11-30-15 - Specificity

I’m so happy to be back in the Land of Luke in our Sunday lectionary gospel readings. I appreciate Luke’s emphases on healing, justice, the work of the Holy Spirit, on Jesus’ compassion and friendships with women and people marginalized by disease, ethnicity, poverty, wealth or sin. And maybe it’s the medical training (if indeed the author of this Gospel and Acts is Luke the physician mentioned in the latter work…), but Luke is also often the most precise in his reportage, telling the story as fully and accurately as possible.

So it is that, before he tells us about John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness, he gives us the who, what, when and where:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (This week's gospel passage is here.)

Luke gives us the lay of the land, the context – exactly when this story took place, the locations that were germane, who were the political figures, and who were the spiritual leaders. He even tells us whose son John was, and where the word of God came to him.

This is more than attention to than historical detail, I think. Luke reminds us that this great story of God’s intervention in Gods own creation wasn’t just a general tale – it was specific. It happened to real people in real places, facing real challenges and circumstances. The Good News is always infinite and universal – and as specific as a unique person born to a particular family in a particular place and community. The power of Jesus’ story is for all people in all times and places. But Jesus was rooted in a specific time and place.

So are you. So am I. The infinite and universal Love of God has also shown up in your particular person and circumstances, family, networks, preoccupations and prejudices. You first encountered the Gospel in a particular setting and person and community, just as Christ-in-you is the best way that people around you will get to know God.

Where was it that you first encountered the Living God? When? Who was in authority, and who was important in your life? What was happening in the world around you? Take some time to recall the circumstances in which the revelation of God’s love first became real to you.

That’s your story within the Great Story. We can only effectively tell the Great Story if we begin with how God showed up for us - and that story is always very specific.

11-26-15 - Thanksgiving

I’ll keep it short today – you are no doubt busy with dinner preparations, or busy doing nothing at all, or both (those not being incompatible states…).

I once asked a wise person how to cultivate joy, which is not my strong suit. And he said, “Joy grows out of gratitude." So I’ve made an effort to foster an attitude of gratitude, as they say, to lead with thankfulness for what is, before I focus on what’s missing. So here are a few Thanksgiving Day thankfulnesses:

First, I want to say how grateful I am for this Water Daily community of readers, thinkers, commentators and pray-ers. I don’t know exactly how many or who reads this on any given day, and I don’t get a response each day. But some readers drop a note often enough to give me a sense that this is a conversation, even if I’m doing most of the talking.

And I am grateful for the opportunity to write this thing every day. Some days, the writing gets jammed into a half-hour toward the end of the day, and some days I know exactly what I’m supposed to write and it comes flowing forth. The best days are when I didn’t know, and the Holy Spirit surprises me. Unsurprisingly, those are often the best posts and receive the most feedback.

No matter what the process, it gives me a chance to engage with the gospel text for Sunday, and allows creativity to flow from the parts of my consciousness that don’t always get the air time they should.

And I am grateful that these words help some preachers to connect with the passage in fresh ways, and some congregants to better appreciate the sermons they hear on Sunday. God is so all over this whole process, it makes me smile just to think of the space we’re giving the Spirit to play!

I wish you a blessed and restful and delicious Thanksgiving Day with loved ones, your own sweet self, and the Spirit of God.

And... unless the Spirit gives me something else to say about this Sunday's gospel reading, I'm not going to post anything Friday. I'm going to walk and digest Thursday's dinner!

Oh - and here's a link to an op-ed I wrote about welcoming refugees, printed in the Stamford Advocate on Wednesdsay this week, co-signed by several valued clergy colleagues.

11-25-15 - En Garde!

En garde! That’s about the sum total of what I know about the sport – or is it the art? – of fencing. But it’s what I think of when I read Jesus’ warning to his disciples:

‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”

If ever there were an apt warning for the day before Thanksgiving, this is it. Don’t be caught unawares… the turkey needs brining, the silver needs polishing, the oil needs changing, or was that the baby? Yep. Stress, thy name is the Day Before Thanksgiving. Whether you’re hosting or traveling, there seems to be a to-do list – especially if you have two x chromosomes… And yet, here is Jesus: “Do not let your hearts be weighed down by dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.” (Save those for Thanksgiving Day!)

This, of course, is an instruction for life, not just for a Wednesday in November. It invites us to live in a state of preparedness such as we develop during times of crisis, like, perhaps, the residents of Paris, Beirut, Brussels, or Bamako are living with now, but without the terror. How might we cultivate a state of "en garde-ed-ness" without kicking up those nasty, free radical stress chemicals? How can we be at peace, serene, and also alert?

