11-27-20 - Rattling the Powers

You can listen to this reflection here.

The theme for Advent at my Christ Churches is “The Word’s Turned Upside Down.” 2020 has been a year of such traumatic turmoil and terror, so much in our daily lives upended in addition to the national and global disruptions. In many ways, this year has teed us up for Advent, that paradoxical season of darkness and foreboding, expectation and hope. Our gospel reading starts us off in the shadows, with Jesus’ perplexing discourse about cataclysmic suffering soon to befall his followers. Is he talking about Roman persecution, or the end of the world?

“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

Jesus sounds most like Israel's prophets here, foretelling gloom and doom. In what comes before this passage, he’s been discussing the onset of a crisis in human terms. Here the warning signs are cosmic, with a darkened sun, a weakened moon, falling stars. And what does it mean to say that “the powers in the heavens will be shaken?”

“The heavens” is bible-speak for the spiritual realm where both good and evil operate. Jesus' mission involved engaging spiritual warfare. Indeed, in much of his ministry he was doing battle with forces of evil, reclaiming and freeing people from bondage to sin and death. That work he supremely accomplished on the cross, and he invites us to help bring it to completion in the fullness of time. When Christ is on the move, then and now, it rattles “the powers in the heavens.” In light of the victory he has already won, still unfolding in our view, that’s good news.

Every time we carry out an apostolic ministry, we rattle the powers of heaven. Every time we challenge untruth or injustice or misused power, we rattle the powers of heaven. Every time we defend the vulnerable from bullies, whether personal or corporate, we rattle the powers of heaven. Every time we invoke the power of God to forgive, heal and restore the broken, we rattle the powers of heaven. Sometimes it gets us in trouble, but Jesus promises to be with us.

What "powers in the heavens" are you feeling called to rattle? Political powers, emotional powers, corporate powers, social powers, cosmic powers? Name a realm and ask Jesus what action he is preparing for you to take. Pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and you can be sure you are fighting with God, serving God’s purposes.

“The world is about to turn,” goes the chorus to Canticle of the Turning, a hymn setting of the Song of Mary which we will sing throughout this season. We can help to bring about that turning in our time.

On Wednesday evenings, I lead an online Bible Study which now has participants from Toronto, Connecticut and Georgia. Why not Water Daily Land? If you'd like to join, you're most welcome - 7 pm here. If you need a passcode, it's LPWay. This Advent we'll be exploring how we live in an upside world - and hint, Jesus already turned it upside down. Or did he turn it right side up?

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11-26-20 - Spiritual Lessons From the Turkey

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

Who wants to talk about the end of the world on Thanksgiving? Who wants to be told to “Keep Awake!” in the one guaranteed, nap-allowing four-day weekend in our ever-more-jammed national calendar? How will we engage Advent today when we’re preparing stuffing, preparing pies, preparing turkeys, pre…

Wait a minute. What’s that word? Preparing? Isn’t that the quintessential Advent word? Prepare ye the way for the Lord? Maybe this won’t be so tough. We’ll just have to mash up our holidays a little before we mash our sweet potatoes.

We might take a spiritual lesson or two from preparing a turkey for Thanksgiving Dinner – and no, I’m not going to compare the turkey’s sacrifice to Jesus’. What I will do is invite us to think about the things we do to get a turkey ready to be feasted upon, and see how those might be applicable to our spiritual growth.

First, we buy the turkey. We have decisions to make about what kind – fresh, organic, frozen. We don’t expect the turkey to plop into our lap – we select it. We might be as intentional about our choices to grow spiritually as we are about selecting our turkey.

We prepare the turkey – we wash it (baptism? repentance?). We might brine it in salt water - Jesus did say his followers were to be like salt for the world, tenderized, full of flavor…

On the big day, we get up early to get that thing ready for the oven. What if we regularly got ourselves up early to get ready for the world, spending some of our prep time in prayer and quiet with God?

Next we oil or butter the outside of the turkey so it shines with a nice glow as it bakes. Some add some paprika to that process, to enhance the golden color. (The first time I ever roasted a turkey, I mistakenly grabbed cayenne instead of paprika – that was a spicy bird!) In the same way, we as Christ-followers can be anointed with the oil of the Holy Spirit, to shine with joy whatever our circumstances.

