10-30-15 - Saints Unbound

Hearing this gospel story on the day after Hallowe’en may set up some jarring mental images. What did Lazarus look like, emerging from that tomb at Jesus’ command, “Lazarus! Come out!” It’s hard not to summon one of those old-time B movies about mummies coming to life. Here comes this form, wrapped in cloth from head to toe, unable to walk:

The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.

It must have caused pandemonium. Or utter silence. And Jesus didn’t say anything like, “Whew – glad that worked,” or “Welcome back, Lazarus!” He simply said, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Unbind him. Undo all the work you did to prepare his body for burial. Now you need to prepare him for life, renewed life.
Unbind him. Release him to move freely, to reenter relationships, to fully be who God made him to be.
Unbind him. Set him free forever from having to fear death.

That is also the work we are called to as saints in God’s mission of reclaiming, restoring and renewing all of creation to wholeness in Christ. We unbind people from the bondage of poverty and addiction, from the pain of infirmity and broken relationships, from the paralysis of depression and materialism. We unbind structures of injustice and cruelty that hold back people, animals, this creation itself from fully living. We are in the business of releasing the captives, as Jesus has released us. “Unbind her, and let her go.”

Today is the birthday of my older sister Paula, who died in 1996, tightly bound by ailments and addictions. A few months after her death, I was given a picture in prayer of Jesus taking her hand and leading her out of the door of the apartment in which she died. I knew that now she was free from the turmoil that often mitigated the many joys of her earthly life; free to be fully herself, fully the saint she was made to be, with all her uniqueness, her incredible gifts and intelligence and love. She is a saint unbound, fully alive.

That is our invitation too – to become more and more free in this life, released to love and be loved, and in the life to come completely unbound. What a dance of joy that will be!
We may as well start dancing now - it's what all cool saints are doing.

10-29-15 - That They May Believe

How could anyone watch a man four days buried walk out of a sealed tomb, and not believe in the power of God? After all, Jesus says that's why he was doing this great work of power, "So that they may believe."

So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.

How could anyone see this and not believe? Yet soon after this, Jesus himself is executed by people who observed this miracle and did not believe (or perhaps believed to the point of terror...). And a short while after that, Jesus stands among his disciples, himself risen from the dead, and even some of them do not believe. Thomas, whom the writer of John's gospel places with Jesus during the Lazarus story (he even has dialogue); Thomas, who watched Jesus bring Lazarus back from the dead, is unable to believe that Jesus is risen on the testimony of others. He has to see for himself. And in that story, in this same gospel, Jesus says, "Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe."

Is faith that is ignited by signs and wonders less worthy? I hope not - for Jesus went about doing many signs which brought people to faith, and the book of Acts is full of such wonders. Witnessing the power of God is the beginning of faith for many. I confess that sometimes when I pray for healing for someone, I like to remind God of the benefit his reputation might enjoy from a positive outcome. (Yeah, God has not actually hired me to be his agent...)

Jesus did invite people to believe based on the signs and wonders he performed, but not to rest there. We go astray when we focus on the signs themselves instead of who they are pointing to. Mature faith endures during times when it is harder to see God's hand in the world about us. That doesn't mean God is less active. It's an invitation to pray for keener faith vision to see how God is all over our lives.

Evidence of God's power can be like the romantic phase of a relationship; it invites us to go deeper into knowing the Other, and allowing ourselves to be known. Finding ourselves known and yet loved can be the most transforming miracle of all, bringing back to life parts of us that have died.

10-28-15 - The Dead Smell

Many things in this world smell bad, but I’m told there is no stench like that of a decomposing corpse. Mercifully I have no first-hand experience. One reason we put our dead into graves and tombs is to insulate us from the smell of decay. So I can only imagine the shock to those gathered outside Lazarus’ tomb when Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone.

Martha, ever the housekeeper, so much more earth-bound than her spiritual sister Mary, has no trouble speaking what everyone was no doubt thinking. “The stench, Lord; did you forget the dead smell?” I can hear the subtext: “Are you so lost in the clouds in your holiness and preaching, you don’t know what a dead person can smell like?”

Martha, bless her, is naming reality. The world needs more people like her, who will just say what needs to be said. And yet, that very gift, of stating the unpleasant facts in a given situation, can also keep one from believing in an outcome better than anyone can imagine. And Jesus was promising an outcome that no one could ever have imagined.

We have a notion that holiness smells good. There are psalms about our prayers rising before God as incense. This story reminds us that, on the way to seeing the glory of God, we often pass through some pretty revolting messes. We want to be protected from the messes, but as Good Friday, not to mention our own experience, teaches us, that’s not how God works. Our Good News says that God walks through the muck and mud with us, enduring the reek of things dead and decaying, and shows us in ways we cannot imagine how life can break forth, even there.

Think of the way a rose bush might grow through, even because of, the dung used to fertilize it, its fragrance the sweeter for the fetid ground in which it was born.

Jesus knew life was breaking forth. Martha trusted Jesus.
So they took away the stone.

