3-31-16 - Blind Faith

We often associate faith with vision; insight, perception, illumination are all words connected to sight. But when we think about it, true faith means being willing to live blind, to trust in what we cannot see.

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (This Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

Thomas was strong and courageous, devoted and steadfast. But he was short on faith – and until he was willing to become blind, he would never see.

Those who lack physical vision need to trust in many things – helpers, service animals, canes, the goodwill of the people around them. Many also report that, in the absence of sight, other senses become more acute. A sight-impaired person might feel a disturbance in the air that tells them someone has come into or left a room, or recognize someone by their scent, or find their hearing sharpened.

So it is with the life of faith. We voluntarily put our trust in things and people we cannot see, and as we do, we find our spiritual senses become more keenly developed. Maybe we become more sensitive to people in pain, or we can sense the presence of evil more acutely. As we spend time in prayer, we come to recognize the presence of Jesus, God as Father, the Holy Spirit. And as we learn to step out in faith when we feel the Spirit nudge us to do or say something, we often find those nudges become more frequent and vivid. We are learning to walk by faith, not by sight.

Jesus gave Thomas a break – he showed up again and let him see him, touch his wounds. “Do not doubt, but believe,” he said. And then he added a word for us: Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

I would go so far as to say we cannot grow in faith if we are not willing to become blind, to stop relying so heavily on what we can see with our eyes and perceive with our minds, to truly trust the instinctual life of the Spirit in and around us. What we perceive with our physical senses sometimes causes our faith to falter – we see the pain of the world, the ongoing illness of those for whom we have prayed, and that “evidence” can shut us down. Jesus invites us to lean instead on what cannot be seen, what can only be believed.

Only then will our vision become sharp enough to see God.

3-30-16 - Our Super-Power

If you could be granted a super-power, what would it be? The ability to fly? Become invisible at will? Transform into another kind of being? Heal people just by touching them?

According to the Gospels, some of those super-powers may be ours some day, if the properties of Jesus’ resurrection body have anything to tell us. And some of those super-powers are already ours by faith through the gift of the Holy Spirit. But the first super-power Jesus conferred upon his disciples when he returned to them Easter night was one we might not think to ask for – the power to forgive.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

This is the first gift of the Spirit mentioned in the Gospels. It is a power that can bring freedom and peace. And, like many super-powers, it can be dangerous if abused - or neglected. The saints of God have the authority to forgive, to set free those who have caused harm to themselves or others. And the church (aka, the saints of God) has the authority to withhold forgiveness, to keep people locked in the consequences of the harm they’ve caused. And when the church forgets it has been given this authority, when it either devolves into self-righteous condemnation of others or a wishy-washy "no problem, God loves you" sentimentality that ignores the real toxicity of sin, we end up with a whole lot of stuckness clogging our wheels, making no progress.

We can see the fruits of unforgiveness writ large in the American body politic today. Many who claim the mantle of Christ seem to have gone out of the forgiveness business altogether, preferring to label and demonize, objectify and divide. Indeed, there are few temptations more corrosive than righteous indignation – it can fuel our anger and quell our compassion and point us inward. When large swaths of the population stop talking to – or listening to- other large groups, we become polarized and paralyzed. And when some do this in the name of Christ, the church is weakened.

We have received the Holy Spirit – in baptism, in communion, in prayer, in action. Before we seek the splashier gifts of the Spirit, what if we focused on our calling to be agents of forgiveness? I recently read an interview with Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist spiritual teacher, on the subject of forgiveness. He said we have to deal with anger before we can forgive – and one way to deal with our anger is to cultivate compassion for those who are causing harm. We can ask God to show us why they have become that way, what unhealed wounds they are operating out of. And we ask God to show us the same about ourselves.

The super-power to forgive – or not – has been given to us. Will we use it for good?

3-29-16 - Fear and Rejoicing

The Big Day is over. Put away the Easter bonnets and all those lilies – we’re back to regular life. (And if you’re clergy, you’re in the Easter Monday brain fog of exhaustion…). Christ is risen? Oh yeah, Alleluia.

Only, it’s not over. In church-time Easter goes on for seven weeks – seven weeks to begin to comprehend what those Alleluias are all about. And in Gospel-time, it’s still Easter Day, still that First Day of the week, First Day of the new creation, First Day of forever. And Jesus’ disciples are not celebrating; they’re terrified.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. (Next Sunday's Gospel reading is here.)

They may have begun to wrap their minds around the fact that Jesus appeared to be very much alive, inexplicably, miraculously. But they certainly haven’t figured out how – and his risen-ness presents a more immediate problem: now they are at even greater risk. They were already anxious – witness Peter’s haste to disavow his friendship with Jesus after his arrest. But now they are truly scared. The authorities who put Jesus to death would not welcome these new developments. They might well want to stamp out any hint of this Jesus movement, and eliminate all witnesses.

Into this turmoil, Jesus appears. Not through the locked door. Not through a window. He is just suddenly there, standing among them, speaking peace to them, showing them his wounds.

And so it can be for us, as we can become aware of him. When we’re in the midst of turmoil or terror, malady or malaise, sometimes we forget that Jesus can get into the room. We think we have to invite him, or worse, that we have to get our act together before he’ll drop by. But he just shows up, speaks peace upon us and upon our circumstances, and shows us his wounds, like a calling card, a calling card that says, “I know a little bit about suffering. I know what it’s like to be alone and forsaken. I have not forgotten you, and I will never leave you or forsake you. You can find healing for your wounds in mine.”

