Trinity Sunday sermon: Romans 5:1-5

The very first sermon I preached, which I just came across in some papers –

I want to talk about this passage from Romans and I want to talk about today being Trinity Sunday — we’re going to see if we can tie these in together a bit.

I’ve been known to start in the middle of things and that’s what we’re going to do here. Right here in the middle of these words from Paul’s letter to the people of the early church in Rome, where the going was rough at the time.   Let’s go back over it – suffering produces endurance produces character produces hope – which does not disappoint

That sequence sounds pretty good – but does it always work that way? It it inevitable that we move from suffering to endurance to character to hope?  I’m thinking it’s more of a choice as to whether it goes that way or whether we get stuck somewhere.

As I look around this room, I see lots of people who have suffered. I don’t even know all y’all that well, but I know every single one of you has faced some sort of suffering in your life. I’m a pretty fortunate person myself, but I know I’ve suffered. Everybody suffers – black/white, rich/poor (yep, odd as it seems, I’ve known some incredibly miserable rich people), young/old, gay/straight, single/married, Democrat/Republican. Sometimes it’s our own fault. Sometimes the causes are completely out of our hands. Regardless, it’s suffering.

Now remember where we are going. Suffering leads to endurance, right? Except sometimes it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere. It just feels like suffering.

But if we are to believe this – and let’s hold onto it for now – then from suffering, we learn endurance. Let’s talk about endurance. You hear about people running marathons and such. They call these endurance events. They are not sprints. They are the long haul — and it takes all the strength you can muster. Endurance like this is not passive. It takes fortitude. It takes all your strength.

So our suffering can produce endurance. We can get stuck in suffering.  Or we can get stronger. Life is an endurance event. We find our strength. We know suffering, but we also know how to endure.

And where do we go from there: suffering produces endurance produces character.

Now that’s an interesting turn. Character’s where we stop looking inward so much and start looking out. Specifically we start look out for one another. If we make that step, we become people who don’t just think about our own selves. Character means we take that strength and we share it.

Then what comes next – anybody remember – say it with me – suffering produces endurance which produces character which produces hope.

Let’s start in on hope by making a distinction. Hope is not the same thing as optimism. We can thank the philosopher brother Cornell West for speaking of this distinction. Optimism is this belief that everything is getting better. Well, we all know this world look mighty bleak a whole lot of the time. All we have to do is look around – look near, look far. Whew. Hard to be optimistic when you see all that suffering.

But hope is BIG. Hope takes us out of all that bleakness and opens us to the possibilities for grace, no matter what happens or is going to happen. Those graces may be big or they may be small, but one thing is that they are there. Our job is to be open to them.

So suffering produces endurance produces character produces hope.

But HOW do we do that? How do we go through all these things and not get STUCK along the way? How do we actually get from suffering to hope?

Well, today – this Sunday – reminds us of how that works. For that we skip from the middle of our scripture passage to its beginning and its end:  from the beginning – “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”

And from the end – “ God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit – that has been given to us.”

So we’ve got God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. That works well for today, Trinity Sunday: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, right? Or some may prefer God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sustainer.

That’s going to be our how. But this concept of the Trinity can be a tough thing to get your head around. The notion of God in 3 persons confuses many a believer and many a non-believer.

The very first semester of my freshman year at college, I heard that a world famous theologian was going to teach a class. He was visiting from Germany, a renegade Catholic by the name of Hans Kung. He’d written several books about this thick. Well, I was a history major, but here I am in my first semester of college and I figure I better not miss the opportunity to take his class.

I’d never actually heard of him, but the student newspaper said he was famous, so I sat in a big lecture hall with a whole bunch of other students for a class that met on Monday nights all semester long. Three hours each class. He had this serious German accent. They put him in the fanciest lecture hall on the campus — in the business school. The seats were really comfy.  I had classes all day long on Monday, so by Monday night I was about ready for a nap. So . . . I don’t actually remember a lot about what he said in that class.

But — although this was more than 20 years ago, I still remember the time Dr. Kung talked about the Trinity. He said — true words — that it is a tough concept — and one that his friends from other religions really struggled to grasp. So he had decided that the best way to explain it was this:

God the Father, the Creator, is God above us.
God the Son, Jesus, is God beside us.
God the Holy Spirit – we were just talking about the Holy Spirit with Pentecost last week – is God within us.

So God above us, God beside us, God within us.

That, I’ll argue, that kind of presence – that’s how we CAN go – if we choose – from suffering to endurance to character to hope.

From God above us, we get a sense of wonder, a sense of awe. That comes to us in a lot of places. For me, it’s often outdoors, out in the woods. It can be when we hear music. We sure know how that works in this congregation. It might be standing on your front steps or in the library or in the grocery store. It can happen anywhere when we know we are in the presence of God.

For God beside us – we think about the real presence of Jesus, who walked here on earth and who walks with us through each day. We see God embodied in the presence of the people around us – in what Jesus calls the least of these and in the faces of the people we know and, though it’s hard, in the people we want to cuss out in traffic. In everybody we encounter. God is in every single one of them, beside us every day. So we find God among the people around us, even when it’s hard.

Now God within us – the Holy Spirit breathes life into every one of us, every single day. The Quakers are especially good at reminding us of this. They say that there is that of God in every person. So God is in us. So with this knowledge – that God is within you, all the time, in the Holy Spirit – even when you are emptied out by suffering, let that Spirit fill you.

And from these things – God above you, God beside you, God within you – you can know that HOPE that St. Paul is talking about. Hopping back into the middle of that passage for just a moment – then we HAVE ACCESS TO THAT GRACE IN WHICH WE STAND. Don’t miss that line. We stand in hope and in grace. God above, God beside, God within.

Amen.

