Who Do You SEE?

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Over a decade ago, a researcher named Daniel Simons from the University of Illinois conducted a now famous experiment which involved a basketball and a gorilla. In the experiment, the participants were asked to watch a video of a group of people passing a basketball back and forth to one another. The participants were instructed to focus on the people in the video who were wearing white shirts and then to count the number of times the basketball was passed among those particular players in the white shirts. In the middle of the video, a woman dressed in a gorilla suit walked into the scene. She turned and faced the camera, pounded her chest, and then slowly exited the room. When asked what they saw, fifty percent of the participants watching the video never noticed the gorilla walk into the room. Fifty percent! The researchers concluded that this was not a limitation of the eye, but a limitation of the mind. When our attention is directed and focused on a particular thing, we can become blind to almost everything else, even something as surprising and unexpected as a gorilla walking into a basketball game. The researchers call this inattentional blindness – what we think we see and what we actually see are often two very different things.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells yet another dramatic and somewhat perplexing parable. The first character we meet is “a rich man,” which has become sort of a stock character for Jesus. As with other rich men in other parables, we don’t know this man’s name, but we do know that he has been living the good life, wearing the latest designer fashion and enjoying all the gourmet food and wine he can handle. In contrast to this generic rich man, there is a poor man who actually has a name – and his name is Lazarus. Day after day, Lazarus sits at the gate outside the rich man’s palace. He is thirsty and hungry. His body is covered with sores. Both men die. Both are carried to their eternal destinations. Both men receive their just deserts. Lazarus is accompanied by a throng of angels with the great patriarch, Abraham, and the rich man – well, let’s just say the quality of his living quarters has diminished significantly!

The rich man cries out for mercy, but Abraham says, “It’s too late, a great chasm has been fixed between you and Lazarus, and there is nothing more that can be done.” In his desperation, the rich man pleads that at least his brothers should be warned and thus be spared the same fate. But “Alas,” says Abraham, “even if someone were to be raised from the dead, they would not listen.”

Now at face value this parable appears to be fairly straight forward – the person who is greedy and selfish in this life will ultimately suffer the consequences in the next. Therefore, the moral of the parable is “don’t be greedy and selfish.” But what if there is something deeper going on? What if this parable is meant to challenge us to examine who we see and who we don’t see? What if this parable, just like the basketball players and the gorilla, is about the way we can be blind to something or someone who is standing right in front of us? Someone just like Lazarus.

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Reordered Relationships

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lucy-player-buttonThis past week a colleague and fellow preacher posed the following the question. He said, “It is ever okay, after hearing the proclamation of the gospel, for a preacher to stand up and boldly tell his or her congregation – I really have no idea what that means!” If there was ever a Sunday when that response would be entirely appropriate, today would be that day. Because, the parable we heard this morning, commonly called the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, is perhaps the most perplexing parable that Jesus ever told. In fact, it seems that the gospel writer – Luke himself is not even entirely clear about what it means, because he seems to offer at least four different interpretations.

  1. The children of the light need to act more shrewdly.
  2. Christians should make friends by means of “dishonest wealth.”
  3. If you can’t be faithful with “dishonest wealth,” why would anyone entrust you with “true riches,”
  4. You cannot serve both God and wealth.

Perhaps Luke intended this to be sort of like “multiple choice”and we are supposed to just pick the interpretation we like the best! At the end of the day, this is a parable that has frustrated and aggravated even the most gifted of preachers.

But this week, as I read and re-read this parable, I saw something that I had not seen before. I saw this parable as being primarily about relationships, and specifically, the reordering of relationships. If you think about it, there are basically three relationships that shape and define our lives: our relationship with God, our relationship with people, and our relationship with things. Now these three basic relationships are, of course, all interconnected, but I think we would all agree that there is a certain ordering of these relationships, with our relationship with God at the top, followed by our relationship with people, and finally, our relationship with things. It sounds simple, but the reality is that we often get that ordering wrong, especially when it comes to our relationships with people and things. As one theologian has put it, “we are called to love people and use things, but all too often we end up loving things and using people.”One of the traditional definitions of sin is disordered love. In other words, the brokenness and injustice that we experience in our lives and in our world are the result of this disordering of our relationships with God, with people, and with things. And our parable today is about the potential for these relationships to be reordered.