Maybe the stylized movements of fencing have something to teach us. “En garde” is the instruction given when two players face off; it begins the match (bout? I’ve already spent more time on fencing terms than I want to...) It invites the combatants to assume a defensive posture, but one that distributes their balance in such a way that they can thrust and parry, light on their feet.

As followers of Christ, we are to be alert and on our guard against the trials that test our faith, and the temptations sent our way by the enemy. Yet we are to hold that defense lightly, remembering that it is not we who do battle, but Christ who fights for us, with us. Our posture of readiness is one that allows us to yield to God’s power coming through us.

Balance implies an equilibrium between rest and movement, thought and action, receiving and giving. What if we made it our spiritual goal this Advent to find this balance, to be on guard but without fear, ready at all times to fight for justice and faithfulness with love and mercy, wielding the “epee d’Esprit,” the sword of the Spirit, in the name of peace?

When do you feel most relaxed? Think about how might you cultivate that feeling more of the time, even during stress. How better to prepare for the advent of the Prince of Peace.

If you’re stressed out today, try it now. En garde!
Now relax.

11-24-15 - Reading the Leaves

Living in a four-season climate offers an ever-unfolding lesson in cycles of life, birth and faith, death and resurrection. As fall wanes in New England and the few leaves left on the trees have lost their brilliance, we learn about letting things drop, letting things die. When the snows come, and the barren landscape hides all the life teeming below ground, we are reminded that there is more than meets the eye. And when things thaw in springtime, that life becomes manifest above the surface, “first the blade, then the ear and then, in time, the full corn.” (Mark 4:28), teaching us yet again about the indomitability of growth.

Jesus was a student of the seasons too: Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”  (This week's gospel passages is here.)

The “things” Jesus’ followers were to look out for were astral signs, turbulence in the seas, and human distress. Hmmm… there is pretty much always something to see if you’re looking in those places. And there is always reason to think the signs you see are indications of an unfolding cataclysm. Famines, floods, earthquakes, terrorists… aren’t we really in for it now? Maybe – but I always like to remember that things looked a lot worse in the 14th century.

What if we looked for more subtle signs that the kingdom of God is near? Outbreaks of generosity, life-affirming discourse, spiritual revivals, an increase in the numbers of people worldwide claiming the name of Christ and living in continuity with his life and the values of that kingdom he proclaimed. Now there’s a sign I’d love to see.

I’ve always found this a curious passage, because Jesus had already proclaimed that the kingdom of God had drawn near, was in fact made real and present in himself. The miracles were simply demonstrations of that kingdom life, and the stories and teachings were explanations of kingdom values. Yes, there will be a cosmic ending, but if we spend our time reading the tea leaves for when that is coming, we will miss all the signs of God-Life around us now. We might even be diverted from being a sign of God-Life for someone else.

Advent invites us to be watchful and aware, to seek the Christ who came, who is present with us now through his Holy Spirit, who will come again at the end of the ages. Let’s not be so busy looking for signs we miss Jesus right in front of us.

11-23-15 - Climate Change

We’re talking about the end of the world; must be Advent. (Or election season in America…) 
The end of the world, Jesus suggests, will not sneak up on us, tiptoeing in quietly:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken."  

(This week's gospel reading is here.)

Nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves; sounds like the latest warnings from environmental scientists, and Pope Francis. For those who track the melting of the ice caps and the rising of the seas, the increasing ferocity of storms and fragility of food production, also sound the alarm about the conflicts the resultant scarcity may unleash among humans. What are we doing to each other, and to the planet we call home, with its wondrous diversity of creatures and abundant food supply?

Will the end of the world, when it comes, be man-made or God-ordained? Are we to work to save God’s creation or hasten its implosion? I’m still betting on the former – I don’t believe God has invited us to help destroy the earth, but to build God’s reign in the here and now, bringing about a just and merciful creation built on the promises of God. In that sense, we are all to be about the business of climate change. And by that I mean much more than environmental ministry.

The people who follow Jesus as Lord are charged with fostering a climate of godliness, of humility, of generosity, justice-seeking, peace-making, love-giving. Not only are we to live this way – we are to create a climate in which others can experience transformation and live this way too. That is the pattern we see in the community of sinner-saints who surrounded Jesus and later his apostles.

What marks the emotional climate in your community? On your Facebook feed? In your local media? Is it a climate of suspicion and division, or honest inquiry and supportive assistance? Is it a climate of violence in word and deed, or generous debate? Does it celebrate death or nurture life?

And then this: how are you being called to change that climate? Where does God want you to show up? What does God want you to say? Who does God want you to love, to challenge, to break down, to build up?

