Saying Good-bye

At Snowline Hospice, I work with people who bravely say good-bye. I work with people who struggle to say good-bye through their tears. I have people who can’t say good-bye because they are in denial that their loved one is dying. And unfortunately, I have a few, a very few, who are very glad to say good-bye.


Being in denial is a defense mechanism. If denial is helping a loved one cope with a death, then that is okay, just as long as they do not have later regret. We help families during this time by giving them all the information they need, if they are ready to hear it and to read it.


The difficulty of saying good-bye increases as the level of attachment that exists between the two people increases. For someone we barely know, we may be sad that they are gone, but little to no tears are shed. For a beloved family member, the grief may seem unbearable. We grieve losses, great and small. The degree of grief is proportional to the degree of attachment.


In English, saying good-bye seems more permanent than saying something like “so long.” Some people don’t like saying good-bye. We might say, “See you later,” which implies a temporary parting and a commitment to reconnect that good-bye does not impart.

I am given to say “so long” rather than “good-bye.” When I hang up the phone, I say “bye-bye” rather than “good-bye.”

Poet Les Murray writes, “People can’t say goodbye anymore. They say last hellos.

“Take, for instance, a recent experience Murray had with some good friends. They had packed the last of their belongings for a cross-country move and showed up at (his) door before hitting the road. (He) tried to make small talk, awkwardly fending off the inevitable parting. Finally, they gave (him) a hug, and (Murray) blurted out, ‘We’ll have to get together again this fall. Maybe I can make a road trip down to see you.’ A last hello is what (he) was saying, not a goodbye. (Murray) couldn’t bring (himself) to say the latter.

“Once, at the end of a degree program, (Murray) went to (his) favorite professor’s office for a similar parting. (Murray) had taken multiple classes with him, and his teaching had left a permanent mark on (Murray). (Murray) wanted to say that (he) would miss (their) regular conversations. (They) talked uncomfortably for a few minutes. (Murray) rose to leave. ‘Well, I won’t say goodbye,’ Murray mumbled, avoiding eye contact. ‘You can ask my wife—I don’t do goodbyes.’”

When Jesus said good-bye to his disciples, he chose to do so in the form of a prayer, though, I guess, he could have said, “See ya later.” John 17 is the prayer Jesus gives his friends. Jesus begins that prayer by acknowledging that his time has come. Jesus asks that he may be glorified so that God may be glorified.


It is so easy to gloss over the beginning of this prayer and that is what I prefer to do. However, the question is still begged: If Jesus is God, who is he praying to? Jesus is very explicit in John’s gospel that he and the Father are one. If they are one, does Jesus really need to pray? If they are one, to whom is Jesus praying?


I do not have definitive answer, because my brain is too small to understand God. But if God is a being who transcends time and space, then being in two places at once should be very easy. One being, I take myself as an example, can have competing and even contradictory ideas at once. That’s my best shot of explaining this part of the Trinity in John 17.


John thought the content of this prayer was important enough to share with other Christians and Jesus seemingly wants the disciples to know what he is communicating.


Jesus has authority over all people. Jesus gives eternal life to all God gave him. Eternal life is knowing God, at least as much as we are capable of knowing God. Again, I think our brains are too small to understand the whole nature of God. Jesus also implies that though God is aware of other Gods, knowing God also means excluding the others. This is likely a shot at the Greco-Roman gods. Knowing God also has Jesus as part of the package. Jesus also acknowledges that he is the messiah.


Jesus’ glorification is not just the cross. Jesus’ glorification is his ministry of teaching, preaching, and performing miracles. Just one quick note: Jesus’ miracles were not done as a sideshow. Jesus miracles were done to show people that there is something greater than what they know. Jesus’ miracles were about bringing wholeness to a broken world. Jesus will be glorified again as he was before he was born in human form, as Jesus was before creation.


God’s name was made known to the disciples by Jesus. I don’t know how Jesus means this. If it was literal, there are issues. If it was meant figuratively, then it may just mean that they have an idea of who God is. They certainly should know God, because they know Jesus. The literal problem is that God’s name is to never be said in Judaism. In the ancient world to know the name of something or someone, gives power over the thing or person. That’s the problem. We can never presume to have power over God.


I think Jesus was speaking, not of power, but of intimacy. Traveling around Galilee and Judea for roughly three years would produce an intimacy among Jesus and the disciples. They knew Jesus quite well. And since they knew Jesus, they knew God.


Jesus says that God gave them to Jesus. Jesus did choose some disciples and others volunteered. Jesus is satisfied that they were faithful. Of course, though, there was that one guy. At this point in John’s gospel, Judas was long gone.


The disciples understand that the words that Jesus gave them were from God. They know that Jesus came from God.


Jesus is interceding for them. All that God has is Jesus’ and all that Jesus has is God’s. Jesus is glorified by God. Jesus is glorified by his ministry. Jesus is also glorified by the disciples.


Jesus has already separated himself from the world before he is even arrested. Though Jesus has left the world, the disciples remain. Jesus asks that the disciples be protected in God’s name.


The disciples are to be as one. Jesus’ message cannot be divided and the spreading of Jesus’ word cannot be divided. The disciples are to be united. The example of their unity is the object of Jesus’ prayer and of Jesus himself. Jesus and God are not separate.  The disciples are not to be separate.


The amazing part of this prayer came to fruition several years later. A rabbi was arresting and overseeing the execution of Christians. On the road to Damascus, Saul was struck down and blinded by Jesus. Saul was made to see that Jesus was son of God and he spread Jesus’ message throughout the Roman Empire even though he never personally knew Jesus. Paul said good-bye to a life of hate and said hello to love.


It is love that makes saying good-bye so hard. Maybe saying a good-bye prayer isn’t such a bad idea. Jesus gave us the structure of the prayer. In God, love abides with us. As Jesus’ love of the disciples abides, it also abides with us.