In what situation in your life might you need to recall Jesus’ presence? Pray to become aware of where he is in that room. Talk to him, tell him what you’re going through, listen for his responses. Receive his peace, for it is hard won and it sticks.

The disciples found their terror turned to rejoicing as they realized he was truly alive among them. Five minutes earlier they would been unable to fathom rejoicing. And yet, there they were. And there he was. And joy is. Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

3-25-16 - Cloths

But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

If Jesus’ resurrection had happened in 2016, Peter might have thought he’d vaporized, seeing only his grave cloths lying there in the tomb. It’s an odd detail to include, the bit about the cloths – in John’s gospel we even learn they were neatly folded. Yet, were it not for those cloths, people might have thought Jesus’ body had been stolen. No one would steal a naked corpse, though. Those cloths were there to let people know they were no longer needed, for Jesus was alive. People needed to see that tomb empty and those grave cloths cast aside to know something big was up.

What are some of the “grave cloths” in our lives, things, or habits, or rituals that we once needed to mark – or obscure – a death, a loss, a goodbye? Are they still wrapping a memory? Are we still hanging on to them? Are they still hanging around our lives?

What would it mean to leave those wrappers, memories, perhaps even dead relationships behind? To leave them neatly folded, no longer required, for death has been swallowed up in life? That is the promise of Easter – that death no longer has the controlling vote in our lives. Death no longer has the last word. And that goes for all the emotional and spiritual deaths we endure as well as the physical ones. Preparing ourselves to celebrate the mystery of Easter might include being willing to leave some old deaths behind, allow God to bring new life into those places in us.

But today it is still Good Friday. Today we mark Jesus’ death, after which his friends and followers wrapped his body in those cloths, having no time to properly wash and anoint him for burial. What a sight the women doubtless feared as they came along in the dark on Sunday morning, knowing they would need to wash off the dried blood, the mud and muck. But what they found was more frightening and more wonderful still – no body at all. Only the cloths, no longer needed.

Maybe we will find some of the griefs our old grave cloths were wrapping are healed now too, and we can leave them behind in the tombs now emptied, for Life has gotten out!

3-24-16 - Women's Stories

What does it tell us about how God regards women that the first ones to witness the empty tomb and the risen Christ were female? If the early church did not think this needed to be suppressed, why have women had to struggle to be recognized as leaders and scholars in so many churches? All four gospels tell us that the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection were women. The early church, even thirty to sixty years after the resurrection, when the Gospels were being compiled and written, openly acknowledged this fact, despite Luke’s admission that women were – unfairly – regarded as spinners of “idle tales.”

Then [the women] remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

Jesus’ male disciples may not have believed what the women told them, but the story did galvanize them to investigate for themselves. Without the story the women brought, they might have remained huddled in that upper room while the Risen Lord waited patiently to talk to them.

Of course, it’s not only women’s stories that the church needs. It needs all our stories, our stories of encounters with God, and seeking for God, and doubting God, and coming to know Christ. Stories are how Jesus taught the reality of God’s realm in this world, and stories are how that reality continues to spread through those who have witnessed the amazing power of God unleashed in the world.

If we are not witnessing that power, we’re not hanging out in the right places. Often, we need to get out of our comfort zones, see things from new angles, to experience God and have stories to tell. Tonight in many church communities we will begin to tell the story of Christ’s Passion, not only in words, but in actions – eating, drinking, singing, praying, washing feet or holding our feet back. We are invited tonight to feel this story by which we are saved, not only hear it.

The world needs our stories of God’s activity in our lives – neither women’s stories nor men’s stories, but saints’ stories. In the fullness of God-Life, Paul wrote, gender doesn’t matter any more than does race, ethnicity or one’s status as a slave or free. (Galatians 3:28) We are equal in blessedness, equal in belovedness, equal in apostleship. 

Our stories may not convince people any more than did the story the women’ shared that day – but if we tell them, people may run to find out for themselves. The rest is up to God.

3-23-16 - Be-Dazzled

My irreverent sub-conscious strikes again: suddenly on this reading of this oh, so familiar passage, my mind conjures a vision of dazzling disco dudes outside that tomb where the women were seeking Jesus’ body:

They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground…

Other gospels say there were angels; Luke only tells us about men in dazzling clothes. Rhinestones? Gold lame? I’d have been terrified too. But maybe their terror had more to do with what these guys said:

…but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

Angels, if angels they were, are heavenly beings with one job: to convey messages from God to God’s people. These “men” had a specific message for Jesus’ followers: He has risen from the dead, just like he told you he would be. That was the Easter morning message to Jesus' friends. But part of what they had to say had a broader audience, and still resonates for us, so many years later: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

How much of our lives do we spend doing that, seeking life in places or even people that long ago ceased to have life for us? Seeking approval from people who should have no power over us; power in situations beyond our control; security in job and homes and bank accounts and relationships with no long-term guarantees; spiritual fulfillment in rituals and programs that once might have sparked a connection but are no longer where the Holy Spirit is leading us? Often we seek life in our past, or in our hopes for our future, anywhere but in the present where God-Life is all around us.

As we prepare to contemplate the amazing mystery of Resurrection this week, let’s take some time to examine where in our lives we might be seeking the living among the dead, or seeking life where we used to find it rather than where it is now. Where are we seeking Jesus?