We are responsible for the climates in which we live, in more ways than one. I pray we can truly be climate changers in the best sense, creators of an emotional, political and spiritual climate in which children can thrive and all those who are wounded can be loved back into wholeness. Even us.

11-20-15 - Truth You Belong To

It is a surreal scene, this genial interrogation by the Roman governor of an occupied territory of an itinerant holy man with no visible support – whose very life hangs on the outcome of this interview. These two do a conversational dance, Jesus never answering a question directly, making no effort to defend himself or set up a scenario in which his life might be spared. When asked directly, “So you are a king?,” Jesus only says, “That’s what you say,” and that his purpose in being born was to testify to the truth. And then he says enigmatically, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

This strikes me as a funny way to put things – I don’t tend to think of people belonging to “the truth,” but rather having the truth, possessing the truth, grasping the truth, denying the truth. What Jesus suggests is that the Truth is much bigger than we are; we can no more possess it than we could contain the ocean or corral the stars in the night sky.

This truth that encompasses us, Jesus suggests, is an objective reality – which prompts Pilate to pose his famously early post-modern question (left off our lectionary this week…) “What is truth?” I don’t think that’s a question on many people’s lips these days. There is your truth, my truth, the media’s truth, doctored distortions of history masquerading as truth. How can anyone know the Truth, much less get lost in its vastness?

Those who follow Christ are given a clue – he said he was the Truth, the Way, the Life. Coming to know Jesus as he was and is and is to come is one way we enter into the Truth. The time we invest in growing our relationship with this Lord who calls us friend brings us deeper and deeper into the ultimate reality of things – the Truth.

And he offered another clue: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” I see many Christ followers responding out of deeply human emotions these days, with little evidence that they are listening to the Prince of Peace who commanded us to love our neighbors, to tend the wounds of the Samaritans considered outcast, to lead with humility and not with combative fear.

How do we listen to his voice? We study his word. We follow his commands and teachings. We listen to other followers of Christ. We pay attention to where his Spirit is bringing life to dead places around us, and join him there.

As we listen, we will hear, and we will know the truth, and the Truth will set us free.

11-19-15 - Testify to the Truth

It is human nature to want to categorize people, put them into a definable box and label them. Pilate was trying to get a handle on who Jesus is, and asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.

I wish it could be said of kings generally that they were born to testify to the truth. Kings like that tend to be the exception rather than the rule. And perhaps testifying to the truth is incompatible with the demands of political power. I don’t mean that political leaders have to be liars (though many are…), but they need to have a strategic relationship with the truth, speaking the right things to the right people at the right times, and knowing when not to speak at all.

And what is the truth to which Jesus testified? The truth about God – that power belongs to God. The truth about justice – that God alone is qualified to judge the human heart. The truth about love – that God operates in an economy of love, a love so deep and vast it is dangerous to the human spirit.

Those who call themselves followers of Christ are also born to testify to the truth – and in our tradition, the Truth is personal, the Truth is Jesus. We are living in days when many who claim to follow Christ are allowing fear and bigotry to draw them away from the very clear teachings of Jesus, from faith in the goodness of our God. Shutting our doors to refugees who are fleeing for their lives is never a valid choice for Christians, not if we’re serious about Jesus. If ever there was a week to stand up and testify to the truth in our national discourse, this is that week.

Jesus could never be a political leader; his allegiance to the truth made him too threatening to the powers that be. We need to stand up to our political leaders when they turn their back on the truth, and stand with those who have the courage to speak for justice. We are called to be bearers of this dangerous love of God – maybe because it is inevitably diluted in us, and therefore able to be tolerated by mere human beings.

Let is be bearers of Christ's truth. Let us be bearers of Christ. Let us testify to overwhelming Love.

11-18-15 - E.T., Phone Home

A persistent allegory of the Christ story relates it to aliens on this planet. Artists as disparate as C.S. Lewis and Steven Spielberg have explored incarnation through science fiction. It is not such a stretch to regard Jesus the Christ as an alien life form, masquerading as a human being (though, in terms of orthodox Christian doctrine, it would be considered a heresy…). In a way, he even admitted it. Replying to Pilate’s question, “What have you done?,”

Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’  (This week's Gospel passage is here.)

Of course, our theology teaches that Jesus was not an alien; he was fully human even as he was fully God. But time and again he spoke of the realm of God as a place distinct from this realm of this world – contiguous with it, even infusing it, but a different address entirely. And the values of that realm, as he taught them and demonstrated them in what looked like miracles – but in fact just revealed how the energy of that realm works, even in this one – are quite distinct from man-made purely human patterns of thinking and being. Jesus said as much to Pilate: were he operating by the principles of this world, he’d have whipped up his followers to do battle. But he wasn’t from here, and his response would reflect the principles of God-Life.

