Monday, February 27, 2012

Temptation

First Presbyterian – Lafayette, Louisiana
February 26, 2012 – Lent (1B)
Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
Mark 1:9-15

In July of 1999 I was leading a group of campers from Camp Glenkirk on a canoe trip down the Shenandoah River. It was about the middle of the summer, and I had taken enough groups downriver to feel slightly cocky about my abilities. The river was low, creating a maze out of its naturally lazy curves and the diagonal formations of shale jutting out from the mountain like the skeletal frame of some ancient beast. The word “portage” (the practice of carrying your canoe from one navigable body of water to another) became as important to our vocabulary as the concepts of grace and mercy.

On this particular run of the river it began to rain, and we were overjoyed- for a little while. Then it kept on raining, and raining, and raining. Three things very quickly became apparent to us. The first is that the river was the only place in the valley consistently devoid of trees. This is something one takes for granted about a river until it becomes a wind tunnel. The second is that not all campers (or staff) were adequately prepared for several hours on a river in wet clothes and high winds. This is about the point where the training videos on hypothermia began to dance in heads of the fearless river staff without remorse, though we were undeterred.

The third realization came with the rolling rumble and final clap of thunder. With this sound we realized the fact that not only were we the highest objects on the relative landscape of the river (trees not withstanding), but we were sitting on water in metal canoes. Strangely enough, the entire crew of campers and staff alike figured this out simultaneously and moved with one accord to the shore by the second clap of thunder!

There wasn’t really a safe place to be at that point, but we found a spot under the least lightning prone trees we could find and huddled together for warmth. This is not an easy task for Middle School co-eds, but we made it work in gender appropriate clumps. While we shivered and waited for the storm to pass, we had the most meaningful Bible study on the story of Noah that I can recall ever having before or since.

Mostly we talked about the fear of those caught in the storm and the hope of those delivered from it. We talked about the promise of the rainbow, and we waited and watched for God to tell us once more, “I will never let the chaos win again.” By the grace of God, no one contracted hypothermia. By the grace of God, we were able to share our resources - our food, clothing, and even the warmth of our bodies huddled in prayer.

Although I believe we were sustained by the very presence of God, I am not naive enough to think that there is some reason we were preserved when others in similar situations have not been. For one - the conditions were not safe, but they were not essentially life threatening. For another - grace and mercy are never dependent on my worth, my decisions, my actions, or something I have not yet done. Grace and mercy are always and only the result of God’s decisions and God’s activity.

The temptation I face when I receive God’s grace is always the same. I just can’t help but wonder what it is about me that made God want to do that. What does God want from me now - now that I know that I have been held by the one who wove and formed the very fabric of the universe?

Could anyone in all of recorded history have felt this more particularly than Noah and his family, as they watched the flood waters recede from the earth? Perhaps there is not, although it should be said that there are flood narratives in almost every culture with a recorded history. On the one hand that raises the question as to whether or not this was the only experience of the flood, and that - say the skeptics - is reason enough to doubt the whole thing. Perhaps there is, but the deeper question is, “Why?”

Why does the flood narrative ring true throughout so much of human experience? Because the flood isn’t just a flood - that’s why. The story of the flood is the recognition of the basic fear that the forces of chaos that were separated and given the ordered nature of creation might just get tired of being subdued. The story of the flood is the answer to the question of how far can we push against God and still trust God to love us and provide for us.

And not only that, the story of the flood is the assurance that even if we think that God might be tempted to wipe the slate clean and start over, God has become bound by God’s own promise to never again allow chaos to overtake order. It is this promise that the Psalmist refers to when asking God not to remember our shortcomings, but instead to be mindful of the steadfast love and mercy by which we know God to be God.

