Lost and Found

Have you ever been lost?

I don’t mean “get out the map” lost. I don’t mean “Siri, how do I get to my destination?” lost. I mean totally, completely, helplessly lost, with no idea how to reunite with your friends or family.

When you were a child, did you ever wander away from your parent at a store? Maybe you were at an event with friends, and you got separated, or they weren’t at the rendezvous spot at the appointed time. There’s a kind of panic that sets in, isn’t there? A kind of fear that’s unlike any other – a sort of formless panic that feels so big because there’s no shape to it, no limits or boundaries. No sense of how long it will last, or how it will end, or what productive steps you can take in the meantime to resolve the situation. There aren’t any. All you can do is wait. You can stay where you are and hope your companion finds you, or you can wander around aimlessly and hope you run into each other, but in the end it’s all waiting. And it’s scary.

Or maybe you’ve been lost in a more metaphysical way. I’ve been lost this way, more than once. This is the kind of lost where you don’t know where your life is headed. Maybe you lost something that provided meaning to you. Maybe you left a relationship or a job, or suffered burnout at work. Maybe it was just as simple and just as complicated as realizing that whatever you’ve been doing with your life may be paying the bills and meeting your obligations, but you’re not doing anything more than going through the motions.

This kind of being lost can bring with it a kind of existential dread – this sense of fear or anxiety that nothing we’re doing in this life really matters. Often, we react the same way we react to being separated from our loved ones. Either we sit still and wait for the crisis to pass, or we wander aimlessly, telling ourselves we’re searching for something to give our lives meaning. But are we really, or are we just looking for something to fill the void? For many of us, this takes the form of adding more and more activities, projects, or committees to our plates, until we are so frenetically busy that we fall into bed at night, too exhausted to even think about what might be missing.

None of this provides any answers. None of it provides any insight. None of it helps us be found when we are lost.

But the good news for us this morning is that we don’t have to find the answers! We don’t have to jump up and down, waving our arms and calling, “Here I am! Over here! I’m over here!” It is not up to us to go searching for whatever will finally bring us fulfillment, trying on activities like clothes, one outfit after another, until we find the perfect look.

We don’t have to do any of this because it is not up to us to find ourselves. We have already been looked for, and we have already been found. Jesus has been out searching in that pasture, and the next, and the next, and has picked us up and carried us home. 

We were found before we were even created – God found me when I was just a twinkle in God’s eye. And then, God threw a party in my honor! God invited all of the people who loved me, and I was sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. And then God served bread and wine, and everyone was invited to the feast. And God threw this same party for you, and invited everyone who loved you.

God wants to make it clear to us just how extravagantly God loves us. And so Jesus tells us these parables today, of the sheep who wandered off and got lost, and of the coin that was lost in the woman’s house.  The shepherd and the woman were so extravagantly grateful to have found what was lost, they threw parties, calling their neighbors together and probably spending far more than the market value of either the sheep or the coin. In both cases, it is clear that what was lost held much more value to its seeker than what it could provide, in terms of food or clothing or income. 

Instead, it is about the relationship that exists. The shepherd loves the sheep, knows them all individually, and is responsible for their safety and well-being. In return, the sheep love the shepherd, and trust him to keep them safe. If a sheep wanders off, in search of tastier grass, the shepherd lives up to the commitment he made to the sheep, going and finding it in its aimless wandering, and returning it to safety. All the sheep has to do is wait.

Sometimes we wander away, too. We get caught up in the day-to-day, and sometimes we lose sight of the bigger picture, instead chasing whatever our tastier grass is – money, recognition, whatever we hope will bring us reward or fulfillment or a better life. But because Jesus loves us extravagantly, and because he has already found us, he always comes looking. 

All we have to do is turn toward the voice that calls us. Sometimes that voice sounds like a friend who says, “I’m worried about you. I think you’re taking on too much.” Sometimes Jesus calls to us in a dream, providing comfort or hope. Sometimes God calls us just by being a quiet presence within us, a stillness that seems to say, “you are not alone. I am with you.” Or sometimes it’s someone saying, “Have you ever thought about trying this? I think you’d be really good at it.” And then we just have to give the Holy Spirit room to work. 

This is easier said than done, though, isn’t it? We like to feel like we are in charge of our own destinies, that we can create our own fulfillment in the things we do. It can be very challenging to be faced with the reality that this is not true, but instead, God is calling us to a purpose. Sometimes, being lost can feel very much like looking for ourselves, or even like finding ourselves. And that can feel pretty good for a while, until we find ourselves wandering aimlessly again.  

Once, when I was faced with this sense of unmooring, this sense of not knowing what was coming next and feeling pulled between what I saw as my path to fulfillment and the path that I saw that God was calling me to, I spent some time with the leader of a retreat I was on. She taught me a simple prayer that I have found to be very helpful ever since: “Lord, give me the desire to do your will.” 

When we discover growing in us the desire to follow where Jesus calls us, we know that the Spirit is working in us.  And we are empowered to repent – to turn back toward God, and away from the temptation of the tasty grass. We are empowered by God, given the capacity to take a step we would never be able to take on our own. We are found yet again, by the Shepherd who has already found us and never stops looking for us, and reminded that we are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. 

But what if what our faith is lost? What if we have not wandered off? What if we are not seeking personal fulfillment but instead are staying right here, going through the motions of confessing our sins and remembering our baptisms and receiving communion, and it all begins to feel…empty? Meaningless? What if our existential dread isn’t about this life, but the next life?  

I confess to you today that I have felt this hollowness, this fear that the promises of God are no more than empty promises, that all we have is today…that there is no tomorrow, no salvation, no eternity of singing God’s praise. I suspect that, in the darkest corners of our minds and hearts, we all have felt this at one point or another. Some of us may be feeling this now. And yet, here we are, saying the words and singing the hymns and preparing to receive the body and blood of Christ. 

Jesus has lit a lamp, swept the floors and dusted every corner, looking behind the TV, between the cushions, and under the sofa, to make sure none of us got missed. Even if our faith is tarnished, even if it is dusty, even if it is hard to see in the shadows, the light of God’s love has found us and will continue to find us. And just like the one coin that was reunited with the other nine in the woman’s purse, Jesus surrounds us with a cloud of witnesses who carry us along with their faith, believing the words “given and shed for you” until we can say, almost like waking from a dream, “Yes! I remember now! That is the meaning of these words. This is what it means to have faith, to lean on the promises of God and be comforted.” 

No matter how many times Jesus finds us, he never stops looking. No matter how many times Jesus finds us, it never gets old. The Holy Spirit never stops working, turning us back toward God. God’s joy in our finding is never lessened. And if we thought God threw a party when God first claimed us, just wait until the last time, when we are finally reunited with God for eternity. What a party that will be!

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Reading Into the Story

In the entire three years of the lectionary cycle, this is the only time that we get to read almost an entire book in one Sunday. 