As followers of Christ we’re not from around here either, not once we’ve accepted citizenship in the realm of God. Oh, we may carry a dual passport, but Home is not this earth or this life. Home is a full, unmediated, unadulterated experience of the presence of God. It’s a place we may visit in our earthly lives, but mostly it’s a reality we are ever moving towards.

The writer to the Hebrews said this of the great heroes of faith, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland." (Hebrews 11:13-14)

It is a difficult spiritual balancing act, to truly love and accept the gifts of this life, and not to get so cozy we forget where we ultimately belong. When we are able to maintain this balance, though, we are able to love more wholly, less dependently. What, or who, do you find yourself clinging to in this world? How might you move into greater relationship with your heavenly father/mother in that other realm to which you claim allegiance?

We can start with the gift of prayer. E.T., phone home!

11-17-15 - What Have You Done?

Some phrases can stop me in my tracks and put me immediately into a defensive mode. One is “What have you done?” I’m always sure I’m in trouble.

In his trial before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the occupied territory of what we now call Israel and Palestine, Jesus is already in trouble. He has been betrayed by a close friend, beaten by the High Priest’s guard, and had the religious authorities call for his execution. This interview with Pilate is one stop on his way to crucifixion.

Pilate is aware of Jesus’ reputation as a holy man, a miracle-worker. And he knows too well the intrigues and plots fomented in the Temple courts by men with a little authority, on a short Roman leash. He is not eager to be a pawn in the latest Jewish squabble. He says to Jesus, “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”

It is an article of faith for Christians that Jesus was without sin; tempted as we are, yet never succumbing. So I wonder how Jesus experienced that question? Did any shame arise in him? Did he live with that part of the human condition too?

I can’t imagine what Jesus felt, but I can imagine what he could have said: “What have I done? I have proclaimed the nearness of God. I have declared freedom to the captives, whether in bondage to disease, sin or poverty. I have healed the sick and cleansed lepers and given sight to the blind, even life to the dead. I have taught that the ways of God run counter to the natural inclinations of the human heart. In God’s realm, we love enemies and do good to those who hate us. We do not seek revenge; we offer forgiveness. I have said, 'Love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.'” No wonder they wanted him dead.

This imaginary recitation reminds me that “What have you done?” can cut both ways. Yes, it might invite a litany of confession and repentance. It can also inspire us to take an inventory of all that we have done in Christ’s name to bring healing and wholeness to the world around us, all the ways we have blessed those whom we’ve encountered. I suggest we start such a inventory today, a list of all that is holy and blessed in your resume.

One day, we’re told, we will stand before a Judge, one who already knows what we’ve done, for ill and for good. Let’s be ready to have both sides of that conversation.

11-16-15 - Political Realities

Oh, my friends, if we wanted to hide from the pain of the world in the embrace of our religious texts, we would be sorely disappointed, especially this week. For we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of a political fight with religious undercurrents – sound familiar? Within a day of the interview at the center of this Sunday’s gospel story, a man revered by thousands will be dead, brutally killed at the hands of the temporal ruler, under urging from the man’s own religious leaders. His followers will have scattered, hiding in terror of being arrested themselves.

No, we can’t get away from blood, power and violence in our Christian story. That intersection is exactly where God’s incarnate Son landed as his mission in this world culminated in his humiliation and execution. But the governor who ordered his death did not want to see him die. He questioned his prisoner closely, hoping to find a loophole that would allow him to save Jesus. Jesus did not make it easy:

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me.”

This week we wrap up our liturgical year before resetting the clock on the first Sunday of Advent. On this final Sunday in “ordinary time,” we celebrate Christ as King. But the only images the Gospels give us of Christ as king show him as a helpless child, honored by magi; humbled, riding on a donkey; powerless, under arrest and trial; or nailed to a cross. Humble and powerless – is that what kingship looks like for Christ-followers?

Like you, I am heartsick at the slaughter in Paris this past Friday, and in Beirut a few days earlier. My reaction to an entity as brutal as Daesh (a preferred term for ISIS that doesn’t honor their pretensions to statehood) )is to assume that force is the only way to disable it. Perhaps it is.

AND I know that Jesus told me to love my enemies and pray for those who destroy others in the name of power. And that his way to prevail was through humility and powerlessness in the temporal realm. The power he exerted was spiritual – a force so strong it could raise the dead, but not discernible to those who refused to see it.

Can we be bold enough to wield that power, given to us through his Holy Spirit? Can we dare to stand against hatred with love, against violence with generosity? That’s what Jesus did – he stood calm in the face of the man who had the power to end his life, and spoke nothing but truth. He walked into death itself and rendered it impotent. That’s how you respond to evil.