10-27-15 - Jesus Wept

There’s a whole lotta weepin’ goin’ on in the Lazarus story. Nowhere else in the Gospels is Jesus depicted as being this emotionally expressive. His response to the grief of Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, is not surprising, given his closeness to that family. But it stands in marked contrast to the coolness with which he talked to his disciples about delaying going to Lazarus after being summoned to help. Now, we’re told, Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep.

Whatever the reason for Jesus’ open weeping – and I suspect the reasons were multiple and complex –this scene reminds us that before we get to the proclamation of Good News and life everlasting, we need to acknowledge our need to weep. Even Jesus. Our Episcopal funeral liturgy is so Easter-focused, and I often find I am in such a hurry to proclaim the life beyond death, the life that we can experience even in the midst of death – “Even at the grave we make our song, Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!” – I wonder if people feel the freedom to rest in grief awhile.

This story we tell this week, and the Feast of All Saints in general, are very much about the Life that lies beyond death. Yet sometimes we need to take awhile getting to that life, and when we need to, we can pause with Jesus, and weep.

In fact, when we weep, we might invite Jesus to pause with us, knowing he is no stranger to strong emotions. After all, he came with a heart like ours, and he died and rose again that we might have a heart like his.

10-26-15 - If

Next Sunday is All Saints Day, and the Revised Common Lectionary is revised indeed. Gone are the Beatitudes which were always the appointed Gospel. I don’t miss them, but the readings set have a decidedly “All Souls” feel, more focused on death than on sainthood.

The Gospel reading is about Jesus’ raising of Lazarus, who was very dead, and three days buried. Before we get to that big moment, though, John brings us right into the very human emotions being experienced by those close to Lazarus – and by Jesus. We start with disappointment.
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

“If you had been here.” How often do we feel that when someone is hurt or dies? “Lord, where were you?” A theological answer, “Right here, standing with you in the pain and the mess,” doesn’t always satisfy. In the moment, we are with Martha and Mary: “You could have prevented this. Why didn’t you come when we called?”

Disappointment always accompanies death. Even when death brings relief, there is disappointment that the person we love had gotten to the point where that was the best outcome. I think disappointment comes because we always hope for a better outcome, even in the face of all evidence to the contrary. And that is faith, isn’t it? Mary and her sister knew that Jesus could have healed Lazarus from his illness if only he’d come sooner.

How can we better balance our faith in what God can do, and the greater faith in what God is doing beyond where we can see or imagine? It takes that kind of faith to come to an acceptance of death, which St. Paul called “the final enemy.” We get there, I think, by putting our focus onto life, the life around us, and the Life to come. Perhaps Life is the only antidote to all our dashed hopes, broken dreams, unfulfilled expectations.

I was reading an article about new approaches to breast cancer. One woman with some early indicators who has decided to take a “wait and see” approach rather than medical interventions said, “What I am doing is not foolproof, I know that. I also know life is finite and that death is unavoidable. For me it came down to the quality of life I want to live… And come what may, I think we really hurt ourselves by trying to just not be dead.”

Jesus came that we might have Life, in abundance. God has so much more for us than just not being dead. Accepting death's inevitability, and the Life with God beyond, might just make us more aware of God with us in the times of loss. No ifs, ands or buts.

10-23-15 - The New, New Story

Stories function in interesting ways for many people. While we generally love a new story, something we haven’t encountered before, we are also very attached to the stories we already know. We don’t like people messing with our old stories – even their authors, if the brouhaha over the recent publication of Harper Lee’s “sequel” to To Kill a Mocking Bird is any indication. “I love to tell the story,” goes the old-timey gospel hymn, “The old, old story of Jesus and his love.”

And yet that “old, old story” is ever becoming new in our lives. In order to really accept healing and freedom and renewal, we need to be able to believe a different narrative than the one that has defined our lives so far, a different story than the one the world or our parents or our society has told us. We are often bound by what we have experienced as “normal.” Jesus’ gift is to show us the new normal, to show us what we can be.

Bartimaeus believed this story he had heard about, and it gave him power to walk out of his old story into the new.
The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

That meant giving up a certain kind of identity, a certain degree of security. Walking into our new stories always does. That’s why we often stay stuck in situations that are less than what God might have for us.

What old stories have defined you for too long? One way to get at that question is with this one: 

What are you pretending not to know?

What new story is calling you? Maybe it’s a vocation stirring in you, to use your time and gifts in some way other than how you have been doing. Maybe it’s a different place, a new person to love, a rediscovery of yourself. What is trying to be born in you?

Bartimaeus left his roadside and followed Jesus – right into Jerusalem, where Jesus was first lauded, and soon after condemned to a brutal death. That new story might not have been at all what Bartimaeus hoped for – and maybe it was more. For he got to witness firsthand the greatest love story the world has ever known. And he got to be around when that perfect man who had poured himself out for us, even to death, rose from the grave to usher all of us into the New, New Story God is writing.

And that story, like God’s mercies, is new every morning, as we allow it to claim us.

10-22-15 - What Do You Want?

