Go Take God’s Love Everywhere

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20

The Gospel weighted toward the poor?

Continuing the conversation about Mary’s Magnificat here and here.
This begs the question: Is the Gospel good news for everyone?

Perhaps the prepositions need some work here. Good News FOR everyone? Yes, most definitely. Will it sound like good news TO everyone? Not likely. I’m assuming here that we could resolve all of the church’s failures, shortcomings and inconsistencies. This line of questioning has nothing to do with our inability to live up to the Gospel’s call and claim on our lives. For the sake of argument, let’s just say that is all resolved, and all we are left with is the Gospel itself, in its pure and true form.

Hannah and Mary point to what they believe is an essential truth in God’s message of love – that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Those who have been beaten down and left out will be brought in, healed and restored. Meanwhile, those doing the beating and the leaving – they will lose their positions of power over others. This is nearly impossible for us to hear in western culture so defined by power and prestige, where might makes right, growth and strength are signs of privilege to be preferred by us.

from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops http://www.USCCB.org

If Mary and Hannah are to be believed, then the God made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth shows “a preference toward the poor,” to borrow language from Liberation Theology. Here is how the US Conference of Catholic Bishops introduces the idea:

Option for the Poor and Vulnerable – A  basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring. In a society  marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our tradition recalls the  story of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46)  and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. 

And here is an excerpt from Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns intro:

From the Scriptures we learn that the justice of a society is tested and judged by its treatment of the poor. God’s covenant with Israel was dependant on the way the community treated the poor and unprotected—the widow, the orphan and the stranger (Deut. 16.11-12, Ex. 22.21-27, Isa. 1.16-17). Throughout Israel’s history and in the New Testament, the poor are agents of God’s transforming power. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus proclaims that he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor (4.1-22). Similarly, in the Last Judgment, we are told that we will be judged according to how we respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner and the stranger (Matthew 25.31-46).

I would argue that we must lay these ideas alongside Jesus’ teaching that we must become like little children if we wish to enter the kingdom of God. Children are penniless and powerless. They are humble, weak and poor. And they are our mentors and guides for inheriting the Kingdom to come, which in glimpses and fits and starts is already here.

Is the Gospel really good news?

The word “gospel” is derived from the old English and Germanic roots meaning “good spiel” – a pleasing message. I wonder though, is it really, and if so for whom? Will the Gospel be a pleasing message for everyone?

Magnificat II – mixed textile, 20×33 in © by the artist, Linda Witte Henke

The passage from Luke 1:46-55 is called The Magnificat – a name taken from the first word in the Latin translation of the passage. Also known as “Mary’s Song”, this text relates Mary’s response when she visits her cousin Elizabeth, who though advanced in age has been blessed to conceive a son who will be John the Baptist. Upon greeting Mary at the door, Elizabeth feels the unborn child John leap in her belly, and exclaims “”Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1:42-44) Sheer Joy! Here is Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55):

46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Mary’s song echoes that of Hannah, wife of Elkanah, who though she had been barren was blessed by The Lord who answered her prayer and enabled her to conceive and bear a son. Hannah had pledged to God that she would dedicate her child to him if only God would make a way for her to conceive and bear a son. Here is her prayer at his dedication in 1 Samuel 2:1-11:

1 Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. 2 “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. 3 Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. 4 The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. 5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. 6 The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. 7 The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. 8 He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. 9 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. 10 The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.” 11 Then Elkanah went home to Ramah, while the boy remained to minister to the Lord, in the presence of the priest Eli.

Both women sing songs of joy, exalting and worshipping God for the mercy and grace shown them. But their interest is not selfish. They understand their own experiences as representative of a larger truth – that God chooses in favor of the poor. The Lord raises up and brings down. These things do not simply happen on their own in the natural course of events. They are part of how God works in the world.

This begs the question: Is the Gospel good news for everyone?

Entering into God’s Joy

Sermon notes for 11/16/14  Matthew 25:14-30


When we learn to use
whatever God has given us
so that it bears fruit,
then the gift we receive
is the joy of God’s presence.

