in which people can find themselves, find God, and move toward wholeness. It is only in relationship with God that we are enabled to live the Law as God intended.

If the Law of the Lord is to revive the soul, as the Psalmist wrote, it must be leavened with Grace, described here by a modern-day writer of psalms. Where do you spend your time?

9-29-15 - Holy Matrimony

When Jesus is asked whether or not divorce is permissible for the faithful, he goes to the Scriptures, quoting Genesis: But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh."

Sounds simple enough. It’s the ideal of what marriage is. Much more than a change of life status and condition, marriage in the Judeo-Christian view is the creation of a new person, if you will, an entity crafted from the union of the two partners. It’s a beautiful ideal, and maddeningly difficult to live into, especially in a culture that understand marriage as the consummation of romantic love. And to the question of whether only two people of different gender can become “one flesh,” the bible is silent, as it is on abortion, medical ethics, labor laws, and so many other issues that vex us today.

What Jesus is not silent on is the sanctity of the union once made. He answers the Pharisees in a fairly general way – "Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
But Mark tells us that in private he has a different answer for his disciples:

 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Harsh words. I wonder why Jesus didn’t want to define it so starkly in public. And why this statement allows no room for situations like abuse, infidelity or neglect that might warrant dissolving a marriage. And what are we to make of our situation, in which so many marriages suffer estrangement, unfaithfulness and often break down completely?

In the Episcopal wedding liturgy, the congregation is asked, after the two parties have declared their intent, whether they will do all in their power to support these two persons in their life in Christ. This is where we have a chance to enhance the “holy” in matrimony. Whether or not we are present when a couple made their vows, we can pray for them, talk with them, tangibly support their ongoing emotional and spiritual connection. And we can counter the cultural messages about marriage with the Christian narrative – that God has made a new creation out of two distinct persons in order that they reveal Love in the world. That new creation is fragile and vulnerable – it needs nurturing and protecting.

It is not up to each couple to save their marriage – it is up to their community to support and to love them, even when they fail to stay together. If we want to see marriage upheld as holy, let’s pray and support the couples we know, for the holy comes from God, through God's people.

9-28-15 - Culture Wars

We land smack dab in the middle of it this week, my friend: marriage and children. Jesus weighs in – not on marriage equality because that was not a phenomenon, but on divorce, a topic on which many vocal opponents of “gay marriage” are silent, perhaps because divorce is so prevalent in our times, even among Christian evangelicals.

Let’s look at how and why he comments on the topic at all:
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you." (Here is this week's gospel passage.)

Jesus does not bring this subject up on his own. When he teaches, he focuses on how we can better understand God’s love and activity in our world, and how we are to treat the poor, the infirm, the elderly, the young, the alien, and those with whom we have conflict. Jesus seems little interested in laying down the law on marriage or any of the topics that claim so much time and energy in American Christianity.

But here come the Pharisees, trying to bait him again, this time on whether or not divorce is permissible. Jesus is, as always, cagey in his response. He does not answer the question himself. He points them back to the Law of Moses, “What did Moses command you?” They answer that the Law allows a man to divorce his wife. And Jesus replies that this “out” is provided to allow for “hardness of heart,” not because it is godly. (More tomorrow on what else he says …)

My question is: what does this have to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ? What does this have to do with “the kingdom of God has come among you,” “The Word became flesh and dwelt among you full of grace and truth?” It was then, and is now, a distraction from the fullness of Jesus’ message. Yes, how we live, and the honor with which we do and do not regard the people in our lives, is definitely connected to that Good News of wholeness restored. I just don’t believe that’s where we are to focus. When we focus on human behavior, we stop looking at Jesus and proclaiming him as Lord.

I try hard not to get too drawn into the “culture war” debates. They so massively distort what the Christian enterprise is and is meant to be. They obscure the power of love and healing with which the Church has been entrusted, and trumpet legalism instead of love, law to the detriment of grace. All of revelation is important, but when the debate about these matters drowns out the Great Commandment to love God with heart, soul and mind – and your neighbor as yourself – we have a problem.

