The Smallest of Acts
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me...and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
I’ve decided that 2020 is the year of taking two steps forward to get knocked four steps back. We need to rely on God now more than ever to pick us back up and send us on our way. But there are days when as I lay on the ground and wonder...if God is coming.
This sentiment is as old as time. Thousands of years ago, an ancient poet put these words to paper. And they’ve been passed on through the generations in the book of psalms. Psalm 13 is a heartfelt cry that opens with this lament, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”
Do you ever feel this way? Abandoned by God? Left alone to suffer with the pandemic and political unrest? Have you ever thought that maybe God has forgotten us? Maybe just walked away for good?
How much longer, Lord? As this question echos in my heart, I hear the faint, tender voice of Jesus answering my pleas.
Our reading from Matthew’s gospel, concludes the instructions Jesus gives the Twelve before they go out on their first mission trip. You might recall the previous instructions to from two weeks ago: Go heal the sick and cast out demons, take nothing with you, rely on the goodness of others, be careful of those who aren’t good. Read all of Matthew 10 to get a complete list.
Today, Jesus concludes in a way that I believe speaks volumes to the discipleship of the church. We who are called to give are also called to receive. Read Matthew 10:40-42.
Emerging from this text is the theological idea of compassionate welcome. It’s no surprise why. In these three short but powerful verses Jesus uses the word “welcome” six times; pointing us to the importance of hospitality in furthering God’s Kingdom of love and grace. This is the goal of the church, and for anyone who accepts to follow Jesus.
Yet there still are so many who are too afraid or simply unwilling to truly welcome all people in the name of Christ. You might have been a part such a church, or perhaps you have been rejected by one. If so, I hope this message speaks to you. Today, we are going to look at what it mean to welcome someone with the same compassion that Jesus gives to us.
The first point I'd like to make is:
We must be like Jesus and approach one another and every situation with a God-filled heart.
As Emilie Townes notes, this is where “genuine human relationships emerge.” Whether they are close, loving relationships or distant, occasional ones, with God at the center of our welcome “we’ll find our rich rewards.”
On Wednesday, I had everything in order and ready to go to refinance the house. But when our lender began the process, we discovered that Wells Fargo had put a forbearance against our house – a precautionary measure made at the beginning of the pandemic.
After being on hold for an hour with the bank, Kathleen and I decided to go there in person. The young man who greeted us was eager to help, but honestly, I was not eager to accept him. I was angry, frustrated and had little compassion in my heart. So, I let Kathleen do the talking. She’s the diplomat in these kind of situations. Better able to see the divine in others, when I can’t.
Kathleen knew it wasn’t this man’s fault. He didn’t mess up our refi...someone at the corporate office did. By this small understanding, she was able to enter into the conversation with a Christ-soaked heart. A heart with God at the center. Despite his best efforts to remedy the situation, Kathleen and I left - with me still angry and frustrated but her quietly calm and at peace.
By placing God at the center of this ordinary, albeit unwanted situation, Kathleen knew God was working it out. And by the next morning, everything was good to go; the forbearance had been removed. No matter how big or small a situation might seem if God is in the middle of it, so too is God’s compassion and power. This is our reward.
Which takes me to the second point:
We must practice our compassionate welcome all the time, no matter what.
I’m not saying you have to always do grand heroic acts of mercy, or put yourself in harms way. All God wants is for to act, to do something that helps the other. Jesus said it’s as simple as giving someone a drink of cold water.
As Marcea Paul observed while most of us prefer to be the heroic quarterback, Jesus leans his heart towards the water-boy. She reminds us that a God-centered life of faith is made up of many small gestures of love. Yet, according to Jesus, every gesture is large. And eternally significant.
Two days ago, while Colleen was out walking the dog, she passed a guy working in our neighbor’s yard – a day laborer who was sweating profusely, and fatigued from the monotony of hauling dirt from the yard to a dumpster. His hat was his only source of shade from the hot sun.
Colleen noticing how thirsty he looked, and having no clue what I was preaching on today, ran home and got the man two bottles of water and a big plastic cup filled with ice. While I wasn’t there to see it, I can only imagine how surprised and grateful the man was to receive such a thoughtful gift.
Jesus knew that a cup of cold water is one of the smallest of gifts - one almost anyone could give. Yet, it’s precious – even life giving – to the person who is really thirsty. The smallest of acts done in love.
It happens every time you say good morning to a neighbor or check in on a friend who lives alone. It might not seem like much but it’s amazing how powerful it can be for the one receiving that gift from you. When we put God at the center at everything we do, then everything we do becomes a holy act.
Which leads me to my third and final point:
Our righteousness is intimately tied to how we show compassionate welcome towards one another, especially those who are most vulnerable among us.
Jesus made this perfectly clear in his final parable in Matthew’s gospel – the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. In that parable, Jesus reminds us that the way we treat others is, ultimately, representative of our response toward him. This links directly to our reading today with Jesus declaring, “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me and the One who sent me.”
To follow Jesus is to live into his way of righteousness – which is to say God’s way of righteousness – giving water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, justice to those who are oppressed and imprisoned. You don’t have to turn on the news to see that people in the world are hurting. Men and women, kids and grandkids are suffering in our country, in our communities and on our streets. How we show the love and grace of God in the world matters. It has eternal consequences.
As followers of Christ, we are called to promote compassionate welcome like he did. This requires us to trust God, to be vulnerable, and to share what we have with one another ... if for no other reason when we welcome the stranger, we welcome Christ and the One who sent him.
To borrow again from Marcea Paul, “Our efforts to welcome and love others are important because Jesus sees it and receives it as worship.” Like I spoke of last week, this is how we are to be as a church, to be as a people who dares to call Jesus our Lord and to make this world holy through the simplest gestures of compassion and kindness.