The central character in the parable is essentially a first century mid-level manager. He has a boss, who is simply referred to as “a rich man.” And then he has a network of workers and servants, many of whom apparently owe large debts to “the rich man.” Now we know that today in the twenty-first century, credit card debt can be subject to outrageous interest rates, sometimes exceeding 25 or even 30 percent. Well, the same was true in the ancient world, only it was likely even worse. Because, this mid-level manager would have very likely charged, not only the interest rate determined by his boss, but a bit extra on the side, which he would slip into his own pocket. In other words, it is quite feasible that this manager is exploiting his workers for his own personal financial gain. But whatever shenanigans this guy is attempting to get away, what we do know is that he gets caught and his behavior is reported to his master, “the rich man.”

The mid-level manager is accused of “squandering” his master’s property. This word, “squander,” is the same word that is used to describe the actions of the prodigal son, who runs off spends his father’s money on lavish parties and extravagant living. So, the implication is clear. This manager exemplifies the ways in which we can easily fall into the trap of loving things and using people.

But when he finds himself in a bind, he recognizes that he is going to need some friends. He needs some people whose hospitality he can depend on if he ends up losing his job. And so, the manager reaches out to some of his workers, the ones that own his master money, and he dramatically reduces their debt, in one case by 50 percent and another by 20 percent. And there may have been other debts that he reduced as well.

But I want you to notice the dynamics of what is going on here –

  1. The manager is no longer exploiting his workers.
  2. In fact, he is providing them with significant debt reduction.
  3. He is now dependent upon their hospitality for his own security.
  4. And thereby, he is giving power to those who were once powerless.

In other words, there is shift happening from the love of things and the use of people to the love of people and the use of things. There is a reordering of these relationships.

Now I know exactly what you’re thinking!  You’re thinking, “but wait a minute, this scoundrel is still motivated by his own self-interests. He is still simply trying to cover his own tail. His actions are not exactly the best moral example of justice and mercy.” And you are absolutely right! Continue reading

Reckless Love & Ridiculous Joy

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When I graduated from college and was about to head off to seminary, I asked my mom if she had a copy of my baptismal certificate. She searched through files and folders and scrapbooks and memory boxes, but she couldn’t find the certificate. Three years later, upon my graduation from seminary, my mom eagerly informed me that she had found my baptismal certificate. When the certificate finally came into my possession, I decided it would be best if I put it away in a “safe place.” You know, the kind of “safe place” that you think you will never forget and then a week late, you forget. For the next twelve years, my baptismal certificate would remain lost. Until in 2016 when I was moving to this small village called Tequesta, I opened a box full of random manila folders and there, in one of the folders, was the certificate. And I’m happy to say it is now framed and hangs on the wall of my office.

At some point, we have all experienced the frustration of losing something and then experienced the subsequent feeling of relief when that something is found. Whether it’s your car keys or your wallet, an important bill that has to be paid or your baptismal certificate, we know the basic paradigm of losing and finding. And so, when hear Jesus is speaking about something being lost and then found, most of us immediately think to ourselves, “Yeah, I get that. That makes sense!” We are relieved that Jesus is finally talking in terms that we can understand and wrap our brains around.

The problem is that when we approached these stories from our own human frame of reference, when we read these parables simply as stories about God’s lost and found department, we actually diminish their power. And we end up missing the radical message of Jesus. And so, this morning, rather than just selecting one element of the gospel reading, I want us to take a deep dive into these parables. I want to invite us to think about these stories not from our human point of view, but from the perspective of the kingdom of God.

Now, before we dive into the parables themselves, we have to first to take note of the fact that these are not just random stories that Jesus just happens to share. These parables are a direct response to religious leaders, who are grumbling and complaining that Jesus is keeping company with tax collectors and sinners. We know, of course, that a large crowd has been following Jesus and apparently this large crowd includes both members of the religious establishment on the one hand and those who were considered outcast and unclean on the other.

And the dominant attitude of the religious leaders toward those on the margins was quite simply, “Get lost!” But Jesus counters and says, “No, these are precisely the ones that I came to find!” So, the religious establishment grows angry and resentful. They begin to grumble and murmur. They begin to complain. And it is in response to their anger and resentment that Jesus tells them to two parables. They are parables that are both about reckless love and ridiculous joy.

Reckless Love

First, these are parables that tell us something about the recklessness of God’s love. Jesus begins a question, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” The most rational and reasonable answer is “no one!” No shepherd in his or her right mind would leave ninety sheep to go after one who has gone astray. And note that the sheep are not left in a sheep pen or some other safe enclosure, they are left in the wilderness, they are left vulnerable to attack and at risk of being scattered. By almost any standard, the actions of the shepherd in the parable are reckless and unreasonable.

