Expectant preparation

1298662The readings today point us to the need to be prepared, which is fitting as Advent is a season of expectant preparation, not of the birth of the messiah, but of his return. It is an annual reminder that we must be prepared for Jesus to show up on our doorstep at any moment; but what does it really mean to be prepared for his return? Is it even possible to prepare for such an event? Per usual, I have no real idea how to answer my own questions, and I suspect that they may not be the questions we should be asking because we know that Jesus, who was and is God incarnate, is already here in the form of the Holy Spirit, and the season of Advent is meant to be a season in which we remind ourselves of the things we already know. Much of the scripture chosen for advent is apocalyptic, which means that something will be revealed, it has nothing to do with the end of the world. Will there be a day when Jesus will return and sit in judgment of humanity? Maybe, I don’t know; frankly I don’t really think it matters. What does matter is that we are prepared to see God when we wake up in the morning; when we leave our house to go to work; when we stop to buy a cup of caffeine; when we greet our co-workers; when we sit at the lunch table; when we stop for groceries on the way home; and before we go to sleep. If we are not able to recognize the presence of God in these instances, then we can’t call ourselves ready to do Gods work in the world, because until we can see God moving in our own lives and in the lives of the people we see every day, we will not be ready to see God in the faces and actions of the perfect stranger, nor would we be able to recognize Jesus if he was walking down the street because he is not likely to look like the pictures from the 70’s.

The Presiding Bishop says that “if it isn’t about love, it isn’t about Jesus”, which is a simple way to reference the commandment to Love both God and our neighbors. I don’t know about you, but when I love someone I think about them all the time.  I think about how they are; I think about what they might be doing; I think about what they might be feeling; and I wonder about how much they might love me in return. In our relationship with God, as revealed through scripture, we know that God loves us 100%; God loves us so much that there are no words in any language that could possibly help us understand what God’s love means. Nothing we can ever imagine could remotely come close to explaining God’s love for us; yet, we try to do so and sometimes even claim to understand it; we also claim to understand what it means to be ready, but we will never be ready? We will never fully understand God’s love for us; we will never be fully ready for the return of Jesus; and we will never be fully ready to do as God as commanded us to do; but, that should not trouble us, because when Jesus told us to Love God and neighbor he said it knowing that we would fail, probably most of the time. Accepting that God  loves us, in spite of our failures, is the first step in being ready for God’s active presence in our lives. The second step is accepting that loving our neighbor means loving them in spite of their flaws, and the best part of this step is that we never have to do it alone, because God’s holy presence in the form of the Holy Spirit is ready, willing and able to do the work, with us, through us and even for us, if we just let it.

Advent reminds me that faith is not passive; it reminds me to think about my own love for God; to reflect on whether or not I actively think about God and our relationship, just like I do when I think about my grandparents, my parents, my wife, my children, and my friends. It reminds me to remember that God is not only found in church, God is not only found in the hearts of the people who gather on Sunday morning. God is and has been in the heart of every human being that has ever and will ever exist. While we struggle to prepare ourselves to embrace God’s loving presence, it is also our responsibility, as people of faith, to help others prepare themselves to do the same by being a witness to God’s love in the world.

As we enter our season of expectant preparation, I encourage you to take the time to reflect on God’s presence in your life. Think about whether you are aware of God’s loving presence and reflect on whether you think of God in the same way that you think of your loved ones. We must be ready, for the son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour and we do not know the form he will take. He may look like the pictures, he may look like one of us, she may look like the little girl who is hugging her father so tight he can’t breathe, they may look like the homeless under the bridge. The form Jesus will take upon their return is not important, what is important is the need to prepare ourselves to see and accept God’s presence in every person, beginning with ourselves.

Life throws us challenges

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Jesus is once again faced with a challenge from yet another group of Jews who are trying to poke holes in what he is teaching. The people in question have already carefully considered the teachings of Jesus and have rejected them, they have rejected the idea of resurrection being possible, they deny the existence of spirits, and they refuse to give any credence to oral tradition. They instead emphasize the importance of the written law, specifically the Torah, which is the law as written and passed to them by Moses. The Sadducees were living what they believed to be a God centered life and they were not ready to accept that God may be calling them in a different direction, which is why they were testing Jesus. Jesus never once denied the law of Moses as being important, but he does push us to realize and accept that there is far more to the God life than following the rules.