What a beautiful question: “What do you want me to do for you?” 
How often does someone ask us that? Take a moment and think about it. What would you answer if someone stood before you now and said, “What do you want me to do for you?”

I can think of a billion things, mostly having to do with stress. Give me some time off. Bless my endeavors so I don’t have to strive so hard. Increase my metabolism.

What if the person standing before you asking that could do anything, move heaven and earth? That’s what Bartimaeus experienced in this week’s story.
And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’

On one level, it seems ridiculous for Jesus to ask – isn’t it obvious a blind man wants to see? Jesus did Bartimaeus the honor of asking him to speak his desire. He didn’t assume, he didn’t impose. He asked, inviting relationship.

Jesus gives us the same honor, and the same freedom. Yes, God knows what we need, better than we do. And God wants us to ask, just as we want our children to ask for what they desire. Prayer is not about getting what we want; prayer is about drawing closer in relationship to the God who loves us. As we can ask in freedom, God responds in freedom.

It’s not like a genie granting three wishes; we don’t always understand the response. Just as we don’t give our children things that would harm them, we sometimes seem to experience a “no” from God. Presumably, had Bartimaeus said, “I want you to smite those who harass me,” Jesus would not have complied. We can be sure, though, that we worship a God who desires wholeness for us in body, mind and spirit.

I preached on this story in nursing homes last week, to people in wheelchairs. That tested my faith: “What do you want me to do for you?” Still I went about praying for God’s healing love to be released in each one as I shared communion. I don’t know why I didn't see quickened limbs and straightened spines; I believe Jesus’ power is undiminished and his presence real.

It's not always instant. Yet I will proclaim his goodness and love, and keep telling him what I would like him to do for me, and for this hurting, beautiful world.

10-21-15 - Throwng Off Our Cloaks

They tried to hush him, this blind man sitting by the side of a road shouting out for Jesus.
Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’

But it was too late – Jesus had heard the commotion and had stopped: Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.

What wonderful energy is conveyed in that sentence, in Bartimaeus’ actions. He throws off his cloak. He springs up. He comes to Jesus.

Wait a minute, springing up and going to Jesus I can understand. But why did he throw off his cloak? What did that cloak signify? Perhaps it represented his identity as a beggar. It may have been more than protection against the elements – it might have been his sleeping bag as well, if he lived by that road, which some beggars did. It may have been his most prized possession, as well as a symbol of his degradation.

Whatever that cloak represents, his throwing it away speaks volumes: Bartimaeus knew that he wasn’t going to need it anymore. Before he got to Jesus’ side, he was so sure about Jesus’ power to heal, that he cast it aside and came to Jesus exposed and vulnerable. Bartimaeus was ready to cast off the story that had defined him for a new story. Bartimaeus was ready for healing.

What “cloaks” do we cling to that may inhibit our faith? What cloaks define our status in this world? For some, the cloak might be signs of security, like safe homes and bank accounts. For some, patterns of addiction that are safe and familiar, no matter how deadly. For some, it’s carrying too much weight, or being busy all the time.

Do we continue to to benefit from habits and patterns and wounds that may tell a truth about our lives, but not the whole truth, not God’s truth? Bartimaeus had a certain safety in his life as a beggar; little was asked of him; he was cared for, more or less. But he was ready to toss that away and move into a new life.

Is there a time when you have tossed away your cloak in faith, confident that God was up to something in your life – or at least ready to stand before God vulnerable and expectant? Did you ever take it back again (it can be distressingly easy to find the cloaks we throw aside…).

Is there anything you cling to now, that may hold you back from putting your full trust in God? What if you talked with Jesus about it? What if, in imaginative prayer, you asked Bartimaeus what it felt like to throw away a garment that both protected and falsely defined him?

Bartimaeus was ready. He believed, and he sprang. Jesus is calling you and me to his side too. What need we throw away so we are free to spring up and go to him?

10-20-15 - Lord, Have Mercy

In this week’s story, we find Jesus leaving Jericho with a large crowd, on his way to Jerusalem. At the side of the road sits a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, who is anything but shy. 
When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’

This shouted prayer has come through the ages from the lips of Bartimaeus into the lives of millions of Christ-followers. It forms the heart the “Jesus prayer,” which many pilgrims and mystics have taken as a mantra to help them cultivate the practice of praying without ceasing. This spiritual practice, called “hesychasm,” flourished in Russia and some of the Eastern Orthodox churches, and has popped up in other unexpected places, most notably in J.D. Salinger’s great novella of spirituality and neurosis, Franny and Zooey. Also called “the prayer of the heart,” the words vary somewhat, but are most often rendered, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me,” with the words “…a sinner” added in some formulations.

What is it about these words that so many have found so compelling? Some might ask why we need beg for mercy from a God of love. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t. In the world we yet live in, awaiting the perfection of God’s plan of redemption, many of us find ourselves aware of the need for God’s mercy and love on a regular basis, whether from a place of pain or poverty or as a cry of repentance. No matter how well we know God’s grace, our awareness of being less than we were made to be compels us to that prayer.