The woman who loses her coin stays up late into the night and sweeps her entire house. She searches diligently and persistently until she finds her lost coin. Now her actions may not be reckless, but they are radical. I lose coins in the cushions of our couch all the time and I usually don’t find them until the end up in the vacuum cleaner. I certainly don’t stay up all night. I certainly don’t exhaust all my energy searching for one coin.

And so, in both of these parables, the search and rescue efforts of the main characters are extreme, reckless, unreasonable, radical. But that’s not the end of story.

Ridiculous Joy

When the lost sheep and coin are found, the response in both cases is one of ridiculous joy. In both cases, the shepherd and the women throw a party to celebrate the fact that that which was lost has now been found. The response is one of celebration and joy and exuberance. I say it’s ridiculous because shepherds were outcasts living on the margins of society and likely would not have had the resources to host even a modest diner party. And for the women, the cost of a celebration would likely have exceeded the value of the coin that she had just found.

These are not simply stories about God’s lost and found department.  These are stories about God’s reckless love and ridiculous joy. These are parables that remind that Jesus came to search out and find the least and lost. The broken and the vulnerable. The lonely and destitute. God’s love is reckless, unreasonable, and radical. And the joy that results from grace is ridiculous and extravagant.

But there is one more piece of these parables that we can’t overlook. Somehow, they are connected to the process of repentance. Because the love and joy experienced on earth is reflective of the joy in heaven when one sinner repents. Repentance hear does seems to imply a turning away from sin. I mean, a coin and even a sheep, can hardly be described as sinful, in the typical sense of the word. In these parables, repentance is about acknowledging that we are all, in some way or another, lost. Sometimes we are lost because of our own choices, like the sheep that chooses to wander away from the flock. Other times, we are lost because of no fault of our own, like the coin that simply slips between the cushions of the couch unnoticed. Still other times, we are lost in our own pride and resentment, like the religious leaders who failed to see the vision of the Kingdom of God.

Repentance in these parables is acknowledging that we are lost and then accepting the reality that God has found us in Jesus Christ.

These are not just stories about God’s lost and found department. These are parables that take us deep into the heart of God, who’s reckless love will stop at nothing to find us, who’s grace will seek us out even when we don’t know we are lost, who’s mercy will chase us down and bring us home over and over again. And that, my brothers and sisters, is reason for celebration, for ridiculous, extravagant, overflowing joy!

Are You “All In?”

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lucy-player-buttonMany of you know that during my formative years, I spent my summers at our family cottage on the shores of Lake Ontario in upstate New York. Now even during the relatively warm months of July and August, the surface temperature of Lake Ontario averages about 68 degrees Fahrenheit. As kids, we would watch with great delight as newcomers to the lake would attempt to wade into the water. First, they would stick their toe in the water to test the temperature. Then they would stand with the water up to their shins, at that point questioning whether they were really in the mood to go swimming after all. The next moment of hesitation would come when the water just inched over the top of their bathing suits. And the slow, agonizing process would continue. But those of us who had been swimming in the lake for years knew that the only way to enter into 68-degree water is to run to the end of the dock and jump in! When it comes to swimming in Lake Ontario, the only real option to go all in!

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says the crowd that his following him that when it comes to the life of discipleship, it’s going to cost you everything; it’s going to turn your life upside-down. In other words, when it comes to following Jesus, the only real option is to go all in! Now we have to acknowledge that the language and the imagery that Jesus uses sounds a bit harsh. Jesus is telling these would-be followers they must hate their families, sell all their possessions, and be willing to carry around an instrument of execution. These are not the words of Jesus that we put in our greeting cards or on the sign in the front of the church. Some have argued that Jesus is simply using hyperbole to drive home the point that the among all the competing loyalties in our lives, our commitment to Jesus should rank number one. And that’s true! Others have argued that Jesus is actually calling for his disciples to live lives that are characterized by radical sacrifice and outrageous faith. And that’s true! Still others have argued that Jesus is pointing forward to his own death & self-offering as the model for what authentic discipleship should look like. And that’s true!

But, at the end of the day, however we ultimately interpret the meaning of Jesus’ words, the fundamental question he is posing to the crowd is simple, “Are you willing to go all in?” Are you willing to give up everything you know for everything you don’t know? Are you willing to let go of what is comfortable, predictable, and within your control? Are you willing to run to the end of the dock and jump in before you even test out the water? Are you willing to go all in?