Of the 25 verses in the book of Philemon, we read 21 today. And it’s an interesting story: Paul, who is imprisoned somewhere in the Empire, sends a letter addressed to Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus, and to their house church. Although the letter is addressed to them all, it’s really Philemon that he’s writing to: he’s writing to return Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, and to ask Philemon to treat him generously. He asks Philemon to welcome him as a sibling in Christ, and forgive whatever debt he owes, as Paul will repay it. Paul is filled with confidence that he doesn’t have to demand, because of the love that Philemon has for Paul as his friend and baptizer. He could do so, as Philemon’s elder in the church, but instead he has faith in Philemon’s willingness to follow the Gospel, rather than the law. 

But there are a lot of questions that this little book raises. What was Onesimus’s situation? Why was he with Paul? What, exactly, is Paul asking Philemon to do? What did Philemon do in response to receiving this letter?

And the answer to all of these questions is that we just don’t know. We can make some broad assumptions, based on what we know of slavery in the Roman Empire. We know that while many slaves were in captivity because their side lost in a war against the might of Rome, many slaves were indentured to pay off their own debt, or their family’s, 

or to provide some measure of economic security. Sometimes they engaged in financial transactions on behalf of their masters – think back to the parable of the master who gave his slaves ten pounds, five pounds, and one pound. 

We know that if a slave ran away, anyone who hid him could be charged with theft. The punishment for the runaway slave could be branding, or worse. We also know that if a slave ran away from an abusive master, they could claim asylum and ask for protection – sometimes from a friend of their master, who would then speak on their behalf, but would also become responsible for any financial loss the slave owner incurred. We also know that sometimes slaves were loaned out to friends of their masters who were in need of a servant. 

We know that in the social order of the household, the slaves occupied the lowest rung and the master the highest, with all of the other family members arrayed in between, like the rungs of a ladder. Hold on to this image; we’ll come back to it. 

We don’t know the specifics of Onesimus’s circumstances. Was he a slave due to a military defeat, or was he enslaved for economic reasons? Was he a runaway who went to Paul to be sheltered, or did Philemon send him to Paul to serve him while he was in prison? What was the nature of the debt he owed to Philemon? Did Philemon buy him, paying off a debt that Onesimus owed?Was he a trusted member of the household, managing some or all of Philemon’s affairs, and a deal went south? Was he at risk of any sort of punishment when he returned, or was he doing his duty? How much was Paul sticking his neck out for him, a little or a lot? 

We just have enough of this story of Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus to be dangerous. Just enough of this story to allow us to make judgment calls. Some people, on hearing this story, might immediately think, “Onesimus is a runaway; Philemon must have been a cruel master. Why would Paul send Onesimus back, trusting in an inherent goodness 

that Onesimus may never have experienced before?” Others might think, “Philemon is the head of a church house and Paul trusts him to do what is right; he must have been a good guy. Onesimus didn’t have anything to worry about in going home.” Or there might be tens or even hundreds of other nuances of interpretation between those two points. And the simple fact is, we will never know. 

So why talk about it? Why ask these questions? Why even consider what my perspective is or what your perspective is, when we read this story? If the closest we can get to the actual story is speculation, why speculate? Isn’t that a dangerous road to go down? Don’t we know what happens when we assume?

As true as that often is, it’s equally true that we do it. All the time. And our assumptions lead to judgments about why people do the things they do. We do it over minor things: “Why didn’t that person let me in when I was trying to merge onto the highway? I had my blinker on. What a jerk!” And we do it over things that feel less minor, things that sting more and have a longer-lasting impact: the old friend I see in the grocery store and greet happily, only to have them turn away as if they don’t know me. “Why didn’t she want to talk to me? Did I really make such a small impact in her life that she didn’t recognize me, or did I do something to make her mad?” Or sometimes, the judgments we make are for things that truly violate our trust.

I remember almost ten years ago, my apartment was broken into. The thief took a lot of things that didn’t really matter, but they took three things that, to this day, I wish I could have back: a camera with pictures I hadn’t downloaded onto my computer yet, the fancy birth certificate with my footprints on it, and my baptismal certificate. They also took away, for quite a while, my sense of safety and security in my home.    

The police never caught whoever did it. The thief probably only stole a grand total 

of about three or four hundred dollars worth of stuff, so this was not a high priority crime. The police officer who came to my apartment to investigate told me it was probably random – probably someone who was either on drugs or looking for drugs or for money to get drugs, and that’s the assumption I eventually went with. But for a while, it was hard not to feel targeted – not to feel like this was somehow aimed at me. 

I don’t know what would have happened if I had been home at the time. But I make assumptions about that too, and I am glad that I was not.

We all have stories like this: the small and large hurts and slights, real or imagined, as well as the times when we have been threatened or hurt, sometimes by strangers, 

sometimes by people we love. We all make assumptions, and those assumptions can build over time into biases, often unintentional, against a group of people: we may find ourselves saying (and even believing) that everyone who drives a certain stretch of I-35 is a reckless driver, or that people who fit certain predetermined criteria in our heads 

are more likely to be drug abusers, and therefore more likely to be violent, and therefore, I am not safe around those people. And our biases impact how we interact with the world.We become more cautious, less trusting.We pre-determine what level of interaction we’re willing to have, based on the biases and assumptions we hold. We avoid eye contact, or cross to the other side of the street. We confess our faith in a God who accompanies and protects us in all things, but we rely on ourselves to stay safe from the people who just don’t look quite trustworthy. 

Let’s go back to the image of a Roman household being like the rungs of a ladder, with the master of the house on the top rung, his sons on the rungs below, his wife and daughters below that, and the slaves on the very bottom rung. And let’s think about exactly what Paul is asking Philemon to do in his letter. Paul says, “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 

no longer as a slave but more than a slave – a beloved brother….welcome him as you would welcome me.”

Talk about turning assumptions on their heads! What Paul is asking Philemon to do is nothing short of subverting the entire social order of his household, elevating someone who was once a slave to the status of equal. And he puts some weight behind his request, reminding Philemon of his faith and his love for all fellow Christians and maybe even playing on this a little to encourage Philemon to go even beyond his request. Paul even offers to repay whatever debt Onesimus owes Philemon. 

And Paul is public about this, too! This is not private correspondence, meant for Philemon’s eyes alone. No, this is a letter written to the entire worshipping community 

of which Philemon is a leader. The whole congregation is aware of Paul’s request to Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as a brother and a beloved child of God. They may have had their own assumptions about how things stood between Philemon and Onesimus, or about why Paul was writing this letter now, on Onesimus’s behalf. We don’t know. But we can assume with some confidence that by writing this letter addressed to the whole community, Paul was asking the community to hold Philemon accountable for his actions in this matter.

We don’t know what the resolution is for Onesimus and Philemon. There are no known writingsthat provide any clue as to whether Onesimus was freed or punished, kept as a slave but welcomed into the congregation or excluded.All we know is that at some point during the last decade or so of his life, Paul sent this letter making the request.