An Insight from Disability Theology

“How about those ministries of people with intellectual disabilities? How about the ministries of people with profound disabilities? People who we might otherwise think were completely incapable of ministry. Is it their problem that they can’t minister or is it our problem that we can’t receive the ministry of the Spirit? What happens if in our churches, people with profound disabilities or intellectual disabilities or people with disabilities now become the bedrock of the charisms, the center of a renewed Church, of an invigorated body of Christ, might we then perhaps have an inclusive ecclesiology, one in which the presence and the agency of people with disabilities is treasured, is received, is embraced, one in which we can then be renewed by the Spirit which has finally been poured out on all flesh.*
– theologian and pastor Amos Yong

I love how this quote gets at the way disability theology can be transformative not only for disabled people, but for ALL people. This is true of other liberation theologies of marginalized people as well, but disability theology both does it so well and is often overlooked even within our justice discourses.

Hear that again – the individual, fully-valued human bodies and active ministries of people with disabilities as “the center of a renewed Church, of an invigorated body of Christ.”

Can we imagine that and how it might transform our understanding and our world?

We as human beings are constantly being formed. Our communities of faith are likewise in a state of constant formation. What do we allow to form us and transform us? I offer this perspective for pondering today – and if you are so inclined, to pray on.

Second Chances: Mark 10: 17-31

Jesus has on
ladybug slippers said
sweet Maria, age four
as we discussed the
rich man
squeezed from heaven by the
needle’s eye and his own
love of money.

We agreed cats might be
found within the
Gospel narrative, as I saw
no reason to question that
Jesus would pause to
give the man a chance to
reconsider and while
he waited,
hoping for a
conversion moment to
surpass the weight of
accumulated riches,
there might be cats.

And being Jesus, he could
find them food and would
of course because in this story
no one goes hungry
unless he can’t set
down the
bags of gold to open his
hand to the
real riches
promised
but available only
when we let go and
offer our
unclenched palms to the
sky.

Show It By Your Good Life sermon: James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a

Who is wise and understanding among you?
That’s quite a question. No pressure, right?

Who is wise and understanding among you?

James’s letter is quite the fierce treatise. James is interested more interested in conduct than in doctrine, in how we behave toward one another more than what we profess to believe.

Faith is demonstrated by action.

These passages we’ve read tonight are a continuation of ongoing reading that Christians around the world are doing from the book of James. James wrote his letter in an ancient world to long ago Christians, but I’ll argue that James’ message without question speaks into the circumstances of our lives today.

One theme that’s clear in this letter is that that our words can get us into trouble. Anybody know something about that? Anybody out there NOT ever have their words get them into trouble?

That too often we curse rather than bless. That’s from earlier in this third chapter.

And James would also tell us that too often we live out a LIFE that curses rather than blesses.

We hear the temptations in this passage here – we’re tempted to bitter envy, boasting, selfish ambition, falseness. Partiality and hypocrisy. Murder.

There’s lots of ways to murder things. This could be pretty literal, but we also crush the life out of all sorts of hopes and dreams and ideas and sparks of goodness and creativity all the time. This doesn’t have to be just those folks who actually pull out a gun or a knife. Dispute and conflict. It’s all around us. It’s within us.

Who is wise and understanding among you?
Show it by your good life.
So what does a good life look like?

In looking to answer this question, I’ll suggest tonight that we can take the words of James on three useful levels – or at least three useful levels and we’ll talk about 3 of them tonight – our relationships with others, our relationship with the society around us, and our relationship with our very own self. That’s one thing I think we can learn from James and his fierce call.

‘You covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.’
We covet money or power or some balm to our ego. Our culture teaches us to always want more.

To never be satisfied.
To want shiny new things.
To want the last word.
To want things our way.
To aim to have it all.

And since I want it all and you want it all and Ed wants it all and Joyce wants it all – well, we might just have to have words. And once I start having some words with Ed, it might get a little ugly. And I might lose but then I’ll try again. And I might win. And then when I win, I might feel quite pleased with myself and my rightness and my righteousness. I might do a happy dance when I get my way.

And the thing here – is that even if I happened to be right, even if I happen to be reaching beyond the shallow and the material and I am actually right, RIGHT in big capital letters, if I am up in your face and proud of myself for it, that’s sounding awfully earthly.

That’s not sounding like the fruits of the spirit. That’s not sounding like what God teaches us.

If I am treating you like an object for me to pour my whole bucket of pride at being right over, James is telling me I’m doing something wrong.

We can tell it like it is.
We can speak truth to one another.
But how we do it matters as much as what we say and do.

It’s like me hollering at my daughter – now this a total hypothetical, of course —
“KID, why are you so GRUMPY?!! Just CUT IT OUT AND be NICE, OKAY???
Just a hypothetical, right?? Doesn’t work so well though, let me tell you.

James reminds us of the gentleness born of wisdom. There’s never a call not to speak the truth, not to set boundaries, not to hold people accountable. Truth, boundaries, accountability. Those are important. But HOW we treat one another – the words we choose, the ways we engage with one another, the compassion we show – whether it’s to the people you live with or the people you work with or the people you go to church with or the people you pass by at Walmart or the people you talk to on Facebook.

James points us toward a higher standard of relationality. To words and deeds that are worthy of one another and of our call as Christians.

The second place we see this is in our relationship to our whole culture and society. I think we have to be careful as we hear the call to be peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy, and good fruits.

This is not a call to simply be perpetually sunny, blissful and joyous and utterly oblivious to all of the problems in the world. I mean, do we think James is instructing us to just kick back and bliss out in kindness while the powers and principalities of this world arrest brown children for bringing clocks to school?

Are we feeling peaceable while loving couples are denied their legal right to marry by someone who claims to speak for OUR faith?

Are we willing to yield to those who mine tar sands and dump slag into waterways and protect their fossil fuel profits in the short run while ignoring the desperate need of billions of people for climate security, for basic clean water, shelter, food, and medical care?

Our actions give life to our faith.

Who is wise and understanding among you?

Being peaceable doesn’t mean we don’t speak truth to power. It means we act from a heart of love, a soul of faith, and a brain that helps us discern the difference between the culture-driven, ego-fed motivations of bitter envy and selfish ambition, discern the difference between those things and the vision of God’s justice and mercy and love.

