Questions

How do I resist materialism and the need-it-now culture?

This question came from a financially-savvy friend who had offered some basic budgeting workshops for us and discovered that more than budgeting, folks were really asking: how do I resist materialism and the need-it-now culture? They already knew how to make a budget! Their struggle was sticking to the budget in our culture where all it takes is one trip to Target or a click on Amazon to see and want a ton of stuff that we probably don’t need. That might be NBD for most of us once in awhile, but a habit of doing that shapes our lives. Our dreams of supporting favorite our causes might not be getting realized because our money is going who-knows-where. And many of us are struggling just to survive financially from month-to-month! My friends were looking for some heart wisdom and direction around money because we want our money to make a difference, not just toward our own survival.

It’s a great question because Jesus said that our hearts are located with our money. The stuff we spend money on is indicative of what we care about. We can look at our bank statements and discover what is important to us.

And it’s worth a look, in fact it’s a good spiritual practice, because it’s just so normal in our culture to keep buying stuff, whether we’re rich or poor. And to feel like we need that stuff right now, as the questioner called our culture a “need-it-now culture.” We do have a need-it-now culture, don’t we? I felt like I needed coffee today, so I got one, when I might have been satisfied at the water fountain in our building. We want gratification as quick as we can get it. That’s part of why people are dying of drug overdoses in our streets. That’s why it was so radical what Mable was telling us last week about embracing discomfort. That is countercultural, Jesus, counter-intuitive, life-embracing wisdom. It’s not the message from the corporations and advertisers that appeal to our lower instincts. The message from the corporations is that we’re entitled to feel better right now, via the pill, the dress, the car, the vacation, and they’ll keep pumping out ways for us to do that, probably to the detriment of our hearts and real lives. Amazon just topped Walmart in sales this week — even though Walmart’s sales increased this year too! The pandemic certainly contributed to Amazon’s assent (we needed some stuff to be delivered to our doors) but do we need all that stuff? And I hope I’m not shaming anybody, because I am right there with you in having lots of stuff I don’t need. I don’t even know offhand how many pairs of shoes I own; do you? Even though most of my shoes are from the thrift store, I have way more of them than I actually need. 

So how do we answer the heart question that this questioner is asking? How do I resist materialism and the need-it-now culture? I believe it starts by honing in on what we really do need. What do you really need? Aside from food, water, shelter, and friendship, I think that most of us would agree with the rich young guy who came to Jesus to ask what he needed to do to have eternal life. He had soul needs that his wealth couldn’t touch. Most of us here are here because we’re aware of the same need too: we have this soul part of us that is made for a life with God that is in and beyond all this, and there is no substitute for that need.

Let me read you the story from the gospel of Mark, though this story is so important it’s in the Bible three times. I emphasized a few things.

As He was setting out on a journey, a young ruler ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do so that I may inherit eternal life?” But Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not give false testimony, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth.” Looking at him with LOVE, Jesus said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But he was deeply dismayed by these words, and he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.

And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus responded again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were even more astonished, and said to Him, “Then who can be saved?” (What a great question.) Looking at them, Jesus said, “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”

This wealthy young man is so sincere, like all of you. Even though he is a ruler, he kneels down in humble recognition of who Jesus is. He knows Jesus has something he needs. 

He calls Jesus “good,” but Jesus makes the point right away that no one is good, in order to communicate to this guy that all of our goodness isn’t enough to earn us eternal life either. Jesus asks him for the one thing that would require that he put his faith in the grace and mercy of God to save him, and this poor guy just can’t do it. Too much of his hope and identity is wrapped up in his wealth. So that’s what’s between them! Jesus knows that for this guy, he’d have to stop putting his trust in his assets in order to really trust God for his life. And Jesus knows, that in general, that’s a huge challenge for all people who can rely on their money for security and esteem and power. (That’s all white people, to some degree, in our country. Big unconscous barrier for us in trusting and knowing God, because we have unearned privileges we can rely upon instead.)

Jesus compares this challenge to the largest animal in their culture getting through the smallest opening. Pretty impossible.  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Only with God could something this miraculous happen — and that’s the point of the story. That eternal life is impossible without God. But Jesus is making a way for us! Our invitation is to trust him, more than anything we have or can do. It’s something God gifts us through God’s self.

So to the question of “how can I resist materialism and the need-it-now culture?” I’d say know that what you actually need is a life that relies on God’s grace and mercy and love. And organize your life around that love. Practice going deeper into it, like we are here in this meeting. Do hard things that make you rely on God, not just your own strengths. 

