Tag Archives: Christ

Unlikely Evangelism

well

John 4:5-42

Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, `Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, `I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, `Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, `One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

When I was growing up in Fernandina Beach, FL, there was a guy who would park his small, red pick up truck on Centre Street in the historic downtown 8 block section of shops and restaurants.  In my memory, he came every Friday morning in the summers, as I worked at Palmetto, LTD, a small clothing shop two blocks from the docks.  He parked right outside the shop sometimes, and had a megaphone as his communication tool.  He screamed out shouts of hellfire and damnation as he stood alone with empty parking spaces all around him and tourists crossing the street to avoid any confrontation.  We usually kept the front door to the shop open to attract more business, but we closed it when he was close by to block out the screaming and wait for him to leave.

This was my early definition of “evangelism” and I was not interested.  I also didn’t see anybody hearing that and thinking to themselves, “Hey, that guy makes a ton of sense and I want that life for myself too!”  Hearing someone yelling out the consequences of our choices is never going to fall into the best practices for changing our beliefs.  We have to change the way we view the concept of evangelism.

An unnamed woman who met a stranger became one of the most famous evangelists in the Gospels.  She didn’t know Jesus when they met at the well, but he surely knew her, just as he knows each and every one of us.  Knowing or believing in him isn’t a prerequisite to being known by God, and this story highlights that this woman certainly wasn’t full of virtues and family values. In the Christian tradition, we know many stories of Jesus’ love, forgiveness, healing and grace, but this woman knows none of this.  Yet she goes back to her community and spreads her story of meeting Jesus so very well, striking just the right chord with those who heard of it, that they became believers who welcomed Jesus to their community.  And it all started with a chance meeting at an unremarkable place, with no planned intentions or prior understanding and in the midst of a load of what we would call promiscuous behaviors.

So how does this connect to my life?  I have always tried to live a life of good works and try always to be my authentic self, but I also rush through my life at a breakneck speed, working to get my to-do list accomplished and fulfill my many roles of wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend and principal.  I know I miss out on opportunities to just tell my story of my encounters with Christ.  I always find the time to tell funny stories, share my struggles with a colleague, hear the latest news from those I know, and even to exchange some tidbits of gossip.  But I don’t always make the time to share the Good News of Christ in the world.  Maybe I don’t know how?  Maybe (and more likely), I don’t share my relationship with Christ with others because it makes me uncomfortable.  And I’m not going to be lumped in with that yelling dude from my childhood for sure, so I don’t seize the opportunities when they are right in front of me.

But if not me, and if not you, then who are we trusting to share God’s love?  Are we leaving it to the street corner screamers?  The televangelists preaching prosperity?  The door to door kids giving out literature?  Those ways don’t work to turn people to Christ – if they did, more people would be doing it.  Instead, we need to walk in our faith in all of our relationships, sharing our faith through our actions of love and support, our words of encouragement rather than hurtfulness, letting our deep love of God show in all we do.  And tell our stories when we can.  If a harlot who has a casual meeting at a well can be an evangelist, then we certainly stand a chance when we TAKE the chance to change the world and bring folks to Christ.

Gracious Father, thank you for continuing to give us the gift of your love and forgiveness.  Equip us with the words and actions to be tellers of your truth in all we do and say.  Continue to lead us to share our love for you and to bring us closer to Christ.  You know our strengths and our challenges and still love us and count on us to do your kingdom work.  With your support we can do more to spread the Good News!  In your name we pray.  AMEN.

Cursillo – Renewal, Refreshment and Recomittment

CursilloThis week, I was given the great blessing to share my story of attending Cursillo and the impact it has had on my life with our church family.  As I continue to discern God’s call in my life, reflecting on the gifts I have received in my faith leave me in awe of our God.  Here is the text of my sermon:

When I was 8 years old, my parents went to Cursillo in the Diocese of Florida.  I don’t remember much about the weekends they were gone but it drastically changed the way our family existed after this experience for them. And a seed was planted in my life that was nurtured as I grew up in the church.  Literally, I grew up in the church.  I was baptized at 6 weeks old and won’t use all my fingers if I count the number of Sundays that my family was not present for worship times.  And just about any other days for that matter, too.  We settled down before my eighth birthday on a coastal island in North Florida, where our church home became the historic St. Peter’s Episcopal Parish in Fernandina Beach.  My church family there continues to play a significant role in my life even all these years later and it was the perfect setting for me to start my marriage with David almost 22 years ago.  It was in that first year we lived in Fernandina that the Cursillo movement began in the diocese in the mid 70s.  My parents have always been early adopters of new ideas so it was no surprise when they attended Cursillo #3 in the Diocese of Florida.

