1-27-23 - Blessed Are

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here

Having spent the week delving into Paul’s teaching about the Cross and the way God effects transformation through what looks like weakness and failure, we turn now to Sunday’s gospel passage, the Beatitudes. In this first training talk with his new disciples, Jesus chimes the same theme – that those who follow him will find they are blessed in just the areas that look to the world like weakness and insignificance.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit…. those who mourn.. the meek… those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… the merciful… the pure in heart… the peacemakers… those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake."

I have never been fond of the Beatitudes, perhaps because I prefer my blessing straight up. I want blessings to look like blessings – good health, good job, comfortable living, peace and security. When I exhort people to “expect blessing,” hardship and hunger are not what I have in mind. And looking at the state of our nation and our world, I am not comforted by this reminder that Jesus had a much deeper kind of blessing in mind. Gee, thanks!

I am not predicting that the hardships Jesus’ original disciples endured are ahead for us. I hope not, as I pray daily, “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.” I do know, though, that to count myself a disciple of Jesus means I need to be prepared, to learn to locate blessing in the presence of God unleashed on this earth, not in my own circumstances. And that I am to be an agent of that unleashing, that releasing of God’s power to love, to heal, to forgive, to have mercy, to make peace. It is not our power, but God’s, which we receive through Christ, and pass along through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We are to expect blessing, but we don’t get to write the script. The blessings may not come as direct answers to our prayers. They come as God gives from a heart of generosity and love and more knowledge than we will ever have. The more we open ourselves to that flow, the more we experience it, whatever our circumstances. It is both now and later. Our future, and our daily bread, is blessing beyond measure. Own it!

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1-26-23 - The Foolishness of God

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's epistle reading is here

I’ve never been a big fan of rallies and marches – they take a lot of time and resources to organize, divert a lot of people’s energies from more strategic action on the issue being marched for, and rarely change anyone’s mind. But on the occasions when I have participated in such events, especially ones that draw hundreds of thousands of people together to bear witness to a desire for justice and equity, I understand their power: a power based not on might or authority, but on agreement, on ordinary people coming together to become a political force. They send a message of empowerment to those who are regarded – or regard themselves - as foolish, weak, low and despised, things that are not. They can remind us of the power we have when we come together as the “insignificant." We can overcome evil. And when we come together in Jesus’ name, in the name of the One who allowed himself to become shamed, weak, low and despised, evil does not have a chance.

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

Great words – but evil is still having a good run, is it not, when gun manufacturers continue their stranglehold on our Congress, preventing the passage of sensible gun laws; when people of color in this country are more likely to be shot by police, and be denied opportunities afforded white people; when hunger continues to devastate some communities and countries, while much of the world throws away food as waste? We will never run out of injustices to protest – what power do we have?

I’ve shared here a definition of the devil, whom Christians regard as the source of evil in this world, as “the enemy of human nature.” Paul reminds us in Ephesians 6:12 that “our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers, the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Yes, we are called as those “who are not” – in the sight of the powers that be – to reduce to nothing things that are. But our weapons are spiritual and communal, not destructive.

The Good News we have been called to proclaim is this story of God’s great reversal, of God’s lifting up those who are downcast. It has always been good news to the poor and those on the margins; less so to the wealthy and powerful. And where we are wealthy and powerful, we need to consider God’s call to humility and justice.

As we embody this good news, we bring it into being, this realm of God in which peace and justice already reign. Let it be so on earth, as it is in heaven.

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1-25-23 - A Stumbling Block?

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's epistle reading is here

If you were to invent a religion, you probably wouldn’t want to make it as unfathomable and sometimes unpalatable as Christianity. You wouldn’t insist that God is three persons and yet one. You wouldn’t assert that God became human for a time, yet remained fully God and fully man, full of divine power yet completely vulnerable. And you certainly wouldn’t orient your worship around a story about that God-man being executed by crucifixion, a death reserved for criminals and insurrectionists.

Yet, as the early church proclaimed the Life of God revealed in Jesus Christ, that story became most central. In all four gospels the narrative slows and zooms in for more detail when it comes to Jesus’ passion and death, which occupy more chapters than other incidents. The Gospel of John sees the cross as the place where the Son of God is glorified. Yet this emphasis on the Cross also caused trouble for the early Christ-followers – as it does for many today.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

The idea of a crucified Messiah was anathema to many of the era’s Jewish people. Many thought it blasphemous to claim that Jesus had a special relationship with God, or was God; others were appalled to think that God would send a Messiah to deliver his people from oppression, only to allow the oppressors to kill that man on a cross. The idea that God may have been about a much bigger deliverance than a military one did not compute.

