Open our hearts…

20th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22, Year B)

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Mark 10:2-16
Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

 

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

 

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

 

Faith from the Margins to the Web Reflection from Sarah

When I put together our weekly packets for contributors from FFMTW, I often wonder where the conversation will lead.  One of the joys of this project is that I don’t expect people to have preconceived ideas about the meaning of the scripture; instead, the interview asks those conversing together to consider where the Gospel passage has meaning and relevance in their own lives.  Let it be said: those who participate in this project are not “new” to the Gospel.  I commonly encounter people whose hearts have been hardened by the messages of this world which make it easy to assume that people living with homelessness, poverty, mental health and addiction are unchurched, less faithful or even [hurts me to write] in need of some sort of “conversion.”  What I hope the readers of this blog are realizing week after week is that we are all…all of us…recipients of the Good News when our hearts are open to receive.  Jesus continually reminds us that poverty and wealth are completely different in the eyes of the world than in the realm of God.  God is abundantly present on the streets, shelters and soup kitchens of this world, and God’s beloved people who gather in those spaces reveal that to those of us with worldly privilege enough so that we don’t need (or perhaps, want) to rely upon the charity of others.

My Buddhist friends introduced me to the concept of “beginner’s mind.”  Being mindful and open to learning is not the same as having no basis of information, nor does it mean being oblivious to the systems that oppress and constrain us from our full human potential.  It means that we approach without constraint, with openness of mind and heart.  Even in our most advanced studies, we can approach with openness and without judgement, allowing new learning and truth to emerge.

This week’s lesson has sometimes been used out of context to speak against people, or to legalistically judge their relationships and actions.  But, reading this passage with beginner’s mind helps us see that Jesus wasn’t judging actions; Jesus was making a point that rather than the lines in the sand we can be quick to draw about who is “in” and who is “out,” the kingdom of God is instead to be experienced like the openness of a child.  Jesus draws children to the center of this story, demonstrating the openness of heart that helps us see and know God.

This week, I didn’t give the lesson to just one or two people.  I’ve talked with T, and Willie, and Angie…with Junior, and W.B., and several others about this passage.  Many of them have felt the sharp pain of judgement by society and some, I am sad to relate, have internalized this to judge their own worthiness.  Their faith, though, resides in a God that sees and knows them without drawing barriers.  T was the one who grabbed my arm, her eyes fiery and her head shaking her dreadlocks back and forth as she told me about the moment she stopped believing the world’s judgement and came to be an advocate for women experiencing sexual and domestic violence, “I had already told my story years ago, and I knew the pain of not being believed, because of the color of my skin and the way that I looked.  And then one day I was in the court with my friend, and I heard the other women telling their stories and I saw the way that people would look at them, like they had already written them off.  Even the officers.  Even the judge.  The first time I stepped up next to someone to tell an officer, ‘Look at her!  Listen to her! Look at me!  If you can’t even look at us, you are being racist!’ I was terrified.  But I had to say that.  Nothing will change if people think it’s OK for a woman to be beat up, and especially a black woman.  We have stories and we have lives.  God knows that.”

This Gospel asks us to take up beginner’s mind when we begin to judge the worthy from the unworthy.  Receiving God’s love as a child means setting aside hardness of heart and opening to the possibility of divine love and grace.  In our own lives, how do we pattern ourselves after Jesus who reaches out and welcomes the most vulnerable (as children were in that society)?  Maybe our best Gospel action is to follow Jesus’ lead: “He took them in his arms, laid hands upon them, and blessed them.”

May we be blessed by all who cross our paths today, as we open our hearts to encounter God.

Moments of salt and peace

19th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21, Year B)

O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Mark 9:38-50

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

 

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

 

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

 

It was early afternoon when I peeked through the doors leading to the church.  The stained glass windows radiated soft colors onto the carpet and pews.  In the midst of the hustle and bustle of the afternoon’s lunch, this group had found a quiet place.

Alisha and John were sitting together on the floor, with John’s toddler son playing with some blocks and toys while his baby sister moved through time of sleepiness and fussiness.  When I entered, it was fussiness.  John’s friend, a sort of “baby-whisperer” stepped in to calm the infant, who was getting tired and inconsolable.  It was both a peaceful and a restless scene…one that reminded me that this delicate balance act of love and care is both ages old and unique to this moment.