And we stuff that bird full of good things that help make it moist and flavorful. So we might stuff ourselves with holy-making ingredients… the bread of life, the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, worship with others, prayer, ministry, contemplation, the sacraments, ministry to others. All these things make us tender and flavorful too, more conscious as disciples.

Then we roast the bird… we allow heat to transform it into something we can consume. I would like to think we do that as Christians too – really allow the heat of the Spirit to get to us, to transform us so we become more useful to the people around us.

And while the bird is roasting, we baste it, frequently, so it doesn’t dry out. Our regular immersion in worship and spiritual practices are meant to serve the same function, to keep us well-oiled and limber. If you feel dried out as a Christian, get more basting! That might be a good prayer for us today.

If we can be as intentional about our spiritual lives as we are about our Thanksgiving turkeys, I have no doubt God will feed many, many people through us. Here endeth the metaphor! Gobble, gobble.

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11-25-20 - You Are. Now

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

Most years, the day before Thanksgiving is one of the most stressful of the year. Many people travel on that day, with delays on planes, trains and highways. Those staying home and hosting face crowded grocery stores and homes in need of cleaning. We may not be dealing with as much of that this year, but our lives have been upended and families disrupted. Any of these stresses can be a good metaphor for the Advent season.

Whether we’re waiting to get there, or for someone to arrive, or for a viable vaccine to come along to end this Covid nightmare, we face a lot of waiting. Waiting for God to show up – cataclysmically, at the end of the ages, or here and now, in the midst of a crisis – can also feel like that. Though we often look back on events and say that God’s timing was just right, in the moment it can feel like we’re waiting forever.

When we’re little, Advent is about waiting for Christmas, with its huge build-up. As we get older, we learn that Advent is really about waiting to celebrate the birth of Christ, the inbreaking Word of God, come to take up residence in us. And we know that, as wonderful as that story is, as fully as we have embraced it, it’s still incomplete, because we’re still waiting for the fullness of that revelation of God to be completed. There's too much pain and evil around to think we’ve seen the end of the story.

Is there anything we can do to be more with our waiting and longing? Yes – and it happens to be the one thing most sages and philosophers suggest we do to live more fulfilled lives: be present. Now. Focus on where you are in this moment, not the next, not the one that just passed. Now.

If we were to do that in a terminal, or at home preparing, we might find ourselves focusing on the people around us. Focusing on our feelings of waiting and not knowing when we will see our loved ones. Focusing on our breath and our life, on our gifts and our thoughts, on what we love, on who we love, and who loves us. This is a way to transcend the waiting and receive an opportunity to tune our awareness to the breath of those around us, to the pulse of the community, to the yearnings of the universe. That’s not wasted time… that’s a form of prayer, of connecting to the Holy. It is Advent life.

Eternity is an forever of Now. Learning to wait with anticipation while fully content will serve us well in this life and in the life to come. It creates in us a capaciousness and a serenity in which others can seek shelter. It creates space in which the Holy Spirit can dwell and bless others.

I hope today is a wonderful day for you, wherever you are and wherever you are going, whoever you’re with and whoever you miss being with. I pray you will be amazed at the peacefulness, even joy, you can experience whatever the stresses. They are temporary – you are eternal. Already.

You... Are.

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11-24-20 - Elected?

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

It’s been a challenging few weeks in Gospel-lectionary Land for people who believe in universal salvation, the doctrine that all are saved by Christ’s redeeming work, regardless of what they believe or whether they want to be included. We heard about the talent-burying steward condemned to outer darkness, the unprepared bridesmaids shut out of the banquet. Last Sunday it was Jesus’ vision of the final judgment, with the righteous sorted from the damned. This week we hear about the end times, and this troubling verse: “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

Just what, or who, is meant by “his elect?” Can anyone join that party, or do you have to be invited or, worse, elected? For us, “election” connotes a democratic process, but theologians of old used that word to mean God’s choosing us for salvation. It’s more selection than election; in some passages Jesus suggests it is not automatic, giving rise to the idea of predestination, the doctrine that some are chosen for salvation – or not.

