Get to Work

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you…” (John 20: 21)

Recently I got a call from one of the residential drug and alcohol treatment centers that dot the region where I live in Florida. They are tragic signs of the times, I suppose. The call was from a social worker who I know pretty well; he asked me to come to the center and talk with a young man there who had just lost his mom. The social worker confided that the young man was having a tough time dealing with his grief.

Whenever I get a call like that, I feel humbled. Who am I to be a part of a person’s life in such a privileged way; in such a sacred place. It’s not only humbling; it’s frightening! I don’t know what to say or what to do; there’s no playbook for encounters like this.

I met the young man in the Social worker’s office; it was a dark room with no natural lighting. The person I met that day was thin; he had a beard, and he seemed like a nice kid. He was probably about 25 years old, and he sat slumped in the chair across from me. Everything about his body language shouted out that he was closed in by grief and shame and sadness. His mom, who lived in the Midwest, was diagnosed not long ago with stage 4 stomach cancer and he knew that she had been suffering terribly. He didn’t have a great relationship with God, but he did pray. He asked, “Lord, either save her or take her, but end her suffering.”

Because of the mistakes that he had made in his life, he wasn’t able to be with her at the end, and nothing could change that. Aside from his mother he had no one else in the world. She was his only family except for a half-brother, whom he hadn’t spoken to in years. In years. So there he sat, slumped, sad, ashamed, and alone in a dark room, locked in his being.

On the first Easter morning, Jesus’ disciples started their day similarly to the way this young man started his. It was the Sunday after their friend, their teacher, their Lord, their hope, had died in a brutal and humiliating manner. They were afraid for their lives because if Jesus’ enemies struck the shepherd, would they also try to harm the sheep?

But there’s more going on. Jesus’ fair weather friends fled when Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified. The women stayed close to Jesus during his passion, and so did the beloved disciple traditionally believed to be John. But the rest of them took off to save their skins. They weren’t there when he died, and there’s no way they could change that fact, so there’s an overlay in guilt in their hearts as they huddled together at night in a locked room fearing their enemies.

In John’s Gospel night is also symbolic of the inner state of a person’s life. They are in spiritual darkness. They are in the dark. And as they sit there with the walls and the locks and the darkness of their spirits and the darkness of the day, they begin to hear strange stories; things that are incredible. Mary comes from the tomb early in the morning saying he’s not there. A couple of them go out to investigate, Peter and, we presume, John. They found it just as Mary had said: “He wasn’t there.”

The tomb was empty. Dead men don’t rise. They don’t understand. Even John, who the evangelist came to believe when he saw the empty tomb, we don’t know what he came to believe except that maybe God was at work doing something good out of something bad. Then they hear from Mary Magdalen who tells them that she has seen the Lord. They think she’s nuts, delusional. They don’t know what to believe, so they’re confused, ashamed, and afraid.

Then all of a sudden, through the locked door, through the walls Jesus stands in their presence, alive and resplendent. “Peace be with you,” he says right off the bat. “Shalom.”

He’s not talking about the absence of conflict because the real battle is just beginning. They know that. He knows it. And looking back over the years since then, we are aware of it too. The peace he’s giving them is the peace that comes from being in a relationship with God. It’s wholeness. It’s being so “together” that nothing can tear you apart. It’s the conviction, born of our relationship with Christ that God is with us and nothing can harm us because he is sovereign.

The next thing he does is say: “Look. Here are my hands, here’s my side. It’s me!” By this gesture, Jesus proves to them that the risen one who they see before their eyes is the same person they saw crucified only days earlier. Jesus will always be Christ crucified. The marks in his hands are now emblematic of the glory of God, and the wisdom of God and the salvation of God poured out through Jesus’ blood on the cross. The marks of shame have become badges of honor.

He says again, “Peace be with you.”

Whenever you see anything repeated in the Gospel, listen to it. It’s what Jesus wanted his disciples to know, but it’s also what he wants you and I to know. As he spoke to them in the upper room, he now speaks to us through John’s Gospel.

“Peace,” he says, “Live in peace. Have peace. Know that whatever you struggle with, I am sovereign and you’re going to be okay.”

Then He breathes on them.

Breath, his important stuff. When God created Adam (as we read in Genesis), He breathed the breath of life into him. Then, and only then, Adam becomes a living being. Flash forward to Ezekiel. The Lord brings the Prophet Ezekiel in a vision to the valley of the dry bones. There, before this image of death and corruption, the Lord says to the prophet, “I will breathe the breath of life into these dry bones, and they will come and live.”

Now in the upper room, Jesus breathes INTO these spiritually and emotionally dead people. He breathes a life of the Spirit. He gives them the gift that’s perfected at Pentecost but begins at this very moment. “Receive the holy spirit.” Receive the holy spirit because you’re going to need the holy spirit. You have work to do; you can’t stay in this room forever. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Christianity is not a religion of pew potatoes. Every Christian has work do to; God-given work. Listen to your calling: “As the Father has sent me,” Jesus says, “so I send you.”

We need to understand Jesus’ mission to understand our own; His mission reveals our divine calling.

Jesus is sent to bring the good news of repentance and forgiveness to every corner of this sinful, broken world. Jesus went to everyone the world thinks is worthless. He went to little creep, Zacchaeus, in the sycamore tree, and to the Samaritan woman at the well, a woman who isn’t even liked by the Samaritans. He went to blind beggars and a woman with a hemorrhage who was ritually unclean. He went to kids who are possessed by devils. He went to everybody that the world ignored.

Who wants to look at suffering and pain? Or to be with outcasts and losers?

Jesus did, that’s who. Jesus did. Jesus went to everybody the world despised, to he gave them hope, not simply with His words, but with an abundance of real love.

What would our world be like if all of us treated others like that; if we showed everyone we met (Jerks included) an abundance of real love? Overflowing, over-the-top amazing love?

We don’t do that because we’re so buttoned down. We’re afraid of what people will think of us. But Jesus in that upper room says, “Forget the locks, forget the walls. Get out of the building. Stop being afraid. I give you God’s own peace, now, get moving. Let your love flow into the lives of the people around you. Be creative about it.”

“As the Father sent me, so I send you.”I was at the mayor’s prayer breakfast in Fort Lauderdale recently, and there was a fellow named Bob there, he was an attorney of all things, from San Diego. He was telling a story about having a neighbor who was diagnosed with cancer and living her last days. She loved life and wanted to “LIVE” every last day of it. Bob, “Every New Years we have a parade on our block. There are five houses there, but it’s a lovely little event.” Bob went on, “This year we had that parade go right up to her house and knock on her windows so she could see everyone coming by waving and wishing her well.” She died the next day, but she died knowing she was loved because her neighbors weren’t afraid to go over the top and express their love for her.

I was at the mayor’s prayer breakfast in Fort Lauderdale recently, and there was a fellow named Bob there, he was an attorney of all things, from San Diego. He was telling a story about having a neighbor who was diagnosed with cancer and living her last days. She loved life and wanted to “LIVE” every last day of it. Bob, “Every New Years we have a parade on our block. There are five houses there, but it’s a lovely little event.” Bob went on, “This year we had that parade go right up to her house and knock on her windows so she could see everyone coming by waving and wishing her well.” She died the next day, but she died knowing she was loved because her neighbors weren’t afraid to go over the top and express their love for her.

Can we be creative like that? Can we find ways to show the people in our life that we love them and that they’re special? They don’t have to do anything for it. Look at the disciples in this upper room. What do they do? They were doing nothing but being afraid, and Jesus came to them.

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Get to work. Or, maybe work is the wrong word. Enjoy loving as Jesus loves. Enjoy being a blessing people’s lives. Enjoy letting your life follow into somebody else’s life in a positive, beautiful way. That’s what Jesus did for Bartimaeus and the woman at the well, and so many others. That’s what he does for us, and that’s what he asks us to do and be for each other.

And then he says, “Receive the holy spirit. If you forgive the sins of others, they’re forgiven. If you retain those sins, they’re retained.”