And then let’s meditate on this: 

Where and when do we feel most alive? Most connected? What causes our energy rise, our voices to take on a different timbre as we discuss it? That’s a sure sign that we’ve stumbled onto God-Life, the place where the Spirit wants to work with us and through us to bring Life to others.

I believe passionately that God wants life for us, life in abundance, as Jesus told his followers. I know I settle for a lot of “not-quite-life,” and I don’t think God wants us to settle. God wants us to leave behind the boneyards of our memories and losses and disappointed dreams, and be be-dazzled in his glorious light. Maybe we will even wear dazzling clothes to reflect God's glory!

3-22-16 - Who Moved My Stone?

In 1988 a business book was published which became a phenomenon. Who Moved My Cheese: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life is an allegory about anticipating, dealing with and/or seeking to avoid change. It is a bit irreverent to associate this best-seller with the scene outside Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning, but we can blame my unconscious which makes these leaps (and has more than a slight penchant for irreverence).

The women who were coming to anoint Jesus’ body for proper burial were already concerned about how they were going to move the massive stone which sealed the tomb and protected its contents from marauding animals. Upon arrival, they found that problem had been solved, and they faced a worse one:

They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.

Now they had two questions: Who moved my stone – and who moved my Lord? The most likely explanation was that someone had stolen the body, perhaps Jesus’ enemies who’d heard his claims that he would rise again after being killed. But what if his friends had moved it, to avoid just such a tactic by his enemies? In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene weeps outside the tomb that day, crying, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him.”

That lament sums it up for many who find changes in church life hard to absorb, whether it’s new forms of worship or fewer people or changes to the lay-out. Part of the reason many embrace religion in the first place is as a refuge from what our prayer book calls “the changes and chances of this life.” But Jesus was not promoting religion. He was offering relationship with God, intimate access with the Holy One through faith in His Son. Jesus was a change agent to a religious system that had grown calcified and brittle. And I would argue Jesus is still a change agent.

When we begin to believe in this Lord we cannot see but whose presence we can feel and know, we find he moves a lot more than our cheese. He shifts our priorities so we allocate resources, time, love differently. He adjusts our vision so that we see things and people we used to overlook. He invites us into new ways of doing things, a radical level of trust in the Spirit’s power rather than our own. He removes the stones that keep us from new life, obstacles that seem insurmountable. And he is never in the place we think we’re going to find him, certainly not in the chill of a lifeless tomb.

What stones in your life need moving out of the way? Can you believe God can do that?
Where have you been seeking for Jesus? Can you stop looking and believe he is with you?

Embracing Easter life requires us to embrace the unexpected, the new, the living, breathing reality of God all around us, drawing us into new scenarios, new ministries, new relationships, new ways of being.
The one eternal and unchangeable God is the only fixed point; everything else is on the move, in a beautiful dance of change and growth. That is the promise of Easter.

3-21-16 - The First Day of the Week

For the past two years, my Water Daily practice during Holy Week has been to focus on that week, not wanting us to get to Easter before we’ve walked the passion story. Thus our Easter Sunday gospel has gotten less “chewing” than that for any other Sunday. This year, I’m going to dive in, knowing that we are capable of being in the story and peeking at its Easter surprise all at the same time. As a song I once wrote says, “From the shadow of the cross, see the light beyond the grave.” We live always in the light from our forever future, beckoning us out of the shadows.

And shadows there were that Easter morning; Luke tells us the women came to Jesus' grave with their embalming spices at the end of night: But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.

Once again I had to look to see what the “but” referred to – here is how Chapter 23 ends:
On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.

Jesus had died relatively quickly for a victim of crucifixion on that Friday, but not early enough for his followers to claim his body and prepare it for burial before sundown and the Sabbath day. All they were able to do was to wrap him in cloths and lay him in the tomb which Joseph of Arimathea had helpfully offered. “On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.” One wonders how much rest the grieving and terrified disciples were able to get that sabbath, but they did refrain from working.

In Jewish time, Saturday, the Sabbath day, is the last day of the week, commemorating the seventh day of Creation, when God rested from his work. Therefore Sunday is the first day of the week, a day of new beginnings, new possibilities. It is no accident that Luke emphasizes the timing of day, of week. It is still dark, but dawn is breaking. The world is still in shadow, but light is coming. It is a new week, and all things are possible. On the first day of this week, he reminds us, God initiated the New Creation.

As our work week begins (remember that Sunday, our day of worship, is really the first day of the week…), what possibilities lie ahead for you? What shadows are you contending with? What glimpses of light do you see on the horizon? Being aware of where we are will help us be more present to Holy Week.

The first day of the week is also the eighth, for time is infinite, and circular as well as linear. Each week we start afresh, building on the gifts of the week just past, our sins forgiven, our hearts re-centered in God. (That’s why we go to church on Sundays.) This week is a special one, maybe busier than some, and yet it’s also ordinary, each day giving way to the next.

Our Sabbath is over for now – let us walk into Holy Week.

3-18-16 - When Stones Sing

One person’s praise is another’s blasphemy. When the Pharisees hear Jesus’ disciples calling him the “King that comes in the name of the Lord,” they asked him to shut them up.