Which raises one more question to ponder: why is this letter included in the Bible at all? When the church fathers were deciding what to include in the official canon of the church, why was this short little letter, this public plea from one person to another on behalf of a third, included? This is yet another question we don’t have an answer to, and likely never will. But we can turn this question on its side and ask it another way:

What does this letter say to us today? How does the Holy Spirit inspire you to read these words from Paul to his friend?

I’ll tell you what I read into it.

I read a plea for forgiveness, even for large wrongs. I read that when we love each other as Christ calls us to love, even if we don’t see eye to eye, we are called to forgive the sins committed against us, knowing that Christ has already paid those debts. I read into it a plea to let go of grudges and anger, and to restore right relationships.

I read a call to allow the Holy Spirit to challenge my assumptions. In those cases where a restoration of relationship is not possible or could be unsafe, such as in the case of the person who broke into my apartment, I read a call to think about what the rungs of my own mental ladder look like, and why. I read a plea to model myself on Christ, who refused to treat people based on what society said they were worth, instead treating them with the inherent worthiness of all of God’s beloved children. 

I read into it a prayer for God to change my heart and open my mind.

What do you read into it? 

The Signs Point To…

There are no two ways about it: our Gospel reading for this morning is tough. How do we respond to this Jesus who challenges us, calling us hypocrites and telling us that we don’t know how to interpret the world around us? This is not the image of Jesus that we want to resonate with. This is not the same Jesus we will meet in just a few months, as a babe in his mother’s arms, while the angels proclaim, “Peace on earth! Goodwill to all!” This is not the gentle teacher and healer who we encounter throughout Luke’s gospel, or even the Jesus from earlier in this chapter of Luke, who instructed his disciples not to worry about how they would care for themselves, because God desires nothing more than to care for them.

Or is it?

Jesus is well into his years of ministry now, and well into his journey to the cross. From the very beginning, when he read from the scroll of Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has appointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” and then preached that the scripture had been fulfilled that day in the hearing of the assembled Galileans, he was very clear on his mission. His mission was the cross: that through his death and resurrection he would provide forgiveness of sins for all people, for all time. And he demonstrated this again and again through his words and his deeds.

Throughout his ministry, we see him offering sign after sign supporting this proclamation that the prophet Isaiah’s words have been fulfilled: he healed lepers and dined with tax collectors and sinners, declaring to the Pharisees, “those who are well have no need of a physician.” He preached, “blessed are the poor….but woe to you who are rich.” He raised the dead. He sent out the seventy, giving them the power to cast out demons and to reject those towns that did not offer their hospitality. Over and over, those who are healed from disease or demon, those who find blessing or salvation in Jesus’ presence and words, are saved because of their faith. 

And the writer of Hebrews echoed these signs: in the first part of our reading for today, he lists prophets, kings, and ordinary people – starting with the Hebrew slaves, on the run from the powers that be in Egypt who forced labor from them. He continues with Rahab the prostitute, an outsider who sheltered Joshua’s spies when they went to get the lay of the land in Jericho. Yes, he talks about acts of power and might – conquering kingdoms, being mighty in war – but he also talks about those who are powerless – mocked and flogged, tormented and persecuted. The great common denominator between all of them was their faith. 

And not just faith as in a passive noun, something that you just have and maybe take for granted; no, these people – both the people who were changed by Jesus and the people that the writer of Hebrews cites – allowed their faith to shape them, and to push them to action. 

This can be threatening to the people around them, the people who don’t see the world 

through the lens of faith as a catalyst to service. We see this playing out in the gospel of Luke. The Pharisees – the sect of Judaism that most strictly interpreted the law of Moses in the centuries before and after Jesus lived – were so threatened that he would upset not only their interpretation of the law, but their very way of life, they collaborated with the Jewish authorities and even with the might of Rome itself to remove Jesus as a threat. 

Where do we fit into this picture? Who are we in these stories? Are we the disciples? 

Are we the Pharisees? What about the Israelites or the Egyptians, Rahab or the people of Jericho, Samson or the Philistines, David or Saul?

Or do we, like most people the world over and throughout history, defy simple categorization? Are we people who just want to go about our lives, trying in our simple way to live the way Jesus wants us to live, taking care of our families and those who suffer in our communities, and tut-tutting over the greater societal problems because we don’t think we can make a difference, and what does Jesus really expect us to do, anyway?

But let me ask you: what signs do you see today? How do we interpret the present time?

Five years ago, riots and civil unrest erupted for five nights after the shooting death of Michael Brown. In the five years since, there have been 4,400 fatal shootings by police. 

Unarmed African-American men are four times more likely to die in a police shooting than unarmed white men. Thirty-six percent of all unarmed people who are fatally shot by police are African-American. For comparison, only 13% of the total population of the U.S. is African-American. African-American parents routinely teach their children that the police are a threat. With statistics like these, it’s not hard to see why.

This is indicative of a larger culture of gun violence in our country. Since the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook, there have been 2,182 mass shootings, resulting in 2,462 killed and over 9,000 wounded. This has continued to occur despite the overall decline in the rate of murder and violent crime in the U.S. But even given that declining rate, 

39,000 people died of gun-related injuries in 2016. Fourteen thousand of these deaths were homicides, and 23,000 were suicides.

Just over two years ago, white nationalists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, 

shouting “Jews will not replace us!” while students from the University of Virginia counter-protested. Riots erupted, leading to the declaration of a state of emergency in Charlottesville. One person died, and several more were injured, when they were rammed by a vehicle driven by a white nationalist.

Violence perpetrated by white nationalists was responsible for at least 40 deaths in 2018, including the 17 students shot at Parkland and the 11 killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Other white nationalists work to change the public discourse by employing tactics such as a lack of empathy, extreme rhetoric, and the willingness to dehumanize those who disagree with them. 

Trans people are also at risk for being victims. Some of this is the commission of violent acts against them; trans women of color are at particularly high risk of being assaulted or killed. But other types of victimization are the direct or indirect result of the way the propaganda of white nationalists and anti-LGBT groups have impacted our public discourse, as well as our sense of responsibility to care for those who are different from us. Recently, a young trans woman who had not had gender-affirming surgery was involved in a car accident. When paramedics responded to the scene and discovered her male anatomy, they stopped treating her and started mocking her. She was transported to the ER, where she was not treated and died of blood loss.

White nationalist rhetoric in the U.S. continues to increase, lumping those who seek asylum (a legally-protected process at the border) with those who seek to cross the border illegally, impacting both government policies and the popular imagination.

This summer, an 18-year-old U.S. citizen of Hispanic descent, who has never lived outside the United States, was detained by ICE for a month and accused of forging his documents. He is only one of hundreds of cases over the past few years. 