Jesus wants us to go out there and start forgiving! Forgive people who need forgiveness. Forgive people who don’t know they need forgiveness. Forgive people that just need to hear a word of kindness from you. Forgive people, and don’t make a big show of it. Don’t call them and say, “I forgive you,” because they’ll hang up on you. But they won’t hang up on you if you say, “It’s been a long time since we got together. How about lunch?” Or maybe just send a note that says, “Thinking about you. How are you doing? Love you.” That says, “I forgive you,” without saying “I forgive you” which is probably the only way we can graciously forgive people.

If you fail to forgive, Jesus warns, “The failure of forgiveness will mean that the sin remains and plagues us.” Our problem as a Christian people is we don’t forgive enough. We hold onto old grudges, especially if we’re Irish. You know what they call Irish Alzheimer’s, don’t you? Irish Alzheimer’s is a condition where you forget everything but the grudges.

We hold onto stuff when we should let go. We stay angry, and the anger consumes us. Just let go and don’t give that grudge another thought. Think of all that you need forgiveness for yourself! Forgive the way you’d like to others, and God, to forgive you. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Make those more than words repeated by rote. It is part of the Lord’s prayer for us.

Our mission as disciples is to be sin forgivers. There’s a lot of people out there who need a lot of forgiveness, so there’s a lot of work to do.

“Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven them.”

Thomas wasn’t with the others when the Lord appeared to them on the evening of the first day of the week. Thomas is a practical man. He comes back, hears his friends saying the same thing Mary said to the rest of them earlier in the day and reacts to them the same way they earlier responded to Mary: “You guys are nuts. What have you been smoking while I’ve been at the store? I will not believe what you’re telling me unless I see him with my own eyes, touch him with my own hands, and feel his wounds. But none of that’s going to happen because dead men stay dead; always have, always will.”

A week later Jesus again, through the walls through the closed doors, stands there and says, “Peace. Peace. Thomas, you missed the message. Let me give it to you again, peace. I want you to have wholeness. I want you to have a joy that the world can’t give you.” He said, “If you need to touch me, touch.”

Jesus doesn’t scold him, doesn’t browbeat him, doesn’t shame him. Jesus comes to him right where he is and addresses his needs just the way Thomas has spoken them. “If you need to touch me, Thomas, touch me. But don’t persist in your unbelief. Believe.”

In John’s Gospel, belief is not the assent of the mind to stuff; it is the knowledge born of a living, vibrant relationship with Jesus. It is being Jesus’ friend, living with him and letting him be a part of our lives. Jesus is saying: “Thomas, don’t persist in being apart from me. Be one with me. Be in a relationship with me. Abide with me.”

“Doubting” Thomas then makes what is perhaps the most sweeping profession of faith in the fourth Gospel. He says: “My Lord and my God.”

All rests on the foundation of our relationship with Jesus and, through him, our relationship with the Father.

“Thomas, you believed because you’ve seen how blessed and happy are those who have not seen and yet, believe. ” How blessed are we, who have never seen the Lord physically, but still have a relationship with Him through the Holy Spirit.

The challenge of this Gospel two-fold.

First, we must recognize that all of us, from time to time, get locked in a dark place where we feel desperately alone and helpless; sad and perhaps guilt-ridden. The good news of this Gospel is we may think that our lock is pretty darn good and that our walls are impenetrable. But I guarantee you that every time we are in a place like that the Lord has already appeared in it and is speaking to us if we just listen to him.

He’s saying “Peace be with you. Peace be with you.”

We are never alone in our suffering, in our fear, in our grief, or in our shame or any other prison we construct for ourselves. We are always keeping company with the one who says “Peace be with you.”

And then, he tells us, “Believe in me. I want to be in a relationship with you. I want to love you like I love Peter and Andrew and James and John and Philip and Bartholomew and that doubting Thomas. I love them all, and I love you too. So have peace, and know that as the Father has sent me, so I send you. Get out there and go to work; forgive sins, receive the Holy Spirit, and know that in doing all of that you are doing the work of the one who has been sent and the one who sends.”

Back to my friend closed in the office and locked in his spirit.

Sitting there and I said to him, “Could you tell me something about your mom. Could you let me know who she was?” He said, “She was always kind and loving; she played the piano at church and was always looking for ways to help people.”

As he spoke, he begins to come out of his prison a little bit. We started talking about how much his mom loved him and how proud she must have been that he was doing so well in his recovery from addiction. He realized that he was her legacy because she had given him to the world. A light went on. He understood that his greatest gift to his mother might be to return to her faith and live in it and try to make a difference the same way she had tried to make a difference in others’ lives.

He started sitting up. When he left the office, he was alive again. It was nothing I did because I’m not that smart. It was something that God did because two of his beloved children were present to each other in a moment of grace.

That’s the type of miracle that occurs every day. That’ the work of his kingdom; the work all of us are sent to do. And so as the Father has sent Jesus, so he sends us.

Get to work.

Faith and Doubt

“Go and tell John this: ‘The blind see, the lame walk, cripples are healed, the dead rise, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them.’”

      “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?”  (Matthew 11:3)

Maura O’Donnell was one of the most amazing people I ave ever known.  I met her when she was only a high school student: she was a spitfire if ever there was one.  She was short and slight, and. she had a fresh, Irish complexion. She looked at you through sparkling blue eyes and she had beautiful auburn-red hair.  Maura was an athlete: during her high school career at Bishop Dennis J. O’Connell High School in Arlington Virginia she earned nine letters in four different sports: diving, basketball, baseball, and field hockey.  Athletics didn’t deter Maura from being a top-notch student, though, she graduated from DJO with honors. 

Maura was also young woman who had a great deal of faith and saw purpose in her life.  She wanted to become a nurse so she could help kids with cystic fibrosis.  Maura’s brother and sister both suffered from that disease. 

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease, you get it through heredity.  It is a disease that kills the young.  It fills the lungs of its victims with thick, sticky mucus.  Every day, three times a day, at least back in those days, if you had CF you had to be attached to a machine that helped clear the lungs by loosening the mucus.  Then you’d have to cough it up.  CF is a tough thing to have.  You spend a lot of time in the hospital, and over time it weakens your immune system and makes you very susceptible to things like pneumonia.  Maura’s youngest sister had already died of cystic fibrosis, and she had another sister, Brenda, and a brother, Sean, who were both diagnosed with CF too. 

Maura was very close to Brenda who, at that time, was in her early teens.  Maura once told me: “Brenda just prays and prays to be healed.” The whole O’Donnell family went to the National Cathedral in Washington for a healing service led by I Fr. Francis MacNutt, who had a nationally recognized healing ministry. Maura said, “My sister really believed that the Lord would heal her.”  But those prayers apparently went unanswered. When she was only 16 years old and a sophomore at Bishop Denis J. O’Connell High School, Brenda O’Donnell died.

What questions must Maura have wanted to ask the healing Jesus in whom Brenda and she put so much faith? Maybe the question the Israelites put to Moses when they suffered in the wilderness: “Is the Lord with us or not?” Or the Baptist’s question of Jesus, who fell so short of John’s messianic expectations: “ARE you the one who is to come?”

When he sent his disciples to question Jesus, the Baptist was in prison.  Here is the mighty prophet, who came on scene like a storm.  People were flocking to see him, to be baptize by him in the Jordan, and to hear his message of repentance. “Be ready.” he proclaimed,  “The one who is to come is already on his way.”

John painted a picture of what the arrival of the messiah would be like: he would baptize, not with water but with fire.  The Messiah-King would come with power and judgment: his winnowing fork was in his hand to separate the wheat from the chaff.  “The axe” John preached, “was already laid to the root.” Those not producing good fruit – the fruit of repentance and righteousness, would be cut down and thrown into the fire.   Be ready for the One Who Comes!

Then John saw him; he was coming to be baptized.  John said, “No, I should be baptized by you” and Jesus replied “Let it be this way for righteousness’ sake.” 

As John baptized Jesus, the Spirit descended in the form of a dove, and the the Father spoke, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”  John had seen the one for whom he was waiting.  And now all that he needed to do was wait and to watch for the power of God to break into the world; to rescue the people; to bring salvation, and judgment, and fire.

Months later John is in prison. There were no crowds anymore, just small cell in the dungeon of Herod’s fortress near the Dead Sea. What’s was he doing there, the Baptist wondered?  In prison John had a lot of time to think, and to follow the ministry of his cousin Jesus from afar. John had once been so sure that Jesus was the One sent by God, the one who would bring him vindication and victory; who would baptize with fire. Now John was disappointed.