What I remember most about Cursillo back then was what it meant through my very young eyes, since I obviously hadn’t experienced it directly of course.  My parents wore their Cursillo nametags to church every week and literally hoards of folks from our tiny parish began attending this periodic retreat.  My parents sponsored about half of them I think, which meant they were driving all over the diocese at first until our diocese completed their own beautiful camp and conference center in Live Oak, about 2 hours away.  They would leave on Thursdays with their green passenger van filled with excited friends and luggage, and then on Sundays, they would hire a babysitter for us girls for a marathon afternoon and evening so they could collect their pilgrims from their weekend, arriving home far after we went to bed on a school night.  Monthly, Mom and Dad would gather with their Cursillo friends for Ultreyas at our church – which was another word for party to my ears as a child.  They also enrolled in the Education For Ministry or EFM course, started our first youth group and joined the choir.  They served on vestries and search committees, while preparing and serving at the altar.  Mom was a Daughter of the King, ECW president and Dad was in charge of the acolytes, parish fish fries and oyster roasts.  What I can see today as an adult, as I reflect on their evolution as Christians was that although we had always GONE to church…we were now going far beyond weekly attendance and my parents were seeking out ways to serve the larger church and community. When I was 16 years old, I attended Happening #19 (which is similar to Cursillo but designed for teenagers), going on to serve future Happening weekends in Florida and in my adopted diocese of North Carolina during my time in college.  I was yearning for that same feeling of connectedness my parents seemed to have to their friends through Christ, and as a young adult, I looked forward to the day when I would be able to attend Cursillo with my future husband just like my parents before me.  This gave me a great foundation.

Cursillo is a Spanish word meaning “short course” and that’s exactly it’s intent.  Participants (or pilgrims) spend three nights and three days focusing on renewal, refreshment, and recommitment to living for Christ.  Most who attend Cursillo call this a “mountain top” experience.  But as a beach girl, it was more like a “tropical island” experience for me…those days of my Cursillo weekend were spent away from the world of distractions and obligations, focused on renewing my commitment to Christ and giving me the tools to carry me beyond the weekend and into my fourth day.  People who have attended Cursillo are called Cursillistas, and for us, the fourth day is the rest of our lives AFTER the weekend is over, when we are back with our families, friends, jobs and commitments, distractions, challenges and responsibilities. 

So, back to my parents….they both began “GROUPING” after attending Cursillo; which as a young child, I thought that was code for Escape, for my mom in particular from the responsibilities of parenting three young girls.  What they were really doing was keeping one another accountable for living out their lives in Christ.  Their groups met every week and didn’t change too much over the years in membership.  My dad’s original group is still meeting today almost 38 years later, and he plans to rejoin them when he moves back to Florida later this year.  The weekend is not meant to be a one time shot of Jesus juice but rather it is designed to give us Christians a virtual road map to stay focused on what God calls us to do in the world.

As I was preparing for my talk today, I studied today’s readings, including the Gospel reading from the portion of the Sermon on the Mount that has Jesus admonishing those who murder, pass judgment on others, call others’ unkind names, and those with issues in their marriage.  There are literally zillions of ways that we Christians stray from our responsibilities of loving and caring for one another, and we will continue to do so with unfortunate frequency.  But instead of just hanging our heads and accepting the troubles we see every day, there are things we can do – things that we KNOW we are called to do as we walk with Christ.  Cursillo’s approach to a short course in the Christian Life was more than a reminder for me – it was a catalyst to jump-start my personal responsibility for the growth of my faith. 

You too may be able to identify with this self-description; having grown up as a Christian and always being an Episcopalian, choosing to have faith hasn’t really ever been a struggle for me.  I never really went through any dark periods in my life where I didn’t believe in God, or that He loved me and created me.  I had a pretty non-eventful childhood in comparison to the many challenges that I know people face in their families, and that could be viewed as lucky or even as BLESSED.  But I am here to tell you that what that sort of, flat-lined history of faith did for me – no real significant peaks or valleys – is it left me soft and complacent in my relationship with God.  I said my prayers out of habit.  I went to church every Sunday because that is what I had ALWAYS done my whole life.  I did nothing heroic, had no great transformation when facing adversity; heck, I didn’t even have to make the effort to CHOOSE to believe. My Cursillo weekend made me realize that I could no longer sit back as a spectator in my life in Christ as a passive act of faith.  I had to change my intentions to match God’s intentions when he created me and called me to follow him.

There are a lot of our daily activities and decisions, which put a barrier between God and us.  This portion of the Sermon on the Mount that we hear today is intended to reach inside of each of us and shake us up a bit. I sure hope no one here today actually has committed murder, but the other list of acts that Jesus describes in his teachings today aren’t nearly as uncommon or even socially unacceptable as murder of course.  But that is not the point at all.  We may be able to identify with the particulars of divorce, judgment and lying; and it may make us uncomfortable.  THAT IS GOOD!  Being uncomfortable is a feeling I don’t like very much and when I feel uncomfortable, I am far more motivated to do something to change myself to move out of that feeling.  And let’s face it — relying on my own decisions and myself alone, is probably what gets me in my biggest messes in life.  It is ONLY when I rely on my Savior to lead and guide me in my daily life that I show any real progress toward self-improvement.  Laws don’t necessarily help me; rules often get in my way and confine me.  But the power of God’s love gives me the strength and determination to WANT to do better in my life and to do all things in love.   Cursillo gave me the tools to consistently draw closer to Him and I am forever grateful for the chance to benefit from other’s witness of love and support that weekend and now in my fourth day.