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Jesus Sees You

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“Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”

When I was a child, I remember thinking how amazing it would be to possess the ability to become invisible. I used to daydream about all the things I could get away with! I could sneak out of the house to play with my friends even if I was grounded! I could drink soda all day long and no one would tell me to stop! I could play practical jokes on my brothers without the risk of retaliation! Invisibility as a superpower would be absolutely fantastic!

But as I’ve grown older, I come to realize that there’s another form of invisibility that’s not so fun. There’s the all too common experience of emotional, relational, social, economic, and even spiritual invisibility. These are the times in life when you wonder if anyone really sees you, the times you wonder if anyone takes notice and truly cares for you. And it’s not about being alone, because you can be surrounded by people and activity and even ministry, and yet stillfeelinvisible. You see, there is something inside every one of us that longs to be seen. There is something that desires to be noticed and acknowledged.We are hardwired with a deep need to know that someone cares about us and who we are.

And yet, when I talk with people today, I so often hear people sharing about the ways in which they feel isolated, disconnected, disillusioned, and, at times, even invisible. We have become a culture in which people are identified more and more as a number and not a name. We’re a culture in which many people spend far more time staring at Facebook than the actually face of another human being. The result is that our longing to be seen, our longing to be noticed and cared about is being revealed now more than ever. And this especially true when it comes to our relationship with God! A few years a New York Times article was published entitled “Googling for God.”The article talks about the fact that many people won’t take their challenges and questions about God to a friend, or a family member, or even their pastor, but they will type them into a Good search engine, where they can remain anonymous and invisible. And when you look at the analytics, what you find is that the most searched questions about God are questions like: Why does God allow suffering? Why does God hate me? Why did God make me the way I am? Does God really care about me? At the root of all these questions is this fundamental question, “Does God see me?”

At the beginning of today’s gospel reading, we encounter a woman has been crippled for eighteen years. She has been bent over at the waist and unable to stand up for eighteen years. Given the fact that the average life expectancy in the first century was 30-35 years, the woman in today’s story has been in this condition for most if not all of her life. Unlike other healing stories, this woman never addresses Jesus.She never cries out.She never petitions Jesus for anything. But rather, Luke simply tells us that “Jesus sees her.” Now this may seem like a rather unremarkable statement, but it is profoundly significant when you begin to understand that this woman in her cultural context was essentially invisible.

First of all, she was socially invisible. As a woman with no apparent means of support, she would have been an outcast on the margins of first century society.

Secondly, she was religiously invisible. In the ancient world, there was a close association between physical ailments and spiritual affliction. Luke tells us that this woman’s physical condition was the result of the spirit of weakness. And so, the religious authorities would have viewed her has spiritually inferiorand perhaps even unclean.

Finally, she was physically invisible. In a first century synagogue, it was customary for the teacher to be seated, while the congregation remained standing. In a crowd of people all standing straight, this woman bent over at the waist would have virtually invisible to Jesus.

And yet, despite her social, religious, and even physical invisibility, Jesus SEES her. And when he SEES her, he CALLS her.And when he CALLS her, he lays his hands upon her and declares YOU ARE FREE! Immediately she stands up straight and begins praising God!

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Jesus Brings Division?

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Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! ~ Jesus

lucy-player-buttonAs we gather on this back-to-school Sunday, we gather to celebrate teachers and students, families, and community. It would have been nice to have almost any other gospel reading appointed for this day other than the one we just heard. I mean, let’s just be honest, Jesus doesn’t sound like he is having a very good day. You can hearthe frustration in his voice as Jesus announces his desire to bring fire to the earth. You canfeelthe tension in the air as Jesus complains to his disciples about the intensifying stress in his life. You can sensethe discomfort of the crowd as Jesus lashes out at this multitude and ridicules them as ignorant hypocrites. But if that’s not enough, perhaps what is most unsettling of all, is the moment when Jesus, in no uncertain terms, declares that he has not come to bring peace, but division. As I said, this is not exactly the inspirational and motivational message that I was going for on this back-to-school Sunday. But it seems this is indeed the Word of God for us, the people of God, here this morning!

Now to begin, let’s state the obvious.  The primary reason that we find these words of Jesus to be so jarring is because the promise of peace, and the promise of reconciliation and unity,are central to the proclamation of the gospel. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus seems to embody the peace, the wholeness, the shalom of God. Jesus is consistently breaking down religious, social, and economic barriers that keep people separated and isolated from one another. The followers of Jesus who went out to form Christian communities, proclaimed a message of peace and reconciliation. The first apostolic leaders like Paul, Peter, and John, frequently reminded their congregations to be unified, to be at peace, to be of one heart and one mind and one purpose. Without question, this vision of peace and unity lies at the heart of the gospel. Now, of course, if you’re a good Episcopalian and you don’t know your Bible very well, that’s okay! All you have to do is turn to page of 855 of the Book of Common Prayerand you will find that the mission of the Church is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” And so, if the mission of Jesus and the mission of the movement that bears his name are all about peace and reconciliation and unity, why does Jesus say he has come to bring division?