It doesn’t seem fair. Those who have nothing, even what little they do have will be taken away.

We see this principle played out all the time, don’t we? Those who are strong and good looking and affluent seem to progress based on these advantages, while those who lack these resources, at least as measured by the prevailing culture, seem to fall behind or at least plateau. Perhaps one of the most absurd examples is all of the free swag given to famous singers, musicians, actors and athletes. Those who could pay 10x for these trinkets get them for nothing. Of course we quickly recognize that the producers and vendors of said products consider this a marketing expense – hoping that said entertainers will choose to wear/use the products and advertise such, these days on twitter or other social media platforms. Fair never really enters into it.

And let’s be honest, who among us wouldn’t want our product or service promoted by someone who could get us exposure? What author would say, “No thanks,” to Oprah’s book of the month club? What designer doesn’t want to “show up” on the red carpet being worn by the latest bombshell or her escort?

It’s the same on the other end. We see the poorest neighborhoods repeatedly losing basic services – like access to quality, affordable, healthy food. Developers conspire with government officials to claim eminent domain in the interest of “the public good” and displace the poor from what has been home for generations. You’ll never see them drop a football stadium in the middle of Highland Park, for instance.

Some have been inclined toward righteousness indignation directed at God for including this pronouncement in both Matthew 25 and Luke 19. As though God were saying, “Here is how I want things to work.” We need to remember a few things about this text:

  • It is not about the physical, temporal experiences of wealth and poverty in this life. It is about the Kingdom of God/Heaven and parable is a reference point.
  • Parables are not allegories with which we can extrapolate point by point referents for each element in the story. They typically illustrate one broad idea, or perhaps two.
  • Not everything in scripture is prescriptive. Not every word is God saying, “This is how I prefer things to be. This is how they will be at the consummation and final settling of accounts for all things.” At least some of scripture, including much of Jesus’ own teaching, is simply saying, “This is how things are. You’d better wake up.” For instance, when Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you,” we certainly would never conclude that Jesus intends, “I want there to always be some poor people.” He’s stating a simple fact. Much of the wisdom in Proverbs is of this sort – a father’s wisdom to his son: “You may not like it, but this is how the world works, and you need to be smart about things.”

Given all of this, what then is the parable about? Well, as Jesus says in the beginning of the chapter, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this .… (here he tells the parable of the wedding and the 10 brides maids, and then) .… For it is as if…” In other words, The Kingdom of Heaven is as if a man going on a journey summoned his servants…” Luke’s gospel frames the story slightly differently, but to the same effect: “As they were listening to this (Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus), he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. So he said, ‘A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return.’” (LK 19:11-12)

In both versions we have an absent landlord/ruler who entrusts servants with resources during his absence. They had been entrusted with the resources to care for and lead the nation, and they had failed. Their resources will be taken away and given to others. Luke’s immediate context and Matthew’s broader context both make clear that a theopolitical statement is being made hear – against the rulers of the Jewish community. As with much of Jesus’ teaching regarding the religious leaders of his time, these stories remind us that we are responsible for and accountable as stewards of that which we have – resources, opportunities, relationships, even our faith and spiritual/religious understandings. All of this is we have so that we might be a blessing to others.

Whatever we have has within it the seeds of more – more life, more truth, more hope, more peace, more opportunity, more prosperity, more faith. When we

We also see in these stories the importance of taking a chance, taking a risk with our lives. This is encapsulated in the truisms: “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” and “With great risk comes the opportunity for great reward.” Jesus says, “Unless a seed fall to the ground and die, it cannot bear much fruit” (John 12:24). True, that the primary point here is to reflect on his own death, and thus our following his example to release our own lives for the sake of the Gospel. A starting point in this journey is that we must step outside the door into the world. Unless we show up with our gifts, then we cannot bear fruit.

I think we err when we focus on the servant who buried the coin rather than investing it. The focus rather should be on those who were good stewards of the gift entrusted to them. Their reward was not the increase, which after all belonged to the master. Their reward was to “enter into the joy of the Master.”