So I ask you —- what is making you uncomfortable as you reflect on your relationship with God? But more importantly, what are you going to do about it?   I am only a witness of my OWN life and decisions, and for me, making the decision to go to Cursillo was just one stop in my journey to discern God’s call to me.  The results of my life in my Fourth Day are

·      More intentional time in prayer; more focused listening to God

·      Regular reading of the Bible as a tool for understanding my God

·      Being deliberate in my actions to carry out the Kingdom work I am called to do.

None of that is radical.  But all of it was haphazardly accomplished in my life with varying degrees of success prior to Cursillo.  But my very favorite saying I learned on my weekend was this —- Make a Friend, Be a Friend, Bring a Friend to Christ.  Friends – God calls us to love each other without discrimination of who may be deserving and to follow Him and bring others to Christ.  If I imagine myself as one of the MULTITUDES who were able to hear the words of Jesus in person at the Sermon on the Mount, I am sure I would have been both uncomfortable and COMFORTED, knowing that my Savior was sent to save me.  Not because I did anything to deserve it, but rather just because he loves me.  And then I am called to help others feel that same love in Christ.

So I ask you to prayerfully consider whether Cursillo might be just what you need to begin moving in your walk with Christ.  Talk it over with any one of us Cursillistas.  We would love to help by answering questions you may have about the weekend or what the weekend has meant to each of us – because this is just my story.  David and I shared the same weekend and had really unique experiences based on what we needed at that time in our lives.  Come to a St. Peter’s Ultreya.  Get together with one of our small groups or start one of your own where you focus on keeping one another accountable for staying faithful.

But at the very least, reflect on what little steps you can make today to focus on your prayer life, your time for study and the actions that you plan to take to live more intentionally in your relationship with God.  Our relationships with one another require effort on our part to be successful.  Let’s do the same with our relationship with Christ and take a more active role in serving and praising his name.  There is a Cursillo weekend coming in March that may be timed just right for you to attend.  Or maybe another weekend would fit better in your life.  I challenge you to take the next step if you’ve been thinking and praying about this, or to learn more about the weekend and how to grow closer to God each and every day.  Of all the relationships in my life, the one that both enriches me and challenges me the most is the one I have with God – and I am a better wife, mother, sister, friend, school principal and Child of God because of His Love.  He is longing for a deeper relationship with you and me both…let’s at least take a step to meet Him.

Threat of the King

epiphany_4420c

Matthew 2:1-12

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Visit of the Wise Men

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

I’m not always proud of my behavior.  I strive to live out God’s plan for me every day and fall WAYYYYY short most days.  On my best days, I work to remember that everything is not about me and that my job is to further God’s work in the world where I live.  In some of my worst moments, I get caught up in feeling sorry for myself, gossiping about others, passing judgement and being pretty selfish.  It certainly isn’t pretty and when I reflect on those memories I am not proud one little bit.

But some of my worst behavior has happened when I feel threatened.  In high school, the cliques of high school girls didn’t bring out the best in me. I may or may not have behaved like a spoiled child in the face of the girl drama. As a parent, the threat of something terrible happening to my family has kept me from being rational in decision making and too protective when I needed to let go.  In my job as a school principal, parents sometimes come to my office to scream, yell and make threats toward me and our staff.  My default when threatened typically isn’t to respond with love and understanding.  King Herod most certainly felt threatened by strangers coming to Bethlehem to pay homage to a new king; sounds like it was news to him and not welcome news at that.

Herod’s response makes him seem pretty insecure (somewhat understandably in the face of the loss of his power, status and livelihood) and then he gets a bit sneaky. Go find this king so that I can worship him too, he says.  Yeah, right. That’s a bunch of malarkey in light of a few verses down the page in Matthew 2:16-18 when Herod’s insecurities leads him to make a pretty nasty decision to kill ALL the kids who meet the age criteria of this suspected king.  Talk about acting irrationally in the face of a perceived threat!

And that is exactly what it was – a perceived threat.  Not a real threat.  Jesus was born to save the world, not to rule over a small group of people.  But in the face of the threat to his identity, Herod did what seems unthinkable –  certainly a drastic response to the situation.  He acts out of fear of the unknown – and we are guilty of the same over reactions in our perceived threats today.

For me, I am fortunate to be able to live a life free of too many real threats to my safety and security.  So when I feel threatened, it is typically to my reputation, my beliefs, my lifestyle or my ability to be the winner is some competition.  But in most cases, the threat isn’t really about me.  Jesus coming into the world as a baby was no more a threat to Herod than one of the cool high school girls was to my happiness back in the day.  The threat wasn’t real, but based on a misplaced sense of self importance and our need to hold on to those things which we deem important to ourselves, rather than on the real threat of loss, pain and suffering.

