Allegiance, Servitude and Servanthood

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 | Psalm 100 | Ephesians 1:15-23 | Matthew 25:31-46

In 1925, Pope Pious XI established Christ the King feast day in the Roman Catholic Church as a response to rising secularism and especially as a counter to the Mexican government that was demanding ultimate allegiance. Those of us following the lectionary get the associated propers to remind us to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance: the King of kings and Lord of lords. As Americans, we have a complicated relationship with allegiance, with to whom or what we pledge our loyalty. We revolted against England to establish our own governance, and we pride ourselves on our independence. One of the reasons Anglicans had to expedite a new prayer book was because we had to remove allegiance paid to the English monarch, who also stood as defender of the faith. Today we are, however, expected to pledge allegiance to the flag and to the Republic for which it stands. Loyalty to the nation is a serious matter, and we’re still not sure how to conduct civil discourse when that loyalty is questioned or challenged.

I kept hearing Bob Dylan’s song, “Gotta Serve Somebody” in my head this week. In it, he’s basically saying it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody. “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you’re gonna have to serve somebody” so the song goes.

Whom do we serve? Can we say with full confidence, like Joshua, “as for me and my household, we … serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15)? If someone looks at our bank account, does it look like we’re a cheerful giver, not just to the church even but to worthwhile causes, too? If someone looks at our schedule, does it reflect times of prayer? If we believe in God, are we loyal to God? Do we pay allegiance to God?

And maybe a better question is “How do we serve God?”

Because, yes, we serve the Lord, we give, and we pray, but how do we do it? Because we’re told? Because we have to? Because we’re supposed to, so we do what we gotta do and be done with it and live our lives the way we want the rest of the time? You don’t have to tell me, but I bet you can come up with at least something you do that you just have to power through. You don’t want to do it, but it’s good for you, like my going to the gym. Or eating all those vegetables that are so good for you, like celery. There may be other things, too, that you do that are hard but you don’t want to admit but that just are, like going to funerals or nursing homes or even going to parties and special events. Maybe they just aren’t your thing. But you do it. You’re loyal. Sometimes that brings with it a sense of servitude. We don’t like it, but we do it. We push through it. We get it done, and we can probably describe in methodical detail every aspect of our tasks because we’re very conscientious about what it is we have to do, unless we’ve let ourselves develop a habit and stopped paying attention to why we do what we do. If we lose our conscientiousness about it, then we’ve become little more than an automaton going through the motions.

“Be joyful in the LORD, all you lands;/serve the LORD with gladness and come before his presence with a song” (Ps. 100:1) (I always think there should be an exclamation mark at the end of that sentence.) I don’t think an automaton makes a joyful servant. Do we serve God with gladness, with gladness and singleness of heart? Maybe not all the time but even sometimes?

Maybe you do this more than you know. When you are doing what you’re good at, when you’re settled into your groove, and when you’re humming or smiling or focusing so intently that all else fades away, that’s it: you’re serving with gladness and singleness of heart because you are being fully you. So often we try to complicate a sense of being a wholehearted person or someone fully restored to God, but it’s really quite simple. You be you to your fullest, and in that moment when you think you can’t hold anything else, be joyful that God has created you for this moment. Be glad that you are restored to your Creator through our Lord Jesus Christ, for however far away we’ve strayed, every moment we have the chance to return.

It doesn’t sound like we have infinite opportunity when we’ve heard so much about being cast out or accursed, with all the weeping and gnashing of teeth. But things aren’t always what they seem. Jesus wasn’t the stereotypical Messiah; I don’t expect him to be the typical King. How many kings liken themselves to shepherds?

God in Ezekiel likened God to the ultimate Good Shepherd, and then appointed David as prince and shepherd. Jesus likens himself to the Good Shepherd, one of my favorite Godly Play lessons. We want to be sheep of the Good Shepherd, loved, protected, known, and sought after. As archaic as the image seems to us, we get that a good shepherd is what the sheep want.

But what about strength and might, power and dominion?

Even the nations become like sheep and goats when the Son of Man returns, our gospel today imagines. Nations who may have persecuted the early followers of Christ, nations who may persecute the poor and weak today–all are judged by the rule of Christ the King. That rule, that measure isn’t about power; it’s about how well you loved. How well did you love God? How well did you love others? How well did you love yourself so you could reflect that love of God in the mobius strip of holy communion, no beginning, no end?

Ultimately, what matters most is how we are living into our servanthood. As faithful, loyal followers of Jesus Christ, how’s our servant’s heart? Are we humble, merciful, pure, strong, peacemakers (with God’s help, of course!)? Not because we have to but because it’s the right thing to do: do we feed the hungry, water the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, comfort the sick, and visit the imprisoned? Not just as individuals but as a nation? If not, why not? Whom are we serving?

In any of the advocacy work I’ve been a part of or causes I’ve supported, the bottom line in all of them is that true change starts at the ground level. It starts at a point and reaches a critical mass until it becomes a groundswell that changes things, forcing the top to move as the masses mandate. It doesn’t take an expert sociologist to tell us that we’re not a united people right now, not even united as Christians, I’m sorry to say. Some of us would probably rather see the face of God in another religious tradition than work with other members in the Body of Christ. What does that say about our heart? Our faith and love?

“We are his people and the sheep of his pasture.” We have the ability to serve with gladness and singleness of heart, to be joyful and sing. We also have the ability to go out and be a guiding light for our community and our nation. God’s will for us all is to be restored, to be returned to our fullness of glory in the image of God. What each of us does to that end is going to vary, but it’s something we get to do. We can ignore it, do it begrudgingly, or do it with love and joy. I promise it’s so much more rewarding to do it with love and joy. Not easier! Just ask the Ephesians. Ask those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. They wouldn’t describe their allegiance to God as bondage, a servitude suppressing their freedom. Rather, in their oppression by the powers of this world, their allegiance to God through Jesus Christ bound their hearts in solidarity to the Sovereign of all ages. The mutual love and affection to achieve glory not only fulfilled their best selves but also fulfills God’s will.

And Paul gives us a beautiful prayer for our servant-heart:

“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”

Amen.