Let me be honest: I’m not going to post the interview for this week, because the time Alisha and John spent was more filled with human-kindness, gently received stories of life with infants: the relationship challenges, the economic struggles, the constant feeling that one just can’t always provide everything we would want to provide for one’s offspring.  And yet, love.  They were sharing, as people do, the depth of beauty and challenge of this life.  Moments of doubt.  Moments of hopefulness.  Deep, abiding, and trust love in a providential God who is with us and sustains us.

It occurs to me this week as I reflect on this scene and this Gospel that it is the salt of this life that gives it flavor: the crying babies, the struggles to maintain one’s integrity when life is difficult, the beauty of discovering people who genuinely care about you and will align on your side, as John puts it, “without expecting one thing in return, which is how you know its real.”

It can be very easy to think only with a transactional sense of relationship in our society: you do this, I give you this.  But that is not Jesus’ way.  Jesus gives without expectation of return.  When I look at this scene again through the lens of divine love and grace, it is filled with that selfless love: friends caring for friends, people being present for people, communities opening their doors to feed those who hunger, listening ears eager to hear whatever is spoken and not to force an agenda, honest words spoken and received in trust.  So much love, so much salt; so much life, so much peace.

Discover the gift of salt in the world around you today, and may you be filled with God’s peace.

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Bread of Life (Part I)

11th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13, Year B)

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

John 6:24-35

 

The next day, when the people who remained after the feeding of the five thousand saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

 

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

 

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

 

Faith from the Margins to the Web Authors: Mary, Willie and Charles
Mary, Willie, and Charles are regular attenders of the weekly healing prayer service and feeding program of a local Episcopal church. All three are now older adults who live a short walk from the church; all three have experienced homelessness in their own lives, families, and communities.

We gathered as a small group to discuss the lectionary readings for the 11th, 12th, and 13th Sundays after Pentecost, which pivot around this central point: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” We’ll hear from the authors of this group for the next few weeks.

Mary started, “I look at this as saying, the ‘bread of life’ as the way that Jesus comes to us, the way that Jesus helps us know how to know him. Way back when, Adam and Eve, they had been the ones to eat and disobey God. And now Jesus says, “I am the bread” and wants us to eat, wants us to know him, wants us to follow in the way that he sets out for us. The bread of heaven helps us know heaven. It doesn’t take much for us to get to where we need to, to do what we need to do. Jesus says, “I am the bread” so we know it doesn’t have to be hard to follow Him. It’s something we just have to do, we have to eat.”

Willie added to Mary’s comments: “I think about how important it is what we do here on Fridays. We hear the Word, we’re fed on the Word and then we break bread together over lunch. And in that sense, good feelings and joy and contentment abide through it all, body and spirit. It fills us. I was just thinking, there have been many times I come by here and hear the word and I am filled. I’ve left sometimes without eating lunch, because I’m already filled!”

“Of course, we come back then, because the food is good, too!” joked Mary, “but it is true; it nourishes the soul to hear the Word and people don’t realize how important that is.”

Charles quietly said, “I think Jesus says, ‘I am the bread’ because we know how important it is, how much Jesus is part of our every, single day. Like he prayed, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

“I like that Charles” I said, “We can focus on behaviors…doing right, following perfectly. But Jesus says ‘here I am, let me feed you’ and this is part of the way Jesus is teaching his disciples, and all of us, to pray.”

“Exactly” said Mary, “Give us this day our daily bread” which is Jesus.  It’s like Jesus gives us that instruction; Jesus says ‘walk with me.’”

“That’s what I pray every day” said Charles, “Help me walk with you, Jesus.”

“You know what this makes me think of” says Mary, “it makes me think about those boys in the cave, you know, in Thailand. How many days did they go without food? There were all those people following Jesus on the mountain and they didn’t have food either. Sometimes we end up in places where we truly need to be fed, and Jesus saw how those people needed that…needed to be fed…so that they could hear what he had to say.”