This story tells of Epiphany, a feast day in the church where the manifestation of Christ is celebrated along with his baptism.  The symbolism of light in the form of a star leading the way to three strangers coming to honor a king beyond the scope of their understanding, the fulfilling of prophecy (Micah 5:2) from ancient teachings and the fact that the revelation of God sending his Son to live among the people as one of them – they certainly qualify as an epiphany where we come to understand something in a new and different way. The Feast of Epiphany is celebrated on the twelfth day of Christmas – January 6, 2014 this year, to be exact.  We are still singing Christmas carols in church (give us a break – we focused on Advent every week since Thanksgiving!) and now we find ourselves with the first of a long line of threats to the life of Jesus Christ, even as he is still a very young child living with his parents in a small town in relative obscurity.  The threat to the life of Jesus was real – yet he didn’t respond in anger, defensiveness or with malice.  He offered his other cheek, his love to the persecuted and downtrodden and his heart and salvation to all who follow him – personal status being irrelevant.  Striving to live with that unconditional love for others is what we are called to do and fall short of as humans.  But we must keep trying every day to keep perspective and discern the real threats: the very real threat of a life without Christ at the center of all we do, in all we meet and in our every day work, actions and relationships.

I haven’t killed anyone when I have felt threatened (whew!!!), but I have made others feel things other than love from me.  That’s on me, and my lesson from this reading is to stop, listen and react with love, even when it feels unnatural and contrived at first.  I know I’ll get better at it the more I do it.

Light of the world, help me to view others through the eyes of your love. When I am confronted with fear, help me to see that in you, my life is secure.  Show me the way to live every day with you as the center.  To you are the power and the glory.  AMEN.

Take the First Step

Week02CycleA-10x10_apparel - Week 2

Matthew 3:1-12

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Proclamation of John the Baptist

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

We’ve been stuck in the ice since Thursday night, victims of “Icemageddon 2013” in North Texas.  We have come together to laugh and watch movies, gone to our separate corners to have time alone and have skated across the driveway to use a hairdryer in an effort to free the teenager’s car encased in an ice tomb.  Our part of the world can get ice without snow and there is really no way to save the trees that have snapped and the cars that have collided when everything is covered in ice.  So we are pretty much just hunkered down, waiting until we can peek above the freezing mark which will hopefully come soon so life can get back to normal.

I generally prefer NOT to have a day off from school – a day that will have to made up on a beautiful spring Friday where the weather is perfect, I’m sure!  But I can’t even tell you how much this gift of time has been appreciated.  All the hectic holiday schedules were cancelled and the tempo of time has slowed down considerably. As I have reflected and studied this week’s Gospel reading from Mark, I am struck by the image created in my mind of John the Baptist.

I picture this really crazy looking guy showing up when least expected.  The Pharisees and Sadduccees are up to speed on the prophets’ stories and John seems pretty darn far fetched as the one who prepares the people for the coming of the Lord!  Dressed as an outsider and maybe even smelling a little ripe, John comes on the scene shouting of repentance and that the Lord is coming, taking people to the Jordan river to experience baptism, a completely new concept in the traditions of the faith at the time.

As John is calling out the religious leaders for their hypocrisy, I can only imagine their confusion.  That same confusion still exists today in those who proclaim their faith with television ratings and prosperity gospels, with our own hypocrisy in what we say we believe and the story our actions and words tell that conflict with those beliefs – the self-righteous were hustling to get baptized by John for sure.  But John throws cold water on this party as he tells about Jesus who will separate the wheat from the chaff (or the righteous from the lowly) and bring those who need mercy into the fold while banishing the rest of them (or us!) from the Kingdom of God.

So here are a few observations about this story and what we can learn from it in today’s world:

  • God doesn’t seem to select the high and mighty to tell of his kingdom.  He chooses the lowly, the ones who look and sound different from the usual leaders.  So listen to everyone with a discerning ear and a loving heart.
  • Get ready y’all!  Advent gives us the time to prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ birth and the future coming of Christ into the world.  Don’t squander the time we need to get ready for all God has prepared for us.
  • Don’t be the chaff.  Don’t be a wasted part of the world.  Add value to all you meet, love with reckless abandon, even when it is uncomfortable and don’t be afraid to listen to God’s message in your life.
  • If you aren’t living the life you know that God is intending for you, take a step toward that today.  One step forward brings you closer to God.  Don’t assume that just showing up at church will ever be enough to meet God in his desired relationship with you.  He wants to be known to us and makes himself available whenever we take the time to notice.

So, prepare the way of the Lord.  Make it easy to find you on the threshing room floor when the time comes, or the ice thaws once and for all.

Giver of life, you have given us all we need to love you and follow you. Thank you for your goodness and mercy.  Draw us nearer to you so that we may do the work you have called us to do in your kingdom.  Give us strength and courage to love and serve you, preparing ourselves for your coming into the world.  AMEN.

