Tuesday, March 17, 2015
A few years back, I was in downtown San Francisco. I love coffee and the hotel was out so I set off down one of the long hills searching for a Starbucks. I seemed to notice people were heading down the hill however I was too focused on my quest. Soon, I found myself surrounded by thousands upon thousands of people.
I was in the middle of the annual Gay Pride Parade. I could not move because there was so many people I panicked because I do not like crowds, I needed coffee and I had a meeting in 45 minutes. I was stuck. I sort of hopped up and down to get a better view. Glimpsed an opening, put my head down, lowered the shoulders and pushed.
The crowd seemed to give way and I popped out in front of a well dressed man in his 40’s. I was quite proud of my crowd maneuvering so I proudly smiled. He looked me right in the eye, sneered and said: “Sinner! You are going to hell!” I was a bit surprised at his assessment because we hardly knew one another.
He then raised his hand and he was holding a book. It was the most holy bible, with a round sticker - John 3:16. He shook the bible in my face and said - “Jesus is coming back - if you don’t repent, you are condemned.” and then “you need to find Jesus?” I felt like saying: “Is Jesus lost?” Yet not wanting to agitate him further I said “Yes, I have, have you found Jesus?”
He gave that look like I was an idiot with such a stupid question and said gave me a sharp “of course” I then asked “for what?” We have read one of the most familiar passages. It is on billboards, stickers and signs at sporting events. In many ways it has come to represent Christianity; both the good and the bad.
It is a breathtaking description of God’s love; God sent his son into the world because of that love. Yet it has been used to exclude and reject. I have been asked how can such a beautiful passage be turned from God’s open accepting hand to a pointing, condemning finger. From love to rejection. Acceptance to closed doors.
Maybe it is because we are afraid, despite our statements of faith, to know a living God that is present in our lives. We tend to like the Jesus of 2000 years ago, because he is distant and we can pick and choose what parts of his message we like. When Jesus becomes frozen in time, we can control him and create him in our own image.
We then have God who looks like us, thinks like us and acts like us. We create a God who lives in the same country and likes everything we like and hates everyone and everything we hate. Who can blame us. We want God on our side. Yet that type of faith is easy, because we really do not have to live the message.
We begin to worship Jesus instead of following Jesus. Jesus never asks us to worship him. He always points to the Father and the beautiful Kingdom and then asks us to follow him. If we only worship Jesus, we never really know him. He becomes a thing to look at rather than to live with.
If we only worship him, his words become like etchings on stones rather than inscriptions on our hearts. Following him requires that we bring him into our lives, so we can hear his voice, feel his touch, watch his movements, do what he truly does. And it is there that we are transformed. If you take one thing away from faith it is this: we believe in a living and loving God.
Not a statue, not a story, not the distant past or an easy set of rote biblical passages. We believe in a living God. And that means that Jesus is continually breaking into our world, into our lives, daily, hourly, moment by precious moment. God so loved us that he sent his son into our world not only 2000 years ago, but throughout eternity.
God thought more of us than we believe possible, that is why he is constantly breaking into our lives. A theologian (1) wrote: "The world has been irreparably changed by Jesus Christ. The gospel breaks our train of thought, shatters our comfortable piety, cracks open our capsuled truths. The flashing spirit of Jesus breaks new paths everywhere.
In entering human history God has shattered all previous conceptions of who God is and what man is supposed to be The life he has planned for us is his life, like he lived." Christianity makes no sense if we only believe God in the past instead of a real presence right here and right now.
The man shouting condemnations on the street must of experienced the love of God in some way. I wanted to know “why he found Jesus?” It cannot be to reject, isolate, and condemn God’s creation. If he listened to Jesus’ works, looked into Jesus’ eyes, let Jesus break into his life - hate, rejection and condemnation would be impossible.
If he followed Jesus he would know that Jesus did not ask anyone to change before he met them in their journey. He met people where they were in life - sick, healthy, lost, sinning and questioning. He did not condemn them. He met them and they were either healed or transformed. It was his presence, his acceptance that caused change.
I am constantly attempting and failing in following Jesus. I have all these faults, thoughts and biases. I do not need to be saved once. I need Jesus to save me daily. I need him to break into my heart again and again, so that I do not condemn, I do not judge, so I do not create God in my own feeble, faulty image.
I have to live Jesus, so that I can try, really try to be so much like his Christ. God so loved the world that he sent his only son. It is the most powerful message in the world. Far more powerful so than money, fame or might. Imagine if we lived it like we say it. To experience the risen Christ, new, again and again.
