Wednesday, October 16, 2019

"The Litmus Test"--October 17, 2019


"The Litmus Test"--October 17, 2019

"If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." [James 2:15-16]

The way you answer the question, "How do you know if a person has faith?" says a great deal.  Maybe before we go any further, you and I should each take a moment to consider how we answer that question.  How would anybody know you had faith?  What kind of "evidence" counts?

There is, of course, no shortage of answers to that question.  What "counts" as genuine faith in large part depends on whom you ask, and maybe even the era and the place in which you ask it.

For example, in the ancient memory of Israel found in what we call the Old Testament, people often pointed to the command called the Shema, from what we call Deuteronomy 6:4 "Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God--the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength."  That's got both a claim about God you are supposed to affirm, as well as an assumption that it will be expressed with your whole self ("heart" and "soul" and "strength").  In fact the rest of the thought after that famous verse continues to say that the people are supposed to live that belief in God out by keeping the commandments of God, as well as teaching them to their children.

Or, flash forward to the New Testament era, when the earliest statement of faith for Christians seems to have been simply, "Jesus is Lord."  And while that might seem like a low bar to meet in terms of theological depth and rigor because it is so short, the first Christians understood that naming Jesus as "Lord" was a huge deal in an empire where Caesar claimed that title for himself and insisted on allegiance to himself and to Rome as "Lord."  For the first Christians, confessing "Jesus is Lord" wasn't merely an exercise in abstract theology, but a practical claim about whose way of life you followed.  So as short a creed as that might have been (in Greek it's only two words!), it was deeply connected to the way early Christians lived their ordinary lives.

In the third and fourth centuries, we got more complicated with our theological formulas, and the institutional church started cranking out creeds, or adding on to creeds, with increasing length, complexity, and detail.  Before long, you had theologians writing systematic treatises to explain, diagram, dissect, and analyze God, each one longer than the one that came before. And while there may well have been good reason for the increasing depth and nuance as different theological questions were explored, all of that theologizing came at a price: at some point, "having faith" became something you showed by reciting theological jargon, rather than something you lived with your daily life.

Like I say, if you would have asked your average Jacob Israelite back in the year 1000BC what faith in God "looked like," the reply might have started with the words of the Shema, but the assumption was that if you believed in the God of Israel, you would do the things this God directed you to do, even down to the everyday stuff of life like the food you ate, the work you did, and the times you had for rest and play.  All of it was how you lived your faith--including the call to love your neighbor, to provide for those who had no means of providing for themselves, and to forgive debts.  It was that way of life that made Israel's God different, really, from the unending pantheons of gods and goddesses of Babylon, Canaan, Egypt, or Assyria.  So "faith" in Israel's God wasn't reducible to saying, "Yahweh is real but Marduk and Osiris and Baal are not," even if that was a part of it.  Faith always meant moving from "Yahweh is real and has claimed me" to "Therefore, I will live with the values of Yahweh and will strive to practice justice and mercy every day of my life."

And that's really where the New Testament of James is coming from, too.  James is a follower of Jesus, but like nearly all of the first generation of Christians, his roots were in Judaism and its unapologetic insistence that faith is not merely head knowledge but a way of life lived out in light of the God you say you believe in.  The evidence for your faith, according to James, is less in whether you can memorize a catechism and more in whether your priorities line up with those of the God you say you believe in.  There's no sense of "earning" your way into heaven for James (even though that's how my older brother in the faith, Martin Luther, heard these words five centuries ago, and it made him really dislike the book of James).  It's not about earning something or getting into something.  It is simply a matter of whether the facts we believe about God actually shape the ways we live and speak and give and love in our daily lives.  In other words, if you ask James, "How do you see somebody's faith?" he would answer, "Look at how they love in ordinary situations.  That will show you the sort of God they believe in."

And for James, the particular God we believe in has a particular concern for the needs of others.  In fact, as James sees it, since the God of Israel (who is also the God revealed in Jesus) cares so much about the needs of the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner, then we should care about those folks, too.  And since the God of Israel and Jesus is more than empty talk, we will be people with more than empty talk, too. For James, none of this is about doing good deeds in order to earn your way into heaven--it's really just the opposite: because of the character of the God we trust in, we will live and act in certain ways.  We will care about the needs of the neighbor--say, actually helping them to get to eat, rather than merely wishing them well--because the God who claims us cares about the hungry neighbor.