The Psalmist wants to be remembered in times of need. To “re-member” someone is to reconstitute - to mentally remake - a person based on the experiences you have shared with that person. For example, I have no idea how the others on that canoe trip have held or denied that memory, but for me it was significant. It matters to me, and thinking of it reminds me of people who matter to me. The Psalmist wants to remain with God in the same way. And so each of us hopes to remain with God - the one who thought and spoke creation into being. How terrible it would be to expect God to remember the way that we remember, only holding dear those moments and people that benefit us. How good and amazing it is to know that God’s memory is not grounded in our imperfect actions but instead in God’s character of steadfast love and mercy!

And yet there is still the matter of temptation. Even the rule of love, even the covenant of unconditional love, creates the opportunity to act in ways that are not loving. Perhaps those opportunities were there all along, but the existence of an agreement brings with it the chance that the agreement might be broken. Not broken by God - God cannot go back on God’s word and still be understood as God. God is not capricious. God simply is. God is unlimited, except for those limitations that God accepts and creates so that we can know that God is God.

We, on the other hand, are limited. We are unable to see past our experiences and memories - our triumphs and our failures. We are naturally predisposed to do what will benefit us and those who are like us. Jesus, as God’s beloved son, experienced the same limitations we do - and it immediately drove him into the wilderness to be tempted and tended to at the same time.

A friend recently commented on the ridiculous claims that the story of Jesus’ baptism makes on his followers. She suggested that this is one of the many stories that just seem like a P.R. (public relations) nightmare. In today’s world of pithy statements and bumper stickers it reads something like, “Follow Jesus - Bad Things Will Happen!”

Of course the reality is that bad things happen in every life, and anyone who tells you any different is selling you something (perhaps a nice piece of river property along Denial). Life is a constant process of things falling apart and things becoming renewed. Within that is the temptation to assume that your current state is permanent - or the temptation to try to make it so.

So we begin Lent by hearing that Jesus was sent into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by Satan and attended by angels. And what is temptation but the desire to be in control, to be in charge, to do everything within our power to keep from being in a place of need? Yet Jesus starts his public ministry by intentionally making himself vulnerable. Jesus begins responding to God’s claim on his life by putting himself in a position of need.

Why? Or better yet, why have we kept this memory of this story of Jesus? I believe we have kept this story of Jesus for two reasons. The first is to give credibility to his call for repentance. How else could he demonstrate to others what it means to re-orient their lives toward God’s desires other than removing any doubt that he had done it himself?

The second reason we have kept this story is that it fits. It fits in with our understanding of who God is, what God has done, and what God is still doing. Forty days in the wilderness reminds us of forty days in the ark. Temptation, stress, and wild things that should normally overtake us are held back because God is telling us to remember God’s promise to keep the chaos from taking over.

And so we begin again with the season of Lent - a time to remember God’s covenant with us and all of creation. A lot of people give things up for Lent, and though that is not a particularly Presbyterian or Reformed practice, it is not something we discourage. Even so, I must admit that sometimes I think of church seasons similarly to other secular traditions - an annoying expectation for me to act like I want or need to modify my behavior when I have absolutely no desire to do so.

Valentine’s Day is a good example. If I am told that I am supposed to express my feelings I probably won’t. I would really rather stick love notes in my family’s lunch boxes on a random Tuesday than wait until a special day gives me permission. (I was affirmed to see this same position reflected in my cousin’s blog . She is a much more entertaining author than I, and she is often more faithful in her interpretation of living as a forgiven sinner.)

Still, if we believe that God has called the church into being and that we offer in some small way a glimpse of the Kingdom that is both present and yet to come, then I suppose the seasons of the Church’s liturgy need a little more consideration. Personally, I have only successfully given things up for Lent once. I will also confess that is because I have only really tried once.

I think the main reason I have never tried is because I know that it does not make or break my salvation. There are plenty of other selfish reasons, but that all just boils down to the fact that I have not really seen the value in it. Yet here we have this Jesus, calling my bluff and assuring me that I cannot rely on God without putting myself in a position to need God.