One of the hardest aspects of being a person of faith is accepting that the ways of God are not the ways of humanity and this is exactly what Jesus is saying to the Sadducees. Jesus calls us, he asks us, he pushes us to live a resurrected life, which does not mean he is pushing us to follow the rules so that we can go to heaven, it means we need to wake up and accept that the resurrection is not a promise for the future, it is now, it is right here. Luke’s Jesus said that the lowliest of the society would be considered “like angels and children of God, being children of the resurrection.” He does not mean that someday, because they lived a hard life and followed all the rules, they will get to go to heaven where every day will be like their first visit to Disney World. What he has revealed to us is that in a post resurrection world there is no sociopolitical stratification, there is no oppression, there is no subjugation of women, there is no dehumanization; in a resurrection world human rules do not apply.

Every year I show a film to my students about the Spanish American War and during one of the early scenes one of the main characters is arguing with his father about his decision to volunteer to go to war, in response his father says “Life is not Honor and Polo. Life is hunger. Life is anger. Life is pain and dirt. Your grandfather knew life. He didn’t recommend it. That’s why we’re rich” Now I don’t agree with the entire sentiment of this statement, but I do agree with the heart of what he is telling his son, life is not about human made things, it is not about looking honorable in the eyes of your friends and family and no matter what your socioeconomic status is, life does involve hunger, and anger, and pain, and dirt; and I believe it is safe to assume that none of us would hold up those aspects of life as worth writing home about and because of the promise of the resurrection we don’t have to. The resurrection provides us hope that the world can be different, that the world can be redeemed, that the world can be healed and we don’t have to wait until we die to experience it, in fact we are supposed to help reveal it. The purpose of the God life is to assist in the revealing of the kingdom of God to ourselves and to the world, it is not to hope and pray that we will someday get to go to heaven; but revealing the kingdom is hard, it is hard because everywhere we look we see brokenness and we see people who have rejected God or who at least don’t know how to approach God. How can we possibly share the good news of the resurrection with people who don’t want to hear it, how can we possibly change the minds of so many people to see that the kingdom of God is here? The truth is that we cannot change their minds, but God can. Although God can only do that if we allow the Holy Spirit to work through our words and actions. There are times though, that life throws us challenges that test our ability to be faithful to the God life.

This past week I received word that a former student of mine is struggling. Her 2-year-old son has been diagnosed with leukemia and is undergoing intensive treatment at Baystate Children’s Hospital. After he receives a treatment he must remain at the hospital until his immune system recovers enough for him to go home, which can take weeks, so he has been spending up to 30 days at a time in the hospital and because of this, his mother has had to quit her job to be with him and is now struggling to buy food because she wants to make sure she has enough gas to drive to the hospital every day to be with him. I am heartbroken that this little boy must endure such horrors and that his parents must endure the pain of watching their child suffer and I wonder in the face of such pain, and anger, and hunger, how I can possibly share with them the good news and hope of the resurrection? And if I did, why would they even listen to me or anyone else for that matter?

A part of living a God centered life is accepting that we do not understand everything and trusting that God will find a way. Claiming to know the will of God is what the Sadducees were doing by clinging to the law. Jesus’s response to them teaches us that clinging to human thinking does nothing more than separate us from God and deny the power of the Holy Spirit to change the hearts of every person. The rules tell us to love God and to love our neighbor, but how do we do that? For me personally I am wondering how I can love my student and her family in such a way that lets them know that God is with them? I don’t know the answer to my question, but what I do know, is that we must trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to guide our words and actions and that as long as we keep God at the center of our lives, through prayer, through the study of scripture, and through service to the people of the world the Holy Spirit will find a way to reveal the kingdom and the good news of the resurrection.

We have to pray

When my oldest son was about three, we went to Staples to buy a few things, and when we got into the store, I grabbed a basket because we were only there for one or two items. Well, he wanted a cart because he wanted to sit in the big part, and I told him no. His response was to drop to the ground and start crying. So here I am in the front of Staples, customers and employees are watching us, likely wondering what I did to my kid to make him scream and probably hoping that I would make it stop as soon as possible. I had a choice to make, do I give in and grab a cart, or do I stick to my guns. Well, in a calm voice and in a normal tone I said, “when you are done, I will be over there” and I walked away. I noticed a smirk on one of the employees faces as I began to walk away and within two seconds my son stopped screaming, got up, and followed me down the aisle.