In his book A Severe Mercy, a memoir of Christian conversion and student life in Oxford, Sheldon Vanauken tells the story of his last meeting with C. S. Lewis, who had become a friend. The two men ate lunch together, and when they had finished, Lewis said, “At all events, we’ll certainly meet again, here—or there.” Then he added: “I shan’t say goodbye. We’ll meet again.” And with that, they shook hands and parted ways. From across the street, above the din of traffic, Lewis shouted, “Besides, Christians never say goodbye!” (Wesley Hill, October 31, 2014)


As Christians, good-bye is never a permanent separation. This is Easter. This is resurrection. We will, one day, be in a place where love abounds and good-bye has no meaning. Love may cause grief, but love abides forever.


Text: John 17:1–11

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A Good Friday Reflection

My name is John Mark. It’s all my mother’s fault. Actually, it is probably my cousin, Barnabas’, fault. You see, my cousin is a follower of Jesus. It was he who talked my mother into becoming a follower as well. Yesterday when Jesus asked for a large room to have supper with his followers, my mother quickly obliged. Then when Jesus asked for a secluded place to pray after supper with his disciples, my mother obliged again with her garden on the Mount of Olives. You see, my mother is quite wealthy.


I met Jesus for the first time yesterday. It was an experience like no other that I have ever had in my young life. When he looks at you, it is like he looks into your soul. And there is an arura about him that there are just no words for. I just wanted to be with him and follow him, myself.


Last night was strangely subdued. We had a rabbinical meal with Jesus. Jesus seemed sullen. He called the bread his body. And he called the wine his blood. I have no idea what he was talking about and as far as I could tell nobody else did either.


I looked at Peter for some guidance, but got none. Peter has a bigger than life presence. I look up to Peter. I mean, Peter is a little rough around the edges. Peter just blurts out whatever comes into his mind. But there is a certain charm to that. I think Peter is a born leader.


After we ate, Judas left in a huff. That guy is really emotional. Peter is emotional too, but Peter knows how to channel his emotions. Judas is all over the map.


Jesus had talked about being betrayed. I mean, I couldn’t believe it. This seems a very loyal group to me. Of course, everyone denied it. That’s when Judas left. Maybe he was sore that Jesus might think he was not loyal. He takes things so personally. Of course, Peter made a big deal out of his denial of betrayal. Then Jesus said that Peter would deny Jesus three times that every night.


Why would Jesus accuse Peter of such a thing? Peter is really close to Jesus. Peter is loyal. I really believe that Peter would die trying to defend Jesus from any foe. Peter is the bravest man I know.


It was late and it was dark when we made it to my mother’s garden. I told her that I would also take the watch for it. It was so hard to stay awake. I heard a commotion that woke me. There were torches and temple guards and there was Judas leading them. They had orders to arrest Jesus. Peter drew a sword and cut off the ear of a slave. I’m sure Peter wanted to cut off more than that. I told you Peter is brave.


Jesus stopped the violence and healed the man’s ear.


After they grabbed Jesus, we thought we were next. We ran. We ran and ran. One of the soldiers tried to grab me and only caught my linen cloth. I knew I was naked but I ran anyway – as hard as I could.


I knew I needed clothes and went home. Then I wondered if I should stay there and hide or if they recognized me, they might come and arrest me too. I was so tired. I fell asleep and woke at sunrise.


I decided it wasn’t safe to stay, but I didn’t know where else to go. If they captured and tortured a disciple, they might give up my mother’s home. I told my mother, Mary, what happened last night and told her it might not be safe to stay.


We decided to wear peasant garb and blend into the crowd. As we walked into the city, we heard that Jesus had been tried by the Sanhedrin and now they had taken Jesus to Pilate. That can’t be good. Pilate is well known for his butchery.


We arrived at the Praetorium. There was Pilate, some Roman soldiers, the high priests, and bloodied man standing before Pilate. I gasped when I recognized Jesus. Then I caught myself in case anyone noticed. I could see a tear coming down my mother’s face. There were so many people crowded around, it was hard to make out what was said. But it became apparent the that this trail was a sham. The verdict was decided before Jesus arrived.


Roman soldiers took a bloody, beaten Jesus. They gave him a crossbar. He had a thorny crown. You know, like the ones that Romans like to give to victors. Only instead of grape leaves, this was just thorns. They gave him an expensive, purple cloak, the kind that only royalty or rich people can afford. They were going to crucify him.


We’ve seen it. We’ve seen it over and over again. Many Jews have lined the roads here with their bodies. And not just here, but all over the empire that the Romans claim men are crucified. In some places, like in Galilee, they leave the poles permanently in the ground, because crucifixions are so commonplace. That’s what they did at Golgotha, outside the city walls.


And that is what they did. They nailed Jesus’ hands to the crossbar and lifted him up on the pole. They secured the crossbar and then they nailed his feet to the pole. I noticed Jesus’ mother crying. She has the same name as my mother. The Romans told her to back off, which she did but only by a few feet.


I just can’t believe this is how it ends. I guess it is okay to have goodness, you just can’t have a lot of it. Evil doesn’t like goodness. Is that all there is to life? Hoping for the best and expecting the worse? If someone like Jesus can’t change the way things are, then how can we hope for something better?


We remembered that we didn’t know if Barnabas was okay or not. We went to look for him.


Maybe Jesus’ death will not be in vain. Maybe there is something more. For now, we need to lay low. Evil is afoot. I then wondered. Is anyone writing this stuff down?


Text: Mark 14:12 – 15:47 and John 18:1 – 19:42

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Understanding the Uniqueness of Jesus: “Only Son of God”

Let’s begin with a love story.


“Upon my bed at night

I sought him whom my soul loves;

I sought him, but found him not;

I called him, but he gave no answer.

