“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14
Jesus makes it clear in these verses from Luke that the Pharisee misses the mark, even as he prays. As a Pharisee, he is a master of adherence to all the Jewish laws, but still he falls short. The very laws he so closely follows bind him and contain him as he claims a righteousness based on his own actions and accomplishments. The Pharisee’s behavior brings swift and almost easy condemnation from Jesus and the readers of this text. The tax collector, a guy we would not likely admire in today’s world, demonstrates a vulnerability, humble spirit, and reliance on God’s grace. What is clear from this story is that we are called to rely on God for grace, blessing, and mercy; we are called to look more like the tax collector in our prayer life than the Pharisee. We are not to assume we are better than others because of what we do or know or possess. We are all beloved children of God because God’s boundless mercy is not measured by or dependent on our achievements.
Just this week, I attended a Jeffersonian-style dinner, described as a ‘whole table conversation’ with members of the L’Arche community. For those not familiar with L’Arche, it is most simply described as people with and without intellectual disabilities living, working, praying, and playing together in community. Priest, theologian, and writer Henri Nouwen spent the last 10 years of his life living in, and as pastor to, a L’Arche community. In addition to those from L’Arche, which included a core member of the community and his assistant, we were a diverse group of individuals steeped in political, literary, artistic, scientific, philosophical, theological, and historical aspects of life. We were curious. We considered the following question, “We all live active, often hectic lives, and are known by others for our success and achievements. Share about a time/moment in your life when you felt recognized and known for who you are as a person apart from your accomplishments. When was it and what did it mean to you?” We were asked to strip away the accomplishments through which so many of us are known—a doctor no longer known as a healer, lawyer no longer identified with law, teacher no longer an educator, volunteer no longer tied to altruism, a politician not connected to the halls of power, a pastor not associated with ministering to others. It was a challenging task to strip away that lens of achievement through which we measure ourselves and others.
The Pharisee stood on his accomplishments, status, and what others knew about him. He exalted himself and was recognized in his community as someone who strictly followed the Jewish law. While the Pharisee does not speak falsely, he is not like thieves, rogues, adulterers, and even the tax collector, he is unable to see the true nature of his blessing. God’s blessing comes to us not because of who we are, what we do, or station in life, but because God is outrageously merciful. So, beloved child of God, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?
“But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’” Luke 16:25
Good things. I give God thanks that I have access to so many of the world’s good things. To be clear, I do not feast sumptuously every day. And my attire is far from whatever might be the equivalent of fine linen and purple robes. But I live in one of the largest gated communities in the world, one that affords me a quality of life that is the envy of people everywhere. It is not just the easy access to material things that makes life so comfortable for many of us. But it is also those collective intangibles that are easily overlooked, such as a functioning and stable democracy, respect for the rule of law, and a police force dedicated to promoting public safety. They are all a part of the good things.
It is little wonder then that thousands of people show up at our gates each year, hoping to cross over the great chasm of poverty, violence and instability that separate them from us. I was part of the leadership team commissioned to travel to the southern border to be the “eyes and ears” of the presbytery as we think about how God might want us to respond to the crisis on our border. In a social and political climate where it is all too easy to dehumanize one another, seeing and acknowledging the humanity of the people who show up at our border is a necessary first step. As we listened to the stories of those fleeing gang violence, war, and political and social instability, I couldn’t help but be grateful I was born on the right side of the border. The side with all the good things.
What worries me is that God seems to have a preferential option for people who are lacking in so many ways. In our text from Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the parable of the great reversal indicating that those of us who experience so much of the world’s good things, while ignoring the needs of our neighbors, will experience agony and torment in the next world. And those who experience the deprivations and hardships of life now, will find in the next life, comfort. I do not believe the point of the parable is to tell us anything about heaven, hell, or how we might end up in either one of those destinations after we die. I think the point of the parable is to give us a vision of the kind of world we ought to be striving for in this life.
I am still processing a lot of what I have seen and heard at the border, and certainly do not profess to have any easy answers to the crisis at our border. I also do not believe that hardening our borders and ignoring the plight of those seeking asylum, is a viable long-term option. I believe what God wants most from us, is to work diligently, to create the kind of world, where all of us can enjoy the good things. My prayer is for our individual and collective churches to continue to work towards that kind of world together.
