Mercy, not sacrifice

The sacrifices Jesus speaks of in this passage are those that care nothing for love, but everything for showing off to make ourselves look pious, zealous, important, and noticeable. It’s honestly a form of gaslighting…

Have you ever noticed that each of the four gospels has a question it is highlighting? For the gospel of Matthew, the author is asking: all of you who have power, what are you going to do with it?

Keeping that in mind, when we look at this little snippet, which is actually a quote from the prophets, Jesus is pointing out that there really are two options for most of us on most days. We can be self-righteous martyrs or we can show mercy every chance we get.

Is it all about us? Or is it about caring for our neighbors?

This is in no way meant to denigrate true sacrifice, for even Jesus gave his life in service of love.

No. The sacrifices Jesus speaks of in this passage are those that care nothing for love, but everything for showing off to make ourselves look pious, zealous, important, and noticeable. It’s honestly a form of gaslighting.

That was never what Christ was about.

God wants us instead to focus on how we might show mercy – real love – to others. Every chance we get.

This can be in simple things: like taking others into consideration in how we carry yourself, what we wear on our bodies, and how we keep our distance in the midst of a pandemic. This can also be much more complicated things: like how do we show mercy to our neighbors and take them into consideration in the voting booth.

No matter what the circumstances, Jesus’ ultimate point here is that our focus is mean to be on serving others first – not on making ourselves look good or making sure we have an overabundance.

Focus on mercy, not sacrifice.

Now go and do likewise.

Go and Do Likewise

This is a very difficult command to follow. It may be simple. But that does not make it easy to live out…

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke 10:29-37

This is perhaps one of Jesus’ most famous parables. And yet, in all of our retelling this famous story, we often miss its remarkably shocking nature. So let me see if I can set it in a modern context for us:

A man is robbed, beaten, and left for dead in the midst of a major city. Soon after, a young, hip, evangelical preacher sees the man and, not wanting to mess up his snazzy new jeans and spiffy shoes, he moves to the other side of the road where does not have to look at him. Not long after that, the head pastor of a large, main-line protestant church comes walking by and sees the scene as he approaches. Afraid of damaging his dapper clothes and being late for his next important meeting, he quickly scurries across the street and keeps moving. Then a woman in a hijab is walking by and sees the battered man on the side of the road. She goes immediately to him, assesses the damage, offers him water, and gets him to a hospital. Going even further, she leaves her own contact information to help with the bills if his insurance is unable to pay.

Now, who was the neighbor to that man?

Hopefully that gives us a little bit better idea of how earth-shattering this parable truly is.

What Jesus is trying to point out to the young man who is testing him by asking, “who is my neighbor?” is that everyone is our neighbor.

Every. Single. Other. Person. On this planet. Period.

It does not matter where they came from. It does not matter what they look like. It does not matter if they are part of your religion or another (because the Samaritans were certainly not a part of Judaism). It does not matter who a person is. Everyone is our neighbor.

This is a very difficult command to follow. It may be simple. But that does not make it easy to live out.

Thomas Merton once wrote, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” That is how we live out the parable of the Good Samaritan. That is how we live out the Gospel.

Now go and do likewise.

Don’t Turn Away

There are always Lazaruses at our gates. There is always someone in need nearby…

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.  In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’  But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’  He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Luke 16:19-31

One of Jesus’ parables from the gospel of Luke, the story of Lazarus is quite troubling for many of us who have never had to beg for food. It is an outright condemnation of those who intentionally turn their heads the other way when they see someone in need. What is more, there seems to be little hope…

Have you ever been on a mission trip?

When I was younger, mission trips with my youth group were the life-altering experiences that largely set me on the path toward God. There were other people and influences, of course. But those weeks spent away serving others, outside my comfort zone – they were the highlights of my young faith journey.

Now, there is nothing wrong with these trips. In fact, I highly recommend them, especially for young people and youth groups who need bonding time.

However, if the only serving of others we ever do is away from home, we have completely missed the message of the Gospel.

There are always Lazaruses at our gates. There is always someone in need nearby. Sometimes they look like people holding signs on corners looking for a bite to eat. Other times they look like strangers wandering our streets with eyes that cannot focus for all they have seen. And still other times they come to us truly begging for help with utilities or groceries or prescriptions.