2’I will rise now and go about the city,

in the streets and in the squares;

I will seek him whom my soul loves.’

I sought him, but found him not.

3The sentinels found me,

as they went about in the city.

‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’

4Scarcely had I passed them,

when I found him whom my soul loves.

I held him, and would not let him go

until I brought him into my mother’s house,

and into the chamber of her that conceived me.

5I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,

by the gazelles or the wild does:

do not stir up or awaken love

until it is ready!” (Song of Songs 3:1-5, NRSV)


How do we know when we are ready? If we wait for love until we are ready, does that mean we can stave off love or does that mean we have some kind of control over love? I think not. Love can sneak up on us. Love can come to us, ready or not.


I will submit that love begins in the womb. Case number one: Isaiah says that God knew him in the womb. This is in the context of God’s call to Isaiah as a prophet. There was a connection to God before Isaiah had a conscious mind. This might indicate that love is not a mind trip.


Case number two: There is an ad on TV where Jennifer Love Hewitt rubs her pregnant belly to sell a stretch mark product. But she also expresses her love for her baby before it is born.


I will now submit that the love we have for others is a small sample of the love that God has for us all. God’s love is persistent. The story of God’s persistence is called the Bible. It is a series of stories and writings that expresses God’s desire for a loving relationship with us and our continual rejection of God. No matter how many times we reject God, God continues to reestablish that relationship.


The apex of that story, the apex of trying to cement that relationship is when God takes human form. God is willing to lower Godself into human form. How that works, we have no idea. Three of the gospel writers try to take stabs at it, with Mark being smart enough to not even try. As St. Paul writes in Philippians, “but (God) emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8, NRSV)


Back in the seventies and eighties one person, in particular, and some others took it upon themselves to hold up a sign at televised sporting events. The sign read “John 3:16:”  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This is John’s version of saying what Paul wrote to the Philippians.


The phrase, only Son of God, vexed the church for centuries. The result was the first draft of the Nicene Creed written at the Council of Nicaea. The council was convened by the Emperor Constantine because there was so much conflict over the nature of Christ in the church and Constantine wanted a united church to sell to the empire. Christianity could not be the true religion of the empire if Christians couldn’t even decide who Jesus was.


The controversy was about the origins of the only Son of God. Was Christ ever present before time or was there a time, even a split second of time, before the only Son of God existed? Parents exist before children, so it is reasonable to assume that the son came after the creator. The controversy was a splitting of hairs over how a Greek word was used, homoousios. Homoousios means the son is of the same being with God. Homoiousios means the son was similar to God. A one letter difference sent bishops into exile and death on both sides.


There are still Christian churches today that accept the latter interpretation of the nature of Christ. Of course, there are some that don’t consider those church members to be true Christians. The Coptic Church of Egypt is one of those anti-Nicaean churches.


John is ambiguous on the point. Paul is explicit. For Paul, Jesus is fully God in human form.


Leaving the theology aside, let’s get back to love. Paul is also saying that the Jesus event was an act of love. The way I see it is this way: God tried over and over again to bring humanity to Godself to only have humanity reject God and for the Jews to look inward, out of self-preservation, instead of bringing the world to Jerusalem where God dwelt. The world was one of rejection, of hate, of sin. God’s goal was Eden, but we didn’t want to go in.


After all else failed, God’s solution was to take human form. Not only was it a humbling experience to be so limited in the flesh, but it also made God vulnerable to sin. Only if God could reject sin’s temptations would God be able to break sin’s hold on humanity and thus unite humanity to God. We hear that story when Jesus is in the wilderness. None of this works unless Jesus is the only Son of God.


I think that the phrase, Son of God, was the best way for people to conceptualize what Paul said to the Philippians. Certainly, Son of God is much more succinct. But it also has baggage. There is an implication of a biological event that I think is unnecessary. Certainly, Jesus never came into existence without biology. Matthew and Luke ran with the biological issue. Mark ignored the whole thing. John took Jesus back in time as an actor in the creation of everything.


All four gospels say that Jesus received the Holy Spirit at his baptism. It was only after Jesus’ baptism that he began his ministry. Somehow, somewhere Jesus became fully human and fully divine.


Paul said that God’s humility came even to the point of death, even death on a cross. It is on the cross that John 3:16 becomes relevant. It was on a cross that the sins of the whole world were wiped away. It was on a cross that humanity became reconciled with God. Paul called our new status “heirs with Christ.”


God, having taken on human form, assumed mortality of the flesh. Once Jesus was born, he was going die. Our bodies wear out and fail. Had Jesus died of old age, I don’t think John 3:16 would have been written. Had Jesus died of old age, I don’t think there would be a Christian religion, maybe a Jewish sect, but not a religion of its own. Had Jesus died of old age, the disciples would also have faded away in old age. If Jesus had died of old age, there would never have been a St. Paul. If Jesus had died of old age, there would be no churches to worship in.


I mentioned earlier that God wants us to be in Eden. Jesus emphasized that goal. Jesus called Eden the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. This Eden is to be where the first Eden was, on Earth. How that happens is up to us. We are to apply Jesus’ teachings in how we live and treat one another. When violence, hatred, and malice are gone and peace and reconciliation reign, then Eden will return.


This is also the message of the prophets. The prophets oftentimes railed at the Hebrews to reform their ways and turn to God. The goal was well stated by Ezekiel, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.”


The story of the Son of God did not end on the cross. The last barrier between us and God was death. Our bodies will wear out and cease to be. For we are ash and to ash we will return. But Jesus broke the last barrier, giving eternal life. Only the Son of God could do such a thing. The only Son of God, who took on flesh, was able exist after the flesh had died, thereby giving us entry to God’s abode in eternal life.


