4-29-16 - Healing of Nations

Let’s move now from the pool of healing in our Gospel story, to the healing river mentioned in the end of Revelation; from the healing of persons to the healing of the nations:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

What a beautiful picture of the new heavens and the new earth, picking up on the vision of a restoring river in Ezekiel 47, which also had fruit trees on each bank, their leaves for healing. In the new vision the healing has been broadened to the healing of the nations. This resonates with a theme in our reading from Acts as well:

During the night, Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

I have refugees on the brain lately, but I immediately thought of the devastated families pouring out of an obliterated Syria, trying to save their lives and their children. Images of the unplanned, chaotic refugee camp on the Greek border, and desperate attempts to pass into Macedonia and the Balkan states come to mind. “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” If ever there were people who needed good news proclaimed, here are millions. If ever the nations needed healing, it is now.

Does the healing power of Christ extend to nations? There is only one way to find out. Perhaps we feel feeble in our prayers for peace and an end to terror and starvation, oppression and exploitation, because the needs are so vast, the pain so entrenched. It is hard to see dramatic outcomes to such prayers. The bigger the wound, the more complex the condition, the longer it can take to heal it – but our prayers do not go unheard. Maybe through our prayers we strengthen peace-makers. Maybe circumstances change. Maybe our prayers influence people in authority, or grass-roots activists. We don’t know – we only know that the healing stream that flows through and around us is intended for the whole world.

Maybe each day we should comb the news for one name in a conflict-ridden area, that leaps out at us, and make it our task to pray for that person to be fully blessed. Who knows?

When Paul and his companions acted on his vision and traveled to Macedonia, they found a river there too, by which there was a place of prayer. And there they met a woman named Lydia, who was brought to faith in Jesus Christ through Paul’s words, and she and her whole household were baptized. No one would have expected that – but strangers now became family in faith. Who knows what fruit came of that encounter – generations of Christ-followers, perhaps.

We don’t know where the healing stream is to flow, but It is up to us to be water-carriers, bearing that water of life to every place and person in need of it. In the end, all nations will be healed, and God will reign.

4-28-16 - Walk

I was privileged to know Canon Jim Glennon, an Anglican clergyman from Australia who had an extraordinary gift and ministry of healing. We corresponded quite a bit before he died, and I invited him to lead a healing mission I organized at my church in New York. I will never forget his clear, simple teaching about God’s healing: plant the seed of faith, in Christ; give thanks for God’s activity, even before you see it (“first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn…” he’d quote); and don’t be afraid to test it.

To demonstrate his approach, he asked if someone with severe back pain would come up for prayer, and a man did. The process by which Jim prayed, then checked in, and responded to the information offered is an incredible story in itself, which included the man’s realization that he needed to forgive the person who’d caused his injury. But after that happened, and we prayed some more, Jim asked the man how his pain was now, and he said, “It’s gone! It’s been with me for 15 years, and it’s gone!” “Well, twist around,” Jim said. “Move your back. Try it out. Get up and walk.” One of the ways we accept the healing God offers us is by moving into it.

Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

Sometimes we pray for healing or transformation, and then think God has not answered. And why do we think that? Because we haven’t moved! We’re still sitting in our dis-ease and sometimes despair and mistrust, still seeing the matter from the same angle, perhaps influenced by disappointments in the past. But when we get up and move around, we have to see it differently, for our position changes. (Not to mention the real physiological benefits for our brain chemistry of moving…).

We are invited to assume that God has heard our prayers, and assume that the God who loves and desires freedom and wholeness for us is indeed acting on our behalf. So we give thanks even before we see the fullness of the healing we desire. So we begin to walk, to move ourselves into the healing stream of God’s love and power. Maybe we limp at first; maybe we move cautiously; but we are to move toward that freedom and wholeness, our attention fixed not on our remaining symptoms but on the unwavering love of God in Jesus Christ.

I do believe God’s healing stream is that Living Water Jesus promised would well up inside us to eternal life. And God’s healing stream is that mighty river of Life that flows around us as we move in the Spirit. If the flow is impeded by anxiety or anger or unforgiveness or unhealed trauma, we invite the Spirit to help remove those obstacles. Yet it is remarkable how much healing can happen even as we’re getting free of some of those impediments.

Today, pray for healing in whatever area you’ve been considering this week. (Or pray with another – the faith of two is stronger than one). Believe that God desires wholeness for you, whatever that will look like. Give thanks for God's activity even before you see the fruits. And then begin to walk in faith, into healing. First the blade, then the ear, then the fullness of life!

If you are interested in exploring the ministry of healing, join me at the next Spa for the Spirit at Christ the Healer, Saturday, May 7, 8:30-12:30. Flyer here; register here.

4-27-16 - Another Way

I once met someone whose life had become a living hell. So many traumas and losses had accrued, exacerbated by and exacerbating physical and mental illness, family and financial troubles, he was like a fly caught in the web of a very busy spider. Listening, I didn’t know where to begin; he was sure no good outcome was possible.

Isn’t there always a good reason? We don’t have the support we need; something came up that derailed us; we’re in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people. The sick man in this week’s gospel story laid the blame for his continued infirmity on the other sick people around him who, he said, never let him get into the healing waters when they were stirred.

The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”

I love Jesus’ response: he says nothing about the pool. He doesn’t tell the man to stop feeling sorry for himself; doesn’t advise how to compete with the other people. He simply gives a command that has the power to effect what it commands: “Stand up, take your mat, walk.”

