Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for October, 2013

Humility: the Path Home

Luke 18:9-14, NRSV

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Gallen.TaxmanPeter Gallen, The Tax Collector and the Pharisee

The other day I was talking with someone about prayer. He told me:

I don’t really pray.

Okay, I thought, but why don’t you pray?

God has enough to worry about. There are kids who are dying of hunger. There are people who die of cancer. The world is full of problems and suffering and my problems seem too small to bother God with them.

I paused. He had a good point, after all. Sometimes our petty problems and situations are not really that urgent or dramatic—by comparison. And certainly, I remember many times in church worship services when the prayer concerns and celebrations seemed quite silly or insignificant.

God has enough to worry about. Why should I bother with prayer?

Right. Why should we bother with prayer? I mean, without question, prayer is confusing. Lots of churches think they know how we are supposed to pray. There are formulas and step-by-step prayer books sold to us. Some people pray the Lord’s Prayer in a pew where there is stained glass. Some just sing the Kyrie. Others cry their eyes out and jump up and down, hands extended in the air. Sometimes a choir sings with the prayers, creating an emotional response. Others kneel down. Some fold their hands and close their eyes and are silent. Others chant, whisper, roll over beads of a rosary, or burn incense.

Is God at all impressed with this prayer pageantry? Are God’s ears tired of hearing about our small problems?

Why pray at all?

And so, we find a story in Luke’s Gospel that seems to spell it out for us.
Aha! THIS is how we should pray!

In fact, our brothers and sisters in the Eastern Orthodox Church have taken this to heart.
jesusprayer
The Jesus Prayer [literally, The Wish], is a short, formulaic prayer:

Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλόν            Greek

ܡܪܝ ܝܫܘܥ ܡܫܝܚܐ ܒܪܗ ܕܐܠܘܐ ܪܚܡ ܥܠܝ ܚܛܝܐ.       Syriac

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.            English

The prayer is based on the tax collector’s words in this Luke story. Many believe the prayer to have originated in the Egyptian desert in the 5th Century. It is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice. It is a prayer method called Hesychasm, to keep stillness.[1]

Now to some, this prayer may seem to be a bit of self-loathing.
Woe is me, woe is me—
I’m such a bad dude—
God have mercy on me,
and I’ll be in a better mood.

Perhaps that is why any formulaic prayer has its limits.
And that is just what Jesus was trying to get across in this story.
Every formula, doctrine or dogma, church tradition or rite that tries to tell us that a particular prayer is putting us on the holy fast track is only holding us back.

Like I said–prayer can be confusing.

But prayer is supposed to be liberating.

Nowhere in scripture do we find limitations on prayer. Jesus does not hand out evangelism tracts with the “Jesus save me/sinners prayer” attached. Instead, Jesus holds up two people as an example of prayer: a Pharisee and a tax collector.

On paper, this story seems black and white, doesn’t it?
Pharisee=bad. Tax collector=good.
We’re done! Let’s go home!

But wait a minute—remember that whenever a parable of Jesus seems black and white, we’ve just been trapped. And this time it’s a prayer trap. We see ourselves just like the tax collector, or at least, we really, really want to.

I’m humble. I can beat my chest and say that I’m a sinner. Thank GOD I am not like the Pharisee. Thank HEAVENS that I don’t brag about how much money I give to my church or how often I go to worship or how many committees I have led. Thank the LORD that I would never stand up in front of people and say how religious I am…

Trapped.

By claiming that we’re not like the Pharisee, we become the Pharisee.

The thing is…we like to be exalted. We enjoy a pat on the back for a job well done or a duty fulfilled. We even go so far as to think that giving money to the church, doing religious things, having a good reputation in society, earning a respectable salary—we think that this justifies us. And in doing so, we distance ourselves from certain kinds of people who we see as lesser than us. How much empathy do we have for others when we pray? How often do we pray for those on the other side of society? Like the distance between the Pharisee and the tax collector, we create distance between ourselves.

Trapped.

You see, I think this story tell us that prayer is about so much more than we typically say and believe.
Prayer is not about checking something off of our to-do list for Christianity 101.
Prayer is not dumping a laundry list of anxiety, hang-ups, and annoyances.
Prayer is not selling something or buying something.
Prayer is not reminding God of how great we are and so reward us, please.

Prayer is about paying attention

to the world, to others, to the trees, to the animals.
Prayer is about paying attention to more than just ourselves.

Prayer escapes our sanctuaries, temples, books, rituals, and words.
Prayer moves through each day, hour, minute, second—each breath.