“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”


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Lost and Found

In Luke, Jesus is concerned about finding what is lost and bringing it back. And by lost, Jesus is generally referring to people. There is the lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost son, who is also called the prodigal. When the lost are found, there is rejoicing in heaven.


lostHow do we get lost? There was no GPS in Jesus’ day. And what does Jesus mean by lost? I think what Jesus means is when we get ourselves in a place where our own needs and desires overcome the needs and desires of others. The prodigal son gave his father a metaphorical slap in the face so he could have a hedonistic lifestyle. After that didn’t work out and the son returned, the father rejoiced that his son was no longer lost but was found. The father knew his son was no longer lost when his son displayed humility.


After the harvest, in the fall, corn mazes are popular. People can and do get lost in mazes. When we are lost, we are in a maze. One result of this feeling is that we need to find the way out. We might search systematically or out of panic. The longer it takes to find the way out, the more frustrating it gets and the less productive it is to get out. If we are smart, and this is more typical of women than men, we will ask for help.


The process of having another person help us out of our morass, is, in itself, the process of being found. The prodigal son discovered that being only mindful of himself was meaningless. The son knew he needed true friends and family.


To get out of a maze, either a real maze or a metaphorical maze, it is much easier with help. Another set of eyes help to provide another perspective that we might not see. Another person or persons can give us a perspective that was unknown to us.


To get ordained, there a myriad of hoops that must be jumped through. One of those hoops is a psychiatric examination, not mention the psychological examination. I never understood why I had to do both, but I had to do them! I often quipped that in order to get ordained, there had to be proof you are crazy. For my sponsoring Diocese of Utah, it was cheaper to have me see a bay area psychiatrist than to fly back to Salt Lake.


I had never seen a psychiatrist before and I had a lot of anxiety. Would I have a brain left after he got through picking through it? He began by asking me tell him about significant points in my life. So, I just told him stories about me. After I finished, he summarized who I was. I was astonished. Not because he got it right, but because he told me things about myself that I never realized before but now made perfect sense. I was so impressed that I wanted to see him again, but $500 per hour was out of reach for a seminarian.


“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” ~Henry David Thoreau


The real or metaphorical maze gives us the opportunity to discover more about ourselves. It is in a time of trial that we learn what we are truly made of. It is then we learn the verdict of our being.


If the outcome of a trial produces a verdict that is less than flattering of ourselves, we have a choice. We can resign ourselves that that is the way it is and do nothing. Or we can say to ourselves, “I want to be a better person.”


We hear in Luke 19 the story of a tax collector named Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus may have had a time of trial. Or he may have just heard about Jesus and/or Jesus’ teachings and decided that he must change the way he lives and the way he treats people. In either case, Zacchaeus says to himself, “I want to be a better person.”


Leading up to this point in Luke, Jesus was journeying. Jesus had his face set towards Jerusalem. And that journey is near its end. All that’s left is the uphill walk from Jericho. During this journey, Jesus is trying to teach people that they are to care for others. Caring for others does not include retribution, revenge, or lashing out. Jesus’ ethic is simple. It is love.


Jesus was intent on being in Jerusalem. He was to pass through, without stopping, at Jericho. Jericho is at roughly 1400 feet below sea level and Jerusalem is roughly at 2,000 feet above sea level. It is quite an uphill walk.


Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was a tax collector and he was rich. Throughout the gospels we are told over and over again how hated and despised tax collectors are. The people hate them, because they were seen as an arm of an occupation army. The religious authorities didn’t like them, because of their methods. The religious authorities were just fine collecting taxes, even for Rome. They also imposed a religious tax.


Most of us have or have had our taxes deducted from our income as we go, unless you are self-employed. A tax collector does not show up at our door with a couple of soldiers demanding a tax payment. But that is what it was like in Jesus’ time. Tax collectors were not employed by the Roman Empire. They were contractors. They made their money on commission.


And it was the tax collector himself (there were no women doing this) who set his own commission. As long as the tax collector gathered what Rome required, Rome was happy. Whatever the tax collector could get in addition to what Rome demanded, that was his commission. Many tax collectors gave themselves exorbitant commissions. That’s why the authorities hated them. They were sinners. And Zacchaeus was rich.


zacchaeusZacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, but couldn’t because he was too short to see over the crowd. So, Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree. Jericho still has sycamore trees. There is one in town that has a low fence around it that is supposed to be the very one Zacchaeus climbed. Unlikely, but there is a good orange juice stand there.


Jesus has his mind set on getting to Jerusalem. But when Jesus arrives at the tree containing Zacchaeus, Jesus stops. This is curious: Jesus calls Zacchaeus by name. How did Jesus know his name? Was Zacchaeus that notorious? Were people in the crowd warning Jesus that a tax collector named Zacchaeus was in a tree up ahead?


Jesus stops his journey to Jerusalem. He tells Zacchaeus that he will spend that day in Zacchaeus’ house. One more opportunity for Jesus to poke the eye of the self-righteous by staying and eating with tax collectors. Though I must say, Jesus would get a lot better meal there than somewhere else in Jericho.


Of course, there is a reaction in the crowd. It does little good to complain so softly that it is not heard. Jesus and Zacchaeus hear the criticism. “There goes Jesus again. Carousing with sinners.”


Zacchaeus has had a change of heart. Zacchaeus wants to change his life. Zacchaeus has made it through the maze and came out a changed man. Zacchaeus makes a pledge to Jesus. He will give half of his possessions to the poor. If he defrauded anyone, he will give them four times the amount. Zacchaeus must be pretty sure he hasn’t defrauded anyone.


Jesus tells Zacchaeus that salvation has come to his house. Jesus declares that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham. In other words, Jesus is declaring that Zacchaeus is just as Jewish as all those Jews who are criticizing him. Zacchaeus is no longer looking out for himself, he is looking out for others. Jesus has guided him out of his maze and into salvation.