So we speak into the public sphere. James is big on the accountability of the rich. He has fierce words for those who care only for themselves and their own pleasures and not the needs of the community.

And we speak into that space in our own time. As Christians, we must add our voices to amplify the call from those at the margins, whether they are Black, Brown, transgender, refugee, disabled, old, poor, gay, Muslim. If we speak neither with our actions, nor with our words, we fail to be the DOERS of the word that James calls us on behalf of God to be.

But – and here’s the key –

We must not seek conflict for its own sake.
We must not take pride in our righteousness.
We must not rejoice in our disputatiousness.
We must not glory and gloat or be ugly and mean.

We need to see God in all that we do.
We need to hear God in all that we do.
We need to take our God filter and let our words and our deeds flow through that filter out into the world.

This is every day. Daily life. The world around us. All that we do and all that we are. Our words and our deeds give life to our faith.

And how do we do it?

Who is wise and understanding among you?
A
nd how in the world did they get that way?

Ultimately – and now this is where if you were my Grandmama taking notes on the back of your church bulletin, this would be number 3 – these teachings give us an aspiration for ourselves. This is about how we ourselves are formed and what we have inside us.

My friends, we make that way by walking it. We can’t think ourselves into it. We have to do it.

It is about the practice of it on a daily basis, so that we are ever in the becoming. Our actions give life to our faith.

We will be known by our fruits. We will be recognized by our behavior. This happens in the life of the everyday. James holds before us patience, kindness, wisdom, and prayer.

We speak this into being. We turn toward the light of the Holy Spirit. Submit yourself therefore to God. Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.

This is active. This is real. We are moving. This is not words that we speak and sing HERE and leave behind for next week. If you remember it – and remembered to put it on in the first place – as you leave here, you unclip your nametag and leave it behind. That is NOT what we do with our faith. We are called to live it out every day.

What we are nurturing is that connection to God right inside of us.

So we can understand this demand from James into right relationship with others, right relationship with our society and culture, and right relationship with our own spirits. Honesty, joy, authentic expression, humor, beauty, the fullness of mercy, gentleness. If we practice our faith, if we walk that walk, and we talk that talk – even when it’s so hard – we will continue to come into right relationship with ourselves.

Loving God and loving justice does not mean that we will not be angry. In fact, we’ll probably be angry a lot. But there’s a difference between being angry – even rightfully angry – and speaking from a place of anger. We can be angry – at everything from the bill collector to Donald Trump to traffic to the horrific patterns of violence in our world.

This, however, is where I think James’ words are so valuable – on a personal, human, trying to live everyday level – what does it mean if we accept that anger, but don’t speak from it? Can we acknowledge that as Christians we are called to speak from a place of love and mercy and gentleness?

So we know the anger and the frustration, but before we open our mouths to speak and move our bodies to act, we feel the presence of God in our lives and in our bodies. We live that faith – so that when we open our mouths and move our hands and feet, we speak wisdom and understanding. We speak from a deep well of faith-born kindness, wisdom, and grace.

According to James, there is no separation between faith and practice. It is our actions that give life to our faith. The words we speak, the way we interact with one another, the choices we make, and motivations we bring.

THAT is who is wise and understanding. THAT is how we can live and speak a blessing rather than a curse.

Blueberries and the Love of God sermon: Romans 8:26-39

So I said last week that we would be taking on these passages from Romans as sort of a 2-part endeavor. We left off with a call for living in hope – a holy sort of hope that’s not dependent on our being optimistic about the state of our world

Which is a good thing, right? Because it’s not like this week has been a whole lot brighter. We’ve still got those things I mentioned by name last week – children fleeing violence in their Central American communities, bombs killing civilians in Palestine and Israel, grieving families and a stunned world coping with the Malaysian plane’s downing – and this week we add in some other air disasters and plenty of other ongoing wars and those specific seering things in our own lives. Those are still with us.

But even when we can’t put our burdens or our blessings into words, we’re still called to that hope in God, through God.

So that’s where left off last week here in the 8th chapter of Paul’s letter to the people of Rome. We’re going to pick up from there.

We’re going to get there first by way of a story.

I love blueberries. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I ate so many that it’s  amazing that she didn’t come out with a blue tinge to her. I can eat them by the handful and then another handful. Well, last week I took the kiddo to camp –  up in the mountains there is a sign we’ve passed over the years. A pick your own blueberries place. I noticed it again as we drove up. After I dropped her off, I had some time. The weather was cool and cloudy, which is good and rare blueberry picking weather. It was a weekday, so I figured it wouldn’t be too crowded. Enh, why not stop?

Now it had been raining – that’s an important point in the story. It had rained pretty hard for a bit. That was actually good for me. I had one of the dogs with me, so having it cool & cloudy, post-rain, meant I didn’t have to worry about her staying in the car. It’s hard to pick blueberries and hold a dog leash at the same time.

The sign said it was ¾ of a mile off the main road, so I went  bumping down this deeply rutted, muddy dirt road. ¾ mile is a pretty good ways on a bad road, but I finally got there without losing my oil pan. I pulled in as some other folks were leaving. They cautioned me about the chiggers. I’ve learned to keep bug spray with me so I was good there.

The place had an old shack with gallon jugs sitting out, a box where you could drop in your money. $8.00 gallon. I left $10. I figured I’d eat at least $2.00 worth while I was picking –  and long row after long row of blueberry bushes. Are you with me? Can you see it?

I walked in a couple of rows. Lots of folks only go that far, I figured those would be picked over). And I started picking — up, straight ahead. And then – then I looked down at the ground. And I saw there were all kind of blueberries on the ground. A few were rotten, but most of them were perfectly good – and in fact, perfectly ripe. They’d mostly been knocked off by that hard rain that had just passed through. So there were all these wonderful blueberries down on the ground where they were going to go to waste. We had blueberries up high and blueberries down low. But these blueberries on the ground, they would get overlooked, stepped on, squished. By everybody who comes along and just looks up and right in front of them. They were going to go to waste. And that was a shame.