Prayer does not make us more holy or even better people. It is not some self-improvement program. Neither is prayer about crying our eyes out, feeling bad for ourselves, or focusing on our faults. We can do all these things, thinking that this will get us closer to God or somehow impress God with our humility, but just when we think we’re closer to God and that we’ve got prayer figured out—we are farther from God and our prayers are hollow.

Because in the end, God doesn’t give a flying fig about our accomplishments.
God doesn’t read our online bio or our Facebook profile and say:
Wow! You are really successful. Keep it up! Heaven awaits you!

Instead, God awaits our true humanity.

masksTake off the masks.

masks2

Shed the pompous clothes.
Get rid of the religious piety.

God sees us as we are.
We are tax collectors and we are all Pharisees—all of us.

But mercy and grace await humanity; and humanity is humility.
This is good news for you, me, and even for the guy who refuses to pray.

Humility is recognizing that we don’t have all the answers. Humility is seeing other people as they are with open eyes, not judging them or creating distance between us or classifying them. Humility leads us to the most human and divine of all places—home.

Home is where addicts, the depressed, the lonely, the angry, the sad, the mentally and physically challenged, the lost, the sick, the hungry, the beaten, the forgotten, the abused, the mourners, the bullied, and the marginalized can all be themselves and can all be accepted and loved.

This is prayer’s home. It is by open invitation. All Pharisees and tax collectors welcome.

So friends, pray in whatever way you need to. Pray with eyes open to the world and the people, trees, and animals in it. Pray with hand and words and breath and beads and bowls and chants and songs and service and hugs and smiles and tears.

But pray as a human being. Recognize humility as the path home, and then your living will be driven less by your need to be applauded, recognized, and given high status; instead, may your living be driven by grace and mercy.

May you find your way home.
Amen.


[1] “Orthodox Christian Study on Unceasing Prayer Part I – John Kotsonis – Theandros – An Online journal of Orthodox Christian Theology and Philosophy”. Theandros. Retrieved 2010-07-03.

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God Is Still Wrestling…

Genesis 32:24-31   NRSV
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

jacob

Marc Chagall

The other week I went to my first Bris. Actually, a bris is Brit Milah, the Covenant of Circumcision. The wife of one of my friends just recently gave birth to a boy. In her practice of Judaism, the bris is an important religious and community-centered ceremony to celebrate this child’s identity and connection to his ancestors and current family. I was honored to be invited to such an event.

As my partner Maria and I entered the home in NE Philly, we spotted the ceremonial table, the empty chair for Elijah, the wine, the bris instruments, and an anxious group of family and friends.
The Mohel, an observant Jew who is educated in relevant Jewish law and surgery, was delightful in his explanations of the bris. He led us in singing and prayer. He made us laugh.
The Sandek [like a godfather], held the child on a pillow. Prayers and blessings were recited.
And then, the Mohel performed the procedure of circumcision.

On a personal note, I felt fine. I had none of those feelings of queasiness that some of my Jewish friends and colleagues warned me about. It seemed like I would make it through the ceremony without any problem at all.

But I was wrong….

The Mohel was done with the circumcision. He gave the child some wine and the little guy stopped crying. We sang again.

And then I felt nauseous; and then dizzy; and then the world started to fade to black.
I whispered to Maria:
I have to go outside for some fresh air.

I stumbled past the ceremonial table, trying not to make a fuss. I found the front door of the house and nearly fell on it. I struggled with the handle and finally got it open, only to collapse on a bench just outside. I put my head down and took deep breaths.

I was soaking wet–a cold sweat.

Meanwhile, inside the house, a little girl who was there with her family, stared at me curiously through the glass door as if to say:

I told you so. Don’t stand too close to the table!

Okay, so eventually, I felt better and was able to attend the rest of the ceremony. It was very nice. Mom and dad read words they had written about the child and his name. The mother talked about her relatives and how this boy’s name would connect to their lives and experiences. Afterwards, we ate food.

I celebrated the fact that hardly anyone seemed to notice that I had almost fainted and fallen right into Elijah’s chair.
—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

In the Jewish tradition, naming and identify formation is important. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, we encounter stories about people from infancy to death–often learning their names and journeying with them through the various stages of their lives.
In this case, we are journeying with Jacob.
He’s middle-aged now. He has some money, a family, a herd of livestock—he seems pretty set. But he’s having a mid-life crisis, for sure. His brother Esau, if you remember, was the guy from whom Jacob “stole” their father’s blessing. Apparently, Esau is still angry about it and wants to take his birthright back. So previously in the story, Jacob sends word to Esau that he is coming, that he is rich, and that he hopes that Esau will favor him. But Esau isn’t buying it. He instead approaches Jacob’s camp with an army of 400 people. Jacob is scared. So he prays to God out of desperation, asking for help. But Jacob isn’t satisfied with just prayer. He reserves a bit of his wealth and sends it ahead to give to Esau. Maybe that will calm him down.