But let us not mistake this for a prayer of degradation and forced humility. Bartimaeus uttered these words with vigor and volume; this was not a meek plea, but a prayer of faith and recognition both of who Jesus was and who he himself was. God is God, and we are not. God is all in all; we are ever becoming whole. This side of glory, we will always be in need of the mercy of the One who made us, knows us, loves us, and never lets us go.

What would you utter such a cry about? What are you in need of deliverance from or blessing with? Bartimaeus is our model – pray it with pride, “Lord Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me.”

10-19-15 - Son of...

This Sunday’s Gospel reading finds us at the cusp of the final act in Jesus’ earthly life and mission. He and his entourage come to Jericho and, the text suggests, leave it soon after. Jericho is his last stop on his way to Jerusalem for the last time; there he will enter into his passion and death. On the outskirts of Jericho, the ancient site of Joshua’s miraculous victory, the new Joshua – Yeshua – encounters a blind man, a blind man who can see better than anyone else around.

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’

Why does Mark make such a point about Bartimaeus’ son-ship? “Bar” means “son” in Aramaic, so Bartimaeus means “Son of Timaeus.” So Mark identifies him as “Son of Timeaeus, Son of Timaeus.” Now, maybe it’s just that his father was named Timaeus, but that’s not a Hebrew name. And this isn’t Mark’s usual pattern. Some scholars think Mark is trying to make a point with this name – “Timaeus” is also the name of one of the more influential Dialogs of Plato, and contains a discourse on the eye and vision. Is Mark signaling his readers with this name that we are talking about a new way of seeing the universe? Or is he suggesting that all the intellectual and philosophical insight in the world won’t allow you to see what can only be perceived by faith?

This blind man already sees by faith what no one else in the story seems to: who Jesus really is. Mark’s gospel is the one that makes the most of the “Messianic secret” – and here a blind man “outs” him: Son of David – code for the Messiah, whom prophets foretold would come from David's line.

What do these two sons, the son of Timaeus and the son of David have to do with each other? And what do they have to do with us? One might say we are all sons and daughters of both Timaeus and God, heirs to both worldly reason and spiritual sight. As Jesus lived with two identities at once, human and divine, so we in some measure live in these two realities simultaneously, which exist in some tension.

This rich story invites us to explore our dual citizenship in the realm of this world and the realm of God. It bids us question how our gift of physical sight and intellectual insight can help and/or hinder our faith vision. How does your capacity for thought about God lead you closer to God?
What “evidence” does the world present that holds you back from believing the impossible power of God? Do we fall prey to the mixed messages of too much data?

As we will see, Bartimaeus was unhindered by physical sight, even as he longed to see. But his faith vision was highly developed. The invitation for we who are blessed with physical vision is to be as sure as this blind man was about the God-Life that is all around us, unseen but very, very real.

10-16-15 - Ransomed

Among the aspects of Christianity it seems more difficult to talk about these days are doctrines of Atonement. These are different ways of articulating how Christ’s death on the cross (and/or resurrection from the dead…) had a salvific effect for humankind. Some Christians today reject the idea that humanity needed saving; others are put off by the notion that our God of Love could be so wrathful as to require an atoning sacrifice to meet the demands of his justice, let alone the sacrifice of his own son. Ideas that Christians have prayed, confessed, preached and sung about for centuries are suddenly in the recycle bin.

And guess what? I don’t want to get into it in a short spiritual reflection, even if I were equipped. I bring it up at all because of the last thing Jesus said in his discourse to his disciples about service and humble leadership:
“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

If we wonder why there would be theories of atonement, that line about giving his life as a ransom is one reason. That tells us something about how Jesus saw his mission and impending passion. It suggests that “many” are indeed in need of being rescued, saved, liberated, redeemed like an item sitting on a pawn shop shelf.

I suggest that, whatever you think about sin and sinfulness, however you view your need to be forgiven and saved or not, each of us can relate to the notion of being held hostage to something. Whether we are hostage to our own schedules, to cycles of disease or addiction in family members, the materialism of our culture, the demands of social media, or our own broken patterns of relating to ourselves, to others and to God – each of us can, I believe, appreciate the notion of being ransomed from that bound condition into freedom.

Even if we accept Jesus’ gift only in that light, it is enough to make us profoundly grateful to be ransomed – meaning, someone else has paid the ransom so that we can walk out of captivity into the bright sunlight of liberation.

What in your life have you been ransomed from? What do you need freeing from now? Might you ask Jesus in prayer today how his offering of himself unto death and back into new life has provided you a key for the door?

Do you owe a debt to another person you can never repay, perhaps a hurt you caused or joy you stole? Can you accept that Jesus may even have paid that debt for you?

In what ways might we still be sitting in our captivity, even though the door has been opened – because it’s scarier to move out of our patterns of unhealth into the responsibility of freedom?

There’s a beautiful song called Be Ye Glad, with this refrain:
Be ye glad, O be ye glad; every debt that you ever had;
Has been paid up in full by the grace of the Lord;
Be ye glad, be ye glad, be ye glad.

We are ransomed. Open the door and step into the Light!