Sometimes, possibly most of the time, we put a great deal of energy into the things that we think are the most important, but truly it is only about our ego. Religious Scholar Huston Smith once wrote that “when the consequences of belief are worldly goods, such as health, fixing on these turns religion into a service station for self-gratification and churches into health clubs. This is the opposite of religion’s role, which is to decenter the ego, not pander to its desires.” What Smith is saying is that the purpose of religion, the purpose of having a relationship with God, is to center our attention on the kingdom, on God’s plans and not on the things that we desire.

The purpose of prayer, as hinted at by Jesus’ parable, is to assist us in the reorientation process. The woman in the parable consistently asks for justice and she eventually receives it, but let’s be careful here, the message is not that we will get what we want if we ask for it on a regular basis, it is not that if we annoy God enough he will give in. The message is that justice, God’s justice, the kingdom of God will come about when we decentralize our ego and replace it with a God driven life. When we openly, regularly, and sincerely pray we are entering a conversation with God and with ourselves that can help us decenter our ego and reorient our focus onto more important things. The purpose of the parable is to teach us the importance of praying with regularity with the expectation that justice will come, in time, not to teach us that we will get what we want through prayer.

There is a very important concept, that relates to prayer, in the passage from Jeremiah for today. Jeremiah, speaking for God, says “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”  Jeremiah is speaking of the new covenant between God and the people which is based on an internal relationship as opposed to an external set of laws, meaning it is a covenant that we live into, instead of a set of rules that we need to live up to. In order to live into the covenant, we need to place God at the center of our lives instead of placing ourselves there. We do that by reading scripture to help us understand what a God centered life looks like, praying to God for guidance when we are not sure what to do; for strength when we are overwhelmed; for forgiveness when we focus on our own ego; and for comfort when we feel alone.

So far I have talked about how we tend to pay a great deal of attention to ourselves, the importance of making prayer a central part of our lives, and the idea that God has made a covenant with us by placing the law in our hearts, but what I haven’t talked about is what this all means.

As I indicated with my opening story, we tend to focus on the things that we want beginning at a very young age. Our entire culture is centered around the idea of individual desire, which means that our children learn from a very early age that the world revolves around them. There was a time when the church taught that the earth was at the center of the universe because humans are the most important part of creation, but that idea has not only been disproven by science, it has been rejected by theologians. In addition to stressing the importance of individual control, our culture has morphed into a society that expects things to happen immediately. Immediacy and control have nothing to do with the kingdom of God, they are human creations and distractions. The new covenant, written within our hearts, is simple; but in order to understand it and live into it we need to cultivate it and we do that by studying scripture and praying. Prayer is a conversation with God, it is not a laundry list of wants and desires. When we pray for God to intervene in the world we are, as Huston Smith said, turning the church into a service station, we are passing off all responsibility for the current state of the world to others, other people or even God; we are assuming that we have played no role in either creating or sustaining the injustices that are preventing our realization of the kingdom of God. When we pray or as I like to say Talk to God, we need to put aside our ego and instead offer thanksgivings for the blessings that exist in the world, so that we can learn to recognize those blessings as they arrive and not only after they have passed; we should ask God for forgiveness for assuming that they are going to fix the messes that we have made; we should offer the things we know to be injustices, but not with the idea that God will snap their fingers and fix it, but as a part of our understanding that in naming those injustices we are beginning to walk down the path of ending them; and once we have done that we must take the time to listen for a response, knowing that we may not like the answer. It is through our conversations with God that the Holy Spirit is able to awaken the law that has been placed in our hearts which are the seeds that can grow into a desire to love God and to love of each other as much as we love ourselves.