There is a story by Alice Walker that speaks of our tendency to talk God but not to live Christ. It is of an old black woman, who has been worn down by old king cotton. In tattered rags she makes her way "down the road toward the big white church.” The good church folks are shocked. The reverend reminds her pleasantly that this isn’t her church, "as if one could choose the wrong one.”
She brushes past them and finds a seat near the back. Inside it is very cold, colder than usual. She ignores the request of an usher to leave, but she is finally thrown out. She is stunned, until she spies a familiar face coming down the road. She grins toothlessly and begins to giggle.
It is none other than Jesus, and he is walking toward her. Jesus is breaking into her life. The two of them walk on together. She tells him her troubles, and he listens kindly, smiling at her warmly. Under their feet the ground becomes like clouds, and they walk on without ever stopping. They are home.
The people in church never knew what happened to her. Some said they saw her jabbering to herself and walking off down the highway all alone. "They guessed maybe she had relatives across the river, some miles away, but none of them really knew.” "None of them really knew.”
That day in San Francisco the man looked at me for a moment with a questioning look. He lowered his bible and turned away. I pray he was thinking of why. As for me, I was thankful for him. Because he was right. I needed to find Jesus. I was such in a rush to find coffee and make an appointment, he was breaking through and did not notice.
It could be at a VA Hospital, workplace, school, a mall, prison or at dinner with the family. At that moment it was right there and right now on a sidewalk among thousands of people. So I stopped, sat down and looked for Jesus. In the middle of an enormous crowd. I was among all the people that God so loves, that he sent his son.
Gay, straight, black, white, brown, yellow, immigrant, american, illegal, young, old, democrat, republican, christian, hindu, muslim and jewish, sinners and saints. Jesus breaking through. God’s love and this beautiful passage is too profound and inexplainable to break it down into a formula of who is in or who is out.
Too bigs for signs, buttons or simplistic phrases. It is new and life changing, day in and day out. So the next time we think we know what God wants - stop, listen and look for Jesus. Because God so loved the world, God so loved you, that Jesus is breaking into the world right now - for you. Find him and then become something new.
(1) Brennan Manning
Alice Walker's The Welcoming Table
Thursday, March 12, 2015
What talents do we have that will bring about the Kingdom of God? It is challenging and thoughtful question. A question Jesus places squarely in our lives. Yet, it is a question that is difficult and one we have to wrestle with.
What are these talents that Jesus is talking about? Are they money, ability, or an exceptional singing voice. Maybe none of the above. The question was answered for me a few weeks back in a cold parking lot of a homeless shelter. I glimpsed what I believe are talents. I witnessed the love of Christ in ways I did not expect.
I was at St. Martin’s Hospitality Center on a chilly Monday morning. I noticed a lady sitting on one of the hard stone benches outside of the door. It was breakfast and the line was forming, yet she seemed unconcerned. She wanted to move inside into the warmth. Next to her was a stroller and a 8 or 10 month old child was in the stroller sleeping.
The lady and her baby were homeless. The small thin cloth was covering the opening of the stroller was so thin that it could not keep out the sun nor the cold. The mom was young but the lines in her face, and her premature gray betrayed her age. She had one hand on the stroller, slowly moving it in a rocking motion. and she was staring at the ground. She had that dismayed look on her face as if attempting to grasp all the pain and suffering that was enveloping her life.
I thought of where they had slept the previous night. My heart was broken because i kept focusing on the conditions that caused this mom and child to be on the streets. I truly could not imagine the fear she encounters each night as she pushes the stroller forward on the streets. Watching and listening. Seeking warmth, safety and acceptance.
Just then, from the corner of my eye, I could see an elderly homeless man move away from the breakfast line.
He was weak, a bit wobbly and moving backward holding a cup in his hand. He stumbled and fell toward the woman and her child. He hit the stroller and spilled his drink all over the woman. He was on the ground, her simple clothes were soaked and the baby was awake, crying. For each of them, their worlds came shattering down.
In reading this Gospel, I thought of that moment and what talents truly mean. Some may point to money and the need to give, invest and grow the profit. Maybe talents are abilities. The capacity to pull strings across strings and create music. Or using your hands to hold a brush against canvas and create art. The physical prowess to sink a 30 foot jump shot.