And to many Greeks, so fond of logic and philosophy, the story was ridiculous. They could embrace the notion that the mind of God could be expressed in human form, in the way that a thought becomes a word, but then for that human to live a life of poverty and weakness? That was unlike any god they could conceive.

How does the crucifixion strike you? Can you see the freedom and love in this horrible tale around which we weave our faith? Many Christians turn away from this brutal story, preferring to emphasize Jesus’ wisdom as a teacher, or goodness as a moral exemplar, or power as a worker of miracles. But Jesus was also, perhaps primarily, savior, redeemer. Understanding the Cross as the place where he took upon himself the penalty of all humanity’s sin, and endured the agony not only of human cruelty, but of estrangement from God, helps us to more fully experience God's forgiveness and freedom.*

Can we see in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ “the power of God and the wisdom of God?” It takes special vision, the eyes of faith to make sense of this awful paradox. In fact, our minds cannot make sense of it; it’s a mystery that seeps into our hearts through contemplation and worship. Let’s open the cracks.

*You might read The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, I have not yet read it, but it was named Christianity Today’s Book of the Year some years ago, and is authored by the Rev. Fleming Rutledge, whom I have known since my days at Grace Church in New York. It comes highly recommended for those who want to delve more deeply into this mystery.

1-24-23 - The Wisdom of the World

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's reading is here

It’s the kind of paragraph for which Paul is famous, and which church lectors struggle to render with clarity: Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.

If Paul were speaking to us in person, I think he’d use air quotes and vocal inflection to convey sarcasm. It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t think much of the “wisdom of the world,” at least not in comparison with the wisdom of God – which, he notes, can look a lot like foolishness to those who think they are wise. Paul skewers those who would dismiss or overlook the inconvenience or the scandal of the Cross.

All through the bible we find a distinction between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of humankind. “For my ways are not your ways, nor my thoughts your thoughts, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 55:8) “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things,” Jesus says to Peter (Matt 16:23). Paul is on solid ground in regarding the wisdom of the world as a flimsy foundation on which to rest our faith.

It is good for us periodically to examine what our beliefs are resting on. The Gospel of Jesus Christ and Christian claims about his incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection are so counter-cultural, there is a constant temptation to explain away, or synthesize core doctrines with more palatable philosophies. Many Episcopalians believe the scriptures to be literature with helpful metaphors, not the inspired Word of God. Many mainline Christians have come to regard the crucifixion as a disturbingly dark idea and are reinterpreting sacrificial understandings of the Cross. And, of course, many Christians choose to ignore altogether Christ’s teachings on wealth and poverty, self-righteousness and mercy. We all need to return to the Gospels at times, asking the Spirit to guide our interpretation.

But how do we distinguish the wisdom of God from the wisdom of the world? Paul was sure he knew which was which. There is no easy answer – but there are processes:
  • Hold our beliefs up to the whole Bible – where is there agreement, where is there contradiction?
  • Hold our beliefs up to the whole Church, throughout time and space… do our ideas square with the Creeds, the tradition? That’s tricky, for I believe the revelation of the Spirit to be progressive. We have the same scriptures about slavery or women’s roles, but have come to a different understanding by the Spirit. Still, we look for gaps and overlaps.
  • Ask the Spirit to let us see by the fruits of one interpretation or another which is correct – does one interpretation lead to condemnation and death, or to life?
In all of this, we must live by the Spirit with generosity of heart, under the supreme law of grace. What we believe and how we believe matter, but in the end it’s how we follow and worship Jesus as Lord that makes known the Life of God. Recognizing how little we know can be the highest exercise of wisdom.

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1-23-23 - Foolishness

You can listen to this reflection here.

This coming Sunday, our Gospel reading is “The Beatitudes,” Jesus' core training session for followers. We’ll take a look at that this Friday, but for most of the week, I’d like us to explore Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth.

In this discourse, Paul asserts the primacy of the cross of Jesus Christ, arguing against teachers who held that this doctrine was either unimportant or wrong. Corinth was a commercial city through which trade from many regions passed by land and sea. Its populace was sophisticated, eager to explore every new religious fad and philosophical trend. In a climate that so prized wisdom and knowledge, it could be hard to defend a religion which venerated as divine an itinerant rabbi who had died a criminal’s death on a Roman cross. “We need a good P.R. firm,” thought some Christian leaders, seeking to reframe the central story.

Paul was having none of it: "For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."

He means that those who see this story as “foolish” prove by their lack of discernment that they are among those who are perishing. In contrast, those who have accepted Jesus’ death on the cross as a saving act can see the power of God evident in what looked like pathetic defeat.