That is the true value of temptation; it allows us to know where we stand, where we are lacking, and where we are provided for even when we do not know we are being provided for. As I consider my own need for discipline, I’ve decided that I am - once again - not going to give anything up for Lent this year. Instead I am going to pick something up - I’m going to portage my spiritual canoe. I’m going to pick up something that makes me feel vulnerable, something that may just be heavy enough to make me put some other things down. It may sound funny to you, but I am going to pick up the habit of writing thank you notes. I am terrible at gratitude.

Just the other day I had the thought, “Where is my motivation?” Somehow another voice answered, “Over next to your gratitude.” As we move through the season of Lent together, may we be motivated by our knowledge of a God who remembers us - remakes us - through God’s character of steadfast love. For that we give thanks. Because of that we repent - we change our orientation from self interest to God's interests. And in God’s amazing memory we see and understand ourselves as God’s beloved - whether the Spirit drives us into the wilderness or calls us to proclaim, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Amen!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Picking Up the Mantle

First Presbyterian – Lafayette, Louisiana
February 19, 2012 – Transfiguration (B)
Baptism of Hayden Elizabeth Albarado

2 Kings 2:1-14
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 9:10-20

Today is an amazing day! It is a day of celebrating covenants - a day celebrating new beginnings and restoration. Today we have baptized one of God’s beloved daughters! Today we have blown the dust off of the baptismal font, poured sacred water, and spoken words of hope in a world of doubt. Today, we have made a bold statement that shines like light in a darkened room.

Now some have asked why we baptize infants, and why we don’t immerse. I have actually done a baptism by immersion, so it is not as if we don’t allow it. We just don’t require it.

Some time ago, I remember hearing a comedy routine from the Rev. Grady Nutt about an old country baptism in a stream. There was a young preacher who accidentally immersed someone downstream. That man got a chunk of moss up his nose and commenced to form a new church that would baptize by sprinkling, and if you look up Presbyterian in the Greek it means “Old Moss Up His Nose.” Of course you and I know that Presbyterian means “elder” or “representative” as we tend to interpret it.

And baptism - especially infant baptism - is not only a sign and a seal signifying entrance into the Christian community. It is also the bold and ridiculous claim that God has decided to love us before we even know of our need of God. The thing I think is so inspired about baptism in our tradition - infant or other - is that we baptize on behalf of the whole church - not just the PC(USA) - and we have our own vows renewed every time we do it. Baptism is a once and for all reality that happens again and again, and it does not happen because of my choice or yours but because of God’s! And when we realize that God has made that choice to seek us out - even in the unredeemable places we can go to in our hearts, minds, and communities - we seek a community where we can respond to the choice that God has made on our behalf. That’s why we are here.

Some say that you can judge the health of a congregation by the number of baptisms they perform. Some even go so far as to say that the number of adult baptism performed is the true indicator of how faithful a congregation is. While I agree that the font should be used regularly in a healthy congregation, I don’t think we need to beat ourselves up over quotas.

In the good old PC(USA), we often associate baptism with babies - and for good reason - yet it is as much about death as it is about new life. I like to remind people at funerals of Paul’s words from Roman’s 6:5, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

Peter also reminds us today that the water of baptism is not meant to clean off dirt - it is meant to remind us of the appeal Christ makes for us in the midst of our decisions and even our indecision. Baptism is meant to demonstrate that Jesus - even more so after his crucifixion - went to those who could not come to God, offering life where it had not been.

God seems to have a habit of doing that - offering life and hope where it had not been. Yet it isn’t all flowers and sunshine. Just ask Elisha. Verse 12 is one we often overlook. Elisha has just been on an amazing farewell tour with his mentor - hitting several spots of significant history between the Jews and God. He knows his master will leave him soon and he has asked for a “double share” of Elijah’s spirit. Elisha is not being greedy, he is begging to be claimed as a spiritual ancestor - something that just wasn’t done among prophets. And Elisha gets his wish, but not before he realizes his anguish in loosing his teacher - whom he called, “Father.” Elisha tears his clothes in two - the ultimate act of mourning. His clothes will never be the same. He will never be the same.