After a decade off from religion, I found myself back in a church – one that was filled mostly with men who had been denied or forced out of other churches because they were gay. The moment I walked through the front door I was quickly greeted by an overwhelming sense of God’s Spirit. And a lot of kind, authentic faces.
It was refreshing to see a church so welcoming and inviting to me, a nervous stranger. It’s something, I am sad to say, that I hadn’t really experienced in a church. Which was probably why I stopped going.
After a few more visits, I decided to partake in the Eucharist. An experience I don’t remember doing as a child. And only did so because the priest invited everyone to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” From the altar the priest explained that in this church no one would be denied a chance to receive Christ’s love.
Love which was fully alive in the bread and cup ... just as it was alive in the hearts of every person kneeling at the altar rail and in every priest dutifully serving. To experience my first communion with a community built on such compassionate welcome ... moved me to tears. Literally.
By the time I got back to my seat, I was sobbing. Yet I felt no shame or embarrassment; only an overwhelming sense of God’s love engulfing me. Love that was made manifest to me in a woman named Judy who moved closer to hold my hand. And in a man named Jose who wrapped his arm around me and allowed me cry into his shoulder.
Here we were, three strangers with God in the center of our most vulnerable selves... welcoming and loving each other in our belovedness. Because of those simple, small gestures, I am where I am today. This was the God I desired. And the Lord I wanted to serve.
Friends, Jesus is calling us to continue his missional work. I know it sounds scary and daunting, but it’s not. It takes only the smallest amount of faith in God’s love for you, and the willingness to be vulnerable in that love, so that you can give God’s love away in all that you do.
Because of his love and compassion for all people, Jesus sends us to share the Good News; to meet those crying out and alleviate their suffering; to meet real needs, to work real miracles of love and healing through acts of kindness if only because they too are God’s beloved.
I invite you to answer the call. The call to be the visible presence of Christ to one another. It doesn’t take much to be hospitable, welcoming, and accepting of other people in the name of Christ who is our greatest, most blessed and eternal reward. Amen.
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011.
Godin, Seth. Everybody Else. June 25, 2020. https://seths.blog/2020/06/everybody-else/ (accessed June 25, 2020).
Paul, Marcea. episcopalchurch.org. June 22, 2020. https://episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/even-one-cup-pentecost-4-june-28-2020 (accessed June 26, 2020).
Black. White. Gray.
Most religions love putting God in a box of their own design; believing that one particular faith is right, which means others have to be wrong. This idea has been used to justify hate, promote harm, or even led to the murdering of others because they don’t see our small box God like we do. It’s like as Richard Rohr once said, “We are all pointing toward the same moon, and yet we persist in arguing about who has the best finger.”
Over 2,000 years ago Epictetus realized that we are not isolated entities. We are, as he put it, “a unique, irreplaceable part of the cosmos.” We are all part of the same puzzle so to speak. It’s our life work to “look for and come to understand your connection to other people.”
Some people find their place in employment or career choices. Others, it’s in community or citizenships. And then there are those connected by a set of beliefs or proximity or family. But for most of us, it’s a mixture of many different connections that we find ourselves, discover our duties and learn our responsibilities. “Once you know who you are you will know what to do.”
Rohr often refer to connection as our ‘oneness.’ This is an idea that Catherine T. Nerney believes “is less a goal toward which life is pressing, as it is a return to the truth in which we have always been held.” That is to say, we are one energy that is part of one source. Thus someone like Jesus could argue, “I and the Father (God) are one.”
Epictetus wrote, “If a man is your father, for instance, certain emotional and practical claims follow from it. That he is your father implies a fundamental, durable link between the two of you. You are naturally obligated to care for him, to listen to his advice, to exercise patience in hearing his views, and to respect his guidance.”
But what does this all mean for us today? In our highly divisive world, where politics have wreaked havoc in communities, families, and friendships, understanding our greater connection – our place and responsibility – is of upmost importance if we are going to evolve as a human race towards our higher purpose in life. We have to not only recognize ourselves but our relationships with one another. What action is happening in that space between me and you? Hatred? Or love?
Just the other day I had a similar conversation with a very good friend who was talking about a podcast on the “space between” that led to so many new and breakthrough discoveries in quantum physics. Without boring you of all the wonderful breakthroughs we had, I will just summarize one point in particular.
I’m talking about how we are all inner connected, this oneness that we all a part of, Gianni said “It’s like we are tethered together by one long string. Imagine if we could see that string.” This lead to a headful of questions like, how would we move around each other? How much more mindful would we be of one another and our connection to each other? Imagine if our words were also connected, what would they look like? What kind of web would we find ourselves in?
Two great thinkers, Jesus and Epictetus, point at the same moon and instead of arguing who has the best finger they help us to see the moon from different (and yet the same) perspectives.
Epictetus was not a Christian, and yet he upholds many of its tenets. He wrote, “When you are faithfully occupied with performing the acts of a wise and decent person, seeking to conform your intentions and acts to the divine will, you do not feel victimized by the words and deeds of others.”
Jesus taught that the righteousness of God is lived out in the way we love one another, care for each other’s needs and to make sure everyone has what they need. In doing so, your needs will be met. Two different views of the same string.
Epictetus invites us to think about those in our own communities and those outside of them. “Suppose you have a brother or sister who treats you poorly. What difference does that make? There is still a moral imperative to recognize and maintain your fundamental duty to him or her.”
This reminds me of the story Jesus told about a man left robbed and nearly beaten to death on the side of the road. Of all the people who walk past, it was the Good Samaritan which was, at the time and to the audience listening, the unlikeliest of peopel to be the hero. Jesus too makes the point that it is our moral imperative to help one another, especially someone we might not want to help.