Jacob doesn’t hear from his messengers. This cannot be good.
Esau will surely arrive with a fury and possibly kill him. So Jacob sends his wives and kids to meet Esau and his 400 strong!

Then, that night, Jacob [all alone] encounters a stranger. The person he does not recognize starts wrestling with him—throws him to the ground. It’s WWE of the Bible! Turnbuckles, full nelsons, flying elbows.

wwe
But Jacob holds his own. It’s a tie.

Jacob’s wrestling opponent is smart, though. He does some move that throws Jacob’s hip out of joint. What irony this his, because Jacob’s name means the Heel. Now the guy who was born grabbing his brother Esau’s heel can’t even stand up straight. He’s out of balance.

The wrestler tells Jacob that it’s time to go. The sun is rising. But Jacob hasn’t had enough.
“I won’t let you go,” he says, “unless you bless me.”

“What’s your name? says the wrestler.

“Jacob.”

“You are no longer called Jacob. Now you are called Israel. You have wrestled with God and with humans, and you have prevailed.”

“But what’s your name?” Jacob wanted to know.

“Why do you want to know my name?” The wrestler refused to tell.

The blessing finally comes to Jacob—after this whole process. Jacob is convinced he has wrestled with God, so he names the place Peniel. He limps off, heading to meet his angry brother Esau.

The story continues. Jacob does in fact make it to see his brother Esau the next day. Surprise, surprise, it is a joyful encounter! Esau embraces him with tears of happiness. Forgiveness. They are brothers again. And Jacob says something important:

“I have seen your face, as though I had seen the face of God.” [Genesis 33:10]

Jacob thought that he had met God Almighty in the nighttime. He thought he wrestled with Jehovah and won. But the next day, he realized that the whole time he was wrestling with himself. He grappled with his fear, his selfishness, and the avoidance of the truth of his past. The face of God awaited him on the other side of the river, where his brother Esau waited with 400. Jacob was a coward. He had sent his messengers, even his own family ahead to meet Esau! But he could not face his fears himself! So after the wrestling match with himself—after sorting through his own fears, guilt, and issues—Jacob emerged with a limp. The limp is a sign of Jacob’s imperfections. He still needs to mature. He still needs to grow and find balance in his life.

The story does end happily with the brothers’ reunion and forgiveness.
But Jacob is never the same. He is no longer Jacob the Heel. He is now called Israel. He walks with a limp. He will always remember.

Friends, this story can speak clearly to all of us. Oftentimes, in our struggles of life, we wonder if God is our adversary. Why is this bad stuff happening to me? How come I have so much bad luck, God? Why don’t you favor me more? Can I get a blessing, God? Come on!

We want to steal a blessing.
We hold on for dear life to whomever or whatever; we attach ourselves until we get the blessing or the relief from our suffering. We cling to the illusion that what we feel inside [fear, resentment, depression, self-loathing]—we cling to the idea that we feel these things, because everyone else or external forces are causing them. The walls, we claim, are put up by others. We cannot be whole; we cannot be at peace, because others won’t let us.

But our opponent is not God. And most of the time, our opponents are not people either; or circumstances.

Our opponent is ourselves.

In the dark of night, our minds race to thoughts of regret. Things undone. Maybe like Jacob we have broken relationships with family or friends. For years, we have blamed the other person. After a while, we are afraid to even cross the river to try to make amends. There is no way, we think, that this person will accept us or offer forgiveness. Perhaps this is true, in some cases. Not always do we have to cross the river and encounter the person face to face.

But we DO have to wrestle with ourselves.
We do have to look at ourselves in the mirror.
We do have to admit that our fear is inside us and not coming from the outside.

So here is the blessing that we don’t have to steal.
If we do wrestle with ourselves in an honest way and stop blaming God or external circumstances, or whatever—we find a special blessing.

Like my friend’s baby boy, like Jacob–we are blessed with new identity.

You see, throughout our lives we can start to take on the identity that the world or others give us. Our past experiences give us names. Sometimes they are good and healthy, but other times they are destructive and hurtful names. Those names can haunt us at night, fill our minds with fear and depression—even take over our physical bodies. Our failures, disappointments, resentment, and regrets can solidify such names.

But the blessing we don’t have to steal is God’s willingness to help us discover a renewed and refreshed identity. God is still speaking, still acting, and still encouraging us to keep wrestling with ourselves.