Children and their parents are separated by force, held in camps that Holocaust survivors label concentration camps. While not everyone agrees with this label, most agree that the extreme temperatures and lack of food, water, and basic sanitation is inhumane.

Are you paying attention to these signs? How do we interpret the present time? Do you see a post on social media regarding Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell, Elizabeth Warren or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that calls them a vile, profane name or wishes ill for them, and bemoan the words about the person you support while praising the words going the other way? Whatever your thoughts on immigration reform, the Black Lives Matter movement, or the rights of people to own assault-style rifles, how do you view the people on the other side of the debate? Do you bemoan the level of public discourse while expecting the other side to elevate their game first? Do you allow hate speech – of any sort – to stand when you encounter it? 

Do you see a connection between the violence that we inflict on each other with our words and the dehumanization that occurs when we start to talk about “us” versus “them”?

Do you see a connection between the dehumanization that we inflict on each other with our ideas, and the level of violence in society? 

How do we interpret the present time? Where does Christ call us in the midst of these troubled and frightening times? 

These signs of terror, of violence, and of hate are not the only signs visible to us. In our own community, we work to feed the hungry and clothe the naked among us. And we do so without regard to religion, race, or ethnicity. 

Some of the kids who survived the Parkland shooting, as well as parents of children who died at Sandy Hook, have become activists, working to bring about an end to gun violence in our country. 

A lawyer gave up her place in a high-profile law firm in LA to move back to El Paso to fight on behalf of refugees who have been wrongfully imprisoned at the border. 

Border Servant Corps, a ministry of Peace Lutheran Church in Las Crucez, New Mexico, has been working for years to ensure that immigrants who cross the border 

have access to needed resources, such as clothing, food, and assistance with bus passes to where jobs are waiting for them.

At the Churchwide Assembly just over a week ago, the gathered delegates overwhelmingly passed a resolution declaring the ELCA a sanctuary denomination, 

saying that we believe that Christ calls us to welcome the stranger, including immigrants and refugees, advocating for reform to the immigration system and for treating refugees and immigrants humanely. It is left up to each individual congregation to determine what this means in our daily practice of faith. 

At a candidacy retreat that I attended this past week, our bishop-elect, Susan Candea, 

shared with some of us that fully one third of the conference of bishops of the ELCA are women, for the first time in history. She said that these women are the most diverse in age of any group of bishops in the history of the ELCA, and include a native Puerto Rican and a woman whose first language is German, as well as an African-American woman elected from an overwhelmingly white synod. In addition, the conference of bishops includes two openly gay bishops for the first time in history. Her words of hope to us were that she sees a church eager to embrace diversity and change, electing leaders to help bring that change about. 

So how do we interpret the present time? Where do all of these signs point, both the terrifying and the hopeful? 

I believe they point to the cross. I believe that, in this time of great challenge and great change, Jesus asks us to accompany him on his journey. Jesus asks us to stake everything in our lives on the notion that our only saving grace is to be found in Christ. 

I believe that, if we REALLY believe that Christ is our sure and only salvation, Jesus asks us to act like it, stepping out and speaking up in faith and love. If we believe that Christ is our sure and only salvation, Jesus tells us that the cross will be the mirror 

through which everything else we see, do, and say is reflected. The filter for our words and deeds will be, “does Jesus call me to say or do this?”

As the Reverend Lenny Duncan said in his book “Dear Church,” “If we are dividing what is life giving from what is empire, if we are dividing what is of God from what isn’t, 

if we are dividing what is love from what is hate, then we are walking the path of our savior.” Jesus calls us to renounce hate – in all its forms, whenever and wherever we encounter it – and actively work to bring about the kingdom whenever and however we can, in ways large and small: by pushing back against hate speech whenever we hear it, however common, however insidious. By elevating our own game so that we don’t dehumanize another group of people, by word or by deed, by accident or on purpose. 

By listening to how Jesus calls each of us to join the fight against gun violence, or racism, or the inhumane treatment of people based on their ethnic or gender identity. By following the signs to the cross. 

Enough

Once a quarter, I get an email telling me that my 401k statement is ready to be reviewed. When I log in to the portal to view my account, I get a snapshot of my current account balance, and also a forecast of my monthly income after retirement. When I look at this, I think about our mortgage, student loans, groceries, healthcare costs, maybe other expenses down the road such as assisted living or even nursing home care. Sometimes, I look at the numbers and feel confident that we will live comfortably in our retirement. Other times, I wonder whether we will have enough. I look at the monthly estimates and wonder, over how many years does the tool forecast that we will need our retirement savings? Will we outlive our resources? What happens then? Can I put my trust in the forecasting tool? In our financial system?

The thing about money is, it’s always about more than money. Money is a primary way in which we classify people. We used to talk about the “haves” and the “have nots”; now, we talk about the 1% and the 99%. Societally, money becomes our starting point to figure out how to relate to those around us. Our first impressions of people often rely on things such as how they are dressed or how they wear their hair. We ask questions like, “where do you live?” and “what kind of work do you do?” when getting to know people, and then we make judgments, consciously or unconsciously, about whether they live in a “good” neighborhood or a “bad” neighborhood, and about how well we think they can provide for their families. 

Money also becomes our point of access for the things we need: how much money we have determines what groceries we can buy, whether we can make needed repairs to our homes and vehicles so we can remain safe, what sort of access we have to healthcare. Even our very level of wellness or illness is tied to our financial resources. According to the Home and Health Initiative from the Urban Institute and the Center on Society and Health, our overall level of wellness correlates with our income and asset levels: lower middle-class people are healthier than the working poor, upper middle-class people are healthier than lower middle-class people, and so on.

So in ways that are somewhat cosmetic or superficial, as well as in ways that literally become issues of life and death, money is a crucial component in our lives. We can’t get away from it. Because money never really is just about money. It is always about something more. 

Which is what makes our Gospel reading for this morning so challenging for us. It’s easy to read this parable and think Jesus is telling us it’s not good to save, that we should just trust in God to meet all our needs. And then we turn away, knowing that our reality is different.The fact of the matter is, though, that saving for our future needs is good stewardship. We hear this in Luke 19, in the parable of the servants who are each given a gold coin to do business with while their master is gone; on his return, he rewards the ones who have been faithful stewards. In much the same way, in the 41st chapter of Genesis, Joseph counsels the Pharaoh to save during the prosperous years, so that Egypt will have plenty during the years of famine. The same is true for us: we are to be good stewards of the resources we have been given so that we are able to meet our own needs when we are no longer wage-earners. We are to be good stewards so that our neighbors can have enough. We are to be good stewards so that future generations can have enough.