10-15-15 - Serving and Being Served

Didn’t Jesus want to get breakfast in bed every now and then? Oh wait, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Okay, then how about dinner? We know he was not averse to attending dinner parties, and at least twice allowed women to anoint his feet, be it with ointment or tears. So he was willing to be served, on occasion.

Yet here he says, “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”

Okay, I’m being overly literal. Of course, Jesus received service as well as gave it. But overall, he was a net giver. (It’s kind of hard to top giving your life...). And he wanted his followers to get it through their heads and hearts that their life was to be one of serving others, often without reward, possibly at the cost of their lives. He even washed their feet to teach them kinetically what they couldn’t perhaps fully grasp from his words – that love needs to be embodied in order to be received. Afterward, he told them, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

Serving others, especially those who cannot repay you, is embedded in the Christian life. As followers of Christ, we are called to be net givers, even if some people to whom we give are net takers. At the same time, serving and being served need to be in some kind of balance. If we are never willing to receive service, we can find ourselves giving from a place of superiority rather than humility. As most people will tell you on Maundy Thursday, it’s a lot harder to accept someone else washing your feet than it is to wash someone else’s.

What does a community look like in which everyone believes they have come not to be served but to serve? At its best, it looks like a community of mutual caring and love, in which people are always looking around to see who needs to be served. Then everyone is at some point the recipient of another’s care, and everyone is a giver of service.

We have to offer service without thought to whether or not someone will care for us – but if we are never on the receiving end, that can be a sign that we are operating too much in isolation. Do a little assessment today – are you a net giver or net receiver in your life right now? How might Jesus invite you to address any imbalance?

One way is to ask Him to lead us each day in the service we offer. The Son of Man is still in the business of serving, but now we are his hands, feet, voice and love. We’ll find as we offer service with his Spirit in us, we are not drained, but somehow are served ourselves.

10-14-15 - Slave of All

Pulling a power play rarely endears one to one’s colleagues, whether in an office, a kitchen, a classroom or a family. James and John’s attempt to secure places of honor by Jesus in the glorious future soon got back to their fellow disciples. They were not pleased.

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

The brouhaha did give Jesus a teachable moment, a chance to convey to his thick-headed disciples yet again the nature of the leadership to which they were called. This was not to be the leadership of corner offices and grand titles, of setting broad visions or managing underlings. This was to be the leadership of humble service. They were to excel in serving each other and the people around them. They were to be first in serving as slaves.

The language of slavery pervades the New Testament, reflecting a time when people, even godly folk, accepted slavery as a way of the world more than we do. (Slavery is probably no less pervasive in our day; we just use words like trafficking and condemn it even as we tolerate it.) Whatever Jesus thought of it, we know that here he uses that image, commending the status of those who have no status.

This message is counter-cultural in any age. We don’t all want to be leaders, but few people actually want to be servants, doing the scut work. Those who excel at giving humbly and sacrificially, working in the least desirable places, like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, often draw attention and respect, but few imitators. Yet she did it, she said, because she found Christ in the lost and the least. And he said that’s where he was to be found, in the hungry, naked and sick, the prisoner and the refugee.

What forms of “lowly” service are part of your life and ministry? It might be caring for an aging relative; it might be volunteering among people who live on the streets, or in a nursing home. Where do you find God in that offering?

If we truly want to be close to Christ, perhaps we want to spend less time on our knees in prayer, and more on our knees cleaning floors and tending the ragged. Of course, that’s a false dichotomy – we are called to do both, and are blessed in both. The common denominator, though, is the kneeling.

10-13-15 - What's the Pay-Off?

It’s natural to want to see a return on investment, to see a pay-off when we’ve worked hard at something. Non-profits have learned to communicate the often intangible benefits to be reaped by donors and volunteers, and churches have jumped (or been forced…) on that bandwagon too. I spend a lot of my time preparing marketing materials in numerous media, spreading the message that being a part of life at Christ the Healer will help people feel better or more connected to God, others and themselves.

I even find myself “marketing” the life of following Jesus, reminding people how much joy and peace and love there is to be found in Christ in this life, not only the next. I have a sermon series on the promises of God – Peace, Power, Presence, Purpose (not Prosperity). Lots of pay-off!

James and John wanted to know there was a pay-off, too. But were they listening to Jesus? He has just spoken again about the adversity that he was soon to face in Jerusalem – arrest, trial, condemnation, crucifixion, and rising again Focused on their status when Jesus was in “his glory,” they seem to have forgotten his reminders of persecution. To their request that they have “dibs” on the seats next to him, 

Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’

They replied “We are able.” Did they know what they were saying? For that matter, do we? This expression Jesus used meant, “Can you share my lot?” Jesus was soon to hold a cup of wine and say to his disciples, “This is my blood. Each time you drink this cup, remember me.” And what did he mean by baptism? A ritual of cleansing, of complete transformation? Early on, the church saw in the ritual of baptism a symbolic joining with Christ in his death and rising with him in resurrection. Were James and John up for all that?