I like to think both men would see someone thirsty and offer them something to drink, or give food to someone who is hungry if for no other reason that we are all tethered to the same string. And the harder you try to avoid helping someone the more twisted you become. It does not matter that both men had a different name for that string.
This puts the focus not so much on the string, which is important, but on how we move knowing we are delicately tied to the other. Imagine how careful one must step to avoid getting tangled up. Now imagine your words also being tethered to the same string. Every word would have to be carefully thought out and spoken to avoid becoming twisted into one gigantic knot.
Epictetus was wise to suggest that it’s not wise for us to focus on the other but on yourself, and your purpose, to keep from getting knotted up. The way I see it, the more we try to exert power over another, to have the dominate opinion or the need to be right, only tightens the knot. Like it's the strings way to make us deal with one another beyond fighting or killing each other. This is what oneness is all about.
It's almost as if God is saying stop fighting over who is right, which religion is the right way, but instead simply be bound to the divine love that is what we are made from and made of.
Perhaps instead we should have an open heart to receiving that love. Perhaps we should have a little Holy Envy, to recognize and be envious of all the wonderful things we can learn from each other. Like Taylor’s book aruges, this idea that other faith traditions (like other human beings) connect us to new truths about who we are and what we are called to do. An Amazon review of her book notes, “The one constant in her odyssey is the sense that God is the one calling her to disown her version of God—a change that ultimately enriches her faith in other human beings and in God."
The string Gianni imagined has a different name to him as it does for me, as it does with so many others – God, Allah, YHWH, Big Bang, Energy, DNA. Each of these names offer different ideas that lead to the same result, deepening my faith and expanding my heart to do what we are all called to do.
In her book, Taylor uses a great analogy from another Catholic priest and theologian I admire. It comes from Raimon Panikkar who looks at the world’s great rivers to speak to our inner connectedness. The Jordan, the Tiber, and the Ganges “all nourish the lives of those who live along their banks. None of these rivers meet on earth, though they do meet in the heavens, where water from each of them condenses into clouds that rain down on all the mortals of the earth.”
To Panikkar's point, the religions of the world remain distinct and unmixed on earth—but “they meet once transformed into vapor, once metamorphosed into Spirit, which then is poured out in innumerable tongues.” God, Allah, YHWH, Cosmic Energy all moving towards one particular goal, for one divine purpose.
I am not a scholar of Stoicism, but I do believe both Epictetus and Jesus recognized their respective commonality to every human, no matter who they were. I do know, according to Scriptures, that Jesus hung out with poor and rich alike, with people who were Jews like himself and those who were not. He preached on the virtues of helping strangers, foreigners and even one’s enemies. He lived without fear of the other but embrace them willingly knowing that he was also tied to them, through the Divine.
In the way Jesus lived his life, he was able to teach us what God is like – that “God is love.” Once we are aware of that string, that love, then we can trust in that love, allow it to flow in and out of us, and delight in all that it is. When we practice that love, we are tied to the love of others by the same string of divine love.
Like Rohr states, “The whole thing is one, just at different stages, all of it loved corporately by God (and, one hopes, by us). Within this worldview, we are saved not by being privately perfect, but by being “part of the body,” humble links in the great chain of history.”
I am sure Epictetus would agree that if we could only see the string that ties us all together, human beings might discover who they are and who they are called to be. One people, one love, for one purpose – to be tangled up together in love.
Some of the Work Cited can be found here:
Epictetus, The Art of Living, new interpretation by Sharon Lebell. Harper-Collins: 1994, p. 42-43.
Rohr, Richard. www.cac.org/living-word-god-2018-01-17
Taylor, Barbara Brown. Holy Envy, Finding God in the Faith of Others. Harper One: 2020,. Kindle ed.
Why Are You Here?
Nearly 50 years ago John Lennon sang, “Imagine there’s not heaven. It's easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people living for today.” Although I never really like the song for many reasons, it makes me wonder: What brings you here today? Is there something you’re looking for? A golden ticket into heaven? Or simply a get out of hell free card? If there were no heaven or hell, would you still show up? Would you still chose to be a Christian?
For me, it’s not so much about losing out on some after life that makes me to follow Christ. It’s about losing out on the joys, peace and fulfillment I enjoy by following his way. After all, this kingdom Jesus ushered in is not just something we hope to be a part of after life, it’s something he invited us to live today.
Our reading for this morning strays from the lectionary text. It comes from John’s gospel. And is a summary of Jesus’ teachings that comes right after he drops the news about his death to his disciples. Reads: John 12:44-55
It’s not a stretch to say the central focus of Christianity is Christ. Christians are Christians because they follow Jesus, the Christ. The Anointed One sent to live among us and teach us how to live right with God. His way of living is so important that we’ve immortalized it as a religion, created doctrines and methods of worship to exalt him. But is that the point of following Christ? To worship him with words and songs?
It always makes Christians nervous to learn that Jesus never said, “worship me.” But here’s the thing, Jesus was theocentric; meaning he put God at the center ever everything he did. Every miracle, act of forgiveness, prayer, every word of Jesus uttered always pointed back to God. “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in the One who sent me.” Jesus is so united to God that He does not speak in His own name, only God’s.
Hundreds of years earlier, a psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”
Like Jesus, and all of creation knew, everything we do ought to reveal the benevolence of God. Every word we speak and every deed we do should cause people to stop in their tracks and stand in total awe as they witness the greatness of God’s love in their midst.
To me, this is what it means to be like Christ, to take his name and be called a Christian. That is why I can say if you want to know what God looks like, then look no further than Jesus. He is the light of God’s glory in the world, illuminating God’s righteousness for all to see. That’s what light does. It exposes and reveals things that we might not be able to see without it.