I wonder how these words landed on this man, so sure there was only one dim possibility for reversal, if he could get into that pool at the right moment. Did he think Jesus was mocking him? Crazy? Or did he feel a sensation in his body and limbs that told him something was awakening, something had changed? Did he worry that people would think him crazy if he attempted to stand? We don’t know; we’re told only that he did stand and began to walk.

This man did not heal himself. He did not change his attitude and become more open to healing. This was Jesus’ work entirely. That’s important for us, both as we seek healing for ourselves, and as we minister to others. We don’t have to put ourselves or others into the right frame of mind. We only have to bring Jesus into the picture and believe in his presence. And if we hear a command – we may not always, but if we do – act on it.

If you were to tell Jesus in prayer today about the most “stuck” area of your life, the one about which you feel the most despair, what would it be? Try it, and try listening inwardly for a response. It might come through a word that fixes in your mind, or an image or scene, or you might find yourself sitting or walking with Jesus in your imagination. Whatever unfolds, go with it. Do you think Jesus will discuss your reasons for stuckness with you? Or will he command you to be free?

In the life of God there is always another way healing can come. We cannot assume it will come through prayer or medical care or neither or both. We are to take the actions before us, but not get tied to them. At any moment, even thirty-eight years later, Jesus can come into our picture and set us free. He doesn’t have to unbind the spider’s web; he has only to command it in love, and the bonds fall away. And if we invite him in, healing can come that much sooner.

If you are interested in exploring the ministry of healing, join me at the next Spa for the Spirit at Christ the Healer, Saturday, May 7, 8:30-12:30. Flyer here; register here.

4-26-16 - Do You Want Healing?

There is something deeply frightening about asking for healing. Alarmed as we might be by illness, symptoms, loss of freedom and mobility, or even approaching death, it can be scarier still to ask for God’s transforming power to effect a change. What if God doesn’t answer? Then, in addition to the scourge of illness, our faith has taken a hit. This fear is enough to keep many people stuck in infirmity.

One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”

It’s a fair question. I have wanted to ask it of quite a few people, and I’m sure many have wanted to ask it of me. Thirty-eight years seems like a long time to endure illness, but dis-ease can easily become a habit. I’ve known robust, active people rendered prematurely homebound by pain or difficulty moving around as they used to; it seems to the people around them that they’ve given up way too soon – but the shock of limitations deals its own blows to the psyche.

We don’t know the circumstances of the man in our story. He comes off as a bit of a whiner – and as the story continues after this week’s section, he snitches on Jesus to the temple authorities, which doesn’t make him very likable. But whiners take to whining when no one listens to them, and this man may have had very good reasons why his illness became chronic. And once that became his way of life, and possibly his livelihood through the charity of others, he may no longer have been able to imagine himself well. After all, when we are sick all our energy goes into getting through the day; we don’t have much left for imagining wellness or praying for healing.

But God can always imagine us well. God’s desire for us is wholeness. Perhaps the first prayer we make is not “Heal me,” but “Show me your vision of me whole.” Perhaps in prayer we imagine Jesus looking at us and asking, “Do you want to be made well?” in whatever area of our life we feel broken or wounded.

And answer honestly. Do you want to be healed? Do I? Are there advantages to our conditions, be they physical, emotional or spiritual? Attention we get, or ways in which expectations are comfortably lowered, other people take responsibility for things? Are there relationships that would be upset if we were healed and whole?

I believe the power to heal comes from God, and has already been given to us, as Christ lives in us through baptism. The question for us is what impedes the flow of that healing stream in and around us? What keeps us on the banks of that river, afraid to jump in? Knowing that can help release the Love that restores us to wholeness.

4-25-16 - Faint Hope

Context is everything. If you read about a pool with a bunch of people lying around it every day, you might think it a place of joy and leisure. This place was anything but. This was a spot where invalids gathered, drawn by a tradition that healing could be found when the pool’s waters were stirred.

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.

The invalids may have been there for several reasons – perhaps it was a convenient place for their caretakers to park them for the day, where they could keep one another company. People blemished or infirm in any way were considered ritually unclean, and thus unfit for entry into the temple courts where they might defile others. It was a harsh, isolating life for the blind, the lame, the paralyzed in Jesus’ day, with no promise of medical treatment. We are told that the man at the center of this week’s story had been ill for thirty-eight years; how many of those had he spent in this place? This faint hope of healing in the pool must have kept them going, one day to the next, a community of invalids stuck together by misery and occasional blessing.

You don’t have to be blind, lame or paralyzed to know the power of faint hope. In fact, usually when people say, “I’m hoping for the best…” they have long since abandoned any hope for the best, and have settled for a dim “maybe things will change…” Often we will endure unhappy or unfulfilling circumstances for far longer than we should because of our stubborn hope that something could change. And often the only thing likely to cause a positive change is our changing the way we engage that situation.

As we begin to explore this story, let’s bring to mind the places we feel stuck or running on fumes. Where in your life might clinging to a faint hope actually be blocking movement toward a more robust change?

Who do you know who puts up with circumstances that could perhaps be altered – enduring pain or misconnection or half-life because it seems too scary or difficult to seek a better strategy? This story might give us some clues into how we might facilitate some movement in others.

The invalids gathered at that pool were hoping for the best, without knowing what the best really was – that the Best had walked into their midst that day when Jesus showed up. Even we who know his power sometimes hesitate to hope for his best in our lives. And to us he whispers, “Let me show you!”

4-22-16 - A Bigger Box

Even to the Gentiles. That is what the Jewish Christian believers in Jerusalem concluded when Peter finished his story about why he was keeping company with the “uncircumcised.” God has given “even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” This was shocking, unprecedented (though not really...), outside their categories. And what convinced Peter and, through him, the other leaders, was evidence of the Holy Spirit.