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Praise is part of the natural order in God’s world. Sometimes it’s obvious in a riotous sunset or an explosion of spring flowers, the grandeur of waterfalls, symphony of birdsong. But do stones really shout out the praises of the One who made them? One day I asked one. Sitting on a rock in the sun during a "Spa for the Spirit" retreat at Christ the Healer, it told me a lot:

I sing.
I sing of God’s love.
Even though I am cold and solid and unmoving – I sing.
I sing a song rooted in ancient times
I have been singing, and the song has changed and grown –
   oh, not so you could notice unless
   you were watching for the past 20,000 years or so –

But I sing.
Of love unmoving, unmovable
I sing of earth, of lichen and moss and living things that grow on me
I sing with birds, whose song blends with mine
I sing of grass and trees with whom I share this spot
   of sunlight that warms me
   and moonlight that bathes me
   and rain that refreshes
The rain and the wind
offer new verses into the song I sing,
chord changes, shifts in melody –
  as wind and rain in your life
   make your song deeper, richer.

I sing to remind you of enough,
that God has thought of everything,
God’s love is a rock you can put all your weight upon.

I sing with joy.
I’m singing with all my might,
   so that you might hear me and join my song.
Sing out!

Prayer Poem on a Rock
, Kate Heichler, September 2013

3-17-16 - Mobs and Multitudes

Given all the focus recently on violence and misbehavior at political gatherings, it’s hard not to bring that lens to the Palm Sunday story. Certainly there are multitudes on display:

As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

We will soon see how quickly the multitudes seen here praising God and lauding Jesus as “the king who comes in the name of the Lord” morph into mobs braying for blood. As is true today, there was likely some manipulation on the part of leaders in fomenting that transition, an appeal to fear and inciting to anger. But we also have in the mix unrealistic expectation and disappointment, and those are incendiary ingredients.

Why does this crowd of disciples praise God? Because of the deeds of power they have seen in Jesus. He exercised spiritual power that had immediate effect in the temporal realm – palsied limbs visibly restored to strength; leprous skin made clear; water become wine; notorious extortioners become models of generosity. The fact that this power resided in a man of such holiness, above reproach in every way, excited their expectations that at last God had sent the King who would deliver them. They refused to believe that his kingship was of a nature other than what they wanted.

So when Jesus is overcome by the authorities, and handed over and mocked and spit upon and beaten, and he raises not a finger to help himself… well, it’s not hard to see how dashed hopes like that could curdle to venom, yielding to cries of “Crucify him.”

And how about us? I’m not convinced we would have joined in the bloodlust, but have we too experienced disappointment in our faith? Dashed expectations of what we thought God could or would do for us in Christ? We don’t tend to get mad so much as withdraw, distance ourselves, afraid to trust in this One who is more powerful than any force in the Universe – indeed, who made the Universe – yet can’t seem to keep our loved ones from harm and our world from becoming a mass of unmitigated terror and pain.

How do we hold our hosannas in the face of failure and loss? By singing not to Jesus, but with him. By staying close to him, telling him when we’re mad or disappointed, by saying “I don’t understand. But I believe. Show me.” We don’t have to give way to rage. He didn’t.

And as we demonstrate his peace in the face of rage and outrage, we just might help to sow peace ourselves, to keep multitudes from becoming mobs.

3-16-16 - Carrying the Holy

I’m always amused that we call this Palm Sunday, when in some of the versions of the story – like Luke’s – there is no mention whatsoever of palm branches. But they all say that the people spread their cloaks on the road as they accompanied Jesus on the road into Jerusalem.

Then they brought [the colt] to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.

Why did they spread their cloaks on the road? I guess because they so honored the holiness in Jesus that they didn’t want even the hooves of the colt carrying him to touch the bare ground. In that moment, the colt became a holy vessel, consecrated to God’s purpose, as holy as the tabernacle of old in which the presence of God was thought to dwell. In fact, we are told that this colt whom Jesus’ disciples found tied up in the next village, as Jesus said they would, was one which had never been ridden. This was an animal set apart to mediate the divine into ordinary life.

That’s what we call sacramental – ordinary things, elements, which are consecrated to the Lord’s purposes, to bring the holy into the everyday. Cups and plates, even if they are made of silver and called chalices and patens, are just cups and plates until the time they are called into holy use. Water is just water, until it becomes blessed as the water that gives new life. Bread and wine are things we enjoy at a restaurant, until we set them aside to carry the holy into our lives.

And you and I are just ordinary people, yet also consecrated to carry the holy presence of Christ into the world. As it did for the colt, that call can come at any time. In our lives it comes frequently, and some of the time we discern it and act on it. In those times, we remember that our deepest vocation is to be bearers of Christ’s light and love and presence to the places and people who need to see him. Remembering that, we are able to look past our own reactions in the situation, lay ourselves aside and bring Christ forward.

I pray we might share the vocation of that little colt, knowing ourselves to have been found and untied, released for service as a bearer of Christ. I pray we might walk around the streets and roads of our towns aware that we are carrying a holy presence, expecting that presence to make a difference. People may not lay down cloaks before us – in fact, they may throw obstacles in our way. But if we’re carrying Jesus where he has asked to go, we need fear no obstacles. We are holy vessels, consecrated to God’s use, and that is enough.

3-15-16 - The Lord Needs It

License to borrow without permission? Or an example of provision in the realm of God? Jesus has an interesting way of obtaining the beast upon which he will ride into Jerusalem. His way calls for a great deal of trust on the part of the disciples whom he instructs to go get it, and the owners.

When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

They do indeed find the colt exactly where Jesus said it would be – how did he know that? And the owners do happen upon them untying it and ask what they're doing. They answer just as Jesus told them to, “The Lord needs it.” And that seems to satisfy the owners. Did they know Jesus? Had they heard of him? Or where they just people of strong faith?

