The Kin-dom of God

They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or me
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Lay-abouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
Welcome here
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
They cannot
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not okay to say
These are people just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way.
(now read from bottom to top)
—“Refugees” by Brian Bilston

Throughout his ministry, Jesus tells us the last will be first, and the first will be last. The humble will be exalted, and the exalted, humbled. The kin-dom of God he proclaims simply turns the power structures and hierarchies of this world upside down. Or rather, downside up. Sometimes, we must pause and read from the bottom to the top.

So many messages in our world encourage us to look inward and think only of ourselves. What do I want? What do I need? How can I get it? But the work of faith—the work Jesus calls us to—encourages us to look inward AND outward—beyond ourselves. We are called to realize that our well-being is dependent on their well-being. My well-being is entirely connected with your well-being. Worrying whether or not an undocumented immigrant receiving pressing medical care in this country might raise the overall costs of health insurance, does not serve us. Instead, the pressing spiritual question is how can we make needed medical services available and accessible to all God’s children? How might we best minister to the needs of God’s children—body and soul? How can we make the world more peaceful? How can we actively decrease the violence? What can I do in this new year to expand the welcome of Love in my community? This is where my faith meets the world. As Mary tells us again and again: “God brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. God fills the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty. God helps us with great mercy, according to the promise God made with our ancestors. . . .” I truly believe her song was not sung in vain. We are each called to extend God’s hands and heart into the world in ways that can turn things rightside-up.

See you in church,

One River Gives

One river gives
Its journey to the next.

We give because someone gave to us. / We give because nobody gave to us.
We give because giving has changed us. / We give because giving could have changed us.
We have been better for it, / We have been wounded by it—
Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet, / Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.
Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too, / But we read this book, anyway, over and again:
Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand, / Mine to yours, yours to mine.
You gave me blue and I gave you yellow. / Together we are simple green. You gave me
What you did not have, and I gave you / What I had to give—together, we made
Something greater from the difference. 

“When Giving Is All We Have” by Alberto Rios

My heart is full of gratitude as I write this—even though this year has been full of layers of loss and heartache and grief. The ups and downs of grief have really taken their toll on me over the past year, and some days I have really struggled to keep going. At times, I’ve just wanted to crawl into a hole and sleep for days. But my faith—and my family and friends and my church—have kept me moving—and loving and hoping—even when things seemed bleakest. And today—Thanksgiving Day—has brought me great joy: Drinking coffee. Feeling the rain on my face. Eating pie. Watching movies with Clivie snuggled up next to me. Walking in the fresh air. Holding my Jeanne’s hand. Talking with family far away. Soaking up the rich fall colors.

It has been scientifically proven over and over again that noticing and expressing gratitude—often for the “smallest” things—lead to stronger relationships, better sleep, lower blood pressure, fewer trips to the doctor, fewer depressive symptoms, more patience, and more perseverance, among many other benefits. So, I am going to do my best to pay better attention. To notice and relish the “small” things that make life lovely and fill my heart. And I am committing myself to better expressing my gratitude, too. Perhaps I will start a gratitude journal. Perhaps I will write more thank you notes. Perhaps I will lift up prayer throughout the day—a spoken-word gratitude journal! I want to cultivate an overflowing garden of gratitude. Matthew’s gospel reminds us that “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And because one of our most precious treasures is our time, I know that how I spend my time will greatly affect the health and well-being of my heart.
Even when we journey through life’s great difficulties, there are blessings and gifts that warrant our deepest gratitude. Won’t you join me in noticing and expressing thanks for the bounty surrounding us?