One of the religious organizations I follow has as its tagline: “Love your neighbor. No exceptions.” When somebody asks what you think about marriage, sexuality, or any other social issue of the day, you might just “pull a Jesus” and ask in return: How can we best love our neighbor on this question?

I guarantee it’ll change the quality of the conversation and invite Jesus to be smack dab in the middle of it.

9-25-15 - Pass the Salt

I don’t have a clue what Jesus meant by this:
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” (The whole passage assigned for Sunday is here.)

Since he’s just talked about the fires of hell as a consequence of sin, I’m guessing that has something to do with it. Is he saying that each of us has a taste of sin’s consequences, both the immediate personal outcomes, and the separation from God that results? It is that last, more eternal consequence that Jesus has freed us from, but sometimes we feel the heat of those fires. Is that what it means to be salted with fire?

And what does that have to do with the qualities of salt? How do we maintain the saltiness of salt? (And how do we read this metaphor in an age and culture all too aware of the dangers of consuming salt…)

It is all too inscrutable to me. I could consult commentaries, but not today. So I will focus on the last sentence, which does strike me as something we can connect with:
“Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

More than once Jesus commends “saltiness” in his followers and warns of the dangers of salt that has lost its flavor. Might we link "salt" with the power of the Holy Spirit at work in followers of Christ? Trying to live as a Christian without the active participation of the Spirit can make us dull and flavor-less, adding little to the world around us beyond vague talk of love and ordered worship in pretty buildings. Is Jesus condemning the Spirit-less religiosity he so often saw in the religious leaders of his time?

What does it mean to have salt in ourselves? It means, in part, that we feel the flow of God-Life in us; we know we’re part of an enterprise bigger than ourselves. It means we confront discouragement with prayer, and defeat with hope, sorrow with a joy borne not of circumstances, but of faith.

When do you feel the most “salty,” alive, full of flavor as a Christian? Is it in works of service or giving? In worship or prayer? When you’re reading the bible? Organizing ministries for others to live into? Talking about God’s involvement in your life? Pay attention to where you most come alive – chances are that’s where you have salt within yourself.

And when we have salt within ourselves, it’s not so hard to be at peace with one another.

9-24-15 - Grand Guignol Gospel?

It is somewhat ironic to hear the man who healed the maimed, the lame and the blind suggest people put themselves in such states, but here it is, one of the toughest of all of Jesus’ tough teachings:

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”

It is a challenge to find the Good News in this “Grand Guignol” of Jesus sayings. This is a violent wake-up call to be clear about our priorities, to be realistic about the consequences of sin – and to put God-Life first, no matter what. It is short on the message of grace and forgiveness, and in its stark clarity offers a kind of tough love we might recognize from other spheres.

Think, for instance, what we might say to an addict one bender away from losing her life. In such light, this language doesn’t look so harsh. Or an oncologist telling a patient that his only hope is to cut out a tumor, even at the risk of compromising healthy tissue. We wouldn’t think twice. Often we fail to connect sin with such dire consequences in our lives – surely we have time to shape up, ask forgiveness, we think; we can get straightened out tomorrow. One more day of gossip or petty lies or gluttony won’t make that great a difference, right?

If we’re willing to take sin seriously without obsessing about it, there are many more gentle measures we can take before it becomes a cancer in our lives, or a will-weakening addiction. We can adopt a practice of regular confession, not so we wallow in our sins, but to shine the light of truth upon ourselves and recognize the often unseen effects of sinful tendencies in us. We can practice forgiving others regularly, so that we don’t let resentment and judgment build up. We can cultivate compassion, which allows us to look past the damage we do or endure, and pray for the wounded person behind the actions.

Are there patterns, habits, even people in your life whom you would do well to cut off, cut out, so that you can live in greater freedom and purpose? Are there parts of yourself that need to be cut away? I was once praying about an over-dependency I had, and got an image of this big, bloody, tuberous tumor in a chest cavity, attached by numerous blood vessels, which I had to let Jesus remove and heal. Yuck – and Alleluia.

We can trust ourselves to the Great Physician, the surgeon who knows how to cut cleanly, the healer who knows how to apply balm to our wounds and restore us to wholeness.