I do not believe these are the talents that Jesus was talking about. Let’s dream greatly and look at this Gospel through a different lens. Talents not as the English word that is difficult to correlate with Aramaic or Greek. Talents not as abilities but rather gifts, placed inside us that reflect the Divine.
Gifts like compassion, empathy, goodness, humility and joy. Even such things like sadness and longing. Divine talents of hope, laughter, humanity and most importantly, love. I have read fashionable articles, felt the pull of seductive advertising that traps me into thinking that I should double power and status, triple the checkbook, and that my appearance is a simple formula for worldly success.
Yet, all are external and temporal. Rarely do find that empathy, goodness, humanity and hope are to be emphasized. It seems we are encouraged to hold it in, maybe even bury those talents. They are buried so deep they become difficult to uncover. It is said that for many in society the only way they can express emotion is through anger or violence. It is the only way they can feel.
Yet Jesus in his beautiful way of teaching and encouraging is pointing to something radically different. Jesus is pointing to the Kingdom and not the expectations of this world. God has given you a personal treasure that was never meant to be buried or wasted. The divine talents of kindness, compassion, hope, acceptance, love are meant to be daringly shared and given freely. They are sacred, a gift from God.
Inherently we feel, we know there is a beauty, a goodness, when we share laughter, when show humanity toward one another. It is the same beauty we see in nature - the colors, the talents of a flower, of a sunset, of the glimpse of fall. Talents of nature joining to praise God, just as our talents within reflect the beauty of God.
These talents are not meant to be put aside. They have to been invested, doubled tripled and shared. We just need the courage to give them life, to bring them out of our buried darkness. It has been said that when the Lord returns, I do not believe he wants us to say, "Look, everything is just as you left it!”
Each on of us has the talents to be the creators of God’s Kingdom. To expand it and grow the edges. Because the Kingdom of God is about reclaiming what has been ruined and making beautiful again. You have talents. I read that the writer Vaclav Havel, imprisoned by the communist, spent years in confinement.
After he was released and elected President of the new Czech Republic, he was invited to address the US Congress. In part, he said, ”The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart . . . in human responsibility. Responsibility to something higher than my family, my time, my country, my success.” I believe when he was speaking of the heart, he was speaking of talents.
You say that is unbelievable and extraordinary. How can compassion, love and humanity change things. People will not believe it. Yet isn’t that what God does constantly? The unbelievable and extraordinary - through us, through our lives. That day in the parking lot, three lives came shattering down together on a cold morning. The elderly homeless man was face first on the ground. His nose was cut and bleeding. In a soft and despondent way, he said “I am so sorry.” The woman, stepped forward with clenched fists. Her only clothes soaked, baby crying, their collective worlds collapsing further. I prepared for the outburst.
She stood over him, reached down and helped him up. She then asked him “are you OK?” They both struggled up and the two leaned on one another for one instant. In that moment, despite her pain, despite her condition, her suffering. Her talents reflected the divine gifts of God - kindness, compassion, hope, love, humanity.
What will awaken, what will be uncovered in our lives that was buried. For example, all the media coverage of ebola. The fears sets in and we talk of isolation, quarantine and bans on certain countries. All to protect ourselves. Yet what talents will awaken when we think not of the disease, but of the orphans in Africa, some as young as 2 or 3 who wander the streets alone because of HIV and Ebola. Not sick people but brothers and sisters - our children in God.
We hear of the terrorists who perpetuate the hate of ISIS so we lump all Syrians together. What talents will increase when we hear of 500 Palestinian and Syrian refugees murdered attempting to flee violence and poverty. Human traffickers rammed their boat in the Mediterranean and all drowned. Most suffered extreme exposure before death forced to sit on the deck in the glaring sun. Over those who drowned over 150 were under the age of 10. Not terrorist, not Syrians, but brothers and sisters, our children in God.
My dear ones, pay attention the heart, that divine gift, your talents. If they are buried, abandon yourself and give them life. If they are working in your lives, double, triple, quadruple the investment.
Those talents are sacred, given to you by God. I pray you never lose to ability to remember, to uncover that sacred gift. It is in you. Because tonight, there is a lady walking the cold streets of Albuquerque with a baby in a stroller. There is a person in your life seeking acceptance and hope. There is someone you will encounter that will need to see the face of Christ. Each day, each moment you will have a chance to increase your talents.
Risk daringly, astonish completely and use your talents to radically bring about the Kingdom of God. That is where our treasure is truly found.