The practice of Ignatian indifference helps me turn my heart around when I get to thinking that I really need more of some thing I don’t have in order to be worthy of love. Ignatian indifference is the capacity to LET GO of what doesn’t help me love God or love others, while staying engaged with what does. 

Indifference, in this sense, does not mean not caring. In fact, since God is love and God’s redemptive work takes place through love, we cannot be indifferent in the Ignatian sense unless we love and love deeply. Each time I became a new mother, I fell in love with my child, in a way that had me awe of the gift of them. The glory of sunlight sparkling off ocean waves on an endless horizon often leads me to a sense of wonder and praise. The delight that I feel in mutually supportive friendships fills me with gratitude. But Ignatian indifference means that when the baby grows up, the friend moves away, or the day at the ocean is stormy, I can still find ways to love God and people.

This is not always easy. I often get attached beyond my capacity. But when that happens (and you’ll know when that happens because you’ll get frustrated about your needs not being met) I’m thrown upon the mercy and grace of God again. And it’s only resting in God’s love for me that I can freely love others and see everything as a gift. God is enough for me and I’m enough for God. That’s the secure place I need to come back to, that helps me resist materialism and anything else I’m tempted to think I might need right now. Gratitude and God-worship brings me back there to that place of knowing I already have what I need in God’s love. God’s love and friendship are the foundation of Ignatian indifference.

It’s God’s self-giving love that enables us to choose to love others, because we’re never undertaking love alone, but always in friendship with God. So my second suggestion for resisting materialism is to make a regular plan to SHARE what you’ve been given. Even if it’s just an unemployment check we’re giving out of, we need to give, even “just” for our own soul-care, to keep from losing ourselves to a scarcity mindset. 

We face a lot of poverty in our city, even our own city, around 50%. But did you know that if you work a minimum wage in the US at 40 hours a week, you make more annual income than 92% of the world’s population? That puts our global needs in perspective for me, along with the call to keep sharing what we’ve been given. Even as a church, we’re able to share money around the world through our thrift stores. That’s why they exist: for relief and development all over, and they keep stuff out of landfills by re-selling it, so they care for the earth, too. In addition to that, we’re committed to sharing 20% of our common fund sharing to needs beyond of our own body. That’s because a life in Christ is abundant in ways we can’t even codify, even in our own poverty! Our common fund also exists to help us help each other with real needs that exist among us; sometimes a “scarcity mindset” is indicative that we actually have bills we can’t pay! And we need the Body of Christ to work together to help make up for wage gaps and unjust systems of inequality, as well as unforeseen disaster. 

We are all in this together in more ways than not. In the midst of my many unearned privileges, I feel a lot of financial solidarity with almost everyone I know, because all of the really big money in the world is tied up together and owned by an elite few (God help them.) For example, one of world’s largest asset management firms, BlackRock, is all over the crisis in Afghanistan right now, setting up new business that profits from the current arrangement, and at the same time manages (along with another firm) more than half of the funds in the Thrift Savings Plan, which is our government’s retirement plan for federal employees that includes the servicemen and women that are distraught about the United States pullout there. Do you see the competing interests there, working together financially? Big money is usually tied up together, protecting its own interest in big money regardless of all other interests. They own most of the wealth in the world, while most of the world’s population is together on the same underside, comparatively speaking. So why wouldn’t we help each other out? Why wouldn’t we build an alternative economy of abundant love and sharing?

I want to leave you with the story of Eustace from the last book in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, to illustrate the ongoing heart change that Jesus offers us in answer to this question about materialism.

Eustace is a never-content little guy who is in love with his treasures. One night, he falls asleep with a gold bracelet on his arm and transforms into a dragon, becoming an outward manifestation of his inward self. The bracelet gets tighter and tighter, and he can’t get it off. He’s driven from humanity, and in a moment of great loneliness begins to cry. Aslan the lion, the Jesus figure, arrives and asks Eustace to follow him.

They go down to a well. The water clear and inviting. Eustace senses that the well can heal him. But before getting in, Aslan tells him to undress. Of course, dragons don’t wear clothes, so Eustace realizes Aslan meant he must shed his skin first. So he starts scratching and scratching. He says, “And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bath.”

But his scales grew back. So he goes through the exercise again. But it grows back again and again. Until Aslan says, “You will have to let me undress you.” Eustace was afraid, but he saw the task was impossible in his own hands.