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The Long Haul

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 | Psalm 78:1-7 | 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 | Matthew 25:1-13

Most families about this time are finalizing Thanksgiving plans, determining who’s going to be where, bringing some part of the great feast. Perhaps your family, like ours, lingers around the table a little while, too full really to move, and starts storytelling. Casey’s dad is really good at this and is prone to exaggeration or throwing a joke in when you least expect it, so you fall for it completely. Then his mom starts in, sometimes barely getting the words out from laughing so hard, and we’re all laughing, too, though we’ve heard the stories hundreds of times (and I can’t tell you many of them because we’re in church and you probably know your own family legends). We can almost guess which stories are going to be told, depending on the theme of the conversation. I’ve noticed my older kids recognize this pattern and can jump in to jog memories if details or stories are left out of the conversation. In a sense, this is the Milford family’s oral tradition. These are the stories we tell when we gather together that demonstrate our resilience, our bond, and our sense of humor (to be sure!).

We gather each week for our Great Thanksgiving, our Eucharist, and we share our stories. Stories like Joshua leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, making sure through a bit of reverse psychology that they’re all in, committed to following one God, like him and his house. (So, yes, they’re really going to have to get rid of all the other idols.) Stories like in the letter to the Thessalonians that offer encouragement, hope, and assurance. They just knew the Son of Man was coming at any moment, but people were dying before he got there. What about their reward? In light of the foolish and wise bridesmaids, how can they–how can we–be sure we’re all ready, fully prepared? It doesn’t seem sustainable to be in red alert mode all the time. Something doesn’t seem right.

We know there’s a lot “not right” right now. A quick glance over the headlines just this past week tells a story of a people clamoring for something but getting tripped up on themselves. Where in all our stories does it say point a finger at anyone but ourselves? We want to do that. We could read and live our tradition blaming everyone else for our plight–from the Egyptians to the pharisees, to the Romans, to the Islamic State, to nonbelievers, to addiction, to mental illness. . . our list is legion. Last week when we were given the Beatitudes, Padre Guillermo and I both read them as instruction for how we live our lives in relationship, in community. They are how we live our lives ultimately because we are in relationship with God, and nowhere in the instructions does Jesus tell us that we are to rationalize or make excuses for not loving God or our neighbor, blaming our inadequacies on anyone and anything but ourselves. This acceptance or even realization that we are accountable for ourselves doesn’t feel good, but it allows us to seek out help; it helps us admit our weaknesses and vulnerabilities for which we need support. We could use our own letter from Paul.

When we’re living into the Christian life and trucking along with a new convert’s fervor, we might shine the light of faith brightly for all to see. We make our decisions based on what is right and good because it seems so clear. We know whose we are. We know where we’re going. We’re ready to meet the Lord now or in the kingdom to come. Our lamps are lit, and we’re prepared. We’re wise. And good. (And incredibly prone to being self-congratulatory.)

(http://www.clarion-journal.com/clarion_journal_of_spirit/2015/03/parable-of-the-ten-virgins-whats-the-oil-brad-jersak.html)

Maybe we started this life of faith with such vigor but started to lose our way. Unconditional love and acceptance drew us in and lit a fire we didn’t know we were capable of. Our light shines as brightly as for those who are wise, or at least it does at times . . . or did at one point. We just missed the instructions on how to keep the oil filled, our lamps ready and prepared. So how do we stay on fire for Jesus? How do we stay in love when things get hard, when the blessedness assured by Jesus seems hypothetical and archaic?

We share our stories.

Remember when Moses saw the Glory of God and was transfigured so much he had to wear a veil to talk to the ordinary folks? Remember how Moses died at the LORD’s command without much ado, and then Joshua was chosen to lead the people on into the Promised Land? Remember how Jesus summarized the law as loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself? Remember how Jesus lived, died, and rose again to show us the triumph of life and love on Easter morning? Remember the first time you experienced the unconditional love of God? Remember when you experienced the radical hospitality of this place? Remember how All Saints’ was planted and all the crazy things you’ve been through? Remember the first service on the Land? Remember the first bilingual service?

All our experiences now are the stuff of tomorrow’s stories, and it’s okay to look at the stories, the memories and learn from our mistakes. The gospel doesn’t say the foolish bridesmaids couldn’t get oil to fill their lamps; they just hadn’t done it in time. The wise ones knew the stories, learned from them, and remained steadfast, ready for whatever came next.

The important thing for us today is that we realize we’re in this for the long haul: “this” being our Christian life. This Christian life isn’t a sprint to the Second Coming but rather a marathon of following Jesus’s way through life, death, and resurrection–physically and spiritually. We need the light of Christ to illumine our way forward, and we need the oil, the fuel for that light. What do we do to nurture our faith in Christ? When and what do we pray? Do we hear Bible stories or read them on days other than Sunday? Do we consider our church family part of our support network? How much of what we do in the other 166 hours of the week reflects that we follow Jesus and that He is the light of our life? If we don’t know how or why or when, know that’s what I’m here for, to help you in your walk in faith, to find fuel for your faith. Normally people seek out the church in times of crisis, but if we keep maintaining a life of faith, we have a reservoir at the ready.

And what about All Saints’? We’ve considered the stories of the past, but what of its trajectory? What do we need to make ready so that when Jesus wanders in in the guise of the unemployed, the hungry, or any one of us, we’re prepared to show love of God and neighbor in practice? Keep in mind, we’re not pointing fingers or making excuses. This isn’t just a prompt for a “we need a building” discussion. This is really a prompt for us to prayerfully consider who we are as a church, as a people of God who proclaim the Risen Lord and who are gifted with Holy Spirit. Because if you put us in a room with a hundred other people from a hundred other religious traditions, we couldn’t distinguish the foolish or wise, the lazy or the prepared. Looking out at all of you, I don’t know your heart and mind (though some of you are likely still thinking about Thanksgiving). How does who we are affect our trajectory as a church in Bentonville, in the world?