Oh yes, there are countless ways Lazarus is with us.

Many of us may not realize it (or want to talk about it), but we often turn away. Whether out of pain or guilt or fear… we intentionally do not acknowledge the person in need.

In this parable, Jesus shows us what happens to those who continuously turn away from their neighbors. Because those who turn away from their neighbors are turning away from God.

For all of us who would follow God, follow Christ, it is ours to not only give to all who beg of us (yep, Jesus said that exactly), it is also ours to work together to see the sources of poverty eradicated. To see not only mouths fed, but also see people educated, living healthy lives, and able to joyfully contribute to society through work and more.

Jesus was about resurrecting the whole person. Not just the afterlife.

That is our call, too.

So where do you see Lazarus in your world? What can you do to serve them and all the Lazaruses at our doorsteps and around the globe?

Back to Basics

This week, our scripture quote takes us back to basics. To the center. To the heart.

When all else falls away, one main thing remains about Christ’s message: love.

Not the fancy or feeling we get for our significant other. Not the way we feel about our family and friends. It is actually something much deeper than either of those.

The love of which Christ’s speaks is God’s love.

It is the kind that cares for the other before one’s own self. It is the kind that seeks to build up a broken world with God’s life, justice, and peace. It is the kind that opens eyes and ears and hearts to the sin, pain, and prejudice at work among us and within us. It is a love that excels beyond all others. It is the way that God loves us.

And here, Christ says that we are to give the same love to one another.

Not just those close to us. Not just those who look or think or live like us. But every single other human on the planet.

Everything else we do and think and say flows from this. It is our compass. It is our lens. It is how we are to be in this world.

That is Christ’s command. The question is – will we follow?

Not About Us

Christ asks us to take the golden rule to a whole new level. Rather than simply treating others as we would want to be treated, we are to consider life from their shoes, their walks, their experiences. We are to offer aid not as a condescension from our abundance, but as fellow fallen sinners on God’s long road…

This week, our scripture quote comes from one of the New Testament books other than the gospels. It is still a quote from Jesus, but comes through one of Paul’s early letters from the book of Acts.

At the heart of what it means to be a Christian is this mantra: deny yourself and follow.

This does not mean that we must give up self-care or every other thing in our lives. What it does mean, however, is that it is our job to put others first.

Because that is what Jesus did. It’s what he taught. It’s what he died for.

Christ asks us to take the golden rule to a whole new level. Rather than simply treating others as we would want to be treated, we are to consider life from their shoes, their walks, their experiences. We are to offer aid not as a condescension from our abundance, but as fellow fallen sinners on God’s long road.

It really is quite simple: it’s not about us.

That is what Christ asks us to remember when considering everything we feel, think, say, and do. Not ourselves. But how will this effect my neighbor. All of my neighbors.

For Jesus has told us that whatever we do to another, especially those considered the least, we are doing to him. We are doing to God.

So give your love, your resources, your time away. That is what Christ asks of you and God calls you to do. Each and every one of us.

All That Matters

At the end of the day, all that matters to God, ultimately, is that we are loving God by loving our neighbors…

This passage is one of Jesus’ teachings that appears in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke). Though in different contexts, Jesus draws out the key message from the Hebrew laws (Deuteronomy 6:5 & Leviticus 19:18) and summarizes everything down to these two commandments: love God and love your neighbor.

There are any number of reasons that Christ might have done this. But here is a rather obvious one: we tend to get so caught up with the rules and the rights and the regulations that we miss the point.

At the end of the day, all that matters to God, ultimately, is that we are loving God by loving our neighbors.

All of our neighbors – every race, creed, class, sexuality, gender, even political party.

It is not that those differences do not matter to God. Quite the contrary. God has often shown us that our diversity is something to celebrate and that those labels that are used to denigrate, decimate, and subjugate others are unacceptable. God always sides with the “little guy” or girl, so to speak.

But if you are unsure where to begin with following Jesus, here is where you start: love others. All of them. Period.

Don’t let them trample you. Do call out hateful behavior and language. Don’t trample anyone yourself, even for vengeance’s sake. And do everything you can to empower those who have rarely had a validated voice.