Then he picks up the cloak - the mantel of Elijah - and cries out for God to prove God’s self. And when God does, doubt and pain crash headlong into providence and mercy! That is the life God has blessed Hayden with today, and it is the life that each of us who are baptized have received.

Of course God does not need baptism to dispense grace, mercy, and providence - but we do. And God chooses us to help. God calls us through our persistence, like Elisha who would not let Elijah go without seeing him get taken up. God calls us through the concerned voices of people who will tell us the truth even when we do not want to hear it. God calls us through covenant and ritual and opportunities to be alone with God.

Sometimes God calls us through all of these ways at once, and sometimes we can only see it by looking back on our lives. One of my earliest experiences of God’s peaceful presence and urgent calling did not really seem like it at the time, but I remember it well. I was 14. My parents were separated, my brother was away at school, my sister was working, and I had some time to myself. One of my favorite things to do was to lay on the bottom of our pool by blowing all of the air out that I could, and see how long I could stay down there.

One day I was meditating at the bottom of the pool while no one else was home - a cardinal sin to be sure - and suddenly I heard a splash! I jumped up to see my mother in the pool in a sundress. She had come home to check on me - and found me in the pool, motionless. I think that was one of the many times she called me, through clenched teeth, “Zachary Scott Sasser, Child Of The Covenant!”

That’s real funny now, but at the time there were several things going on that I don’t want us to loose sight of - things like the anxiety of a parent, the struggle between peace and the need for air, and the knowledge that I was so beloved that the rage I deserved was be held back by a promise to be loving.

The tension I experienced was felt physically and emotionally more than it was understood logically. I think the point it was the most acute, the most basic, the most physically present on a cellular level was in the ache I felt fighting for the surface after suddenly realizing that I needed to be up there. Have you ever experienced such a feeling? Most divers have at least some time or another. Sometimes our physical senses are all that we have use of in the face of great anxiety. Sometimes a mammalian, visceral, fight or flight reaction is the best we can come up with.

That is the tension we find in scripture today. Elisha tears his clothes and screams for God to be known. Peter tries to build a booth to contain the uncontainable, and James and John with him seem unwilling to hear and understand what Jesus has told them about his death and resurrection. And in his letter, Peter consoles his followers to remind them of the promise that has come through the death and resurrection of Jesus that calls them children of the covenant.

Now, I have to say that it is a lot easier to think of the deserved wrath of my mother in that situation than the deserved wrath of God. Perhaps that is because I know that my mother is limited by the same emotions and fears that I am limited by. God is not limited by anything. And so, I can see my mother being held back from her own anger by a covenant as a shadow of my understanding of God. I can see her loving embrace and chiding instruction as a tributary in the river of God’s love, and I am reminded by her restraint that I do not deserve God’s restraint either.

Yet God offers restraint, because God is not some far off power waiting to catch us unawares. God is present and active - and when we realize that, we realize that God is waiting patiently for each of us to pick up the mantel that is before us. God is not expecting us to divide rivers and seas; God just wants us to listen to Jesus, to make an impact where we can, and to tell the story a love that is stronger than even death itself!

That is the life that little Hayden has before her now. That is the life that each of us begins anew every day. Thanks be to God that we might be called Children of the Covenant and swept up into God’s embrace even here, even now, even in the life that is to come - and to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen!

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Choice

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
February 12, 2012 - Epiphany (6B)
2 Kings 5:1-14
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45

One of my favorite scenes from the movie The Jungle Book is the one with the Buzzards sitting on the tree trying to figure out what to do. They ask each other, “Hey! What do you want to do?” “I don’t know. What do you want to do?” over and over because no one wants to make a decision.

In the corporate world this is called paralysis by analysis. In the book Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, he describes a situation in which our military staged war games in the Persian Gulf in 2002 - just prior to invading Iraq. Paul Van Riper, a retired Lieutenant General and a Marine with experience in Vietnam, was asked to play the part of a rouge dictator bent on destabilizing the Gulf and threatening US interests.