And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

We see the scene in Cornelius’ house in greater detail in the previous chapter. Peter has arrived, noted that it would not ordinarily be lawful for a Jew to enter the home of a Gentile, described the supernatural occurrences that led him there, and then begins to preach to them. His opener is startling:
‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’ Wow. Is God really that accepting? Even Peter had trouble holding onto this truth, and Christ’s church has ever struggled with it.

As Peter winds into his sermon, something even more extra-ordinary happens: the Holy Spirit comes upon those listening, though they are not Jews nor, as yet, Christians. They begin to speak in tongues and praise God, just as the disciples did at Pentecost. Peter and his companions are astounded.

Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Jesus had told Nicodemus that the Spirit blows where it will. But we’re still surprised when that wind of God carries seeds into ground we did not think prepared to receive it. Where else have we been thinking too small or limiting the way we share the Good News of Jesus Christ? One of the primary excuses people give for not sharing their faith is “people have perfectly good religions of their own.” Some do, some don't - and maybe all might receive the Holy Spirit if we go where God sends us and bring our faith and our love.

It’s not our job to persuade, only to witness to our own experience. As my bishop recently reminded us, new grandparents will tell anyone they meet their good news, but they’re not trying to make other people into grandparents. They’re just sharing their joy. That's our call too.

I wrote yesterday that it is human nature to sort and categorize people. It is also human nature to try to define God and God’s activity. So we read our texts and repeat our stories and make our definitions and pronouncements and try to put God in a box that is manageable and vaguely comprehensible. And the history of God in humankind tells us this: We will always need a bigger box.

Make more space for the Holy Spirit, and maybe we’ll also need bigger baptismal fonts.

4-21-16 - No Distinction

One of my favorite things about the book of Acts is the timing – more than once, people in different places are given instructions by the Holy Spirit more or less simultaneously, or in such a way that the timing dovetails perfectly. Each has to act on the instructions, often exercising more than a little faith, and then finds confirmation when the other party is revealed. This happens with the centurion, Cornelius, when he is visited by an angel who instructs him, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter…” Then we learn that his messengers arrive at Peter’s lodging at the very moment his vision of unclean foods ends. As Peter tells it,

At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’

There are a number of remarkable details in that paragraph – angels, messengers, divine timing, salvation. But perhaps the most startling is what Peter reports the Spirit saying to him: to go with these Gentile strangers, and “not to make a distinction between them and us.” A great deal of Jewish law and identity lay in making distinctions between Jew and non-Jew, sacred and secular, clean and unclean. In times of persecution, allegiance to these identity markers became even more pronounced, and the early church was already struggling with whether and how to integrate "uncircumcised" - i.e., non-Jewish - believers in Christ. And God is telling Peter to make no distinctions between these Gentiles and himself. How could this be?

It’s not only Judaism which excels in making distinctions; it is human nature to define oneself and one’s tribe in ways that include some and rule out others. I would go so far as to say it is human nature not only to make distinctions, but to rank people based upon them. Could we function with no distinctions at all, just seeing every person as equally worthy of our love and attention and provision? What a wonderful world that would be! Or would it be total chaos?

And what about Christians? We’ve made a fine art of distinctions with our multiple denominations and their variations and permutations. Are we not to distinguish ourselves from those who do not follow Christ? Jesus said his followers were to be known by their love for each other; that assumes they should be recognizable as Christ-followers.

Once again, love is the answer. It’s not that we shouldn’t note, even celebrate, differences. We are just not to judge one more worthy than another, and we certainly are not to decide that we can consort with some and not others. Every person is worthy of our company and attention, no matter their background, beliefs – or even behavior. Peter’s experience tells us that the Spirit may indeed lead us to people who do not know Jesus as Lord. And often that is because he wants us to make the introduction.

Cornelius had to take a step of faith to believe that angel and send for Peter. Peter had to take a step of faith to believe that the Spirit had urged him forward, and then to go with the messengers and enter the home of a Gentile. Both men responded in faith – and created space for God to show up. And boy, did God show up! Stay tuned…

4-20-16 - Kill and Eat

This week I have reflected on the Gospel reading for two days and will spend the rest of the week on the reading from Acts. These stories have so much life – and this week’s in particular amplifies the message of “love one another.” What happened to the apostle Peter while he sojourned in Joppa?

We hear these tales as Peter explains them to his brethren in Jerusalem, who are suspicious about Gentile converts to faith in Jesus Christ. Many of the Jewish believers fear this is too great a departure from their tradition (here they are, only a few years since Jesus’ resurrection, already defending the tradition…) So Peter goes to Jerusalem to explain to these “circumcised believers” why it is he eats and drinks with Gentiles, non-Jews. (Have they so quickly forgotten that Jesus too had to explain his choices of eating companions?)

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision…”

Peter relates a bizarre vision in which a sheet is lowered from heaven containing mammals, reptiles, birds, as a voice says, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ Peter protests that he has never eaten anything non-kosher, but the voice replies, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happens three times, and the moment he emerges from his trance, he receives word that some men want to see him. They ask him to come and speak to those gathered at the home of the Centurion Cornelius. (These stories appear in greater detail in Acts 10 - what we have here is Peter’s re-telling). Normally, Peter would not have gone off with Gentiles, but with this vision fresh in his mind, and the Spirit’s nudging, he goes.