And now this really is the lynchpin of the whole thing: there is nobody that the God of Israel and Jesus doesn't love.  Nobody.  Not one. Christians, yep.  Non-Christians--yes, them, too.  Tattooed people, uh-huh.  Non-tattooed people, yes, them, too.  The well-dressed country club set as well as the mom working three jobs and juggling which of her five kids will get new shoes this year, just so she can make sure the lights stay on.  The religious weekly attenders at services, and the people sure they would not be welcome.  And yes, the people who seem to keep having the worst luck in the world, as well as the people who keep making terrible choices that leave them in a lurch, too.  All of that is to say that there is never a person God looks at and then says, "Well, you're no concern to me."  There is never a face to whom God says, "You're not my problem."  And because that is who God is--at least the particular God we dare to believe in--then we are not permitted to look the other way in the face of others' needs either.  

James says it point-blank: if you see someone who is hungry or without adequate clothing, and you offer only generic well-wishing, you haven't helped them at all.  You don't get to say, "You're no concern of mine!" or "I wish you luck!" because we are the people of a particular God who insists that everyone is God's concern.  I may not be able to feed everybody or clothe everybody myself (I can't), but I am not permitted simply to ignore others because I don't want to have to think about their need, or I don't want to admit that God loves them enough to be worried sick over them while I just turn up the volume on my TV so I can ignore them.

If you ask James how you see faith, he won't point you to a catechism or a systematic theology.  He will simply say, "On an ordinary day, how do you love people who are hurting?"  There's nothing heroic about it, and James isn't asking us to turn water into wine.  He dares us instead to turn my abundance into enough for me and the hungry neighbor.  He dares us to care for people the way God does: which means we don't get the out of telling people they are no concern for us.  Not next door, and not half a world away.  Not when they can do favors for you later, and not when they will never be able to repay you.  Not when they are the same religion as you, and not when they are of a different religion, too.  The question is not, "Are you enough like me for me to have to care about you?" but rather, "Do you matter to God?"  And the answer to that question is always, emphatically, "Yes."

The bottom line for James is that faith is not demonstrated in having people lay hands on you as they pray for you, or in religious name-dropping, or even in making things more comfortable for other religious people.  Rather, when you ask James how he would tell who has a living faith in the living God, James just says, "Let me see your daily routine and how you love the people who are in need around you, regardless of what it costs you, and regardless of whether you get something in return."

"Let me see how you love," James says. "That's how I'll see your faith."

Love is the litmus test--the sine qua non--for faith in God, because the God in whom we believe is Love.  On an ordinary Thursday, then, let us love genuinely.

Lord Jesus, let us love the way you do--in action and commitment, rather than in empty talk and well-wishing.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

"A Revolution at the Table"--October 16, 2019


"A Revolution at the Table"--October 16, 2019


"But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’" [Gal. 2:11-14]

Be warned: thinking through this lesser-known passage from a short-ish letter in the New Testament is dangerous stuff.  If we take it seriously, it might bring a radical change into our lives, even down to the ordinary activities like sharing a table.

Now, at first, this passage might seem harmless to us, because it's about an issue that Christianity has gotten over.  We no longer fuss over whether we have to keep kosher, right?  So, after two thousand years, it is easy for us to side with Paul on this whole Jewish-Gentile controversy. There is no more controversy to it anymore--after all, most of us are in fact of Gentile background--that is, most of us Christians today come from non-Jewish backgrounds. So it's easy for us to say that Paul was right to include "those Gentiles" in the community of Jesus' followers without the conditions of having to follow the Jewish laws of purity or eating or ritual. It's easy for us--or at least it doesn't raise red flags for us--to insist that God can embrace even "those Gentiles" who would have been regarded as dirty, undeserving, inherently sinful godless pagans in Paul's former circles.  It's easy because--<gulp!> chances are, we are "those Gentiles" who have come to believe in Jesus. 