These are the kinds of questions the vestry and I ask ourselves as we put together a yearly budget. Good caretakers, good stewards consider not just the material but also the intention and the hope. As we gather weekly for our Great Thanksgiving and tell our stories, what stirs in your heart? What fuels the light of Christ within you? What are you grateful for? What gives you a sense of wisdom? Those are things we can’t really put a pricetag on and say, “Well, match your yearly pledge to that.” The work we do here, the preparations we make from a place of faith are not of this world but are still very much within it. I know in the newsletter there’s been an emphasis on pledges that haven’t been met and how we have a deficit. But I believe we are a community that knows how to prepare. We are a community of abundance–of love, of talents, gifts, and treasure. We’re also a community of vision; we see All Saints’ filling an important role in the faith community in Northwest Arkansas. We’ll watch and wait together, but our anticipation isn’t idle. There’s work to be done, memories to be made, and stories to tell. We’re in it for the long haul.

 

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Our Command

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 | Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 | 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 | Matthew 22:34-46

(More of what was preached for Proper 25)

The other day on the radio I heard an engineer talking about the amazing thing that a tiny robot can do (called the robo-bee). Fifteen of them together weigh about as much as a penny, she said. It flies, and now it can swim. More than that, it can launch itself out of water, converting water to gas to create enough propulsion so it can break through the water’s tension and emerge above water ready to fly again. Amazing. Most of you know my husband is a computer guy, so I understand there’s a whole programming side of things that I will never fully understand. My husband spends a lot of time at the command line on the black terminal screen that most of us regular users never see, but it’s the commands that he puts in that keep the software running as it should, just as the programs coded for the little robo-bees direct them in what they are able to do.

So when we have this account of Moses death, that he died as the LORD commanded, I marvel at the significance of his obedience even in death, knowing full well that his life has not been perfect. Even in his imperfection, Moses had been singled out by God to know and experience God in a way few have. Joshua had big shoes to fill, leading the Israelites, but they carried on, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses. They persisted in following the law, keeping their tradition alive through generations.

By the time of Jesus, there are an estimated 613 laws to follow in Judaism. The Pharisees know them and are responsible for keeping them. A lawyer would presumably be one skilled in Mosaic law, also, and that’s the person who speaks up to test Jesus, offering what he’s sure to consider a trick-question. “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” To which Jesus unhesitantly replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And the second is like the first: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” a natural outgrowth, seemingly, of the first.

Knowing your Book of Common Prayer, you of course knew this summary of the commandments, as it’s in the Catechism. This “Greatest Commandment” is also in Mark and Luke, with the addition of loving God with all our strength. We can know these commands by memory, but what does it mean to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul? “Love” alone is complicated. Sometimes we want to focus on agape as a love that seems to evoke the all-compassionate love of God, philia that has the brotherly-love emphasis, or eros that gets at desire. Yes to all of these, and more. There’s so much more than sentimentality here. This all-encompassing love asks for all of our heart. However much we think we love, it’s that and more, requiring our loyalty and devotion. It’s putting God before all else, before any idols we might have, be they animate or inanimate (thinking of relationships, power, money, etc.). Love God with all our heart and with all our mind. I can’t even begin to wrap my feeble mind around God, but with all that I am, I let my thoughtful self love God. I allow myself to bring all of my questions, doubts, concerns, and fears to God. I bring my whole intellect, even when what I’m wrestling with makes no rational or logical sense. Love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our soul.With the very essence of our being, we love God. It is our soul which most yearns for restoration in full likeness of God.

With whole-hearted, holistic love of God, love of neighbor is both a natural outgrowth and a societal obligation. But especially here, it’s important not to forget that Jesus is talking with people who want him dead. Earlier, in Chapter 7, Jesus tells his followers that the greatest thing they can do is treat others as they want to be treated, thus we get the golden rule. Now, he’s telling his enemies, his neighbors, that they are to first love God and then love one another. Jesus could have easily pointed out how these people were disobeying both commandments, kind of like the scene with the men charging a woman with adultery when he tells the one without sin to cast the first stone. Jesus is writing something in the dirt, and when he looks up, everyone but the woman is gone. Perhaps he was enumerating their own transgressions. But Jesus doesn’t do that here. He goes on to ask a question of his own, a question that as he interprets it, points to his own divinity. Psalm 110 is referenced about 37 times in the New Testament. In Christianity, it points obviously to Jesus’ Davidic ancestry but also to his divinity, his life as fully human and fully divine. Obviously, this isn’t so for the Jews then any more than now, but that didn’t change the Truth of who Jesus was and is. He had his own commands inscribed in His being and in His will. It’s no wonder those who were adamantly trying Jesus were ultimately left speechless, not daring for a time to ask any more questions.

We can love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and love our neighbors as ourselves, but in practice, things can get a little fuzzy. We have a day like Thursday. I’m all ready to go to the gym to practice my self-care after I drop Avery off at school, but on the way to school, my oil light comes on in my car. It’s the big red hazard light and another oil can light. Rarely do they both come on at the same time, so this is a huge red flag, and I’m just praying my engine doesn’t seize up in 8:00 traffic on 102. I stop in for an oil change at my regular place, and they tell me it will at least be an hour and a half, but I have a lunch appointment in Siloam. So I go to a 15-minute oil change place. I have my schedule to stick with, things I’ve got to get done. As the mechanic is welcoming me to my new venture, being my first time there, he’s smooth. I’m thinking he’s about to up-sale me on everything, but he assures me he’s not. At some point in the conversation, I tell him I’m an Episcopal priest. Before long, he brings my air filters to me to show me that they’re not bad, that I have a bulb out, and that they’re about finished. When we’re wrapping up the paperwork, where he’s giving me a first-time discount, it’s mentioned how expensive things are, and he says something about not being able to afford the best stuff, either. And I say, “Are you doing okay, though?” “Yeah, I’m alright,” he says. And he shares with me in less than five minutes the abbreviated version of his life story. How his mom’s life changed drastically when she found out she was pregnant with him, how it was her come to Jesus moment. How he didn’t really have a relationship with his birth father, but his mom found Jesus and also found a husband in a Church of Christ pastor. He shared a lively story about her being caught up in Spirit. His family is mostly in central Arkansas, so he’s a bit isolated up here, but he’s radiant with life. I probably would have bought anything he suggested, because I was smiling as I pulled away from the shop. That feeling of fullness and contentment, that happens when we let go of our preconceived notions of how things should be or how we think they are, even when they’re not. Opening ourselves to love God first and then extend it to our neighbors, we open ourselves to unlimited possibilities–yes, of potentially being hurt but only because the love is so grand.