9-23-15 - Jesus Gets Tough

Sunday’s gospel passage is really several different teachings put together – or it reads that way. How otherwise to account for the abrupt change in mood from Jesus’ conversation with his disciples about how to respond to people outside the faith community to his stern warning against blocking children – and maybe also the poor and powerless – from believing in him:

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

By “these little ones” he didn’t necessarily mean children. He may well have been referring to simple folk, plain, uneducated, unimportant in the eyes of society’s leaders. And who would dream of putting “stumbling blocks” in the way of such people? Not, we hope, his disciples, though more than once we see them trying to hush beggars or lepers calling out for Jesus.

He may have been targeting the religious leaders, Pharisees and scribes, whom he so often accused of laying burdens on people, making them feel they could never measure up to the demands of the law, forgetting the breadth of God’s mercy. Any insistence of the “right way” to believe, to act, to think, to worship can serve as a stumbling block to someone who has not been raised that way, or has another way of celebrating the love of God.

Are we snared here? Are there people whose spiritual progress toward Christ we impede? Maybe not impede – but how about don’t facilitate? Do we celebrate people’s belief in Christ wherever we find it, even if the packaging is different than ours? Do we make sure we are not creating barriers in the way we organize ourselves or worship? Are we out there creating easy on-ramps to faith by being open about our faith in Christ and the Good News?

There are people with a simple and natural faith in Jesus. I’m sure you can think of a few if you try. We need ask nothing of them but that they show us how to love our Lord so simply and so fully, for sometimes in our complexity we create stumbling blocks for ourselves.

9-22-15 - Cups of Water

Papal mania is sweeping the country. Pope Francis is coming! Pope Francis is coming! And these breathless notices filling my inbox come not only from church-affiliated organizations. They’re being sent by interfaith groups and environmental coalitions and anti-poverty activists and human rights workers. Everyone (except maybe the Koch brothers…) is excited about Pope Francis’ visit. He will speak the truth about what matters – financial inequities, environmental destruction, intolerance, war-mongering, all of it. And people will hear it, and all that is wrong will be put right.

It is gratifying to see a Christian leader generating such excitement from such a wide range of people. In his humility and authenticity and commitment to the Gospel that Jesus actually preached, Francis can do much to restore the tarnished image of Christianity. I see in the outpouring of welcome for him a shade of what Jesus said to his disciples after they complained that someone outside their group was attempting to work miracles in his name:

“Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

Many churches feel increasingly isolated from their communities as efforts to attract people to worship services are met with so little success. And it is true that what institutional religion is selling does not seem to be of great interest to many in today’s Western societies. Where churches can expand is by inviting people to join them in works of service. That is a most natural way to share faith, working alongside people who are not part of our congregations, making space for them to bring “cups of water” to us and those with whom we work to address needs and change structures. From inviting people to help us serve meals in soup kitchens to promoting my bishop's online course on gun violence prevention, there are many access points that might appeal to the un- or de-churched.

What works of service or advocacy are you involved in? Who from beyond your congregation might you invite to join you? How might you lift up the gifts of such people, making them full partners in your work? How might you communicate that your commitment to this work is rooted in your relationship with Christ, that you work in his name?

Put another way: Who around us is offering us cups of water because we bear the name of Christ, affirming our work and our commitments? By all means, let’s take the water and drink it, and build on the friendship from there. We know a little something about the water of life.

9-21-15 - The Interfaith Gospel?

As you may know, I lead the Interfaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut; to some, I am the face of interfaith in the area. Which is pretty funny, because this is my first involvement in interfaith work. I always thought it was valid, but “not my thing.” I was more interested in helping Christians become more connected to Christ, and much more aware of what he actually taught and did.

But often I find that people of other faiths more clearly recognize the power of Jesus, and live according to the values of the Kingdom, even if they don’t acknowledge him as the Son of God. Evidently this is not a new phenomenon:

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. (Here is this week's Gospel passage.)

That’s a far cry from “whoever is not for us is against us,” which is the kind of rhetoric you hear from those who claim that “Christianity is under attack in this country." Jesus makes a a radically open statement here – that those who honor him, even if they have not made the choice (or been offered the choice…) to follow him as Lord, are to be honored as allies and co-laborers.