God, give us the grace to comfort, to seek justice, to forgive – and to wield love in the power of Christ.

11-13-15 - The Just Community

Jesus must have heard that communications trope about repeating something three or four times if you want it to sink in. Not only does he state and restate the positive part of the parable, he also tells it in negative, talking about the condemnation in store for those who did not see him hungry and feed him, naked and clothe him, and so on.

Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” He will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

It’s not enough to see the needs around us; we have to act. And just as we can meet Jesus' standard by tending even one needy person, so it seems we can be doomed by the failure to tend even one of the “least of these.” Back on the hook. This is when I would say, as his disciples did on another occasion, “Lord, then who can be saved?”

We’ve reflected this week on how we are invited to engage with people at their time of need – seeing them as full persons, interacting personally and intimately. We can sum this up as looking, listening and loving. In short, we are to offer not just help, but our very selves, to be available to relationship. Relationship implies mutuality. Part of “helping” someone in need is being willing to let them help you too.

When people from my church began to reach out to a group that hung out on the streets near the Shelter, we started by bringing food, and then offered prayer. Every single person wanted to be prayed for. The second time we went, the woman leading this effort had a cold, so after she prayed for everyone, she asked for their prayers. She was immediately enfolded in the group and beautiful, fervent prayers were offered for her healing. It was the fastest I’d seen a disparate, somewhat suspicious group become a community.

We are called to be a just community, which requires mutuality. If we are generous with our bread but chary with our emotions, we’re not offering the fullness of who we are. And when we’re not fully ourselves, there is less room for the other person to be fully herself. It's also likely that if we were more conscious about mutuality in our giving, there might be fewer needy people around – as a wise man once said, where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.

I pray that we will be about God’s mission of wholeness for every person, making ourselves vulnerable as well as generous. That invites all of us to be clear about our needs as well as our gifts. In the Just Community Jesus came to proclaim, everyone seeks to ensure that each person has what they need. Everyone has a place at the table. Can you imagine a world like that?

Imagining it is part of praying it into being.

11-12-15 - The Best Help

Earlier this week I wrote about the importance of personal interaction as we seek to help people in need. The people whom Jesus describes in his parable are certainly in extreme need. That personal interaction – eye contact, listening, mutual sharing – is key to our having gospel encounters rather than mere transactions. But we can lose the social dimension in the personal – after all, Jesus called people in need were members of his family:

And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

So, how do we help the whole family? Sometimes the giving of help, one person to another, is not the best way to effect transformative change. Often it is treating symptoms, while the disease spreads unchecked. I’m thinking about this as my church’s Undie Sunday approaches, and with it the vision of bags of much-needed personal undergarments piled before the altar. This truly is personal care for those who are homeless. But what if we used those resources and that energy to eliminate homelessness entirely?

There is enough data and experimentation from around the country to show quite clearly that homelessness can be eliminated. If we take steps to keep individuals and families from becoming homeless in the first place, we save millions of dollars in emergency room visits, lost school and work days, food and even justice-system costs. We stop the cycle of homelessness before it becomes a part of a family’s pattern. We allow children to thrive in one school instead of constantly moving.We keep families in communities.

And what does it require? Money for rent, basically. Investment in rent subsidies for those with precarious finances could save us millions in tax-payer funded services. We wouldn’t need to collect underwear, or do shelter meals, or any of the important and well-meaning ministries we offer to those who are homeless. We could instead work to provide those who get the subsidies with the kind of community support and networks that most of us take for granted, that would hold us if we suddenly lost a job or couldn’t work. We could offer community instead of a hand-out. It doesn’t have to be an either/or – but I do believe that we put too much emphasis on hand-outs to people who are already in the dirt, and not enough on keeping them housed in the first place.

How does this connect to our spiritual life, which is what Water Daily is supposed to focus on? It’s an invitation to think about what is the best way to feed someone who is hungry or clothe someone who is naked. Along with asking God to send resources, what if we ask the Spirit to inspire strategies, the best way to foster systemic change.

Jesus said he could be found among those who suffer. That doesn’t mean we have to keep them suffering so we can find Jesus in them. We are to be in the business of healing, not just tending wounds. Jesus can also be found in those who’ve experienced transformation too – and he's often easier to spot.

11-11-15 - Over Looked

It can be very easy to not see people, especially people with obvious needs. We can be wrapped up in our own world, intent on getting to the next place, checking off the next task, and not paying attention to our surroundings. We can be preoccupied with our own needs and feelings. We can be overloaded with sensory input and shut down. Or we can be trying not to look – people who are obviously suffering can be annoying, difficult, make us feel helpless. Whatever the reason, we don’t always see.