He was given limited resources and challenged by the full weight of the United States military - and he won. Why? Well, according to Gladwell, it was because the US Forces (the Blue Team) analyzed and expected every situation except the one Van Riper (the Red Team) responded with. The Red Team decentralized their communication, gave objectives to the commanders, and empowered the units to figure it out for themselves.

Van Riper asked people to make choices based on an assumed set of goals with the added expectation that they would coordinate their efforts and work together to meet their goal. That may seem elementary, but it is a lot harder than it sounds. Most of us would rather have someone tell us what to do - and then choose whether we want to do it or not.

Following orders is one thing, but making the choice to be responsible for something that affects others - that’s tough. Yet that is what we do every moment of every day. We choose to act or to stand aside. We choose to shop in ways that supports some and neglect others. We make a thousand choices and more every day, many of those choices being the choice not to decide.

Naaman had a choice to make - or at least one might assume that he had one. Military leaders that show weakness have never been well received, and his skin had become a display of weakness. So his wife's servant boasts of the Prophet Elisha, and the King of Aram sends him on a state visit - expecting the King to act as a god and order the prophet to heal his top commander. The distress of the King of Israel becomes the dramatic opening for Elisha to say, "Let's show them that we have someone who speaks the word of God!"

So Naaman goes to see the Prophet Elisha - or at least he tries to. He must have been at least a little confused. After seeing the King tear his clothes in anguish and being snubbed by a prophet who seems not to understand what a state visit was all about, he must have been wondering how these people had not been conquered already. Kings had authority over life and death - many of them claiming to be gods themselves. Prophets, wise men, and conjurers always made sure that the King got his way; it was part of their function - giving legitimacy to the weight of the King's words.

None of this made sense. He was prepared to pay - anything from treasure to live stock to people. Instead an unnamed messenger told him to take a bath - ridiculous! Fortunately the real heroes in this story are the servants. Again he is approached by a servant - this time to be confronted with the obvious.

How often do we find ourselves facing an obvious choice and deciding that it just does not fit in with our expectations of the way the world works? We want things to be simple, but we just can't help making them complex. Occam's Razor - the idea that the simplest solution is the best - seems easy to look past in matters of faith. We want to set up expectations that we know we can't meet - or that we know others can not - just to feel good about feeling bad or even to feel secure about the space we keep between us and them.

So it was with Naaman, who became humble enough to follow orders from servants and messengers, was healed by faithful participation in God's decision to heal him, and moved from bargaining to reverence and praise. Naaman learned that success does not come from dominance, but only from faithful participation with God.

Now, at first glance, faithful participation and humility does not seem to gee haw with Paul's encouragement to be fiercely competitive. Of course Paul is not suggesting that Christianity is about beating others so much as he is trying to let us know what is at stake - or rather, what we are pushing toward.

Although there have been multiple examples throughout the years of runners racing gloriously and breaking records, there are also many stories of runners finishing in pain and brokenness. One of the most memorable for many was the story of Tanzanian marathon runner John Stephen Ahkwari. There was even a documentary made about his epic success in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Mr. Ahkwari was injured during the race, but he kept on going. Hours after the race had finished - long after the award ceremony - he hobbled across the finish line in pain and agony. When he was asked later why he bothered to finish he said, “You don’t understand. My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start a race, they sent me to finish it.”

We have not been given faith in order to compete with one another - or anyone else. We have been given our faith in order to endure, to become more humble, and to finish what God has started in and through each of us.

That's what the servants are trying to teach us today. That's what the Leper is trying to tell us when he says to Jesus, "If you choose, you can make me clean." And Jesus says to him, as he does to you and to me, "I do choose!"

I must admit some frustration here. Anyone who has ever sat by a bed and prayed for healing that did not come can tell you that these healing stories can be hard to swallow. It reminds me of a friend in seminary who, while checking her insulin levels, said, "You cannot tell me that the reason I am a diabetic is because I have not prayed enough or asked in the right way."