But now, the water gets more than a little hotter for us, though, if we dare to ask a similar question today. Who are those with whom we do not think it respectable to eat? Who are the members of the church who we would be afraid of being seen with in public? Who are the visitors that might not be welcome everywhere... and who are the people that have been so discouraged and burned on religion that they would never dare to darken the door of a church right now? Who are the people we would attach the word those in front of--as in those people, those sinners, those who speak a different language, those who are regarded as inherently sinful, those who are unfashionably poor, those whose lives still wear scars from past woundedness? When are we Cephas (Peter), able to love all in the abstract, but afraid to be seen in public sharing bread with the ones regarded with less respect? 

See, that's it: Peter the apostle knew the right abstract language of "Christians are supposed to love all people," but when it came to actually living that out in the ordinary moments of  sharing a table and breaking bread with the ones labeled "other" and "unacceptable" and "unworthy," all of a sudden, that's too far for the apostle to go.  And that's why Paul has to call him out on it: it's not enough--it is simply not enough--to use the generic language of loving "all people" in the abstract wording we print on our church bulletins if we can't live it out all the way down to the routines of our day and the ordinary details of our lives. Beyond platitudes, love is made real in the people whom we befriend, whom we will listen to in ordinary conversation, and whom we will share a meal with.

And that's where this demands courage from us--courage, and love, and grace, and a willingness to move beyond familiar fears.  This takes a certain amount of daring, grace-ful vision to ask--what one pastor I know calls "faithful imagination"--to see ourselves in Peter and Paul's places and not merely fighting old battles that have lost their controversy, but looking for where we have become "led astray by hypocrisy," too, in all new ways. It can be uncomfortable to even dare to look at ourselves in this way, but of course the hope held out for us is the same hope held out for all God's people--we are received by God despite our sinfulness and even despite our hypocrisy. If God's grace is open to even "those people" (however we identify "those people"), then, yes, it is given even to us who have a hard time recognizing that it is given to those people. And we find that all of us are transformed by such a graceful welcome.

Every Sunday, we share a meal already with everyone who is gathered for worship--the whole baptized people of God. Dare we recognize how bold a move that is--and can we bring ourselves to share a meal with all outside of the ritualized space and time of Sunday morning? Who is Jesus leading us to eat with today? And could we dare to let love move us beyond nice talk about love to allow Christ to lead us to ordinary action embodying love in our ordinary moments like meals and honest conversations?

O Christ Jesus, our faithful Companion--who literally shares bread with us--teach us your own grace-ful vision, so that we can see ourselves truthfully and see others as you see them. Bless our eyes today for such vision, and bless our hands today for the breaking of bread with all.

Monday, October 14, 2019

"Cheeseburgers in the Shade with God"--October 15, 2019


"Cheeseburgers in the Shade with God"--October 15, 2019

The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.  He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, 'My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves, and after that you may pass on--since you have come to your servant.' So they said, 'Do as you have said.' And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, 'Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.' Abraham ran to the her, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took the curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate." [Genesis 18:1-8]

I would say that the irony of this scene kills me... but in matter of fact, it does just the opposite: it brings me to life.

But in any case, it is absolutely essential, if we want to "get" what is going on in this story, to be clear here at the outset that Abraham doesn't know he his talking to the living God.  Not once.  Not ever during the conversation.  Maybe months later in hindsight when his nonagenarian wife has given birth to a son named Laughter (Isaac), old Abe realized who it was that had visited his tent on that hot afternoon out by the oak trees, but not during any of this encounter as it played out.  Abraham doesn't know he is being visited by none other than the Ground of Being and the Source of All Life (and, as Christian thinkers have noted over the years, God has come to visit in three persons who seem to speak as one, in what we cannot help but see as a wink toward the Trinity... but that is a conversation for another day).  