Jesus then gives his mission statement: “the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10) Jesus didn’t stop to stay with the best Jew in town. Jesus sought out the lost one and saved him. Zacchaeus was lost and after being lost, Zacchaeus better understood himself. And the self that he wanted to be was to use his gifts for the betterment of those around him in Jericho.


Zacchaeus found himself, though he was lost. Luminita Saviuc says that there are ten main reasons why people feel lost.

“1. They have lost the connection with their own heart and Soul.

  1. They live their lives based on what other people believe to be right.
  2. They value the opinions of others more than their own.
  3. They are ruled by fear.
  4. They have a distorted sense of self. They no longer see their beauty, their light and their perfection, and they can no longer accept this truth – that who they are is enough!
  5. They surround themselves with people who drag them down.
  6. They believe every toxic thought that runs through their minds.
  7. They believe logic is more important than imagination.
  8. They are stuck in the past.
  9. They try to control everything.

“We all get lost from time to time, and even though you might not always like it, you have to understand that it’s all part of this adventure called life. It’s all part of your journey. If you immerse yourself fully into every experience and every interaction life sends your way, no matter if good or bad, you will have so much to gain.

“So always remember, it is good to feel lost… because it proves you have a navigational sense of where ‘Home’ is. You know that a place that feels like being found exists. And maybe your current location isn’t that place but, Hallelujah, that unsettled, uneasy feeling of lost-ness just brought you closer to it.”

“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” ~Henry David Thoreau


Text: Luke 19:1–10

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We’re Surrounded by Neighbors

Helping copThis is a true story related by one of my hospice patients. I’ll call him Fred (not his real name). After the war, Fred worked at an airplane plant in southern California. He had a hot convertible sports car that he was quite fond of.


One day it was payday and Fred got permission to leave the plant to deposit his check. Fred was told not to be more than an hour. So Fred got in his hot sports car convertible and went off to the bank. He was stopped at light when a little old lady asked him from the sidewalk, “Are you going to the bank up the road?” Fred said, “Yes.” The little old lady asked Fred if he would take her to the bank. She promised that she wouldn’t be long.


So Fred told her to get in. They got to the bank and the parking lot was full. The little old lady told Fred to park in the no parking zone. Fred said that that was a bad idea. The little old lady assured Fred that it was okay, that she had done it before, and she knows the bank manager.


So Fred parks there and goes into the bank. When Fred comes out of the bank, he is seeing a police officer writing a ticket. Fred explained that the little old lady in the bank said it was okay and she knows the bank manager. The officer said, “You are parked in a no parking zone and for that you get a ticket. And you have pay the ticket now if you want your car back.”


So Fred walked to the city hall and paid the $50 fine – an expensive fine for those days. It took a big chunk out of Fred’s pay check. Having paid the fine, Fred walked back to his car and was able to drive it back to work, way later than one hour. Fred worried if he still had a job.


Fred explained to his boss what happened and why he was late. His boss laughed and let Fred off the hook for his tardiness. Fred was never sure if his boss believed the story.


If we were to ask who was the neighbor in this story, we might say Fred for helping the little old lady. We might say Jesus was disguised a little old lady. I mean, how did the lady know or guess that a random stranger in a hot convertible was going to the same bank she wanted to go to? But I think the neighbor was Fred’s boss for excusing Fred’s tardiness and not potentially firing him.


When we hear the story of the lawyer examining Jesus, we might recall that a Jewish lawyer in Jesus’ time was an expert in the Law of Moses. Jesus is teaching the crowds and the lawyer wants to show the crowd that Jesus is not an expert on the Torah and therefore they should ignore anything that Jesus says.


Jesus is teaching that there is a resurrection. The Jewish authorities are split on the concept of resurrection. The lawyer knows that there is no mention of resurrection in the Torah. The lawyer also assumes Jesus will not be able to justify the resurrection by citing the Law of Moses.


The lawyer asks, “Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?” There is nothing in the Torah that specifies eternal life. The lawyer taunts Jesus to quote the scripture. Jesus will not fall into the trap. Jesus basically says, “You’re the expert in the law. You tell me what the law says.”


The lawyer responds with the Shema. The Shema is to Jews what the Lord’s Prayer is to Christians. Jews are supposed to recite the Shema three times a day. Shema means listen in Hebrew. It begins, “Shema Israel.” The Shema begins in the Torah at Deuteronomy 6:5: “Listen Israel, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.”


Then the lawyer adds Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirms that the lawyer spoke correctly. Jesus is teaching the expert. “Do this and you will live.” Jesus affirms that to inherit eternal life one needs to do three things: love God and love your neighbor, as you love yourself.


This interaction pivots not on the Shema, but on that added phrase from Leviticus. The lawyer wants to know how Jesus defines the scriptural reference to the word neighbor. We might say we love God. And we can say we pray to God and we love God, but beyond prayer and worship, how do we demonstrate our love of God?


The hard part is how we demonstrate our love of our neighbor. We can’t show love to a neighbor, let alone love to God, if we do not first love ourselves. The lawyer wants to know the limits of love. How is neighbor defined? So it is really important to know who is our neighbor. And I will submit that how we treat our neighbor is a reflection of how much we love God. After all, we are all made in the image of God.


The Torah lawyers and the Pharisees debated what constitutes a neighbor. Leviticus 19:33-34 says, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Some said Leviticus means everyone. Some put restrictions on that. In Jesus’ time, all agreed that it does not include those dirty Samaritans.


Jews and Samaritans hated each other. Samaritans were foreigners who were forcibly settled in Israel after the Israelite exile. They brought their own gods and adopted the God of the land, the God of Israel. So the Samaritans perverted the Jewish religion and God. And the Jews hated them for it.


We might picture the lawyer turning to leave after Jesus affirms his answer. The lawyer then stops, turns around, and like Colombo, asks, “And who is my neighbor?”


fallen among theivesJesus answers the lawyer’s question with the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. The road between Jerusalem and Jericho was well known then for its bandits. Traveling alone on that road was a bad idea. Today, it is a highway dotted with the occasional Bedouin camp. Today’s Bedouins have satellite dishes.