What if we were to develop the habit of saying that when people ask us why we invest so much time or money or resources in God’s mission through our churches. “The Lord needs it.” That would end the conversation very nicely - and start a more important one.

And when we ask others to invest in our ministries, we don’t have to say, “We need it.” We can say – if it’s something we feel God wanting to do through us – “The Lord needs it.”

And what if we gave that answer to ourselves, when we look at our priorities and question where to invest our time or money or talents. “The Lord needs it” could be incentive to reprioritize quite a lot. It could also provide a nice evaluative lens – “Does the Lord need this?” we might ask about something we’re spending a lot of energy on. “Or is it just something I think should be done?”

And what if we made our resources available to the Lord’s use, as the owners of that colt seem to have done, so that people came along and asked us to use our stuff – or just helped themselves, knowing it would be alright? That’s starting to happen in the “sharing economy,” where people make tools or talents or bicycles available through websites for others to take, use and return. How might our life of faith and ministry be a sharing economy?

An economy based on “The Lord needs it” could be bustling, creative and efficient. It calls for a lot of faith, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If s/he tells you where to find something, assume it will be there, waiting for you. And if anyone asks you what you’re up to, say, “The Lord needs it.”

3-14-16 - Going to Jerusalem

The first question that arises in response to this Sunday’s gospel reading (we will explore the Palm Sunday part in Water Daily this week) is, “After he said what?” The reading begins, “After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.” Any time we see an “after” or a “therefore” we want to know what happened before.

Just prior to his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus told a rather harsh parable about a man who went on a trip to gain “kingly power.” His own citizens sent him word that they did not want him as their king. On his return he sought an accounting from servants to whom he had entrusted with one pound each. The first had traded successfully, yielding a ten-fold increase; the second had made five pounds. The third had buried his so as not to lose anything, provoking his master to take away his one pound and give it to one who’d made ten. The ending is vengeful, even violent:

‘I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.’

Is Jesus the man in the parable, who will return with kingly power and deal with those who rejected him? These are hard words from the Prince of Peace – especially one who will in the coming days resist all attempts to manifest a worldly show of kingship. “After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.”

Jesus knows what is going to happen to him in Jerusalem; he’s told his followers several times: "The Son of Man must go to Jerusalem, be arrested, tried and killed. And on the third day he will rise again.” He knows that those who want him to be king will be militant this week – and those who are disappointed that he is not the kind of king they want will turn violent. Is he subverting the whole notion of “kingship” from the very beginning of the week, riding into the city not on a steed but on a colt, lauded not by leaders and soldiers but by children and multitudes of the ordinary?

That first question, “After what?” leads us to more questions than answers – and maybe that’s not bad as we approach our own journey to Jerusalem during Holy Week. We’re not there yet. We’re still outside the city, making preparations. Maybe for us that means reflecting on any disciplines or activities we’ve taken up during Lent, asking how they have brought us closer to Jesus. Maybe it means looking at our calendars for next week and making sure we’ve set aside time to participate in Holy Week and Easter activities.

I pray that exploring this story, the story before The Story, will bring us closer to Jesus this week, close enough to pet the donkey, feel the cloaks and palm branches, hear the “Hosannas!” of the crowd. We don't necessarily want to go to Jerusalem, knowing what awaits us there. Yet it is there that we are born anew. So let's go.

3-11-16 - All About Jesus

Was ever one of Jesus' sayings more often misconstrued, with such devastating consequences? When Judas protests that the cost of the ointment Mary “wasted” on Jesus could have fed the poor, Jesus defends Mary:

Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’  (This week's gospel passage is here.)

That one reference to the persistence of poverty has led some to a “so, why bother?” stance about remedying economic inequality. Others have gone so far as to see in those seven words a mandate for poverty, despite the full record of Jesus’ pronouncements about justice and giving in the gospels. I actually heard someone quote these words and say Jesus does not want us to help the poor.

Such an interpretation makes a mockery of the Good News – which Jesus said he came to proclaim to the poor, as well as other marginalized groups. The imperative to share our resources so that no one is in need (an ideal reached briefly in the early church, according to Acts 4…) should be a driving force for Christians engaged in God’s mission of reclaiming, restoring, and renewing all people to wholeness in Christ. In God’s realm no one is defined by how much or how little she has, but by her belovedness.

An even deeper distortion of the first seven words of that sentence can result when the second seven get ignored. That was the main point Jesus was trying to make – that his presence in human, embodied form, was finite, and soon to end. Those who emphasize the “social gospel” and Jesus’ love for the poor, as though he did not equally value the humanity in those with resources and privilege, can be as much in danger of misinterpretation. It is Jesus who matters, more than his teaching and example and ministry and power. When we reduce him to “teacher” or “moral example,” social worker” or even “healer,” we miss the most important part of his identity: Son of God, Redeemer, right here in your living room.

Mary, more than anyone else there, seemed to grasp what was happening. Jesus, in the way they had known and come to love him, would soon be dead and gone. She alone seemed to understand that it was about him, all about Jesus, and she expressed that insight in a profoundly sacramental action.

Can we value him that much? Can we make Jesus our priority? Spend time with him, seek his counsel, ask to be filled with his Spirit, make him known among the people in need whom we encounter? I’m pretty sure that if more Christians put Jesus first, our hearts would be so transformed we could not tolerate poverty or injustice, violence or warfare. As Gandhi famously observed, if Christians were more like Christ, there would be a lot more of them. (That’s a paraphrase; the actual quote and its context can be found here.)