“I was afraid of his claws,” Eustace said, “but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off… Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only that hadn’t hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…

After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me…in new clothes.”

The rich young ruler who approached Jesus was the Eustace of his day. He needed to be de-dragoned by God in order to be content as his true self. We all do. We need Jesus to undress our fears and insecurities in order to know that life-giving water of abundance in him and only him, as we really are. He saves who we really are underneath all the stuff we put on top to protect ourselves. He saves us as we really are, not as who we’d like to be. He can remove our false saviors—the stuff we think gives us the esteem and security and power and control that we think we need — and shows us how to be loved and cared for as we are in him. The rich young ruler didn’t trust Jesus enough to lay down and let him tear deep. But we can. And so doing, we are freed to stay with Jesus in his mission of abundant liberation instead of walking away sad. 

Lord, help us to keep building this new economy of trust in You. Not relying on anything we’ve worked for or been given, but laying them before You for Your work: our freedom and Your abundance for all. And when we feel like it’s impossible to change (like every day) — help us. Remind us that this is YOUR work and you can do it in us, until everyone has more than enough. That’s what we really want, Lord. For everyone to be cared for and have enough. Show us how it’s possible in You.

Do I have to believe in the resurrection?

This great question came from one of my cellmates around Easter, but it holds year-round. We were talking about our sunrise meeting and the meaning of the holiday and she got real honest and said something like…”I really like this Jesus thing we’re doing: community love and goodness. But it’s hard for me to believe that anyone actually rose from the dead. Do I have to really believe that to be a Christian?”

We all thought it was a great question, because as central as the resurrection is to our faith, it may be really hard for most people to actually believe, at least cognitively or intellectually. How could a person actually could come back to life after being dead for three days, especially after a torturous and disfiguring historic death? My friend who was asking this question is really smart, multiple graduate degrees, and she knows how biology works. Who can actually reverse the natural process of death? Plus, we are all so surrounded by death, and most of us have sort of sinking sense of it in our own lives, so it’s much easier to believe that “all good things must come an end” more than that everything is going to have a new beginning. Which is what the resurrection actually means! That Jesus was the first to rise, and eventually all else will be restores and made new,  nothing wasted or lost. What if we actually believed THAT???

More on that later…

Because the easiest answer to this question is no, you don’t HAVE to believe anything. Faith cannot be forced and doesn’t have to be faked. Our doubts and questions are all part of the God-seeking and faith-finding process. My dear friend was wondering if she was in or out of the club for her lack of faith, but the fact is that many dedicated Jesus-followers through the centuries (and ones that I know personally) have gone through long seasons of struggling with cognitive belief. And many folks who don’t call themselves Christians seem to produce the most beautiful fruit of resurrection faith in their life and work. So only God can judge, and we probably put too much emphasis on cognitive “belief” vs a trust in God that is lived and practiced and sought and wrestled out through all the tensions of our everyday modern lives. In all of it, I think God’s heart holds all of us of “little faith.” Remember when he affectionately called the disciples “little faiths?” He understood their struggle to believe even though the miracles were happening right before their eyes. 

Part of why I hold cognitive “belief” loosely is that we’re all on a journey of working with the revelation we’ve been given. Life hands us so many versions of the “truth;” it’s hard to know who and how to trust. People sometimes make up their own realities sometimes to survive, and alternative facts were a thing long before Donald Trump. My dad likes to tell a story of being a military commander in Uzbekistan, when he asked his lieutenant for a report on a complicated situation, the lieutenant said, “Sir, nobody’s lying, but the truth keeps changing.

This happened with our car two weeks ago. A man who was high and asleep at the wheel flew down our street in his car and slammed into our minivan that was parked across the street from our house, totaling it. My son Zach heard the crash and ran outside in time to see the driver waking up and trying to gather his needles and dope bags from the front seat of the car. About 10 neighbors saw this whole thing too, and one neighbor even has it on video from their surveillance camera that’s apparently always filming our street! 

But what the police report says is totally different. They have a woman driving the car with a guy in the passenger seat, and they said it was raining and the car slid in the rain! None of that is actually true, but I imagine they are trying to protect this driver from being charged, who is incidentally is a white man who had a “Back the Blue” sticker on his car. “Nobody’s lying, but the truth keeps changing.”  