To answer that question, we have to step back and look at the whole mission of Jesus. We need to be reminded that Jesus came to proclaim and embody an entirely new reality. And we call that new reality thekingdomof God or thereignof God or the dreamof God. But in order for that new reality to be manifested here on earth, some things have to be dealt with. Sin and pride and arrogance have to be confronted. Injustice and intolerance have to be challenged. Systems of oppression, degradation, and shame have to be opposed. And when the powers of this world are confronted, when the dream of God comes up against the injustice and suffering of this world, conflict and division are almost inevitable. Because ultimately a decision has to be made. Will we align ourselves and our lives with the value system of the kingdom of God or will we align ourselves and our lives with the value system of the kingdom of this world? Will we say “yes” to God’s dream? And at the end of the day, saying “yes” to God’s dream of healing and reconciliation, means saying “no” the nightmare of injustice and suffering that so often characterizes our world.

My friends, Jesus said “yes” to the dream of God. And in response, the powers of this world, both physical and spiritual, rose up against him and nailed him to a cross.

And those who would take up their own cross and follow Jesus would often be called upon to follow a similar path – to forsake their families, their economic security, their social status, and, at times, their very lives. To make the decision to align our lives with the values and vision of the kingdom of God comes with a cost.

Now this is hard for us wrap our heads around, because for most of us the cost of discipleship hasn’t been that significant. I think almost all of us gathered here this morning have had the privilege of exercising our faith in a “Christian nation.” A nation in which, for most of our history, being a Christian has been equated with being a good citizen. We haven’t really had to count the cost of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. For the most part, our family connections, our financial investments, our social responsibilities are completely unaffected by the fact that we call ourselves Christians.

But that has not been the case for most of the history of the Church. And it is not the case right now in many other parts of the world. As we sit here this morning, almost 250 million Christians are currently live in places where they experience high levels of persecution.

For many of these men and women, choosing to say “yes” to God’s dream, choosing to align their lives with the values of God’s kingdom, choosing to say “yes” to Jesus, means abdicating their inheritance, walking away from educational and economic resources, facing the ridicule of their community, and, in some cases, even giving up their lives. And so, for those millions of Christians, today’s words from Jesus are not confounding or confusing but confirming – confirming of their experience and the sacrifices they have made to follow God’s dream.

But what about us gathered here at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in the Village of Tequesta, Florida on Back-to-School Sunday? How do these words speak to us?

Perhaps these are words that should challenge us to examine the ways in which we have grown too complacent, too comfortable, and too casual in our faith.

Perhaps these are words that call us to recognize the potential cost of discipleship.

But perhaps most of all, these are words that remind us that when it comes to following Jesus, a decision has to be made.

In our baptismal liturgy, there is a moment when the candidate is asked if he or she will turn to Jesus Christ. In the early days of the church, that moment of turning was an actual physical movement. Turning from west to east. From darkness to light. From the value system of this world to the value system of God’s kingdom.

But, you know, that moment of turning is not just a moment of decision, it is also a moment of division – between the old life of sin and new life of grace. And that moment of turning and reorienting our lives is not just a one-time event, it is something we choose every single day.

And so, my friends, I pray that we will have the courage to hear and heed the words of Jesus no matter the cost. To align our lives with the values and vision of God’s kingdom. To say “yes” to God’s dream. To turn and orient our lives toward justice, freedom, and love. And then I pray we will have the courage to go out those doors and set the world on fire!

Freedom from Fear

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lucy-player-buttonOne week ago, as most of you were gathered here in this place for worship, my family and I were disembarking from a cruise ship at the Port of Miami. For eight nights and seven days, we enjoyed the pristine waters of the southern Caribbean Sea, which also meant that for eight nights and seven days my cell phone had no reception. In fact, it was placed on airplane mode the entire time. No email, no voicemail, no text messages, no social media, almost zero contact with the outside world. It was magnificent! And so, of course, last week as my family and I disembarked from the ship, it was with great hesitation that I pressed that small green toggle switch to turn off the airplane mode. Immediately, my phone exploded with those read dots that indicated the hundreds of unread emails, voicemails, text messages, and Facebook notifications that had been accumulating all week long. But as all of those various notifications populated my phone, a news alert began scrolling across the top of my screen – “At least 30 people killed in back-to-back mass shootings.” And all of sudden the reality of the outside world came crashing in.

