A Biting Tongue
These words below came on my brother’s birthday which is two days before my birthday. They were written by Henri Nouwen (go figure...he’s my go to guy). Not my birthday. Not my words. But I feel like I need to own them. Not so I can possess them for my own need, but so I can pass them out to everyone. After all, we all have one thing in common...a birthday!
“Birthdays need to be celebrated. I think it is more important to celebrate a birthday than a successful exam, a promotion, or a victory. Because to celebrate a birthday means to say to someone: “Thank you for being you.” Celebrating a birthday is exalting life and being glad for it. On a birthday we do not say: “Thanks for what you did, or said, or accomplished.” No, we say: “Thank you for being born and being among us.”
On birthdays we celebrate the present. We do not complain about what happened or speculate about what will happen, but we lift someone up and let everyone say: “We love you.”
Happy Birthday, to you.
With biting satire, Søren Kierkegaard mocked the pursuit of biblical and theological knowledge as an end in itself:
“We artful dodgers act as if we do not understand the New Testament, because we realize full well that we should have to change our way of life drastically. That is why we invented “religious education” and “christian doctrine.” Another concordance, another lexicon, a few more commentaries, three other translations, because it is all so difficult to understand. Yes, of course, dear God, all of us—capitalists, officials, ministers, house-owners, beggars, the whole society—we would be lost if it were not for “scholarly doctrine!”
Excerp from Brennan Manning’s Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging. [NavPress : 1994]
To Be Love
As my kids can attests, it’s not always fun being a PK. First, you’ll live in a glasshouse...one where literally the entire world can judge you. Not only are PK’s called to behave differently than other kids, but they are also constantly called upon to answer all religious questions. But probably the worse thing about being a pastor’s kid is knowing that whatever you do or say will eventually wind up in a sermon as you will see here.
A few years ago, I caught a particular PK’s about to take a swing at his sibling. When I yelled “What the heck do you think you’re doing?” he shot back, “She wants me to hit her.” And before I could respond he told me, “Jesus said it’s ok!”
If you’re a PK then you know you’re going to get a lengthy, exegetical heavy sermon as part of your punishment. But in this particular case, I was more curious to learn where exactly in the Bible Jesus said it’s okay to hit another person. “Do to others what you want them to do to you” which this PK had interpreted to mean “She hit me…so I guess she wants me to hit her back.”
That is a long walk to get us to our reading today. Gathered with his disciples out in the countryside, Jesus begins one of his most famous sermons. And in doing so, he opens the door to the Kingdom of God for us to enter. Today the lectionary only gives us a small part of this magnificent discourse found in Luke 6:27-38.
Although my child’s take on this passage was creative and new, these words weren’t exactly something Jesus just came up with. Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers had been teaching variations of golden rule for years. Jesus just gave it a radically new interpretation, applying it to God’s Kingdom where generosity and kindness turn a hostile and violent world on its head.
Jesus taught us that in the Kingdom of God love and mercy is the bar by which all life must be measured. Love your enemy, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who hurt you, and give without expecting even a thank you in return. And just as we’re about to tune him out, Jesus reminds us, “This is what God has done for you, so go out and do the same for others.”
Still, I can understand why my PK might have been confused about the whole turn the other cheek idea. After all, when someone hits you, human instinct says hit back. Whether it’s a verbal, physical, or mental attack our gut response is return it, word for word, blow for blow. Jesus isn’t set up for a fight or to accept more abuse. He’s simply calling us to do something so radical and revolutionary – something that runs against our thinking, our inclinations, our desires, and our will – that we don’t want to hear it for the truth that it is.
Jesus teaches us to respond to the worst of humankind in the way God responds to the world – with grace and kindness instead of reacting with anger, judgment or harm. This requires a giving over of one’s self, just as he did for us. When we live Christ in the world – by practicing love, mercy, grace and forgiveness – then other’s are able to see God’s glory. I can’t think of a better way to honor or worship God.
And this takes us to a question that Rob Bell always likes to ask. “What if Jesus meant what he said?”
This is something we all need to ask ourselves everyday. Was Jesus just blowing smoke when he said, God is kind so you be kind? Did he actually mean it when he said be easy on people and you’ll find life a lot easier? Is it true that if you give away your life; you’ll find life given back with bonus and blessing?