Now some of y’all might have figured out where I’m going with this. We have a culture where a lot of people end up on the ground. Our society treats a lot of people as disposable. This is especially true of folks in certain categories – this came up last week too, some of this living by the ways of the world, the ways of the flesh. IF you are poor. If you are black or brown. If you are gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender or queer. If you have a disability. If you are old or if you are a child. If you don’t speak English. If you are a woman. If you are any of those things or several of those things, you have a greater chance of being considered disposable by the world that runs on money and power and imposes its definitions of what’s considered preferable.

Plenty of people knocked to the ground. Overlooked. Without value. Disposable.

Now if that’s where you were thinking I was going with this, you’re right. And you’d be right to guess that I knelt down and picked up a bunch of those blueberries there on the ground – and felt a little self-righteous about doing so.

But there’s a little more and it’s important.

What I discovered as I picked blueberries off the bushes was that if I wasn’t careful, I would knock some other berries off too – knock them right down to the ground.

And it got even worse.  I noticed that even when I WAS careful, I still ended up knocking some down.

It’s easy for me to be a part of the problem too.

So here we are – called to a holy sort of hope in a world that treats a whole bunch of people (people like some of us in this room) as disposable – in a world of war and pain and cruelty. In a world of famine and peril and persecution. In a world of the sword.

It’s the way things are done. We have all of this against us. All of this done through us. At times done in our name and by our own hand.  If God is for us, who is against us?  Paul asks. The fact is that our own material world works against us all the time. The ways of the world even make us work against ourselves and our brothers and sisters in life. I knocked some of those blueberries to the ground myself, didn’t I?

And then Paul says: We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. And I say really? Really? I mean really? All things work together for the good? Really?

Somehow we have to get from there to here – from discarded people –  from good fruit of the spirit, good fruit of MANY spirits that’s left overlooked, disposable, discarded and we have to go from there to ‘all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose’

That’s our holy hope – that IS where we are going to end up. But let’s figure out how to get there – because we all need to get there together.

We understand what our culture teaches us – the way of the flesh, a path of death, a path of trampling on others – and often getting trampled on ourselves. A path of failing to see the richness of the folks on the ground.

But here is literally our saving grace – God is for us. God. IS. FOR. US. God wants us to live out God’s path of love, which we SEE INCARNATE in life of Jesus – neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, — Paul is pure poet here — nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is counter-cultural. It is not the way of the world. It is not easy. But, Paul says, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  We have help – and love – even when we don’t have words.

I barely even have to preach this – PAUL preaches it himself.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are being accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, — Paul says No — in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

So nothing separates us from the love of God. That love is all over that blueberry patch. Right at eye level, way on up high, right down at the knees, and definitely, surely, certainly, there on the ground. It is a single, constant, never-fading, never-ebbing love.

It is there for us, not just for us to take – but to let flow through us. Nothing can separate us from it. But we have to let ourselves see it. We have to feel it for ourselves. And then we are called to share it.

Let’s talk about this notion of calling for a moment. We’ve got those who are called according to God’s purpose.

Brothers and sisters, we are all called. Every one of us. We are called to live in this love. To be more than a conqueror – there are plenty of conquerors in this world of ours. God wants us to transcend the conqueror goal and reach for something better.

The specifics may vary, but each and every one of us has a call. We are called to dwell in the spirit of God’s love. We are all called to walk in the path of Jesus, however that makes itself manifest in our own lives.

When we live that out, when we take that idea deep inside ourselves and we let God work in us and through us, then we are participating in all things working together for the good.

It will not necessarily be easy – it can be difficult to swim against the culture of the death of the spirit. God may justify us, God may call us in a spirit of adoption, but God didn’t exactly make it easy for Jesus, now did he? – he did not withhold his own Son. We may not have to follow that call into death, like Jesus did or thousands of early century Christians did, but we can expect some challenges along the way.

But none of that, none of those challenges, none of it can separate us from the love of God. There’s the hope. There is the goodness.

Before we are done, let’s make sure we’ve got it.

There’s a passage we read last week, chapter 8 verses 24-25. – Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

We come back to this place of hope, this place where we hope for things unseen. And you know what? I CAN’T SEE how all things are going to come together for the good. Talk about unseen. . . But hope that is seen is not hope, right? Things that are proven don’t require faith. So I can live in the certainty of cynicism – there is plenty of visible evidence to support that assessment . I can be persuaded by the voices of death in our culture that it’s okay to treat people as disposable. I can give up on goodness.

Or I can tap into God’s ever-present, ever-abiding love, that love from which we cannot be separated. God calls us there. God calls us to be so infused with that love that we believe, even though we can’t see it, that all things will come together for the good.

And here’s the thing – we have no way to know. People live and die each day, people get stepped on and crushed by the ways of the world. It can be pretty awful to witness and worse to live through. But I can promise you this. If you pattern your life after that love, suffused with wisdom as you pick it up along the way, your spirit will experience that goodness. I’m not talking about heaven. I’m talking about here.

That spirit, that goodness is God within each of us. There will be rough moments, but if you live in and through God’s love – which is accessible to us all – then you. will. experience. God’s. goodness. The ways of the world — the troubles and the travails — they will not vanish. But You will know God’s goodness within yourself, no matter what is going on in the world around you.

God does not waste anything or anyone. God engages what is best in our spirits. No matter what, you will have that. No matter what, you can live in the fullness of responding to God’s call. And. that.is.good.

More Than Skin Deep sermon: Romans 8:12-25

There are multiple sermons in this text — and they can’t all be preached at once, so tonight I will focus on the parts that have been speaking to me. We will leave the rest for another time.

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

WHAT THIS IS NOT ABOUT — this is not about hating our bodies. That is not what’s going on here. Back in the time of the early church, there was a thing called Gnosticism. Now Gnosticism separated out the soul and the body and said the body was evil. It made this dual way of looking at things where one was good and one was bad This is not about rejecting our bodies.