“…So I prophesied as I had been commanded;
and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling,
and the bones came together, bone to its bone.
I looked, and there were sinews on them; and flesh had come upon them,
and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal,
and say to the breath; Thus says the Lord God;
Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain
that they may live. I prophesied as he commanded me,
and the breath came into them, and they lived,
and stood on their feet, a vast multitude…”
The complexity of the prophet Ezekiel is one that has always intrigued me. As do many of you, I appreciate the image of the valley of the dry bones. I have often, more than I care to admit, found myself standing in front of what feels like the impossible and wondering, “God you must be kidding.” My mind continues, “Not only is there no way I can do what you ask, but also I don’t even know how to begin.” Somewhere in my head I understand, “with God all things are possible,” but it is challenging for my mortal spirit and body to perceive anything beyond my senses. There is a temptation to skepticism I keep hidden from the world, but that exists none-the-less. I believe this is a “catch 22” for us as a people of faith seeking to be a witness together through our diverse churches and ministries.
I am presently writing from Louisville, Kentucky as I prepare for the board meeting of the Presbyterian Foundation of which I have the privilege to serve. I found myself led to this text, which has once again challenged and reminded me of several critical observations that are both helpful and necessary for compelling inspiration.
First, it is clear God is always the initiator of the possibility of new lives. This is true throughout the Biblical witness. We are the receivers of that message. It is God who initiates the possibilities in the midst of the impossible. It is God who invites us to step up and into the challenge of the unknown.
Second, God “commands us.” God does not make an inquiry or ask a question of Ezekiel, such as, “would you like to stand before a dry and barren people and land?” In this narrative, God does not even direct Ezekiel to where he should go. God takes Ezekiel by the hand and places him where he is called to breathe new life.
Third, the “rattling of the bones,” reminds us before new life can occur, there will often be new and unfamiliar noises. These noises remind us the true prophetic word will cause us to want to put our hands over our ears. It reminds us that if we can trust God, those rattling sounds will give way to new life.
Fourth, the breath Ezekiel is commanded to call upon does not come simply from one place. The breath comes from the four winds – reminding us that God’s life-giving breath comes from every corner of this earth, from every corner of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. God’s powerful spirit is not limited to or by our particular corner of the universe.
Finally, I was reminded yet again, in order for God’s transforming breath to come and work through us, we must stop long enough to call upon God. We must listen for God’s invitational voice to obedient service, service and witness often unclear and unformed. It is in obedience to God’s command that Ezekiel is able to prophesy new life into what had once been but a valley of dry bones – an impossible situation. Ezekiel calls on God’s powerful and Holy Spirit – and it is then that those bones not only live, but also stand as a vast multitude.
I am smiling as I type this, as I can visualize a gift on my desk that I received from my former presbytery in California. On it is a quote from Walt Disney (the great American philosopher) – “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” I love that we as a church are given this opportunity to call upon God’s Holy Breath in an effort to be faithful, relevant, and creative as we seek to be and do church in new ways. Throughout our Presbytery, there are faithful initiatives inviting new life in places where the valleys have been deep and dry. I am grateful for the spirit of possibility in the midst of what often feels impossible. May this word breathe life-giving encouragement into our often weary souls – as we share and embody the Gospel of Jesus Christ in this world.
“For such a time as this”
These past few weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind as I navigated my alumni reunion at Princeton Theological Seminary, a trustee meeting, our presbytery meeting, and a hospitalized dog. It felt a bit like a carousel that would not stop – with emotions ranging from fear of loss to profound inspiration. I am sure you recognize these seasons when the complexities of life are just what they are. This is the frame with which I approached my very first alumni reunion.
I must confess, I am not really sure why I have not attended a previous reunion, but this was my 25th year and I agreed to meet up with several friends. I have also developed a renewed appreciation for the breadth of my theological education and its ongoing importance in shaping who I continue to become. Theology matters! Sitting in Miller Chapel and familiar lecture halls for three days, I listened to and absorbed the sermons and stories of colleagues and friends. I found myself reflecting on the journey of our 25 years of experiences, celebrations, hopes, births, and losses. There is no denying that familiar adage – time does fly. The presentations reminded me of a framing question of Raymond Alf, a now-deceased paleontologist in California, who founded the only fully accredited high school paleontology museum in our nation. With the backdrop of fossils dating hundreds of millions of years, he would challenge his young students with a question he hoped would shape their minds and hearts – “What will you do with your moment in time?”