So with the fullness and taste of joy and a much happier car, I drive to the gym and eventually make my way to Siloam, where the sapphire skies are shining, it’s nearly 80 degrees, and all seems right in the world (I rocked out to Hamilton rather than listen to the news). My colleague treated me to lunch as we caught up on life and work. He showed me some of the plans that Grace has for their expansion, as they get ready to break ground. I left with that same feeling of having had a lovely time.

But on my way back to pick up Avery, I started to feel a bit of worry, maybe a touch of anxiety or fear because I had signed up to go to the Q Commons event, an event sponsored by–as my colleague pointed out–some very conservative evangelical folks. Even the speakers were from the very conservative side of the spectrum. People who are probably praying for me, right? I’m going to this event where I imagine I’ll be judged, and I don’t know anyone else. We see what’s happened, don’t we? I’ve walled off myself in fear and worry, already forgetting what God has revealed to me just in this one day, let alone my whole life!

So I go, and there’s Christian folk being played from the stage, the tables are set, the food truck vendor has a buffet at the back and I judge it to be typical hipster scene. (The cookies on the table were a nice touch!) I’m mistaken for a sister, but the mistake informs me that someone I know will be there. Before long, I get to see her and make contact with someone I know. I talk to people in line, at my table. I start to see and converse with people I recognize but also meet new friends, all of us coming from various Christian denominations. But the whole event was about showing up to address Questions of this particular cultural moment, when we’re as divisive now, it’s perceived, as we were during the Vietnam era.

During the talk, NYTimes contributor David Brooks talks about cultivating virtue. Kara Powell talks about our addiction to technology. Propaganda talks about how complicated our lives are, how truly connected we are to one another so that we shouldn’t judge one another. Local folks spoke about art, service, and the Confederate statue. We listened, and at our tables we had a few moments to share. Of the many things I heard that still resonate in my mind, David Brooks mentioned how much our society shies away from commitment; we’re not anchored. We’re like the fall leaves right now, barely hanging on, and when a gust comes along that makes life difficult, we run away. We’ve been told by society we’re free to do whatever we want, be whatever we want, and have forgotten our covenant. We’ve forgotten that while we are free, we are in a committed relationship not only to God but to one another, with all our heart, all our mind, and all our soul. This covenantal relationship anchors us through trials and tribulations and keeps us moving forward in life, hopefully more aligned with God’s will.

So we can see how we have commands built into our Christian DNA. Born in Baptism, we are commanded to do certain things. We agree to them in our Covenant. It’s not just a contract, though; it’s a relationship. It doesn’t make life easy, but it roots us deeply in something bigger than ourselves. It might come with persecution or ridicule, but it promises us eternal life through Christ. It comes with expectation, too. Dr. James Hawkins from New Heights in Fayetteville, who spoke about the statue, said that we keep looking to our government, to politicians, to make changes. He told us that it’s up to believers to start the revolution, the radical move to life lived for love of God, that it’s up to us to pave the road of reconciliation. It’s up to us to love God with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul and love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s what we’re commanded to do, but it’s also what I want to do with every fiber of my being.

 

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Priceless Discipleship

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21 | Psalm 16 | Galatians 5:1, 13-25 | Luke 9:51-62


Rarely does one walk into an employment obligation without really knowing the full range of requirements, expectations, and compensation. Sure, a teenager might take a summer job and not know what her hourly wage will be, and her mother might sign up to be part of summer camp staff for a couple of weeks without a clue as what exactly to expect. But most people most of the time know what they’re signing up for. We want to make sure that we’ll be able to fulfill expectations and that the effort we put into something will be justly compensated. Our needs and abilities are paramount when we make these important decisions about how we invest our time and energy. When it comes to how we make our living, it’s a matter of getting the math to work in our favor. When it comes to how we live a life, however, especially a Christian life, it’s a matter of something else entirely. When we signed on to be Christians, we signed on to a life of discipleship. Even though discipleship is spelled out for us in the Word, we’re still trying to figure out what it means for us … and what it will cost us.

From what we learn from Elisha and the would-be followers of Jesus, one has to be crazy to be a disciple. Crazy because it doesn’t make sense in our fight or flight world to leave what is comfortable, to surrender oneself, or to let go of control. Who gives up everything to take on something new and unknown? But that’s what Elisha did when Elijah called him. Maybe not right at first, but when he realized that Elijah meant business, Elisha cut his ties quickly and followed Elijah completely, becoming his servant. Likewise, Jesus makes no qualms about the expectations of his followers. It’s going to be difficult. There are going to be times of alienation, and it’s going to require everything, all of their being, all of their focus. It’s all or nothing, and the same is true even today: Jesus demands our all with a focus as determined as he was with his sight set on Jerusalem.

This full demand of ourselves perhaps doesn’t sit so well with us because humanity’s evolutionary process and technological advances strive to make our lives successful and efficient. “We live in an environment of ease and abundance,” says National Geographic explorer and Blue Zones author Dan Buettner, but it turns out that ease and abundance are not serving us well. As we focus on making a living to keep life easy and abundant, we can end up caught in a hamster wheel of stress, illness, and discontent, chasing an illusion. Continuing that cycle seems crazy, too.

The Blue Zones that Buettner studied are places where people live longer, healthier, and happier lives. Yes, diet and natural exercise are important factors, but so are one’s outlook on life and sense of belonging. Having a sense of purpose, knowing what one’s purpose is, along with belonging to a family and practicing a faith tradition are crucial components of living a fulfilling life. (I’m fairly certain some of you are already in on these not-so-secret ideas.)