I have a Muslim friend with a powerful ministry of healing prayer. That was a challenge to me – I think of Christ as the one who heals. And maybe He is healing through the prayers of this very faithful, very humble, very devout Muslim! I have a Jewish friend who loves to worship Jesus. I have Sikh friends steeped in peaceful anti-violence work, and Baha’I friends who offer hospitality beyond measure. In a time when highly visible Christians in our country – many of them running for President – are vocally supporting hatred, racism, discrimination, violence, xenophobia and a bias against the poor, we need to look beyond labels to words and actions.

I am not saying there is no distinction between religious traditions – I don’t subscribe to the “all religions are the same” view. As a committed follower of Christ, I believe he is Lord, Messiah, Redeemer, the Way, the Truth and the Life, and I seek to introduce people in my life to this Lord who is the source of peace, power, presence and purpose for me. What I am saying is that there is goodness and love in many of the world’s religious traditions – and that perhaps God is bigger than the categories in which we try to contain him. Big enough even to work through people who don’t know Jesus as Lord, but work in his name.

Who do you know like that? How can you support their work? If people are to see something of value in the Way of following Christ, it’ll be because we park our judgmentalism and start celebrating love wherever we find it.

9-18-15 - Welcoming God

More than once, Jesus tells his disciples that how they treat the vulnerable directly affects their relationship to him. In Matthew 25, it’s the hungry, naked, sick, imprisoned and the stranger. In our passage this week, it is the child, the child who has nothing obvious to offer, who is raw potential.

What does it mean to welcome God in a child? It means to welcome joy and wonder, unpredictability, rule-breaking – or rule reinterpreting. It means to welcome the instinctual along with the intellectual, the emotional in concert with the organizational. I think it means to welcome the whole person, mind, body and spirit, just as they are, not yet fully formed but worthy of representing God.

What does it mean to welcome God in the vulnerable and marginalized? It goes way beyond meeting their needs. That’s too low a bar for Christ-followers. It means engaging them as full persons, as equals, according them the same dignity as we would God, or a person we consider important. It means seeking out their gifts and assets and making space for them to give to us. It means risking vulnerability ourselves by entering into relationship, not the uneven power relationship of giver to recipient, but a relationship of equals, strangers who might become friends.

The disciples thought God was best represented by the one who could be considered greatest among them, so they engaged in what we would crudely call a “pissing contest” to determine who that might be. Wrong, wrong, wrong, says Jesus. The one who might be considered greatest is the one who is willing to be the most vulnerable.

Probably the best known example of that in our day is Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who said she saw Christ in the lepers and outcasts whom she nursed and loved. Lepers and outcasts come in all shapes and sizes – some even have sizable bank accounts. It isn’t for us to determine worthiness. We just need to decide we want to be about the ministry of welcoming God.

What would it feel like if we went through our days not looking for God so much as looking to see where we might welcome God into our lives? “Who will God show up in today?” is a question we might ask each morning. “In whom did I welcome God?” we could ask at the close of day.

I tell you, to even ask that question will open us up. And then we are likely to be one through whom God is revealed to another. And then we’ll know what it’s like to be welcomed in Jesus’ name.

9-17-15 - The Holy Child

What a Kodak moment: Jesus picks up a small child to illustrate his point about humility and servanthood. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (This week's gospel passage is here.)

We find this moment sweet, because children are accorded such status in our culture. Not so much in Jesus’ time, when children were viewed as among the last – maybe ahead of slaves, but valued largely for the labor they would one day perform for the household. (Mark can’t even be bothered to record this child’s gender, referring only to “it.”)

For Jesus to equate welcoming a child with welcoming him was a radical example, not a sentimental one. And he is more subversive still – for he implicitly links welcoming the child to welcoming God the Father. God represented by a powerless, status-less child? What kind of God is this?

Perhaps the kind of God who would send his son into human life as a helpless infant, at the mercy of forces political, historical and familial. The kind of God who demonstrated his power in vulnerability, who allowed that son to die the death of the “last," naked, nailed to a cross, as powerless as can be. This not the first time in the Jesus story that welcoming a child is equivalent to welcoming him. His parents, the shepherds, the magi – they did it too.

