Saturday, November 28, 2020

Advent 2020 Provides Necessary Reset

A December a few years ago, my retreat director said to me, "Maybe this year, instead of going to Bethlehem, you need to meet Jesus at Bethany with Mary and Martha, at the tomb of Lazarus, their beloved brother and friend." It had been a year in which we experienced significant losses. Joy was unattainable and unsustainable. Thanks to the words of my guide and God’s help, I found the wisdom I needed. 

In December 2020, there seems an even wider gulf between the season's theme of joy and the troubles of the world. It will be difficult for me to receive a message of joy. In many a devotional guide, the third Sunday of Advent season provides a refocus. We are given a break, a chance to catch our breath. For me, that reset works for the whole of December, especially this year!

Listen to the invitation to weary souls in a verse from “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” by Edmund Sears:

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, 
who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow, 
look now! For glad and golden hours some swiftly on the wing. 
O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.

If words of joy are difficult to hear, try giving yourself - and others- a break. Everyone is doing the best they can. For a day, step away from trying to solve other people's problems. God's gift of “pure, unbounded” love is for one and all. Joy, too, is God’s gift to give- the fruit of being a beloved child of God.  And don't forget to pray for yourself.  

The reset of our spirit rests in God's faithful love and mercy, where the presence of  Jesus meets us on the road we travel.  

Friday, October 16, 2020

Gospel Reflection: Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. Matthew 22:15-22

The following questions may be helpful in interpreting this passage.

Who am I going to serve
The tax in question in Matthew 22 may have been a census, or a “head” tax. The tax was the equivalent of a day’s labor per year. The Herodians would have been supporters of Herod Antipas and his colossal building projects of Sepphoris and Tiberius (which required a heavy tax burden). The problem for Jews was not the amount but that the coinage used to pay taxes was considered idolatrous and a breach of the Second Commandment: "You shall not make for yourself an idol..." Coins to pay taxes were stamped with the Emperor’s “divine” image.  

In 2020, we in the U.S. may be quick to read this passage as  Jesus' endorsement of the separation of church and state. That is a 21st Century construct (actually 18th Century) imposed on First Century Palestinian Jews living under Roman rule. The core of the Jewish identity begins with the Shema: Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Deuteronomy 6:4-5  The question for believers, then and now, is- who are you going to serve? Or, as Jesus claimed, "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." Matthew 7:24.

Who tells me who I am?
Another fly in the ointment for Jews in Jesus’ time was that foreigners (Romans) occupied the land covenanted to ancient Israel by God. Yet, the people were subjects of the Emperor. In the Exodus, Hebrew slaves became God's own people, a holy nation.  A yearly festival, the Passover, served as a continual reminder of that freedom. Being set free and being God's covenant people are one and same. A sign of freedom in Roman times was for Jews to recline at table instead of waiting tables, hand and foot. 

Jesus' teaching in Matthew 22 suggests that, while taxes may be necessary, the real “tribute,” if there is any to be paid, belongs to God.  The coinage came from Rome and to Rome it returned. Human leaders like Tiberius claim to be super- human, but in the end, they all will pass away. God alone lives and reigns forever: "Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish." Psalm 146:2

To Whom do I belong?
Giving to God what is God's means that everyone and everything belongs, now and forever, to God: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it; the world, and those who live in it…” Psalm 24:1 All that I am and all that I have belong to God. I am on this earth for a season and a reason: to steward and share the gifts God has given me, as long as I live and breathe. Shortly after I was confirmed and joined the church, my Mother gave me a small wall poster which read: “What we are is God’s gift to us; what we make of ourselves is our gift to God.”  

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Gospel Reflection: The Tenants in the Vineyard


Matthew 21:33-46
‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again, he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally, he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’ 

Exploring the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, the last verse of Psalm 19 rings true: “Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me.” The definition of insolent: “showing a rude and arrogant lack of respect.” The tenants were responsible to the landowner for delivering the fruit of the harvest.  Their response to the servants who are sent to collect the harvest is incredibly reckless and wicked- not just insolent. After the tenants torture and kill the first group of servants, why doesn't the owner throw the book at these murderous evil doers? Instead, the owner sends another group of servants to receive the harvest.