I will end by giving one example. Eighty percent of the world’s population survives on $2 per day, which they use to pay for food, housing, schooling and other necessities of life. Clearly this is an injustice, but is it an injustice because there are not enough resources to go around or is it an injustice because too many people are not willing to share the resources they have? Let’s assume we want to be like the woman in the parable and we want this injustice to be corrected, how should we pray about it? Should we say, Dear God, your people are suffering, please be merciful and help them? Or should we maybe say Dear God, we thank you and praise you for creating the earth to sustain life, so that we would never need to feel hunger, yet so many of your people are forced to go without the food you have provided, help us to understand why this injustice exists and lend us your strength, through the Holy Spirit, to proclaim our love for you and for one another as we work to ensure that all of your people are cared for, as you intended? The answer is hopefully obvious, but the reality of the injustices that exist in the world are not. Prayer is only one aspect of a Christian life, but it is a vital one. If we truly want to restore God’s kingdom, which simply put means a world without injustice, then we have to change our behaviors; we have to let go of our self-centered desires; we have to stop believing that just because we ask, God is going to make it all better, and instead accept that the world is filled with injustice because we continually reject God’s call to love both God and others as much as we love ourselves. Praying and doing so often, is the first step towards repairing the damage we have done to creation because it is through prayer that we can gain the assistance of the Holy Spirit in setting aside our ego. So, pray, pray for forgiveness, pray for assistance, pray that the Holy Spirit will help you understand God’s call for you.

 

We need to say thank you

Like so many American’s I like to turn to Facebook, which is of course the ultimate source of all wisdom, to find inspiration. A few months ago, I saw a meme that quoted Christian author Max Lucado. It said, “what if you woke up in the morning and had only the things you thanked God for yesterday?” This idea shocked me and frankly scared me, what if that did happen? This ide makes the parable of the rich man and Lazarus even more difficult to listen to than normal, particularly if we enjoy a lifestyle of comforts. The initial meaning of this parable is quite clear, the wealthy will be tormented in hell and the poor will go straight to heaven, but is that really the message? If it is then I imagine that all of us may be feeling a little uncomfortable right now, but the good news is that, like all parables, there is hope. The rich man had everything he could ever want, good food, great friends, a huge house; but in the end, what was he left with? He was left with an eternity of torment, because he had no faith. He had no sense of gratitude for the life that he had, so when he entered death, he was given only what he had thanked God for the day before, which was nothing. The rich man was so self-absorbed that he only cared for one thing and that was himself. I think that he likely suffered from the old adage that money corrupts, meaning that we can become so wrapped up in our success that we can forget that not everyone is as successful as you and that your success may have in fact come at the expense of someone else. I am sure that the rich man had servants and workers, he probably even had slaves. Did he ever thank his wine steward or his cook or his field hands, let alone God? I am guessing no. The rich man fell far short of what it means to be a follower of Christ Jesus, he fell far short of loving his neighbor and he clearly did not love God.

Jesus said that there are two great commandments, love your neighbors, and love God. Loving God involves regular and open communication with God, it requires us to trust God and recognize the importance of allowing our spiritual lives to guide our earthly lives. It is in this area that I believe most of us, like the rich man, fall short and thus risk a similar fate. The reason the rich man went to hell is not because he was rich, but because he allowed his wealth and power, not his faith, to be the dominant influence in his life.

Living a faith centered life is hard. For many, going to church, buying a raffle ticket at the holiday fair, or even putting a check in the collection plate is easy, but those things do not make us Christians and they are very possibly things that the rich man did. Walking through the world with humility, sharing what we have out of gratitude, and asking for forgiveness when we don’t do those things is what marks us as followers of Jesus Christ. I think that for many people there is a chasm between the things that they do and their faith and what I mean by that is there is no connection between their actions and their relationship with God. Simply going to church or buying a raffle ticket is not faith, it may be a sign that a person supports the idea of God, it may mean that they are attempting to play the part as best they know how, but is what they are doing faith? Faith requires more than lip service; it requires more than feel good actions because a sad commercial, news story, or meme moves you to donate; it requires commitment. It requires a commitment to a life of sacrifice. It requires that we sacrifice things that may very well give us joy, so that we will have time to study scripture and time to talk to God. I have yet to meet a person, bishops included, that has not struggled with making time for God. We lead such busy lives that the idea of stopping for even five minutes to say thank you is not even on our radar, we might even think “God knows I am thankful, why do I have to say it?”. Claiming we are too busy, or that we don’t know how to pray, are nothing but excuses. I am convinced that the rich man never made time for God, even though God was literally begging for scraps on his front step, because he was too busy distracting himself with life, and because of that he is forever separated from God’s love, he is stuck staring across a great chasm for the rest of eternity knowing that it is too late for him, it is too late to give God gratitude for all that he had in life; it is too late to ask forgiveness for ignoring God. The moral of this story is not that we are all going to hell because we have a bunch of stuff; the moral is that we need to not ignore God, we need to heed the teachings of Jesus; we need to love our neighbor as we love ourselves; we need to love God with every fiber of our being; we need to say thank you; and we need to make the time to do it every day.