In what at first glance appeared to be unrelated presentations, I found a common compelling challenge and reminder as speaker after speaker shared what they have chosen to do with their brief moment in time. As I listened to the story of my friend and colleague’s family experience with the atrocities of Japanese Internment, the story of a African American woman’s journey with racism and doubt, the story of a Nuyorican colleague’s journey with the Puerto Rican diaspora, they all claimed the importance of a love and hope that was carried in their spirits – a love and hope embodied at times against circumstances that could have stripped them of Gospel spirit. Through their witness, they all reminded us that the hope of their faith was embodied in the ministries they have been called to lead. They reminded us that profound love has the final word and serves as the ongoing motivation and inspiration. Let me be clear, their messages were not of the “Pollyanna-type” love. It is the “agape love” that is sacrificial and unconditional – emulating the love God demonstrates for us through Jesus. They did not deny the presence of evil, racism, or injustice. They did not deny the pain along their journeys. They did not deny the real and present dangers and challenges in theirs and our lives. And they did not remain passive with what confronted them. On the contrary, they were each advocates in their own way, denouncing the theology of neutrality as a faithful way forward for the church. By their witness, they answered the question again and again – “What will you do with your moment in time?”
And then there was the Rev. Victor Aloyo, Jr., who preached at our presbytery meeting last Tuesday. In many ways his message capped a week of deep personal theological reflection. His central question was simple – “Can there be freedom without love?” His question was so simple that it caused a reverberating silence – “Can there be freedom without love?” The obvious but difficult answer is “no!” To live without love allows for resentment to grow. And when we allow resentment to grow, we look outside ourselves for answers. We blame others; we become discouraged; we rationalize hateful actions. We turn from whom we are called to be. We turn from a love that can shape and inspire us. We compromise our possibility and our ability in Christ to embrace our given moments in time – this gift of life given us by our creator. And this inability or unwillingness to love as we have been loved is the opposite of freedom.
Like the compelling Old Testament story of Esther, I believe we are called for such a time as this – regardless of the complexities and challenges along the road. I believe we are called to bring hope into a broken world. I believe this is our time to strive and work for a world that is not neutral and to courageously speak for and with the Gospel values that shape our witness. I believe we are called to reflect the great and new commandment—to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves. In this we will find freedom and purpose. So may we each love boldly and concretely as we consider the answer to the question, “What will you do with your moment in time?”
“Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus. When he saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” (Luke 5:18-20)
The image of these friends physically carrying, lifting, and lowering the paralytic has always been compelling to me. I imagine the crowd – the inability to make their way through the throng with a bed. I can almost hear the conversation between these determined men, “how will we get to Jesus? How will we be able to heal our friend?”
I have a distant memory of my parents lined up for hours to bring my sister to Oral Roberts so she might be healed. My late sister was born with trisomy 21, commonly known as Down Syndrome. Oral Roberts was a nationally recognized preacher who was known for healing. I must have been five, which made her three. All I recall was the crowd, the waiting, the endless line, and the disappointment when they turned my parents away after they had waited for hours. Their hope was crushed. My sister would not be healed. I have often considered the kind of emotional desperation that causes one to make their way through a horde of people and makes one stand in line for hours praying for your child to be touched and be cured. My sister defied all odds and lived into her late 50s – hers was a complicated life but her life taught us much about simple things – such as joy, dancing, and music. The one who was not healed on that day brought a kind of healing to those whose life she touched. The one whose parents carried her would be one whose spirit carried her parents and siblings.
This story ends differently from the one in the Bible – there was no miracle of healing. But it demonstrates the importance of recognizing how God faithfully places people in our lives whose hands we may not see at first but who gently help to heal and carry us through the proverbial roofs. It speaks to those moments in our lives when we are unable to carry ourselves; when the weight of what we are experiencing is such that we cannot walk through the pain or the challenge before us and others have helped carry us. Sometimes the carrying has been obvious and known to us- like my sister and parents. Other times, we can only see the hands in the rearview mirror after we have moved forward from the depth of that painful season. They are the hands that embraced us, encouraged us, fed us, and loved us – initially invisible hands that resulted in visible healing.