God’s love is everything.

Let it flow out of you like a river cascading God’s purposes for life, justice, and peace.

Let it be the lens through which all other parts of our lives, including the scriptures, are examined.

And as Mr. Rogers said, Love is not a fancy or a feeling. “It is an active noun like struggle.”

It is not easy, but it is quite simple. Just do it.

So, whatever you are doing, or thinking, or saying, ask yourself this question: does this decision show love to my neighbor(s)?

Because if we are not loving our neighbors, Jesus has told us, we aren’t really loving God, either.


A Time to Act

This is the Gospel made tangible. And we are to go and do likewise…

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn… (Isaiah 61:1-2)

This week, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. has called for a Week of Action in light of recent events. It is meant to serve as an essential reminder to all Presbyterians in our country that God has called us to seek justice for the marginalized in our world – just as Jesus himself did. The long-term goals our leaders have lifted  up this week are eradicating white supremacy and dismantling systemic racism.

This is the denomination of the church where I serve. Though the denomination does not automatically speak for all of the churches, nor for the people therein.

I, however, as a pastor, and therefore no longer a member of any church, wholeheartedly support this call from our denomination. Why? Because I believe it is what my Lord Christ would call me to do. I believe that, at this time and place, addressing the insidious and rampant racism within our systems and society is an essential way we proclaim the Gospel. And I know for a fact that previous generations of the church have made the same decision.

The passage above is the original Isaiah text that the gospel writers paraphrased in Jesus’ first appearance at his home synagogue during the beginning of his ministry. Both versions have their own unique expressions. However, the overall message is the same: Jesus came to turn this world upside down. He came to serve and lift up those who the world keeps in their place.

What does this mean for the church of Jesus Christ?

This is the Gospel made tangible. And we are to go and do likewise.

We are to bring good news to the poor (and help, too). To bring good news to the oppressed and work for their freedom. To bind up the brokenhearted. To proclaim release and freedom to the captives (def. a person who has been imprisoned or confined). To give recovery of sight to the blind (physical sight, too – not just the ones who have been spiritually blinded). To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor – the year of Jubilee, when all debts (yes money) were to be forgiven. For everyone. And to proclaim the day of vengeance for God – a comfort to those who mourn now.

Just as it was Christ’s mission, so it is also ours.

We are called to be actively making a ruckus in this world whenever we see people getting hurt. And make no mistake – white supremacy and systemic racism are hurting people. Daily. They are also sins of the highest degree.

And like every other sin, they have the propensity to live in all of us. No exceptions.

So, ask yourself this: is Christ’s mission something I can get on board with? Am I willing to put my voice, my reputation, my life on the line in service of the God of love? Even if it means standing with the poor, the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the sick, the indebted, and those who mourn vengeance never received? Even if my family or my friends will think I’m nuts, or worse, disown me…

The truth is that the call of Christ upon our lives requires no less than the willingness to sacrifice everything we have and are to serve those whom Christ came to serve – the weak and the lowly, the overlooked and the ostracized, the different and the intentionally ignored.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us… so do the work the Spirit commands.


Breaking Patterns

…the fires of God’s justice do burn. Especially in this world.

My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!

This refrain comes from one of my favorite Advent hymns. It is based upon the Magnificat, or Mary’s song, from the gospel of Luke (and some of the scriptural words, from Luke 1, are in the photo above).

Before the Savior is even born, his mother can feel Christ’s purpose bubbling up inside of her the way many composers can hear the strains of melody simmering in their soul long before they are ever on paper. It is a powerful theme – God’s message to the world, that is. It speaks of toppling those in power from their thrones and finally giving equity to the oppressed and forgotten of the world.

Indeed, the fires of God’s justice do burn. Especially in this world.

In the beginning, those who followed Christ’s were an unlikely band of misfit outcasts. They stood for everything that the structures of the world stood against – radically inclusive love, giving voice and value to the world’s downtrodden, and the infinite potential of God’s life-giving grace. Those in power when Jesus was alive stood for commanding strength and wealth for a few, keeping the rest of the people in their place, and maintaining the status quo.