 

We must to go to them

When we belong to an organization for a long time, we inevitably come across a phenomenon that is pervasive in most, if not all, human organizations and that is insular or isolated thinking. In the church, our thinking can become so isolated that we will only look for certain things when we engage with scripture. In Luke’s gospel we heard the importance of looking for the one lost sheep and the one lost coin and our well-trained minds probably took us right to the most obvious conclusion, which is that God will not leave one person behind. Well, that is true, but I also think that it misses the mark. According to G. Penny Nixon, the issue Luke is putting before us has nothing to do with God’s willingness to redeem the one lost soul, instead we need to focus on the very beginning of the passage where the Pharisees and the Scribes, aka the insiders, are grumbling because outsiders are moving into what they believe is their territory. The parables we heard today are tools used by Jesus to point out that the grumbler’s thinking is wrong and that they need to repent. The Pharisees and the scribes, who are the temple insiders, are clearly uncomfortable with the idea that outsiders, namely the tax collectors and sinners, are being welcomed into their territory. The temple insiders know exactly what the tax collectors and sinners need to do in order to fit in and they have never shied away from letting everyone, and especially Jesus, know when they are wrong, so why then do they appear to be uncomfortable now? The answer is likely that they are more comfortable correcting the behavior of people who are already a part of their world, than the people they never interact with. The sinners and the tax collectors have never been welcomed by the temple insiders, instead they have been ignored or shunned. Jesus’s parables are calling for the insiders to change their thinking about the outsiders, he is calling them to focus their attention on the people they think are lost and beyond help, instead of the people they think they can save. The people who follow the rules of the temple are the insiders and when they stray from the rules they can easily be brought back into the fold, but the sinners and tax collectors are considered beyond help and therefore not worth their time.

How often do we recoil at the sight of someone that doesn’t fit our definition of an insider? I see it every day in my profession. Teenagers come in many shapes and sizes and with a wide variety of skills and abilities. I have noticed an increase in anxiety among students and a tendency among staff to assume that the kids are simply overreacting or using their illness as an excuse. In other cases I have seen both students and staff assume that because a student avoids doing their school work they must not be able to do it, or that they are stupid, when the reality is that they are students who have suffered trauma in their home life, and that trauma is inhibiting their ability to focus and learn. Both examples reflect the concept Luke is exploring in his gospel. People who are on the “inside track”, the people who can function within the boundaries laid out by the institution are considered normal and worth everyone’s time and the people who are different, who are seen as outsiders or possibly even threats to the way things are supposed to be are either ignored or labeled. This attitude stems from several things, but I think the primary cause is that they are perceived as a threat. When we achieve a certain level of comfort in our lives and in the institutions that we belong to, we tend to want to guard the status quo. In the school setting staff members do not know how to accommodate students with high anxiety levels or students with a great deal of trauma, so they react by dismissing the student’s needs and try to fit them into their traditional view of a student behavior and ability. Don’t miss understand me, none of my colleagues want anything but the best for their students, but sometimes it is easier to give lip service to the desire to help everyone than it is to do it. I have no doubt that every teacher wants to help every student succeed, but the reality of doing it is a very different prospect. I think the same is true for the church. We all seem to be comfortable with the idea that everyone deserves God’s love as well as our own, that is after all what Christianity is all about is it not? However, how often do we extend our love of neighbor to people outside the church doors? How often do we openly and actively engage with people who look lost? How many people, that we know don’t attend church, do we talk to about God? In the parables of the lost sheep and coin Luke is not only telling us that God will not abandon anyone, he is also telling us that we need to change our thinking, we need to repent and ensure that we are not becoming so complacent that we allow others to become lost. I know it is far easier to talk about saving the lost than it is to welcome them into our midst’s, but that is what we must do. We must change our thinking and instead of waiting for the lost to come through the church doors so that we can welcome them into the fold in a safe and comfortable environment, we need to meet them where they are and bring them home, one at a time. To do that we first need to go where they are, like the shepherd we need to be willing to travel into the wilderness in search of their lost sheep and like the woman and her silver we need to be willing to turn our comfy lives upside down to find the one missing coin. Our willingness to ignore the parts of the world that seem scary or different; our willingness to ignore the trauma and anxiety of our young people; and our complacency in our belief that people will find God on their own is parallel to the scribes and pharisees belief that the sinners and tax collectors don’t belong anywhere near the temple. If God’s kingdom is going to thrive then we must stop talking about the lost and go look for them. Amen.