Willie chimed in, “You know, I heard a story about how they learned how to meditate, how the coach both gave them the food that he had and helped them meditate. It reminds me of that, and how that focus…the prayer, the meditation…might have been one of the things that helped them survive.”

The group talked for awhile about the specifics of what we’ve come to know about that miraculous cave rescue, the survival of those trapped as well as their return and re-entry into society.

“And even when they were rescued, it isn’t as easy as just, ‘here you are, go free!’” said Willie, “there was a lot more to it than that. Situations change you.”

This made the group consider how that gathered group…the 5,000 gathered to hear Jesus and in the process had been fed and nourished in both body and spirit…may have been changed more deeply than they realized.  That following and looking for Jesus was about the practical and the spiritual.

“It’s hard to know what they were feeling.  I can’t quite imagine it” said Willie.  “Well, maybe I can because I feel that, I get all emotional sometimes just been fed on the Word.  It may be that Jesus needed to give them that grounding, to remind them that they weren’t just given something to eat; they had been fed with the bread of life.  That changed them, and it changes us, too.”

Seeds of Faith

4th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6, Year B)

Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Mark 4:26-34


Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

 

Faith from the Margins to the Web Contributors: John, Earl, Angela and Robin

There are times when God’s abundance overwhelms me in unexpected ways. When we gathered for this Faith from the Margins to the Web Bible Study, I had had such a challenging week that my mind was a blur, and my heart was heavy with personal grief over which I had no answers, and no control. But, as we do sometimes, I showed up. This group of four came together and said, “Sister Sarah, we’ve got this. You just sit back and let the Holy Spirit move.” I sat with my recorder on and listened as the group gathered wrapped me in the inspiration of their words. Come Holy Spirit, fill the smallest mustard seed of our simple showing up with the abundance of your love and grace.

Robin started off the conversation, “So in other words, what he’s saying is that if we have faith as big as that little mustard seed, we’ll grow, and the more we grow, the more faith we receive.”

Angela jumped in: “God, He created everyone…everybody…even the birds. They know what to do when it gets cold, when it gets hot. I mean, you can’t get the seed to grow without the birds to scatter it and the birds just know when to fly, when to nest, what to do. They don’t worry; they just rely on God.”

Earl, the quiet listener, added his thoughts: “They are survivors, so we are all survivors.”

John spoke up: “OK, I have something I have to share. You know, God does give in ways we don’t expect and I’m going to tell you one. You remember Sister Sarah…I walked in here about a month ago, it was the first time that I met you. I keep my business to myself but I had to get it out of me and off my chest that day. You listened and then you just wrapped me up in prayer. The words you prayed and what you said to me, they were from God. You couldn’t have known that what you said was exactly what I needed to hear. Even the song that you sang…it was the same one going through my mind. God provides that.”

“That’s right” said Angela, “Sometimes we get cast to the wayside, but God provides what we need, when we need it.”

I, admittedly, was stunned. I had come into this group depleted and unprepared. And unfolding before me was the magnification of the mustard seed of faith that happens from the simplest actions of being present. John continued to tell the group what had unfolded in his life since that day: reconciliation, employment, renewed hope, an opening of his life of prayer into the possibility that God’s presence held him throughout both the ups and downs of life.

“There I was, Sister Sarah. It was a few days later and I had gotten myself a cup of coffee, trying to get my mind settled back where it needed to be instead of on all the things I didn’t want to be focusing on anymore. Then wham! Just like that, I found myself standing in a convenience store, talking with God. Into my mind, that same song we were singing, the words of that prayer we prayed. And in that moment, I knew: I’m not alone in this. People might have been looking at me like I was crazy, but I didn’t care. I just stood there and I said, “Thank You!!” God was with me. God IS with me.

At this point, all I could feel was God’s presence, too.

Robin was quick to pick up on this, seizing the moment. “You know, it says so right here, that when that mustard seed finds fertile ground that is when it sprouts and grows. We don’t have to know…sometimes we never know what is growing, because God is tending it. We sow the word, and God knows the fertile ground where it’s sowed.”