And it is never too late to be renewed.

Friends, it won’t be easy to wrestle with yourselves. Sometimes, in the nighttime, you will struggle with your past and sometimes you will fear the future. It will be painful. You may wish for some instant relief—for God to swoop in and tell you a bedtime story and tuck you in.

But God will do something surprising instead. Your God will speak to you and fill you, encouraging you to wrestle.

Who are the Esaus in your life?
What rivers do you need to cross?
And God will meet you in that place where hope seems far away. And you’ll wrestle.
And then you’ll discover a new name, a renewed purpose for yourself.
And God will lead you to the Esaus of your life.
And God will lead you to whatever rivers you need to cross.
And a bridge will be built for you to cross over.
And when you do, tears of joy, kisses of greeting, forgiveness, and wholeness await you.

So may you find strength to limp over to the other side of the river.
May you find wholeness, peace, and forgiveness inside yourself.
And may others see the face of God in your forgiving, and blessing of them.

Amen.

Love that Arises from Gratitude

Luke 17:11-19

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus* was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers* approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’* feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’  [NRSV]

10Most likely all of you have heard about the concept of a top ten list.

Wait! Don’t run away!

I know—a top ten list can be quite boring and tired. Believe me, I’m not a huge fan. For some reason, however, this story about 10 people inspires me to share 10 reasons why I really, really like this story. So here we go: ten reasons why this healing tale is wonderful:

10. Memories.

Okay, this is a personal reason. When I was ordained into the United Church of Christ, one of my mentors, Rev. James D. Eby, preached a sermon on this passage and he really spoke directly to me. Being a minister is no picnic. Basically, every day that I do this crazy work I am reconsidering it. And that was Jim’s point to me at my ordination service.

May your living out of your vocation be about returning to give thanks.

I have carried that with me since then. The moment I am not finding joy and having fun—if I am not returning to give thanks—it is time for me to move on to something else. In the meantime, though, in my living out of my vocation as a minister, I will try my best to use my gifts passionately and to live a life of gratitude for all the opportunities in this life of sharing compassion, building bridges; laughing, connecting, and transforming perspective.  But you don’t have to be an ordained minister, obviously. This can apply to everyone.

May your living out of your vocation be about returning to give thanks.
—————————————————————————————————————-

9. 5 Little Ducks

5littleducks Maybe you remember this book. Perhaps as a kid you sang the song as a way to learn how to count:

5 little ducks went out one day, over the hill and far away.
Mother duck said: Quack, quack, quack, quack!
But only 4 little ducks came back.

The song goes on until none of the little ducks return:

Sad mother duck went out one day, over the hill and far away.
The sad mother duck said “Quack, quack, quack.”
And all of the five little ducks came back!

Yes, it is about numbers and returning home. Sometimes the most simple is the most profound. Little children [and all of us, I think] can resonate with the story of the ten.

10 lonely lepers went out one day, bordering Samaria and Galilee.
Jesus said to them: Go, go, go, go!
And only one thankful leper came back.

But in this story…

8. All 10 of the lepers are still healed.

Jesus, in the story, doesn’t ask for the lepers to return. He actually tells them to go. All ten of them are healed because they go. In the process of asking for mercy and then believing that they have it, the ten go out into the world as new people. And this leads us to ask the question:

7. What is a Leper?

In the New Testament Greek language, the term leper meant a lot of things. Leprosy is a real disease of the skin, of course. But the word used in the NT gospel stories can mean many different types of skin diseases and disorders. Some scholars even think that leper does not have to mean someone with a skin-related disease. Leper could mean simply one who is marginalized. Often I notice that we read these stories at a distance. We do not see leprosy [this type of specific skin disease] on a day to day basis, right? So it is tempting to discount the story and read it as ancient literature that doesn’t mean anything.

leftoutBut think about 10 marginalized human beings, and now it’s personal. We do not have to look hard to notice people who are marginalized in our communities. There are people we push to the margins of society for lots of reasons. Maybe they don’t have much material wealth. Perhaps they are not originally from this country. Maybe they have struggled with addiction. Some have different worldviews or don’t share the same religious traditions; some eat different foods; others don’t follow certain social conventions. The list goes on. We marginalize people all the time! We push them as far away as we can, hoping that we won’t have to talk or interact with them. If we do see them, we try our best to ignore them. It is AWFUL to feel marginalized.

If you have ever felt left out of a group or family, shunned by others, or singled out as the “weird” or “alien” or “outsider,” you can resonate.