If God intended for us just to be spirits or souls, what’s the point of even having a body? No, our bodies are our home for fully engaging the world.  We are here to literally embody God’s love.

There’s a whole lot more to talk about on that topic, but it’s not really quite the point here. But it’s so important that I didn’t want to not take on the topic just for a minute.

So what is it saying, this part about the flesh?

Well, what is flesh? We think skin, right? This is our flesh.

You know the expression skin-deep? shallow, skimming the surface. Below the flesh, we have muscles for movement, bones for support..

That’s what we are supposed to avoid — living skin-deep. Just touching the world in the most shallow way, where in a good rain or a shower it’ll just all wash away. We don’t want to just live skin-deep. We’re looking deep, into muscle and bone. It’s how our spirit moves. That’s what muscles do, right? It how we support our spirit, right? That’s what bones do.

thin-skinned
skinflint
light-skinned
thick-skinned
having skin in the game

To live according to the flesh is to live a superficial life, a life of of rebelling against God’s call to go deeper. It’s reveling ONLY in the human condition. That is not enough. We have to go deep into God’s spirit and into our own.

Okay, so let’s keep going . . .

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

A SPIRIT OF ADOPTION — that sounds pretty cool. God CHOOSES us to be GOD’s children. CHOSEN. I am chosen. You are chosen. You are chosen. Every one of us — every one of God’s precious children. Not enslavement, but being born into the family of God. Being born into the body of God.

So, in this spirit of adoption → we are heirs of the divine. ALL of us. We are ALL heirs of the divine. All of us. That means we are all (ALL) brothers and sisters. ALL of us.  Doesn’t matter your

age
skin color
national origin
sexual orientation
ability status
economic status
or even your religion
ALL.

Heirs of the divine.
Fellow children of God.

So when we keep Central American children in cages on the border, we are caging our brothers and sisters. The 50 children or teenagers die or are injured in gun violence in this country EVERY DAY are our brothers and sisters.

We are all heirs. Everyone of us. Now we are not all exactly the same. You noticed that, right? Some folks are taller than others. Some are blacker or browner. Some are better at math. We speak different languages, have different cultures. It’s beautiful. I’m an only child, but all I have to do is look around to know that brothers and sisters are not all identical twins. We’re different, but we have all received the same spirit of adoption.

You know, Paul doesn’t even know the people he’s writing too for the most part. He’s never been to Rome. These folks are strangers to him. He is preaching a grace that transcends our immediate circles, that transcends our man-made borders. Romans preaches an impartial God, a God of all. A God who values all. And calls us to live our lives deep in the body of Christ. In the muscle. In the bone. Not just skin deep. We’re talking deep down.

Okay, what else we got?

I consider that the sufferings of all of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that while the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

Creation is in a state of eager longing — in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay. We see that bondage all the time – in the earth. And we see here the connection between us and all of creation.

Glory.

Even when we don’t have words:  groaning.

For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Hope and patience.

In a week where 268 Palestinians and 2 Israelis were killed as Israel and Hamas pounded each other, where 298 died in violent flames when the Malaysian airliner was shot down, where anti-immigration rallies wanted to ‘Make Them Listen’, where whatever difficulties arose in your own lives — because there isn’t a soul in this room that doesn’t have some troubles of their own – and they can range from minuscule to mountainous. This is what we see around us.

The professor and prophet Cornell West reminds us that there is a difference between hope and optimism. There are many, many reasons that we may not feel optimistic about the state of the world – or even about our own lives.

But that must not rob us of hope. That hope is what we have all been called to live into. We let it sit deep inside of us. We have to know the hope of the path of Jesus in our blood and in our marrow. Because if we just let it sit on the surface of our skin, all that mess of the world will wash it away.

And when we pattern our lives after Jesus, we have access to that hope. We can have it our bones – our bones that hold us up. We can have it in our muscles – in what moves us. We can have it in the blood that flows all through our bodies. We can embody hope for a world that so desperately needs it.

That kind of hope is holy.

An East Lake Liturgy

This is a simple but deliberate liturgy for opening and closing the day. I wrote it in the context of a particular community, one to which I feel meaningfully connected even when I’m not there in person.

It is not an abstract spiritual exercise, but a call to sacramental living. This serves as a liturgy of the everyday incarnation,

The use of plural pronouns reflects the ritual’s nature as a collective endeavor of the community rather than as an act of individual piety. We are part of one body, even when we are not physically present with one another.

An East Lake Liturgy
For the morning:
We open this day in the promise of God’s love and presence.
We open our hearts,
we open our minds,
we open our table,
so that by the power of the Holy Spirit, with joy we may know
God through each person we meet today.

In the shadow of Ruffner Mountain,
In the shadow of the interstate,
in the shadow of buildings and bell towers and overgrown lots,
may we bring God’s presence into the life of this community.
In laundromats, in schools, in convenience stores, in homes,
may we know ourselves as gathered around a common table.
This is the work of God’s church and its people.

For the evening:
We end the meal that is this day in a spirit of thanksgiving.
We know we have fallen short many times.
Through God’s grace we go blessedly into the night and
begin again tomorrow.

The grace of Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit
is with us all.

Insider/Outsider sermon: Philippians 3: 4-14

So here we have the apostle Paul in a really interesting letter. The people of Philippi are Roman citizens. They’re Gentiles. They’ve been supportive of Paul. And for the most part this is a pretty happy letter.

Now Paul can be rather irritable in some of the Epistles. Like in Galatians, he’s flat out angry. But in this letter, there’s a fair amount of talk of joy. He’s examining how we create a community where people gather in faith to equip themselves to live out this incredible message of Jesus, this vision of justice that Jesus embodied.

Paul’s in jail while he’s writing this letter. This is years after the death of Jesus, whom Paul never actually knew. Christianity has spread among small communities of people and Paul is giving them counsel. He actually sees the potential for good to come out of the whole situation because the word is spreading about Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.