There is no question that we do not get to live this life without finding ourselves in one of those places – where life’s tragedies and disappointments have emotionally, psychologically, and even physically paralyzed us. This kind of paralysis causes us to lose hope; and hope is central to us as followers of Jesus, especially in this season of resurrection as we continue our journey through Eastertide, wrestling with the impact of that resurrection morning on our identity today.
And our identity as a people of hope is complex. There are times we will be like the man on the bed lowered through the roof – carried by determined friends. But there will also be times when we are called to be the men and women who carry others when they are unable to carry themselves. We will be called to be the determined friends making our way creatively through the “rooftops” – working together to lift the burdens that keep others immobile with hopelessness. We will be called upon to be the prayer warriors, the feeders, the “shelter builders,” the visitors. And in that call – as we allow ourselves to be hands that help heal others – we may be surprised by the healing that happens within ourselves, that comes when we walk with another. This sounds like “church” to me – that sacred place – that imperfect covenant community where we are called to gather to reclaim our identity as a people of resurrection hope; that place from which we go out bearing the hope of Christ in a world that too-often wounds.
Denver, San Diego, Sri Lanka are recent reminders of this wounded world – a world where children continue to be stripped of their lives with senseless gun violence in places we once thought of as safe; a world where people worshipping get massacred. It is to this wounded world that we have been called to be the healing hope initiated by the risen Christ. It is to this that we have been called to be hands of healing in a world that wounds.
But Thomas said to them,
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,
and put my finger in the mark of the nails
and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
(from John 20:25)
‘Unless I see the mark…” These words of Thomas have haunted believers throughout the centuries as we wrestle with what it means to be a people who believe in the resurrection. Thomas is bold in his doubting. He is clear about what he needs to believe. Thomas needs to see the mark of the nails. He needs to see the wound in Jesus’ side. Not even the witness and words of his closest friends were enough for Thomas to believe that Jesus had in fact been resurrected. He knows their hearts; he hears their words; he feels their energy – and yet he is unable to believe. In many ways, Thomas’ words foreshadow a challenge for believers today. What do we need to see to believe? What mark is enough for us to affirm our faith in the resurrected Christ 2,000 years later?
As I consider the violence and fear surrounding the days of those first gathered followers of Jesus, I can relate to Thomas’ doubts. After all, a “mark” of his time was framed by an unsettling reality. The leaders of the religious institution of their time were concerned and not happy with these “Jesus followers” – as they were viewed as a threat to the way they understood their faith and their God. Their concerns were so real that they colluded with the secular government of their time and executed Jesus.
The truth is, the “marks” of our time are not so different. The violence around us can be overwhelming – from the shootings in the streets of our city to the senseless acts of terrorism around the world. The bombings that left hundreds dead in Sri Lanka is a recent reminder of this reality. Like many of you, I am deeply disturbed by how religious beliefs are often used as weapons of hate – disregarding the common dignity all humanity shares. These are some “marks” of our times – “marks” colored with despair and death, fear and desperation. I imagine Thomas, struggling with the “marks” of his time as he gathered with his brothers and sisters, concerned for what would happen to them now that their leader was crucified.
But if we can see beyond these “marks” that threaten our very lives, there are other marks that indeed point us to the hope of the resurrected Jesus. The presence of the Holy Spirit breathed upon those gathered continues to be the same breath of heaven that allows us to see with hope what is physically not before us. It allows us to see with the eyes of faith – to recognize God in places and spaces that can be unexpected.