See you in church,

Ordinary Saints

From Ruth 1:1-18

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there for about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons or her husband.
Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had had consideration for his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah.
But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.
They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.”
But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”
But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you / or to turn back from following you! / Where you go, I will go; / where you lodge, I will lodge; / your people shall be my people, / and your God my God. / Where you die, I will die— / there will I be buried. / May the Lord do thus and so to me, / and more as well, / if even death parts me from you!’
When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
      Yesterday, I had the privilege of officiating a wedding at a church with a gorgeous stone labyrinth in a courtyard overlooking the Bay. And, well, you know I love labyrinths —and what the journeys in and the journeys out can reveal to us—in us. I took some precious time before the ceremony to walk the labyrinth, and I noticed a quotation placed on the path leading to the courtyard that says, “We are all just walking each other home.
       We are all just walking each other home. The people we find next to us on our life journeys—on our spiritual journeys—are our walking companions. For better or worse, they are our teachers and our guides. They may help us through challenging times—and/or they may create our greatest challenges. They may supply us with the support and comfort we need in times of distress—and/or they may source our distress and need for support and comfort. They may meet us on the road with food and medicine and kindness. . . .
       Or they may meet us with tanks and guns and fear. But regardless, we are all just walking each other home. We get to decide how we will engage with the journey.
       In graduate school, I took a class on the Lives of the Saints. I remember on the first day of class, someone asked, “Just what is a saint?” And someone else responded that a saint is someone who lived long, long ago and has never been adequately researched. . . . The implication was that if you researched a saint thoroughly enough, you would discover the inevitable foibles of that person—and then they would not be a worthy “saint” at all.
       But, I wonder, do the weaknesses and shortcomings of those we consider saints make them more, or less, important to us on our spiritual walk? It seems to me that the lives of saints are meant to be read like an open book—with all the good and bad and messy and indifferent. We often depict saints in stained glass windows to let light shine right through them—their translucence, an apt metaphor. Their imperfections make them relatable, personable.
      And when we celebrate All Saints Sunday, we are not simply celebrating the superhuman faith and power of a select few, but God’s willingness and ability to use flawed people to do divine things.     
      We celebrate the ways God creates faith in diverse and varied communities and uses ordinary people from those communities to bring the Commonwealth of God closer to us through ordinary acts of love. On this Sunday, we celebrate the “great cloud of witnesses” that have gone before us, and that are still with us, as we continue the work of walking each other home.
       It’s amazing to think about the vastness of the Body of Christ—all the people from all the communities, just like ours, and all those from different times, different places, and different cultures. All of them—past and present—can become our walking companions, encouraging us to take risks, inspiring us to keep going with the road is wearying, challenging us to change the world, and showing us how to pray—with our feet, our hands, our hearts, our pocketbooks, and our votes, as well as our voices. . . .
       It gives me a lot of hope and heart to feel the breadth of those connections—especially these days when it is so easy to feel disconnected and alienated. It is powerful to know we belong to such a great cloud of witnesses seeking to manifest God’s love in this world.
      Many people believe that connection and belonging is based on having the same theology or political beliefs—the same denominational affiliation or interests or neighborhood, or Facebook groups. . . . I certainly can fall into this trap. But what really connects us is the love of God. We are—each one who has walked on this earth—God’s beloved child. And God longs to scoop each one of us up into a web of belonging and love. God longs to see us walking each other home—with justice and peace and love.
      That is what the story of Ruth demonstrates. Such a beautiful story. A story of connection and belonging unexpectedly reaching across conventional dividing lines of blood and custom and religion. It is the story of ordinary, strong women—facing the harsh natural disaster of famine and the brutal human-made disaster of patriarchy that rendered single women completely vulnerable. Like refugees today, Ruth and Naomi did not have the privilege of choosing to stay in their homes. Forces beyond their control dictated their involuntary relocation. Yet, they were able to survive such tumultuous transitions because they were each willing to give their greatest gift to the other: their very selves.
       It is a story of solidarity and redemption—of faithfulness, commitment, loyalty, and love. The recently-widowed Naomi encourages her daughters-in-law, also recently-widowed, to “Go back each of you to your mother’s house.” During this time of famine, Naomi is migrating from Moab—where her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, are from—back to her native Judah. Naomi relinquishes Orpah and Ruth from any obligation to care for her, urging them to return to their homeland with the prayer, 
      “May the Lord deal kindly with you,” believing that “the hand of the LORD has turned against [her].”
        After some weeping, Orpah agrees and departs. But Ruth refuses to go, expressing instead a wild love, selfless kindness, and astounding solidarity: “Where you go, I will go, / Where you lodge, I will lodge; / Your people shall be my people, / And your God, my God.”
Ruth clings to Naomi with this steadfast loving-kindness—chesed—and refuses to let go.  And so, together, they continue the journey—or the “caravan” we might say—to Judah. We are, after all, just walking each other home.
       Over and over, God uses ordinary, flawed people to bring the Commonwealth of God closer through ordinary acts of love. And over and over, we are invited to live out our faith in the midst of difficult circumstances. Ordinary saints, walking each other home.
       And God is made known to us as we accompany one another—as we stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable members in our society—as we welcome the refugee, advocate for the homeless, insist that Black Lives Matter, support the sexual abuse survivor, translate for the immigrant, embrace the LGBTQ community, listen to the pain of the heartbroken. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor and theologian, who was executed by the Nazis for his beliefs, wrote shortly before he died, “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others.” It is through our relationships that God is made known. It is through our solidarity with others in need that we encounter God. In the story of Ruth, the portrait of God is painted by two women who choose solidarity. And in a world that sinfully seeks to divide people into “them” and “us,” this means that there is no one but us! There is only us: “Your people shall be my people.”
       As people of faith, we are called into the spiritual practice of solidarity. To see the needs of others. And to respond. In whatever ways we can. Because there is no “them.” There is no one outside the realm of God’s love and care. There is no dispensable human being. And the best—and the least—we can do is to say to the one who is hurting, displaced, seeking asylum, exhausted, fearful, wounded, hopeless . . . that where they go, we will go—that we will be there and walk in solidarity beside them throughout their journey.
       This is what it means to be an ordinary saint. And today, as we remember and draw inspiration from all the deeply faithful and deeply flawed saints of God—through whom we have seen the light and glory of God—who have walked with us and guided our steps—may we give joyful thanks. And may we heed their example as we walk each other home.