No, the point of Jesus’ parable in our Gospel reading for today is not that we should not save our resources.Rather, he warns us against idolatry. He cautions us against greed, against prioritizing our wants over the needs of our neighbors, against buying into the myth that we are self-made. We Christians can have a hard time reconciling these words against saving for our future needs, and we Americans can have a hard time distinguishing between needs and wants. When we read passages like this, we can start to feel guilty for wanting things that bring us pleasure – our hobbies, for example, or vacations, or fashionable clothes. But that’s not what Jesus is saying here – he’s not saying “don’t want things that bring you pleasure.” He’s reminding us to ask: “How much is enough?” He is cautioning us against setting up our success as an idol, neglecting our relationships with God and neighbor, focusing only on ourselves.

The language that the farmer uses in the parable is interesting. Listen again to his plan: “What shall I do, for I have no place to store my crops?….I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” 

Do you hear the emphasis there? Do you hear where his focus is? He is turned inward, thinking only of himself. There is no thought to his neighbor, to those around him who may not have enough. His only thought is to keep the crops that he has grown, so he can enjoy his bounty for years to come. He makes no mention even of selling his crops! It doesn’t seem to occur to him that they might go bad, or that he might not live to enjoy what he has hoarded. He is not generous, And does not seem to be aware of any dynamics that may be playing out in his community – unusual, in a time when life was communal, and people depended on each other for safety, as well as for the goods and services that they needed. The farmer’s only thought is of himself: building a bigger barn, so he can enjoy his bounty for years to come. He does not feel an obligation toward stewardship. He does not feel the need either to share what he has with those who are less fortunate in his community, or to take his crops to market, where he can stimulate the local economy, helping his community in a different way. 

No, his focus is turned inward – even going so far as to refer to himself as soul, the vital breath of life, the direct aftermath of God breathing life into him. He is so entirely turned inward that he does not see God’s hand in his success, or even in his very life. His prosperity has become his idol. 

This is the danger that Jesus warns us of. He warns us against falling into this trap ourselves, becoming so self-satisfied that we lose sight of God’s work all around us. Ultimately, all that we have comes from God, beginning and ending with our very lives. We are stewards of all that God has given us. 

This can be hard to remember when we live in a consumerist, self-oriented culture. We live in a world where people aspire to be Instagram “influencers”, ostensibly using their credibility with their followers to sell products. Or YouTube celebrities, posting videos of themselves playing video games, doing stunts, or whatever else they do to increase views on their channels. But really, what they are selling is themselves: “Look at me!” they say. “I’m the Next Big Thing, the one you should listen to. Be like me, and your life will be so much better!” 

Many politicians seem to be more worried about their “brand” than their politics. They seem to be more concerned with the optics of supporting a particular cause than whether whatever cause they are supporting is in the best interest of the people in their district. Instead of prioritizing the work of governing, of helping people who are in need and promoting the safety and welfare of the people in our country, they prioritize the work of politics – fundraising, glad-handing, and persuading.

Companies offering goods and services ranging from the most mundane to the most exciting sell us a lifestyle: use our paper plates, and your life will be so much easier! You will suddenly have family meals where everyone is happy to be together, laughing and sharing the joys of their day. Travel on our airline, and you will arrive at your destination rested, pampered, and refreshed! Use our skincare product, and you’ll be more successful at work and in your social life!

But that’s all superficial. None of it really matters. But these social media celebrities, these politicians, these companies all know that we are seekers. We are in search of fulfillment, maybe in search of happiness. And our consumer culture tries to sell us on this idea that if we just have that one…more…thing, that time- or energy-saving gadget that allows us to spend more time with our families, or that luxury item that we’ve always wanted, ever since we saw it last month or last year, or that fantastic getaway to an exotic location, THAT will be what finally brings fulfillment to our lives. 

This is the danger that Jesus warns us of in this parable. He warns us that when we attach too much importance to our bank accounts or our belongings, our capacity for trust in God is reduced. We begin to believe in the myth of American wealth – that having more money or more stuff proves that we are better people; that people who don’t have as much as we do have somehow done something to deserve it. In modern American culture, this is even attributed to God’s working in our lives; we tell ourselves and others that we are “blessed” to have good-paying jobs, nice houses, and the stuff to fill them. 

But we know as Christians that what brings fulfillment to our lives is not the stuff we acquire, or the time that we free up, or the things we do. We know that what we seek can only be found in Christ. We know that when we lean into God, attending to our relationship with Jesus so that our spirituality grows, our understanding of success changes. We are less enamored of the things of this world – less likely to be tempted to greed and idolatry, less likely to seek fulfillment by building up our bank account balances or by believing that this next trip will bring clarity of mind, stronger relationships, or a more resilient or peaceful spirit. When we trust in God, we are more likely to recognize when we have enough and when our neighbors do not, and to share our resources to try to correct that balance in some way. When our capacity for trust in God increases, we hold our possessions lightly. We recognize that while the stuff we have may help us live longer and be healthier, it doesn’t bring us fulfillment, and it won’t buy happiness. We can’t buy our way into heaven. Trusting in God helps us see that we are merely stewards of all that we have, and we can’t take it with us. Instead, our God-given responsibility is to enter into relationship with our neighbor, conserving and sharing resources so that all of God’s children the world over, and their children, and their children’s children, will have enough.

The Hospitality of Jesus

Whenever I think about my dream house, the first – and often the only – thing I think about is the kitchen. A big gas range, double ovens, a large refrigerator, pantry, double sink, plenty of food prep space. For me the kitchen is the heart of the home. It is a place to practice hospitality. It is a place of welcome, a place that stimulates your senses and invites you in: the warmth from the oven, the smells that get you salivating and remind you just how hungry you are, the sounds of meat browning or vegetables sautéing, the sight of the food as it is plated, the anticipation of the delicious meal that you will soon enjoy. 

Hospitality is central to our lives. Holiday traditions often revolve around welcoming people into our home, or traveling to others’ homes, whether it’s for birthday celebrations, summer barbecues, or Thanksgiving meals on a table groaning with turkey, stuffing, and pies. We even have a whole industry devoted to hospitality, with hotels and restaurants that emphasize making us feel as “at home” as possible. 

Hospitality is central to Jesus’ message in the tenth chapter of Luke, as well. Earlier in this chapter, in our Gospel reading from two weeks ago, he sent out the 70 to share their peace with Samaritan towns. He told them that in some places they would find hospitality, While in other places they would not. He instructed them not to stay in towns where they were not welcome, and to rely on the hospitality of the townsfolk to meet even their most basic needs. The middle of the chapter, our Gospel reading for last week, finds Jesus responding to a lawyer with a parable about hospitality. The Samaritan offered hospitality to the man who was beaten, 

taking care of him and fulfilling his needs for safety and healing. The innkeeper, too, offered hospitality to the man, taking him in on the promise of full payment from the Samaritan, but with no guarantee that it would be forthcoming. Now we find ourselves at the end of this “hospitality” chapter, and it is Jesus himself who is being welcomed…and who has words for us on the very nature and importance of hospitality itself. Perhaps Jesus is even the one extending words of welcome.