Jesus is big on seeing. In his parable about the sheep and the goats, he says that those who are rewarded are those who had their eyes open to the people around them:

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

Sometimes I think we are living through an epidemic of intentional blindness. How else could people spend the sums they do on entertainment or electronica for their children while elsewhere babies die from malnutrition or terror? How could we be so blind to the ongoing effects of systemic racism and economic inequality? Yes, we all need filters to screen out some of the world’s suffering, or we’d go mad – but when do filters become blinders?

"When did we see you, Lord?" How full our churches would be if more people had the experience of seeing Jesus. And yet, according to him, there he is, all over our streets, all over our lives. He is not present only in those who are suffering, but he is especially present in them, in us. What if we were more intentional about looking for him in the hurting and haunted? I preach this all the time, and forget it as often.

It helps when we start out with the “Where are you, Lord?” prayer, and ask the Spirit to lead us to someone in whom we might discern Jesus. How blessed our encounters might be, even with “difficult” people. (Difficult people, like two-year-olds, get a whole lot calmer when someone looks right at them and listens to them…)

Try it this morning. “Who are you going to show up in today, Jesus?” And then take a moment and see if anyone comes to mind, someone you might seek out. If no one occurs to you, wait and see. It helps if we keep our eyes open…

11-10-15 - Getting Personal

The Gospel gets very, very specific in these words of Jesus – the Good News comes to individuals who are suffering in some way or other. And the way it comes is through us.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Many Christians have taken these words of Jesus to heart. It is safe to say most church outreach programs provide basic services to people in need. We serve food in shelters, and work in food pantries. We do bible studies in prisons, and run thrift shops with second-hand clothing. We make homes for refugee families and visit the sick and shut-in. These are all beautiful expression of love. If we don’t interact with people personally, though, they can easily become social services, and the church one more agency seeking donations.

Often our outreach ministries keep us disengaged from the people whom we would serve, especially if we’re mostly writing checks or dropping cans into a food basket. There can be a kindness in this, of course - this Sunday, my church will collect piles and piles of new underwear to be given to men and women who are homeless. Gathering them at church and giving them to the shelters to distribute will spare us all the awkwardness of total strangers exchanging packages of intimate apparel. But we also miss out on a real opportunity to relate as people with needs, one to another.

For we are called to help alleviate suffering as fellow sufferers, not as those who have it all together graciously bestowing charity upon the “less fortunate” (one of the least fortunate expressions known to man…) This doesn’t mean we should stay focused on suffering. It means only that we should remember our own wounds, and be on the lookout for those whose wounds God is calling us to tend.

Jesus mentions six forms of suffering that his followers could alleviate. It is not an exhaustive list. We may be called to reach out a hand of love to someone suffering despair or addiction or joblessness. Where does the Holy Spirit seem to be moving around us? Might we put our energies in those places, joining God in the work of reclaiming, restoring and renewing all people to wholeness?

If we’re drawn to certain needs, like hunger or prison ministry, how might we get personally involved, making ourselves vulnerable to and available for relationship to human beings, not just organizations?
To whom is the Spirit calling you?

11-9-15 - Left or Right?

In the Gospel reading appointed for this coming Sunday Jesus talks about the end of the world. In the passage I will be reflecting on this week instead*, Jesus also talks about the end of the world, specifically the final judgment to come. In this parable, Jesus paints quite a scene, with all of humanity gathered before the Son of Man on his throne.

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

It’s 4th grade recess all over again, choosing up teams for dodge ball, or perhaps a cosmic Tinder swipe. However we describe it, there is a sorting, and the “good” go right and the “bad” go left. (If you’re a leftie, tired of sinister associations to the left-hand, or you lean leftward politically, think forward and back instead of left and right…) Scenes like this tend to raise our anxiety levels; how do we know we’re going to the right side? And how about other people – can’t we all just get folded in with the sheep, no matter what? Can’t we all just get along?

The three parables of judgment Jesus tells in the 25th chapter of Matthew definitely have a hard edge. Divisions are made, and it is possible to be too late, too risk-averse and too indifferent to suffering. Yet I dare to trust that we will be among those on the king’s right hand, those who are “blessed by the Father.” I imagine you have to work pretty hard to be among those who are weeded out. I hope God has prepared the kingdom from the foundation of the world for all of God’s creatures; I think you have to opt out and set yourself about actively destroying yourself and others to risk being disinvited from that heavenly banquet. And even then, Jesus’ other parables suggest, there is room for repentance.

This week, let’s enter into this parable, in which Jesus points us toward the lost and the least. Rather than worrying about whether we’ll go right or left in the final Day, let’s take the invitation Jesus issues this day to live our lives oriented toward God and towards other people. Let’s open our eyes to the blessing God wants to accomplish through us.