Jerusalem is roughly at 2,000 feet. Jericho is at roughly 850 feet below sea level. The only thing Jesus’ traveler has going for him is that he is walking downhill. The robbers were vicious. It was not enough to rob him. They beat him nearly to death and left him by the roadside.


A priest not only sees him, but goes out of his way to avoid him. A Levite, an assistant to the temple priests, did likewise. In all fairness, speaking of the Law of Moses, if a priest or a Levite touched the man and he was dead, they would be ritually unclean and could not go to the temple. Of course, it could be argued that they should have risked their ritual purity and helped the man.


We are assuming and I assume that Jesus and the lawyer believe the man to be a Jew. After all, who else would count? Another reason I assume that the man is a Jew is that Jesus introduces the next character as a Samaritan. He is not a man. He is a Samaritan.


The Good Samaritan has pity on the victim, gives first aid, and brought him to an inn, likely in Jericho. There is no water along the road. Jericho has a prolific spring.


Jesus gives the lawyer three options as to who was a neighbor to the man who fell among thieves: the righteous, respected, and religious priest, the righteous, respected, and obedient Levite, or the despicable Samaritan. The lawyer can’t even bring himself to say the word, Samaritan. Instead he says, “the one who showed him mercy.”


Jesus could have said, “you answered correctly.” But he didn’t. It is not enough to know the right answer. You must act. The lawyer is to “go and do likewise.” If someone is in need, help them out of love. Even if it is the one you hate the most.


There are times when we hate someone. After all, we are only human. Jesus does not deny hate. Jesus does deny acting out in hate. We can be angry with someone. But we cannot act out in anger. As moms the world over might say, “Use your words.” But even then, words can be mightier than physical blows. Maybe the advice should be, “Use your words after you have cooled off.”


Jesus never advocated violence, even telling Peter that we are to forgive someone 70 times seven. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matthew 5:38-39, NRSV)


When a large number of people congregate, police need to be out in force. Even in the most peaceful protest, there are knuckleheads who think that violence and vandalism are justifiable activities. As we have seen in Oakland and elsewhere, they do not participate in peaceful protest. They just take advantage of a situation.


The Dallas police, on the night of July 7, 2016, were there to keep the peace and make sure a large gathering of people were kept safe. The Dallas police were there for the people. One person decided that he was to use violence for justice. Anyone who does something like that is the anti-Christ, because they do the opposite of what Jesus taught. We are to love our neighbor, not shoot them.


Being a Christian requires us to follow only two commandments, the commandments that Jesus gave us: love God with everything we have and love our neighbor as ourselves. It is hard to express love to anyone, if we first do not love ourselves. And Jesus defines the person who is our neighbor very broadly. It is very simple, but very difficult. Being a Christian is hard.


How we treat another person is a sign of our love of God, even if that person is the one we hate the most.


Text: Luke 10:25–37

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Unexpected Angels

Josh McGillJosh McGill is a nighttime bartender and a daytime nursing student. On June 11, 2016, he had the night off and went with friends to the Pulse.


Josh and his friends were having their last drinks of the night when they heard three loud bangs and thought it was something wrong with the sound system. Josh thought it was fireworks or firecrackers and ran outside, someone playing a joke. Then he heard more gunshots and saw staff members running.


When he realized what was happening, he and his friends jumped a fence and ran into a parking lot. Not knowing where he gunman was, Josh hid under an SUV. When he heard the shots were in the distance, he decided to find a police line.


It was then that he heard a man mumbling and panting. Covered in blood. The man repeated, “I think I got shot.” Josh could see bullet wounds in each arm. Josh took off his shirt to wrap up Rodney’s wounds. While doing that and telling Rodney that everything was going to be alright, Josh saw that Rodney was shot in the back. He applied pressure to the man’s back.


Josh guided Rodney through the parking lot to a police officer. Josh kept pressure on Rodney’s wounds while the officer drove them to the emergency room.


Then Joshua McGill posted what happened on his Facebook account: “There was a very tragic thing that happened tonight. Thoughts and prayers for everyone at Pulse or that know anyone that was at pulse. It was very crazy and a traumatic experience. I’m very thankful I got away safe and a lot of other people I know and care about did as well. I hid under a car and found one of the victims that was shot. I tied my shirt and his shirt over his wounds to stop the bleeding and got him secretly to the nearest officer who then transported us to the ER. Words cannot and will not describe the feeling of that. Being covered in blood. Trying to save a guy’s life that I don’t even know regardless that I’m fine…just traumatized. The things I had to say to the guy and make promises I didn’t know I would be able to keep or not to keep him conscious while holding him as tight as I could and blood everywhere on me. Saying a prayer for him and letting him know I will be here waiting for him. It sucks because all I got was his name and I can’t even see if he’s okay because I’m not related. If anyone knows of a guy named Rodney that was shot and injured tonight. Please let me know he is okay. I felt God put me at the club and made me stay behind to help a complete stranger. For whatever reason that may be. I don’t know, but I do know it was hopefully to save his life. Maybe (sic) God be with us all in this time of need.”


One of Rodney’s friends reached out to Josh to tell him that Rodney will be okay.


Josh wanted to run and did a short distance. Josh believes that God wanted him to stay and help a stranger who was bleeding out. Josh wasn’t the only hero that night.


We all have that fight or flight instinct. It is a reptilian instinct that helps keep us alive. There are times when other factors cancel out that instinct. That happened also to Elijah.


Elijah defeated Queen Jezebel’s prophets of Baal and they were killed on Mt. Carmel. When King Ahab told Jezebel what happened, she was more than a little upset. So Jezebel sends a messenger to Elijah to tell Elijah that he is a dead man.