So the story tells anyone who has ever felt marginalized that they are accepted just as they are in God’s eyes. The world, however, doesn’t accept them and this is not ignored. But Jesus of Nazareth pays attention to them and cares for them. It is a message to everyone that God cares for all of our “marginalized” selves. But not only that, the marginalized in the story [the lepers], are held up as shining examples. They are the heroes, and not those who criticize, push people away, and ignore.

If only that actually happened more often in the world, am I right?

6. Healing

Healing is an action that both Jesus [the healer] and the receiver of the healing participate in together. When someone is healed, it is not just because Jesus waved his magic wand and then everything was great. No! The person receiving the healing had to do something. He/She had to change perspective, be transformed, accept mercy or forgiveness, forgive another perhaps, walk away from evil and hate, or simply say thank you and mean it. In each healing story, people meet Jesus as they are and where they are. This is powerful stuff, because you and I often claim that God cannot love us because we have been so bad or because we are so far away from forgiveness. Sometimes we are so hard on ourselves and start to believe that there is no way for us to heal. But that is not true. Everyone has the opportunity to heal. We have built-in mechanisms within ourselves to heal. Sometimes we need to reactivate them; others times we need someone to remind us; some days we have to physically move or change a behavior in order to break out of our unhealthy living. Healing is more than a band aide. Healing is real, ongoing, and can become a day to day process of our lives. How long did those ten lepers walk before they were all healed? We don’t know, and that’s the beauty of it! It could have been days, months, years! Healing is for all.

5. Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.

Healing is nuanced. In Greek, the word for faith has made you well is sesoken, from the root sozo. It can be translated any of these ways: healed, made well, saved. Healing is holistic and depends on what the person who is being healed actually needs.

4. Luke’s details

This Gospel is chocked-full of juicy details. Luke’s authors want us to dig into those details and find various meanings in the story. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. Okay, that’s important. Jerusalem was the center of the conflict, the heart of the Greek and Roman  occupations–the place in which the climatic end to Jesus’ life story would take place. But Jesus took a strange route–walking the border of Samaria and Galilee.

3. Samaria and Galilee

mapsamariaIn order to go to Jerusalem, why in the world would someone walk the border of Samaria to get there? It is out of the way. Luke begs us to pay attention. This reveals that Jesus is not some sort of status quo religious leader, on his way to claim power in Jerusalem and maintain things as they are. Jesus went looking for Samaritans, who were one of the most-marginalized groups of the time. We are reminded that the categories we create for each other are ridiculous and harmful. This story wakes us up with a glass of cold water and says:

God doesn’t classify people or avoid them, so why should you?

2. The one of ten who returns to give thanks is a Samaritan.

Yep. The hero, the one who returns, is indeed a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans did not like each other because of their long history full of imperialism, displacement, war, and prejudice. Jews and Samaritans, at one point in history, were actually the people of Judea—one nation. But Babylonian and Assyrian empires conquered them and split them up. Eventually, Samaritans and Jews became rivals because their cultural and religious identities had been frayed. Sadly, this might as well be modern-day history. There are countless examples of people who now hate each other because someone from the outside conquered their land and split them up, drawing borders where there were none. A simple exercise is to look at maps from various eras. Notice how borders change around the world. War, conquest, colonization. Today we can look at what is happening all over the globe and clearly see how we are taught to hate certain people. But the story challenges us with a refreshing perspective. Jesus, a Jew, makes a point to tell us that the thankful leper who returns is a Samaritan. This is not the first time that Jesus does this. It is about reconciliation and also justice. The hatred we have for certain nationalities or cultures is wrong and becomes a disease that spreads quickly. It is time to heal wounds and to forgive, but we won’t do that until we stop exalting and using hateful, violent, and prejudice-filled words and actions. The Samaritan is our brother or sister.

1.  Gratitude, gratefulness, and authentic love

I am not a big fan of thank you notes. The reason is because when I give someone something, I really do it expecting nothing in return. So when I receive a Hallmark thank you card, I never cry or laugh out of great joy. But I have been changed and filled with immeasurable joy when someone has authentically taken the time to find me and thank me personally. It is incredibly wonderful. Sometimes when a person approaches me to give thanks, I am so humbled and moved that I turn around from that experience and find someone else who I should be thanking. You see, gratitude, gratefulness—this is contagious, friends. We do not show our gratitude enough. How often have you shown or told a friend or loved one just how much they mean to you? When was the last time you took the time to find someone who has blessed you or mentored you, just to say thanks. No strings attached.

May the story of ten move you to healing.

May it move you to accept people as they are, no matter what.

May we live with gratitude. Amen.