Now the events of last weekend have once again brought to the foreground the host of cultural and political issues that have come to define the age in which we live – issues like gun rights, immigration, racism, mental illness, security, safety, and the list goes on. But this week in the midst of all the noise, in the midst of all the sound bites and debates, I heard a persistent theme, a thread that connected story after story after story – and that theme or thread was fear. Whether it was talk radio or cable news or Facebook comments, the topic of conversation consistently came back to the topic of fear and anxiety. People shared about the ways they are consciously altering their patterns of behavior in order to avoid placing themselves in a vulnerable, and possibly dangerous situation. People are looking over their shoulders in large crowds and they find themselves increasingly anxious in large public spaces. Just a few days ago, a series of loud noises set off a panic in Times Square. The noise turned out to be the backfiring engine of a motorcycle, but fear had already gripped the hearts and minds of hundreds of people. Now we can debate the rationality of these fears. We can discuss the political and cultural issues that feed into these fears. But what we can’t deny is the reality that fear has the capacity to powerfully shape our lives and the world in which we live. To see that reality all you have to do is turn on your phone!

Now this morning, it is in this cultural context of fear and anxiety that we hear the words of Jesus, “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Do not be afraid! You see, throughout his ministry, Jesus recognized that fear has the capacity to powerfully shape our lives and the world around us. Over and over again, when men and women are called by God, they are persistently exhorted to not be afraid.

When Zechariah was told he would father a son in his old age, the word of the Lord came to him and said, “do not be afraid.” When Mary was told she would bear a son despite the fact that she was not married, the word of the Lord came to her and said, “do not be afraid.” When Jesus called his first disciples and commissioned them as fishers of people, the word of the Lord came to them and said, “do not be afraid.” When the disciples came to Jesus to announce that the daughter of the synagogue leader had died, and her family was grieving, the word of the Lord came to that family and said, “do not be afraid.” This is the refrain we hear over and over again from Jesus. Every time a person is called by God and commissioned to fulfill their purpose they are commanded to not be afraid.

The problem is that we hear this refrain repeated so often that it begins to lose its meaning. We take these words from Jesus and we print them on plaques that we hang in our kitchen or we engrave them on a keychain or we paint them on magnet for our refrigerator. My friends, these words from Jesus not simply polite words of comfort. They are not simply sage words of advice. Jesus is issuing a radical repudiation of the power of fear in our lives and in the world. Jesus knows that fear has the capacity to enslave us. Jesus knows that fear is like a straight-jacket that prevents us from reaching out and embracing the abundant life that God has for us. Jesus knows that fear is the one obstacle that must be dealt with before we can step out into the fullness of God’s purpose for our lives. And so, Jesus says, over and over again, “do not be afraid.”

Now I used to think that the opposite of fear was faith. But the more I reflect on the life and ministry of Jesus, the more I have come to think that the opposite of fear is freedom. Jesus wants to set us free from everything that holds us back. Jesus wants to set us free from everything that enslaves us. Jesus wants to set us free from the paralyzing power of fear. And when we experience that spiritual freedom, we are empowered to let go, we are empowered to fully surrender our lives we are empowered to let God have his way.

I have shared with some of you before about my first experience participating in a team building exercise called the Trust Fall. A trust fall is when one of the participants stands on a platform about 4-5 feet in the air, crosses their arms, and falls backwards, while the other participants form a human net with their arms, which then (in theory!) catches the person falling off the platform.

The thing that I still remember about the trust fall is the moment when my feet were no longer being supported by the platform, but I did not yet feel any of the hands of my friends underneath my back. Now I’m not ashamed to admit that I felt some fear in that moment. There was some anxiety. Because there was no getting back on the platform. Either my group of friends caught me, or they weren’t my friends anymore.

I used to think about the experience of the Trust Fall as being primarily about the movement from fear to faith. But the more I reflect on that experience, the more I think it’s really about the movement from fear to freedom. Because it requires total surrender. It requires completely letting go of what was in order to embrace what will be. Once your feet leave the platform, there is no going back.

My friends, this morning, no matter what you’re facing in your life.

No matter what challenges may lie ahead of you.

No matter how uncertain the future may seem.

No matter what fears and anxieties you are wrestling with right now.