The owner’s persistence and patience with these wicked tenants is dumbfounding! The tenants get a second chance and they senselessly enact the same brutality to the second group of servants. Incredibly, the owner gives the wicked tenants a third chance! He sends his own son as the power of attorney to act on the father’s behalf. The tenants arrogantly and witlessly assume that they will somehow steal the son’s inheritance by grabbing him, throwing him out of the vineyard and killing him. In Matthew's setting, the last week of Jesus' life on earth, the parable is a clear reference to Jesus' passion and crucifixion.  After being given three chances, the tenants meet the same end they themselves perpetrated on the servants and the son. 

The parable is a story telling how the people of God have treated each other. It is told by Jesus and addressed to his own religious leaders, the same ones who will soon turn him over to the Roman authorities. The prophets of Israel and the church were harassed, maligned, and martyred, often by their own people. From Elijah to John the Baptizer to Stephen the Deacon, the words of Jesus teach us that faithfulness like that of the prophets has the final word: Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:11-12 

The tenants are supposed to steward the harvest! Instead, they let it rot. Daily, God asks us to use our gifts, one of which is to gather the fruit of God's vineyard, God's Kingdom. This is the realm where God is the owner, and where God reigns. God gives his people the gift of working the harvest.  

In Matthew’s retelling, the story is also addressed to  me, for I am one who often claims the name of Christian, saying “Lord, Lord,” but then refusing the invitations of God’s kingdom.  At an early age, I learned the importance of measuring my life by the dictum: “early to bed, early to rise, makes one healthy, wealthy, and wise.” This parable challenges me to measure my life by the teachings of Jesus Christ- and bearing the fruit of God's kingdom. By the hour, I can welcome the opportunities to gather the fruit of God’s kindness and mercy.  

Friday, September 11, 2020

Climate Fires: Choose Life

We can't endure against the grain of reality 

The following could be used in a sermon, homily, or apart of a call to confession:

If we speak of Jesus as a human being offering a divine gift, offering unrestricted love to the Father and to the world, we are speaking, necessarily, of someone who is going to be intensely and terribly unsafe in the world...Sin, the state of revolt against truth, has consequences; it exacts a cost from us. If we live in untruth, in self-deceit, we are automatically condemned to undermining and destroying the life that is in us. We can’t live against the grain of reality and expect to survive indefinitely (which is why our environmental crisis is such a powerful and poignant symbol of our corporate sinfulness). So when Jesus faces the final uncompromising violent rejection of the religious and political powers of his day, we can say that he ‘embodies’ not only the purposes and possibilities of God but the effects of the self-destructiveness of human beings. Jesus, hanging on the cross says to us: ‘This is what your untruth means: you have been offered unconditional mercy and you turn from it in loathing. You have come to a place where you cannot recognize life itself for what it is. You don’t know the difference between life and death. The reality in you is dead.’ What is happening to Jesus- his dreadful physical suffering, his mental and spiritual torment as he cries to God asking why he has been forsaken- is a sort of picture of our ultimate fate, the death that is unreality, being cut off from what is true. Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust

Meditative Thoughts on Forgiveness

Meditative Thoughts on Forgiveness

Suggestion: reflect on a thought each day of the week. Follow your meditation with the Lord’s Prayer. 

To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgments, however justified that judgement may be. ~Marjorie J. Thompson

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. ~ Mohandas Ghandi

 There is no future without forgiveness. ~Desmond Tutu

Forgiveness is not excusing an unjust behavior or action. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean forgetting; the past remains with us. But forgiveness is how Christians live and act as we face the future. ~Andy Langford and Mark Ralls

God, give me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know that one is me. ~ Serenity Prayer, Adult Children of Alcoholics

We must fervently pray for strength to resist the temptation of getting even with those who have hurt us and for the grace to reflect the majestic generosity of the kingdom of heaven. ~Douglas R. A. Hare

And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on God’s. When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he gives, along with the command, the love itself.         ~Corrie ten Boom

Friday, September 4, 2020

Gospel Reflection: Matthew 18:25-30

Gospel   Matthew 18:25-30 
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.


In the classic Baptismal of  the UMC, the prayer for the young child included these words "...that,  by the renewing and restraining influence of the Holy Spirit, she may always be a true child of yours, serving you faithfully of her days." God's work of restraining evil is under-appreciated!

In Matthew 18:25-30, Jesus addresses the need to limit the damage that can happen when one is wronged by another church member. We are to first “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” If those who are in disagreement cannot come to a resolution, asking witnesses to be present to listen and observe strict confidentiality, can protect both parties. There is very strong negative reinforcement for following this wisdom!  One would want to avoid an airing of dirty laundry in the presence of the church! (Matthew 18:16-17). 