When the church began, as the followers of One who stood against such constraining rule, and who had actually been killed because of that stance, it lived behind the scenes. It sought to make the world better from the ground up, rather than the world’s method: from the top down. And the church remained close to Christ’s radically loving heart.

But then, the world changed. Those in power converted. Perhaps due to a true change of heart, but more than likely, as history has proven, because with only a few people knowing Christ’s actual words and deeds, those in power could use cherry-picked scriptures and traditions as a new method to maintain the status quo. The church went from being run by the lost and forgotten, to being commanded by the rich and the powerful.

Across the centuries of two millennia, this pattern recurred.

Those who sought to live into Jesus’ actual words and actions would rise like God’s own phoenix jumping out of the grave. First, the powers of the world would attempt to squash them. To kill them. To decimate them. But like the prophets of old, they would find it difficult to stamp out God’s messengers. So, when that wouldn’t work, those in authority would lay claim to a part of the message that was not-too-messy and relatively comfortable. They would affirm that small section of what was God’s radical message meant to shock us from our complicit slumber. They would preserve the prophet’s memory on a pedestal, and wait for the people to forget what really happened.

And then the process would start all over again.

This goes for both the church and worldly powers. All were guilty of crushing those who would dare to challenge the status quo – as Jesus, and God, have always done.

It is an ancient pattern. One predating Jesus’ human life on earth. It is a human pattern. A fallen pattern. One that will keep returning until Christ’s own self arrives on the clouds.

To follow the true Jesus, the one we see in the gospels, it is not an easy path. It means walking in his footsteps. It means standing with the “little” people who the world likes to keep under foot. It means calling out false prophets and martyrs whose only trouble is having their long-held-hate-filled beliefs questioned. It means loving with a reckless abandon that seeks God’s life-giving justice and equity for all people. And yes, it absolutely means challenging the status quo of a world bowling-over in frenzy, poverty, hunger, racism, sexism, bigotry, classism, self-righteous indignation, domineering vengeance, corruption, suppression, and oppression, among many other things.

Listen to the barely-wed, teenage mother’s voice as she cries out across the years. Penniless and considered property, she sings the words of God’s chosen people – not just the descendants of Israel, but the orphans, the widows, the foreigners, the maimed, the forgotten, and the oppressed. Hear her strain rising above the cacophony of the world’s madness again…

From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for God’s justice tears every tyrant from his throne. The hungry poor shall weep no more for the food they can never earn. There are tables spread, every mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.

The real question is: will you join her song and break the pattern?

You Should Care

Being asked or told to wear a mask is not trampling your rights. It’s asking you to do what you always should have done in the first place: care about people…

Real strength has to do with helping others.

Fred Rogers

Are you tired?

I am very, very tired.

No, it’s not my twin three year old boys with all their crazy energy. No, it’s not my husband recovering from a near-fatal encounter with sepsis last month. No, it’s not working for the Gospel in a conflict-ridden world. Though all three have their moments that make me weary and worn, that is not the fatigue to which I am referring.

I am tired of people politicizing whether or not people should care about each other.

It is not a political issue. Stop making it one.

It is a human issue. It is a faith issue. And, since I am a Christian minister, it is a Jesus issue.

Actively caring about our fellow human beings is our job as humans.

Full stop.

That’s it.

At the end of the day, everything else pales in comparison. Money, success, prestige, ambition, power, beauty – none even begin to compare.

It is our human right to live and breathe. To live free. And to thrive.

For far too long, in human history, we have intentionally chosen who deserves to be free to live and to thrive. We have systematically removed rights from humans that were born looking different than we do. Who were born with different realities. Who have this body part instead of that one. Freedom has long been denied to our neighbors of different race, sexualities, and genders – and that’s just talking about the differences we are born with in our bodies. That does not even mention the differences in thought, belief, and resources. Oh yes, we have a problem with keeping people from being truly free in this world.

But a little piece of cloth has nothing to do with your freedom. What is more, studies have shown that it has little to nothing to do with your safety.

That little piece of cloth has to do with your neighbor’s safety and their right to live and breath, to have freedom, and to thrive.

That little piece of cloth is a statement that you care as much about others as you do about yourself.