*This coming Sunday Christ the Healer holds our annual “Undie Sunday,” when we collect new, unopened underwear for men and women who are homeless – and shine a light on the issue itself. I will be using a gospel lesson other than that appointed focus on that in Water Daily this week.

11-6-15 - Radical Abundance

Yesterday, I wrote about what it means to give when you have nothing, when it costs you everything. Today we look at the more common way to give, out of our abundance.

Ah, but what if we don’t view our circumstances as abundant? What if we’re wired to see scarcity? I daresay it is impossible to grow up in our world unaffected by the advertising industry, and that industry is fueled by scarcity. “I’m not rich enough, I’m not pretty enough, I don’t smell good enough, my car’s not x enough….” (Rarely are we asked to wonder if we’re smart enough.)

Can you think of a crowd in which every hand would go up if you asked, “Do you have enough money in the bank?” Most people would counter with, “Enough for what? For today, sure. But for the next 25 years? For retirement? Ah, no, never enough…”

Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

It is hard to trust our abundance if we do not stay rooted in the day we’re in. “Give us today our daily bread,” Jesus taught us to pray. And most of us have plenty in the day we’re in. I believe Jesus is inviting us not only to trust that we have enough for the day, but to give everything we have, trusting that we’ll also have enough tomorrow.

I once attended a weekend retreat. At noon on the second day, each participant was given a bag stuffed with cards of prayer and encouragement from people at our churches as well as from total strangers. It was overwhelming to realize how many people were praying for us and took the time to write a note. I read a few notes, and decided to save the rest, to parcel out when I got home.

But that evening we got another bag, and more the next day, and the day we left. It was unbelievable, the abundance. And still I was going to save most of them – until with the fifth batch it hit me: this is God’s love made tangible. God’s love is abundant. It never runs out. You can’t save it for the next day – you have to receive it all, open it all, read it all, accept it all – or you won't be open to the blessing God may have for you tomorrow. So I opened every single note, by faith, trusting there would be love when I got home too.

It’s the same thing with our money, our food, our time, our love. We don’t have to save them up. We can spend them lavishly, allowing God to bless others through us, and us through others. Radical abundance is God’s gift to us. Radical abundance can be our way of giving. It is the way to true joy and freedom.

11-5-15 - Out of Nothing

Would you invite someone to dinner if you had no food? Who gives when they have nothing? Apparently, that’s what the poor widow in our Gospel story did, as Jesus tells it:

A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Out of nothing – everything she had. Was that nothing or everything? This overturns the notion that you have to have something to give something, that you only need to give if you have a little left over. What would it look like if people gave whether or not they had anything?

My church group served dinner at the men’s shelter in Stamford last night, as we do every month. None of us asked the men to give us anything – but why not? Why do we assume that, just because they have no home or financial resources they have no assets to share as human beings? And yet, as I went around offering to pray with each man there, I didn’t think to ask them to pray for me.

What if we expected recipients of charity to give generously as well as receive, if that was considered normal? I don’t mean that we should ask someone who comes for a meal to sweep out the kitchen. I’m not talking about charging for help we give. I’m suggesting we create a culture of giving even among those who “have nothing,” as a way of fostering wholeness and integrity in community. I suspect we’d have a lot more empowered people filling our shelters and soup kitchens, and empowered people do a lot better on job interviews.

There is a spiritual principle at work here. We claim that God created the universe ex nihilo, out of nothing. We proclaim that Jesus, who had no earthly goods, poured himself out completely, giving his entire life and spirit to what looked like defeat. And on Easter we trumpet his victory out of nothing, celebrating an empty space, a void, where a corpse was supposed to be. Out of nothing, everything.

That widow in the temple might have given her last coins because she was out of options, out of strategies – she was casting herself entirely upon God’s mercy. She gave what she had and left herself empty and ready to receive.

We all know how to give out of our plenty. What are the areas in which you feel you have nothing? What would it look like to give from that place? Where is God inviting you to try that?

11-4-15 - When Less is More

A person puts a $100 bill into the collection plate. The next person puts in 50 cents. Who has given more?

[Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”  (This week's gospel reading is here.)

Sometimes less is more, and more is less. That’s why Christians are encouraged to think about percentages in giving rather than set amounts. Giving a percentage of our income levels the field – the person whose income is $40,000 a year can give at the same level or higher than the one with a six-figure income. In fact, often those who have less to give make proportionally higher donations. Perhaps having less to play with can free us up to take bigger risks.