Prepare the Way of the Lord

Cycle B Advent Week 1

Matthew 24:36-44

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Necessity for Watchfulness

36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

I love the season of Advent.  In this crazy, consumerized time of year, it is a refreshing take on preparing for the Christmas season.  Many folks don’t celebrate a time of preparation like Advent; from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary (Click here), the definition is the period beginning four Sundays before Christmas and observed by some Christians as a season of prayer and fasting.  The second definition is the coming of Christ at the Incarnation.  In our Episcopal/Anglican tradition, we labor to stay focused on Advent for the full four Sundays before we “green” the church and switch our focus to the Christmas celebration which carries us all the way to Epiphany (See definition here).  In our home, we have an advent wreath that we put out each year with the traditional four candles (three purple or blue, and one pink/red, depending on tradition) that we light each Sunday.  Our almost adult daughter also has a wall Advent Calendar which builds the pieces of a felt and velcro Nativity.  Somehow, the craziness of the holidays stays at bay when we take the time to prepare for the coming of Christ.

Another kind of event that I love is a good old fashioned surprise party!  When everyone does all this activity to prepare behind the scenes and the honoree carries on throughout all the preparation without a clue of what is to come at the moment we all jump out with a loud shout of “SURPRISE!!!!” – I just love it! So what’s the connection between a surprise party and Advent? Go with me here…

The season of Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of our Lord.  Christmas is a day to remember his birth and the season of Christmas actually starts on Christmas Day, but Advent goes way beyond that.  The birth of Jesus is truly a remarkable event – from the virgin, teenage mother, her betrothed taking on a potentially scandalous situation, to a long ride in less than comfortable conditions with a very pregnant mom-to-be; only to be turned away as they seemed to desperately seek shelter for the obvious and inevitable birth.  The very unlikely setting for the Son of God’s rather unceremonious birth and then all the special signs, guests/visitors and heralding angel chorus – remarkable details of Jesus’ birth indeed.  But Advent doesn’t just have us focusing on the birth of Christ as a singular event.  As Resurrection people, we go beyond the birth to thirty some odd years later and the crucifixion, and then to the second definition referenced by Merriam-Webster – the second coming of Christ.  Jesus tells his disciples there will be no warning – a literal surprise – as to when He will come again.  And tells them, and through them tells us all, to be ready. Not like the honored guest at a surprise party who never sees it coming, but like the host who plans all the details except the biggest details of all – the time and place of the surprise itself.

So Advent gives us a purpose just as the upcoming season of Lent does prior to Easter.  Advent slows us down and attempts to keep us focused on preparing the way for the Lord.  One of my favorite hymns during this time is from the Taize music tradition:

Prepare the way of the Lord.
Prepare the way of the Lord,
and all people will see the salvation of our God.

We don’t know the time or the place, and being ready doesn’t mean we need to pay any attention to those details.  The only requirement from Jesus was to be ready any time.  Knowing when and how won’t make us more ready and will distract us from our job at hand: to prepare the way of the Lord.  To study the Word, to pray without ceasing and to go out and do the work we are called to do in the world. The celebration of Advent makes us take the time to be mindful of our job in this Christian relationship – to invite Jesus into our hearts, minds and actions; to be thankful for our blessings and grateful for our challenges that bring us closer to him. Don’t skip over the preparation to jump straight into celebration just yet.  Be watchful and prepare for perfect healing through Christ.

Giver of Life, I come to you humbly as I prepare for your coming.  Your gift of your Son to live and die for me is more generous a gift than I could ever give.  The hope of Advent and the coming of Christ to save us all brings all the joy I need to help me focus on preparing my sinful self for seeing you.  Thank you for giving us time to prepare. In your gracious name I pray.  AMEN.

The Time is Near

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Luke 21:5-19

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Destruction of the Temple Foretold

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Signs and Persecutions

They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Being a faithful Christian is something I strive for, but know that I fall short of every single day.

With that said, what does being a faithful Christian really mean? This week’s Gospel from Luke seems to be a doomsday prediction on the surface.  Jesus teaches that our temples will fall, false prophets will lead us astray, our families will turn against ourselves and there will be some really bad stuff happening in the world.  Followers of Christ will be treated as criminals and be hated; all while wars and natural disasters are happening around us. Pretty heavy stuff, but not too far fetched if you just watch a little television in the evenings. Jesus then says the most calming things: don’t worry about preparing to defend yourself, as he will give us the tools we need to be protected and we will not be harmed in the process of all this doom and gloom.

There are a lot of preachers teaching this “end of time” preparation stuff and tons of books that attempt to explain how it all will end for us here on earth.  There are classes you can take to prepare you and your family for the end of the world by hoarding canned goods, toilet paper and gallons of water and how to live off the grid if needed.  The news is full of stories that can align tightly with the scary parts of the reading for this week as well – it’s not a huge leap to think that the end is near.