I feel a bit like the opening of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol here, in which Dickens repeats and insists that ol' Jacob Marley was "dead as a doornail," and wants us to be clear about that, in order to make us understand what a big deal it is that his ghost should appear to visit Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve.  Well, the same sort of emphasis is warranted here: Abraham is completely oblivious--blessedly clueless--to the fact that he is entertaining more than angels outside of his tent.  He is playing host to none other than the God of the universe, whose world Abraham is living on as a wandering guest himself.  Like I say, the irony of the scene, where God is the guest and the wandering nomad is the host, is irresistible to me.  So before we move on, let's get it settled: regardless of Abraham's lack of awareness, the story stands as a visit from the Almighty God... for an impromptu picnic lunch of cheeseburgers in the shade.

Now, here's the thing that gets me.  Since Abraham doesn't have even the slightest clue that this is God visiting him, that means (and I don't know any other way of interpreting this without reaching this conclusion) that this is just the way Abraham receives strangers.

Let me say that again so the point is not breezed over: the default way that Abraham, or any other self-respecting ancient near Easterner for that matter, would treat strangers who crossed his path was to invite them to stop and eat with him.  They were honored guests, not because you expected to be paid back (after all, these were all nomadic people, and you might never cross paths with these same people again), but simply because they all knew what it was like to be wanderers, travelers, and sojourners without a permanent place and dependent on the welcome of others.  Hospitality was not an option--it was their way of life.  That by itself puts us to shame--we live in an age and a time of default fear and suspicion of the stranger who crosses our path, and we are taught that it is only common sense to shut your doors to the faces who come up over the horizon to meet you, because we have to focus on the interests of me-and-my-group-first.  Well, common sense be damned--Abraham just up and welcomes these strangers and goes out of his way to receive them, even without realizing who they are for even a split second.  We would do well, perhaps, to consider that for all of his faults and failings (which were plentiful), Abraham is never criticized in the Bible for this show of unguarded hospitality--in fact, this is one of his most brightly-shining moments.  For Abraham, this is not a moment of heroism or an expectation of a divine appearance: for him this is an ordinary lunch with company.

But it's also that total ordinariness of this moment that is instructive for us as well.  Abraham doesn't expect that he is entertaining the Lord of all creation--he is just being a decent person to strangers looking for a bit of respite from the heat.  Abraham isn't angling for anything, or asking "What will I get out of this?" when he puts on this meal for the three migrants.  He is just offering the ordinary hospitality you would extend to anyone who stopped at your doorway.  But that routine welcome becomes the entry point for the divine, even without old Abe's knowing.  And that, dear ones, is precisely the point.

Among the many surprises of the Scriptures is God's recurring choice to make surprise appearances when no one is expecting it... and by the same token, God reserves the right to decline to appear at the expected "religious" places where we try and conjure divinity.  The prophets, for example, regularly remind us that the living God reserves the right not to listen to our songs and hymns if we think we are buying God off with them.  God reserves the right not to show up at the state-sanctioned officially-approved shrines of worship that the king sets up, or to listen to the petitions at ancient Israel's national days of prayer if they are using it as a pretense to cheat each other, oppress each other, or ignore the needy among them.  But a God who is so free to decline the invitation to the King's-official-Religious-Ceremonies in ancient Israel or Judah is also free to show up undercover under the oaks of Mamre for an old married couple, too.  The God we meet in the Bible keeps showing up in ordinary moments that don't look religious at all--not just in the bread of Holy Communion or the space beneath steeples, but in the conversation with a stranger sitting near you in the coffee shop or diner, and in the emergency department waiting room, too.

If you want to have an encounter with the living God, the Bible's advice is NOT to lock yourself in church, as though that's the only place you'll find God.  And honestly, the best way to be open to a visit from God is not to try and "make" it happen by doing things that look religious.  Rather, Abraham's story suggest that we'll be most open to receiving divine visitors when we are able to welcome the people--familiar or strangers, best friends or unknown--whom God sends across our path.  When our eyes and hearts are open to considering that the unexpected visitor is a messenger from God, maybe we'll live our lives with enough empty space and flexibility that we can receive them and find God showing up in the encounter, too.  And when we are willing to live free from the fear that automatically assumes the stranger is suspicious, we will be ready to be blessed in the encounter with the sojourners who come our way.

It is a beautiful irony indeed that Abraham doesn't know he's eating burgers with Almighty God, but maybe his story can open our eyes to be ready to be surprised by God's entry into our ordinary moments as well--provided we have our eyes and hearts open to welcome those God sends along.