Jesus was spending his time in Galilee, in the sticks of rural Judea.  Instead of making waves in Jerusalem, Jesus spent his time preaching to a bunch of rubes and bumpkins.  That was no way to set a nation on fire or to re-establish the Kingdom of David. 

Jesus’ ministry was also not bringing fire to the Romans, or putting Herod, the Roman vassal king, in his place.  All Jesus was doing was healing a bunch of people, not everyone either, just some: a blind man here, a cripple there.  Nice if you’re the blind man or the cripple but this isn’t exactly what John had in mind for the mission of the Messiah. 

John was disillusioned and confused. Could he have been mistaken about Jesus?  So he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus: “are you the one who is to come or should we look for somebody else?  Could I have been wrong?  Is there someone better out there?’”

Let’s just pause here for a second and look at what John is doing here. 

The Baptist, is being honest.  He doesn’t get Jesus.  He doesn’t understand why he’s doing what he’s doing.  But instead of rejecting him, or getting angry, or grumbling to his disciples, he goes right to Jesus and asks a question that is both honest and courageous. 

Jesus answers John cryptically, He says, “Go and tell John this: ‘The blind see, the lame walk, cripples are healed, the dead rise, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them.’”

Look at that list for a second.

Just rhetorically, couldn’t Jesus have done better?  Wouldn’t you have put the most impressive thing last?  “The blind see, the lame walk, cripples are healed, the dead rise.”  That’s pretty good so far, it’s an ascending order.  But then Jesus dose something odd, he concludes with “and the poor have good news brought to them.”  Really?  Is that so important? 

To the ears of many people it’s not.  But what Jesus is doing here is revealing to John, and to us, what is in the heart of God.  And the heart of God is expressing this reality: everyone matters.  Everyone! The sickest person in Imperial Point Hospital matters; the poorest person in Broward County matters; the most broken, troubled human being you can imagine matters.  God loves the poor; He has a heart for the broken. You matter to him when you’re old, when you’re sick, when you’re alone. 

No one is ever abandoned by God. 

That’s the most important thing that Jesus has come to reveal.  Jesus says to these emissaries from the Baptist, “Go back and tell them what you hear and what you see.” 

What are they hearing?  They’re hearing the sermon on the Mount.  They’re hearing that the poor in spirit, the meek, peacemakers, the persecuted are blessed by God.  Blessed.  They hear Jesus say, “Forgive one another as you yourselves have been forgiven.  Hold nothing back!”   They hear: “Give freely of yourselves, asking for nothing in return, because that’s the way you are loved by your Father in heaven who lets his rain fall on the good and the bad alike.”

What do they see? A crippled woman standing straight and walking; the servant of the centurion made well from afar; blind man given sight; little girl, taken by the hand and raised from death back to life. 

God loves everyone; no one is inconsequential

When John hears all this he will recall the prophecy of Isaiah 35, that the coming of Yahweh himself to redeem and to save, will be characterized by just such activity.

Strengthen the weak hands,

And make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are fearful-hearted,

“Be strong, do not fear!

Behold, your God will come with vengeance,

With the recompense of God;

He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,

And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped

Then the lame shall leap like a deer,

And the tongue of the dumb sing.

For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness,

And streams in the desert. (Isaiah 35:3-6)

“Are you the one who is to come?  Are you the messiah?” John asks. Jesus answer him clearly: “Yes, I AM the messiah, the promised coming of the great I Am himself, of which Isaiah spoke.”  Then Jesus says: “Blessed are those who find no scandal in me.  Blessed are those who take no offense.” 

For all of us who live in a world where God has been pushed to the margins; where belief has become rare and ridiculed; where there’s so many who are offended by Jesus: offended when they hear a prayer in school, offended when they see a nativity scene on the lawn, offended when you say, “God bless you” at work or to the kid who’s giving you coffee at Starbucks.  The name of Jesus has power in it, but it is so easy to take offense when we don’t see the power at work.

And so to us, too, when our faith weakens, Jesus gives sound advice: look and listen. 

Listen for the word that God still speaks into his creation.  Words of life, words of love, words of forgiveness.  Words of caring and compassion. 

Read this Bible and find life in its pages because the Lord still speaks to his people through it.  The Lord still says to us today that if we are meek and kind, we are blessed; if we make peace instead of war, we’re blessed; if we love instead of hate, we’re blessed.  If we understand instead of criticize, we’re blessed.  Blessed are the peacemakers.” 

And then look.  Look and seek that the miracles of healing and transformation going on all around us in Jesus’ name. 

Oh, the the blind people whose sight is restored may be few and far between, as they were in Jesus’ day, they’re out there though.  Other hearings are more prevalent and so less remarkable:  God is changing lives constantly.  God is changing hearts constantly.  God’s giving new opportunities, new chances, second chances constantly. He does it through his people.  He does it because we care about each other, because we make space in our lives for each other, because we don’t turn the poor away. 

The poor still need to hear good news.  

We’re all the poor, if the truth be told.  We’re all someday going to be sick, and old, and maybe forgotten. We all need forgiveness.  We all can be on the margins of our community’s life. 

The Lord calls us to create the space for each other where we can hear and proclaim the good news of God’s abundant love; where people come and be embraced and welcomed just the way they are. 

Recently a guy came to our church, he was in his early 30s, he had a scraggly beard and longish hair and was shabbily dressed.  He seemed nice enough. He was very articulate,  but he also smelled to the high heavens.  He visited on a Sunday around nine A.M. and asked  what time we held services (there was one at ten.

I thought to myself, “Oh, my goodness.  I hope he’s not coming to church – the folks who sit around hi will gag (he was that pungent). I invited him to the 10:00 o’clock service anyhow and he said he’d be there. 

At ten o’clock he was sitting in the congregation, still smelling to high heavens.  On reflection, though, his presence was a blessing; Lord’s way of reminding us that everyone needs to be welcomed in his house.  Everyone!  It’s our grace to speak good news to the poor.

When I turned around about halfway through the service he was gone.  Could the Lord have visited his people that day disguised as a poor smelly man?  And if he did, thank God, we passed the test.

Lord doesn’t always look like we want him to look and doesn’t  always act like we want him to act. Blessed are we when we take no offense in Him.

After Maura’s sister Brenda died Maura said to me: “You know, Brenda really believed God would heal her, and I think he did, better than she ever hoped he would. He took her home to be with Him.” 

Blessed are those who take no offense. 

Maura didn’t get what she prayed for, at least not the way she wanted to get it, but she saw Brenda’s death as the ultimate healing. She trusted the Lord through the darkest moments of her life.   

Maura’s passion for finding a cure for cystic fibrosis was such — she was still a high school kid remember — she went to her principal, Jim McMurtrie, and aske: “Can we do a dance to raise funds for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation?” 

He said, “Sure.  Go ahead.  Knock yourself out.”

She did: not only did she organize the event, she danced for more than 20 hours. At this one event her high school raised $91,000 for cystic fibrosis research.  Denis J. O’Connell High School has continued   doing that dance for CF research every year from the late 1970s to this day.  Over the years they have raised over $5 million because of the initiative of one young woman who had a passion to find cure for kids with cystic fibrosis.


Maura graduated with honors.  She was the state diving champ in Virginia that year too.  She went on to nursing school at Marymount College in Arlington Virginia, her home town. 

At the end of her second year as a nursing student Maura died because she also had had cystic fibrosis.  She never let it hold her back; she never let it stop her from living; she never gave up or lost her faith.  If anything, her sickness made her embrace it more.

The challenge of John the Baptist and of Maura O’Donnell is to ask honest questions.  When our prayers aren’t answered the way we want them to be answered, when our world doesn’t work the way we think it should work, it is certainly fair to ask God “Why?”

But an honest question is not doubt.  It’s simply a way that God uses to grow and expand our hearts.

And what the Baptist invites us to do, and Maura as well, is to grow our hearts.  Faithfully believing that the Jesus is our Savior and our Lord – we need to wait for no other. In him the poor still have Good News!

