Piece of the Puzzle

random musings on whatever…

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A Guiding Star

Who were the people that the Gospel of Matthew tells us came from far away lands seeking a new ruler? Christian tradition calls them kings or wise men but the Greek word magi implies they were most likely Zoroastrian priests. They were not people seeking worldly power. They weren’t kings seeking a rival, but priests seeking something of divine and cosmic importance. They were seeking truth and meaning. And, as the story goes, they were led by a guiding star which appeared to light their way to the child Jesus. That mysterious star was an epiphany, a light in the darkness that revealed something important. It showed that God’s love is born into this world in unexpected places (a small out of the way town) for all people (not just God’s “chosen”).

God also gives us guiding stars to light our way to Christ, to show us that we might find meaning in God’s love manifested in the vulnerable flesh of a small child named Jesus. So powerful is God’s love that even this small vulnerable child, unable to defend himself, is seen as a threat to the powerful and wealthy of the world – hence the warning to that magi-priests that they should avoid Herod. But what is so threatening about love, mercy, and grace? We’re still threatened by these things today. We see it when we talk about universal health care, about livable minimum wages, and about social security. These attempts to help people in need, which God through Jesus commands us to do, are seen as threats to the powerful and wealthy. But into the darkness of a culture which treats wealth as its god, shines a guiding star and a child is born, God’s love manifested in human form. And it shows us the meaning underlying life: to love one another.

The good news is that God’s light and love continues to shine among us today. We can look around us and see all the problems but we can also look around us and see our own guiding stars, those lights that reveal the presence of the Divine: the people that work to feed the homeless, those that help protect victims of violence, those that advocate for programs that help the needy, those that might simply offer an encouraging word when we most need it, or the stranger who gives us a genuine smile to lift our spirits. We can look into our world and see these guiding stars among us, little lights of hope that tell us that God is here now and God cares.

God is not only still at work in the world, but is at work in us, offering to transform each one of us to be a light in the darkness: to take a stand for justice and against fear, to live with love and compassion in our hearts and in everything we say and do, to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to resist oppression and violence… to love one another.

Let us come to the Holy One in worship and prayer, opening our hearts to the light and love of God that we too may become bearers of the light, an Epiphany people who know that the joy and grace of Christ’s birth is not just a gift to be admired and praised but a gift to be shared and put to work for the sake of the world that Gods loves so much. Let us open our hearts and become beacons of compassion and justice, that we may let God’s love shine into the darkness through us.

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This reflection first appeared in my church’s newsletter on January 18, 2019 and is inspired by the sermon, “A Guiding Star,” from January 6, 2019. The audio of the sermon can be found at https://phoenixchurch.org/home/phx-sermons/.

Look, Then Leap

Everyone loves a show! The bigger and more outrageous the spectacle, the more we stop what we’re doing and pay attention. In the 12th chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus warns us against people who go out of their way to put on a show just to impress others, to puff up their importance by wearing fancy clothes, who insist others defer to them and serve them, and who always have to be in a place of honor. These are the ones, we’re told, who are hiding something, the ones who behind the facade are taking advantage of the poor, the widow, and the immigrant.

Jesus goes on to notice a widow who gives her last pennies to the Temple treasury. This widow is one of the very people who are being oppressed by those who try to look so important but Jesus takes his time to notice her and the situation she is in. Noticing what is happening around us is an important first step in correcting the injustices of the world. Too often we don’t notice those in need. We legislate the homeless to corners of our cities where we won’t see them or we hear about a caravan of people fleeing the violence of their homes and we demonize them, creating the fear that helping them would somehow ruin our own lives. We fail to notice their humanity, the fact that they are parents and brothers and sisters, that they love and are loved just as we are. We fail to notice that that poor person is a human being in need who likes ice cream and romance novels and not someone to be objectified.

We fail to notice because it absolves us of the responsibility to respond. We might think we can’t respond because we don’t have enough ourselves – so how can we help anyone else? But scripture is full of stories of people who thought they weren’t good enough or didn’t have enough and yet God used them to change the world. What if we truly made an effort to notice what happens around us? Who or what do we ignore and overlook as we go about our daily business? What would happen if we started to notice – and then, putting our trust in God, started to respond? What a difference we could make!

May God bless you and the work you do to notice and respond to the injustices around you.

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This reflection first appeared in my church’s newsletter on November 16, 2018 and is inspired by the sermon, “Look, Then Leap,” from November 11, 2018. The audio of the sermon can be found at https://phoenixchurch.org/home/phx-sermons/.

The American Dream, RIP

Trump is a dangerously corrupt and immoral narcissist who cares only about his pocketbook and having his praises sung. I get that Republicans support him to maintain their grip on power. Other rich people support him because they think he’s good for their pocket book too. But I’ve always been mystified why so often the people most hurt by his policies are among his strongest supporters. It’s precisely because of his me-first, f*ck you attitude. That attitude impresses people. Enshrining it in the office of the President justifies thinking the same way. And frankly, that attitude is part of the American Dream. The dream that tells us we can, if we only work hard enough, gain the wealth and power (which is how we define success) we covet. It’s the pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps dream. It’s the all-I-need-are-my-guns dream of the mythical wild west cowboy.

The American Dream is destroying itself and our democracy with it. We need a new dream.

Do We Know What We Want?