Like a high-watt lightbulb in the center of the room, Jesus helps us to see and navigate the space between us and God. It’s such a powerful light that John declares darkness cannot overcome it. Jesus enlightens our hearts and illuminates our faith; exposing who God is, and what God is revealing to us.
Yet many Christians still prefer to live in the dark, or choose to keep their eyes closed to what Christ is calling them to do. They show up to church on Sunday and maybe support it financially, but as for the rest of the week ... well maybe they’ll “sprinkle a little Jesus along the way.”
That won’t suffice. We have to pour out God’s glory in all that we do. Jesus makes it very clear that the one who does not act upon his words only brings judgment on himself. According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said we will be judge by way we show or don’t show love and compassion towards others. That’s it!
To a fault, Jesus remained active in the word of God, perfectly living out the Torah law by helping people and tending to their needs as God has asked us to do. If we are to claim his name as our own, then we can’t shrug off his warning to serve others.
Therefore we must make the effort to constantly move towards loving our neighbors otherwise our life is just wasted energy. And we might find ourselves in a hell of our own making instead of the heaven that Christ ushered in.
Jesus isn’t making this up to scare us into following him, or to bump up his approval rating. These are not his words, but the word of God that were given to him. Jesus trusted in God’s word so completely and lived it out so fully; making himself vulnerable, even to the point of death. He knows God’s commandments are not only real, they are eternal.
John goes so far as to describe Jesus as the Word of God. The word of God is life, and the light we are to live by. It’s in this Word, this Light, we receive grace upon grace.
So then, how does this Word speak to us today? How are we to truly live into God’s glory like Jesus the Christ?
In scripture it’s written, “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is within your power to act” (Proverbs 3:27) The prophet Isaiah said, “Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). And the Apostle Paul wrote, “We are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Ephesisans 2:10). And “Therefore, as we have occasion, let us do good to everyone” (Galatians 6:10)
Of course, Jesus summed up all of scripture in two easy to understand steps: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. By following these two commandments we uphold all of scripture. One might say, this is the politics of Jesus likeJohn Howard Yoder once brilliantly wrote.
Yet politics aside, I can say with great confidence that wherever Jesus shows up, people see what God looks like. He is the face of God’s love that reminds us we live in a benevolent universe. In Christ, God is present in every moment – not just in the great miracles, but even in the smallest things he says and does.
With all that is going on in our streets and communities, with all the mess in our country and world, now is the time to affirm God’s glory through acts of charity and love. Now is the time to stand up for what is right and just. It is time to stand with Christ to help those crying out in pain, to take down the systems of oppression, and raise up God’s glory.
Inspired by the word of God let us “be wise in the way we act toward others. Let our conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6). The time is now to allow the Word of God to dwell richly in us, and flow through us so freely that we, in imitation of Christ can say "I speak just as the Father has told me."
Let us go out and do good to everyone. Let us be the living embodiment of God’s glory. Jesus is our blueprint that shows us the way to live into God’s love and light so perfectly that he is able to declare, “I am the way, the truth and the light.”
To follow Christ is to faithfully follow God like he did, practicing his way of living out God’s truth and light out in the world. This is what it means to be the church. And why we gather together in his name. It doesn’t mean much to only praise his name if we do not practice what he taught.
Even the great Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh realized, “We must practice living deeply, loving and acting with charity if we wish to truly honor Jesus.”
As we come together in the name of Christ, let us now go out in his name, to do good, to uphold justice, to show mercy and recognize the divine light in everyone.
Let us go out into our communities and be the visible presences of God, to love and serve one another in such a way that we can boldly declare, “whoever sees me, sees not me but the One who sent me.”
I can’t imagine a better way us to honor and worship our Lord God than this.
Christian Woman's Corner. May 1, 2020. https://christianwomenscorner.wordpress.com/tag/reading-and-reflection-from-the-gospel-of-john-1244-50/ (accessed June 19, 2020).
Claiborne, Shane. The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an ordinary radical. . Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006, pp.101-102, 135.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. Living Buddha, Living Christ. New York: Riverhead, 1995, p. 101.
Leech, Kace. Clergy Stuff. March 13, 2018. https://clergystuff.com/daily-devotions/f49ctmalvd8oktam5nhysv17co9hvk (accessed June 19, 2020).
ocarm.org. May 6, 2020. https://ocarm.org/en/content/lectio/lectio-divina-john-1244-50 (accessed June 19, 2020).
The dirty Dozen Of Sorts
Jesus can send his followers on seemingly impossible missions because it’s not us, But God working through us to bring love and mercy into the brokenness of the world.
Like the dirty dozen, Jesus’ twelve were taken apart and rebuilt for their mission. They had to learn a new way of living, thinking, speaking, and doing. That is to say, they had to learn God’s way. And who better to teach them than the Incarnate God of the Trinity that we spoke of last week. Real life was their classroom.
As they followed their teacher from town to town. They observed him as he taught religion to the religious. And stood by him as he tended to the sick. Together, they learned what it meant to live out the good news of God’s kingdom.
This story is not just about a dozen men learning to evangelize the gospel. It is a story about us who have chosen to follow Jesus. It’s about how we take his teachings out into the world as the living embodiment of God’s love and grace.
So what does this story tell us about Jesus, the one in whom we follow?
We know that He traveled, he taught, he tended to the sick. No distance was too great. No group too skeptical. No ailment too impossible to cure. Jesus goes here, there and everywhere to get the job done.
We are his disciples, his students called to follow his lead – seeing the world through his eyes, and loving the world with his heart. As the church we are to be like the one who saw the crowds and “he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
In the Greek “compassion” means to be moved by your whole being towards mercy and pity. It’s like seeing the effects of systemic racism and knowing it isn’t right because you feel hurt deep in your soul. It moves you to get involved and to make a difference.