The point is this. If we only listen to what Jesus says, but do not put his words to practice then what good are his words? If we take God’s grace but do not offer it to others, then where is the real joy of that life-giving gift?
Faith is much more than some proclamation we make. Faith is a way of life, a way that is contrary to our own inclinations. Jesus says love, do good, offer and give…And guess what? He meant it.
Mr. Rogers had a beautiful way of interpreting Jesus’ words. He said, “All we are ever asked to do in this life is to treat our neighbors – especially the neighbor who is in need – exactly how we would hope to be treated ourselves. This is our ultimate responsibility.”
On his show and in real life, Mr. Rogers taught compassion because he knew the moment our anger transforms itself into compassion we no longer fear those who look or sound different than us. Mr. Rogers Neighborhood broke down the walls of racism, and sexism, and all the other ‘isms’ that divide us from one another. He saw and welcomed all people as God’s beloved children, because he took Jesus at his word.
Gandhi was another who believed Jesus meant what he said. When Gandhi said, “love is the force that can liberate,” he meant we have to love our enemy to truly be free. Even if our enemy is cruel, or sowing terror or injustice, love must be the bar by which all life is measured.
In the Kingdom of God, righteousness isn’t born from human anger, but from God’s love. And it grows in all the ways we share that love with one another. Jesus is the perfection of God’s love manifested. As Christ followers, our mission is to manifest God’s love just as he did.
Love is our goal. Through Jesus, we receive God’s divine love and grace. This is why we call it the good news, because let’s face it, we are not always the person being slapped or taken advantage of. Sometimes it’s our hands, our words, and our actions that harm others.
If Jesus meant what he said, then God’s mercy and grace is generously given to us through him. Despite our failures to love our enemy, God still loves us. While we might have trouble forgiving those who have hurt us in the past, God still forgives us. Jesus isn’t setting us up to fail, but inviting us to thrive.
Mercy, Grace and Love; this is what the Kingdom of God is made of. Jesus shows us the way. He generously and lovingly gave his life so we might live – not with our hatred, anger and fear, but with God’s love, generosity and peace. Thus, as Eugene Peterson so creatively wrote, “Let even your enemy bring out the best in you, not the worst.”
Jesus is the manifestation of God’s divine love. Now, it is our job to go and do the same, by giving generously to others what God has given so generously and freely to us.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a pastor’s kid, or anyone else’s kid, thanks to Jesus we are all made to be the beloved children of God. As God’s beloved, we are called to live in such a way that the world is able to see God’s Kingdom open for them.
When we can manifest understanding, compassion and tolerance, loving kindness and generosity as Jesus did, then Jesus is not only present, but his words become the truth by which all life finds its rests in God’s heart and home. You. Me. And yes, even our enemies.
Anderson, T. Denise. Reflections on the Lectionary. Christian Century, Vol. 136, No.3, January 30, 2019.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word Year C Vol 1 Westminster John Knox: 2009, pp. 380-85.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. Living Buddha, Living Christ. Riverhead: 1995, pp. 78-86.
Rogers, Fred. Life’s Journey According to Mister Rogers: things to remember along the way. Hyperion: 2005, p.91.
The Genius of Mr. Rogers
I was looking through my books in my library hoping to find a bit of inspiration. How lucky was I to find a book filled with some simple wisdom that was written by one of my first teachers in life, Mr. Rogers. I sat down on the floor and began to read and let my mind wonder down to my heart. My mother often says that the quietest time in the house was when Mr. Roger's Neighborhood was on which just so happen to be right after Sesame Street and right before dinner.
Flipping through the pages of Life's Journeys According to Mister Rogers, I stumbled on this little gem that seems to be fit right at home on this site:
"I remember one of my seminary professors saying people wo were able to appreciate others -who looked for what was good and healthy and kind - were about as close as you could get to God - to the eternal good. And those people who were always looking for was was bad about themselves and others were really on the side of evil. 'That's what evil wants,' he would say. 'Evil wants us to feel so terrible about who we are and who we know, that we'll look with condemning eyes on anybody who happens to be wit us at the moment.' I encourage you to look for the good where you are and embrace it."