Are we up for all that? Or do we turn away when life gets hard and the rewards of ministry seem hard to discern, when church attendance and giving don’t seem to go up, and the numbers at the homeless shelter don’t seem to decline, and it seems harder and harder to connect people to the life we find in the Gospels. How do we live into the joy of the Lord when we don’t see it? Ah, that’s why it’s called faith!

The Life of God, as Jesus revealed it, is not the realm of the big pay-off. It is the life of sacrificial, other-directed, giving without limits that Jesus lived and taught, and millions have done after him. When we fail to communicate it that way (mea culpa…), we don’t help people to cultivate that spirit of giving. We don’t foster maturity in the Spirit.The Gospel was, and is, counter-cultural.

Yes, and I will continue to preach that God doesn’t expect us to give out of an empty vessel. The cup we drink every Sunday is called the cup of salvation; it is the water of life, turned to wine through the power of Jesus’ love. Our invitation is to take in that life, again and again, and pour it out completely, again and again, for the sake of the world.

The world may not appreciate the gift, but as we do see good fruit of changed lives and hearts turned God-ward, we can give thanks. That’s the only pay-off we need.

10-12-15 - Best Seats in the House

I often worry about where I’m going to sit. If I’m going to a wedding or gala, I hope I’ll be seated with people I know and not in the “outer darkness” at the edges of the room. If I’m headed to the movies, I’m anxious about getting a seat that is not behind a tall person. At concerts, I want a seat with an unobstructed view and close enough to catch the band’s energy. But it has never occurred to me to worry about where I’ll be sitting in the afterlife.

Not so James and John, disciples of Jesus of Nazareth:
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ (This Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

Now, their request may not have been about seating so much as jockeying for leadership positions, and they might not have been talking about heaven. If they saw Jesus as the Messiah who would liberate the people from oppression, “In your glory” may have meant after Jesus had accomplished his mission as they understood it – which was not very well.

Jesus had more than a few things to say about people who try to get the best seats, whether at dinner parties or in glory. He usually reminded them of the “those who want to be first will be last” principle of God’s kingdom and recommended that they select the least desirable seats, with the least desirable company, where he was often to be found.

What if, instead of seeking the better seats, we searched out the least desirable ones? We'd give up a lot of stress and competition. What if I were to embrace meeting strangers at weddings, or let others have the closer seats in the concert hall? Once upon a time, the back of the bus was where the marginalized were forced to sit – how about joining them?

What do you see as the "good seats" in life? Might you ask God in prayer where he would have you sit?

Wherever we sit, whether humble or exalted, we can be sure that Jesus is sitting next to us, that we are on one side or another of the One who promised he would always be with us. There ain’t a bad seat in his house.

10-9-15 - Inheritance

Reading the gospel story set for this Sunday, I’m struck by a verb the man uses in his question to Jesus. He asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Inheritances, by definition, are received, not earned. One can work at being disinherited, but generally we inherit by virtue of being in a given relationship to one who leaves a legacy.

Jesus offers the man a relationship. He tells him how to disencumber himself of resources that he’s relying on and really make himself free to receive the gifts of discipleship, and then to come and enter into the relationship. The man is unable to accept, and goes away grieving.

Those folks who have already taken Jesus up on that offer are flabbergasted at the conclusion Jesus draws from this encounter, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” “Then who can be saved?,” they ask, suddenly anxious about their own positions. Peter reminds Jesus of all that they have left behind to be with him – and how does Jesus respond? By telling them about the blessings they will receive now and the inheritance to come:

Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’

Taking on God-Life has pay-offs in this life - and in the fullness of eternity we really reap the blessings.

Jesus tells us that the way to come into that fullness is to let go of our temporal sources of security and follow him. And if this seems impossible, as impossible as a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle (and no, there was no narrow gate in Jerusalem – Jesus is being hyperbolic to make a point, as this article sent by my sister suggests…), Jesus reminds us that it is indeed impossible for us, though not for God. This God who desires to spend eternity with us will draw us in as we allow ourselves to be tethered. We're the camels in this scenario!

Can we part with our fortunes more readily if we really trust the inheritance that will be ours when none of our things and bank accounts matter anymore? Paul tells us in Ephesians that legacy is already ours, present in the power of the Spirit working through us. The Spirit is the down-payment, and we can start spending right now.

And the thing about spending that capital? It makes us less attached to the kind in our bank accounts. The more Spirit-power we spend, the freer we get. That’s the legacy of relationship with Jesus, and it never ends.

10-8-15 - No Easy Way In

Very little shocks us these days. Sex, violence, prejudice, outrageous discourse, are all commonplace. But start talking about money and how wealth is distributed, you might get a reaction.

It wasn’t so different in Jesus’ day. When Jesus told the man who came to him seeking eternal life that he should sell everything he owned, give the proceeds to the poor, and then follow him, he went away shocked. And so so did Jesus’ disciples who watched this encounter unfold.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’

Were they shocked that he let such a promising recruit go away? Or that he would say such a thing about the wealthy? In that culture (as in ours…) prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing and favor. How could that be an impediment to full participation in the life of God?