In what ways are we called to welcome children in the name of Jesus? Certainly by according them dignity and respect in our worshiping communities, making room for their voices and wisdom (and artwork!). We welcome them by spending time getting to know them as people, not adults-in-training, but already saints of God with gifts for the rest of us.

And we are called to welcome children in Jesus’ name outside our congregations too. We are called to place such value on children that we happily provide tax monies for their education, and support laws to keep them safe from harm. We come to regard every child in every country on this earth as precious and worthy of food, water, housing and education - and security.

Another Kodak moment: The body of a small Syrian boy washed up on a beach, so still he could be sleeping. But he is dead, drowned, the victim of global conflicts and policies. That picture of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi broke hearts and broke open borders, forcing the world to deal with the magnitude of its migration crisis. We are still figuring it out. But something has changed. That dead child made a global crisis human.

Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me."

I commend to you my colleague Adam Yates' piece on responding to the Syrian crisis; it contains resources. Here is a statement from the bishops of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, with links to resources.

9-16-15 - Holy Doormats?

We all know people like this – and some of us have been people like this. People who jump up to fetch anything anyone might need, who are always asking, “Are you okay? Can I get you anything?,” who put aside their lives and careers to care for children or infirm parents, who show up at events even when they’re tired. As a culture, we’re ambivalent about such folks – sometimes we say, “What a saint!” and other times, “How codependent is she!”

Some of Jesus' teaching sounds like we are to be holy doormats, laying aside our own agenda, never seeking to be in charge, always serving. For instance, when he heard his disciples arguing about who is the greatest, He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Does the virtue of Christian humility demand that we sacrifice our dreams and passions? Or does being the servant of all rather require that we be true to who God made us to be? It occurs to me that we cannot empty ourselves if we are not full of ourselves.

To be “full of oneself” in our culture is to be conceited, self-promoting. But that kind of behavior comes from a place of insecurity, a heart that is empty, a self that is not quite full. A healthy person knows who she or he is, faults and blind spots, strengths and gifts. Only when we truly own the fullness of who God made us to be can we empty ourselves for the sake of God’s mission. After all, Jesus did not pour himself out from stocks that were running low; he poured himself out from the fullness of his humanity and divinity.

If we want to excel as disciples of Jesus Christ, it is our calling to serve the world in his name. How does serving others sit with you? Is it comfortable? Challenging? Too familiar? Demeaning?

If it is your default position, make sure your giving is in balance with your being nourished by God and the community. If serving others is uncomfortable, practice. Go serve a meal at a shelter or soup kitchen. Make a point of making coffee at the office – or making copies!

First or last, we are never alone in our serving. We serve alongside the One who had everything and gave it all in service to an ungrateful world. He can show us how to be servants of all with dignity and grace.

9-15-15 - Jockeying for Position

Squabbling in the car on an endless road trip. That’s what I think of when I read this week’s gospel reading, and Jesus’ questioning of his disciples:

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

There is something about journeying that increases tension – and when your leader has just announced that at some point he will be arrested, tried and executed, that tension can go through the roof. Afraid to ask Jesus what on earth he was talking about, his disciples instead turned on each other. They seem to have been jockeying for position, little realizing that the more visible they were as leaders in Jesus’ community, the more risk they faced.

Jockeying for position is something humans tend to do when we are insecure about where we are. Oh, there are some ruthlessly ambitious people who are always looking for an angle to get ahead, but most of us stay pretty content unless the ground starts to shift. Then suddenly it matters how we’re perceived and where we’re received.

As Christ-followers, we don't have to do that. One of the great gifts that come with membership in the family of God is freedom from having to position ourselves. In a community in which no one has more value than anyone else, no matter what our level of accomplishment or productivity, we don’t have to compete with one another for attention or reward. If God already loves us the most, and is already as delighted with us as God could possibly be, why worry about being seen as worthy or getting ahead of other people?

Of course, many of us still do, because we’re human and it takes a long time for the knowledge of God’s unmerited and limitless grace to replace the messages of competition and progress we ingest from family, school and workplace. It doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves daily of our infinite worth in the eyes of the Infinite Being. Or to remind each other.