There is some comfort in the notion that there is nothing we can do to secure eternal salvation – that is grace, which is pure gift. But most folks like to be able to control their destinies, to earn their way. And what if some get the gift and some do not? What if “winning the lottery” on earth, by where we are born, and in what color skin, and with what accompanying resources and privileges, means we are shut out of the heavenly courts? What about faith and belief? Some passages imply this is the key, the one response required from us to what God freely offers.

It is human nature to look at a phrase like “his elect” and immediately wonder about the opposite – who loses? Yet nothing in that word implies a limit – everyone might be God’s “elect.” If the love of God is as merciful and all-encompassing as Jesus implies in some of his teaching, then we might imagine that those being gathered from the four winds includes most if not all of humanity. It's one reason we are to make the love and power of Jesus known in our lives.

It is not given to us to know who is or is not “elect.” Christians who presume to judge that for others are usurping a role reserved strictly for God. Jesus told us only to love one another as God has loved us – with mercy and compassion and healing and truthfulness. That should keep us busy enough not to have time to worry about who’s “in” and who’s “out,” even ourselves.

A parishioner of mine once told me of her grand-niece, then four years-old, speaking about her recent baptism at Show & Tell. Asked by a teacher what baptism meant, the girl said, “It means that even when you’re not perfect, God forgives you.”

Instead of worrying about whether or not we’re included, let’s set about being the kind of Christian community in which that girl, and all her peers, grow into adulthood holding that perfect knowledge. A church that knows that in its guts can transform the world in Amazing Grace.

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11-23-20 - Are We There Yet?

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

We may be staying put this year, but most years, Thanksgiving involves long car trips for many families, with that conversational staple, “When are we going to get there?” or its variant, “Are we there yet?”

Jesus’ followers had a similar question for him. If he was indeed the promised Messiah, shouldn't he be ringing down the curtain on the bad old days? After all, things weren’t so good – the Romans on their backs, their own tax collectors squeezing them for every penny, not to mention the temple taxes. Life was hard and often brutal. When was Jesus going to do something big?

In the gospel passage with which we begin the season of Advent, Jesus links this “end” with his own return. “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

Pretty dramatic. But as to the “when,” not even Jesus knew: "But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

These questions did not go away after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. His followers were all the more convinced he was indeed the Messiah – so how long did the world have to wait? When would he return to usher in the New Age?

That question may be less urgent for many Christ-followers two millennia hence. Yet, whether it’s imminent or far-off, we are invited to live in readiness for the advent, the coming of Christ, all year-round, not only during the season named for that.

What does it mean to “live ready?” I think of people who sign up for courier services – they get to go to all kinds of exotic places all expenses paid – but they have to be ready on 24 hours’ notice to hand-deliver letters and packages all over the world. They stay packed, and shots up-to-date, and ready. Or people trying to sell their homes have to keep them neat so that agents can bring over prospective buyers at any time. Imagine how clean our kitchens would be if we always had to keep them de-cluttered! Imagine if our minds and hearts maintained such discipline.

As we get ourselves ready for this season of getting ourselves ready, we might take some time to examine our state of “readiness” for a radical change of life. This might raise our anxiety levels, as we often assume change will be unpleasant – and Jesus’ imagery of stars falling and a darkened sun, not to mention our daily newsfeeds, reinforce that view. So instead, imagine a delightful change, and ask the same question: how ready am I? What would I want to do or have done? How might I want to develop my relationship with God in order to be ready? Just asking those questions can create openings for the Holy Spirit to guide us.

The key to living ready, living “awake,” is intentionality. When we choose not to drift, choose to choose the light, we become bearers of it, no matter how dark the sun gets.

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11-20-20 - Can You See Me Now?

You can listen to this reflection here.

In this Sunday's gospel reading, Jesus says that when we give to people in need, we give to him. He says people in need are “his family.” So… what does that make us?