Lord God, let us be ready to receive you in ordinary moments and places, in the guise of the stranger's face.

"Showing Up"--October 14, 2019


"Showing Up"--October 14, 2019

"Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one." [1 Thessalonians 4:9-12]

You probably know the adage that "85% of life is just showing up."  Well, the math may be a wild guess, but it's on the right track.

So much of the daily lived-out practice of our faith is just in showing up.   It's not that we need a new directive or commandment, or a new bestselling book with newly-revealed life-principles or discipleship strategies.  Like the apostle could say twenty centuries ago, "You do not need to have anyone write to you concerning love of the brothers and sisters."  In other words, Paul didn't think he was writing anything new to his friends back at First Church of Thessalonica.  He was simply reminding them to keep showing up for each other. Day by day, situation by situation, in life-crises and routine rhythms alike.  That doesn't require a lot of new information, or in-depth Bible study.  It requires simply the recurring reminder that we are called to show up for each other... and then we do it.  We learn to show up for each other in the practice of showing up for each other, and by having others show up for us when we are the ones who need someone to accompany us.  To the naked eye it looks entirely ordinary, but we know that it is a wonder of God to be joined to a community that is bound together in love.

So, maybe the real question we need for this new morning is simply, "If we are called to show up for each other today, what might that look like today?"  That is, "How are we called to show up for each other on this particular day?"  And of course, that will take a thousand different forms, as each of us shows up for the particular neighbors in our lives.  While we are all connected to each other in this community called the Body of Christ, the people immediately closest to you are going to be somewhat different than the people in my circles today.  There may well be overlap, and we are all connected to Christ himself, but you will have different people to whom you are sent to "love one another" compared to the people in my world today.  So we all aren't all commanded to show up at one person's house today--all the billion or so Christians in the world, all at once--to help accompany someone when they have to go to a doctor's appointment, but we are all each called to show up in our respective world, to the faces whom God sends across your path today.

And on that point, I think Paul's direction to his friends in Thessalonica has something truly radical to say to us.  While the words "Love one another" may not sound new, notice there at the end of this passage, that Paul makes a connection between loving one another and doing meaningful labor.  We often reduce love to an emotion (basically just the feeling of "liking" someone), but Paul doesn't see love primarily in emotional terms, but rather in action and practice of doing good for the beloved to meet actual needs, or just to be with them.  So from Paul's vantage point, the call to "love one another" isn't simply a matter of "feeling nicely toward one another" but to show up for them, regardless of how you feel about them at the time.  So we are called to show up for people we don't know, people we are angry at, people we are just getting to know, and people who have been on the fringes of our lives as relative strangers for a long time, too.  And for Paul it includes being available to use our resources for their needs.  That's why Paul makes the connection to doing labor with our own hands--I need to be able to help the neighbor in need, not just in the sense of handing them my money (becuase each of us is called to find meaningful labor), but even just in the sense of being able to spend the time or money it would take to go help the neighbor in need.  As Paul sees it, the reason to have a job is not simply to make myself rich--it is what allows me to have the means to "show up" for those I am called to love.  I can't drive my friend to the airport if I don't have enough money to buy gas, and I can't help donate food for the local food bank if I don't have the resources to buy or make food in the first place.  I can't take the time to spend the day with someone who needs me to accompany them to a difficult doctor appointment or court appearance or whatever if I'm scrambling to cover my own needs.  So as Paul sees it, my ability to do meaningful work and make a living isn't primarily me-centered, but love-centered!  And as Paul sees it, once my basic needs are met (housing, clothing, food, etc.), the over-abundance we make is there to enable us to be available for the love of others. 

Think of how radical that is.  We talk in our culture about having "disposable time" or "disposable income," which suggests that after our essential needs are covered, I am free just to throw the rest of my time and money away.  But Paul doesn't see it that way.  Instead, my extra resources are available to be saved up for whatever the future need is--maybe mine, but also just as likely someone else's.  And that means a radical re-orientation toward seeing that "my" time and "my" money are really resources that allow me to be present--to "show up"--for the people God has sent me to love.  That will mean some days I have saved up time in the off-chance that someone else could use my help--sometimes they will, and sometimes the emptiness on my calendar will come and go without having given it away to someone else.  But I will only be able to show up for someone if I hold the time and space open for them.  Same thing with my money--Paul doesn't advise us to be constantly broke, but to have the resources not only to cover our own needs, but also to be available when someone else whom I love needs me to be able to spend them.  