This text undercuts any presumption toward a “prosperity gospel”, because the prosperity is not ours. The initial gift belonged to God, so any increase also belongs to God. What is ours is the joy of God which comes to us as we use that which has been entrusted to us.

The relationship between parent and child is a good example of this. Children are precious and fragile and vulnerable. Many a parent is tempted to harbor, shelter and protect their beloved from any and all threats. But as the prophet Dory said to Marlin:

Marlin: I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.
Dory: Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise.
Marlin: What?
Dory: Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.

Parents have to learn the process of releasing their children into the world, a gradual letting go and learning a delicate combination of hope and trust.

What Jesus is asking of us (requiring from us?) is that we show this same combination of hope and trust with our own lives. We need to learn to parent ourselves, to nurture and care for and finally to release and send ourselves forth into the world. We can be like the third servant who in fear simply held onto what had been given, planning to return it at the end.

Every spring a farmer takes risks by planting seeds that could be eaten now in the hope of reaping a 100 fold harvest later.

Every entrepreneur knows that you have to pour yourself heart and soul into your idea, your dream, your scheme, and believe that it can succeed. Otherwise, you’d never start.

Every business person knows that it takes money to make money.

Every newlywed couple enters into their covenant relationship with hope and trust, but without certainty except that there will undoubtedly be difficult times, and that one will eventually grieve the loss of the other.

If all we plan to do is hand Jesus back the faith that has been given to us, the spiritual gifts entrusted to us, the church and gospel of which we are stewards, then even what we have will be taken away. We enter into God’s joy when we take risks.

Again I’m reminded of the end of the Mary Oliver poem “A Summer Day”. What if the parable is at least in part about your life? Could it be that there is a suggestion embedded within the text that your experience in the afterlife depends at least in part on what you do in this life? That is certainly the overt message of the next parable, so perhaps this one at least hints in that direction. This life is the only one of its kind that you will be given, whatever can or cannot be said of the afterlife from a Christian perspective. Don’t waste it on fear or resentment of others or of God.

It is also, I believe, about The Church. The church does not exist as a memorial to those who have gone before. It is not a mausoleum or a museum. The church buildings and property and resources are not here to be a witness of those who came before, but of the kingdom that is coming. These things around us are of worth and value only if they help us live and share the hope of the Good News. Imagine that you are characters in the parable, and all your church resources are the talents given. Eventually, Jesus will ask for an accounting, “What did you do with what I gave you?” How will you be able to answer?

When the Master comes, may he find us ready and eager rather than fearful or unprepared. Then, if not before, we will realize that we have been living in God’s joy all along.

Prayer in the stream – dealing with distraction

Often while praying I become distracted by thoughts entering my mind. I want to focus on God, on an image, on a person or situation, but the cares of the day or my grocery list come pressing to the fore. Entering the stream is a way of receiving and letting go.

As you begin your prayer time, imagine that you are walking down into a clear and gently flowing stream. You find it refreshing and comforting. The temperature is perfect, your feet feel steady, and the water enfolds you in its embrace.

This stream is the continual flow of prayers being offered around the world. Conscious prayer is not something you stop or start, turn on and off. It is constantly there for you to enter and exit as you are ready and able.

Prayer Leaf FloatingOnce you find yourself in the middle of the stream, allow your prayers to join those moving toward and around you, surrounding and holding you. Any extraneous thought that comes will be like a large leaf floating on the water. Do not try to reject, ignore or hold it at bay. Simply take it up from the water in one hand. Notice briefly its size, color, texture, and anything else that stands out. Turn it over into your other hand, and place it gently back on the surface of the water, allowing it to ride slowly away. Return your attention to the water.

We cannot keep the thoughts away. Nor do we want to focus on and follow them. This visualization technique allows us to acknowledge, note, and then release these thoughts back into the stream. If they are important and worthy of our attention, they will come back to us when we have time to deal with them. For now, our goal is simply to be fully present to this moment of prayer. Enjoy the experience of standing in the stream for as long as you like. Then return to the bank and whatever awaits you in the day. Remember that the stream of prayer continues for you even when you can not be fully in it. And allow the water of prayer that has soaked into you to transform how you experience and engage your world until you return to this place again.