In the Water With Jesus

At the Jordan, Jesus he goes into the water with all of sinful humanity

In a classic Charles Schultz cartoon we find the Van Pelt family in action. Lucy, ever the crabby one, is having a bad day, Lucy only has bad days.  As the cartoon open she’s sitting by herself, looking despondent and saying “Phooey!” 

At just that moment her little brother Linus comes along, he sees her in distress and he asks, “What’s the matter?”

“My life is a drag.  I’m completely fed up.  I’ve never felt so low in all my life.” she responds.

Trying to cheer her up Linus tells his sister: “When you’re in a mood like that you should try to think of the things you have to be thankful for.  Count your blessings.”

That goes over like a led balloon. Lucy says: “Ha! That’s a good one.  I could count my blessing on one finger.  I never had anything, and I never will have anything.  I’m nothing … I don’t get half the breaks that other people do … Nothing ever goes right to me!” “And you talk to me about counting my blessings?” she continues, “You talk to me about being thankful! What do I have to be thankful for?”

“Well, for one thing,” Linus answers, “you have a little brother who loves you.”

Lucy looks at Linus for a moment with a blank look on her face, then breaks down in tears and hugs him as he observes: “Every now and then I say the right thing.”

When Jesus comes to be baptized in the Jordan by John we see another family in action.  John was the marque act in Israel at the time: he was big news and the best ticket in town. He had created a huge stir. 

The voice of prophecy had been silent among the Jewish people for the better part of 500 years, since the time of Mica.  Now, again, the Jews hear the voice of someone who speaks the power of God into their lives, into their culture, and into their communities.  John dresses in a manner reminiscent of Elijah.  He also does crazy things like prophets often do.  His message is clear and urgent: folks better get ready because God is about to do something great and powerful.  Repent and be ready for what is coming!  Reform your lives because God’s kingdom is at hand. 

People came flocking to John by the thousands.  They came out into the desert, an arduous journey that they had to take on foot or traveling on mules or burros since there were no Mustangs of Broncos back then.  Throngs went to John at the Jordan to be baptized. When the prophet speaks what do they hear?  They hear a message of hope.  They hear that God isn’t finished with them yet.  God isn’t finished with his people.  John says: “Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, whatever your mistakes might have been, just turn back to God.  Repent, be baptized, and start fresh. But you better do it soon, time is running out.”

Tax collectors came out to John, prostitutes came out to John, all sorts of sinners came out to John.  Why?  They came because, in a society that had largely written them off, John gave them hope. 

The religious elites, scribes and the Pharisees, went out to see John too, but he didn’t welcome them quite so warmly.  He turned away nobody.  He, and he didn’t turn them away either, but he certainly chastised them. “You brood of vipers,” he calls them, “who taught you to flee from the wrath to come?”  Then he said, “Bear fruits worthy of your repentance.” 

The scribes and the Pharisees went out to be baptized too, but they didn’t think they needed to repent: they were so perfect, they were so self-righteous. They weren’t sinners, like all the others who went into the Jordan to be baptized, they were righteous men.

John says to them, too, “You are sinners too, you just are too blind to know it?  Repent of your sins.  Confess and begin living into the kingdom of God.  You do that by caring about people.  You do that with your kindness and your decency and your honesty.  It’s what you do though, not what you say or think, not how you dress, and it certainly is not about your pedigree as pious Jews: after all God can make children of Abraham out of stones.”

Then John’s cousin Jesus comes along and John is thrown completely off his game.  He has been welcoming sinners, and chastising sinners who don’t know they’re sinners, but now, for the first time in his ministry, John sees someone who is sinless.  Jesus. And he is coming to John for the baptism of repentance. John is flummoxed – why would the sinless one repent, what does he have to repent OF? It made no sense to the Baptist, and perhaps it makes no sense to us. 

The Baptist goes up to Jesus and, in the conversation that we only hear in Matthew’s Gospel, he says, “Really?  I mean, shouldn’t you be the one baptizing me?  And now you want me to baptize you?  I don’t want to do it.  You have no sin.”

Jesus responds to that, in the first words he hear from his mouth in Matthew’s Gospel, (Chew on that for a moment because first words matter.  And the author of the Gospel of Matthew knows that.  This is a very consequential utterance and it’s easy to pass it over).  Jesus responds, “No, it must be so for now so that all righteousness may be done.

What is he talking about?  All righteousness?  Righteousness doing the will of God, and Jesus is saying, “John, I understand your problem; I know that you don’t get that I have to go in the water with sinners, but that is precisely what the Father wants me to do.” 

In fact, this is what the cross is all about too, and this moment at the Jordan prefigured and prepares us for the great theophany of the Cross.  On the cross the sinless one carries the sins of the world and suffers for them in our place.  At the Jordan, by going into the water with tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, the broken, the bedraggled, and the lost, isn’t Jesus saying “I want to be one with you?  My father loves you.  And by God, I love you.”

At the Jordan, Jesus he goes into the water with all of sinful humanity.  He goes into the water with the sinners long past.  He goes into the water with the sinners of the Jordan and he goes into the water with us! because he is the one who carriers our burdens.

The message of this Gospel is pure grace.  We can’t save ourselves.  And so he goes into the water and is baptized.

Water is a significant symbol. Water was there at the very dawn of time.  The Spirit hovered over the water, like a dove that descended on Jesus at his Baptism.  Jesus, by going into the water with sinful humanity, is presiding over the re-creation of humanity.  In the water with Christ we are all transformed.  We are made new.  We are a new creation. 

Moses led the people through the waters of the Red Sea, bringing them from slavery to freedom.  In the water with Jesus we go from slavery to everything that is death-dealing: slavery to materialism, slavery to careerism, slavery to every ism you can thing of, slavery to our compulsions.  Whatever we feel bound by, whether that be the urge to be the most powerful guy in the office or to be the most popular kid in school or to be the wealthiest guy on the block. In Christ we are set free from all if it. 

Jesus says, “I’m freeing you because there’s only one thing that gives you joy and happiness and life — doing the will of my Father; doing the work of his kingdom.  The Father wants you love with his heart and see with his eyes and act with his hands.” 

Water cleanses.  Naaman, in the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 5), goes into the Jordan at the command of Elisha and is cleared of his leprosy.  In the Jordan Jesus cleanses us from everything that might make us feel dirty. 

Coming up out of that water of the Jordan three things happen to Jesus: the skies open; the Spirt descends like a dove hovering over that water, and the Father speaks, “This is my son, the beloved.  I am well-pleased.”  “This is my boy and I couldn’t be prouder of him.”

We are in the water with Jesus.  We are made new in Christ.  Nothing of this world can ever possess us.  The answer to every struggle we have is obedience and submission to God.  When we can be one with the spirit who still hovers over the waters of our world there is nothing beyond our reach.  No chain can hold us when God keeps us in his care.

We’re not only in the water with Jesus, we’re in the water with each other.  As we are transformed we become not only the recipients of grace, we become the bearers of grace.  God gives us gifts so that we can gift each other.  Every great thing we have is given to us so that we can bless with it. 

We need to look around to see who needs us.  Who needs to hear a word of kindness from you today?  Who needs to hear, “I love you,” or, “I forgive you”?  Who needs a little bit of help?  Who needs our time, our interest, our investment of self?  I guarantee you that every day God sends us people who need us more than they need anything else. 

My sister, Barbara, died of ovarian cancer 19 years.  She died on January 4th at ten o’clock in the morning.  And I was with her pretty much every day for the last year of her life.  Towards the end, in her last couple of weeks, she was in a hospice, Calvary Hospital in the Bronx.  The closer she got to death the less she could do for herself. Ovarian cancer is a very uncomfortable disease. I was with her one night and she was spitting up gunk (to use the technical medical term), which was dribbling down her chin.  I couldn’t call the nurse for everything, so I began to wipe the stuff off her mouth as often as she needed the stuff removed. At one point, as this was going on, Barbara looked up at me and, in her very weak voice, she said: “You know, you’re good to have around.”

Those words mean more to me than any words anyone has has ever spoken to me.  They mean more to me than any accomplishment I’ve ever attained.  Just a few simple words spoken after doing next to nothing; wiping a little bit of drool.

We’re all good to have around.  That’s why we’re here, it’s our mission.  We are called to be good brothers and sisters to each other: to speak words of love, and to care for each other tenderly.   

In fact, in the Spirit, we are all good to have around; and every now and then we all say the right thing.