Elijah flees to Beersheba. Beersheba still exits to this day in the Negev desert. In Elijah’s day, Beersheba was in the Kingdom of Judah, south of Ahab’s kingdom of Israel. It is the southernmost part of the world of people who worship the God of Moses. Elijah leaves his servant there. After all, Jezebel is after Elijah and the servant has a good chance to be safe. Israel and Judah had a love-hate relationship and Elijah’s safety in another country depended on what stage of the relationship was in, in these two successor’s to Solomon’s and David’s kingdom.


Elijah did not feel he was safe. He flees further south into the desert. It was probably best not to tell his servant where he was going, but it seems from the story that Elijah did not have a clear idea of his destination. Elijah begs God to let him die in the desert.


Elijah finds a broom tree: for shade and if there is a tree, there must be water. An angel provides food to get Elijah’s strength up for the journey ahead.


Strengthened, Elijah walks 40 days and 40 nights to Mt. Horeb, another name for Mt. Sinai. It was a 300 mile journey. In the Bible, 40 days and 40 nights is a euphemism for a long time. From Mt. Carmel to Mt. Sinai, Elijah found a cave and rested. Centuries later, Christian mystics will travel to Sinai to be with God. People will come to them for spiritual advice and counsel.


Of course, Sinai is a holy mountain. It is the place that Moses received the law. In Moses’ day, only Moses could go up the mountain. It is now Elijah’s turn. The mountain is holy, because there is a sense in the Bible that God lives on the mountain. We know from the Transfiguration story that Jesus talked to Moses and Elijah, on a mountain. The first represents the law and the latter the prophets. The two greats of the Old Testament are first linked to Sinai.


God is aware that Elijah ended up at God’s home. Uninvited, or maybe invited, God wants to know why Elijah is there. It is a reasonable question we might ask if we were to discover a friend showing up in our home.


Elijah recounts what God likely already knows. Jezebel killed all of God’s prophets save Elijah. The Israelites have ignored the law God gave Moses. All the places where the Israelites worshipped God were destroyed. Elijah stood alone, prevailed, and now is running for his life.


God orders Elijah out of the cave to encounter God’s presence. A similar event happened on Sinai many centuries earlier. God places Moses in a crack in the mountain while God passes by. Moses is not allowed to see God’s face. Now it is Elijah’s turn.


I want you to picture what happens. Elijah is standing somewhere on the mountain. Elijah is anticipating seeing the unseen God. Elijah is attentive. Then a wind so strong that that it shook the mountain and split open rocks came, a hurricane. Moses split a rock to give the people of Israel water. Elijah did not find God in the wind.


Next came an earthquake. When God talked to Moses on Sinai, the mountain shook. God was not in the earthquake, either. Then there was a fire. God talked to Moses through a burning bush. Only God was not in this fire.


God is cagey. Elijah was likely fearful by now. If God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, then in what form will God become known? It must be incredibly fierce and powerful. Maybe Elijah was thinking that he is on the run from Jezebel only to be consumed by God on Sinai.


Elijah at HorebBut after the fire there was silence. I like the translation that reads, “there was a still small voice.” A literal translation might be, “a sound of gentile stillness.” There is a sound. Elijah hears it, a sound so soft that it is greater than an earthquake. Because that is what God is putting in motion, something bigger than a mighty wind, an earthquake, or fire.


During the commotion, Elijah returned to the cave for safety. After Elijah hears the silent sound, he goes out the cave entrance. The voice asks again what Elijah is doing there. Elijah cannot do God’s work holed up in a cave. Elijah gives the same reply as earlier. After the displays of nature rent asunder, Elijah’s situation remains the same.


God tells Elijah to return and do three earthshattering things: 1) go to Damascus and anoint the gentile Hazael king of Aram, 2) anoint Jehu king of Israel (Ahab wouldn’t like that too much), and 3) anoint Elisha as Elijah’s successor.


Christians would recognize the silent sound as the Holy Spirit. That is how God talks to us. This passage was a big deal in seminary, because everyone could relate to it. It was because we heard the silent sound and heeded it that we were there at seminary.


Hearing and heeding the silent sound or the Holy Spirit is not limited to those seeking ordination. The Holy Spirit is with us all. Sometimes when we hear the Holy Spirit our lives can make dramatic turns.


The heart of discerning the Holy Spirit is prayer. We might say we hear God in prayer. We might say we hear Jesus in prayer. We might say we hear the Holy Spirit in prayer. It doesn’t matter. The messenger is one and the same. We might get meaning. We might get comfort. We might get insight.


And we might get marching orders. We are always free to say no. But my experience is that God is persistent. We don’t know how long Elijah stayed on Sinai before he got the nerve to go into harm’s way. But he did go. His life was still on the line. God was with Elijah and those three things God had him do changed history. God was with Josh and a bleeding Rodney. God speaks to us in the midst of fear, despair, isolation, and failure.


With God on our side we can change history. When we cook for the homeless, we change lives. When we say “thank you” for service, we change lives. When we pick up our own trash and maybe someone else’s trash, we change lives. Providing a garden for the hungry significantly changes lives, those that receive and those that give. That’s how the silent sound of God works.


Text: 1 Kings 19:1–16

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A Gift of Words

This is from Leonard Sweet: Recently, a judicial friend was presiding over a case in a small, rural county. The defendant was charged with drunk driving and trying to assault the police officer who arrested him. To convict the defendant on the assault on an officer charge, the District Attorney had to prove that the defendant knew the person he was assaulting was a police officer. And the easiest way to do that is to show that the officer was wearing a police uniform, and therefore the defendant knew that this was a police officer.

So the District Attorney asked the officer on the witness stand, “And how were you attired when you pulled the defendant over?”

The witness looked at him blankly. It was clear he didn’t know what the District Attorney meant by “attired.” Everyone saw this but the District Attorney.