Indeed, the higher our incomes, the ouch-ier the math can be. Ten percent of $40,000 is $4,000; a goodly sum, but conceivable. But say your income is $200,000 per year; now we’re talking a $20,000 pledge. Heart palpitations set in. Why? Not, I suspect, because we actually need that $20,000 to live on if we’ve got $180,000 left, but because our culture says it’s crazy to give $20,000 to support a religious ministry. Spending $20,000 on a big vacation or a new car is reasonable; giving that away is counter-cultural.

The life of the Christ-follower is meant to be counter-cultural, risky, and exhilarating. We are invited to gratefully enjoy the resources we do have, to live simply and in a way that does little or no harm to our fellow humans and fellow creatures, and to give lavishly, as God has given us. When we’re not so worried about how much we need, we are freer to enjoy what we have. Freedom is God’s desire for us, and a source of infectious joy.

Today let's pray with our calculator and tax returns handy. Look at your adjusted gross income for last year. Look at your pledge or giving record. Do the math.
Maybe you’re giving more than 10 percent, maybe less.
Do you feel free? Do you feel joyful? Do you feel open-handed?
Do you feel anxious, closed in, put upon? Pray those feelings.

That widow gave it all. Maybe she had nothing left to lose.
Today I am asking myself, “What do you have to lose?” And whatever the answer is, I pray for the grace to loosen my grip on it, and coast on the winds of the Spirit.

11-3-15 - Offering

I’m guessing Jesus liked to people-watch, and the temple courts were great places to observe human behavior, good, bad and indifferent. One day he decided to watch people putting their offerings into the temple treasury.

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.

Giving was very much a public activity, it appears. In some church traditions today it is as well; the collection of financial gifts takes a whole section of the Sunday service, with an exhortation, an invitation to people to rise from their seats and walk their money to ushers waiting with baskets, a lengthy prayer of blessing over the collection, a counting during the service and sometimes a second offering if the first fell short. Giving is public, expected, and celebrated.

In contrast, many of our mainline churches make as little fuss as possible. Pledges are secret, money or checks are folded so no one can see how much – or how little – was given, and people are often uncomfortable discussing their offerings. The only pageantry is when the offering plates are brought to the altar during the singing of an offertory refrain, and the celebrant raises them heavenward for blessing, as if to say, “Please multiply these like the loaves and the fish, dear Lord…”

Giving is intrinsic to our Christian faith, and one of the most tangible ways our faith is expressed and put into action in the world. It is something to be celebrated – that we have something to give, that we’re willing to part with it, that we’re excited to add our money to that of others in our faith community and see what God will make of what we bring. We don’t have to be apologetic about discussing money, handling money, or celebrating money.

If you are a regular church-goer, you’ve probably been sent a pledge card recently and asked to “prayerfully consider” how much you can envision contributing to your church in the coming year. What if that prayer begins with, “Lord, thank you for giving me everything I have. How much do you want me to pledge to see your mission in this world carried forward through my church?” See how God replies!

At Christ the Healer our pledge theme
this year is “Releasing Our Joy." I think maybe next Sunday we’ll put on some dancing music and dance our pledge cards to the altar. Think I can get away with that in an Episcopal church?

(Now I’ll find out how many of my parishioners actually read this thing…)

11-2-15 - Of Vipers and VIPs

Next Sunday’s Gospel reading finds Jesus on familiar ground: ragging on the religious leaders. This time it is the scribes who have raised his hackles. He has been in an extended exchange with scribes seeking his learned opinion on several matters – or trying to entrap him. Maybe he’s had enough, for he does not mince words:

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Jesus doesn’t use the term “vipers” here, as he elsewhere calls some Pharisees – but he’s lambasting these scribes for acting like VIPs. I suppose we’ve all known clergy like this, who take as given their country-club memberships and access to the halls of power. These scribes seem to have expected and exploited the elevated status accorded them as religious leaders. Perhaps the fact that their power was so very limited, under the ever-present thumb of the Roman occupiers, made them all the more eager to take on airs.

Those who have been given the power of high position have extra responsibility to regard themselves as no better than those whom they serve. We all know that, but privilege is deeply seductive. It is human nature to enjoy it.

I believe true humility comes from seeing ourselves as God sees us – as beloved sinners, redeemed royalty, capable of tremendous good and immense damage. When we know how loved we are despite our flaws, we are better able to love others instead of using them to make us feel important. That’s a prayer for today: “Lord God, show me who you see when you look at me.” It’s always surprising.

Tomorrow we will go to the polls and elect leaders to serve us. In most cases, we are electing members of municipal boards and lower-level officials. But everyone who offers herself for elected office, and anyone who exercises his right to vote, would do well to remember Jesus’ advice:

Take the worst seats, greet people with humility before they have a chance to butter you up, seek justice - and keep your prayers short!