Yet I will say that I have known others who can find no other explanation for their miraculous recovery than prayer. The thing is - God is going to do what God is going to do. Trying to fathom how or why healing comes or does not come will just drive you nuts. Personally, I believe that God's choice is the same as it always has been and always will be. God's choice is to love us into becoming what we were created for - to finish the race!

The Leper was told to tell no one of the healing he had received. Yet he could not help himself. How will it be for you? What will your healing cause you to race toward? Or perhaps you are still waiting for Jesus to heal something you have held deep inside for a long time. Rest assured that you are not alone. Rest assured that Jesus will always choose to make you clean. Rest assured that the simplest answer - loving and trusting God to love and trust you - is the correct answer. And to God be the glory for that, now and always. Amen!

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The Obligation of Healing

First Presbyterian – Lafayette, Louisiana
February 5, 2012 – Epiphany (5B)
Isaiah 40:21-31
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

The ending of the Isaiah passage we read today reminds me of a game that I have played with old and young alike. It's what some call an "ice breaker", because it gets people to say something about themselves that reveals a little about their character without forcing them to become truly vulnerable. Specifically - verse 31 reminds me of the ice breaker we did in our recent Session retreat. I asked our Ruling Elders to answer one of two “what if” questions. The first was, what if you were an animal? What kind of animal would you be and why? The second option was, what if you had a super power? What would it be, and why?

I will not disclose the individuals and their answers, but there was one answer that attempted to encompass both questions. This person said, “You people are thinking small. I would be an eagle that could fly supersonic speeds and go all the way to heaven!” So rest assured that you have at least one elder on Session that knows what it means to expect God to help us “mount up with wings like eagles... run and not be weary... walk and not faint.”

Sometimes we are consumed by our limitations, and we forget about the abundance of God’s providence. Sometimes in our distress, we forget that God is with us - actively sustaining us and providing for us. That’s why Isaiah was speaking words of comfort from God - right after he finished telling King Hezekiah that everything of value in his kingdom, including people, was about to be carried away into Babylon. These words of condemnation and consolation were to a particular people experiencing God’s activity in a particular way at a particular time.

It is hard for us to compare our struggles to a nation that has been occupied - not just inconvenienced by protestors or manipulated by the powerful or even bowing to the weak - but truly occupied by a foreign power.

Yet these words are for us as well. These words remind us when we feel trapped by the difficulties we face - real difficulties - that God is the one who built and ordered the universe with all of its limitations. God is also the one who stands with us and encourages us. God is the source of our strength because God is the source of everything that is.

These words are for us because everyone experiences things that make us feel overwhelmed from time to time. Overwhelmed - I use that word sometimes, but I don’t always think about how strong a word that is. Overwhelmed - that’s when the tide comes in too quickly and the undertow takes you into the deep. Overwhelmed - that is when an enemy comes at you with more force than you expect, more than you can respond to. Overwhelmed - that’s when fight or flight has become run like you are covered with angry bees!

Of course life is not always that bad. Even if it is, you cannot survive in constant panic mode. The human brain is designed to kick in and declare certain things as normal so that you can survive. I think that is why there are times when we feel a little trapped without knowing why. Expressions of people feeling occupied by their own lives can be found in literature and pop culture from the earliest records of civilization all the way to TV shows like Desperate Housewives.

I think that is why Paul’s words of obligation strike such a bitter chord with me. No one really likes to be obligated to something. Obligated, compelled, expected - these are words that do not sit well with most of us. Yet there it is. Paul is using that bad word - obligated - to describe the way the he believes he must respond to the message of God’s love. He chucks free will out the window, because that would be seeking a reward. In telling everyone about Jesus, Paul is not seeking a reward. He is responding to the grace he has already received.

The next part of this passage has been misinterpreted (or blatantly abused) over the years to say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Sound like anything familiar? Maybe something like, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”? When Paul says, “I become as” he is clearly not saying that he is going to throw what he knows about God out the window. He is also clearly not saying that he is pretending to be like someone else - politically, socially, economically - so that they can become like he is.