If Jesus’ disciples had grasped that sooner, they would have had a different experience of being with him. They got it eventually - and so, God willing, will we.

9-14-15 - Afraid to Ask

You know that awful feeling when you sense something is amiss, and you don’t know what it is, and that even asking about it might make it worse? Often we will do all we can to suppress that niggling worry, afraid to ask what’s actually going on.

That’s how Jesus’ disciples felt as they traveled with him through Galilee and he continued to talk about the bitter treatment he was going to encounter.
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. (Here is week's gospel passage.)

It’s not that he was unclear – he says this at least three times as they journey on. But his words make no sense in light of their understanding that he is the Messiah, the Savior. The idea that their Jesus, so sought after by the rich and influential as well as the poor and marginalized, could be betrayed is unthinkable. And that he could be killed, he who held the power of God in his hands, who could command storms to be stilled and blind eyes to see? How could that be? And what is this he says about rising again? I suspect that made so little sense they hardly heard it. His words are so unsettling in every way, they were afraid to ask him to explain what he is talking about.

Even for us so long after the fact, left with a story we celebrate but can’t fully comprehend, let alone find Good News in, it can be hard to ask God to explain it. We might fear finding ourselves adrift in a sea of doubt, or losing our faith entirely. So we hold it at arm’s length, celebrating the high points, acknowledging the cross and empty tomb, but not wandering too close.

I believe Christ yearns for us to wander close, just as I suspect he wished his followers would have asked him directly what he meant. Asking God to help make sense of what makes no sense is central to a living faith. It is how we deepen our relationship with God.

What are your biggest questions about the Christian faith and story? Have you asked those in prayer? Said, “Jesus, why did you have to die? Why would a sacrifice be necessary for a God of love?” and listen for an answer. (Today is Holy Cross Day... not a bad time for such questions...) A thought might pop into your head, or over the next few weeks you might find yourself encountering a response. We can do the same with questions about or own lives.

Freedom comes as we surface the hard questions and open ourselves to exploring the answers. We draw closer to the God of mystery in the asking. In the end, that may be the only answer we really need.

9-11-15 - Thinking Like God

When Jesus tells his followers the horrors that are to befall the “Son of Man,” Peter takes him aside and admonishes him. “Don’t be talking like that! How can anything bad happen to you? I’ve just said I believe you’re the Messiah!”

And Jesus in turn rebukes Peter, quite harshly, tellling him: “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Jesus was asking a lot of Peter to think in divine terms. Yet that neatly describes the task of discipleship: learning to think like God. Paul writes that those who would follow Jesus “Have the mind of Christ.” This makes sense – if we are united with Christ in baptism, if he takes up residence in us, as it were, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, then we have his mind as well, not replacing our own, but informing, even transforming them.

Our minds and capacity for thought are among God’s greatest gifts to us, and also the seat of our strongest resistance to God. Funny how that is… Before we can set our mind on the things of God we have to become aware of the distinction between our own thoughts and God’s thoughts. Whenever we become aware that we are thinking solely out of our own reality – say, when anxiety or anger are leading the way, or we're convinced faith is irrational, or when we’re set on a course of action that we know is other than the way God would work in us – we can ask God to show us situations or people as God sees them. Often a broader perspective opens immediately.

This weekend, try to notice when your thoughts are purely human, and when they seem tinged with the holy. Like anything, this is a spiritual practice we can cultivate; as we become conscious, gradually we learn to think more like God.

It is a delicate balance to prize the gift of human nature and yet allow God’s life to grow in us and uproot everything that is not of God. Perhaps this is best summed up in the old adage, “God loves us just the way we are – and far too much to leave us that way.”

9-10-15 - Suffering

Does God want us to suffer? There is a strand in the Christian tradition that looks at the suffering Jesus underwent – which he predicted – and suggests that it is in suffering that we draw closest to our Lord. This is not how Peter saw things:

Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
(This Sunday's Gospel passage is here.)