There was also a recent article about an assistant professor of psychology at Sewanee who conducted a study to compare “the emotional efficacy of strategies that people might use to make themselves feel better–doing something nice for themselves, doing something to benefit another person, and doing something for the betterment of the world.” Again, not-so-surprisingly, doing something for others or for the world enhances one’s well-being by increasing experiences of feelings like love, gratitude, and trust. Contrary to media and advertising, doing something self-indulgent like getting a massage, going shopping, or eating a decadent dessert has the same long-lasting effect on well-being and happiness as doing nothing.

So where does that leave us? I think it leaves us pondering upon Paul’s words to the Galatians. “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Gal 5:13). We have the freedom to do what we want, which means we can remain contained in a finite web centered upon ourselves. But we also have the freedom to seek and to serve the kingdom of God, opening our lives to the infinite. We cannot open to the infinite on our own but only through Christ. We are invited to be willing servants to one another through Christ, through love, and it’s not without compensation.

As disciples of Christ, we follow his way, expressing our love of God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. We follow his way, loving our neighbors as ourselves. We follow his way, teaching the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, making way for more disciples. We use the resources and gifts that we have because we realize that they are all from God. Even in our feeble understanding and humKeller Dining Hall, Camp Mitchell, Arkansasble efforts, God sees fit to nurture within us fruits of the Spirit. These are our rewards in our faithful service: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When manifest, these fruits further empower the works of the devoted disciples to do things we didn’t think we were capable of. Moments marked with signs of these fruits are beyond precious and remind us how near and dear God moves through the Holy Spirit.

It’s okay to be the crazy Christian. We can all be the disciple who accepts the call of God, who embarks upon the thankless, sometimes dangerous, and unpredictable adventure of discipleship. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25). We can trust the work that we do or the hobbies that we have to enrich our witness to Christ as we proclaim the name of God and not only make disciples of others but become better disciples ourselves.

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What is True at Christmas

Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7 | Titus 2:11-14 | Luke 2:1-14

Around the ages of 6 to 10, each of my children in turn have been keen to point out to me in polite whispers that people obviously dressed up as Santa aren’t the real Santa. I meet their earnest eyes with a smile and a wink and mouth, “I know.” They, too, smile in their assurance of finding something true, but I remind them that that person dressed as Santa embodies a symbol of the Spirit of Christmas–the joy we have in sharing gifts with one another, given as tokens of our love. The season of Advent has ideally prepared us to share our intangible gifts of faith and love with one another joyfully and especially prepared us to rejoice in the gift that is Christ our Saviour.

Earlier this week in prayer, a line from Psalm 62 called out a reminder:

“For God alone my soul in silence waits;

from him comes my salvation.”

I had to read it again.

“For God alone my soul in silence waits;

from him comes my salvation.”

Whatever the past four weeks have held for us, in this moment we breathe in sacred stillness and let our bodies, minds, and spirits quiet, leaving outside the door all that would distract us.

Fully present here and now, as the gathered faithful, we have come to adore the blessed babe, come to heed the angel’s declaration, come to witness that God is indeed with us. We’ve come to hear the story of the true spirit of Christmas and to welcome our salvation in the form of the infant Christ.

Our story is set with a backdrop of people of all sorts, some righteous but not all. The world has become thick with social, political, and religious constructs, which further constricts one’s freedom. In a time of expectation, an angel, a messenger of God, visits a young woman, asking if she’s willing to serve God’s will. In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is guided by an angel in a dream to cooperate with God. And shepherds minding their flocks are interrupted by yet another angel to tell them the “good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk 2:10-11). Mary births a baby boy, attended by we know not whom, but God is fully present. The angels are rejoicing and singing, and shepherds come to see if all this is true, for the “child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” has changed everything.

Former Archbishop Rowan Williams said in a recent lecture that God doesn’t rend the heavens open to shower upon us the gift of our salvation; rather, God overflows into the world God created and fills from within, like a spring bubbling up from the earth. God changes things in the world in the world’s own terms, in its own life, within human relationship. In fact, he suggests that God “redefines human nature from within by defenseless love.”

“Redefines human nature” because we are shown our full, previously untapped capacity to be in relationship with others and especially with God. We are not so distinctly separate; God has been within us and remains among us. God redefines human nature because it would soon come to pass that no longer are we bound to this world in fear of death. Jesus lay wrapped in cloths as a babe as he would years later in a tomb, but at no point is he bound by this world. God redefines human nature because the least valued are given the greatest responsibility. Mary in her humility and silence bears her strength as she bore the Son of Man, and the shepherds, well, we can only imagine that the flock came with them. The shepherds who are both obedient to the will of God and able to care for and protect their flocks fill a role that resonates deeply with our Lord.

God doesn’t make a command at this moment in creation. God doesn’t say, “Realize today is the day to love me and do my will!” God offers us God’s self, the greatest gift we never thought to ask for.

Williams says that “God values our humanity beyond all imagining” and that “no risk or gift is too great for any one person.” For God it was never doubted that “humanity is supremely worthwhile.” God in infinite wisdom saw a new way to be among us so that we might once again know freedom and perfect love because on our own, we keep moving farther and farther away. Apparently the only way we could know such love was to experience it in the flesh, in flesh like ours. For that to happen, we had to show a mutual interest, a mutual willingness. We had to listen to what God had to say through the ages and trust that God still speaks in the present, yearning to share light and life with us.

The Christ child was and is the gift. God is the giver of God’s self, our greatest gift. The extraordinary was brought to the ordinary not in diminished form but as light from light. This gift born of Love shows us that the true spirit of Christmas is selfless, gracious Love. It is not forced. As much as God could have forcefully burst open the heavens and commanded obedience and loyalty through great power, God waited for the offer, the invitation to be accepted by an unassuming young woman.

The Spirit of Christmas is about receiving God’s in-breaking Love. Being aware of my own humanity and weaknesses, I realize that I needed Jesus to be born into this world those many years ago. I needed Jesus to be born into this world, to live and breathe among friends and foes, to die as one blameless yet crucified. I needed God to show me that I am beloved, that I am worth everything even if I don’t always believe it myself. And because God showed just how creatively love can be shared, just how beautifully life can grow from relationships, I know that God overflows into our world in immeasurable ways.