As we engage this season of Eastertide for the next 40 days leading us to Pentecost, I invite us to consider the “marks” of the resurrected Christ around us. I invite us to consider the words of Thomas, “unless I see the mark,” and reflect on what “marks” we need to see in order to believe. Is the “mark” of the resurrected Christ experienced in the embrace of another? In the celebration of a life well-lived? In the birth of a new life? Is the “mark” of the resurrected Christ experienced in the sounds of music? In the bursting forth of new life of Spring colors? Is the “mark” of the resurrected Christ experienced in those standing with the oppressed? In the feeding of the hungry? The clothing of the naked? Is the “mark” of the resurrected Christ in the whispers of prayer? Friends, these are the “marks” of a God who continues to break through the brokenness and darkness compelling us toward new life. These are the “marks” of a people who more than 2,000 years later are able to see the risen Christ in the ordinary comings and goings of life.
Friends, may we receive the same breath Jesus breathed on to those first disciples, allowing it to shape our witness with conviction and encouragement. May we boldly claim the “marks” of resurrection life around us; for they are there – pointing to the One whose initial marks are the reason for the possibility of new life for each of us today.
Jesus got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon,
and asked him to put out a little way from the shore.
Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon,
“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long
but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
When they had done this, they caught so many fish that
their nets were beginning to break.
It is no secret that I am an ocean “appassionata.” My soul is renewed as I walk along the shorelines on both the east and west coasts. So as I read this familiar story, I was struck by the contrasting images of the shore and the deep water that frames this narrative. I found myself asking the question – How often do we do our ministry from the shore? How often do we find comfort in that place? There is safety in being able to stand on our own two feet as we proclaim the radical gospel of Jesus. The shore allows us to share the gospel without much risk. We can wet our feet; we can even get our bodies wet, but we are still in control.
When Jesus tells Simon to “put out into the deep water,” he is challenging Simon to go beyond his comfort zone, beyond that which he can control. Jesus is also challenging Simon to go to where he has already been before, with the possibility of something new happening. How often do we resist taking this step in our discipleship journey? Frankly, how often do we apply this ‘limiting’ reasoning to our church ministries – from evangelism to the continued growth of our faith?
How often do we say, “I’m done – I already tried that?” Not only do we do this with ministry, but we also do this with our human relationships. We close doors to new possibilities, forgetting God is much bigger than our human agendas. This text reminds us to take our faith a little farther; to venture deeper into our relationship with Jesus. In John Ortberg’s book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get out of the Boat, he reminds us that in order to experience the greatness of God, we must trust that God can do extraordinary things with us ordinary beings. This is a challenge for all disciples. We can talk about all the possibilities of our faith, but if we do not actually take steps in faith to make those possibilities a reality – if we do not go out into deeper water, our faith will be in danger of remaining along the shore line – comfortable and frankly, a bit shallow.
As I think about the church in contemporary society, I believe this is one of the most significant discipleship challenges today. We must ask ourselves – Do we really believe what we preach – or even preach what we believe? How often do we make decisions for fear of rocking the boat? How often do we prefer to maintain a stationery state that will yield nothing new in terms of community presence or spiritual growth – while focusing on our buildings? We as a leadership are invited to believe that we are God’s vessels, empowered by God to make a difference in this world. We as a leadership are invited to believe that we are empowered by God to bring justice and mercy into our midst. We as a leadership are invited to believe that we are called to be a missional presence in the here and now. If we can’t be part of this witness in this broken world, who can? We too often believe in our own powers, opinions, visioning and planning – forgetting by whose power we serve.
As we prepare to gather as a presbytery tomorrow, I am deeply convicted by the voice of Jesus compelling me – compelling us – to go out into deeper water. I am grateful for the courage of many in our midst who have demonstrated their willingness to step out beyond the shore in faith. I am grateful for a presbytery leadership – Elder Linda Rutkosky, Rev. Randy Barge, and Elder Vijay AggarwaI – who recognize the “God possibilities” in our midst, serving as our moderators and vice moderators. I am grateful for a new denominational leader in the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, whose spirit clearly believes God’s plans for us are far greater than what we can see with our eyes.
I would be remiss, as we embark on Black History Month, not to mention my gratitude for the spirit of our historic African American congregations and leadership who continue faithfully to be open to stepping out beyond the shore into waters that are indeed deep and unsettling – but rich with resurrection possibilities.
May we continue to grow in our awareness of the power of the resurrection within and among us. May we, like Simon, obediently (albeit, at times, reluctantly) cast our nets and our trust into deeper water. Perhaps our “catch” will not be such a surprise.