“Would you repeat the question, please?”

In a slightly irritated voice the District Attorney said, “And how were you attired when you pulled the defendant over?”

The witness still was puzzled. “Say that again,” he pleaded.

“How were you attired when you pulled the defendant over?” barked the District Attorney.

My friend said you could suddenly see the light bulb come on in the officer’s head, and he proudly proclaimed, “I was traveling on standard issue radial tires!”

This officer needed an interpreter even within the English language!

That’s what I’m getting at: We all need our own personal interpreter, full time, 24/7. So much of what we hear, even within the English language, we don’t understand. And nowhere is that truth more evident than with people who are new to the church.


I am a hospice chaplain. The first few months on the job, I needed to learn the medical jargon that was used. We have regular Interdisciplinary Team Meetings to coordinate care for our patients. At one such meeting when I was still fairly new, I wanted to ask a question.


I noticed on the clinical notes for a patient that a term was used that I didn’t know. And I also wanted to get a chuckle. So I asked, “What’s SOB?” I got the desired chuckle and was told, “Short of Breath.” I learned many more medical terms, BID, TID, Q this, and Q that.


Recently, I came across a term on the face sheet for a heart disease patient. It said “stenosis.” So I looked it up. Stenosis is the narrowing of something, like one of the many tubes in our bodies. In this case, it is a narrowing of a heart artery. Why not just say narrowing? Naw, that’s too simple. We have a 2-bit word we can use instead.


The church is no different. What does Pentecost mean? Well, literally, it means 50. It is 50 days after Easter. Why not call it Easter + 50 or Holy Spirit Day or Church Birthday Day? That’s too simple. We have this other word we have always used.


What does Eucharist mean? It means thanksgiving. Why not call it Holy Thanksgiving? Naw, that’s too simple. We have this other word we have used since the beginnings of the church, a Greek church, that uses Greek words. Only we ain’t in Greece. We need to make it easy for the unchurched to become the churched. If not, they will become frustrated and not come back.


PentecostPentecost is about the story when the Holy Spirit, in great power, transformed a cowering group of Jesus’ followers and gave them great power to share Jesus’ story. They shared the story to a group of people from all over the Roman Empire and who spoke many languages. In their day, Greek was the common language, the lingua franca. But rather than speak to them in Greek, they spoke to each in their own language. To share the Word of God and spread the word to a wider church, they spoke to the people plainly and in their own language.


The Holy Spirit transforms frightened disciples into bold proclaimers of Jesus. The Holy Spirit chooses to arrive when Jerusalem is crowded. The potential audience is large. In essence, the gathering of a crowd was an evangelical model of people coming to hear a message. Now granted, a big commotion is what caused a crowd to gather.


But after that Pentecost, the disciples gradually left Jerusalem and the Holy Land. They were compelled to tell the story about Jesus and the world wasn’t going to go to Jerusalem, a backwater province of the Roman Empire. They went to places where people gathered. They went to synagogues where Jews and those sympathetic to Judaism would gather and would understand their references to Jewish scriptures. They went to the marketplaces.


You know what? By today’s standards we might say they were failures. They converted very few people in those first centuries. And in those odd places where they had a visible percentage of the population, they were persecuted. Who would join a group who lived under the threat of arrest and worse? But people did. The Jesus story was just too compelling. It could not be kept a secret.


Pentecost marks a strong contrast. We have the disciples huddled together in the upper room, afraid to go out to the populace. Then the Holy Spirit comes in dramatic fashion and they can’t stay in the room any longer. They are compelled to go out and tell the story of Jesus.


Peter is the primary example. Peter is a pretty compulsive guy. We have no evidence that he did public speaking during Jesus’ ministry. After all, Jesus did all right doing all the talking. Even if the disciples had a crisis or question, it was another one of the disciples who would verbally engage Jesus, not Peter. Peter was a doer.


Yet at Pentecost, Peter was the one who addressed the crowd. He saw Jesus do it many times. Now he was the one to step up. Peter assumed his role as the group’s leader. Jesus saw this in Peter. Peter was a part of Jesus’ inner circle.


Peter probably always had a knack for public speaking but may not have done it because he couldn’t lick the butterflies in his belly. On Pentecost, Peter either didn’t feel those butterflies or he didn’t get them or he ignored them. The Holy Spirit compelled Peter to take charge and to speak for the group.


spiritual giftsPeter had the gift of public speaking and Peter had the gift of leadership before Pentecost. After he was infused with the Holy Spirit, those gifts were enhanced by the Holy Spirit.


We all have gifts. We all have abilities that we do better than an average person. These gifts from God are improved by the Holy Spirit. St. Paul talks about spiritual gifts in several of his letters. These Pauline gifts edify the church. But our gifts are not just for the church. They are a part of us in whatever we do.


If we were to imagine a room of twenty people, there may be two or three who share the same gifts. Collectively, all twenty are necessary to accomplish the big tasks. The twenty share their gifts for the goal of the group. Smaller tasks can be done with smaller groups.


All of us can do most projects. Depending on the project, we may do it well or we may do it less than well or maybe we do it superbly. If we can do something superbly and we like doing it, that is one of our gifts. Most people have at least two gifts. Two of Peter’s gifts were leadership and public speaking. Those gifts he already had were enhanced by the Holy Spirit.


No one can say that I have no gifts. Everyone has gifts. But no one person has all the gifts. It takes a group or even a congregation working together to do the work they are to do, even the work of God. Peter did not continue the church all by himself. Paul did not further the work of any of the churches he founded. Paul allowed the people, gathered together, to do the work of God in their communities. They were successful when they shared their gifts.


We gather into congregations on Sunday to be spiritually filled and strengthened. To do God’s work, utilizing our gifts, can drain us. We need recharging. We need encouragement. We gather so that we may re-enter the world filled with the Holy Spirit to do God’s work in the world.

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