Rekindling Love

2 Timothy 1:6-9; 13, 14 [NRSV]

For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.
Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

Today’s scripture reading in 2 Timothy is a letter most likely written long after the apostle Paul had passed on. We can figure that out by looking at the literary character of 2 Timothy, the theology, and also the mention of historical things that occurred after Paul’s death. So most likely we are looking at a letter written by someone else, in Paul’s name [a ghost writer]. This isn’t trickery or meant to confuse us. This is simply a tradition of letter writing that honored a person and passed on his/her legacy. It is often referred to as a testament, the famous “last words” or legacy of a famous person. You can find this type of testament writing in the Hebrew Scriptures [Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, etc.] and in the New Testament [Jesus].

The point of this testament letter is encouragement. At that time, probably the first part of the 2nd century, followers of Jesus of Nazareth were suffering persecution. False teachers were everywhere, promoting a false, agenda-based gospel, imperial cultures were spreading across the land, and people were scared and discouraged. So this letter encourages Timothy by reminding him of his roots. His mother, a devout Jew, and his grandmother, a follower of the Jesus way, were the ones who mentored him in faith. What was most important? Trusting God, finding grace in following this Jesus way, and embracing strength of the Spirit.

layingOnThe laying on of hands is of course a tangible symbol that we still use in the modern faith community. It is a physical touch that reminds a person of his/her connection to a wider community. It is a support  network. Typically, the modern church does the laying on of hands for ordination of clergy. But it really could be done at any time and in any place, and for anyone. Having experienced it myself on various occasions, I will say that it can be a powerful reminder that we are not alone.

Our practice of faith is not real unless it is lived out with other people, in the world.

The touch reminds us.

See, oftentimes the word faith remains just a word. This is a mistake.

Anyone can believe in something if he/she decides to believe it. We can believe some incredibly absurd things sometimes. If you watch a lot of television, you know where this can go. Some of us can believe someone or something without even checking the facts or even pausing for a moment to think about it!

Why is that? I think it’s because when we are desperate, we are willing to buy into anything that may relieve our suffering—even if it is completely hollow, empty, and even untrue. Suffering can cause that sort of desperation.

But this is not faith. This is just empty belief. I have plenty of experiences to back this up. Many people have come to me at various times in my life looking for concrete and quick answers to their suffering.

Give me the answer, Josh!

Make me feel better…and now!

What can I believe to make my suffering go away?!

Of course, they were always disappointed [and some got angry], because I did not tell them what they wanted to hear. There is no quick fix. Believing in some dogma or doctrine doesn’t heal your wounds, get you a good job, or fix your family’s issues. Neither does believing every word your religious leader says.

So here is why I find hope in 2 Timothy and what I hear it saying to us:

Faith is a muscle and must be developed and worked out over time.

Fear and suffering do not overpower grace and love.

Faith is a muscle. That’s right—it’s something we have to work on and develop. We can claim to believe in something or someone, but it doesn’t become real until that belief is tested in real-time, in the world. You say you love Jesus and believe in his teachings? Okay, that’s great. But it doesn’t become real until you are faced with applying that in your life. I have known plenty of people who said they loved Jesus but when it came to loving a person who identified as gay or lesbian, or someone they called immigrant; or someone of a different social level; or someone of another religious tradition; all of a sudden, that person’s love ran quickly out the door. I’ve also known too many people who claimed to be followers of Christ, but when they lost a job or got sick or suffered the loss of a loved one, they followed only a path of hate, depression, and apathy and sadly spread it around to others.

Faith is a muscle. If you don’t keep your muscles active, they develop atrophy. Faith can get flabby. It has to be tested by life. And it’s not easy. Throughout my life, my faith has changed drastically. Experiences have forced me to into a corner sometimes and I have had to adjust. Relationships with people have changed my way of thinking and living. Along this journey, I am so grateful for these slaps in the face, radical changes, and opportunities for growth. But it never ends.

pathNeither does suffering. And 2 Timothy does not ignore suffering. Fear is a real thing.
So the message is: don’t push your suffering and fear to the side.
Recognize them, and then embrace the grace and love you already have in you.

Rekindle it.

rekindleLight the match and illuminate the candles within yourselves.

Do not be ashamed is saying do no let fear rule your life.

Grace and love are fear-conquerors. In Timothy’s story, he did not come to faith because of fear.
He came to faith because people loved him and showed him grace. And he discovered God that way.

So do not be ashamed.

Love and grace are part of your story.

We need to hear this, you and I.

We too get discouraged with what is happening in our world. For sure.
It’s insane sometimes, isn’t it? How many wars need to rage on? How many people must suffer or die?
Why do some never get the food and water they need to live?
Why do others hoard money and resources all for themselves?
Why is there prejudice and racism in our communities?
Why do people seem to prefer violence over conversation?
Why do I suffer from physical pain?
Why are my memories of a horrific past still haunting me?
When will this suffering end?