The “truth” changes so much in our world, and justice so often eludes us. That’s why it’s understandable to me that it’s difficult to accept something as purely wonderful as eternal life and the victory of God over death forever. We might be afraid that it’s too good to be true. 

Jesus understands our challenge, too; so much so that he mentions us modern people in this great story at the very end of John’s gospel. I added some explanation and bolding:

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus first came to them (in his resurrected body.) So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, (because Jesus must have known Thomas’s struggle!) “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Blessed. Blessed are you who haven’t seen and yet believe. That’s us! Jesus is pronouncing a special blessing over all of us here today who weren’t around 2000 years ago to put our hand in his side. He is acknowledging that it might be hard to believe this ending to his story, (that is really just a beginning.) It might be hard for us to believe, so he offers us this gift, saying that we are blessed when we do believe. What does he mean by blessed?

It’s not the #blessed that we like to throw around when we feel good or get some desired outcome in our lives. There actually no word in the English language to describe what Jesus means by makarios, the Greek term for this kind of blessing, but I’m going to try to describe it.

Makarios is a happiness that comes only comes by God’s intervention. It’s not just a feeling as much as it is satisfaction and comfort in God’s grace and mercy. It’s about being in a position to RECIEVE from God, and it’s a gift that cannot be forced on another. It is received by those who are hungry for it and not willing to accept any purely human substitute. (You can see how this annoyed the violent revolutionaries who want to force God’s will on the world, and it really annoyed the religious leaders who wanted to earn their favor with God.) Makarios “blessed” cannot be earned or forced, it is the gift of faith from the Spirit. My friend Zach just pointed out to me that we might replace the word “belief” with “hope” to understand what Jesus is offering.  I agree! “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

We might be setting the bar way too high on our ability to work ourselves into cognitive belief, when the invitation is to receive something miraculous from God. Part of why it’s so difficult to believe in the resurrection, friends, is because we’re addicted to thinking that we have to do everything ourselves! We’ve gone through so many difficult things that we assume we have to take everything into our hands to make it happen. We’ve become so capable and smart and self-reliant that it’s really difficult to accept what we don’t understand or can’t control.

This is why we need Holy Saturday. I love the practice on the day before Easter of just sitting around in the nothingness of the grave and wondering again if anything is going to happen. Will God save us again, or is it all for nothing? Will we waste away in our grief forever, or will God rescue us? I think we need a day, in fact, a life posture of waiting on God to receive instead of running ahead of God to do. We might not actually have to pump and work our way into happiness like we think we do. We could learn to receive the miracle from God, unexpected grace and mercy that we might never fully understand. 

That’s the resurrection, friends. My friend Dave Michaux and I love Walter Brueggemann, a modern-day prophet who likes to dig into this Easter mystery. One year he wrote on his blog (emphasis mine):

Christ is risen.

We give thanks for the gift of Easter

that runs beyond our expectations,

beyond our categories of reason,

even more, beyond the sinking sense of our own lives.

We know about the powers of death,

powers that persist among us,

powers that drive us from You, and

from our neighbour, and

from our best selves.

We know about the powers of fear and greed and anxiety,

and brutality and certitude.

powers before which we are helpless.

But then You – You at dawn, unquenched,

You in the darkness,

You on Sunday,

You who breaks the world to joy.

Yours is the kingdom…not the kingdom of death,

Yours is the power…not the power of death,

Yours is the glory…not the glory of death.

Yours…You…and we give thanks

for the newness beyond our achieving.

It’s hard to believe in the resurrection, friends, because we can’t achieve it. It breaks all the rules and norms that we’re comfortable with. That’s why the religious leaders killed Jesus right after he raised his friend Lazarus to life. Resurrection was too much; too uncontrollable and uncontainable and unachievable for them, too.

But what if we opened our minds and hearts to God for it? What if we asked for the faith to believe that the resurrection is true? What would happen? Would hope leak into the hidden corners of our hearts? What new risks of love might we take? What would be possible Jesus was right here alive and at work in the midst of our worst conflicts and biggest worries? Then we are blessed, makarios, to trust him to keep moving beyond our understanding to make all things new. To make us new. The resurrection gives us a glimpse of an eternal future where there will be no more sorrow, sickness, violence, death, or any separation from God or each other. Can you imagine that? I can barely imagine it, either. But it know it brings hope through the suffering and death I face now. I believe in the resurrection because I need to know there is more. 