 

“you are set free from your ailment”

How awesome would it be if we could all hear the words “you are set free from your ailment.” Ailments come in many forms, some are obvious, such as the one afflicting the woman in today’s gospel passage, but many ailments are not obvious, and it is those that I want to focus our attention on. When I first read today’s gospel, I immediately thought that the woman who is healed could very well have been suffering from a mental or emotional ailment and that her inability to stand straight is a possible metaphor for her feeling depressed and Jesus was able to help her shake off her depression. Depression is the leading cause of disability among people ages 15-44 in the United States and can be so mild that it goes undetected or so severe that a person can lose the ability to function normally. Most of the time our sermons, our writings, and our discussions of Christianity center around obvious problems in the world, such as poverty, hunger, and homelessness, and how as followers of Christ we are called to respond to those problems, but rarely do we talk about the internal poverty and hunger that can go along with the tangible problems humanity is facing. Rarely do we talk about hidden illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Rarely do we talk about how we can, and should, rely on God to heal our emotional wounds and how we can help God’s healing love reach others through our actions.

I have a good friend, whose name is Steve, who regularly walks the streets of Greenfield to check in with the people who live on what we might call the margins. Some are homeless, some are drug addicts, some are alcoholics, some are parents who have lost custody of their children, some work, and some panhandle. Steve is very upfront with the fact that he cannot solve their problems, he is not there to find them work, to give them money, or to find them a treatment program, what he is there to do is to talk to them, to listen to them, and to accompany them. Steve believes that his calling from God is to be a companion for people who are otherwise forgotten by the rest of us and by being their companion he is bringing the healing power of God to them, not in a way that is taking away the hardship in their lives, but in a way that might help them to take the first step towards ending those hardships. Often when people are in a difficult situation and are ignored, they give up because they assume that no one would even notice if they were dead. Steve’s actions bring his companion’s hope, it brings them hope that there are people in the world that care about them, it brings them hope that their lives can improve and it introduces them to the idea that God is a loving creator. It introduces them to that because Steve does not hide the fact that he is there because he believes God has called him to be. So, through him, many people get to experience what it means to be in a relationship with God, they get to experience the healing love and compassion of God through Steve’s willingness to simply talk to them. When Steve goes for his walks he goes armed with knowledge, he knows where people can get a hot meal on any day of the week, he knows where they can get a hot shower, he knows where they can go if they want to go into a recovery program. You see, even though his main purpose is to be a companion, he makes sure that knows about the things that may be useful to the people he is interacting with. Over the past few years Steve has built relationships with many people who live on the margins, he has given people the information that he knows, but most importantly he has been and continues to be a friendly presence to them, he has become a person that they know they can rely on and when they see him coming, they stop what they are doing and say hello. Because Steve answered God’s call to this particular ministry, the people Steve works with can walk a little more upright as they begin to heal from the pain of the stigmas that have been placed on them by the rest of us.