Jesus didn’t just see the oppressed, but felt their pain in his heart, lungs, and guts. When he saw how they were treated unjustly his entire being was moved to help. The crowds flocked to him, because no one had ever loved them or cared for them like he did.
This is the first lesson for us who wish to follow in Jesus’ footsteps: The Kingdom of God is compassionate.
There is deep hurt in the world. People are suffering greatly from inequality. No longer can we - who chose to follow Christ - stand on the sidelines pretending it’s not happening in our own communities. Just as Jesus had compassion, so must we. And we, like him must act on it.
For some that’s protesting. Marching side by side, demanding justice, and not giving up until change happens. For others, it’s about looking inward to see what they need to change within themselves, in order to have the kind of Christ like heart that moves them to stand up for justice and peace.
Jesus saw the crowds and had compassion. But he also recognized that there is way too much work to be done for just one person. He said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” And so he calls us all to look deep within ourselves, to put aside our own prejudices, and show mercy and have compassion to those who are suffering in the world.
This might make you feel a bit uncomfortable. It might make you feel a bit scared. Kesselus reminds us that, “When Jesus picked out his twelve, he obviously didn’t seek the best and brightest but the ordinary. He selected a group of mostly lackluster and untested commoners, some of whom seemed failures by modern worldly standards” (Kesselus, 2020).
And this is the second lesson: The Kingdom of God is participatory.
I like to think that when Jesus first saw his dirty dozen, he saw you and me among the ranks – ordinary, everyday people who do not possess any great qualifications or credentials. What we do have, whether we know it or not, is God’s compassionate heart. A Divine imprint of love that was placed in us long before we took our first breath.
We all have what it takes to continue Jesus’ mission of compassion but do we have his willingness to act upon it? To show mercy to those crying out for help? You see, we are his twelve. Our mission, our purpose, our call is to go out and redeem the world with all its political realities, social divisions, and systemic disorders.
It’s our job to reveal God’s compassionate heart from town to town, and person to person. We are the church, the body of Christ, the visible presence of God in the world. But are we willing to love has he loved? To care as he cared? Will we cast out the demons that have harmed our communities? And take the time to heal the brokenness that is causing others so much pain and suffering? Are we willing “to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near”?
If we follow in the footsteps of Christ, with all his compassion and conviction, then our mission will rub people the wrong way. We’ll upset the status quo and probably lose a few Facebook friends. For Jesus is sending us out there like sheep among wolves.But here’s the thing to remember. In spite of our limitations and the obstacles placed in front of us, Jesus calls us – not because of any special power we have but because of the boundless power of God that he gives to us.
Which takes us to the third lesson: The Kingdom of God is powerful.
Despite the challenges, despite the questionable likelihood of success, and the inevitable difficulties we will face, Jesus sends us out – giving us the power and authority to do what he does. Although we might seem inept or unable to cure diseases or cast our demons, let us not forget “the seemingly impossible things that God has done through others beyond the original dozen.”
Many diseases that were once thought incurable have been eradicated, the demons of unjust laws that have possessed people to do horrific atrocities to other human beings are being overturned, and people who believed some doors would always be closed have seen them blown wide open.
“Throughout Christian history, the dozen apostles have been replaced by a never-ending series of other dozens who continued to carry out the never-ending instructions of Jesus to go out among the people as his agents of love.”
Many of us are not sure that we have what it takes, that we’re not good enough, or smart enough, or righteous enough to agents of love. But that’s not the case. Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. So, Jesus calls us to take nothing more than faith as we go out into the fields - proclaiming the good news through works of charity and mercy.
And this leads me to the last lesson for today. In the Kingdom of God, Jesus isn’t banking on our faith, but God’s faith in us.
This is why Jesus can send his followers out on seemingly impossible missions...because it’s not us. It’s about God working through us to bring love and mercy into the brokenness of the world. This is what salvation looks like to me. This is the purpose of Discipleship. This is the call for all who call themselves Christians.
Love is our purpose. Love is our mission. Love is the faith God has placed in us. Faith is an active verb that calls us to bear the good fruit of God’s kingdom. It’s not about sitting idly by as the world continues to cry out in pain. It’s about being willing to move with compassion and conviction to complete the mission of Christ.
Jesus didn’t choose us because we possess any particular qualifications for transforming the world. We were chosen because God needs us to usher in a new way of thinking, and speaking, and doing, and caring.
It’s time for us to go out and show compassion from the depths of our innermost being to those who are crying out for mercy and justice. Through Christ, God has chosen us and put faith in us to spread the love of God to every corner of the world.
The time is now. The world is ready for harvest. There’s work to be done. But are you willing to go?
Bartlett, David. L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011) pp. 140-45.
Kesselus, Ken. Twelve. epsicopalchurch.org. June 8, 2020. (accessed June 11, 2020).
How quickly we forget
Love, since it’s inception, has always been a force for change.
In a time where there is a lot of overwhelming change happening all around us, I fear some basic things will be either overlooked or forgotten altogether.
On one hand it’s a common reaction, to push against or push away something that makes us change ourselves; including our behaviors and way of doing things.
On another hand, we who have lived in the modern world with its instant response and gratification, we want change to happen now. Even though we don’t want to change we also don’t want to wait for it to become a part of the norm.
Yet that is exactly what we have to do. And it’s often in this time that the people in power forget why change was desired in the first place.
This has been true about economic reform, gun law reform, and civil rights reform to name a few things that we’ve been passionate about in my lifetime. I fear police reform will soon be added to that list. Some things just don’t change.
One thing that has been constant as well as ever changing for me has been love. I’ve enjoyed the love of my parents, the love of family and friends, the love of my wife and children, and the love of a community. I have felt the pain of losing a loved one through death, divorce, and distance. As well as the joy of physical love, mental love, and spiritual love.