We try at Christmas to share our love for others in giving of our abundance. It’s what we do, and most of us enjoy the thoughtful preparation of choosing gifts and delight in the giving. We try to imitate God’s giving and do what we can to share. But the true spirit of Christmas comes from God’s giving and depends upon our receiving. Receiving the good news. Receiving God’s love. Opening our whole life to receive God and thereby receive our salvation, which is our perfect freedom and wholeness. Through this Christ child, we see how God breaks through the chaos, the darkness, and shows us that all shall be well. That there is hope.

We have to be able to recognize what is true, what is real. We have to remember the miracle of Jesus’s birth–that it happened at all–and open our lives to receive God fully, not because we’ve earned it or deserve it but just for the sake of receiving God’s unconditional love. We move about in this world not separate from God. There is no glass nor wall nor space between us. When we smile at a stranger, when we kiss a loved one, when we great one another in peace, we have every reason to overflow with joy at the presence of God in our world, in the face of everyone we meet. This night, we not only marvel and rejoice in the birth of Christ but also humbly bow before the babe at the manger and let our Light be ignited by the one true Light. We can imagine looking over to Mary and saying in excited yet hushed tones, “This, this is real.” And her smiling back at us and saying softly, “I know.”

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On Being Grounded and Getting Oriented

Zephaniah 3:14-20 | Canticle 9 | Philippians 4:4-7 | Luke 3:7-18

If you think on it a moment, I bet you can think of people who seem as flighty as a helium balloon–not just free spirits who at least have some sense of who they are but people who truly seem to have not even one foot planted in reality. That’s no one here, of course.

On the contrary, we also know people–some people we probably hold quite dear, who are grounded and sure-footed in this world. These people tend to know who they are, where they come from, what they stand for, and often they have a pretty clear sense of what their purpose in life is. If we’re not one of these people ourselves, we may be working to get there. It’s not bad work.

Whether or not we have a firm foundation, when we approach someone or something, we come as who we are, even if we are sometimes the flighty one. Who we are is a mixture of all that our lives have taught us and the circumstances we’ve been born into. Who we are is precious and unique; individually, our worldview, our perspective, is shaped by what we know. In our tradition we say that Scripture, tradition, and reason shape our theology, how we understand God. Similarly, several factors come into play to create the context for our worldview, how we understand and relate to the world around us.

In this crowd here today, we’d be hard-pressed to find people who have exactly the same perspectives. We’d come close, but there would be nuances. We’d be more likely to find others with completely different viewpoints but who are no less firmly grounded in their sense of being, especially in their love of Christ. That’s one of the beauties of our common worship.

—-

Just because we’re grounded, even in our love for God and God’s love for us, it doesn’t mean we’re perfect.

“You brood of vipers!” John calls his gathered crowd.

I’m sure it sounded harsh to them, too. John the Baptist had a crowd who assembled to be baptized. They heeded his call to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. These are presumably good people, people who have heard something in John’s message that led them to this moment. Did they really deserve to be berated?

Not necessarily, but John warrants no apology. The Baptist’s admonition is a verbal slap in the face to WAKE UP! There’s urgency and necessity. A matter of life and death.

He calls out to the brood to jar them, to awaken the one lost in the clouds, carried away on every whim; the one so grounded and steeped in tradition that the footing has become shackled and immobile; the one planted in infertile soil, kept alive by synthetic fertilizers of the latest fad, the quickest fix, and empty promises; and the one buried into the ground by shame, guilt, and fear. And there are others still.

Surely it’s by the grace of God that they came to John at all, and he has to keep their attention, catch them while there’s a chance of waking them up. For asleep most of us are no better than vipers, bound to the ground with no footing, venomous, ready to strike, and a threat to those around us. The poison is within a viper. The potential is there in them as it is in us to do great harm. Provoked or afraid, a viper–humans, too–can deal a dangerous, painful, if not fatal, strike.

Even if we think we know who we are, John demands attention. John, the last prophet of the old way and the first martyr of the new, catches us and turns our attention toward God in a way that even he may not have fully understood but that he firmly believed.

—-

So the crowd in the gospel reading today does not get baptized with water but is sort of instructed in a baptism of repentance instead. Neither ritual cleansing nor repentance were a new thing. Repentance–or teshuva–is a practice of faithful Jews, providing a way to turn away from sin, from ways that are harmful, and to turn toward God, toward one’s true self whom God created to be whole. Repentance was and still is an act that can be done by one’s self or in community.

Jewish ethicist Louis Newman, in discussion with Krista Tippett in the podcast On Being, spoke about a study with professionals–in this case pediatricians and trial court judges, people with immense power. One thing the study found, as I understand, was that some of these doctors and judges had no outlet through which to process, let alone acknowledge their mistakes or biases.

A pediatrician who prescribed the wrong treatment that proved fatal found a safe space within the study’s controlled group to acknowledge the mistake for what it was and to emphasize the need for doctors in particular to admit to mistakes so that they can learn from them.

A judge realized that the power could go to his head and knew he had to be careful since he realized the vulnerability he had in the biases he held. In his court an attractive young woman might get a lesser sentence than someone who fit his mind’s stereotypical convict if he wasn’t paying attention to his prejudices.

Newman says that looking at our shortcomings and knowing our vulnerabilities clues us into what we need to be repentant about. It’s like knowing what triggers us to release our poison, whether within ourselves or onto others. If we let our self-awareness grow dim, we risk harming others and missing the opportunity for wholeness. We don’t want to miss that chance.

Whether we are doctors or judges, tax collectors or soldiers, men or women, young or old, we ask as if with one voice, “What then should we do?”

We could band together with others and provide a safe place to share. Recovery groups do this. John the Baptist offers examples of what one might do if one is truly repentant. Share clothes and food. Charge fairly. Be content with earnings. Preparing the way for the Lord means being honest with ourselves and perhaps even seeing “those people” or “others” as our neighbors. What John says causes me to think we are to consider ourselves and one another bound not to that which makes us sick and angry but bound together in what is to come through Christ: a new covenant of love, a covenant strong enough to hold us when we fail and big enough to provide space for many perspectives.