Blessed are …

The concept behind “blessing” is to be in that place and have that posture from which we can receive a life-giving gift.

Garth Callahan lives with his wife and daughter, Emma, in Glen Allen Virginia, little town outside of Richmond. About ten years ago, when Emma started kindergarten, Garth assumed the daily duty of packing Emma’s lunch for school.  So into Emma’s lunchbox went a sandwich, cookies, an apple, a juice box or drink of some sort, and Garth always packed a napkin.

The napkins got to be special, though, because Garth thought he’d have fun with them. Every day, on Emma’s napkin, he wrote her a little message. They were simple, fun, and meant to lift her spirits. Messages like: “Honey, I believe in you, believe in yourself!  Love, Dad.” When Emma opened up her lunch, along with food for her body, she found a little food for her soul.   

Every day, for years, Garth Callahan has been putting a napkin in his daughter’s lunch to say something encouraging or uplifting or fun or funny.  And the message behind all of the messages is “You have a father who loves you!”   

Emma is now in tenth grade.  Since about third grade she has saved every napkin her father sent her.  What a blessing for this young woman to have a symbol, a tangible symbol, of a father’s love.  What a tremendous blessing.

In the Gospels Jesus often speaks about blessings. His beatitudes are really a compilation of God’s own napkins in the lunchbox of his beloved children.  At the very beginning of Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount He speaks nine words of blessing:  Blessed are the poor in spirt, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Blessing upon blessing upon blessing.  Nine of them.  What does he mean by all that?  What does it mean to be blessed? 

If you want to do a little linguistic analysis with me, the word in Greek is μακάριος (makarios),  it is a slippery Greek word because it can mean a lot of things.  It can mean happy, joyful, blessed… It has a lot of meanings so it really doesn’t help us much as we try to drill down into what Jesus is really driving at in his beatitudes.  But if we look behind the Greek, to the Hebrew word for blessing that informs Jesus’ thinking, the word we find is בְּרָכָה (berakah). 

That still doesn’t help us much until you realize that the Hebrew language is concrete.  Every word and every concept in Hebrew can be driven down, if you work hard enough, to some concrete action or gesture.  And so where does berakah coming from? 

The first place we see it is Genesis 24:11.  Abraham is getting on in years and he wants his son to have a good wife, a girl that’s part of the family.  He’s doesn’t like any of the Canaanite girls where they’re living, so he sends one of his trusted servants back to the old country.  He has his most trusted servant swear an oath to go and bring back a girl suitable to be Isaac’s wife.  “Look”, Abraham says, “go to my family’s place in Aram and there find a good wife for my son.”

The servant is understandably hesitant: “What if I find a girl and she doesn’t come with me?”

“In that case,” Abraham concedes, “our deal is off and you’re released from your vow.”

So the servant sets off with ten camels and plenty of good things to find Isaac a good wife back in Mesopotamia. He goes across the desert with the camels and he’s saying to himself: “how the heck am I going to do this?  How am I going to find the right woman?  Geez Louise.  The old man gave me a tough job.” 

When he gets to an oasis in Aram the servant does what I would encourage all of us to do in a similar tight spot.  He prays.  And he says, “Lord, help me.  Help me to find the right girl.  I’m standing by this spring where the daughters of the village are coming to draw water. May it be that when I say to a girl ‘please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘drink, and I’ll water your camels too’ let her be the one You have chosen for your servant Isaac.” (Genesis 24: 14). 

The servant of Abraham hadn’t even finished praying yet and along comes Rebecca with her jar to get water from the spring.  She gets her water, comes up from the spring carrying it, and Abraham’s servant says, “Hey, I don’t suppose you could get me a drink could you?”

Rebecca, kindhearted as she was, says, “No, problem.  And I’ll give a drink to your camels too.” BINGO!

Earlier in the passage the servant of Abraham had the camels kneel (in Hebrew וַיַּבְרֵ֧ךְ) beside the well. The word to kneel is the root of berekah (blessing).  As we follow this thread we discover that the gesture at the root of “blessing”  is to kneel in order to receive what is life giving (water).   The camels can’t live without water,  and so the concept behind “blessing” is to be in that place and have that posture from which we can receive a life-giving gift. 

That’s what Jesus is driving at. 

So let’s go back to the Beatitudes.  Are they a cookbook for blessing?  “You want to be blessed, so go out and get poor;  mourn.  make peace …”  I don’t think so.  Jesus knows the people with whom he lives.  He lives in honor and shame society, and in this kind of culture being meek is no honor, strength is what they value;  being a peacemaker is no honor, victory is what they want.  Conquer, don’t make peace.  Mourning is no honor, you’re weak when you mourn, so keep a stiff upper lip. 

The first hearers of the Sermon on the Mount would have been struck by the incongruity. There is nothing blessed (happy) about the poor, the mournful, the persecuted, … What could Jesus’ mean by all this?

The first thing he’s saying to that entire crowd, everybody within earshot, is “you’re all blessed.  You’re blessed with life.  You’re blessed with God’s love.  You are children of God.” We are all God’s children, just as surely as Emma is a child of Garth Callahan.  You and I are children of God, and he loves us because he loves us.  He is constantly pouring love, grace, abundance, and favor into our lives whether we know it or not. God the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ is writing on our napkins every day.

So what about this meek and poor stuff?  What is Jesus driving at there? 

Isn’t He is saying that there are certain postures that put us in a position where we can more easily realize and accept the gifts God is giving us?  Like those camels kneeling to receive water, sometimes we need to kneel to receive the gift of life-giving love and salvation.  We can’t save ourselves.  We can’t rely on our wealth.  We can’t rely on how “together” we are.  We can’t rely on our relationships.  In the final analysis we can only rely on God. Who knows that better than the poor in spirit?  Who knows that better than those that are broken to pieces with grief and loss?  Who knows that better than the peacemakers or those who hunger and thirst to do God’s will instead of their own?

Jesus is saying you’re all blessed.  God blesses every bit of His creation, and he blesses it abundantly because God so loved the world He sent His only Son. And the love of God shows up in the most amazing and unexpected places. 

In the Jewish culture Jesus lived in, where they thought the poor, and the crushed, and the weak were being punished for their sin and were unworthy of God’s interest Jesus says God loves the smallest and least and most insignificant of his people. 

He loves us just the way we are.  He loves us in our sinfulness.  He loves us in our disgrace.  He loves us even though he sees all the stuff we don’t want the rest of the world to see. 

All of us have things about us that we don’t want the world to see.  We don’t want them to see our weakness, our insecurity, our sadness, our vulnerability.  But God sees all of it and He loves us right now.  He doesn’t say go get perfect and then I’ll think about you; He says I love you just the way you are, more certainly than Garth Callahan loves Emma.  He shows up in amazing places with unexpected people telling them and using them and loving them and calling them to be the building blocks of the kingdom of God. He doesn’t need the mighty to build the kingdom.  He needs and calls us.  He doesn’t say “let me get a squadron of billionaires with jets to fly around the world evangelizing.”  He says I send you.

Clara Harms, one of the high school students who comes to our church, told me the other day that she and some of the other girls at her school formed a group to go out and bring the love of God to the people on the beach in Fort Lauderdale.  They went out to give beachgoers bottles of water, to talk to them about the love of God, and to pray with them.  God used this young girl and her friends to bless others.  To change the lives of others. 

He sends us to be a blessing, and to share the Good News too. We may not have heard the call, but that doesn’t mean he’s not calling. 

Garth, about two years ago, learned that he has cancer.  He doesn’t know how much time he has left – at this writing he is doing okay.  And this loving dad wants to make sure his Emma gets a napkin with a love note in it every day until she’s out of high school.  Whether or not he’s here to write it on a daily basis. One day a year and a half ago he sat down and wrote out more than 800 napkins, just in case, because he wants his little girl to know that his love is even stronger than death. 

Isn’t that the message of the resurrection?  That the love of our father is stronger than death, so much stronger that death now has no power over us because Jesus risen is the lord of life; and he continually blesses us who hear his voice and know enough to get into the posture to receive the gift of life. 

That’s what blessing is.  It’s the gift of God’s loving kindness that none of us could ever earn.  All we have to do is humbly accept it – be in the place and posture where we can accept the gift of life. 