Love, for many of us, takes on many different forms. It is constantly changing and evolving; drawing us closer together. That’s what it’s supposed to do. Love, since it’s inception, has always been a force for change. “It is patient,” according to one wise man who wrote about it nearly two thousand years ago. “Without it,” he declared, “I am nothing.”
Although we might forget about it, and perhaps we might give up on it because love isn’t happening or being felt right now, we need not give up on it. Instead we need to embrace it and hold onto it that much more. For love has the power to change all things, because all things were first created from a greater love than this.
Here is a quote from Henri Nouwen that speaks to such love; reminding us that even if we don’t feel it, or think we have it, love is within us - patiently waiting and evolving. May we never forget that. And always remember that you are the Beloved.
To Thine Own Self Be...
“The life of wisdom begins with learning how to put principles, such as ‘We ought not lie,’ into practice.” ~ Epictetus
Like many of you, I am in multiple chat groups. Like so many out there, the topic of conversation is racism. The systemic kind that is engrained in the moral fabric of United States and felt daily throughout African American communities. But that is not to say it is limited here. Systemic racism is global, and its history pre-dates the colonialism and the idea of Manifest Destiny.
In one particular group, I spoke to this idea of guilt that we were all feeling as “privileged, white people.” Although we knew the term, we are only uncovering what it means to us as individuals. I shared a conversation I had the night before with my brother in law, whose political points of view differ from my own. While I allowed him to do most of the talking, he eventually asked a great question that required me to answer truthfully and honestly. He wanted to know, “What are you going to do to help make a difference?”
My answer went something like this:
First of all, I can only do what I can do. I can acknowledge the problem of racism in me. I can find my story in the problem. And I can accept my responsibility for it. I can also promise myself and commit to setting a new course of life that bends towards justice. It will be a course that I know I can handle in this moment, with small achievements to keep me moving forwards towards growth. I can do this understanding that I can and I will grow over time. I can and will apply that growth for the good. A I can be a living example to my children, my family, my neighbors, and friends, strangers, and the systems which governs us that such behavior as racism, sexism, and injustice are no longer acceptable.
In short, I can and will commit to this way of life, accepting the complexities, hardships and sacrifices that come with it, hoping that something better will come of it. It feels someone stoic in principle. And it’s not too far off from what I believe Jesus is calling us to in imitation of him.
Epictetus wrote, “The life of wisdom begins with learning how to put principles, such as ‘We ought not lie,’ into practice.” I would argue that this begins by looking inward, within the self, beyond the ego, and taking inventory of the things that define me. What are my principles? Where do I stand? And how will I create a new map or blueprint for living them out on a daily basis?
In what little work I have done so far, I have learned that it is a long, and sometimes difficult process. It requires me to be honest and truthful to myself before I can be honest and truthful to someone else. It’s looking into a mirror and trying to remind myself of who I really am. I am more than scars, age spots, and sagging skin. I have to look beyond my insecurities that block the deep seated fears, anxieties and yes, love, that is hidden in me.
Jesus also had something to say about this inward inventory. He constantly reminded his followers and his detractors to look within their own hearts. “For it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out” (Matthew 15:11). It’s in the heart where the thoughts of our head form into words. Thus, looking inward at our principles is the best place to start, especially if we are going to speak or place our opinion on the shoulders of someone else.
The next step seems almost natural. Epictetus writes, “The second step is to demonstrate the truth of the principles, such as why it is that we ought not lie.” Put your words to action. Taking his example on lying, we know the whole web of problems such an action can produce, from hurting others to harming yourself. The same is true when applying this step to racism, even if it’s not that obvious. But we can’t demonstrate the truth of our principles honestly or authentically if we are not first honest and authentic with ourselves.
Like Jesus taught, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no" (Matthew 5:33-37). In other words be sure of who you are, what you stand for and believe in before you give testimony or voice an opinion.
The third step that Epictetus writes about connects the first two, which “is to indicate why the explanations suffice to justify the principles.” The way I see this is simply, “back your shit up or back up.” It’s why so many people who have been oppressed and choked to death by the promises of justice are still demanding proof. “Don’t just show me your wisdom. Prove it to me by doing something with it.” If you haven’t done the work inside first, then how will you truly and honorably convince anyone, including yourself, that you are genuine, real, or wise.
The old stoic finished his thought by stating, “Although the second and third steps are valuable, it is the first step that matters most. For it is all too easy and common to lie while cleverly demonstrating that lying is wrong.” Jesus told his disciples, who were being sent out to heal and care for people, that they were going out to be sheep among wolves. And trust me, those wolves will be able to know when you’re not true to your word.
In Hamlet, William Shakespeare wrote, “This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!”
Polonius spoke these words as a token of advice to his son, Laertes, at the time of his departure to Paris. Scholars believe Shakespeare is writing of himself as he argues a person can be harmless and good to others once he is financially sound. That he must be loyal to his best interests first before he can take care of others. As Epictetus has argued, one must first know one’s self before one can know or help another.
Today, Shakespeare’s words have an entirely different meaning, connoting “the ideas of truth, self-ownership, and individuality.” I wonder how Epictetus would read this. In keeping with the Stoic mindset, I would argue that if you choose to put yourself above others, by any means, then how honest and wise will your counsel be to yourself, especially when putting your principles into practice?
I am not sure I have a great answer yet, because I am still looking in my own mirror and taking inventory of what I am reflecting. Yet it is hard for me to imagine Jesus putting himself above others. In fact, if the biblical and historical stories are accurate, Jesus gave himself up willingly so that others could live freely. Thus, he often reminded his own followers that he did not come to be served, but to serve others.