Just before this, Peter has identified Jesus as the Messiah, the Anointed One of God long foretold, who would come to redeem the people of Israel – redeem, as in buy back a pawned item so it can be restored to its true purpose. It was assumed that the Messiah would bring to an end the suffering and humiliation of God’s chosen people. What good is a Messiah who’s going to suffer and die?

Jesus is firm: But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

Invoking Satan, it appears that Jesus sees in Peter’s words a temptation, a temptation to veer from the mission he is living out, a temptation to doubt his discernment of what is ahead for him. In Jesus’ case, suffering was part of his mission; a humiliating and horrible death was in part how his mission of redeeming humanity would be accomplished.

That is not necessarily true for us. The ways in which God might invite us to make God-Life known in the world may not directly involve suffering. We may be called to write or to feed or to proclaim or to organize, never being persecuted for our faith. But there will be pain, if we’re open to letting our hearts be broken by God’s love for this world. In that sense, every ministry, every life involves suffering.

This morning I attempted to preach this message to a room full of people in wheel chairs in a local nursing home, some of them relatively young. I’m not sure I was convincing when I insisted that God is with us in our suffering, even as God often allows it to unfold in our lives, and that God can work through it. It is through the presence of Christ with us that we gain the Life that overcomes death, the Life we can share with others, no matter what our condition.

I don’t believe God visits suffering upon us so we can draw near to Christ. But I believe with all my heart that Christ draws near to us when we suffer, and helps break it open so new life can emerge from the dark.

9-9-15 - The New Elvis?

Conventional wisdom suggests that a healthy sense of self-worth does not rest on what other people think of you. Surely Jesus didn’t care what other people said about him, did he? Yet it is also wise for public figures to check their polls every now and then (maybe not as often as the pols of today check their polls…). So we find Jesus asking his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’

They answer readily; someone as powerful and unusual as Jesus would surely generate debate, even an assumption that he carried the spirit of a luminary from the distant or recent past: And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’

This reminds me of entertainment writers who compare up and coming stars to those of old. “She’s the new Audrey Hepburn,” He’s the new Springsteen,” as though the only way to apprehend someone is to categorize them in relation to someone else. Jesus was frequently asked if he was John the Baptist returned to life. To ask that question was to miss the reality of the man standing right in front of them.

Jesus thought his closer followers might have a different perspective. He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’

How do you answer that question? It can be as hard for us to see Jesus for who he intrinsically is, apart from what we’ve heard about him through church, history, and cultural assumptions, as it was for people in his day to see him apart from the great prophets of old and their expectations in a time of national powerlessness. The only way we can truly answer that question is to seek to know him as he is revealed in the Gospels, as we see his power at work through the church, and as we experience him personally in prayer.

Which also means that, if we’re active in study, action and prayer, our answer will evolve. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever – but our discernment of who he is not fixed, not until that day when we see no longer “through a glass, dimly,” but face to face.

Peter's answer reflected Israel’s history, the promise of future redemption, and the knowledge of Jesus Peter gained in relationship with him: Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’
In naming him as the promised One of God, Peter also claimed Jesus as one-of-kind, not the “new” anyone, but new creation.

So we too, made in the image of God as unique persons, can get to know Jesus, the Lord who was, and is and is to come - and so discover the new creations we are in Him.

9-8-15 - Back to the Real World?

If you’re having some trouble transitioning into the fall schedule from the summer lull, Sunday’s gospel reading should help us come down with a bump. Jesus tells his followers that they have signed on for tough duty:

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

I don’t know if summertime is akin to “gaining the whole world,” but I tend to see it as a time of lowered responsibility, lessened engagement with tasks and intentions, loosening up on self-denial (as my Labor Day breakfast of bread, butter and jam will attest). Maybe you’re one of those marvelous saints who went on incredible mission trips this summer, but I fear I’ve gotten so good at living in the “now” this summer, I won’t remember where I left my cross to take it up again.

Is that what the “program year” is about, taking up our cross? In some measure, yes. We dial down the lazy, and quicken the pace of our days. We reengage the world more fully. We recommit ourselves to discerning what the Holy Spirit is up to around us and join in as we are led to participate in the mission of God. None of that may involve putting our physical lives at risk, but it does entail putting God’s ways of meeting the world’s needs ahead of our own.