The challenge of the beatitudes is, in the first instance, to open our lunch boxes and read the love notes the Father sends us all the time.   

Then we have to accept what God tells us we are: His beloved children. God’s love is personal.  He doesn’t say, like Charlie Brown’s friend Lucy, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.”  He loves He loves us individually.  He loves us all by name.  He has written our names on the palm of His hand, like kids do when they have a crush in grade school.  That’s how much he loves us.   

Since her dad got cancer little Emma Callahan has been doing something special herself.  She now leaves napkins for him, telling him how much she loves him, her father. 

God never blesses us and says “sit on the blessing.  Take this to the bank.  Don’t tell a soul I’ve done this.”  He blesses us so that we in turn can be a blessing.  He blesses us so that we can go to the beach and hand out water bottles and bless people, and pray with them.  He wants us to go out and proclaim the blessing that we all receive as a gift from the Father that just adores us.

Now here’s the problem.  It’s a little frightening to do that?  You have to approach perfect strangers, or people you don’t know that well, or even friends that you may not be that sure of. You don’t know how they’re going to take it. Some are going to make fun of you; maybe even some of your friends or neighbors.  Some are going to resent you.  Some will even say bad things about you. 

“When that happens rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven.  This is the way they treated the prophets who went before you.” (Matthew 5:12)

Made in God’s Image

We are the very image of God – we are beloved of God; we are children of the Light!

I was recently asked to speak at a prayer service in support of the survivors of clerical sexual abuse that took place in Bowie, Maryland.  I was driving from my home in New York, and was about halfway there, about 153 miles from my destination, when one of he little screws in my eyeglass frames came undone and the right lens of my eyeglasses popped out. As you might imagine, this made driving significantly more challenging! 

All was not lost.  It was around 9:30 on a Saturday morning and I knew that optometrist offices must be open all over New Jersey, how hard could it be to find one? I pulled off the Turnpike at an exit where there seemed to be a lot of stores – I figured I’d only have to drive a few miles before I found a place to get those glasses fixed, then I’d be on my way!

Finding that optometrist wasn’t as easy as I thought. But I spotted a Walgreen’s drugstore, and pulled into it to see if they carried those little eyeglass fix-it kits.  They did, I bought it and immediately dumped out the contents of the case and began to try to repair the damage.

Of course when your glasses are broken it’s difficult to use those kits, with their tiny screws and the little screwdriver made for smaller hands than mine.  After 15 minutes of trying to get the lens and the frame back together, even with the kind help of  a good Samaritan clerk, I gave up. Then the clerk said “who don’t you try the optometrist’s office right across the street” Hmmm. If my glasses weren’t broken maybe I would have seen that office first, but still, my deliverance was at hand! 

Or so I thought

I carefully put my loose lenses back into the frame and  squeezed tight to keep it temporarily in place while I drove across the street – I had been using that same tactic during my last 10 or so miles on the Turnpike. But that strategy was a mistake!  When I turned to pull my car of its parking space, the lens again fell out the frame, and this time it dropped between the seats of my car and landed in a place where  I couldn’t reach it. Flying blind again, I drove to the optometrist’s parking lot, got out of my car , and went to work finding the lenses under my seat.  It was nowhere to be found! I looked and looked and looked – no lens.  To this day I have no idea where darned thing went.  I finally resigned myself to driving the rest of the way to Maryland with no glasses. 

My predicament  created numerous problems.  First, it’s tough to drive when the world looks like an impressionist painting .  Second I had an outline of my talk and all sorts of quotes bookmarked that I wanted to read from the Bible, but reading was now out of the question. I was flying blind in more ways than one. What a mess!

I rely on my glasses to see clearly, and I  need them to drive safely. But now I just didn’t have any other option, I had to drive without them and make the best of the situation, relying on the vision I still had, though it was flawed.  I had to rely on myself: I knew that I could still see well enough to navigate; I knew that I had to be someplace in a few hours, and I’d better be on my way or I’d be late;  and at the end of the journey I would find and be with people who I loved. 

Then I got to thinking about the meaning of my predicament: as we journey through life, we all like to have clarity – we like to know where we’re going and what the road ahead of us is like. The Church, for many of us, has been a lens that helped us see the road of life more clearly.  Sexual abuse by the clergy, and the institutional response of the Corporate church to that abuse, have been a lens-shattering experience. But when we lose focus we have fall back on the basics: we have to rely on our own selves, however flawed we may be, to find our way. 

The first question, then, is “who are we?”

All Scripture should be read in the context of Genesis 1:26 – 27. Their, in the space of two short versus, the sacred author reminds us three times that we are made in the image and likeness of God.  “Then God said, let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness. … So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God He created; male and female He created them.”

We are made in God’s image. Deeper, and more profoundly important than any of our sin, failure or brokenness is this reality – we are of the stuff God.

The theme is picked up in the beautiful prologue of St. John’s Gospel.  John speaks of the Word as being, from the very beginning, the creative energy of God. The Word is life and that life is our light. It is a light that dispels darkness. It is the light of the very life of God. And John writes in verse nine that the light is “the true light enlightens every person coming into the world.”

We are the light.

That light can be covered over, it can be  dimmed,   it can be disregarded, but it cannot be extinguished.

The great Irish teacher and mystic, Pelagius of Wales, taught that in every newborn child’s face we see the face of God. Each of us once radiated that magnificent innocents. Each of us is still in the depths of our being, light.

There is sin and there is evil. It has touched each of our lives. Some individuals are the victims of evil, and some do evil, they are its slaves. Even as great an institution as the church can forget its vocation. It can put its reputation, or its wealth, or its power, ahead of its mission. And when that happens, the lens cracks and falls from our eyes. The church is then unable to help us see clearly, and we must rely, faithfully, on the reality of our own nature, as God reveals us to be. We must rely on God’s presence within us, his image within us, his light within us, to help us find our way.

Who are we? We are the very image of God – we are beloved of God; we are children of the Light!

The next question, then, is “who is God?”

In 1944, a young man named Jurgen, was impressed into military service by his native Germany. He was only 18, and he was put to work in the antiaircraft batteries defending his home town of Hamburg, which was under heavy bombardment by the Allies. The bombing was relentless, bombs hit the battery where are Jurgen was stationed, killing the young man, only 16 years old, who stood next to him but leaving Jurgen himself unscratched.

As soon as he could, Jurgen went AWOL  and was promptly arrested by allied troops. He spent the next two years of his life as a prisoner of war.

Jurgen’s world had been destroyed. His hometown was in ashes, many of his friends were dead, and he was overcome with tremendous sadness. By chance, a  chaplain gave him a copy of the Bible. Jurgen was not a particularly religious person, nor did he come from a particularly religious family. But this was all he had to read, so he read it. In the Psalms of laments he began to take strange comfort. The psalmist seemed to resonate with his own pain. And then he read the account of the passion in St. Mark’s Gospel. At last, he thought, he had found a God who understood his suffering, a God who suffered with him. This is the God who could give Jurgen hope. The God who would change his life.

The cross of Jesus stands at the center of Christianity. It embarrassed the early Christians because it was a reminder of the painful, terrible, humiliating death of Jesus. Nonetheless, only 20 or so years after Jesus’ crucifixion, St. Paul could write: “God for bid that I should glory save in the cross of my Lord Jesus Christ.” What is the cross? What does it mean for us today?

I don’t believe for one instant that the cross was necessary to expiate for our sins – that it was required by a bloodthirsty god demanding that someone,  someone as innocent as Jesus, die before the sins of the guilty,  your sins and mine, could be forgiven. Quite the contrary,  the cross is a theophany: a revelation of the very nature of God.

On the cross, God, in Jesus, is one with everyone who ever suffered and everyone who ever will suffer. Jesus entered deeply into the painful reality of the human situation so that he could show us how much he loves us, how much God loves us. The cross reveals the essence of God’s being: God is love, self gift. The God revealed by Christ, the father/mother God, is the God who holds nothing back from us, and who is with us in our darkest, saddest, and most painful moments.   

Jesus last words, “O God, O God, why have you forsaken me?” show that Jesus even suffered the feeling of being God forsaken, and in doing so brings God’s presence to the God forsaken.