What Paul is saying is that he is willing to let go of his own expectations in order to meet others as equals. What Paul is saying is that it is not only good and right but it is also necessary to respect and value the experiences of others in order to have permission to share your own.

Now the funny thing is that, along with the popular twisting of the phrases about becoming as others are, the last part is often spoken correctly - but usually in the negative. How many times have you heard it said that, “you cannot be all things to all people”? This is, of course, usually interpreted as, “you can’t please everyone,” or even worse, “you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time.”

But Paul is not saying any of these. Paul is saying that it is our duty to see others as God’s beloved. Paul is saying that our faith in Christ compels us to love as we have been loved. Paul is saying that we have no choice but to love others for who they are and where they are because there is no “they” in the eyes of God. There is only a “we.” Loving is not about choice. It is simply who we are and what we do.

God is. We are. God is love - unbound agape love that finds its reward in loving. We are the expression of that love. God is. We are. God is love. For us to know ourselves as God’s beloved, we must be loving. Love shatters the bonds of obligation. Love re-orders the priorities that limit us - as Paul seems to whisper parenthetically, “I am not free from God’s law, because I am under Christ’s law.”

The law of Christ is the command that he left his disciples with - saying, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

That’s simple enough, right? Well, sorta. Talking about love and equality are sometimes a lot harder than really loving others and seeing them as equals - especially when we think of others as people who want our stuff.

Jesus cuts through the confusion by way of example. He came to his disciple’s mother-in-law and healed her - even at a time that he was not supposed to. He healed her because it was the right thing to do. In the eyes of the faithful he did something that was offensive to God, but in the eyes of that woman he simply offered her life. Immediately, she responded by serving them. She did not wait until a time that was appropriate to respond. She responded when and where she could.

Others heard about Jesus and came in a more appropriate time. Jesus healed who he could, while he could, and then he went out to pray. Then he left. Surely there were more to come, but he left. He left because he was not there to stay in one place and serve a few particular people. He left because he came to proclaim a gospel of repentance. Healing and casting aside demons came along with that message they were natural consequences - they were the expression of the gospel of repentance.

That is not to say that all we need to do is tell Jesus how terrible we are and he will reward us by healing those we love. It is instead to say that God is always working to make things new. Sometimes healing is of a more spiritual nature than it is physically. Sometimes our trials refine us - making us more able to respond to others out of love. All of it starts - again and again, over and over - with the relationships we have been given and the ones we are able to create.

I know some people who offer healing and hope. I know a woman who helps herself stay sober by helping people in detox at the hospital to begin their recovery and find a group to support them. I know a man who makes a habit out of helping others - even starting his day with the prayer, “God, please send me someone that I can help today.” I know a young man who is a friend to all, young and old, constantly trying to make people feel welcome and included. I know a woman who has lived a life less ordinary - responding to God’s calling when and where she can - who is still trying to figure out how God might use her. I know people who make hospital visits, distribute peanut butter to the needy, and visit the elderly with meals. I know a gathered community that comes to the table of Christ - believing that God offers not only eternal salvation but healing and wholeness here and now.

I know a group of people who sing praises to God, welcome others into a fellowship of faithfulness, and practice ministries of presence. I know a group of people who are trying to be faithful and live into the Kingdom that Christ has proclaimed. I know a group of people that scripture calls, “The Body of Christ.”

You realize, of course, that I am talking about you and me. I am talking about this congregation of members and visitors (and even those reading this on my blog or facebook) - a priesthood of believers one and all. And I leave you with two questions (perhaps not entirely different from the animal and super power questions). Do you see yourself in the list I just mentioned? If you do not, know that there is room for you at the table of Christ. If you do, and if the church is the Body of Christ, are you ready to be broken for the world? Are we ready to be Christ’s Body, broken for the world? I sure hope so. Because it is there - in the broken and crumby places - that we meet God face to face. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.