As Christians, our wholeness is realized through Christ. Sometimes we have to change our footing and get reoriented toward the way of our Lord. We repent and begin anew, often repeatedly. I believe God makes no exceptions for those who seek God’s grace and knows the hearts of all believers in every land in a way I cannot comprehend. What this viper has a chance of doing is not controlling the other vipers in my brood or the ones next door; my chance at wholeness is to align myself with the one who brings peace and pass that goodness along.

—-

If I trust John has awakened me to a new way, toward Truth, then wherever or however I’m grounded, what’s important is that I’m oriented toward Christ. That gives us all reason not only to repent in all sincerity but also to rejoice.

We have reason to rejoice with our lives turned toward Christ and joyfully anticipate his arrival.

All who have humbly repented know the anguish and discomfort overcome. Repentance is our anti-venom. The peace of Christ is our calm assurance, rooted in our trust in God that all shall be well. Really. Paul was sincere in his exhortation to the Philippians to rejoice and not to worry. The more we live into our whole selves, the more keenly aware we are not only of our potential to fall into sin but also of our capacity to experience true joy. It is imperative that we keep our heading focused on Jesus.

It may only be a moment–a moment from this morning or from many years ago–but we have known joy. If it’s been too long for us, we especially need to heed John’s call and repent, letting go of that which holds us down and riddles us with dis-ease and deceit. Either in prayer or with the support of our community here, we let go of what isn’t true. With integrity we embrace our wholeness through Christ. Whoever we are in the crowd, we turn toward the one through whom our joy is made complete.

The time is drawing nigh.

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“Nothing complicated about it”

When thinking about how we move through the day, I’m more likely to imagine a digital clock ticking the minutes and hours away as we scurry from home to school to work to lessons and sports to home to bed. So much of our day is guided by appointments and obligations, most that make our lifestyle possible and others that make our lives enriched, and we consider ourselves privileged to do all this.

Then I come across something like this, reading out of a book I happened upon in our church lending library:

“In ancient times people found it natural and important to seek God’s will. With little spiritual guidance and in utter simplicity, they heard from God. There was nothing complicated about it. They understood that every moment of every day presented an opportunity for faith to fulfill a responsibility to God. They moved through the day like the hand of a clock. Minute after minute they were consciously and unconsciously guided by God.” -Jean-Pierre de Caussade in Abandonment to Divine Providence*

I confess that I do not in every moment think first about how my next move will “fulfill a responsibility to God.” While I may occasionally think, “God, what would you have me do?”, it doesn’t often enter my mind when I am making my daily rounds around the house or through our city’s streets. I’m more likely to be caught up in my own thoughts about what I have or haven’t accomplished on my unwritten to-do list. We are creatures of habit, and my routine is about what I need to do next, what I’m expected to do. It shouldn’t be a surprise that our society is primarily full of egocentric people, taking care of ourselves before everyone else because our primary thoughts are typically about ourselves. It’s natural for us to put #1 first, whether that be me, my family, my country, etc.

What would it be like if it were “natural and important to seek God’s will,” to hear from God, to move through our day “minute after minute . . . consciously and unconsciously guided by God”? De Caussade has a way with words (even in the translation) that points both toward a simple yet profound beauty. This beauty comes to me even as I see photos of the horror of the Syrian refugees and read the clamor of American citizens advocating for rights to marry or to live without fear.

The guidance of God contrasts sharply to the suffering and oppression at hand. Any action that is born of hatred and violence, of fear and anger, does not align with what I understand to be God’s will, that we love God and our neighbor. Christians aren’t the only ones who believe this, either.

Perhaps that’s why there’s nothing really complicated about it. If we let God’s will guide our next move, we move in compassion. If we believe in God, in God’s unconditional love for us, it is our faithful responsibility to share this love with others, including ourselves. This means that we surrender to the will of God: we surrender to experience the tremendous freedom that is found in the power of unconditional love. It’s not popular. It’s risky and counter-cultural. It makes us vulnerable because we open our hearts and become an easy target. I think God knows this kind of love well.

I’m going to replace the battery in my watch, the watch my husband gave me as a gift. I cannot promise that every time the minute-hand moves that I will first be thinking of God, but de Caussade said we can be “consciously and unconsciously guided by God.” When I fail to ask for guidance, may my faith guide me even when I’m unaware.

*As found in Nearer to the Heart of God: Daily Readings with the Christian Mystics, Bernard Bangley, ed., 2005

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Ultimate Belonging

The Scripture texts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24 Year A, Track 1:

Exodus 33:12-23 | Psalm 99 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 | Matthew 22:15-22

Tension continues to escalate between Jesus and those in authority. So much so that now there’s no question about their desire to entrap him—whether it is the Roman authority capturing him for treason or the people’s rejection of him, it doesn’t matter. He needs to be trapped or contained, stopped. The Pharisees and the Herodians are actually united in their anti-Jesus effort, and it makes it easy for us to delineate between the bad guys in their malice and hypocrisy and our pro-God hero Jesus. Because that’s how politics go. We are showered with political propaganda right now, so we are familiar with this. There’s the good and the bad, and we drop our coin into the campaign donation fund or ballot box of our choice. And, of course, we always choose Jesus, right?

Jesus navigates the politics, evading the trick question by going through and beyond it. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” they ask him (Mtw 22:17). Jesus confounds them by saying, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mtw 22:21).

It seems as clear-cut as a church-state divide, as separate as the spiritual and physical realm. Many a political, economic, and religious interpretation is based on such a dualistic view. Being the faithful Christians we are, however, we remember who is speaking. Jesus is God incarnate, Word made flesh. What kind of line is Jesus drawing? What kind of answer is he giving them . . . and us?

Not an easy one.

First of all, Jesus is talking about money. I’ve already talked politics, and now I’m talking money. (I promise I won’t talk about late-night cable programming.) But economic issues run throughout the Bible. Particular to today’s reading, paying taxes, the tribute to Rome, was not a popular facet of life. Jesus saying to give to the emperor the coin that bears the emperor’s image might save him from treason, but it does not win him popular support. In fact, when it comes time for Pilate to save a prisoner from crucifixion, whom do the people vote for? Not Jesus Christ but Barabbas, who, incidentally, was a hero in the anti-Roman efforts.