Jesus lived this principle out; practicing what he preached. We are invited to do the same. But will we rise to meet the challenge?
“Now is the time to get serious about living your ideals. Once you have determined the spiritual principles you wish to exemplify, abide by these rules as if they were laws, as if it were indeed sinful to compromise them. Don’t mind if others don’t share your convictions. How long can you afford to put off who you really want to be? Your nobler self cannot wait any longer. Put your principles into practice now. Stop the excuses and the procrastinations. This is your life! You are not a child anymore. The sooner you set yourself to your spiritual program, the happier you will be. The longer you wait, the more you will be vulnerable to mediocrity and feel filled with shame and regret, because you know you are capable of better. From this instant on, vow to stop disappointing yourself. Separate yourself from the mob. Decide to be extraordinary and do what you need to do – now!”
A Divine Trifecta
Today is no ordinary church day. It’s Trinity Sunday. Or "Heresy Sunday" as some call it because of all the bad sermons given to explain a Triune God. Martin Luther famously said, “To try to deny the Trinity endangers your salvation, but to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.”
The protestors, who are exercising their right on the streets probably don't care what liturgical day it is. They just want justice and equal rights for all people. The folks who are saying their goodbyes to someone they love because of this viral pandemic are probably not thinking about how God is 3-in-1. They just want to know where God is or what God is planning on doing to stop the pain and suffering from Covid-19.
If you have lost your job or your retirement savings because of the economic turmoil, does it really matter that scholars have spent centuries trying to make sense of one particular statement Jesus made when he gave his final blessing to the remaining 11 disciples? I doubt it.
If you’re like me then you just want to know that God knows who I am and what I need. I’m struggling daily just to answer my call to be more like Christ. I don’t need church doctrine to make it harder. And yet to live into my faith and to evolve as a follower of Christ, I have to acknowledge and figure out what Jesus meant at the end of Matthew’s gospel even if it endangers my mental wellbeing.
Our reading today comes from Matthew 28:16-20
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
Considered to be one of the most important teachings in Christian faith, the doctrine of the Trinity is also one of the most difficult to understand. It suggests that God is most perfectly revealed as Three parts in One substance. It’s a mathematical conundrum and divine mystery that surrounds the person or persons of God.
Over the years I’ve seen people use all kinds of creative ways to describe the Trinity. Some have used water. It’s not only a liquid but also a gas, and a solid. Three different ways God is revealed to us and yet still God. But water can be polluted and contaminated, whereas God cannot. So that one falls short for me.
Then there’s the egg analogy. It has a shell, a yoke, and that clear gooey stuff; three parts yet one egg. But if you’re making an Angel Food cake, then you know you only need the egg whites; the shell and yoke get tossed out. The problem here is it’s impossible to separate God from God.
The most famous illustration is probably the one from St. Patrick who held up a shamrock and asked the Irish pagans, "Is it one leaf or three?" They would reply "It is both one leaf and three." Patrick would conclude, "And so it is with God." But the Trinity is more complex, and the shamrock doesn’t explain exactly how each part interconnects.
My friend Dawn advised me not to over think it. She said it’s as simple as a name. “I am Ian. I am a husband, a father, and a son, but I am still Ian.” Yet I am so much more than that.
Which tells me there’s more to what Jesus is talking about in Matthew’s epilogue. You see, there’s a reason Jesus meets his disciples on some unnamed mountain in Galilee. And it’s not to give them a doctrine, but final instructions on what he expects them to do after he ascends. The time has come for them to take his gospel to all the nations – baptizing and teaching them so they can go and do the same.
Now if Jesus is giving them a doctrine, then it’s one that they will have to go and figure out on their own – in the way they care for the widows and orphans, tend to the sick and dying, bringing justice and mercy to the poor and oppressed. It will come out in their willingness to spill their own blood for the wild notion that the Holy Spirit had gathered them into the life of God who in Christ was making peace with the world.
Likewise, I don’t think Jesus sent them out to perform the ritual of baptism, at least not like it’s practiced today. I’m sure Jesus knew that racism cannot be fixed by dunking everyone in water. Saying the words, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” will not magically stop people from hating and harming others who are different from them. Although, both are worth trying.
Baptism, like what John was doing in the Jordan, was preparing people to enter into the Temple. Jesus is the new Temple, the place where we go to meet God. I believe Jesus sent his disciples out to prepare all people to be a place where God comes alive in them.
Jesus calling them to go and fill others with the same empowering Spirit of God that he gave his disciples. Likewise, we are to go be the light of love in the darkness of the world by caring for the hurt and broken, the weak and the oppressed.
Jesus invited his disciples to share the power of divine life. He sent them out to every tribe and community... so that everyone in the world would come to know God, and God’s redemptive grace given through Christ by the Holy Spirit.
Which brings us to where we are today, and where this church is headed. (refering New Church Sherman Oaks) At Bible Study last Wednesday, Rev. Bob announced that he going to be teaching about Discipleship and what it means to take Jesus as his word.
As Bob explained, a disciple is just an ancient word for student. The Christian disciple, therefore, is a student of Christ. And Jesus is our teacher. Our goal, then, is to learn from him and live out his teachings in such a way that the world can’t help but see Christ in their midst.
Like I told my daughter a couple of weeks ago, we never really graduate because we are always learning. As students of life we are constantly watching, taking notes, asking questions, making mistakes and hopefully growing from them. Discipleship is no different. You don’t have to be a priest or a saint. Or fully understand doctrine or perform rituals. You just need to show up.
As disciples, we are be both learners and practitioners of Christ, students who rely heavily on God’s mercy and grace. By living out the gospel, especially in places where it lacks, people are able to see Christ alive in you and learn how to be like him. For example, Jesus taught people the way of peace by being peace – not by beating peace into people. We don’t beat people back to God, we show them the way by practicing the way of Christ.