“I’m gonna tell you something, too” said Angela. “You know, I grew up in foster care. Back then, I was like the black sheep of the family, the one that didn’t have a place. It was a farm I was raised on. We had to fetch water. We had to scrub floor on our hands and knees. I spent so much time back then thinking: “Why me. O God, why me?!” But, it was there that I began to see not what was happening to me, but what God saw in me. I started studying hard in school. I got all A’s. I started working, I got my GED, and I ended up becoming a nurse in the public health department. It wasn’t ME, I didn’t make that happen. It was all of the potential in me, all of what was already there inside me, a gift from God.”

“That’s right, girl!” encouraged Robin, “It makes you realize that God is there, God is holding up your potential not keeping you in a place. You can give in to that higher power, instead of seeing from the low places. I have been there. I have walked that walk and know how hard it is, to be down so low. And then God makes you see, opens your eyes and you begin to know that you have worth, you have strength, and the source of that strength is God!”

It was a spirit filled prayer meeting in that library room, with all four of these amazing women and men seeing God in each other.

“Sister Sarah, you don’t know what you started!” joked Robin. I could feel my spirit being renewed, being lifted by the grace of God’s presence in this place. “I didn’t start it!” I had to acknowledge. “I just do what we all do: I showed up.”

“Now look at us” said Robin. “We are all brought into our mustard seed. We’ve all been in low places, and we’ve all had that moment where we just reached out with whatever we could and said, “God! Help!” and look at us. God has SHOWED UP in all these mustard seed moments of our lives.”

I reflected to the group. “You know this study today…and every time we do one of these…it teaches me something. It teaches me that the Gospel…the Good News…is not something that just happened way back when. It is something that is lived out in our lives, that keeps unfolding. I can take one piece of scripture, and we can sit with it…like we are today…I can feel God moving in it. That is my mustard seed…thinking about this Good News as the mustard seed that holds our identity in Christ and flourishes in each one of us in different ways. It makes us a beautiful family.”

“Your version of the scripture and mine, or his, or hers…they might be different” said Angela, “But at the end we say, ‘that’s right, AMEN!” because that person is experiencing God.”

She clapped and laughed out loud, “Come on, y’all, feel it with me!  It’s Sunday morning on Friday afternoon, because Church is happening here!”

Amen, Sister Angela!

We laughed with the joy of beloved family in Christ that afternoon. I had come into that group with the smallest of faith in what was going to unfold. I left with a heart overflowing with love and grace.

Thank you Angela, John, Robin and Earl for being the Church that proclaims truth in boldness, so that grace and mercy and justice could flourish, this day and in all the days to come.

Advocate

Pentecost, Year B

Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

 

Jesus said to his disciples, ”When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

 

“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

 

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

 

Faith from the Margins to the Web Contributors: Steven, Lever and Ben

 

Lever opened this bible study in prayer and Steven read the Gospel lesson. It was Ben, the new member of the group, who spoke first:

“It sounds to me, when you read this, that he is bringing security to those around him who might need to be comforted. Like he wanted to stay connected.”

“This Advocate, you know, the Holy Spirit, knows the word of God” said Steven. “And it says that Jesus says, ‘It is to your advantage that I go away.’ That part kind of confuses me. It’s hard to imagine it is an advantage for Jesus to go away and the disciples probably didn’t think so either!”

“Well, maybe it’s like the Holy Trinity, you know: Jesus and the Father and the Holy Spirit are all one” added Ben. “But, the anointing of the Spirit of God is going to make our understanding of God even stronger. It is like people were being blessed MORE when Jesus joined his Father. That’s the comfort”

“It looks to me like the person who has been feeling separated by sin, the Holy Spirit draws us in and that might make us feel even closer to God.” said Steven. “It meant that the Holy Spirit was meant for all people, and to go to all nations.”

“It says to me that he loved humanity so much that he would even die. But death wasn’t the end, and even when Jesus left the earth it wasn’t the end. The Holy Spirit came and that has given us power, and love. That love is what I feel” said Ben. He sat in that realization for a minute, “I’m just thinking about that…all that LOVE. It’s awesome. Wow.”