These questions are unanswerable.
There are no cookie cutter solutions to make us feel better.

But, in honesty and in community, I think we discover that grace and love are more powerful than fear.

Yes, I know. Consider this planet–we are all very, very different and unique. We speak different languages, wear different clothes; we pray differently; we have different ideas; we often don’t agree. But we do share this: we all suffer and deal with the day to day struggles of life. We all do. In the midst of that suffering we search for meaning and peace. We all do. No matter where we live, there are times when we just don’t know if we’ll make it and there are moments when fear surrounds us. All of us around the world want children to be safe, loved, mentored, and fed. Everyone wants access to healthcare, and clean water, and fresh fruits and vegetables, and education, and a job that makes them feel useful to the world.
world.communeAn honest faith admits that this is not reality for everyone. Suffering is real. But an honest, developing faith doesn’t wait for things to get better, or for death, or for the second coming.

Instead, love and grace must be rekindled.

Today we should light that fire again, because this flame can consume fear.

That is our encouragement.
This fire–this light–exists in everyone.

And sometimes we will especially need others to lay hands on us and give us encouragement and a simple human touch. Other times we will need to re-light the fire in someone else who is depressed or without hope. And other times, as a community, we will need to join our flames together with others who also seek grace and love.

Friends, rekindle the flame of love and grace in yourself.

Look out into the world and see that we are not limited by these walls, nor permanently paralyzed by fear. We are indeed global citizens, light-bearers of a world in need of compassion and love.

So build that muscle.
Amen.

A Place at the Table

Luke 16:19-31

This parable in Luke is not an easy one to stomach. After all, its ending is pretty harsh.

A rich man dies. In life, the rich man had ignored a poor and hungry man, Lazarus, who also dies. But Lazarus ends up in eternal comfort with Abraham via an angel taxi; the rich man ends up in Hades, in agony, burned by flames. Even when the suffering rich man asks for mercy, he receives none. A great chasm exists between the rich man and Lazarus; no one can cross over to comfort the man in flames. Neither will Abraham help the rich man’s family learn from his mistakes. There is no Christmas Carol, happy ending for Ebenezer Scrooge here. Not even messengers from the dead could warn the rich man’s brothers to save them from eternal torment. It’s a done deal.

homerfireNow some have viewed this parable in the extreme sense of what we call works-righteousness, in other words, the idea that what you do to help the poor in this life determines whether you end up in eternal comfort or eternal suffering. Basically, in this view, we can buy our angel taxis and get to heaven if we try hard enough. But of course, that interpretation seems to forget about mercy and grace. Where is God in the salvation story, then?

I think if we look at Jesus’ life and ministry as a whole, our interpretation of this parable will be wiser and more applicable to our lives.

The rich man, like many churches, thought that he was living a righteous life and believed himself to be a true son of Abraham; however, his inability to have any empathy, compassion, or responsibility for Lazarus is what condemns him.

Consider that the name Lazarus means God helps. God sees Lazarus’ needs; the wealthy man does not.

Luke’s Gospel is not alone in portraying a Jesus and a God who side with the poor. In Matthew’s Gospel, eternal life and punishment are also directly linked to how we treat the hungry and thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.[1] So Jesus is very consistent. And it is all part of his teaching about God—the reversal of fortunes. You see, in this life, those who are without food, clothing, and shelter are the least of these. They are ignored; they are used as political agendas; they are scapegoats for societal problems; they are marginalized, shut out, and dehumanized. Indeed, there is a HUGE chasm between the poor and the rest of the world. And the gap keeps getting bigger. Jesus taught [and the Gospel stories all teach], however, that the statuses of the poor and rich will flip in God’s kingdom. Even Mary, when she realizes that she will give birth to Jesus, thanks God that the hungry have been filled and the rich have been sent away empty. The words of Isaiah echo in the mouth of John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth:

The Sovereign Lord has filled me with his Spirit. He has chosen me and sent me To bring good news to the poor, To heal the broken-hearted, To announce release to captives and freedom to those in prison.[2]

The kingdom of God belongs to them—not just in the life to come, but in this life. That’s what I want to focus on here. This life. People are hungry, oppressed, marginalized, and ignored in this life. There are Lazarus people all around us—licking their wounds, hungry and thirsty—seriously in need of some help. According to Jesus, we are to invite them into our lives—not because we get something out of it, but because it is the right thing to do.

It is the right thing to do.