We’ll explore later what wondrous things happen in the home of the Centurion. Today let’s stay with the vision and message Peter received, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Do we have here a hint of how the Holy Spirit expands our understanding of God’s word? The extension of the Good News to Gentiles, and the early church’s grappling with that, is instructive for us in our church conflicts over biblical interpretation and social issues. Christians on the more “liberal” end of these tensions believe that the Spirit has enlarged our interpretative lens, if you will, while those on the more conservative side feel that the tradition must be honored and upheld. But it seems to me you can’t get a more radical expansion of Mosaic food laws than, “Do not call profane what God has made clean.” What else might the Spirit be inviting us to re-examine?

What are some areas in which you have had to wrestle with scripture, traditional interpretation of that scripture, and a call to a more expansive view? Does this vision of Peter’s help or hinder your struggle?

For Peter, this experience provided critical data that he needed right away when called to a Roman centurion’s home. What happened when he got there confirmed the vision a thousand times. That’s how God works – he shows us something new, leads us into the unfamiliar, and then let’s us know we are exactly where he wanted us to be.

4-19-16 - Commanded to Love

We don’t tend to think of love as something one must be commanded to do. In fact, a commandment to love seems an oxymoron – love by its nature is freely given. Yet we also know that when love is only a feeling and not a choice, it can fluctuate the way feelings do, resulting in chaos and heartbreak. So we put structures around love with vows and norms and tax laws. People pledge commitments to one another for the days they don’t feel so loving.

Jesus must have known it wouldn’t be any easier to be his church than it was to be married. The commandment he gives his disciples on his last night with them is directed to those who would carry forward his name in the world, the community of Christ-followers. And he is direct:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

Love was to mark the Christian community. Not congregation size or feeding programs or missionaries supported or peace marches participated in. Love. For each other.

How we doing by that measure, 2000+ years later? Does it surprise us that many churches have more real estate than people? Poll after poll shows that many, especially the Millennials everyone wants in their churches, feel the Church is marked by judgmentalism, commercialism, hypocrisy, intolerance, greed and irrelevance. If Christians are not in the papers for offending someone, we’re boring people to death. The liberal/conservative fault lines are so deep, there are such discrepancies between how certain scriptures are interpreted, and even which scripture to focus on - we’ve lost the heart of Jesus in the scramble to represent him.

We have to figure this out, because I believe in God's dream for the Church. I believe it is the mystical Body of Christ, his hands and feet and voice and conscience given for the life of this world. I believe there is still power in this ancient idea, this sacred community across time and space. I believe this is the way God has chosen to make his love abundantly real to the world, the vessel through which God’s transforming love can work the most powerfully.

But the only message the world will truly understand is love. How do we live into Jesus’ command to love our fellow Christ-followers, even when they seem to flout his commands? We can only get there by allowing God to love us, to fill us with his love. We can only get there by acknowledging the ways we judge and belittle others. We need to invite God to show us what she treasures about our brothers and sisters who offend us, to see the wounds that might cause behavior or words we consider harmful.

Today, think of a Christian you have trouble with. Hold him or her in your mind’s eye. And then pray for her or him to be blitzed with God’s blessing. Rinse and repeat tomorrow.

Friends. Jesus said his disciples were no longer servants, but friends, chosen in love, appointed to bear fruit, enduring, life-changing fruit. If we want to do that, be that, we need to learn how to love one another.

4-18-16 - Separation Anxiety

Nobody likes to be left, not even Jesus’ disciples. In our lectionary travels through Eastertide, we’re back to the night Jesus was arrested. He gives a lengthy farewell to his friends in the upper room where they have just had supper and he’s washed their feet and said strange things about the bread and wine and predicted that one of them would betray him. Judas has just left to do that. Jesus has a lot to say to his followers before they go out into the Garden of Gethsemane.

There is something rather confusing about glorifying and being glorified, but the next part is painfully clear: Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.”

It makes me think of a child wailing, “Wanna come with! Wanna come with!” as his mother gently but firmly explains why he cannot join her for her evening out. “Where I am going, you cannot come.” But a mother usually adds, “I’ll be home later,” while here Jesus tells his disciples the worst: “I am with you only a little longer.” And soon he would be gone, gone, gone… and then mysteriously back, but not in the same way. Never again in the same way.

The movement of God is forward, not back. The mystery of God is One in unity yet Three distinct persons. And one of the mysteries we live with as followers of the risen and ascended Christ is being separate from him, yet mystically united with him. We claim his life lives in us through the Spirit, yet when we pray, it is to an Other distinct from us.

The disciples had to get used to Jesus’ absence. We have a different challenge: to become used to his presence, real though not enfleshed. For when Jesus made his final departure in bodily form, he promised that his Father would send His Spirit to be with his followers, that he would be with them through his Spirit.

Children learning to deal with separation from parents are often given a “transitional object,” a blanket or toy or stuffed animal that carries some of the presence of the parent and eases the separating process. Well, Christ-followers are given what we might call the ultimate in transitional objects, the Spirit of the Holy God to fill us, surround us, comfort us, empower us – and remind us that God will never leave us or forsake us.

Separation anxiety is real, and an issue in varying degrees for us given our experiences in early childhood. But in the spiritual life, the Life we live in God’s realm, Jesus is always here, always present. And not only is he never leaving again; he wants us to come out and play with him.

4-15-16 - The Not-So-Gentle Shepherd

Reading the Gospels, we can see Jesus in different lights – and the aggregate can be very different from the impression of Jesus in our culture. Popular art and hymnody often portray him as gentle and mild, serene, a peacemaker and solemn teacher. Maybe it’s all those pictures of him carrying a cuddly little lamb in his arms, and our desire for a world in which the meek inherit the earth. He did say that, and he meant it in the long-term, but “meek” was not the way Jesus went about doing business.