If Christians put Jesus first, I suspect there would be a lot more of us too.

3-10-16 - Anointing

When Mary of Bethany poured a full jar of expensive oil of nard all over Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair, she wasn’t just trying to relax him with a little aromatherapy. She was anointing him, while she still could, guessing that his time on earth was short. Nard, an essential oil derived from spikenard, a flowering plant in the Valerian family (thanks,Wikipedia…) had many uses, though except for a reference in the Iliad to its use in perfuming a body, it does not appear to have had funerary use. The spices brought after Jesus’ crucifixion were a mixture of myrrh and aloes.

But Jesus answers Mary’s critics with this cryptic observation: ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.’

There are many kinds of anointing in the Bible – anointing of priests and prophets, of kings and kings-to-be; anointing for healing; the hint of anointing in baptism; and the anointing of the Holy Spirit. This act of Mary’s doesn’t fit any of the categories. And if she bought the oil for Jesus’ burial, why does she use it all now?

Knowing the danger he was him, perhaps she wanted him to feel in a tactile way the love of those who surrounded him. Perhaps she had a sense of the horrors ahead, and wanted him to have one moment of pampering. Perhaps she wanted to show the others how to give it all. Perhaps she thought the day of his burial would be too late to do him any good.

And six days later, Jesus will be washing the feet of his disciples, to their shock and horror. He will let them know in a tactile way what love feels like, the love of one who lays aside his power and prerogatives for the beloved. They don’t really understand then, any more than they likely understood Mary’s gesture. But later they would.

Who in our lives needs to feel our love in that way? Who needs us to relinquish power or privilege and give of our time, our gifts, our pride? Maybe someone to whom we are close; maybe someone we don’t know at all.

Feet are intimate, way too much so for many people; some churches wash hands instead of feet on Maundy Thursday, which breaks my heart a little. Intimacy is the point. Being met at the place of our least attractive feature is the point. Being pampered and loved – and yes, anointed – is how God makes effective saints out of ordinary people. All it requires is submitting to love. Even Jesus did that.

3-9-16 - What a Waste

A confession: yesterday’s reflection notwithstanding, I am not a fan of the hugely generous gesture, someone sacrificing everything to help someone else or to serve God. I don’t have the impulses of a Mother Teresa; I probably would have told St. Francis of Assisi, “Why don’t you leave most of it behind? Why all of it? Don’t you want a little insurance?” Everything in moderation, right? Even sacrificial giving.

So I’m not in particularly nice company this week – for the person in our story who articulates this more pragmatic way of thinking about resources is none other than Judas:

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’

In an aside, John tells us that Judas didn’t actually care about the poor, but wanted to steal the offering for himself. How about we give him the benefit of the doubt? Let’s say he actually did care about the poor. He actually did care about the radical equality that Jesus was preaching. He actually did want to see the revolution come to pass. To someone with economic justice on his mind, Mary’s extravagant gesture could seem an unconscionable waste of resources. Three hundred denarii’s worth of high-priced perfumed oil on one person’s feet? Stinking up the whole house?

It is outrageous, when you think about it as stewardship. It makes no sense. About as much sense as it made for God to offer up that One who was most precious to him, his only begotten Son. About as much sense as it made for that Son to take upon himself the consequence of catastrophic estrangement which was our due as those who rebelled against God; to give up his position, his dignity, his life.

One grey and rainy Good Friday I found myself in Union Square after the three-hour preaching of the Cross at Grace Church. Everything was dingy and dirty; everybody looked harried and downcast, me included. And I thought, “For this? You gave it all for this miserable lot? What a waste.”

Yes, what a waste; what ridiculous extravagance, to kill the Son of God so that we might be free to love God for eternity. As that beautiful hymn, My Song is Love Unknown, says, “Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be. Oh, who am I, that for my sake, my Lord should take frail flesh and die?”

Becoming a person who can offer it all starts with our willingness to accept that Christ has given it all for us. To accept that we are that precious to God, that God finds us worthy because God said so, not because of anything we think or do or say. Perhaps today we might meditate on that extravagant, profligate, wasteful, over-the-top love lavished upon us, try to let it soak into our bones, into our spirits, into all the dents the world’s “no’s” have left in us.

You are beloved, beyond measure, beyond sense. Deal with it!

3-8-16 - Extravagant Love

There are some who posit that Jesus of Nazareth was not the celibate religious leader depicted in the Gospels, that he was intimately involved with, perhaps even married to Mary Magdalene. Certainly, a married religious leader would have been acceptable in that place and time, but the Gospels convey not the slightest suggestion that Jesus was romantically linked to anyone.

And had he been, my candidate for the identity of the lucky girl would be not Mary of Magdala, but Mary of Bethany. She’s the one who neglected her household duties to sit at his feet, taking in his teaching while her sister prepared a meal alone (Luke 10:38-42). Later, when Jesus finally arrived days after their brother Lazarus had died, he asks for Mary. And when she comes to him and gently rebukes him for having arrived too late, it is her tears, and those of onlookers, which appear to move him to action (John 11). There is no reason to imagine their connection went beyond friendship, but it seems to have been a deep connection.