It’s safe to say that most of us grew up with a certain interpretation of the Martha and Mary story. It goes something like this: Jesus stops by, Martha busies herself in acts of hospitality, probably offering him water to wash, then heads to the kitchen to make a meal. Meanwhile, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet to listen to him. Martha eventually gets frustrated that she’s doing all the work and complains; Jesus chides her, saying that what Mary is doing is more important, and sticks Martha with everything. 

But I want to challenge this interpretation. Think about what Martha is saying. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Or put another way, “I would really like to sit and listen to you, but first there is all this work to be done, and it will get done faster if Mary helps me.”

Cast your mind back to the Gospel reading from the last Sunday of June, and listen to these words from the end of chapter 9. 59“To another [Jesus] said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’” 61“Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’” To both of these, Jesus responds that if they really mean to follow him, they need to realign their priorities. They need to reset their focus. Jesus is telling them that the kingdom of God is near and that they are welcome in, but if they want to enter, discipleship needs to be their identity. 

There is an urgency to all of Jesus’ responses: to the ones who he invited to follow him, as well as in his response to Martha in this morning’s Gospel reading. He knows that time is running short, although they do not know it yet. He has set his face to Jerusalem, and he needs to assure his followers that the kingdom of God is near. Soon, they will be called to believe the unbelievable, to have their faith tested by supernatural acts of God, and to emerge from these trials as leaders, rather than as followers. But in order to prepare them for that, Jesus needs them to be fully present, not distracted by even such important things as practicing hospitality. 

This gives us a different lens through which to view Jesus’ words to Martha. Perhaps, when he speaks her name, he is not chiding her; he may be trying to get her attention. “Martha!” he could be calling. “Martha! You are worried and distracted by many things! But there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen in this moment to listen to me call her name, and to see that the kingdom of God has come near. I am asking you to do the same.”

Jesus is offering Martha and Mary his own hospitality. He is welcoming them into the kingdom with the same urgency With which he welcomed the others who would follow him, and the same urgency with which he extended peace through the work of the 70.He tells them the Kingdom of God has come near to them – so near that he is sitting in their house, 

teaching them and asking them to follow him. Jesus wants Martha, not just Mary, to know the kingdom of God. Jesus wants Martha to prioritize sanctification over hospitality. He wants her to understand that in the kingdom of God, it is more important to understand that we are set apart, holy, consecrated to God’s purpose than it is merely to engage in acts of welcome. If we understand that we are holy, acts of hospitality will flow from this understanding. If all we have are acts of hospitality, We will be too distracted to ever comprehend our holiness in God’s eyes and our place in the kingdom.

I have learned over the years that there is much more to hospitality than cooking an elaborate meal. In fact, I have discovered that, most of the time, the simpler the meal, the better. I have learned that, most of the time, if I am busy over the stove while our guests are there, my attention is divided at best. I am distracted with timing, chopping, stirring, and plating. My focus is on the food, rather than where it should be – on the guests who have come to enjoy fellowship with us. Most of the time, if I am standing over the stove, I am missing out on Jesus’ call to me in that moment: to be welcoming, opening my home and my heart to those who enter, and truly experiencing what matters in offering hospitality: the relationship, not the act. 

This has changed my perspective on what it means to offer hospitality. Oh, of course, there are still times when it is appropriate to be laboring over a meal when our guests arrive; sometimes, we do the work together. Sometimes, such as a holiday meal, the preparation becomes the focus. But at other times, it is appropriate to sit and listen: to rejoice with those who rejoice. To mourn with those who are suffering. To welcome those who are lonely, or who feel isolated or set adrift. To extend true hospitality is to place the emphasis on those who have entered our home – and to recognize Jesus in our midst.

We practice hospitality here at St. James. Every Wednesday and Sunday, we open our doors to the food pantry recipients, and invite them to experience God’s bounty, helping them to satisfy their nutritional and calorie needs. We provide material comfort in the form of our pillowcase ministry to those who are ill, and quilts for the MLM Christmas store. Each week, a different family provides treats for the coffee hour, and welcomes members and visitors alike to stay and visit. Our ushers welcome people into the building for worship, and make sure our visitors are comfortable. But how often do we stop to think about the source of this hospitality? How often do we really stop to listen to Jesus’ voice calling us, both individually and collectively, to use our gifts for hospitality in service to God? How often do we really stop to feel the Spirit working in us, prompting us to action and reflection on our lives as disciples?

We often identify with either Martha or Mary – either we are the hard workers, laboring in the kitchen and maybe getting upset when we don’t get any help, or we are the ones who prefer to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen. I think that we need to be both Mary and Martha at different times in our lives; we may even find ourselves a mixture of the two. 

There are times in our lives when we are called to act – to do the work of Jesus, to practice hospitality and radical welcome for all. And we all have particular ways of doing this. For some, it’s volunteer work – whether here at St. James or elsewhere. For others, it’s serving on Sunday morning as a reader or assisting minister, or in some other capacity. For still others, it’s a call to a profession of service. But we cannot really do the work of the kingdom without understanding that we are holy, that we are God’s beloved, sanctified through our baptisms.

And there are other times in our lives when we are called to listen faithfully for how God is calling our names, and to prayerfully discern what God is asking us to do. We all have particular ways of doing this, as well. Some of us listen best while sitting in silent contemplation. Some of us find it easiest to listen to Jesus when we are exercising, or playing or listening to music, or reading a devotional. Some of us find we listen best when engaging with others, whether through an activity such as a Bible study, or in intentional conversation with friends, family, or mentors. But listening only gets us so far. If we want to be faithful followers of Christ, we must respond. We must follow. And we are called to share our stories with others. We are called to understand how and why our faith compels us to act, and then to tell those around us, so they, too, can begin to discern Jesus’ call to them in new ways.

In just a few moments, we will lift our voices together in thanks and praise to God, and then we will hear the invitation to the meal that Jesus has set before us. It’s just a simple meal, nothing fancy. Just bread and wine. But here is the amazing thing about this meal we receive: in the invitation to dine at Jesus’ table, in the morsel of bread and sip of wine, Jesus is at the center.We are reminded that Jesus is so invested in extending true hospitality to us that he gives his own body and blood for our sakes, so that we can have everlasting life. We are invited to join the whole host of heaven in praising and blessing Jesus for this act of selfless hospitality. Jesus welcomes us to the table, offering us a moment of respite from the busy-ness of the world, an opportunity to listen and to reflect. He feeds us, refreshing and strengthening us before sending us out again. He invites us to remember this moment, to remember that we are called together to be disciples, listening with intentionality to the ways he is calling us.

Instruments of Peace

Last Sunday, I was invited to speak at the first-ever Northland Pride event, which was held at Linden Square in Gladstone. I was invited to talk about my faith experience – my relationship with a Jesus who loves me just the way that I am created, and how I believe that we are called as Christians to be open and affirming to all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. 