Paul has hope. He is in the empire’s jail, but in his own fashion, he has hope. He’s always improvising. Not a big doctrine guy. He deals with the problems of the moment, in the greater service of the promise of Jesus message.

When we get to these passages, however, Paul does give voice to some frustration. We don’t know exactly what’s been going on, but it sounds like some people have been imposing conditions on participation in the vision of Jesus.

They’re saying you have to do this to be sacred to be a part of the group- it probably has somehow to do with circumcision and other elements of traditional law. Paul is frustrated because here they are, missing the point.

They are taking their eyes off of what’s important – making manifest Jesus’ dramatic justice – and worrying about who belongs.

Isn’t that what we so often do? Wherever we have a community, we have some people who are going to create boundaries, right?

You belong.

You don’t.

And you???

Well, we know there’s something ain’t right about you.

Jump through this hoop. Hmmm . . . . Insider. Outsider.

(I do have to say – this church does a mighty good job of avoiding that – maybe better than anywhere else that I’ve ever been a part of. But even we have to watch ourselves about it. And we sure all have to watch it when we get back out there in the world).

So here’s Paul — If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

He’s listing his credentials here – his qualifications to be counted for insider status. From his past life, before he fell out on the Damascus Road and found Jesus. He’s got all the right stuff. Listen at all this again:

circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

His. resume. is. tight. Flawless according to the ways of the world – the flesh, the culture, the law. You got a condition. Paul can meet it.

But then –

whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

Here it is.

All that other stuff isn’t the stuff that matters.

Here when Paul is talking about flesh, he’s talking about the human ways that we divide ourselves. These traditional laws, our customs, our institutions, these hoops we make people jump through.

That’s the stuff that these early Christians were using to draw lines between themselves, to impose conditions on participation. And Paul is saying No. All of this stuff falls away.

What matters is a path of following Jesus. Those are earthly distinctions and we just need to keep our focus on God’s justice.

For Paul, faith means imitating Jesus. It means trying to live the life Jesus lived – one that stared in the face of the Roman empire and in the face of religious authorities devoted to self-promotion, to the preservation of their own power.

It is NOT a life without suffering. It’s life that leads straight to the cross. There is brokenness all along the way. But to get to the resurrection, to get to the promise of God’s vision, the enactment of God’s vision? You have to get there by way of the cross.

For the early Christians, that often meant a real cross. This is the church of the martyrs. These people were dying on behalf of Christ dying because of their loyalty to the messiah’s vision. Paul’s like, if that happens, you’ll be with the messiah.

And while we’re here, we’re going to keep the faith.

We keep that in mind as we deal with the empires of today. We are not typically called to literally die. But following in the path of Jesus – setting aside the conditions and definitions of our world and culture – this is not easy.

It is an empire of commercialism.

We commodify and we discriminate.

We bomb – how many countries have we bombed just in the 21st century?

We set conditions on belonging – white enough, rich enough, thin enough (but not too thin), young enough, straight enough.

We’re going to decide if you have an able body or an able mind.

Or you know what, you might just be so rich and white and ornery that I believe you ought to be excluded. Yeah, that sounds about right.

But No.

Paul isn’t saying anything goes. He’s calling people to live their lives in imitation of Jesus. But no one gets judged by some arbitrary markers of belonging assigned by the world.

Paul is trying to help the Philippians nurture a sense of community – to establish relationships with one another that enable them to follow this path of Jesus with insight and courage. It is an active path – one that we can follow – there are no preconditions that keep us from belonging. We belong because we walk the path. And we see our brokenness. And we see the brokenness of the world around us. The sacred is everywhere we look. We just have to look. Holy ground is all around us. We just have to realize that’s what it is. And we have to keep going. This faith of Paul is one of movement, of action. It’s not stale belief or tired platitudes. It’s active.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own, but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Finding the sacred is an active path. We do it together. We push back against commodification and conditions of our contemporary world and continue forward together.

Sunday morning – 6-7 am – radio program on WBHM called With Heart and Voice – program of sacred classical music – lot of chamber music and pipe organs and lilting vocals – I love that stuff – wake up – listen – trees outside window – changing light – right after that – news program called Weekend Edition – some of y’all might listen to it – go from this rich beauty, this deep sense of the sacred – wham – right into the problems of the world – but you know what – it’s all sacred.

There are no conditions that make one thing sacred and not another.

The sacred is personal devotion and public justice. If you follow Jesus you will find both heaven and hell right here on earth. It is a part of the Christian journey.

This table is sacred in part because we come around it together. On the night before the crucifixion, Jesus blessed this table for all of us. ALL of US. No conditions. It is a meal for all. This is World Communion Sunday, so today we all share the reverence of the Spirit as a part of a worldwide, incredibly diverse community of faith. We join with our brothers and sisters around this table – and in this church the table is open to all.

Wedding Banquet sermon: Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet. But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet. Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

There’s a lot going on in this story. It’s complicated and even confusing when we think about the images of God and Jesus that we typically embrace around here. Jesus starts this out like he does so many of the parables — the kingdom of heaven is like this

There are multiple meanings we could make of the story- and I don’t want to foreclose any for you. But, as with all stories from the Bible, we need to find a way to get a hold of this, to make some sense of it. So I’m going to offer a couple of ideas.

Let’s talk for a minute about this in the context of Jesus’ time, about the world into which Jesus offers this parable. What do we know?

First of all, we know Jesus is not all sweetness and light here. This is not warm fuzzy Jesus. Jesus is angry. This is the beginning of chapter 22 in Matthew’s gospel, right? At the beginning of chapter 21, Jesus enters Jerusalem — it’s the narrative we traditionally think of as Palm Sunday. He’s been traveling around the countryside, preaching, teaching, and healing. And then he comes to Jerusalem. He enters with crowds shouting Hosanna and cloaks and branches on the road. He’s got his disciples with him. And Matthew tells us the city is in a clamor, in a turmoil wondering about this man Jesus.