It turns out that the call to love one another isn't new at all--but it does involve a constant re-examining of how I can be living my life making myself available for others.  The Scriptures call us always beyond a merely emotional understanding of love to see love in action, in practice, and in the setting of priorities.  I don't need a need a new lecture to tell me to feel a certain way--but maybe each of us needs the reminder of just how far down to the core of our selves and how completely that includes our work as well as our free time.  All of it is about love.... because all of life in God is about love.

Today, go and show up for someone today.

Lord Jesus, let your love take root in us all the way down.

Friday, October 11, 2019

"Resurrection Come Spring"--Poem+Picture--October 11, 2019


"Resurrection Come Spring"
See Christ Here Poem+Picture--October 11, 2019

We all live on this circle
from budding life to bare branches,
but rarely see the arc all at once,
from green to yellows and oranges
to emptiness.
In a moment like this, it is plain
we are all headed for December,
yet dare to hope for 
resurrection come spring.

#seeChristhere

Thursday, October 10, 2019

"Comfort Food"--October 11, 2019


"Comfort Food"--October 11, 2019

"As they came to the village to which they were going, [the risen Jesus] walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, 'Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.' So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight." [Luke 24:28-31]

To be clear, nobody was expecting a miracle that evening.  At least, not the two disciples (one named Cleopas, and the other maybe his wife?) who found a stranger walking beside them on the first Easter evening, before anybody really understood what that meant.  

You probably know the story: on the same day that Jesus rose from the dead, the rumors of the empty tomb were circulating among Jesus' disciples, but nobody really seemed to believe or understand.  And so here were Cleopas and his traveling companion, walking home back to their house in the suburbs outside of the city, and all of a sudden Jesus himself appears... but they don't recognize him!  All they see is a stranger who engages them in conversation, and so when they get to their exit off the highway to get to their town of Emmaus, they do what any self-respecting good Jewish adult would have done in the first century: they extend hospitality! (That by itself makes for an interesting point of reflection: our first impulse when a strange person comes up and strikes up a conversation is to be afraid and feel for our wallet, keys, mace, or whatever else you might be carrying.  But in a first-century Judean context, the default assumption is that you welcome the stranger to your own table, precisely because he is a stranger!)

So anyway, the scene is completely ordinary: it's a Sunday dinner (which, remember, in first century Judea is not a weekend, just a regular work night), and these two have just invited a guest to join them for the evening meal.  That's it.  No one is expecting a miracle--if anything, Cleopas and his housemate are convinced there is no hope at all anymore because they can't bring themselves to believe that Jesus is really alive again.  All they have at that table is their heartbreak and grief... and the comfort food of bread at the table, waiting to be broken. It surely felt the way it still does today when someone you love dies, and at some point in the midst of the numbness and shock, you realize you haven't eaten all day and you make yourself go through the motions of making a sandwich or opening the carton of ice cream in the freezer.  It is all such ordinary stuff.  

And that, I believe, is truly part of the beauty of this story.  Jesus has been there all along, of course.  And other than the fact that he was dead just the day before but is now as alive as you or me, Jesus hasn't done anything out of the ordinary so far in this scene.  He has walked and talked, and then, when he is seated at the table, he plays the host and breaks the bread.  And in that ordinary action, his identity is revealed and Mr. and Mrs. Cleopas realize that it is none other than their crucified rabbi Jesus who has been with them this whole time. Christ himself has been with them all along, but the thing that helps them to see it is ordinary bread being passed around at an ordinary Sunday dinner.  That floors me every time.