May you and I have the courage to Jesus set us free, to let go of what has been and to embrace what will be. Our feet will most assuredly leave the security of the platform, but we fall into the arms of the One who loves us! The arms of the One who saves us! The arms of the One who says to us “do not be afraid.” The arms of the One who embraces us, and will never, ever let us go!

The Distracted Life

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Martha, Martha, you are anxious and distracted by many things! – Luke 10:41

What would you do if Jesus stopped by your house this afternoon? Would you be embarrassed by the mess and quickly try to tidy things up by shoving things in the hall closet or the junk drawer in the kitchen? Would you scramble to the pantry wondering what in the world you should cook for the Son of God who has just dropped in for dinner? Or would you struggle for a moment to come up with a few casual conversation starters, because naturally you want to look cool in front of the Savior of the World. What would you do if Jesus stopped by your house this afternoon?

This, of course, is exactly what happens to Martha, and her sister Mary. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and he stops to find respite at the home of his friends. Now Martha immediately begins to fulfill her role as the hostess, which presumably included the preparation of a meal and attending to the needs of Jesus, who was a guest in her home. Mary, on the other hand, contrary to the cultural norms of first century, takes a seat and begins to listen to the words of Jesus. Martha grows rather frustrated with her apparently lazy sister, but instead of speaking with her privately, Martha just calls Mary on the carpet right there in front Jesus. She says, “Jesus, don’t you care that my lazy sister has left me to do all the work?” To which Jesus responds, “Martha, dear…dear Martha, you are worried and distracted by so many things! You are getting all worked up over nothing!”

Now this short episode in Luke’s gospel has been interpreted in a variety of ways throughout the history of the church. Some have thought that Luke was bothered by a group of women seeking to exercise too much leadership in the church and so, he was trying to demonstrate that the proper role of women was to be quiet and remain seated. The good news is that most contemporary scholars no longer hold this view. In fact, over the last few decades, scholars have commended Mary for her leadership as well as the counter-cultural character of her witness as a disciple. Other interpreters have argued that this story presents a stark contrast between “good works” and “faith,” between “doing” and “listening,” between “action” and “contemplation.” In this interpretation, Martha is rebuked for her reliance on works, while Mary is praised as an example of faith and piety. But, throughout his ministry, Jesus is not anti-good works. He is not anti-action. Martha is actually doing exactly what she is expected to do.  She is fulfilling her role as the host. She is extending radical hospitality. She is the one who is charged with caring for the needs of her guest. And so, it is no accident that the word Luke uses to describe Martha’s actions is the Greek word from which we derive the word “deacon.” Martha is simply seeking to fulfill her role as a faithful servant.

So, if this story is not about the role of women and it’s not about choosing the life of faith and piety over against the life of actions or “good works,” then what is central message of the story of these two sisters? The answer to this question, I believe, is found in the response of Jesus to Martha’s complaint.He says, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and distracted by many things!” Anxious and distracted! The word translated distracted literally means to be pulled apart in many directions.You see, there is nothing inherently wrong with Martha’s work. Her actions are essential for the proper working of the household. But in the midst of her work, in the midst of her activity, she has become anxious and distracted by many things! As one biblical commentator put, Martha has lost herself in her work. She has forgotten that, ultimately, she is loved and valued not because of what she does, but because of who she is as a beloved daughter of God.

When we understand Martha’s story as a story about anxiety and distraction, it speaks powerfully to our present culture. Because we live in a culture in which value and meaning are based primarily on productivity, efficiency, and success. The demands of life are often pulling us apart in many different directions. We try to put a positive spin on all this and call it “multi-tasking” – but the reality is that quite often deep inside we are profoundly anxious, confused, and distracted by many things.

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Extravagant Generosity

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Have you ever walked into a building or a room that you have entered many, many times before, but on this particular occasion you see something or notice something that has never caught your attention before that moment? It might be something as simple as the color of the walls. Or a planter sitting in the corner. Or a piece of artwork hanging over the couch.

Whatever it is, when you say to the owner, “Hey, I like the new paint color!” or “I like the new plant or the new piece of art over the couch,” the owner replies, “Oh, that’s not new, it’s been that way for years!” And you’re left scratching your head, thinking, “How could I have entered into this space so many times before and never noticed that obvious detail?” We all have those spaces or places or even experiences that have become so familiar to us that we no longer see the details. We longer see or notice the nuances that give something its unique character and identity.

What I have found is that precisely the same thing can happen when we are reading the Bible. We can become so familiar with a particular biblical story, that we longer see the details. We no longer notice the nuance and texture that give that story its unique character and identity.