This is evident in the enormous intimacy and generosity of Mary’s gesture at the dinner in her home in this week's story 

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

This act is shocking on several levels. First, there is the intimacy of anointing Jesus’ feet, well beyond the expected hospitality of washing the feet of one’s guests. Mary's using her hair to wipe the oil suggests such physical closeness it must have made onlookers uncomfortable. And to kneel at someone’s feet and tend to them with your own hands and hair is a posture of profound worship and devotion.

Then there is the shocking extravagance, wastefulness even, of using the entire jar of ointment. Nard was extremely precious and very potent; no one would need a whole jar for one use. Learning that the house was filled with the fragrance tells us how excessive this gesture was.

But its very excess is what commends Mary’s action to us. She holds nothing back, not for economy nor for propriety. She acts upon her instinctive knowledge that Jesus’ time among them is coming to an end, and she seizes the opportunity to demonstrate her great love for him while he is yet with her. We are in a different situation – Jesus is not going anywhere; in fact, we’re waiting for him to return in fullness. But our time in this world is limited. Don’t we want to fully embrace God’s love in the here and now?

Where in our lives do we hold back on expressing our love for Jesus, for God? Do we content ourselves with the hour or so a week we spend in church; the amounts we pledge that stretch our budgets but little; short prayers at the beginning and end of the day and anytime a crisis arises in between?

And in what ways do we lavish our time and resources on God and God’s people? Can we think of times when we have left nothing in reserve? Those are occasions to rejoice in.

Mary demonstrated her extravagant worship in both quality and quantity. She held nothing back, lavishing love and care on her Lord. How might we love Jesus the way she did?

3-7-16 - That Family in Bethany

The gospels say little about Jesus’ friendships. We see some of his interaction with disciples, but other than a few exchanges with Peter, those tend to be group encounters. Yet there is one family, at least according to Luke and John, with whom Jesus had a particularly close relationship: the two sisters and one brother from Bethany who appear in at least three stories in those two gospels.

Our passage this week begins with an almost comically understated reference to Jesus' connection with this family:  Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.

This casual aside about Lazarus – “Oh, you know who I mean, the guy Jesus raised from the dead” is followed by the prosaic, “They gave a dinner for him.” Let's hope they did a lot more than that!

We are told that Martha served, which might seem an inconsequential detail were it not for that brief but penetrating vignette in Luke’s gospel about another time Martha cooked and served dinner for Jesus, and got a little lesson in priorities. We learn so much about her in that story, and here she is, serving dinner yet again.

The other sister, Mary, is the main character in this week’s reading, and we’ll introduce her tomorrow. What intrigues me as we begin to explore this short tale is the glimpse it gives us into Jesus’ social life. He had thousands of followers, and some close associates, but his peripatetic life and the increasing danger in which he found himself – John tells us this is six days before the Passover, the final Passover Jesus will celebrate in his worldly life – no doubt made it difficult to form and maintain friendships. This household seems to have been a place of refuge and friendship for him, and his humanity is more vivid for me seeing him rooted in this web of sibling relationships with three distinct personalities.

If we think of Jesus often at the dinner table of that family in Bethany, we might more easily imagine him as a guest at our table. And I believe that is where he wants to be - invited into our homes and lives, welcome at the table as we eat, on the couch as we relax, accompanying us as we work and exercise and play and recharge and interact with the people in our lives. This story reminds us that Jesus’ love is universal, and also always particular as we receive him.

He came for you, and for me. And as George Herbert so memorably articulated it, he expects us to eat with him.

Love (III) - George Herbert (1593-1633)

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
      Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
      From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
      If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
      Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
      I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
      Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
      Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
      My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
      So I did sit and eat.

3-4-16 - Found and Lost

It has been hard to pack all we might say about this powerful parable into five days. (To go deeper, I recommend Henri Nouwen’s classic, The Return of the Prodigal Son, which explores this story and especially its three main characters through the lens of Rembrandt’s painting of the same name.)

We haven’t spent nearly enough time on this “prodigal father,” whose extravagant forgiveness and restoration of his wastral son stikes some as no less wasteful as that son’s squandering of his inheritance. First among those who feel that way is the father’s elder son, who gets wind of the reunion and is horrified:

‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”

For the second time that day, the father goes out to meet a son where he is, not waiting for him to come in. He loves his sons equally – and that in itself is a affront to this elder boy who has faithfully served and done everything right. In his view, his father should love him more, for he has earned it.

And in this view, he has a lot of company. When I ask people to whom they relate in this parable, most say the older brother. We like fairness. We like earning our way. Yet Jesus made it clear in parable after parable that the Realm of God is not a place of fairness but of grace. Grace extended to others, undeserving others – and, of course, grace by its definition comes to the undeserving – can make us feel cheated.

But God’s economy is one of abundance. Had the elder brother asked for a party, he could have had one every week. But how can he expect the father to love his other son less? The father’s love is a full measure, pressed down, over- flowing. As I once sensed God say to me in prayer, “I already love you the most. There is nothing you have to do, or can do, to make me love you more – I love you the most already.”

Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”’

Jesus leaves the story unresolved. Does the elder son relent, allow grace to flow into him? Or does he define himself “lost” by his hardness of heart, like the religious leaders to whom Jesus was likely referring? And what about us? Are we willing to count ourselves “found” if the company includes people we would have trouble forgiving? What if we let God do it for us?

3-3-16 - Home Comes to Us

When I was young I was enthralled with the movie Love Story, with its famous tagline, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” That kind of statement can pretty much only be made after someone’s just said, “I’m sorry…” I’d be more likely to say, “Love means always having to say you’re sorry,” by which I mean we need always be aware of the ways in which we hurt or fail to notice our loved ones’ feelings. Learning to say you’re sorry quickly and naturally is one of the building blocks of a healthy relationship.