Bringing God’s love to the world is not always easy, mainly because either we get in the way or the people we are trying to reach are not receptive. There is a movement across the church to bring about racial healing and reconciliation within the United States, which is something our nation needs desperately if we are going to move forward in positive ways. When it comes to race, our nation is broken, I used to have the usual white male reaction when discussions of race occurred, I would actually think to myself “my ancestors didn’t own slaves, they weren’t even here when slavery happened and my family is from the north and the north is not racist.” Well, like many people, I was wrong! Whether anyone I know was directly involved in slavery is irrelevant, what matters is that I, as a white person, have benefited because of the color of my skin and other people have been forced to live with an ailment that has crippled them all their lives. It was my love of God that opened my eyes to how wrong I was and for the need for racial reconciliation. As a part of my training to be a deacon I had to participate in race training, and since then I have completely changed my thinking and spent a great deal of time trying to learn more. For 500 years an entire group of people have been plagued by a disease that has crippled their ability to reach their full potential as God’s children and the name of that disease is systemic racism. Systemic racism has caused deep, deep wounds for millions of people. I believe God has the power to heal these wounds, and I believe that God is working on it, one stubborn person at a time. Last weekend the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia held a two day Pilgrimage of Racial Justice that followed the Slavery Trail of Tears, at one of the stops the walkers participated in a “responsive litany that traced the long history of systemic racism in America, from slavery to the Ku Klux Klan to Jim Crow to present-day voter suppression and unequal policing of neighborhoods. After each prompt, the people responded in a loud, clear voice, ‘We remember, and we repent.’” These are powerful words and they are words that can lead to the healing of the very deep wounds, but they are only the first step in a very long process. Through the power of Christ the people of Southwestern Virginia have begun the healing process by their willingness to change the way they think about race, and the people who live on the margins in Greenfield have learned of God’s love through Steve’s willingness to share his time with them. We too can be agents of God’s love in the world and bring healing to many people, and many of us already do so. Every time a meal is delivered and every time a family picks up some food from the community center God’s healing love is being shared. A part of having an active relationship with God is seeking opportunities to share our good fortune with others, and since school starts this week, I decided to give you homework. Over the course of the week I want you to answer two questions: Have I contributed to anyone’s pain in my life?  How do I bring God’s love to the world? Once you think you have identified your answer, spend some time in prayer. Thank God for all that you have and all that you are, ask God for forgiveness for the pain you may have caused and ask for guidance as to how you can be most effective.

Set aside the distractions

“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly…”

I think these are wise words and if the rich man in Luke’s parable had heard them maybe he wouldn’t have been such an idiot. If you want to know how to NOT live like a disciple of Jesus, then follow the example of the rich man. I draw our attention to what, I believe, is the most important passage in today’s Gospel. “I will say to my soul, Soul you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry. But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.’” In this exchange the rich man is congratulating himself for all the things he has accumulated and accomplished, and God basically calls him an idiot. So how does the parable of the rich man jive with what Paul says in his letter to the Colossians?

Well, in both cases the message is, don’t get distracted by earthly things. Don’t get distract by wealth; don’t get distracted by getting your way; don’t get distracted by your desire to win; don’t get distracted by making sure everyone else is happy at the expense of yourself. It is obviously easy for me to say don’t get distracted, but it is important and because it is important, I refer us back to Paul’s letter, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” While I love this passage, I think it misleads us, it perpetuates the false idea that all things of God are somewhere else. God is not up in the sky somewhere; God is not in some mythical kingdom called heaven. God is here, God’s kingdom is here, and we are a part of it. Both Paul and Luke are telling us that we need to not be distracted by human made things, and focus on what it means to live a life after resurrection, because we have already been resurrected through our baptisms and our acceptance of Jesus as the son of God. This whole thing that we do, (waves hands around the church) is not about some distant future, it is about now. It’s about praising God for life itself and for the things that sustain us, this is the point the rich man forgot. He was so focused on congratulating himself and figuring out how to keep all that he had, that he forgot about God’s role in his life. Our faith is about being in relationship with God and one another, it is about treating people with dignity and respect because they are children of God. One of the topics that has dominated the news lately is the humanitarian crisis on our southern border. Hundreds of thousands of people have walked thousands of miles with the hope of finding a better life. They could have tried to cross the border without permission, but most of them did not do that, instead they presented themselves in accordance with both US and international law and asked for asylum. The US immigration authorities have been overwhelmed by the number of people who have asked for asylum and they are doing their best to deal with the situation, hence the camps. Are the camps perfect? Definitely not! Could the US government do better? Absolutely! Are the ICE agents evil? Of course not. Has our nation’s response to this crisis been a Christian response? Probably not, instead our nation’s response has been distracted by earthly and human made distractions such as cost, politics, and nationalism. A Christian response would focus on the commandment to love our neighbors. When we do that, when we focus on the love of neighbor, we are then setting our minds on the things that are above. Political arguments, arguments about the cost of giving every person in the camps a toothbrush and the fear that the US is somehow being invaded are all earthly based things and should be irrelevant to how we treat our brothers, sisters, and siblings from other places. If I were to die tomorrow, what good would my political views, my concern about the cost to taxpayers, and my fear of strangers do anyone? Those questions are exactly what Luke and Paul are getting at in today’s readings. If we want to experience God’s kingdom, then we must resist being like the rich man, we must set aside the distractions, focus on God, and discern the way forward.