The title of this blog entry isn’t “The End is Near,” but rather focuses on the time is now.  Reading this Gospel through the first time might elevate your heart rate a little, but go back and read it again. This is a lesson on peace – peace in the here and now. Jesus tells us about all the bad stuff while at the very same time reassuring us of our safety and security in his arms.

I’m a pretty positive person who tends toward the optimistic slant in my views of the world.  So I’m drawn to the part of today’s Gospel that focuses on faith.  I hear today’s interpretation of Jesus’ words in Luke as this; “Draw near to me in faith and I will give you all the tools you need to stay on the path in the face of the world of distractions and conflict.” The folks who say that we need to be ready for the end of times are focused on their own skills and tools – I choose to let my faith give me the tools I will need that I cannot even muster from within myself on my own. It’s way easier to get discouraged and sad by the news around us than it is to remain faithful to Christ. Yet that is exactly what we are called to do.  “By your endurance you will gain your souls” is the last line of today’s reading.  Endurance is about getting back on track as we follow our Lord and Savior through this world that we humans do a great job of destroying.  And gaining my soul sounds a lot better than having enough canned goods when all is said and done. So the time is near alright – the time to get right and stay right in our faith.  There really is no better time than now to join with God in his plans for us.

In this scary world, we give thanks to you Lord, for being our protector and provider of more than we even knew we needed.  Thank you for giving us the wisdom to choose to follow you in the face of adversity.  We love you and look ahead to our perfect relationship with you through Christ our Lord.  AMEN.

Another Perspective

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Luke 19:1-10

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Jesus and Zacchaeus

19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

A different perspective:

“I don’t really know what all the fuss is, but I heard Jesus was coming to Jericho.  I’ve heard stories from travelers passing through that he has healed some really sick people, forgiven and accepted some people that don’t normally have any stature in the community and welcomed with love tax collectors like me.  I don’t really like taking money from the people in my community, but Rome wants the taxes and I need to feed my family so that is the job I have to do and most of the jobs out there require a physique I just don’t have.  I had heard that tons of people would be coming to see him as he passed through town just like other places he has been and I thoughtthe only shot I would have to get a glimpse of this guy Jesus would be to run ahead and find somewhere on high ground.  So I headed up in front of the crowd, but I was still having a hard time seeing with so many folks standing in front of me.  I spotted the sycamore tree and thought that climbing up a bit would help me get a better view, and that’s where I was perched as Jesus came down the road.  I waited with great anticipation and out of the way of the crowd.

Just as Jesus reached the spot in the road under my tree, he looked up directly into my eyes. He called me by name.  By MY name.  I was shocked; how did he know who I was?  Then, again, just talking to me, he told me to come down because he was going to stay at my house.  Well, when Jesus says he needs you, you better “hop to!” I couldn’t believe my ears!  Why me?  A Tax Collector even!  But I scrambled down and started walking with Jesus to my home.  As we turned to walk away together, I could hear the not so quiet grumblings of the religious leaders and others in the crowd – I’ve become used to the way folks look at me and talk badly about me and my family.  That’s the risk you take when you are the Chief Tax Collector.  But it still stings to have people speak about you like you aren’t as good as they are.

So I stopped with Jesus right there.  I felt like I needed to justify myself to Jesus and those who were watching, so I pledged to give away half of everything I owned to the members of our community who lived in deep poverty.  I’ve always prided myself on being honest – I collected taxes to send to the Roman government and only kept enough for myself to take care of my family, but I assured Jesus that I would make amends to any who felt like I had taken more than necessary; I promised that and so much more if needed.  But Jesus said the most unexpected thing:  He welcomed me into the Body of Christ with open arms and no strings attached.  As his eyes burned into mine, he told me he was there for me.  My life had been just lived for me until that day, when he gave me and my family the gift of salvation.  I will forever be changed by this intimate encounter with Jesus and commit to sharing the Good News of Christ to all I meet.”

Ok, I fudged a little to make a point.  Imagine how Zacchaeus must have felt on that once in a lifetime day.  Forget about the special event that Jesus provided by calling him by name and stating his intention to stay in his home – unthinkable based on his stature in society.  Then, when Zacchaeus realizes everyone is looking at him as if he could never deserve such an honor, he tries to prove himself to Jesus.  But Jesus never even acknowledges the offer to give away his possessions and pay back anyone wronged by him four times over.  He just welcomes him to accept the greatest gift of salvation.  No questions asked and no task required.

I’ll bet that shut up the crowd for a second…once they headed down the road the family home though, I’m sure the talk started right back up again.  “Unbelievable!” “No way!” “Zacchaeus…are you kidding me?”  Surely that is just a snippet of the nasty things said about him when he came down from the tree to Jesus and again when they were out of earshot.