But working up to “I’m sorry” is often a struggle. Once we’ve wrestled away our self-justifications and acknowledged the need, we often find ourselves rehearsing, trying to find the right words. That’s exactly what the young man in Jesus’ story does: writes his speech ahead of time.

“I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’” So he set off and went to his father.

When we head off to ask forgiveness of another person, we can never be sure of the reception we’ll get. This young man, who’d in effect disowned his father, probably caused him to liquidate assets at a loss, may have assumed his father had disowned him. When we offer repentance, we have to simply offer it, and be willing to lay it down and walk away. We can’t compel forgiveness or even a hearing.

Ah, but Jesus tells us that it’s different with God. If this story is a picture of what the realm of God is like, we should take notice of what happens next: forgiveness doesn’t wait for this young man to express his sorrow. Forgiveness is out in the road, waiting for him.  But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

The son tries to make his speech, but his father is way ahead of him: But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

Was the father looking down that road every day, hoping against hope to see his son return? Did he even care if the boy was sorry, or did he only want to be reunited with his beloved? Does God really love us that much?

Jesus said “yes.” Jesus showed us “yes,” just how much God loves us. Jesus left Home and came into our road to wait for us. We don’t even have to get home – Home comes to us, with royal robes and sandals for our tired feet. This is one “I’m sorry” for which we don’t have to doubt the reception.

We only need to turn ourselves toward home.

3-2-16 - Return to Self

This week's gospel story works well with people in recovery from addiction. They can relate to a guy who leaves home, loses everything and finds himself starving in a pig pen. Millenia before 12-step groups were developed, Jesus found perfect language to describe hitting bottom:

When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” So he set off and went to his father.

The line that always grabs me is “But when he came to himself….” It so economically describes what happens when we’ve gone off the rails, deep into toxic behaviors or thinking – it’s like we’ve parted ways with our true self. The first step of reconciliation is to return to ourselves and welcome ourselves home.

This young man suddenly saw himself and his surroundings clearly. He recognized the truth of what had happened, where his choices had brought him. Sure, he didn’t cause the famine, but the choices he’d made since leaving home had left him with no resources to weather it. And when he saw himself for who he was, he remembered who he had been, the status he had given up when he estranged himself from his family. In a moment of true humility, he also saw clearly that he had forfeited that status forever. Formulating a plan to get out of his dire straits, he did not presume to regain his sonship, but resolved to beg the mercy of his father to allow him to be a servant in his old house.

True repentance begins when we stop blaming other people, our history and circumstances for where we find ourselves now. That can be one of the hardest steps to take, to accept where we are, regardless of whose choices helped get us there. Certainly our own choices played a part, and that’s where we start the road toward reconciliation.

This morning I invite us to take stock of what “pig pens” we endure in our lives. Where are we stuck in patterns that keep us from thriving? Who do we need to forgive or get out of the way of? What are we clinging to? What are we using to anesthetize us from pain and the real work of healing into which the Spirit invites us?

I’m pretty good at wallowing. And maybe too good at compartmentalizing myself. But Jesus invites me, with this young man, to take the risk of true humility and clarity. And when I've reconnected with my deepest self, he invites me to find my way home.

3-1-16 - Independence

Growing up can be described as one long, push-and-pull struggle for independence. We strive to be seen for who we are, separate from our parents and their expectations and desires. Psychologists call this process individuation, and how one navigates it has great bearing on the kind of maturity and self-integrity one displays as an adult. Pushing out and pulling back enact a basic inner conflict we all share: We want to be our own person, and we want to be enfolded in Home, be it real or idealized. And we can’t have both.

Some people push out harder than others. The young man in the story Jesus told pushed farther than many – he not only struck out on his own, he pretty much burned his bridges.

‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.'

Asking for his inheritance before his father had even died was tantamount to wishing the old man dead. And going to a distant country was a way of saying to those at home, “I’m getting as far away from you as I can. I can take care of myself.” Only it turns he couldn’t – he lacked the maturity to spend his inheritance wisely. He squandered it living the high life, no doubt buying drinks for any number of hangers-on who disappeared as soon as his cash was gone. This young man went as far away from Home as he could.

Was he rebelling against his father? The three glimpses we get of this father show him to be a wise and compassionate man, excelling in grace with his difficult sons. Was this young man’s behavior a response to losing his mother - Jesus mentions none. Or was this younger son reacting to the rectitude of his older brother, whom we learn is obedient to a fault? Some schools of psychology root personality development in sibling relationships as much as parental ones. Did this “goody two shoes” take all the gold stars, leaving his younger brother to define himself by rebellion?

Oh dear, here I go, treating this like a real story again. As of course it is, in one way or another. 

How is it real for you? Where do you find yourself in this younger son?
When have you rebelled, and against who or what?
In what ways do you try go it alone, to make it on self-saving strategies rather than relying on God and community? Are you comfortable in being the person you are, or do you feel incomplete?

Our God desires wholeness for us, within ourselves, and in our relationships with others. Often that requires knowing where we are “unwhole” – or unholy. If you feel like making a conscious a self-examination, here is a form you can download to help think through the areas of your life.

We may not be squandering our property in riotous living, but I dare say most of us are some distance from the Love that made us and calls us home. Awareness of what is causing that distance will help reduce it.