I was blessed to have had my young heart opened and my inquisitive mind shaped by this man.
Where did Jesus get those whacky ideas about loving people? Oh yeah, God.
"When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God."
LEVITICUS 19:33, 34 (NIV)
WALLS KEEP PEOPLE IN, NOT OUT.
If this passage is all we had to know about God, then Jeremiah didn’t start out on the right foot. Spitting out curses is not the best way to introduce yourself unless, of course, you are one of my ex-girlfriends.
You might remember from a few weeks ago that Jeremiah was just a kid when God calls him to do something really big. Grown up big. In fact, it was so big that it required the guts of a young child with…little understanding of the ramifications of what God was calling him to do.
If you know kids, then you might know they have a way of trusting that is better than adults. Probably it’s because kids need to trust in order to survive. Once they can feed, clothe and do things for themselves, they begin to see how trust becomes a choice; an important one to say the least.
The adults in this prophecy chose not to believe Jeremiah when he warned them not to go to war with the Babylonians. They didn’t heed his advice to put their trust in God’s protection. Instead they made alliances with other countries. Now these same people find themselves living in exile in a foreign country. Trust is a choice that can bind us or free us.
Of course, the kind of trust Jeremiah is talking about isn’t as simple as asking my southern mother for directions and trusting they’ll be correct. Instead it’s a more radical kind of trust – one that goes over and above dependence on other human beings.
It’s the kind of trust that saved Noah from the flood, and led Moses through the wilderness and God’s people to the promise land. And allowed Jeremiah to speak fearlessly even though he was just a kid. It’s the radical trust we learned about last week that got the disciples to drop their fishing nets and follow Jesus. To go from the seashore to the cross without fully understanding what great impact it would have on their lives, and the lives of so many others.
Of course, radical trust in God isn’t always so extreme, sometimes it’s basic and childlike. I remember when I took Fiona boogie boarding for the first time. On a small sand bar close to the shore I pushed her on the rolling whitewater as she held on to the board for dear life. Once I thought she had a pretty good grip of the concept, I took her a further out to where the swells were beginning to crest. Fiona was not so sure about this idea.
So, being a good dad, someone who was going to be a minister one day, I asked her “Do you think today is the day God is going to call you home?” Before she could say “No” with any great confidence, I pushed her into the next wave. Which, to my surprise, was a little bit bigger than I had hoped for.
My head began to panic and my heart pounded so loudly that I didn’t hear Fiona screaming. She rode that wave all the way to the beach. With the boogie board tightly clenched in her hands, she turned around and shot me a look that only Fiona could give. And let me tell you, the smile on her face said it all. It was nothing less than pure joy. The look of life lived abundantly.
Fiona’s natural instinct was to trust like only a child is able to do. While the adult in the water, the one who was going to be a minister one day, completely forgot what God is capable of doing. So yes, “Blessed are those who put their trust in God...” They will bear good fruit that will bring them joy in the most difficult circumstances.
If you ask me, trust is the key to unlocking your life, and finding the blessings contained within it. As my favorite proverb states, “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not into your own understanding. In all ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your path.”
Jeremiah’s words invite us to look at our own life and ask, “Is it all about me? Or is it about God?” The prophet is not so subtle with his answer. He insists that those who trust solely in human wisdom and power will suffer hardships, while those who trust in God, fully and faithfully, will possess the deep resources necessary to flourish, even in times of drought.
When we only trust in our self or the things we can touch or see or prove, then we are limited by our ability to understand and our capacity to control a given situation. Our joy and purpose in life will seem small…and shallow. But a radical trust in God leads us to where we need to go and to find who God calls us to be. It leads us out into the deeper water where divine mystery constantly catches us by surprise. And empowers us to do more than we ever thought was possible.
As my classmate pointed out, Jesus challenges his followers to trust God so completely that we are able to love one another and show God’s grace in all that we do. And to do so with childlike instincts. But it’s a choice we have to make. We can see and do what Jesus does, and learn and teach the will of God for others to follow. Or we can hold off by ourselves and rely on our limited understanding and power. One welcomes peace. The other invites turmoil.