Why do we sometimes hate it when others are blessed?  Why do we look down on others based on their lot in life?  Why do we always think we are better than anyone else?  Why don’t we read stories like this and realize that each of us is worthy of redemption and forgiveness, as Jesus proves time and time again in our Gospel readings?  All we have to do is turn to him.  So ignore the negative talk (both from others and from yourself), stop judging others like we are better than them and turn to Christ.  Simple, huh?  Simple but not easy…that’s why we keep having to do it over and over again, every single day of our lives. And spread the Good News in the world.  That is all God wants from us is to serve his Kingdom with love.

Lord of all mercies, we give you thanks for your incredible generosity and your forgiveness of all we do to drive a wedge between ourselves and our Savior.  Keep us looking ahead to salvation and give us strength and courage to speak of your children with love.  Thank you for the perspective of Zacchaeas and for welcoming us into eternal life.  We ask all things through Jesus Christ who loves us.  AMEN.

Approach with Caution

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Luke 18:9-14

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 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!’ 14 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.”

“At least I’m not like THOSE people.” I’ve said it.  I’ve thought it.  I’ve meant it.

I can be pretty proud of myself at times.  I believe it when I read a news article about my most recent professional accomplishment. When people tell me I’m a great principal, I love that feeling.  After meeting our family and chatting with our almost graduated from high school daughter, and compliments about her are given to us as parents, we can get pretty puffed up with pride.  When I do something kind for someone else and hear how I have helped them, I can feel pretty darn good about myself.  Let’s just go with this…I don’t suffer from a self-image problem or deal with debilitating insecurities.

But today’s lesson from Luke is all about the humility with which we are to approach our life in Christ.  The Pharisee does one heck of a job of pumping up and list his accomplishments to an all-knowing and all-seeing God.  It’s like he is looking for God to thank him with a big “Atta Boy!” for living a righteous life.  And in comparison, the tax-collector, that lowest of the lows in society at the time comes before God with a humble heart and asks for mercy without even raising his eyes toward heaven.   Jesus then shares that little nugget at the end about the humbled being exalted, essentially admonishing the bragger and do-gooder for forgetting that God’s gifts come without any strings attached.

To be exalted is to be elevated in status and that is exactly what Jesus tells us to will happen when we live our life in deference to the gifts of grace and mercy.  The Pharisee approaches God as if to collect what he deserves…but let’s face the truth here.  We can never do enough good and follow enough rules to ever deserve God’s mercy.  That’s the coolest and most humbling part of all – all we have to do is ask. And it is done.  That’s it.

But make sure you want the elevated status in God’s eyes, rather than search for it in the eyes of others.  With a somewhat high profile job in my community which provides a service, people tend to tell me things about myself that I could easily believe if I allowed what others’ think about me to influence my status.  I could believe that I have almost magical leadership powers if their interpretations of my leadership are correct.  I could also believe the opposite on my worst day as a principal if I let the feelings of others determine my worth.  So I try to find a balance – I am my worst critic for sure – but in God’s eyes, I am his creation and therefore must turn to him to be given the gift of grace and mercy.

Today’s parable is a cautionary tale to be wary of puffing up oneself to others and especially to God.  He knows all that we are and all that we are not without our need to list off the accomplishments and/or failures.  No matter how we are feeling about our worth to ourselves or our family/friends/community, approach God with an open heart to the gift of justification through our humility.  And we will be exalted through him.

Lord, we are not worthy to accept your gift of your one and only Son.  Yet we know that you intended that gift just for us.  Help us to stay humble in our good works and remind ourselves we are deserving of your grace and mercy.  For our exaltation is for you and for your alone.  AMEN.

Persistent Prayer

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Luke 18:1-8

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge

18 Then Jesustold them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Big themes in our Gospel for this week!  Here are the ones I teased out during my reflection:

  1. Jesus needs us to pray.
  2. Persistence works.
  3. Justice from humans = flawed/imperfect.  Justice from God? Perfect.
  4. Keep working on faith.

The use of parables in Luke’s Gospel is a successful way to get me to think.  I love to tell stories myself as well as hear others’ stories too – and parables make it easier for me to relate to God’s teachings.  And this parable starts off strongly with, “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.”  It’s not written in the form of a question either – not we “should” pray, or “ought to” pray…but rather that we NEED to pray.  And then the implication of patience is stated when Jesus tells them not to “lose heart.” That reminds me of the story of how long and how hard St. Augustine’s mother prayed for him to find a relationship with God.  I bet she was frustrated with the seemingly lack of answer to that prayer, but she kept praying without ceasing.  A great life lesson as she must have wrestled with faithfulness as she begged God to be able to reach in her son’s heart and see him turn to the Lord.

Persistence is easy to have when we want it.  I have been known to shop for hours looking for the perfect shoes.  THAT is persistence!  When I want someone to change their minds about something, I can be pretty persistent in making the case for change.  Toddlers have persistence down pat at quite an early age, don’t they? So why do we give up so easily when it comes to prayer and building our relationship with Christ? Why do we walk away from the chance to have the intimacy of a relationship with God through our conversation and quiet listening time?  Why don’t we make the time for this important part of our walk with Christ?