Of course, there are some who are facing real health issues – from COPD to PTSD – who should not be forced to wear a mask. That is reasonable.

The problem is, there are far more people not wearing masks than those who legitimately shouldn’t. There are far more people more concerned with their comfort than another’s life – because, again, that mask does not protect you. It protects everyone around you.

And yes, this is a very personal issue to me. My husband is extremely high risk. He already nearly died three weeks ago of something else. If you expose me, then you expose him. If you expose my children, you expose my husband and me (with my own moderate to severe asthma). If you expose my nanny, you expose all of us – and remember that children and healthy people are still being brutally maimed by this virus that we do not fully understand.

I am tired of people not caring.

I am tired of people telling me that I am afraid for no reason, when we’ve lost over 165,000 people in this country alone – with some amount of mitigation. Those numbers would have likely quadrupled if we had done nothing these last six months.

This is not a hoax. It is serious. Deadly serious. And life-long maiming serious (because this disease appears to be more dangerous to those who survive than to those who do not).

Required discomfort to help out your neighbor is not the same thing as having your rights trampled. Having your rights trampled is being held at gunpoint  when you were the one originally in danger. Having your rights trampled is being run over by cars and hit with tear gas (which is a war crime) when you are using your right to protest that people’s rights are not being upheld. Having your rights trampled is dying in your own bed at the hands of those who should be protecting you when you did absolutely nothing – and then to have your killers never be brought to justice.

Being asked or told to wear a mask is not trampling your rights. It’s asking you to do what you always should have done in the first place: care about people.

So wear the piece of cloth. Care about your neighbors – because, yet again, that mask protects them. Not you. It is not about you.

It is about all of us surviving this with as much health as possible. Only then can we truly live and breathe fully. Only then can we continue to fight for freedom. Only then can we find the flourishing that God desires.

More Than Words

Sometimes, for someone to truly know they are loved, it takes not only active intention, but also concrete actions…

Mr. Rogers once said that “love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like ‘struggle.’ To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now – and to go on caring even through times that may bring us pain.” A good Presbyterian minister, he was trying to point us toward that intentionality that is meant to exist in all of our relationships. Be they romantic, sibling. friend. neighbor, or even a stranger or enemy.

But sometimes, for someone to truly know they are loved, it takes not only active intention, but also concrete actions – as Extreme’s 1990 classic loves to remind us.

There is more to love than simply words. Or feelings. More than hugs and kisses. It takes standing with someone when trouble comes. It means being the silent worker behind the scenes so that those without a voice might finally sing. Its deliberate purpose to see others flourish, even when the world says they shouldn’t.

The first step is to work for these things in our relationships with those we love who are closest to us. Easy enough.

The next step is to do this work to bolster and support our neighbors and communities, most of which we also love with great camaraderie and energy. Especially for those of us who live and work with people we have grown close to, this should not be too far of a stretch.

Now here is the hard step: doing the active work of love for those you do not know.

Jesus taught us that if something should not happen to him or one of his disciples, then it should not happen to anyone. Put it another way: if you don’t want a certain thing done to you, then you should not only not do it to others – you should work so that no one ever has it done to them. Period.

Christ took the golden rule and put it on steroids.

Because it’s not just about what you do as an individual. It is also about what we do as a community. The choices we make, the leaders we support, the ways we structure our lives – all of it is our responsibility.

So, to follow a bit in the footsteps of my favorite Presbyterian pastor, let’s put this in the simplest of terms: all the world’s a playground and here are the rules…

  1. Treat each other with kindness.
  2. Wear clothes that the given season calls for: if summer, enjoy your shorts. If winter, don’t forget your snow boots. If hurricane, bring an umbrella. If Covid, wear your mask.
  3. Throw your trash away and recycle everything you can. We only have one home, so take care of it.
  4. Don’t throw stones and don’t call each other names – it’s just bad form.
  5. Do use your voice to ask questions and raise up problems that need to be addressed.
  6. Do stand up to bullies. Stand together and they cannot break you.
  7. Remember that our words have power, to heal and to hurt. Choose them wisely.
  8. Most importantly: you already have the strength inside you to make the world a better place. A kinder place. A more loving place. The world God desires to see.

Simple enough. Now go and do likewise.