I want to leave you with a little discovery from the Hebrew language that helps me believe in the resurrection, too. The Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and in just that very first phrase the ancient Hebrew holds the message “the Son of God pressed by his own hand to a cross.” It blows my mind that right from the beginning, God foretells this miraculous story of love. That right from the very beginning, God presents a way for new beginnings. And it’s an open conversation; the Hebrew language is organized more around verbs than nouns (unlike western languages) so there is lots of room for doubt and revelation over fixed ideology and certitude.  God is making a way for our becoming, in ongoing relationship. We really are blessed in this hope that nothing we face right now is the end. God’s grace and mercy is at work on our behalf in ways we don’t have to understand in order to live in faith and hope. The invitation is to trust Jesus to save us from death both now and forever, and that hope is the heart of the Christian faith. It’s as wild and miraculous and wonderful as it sounds, and we can hope for the hope from wherever we are on our spiritual journeys. If we can’t muster up the hope on our own; even better; we can ask the question and seek him in community like my brave friend. He doesn’t leave us alone in our seeking; he comes to our side like he did with Thomas. 

Can the church be safe place for everyone?

What a great question. My mind immediately goes to the times that I did not feel safe in church meetings as a kid, like the times I’d be sitting with my friends and one of us would start laughing about something, and then none of us could stop laughing. (Did you ever notice how it’s harder to stop laughing when you’re supposed to be quiet?) That would happen, and sure enough, one of the church elders would come back and give us a threatening stare, and I’d feel so terrible.

On a deeper note, it wasn’t very welcoming to my little psyche that there were never any women up front in church unless they were speaking as a foreign missionary or asked to publicly confess a (sexual) sin. And I never learned about the many women leaders of the early church mentioned in Paul’s letters or throughout medieval church history until I got to Circle of Hope. In spite of Jesus’s obvious love and trust for women as co-laborers in the gospel, misogyny had worked its way back into church culture.

When I got to Circle of Hope, my now-friend Tracey was up front preaching from the book of Isaiah, vulnerably and bravely connecting her own personal grief around an issue the prophet was connecting with the bride that was Israel, and suddenly my whole body was kind of welcomed into the experience with God in a new way. I felt seen in a way I didn’t consciously process at that time. But I was able to relax into an openness to hear from God because I felt God’s acceptance for people like me (women) AND Tracey was giving us all permission to be vulnerable and honest with our grief, not having to be shiny happy people who have to have it all together. I was able to let my guard down and let God see my sadness, too, and that began a journey of real conversion and transformation for me.

I’d love for everyone to find that kind of “safe place” in the church. To be seen and known and accepted by God on the way to transformation.

Safety is kind of a loaded word that may not be ever fully achievable in this world, because after all, the world is not safe and here’s Jesus is inviting us to pick up our crosses! But I know that this questioner is asking about a space of welcome and acceptance that is crucial for most of us to even get in the door and experience the love of God that keeps inviting us deeper.

Jesus gives us a good recipe for a safe place in Matthew 18. We typically look at a tiny piece of this chapter when we talk about forgiveness and reconciliation in Circle of Hope, but I want to look at the entire chapter with you because it leans toward the transformation of the whole self and the whole world that Jesus is after.

Jesus reveals here that he wants the church to be a safe place for “little ones” in faith, and he does this by calling an actual child among them and saying we need to become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of God. He shows how the safe place is created when give up our ideas about making ourselves great, and respond instead to God’s love and care and guidance for us.

Our ideas about greatness are probably highly influenced by individualism, capitalism, whiteness, fear, greed, self-reliance. We are trained to think that we must acquire wealth, status, knowledge, esteem and affirmation from others, or at least some fame on Instagram. Our ideas about greatness might be religious too! We might think we have to be good and righteous in order to receive God’s favor.

Jesus is saying the opposite by telling us to be like children: children regularly make messes and they need help. They are dependent on the goodwill of others for survival and relationship. God would like to relate to us like that – as we really are. No illusions of our grandeur. We need help, too! And Jesus is ready to offer that guidance and provision and love.

Why do you think the children were so drawn to Jesus? I think it’s because they were seen and known and delighted in as the “imperfect” and needy little ones they were. They were fully accepted that way and they knew it. They recognized the Holy in that acceptance and delight, and were in a position to receive from God what God was doing and what God is about. No pressure to direct and perform and manage and manipulate and achieve, to prop themselves up any further. They were already elevated by God!