Earlier in Matthew, Jesus advises that if we remember a brother or sister has something against us, we are to leave worship, and go to be reconciled to them.  (Matthew 5:23-24) Because great injury is possible, we are to “come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the guard, and you will thrown into prison.” (Matthew 5:25-26) 

Real harm can be done from having an unresolved, interpersonal conflict being made public, because next step in Matthew 18 is banishment- making a church member an outsider. I have known individuals who have been deeply wounded by such a process. I still consider these folks fellow believers, even though they may have decided to avoid churches altogether.   

The issue of “binding” is to first do no harm. The restraint of evil is what God is already doing, and it is a significant, if forgotten, ministry of the church, even as I let “loose” the good in ministry to he world. Great harm or great good can be done depending on how honest disagreements are addressed. 

The body of Christ is like a human body, so think in terms of a human organism. Being a member of the body of Christ, I affect the rest of the body. The health or disease of the organism, the church, makes its own witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. More than that, we pray to be “one with each other,” at Christ’s Table, Holy Communion. 

What if the harm happened long ago, or the person involved is no longer alive but still in my memory? It’s still possible to make peace. In the Lord’s prayer, I pray God’s forgiveness and peace for others, and also ask for God’s forgiveness and peace: “Forgive us our trespasses as we  forgive those who trespass against us.” If the person is far away, or if it’s unwise to go to them, I can still make amends by doing good for a person who is currently apart of my life.  I can make peace by “paying it forward.” 

Monday, August 24, 2020

We are unfinished, loved

To want to serve God in some conditions and not others is to serve Him in your own way…Open yourself to God without measure. Let His life flow through you like a torrent. Fear nothing on the road you are walking. God will lead you by the hand. Let your love for Him cast out the fear you feel for yourself. The Seeking Heart, F. Fenelon 

Epistle Romans 12:1-8
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. 

Gospel Matthew 16: 13-20 
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 

He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. 

Therefore, whatever you see your soul to desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe. St. Anthony 

Today’s readings are a wonderful encouragement that we are capable of living for God, just as we are, regardless of our condition. I am invited to consider anew what gifts God has given me, starting with the gift of life in body and mind. Offering myself to God as I am, with my gifts and vulnerabilities is a process. The “renewing” of my mind- my attitude toward myself, others, and God, is a life-long work. 

When Peter declares Jesus “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus then tells Simon his new name: Peter (rock). Rocks are hard and rough and sharp. Jesus commissions Peter and the church to prevail against the gates of Hades. Think here of an army scaling the walls to a city, breaking open the gate so all captives held by sin and death can be free. The keys of God’s kingdom is the ministry of binding evil and loosing God’s rule. This work on earth is backed up by God in heaven. 

It’s interesting and most encouraging that Jesus accepts Peter’s declaration, knowing that Peter says so in faith. Jesus accepts Peter as he is and where he is. Peter didn’t wait for the right moment, until he had every question answered. Peter had much to learn about the Christ who will suffer and die on the cross. Just read the next verses in Matthew 16. In essence, Jesus is saying to me and you, “You’re rough and hard and sharp, but I can work with you. I see in you more potential than you can imagine.” As I dedicate myself to use my God-given gifts for the good of others, the good coming from it will far exceed any of my expectations. Yes, God can do more than we could ever ask or think.

Friday, August 14, 2020

On Faith and Doubt

Gospel Matthew 14:22-33
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’ 

You are constantly facing choices. The question is whether you choose for God or for your doubting self. You know what the right choice is, but your emotions, passions, and feelings keep suggesting you choose the self-rejecting way… Remember, you are held safe. You are loved. You are protected. You are in communion with God and those whom God has sent you. What is of God will last. It belongs to the eternal. Choose it, and it will be yours.
 “Keep Choosing God,” Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love

I can choose to trust in God, even on the difficult days. To me, faith is not a possession for all time. I believe God gives me enough faith for the next day. I also observe that I construct barriers to trusting God more fully. My blocks to deeper faith are certainty, safety, security, comfort and convenience. There are others, like popularity. Thomas Keating, the Trappist monk and contemplative, called these blocks “programs for happiness.” What are your programs for happiness?