The group moved back to the idea of the Holy Spirit as Advocate, sharing their stories. Ben shared first, “You know that Advocate: when I have done those things that are wrong, the Holy Spirit works on me and it makes me want to return, and to know that I will be met in love.”

Steven said, “No matter what you’re going through in life, even if you’re going through hard times, he’s still with you regardless. If you have faith, he promises that he’ll never lead you.”

“It’s like God is on our side” said Lever.

I had been sitting off to the side, listening to these three men talk together. But at this point I joined in a bit because this idea of being an advocate is just so meaningful to me.

“I have to share just one thing. You all know I’m a social worker and have been for almost 30 years now!” I confessed, “and now I’m doing this new thing, training to be a priest. But this word, this idea of being an ‘advocate’ is such an important part of what makes me a social worker and a priest. Advocates never do for or take away from. When we advocate, it means that we take somebody’s whole self, and we see them exactly as they are and we stand with them in solidarity. A true advocate never takes over or gets in the way; a true advocate stands with. I think that is the most powerful image I can imagine of Holy Spirit as Advocate for us.”

“That’s right” said Steven, “It’s like the Holy Spirit loves us and stands with us just like we are, in whatever situation we are in.”

“Advocacy asks us to be exactly who we are and meet someone else exactly as they are” I said.

“RIght” said Steven “just like an advocate for the homeless might go with them, or help them but would never criticize them for being homeless..”

“When the Holy Spirit advocates for us with God, it is like we are invited to be known and loved by God in the fullness of our being. That’s what I’m hearing and learning from this group” said Ben.

Lever added, “I was just thinking how blessed I am, every time we do this. The first time I did a bible study I learned something new but now every time I get the chance to do this, I learn even more and bring even more to it. This is really blessing me.”

“It’s awesome” said Ben. “This is the first time I’ve done this but I will do this again.” He looked around, “I love this space, too.”

We were in the small chapel, the oldest part of the parish. I particularly love the chapel windows so I pointed out one of my favorites, of Christ being known in the breaking of the bread. “Look there…that window…it was put in here, in this place of worship in memory of someone born in 1877. Can you imagine what people gathered to worship then would think if they could see us now in 2018, sitting here and having this bible study together. It might shock them quite a bit, actually. But the Holy Spirit was with them then, and inspired them to build these spaces so that other people would see them and see God reflected in them. They were participating in the fullness of God, just as we are now. And who knows who will be seeing and experiencing God here 100 years from now?!”

“The Holy Spirit, that’s who!” said Steven.

With that shared truth we laughed while our hearts were drawn even closer through the never ending work of our Advocate and Comforter who was and is present in our midst.

be known

The Least of These…

 

Beginning the first Sunday of Advent, Faith from the Margins to the Web reflections will be posted weekly on Tuesdays, in preparation for preaching, bible study and other reflection on the upcoming Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  Be sure to follow and share Faith from the Margins to the Web so you can receive a new reflection each week of the liturgical year.

This week, participants Lisa and Mary Ann met to reflect together on the Gospel lesson from Matthew for the Last Sunday of Pentecost, Christ the King.  As you will hear from their words and their lives, Christ sets our example for beloved and compassionate presence even with “the least of these…”

A Faith from the Margins to the Web Reflection
Last Sunday of Pentecost, Year A (Christ the King)

The Least of These

Faith from the Margins to the Web Authors: Lisa Myers and Mary Ann Blankenship

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

As soon as Lisa finished reading the Gospel lesson, Mary Ann voiced an immediate and personal resonance: “For me this always makes me feel guilty; like I haven’t done more for other people.”

Lisa chimed in, feeling a similar response: “MmHmmm…yeah. I think that’s why I want to get into this new profession, so that I can give back. And I want to be able to do more volunteer work, to give back to the community where I have received since I have been down and have nothing. All these people out here who do what they do, all the churches and everybody, I just want to give back to that.”

“Right.,” responded Mary Ann,  “when I was working, I worked for the teacher’s union and I felt like in that work, I was helping other people, you know, helping teachers who have a hard time a lot of times and people don’t give them much respect. But, since I’ve been retired, this really gets to me because when you have a job that you feel like gives you a lot of meaning and you give back doing it, then when you retire, it’s hard. So, in retirement, I’ve been trying to find things in my life that I feel like I can still give back. I volunteer with CASA, which is a program that helps kids and families when they end up in the juvenile court system and then through the church, we’re also doing some things.”