Jesus crucifixion, though, is inseparable from his resurrection. His resurrection is not merely a personal event, it is a communal event .  Jesus rises as the firstborn of many brothers and sisters.  He rises with God’s verdict that pain and suffering and death will not have the last word. 

So where is God in the pain of betrayal?  God is right there, suffering with us, healing us, restoring us, and making all things new. 

And our final question is “what does all this mean for us?”

In his cross, Jesus shows us the way.  Often, though, it’s hard for us to hear his call to follow him.  We would rather follow other paths that seem more certain or more clear.

The  third chapter of the Gospel of John  gives an interesting illustration.  We meet Nicodemus, and Nicodemus is an important guy.  He’s a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin: a leader of the people, a man who is well respected. He has heard of Jesus and the wonders he has worked. He believes that Jesus is from God, but he doesn’t yet understand who Jesus is or what his ministry means. Nicodemus is interested in seeing if Jesus shows the authentic way to God. 

So he goes to Jesus by night. This would seen  to be because this important community leader is  worried about what would happen to his reputation if it became known that he sought out Jesus.  But more importantly, in John’s Gospel, physical darkness is a symbol of an inner darkness; so John is  saying that Nicodemus comes to Jesus spiritually in the dark. 

Jesus tells Nicodemus that the solution to his quest for God is simple, he must be born again   To Nicodemus this makes no sense whatsoever. He doesn’t get it.  He asks the Lord how anyone be born again? 

And Jesus answers him with an enigmatic statement about to wind –  the wind is free to wind blows where it will, you don’t know where it’s coming from and you don’t know where it’s going.  Jesus is saying “Nicodemus what I want for you is absolute freedom, I want you to be as free as the wind.”

Nicodemus is still in the dark.

Finally Jesus says  “ just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert so must the son of man be lifted up that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” The serpent lifted up in the desert is a symbol and prefigurement of Jesus himself, lifted up on the Cross. 

Jesus is saying that the path to eternal life, and the path to true freedom, lies in our own willingness to undertake a lifestyle of self gift.  The cross is not only Jesus way, it’s our way too.  We are invited into a lifestyle of agapic love,  that love alone is life-giving.

Not long ago a young woman told me a terribly sad story – a story of hurt and betrayal. It was her life story, or at least part of it. 

When she was five, she came home from the park and found her father  packing to leave home.  She never saw him again.  Fast-forward 17 years.  This  same young woman is in a very serious relationship. Then she developed a physical problem. Her body begins to produce uterine cysts, big fibrous uterine cysts. Her physician told her that she may never be able to have children.  She went home to her boyfriend, explained the situation to him, and he left her. He just left her. She was heartbroken. 

Around the time she met somebody else. Their relationship started simply as a friendship, but in a few years it  began  to turn into more than that. The couple started dating – and in time they were getting very seriously involved.  Then the old problem with the  uterine cysts returned. One of her physician told her she would need yet another operation.  She was already scarred from the first operation, when we were talking she called herself “damaged goods.”  She wasn’t damaged, she was perfect.. But she didn’t know that.  She went to her new friend to tell him about the problem and she was sure he would leave her just like her last boyfriend did. Just like her father had left her.

But he didn’t  – he stayed with her and stood by her.  He was there with her in the hospital for the operation, and every day after her operation. When she told him that there was a strong possibility that she couldn’t have children, his response was,  “how you get the children isn’t all that important, what’s important is the love that you pour into their lies for 30-50 years after they’re there. We can always adopt.”

Simply by loving this woman and by being faithful to her the man who is now her husband went a long way towards healing the hurt of  a lifetime.

What was that young man doing?  He was walking in the light. He was being the light.  And he was honoring, in this wonderful young woman whom he loved, the image of God. 

It is our choice.  We can choose to live in darkness. We can revert to the patterns of evil that fill our lives with darkness.  We can choose bitterness over forgiveness; we can choose greed over generosity;    We can choose selfishness over self gift. 

The Lord invites us on a different way.  The way of freedom, the way of new life,  the way of new birth.  It is the way of the Cross!

It is in the love, the understanding, the kindness, and the honesty, of both the those who suffer and those who love them, that we find the presence of God, and with it healing and resurrection hope.

“In the end,” St. Paul says, “three things abide:  faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of them is love.”

Salt and Light

“It’s better to light one candle then to curse the darkness.”

“You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world.”       – Matthew 5:13;14

“Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” 

That the old adage about sticks and stones has been bouncing around for more than a century. I guess whoever coined it wanted to soothe the feelings of children (and grown-ups too) who have been the victim of unkind words.

But do you believe that it’s true?  I don’t! Of course words can hurt you, they can hurt you deeply. They can cut to the very core of who you are. They can wound your heart. 

We have been hearing words spoken and written about us all our lives.  What have those words meant to us, and how have they affected us? Every now and then it is good to stop and take a look at the words we’ve been hearing about ourselves What messages have they sent, and how much have be believed? 

Think of the words we hear as kids, from our playmates, or teachers, or even at home: “You’re ugly.”  “You’re fat,” “You’re stupid,” “You’re incapable,” “You’re clumsy,” “You’re inept.”  Has anyone ever told you anything like that?  Have you believed it? If you hear words like this often enough they begin to define who you are.  “There is death and life in the power of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21)

Think of how powerful words of condemnation or criticism are in the mouth of a parent.  “You’ll never amount to anything, young man/young woman.”  “You’ll never amount to anything.”  That’s a powerful message to a child, especially from the lips of a trusted adult. If you hear that long enough you begin to believe it.  And so people who have heard “You’ll never amount to anything,” begin to live into the reality of failure.  They think: “I’ll never amount to anything,” so they won’t try to amount to anything, so they don’t amount to anything.  Words of condemnation become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Communist China’s late dictator, Mao Tse-tung said: “if you repeat a lie a hundred times it becomes the truth.”  That, in a nutshell, is the big lie technique of all successful propagandists. If you tell a lie long enough and loud enough, then enough people will believe it.

The same is true of the lies we are told about ourselves: if we hear over and over that we are stupid, we’ll assume it to be so and never even try to use our minds at the level of our true capability. If a child is told often enough that he can’t learn then he won’t even try to learn. Words spoken to us (and the words we speak, as well) have tremendous power – and they can profoundly hurt us.

When I was a kid I was into everything: I would touch things, and play with things, and want to know how things worked.  That was great, but there was a down side to my curiosity: I also managed to drop and break my fair share of things. For example, my parents had a beautiful, hand made maple bookcase with glass doors that had beautiful wooden lattice work on them.  I was fascinated by that lattice work. One day, to get a better look at it, I pulled it off completely the doors, ruining the bookcase in the process.  My mother wasn’t pleased with that, or with me. In the process of scolding me she said: “Richie, you have dangerous hands.” 

“Dangerous hands.” 

Every time I broke something, and every time I went near something my mom thought I might break, she would remind me again:  “Don’t touch that, you’ve got dangerous hands.”

Now look at who the adult is.  My father could fix anything; I have to think about which way to turn a screwdriver.  I majored in philosophy in college, not engineering.  I have a degree in law, not mechanics.  I read books, I don’t do things with my hands. I don’t even garden.   I don’t touch anything concrete.  I have lived into the message my parents gave me about myself – and how much unrealized potential has been the victim of those simple, words “you have dangerous hands.” I have never painted a picture, or fixed an appliance, or played an instrument, or done any woodwork. If you have dangerous hands  you simply don’t use them. 

All of us have been limited by the lies told us about ourselves that we have internalized and made our own.

Jesus speaks a different truth into our lives. He tells us what the Father knows us to be. His Sermon on the Mount gives us an opportunity hear the words that God speaks into our lives not to limit us but to show us our true God-given potential. As Francis of Assisi said, “we are what we are in God’s eyes,” nothing more or less. 

In the Beatitudes, Jesus tells us that God loves and blesses the most seemingly insignificant of his people. In fact, to him there are no insignificant people, all are blessed.  He said to the weakest, the lowest, the most marginalized, the poorest that they, EVEN THEY, are blessed and loved by God.  Amazing words in a society that believed that the poor and suffering were simply “getting what they deserved” because of their sins or the sins of their relatives or ancestors.