In our Gospel reading from Matthew 14, it’s helpful to give Peter his due. Peter does not exhibit total lack of faith. In fact, he shows more trust and love for Jesus than the other disciples who stay in the boat. Peter indeed gets out of the boat, at Jesus’ command. Everyone else is grasping the gunnels for dear life.

Later in Matthew and again, Peter is the only one of the twelve who follows Jesus all the way to Jesus’ questioning before Caiaphas. Should we appreciate Peter for his faith, or fault him for not being perfect? When Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith,” is Jesus shaming Peter for his doubt, or is Jesus encouraging Peter’s potential to trust more? If we never get out the boat, we do not learn a deeper trust in God. At the same time, just because we have some faith doesn’t mean that we will never need to ask for help. We can turn to Jesus amidst the threatening waves.

Like the disciples in the boat, Christian disciples and spiritual followers have always and forever will encounter tests of faith, challenges to what is familiar to us, and gut- checks that only happen after we get out of the boat. If I choose to have faith in the living Christ, who knows? A whole new world may open up before me. But if I never get out the boat, I 'll never know.

Gospel Reflection: Matthew 15: 21-28

Then Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

The Gospel story is the only mention of “Canaanite” in the New Testament. The woman’s identity as a Canaanite reminds readers of ancient Israel’s role in displacing the Canaanites from their land (Joshua- Judges). According to the biblical narrative in Joshua, Israel was directed by Moses to take Canaanite land and livestock, but chase down the fleeing Canaanites and kill them. Judges notes that Israel was unsuccessful in driving out the Canaanites entirely. Most surviving Canaanite people were taken into slavery. Sidon is mentioned in Judges 1:31-32 as one of few settlements where the inhabitants were neither conquered nor subject to forced labor. 

When she initially calls out to the Lord, “have mercy…my daughter is tormented by a demon,” the disciples turn and ask Jesus to send her away, to dismiss her- she was a woman and foreigner. This reaction would have been typical, given the racial, and cultural hatred between these two Semitic groups.  She bypasses the disciples, kneels at Jesus’ feet, and pleads, “help me.” She will do what’s necessary to be heard. The demon from which the daughter is tormented could have been psychosomatic. Terrifying events in the past are often submerged from conscious memory- but stored in the body. The effects of trauma sustained through familial and community violence can be passed on to successive generations. Perhaps that is part of the message in this story: that in the daughter's healing, generational curses can be healed in Jesus Christ.

The brief interchange between Jesus and the woman seems like banter between a teacher and a disciple. The master asks a tough question and the star pupil’s retort earns the respect of the teacher. Jesus sees in her a remarkable trust in God. “Great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.” “The prayer of faith will heal the sick,” James 5:15 reminds us.

This encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite is uncommon. The woman is the exemplar in the story (not the disciples, again). In advocating for her daughter, the power differentials (gender, race, geography) that would have marginalized the Canaanite woman are themselves judged. Not among the "lost sheep of Israel" and living in a non-Jewish area, she is the exception in Jesus’ ministry in Matthew. Finally, she shows herself up to the task, speaking faith where there was complete dismissal. 

References to this story appear in the traditional “Prayer of Humble Access,” said before receiving Holy Communion: “We are not worthy so much as to gather the crumbs under thy table.” However, as the story unfolds, the mother's intercession is granted, and a Canaanite woman too, is a recipient of God’s healing grace. She will gladly gather, without apology, the crumbs under Jesus’ table!

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Feeding of the Crowds: Guided Meditation

During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children finally slept in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.” Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life,  Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, Matthew Linn 

The Gospel Matthew 14: 13-21
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. 

Guided Meditation 
I invite you to reflect on the Gospel story, as if you were one of Jesus’ disciples. It may help to read it slowly, pausing as you feel led. Close the exercise with the Our Father.

It’s a sunny, breezy, late morning on the lake. Soon, I will be breaking bread with Jesus, the first time since the disturbing news of John’s beheading. While I gather at the table with the others, I ask, “where is Jesus?” I run out to see Jesus, who is wading out to a boat anchored off the beach. Quickly, he climbs in, then rows farther offshore. I call to him and track him from the shoreline. Jogging along the crest of the slope, I stop at a lookout point to catch my breath. I see a huge, hidden cove below: a beach teaming with thousands of people. The crowd extends from the water up the slopes. In amazement, I carefully walk down the sand and rocks… 

I spot Jesus standing at the water’s edge, healing and curing everyone he can touch. He takes time to be with each person. From the youngest to the oldest, in families or by themselves, they come. There is no one with Jesus’ compassion and determination. He is like a good shepherd who loves and protects his sheep no matter what. I am moved to tears, tears of gratitude and joy… 