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them.  And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Jesus says that he is like these little ones! And we know that he is, in relationship with the Father! Always listening and receiving and looking to his “higher power” (even though we’re talking about the same power) for his affirmation and guidance.

Jesus is calling us into a relationship with God that creates a safe place for others. If our ego needs are filled by God, we are less likely to hurt other little ones. If we’re waiting for God to elevate us instead of propping ourselves up, we’re less likely to step on others. If we know that we don’t have all the answers, we are more likely to create spaces of learning and curiosity, where others can have all their questions too. (That’s why we’re agreeing with our questions this season.) If we don’t have to be perfect because God loves and forgives us, then others can find God’s acceptance too. Remember, the people that Jesus challenged the most were not the Roman political oppressors, they were the religious leaders who though they were so self-righteous and had all the answers! They were so full of themselves and their striving for goodness and esteem and busy religious lives of important purposes that they didn’t need or have room for the active work and presence of God.

Jesus calls us grownups to be dependent again, looking to God for all that we need and trusting that we’ll be provided for because we are intimately seen and loved. This is a lifelong journey of downward mobility – very countercultural – and it will feel like death to our self-sufficiency because it is! But Jesus offers his protection for us little ones – those who believe in him – and calls us to protect other little ones.

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.  Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!  If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

Wow. I won’t get into a conversation here about what Jesus might mean by “hell” but suffice it to say that Jesus is very committed to a place of safety for those who believe in him. He knows we are little and it’s easy to stumble, but we are responsible for each other in our vulnerability. That means we don’t bowl over the new person in the cell meeting with our great Bible knowledge or any easy answers. It means we’re open to inviting the poorest person on our block to the meeting, and we don’t count out our atheist friend who’s only the tiniest little bit curious. It means we don’t give up on the one who struggles with addiction like so many in our neighborhoods right now, and we don’t cancel our neighbors with different views and lifestyles. Instead we stay open to transformation – theirs and ours. It doesn’t matter if we’ve been a Christian for 40 years and have a lot of experience and know a lot of things; we are relating to the little ones in faith by recognizing that we ourselves are little ones, too! We don’t have all the answers either yet, thank God. We are looking to God for more, beginning again each day, surrendering to the great mystery that is Creator and redeemer God. We are confounded by this God’s sense of justice, who leaves the 99 beloved sheep to go look for the one who is lost! Could we be that one sometimes?

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

This tells me that Jesus is serious about our transformation. All of us. Even us when we’re wandering way far off from our transformation. We are his beloved little ones, and he’s not willing that any of us should perish in our rebellion or arrogance or blindness, so he’s looking to find where we are, and call us back into community, the “safe” place of transformation with God.

Speaking of transformation, we have been longing for our siblings of color to experience more safety in Circle of Hope. We are listening for the stumbling blocks to that safety this year. It requires white people, in particular, to become like little children with Jesus, letting go of answers and tradition and unearned privilege that we’re trained to hide behind. Jesus, the little one, can transform us by drawing us into new ways of loving interdependence with God and each other.

Jesus isn’t just waiting for this to happen. He knows that the world draws us toward power differentials and hierarchy and isolation and cancellation, so he offers a way to do the opposite. He is not just waiting until we all get better and drawing up the boundaries until we do, he is working for our transformation and asking us to partner with him in that work. We can learn from him in this work! (Matthew 11:29) He teaches us about the hope of transformation and inclusion through mercy and forgiveness and direct relating:

 “If your brother or sister sins go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Whom Jesus still called, BTW)

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’  In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

From the heart! Yikes! Jesus isn’t letting us get away with performative mercy and forgiveness! He is calling for our total transformation. And I believe the only way to consider this possibility is to become a little one with Jesus. To ask for help. To let go of our entitlements and receive from God. Only then can we hope to forgive those who don’t say sorry or understand their offense or choose to reject us and take advantage of us. Only then can we hope to be little enough not to step on others with our successes or unearned privilege. Only as little ones can we wait for God to elevate us instead of needing to prop ourselves up.

This is a journey of downward mobility that Jesus is recommending. It begins in the heart, and it’s very counter-intuitive, because everything about the American way teaches us to acquire status and wealth and prestige and self-sufficiency and personal accomplishment. The way of community – of the kingdom of God – takes us in another direction. And it will take a lifetime of commitment to Jesus to keep moving in this direction, placing our identity and worth and security more in God and community than anything else. That shift from self-sufficiency might even feel like death as we get older, but it is the best kind, opening us up to saving our lives by losing them, as Jesus says. Only the power of the risen Christ can enable us to become like little children with God, trusting the Spirit to meet our needs and guide us. And that dependence is probably our only hope of creating a church space that is safe for anyone. Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.