Lisa nodded in agreement, and it pushed her own thinking forward, “You know, that’s another thing I want to get back into, is finding…like I told you earlier, I haven’t gotten much religion in my life…and I would love to get back into going to church and learning more and then being able to tell somebody else.  Like they say, spread the word and let people know how good God is, and then to share that with others. Like we were talking about earlier today at Red Door, I need to be a learner…I need to be the student and then I can learn how to help others.”

Mary Ann agreed, “it’s like that for me, too…I was talking about that when I mentioned my friend’s mother…really, God boils down to love and that’s what this scripture says to me.”

“Well, I see God right now as my Father, the one and only,” Lisa said.  “Yes, I know I have one here on earth and maybe he hasn’t done a lot for me here, but God has done more for me than anybody. So, like in this Gospel here, I feel like there is no one else that can do that for me. I mean, He is the only One.”

This brought something more to mind for Mary Ann: “Right now, I see God in two of my friends, one named Joy and the other Judy.  I see God through them because they do a lot in the world but they are also the kind of friends who are there for me and they always love me. It doesn’t matter how badly I screw up, they are still there for me.”

“Yes!” Lisa agreed, “that’s what I was talking about earlier, with my son. That boy has been through a lot with me, and he has never, ever shunned me. Even though he knows I’m out here homeless, he never stops coming to see me. He always helps me when he can. He has a busy life but he doesn’t forget about me.”

Mary Ann was encouraging, “You must have done a good job raising him.”

Lisa sounded thoughtful about that, “Well, I think I did. I know I had my issues, but I could always say I was there for both of my children. But I just didn’t do everything I could have for them as a parent.”

“But they knew you loved them.” Mary Ann added.

“Yes…right…you know I tried to do that.  I really do try.” said Lisa.

This seemed to strike a chord with Mary Ann’s own family memories: “My own mother…she was there for me…but I wasn’t always sure that she loved me. She was more the disciplinarian: you’ve got to do this, and you’ve got to do that, you’ve got to do whatever. My father was the one who always loved me. My mother loved me, but she just didn’t show it. She wasn’t always expressive and there was that mother-daughter thing going on, too.”

Lisa responded with empathy to Mary Ann’s story, “It’s like they say, you are never alone. I sometimes say, ‘I don’t have anyone’ but it isn’t like that. I’ll be honest with you. I was incarcerated for a while but I had this lady who came in, twice a week. She came in and did a bible study for whoever wanted it. And she would say to me, when I said I was alone, “Lisa, you are never alone. God is always with you. In your heart.”  You know, I thought about that. I could talk to Him. I could say whatever I wanted and not hold anything back because, you know, he already KNOWS. So I had conversation, just Him and I, knowing that it was true, He was always there.”

Mary Ann’s voice brightened with the honesty of Lisa’s story, “that’s really remarkable, that even when you were incarcerated you could feel that, and know that. And good for her for telling you that! Because it’s true…I’ve felt the same thing. With everyone else in the world, I try to hide things or cover up things but with God it really doesn’t matter because He already knows, so why put any of that other stuff on??”

At this point, both women were laughing at the sheer absurdity and brilliance of being able to be oneself wholly, with a God who wholly loves us for who we are.  The shared feeling of being known and loved no matter what was palpable in their conversation.

Lisa summed it up, “At least I can talk with someone, and be completely open and honest. And, I don’t have to worry about hiding,”

Mary Ann began to talk about how this Gospel speaks to what other people need to hear: “What it says to me is that it matters how you treat people, especially people worse off than you are. You know, because anyone is going to suck up to people above them and be nice to people who have power over them. But, I know when I used to work, there were people who treated the custodian in our building like crap and then they’d turn around and be real nice to me, and I thought, “I know how you really are!”