In fact, the popular image of Jesus as a gentle shepherd shows ignorance about what went into shepherding in his day. It was a dirty, dangerous, fierce and sometimes nasty business. Shepherds were hired to take care of sheep that belonged to the boss; if they lost one to a predator, or a poacher, or a passing ravine, they were responsible for the cost. It was not a field that attracted the finest of men. I wonder if Jesus' taking on the label “shepherd” itself raised some eyebrows.

The Jesus we find in the Gospels is strong; fierce on behalf of the broken and marginalized; merciless with the self-righteous; challenging to the wealthy and powerful; harsh with his followers; often sarcastic and occasionally rude. He is frequently seen arguing with the religious leaders, whom he mocked to their faces and in his parables. He spoke with authority and did not hold back, even when threatened with death. He was “in your face” to the max – especially when it came to his claims about his relationship with God, his Father, as he does again in this week's Gospel reading.

What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.’

More clearly than we see in other passages, Jesus defines his “flock” and his mission as a gift from his Father, and with all humility elevates himself above all others. I say “with all humility” because humility means having an accurate, “right-sized” view of yourself, and Jesus was, after all, God. But he didn’t look like God to the religious leaders around him, so they often took great offense at such claims. After hearing him say, “The Father and I are one,” we’re told “The Jews took up stones again to stone him.

How we see Jesus matters, because it shapes how we reveal him to the world. Our churches often reflect the cultural view of Jesus – solemn and contented, comforting and complacent, loathe to challenge the structures of society or provoke our members to action. No wonder they’re shrinking. Often, the Jesus we project is someone to have tea with, not one to join in reclaiming, restoring and renewing all of creation.

Let’s become reacquainted with the Jesus of the Gospels, even if it means reading them back-to-back several times over. Let’s look at our congregations and see how well we reflect the Jesus that multitudes found so compelling they left everything to follow him, whom thousands believed rose from the dead, bearing that conviction to a martyr’s grave.

And let’s look at ourselves, how we walk with Jesus among the people we know, how well we reflect the Jesus of the Gospels. That’s a guy people want to know better. Let’s make him known.

4-14-16 - Held

Do you ever want to feel you belong to someone, someone who desires the best for you and will hold your heart, and not let anyone take you away? That is the basis of many a good marriage – and maybe some stalker scenarios. We want to be held tight, and to have our freedom, often at the same time.

This is one of the promises Jesus gives those who follow him as Lord. We have the freedom to walk away, but he will not let anyone take us from him.

My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.

I reflect on this promise when I think of people who seem to have been snatched away from Jesus by greed or mental illness or addiction or trauma, people who claim to have no use for the gift of life he promises. I have to believe that if they have once considered themselves as belonging to Jesus, even if it was only as children, that they are still his, no matter what happens later.

And I wonder, if I were more conscious about being tethered to Jesus, would I feel more grace in daily life? Would I go easier on myself? Would I be easier on other people? What does it mean to feel held fast and fully alive, all at once?

As I write that question, an image immediately fills my head, the famous image from the movie Titanic, Kate Winslet at the bow of the ship, her arms outstretched, face into the wind, exhilarated by freedom, as Leonardo DiCaprio holds her safe. Schmaltzy, yes, but perhaps not a bad way to understand the gift of being held so we can be adventurous and free. (And, no, I’m not comparing Leonardo Dicaprio to Jesus – but maybe more people would entertain the faith if…)

I know God wants us to know his love. And I know God wants us to be free. And I know God wants us to be fully alive – in this world, and in the life that comes next, which flows in unbroken continuity from this one. We are already living the eternal life Jesus has won for us; we get to explore it here and now, becoming ready for Life Without Any Ends. And we can be free to ride the winds of the Spirit knowing Jesus holds us fast. And no one can snatch us out of his hand.

4-13-16 - Hearing Jesus

In our gospel reading this week, we see the religious leaders of Jesus’ time demand that he say whether or not he is the Messiah. None of this hinting around. “Are you or aren’t you?” they ask. In reply, he throws an “Are you or aren’t you?” back at them: Are they his sheep, or not? Actually, he doesn’t ask, because he already knows they are not:

The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.

Jesus presents an argument that is hard to refute – and hard to accept. He says, “If you believe in me, you’re one of my sheep. If you don’t, you’re not – so you won’t recognize my voice and become one of my sheep.” He defines his critics “out” as firmly as he defines his followers “in.” That cannot have felt very good to the leaders, already suspicious of him.

How about us, reading this so many thousands of years later? Do you feel like one of Jesus’ sheep? He describes his relationship with his sheep as an intimate one, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” Do you feel known by Jesus? Do you feel you are following him?

It can be hard to follow him if we don’t hear his voice, and it can be hard to hear his voice in the din in which we live our lives – actual noise, constant input and stimulus from social media and email and voicemail, not to mention the incessant chatter inside our own heads… How can we hear Jesus’ voice? Well, here are some ways:
  • In prayer, inviting him to speak to us as we wait in silence;
  • In the Gospels, reading them with an eye to get to know the Jesus we find in them – chewing on his words as we encounter them;
  • In the sacraments, inviting him to speak through objects and actions both sacred and ordinary;
  • In hymns and spiritual songs, attending to phrases that stick or come to the surface;
  • In other people, especially people in need, in whom he said he could be found;
  • in our responses to suffering and joy;
  • In our own thoughts, as we invite the Holy Spirit to speak in us.
In which of these ways do you hear Jesus most clearly?

We can follow him without hearing him – that’s called faith. But I believe Jesus wants his sheep to hear his voice. Let’s explore and see if one or more of these avenues opens the ears of our hearts to hear Love calling us in.