When we trust God, like Jesus did, we are able to move beyond our old selves that clings to brokenness, fears, and dead ends. Jesus draws us into God’s heart and lifts us out of where we are so we can flourish and thrive in God’s infinite love.
Trust begins in the heart – where pure joy is born and faith takes shape. It is here, inside each one of us, that God searches our hearts, and tests our minds, as if to ask, “Can I count on you?” Trust is our way of saying “Yes. You can.”
Trust is the love that connects the head to the heart and the heart to the world, and the world back to God. Jesus is God’s reminder that we cannot get back there by our own device. We need God to bring us safely home. And Jesus is the proof of how far God will go to do just that.
No one trusted God more radically, more profoundly, or more honestly than Jesus who took to heart the words of the Psalmist who wrote, “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will act.”
In Christ, God acted in the most radical way, so that our limited human life can flourish in unlimited ways. Now it is up to us to decide which path are we going to take. Will we live a life on our own terms, led by our own self-righteousness and ego, where we only have ourselves to rely on? Or will we chose to trust God and live in God’s righteousness, a river flowing with endless blessings?
In both there will be hurdles to face. While one leaves us dry, thirsting for more… the other keep us deeply rooted and does not cease to bear the good fruit. The fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
So if it all comes down to one word, one idea, then let it be trust. For within that one simple word we see God as the loving parent, smiling and delighted as we ride the wave of life safely to shore.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol.1, Westminister John Knox: 2009, pp. 338-343.
Brennan Manning wrote this short story in his book, Abba’s Child, about the great G.K. Chesterton that I think is relevant to the theme of this blog. He begins,
”STANDING ON A LONDON STREET CORNER, G. K. Chesterton was approached by a newspaper reporter. “Sir, I understand that you recently became a Christian. May I ask you one question?”
“Certainly,” replied Chesterton.
“If the risen Christ suddenly appeared at this very moment and stood behind you, what would you do?”
Chesterton looked the reporter squarely in the eye and said, “He is.”
Worth The Risk
In Jesus, God initiates And invites And illuminates And includes, and inspires you to go out in the world and be the good news to the people.
Last week I briefly mentioned this concept of star words, and a few of you even reached out and got one of your own for the year. One person drew a difficult word, “surrender.” After sympathizing with him, (and thanking God this wasn’t my word) I was hit with an old memory, of having to face a similar word that was so scary it had me second-guessing my decision to answer my call to ministry.
It was in the fall of 2010. My school counselor handed me a sheet of paper with all the class requirements to receive my Masters of Divinity. On that list was a word that terrified me. Was it Greek? No. Was it Hebrew? You’d think, but no. In fact, it was not a foreign language per se but it was foreign to me. The word was conversion.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. Luke 5:1-11
In Luke's Gospel, we see how God speaks to Simon Peter and others, inviting them to drop their nets and embrace their true calling. Now Simon’s just an ordinary guy. As far as Luke tells us, there’s nothing special about this fisherman other than he has a boat. We don’t know who works for who, but when Jesus greets Simon and his business partners, the Zebedee brothers, they are washing their nets and closing down shop for the day. Jesus initiates the conversation, because Simon has something Jesus needs. Which seems to be all they have to offer….a boat.
The first thing I want to point out is that it’s God in Jesus who first initiates a relationship. God makes the first move to be with us – even if it means finding us in the dullness or messiness of human life. You don’t have to be special, or extraordinary for God to call out to you. We all have something God needs.
Simon, James and John have just completed an unfruitful night of fishing – which is hard, backbreaking work. And it’s harder to do when there is no reward at the end of your shift. But somehow Jesus convinces the trio to go back to work. And for whatever reason they agree.
The next thing I want to point out is that in Jesus God not only initiates the relationship, but also assumes the risk by inviting us to partake in a relationship.
Peter could have easily refused. James and John could have clocked out and taken their empty buckets and tired butts home. But instead they climb back in the boat and shove off one more time. God takes a chance in us… hoping that we will respond positively.
The three will come to discover, responding to God’s friend request isn’t as simple as keeping a boat steady a few feet from shore. After Jesus speaks to the crowd of people, he asks the men for another favor. “Take me out to the deep water and get your nets dirty again.”