What happens after that – he goes to the temple and turns over tables and turns out money changers, he withers the faithless fig tree, he gets into it with the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. These are the people who have sold out their faith to the empire. Then we get a parable about a vineyard. And then we get another parable about a vineyard. All of these are pointed at the Pharisees, the religious authorities beholden to the Romans, the servants of empire.

The Pharisees are already ready to go after him – they want to have him arrested, but Matthew tells us they were afraid of the crowds. Because the people believed Jesus to be a prophet. This story we’ve heard is the final straw – because verse 15, the aftermath, reads “Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.” He has been getting on their nerves, threatening their power, and after this, they’ve had enough.

And then we come to this story  —  this hypothetical situation that Jesus is posing:

We’ve got a king with a son who is getting married – we’ve got an invitation to all the best people — to this fancy event. The king has gone all out to prepare. But his invitation gets mocked, gets ignored. He sends an emissary or two and they get messed up, even killed. This is all wrong. So the king deals with them — in terms that would make sense to the people who are listening — to those who were listening in Jesus’ time and to the audience that Matthew had in mind later, which was also probably a Jewish one.

Then we get a turn that we’re more comfortable with — the king says  “Invite everyone.” Everyone. No conditions — last week we were talking about conditions, right? Or the lack of conditions? Everyone is invited. That sounds like the God we preach in this church, right? All are welcome.

There was a story a year ago about an Atlanta couple, Carol and Willie Fowler, whose daughter Tamara cancelled her wedding at the last minute. The reception dinner for 200 was paid for and planned, so the couple prayed about it and then turned to an organization that works with the homeless. They invited 200 homeless men, women, and children to a celebration.  It was a grand event.

We get that. What an incredible parallel to the banquet Jesus describes. Everyone belongs at this table. Pretty incredible message for this weekend. Yesterday was National Coming Out Day, an annual event where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people are encouraged to tell their stories. Tomorrow is Columbus Day, where we paradoxically celebrate the “discovery” of this continent — and the genocide of the native peoples who had been living here for centuries. We live in a world where people have to somehow prove their worth, to prove their very humanity. We measure people based on their wealth, their looks, their productivity.

That’s not the measure God takes. We are all invited to the table.

So if Jesus had just stopped there, we’d be in pretty good shape. Let’s put ourselves at that banquet okay? Close your eyes for a minute. Get a vision of yourself at that banquet, gathered around that table. You can see it, can’t you? This works, this inclusive vision. Right?

But Jesus, does he stop there? Nope, he does not.

Somebody gets singled out here. The King comes out and there’s a man without a wedding robe. Now, our first question would be – okay, people invited in off the street, what’s the big deal. But most sources seem to agree that it’s pretty likely that provisions were made – people had access to wedding robes, whether their own or those provided by their host, the king. So regardless of interpretation, the general agreement is that this is a deliberate act by this person.

My father has been known to describe me as contrary. So I feel for this person a bit. He is being contrary. But if you look pretty closely, it could even be considered an act of treason – this being the king and all. The whole story comes together to suggest that the stakes are pretty high.

So here comes the king:  “Friend” – how’s that for a loaded word? not sure whether he really means that, but it’s a civil way to address somebody. We don’t get the tone, but regardless, this is pretty restrained. The king’s giving ‘em a chance.

And what happens – okay – put yourself there, standing in front of the king – nothing. Not a word. Speechless. Are you there? Can you feel it? Maybe you’re watching or maybe that’s you. Doesn’t say a thing.  Talk about awkward.

I write thousands of words each week for my online classes. It’s what I’m required to do and most of the time it’s not a problem. But every once in a while, I find myself staring at the screen and going “I don’t have a single thing to say.”

That’s not the only time I’m speechless. I logged on to the New York Times – the newspaper’s – website yesterday – and here was the breaking news that greeted me

Four Bombings Kill Over 50 People Around Baghdad

Some Remains in Mexico Are Not of Missing Students

Football Clouds Justice at Florida State, Records Show

Hundreds Attend dictator Duvalier’s Funeral in Haiti

Stray Shot Kills a Child in New Jersey

We know I could keep going. Sometimes we just stand there, struck mute by the pain and horror of the world.

This is different from silence, which can be restorative, nourishing. Sometimes we just need to hush, right? And listen. It’s not always better to say something than to say nothing.

I don’t think that’s where we’re going here. Silence can be valuable. But it can also be deadly.  Sometimes an answer is called for. And we’re not talking about excuses – we’re talking about taking this seriously, being real.  Our language – and our silences – shape the reality we live in.

We preach a loving God around here – and I absolutely believe that to be true. But what I hear here is that there are things that matter.

It’s not just the absence of a robe that gets this guest in trouble.

It’s the absence of an answer.

It’s a failure to respond. To speak to the needs and the heart of the community.

We are talking about lines to be drawn, behavior that is acceptable — or unacceptable. Not belief. We’ve turned Christianity into something that’s about what we believe or don’t believe. For Jesus it’s not a question of belief. That’s not the standard he’s talking about.

It’s not about what’s in here, up in our heads.

It’s about what’s out here, all around us.

The offense is in the behavior – this unexplained refusal to participate in the life of the community. The king has opened his table to all, welcomed all — and this guest showed up, but refused actual engagement.

We serve a loving God, but it is okay to let. Jesus. challenge. us.

This is what makes us different from the fire and brimstone people — we know this invitation and table are open to all. Just look at the literacy event we just had here  — what a perfect banquet, totally in the kingdom’s vision — young and old, gay and straight, black and white, rich and poor, good and bad – okay, I ain’t going to call anybody bad, but we all have our good days and our not so good days, right? Gathered in God’s name to celebrate our common mission, to learn, and to join together in God’s work in this world.