This gives us pause as well, wealthy as we are. Have we examined the ways in which our wealth and worldly security stands in the way of our putting all our trust in Christ’s grace and love (which Episcopalians promise to do in our baptismal vows…)? Often we respond to the discomfort we feel encountering these words of Jesus by trying to give our way to feeling okay. "Yeah, but, look at how much I give away..." That ain’t a bad thing… but I sense it’s not what Jesus is talking about. I suspect his concern is what the accumulation does for and to us.

Thankfully, this greatly challenging passage ends with a reminder of grace:  

They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’

For God all things are possible – which we experience as we let go and trust God and the power of the Spirit working in, around and through us. Let’s start there, and see how love might loosen our grip.

10-7-15 - Give It All Away

There is an organizing method sweeping the nation, popularized in the bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I have not read the book, but I gather one principle at its core is to go through the piles of stuff you may have accumulated – clothes, books, files, games, CDs, electronics, exercise equipment, what have you – and ask, “Does this bring me joy?” If the answer is no, gracefully toss it or help it find a new home. Asking, “Might I ever use this?” (my usual approach...) too often elicits a yes, and leaves us mired in our clutter.

I wonder if this is remotely what Jesus had in mind when he said to the man who came asking how he might inherit eternal life, “‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’

Certainly Jesus's suggestion was not so moderate. He said that this man should render himself completely free of possessions – not just by shedding them, but actually selling them and giving the money to the poor. Jesus invited him to be completely unencumbered, totally available to the winds of the Spirit to bless and work through him. And lest we think this is insane, remember that others have done it – St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day we celebrated Sunday, was among the most notable, but many who have entered religious orders, and denominations like the Mennonites, have done the same thing. Is there something about possessions that blocks the flow of God’s life in us?

Does Jesus ask the same of us? Or is this word given only to those who have great wealth and many possessions? Oh, that’s a dangerous tack to take; few of us self-describe as wealthy or think we have enough. But when we compare our standing to that of others, particularly most of the rest of the world (by a rough estimate, the poorest American is wealthier than 85% of the world’s population…), we start to see clearly just how much we have, and how much it may be standing in our way spiritually. It's not the wealth, it's where we put our security that saps our faith.

How do we start to divest ourselves? Can we do it incrementally, or must we tear off this bandaid all at once, as Jesus told the man in our story to do? He was unable to meet that challenge;  

When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

I fear I might have gone with him. I’m not ready to tear off the bandaid. But I’m willing to reposition myself relative to my goods and wealth, and move myself to greater readiness. I’m going to start with the things I have too much of, and ask not, “Does this bring me joy?” but “Does God have a use for this?”

I wonder where that will lead me. I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure God has a use for me, and he needs me free.

10-6-15 - The Look of Love

I admit it. This time, when I read this familiar passage, suddenly a Dionne Warwick song started up in my head. It was that thing about “Jesus looked at him with love” that did it. (Irreverent, these internal soundtracks…) Here we have a man who’s come to Jesus asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” After establishing that he knows and keeps the commandments perfectly, Jesus does this:

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’

The man is shocked and dismayed by this message – as I suspect most of us would be. But it’s not given in a vacuum. It is a message grounded in great love, delivered to this man who is so close to God-Life. If only the love had rung louder for him than the severity of the demand. But all the love in the world cannot redirect us if we cannot let it in, and for whatever reason, that man’s love for his wealth and goods, and maybe the security they afforded him, blocked out the love Jesus directed to him.

What keeps God’s great love from getting in and transforming our interior landscapes? Sometimes it is blocked by alternate messages we’ve received from the world, family, school, careers, or by a self-sufficiency which comes hardwired in members of deeply individualistic cultures. The lure of worldly success and short-term gain can also impede the flow of that love to us.

And what helps us to lower our barriers and let it in when we do? Sometimes it isn’t until we see how short that that short-term gain really is that we’re ready to open ourselves up to something deeper, less immediately accessible. And sometimes it is because someone comes along and insists on loving us despite our barriers. I think Jesus invited that man to part from all his wealth and success and follow him so he could offer him transformative love in relationship. That’s the offer he makes all of us, too – the invitation to follow and draw near, love and be loved in a way that changes us.

It’s hard, when we don’t have Jesus standing right in front of us, right? Or would that make any difference? Maybe Jesus has sent representatives to bear his love to us, and we’re missing the offer.

The gospel writers never tell us what became of this man. Did he reconsider Jesus’ offer and take him up on it at a later time? Did it change his relationship to his wealth and power? I imagine that could only happen were he able to take in the love Jesus offered him in that look. Only that love can change our hearts. Only that love can change the world.

It already has.

10-5-15 - A Good Person

When I was in elementary school, the SRA reading mastery system was in vogue (I googled… seems to still be around). This was a set of reading materials which children could move through at their own pace. You’d read a selection, answer the questions about it, and if you were correct, move on to the next story. It was a perfect system for over-achievers – a clear path to success and an almost unlimited number of steps to complete.