Even though there’s a little pushback, Simon, James and John do what Jesus asks of them. And they are rewarded greatly for doing so. After they pull up more fish than they can handle, Peter eyes are opened. And he sees something so amazing that causes him to drop to his knees in repentance.
In Jesus God not only initiates and invites us into a relationship, but God also illuminates our awareness and understanding to the divine presence that is all around us.
Peter saw something that he’d never seen or ever experienced before. And it changed him. In this man Jesus God had a face and a heart he could see, and a voice he could hear. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas said the only thing that really converts people is “the face of the other.” Once his eyes are opened to God in the flesh, he will never see life the same way again.
I often wonder how other people might react seeing the presence of God in us? And what might God’s presence look like? Kindness, gentleness, forgiveness?
You don’t have to take a class on conversion or whack someone on the head to get them to see who Jesus really is. It only takes engaging with the Incarnate One – putting to practice the way of life he showed us to live. Our call is to be more like Jesus and less like ourselves.
Through Jesus God initiates the relationship, invites to respond, illuminates our understanding, and also includes us in his ministry and his mission – to spread the good news of God’s grace and love to everyone. The question then is how will we respond?
Getting in the boat with Jesus is a scary proposition. It’s scary because we have to risk facing all our insecurities, fears, and doubts. We have to risk going out into the deep where the seas are rough, and the winds push against us. We have risk letting go of our safety nets we have relied on all our lives. And let's be real, this is scary.
But fear stops us from growing and experiencing the richness and fullness of life. It paralyzes us from really experiencing the freedom that Jesus is offering us. Fear causes us to maintain the normal and resist growing into who God is calling us to be. Fear convinces us that we are not worthy of love – from others, ourselves or God. In other words, fear leaves us on the beach with empty nets, tired and hungry for more.
In Jesus God initiates and invites us; illuminates our seeing and includes us in the mission. All to inspire us to be the very best we can possibly be…the living presence of Christ in the world. We just have to drop our baggage around our fears and follow, like Peter, James, and John did when they brought their boats, overflowing with fish, to shore.
Their story teaches us that once we decide to follow God’s child, our lives would never be the same. And that’s the whole point of salvation – the reason God initiates a relationship with us in the first place.
In their commitment to follow Jesus, the disciples are no longer ordinary, everyday people. They are extraordinary, beloved children of God. Their nets are no longer empty. But filled with the abundance of everlasting life. Through them God’s grace and love will spread like wildfire across the land. All because these ordinary people responded and took the extraordinary risk to get in the boat with Jesus.
What might our lives would look like if we followed Jesus this seriously? Maybe instead of bashing people with religion and dogma, we could win them over like Jesus did – embodying gentleness, living with peace, administering self-control. When you see and do what Jesus does, you learn and teach the will of God so that others might follow and go and do likewise. This was my original purpose for answering my call – to help the world see that God was all loving, ever present in life right now.
Are you willing to get in the boat with Jesus and do what he asks you to do? I hope that you will consider saying yes. You don’t just have something God wants, you are precisely what God wants.
In Jesus God initiates. And invites. And illuminates, includes, and inspires you to go out in the world and be the good news to the people. To the crowd by the lake. To the beggar on the street. To the woman at the well. To your neighbors and strangers. And to the least of these our brothers and sisters.
Following Jesus is a risky business. But as the Bible assures us, the reward is abundant and plentiful.
Ashley, Danáe M. Trusting Jesus. episcopalchurch.org. 02 -10-2019
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol 1. Westminster John Knox: 2009, pp. 332-337.
Doing or Dogma
With the bold thesis, “What if Jesus really meant what he said?” Shane Claiborne challenges the church today to actually live up to it’s calling. Like seriously, man. What if? Would you?
“Over the past few decades, our Christianity has become obsessed with what Christians believe rather than how Christians live. We talk a lot about doctrines but little about practice. But in Jesus we don’t just see a presentation of doctrines but an invitation to join a movement that is about demonstrating God’s goodness to the world.” ~ Shane Claiborne
Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo, Red Letter Revolution: What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said? (Thomas Nelson: 2012) p. 9.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”