And I think for a lot of people, that’s exactly what happens with a story like the parable of the Good Samaritan, which we heard in our gospel reading this morning. The story of the Good Samaritan is deeply embedded in our religious, spiritual, and even our cultural consciousness. I mean, a person doesn’t have to know that biblical story to know what a “good Samaritan” is supposed to be. Just hearing the phrase “good Samaritan” conjures up images of upstanding citizens doing nice things for their neighbors. Things like rescuing a lost kitten out of a tree or helping someone carry their groceries across the street. As a result, when we hear the biblical story in Luke’s gospel, we think we know it’s all about.

But this week, when I read the parable of Good Samaritan, it was like walking into a room and noticing the paint color for the first time. I saw something and experienced something that has been there all along, but I had never noticed it quite the way I noticed it this week.

Now the basic contours of the story are fairly straight forward. A lawyer is having a conversation with Jesus about what makes a person eligible for eternal life. After a brief exchange about the requirements of the law, the lawyer turns to Jesus and says, “That’s all well and good, but who exactly is my neighbor?,” which prompts Jesus to tell his famous parable.

In the parable, of course, an anonymous man is robbed, stripped, beaten, and left for dead in a ditch on the side of road. Two religious leaders, a priest and a Levite, members of God’s covenant community, see the man in the ditch, but choose to pass by on the other side of the road. But a Samaritan, someone outside the covenant, a religious and social outcast, sees the man in the ditch and stops to provide aid and comfort. The moral of the story is, of course, be more like the Samaritan. Serve and help those in need, even the stranger, even those who are different from you. Now this is a powerful interpretation of this story. In fact, when most people walk into the room of this parable, what I just described is precisely what they see. But as I said, this week, I saw something different. I saw this parable for first time as a story about extravagant generosity.

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God’s Mission of Hospitality

Food Hospitality

“Eat what is set before you.” – Luke 10:8

lucy-player-buttonWhen I was growing up, our summer vacations would almost always include a multiday road trip in our family’s brown Chevrolet Celebrity station wagon. Those extended road trips would, of course, require us to secure overnight accommodations for several nights in a row before we reached our final destination. On a good day that meant that we would stay at a Holiday Inn. You remember, the one with the green sign, the swimming pool in the back, and a Denny’s restaurant in the front. For a nine-year-old boy, that was the best possible scenario.

But it turned out my parents had a lot of friends and family up and down the entire eastern seaboard of the Unites States. And so, more often than not, we would make arrangements to stay with a family member or a friend. Now, for a nine-year-old boy, that scenario raised several profoundly important questions. Will I have to sleep on the sofa bed? Do they have a swimming pool? And, most important of all, what will they serve for dinner? I mean, at the Denny’s there was the guarantee of chicken fingers and French fries on the kids’ menu. But at someone’s home, all bets were off. You might get a casserole with multiple unidentified ingredients. You might get a meatloaf that sort of tastes like your grandmother’s basement. You might get goulash, which doesn’t sound bad, but it’s been getting soggy on the stove for hours waiting for your arrival. But whatever the mystery dinner might be, my mother would always give me the same stern instruction: “Remember, you will eat what is set before you.” These are words that have echoed in the hearts and minds of children for generations. You will eat what is set before you.

However, it was only recently that I realized that mom’s everywhere have actually taken their cue from Jesus. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is sending out seventy disciples to go out into the surrounding villages to proclaim that the kingdom of God, the reign of God, has come near. In preparation for this missionary work, Jesus gives his disciples very specific instructions. He says, “Don’t take a purse or a bag or an extra pair of sandals. Don’t even talk to anyone until you come to a house. And to each house you enter you declare, “Peace to this house.” Shalom, wholeness, and healing to this house!” If they don’t receive you, don’t worry – your peace will return to you. But if they receive you, stay there! And like a mother preparing her children for a road trip, Jesus reminds his disciples not once, but twice, to eat what is set before them.

Now, these might seem like just basic instructions. We might hear these instructions from Jesus and view them as sort of a checklist that Jesus is reviewing to ensure his disciples behave themselves and have proper manners. But I think there is something deeper going on. I think Jesus is reminding his disciples that the mission of God in the world is rooted and grounded in radical hospitality. Think about this: Jesus is sending out his disciples into the world with no means of support other than the hospitality of those to whom they are being sent. No purse. No bag. No staff. No sandals. No food. The disciples have to fully depend on the resources of others, and they have no choice but to eat what is set before them.

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