Let’s be gentle and loving with ourselves in this transformational process of becoming like little children with God, just you would with a little child! Let’s keep asking for help, above and beyond us, and we will be met by Jesus himself.

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” Matthew 18:10

What is the “kingdom of God?”

The seaside is one of my favorite places to be, and I was able to go there recently with some extended family. One day we woke up early to squeeze in some paddle boarding before a tropical storm. The wind was already picking up and the water was choppy, but we discovered that if we paddled into the wind and hugged the shore, the wind would scoot us right back home when we turned around.

My 13-year-old niece thought she might just enjoy the ride and let the wind take her where it wanted to go. In a matter of seconds, it seemed, she was a tiny dot on the horizon and the wind was continuing to take her further out! My family ran up the shoreline to try to keep her in sight while I looked around for help.

Just at that moment an official-looking guy came up to me on shore to warn me to be careful because of the tornado watch—that the wind was getting stronger—and I told him that we were well aware because my niece had just disappeared into the horizon! He went for his jet ski and rescued her.

Later he told us what we really needed to know: that the water was only three feet deep, even all the way out! The sound looked endless and deep because of the seaweed on the bottom, but if my niece had simply jumped off the paddle board she could have stood up in the water to keep from getting carried away. But she didn’t know how close the bottom was, and so the distance between us grew while she felt helpless and afraid.

Closer than we think

Many of us felt that way at some point during this pandemic, but the kingdom of God might be closer than we may know as well. It’s like the solid bottom we can stand on to keep from getting carried away by the wind of separation and isolation and fear. Jesus often said that the kingdom of God was near, or “at hand,” which is even closer than the ocean bottom to my niece. Stick your arm out and picture Jesus right there where your hand is. Jesus IS the kingdom of God in person and he was describing its nearness as he stood in front of people.

This week someone asked me, “What is the kingdom of God anyway?” It’s this great mystery that Jesus described in so many different ways, so it’s a good question! We’re embracing all of our questions this season.

When people hear the kingdom of God, many of us get stuck on the word kingdom because it’s old fashioned and it implies rulership and authority. It is about God’s authority in the sense that Jesus is Lord over life and death, but that’s very different than rulership of an empire. People have suffered from oppressive empire throughout history, but Jesus embodies a totally different kind of authority: one that vulnerably shows up to love.

Jesus uses several small organic metaphors to describe the kingdom of God, normal everyday miracles like seeds. They don’t look like anything special, but they contain infinite possibilities and potential. Compare this to a small act of love and kindness that changes your day. The kingdom of God is like that! And these seeds are in us, in our mouth and in our heart, as Jesus said, and they are us. We are seeds of the kingdom.

The kingdom is a treasure

Jesus also talks about the kingdom like a joyful discovery of something really valuable, and maybe unexpected, maybe something lost and longed for like a treasure. It’s like finding a pearl in an oyster, or finding your lost pet, or coming back together for Sunday meetings after a long time apart, like we are now. Jesus is saying that finding God and being found by God is like that. It’s a discovery moment of something real and wonderful that makes you want more of it. He tells this story about a person who finds a treasure buried in a field and what they do next is get all their money together to buy that whole field, not just to secure their asset but to see if there is more treasure buried there! They’re allured by the potential. The kingdom of God is like that, an implied promise of what is MORE. That the best is yet to come. This promise is worth the investment of our whole lives, our whole selves, in order to fully experience it.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a person found it, they hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Matt 13:44

This is our theme verse for this season around 2212 S Broad Street in Philly, because we’re discovering again that this communion with God and others is what we’re really looking for. It’s the realest thing. It’s almost like before the pandemic we could pass by the field of this treasure and not know how much we needed and wanted it. We didn’t buy the whole field because we didn’t know how valuable it was. “Oh, there’s that church meeting I should go to. But the Eagles are playing and I gotta rest up for work tomorrow.” Or “I don’t have anybody to go with and nobody really cares if I’m there.” Or “Christians are the worst. With all the hypocrisy and harm done in the name of religion we’d be better off without it.” And so a lot of us passed by the field, not knowing what treasure could be found.

But during the pandemic we’ve faced our pain and problems in a deeper way. We’re getting closer to our longing for what is most real. We’re glimpsing treasures in ourselves and others that may have been buried for a long time. Some of us hit our own rock bottom and found some treasure there.