As the afternoon light wanes, I hear someone say “It’s almost evening now.” Another one wants Jesus to send everyone away. I overhear Jesus’ reply, “Don’t send anyone away. You give them something to eat.”  A boy has brought a small serving of smoked fish and bread. He shares what he has, bringing it to Jesus. I hear Jesus’ words to us, “We are a free people. Thanks be to God for the bread we need. Everyone, please find a place on the green grass. There is room for all.” Today, even though everything seems to be against us, God’s presence is here, and I feel a peace and safety deep in my soul… 

I see Jesus giving thanks over the food. He then starts to break the bread into family size pieces. I hear Jesus say, “Blessed are you when you are kind and merciful to others.” When I receive my piece of bread, I pass it along. The pace quickens as more and more bread is passed. As far as I can see, people are eating to their contentment. All are having their fill! What an unbelievable sight! Joy overwhelms me...

As the crowd begins to break up, the many conversations trail off into the twilight, I join some friends. We gather the leftovers. There’s enough extra for the few of us, but right now, that doesn’t seem important. I’m bursting with thanksgiving for Jesus. Somehow this day has renewed my hope. I feel fully loved and alive. I dedicate myself to loving God and friends, family- even people I dislike or who dislike me. My heart overflows with love...

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Praying the Sunday Gospel: Joy in the Kingdom

 Opening Prayer
Holy One, your kingdom and your glory take us by surprise- like a tiny mustard seed growing into a great tree where birds make their home; like a treasure hidden in a field, or a pearl of great price. Thank you for the greatest joy and abundance of your kingdom. Give us grace to surrender to you that which weighs too heavily on us today. We offer you these moments as we worship you in thanksgiving for all you have done for us in Jesus our Christ. Amen.

Psalm 105:1-11
give thanks to the Lord, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples.  Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wonderful works. Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice. Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually. Remember the wonderful works he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he has uttered, O offspring of his servant Abraham, children of Jacob, his chosen ones. He is the Lord our God; his judgments are in all the earth. He is mindful of his covenant forever, of the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant that he made with Abraham,  his sworn promise to Isaac, which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute,  to Israel as an everlasting covenant,  saying, ‘To you I will give the land of Canaan as your portion for an inheritance.’

Prayer of Confession
Father eternal, giver of light and grace, we have sinned against you and against our neighbor; in what we have thought, in what we have said and done, through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate neglect. We have wounded your love and marred your image in us. We are sorry and repent of all our sins. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, who died for us, forgive us all that is past; and lead us out from darkness to walk as children of light. Amen.

Words of Pardon (based on Psalm 130)
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. In the name of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven!

 A Reading from Anthony De Mello, S.J., Discovering Life
The sannyasi is the wandering mendicant. This is the person who, having attained enlightenment, understands that the whole world is his home and the sky is his roof, and God is his father and will look after him, so he moves from place to place the way you and I would move from one room of our home to another.

"Here was this wandering sannyasi, and the villager, when he meets him, says, 'I cannot believe this.' "And the sannyasi says, 'What is it you cannot believe?'" And the villager says, 'I had a dream about you last night. I dreamt that the Lord Vishnu said to me, "Tomorrow morning, you will leave the village around 11 o'clock, and you'll run into this wandering sannyasi." And here, I've met you.'" 'What else did the Lord Vishnu say to you?' asks the sannyasi. "And the man replies, 'He said to me, "If the man gives you a precious stone he has, you will be the richest man in the whole world." Would you give me the stone?' "So the sannyasi says, 'Wait a minute.' He rummages in his little knapsack that he had. He asks, 'Would this be the stone you're talking about?' And the man couldn't believe his eyes because it was a diamond — the largest diamond in the world. "He holds the diamond in his hands and he asks, 'Could I have this?' "And the sannyasi says, 'Of course, you could take it. I found it in a forest. You're welcome to it.' And he goes on, and sits under a tree on the outskirts of the village. The man grasps this diamond, and how great is his joy.