There is a history of LGBTQ people being rejected by the church, and many LGBTQ people have had deep hurts inflicted on them by this rejection – some are scarred over, some are still open. So I walked into the event not sure what to expect in terms of a reaction. But I wrote a speech about the peace that I find, resting in my sure knowledge that I am a beautifully-created child of God, and decided that I would be fine with whatever reaction I got.

I don’t know if you have ever been to Linden Square Park. It’s a beautiful open space, a little less than a block square, with a band stand on the southeast corner, a building on the west side, parking on the north side, and a beautiful open lawn in the middle. And hardly any shade at all. And the heat index last Sunday afternoon was about 105 degrees. 

So when I got up to speak, it didn’t look like there was much of an audience. The lawn was empty, except for a couple of artists sitting at their tables selling their wares. The band stand was empty, except for the few people who needed to be there, standing in the sun. People were congregated under the two trees on the northeast corner, or in the shade of the building, or wandering through the booths in the parking lot. To be honest, I had a moment of thinking, “Why am I even doing this? Why am I even up here?” But I shared my story. I shared my peace. 

Have you ever had an experience like that? An experience when you offer words of the impact of God’s presence in your life, only to be met by a negative response, or worse yet – indifference? It is easy to feel rejected in those situations. We become vulnerable when we share words of God’s peace, and it’s easy to put our defenses up in response. For the first part of the week, whenever anyone asked me how the event went, I deflected. I talked about the heat and how we stayed cool, I talked about the turnout over the course of the afternoon. I talked about anything except the overall lack of response to my talk. It’s hard to admit, even to ourselves, when we put ourselves out there and then have very little impact that we can see. One person told me they liked my speech, and a few others throughout the course of the day asked if I had been the one speaking, but I was arrogant enough (or perhaps misguided enough) to wish that my words would be the ones that would make the difference, would bring people to Jesus, would heal the hundreds of wounds people carried from a lifetime of rejection.

But then I re-read the Gospel for this week, and realized that I was doing exactly the opposite of what Jesus calls us to do! When the 70 returned to Jesus, celebrating that even the demons submitted to them under Jesus’ name, he cautioned them not to rejoice at this, but rather to rejoice that their place in heaven was secure. The corollary to this is easy to see: had they been unsuccessful, had the demons not submitted to the apostles, the response from Jesus would have been the same: he would have cautioned them not to be down-hearted or disappointed, but to rest assured that their salvation did not depend on their ability to overcome demons. 

And instead, here I was, deflecting questions of how the event went on Sunday, because I did not want to admit that the demon of pain, the demon of old, deep wounds did not lay down, submitting to the name of Jesus on the power of the words I spoke.

But when I paused to reflect on my own experience as I walked away from that band stand, I realized something very interesting. I was at peace. I believe, deep in my soul, that I preached the Gospel on Sunday. I said to everyone gathered, “Peace to this festival, and everyone attending it!” I proclaimed, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you.” It was not my responsibility to determine whether my words were well-received, or poorly-received, or ignored. That was God’s responsibility. I was merely the messenger, merely the servant of the Lord. And because I was deeply grounded in my confidence in God’s abiding presence with me, this peace could not be taken from me when I offered to share it. God’s peace is not finite, 

and cannot be removed from us by disagreement, ridicule, or even indifference. So I went back to our table, to greet festival attendees and offer hospitality and peace.

There is a mandate in this Gospel reading for today – we are called not to be silent, but instead to proclaim the good news of the peace of Christ and the nearness of the kingdom of God 

to all we encounter. We are called to be brave enough to make ourselves vulnerable, to travel lightly, to depend on the hospitality of others to nourish us for the journey, and to respond to rejection by not taking it to heart – instead leaning on the promises of God to call us, and to lead us to where we are being sent, equipping us for the task at hand.

But there is also a subversion of the power and privilege of this world that we need to pay attention to here. Jesus is not calling us in this passage to use our relative wealth, or our privilege as middle-class Americans, to set ourselves up as people who must be heard and agreed with! We are not called to argue with those who disagree with us, trying to convince them of the rightness of our purpose. Instead, when we share the good news with people, we are called to do so humbly – approaching them empty-handed, relying on their willingness to welcome us in and to listen to the good news we bring. 

And this good news, the peace of Christ, is challenging for some to hear. We offer the good news of God’s loving mercy for ALL people, regardless of race or ethnicity or immigration status, whether they have gotten away with committing a crime or have been wrongly imprisoned or have always been law-abiding, whether they engage in nonviolent protest against power structures they believe are unjust or whether they feel such protests are unjustified, whatever their religion, regardless of age or language spoken or family circumstance. Sometimes, it is even challenging for us to share. We encounter demons that we worry are louder or more convincing than we are. We even have our own demons to fight. 

These demons might be deep hurts that tell us we don’t really belong. Or they might be a kind of nationalistic pride – a conflation of patriotism and Christianity – that says that this is a Christian nation, and “they” aren’t welcome, whoever “they” may be. Or these demons might tell us that because we have achieved a certain age or status, or because we look a certain way, we should be listened to. Or they might even be demons that tell us to expect a kind of charitable quid pro quo – if I help you out in some way, then you’ll listen to me. They might be demons that tell us when we share the Gospel and don’t feel heard, nobody is really listening and anyway, people believe what they want to believe, so what does it matter?

But the message in the Gospel for today is that it does matter – it matters so much, in fact, that Jesus sends us out to every place that he intends to go. And he doesn’t rely only on those of us who feel prepared! No – this call is for all Christians. The 70 that he sent out were not restricted to those closest to him. They were pulled from among all his followers, even the introverts, even the ones who were not sure what to say. And they were sent to every place that he intended to go, to prepare the way for him, planting the seeds that may in time grow into faith, if the hearers were receptive. 

In the context of our Gospel reading, this means Samaria. Jesus sent the 70 out to the towns and villages of the Samaritans, a people who shared common ancestors and a common God with the Judeans, but who worshipped differently and had different rituals and customs. These were the places that he would stop on his journey to Jerusalem, to the cross and to our salvation.

In the context of today’s world, what does all of this mean? Jesus sends all of us – every baptized follower of Christ – out into the world, to share the peace of Christ with those whom we encounter, and to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near. We are sent, not to each other, but to those who have different traditions, different customs, different life experiences. We are called to encounter the demons of doubt, fear and hurt. We are called to encounter the demons of belief that the kingdom is only available to some, of the insistence that some people are more deserving of God’s mercy than others, whether because of ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity, or any other reason. And we know that these demons – and any others we encounter – may not submit to God, at least not yet. But we are also called to be prepared for this – to know that our peace is not diminished, 

that we are still beloved children of God who have the full measure of Jesus’ love and nearness to share with the next person we meet, and the next, and the next. We do not know what seeds we plant,or when they will grow into faith. It is not our responsibility to determine when they will be ripe for the harvest, or even whether the soil is fertile enough. With enough time and work, all soil can be made fertile. And God is a very patient gardener.