I do not doubt that this story of a rich man and a poor Lazarus is difficult for many church goers in the United States. I don’t doubt that a churches [like the one I serve] with very limited financial resources might be more concerned with an endowment fund or a building than with people in the community who suffer from poverty. I’m not ignoring just how difficult of a message this parable gives us.

But like Lazarus, we cannot ignore the message.

The majority of churches in the U.S. are made up of people with quite a bit of material wealth. It is just a fact. The majority of churches spend more time in meetings talking about ensuring their financial futures rather than participating in the good news work of lifting up the least of these in society. Religious leaders lose sleep at night—not because people are poor—but because they worry about the church paying its mortgage, staff salaries, and program expenses.

The truth is that the church contributes to the insane inequalities between the rich and poor. We must admit that we are part of the problem and often allow this chasm, this gap to be perpetuated.

And that is what the parable is saying. The oppressed, the Lazarus people—they are all around us. And we cannot ignore them. They are not programs or projects.

They are real people.

And we ought to focus on helping them, not because it makes us more pious, but because it is the right thing to do. Jesus says so. God says so. We feel it in our bones, in our hearts—we know it in our minds.

Here’s the thing—when we as people humble ourselves to lift up someone who is down, theological, social, denominational, religious, cultural differences—they stop being obstacles. If we focus on doing the right thing and just helping people who need our help—imagine how much that can transform our way of thinking. Rather than being so caught up in our own petty problems, we may actually find real purpose in being part of a faith community. It won’t be about obligation, but about acting in love and compassion.

And in doing so, we will care more about what people in our communities and world need.

Jesus taught his followers that they were to break chains of injustice. Following Christ was about helping others get out of a vicious cycle of poverty, abuse, oppression, and suffering.

Speaking of vicious cycles, around the world, food insecurity is a real problem. In short, people don’t have enough to eat. Sometimes we make the mistake of assuming that families with low incomes that hang out consistently at McDonald’s or Popeye’s seem to be doing just fine. They have enough to eat. But what we’re forgetting is that food is about nutrition—healthy life. The real question in this country and around the world is: who does not have access to real food? Fruits, vegetables, grains, and healthy proteins.

Fifty million people in the U.S.—that is one in four children—do not know where their next meal is coming from. This issue is presented in the recent documentary film made by directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush. A Place at the Table examines the issue of hunger in America through the lens of three people struggling with food insecurity: Barbie, a single Philadelphia mother who grew up in poverty and is trying to provide a better life for her two kids; Rosie, a Colorado fifth-grader who often has to depend on friends and neighbors to feed her and has trouble concentrating in school; and Tremonica, a Mississippi second-grader whose asthma and health issues are exacerbated by the largely empty calories her hardworking mother can afford.

A-Place-At-The-TableDOCA Place at the Table shows us how hunger poses serious economic, social and cultural implications for all of us, and that there are actual solutions to this problem. But we must decide that making healthy food available and affordable is in the best interest of us all. And it is the right thing to do.

Let’s watch a bit of the film and learn about Barbie Izquierdo, Philly native.

How can we notice Barbie and all the other Lazarus people in our community? As I often remind us all, we need to take action, but take action in a way that actually makes a difference. Sometimes we over-spiritualize things and get caught up in church bureaucracy and such. But we will all be better suited to partner with local, national, and worldwide organizations that understand the issues and have dedicated their time and resources to flip the statuses of those who are called poor.

Where I live in Greater Philadelphia, there are organizations like Manna on Main, Philabundance, and Philly Food Share are well set up to help. But they need our help. Sometimes they need our time and our hands and feet. That’s all. Sometimes they need our voices so we can mobilize more people. Sometimes they need information so they can better serve our communities. And sometimes they  need our financial resources.

I am also part of the United Church of Christ, an ecumenical denomination committed to justice and witness ministries. http://www.ucc.org/justice/poverty/

They are a myriad of resources available to us, including the UCC’s guide Just Eating: Our Faith at the Table. Throughout the year, we can partner by participating in One Great Hour of Sharing, Ecumenical Advocacy Days, and Crop Walks. The UCC also works with Bread for the World, and international organization committed to battling poverty, and Church World Service.

And look–it should end with action and not with some theological viewpoint. Lazarus is all around us and most of the time, Lazarus is in a terrible situation because of the imbalance of our societies. We all have a responsibility to help.

It’s not the threat of burning in some eternal fire that should motivate us.

Real people, in our communities should inspire us. They are our neighbors. They deserve our attention, our love, our compassion…

…and a place at the table.

May it be so.


[1] Matthew 25:31-46

[2] Isaiah 61:1

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