Quite the contrary, according to Jesus, God has a special place in his heart for the broken and the broken-hearted.  So when you’re poor, or mourning or meek, or persecuted, when the world doesn’t honor who you are, your Father in heaven showers you with love.  Blessed are you.

No one earns that blessing, it is given us as a gift of the God who IS love.

Jesus speaks a word to his disciples, then and now, to tell us what God calls us: “You are the salt of the earth.”  he says; “You are the Light of the world. 

That’s who we really are, we’re salt.  If you read the sentence in Greek you will see that the word “you” is stressed.  It’s stressed by actually using the word, since the use of pronoun which is unnecessary in Greek and only used for emphasis; and it’s in the plural, so it’s clearly intended for every follower of Jesus who hears these words. 

You are the salt of the earth.

What is so special about salt?  What’s so good about being the salt of the earth?  What does salt do? 

First, salt gives flavor, no one would want to cook without it.  You only need a little bit of salt but it changes and improves the taste of almost every dish you make. 

Salt not only gives flavor, it preserves things.  In Jesus’ day, before refrigeration, salting food was among the best way to preserve food.  So salt preserves, it flavors.  It is also nature’s antibiotic. Even a simple salt bath can heal and soothe the body. Salt not only has antiseptic properties, it is also an anti-inflammatory agent and helps stimulate the lymphatic drainage system. Have you ever heard the expression, “Rub salt in a wound”?  That is not to make the wound feel worse.  It’s to heal because salt is a natural healing element. The salt helps create an antibacterial environment to help the wound recover faster. The salt also helps dry the wound because salt absorbs water.

So salt flavors, it preserves, and it heals. 

Salt was so useful in the ancient world that the Roman legions were often paid in salt.  We have a reminder of that in the English language: our English word salary comes from the Latin word salarius which means salt.  The Romans also had an expression that shows the importance they placed on salt: “Nil utilius sole et sale.”  “Nothing is so useful as the sun and salt.” 

When Jesus says “You are the salt of the earth”  He is telling his disciples that they are precious.  There is nothing so useful and so valuable as a genuine follower of Jesus of Nazareth: they have inestimable value.  There is a caveat, though. Salt has value because it is useful: sitting in a salt shaker it is doing nothing.  Disciples are to be the salt of THE EARTH.  We bring flavor, and healing, and abundance to the world that desperately needs to hear good news that is only found in Christ Jesus.

We are called to bring the flavor, and healing and abundance of our Christ to the world that the Father loves and longs to save.  We bring his gospel, we bring his love, we bring the good news of his saving cross.  We bring hope! There is nothing more valuable than that. 

The only way we can lose our saltiness is the only way salt can lose its saltiness.  Salt is a rock, the only edible mineral. Salt can’t become un-salt any more than granite can become grass.  Salt is what it is.  The only way to devalue salt is to adulterate it.  You throw a little sawdust in with it and it is no good to anyone any more. 

So be careful about adulteration.  We are to give flavor to the world, the world is not to give flavor to us.  We are to bring good news to the world, the world is not supposed to bring its message and its values and its brokenness to us. The more we become like everybody else, the less we become who we are meant to be: the salt of the earth. 

Jesus goes on, “You are the light or the world.” Light is absolutely essential for life.  Nothing grows, nothing lives, without the sun.  Because of the sun we have photosynthesis and consequently we have broccoli, and asparagus, and all that vegetables that we need to stay healthy. 

Did you ever walk in a dark room with absolutely no lights?  Good luck with your shins, because if you don’t know exactly where the coffee table is you’re going to fall right on top of it.  If you’ve got a dog, like I do, you don’t know where she is in that dark room; not only are you in danger, so is she.  Just a little bit of light though, just a candle, and everything becomes clear enough to maneuver.

Father James Keller was a Catholic priest who founded the group called The Christophers back in 1945. The purpose of the Christophers was to encourage people in all walks of life to use their God-given talents to make a positive difference; to be light in a world of darkness. The motto of the Christophers is the ancient Chinese proverb: “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”

We are God’s candles.  We are the light he has sent into the world. 

Light’s a funny thing.  You can’t see light but you can’t see without it.  There’s light the room you’re sitting in, but you can’t point to it.  If you hold your hand out there is light in it, but you can’t see it. You know it’s there, though, because you can see your hand hand. We are called to be like that: to reveal the world to itself.  You are the light of the world.

What world?  The world that God loved so much that he sent his only son  into it so that it might be saved. The world of imperfection and sin, the world of empty values and false hopes; the world that, even today, rebels against it’s creator. We’re here to light up that world with the light of Christ. 

All those words that you’ve been hearing about yourself all your life: “You’re too fat, you’re too skinny, you’re too young, you’re too old, you’re a klutz, you’re not smart enough, you’re not tall enough,” all of those things that tell you who you aren’t, are all lies. Cancel them out because this is what you are:  you are the light of the word, you are the salt of the earth.  And don’t take it on my account.  This is Jesus talking to you. 

Notice Jesus doesn’t say “someday you can be the light of the world,” or “if you work really hard you’ll be the light of the world.”  You’re the light of the world right now, just the way you are. With all your faults and flaws and imperfections you are bringing His light into the darkness.  We are called to reveal the world to itself by bringing it the good news of Jesus, through which everything else is made clear. 

How can anyone know right and wrong, good and evil, safety and danger unless they know the gospel of Jesus?  And the only way for people to know the gospel of Jesus is through us.  We need to know and live as Christ’s beloved friends. We need to be made new in Christ. That’s the promise of our faith. Jesus changes us, and through us changes the world. 

Listen to Isaiah.  Isaiah, when he’s chewing out the people of Israel says, essentially, “Give me a break.  Your prayers, you’re fasting, you’re drawing near to me, all that stuff means nothing.  This is what I want.  Loosen the bonds of the oppressed.  Live righteously.  Care for the poor.  Free those in bondage.”  In other words, don’t just talk about God, and don’t just talk to God; live as he calls you to live. Be the Good News you proclaim,

Paul says “In Christ we are a new creation.”   We are to be utterly transformed by our faith in Christ.  Don’t let your salt get adulterated by the values and lies and chicanery of the world.  Don’t let your light be hidden under a bushel basket or stuck in a building (not even a church).  Your light needs to be shining out there so that everyone will see. 

EveryoneNot just your friends and the family, not only the people that agree with you, but everyone in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our work places. 

None of us has “dangerous hands.”  God has given us our hands, and all our different gifts, to bring his message to the ends of the earth. Use them, and use them with confidence. After all You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.

Forgiveness and Fatih

According to the 20th Century philosopher Hannah Arendt, Jesus of Nazareth was the “discoverer of the importance of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs.”

My sister Barbara could hold a grudge with the best of them. Once when we argued (I forget what the argument was about, that’s how important it was) she must have thought I had gotten the better of her, so she called me at two o’clock in the morning to continue the quarrel; she had to win! Of course, she had to win because she was always right, to disagree with Barbara over any matter of substance didn’t merely become a question of opinion, but of right and wrong; and if you didn’t come quickly to her way of thinking there must be something wrong with you! The battle escalated to one of good versus evil. My sister was wonderful, but she could also be difficult. Continue reading “Forgiveness and Fatih”

Liberating Freedom

To be truly free is to choose well: to choose to live into our best selves, the person we were created to be.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed … (Luke 4)

If ever there was a person in prison it was Lorraine and the prison was of her own making. Continue reading “Liberating Freedom”

Christians Do!

“The son of man has come to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 25:10).

Jesus didn’t call his disciples because he wanted to hang out with the guys! He called them to follow him in mission. Shortly after his baptism Jesus came across two fishermen, Peter and Andrew, as they were casting their nets into the Sea of Galilee.  “Follow me,” he called to them, “and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:18-19). Continue reading “Christians Do!”

Being Grateful

Awareness of our blessings makes us desire to be a blessing to others! And disciples of the Lord are, before all else, aware that we are loved forgiven, and redeemed sinners.

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form or thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”  -G. K. Chesterton

Gratitude lies someplace close to the heart of discipleship.

When we follow Jesus we know that we have a savior because we need a savior! None of us can look back over our lives without regret – there is so much we would do differently, if only life would allow us a “mulligan” every now and then. But it doesn’t. Continue reading “Being Grateful”