Today, let’s spend some time in the presence of God and ask where we’re being directed to share our energies and gifts and resources. As we sharpen our attention (if, like me, you’ve let yours slacken…) we find we are still called to live in the moment, only perhaps to indwell it more fully.
We let our lives be filled with the Spirit’s energy and live for the sake of the gospel rather than for ourselves. We dwell in the Realm of God – which is the most real world there can possibly be.

9-4-15 - Outside Feasts

It’s no longer August, but we have one more week of our Summer Pastimes series at my church, looking at how they speak to us of the life of faith. As always, we abandon the Lectionary for a gospel selected - here is this week's. 

I don’t know about you, but I will be attending a picnic this Labor Day Weekend – maybe not the last time we’ll eat outside before fall, but traditionally one of the Big Picnic Weekends of the year. Picnics are one of the best summer pastimes there are, combining as they do food and fresh air and bringing an indoor activity outside. But how do picnics speak to us of the life of faith?

Certainly the themes of food and fun and fellowship resonate with most churchgoers I know. Picnics bring these elements out of the buildings where they often occur and into the open, where anyone might happen upon them, and possibly even join in. Earlier this summer I served smoked salmon canapes during the sermon one Sunday (the gospel passage was the loaves and the fishes… same as for this week…). I suggested to my congregation that our mission as the Body of Christ might be as guerrilla picnic planners, mounting feasts, large and small, in unexpected times and places. What if we really adopted that mission, at least once a month? What would you provide, and where?

Even ants and other uninvited guests at a picnic remind us that we are not in control of our lives, try as we might to think otherwise – and that enjoying the beauty of creation comes with the responsibility to make sure all of God’s creatures have a safe environment in which to thrive.

Picnics also remind us of God’s provision, as we feast in abundance on food that somehow tastes better for coming out of a cooler or a basket. And unless we packed the basket, we don’t know exactly what we’re going to be served, especially not when we’re enjoying a potluck picnic with goodies brought by many. Sometimes we get fed even when we haven’t brought anything along.

Our life in God is like that – a feast that can happen on any given day, not in a formal dining room but on a field or by a lake or in a stadium parking lot, alone or with others. Often, the life of God in us gathers others to us, both to be fed and to share their food with us. And as we experience the variety and try new tastes, we find our spirits expanding to receive more and more unexpected blessings.

That psalmist was onto something when he sang, “O taste and see how precious the Lord is." Must have been coming from a picnic.

9-2-15 - Be Opened

This week’s gospel passage contains two great stories – the first, about the Syro-Phoenician woman, and a second, about Jesus healing a man who is both deaf and mute.

They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

The story has power on its most basic level, but for some time I have been more alive to an allegorical interpretation of this tale. For me, the man who is deaf and mute can also represent the church of our day, which can be deaf to the promptings of the Spirit and impeded in communicating the Good News about Jesus to our surrounding communities.

How does it alter our understanding of this story if we put our churches in the place of the deaf-mute? Let’s look at the nature of this healing. Where sometimes Jesus heals with a word, not even in the same physical location as the one healed, in this case he is intensely personal and material. He uses his own saliva, placed on the man's tongue, and puts his fingers in his ears. Beyond the "ick" factor, we see here an incredible intimacy. Perhaps our churches, and those who work so hard to sustain them, have forsaken intimacy with Christ for the burden of keeping his church lumbering on. That has ever been a bad trade!

We need to come close to Jesus again, close enough to touch his wounds, and allow him close enough to touch our ears and our tongues. We need to take to heart his command, "Be opened!" and recover the impulse toward faithful faith-sharing that is in our DNA as followers of Christ.

Where do you feel your spiritual hearing might be stopped up? In what ways do you feel impeded in talking about your life in God? Today as a prayer experiment, read this story again and put yourself in the place of the deaf-mute. Let the story unfold in your imagination. Does Jesus say or do anything different with you? Anything specific?

If it wasn't impossible to pronounce, "Ephphatha!" would be a great name for a church. I pray we will live into the heart of this command, and truly, in every possible way, "Be opened."