4-12-16 - Tell Us Plainly

Some people just want a straight answer. They don’t want to be told a story, or given a demonstration, or be delivered an elliptical discourse that circles around, making its points indirectly. Such people had some real trouble with Jesus.

Such people still have trouble with Jesus, especially as he is presented in the Gospel of John, much of which shows the Jewish religious leaders (“the Jews” in John’s shorthand) grappling with the often contradictory “evidence” about Jesus: he teaches with authority, yet seems to flout the Law at will. He has undeniable spiritual power and holiness, yet he consorts with people who are “impure.” Worst, he makes radical claims about himself and his relationship to God, who he refers to as his “heavenly Father.” Who is this guy?

So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.

There’s a reason no one is going to win this argument, Jesus asserts, because the religious leaders will never accept his word; their suspicion blocks their ability to believe. And only believing Jesus’ word can dismantle their suspicions. As far as Jesus is concerned, his works of power (miracles) are incontrovertible testimony supporting his claims. If the leaders won’t accept that testimony, they will never believe. And they can’t accept that testimony because Jesus doesn’t look like or sound like the kind of Messiah they believe in. “The guy comes from Galilee, for Christ’s sake!” they reason (rough paraphrase…).

Not much has changed in the millennia since these encounters. It’s hard to accept Jesus as Risen Lord and Savior without faith, and it can be hard to receive the gift of faith without the Spirit of Christ. Hard, but not impossible for those who want to believe. It is more difficult for those who refuse to believe, or who are so sure that God could never look or sound like a poor, itinerant preacher and miracle-worker from a backwater county who died on a cross. Or those who would only follow a Lord who delivers on their prayer requests with more speed and accuracy than God has promised. Everyone has reasons for holding back their hearts from full faith and trust in Jesus.

There may be times in all of our lives when we want to say, “Are you for real, Jesus, or aren’t you? Because I’m tired of trusting and believing and not feeling the love, not seeing the fruits.” The Good News is that Jesus invites those questions and the longing behind them. Jesus entertains our expressions of doubt as he entertained Thomas’, just as he delights in our affirmations of faith. First and foremost, Jesus invites us into a relationship of knowledge and intimacy and trust – the trust of a sheep for their shepherd.

Where does the balance between faith and suspicion lie for you today? What do you want to know about Jesus? Ask him!

4-11-16 - A Winter's Tale

Well, we have to leave the morning beach and its breakfast barbecue and head to Jerusalem in the dead of winter. Why? Because the Lectionary says so. The fourth Sunday in Eastertide always has as the appointed Gospel reading one of Jesus’ Good Shepherd discourses. One might think these comforting stories, but they have a rather dark and dangerous cast, showing Jesus at his most contentious. (If you want a more cuddly Good Shepherd story, read Jesus’ parable about the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go find the one who’s lost. That’s very comforting – unless, perhaps, you happen to be among the 99… )

Why can’t we just stay with resurrection appearances for the whole seven weeks of Eastertide, or at least the 50 days that mark Jesus’ resurrection sojourn in this world? If we had more time to wrap our minds around resurrection life we might be more God-centered in this life. But maybe not – just as we proclaim life in the midst of death, it remains true, this side of glory, that we must contend with death the midst of life. So we go back in the story, back to before Jesus’ arrest and passion, death and glorious resurrection, to Jerusalem in the wintertime.

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.

What is the Feast of Dedication, you ask? Well, I had to look it up – it is the eight-day remembrance of the Maccabean revolt that regained the temple from the defiling Seleucid rulers. Part of that festival recalls the miracle of the small quantity of unprofaned oil found in the temple that somehow lit the lamps for eight days until they could prepare and bless more. This is the festival we now know as Hanukkah. So that’s the “when” in this week’s story – a festival of light, a festival recalling the victory of God’s people over evil. Hmmm....

The “where” has significance as well – we are in Solomon’s Portico, “a many-pillared, three-aisled portico that ran the length of the eastern boundary of the court of Gentiles.” Perhaps I am making too much of this proximity to the area where Gentiles were permitted – but we will see in this encounter Jesus setting a clear distinction between his followers, those who “know my voice,” and those who do not. In the end, this divide would lead to the Good News being proclaimed not only to Jews but to Gentiles as well. This is the sacred geography in which Jesus proclaims his message of eternal life for those who believe in him.

This message has life for us as well, even if we have to leave our stories of happy discovery of the Risen Christ for a time. We now see all stories – those we find in the Bible, and those we encounter in our own lives – from the vantage point of Jesus’ resurrection.

Where are you being challenged to find new life in what seems like a sad story? Because Jesus rose, we can find new life in any story, especially our own. As we (at least in New England) try to coax spring from winter’s firm grip, maybe this winter’s tale will renew our faith in new life.

4-8-16 - Feed My Lambs

Sunday mornings could be a lot messier in our churches had Jesus added the words, “Do this in remembrance of me” after serving his disciples breakfast on the beach. “Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.” That action no doubt had some resonance for the disciples, reminding them not only of their last supper with Jesus a few weeks’ prior, but also that picnic on a hillside, when five loaves and two fish fed thousands.

And Jesus does get serious after the fish-fry:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

Jesus asks this question of Peter three times, and each time Peter answers, with increasing frustration, “You know I love you.” Jesus addresses him not by the nickname he had given him, “Petros,” but by his given name, “Simon bar Jonah.” Perhaps Jesus doesn't want to resume the familiar appellation until they’ve dealt with the business of Peter’s denying him the night he was arrested. That would account for the triple interrogation, inviting Peter to affirm his love as many times as he had denied his Lord.