A season of healing and re-creation

So we move into this moment now with new awareness and wisdom and longing. We’re entering a season of healing, and the kingdom of God is all about healing. It keeps seeking us, like the treasure we are. Each time Jesus healed someone it was like a little taste of the resurrection to come. That’s the ultimate promise of the kingdom of God: that death will never have the last word. The kingdom of God is life upon life upon life, especially when it looks like all is lost! That’s when the surprise comes again and there is a new beginning, just in time. In the kingdom of God, the field is vast and there is more space than pressure. Time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God exists in the fullness of time, just like Jesus was born “when the fullness of the time had come.” In the kingdom of God, the invitation is always, “just stay here for a little longer…breathe.”

That’s because the kingdom is here right now and not just some other place in the future. The kingdom of God got indestructibly planted into the earth through the cross, and God’s self-giving love initiated infinite possibilities of recreation and renewal, including everything and everyone on this hurting and wounded earth. The possibility of violence becoming peace, and everything lost being found keeps being revealed, or at least planted like a seed. I know these sound like impossible ideas, but Jesus actually came to do it in his body, to make all things new. And he will complete this work of recreation in the end, which is really another beginning! In fact, the kingdom of God could literally be translated in some places as “recreation.” A new beginning here! When Jesus said “my kingdom didn’t come from this world,” he was talking about origin, not location right now. The Spirit empowers us to be part of the work of recreation right here and now in our bodies, our relationships, our willingness to move toward our hurting and wounded parts with this vulnerable hope of becoming something new.

The new beginning

This is the treasure in the field, my friends. It is endless new beginnings for all of us.

In my experience, the new beginning often starts with forgiveness. The grace and mercy of God reveals a new opportunity to become. Extending that to others expands the field. The kingdom isn’t a theocracy that is about God’s authority—it is a oneness with God through Jesus as friends. We share God’s power to forgive and renew, even with ourselves.

The new beginning is about the humanization of all relationships because God became human. This means that we can understand and accept our humanness, and that we don’t give up on each other in disappointment or failure. We don’t need to solidify images of each other in our worst moments, because the kingdom of God holds out hope for our transformation. We hold out hope for the possibilities in each other because of Jesus. That’s how love works: it banks on transformation even in the acceptance of our now. Sin deforms us in myriad ways: greed and patriarchy and the lie of white supremacy—damaging ways that people are taught to oppress and miss the humanity in each other—but the kingdom of God reveals our true form. Through showing up with curiosity to discover the treasure that is in each other, and going for it with our whole selves, we can be part of the Beloved Community that Dr. King envisioned.

Purpose

So the purpose of the church is not to maintain a status quo (of our own or of the world), but to keep seeking new beginnings. These new beginnings are real and tangible and consequential. Not just mystical or “spiritual.” In fact, everything is spiritual because the kingdom of God is here. Our Circle Mobilizing Because Black Lives Matter team just led us to raise over 30K as a step toward economic justice for our Black covenant members! We know it doesn’t make up for the ongoing wealth gap in our country, but we want to experience some justice now. It is a taste of the age to come.

You probably already know that the more you experience the kingdom of God in your world now, the more you will hurt and long for the fullness of it. That’s why the person who finds the treasure in the field gives everything they have to buy the whole field! The potential for more healing and communion with God and each other is worth everything. Our taste of communion with God and each other keeps us longing for more. And that longing hurts like a hunger sometimes; it’s a tension between the experience of holiness now and the hope of everything included in that whole. The sample taste of what’s truly good allows us to see and feel what’s not done yet. If you have experienced the kingdom of God you will feel angry and powerless sometimes in your longing for it where it’s missing, and you might find yourself saying “Maranatha,” which means “come Lord Jesus!” The more we experience the nearness of the kingdom, the more our chains begin to hurt because we know that freedom is near.

Friends, I hope that’s where we are right now as a church. Closer to the treasure, closer to recognizing Jesus in all of us and all of us in Jesus, closer to letting go of all we don’t need in order to buy the field and dig for the vastness of God’s love and mercy. Let’s pray for each other in our seeking, for perseverance and courage, and for assurance that we can jump off that paddle board when we’re floating away and stand up because we have a firm place in the kingdom of God. It’s here, and we find grace on the bottom, enabled to walk against the winds of fear and separation as we make our way home.