We are sent out as we are, without stopping to collect any possessions we think might better equip us for the journey. We are equipped by the Spirit with everything we need, and anything else we take would just weigh us down.We are facing the demons that try to defeat what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature” – the demons that would prevent the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” from seeing that the kingdom of God is within reach. We are facing the demons that would prevent us from seeing that the peace of Christ is available and the kingdom draws near to everyone, even the jailers of the huddled masses.  We are called to embrace the peace that passes our understanding. To accept that it is not we who defeat demons, not we who change hearts and minds, not we who determine when the harvest is ready, but God. We are the laborers in the garden. We are the instruments of peace.

“Family Ties”

When I say the word “parent”, what do you think of? Do you have memories that you associate with this word? For many of us, myself included, those memories are strong and positive. I am shaped by the people my parents are; to this day, even as an adult, so many of the decisions I make are shaped by how they raised me. My values were instilled in me by my parents: the importance of being trustworthy, the value of hard work, and the inherent worth of every person are just some of these values that they passed on to me. They continue to be very important people in my life; I seek out their opinions, and I treasure the time that we get to spend together. They have shaped so many aspects of who I am, everything from parenting to politics, from where I went to college to what I do for fun. My father baptized me; my parents married Rebecca and me. In some ways, my career path even mirrors my parents’. 

One of the things that I learned from my parents is how to act. I learned that how you treat people is important: kindness and respect and generosity are all traits that I saw my parents demonstrate,as well as a desire to take care of people – whether that is by listening to people who need to speak, or speaking for people who cannot, or by living my life in such a way that my actions are a testament to my values, which are deeply rooted in both my upbringing and my faith. 

But I have learned through my life that things are not as simple, not as black and white, as I thought they were when I was younger. It’s not always clear what the right path forward is through a complex situation. Most of us have probably experienced being with someone we love and respect, only to hear them say something or see them do something we disagree with. Maybe you have witnessed them casually using a racial or homophobic slur to describe someone you see across the street, out of earshot. Or maybe they have recounted a story to you about being undercharged for their purchase in a store, and delighted in pulling one over on the store as though it were a huge victory. Or perhaps, if you’re a solid 20% tipper like I am, you have seen them leaving only a dollar tip for their $20 tab. 

What do you do? Do you go ahead and say something, regardless of the consequences to you personally? Do you speak up about their offensive language, knowing that they might brush you off, saying it’s “no big deal” and you should “get over it?” Do you point out to them that there might be negative consequences for the salesperson and suggest they go back to the store and make it right, risking their anger? Do you compensate on the tip you leave, making sure that the server receives a fair tip, regardless of how close to payday it is, or how short your bank account is?

Or do you weigh the benefits of trying to right this wrong against the potential costs to your pocketbook or your friendship? Maybe you think, in the grand scheme of things, no one was really hurt. Or maybe you weigh everything else that you know about them against this sin you have just witnessed, and decide, on balance, they’re a pretty good person, so it doesn’t really matter. 

You may not think specifically about your parents in these types of  situations; I don’t. But looking back, I can see how I interpret the values they instilled in me through whatever situation I am facing. I can see either how I live up to the standards of behavior that my values imply, or how I don’t. And when I don’t, I usually feel as though I have let myself down, and I resolve to do better next time. But regardless, on reflection I can see my parents’ values and teaching in my actions. 

In our Gospel reading for this week, Jesus reflects on his relationship with the Divine Parent. This is like a parental relationship on steroids. Not only are Jesus’ values and teachings reflective of what he has learned from this parent, but his very actions are God working through him. He tells the eleven that he is in the Divine Parent and the Divine Parent is in him. He then he goes a step beyond this and says, “if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God; God works through me, and my actions are not my own.”

I don’t know about you, but that idea has always made me a little uncomfortable. To my American ears with their filter of self-determination, it sounds like Jesus doesn’t act independently, that he does not have the freedom to make his own decisions, that he is in some ways a puppet for God. And if Jesus – a part of the Trinity – is unable to act independently, then what does that say about me? About us? One of the things that we prize very highly in America today is our independence, our freedom to make our own decisions, to plot our own course. What career do I choose? Do I like being the center of attention, and act in such a way to make sure that happens, or do I prefer to be a wallflower? Do I tend to go with the flow, or am I a disrupter? 

We know from the Gospels how Jesus would have likely answered these questions. He was a rabbi, he tended to hold people’s attention at parties, and he was definitely a disruptor. But if Jesus was doing all these things because his Divine Parent told him to, then what does that mean for us? Are we just puppets, too? Just going along with whatever we are meant to do, with God holding the strings, like a giant puppet master in the sky?

But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was saying. I think that Jesus was saying that there is such a communal bond between him and his Divine Parent that he was willing to be influenced by this, even in his humanity. Even as a person with the power to be independent and to make his own decisions, he chose to lean on God, to draw on his values and his faith, again and again. Even when he was tired and cranky, even when he didn’t have much gas in the tank, even when doing so meant chastising his closest companions – his chosen family – for their short-sightedness or their lack of understanding. He was called into the family business he inherited from his Divine Parent – the business of salvation. And he answered that call.

And he tells the apostles that this doesn’t end with him. He calls them to continue this saving work – calling them to do the same work that he did, and in fact, to do even greater things, because they’ll still be active in the world even after he departs. And he will be in them, the same way that the Divine Parent is in him. 

As humans, we tend to think that once someone leaves, they’re gone. How could Jesus still be with the apostles, if he was with the Divine Parent? So Jesus told his apostles that he was sending another divine family member – a wise aunt or uncle perhaps, someone to act as a mentor and guide. This Advocate, the Holy Spirit, would be the one who would help the disciples continue to interpret Jesus’ words, so that whatever circumstances they found themselves in, they, too, could lean on God, to draw on the values and the faith that Jesus had instilled in them. 

So what does this mean for us? Where are we in this beautiful trinitarian family, this circle of love and teaching and imparting values that flows between the Divine Parent, Jesus, and the Advocate, around and around?

We, too, are the children of the Divine Parent. We, too, are embraced by this circle, this community of divine love and inspiration. We, too, are instilled with the values and the faith that we have been given by God, and we, too, have been asked to inherit the family business – this business of salvation. And our Parent is wise, as many parents are. Our Divine Parent provides for us in this world we are in now, that is so different from Jesus’ time on earth. We have our stories, passed down from generation to generation and from century to century, so that through knowing our past we can secure our future. We have the Spirit, the divine Advocate and mentor that helps us to interpret our stories to face new situations we encounter. We have the stories of our ancestors, learning from them and being inspired. We have our creativity, learning from new situations we face to craft the stories that future generations will learn from and be inspired by. And we have our family: our Divine Parent, our sibling Christ, and our wise aunt the Spirit, our parents and relatives, and our faith communities, who help us to lean on on the values and faith that we have learned so we can continually choose to say yes to God.