The judge in this story is a self-proclaimed jerk and non-believer who basically rules in favor of the widow to get her off his back.  Whether that justice was deserved or not seemed to be a non-issue in the story (although widows in this day had very little influence at all).  We do that too – make decisions like this judge to mollify others whether they are right decisions or not. Maybe if the judge had been faithful to God the story could have been a different one because he would have relied upon discernment that comes from faith in God to help him with this and his many other cases.  But he held out as long as he could while she kept coming back for her justice.  Our God is much more generous and merciful than that.  He sent his Son to die for our sins; that is the kind of justice we can never deserve. And though it may feel as if the world is unfair and God isn’t listening to us, when we think about his gracious gifts to us it explains how we can find the strength in our times of greatest challenge.  In fact, without his grace, we wouldn’t be nearly as successful as we are now! And PS…his timing is perfect and way better than what we think it should be in the long run, right?

But the last line of this week’s passage is the real question, “…when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Gosh, I sure hope so.  And that starts with me.  Will he find faith in me if he comes tomorrow?  Will he see evidence of our love in the world we live in, building communities of faithfulness that are pleasing to him? Are we doing enough to spread God’s love in all we do and say?  Are we leaving the judging up to him and him alone? Is our praying persistent enough to keep our hearts and minds on his true love?

Lord, you are the great Judge.  You are merciful and full of grace and compassion.  Look generously on us as we strive for faith and justice and give us a heart that yearns for you.  For you are the one who knows what we need before we know for ourselves and your timing and answers to prayers is perfect.  Help us to be relentless in turning back to you each and every day.  Your saving grace is ours.  AMEN.

Growing in Gratitude

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Luke 17:11-19

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Jesus Cleanses Ten Lepers

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

Our daughter had the most awesome caretaker when she was a year old.  Her name was NeeCee and she was loved by each member of our family.  She did really creative activities with the three little girls that came to her house every day – like field trips in the stroller to the library and our family’s favorite – baking day!  She loved the girls like they were her own, but the very best thing she did was teach the foundation of gratitude.  At 14 months old, our little girl said “thank you” for every little thing she received because it was NeeCee’s expectation 100% of the time from the each of her kids, even the ones that belonged to the rest of us!

But saying thank you the way a toddler does is not what this story in Luke is referencing. First, let’s start with the 10 lepers.  10 lepers hanging out together and walking down the road – what a sight that must have been!  Lepers lived at the lowest rung of society during Jesus’ time, so they were most likely very desperate for relief from their probably painful and definitely disabling condition.  We don’t know from this story whether they were people of faith, or just people willing to ask for healing from any Tom, Dick or Harry.  But their display of belief becomes apparent as they do exactly as Jesus says when they ask him for healing (“Have mercy on us.”).

But why did only one of the healed lepers stop to show his appreciation to Jesus?  I mean, come on, they were HEALED and headed back up the social status ladder! I remember doing something really nice for a “close friend” when I was much younger and being shocked at the lack of gratitude showed to me for my sincere effort and sacrifice I made for this friend.  It ended our friendship because I was so downright bitter about the lack of gratitude, so I can only imagine how Jesus may have felt when only one took the time to say thanks.  It’s easy to look at this story and say that 1 out of 10 lepers had the decency to say thanks for the mercy, Lord.

I’m thinking that is not the best message to take away.  For me, I know that showing gratitude for my gifts can get lost in the excitement of receiving them.  I am often guilty of taking my gifts of grace and mercy for granted.  Jesus isn’t going around Samaria and Galilee and healing in order to get appreciation and we shouldn’t do our good works for others to fish for compliments either.  But there is a tangible effort in our relationship with others when we do take the time to appreciate them for what they do for us.  Our thanks is a great relationship builder with one another and most certainly, that holds true in our relationship with Christ as well.  Doing things for others is what we are called to do.  Showing our appreciation is the least we can do and one of the most powerful tools in relationship development.  And that holds true for our relationship as followers.  The appreciation can do much in the work of our relationship, showing our intimacy and closeness to keep mindful of our gifts of grace.

I choose to focus on the one healed person who turned back and recognized his gift of healing.  The other lepers probably partied all night long celebrating their good fortune in healing.  They may have thanked God for that gift as well.  But I bet the one who took the time to appreciate Jesus had the deepest blessing of a relationship with Christ – which in the end, is better than any physical healing anyway.  His gratitude did much in the way of working in faith with God.  Our challenge is to find ways to show appreciation to our friends, families and strangers, as well as to our Lord and Savior.  It seems to be the very minimum expectation and goes the longest way to having that deep relationship we want with God.

Healing God, you give us the grace mercy we never deserve through the loving gift of your son our Savior.  Help us to find the time and the strength to be grateful for our many gifts.  We want to deepen our relationship with you and know that our gratitude will help us grow closer to you every day.  AMEN.