"So, the guy has the diamond. And then instead of going home, he sits under a tree, and all day he sits, immersed in thought. And toward evening, he goes to the tree where the sannyasi is sitting, gives him back the diamond, and says, 'Could you do me a favor?' 'What?' says the sannyasi. " 'Could you give me the riches that make it possible for you to give this thing away so easily?' "

Gospel    Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’‘ The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’

Appearances deceive. The tiniest of seeds becomes a tree so large that it provides nests for birds. A small amount of yeast, snaps and fizzes its way into “three measures” of flour, transforming the whole mixture into enough bread for 100 people! This is how God reigns and rules, according to Jesus. It’s through the miniscule, insignificant, and unseen.

Such is the way with life lived in God’s kingdom. The one and only gift of my life- given to me by God- is this the hidden treasure and pearl of great price? I regularly look for something or someone outside of myself to come in and fix things, to make me happy, give me peace, or to solve problems. But the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price is right in front of me every day I live and breathe. It’s the one and only gift of my life, created in God’s own image and likeness. This is life created in love, so that we can love and bless the whole world.    
Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love.  We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side. We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us. We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.  Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying, through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom. Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know Christ and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, may give thanks to you in all things. This we pray in the name of Christ, who taught us, saying [The Lord’s Prayer]: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, for thine in the kingdom, and power, and glory forever. Amen.   

Blessing: The peace of all peace be yours this day and night in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Gospel Reflection: Unfinished

Gospel    Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Limbo: an uncertain period of awaiting a decision or resolution; an intermediate state or condition. Synonyms: unfinished, incomplete, unresolved, on hold, pending, abandoned, forgotten, betwixt and between, up in air, on the back burner, suspended, put-off, etc.

I once attended the Young Men’s Leadership Conference (“Camp Miniwanca”) under the auspices of the American Youth Foundation. It took place on the shores of Lake Michigan in the summer before senior year, high school. So it was that in one of my classes, we were challenged to recall a “first impression” of someone at camp, someone who may have annoyed us in some way. Or with whom we had started on the wrong foot. We were to remember what happened and how we reacted. Later in the week, the leader asked us to examine the encounter to see how we could make a fresh start in our thinking and our manner with the person who, at first, rubbed us the wrong way. The teacher called it “reconciliation.”  

The exercise showed me that my first impressions are as much about my own prejudgments as they are about the other person. Jesus’ parable cautions me to stop wasting my time and energy determining the good and the bad. I can surely judge myself harshly too. When I do this, I am not equipped to offer friendship or kindness to others. In my own spiritual life, I am learning to identify and to resist the voices of guilt and shame in and around me. Contrary to what we may have heard, there is not a medal ceremony for the guiltiest person alive! 

The “limbo” we are living through would not be strange for any generation of humanity-or the church. There is God-given wisdom in waiting: “For if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Romans 8:24 Like the disciples hearing the story of the wheat and weeds, we are cautioned to step back and be mindful that we do not have the last word: “Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” Matthew 13:30

The good grain will be lost forever if we try to extract the weeds. God will take care of God’s harvest in God’s time. And God will take care of us. According to Psalm 139, God knows every aspect of our life, before it happens. God knows all about us and continues to offer the joy of the holy presence, Holy Spirit. God shows up for us, wrapping us in divine mercy, even if we make our bed in Sheol. Psalm 139:8 There is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God, the Lord of the harvest.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Praying the Sower's Story

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have 
much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’

‘Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’

Prayer of Confession (based on Matthew 13:18-23)
Gracious and loving God, we are a mixed bag to say the least: when we are tempted to give up;  when we fail in practicing a living faith; when we seek our peace in neglect and privilege: heal our broken spirits, confirm us in all goodness, save us from trusting in our own strength. As we turn to you in these quiet moments: forgive what we have been, help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be; that we may do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with you, our God. Amen.

Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, is a beautiful story of his experience as a first-time pastor of a Lutheran Church in the corn belt town of New Cana, Illinois. His church celebrated what was known as the ritual of the field on Rogate Sunday. It was the Fifth Sunday of Easter. This is how Lischer describes it:

When April’s sweet showers had bathed the dry veins of March, callused palms the size of gourds would cradle a few hybrid seeds as if they were crystal, and our church would ask God to make the crops grow. At the end of the service, representative farmers would lead the congregation through the back doors of the church and across the road into Norbert Semann’s muddy field, which at this time of the year was as rank and sweet as black bread soaked in port. There, we symbolically planted the seeds.

Lischer continues with brief liturgy he used on his second Rogate Sunday:

Pastor (in the sanctuary): Let us now proceed to Norberts field.
(The congregation files out the center aisle in orderly fashion. The people cross the road and walk unceremoniously into the dirt. There is no talking or laughter.)