Have you ever struggled with a difficult decision, perhaps a major change in life such as whether to move or quit a job? We’re faced with decisions all the time and sometimes we’re not sure what would be best. When we make difficult life changing choices, we often look for meaning and a sense of inner peace. But, if we ask for meaning and peace of heart, do we know what we are asking for? Do we seek meaning in the accumulation of things as in the story of the rich person who wasn’t able to give up their wealth to follow Jesus? Do we believe that winning a huge lotto jackpot will bring us peace? Or maybe we seek meaning in status, having people look up to us and think we’re important. Or maybe we seek peace in power, thinking, “if only I had more control…” Even in the church we look to the world’s definitions of success, thinking to follow Jesus “successfully” means bigger churches and bigger offerings. We think that is what measures how meaningful we are, whether our efforts are “worth it” or not.

When James and John came to Jesus in Mark 10, asking to sit beside in him glory, maybe they were wondering if following Jesus, with all his talk of death and persecution, was really worth it. Maybe they were seeking a sense of meaning. But like many of us they thought meaning was found in glory, power, and wealth. But Jesus responds that in God’s eyes to be great is to serve. This is where we find the natural harmonies and rhythms of life that bring peace. God created us as interdependent beings, not to be competitors for empty glory but to be companions meant for relationship and community. To be great, to find meaning and peace, to find what makes it all worth it, is to serve, to help each other, to support each other, and to love each other.

Jesus asks if we can follow in his footsteps and give up our pursuits of wealth, power, and glory to serve? Can we help each other, support each other, and love each other even if the world around us is threatened by it and despises us for it? That isn’t an empty threat either. Right now in our own times, journalists who are seen as threatening the power of so-called leaders are being denigrated and even killed. If we as Christians do as Jesus did and stand up to oppressive power, we too may put ourselves at risk. There can be a cost to following Jesus. We often think James and John didn’t realize this, that they wanted glory with no effort. But, I wonder if they just wanted to be reassured it was worth it. I believe it is. We will get resistance when we live for justice. We will get pushback. But we were created by God to be companions, not competitors.

I also believe in resurrection, in God’s promise of new life. In every discouraging lie told, for every degradation of the poor, of women, of immigrants, of LGBTQ people, I see more and more people standing up and saying this is not acceptable. In standing up for each other we plant the seeds of hope. We begin to nurture new life – a life that acknowledges that to serve and support each other, to love, is the order and motion of God’s Creation. This is where we find true, lasting meaning and peace in life: in God’s unconditional, everlasting love flowing through us and into the world.

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This reflection is inspired by the sermon, “Do we know what we are asking for?,” from October 21, 2018. The audio of the sermon can be found on the Phoenix Community Church web site.

The Disaster of Wealth

In the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Amos warns that contempt for truth and a disregard for the poor and disadvantaged leads to disaster. These are words that we might remember as another election day nears. Words that we might ask our political leaders to take to heart. But it is also a warning that is relevant to all of us. Too often even those of us who identify as poor, or at least feel the pressure of meeting our monthly bills on time, fall prey to the mindset that wealth is the true measure of success. It is what our culture teaches us.

And in our desire for greater riches, our desire to be a success, we start to ignore truth and forget about the poor. We start to accept some of the lies we hear, thinking that perhaps little lies don’t matter so much or that maybe it’s ok to tell lies about the liars. We don’t bother fact-checking that great meme before posting it on Facebook. Maybe we think we can’t bother with the homeless when we can barely make our own rent or that businesses shouldn’t have to pay livable wages if that means higher prices for me. Maybe we think it’s ok to vote for a corrupt politician as long as they promise to vote for my pet issue. Maybe we just covet that new phone model. Surely that will solve all of our problems.

When a rich person comes to Jesus asking how they can be one with God, Jesus tells them since they already keep all the commandments that the next step on their spiritual journey is sell all they have and give the proceeds to the poor. Needless to say, the rich person walks away dejected. Jesus’ instruction was alarming not only to the rich person but to everyone there, including the disciples. Living in a capitalistic country that sees wealth as the measure of success, we are probably alarmed as well. But Jesus knew that the person’s wealth, which brought them safety, security and status, had become a spiritual burden. It didn’t allow them to truly be compassionate toward others. It got in the way between them and God as well as between them and their fellow human beings.

Wealth can build a wall around us, isolating us. It can put a buffer between us and the suffering. Wealth can make us think we don’t need each other and get in the way of true community. We’ve all heard someone say: “we earned our wealth,” “they’d succeed if they worked harder,” “it’s only business, nothing personal,” and “the poor are lazy.” Perhaps we’ve even said similar things ourselves. But statements like these only serve to justify the distance between the haves and the have-nots and blame the poor for their poverty, letting those of us who have money off the hook. If we are not able to hear the pain of others, we will not be able to fully experience God for God is found in our relationships with each other and Creation. That, I think, is what was happening to the well intentioned rich person in the biblical story. They weren’t able to fully experience the Divine energy because their wealth stood between them and the people around them.

What burdens do we need to let go of that we might fully encounter God? Is it wealth or the desire for wealth? What burdens do we carry that keep us from living in God’s way of love in the here and now? That get between us and the Divine? Some money is necessary in our society to live, but we should not allow the pursuit of wealth to come between us and those around us. We are all on this journey together. We need each other. It is in “the least of these” that we find God.

For further reflection on the role wealth plays in our lives, check out this thought provoking Ted Talk posted on my church’s blog: https://phoenixchurch.org/home/2018/10/does-money-make-you-mean/. You might also want to listen (or re-listen) to the sermon from October 14, upon which the above reflections are based, at https://phoenixchurch.org/home/sermons/through-the-eye-of-a-needle/. This reflection was originally published in my church’s newsletter.

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