Lest we too quickly judge the people harshly, let us remember the moment in the Passion narrative when we in the congregation play the role of the crowd shouting “Crucify him!” Maybe we can see where the people were coming from. They were paying tribute to their oppressors, funding their bondage, and they wanted a way out, a way to return to freedom. It was only a small percentage who believed in whom Jesus was and who anticipated the freedom promised in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus amazed the Pharisees and Herodians, and they left him—for the time being. Others present might have also been amazed and stuck around, wondering as we do now: “But what is God’s?” If we believe God is Creator, aren’t all things God’s? If we are to render to Caesar, where is the clear line? People make coins with the likeness of people, so it’s okay to pay taxes, to pay for our goods, and to participate in commerce. Ultimately, however, we the people bear God’s image.

In the beginning we are made in the image of God, male and female. Psalmists attribute God with creating our inmost being, of knitting each of us in our mother’s womb (Ps. 139:13). In Isaiah the Lord says, “I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (49.16). We ultimately belong to God. The compassion of God that we hear in the dialogue with Moses persists through to the Resurrection and beyond. Again and again we fail to render to God our whole selves, yet again and again, like a good mother, God knows us and claims us. God answers us with forgiveness, with mercy, and with compassion.

That clear line—if Jesus draws one at all—may very well be a circle, encompassing all who realize and recognize the responsibility of bearing God’s image. As God’s, we have a place in the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus brings the kingdom here and now and asks not for a part of us. Just as he sent his disciples to go where he himself intended to go, so, too, does he ask us to give only that which he willingly gave.

And this is what is hard for us, my Christian brothers and sisters. Jesus gave everything. God gave God’s self, not in an act of dependence but of pure love, and we are invited to be united with God, to be a willing participant in the most mutually fulfilling relationship that ever can be.

As wonderful as that sounds, it’s hard.

We are given encouragement from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, who apparently got it right. Paul nearly sings their praises for their “work of faith,” “labor of love,” and “steadfastness of hope.” They must be a chosen people because they embody the power and Holy Spirit and conviction that enables them to imitate the apostles and Lord despite their persecution. They “received the word with joy . . . (and) became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” . . . and to us. I feel a bit like Paul is showing us a stellar progress report so we have a guide for our own assessment.

In a rather compassionate moment himself, I imagine Paul looking into the future ends of the earth and saying to us, “I know it’s hard to get how to give yourself to God. So, here are some basics.”

1.) You are chosen. You are a child of God, a bearer of God’s image. You receive the power of the Holy Spirit at your baptism.

2.) Your work of faith is to remember and proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection.

3.) You have a labor of love: to love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind and to love your neighbor as yourself.

4.) Your steadfastness of hope for the manifestation of the kingdom of heaven helps you to persevere all trials and tribulations.

If Paul were to write us a letter here at Christ Church, what might he say? How would we measure up to the Thessalonians? Do we reveal God’s image to all whom we encounter? Do our actions measure up to the faith we proclaim? How are we doing at loving God . . . loving our neighbors? How persistent is our hope in the kingdom of heaven?

This kind of Christian life doesn’t have room for duality, for separate realms. There is one God who has gifted us with this life, yet it is hard for us to comprehend, let alone navigate, an ordinary life that is struck through from our very core with the extraordinary. How much of what we give actually reflects our gratitude, thanksgiving, and love to and for God? How much reflects our love of our neighbors? Ourselves?

When I visited a mosque in Atlanta for my world religions course this summer, a Muslim gentleman explained the pillars of Islam to our group of seminarians. When he came to the pillar of alms or charity, he told us that Muslims are to give 2.5% of their assets each year. It is based basically on their savings, and it’s considered an asset if it is over the worth of 22 ounces of silver or 3 ounces of gold. (Three ounces of gold now is about $3,000.) Because they are already expected to be taking care of and giving to their family and place of worship, they are to give it to needy individuals, someone outside their immediate circle. If every Muslim observed this pillar of charity, he told us with all sincerity, there would be no poverty.

Naturally, I wondered if Christians can say the same. (Per 2012 research, there are about 2.2 billion Christians in the world and about 1.6 billion Muslims.) If we gave even 2.5% of our assets—not even 10%—could we eradicate poverty? What if we worked together?

There are some very concrete ways to influence the world for the better. Are we willing to make our church more accessible in every kind of way? Someone has gotten started with the fabulous sidewalk to the education building, for which I am extremely grateful! But how accessible are we to those who don’t look like us?

We can pay it forward to train future leaders. Sending kids to camp, teachers to trainings, and leaders to educational and spiritual retreats are tremendous gifts. My home diocese sponsored me for the recent Godly Play training and for the upcoming pre-ordination retreat, both important in my formation. I am just one person, but consider how many lives I might touch by sharing my experiences of being close to God, my experiences of discernment. We can teach and encourage each other to share and listen to our stories of faith that come from life itself, from living in community, from living in relationship with God to whom we belong.

We are gifted for this work. We are invited to receive the power of the Holy Spirit and become an active participant in kingdom building—not of short-lived Caesar’s empire but of God’s eternal kingdom, starting here and now. Our contributions and input are invaluable in answering these important questions.

If we live amazed at what God gave and continues to give to us, we are paying attention. If we accept our Christian responsibility and act and live generously, giving of whatever resources we can share—be that money, time, joyful perseverance, proclamation, or whatever gift you have—then we are participating in that loving relationship with God and one another.

Some days we shout “Crucify!” with the helpless crowd. We don’t choose Jesus. Some very special times we catch a fleeting glimpse of what it is to experience the ultimate belonging of being a child of God, one infinitely loved and filled with potential to help make manifest the kingdom of God, where no one lives in poverty. The power behind such belonging is threatening, disruptive of clear-cut distinctions and divides. But the power of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is not to be contained; it always has been and always will be our key to unity and freedom.

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