That, I think, is really the whole point of our celebrations on Sundays (in my tradition every week) when we gather around our own larger version of a family dinner table.  Christ is revealed "in the breaking of the bread," in a moment as seemingly ordinary as passing the basket of bread at your own house.  We dress it up with liturgy and chant perhaps, or make the bread into flat wafers from time to time as a nod to the unleavened bread of Passover that Jesus would have used on the night of his betrayal.  We may call it by names with varying degrees of fancy-sounding religiosity--from the Lord's Supper to Holy Communion to the Sacrament of the Altar to the Eucharist.  But the thing that really is amazing is how Christ keeps revealing that he's been present all along in the breaking of such an ordinary thing as bread.  

That's why I am not at all persuaded by those occasional arguments you'll hear that Communion would become "less special" if we have it all the time.  To me, that sounds like it misses the point entirely!  Sunday dinner with your family doesn't become less special if you have it every week--in fact the tradition becomes more and more special because you've made the effort to keep doing it.  And at the same time, in a very important sense, the ordinariness is exactly the point!  That's what makes the Emmaus Road story so powerful--it is the God who chooses to show up, not after an extended organ solo or once there has been sufficient incense burned, but right there in the ordinary act of breaking bread--of sharing comfort food.

And once we are clear that Christ keeps insisting on showing up in something as seemingly mundane as fragments of a loaf of bread, well, then there's nowhere that's off limits anymore. Today, on an ordinary enough Friday, Christ is loose in the world and waiting to be spotted.  Don't look up high in the sky or under a steeple.  Maybe just look right in front of your eyes.

Lord Jesus, show yourself to us in the breaking of the bread... and everywhere else you insist on being present.

"Where It Happens"--October 10, 2019


"Where It Happens"--October 10, 2019


"On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, 'Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!' When he saw them, he said to them, 'Go and show yourselves to the priests.' And as they went, they were made clean." [Luke 17:11-14]

Yes, this is a miracle--but the real wonder to me in this scene is something completely un-supernatural.  What happens in this story is amazing, but so is the sheer fact of where it happens.

We are looking in these days at how we see Christ in "the ordinary," and you might think at first that a miracle is automatically disqualified from our conversation because it is, by definition, extraordinary.  Miracles are by their nature not an everyday occurrence--our standard description of a miracle is "something that defies explanation" or "something that violates the rules of physics or biology."  And that's surely what you've got here in this scene: an honest-to-God, beyond-explanation miracle of healing, where Jesus calls out to this group of men who are all living with a chronic and terminal case of leprosy, and he heals them without even touching them.  The gospel writer gives no other explanation or rationalization beyond saying, "This is Jesus.  This is how he operates.  It was a miracle."

True enough.  And sure, it is easy to spot the presence of God in a miracle.  Since none of us can pull one off through sheer concentration or willpower, the healing has to be evidence of God.  

But let's pause for a moment and back up to before any of the special effects.  While the miraculous healing of ten people with an incurable condition all at once is supernatural, the  location of the healing doesn't require any suspension of the laws of nature at all.  This healing doesn't take place on the moon, or in Wonderland, or on the way to the Emerald City.  And Jesus isn't magically whisked away from, say, a breakfast in his hometown Nazareth to suddenly find himself at this unknown border village. (I mention that possibility because, as you may well know, there are in fact occasional stories in the Bible where someone is minding their own business when the Spirit "snatches them up" to set them down somewhere else, like Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, or where God sends a flaming chariot to lift someone up to heaven.  This not one of those times.)  Jesus ends up where he does--walking along the border in "the region between Samaria and Galilee"--by his own two feet. It is entirely natural.  In that sense, the set-up for this scene is completely ordinary.

And that is what makes it remarkable.  Jesus chooses to be in this place.  Jesus deliberately creates the possibility that this sort of miracle can happen because he chooses to walk through this border territory.  Jesus enters the space between "us" and "them" intentionally, knowing it will be provocative, knowing it is risky, and yet also knowing that it is precisely where he needs to go.  He carries no official papers, he has no legal right to cross through this border territory so freely, and he has no legitimately recognizable reason that guarantees him safe passage as he goes between his own familiar territory of Galilee and the land of the "other," Samaria.