But Jesus has more on his mind than reconciliation. With each “Do you love me?” “Yes, you know I love you,” he adds a command: “Feed my lambs.” “Tend my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.” He predicts a martyr’s death for his beloved friend, and ends the conversation the way he began it by the Sea of Galilee three years before, “Follow me.” At that time, Peter and the others followed with excitement and anticipation borne of ignorance and hope. Now they know so much better what it means to follow Christ, to the cross and beyond. Yet their job description is simpler too: Feed my lambs.

There can be no following Jesus, no loving Jesus without some outward manifestation of that love. Sometimes that involves physically feeding those who hunger, and the world has no shortage of people without enough food. But I don’t think Jesus was only talking about physical hunger. He was talking about tending the spiritually hungry, the weak, the confused, the misguided, the vulnerable – all of us, at some time or other. He was inviting us – commanding us – to join him in taking care of humanity, one human at a time.

Who are the lambs for whom you’ve been given oversight? Do you feel called to tend some whom you don’t know yet? And are you letting Jesus feed you? Through whom? A hungry shepherd will be tempted to eat the sheep…

We are all sheep in Christ’s flock, and we are all shepherds who join him in caring for other sheep. The feasting with Jesus on the beach (or wherever our latest feast with Jesus took place…) is of a piece with the feeding of others. Who are they and where do we find them? Well, Jesus made that easy too. “Follow me,” he said.

4-7-16 - Bring Some of Your Catch

Are there sweeter words in the New Testament than these, “Come and have breakfast?” The disciples’ encounter with the risen Christ kept getting better and better. First, they made an enormous catch of fish. Then, they realized Jesus himself was on the shore. And when they landed, they found another delightful surprise:

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”

What an invitation after a sleepless, fish-less night. What a reversal of circumstances in just a short time. Why did Jesus wait until morning to help them out? Why does God allow us to endure waiting or suffering or not knowing? Could it be that it strengthens or softens us, or makes us readier to receive the gift when it comes? A mystery for another time.

What matters now is that the fish have swarmed, the nets have filled, the Lord has come, and these hot and hungry fisherman are invited to a feast, right there on the beach. And they're not only passive guests – they are invited to help make the feast. Perhaps the most important words in this passage are “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” God provided the catch, and allowed them to participate in gathering it, and then asked them to bring some to Jesus for the celebration. Jesus provided the bread; they were invited to offer some of the fish.

So it is in our lives – God provides the feast, and allows us to participate in gathering it, and then to bring some of it together for the celebration. We could look at our weekly offering in that light, and our gathering at the eucharistic feast (of which the offering is the first part). We can look at our whole life in that light – a life of participation in God’s mission in which the Spirit leads us to the fields, and allows us to be a part of gathering the harvest, and then to bring some of that harvest together to celebrate.

What are the “big catches,” or areas of abundance in your life? And where do you feel Jesus inviting you to breakfast? And what might you bring to that feast?

We don’t see every day as a “mighty catch of fish.” But what if it is? Might we say, by faith, “Yes! The fish have swarmed, my nets have filled, the Lord is right here, and I am invited to a feast, right here.” Then we might have to look around, all around, and ask, “Okay, where are the filled nets?” I wouldn’t be surprised if each of us could name at least one area of life where our nets are filled. That’s a good start.

And then, “Where do I bring my fish? Where is the feast Jesus is inviting me to contribute to today?” 

We can trust that he has brought the Bread of Life, his own self. He invites us to bring some of our fish.

4-6-16 - Who Is That Guy?

We don’t always realize God’s activity in our lives until after the fact – after an accident has been avoided, “coincidental” timing confirmed, an unexpected encounter opened into new opportunities. And we rarely experience God where we expect God to be. Jesus’ disciples certainly didn’t expect him to show up on a beach by the Sea of Tiberias. So they didn’t recognize him – until they saw his handiwork, which they had witnessed (in Luke’s account) at the beginning of their story with Jesus.

So they cast the net, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

It's amusing that the naked Peter puts on clothes to jump into the water –it just wouldn’t do to greet his risen Lord and Savior in his birthday suit. And once they realize it is Jesus on the shore, all of them hurry to get there, though it must have taken a lot of muscle to pull those heavy nets. And then someone counted the fish, for John records there were 153 of them (fishermen, like baseball fanatics, do love their stats…) John also mentions that, “though there were so many, the net was not torn,” perhaps to emphasize that God’s work always makes things whole, not broken.

Because we don’t expect to see Jesus around and about in our lives, we sometimes fail to notice where he is. But we can learn to notice. Becoming attuned to where Jesus is, where the Holy Spirit is moving and shaking things up, is of first importance for those who want to be part of the Jesus movement. We are only called to join him where he is already working, or prepare the place where he wants to come next. We don’t have to do anything on our own. So we need to learn to recognize him, even before the “evidence” appears.

This is a habit of the heart we can cultivate, as we do any other important activity or attitude. After awhile, our spiritual sense becomes more acute, but at first we may have to work at it. Perhaps at the beginning of each day we might review our plans and pray about where we’d like Jesus to join us. And at the end of the day, review where we’ve been, and write down where we realize in retrospect – or noticed at the time – that he was present in some way.

How might he be present? He might have spoken through someone, or we might have found our attention drawn to something life-giving. We might have felt a peace or a holy urgency, or found ourselves compelled to draw near someone because of a gift they had or a need they manifested. Sometime we know he was there because he’s now gone, as happened to the disciples in Emmaus.

Notice. Name it. Write it down. Review it at the end of the week. In time, we will become so accustomed to Jesus being around, we won’t need miracles to get our attention.

4-5-16 - God on the Sidelines

Simon Peter was a professional fisherman before Jesus came along and called him from his nets. He knew his way around a boat, a net, a lake, a school of fish. He knew how to do this – except tonight, nothing. All night, no fish. And then some yahoo on the shore tries to tell him how do to it.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.