Lisa could absolutely relate: “I know! I’ve met quite a few people like that. And I was telling my family, I’m not proud of the position that I’m in right now but I will say this: I am not ever going to be ashamed anymore because I have learned so much from this way of life from the way I used to live. I had wonderful jobs, I was married, I had a home, a car, a truck, a business…you would think I had everything.  But now I have nothing, but I have grown to appreciate what little I have so very much.”

“I really appreciate your honesty,” added Mary Ann,  “and you know, you’re right. One of my friends told me one time, ‘All the time gets wasted trying to change the past’ and you know, that has been a hard lesson for me to learn. The past is past; there’s nothing I’m going to do today that can change what happened 5 months ago or two years ago, but I can change what I do now and in the future, and that’s exactly what you’re doing with your life.”

Lisa said,  “That reminds me of something one of my counselors told me. He said, ‘look at your life like you’re driving a car. You have a windshield and a rear-view mirror. You check the rear-view mirror every now and again, to see what’s going on behind. But your main view is in front of you. So, treat your life that way, so you can see what’s in front of you.’ ”

“Oh, that’s great, I like that” said Mary Ann, “and I would also say one reason why you’d look in your rear-view mirror sometimes is so that you don’t get run into!”

Lisa laughed. “Right, exactly!”

“I have occasionally been run into by something in my past!” Mary Ann admitted, “but what a wise thing for your counselor to say.”

Lisa agreed, “I did learn a lot from that counselor!”

Mary Ann continued, “Well, as I was saying, a story that I’m reminded of from this Gospel is my one co-worker who was always hateful to someone that he thought was under him, but then he would always suck up to people who were above him. I completely lost it a couple times, and eventually I lost all respect for him.”

This was all too familiar to Lisa, “Yes, like I said, there’s some people out there…the people that have things…money, good jobs, whatever.  There was one time…and I felt so sorry for this homeless man…who was sitting out there on the wall, eating his little lunch, minding his own business and this man in a suit was coming down the sidewalk, so important. We were watching him walk in a straight line down the middle of the sidewalk, then he saw that homeless man sitting there and he walked all the way around, making this great big curve…all the way around just like that, just to avoid him.”

“Like it was contagious,” noticed Mary Ann.

“Yes!” said Lisa, “and I felt so sorry for that man, that poor man minding his own business , eating his lunch and thinking, ‘What did I do to deserve that…’ ”

Mary Ann summed it up, “It’s bad enough, you know, here he is in a suit already, appearing more successful and then he has to do something like this, making him feel even less than…

“Oh, it did!” exclaimed Lisa, “It broke my heart!  You know whenever I get my life straightened out, that’s why I want to give back and help. That’s why I’m going back to school.  It’s terrible what you see, how people are treated.  All people should be treated with dignity and respect.”

As their conversation wrapped up, these two once-strangers had a new appreciation for each other.  Mary Ann closed by saying, “I really admire you for going back to school and doing something you know will help others” and Lisa reflected this same sense of appreciation, “Well, I really admire you for deciding to do something even after you retire, to show you care!”

There was no “least” between these two women…both had clearly seen the glory of Christ reflected in each other.

The Reign of Christ is made known in the lives of those who are poor, who are homeless, who work menial jobs, who are the invisible of this world in which we live.  If we pay attention, we realize that Christ is made visible in each one of us.  No one is alone with a loving God who chooses to be present both in the lives of the mighty, and with those whom we may think of as the least of these.  We feel God’s nearness yearning to heal the broken spaces and lacking places in our lives.  The emptiness is filled, and our hunger and thirst is quenched.  God sees us as we are, meets us where we are, loves us for who we are.

This Gospel poses us questions for thought:  How are we seeing God in all of those whom we encounter?  How do our interactions with people living at a different social margins reflect God’s presence in the lives of all of God’s people?  What do we miss when separate ourselves from those different than we are, or when we fail to see Christ in each other?  What do we gain when we are willing to draw near and recognize the reflection of God in the lives of those we think of as “the least of these” instead of crossing by the other way?

Perhaps experiencing the fullness of the Reign of Christ means focusing the eyes of our heart to see the brilliant vision of Christ who is magnificently present with the least powerful of this world, loving us all radically across the social margins of our human lives, calling us together into this Realm of God where at last, we all can be home.