In a world steeped in injustice, hatred, bigotry, violence and nationalism this can be hard to do. No one knows that better than Jesus, whose life was lived under constant threat be it occupying forces or the religious elites of his own church.
Thus, he doesn’t leave us powerless but instead gives us a power that is greater than that of the world. Not the power that dominate or harms others, but a power that loves and forgives and cares for the needs of all. The power of God’s own love, mercy and grace.
In following Jesus, the Son, we can be immersed into the whole being of God, the Father, whose Divine power, the Holy Spirit, flows in us and moves through us and all around us. You can call it a doctrine. But I call it the Good News. The gospel according to Jesus the Christ.
If we want to know what the Trinity is all about, then we need to look no further than ourselves, where God has chosen to take up residency.
The doctrine and rituals are worked out when we accept Jesus’ invitation to actually follow him, and embrace this wild notion that the Holy Spirit has gathered us to God who in Christ is restoring peace to the world.
Like Jesus, we become the fullness of God’s glory – drawing people back to God by being people of God. The same God who is God for us as our God the Creator.
The same God who is God with us as our God the Incarnate Savior.
And the same God who is God in us as our God the Holy Sustainer.
This trifecta of one divine presence in one divine life is ours if we want it, now and until the end of the ages.
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol 3. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011) pp. 44-49.
“Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is one by disregarding things that lie beyond our control. We cannot have a light heart if our minds are a woeful cauldron of fear and ambition. Do you wish to be invincible? Then don't enter combat with what you have no real control over. Your happiness depends on three things, all of which are within your power: your will, your ideas concerning the events in which you are involved, and the use you make of your ideas.”
He reminds us that happiness is always independent of whatever external things are going on around us. Is there a problem you’re facing that is causing you pain? Is there something going on in your home, or a relationship you are in? Maybe you lost a job, or your clients have suspended spending until the economy returns. We all have something happening in our lives, and for many of us it’s based in fear from what’s happening around us.
Epictetus tells us that happiness, peace, and tranquility can always be found inside you. Too often we are blind and unable to see it because we compare ourselves and our situation to someone else’s social status, professional titles and degrees, or by their bank accounts, big homes, fancy clothes and expensive gadgets. The rise of social media (comparing how many likes or views our post get) and the insidious spread of reality entertainment (keeping up with belittling and betraying others for sake of getting ahead) are just two examples of how we have allowed others to set the bar and define “success” for us.
Putting celebrities, political leaders, or any other people above yourself suggests that you believe they are free of problems or that they are necessarily happy. What does that say about yourself? And how does that make you feel better? Epictetus said, “To be bewildered by appearances will only make you doubt yourself.”
Have you ever experienced that before? I have. In fact, I still struggle with this whenever I am around family. I often judge myself by what I think is their success and ability to be successful. I forget that I define what success looks like for me, just as they define what it is for them. I forget that the happiness, peace, and tranquility (the true riches of the world for me) that I seek is right there inside of me.
Nothing but myself can define me, or my actions. Nothing holds me back from being the success I set out for myself but me. “For your own will is always within your control,” states Epictetus. “You will needn’t be affected by an incident unless you let it.”
It might seem like the world is crumbling around you, but is it really? Is your world only health? Or material possessions? Or religious liberties? We are more than just a body, or things or thoughts. We are made in the Divine image of love and goodness. We are made good from the start. But it’s our thinking and comparing ourselves to others that keeps us from living into who we truly are meant to be. And sadly, it’s also what allows others to exert control over you and dictate who you are to be.
“The real essence of good is found only within things under your own control. If you keep this in mind, you won’t find yourself feeling falsely envious or forlorn, pitifully comparing yourself and your accomplishments to others.”
To borrow from Janice Bussing, a friend and a wonderful spiritual life coach of mine, “Today is a new day to be the best version of yourself.”
Epitetus, The Art of Living, new interpretation by Sharon Lebell. Harper-Collins: 1994, pp. 16, 26.
Teachers are everywhere
If we choose to, we can see everyone as our teacher. Those people who have admirable qualities can inspire us; those with destructive qualities can remind us of our shortcomings and motivate us to change.
The following practice from psychologist Roger Walsh’s book Essential Spirituality is one way to develop this skill.
If we choose to, we can see everyone as our teacher. Those people who have admirable qualities can inspire us; those with destructive qualities can remind us of our shortcomings and motivate us to change.
Confucius was very clear about this: When walking in the company of two other men I am bound to be able to learn from them. The good points of the one I copy; the bad points of the other I correct in myself.
When we meet kind people, we can develop feelings of gratitude and use those people as role models to inspire our own kindness and generosity.
We can also learn from unkind people. Seeing how sensitive we are to criticism and hostility, we can remember how sensitive others are and resolve to treat them gently. We can also practice forgiveness and find how much better this feels than smoldering with resentment for days.
To begin this exercise, select an initial time period such as a morning or a day. During that time, try to see each person you meet as a teacher bringing you an important lesson.
Your challenge is to recognize what that lesson is, then to learn as much as you can from this person. At the end of the day, look back and review your interaction with each person, the lessons each one brought, and what you learned.
As exercises like these are repeated, the eye of the soul gradually opens and we become increasingly aware of the sacred within us and around us.
Every person becomes a teacher and a reminder of our spiritual nature, while every experience becomes a learning opportunity . . . and we see the world as a sacred schoolhouse designed to heal and awaken us, and to teach us how to heal and awaken others.
What greater gift could the world offer?
Roger Walsh, Essential Spirituality: The 7 Central Practices to Awaken Heart and Mind (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: 1999), 203–204.
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.”