When we try to wrap our minds around this vision Jesus lays out, it can be easy to get into “us” and “them” thinking. If weare to care for the hungry, the naked, the incarcerated, the stranger, the thirsty, the sick, then we must be okay. They are “the needy,” we are “the givers.” We can forget how often we are on the receiving end of someone else’s giving… sometimes the very people we think we are caring for. Tax breaks for the well-off are funded in part by taxes faithfully paid by undocumented laborers in need of food and shelter; land, wealth, and education handed down through generations often came about through laws and policies favoring the white and wealthy. The “us” and “them” lines can get very blurry.

Some years ago, my congregation in Stamford had a thriving ministry among people who were homeless in the city’s south end. It started with a monthly meal at a shelter, which launched a monthly healing service, which generated a weekly bible study at another shelter, and then spilled onto the streets as we reached out to those who wouldn’t come in. A few parishioners made sandwiches and brought soup and offered them to a group that hung out on the sidewalk, partying. And then they said, “Anybody want a prayer?” Every hand went up. Even the biggest, toughest guys wanted prayer. So they prayed.

The next time, after offering prayer, the leader said, “I’ve got a cold. Would you pray for me?” She was engulfed in the group as everyone came and laid hands on her and prayed for her. And then they went back to drinking and cussing!

Who was the giver? Who was the givee? We became one community out there on the sidewalk, with Christ discernible in all of us. Jesus invites us to find him in people to whom we offer love. Remember that others have found him in us.

Can you think of a time when someone regarded you with eyes of love, maybe when you didn’t feel you deserved it? Did you know Jesus was looking at you?

Can you think of a time you found yourself able to love someone unlovable, or care for someone in extreme need when you didn’t particularly feel like it? Did you feel Jesus loving through you? I want to develop the spiritual practice of remembering in such encounters, “This is a child of God,” to start by honoring God’s creation in front of me. I’m praying for the grace to make that my first response. I might even try it when I read the newspaper!

Let’s pray to be given the faith vision to see Jesus in unlikely people. Ask for the Holy Spirit to make Christ visible in us, and for the grace to become more transparent.

Remember those mobile phone ads that had the guy going all over the country saying, “Can you hear me now?” to demonstrate the breadth of the network? I think Jesus is saying to us, “Can you see me now? Look, now I’m in this person, now I’m in that one.” And also in you, and in me, in a network that has no end.

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11-19-20 - Jesus' Family

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

Thanksgiving is a week away. In normal years we'd be planning family gatherings over laden tables. Is that a foretaste of heaven or hell? Jesus draws a sharp distinction between those two realms in this vision of the End. Behind Door#1 is an inheritance of infinite and eternal value: 
"Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.'”

Behind Door #2? Damnation: "Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

Jesus so wants to emphasize this teaching that he repeats the whole narrative of “hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, in prison,” in almost the same words – but the second time he is indicting people for what they did not do: “…for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, etc. …

Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

It’s a pretty low bar, to have to serve only “one” of the least. Maybe the folks in the "cursed" line could not even do that, and are left to the consequences of their self-gratifying narcissism and cruel neglect of those with whom they shared this planet. Let’s hope there aren’t too many in that line.

The folks on the right are presumably continuing a relationship with God they embarked upon in their earthly life. In taking care of the “least of these” members of what Jesus calls his family, they have become part of the family themselves and thus inheritors of the Realm of God.

This parable goes much deeper than merely “doing good,” or “charity,” or taking care of the “less fortunate.” The blessed are those who not only serve but identify with the stranger, the sick, the incarcerated, the hungry, the naked, the thirsty. They don’t see themselves as “other” or “better.” Maybe they help because they don’t believe they are any better, just more fortunate. Or they offer care because, like Mother Teresa with the lepers of Calcutta, they experience Christ’s presence in the ones in need.

Do you ever have the experience of helping someone and feeling you’re connected to Jesus in that moment? Or feel related to people in extreme need? When I pray with men or women in a homeless shelter, occasionally a moment of camaraderie will break through my sense of being different from them. Then I feel like I'm their sister, not a "helper."

How might we become more open to people who seem so different from us – living hand to mouth, unable to stay sober, manipulating their way through life? If Jesus says those people are his family, and we’re his family, how might we share Thanksgiving with them?

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