But this story is also what makes us different from the prosperity gospel people — those who look at all this as what we can GET from GOD. This whole Christianity thing is not just about what GOD does for US. It is about OUR responsibilities in the COMMUNITY. It about how we function in RELATIONSHIP to ONE ANOTHER. Here we are – God is telling us to PARTY with one another – and somebody is going to say no.

In those terms, there is a wide range of acceptable behavior. And then there are forms of disrespect, of I’ve-got-my-rights-and-my-freedom-and-to-hell-with-you, of I’M-GONNA-STAND-MY-GROUND-EVEN-IF-YOU-END-UP-DEAD, of contempt and ignorance and flat out ugliness to one another.

That.is.not.okay.

So God says no. That is not acceptable. Talk to me. No? Not going to talk to me? Not going to enter a conversation about this? Then no.

So this guy gets hustled out and cast out. Through his actions, he separates himself from God’s presence and from the company of those who seek to follow the teachings of Jesus. It’s a refusal of fellowship of community.

He’s cast out of the light and back into the outer darkness, back out onto the streets with all the other folks who decided to ignore the invitation, those who chose not to participate.

Those who not on condition of belief, but by their behavior, separate themselves from God’s promise.

Because many are called. The invitation is there. But few are chosen. And you know why? Because they opt out. They refuse to engage with their neighbors. They turn up their nose and reject the fellowship and the conversation. They opt out of the community.

They don’t know what they’re missing. WE know what they’re missing. We’ve gotten a look at the fellowship of the table, one that calls for the generosity of spirit for all.  But they elect to go another way.

They are missing a great party.

Church Parking Lot Ambiguity: Part I

Still not the what-to-do-about blight/Part II post (I’m still thinking), but an encounter from a while back. I’ve noted it as as Part I. That’s not because I have an immediate sequel in mind, but because there are many situations where mercy, justice, and moral ambiguity (and sometimes parking lots) intersect. It will come up again.

I attend Sunday worship in a busy, diverse urban neighborhood. One warm day, my daughter and I were walking across the parking lot at church after the early service, talking about a quick stop at the grocery store on our way home. We greeted the crew of regulars who sit, smoke, and talk on a short flowerbed wall between the two doors that most people use to enter the education building. I nodded to a short white woman in overall shorts talking on her cell phone after we turned the corner. We were about 10 feet from our car when I heard the words behind me “Hey, let me call you back in a minute.”

I knew what was coming.

“Hey, excuse me.”

We turn to face the woman in the overalls coming toward us. I’m only 5’2”, but I’ve got a good 3+ inches on her. I take her to be just few years older than me, but she has the familiar look of hard living. She reaches us and says “I get my food stamps on Thursday, but I was wondering if you would help me with some groceries or something until then.”

Ah, hell.

(that’s what I say on the inside.)

On the outside, I look politely at her, but pause before replying. She keeps talking – “I’ve gotten vouchers here before. I know Rev. Sally. Can you help me just until Thursday? I can’t come during the week because I’m working. I work 7-3:30 and I live over there in housing at the Neighborhood House just over there and I used to have a car but it quit working and you don’t know anybody that has a car I could pay on a little at a time, do you? They take us to the store and I’ll have my food stamps on Thursday and I work during the day, but I’m looking for an evening job. Do you know anybody looking to hire for the evenings? Just right there at the Village Market so I’ll have something to eat until I get my food stamps. ”

She looks at me. My 13-year-old looks at me.

Ah, hell.

I start with the easy route – “I don’t actually work here. I just come for church. I don’t know anything about the vouchers.”

She looks at me. My 13-year old looks at me.

The narrative that runs through my brain in about 15 seconds: I’veNeverSeenThisWomanHereBefore. IHateItWhenPeopleComeUpToMeInParkingLots. MyKidIsWatchingThisForALesson. WhatLessonDoesThatNeedToBe? I’veJustBeenToChurch. ThereAreSoManyNeedsInThisNeighborhood. ICan’tHelpThemAll. IsSheJustTryingToRipMeOff? ForGOD’SSakeIAmTakingAClassCalledEatingAndDrinkingWithJesusAndIStillDon’tKnowWhatIsTheBestThingToDo. IHaveJustBeenToChurchAndThisWomanIsTellingMeSheNeedsFood. WhereIsEverybodyElse? Sigh . . .

I have been in this situation countless times across my life and across the world. It is never easy for me to discern the optimal thing to do. Never. I am always winging it.

We have a mutual moment of silence there in the parking lot under a bright morning’s sun. Then I commit.

“So you just want to go down the street to Village Market and get a few things to last you until Thursday?” She nods. “Okay, c’mon. That’s my car right there. My name is Jennifer and this is my daughter, Lillian.”

She introduces herself as Gina. We talk about kids. I tell her Lillian is my only one. Hers are grown. She worries about her younger son, Vic, who is serving in the infantry in Afghanistan.

As we enter the small neighborhood store, I tell Gina, “Look. I’ve got some money, but not a whole lot of extra money. Will you make sure you just get what you need until your food stamps come?” She reassures me of her thrifty intent.

Gina picks out simple items, looking for what’s on sale: bread, eggs, Vienna sausages, orange juice, chips, sandwich meat, and cheese slices. I help her find a 2 liter bottle of diet Mountain Dew and don’t begrudge her a pack of the gum she likes. I grab a few items as well so that Lillian and I don’t have to make another stop. Gina’s portion of the groceries total up to $32.

After we’ve loaded our purchases into my car, she starts talking about paying me back in food stamps and recites her cell phone number. I ask her to show some kindness to other people she meets. I consider this a practical response. We drive the couple of blocks to her apartment, help her take the groceries to her doorstep, and tell her we’ll pray for Vic in Afghanistan. On the subsequent 10 minute drive home, Lillian and I discuss of the moral murkiness of the situation. I finally conclude with the thought to her that no matter what the truth of the matter is, the food will get eaten by someone further down the hierarchy of wealth and power than we are. I’ve modeled decency, I hope, by being friendly without prying, respectful but careful. I tell her it’s hard to know what to do.

And it is.