I can imagine the language in that boat at this suggestion. “We’ve cast the nets on every *&@#%* side of the boat! Who is this guy?” And then perhaps more colorful language yet as their nets inexplicably become so full they could hardly move the boat.

Many of us have areas of our lives in which we don’t think we need God’s assistance. I often hear people say, “I don’t need to bother God with that!” or “We’re not at the point of needing prayer yet…” as though we're to deploy the “big guns” only as a last resort.

But God doesn’t want to be on the sidelines of our lives – God wants to be right smack dab in the middle of our work, our rest, our joys, frustrations, questions, convictions. Indeed, God wants to be working with us, and through us. And could it be that the One who made all universes knows a thing or two about teaching, medicine, tax preparation, fundraising, marketing, finance, law, or whatever it is we do for a living? What if we invited God’s presence at regular intervals in our work days?

For that matter, the Holy Spirit can also help us in our relationships, our stresses, our habits. And – surprise! – God can help us in our churches and ministries. We don’t have to have prayer and worship on one side, and the “work of the church” on the other. It’s all of a piece. It’s all holy work, as we allow the Holy Spirit into it.

What is most frustrating to you in your life right now? Where do you feel stuck, jammed, not moving, not growing, in the dark, out to sea? Could it be that Jesus is nearby? Might he have a word to you? Have you asked his guidance? That can be scary – what if he doesn’t answer? Then we ask again.

Jesus said something about wanting us to be fruitful, so I’m guessing he will have a word to guide us. Maybe he’s already speaking it through someone we don’t want to listen to – and that might include our own deepest selves. What if he’s already given us the answer? What “expertise” do we need to let go of in order to hear it?

4-4-16 - No Going Back

This week we get to explore the must fun of all of Jesus’ recorded resurrection appearances – his beach-side fishing advice and breakfast combo. And it starts out low-key – Peter decides to go fishing, and six of his fellow disciples join him (two unnamed… I don’t know why the evangelist John, who later tells us exactly how many fish were in the nets, couldn’t be bothered to find out who those two were...)

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Why did Simon Peter decide to go fishing? Well, let’s review the tape: Jesus has risen from the dead. He has appeared at least twice in the locked room where the disciples have been holing up. He has spoken peace to them, breathed the Spirit upon them and commissioned them to bring forgiveness and release to the world – only, they haven’t gone. He did that on his first visit, and a week later they are still in the same room. He has also appeared to a few on the road to Emmaus, and in Galilee, and a few other times not spelled out in the gospels. But no one seems to know what to do next.

From what we know of Peter, he did not do well with inaction. He is a man of strength and impulse. Thomas, too, is shown in the story of Lazarus to be action-oriented and brave. Yet they don’t seem to know how to move forward in the climate in which they find themselves. Jesus is risen; that’s incomprehensible, and wonderful, all at once. It also raises the risk levels –the authorities who executed Jesus might well want to stamp out his following. It’s not safe outside, yet they can’t stay in that room forever.

So Peter and his buddies go back to what they know. At least they can get out of Jerusalem, get out on the water they know and love, maybe even make a few bucks if they get a good catch. But they can’t catch a damn thing. Jesus had promised to make them fishers of men, and now they didn’t seem to know how to catch fish anymore! The movement of God is always forward, not back.

Have you ever tried going back to an old pastime, habit, relationship, milieu when things feel stagnant or blocked? It never works. The pull of the familiar is strong, but we worship the One who said, “I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5) Yes, we all need to get out of the locked rooms of our fear and distress, but before we go back to the last place we felt comfortable, it is good to ask God, “Where are you inviting me to join you next?” We can look around to see where we believe God is at work, doing the things we know God does – healing, feeding, restoring, renewing, reconciling – and join God there. We can discern where our energy seems to rise, where we feel the winds of the Spirit blowing us.

Peter and his friends thought they were killing time, waiting for God to summon them. Little did they know that God was right there, inviting them to see the familiar in a whole new light. God is always up to something new – what is it in your neighborhood?

4-1-16 - April Fools

Where do you get life? I don’t mean conception and birth, I mean what quickens your pulse day to day? What causes energy to rise in you, excitement to tinge your voice? What – or who – could you talk about all day long if anyone would listen? That’s one way to discern where we find life.

Have you ever thought you could get life through believing? Believing seems like a fairly passive activity – and yet it may just be the most courageous action we can take in a disbelieving world. We learn at the end of this week’s gospel reading that the reason John wrote his gospel was so that we might come to believe and have life:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Jesus’ disciples came to believe he had risen from the dead because he stood in front of them; he surprised them on roads and at tables; he made breakfast for them on a beach. Even though they did not really act on this knowledge until the Spirit filled them with power at Pentecost, they had the conviction of their experience, and ultimately died witnessing to that truth.

We have to believe on less tangible evidence – but when we allow it to accumulate, when we really start to list all the “signs” of God’s power and love we have witnessed and experienced, we too can come to believe that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Son of God. And as we begin to exercise spiritual power in his name we find such abundant life, and more evidence piles up.

John says he wrote about the signs of Jesus’ presence so that his readers would come to believe. What if we started talking more often about the evidence we’ve seen of God’s movement in the world? How many might come to believe – or at least, explore Jesus for themselves. Think of the impact John’s Gospel has had on the world. Just one of our stories might change someone’s life, and allow them to have eternal life through believing.

Today is April Fools Day, dedicated to tricking people into believing false stories. We have a true story to tell - so how about being an April Fool for Christ?