Leonard Semanns (crouching on one knee as he places the seeds in their furrow): Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.

June Semanns (flanked by her husband, several farmers, a nurse, etc.) The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose. We are God’s servants, working together. You are God’s field.

Pastor (from the midst of the congregation): Lord, when you came among us, you proclaimed the kingdom in villages and lonely places. Have mercy on those who work hard at lonely jobs, where they can’t talk to others or can’t be heard when they do. Remind all country people that you are never far from those who plant and harvest. Help everyone in our nation to say grace over their food and to respect those who produce it. O God, hear us as we bless earth, sun, wind, and water, in the name of Jesus. Amen.

The Parable of the Sower is an invitation to nourish and respect the life of God within. What if I nurtured the word of the kingdom like the farmers “cradled” their seeds? What would it mean for me to guard the word “like fine crystal,” so that the seed of God’s kingdom could grow by leaps and bounds! I tend to minimize what is possible because of God’s abundance. How can I overlook the fruit of this relationship? It comes in unheard multiples of 100, 60, and 30 fold!

The Letter of James asks: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom…. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind…But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” James 3: 13, 16-18

Prayer and Blessing
Loving God, in your mercy, hear our prayers for others:

+Your healing grace and comfort for the sick and those who care for them; the grieving and those who reach out to them; the brokenhearted and their families,

Your help for those who grow, deliver, and prepare food for our tables, 

+Your strength for those on the front lines in this time of crisis:  firefighters and police, every day maintenance teams and housekeepers, doctors and nurses, researchers and scientists, 

+Your wisdom for the leaders of all nations of the world, our leaders in our nation, cities, and states,

+Your safekeeping for all serving far from home in our military and their families,

+Your shalom for all injured by unfairness, neglect, abuse, and injustice,

+Your compassion for all diminished by fear and worry, hate and bitterness,

Send us from this space to be seeds of Christ’s love, to scatter seeds of God’s hope, and to bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Through Christ and in Christ we pray. Amen.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Gospel Reflection: At the Core is Gentleness (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30)

What leads to soul-rest?

But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’ At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

When I was just a year into serving my first church after divinity school,  I was full of ideals. With all I had learned and with passion, I expected to see a real impact on the congregants and church I served. I dedicated myself to just causes and worthy endeavors for that reason. An older and wiser pastor who had served in West Texas towns for years, told me that I was a very idealistic person. He said it with compassion and wistfulness, as if “I used to be like that.”

We celebrate the inspiring ideals of the nation in a hymn like America the Beautiful: “America! America! God shed his grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.” We pledge ourselves, from young to old, to “liberty and justice for all.” In our national life, we often do not see the fruition of these ideals. There are, of course, glimpses from time to time. All of us, as Americans, inherit a wonderful freedom and responsibility as stewards to do the right as God gives us the ability. 

Psalm 72 presents a hope and prayer of what the king of Israel should be and do: “May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice… May he defend the cause of the poor…  give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor….For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper…From oppression and violence he redeems their life;  and precious is their blood in his sight…May there be abundance of grain in the land;  and may people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field…May all nations be blessed in him…”  Most of the kings of Israel did not measure up to the hope of Psalm 72. 

The dark side of idealism sometimes leads to making harsh judgments of myself and others. Life is hard enough, why make it more difficult? The wisdom of Jesus on the matter is to look at the deeds of his power and mercy. They reveal someone who has compassion on the crowds, the “lost sheep.” Matthew 9:36  Jesus’  invitation is for the “infants” or the “little ones” of Matthew 10:42. He wants all who live with loneliness and isolation, cut off from the blessings of faith, family, community,  and God- then and now- to come to him, and find rest for the soul. What does this rest look like?

The invitation of Jesus, “Come, all of you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens” is from the One who is gentle. God is not the petulant child in Matthew 11 that we never quite please, no matter how hard we try. At the heart of the universe is gentleness. The spiritual life is not about trying to please God the best I can.  Guilt doesn't have to define my relationship with God. I am invited to be gentle – both with myself- and with others who share my journey. Gentleness implies sister moral virtues like peace, patience, kindness, self-control. For me to find refreshment for my soul, another to-do list does not bring renewal. The simple movement to gentleness- giving myself and others a break- can bring rest and regeneration for my soul. It’s there for taking, for all of us, today.  

Oldies but Goodies