That’s what the man in this week’s gospel story reminds me of – someone doing the spiritual equivalent of SRA. This was a good and serious man, this fellow who ran up to Jesus. Meticulous in following God’s commandments, humble and faithful, even so he is unsure of his ultimate future. So he comes to find Jesus: As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

Jesus asks why he calls him “good teacher,” telling him that only God is truly good. He reminds him of the Commandments – living according to God’s law is the way to prove your goodness. The man assures Jesus he has kept these all his life. Then Jesus adds a twist.

But wait - before we look at that, let’s stop and wonder at this man. He has kept all the commandments his whole life? That’s amazing! What kind of person is this? A person who can say, “I’m a good person,” is both admirable and deeply saddening. Why saddening? Because those who locate their righteousness in their own ability to follow the rules often have more trouble acknowledging their need for God.

There are two approaches to holiness. One is the “SRA,” rung-climbing, rule-following, sometimes teeth-gritting way of “Give me the directions; I can do it myself.” The other is to be clear-eyed about our weaknesses as well as strengths, willing to be repentant and vulnerable, compassionate toward self and others. I would argue that the first approach leaves little room to grow, while the second allows infinite space for maturing in faith and love. There is nothing wrong with “good people.” It’s just that so often those who say “I’m a good person” say it defensively, explaining why they don’t really have anything to do with God or religious life.

Do you know anyone in that category? I don't wish to sound judgmental – I just don’t think it works. It’s like saying, “I’ve arrived. There is nothing more I need.” Now, this man talking to Jesus wasn’t quite that way – he figured there must be something more he needed to do. And that’s the trap for the “good person,” thinking we can “do” our way into the Kingdom of heaven, when Jesus said it is a gift we need to receive. The last thing this man needed was another spiritual task to complete (though Jesus gave him a whopper...). He needed to submit himself to Love.

“I’m a good person,” is a conversation stopper. What do you say to that? “Good for you?” “No, you’re not?” I think the next time someone says that to me, I will smile and say, “Great. Are you a loved person?” That’s what counts.

10-2-15 - Child's Eye View

There are exercises for training care-givers, to help them better understand the experience of given populations. People working with the sight-impaired don light-proof blindfolds and try to get around; people who serve the infirm are told to navigate spaces with canes or wheelchairs.

I don’t know if any such exercises exist to better understand the world as a child experiences it, but I wonder what we’d do to recover that way of seeing. Certainly we’d have to get several feet closer to the floor, and maybe be told to regard every object as a potential plaything, and be encouraged to ask every question that comes to mind.

We need to be able to get back into our “child mind” if we want to be serious about our faith journey, at least according to Jesus: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

This comment may well have shocked the serious adults to whom he addressed it. His own disciples had been busy shooing away the children who were crowding around Jesus, and he told them to let the children come. But to go further and say we needed to emulate them if we wanted to enter the kingdom of God – that’s a radical notion.

It means we may need to embrace dependency instead of going it alone. It means we need to be able to believe in things that we cannot see – and even see them, as our faith vision develops. It means we come to expect joy and playfulness, and cultivate our capacity for wonder. It means we ask our questions, and cry when we're sad, and act silly, and sit down for stories that capture our fancy. And we share these good things with each other.

How much of that applies to your experience of church and Christian community? How might we adapt our circumstances to foster this way of being?

I’ve been talking about how we might perceive the Kingdom as children do. But Jesus didn’t say “perceive,” he said “receive.” We must become receptors if we are to truly accept God’s gifts, even God’s calls to action. When action and giving outweigh the receiving, we find ourselves stuck outside the threshold of God-Life, yearning to get in.

That’s kind of where those children were who wanted to get close to Jesus. And here’s what he did: And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

If we come to Him like that, he will offer us no less.

10-1-15 - Owners of the Kingdom

The handlers were getting edgy. The candidate was on a tight schedule, with influential people to meet, speeches to give, a movement to advance. There was no time for kissing babies and picking up kids. Security risk, germ risk, not to mention the danger of being upstaged… “Keep the kids away!” they muttered into their walkie-talkies. But the candidate had other ideas:

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.

I can imagine this is how Jesus’ disciples might be depicted if we updated this story to today. (In fact, I think I heard something like this did happen during Pope Francis’ visit... here is a similar moment, and another from last year here). It does make for great copy – the high and exalted stooping to the lowly and insignificant.

But Jesus was up to something much bigger than a great photo op. He didn’t only say to let the children come – he said that they, in fact, have the highest status of all: to them belongs the Kingdom of God. That makes them owners, these little ones who by law could own nothing, earn nothing, achieve nothing, who were completely dependent upon others. These are the owners of the Kingdom.

What does that say about other insignificant kinds of people? Is Jesus saying the Kingdom also belongs to the destitute, the diseased, the depressed, the disowned - and us, on our worst days? Or is there something peculiar to children that elevates them to this status? Is it in fact their very dependence that makes them so important?

Is Jesus waiting for us to lay down all our products and projects so that our hands are open to receive the whole thing, the fullness of God-Life?