Now, it's probably old hat to say that there were deep animosities between Jews and Samaritans in the first century.  It was a centuries-old division between sides, and by the time of Jesus it carried ethnic, religious, political, and cultural overtones.  The lines and borders between Galilee and Samaria had shifted plenty over time, but it was still clearly a boundary--much like Texas used to be part of Mexico, then was an independent nation for a while, and then was part of the United States, then left to side with the Confederacy, and then once again was a part of the Union, but nevertheless there is still a definite feeling of "otherness" between sides at the present border.  The tension in a place like that would have been palpable, just as Jesus walked through it.

And because this was an in-between place, and because of the hatred and suspicion between these groups (however well-founded or imaginary), you can imagine that border territory being the kind of place that respectable people don't want to raise their kids.  In the empty land between villages, well, you could end up with outcasts creating their own little enclaves, because this was not prime real-estate for new housing developments at the time. You don't find leper colonies in the heart of a downtown district of a major city--you find them in the margins, at the edges of society, and in the frontier and border regions where Jesus has chosen to go.  (And as a side note, there were plenty of Respectable Religious folks who wanted to go from Galilee to Judea and who would just travel far out of their way around the region of Samaria to avoid interaction with those dirty, rotten, sickness-infested, dangerous Samaritans.)

All of this is to say that Jesus, who is nobody's fool, deliberately sets his course right into this place of tension, knowing he could get in trouble for crossing this border without having a significant reason to be in this place in the first place.  And he goes knowing that this is the sort of place where there could well be leper communities--because again, when you are sick and driven from your old village to seek refuge somewhere else, you will take whatever in-between place you can find, including with other sick people.  Lepers don't judge lepers--they all know they're sick; it is the un-infected who can be so cruelly vigilant to cast out the sick ones.

And up to this point, I think we can all agree, Jesus hasn't done anything that is not also in your or my power to do, too.  He has walked from one region to another, but there is nothing magical or miraculous about that.  He has simply chosen his course and gone.  That much is completely ordinary.

But it is this choice that sets up the miraculous healing that includes, as you may well know, both fellow Jews like Jesus and at least one Samaritan, this "other" who receives the healing just as much as all of Jesus' fellow kin-folk.  The miracle can happen--or at least, this particular miracle for these particular people, can happen--because Jesus has made the perfectly ordinary, non-supernatural choice to walk through a place that everyone else is afraid to go through.  Others would be afraid of getting to close to roving leper groups and getting sick... or that there could be violent robbers in this empty borderland between territories... or that his own people would be upset at him for crossing into Samaria and--gasp!--helping Samaritans... or that the Samaritans themselves might be suspicious of Jesus and assume he was hostile to them.  There are a long list of sound reasons why Jesus shouldn't go through this border region... but he does it anyway.  That choice is remarkable to me.

As we live through this day, we cannot predict or control the miraculous.  We can't heal someone's illness by sheer willpower, walk on water, or raise the dead like Jesus does.  But we can choose where we walk today, which will affect where God might use us.  Like they say in basketball, you miss one-hundred percent of the shots you don't take, and Jesus cannot heal lepers he never encounters.  His choice to go into this borderland, knowing it is the sort of place where people might need him and where no one else wants to go, makes him available to be a help to the people there in that place.

You and I can keep to our routines today, certainly.  We can keep our heads down, stay inside our homes and cars and keep our office doors shut, and never risk going beyond, if we so choose.  But as long as we are keeping ourselves in those safe routine places, we will never be available for the folks to whom God might have sent us if we dared go into the margins.  You'll never meet someone who is struggling to make ends meet if you only ever stay inside your gated suburban development.  You'll never meet anybody who has been followed through a store because of their skin color if you only ever talk to people whose ancestors came from Germany or England.  You'll never be in the position to tell someone who has been told God's love is not for them that they are indeed beloved and precious in God's sight if you only make friends with Respectable Religious people.  And you'll never be able to be used to bring healing to someone's life if you never go where the hurting people might be.

Jesus knows the risks and the provocations he might incur for setting his feet on the pathway through the border... but he does it anyway, because that is what the Reign of God looks like.  Before any miracles happen, the Reign of God is clear and present just in Jesus' ordinary walking into the space between "us" and "them."

God give us the courage to go where you would lead us today, and to love the people you send across our path today.