That principle is manifest any time ordinary people confront political power that threatens their freedom. When people work or advocate or march for human rights and democratic principles, it can look like foolishness too. But when enough people come together on an issue, change can happen.

Where do you feel called to stand up for a principle – or for your faith – that others call foolish or weak?
Where might you be called to proclaim your status as a “foolish” Christ-follower?
What weakness might you bring God’s power into?

Paul takes the accusation of “foolishness” and runs with it, reminding his listeners that God was up to something in allowing his Son to die that shameful death, that God irrevocably broke the hold of sin and death in what looked like humiliating defeat. God is still up to something as the freedom Christ won for us is revealed in our lives.

Sometimes we need to get to the end of the story to know just how powerful God’s power really is. But here we are, living both at the end and smack dab in the middle of it, holding to this truth: “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” Thanks be to God.

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1-20-23 - The Power We Have

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here

When we look at the magnitude of challenges in our world, in our country, sometimes in our families and churches, it is easy to feel powerless. Yet, as apostles of Christ, his witnesses, that is one thing we need never feel. We carry within us power that made the universe and conquered the grave, and we’re invited to use it. And how do we do that, you ask? Just do what he did:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

If we substitute “our communities” for “Galilee” and “gathering places” for “synagogues” (that's what it means…), we get a nice prescription for how to live the Good News: “We go through our communities, teaching in our gathering places and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

Wait a minute, every disease? Every sickness? That’s what it says. We don’t hear of Jesus meeting a disease he couldn't transform into wholeness. It’s what he did, and what he taught his followers to do. And it’s how he demonstrated the Good News he proclaimed. What we call miracles were simply Jesus showing how things work in the realm or "energy" of God when it’s released into our present reality. In Jesus, both realms were present, God-life and human life. When we invoke his name and his power, both realms are present in us too, “On earth as it is in heaven.”

In the realm of God, molecules obey the command of their creator and realign if they’re out of whack. Cells that don’t function as they were intended to can come back into their purpose. Tired limbs and bodies are renewed by an infusion of power from the source of all power itself. It’s not really so complicated. It’s just that we don't understand it.

We like being able to see how things work. God’s healing power can be visible in outcomes, but rarely in the process. We pray and “give thanks by faith until our faith gives way to sight.” And sometimes when we don’t see the fruit of what we’ve prayed for, we turn away from the whole enterprise.

Instead, we are invited to persist and release the results to God, knowing there is mystery to healing and what looks like not-healings. We are invited to release God’s power and love into a given situation, and to continue to trust in that power and love even while we don’t see transformation. Why let apparent “no’s” stop us from exercising our faith?

When, where and how do you find yourself proclaiming the Good News of God’s love and power? Hmmm. If you don’t know, there’s a prayer task. Ask God to show you. And is there a situation or person you know for whom you might offer healing prayers? “For all things are possible with God…”

Following Jesus means, in part, doing what he did. So let’s get out there, in our communities, teaching in our gathering places, proclaiming the good news of God’s power and love – and yes, healing every disease and every sickness, be it global or personal. We just invoke Christ's power - the rest is up to God.

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1-19-23 - Follow the Leader

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here

Would you have gone, if Jesus walked by your place of work and said, “Follow me?” Would you have left your job, family, home on the promise of “I will make you fish for people?”

As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him."

There wasn’t any security in what Jesus was offering. And yet he said, “Follow me,” and people did. Immediately. How could they be so sure, that they were willing to go right then and there? Leave it all, no looking back.

Once I was praying, and had a sense of Jesus say, “Follow me.” I said, “Where are we going?” An answer came quickly: “You don’t get an itinerary. You don’t get the route. When I say, ‘Follow me,’ I just mean, ‘Follow me.’ Put your focus on where I am, not where I’m going.” In other words, follow the leader, not the path.

Maybe this should not have come as a revelation, but I had never thought of it that way. If you’re like me, you want to see what you’re committing to, what’s around the next corner. But it makes sense – Jesus invites us not to a walk-about, but to a relationship in which we are transformed and equipped to participate in God’s work of transforming others. In Christ, we are committing to a person, not a program. Kind of like a marriage… we don’t get much of a road map with those either, do we?

Here’s a prayer experiment: for the next week, let’s invite Jesus to lead us every day to the things and people he has blessed or intends to bless. And pray to be alive to that leading – which will mean checking in with him a few times during the day. You might set an alert on your phone or computer, or set up some regular times to stop and pray, “Where we going next, Lord?” And in the evening, take about five minutes to write down where you were led.

I commit myself to doing this. If you do, let me know if you’re surprised by anything. I believe Jesus says, “Follow me,” because he knows where we’re going. And there’s only one way for us to find out…

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