Mistaken Blessings

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At 3:03 am I woke with these words in my head, “Holy S***! We have been so wrong about what it means to be blessed!” Before these words, I had been dreaming about walking on a beach in the midst of an intense winter storm. I was dressed warmly and could walk through the winds, the ice and snow, and crashing waves without distress or discomfort. I was desperately searching for someone or something. Then I woke up with a revelation echoing through my head.

As long as there has been human beings, we’ve associated prosperity or success with God’s blessing. Our accumulation of wealth and power, individually or communally or nationally, is proclaimed as evidence of living in a way that pleases God. I think this is wrong, misguided, though understandable. God does not hand out rewards or punishments to the chosen few (or many). God really cannot work that way or the wealthiest, most power-centered people would be the ones God most favors. If that were the case, God would be on the side of empire-building oppressors. How have we not seen that we have attributed the things that this world values as a sign of God’s favor? God does not value these things.

In fact, God values the very opposite. In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes we are told what God’s blessings look like. We are also told that woe will come to those who ignore those whom God views as blessed. While Jesus is clear about who is blessed and who is not, we have embraced the opposite point of view. We have fooled ourselves and created a breach between popular Christianity and God’s holy ways.

Jesus tells us that the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the reviled (for the sake of the Gospel) are blessed. Yet, we tend to blame them for their situations. We see poverty as a failure to work hard. We see hunger as a failure to use resources well. We see weeping as a character flaw. Most startlingly, we see anyone who might be persecuted for faith as lacking a fundamental degree of sanity. It’s as if we have not heard a word Jesus said.

How is it that we have come to seek after riches, full bellies, easy laughter, and the approval of those around us above other, more essential, things? According to Jesus, these things are met with woe. These are not the blessings God hands out. Yet, we repeated live as if this were the truth. How many times do we hear folks saying, “I am so blessed” because they have achieved something culture has determined is good and worthy?

It’s important to note that Jesus was speaking to his disciples when he called out the blessedness of those we would rather ignore. Because the blessedness comes when we are active in service to our neighbors. The blessedness comes through relationship that results from building the Realm of God. As followers of Christ, we are blessed when we are poor because we have used our financial resources in service to our neighbors. We are blessed when we are hungry because we have shared our food with our neighbors. We are blessed when we are weeping because we are merciful and compassionate in relationship with our neighbors. We are blessed when we are reviled because we have sought to bring Divine Love into the world above all else. Blessing comes in the hardships wrought through embodying Christ in the world today.

On the other hand, if we are rich it is because we have not shared our resources to the fullest extent possible. If our stomachs and cabinets are full, then we have not added enough seats to our table. If we are laughing, then we have not risked depth of relationship with our neighbors. And if we are not reviled or ridiculed for the sake of the Gospel, then we have failed to build the Realm of God.

We really have been wrong about being blessed. Individual, communal, or national prosperity is not a gift from God if it leaves out any of our neighbors. As followers of Christ we have no business being rich if anyone around us is poor. We have no right to be full if any of our neighbors are hungry. We have no right to easy laughter if any of our neighbors feels unloved, unwanted, or unseen. We ought not seek the approval of others before we seek to bring Love into the world. All these things will bring distress, if not to us then to our neighbors.

May we adjust our understanding of what it means to be blessed by God. Prosperity, wealth, power, success mean nothing if our neighbors have so little. God does not choose one person over another. Human beings have set up kyriarchy. Let us find the blessing in dismantling it and repairing the breach that we have made between what we value and what God values. Let us all seek to be blessed in the ways that Jesus indicated.

RCL – Year C – Sixth Sunday after Epiphany – February 17, 2019
Jeremiah 17:5–10
Psalm 1
1 Corinthians 15:12–20
Luke 6:17–26

Photo: CC0 image by Anja

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Let’s Be Like Peter

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I like Peter. In fact he is one of my biblical favorites. He has moments of impulsive wackiness, flashes of transformative insight, and he’s totally caught up in his humanity. And Jesus relied on him through it all. If Peter could be Peter and love and serve God, then there’s hope for me, for the rest of us. Luke’s story at the lake of Gennesaret is the perfect example of the hope Peter provides for all of would-be followers of Christ.

Early in the morning the fishermen return with empty nets and were washing them out. Jesus comes along and asks Peter to row out a bit. Jesus then proceeds to teach the crowds from the boat. We don’t know how long he spoke or what he said. All we know is that when Jesus was done addressing the crowd, he told Peter to continue out into deep water. I can almost see Peter roll his eyes before telling Jesus that they’d been out all night and caught nothing. But sure, if you say so, I’ll go out again.

Peter humored the unusual rabbi and lowered his nets once more. To Peter’s astonishment, it was worth it. He needed help hauling in his nets which were full to breaking. And it hits him with full force just who Jesus is and just who he is, “Lord, get away from me! I am a sinner! I did not believe in you or in myself. You picked the wrong guy. I am not worthy.” Jesus response is perfect. “Do not be ruled by your fear. You are meant to be catching people in nets of Love. Come on, we have work to do. You and me, and James, and John, and others along the way. Leave your fear with your boats and follow me.”

And Peter does! Peter will screw up again. His humanity will get the better of him and he will forget that Jesus is Lord. He will let fear overtake him again and again. His impulsive acts will get him into trouble. But he always comes back to Jesus and setting up those nets of love to catch people up short and free them from their fear.

The world needs more Peters. I try. I try not to get caught up in my fear or the fear that is so pervasive around me. I try to string those nets of Love, tying new knots where anger and hatred have torn through. Then there are those days when I just want to cry out, “Lord, get away from me; I am a sinner. I don’t believe this can be done. I don’t believe it can be done by the likes of me. I am afraid to love those who spew so much hatred. I am afraid that anger will get the better of me. I am not the one you want out in the deep water. I don’t think I can drop these nets.”

If I am honest, Jesus is always there saying, “Yes, you can. Love is stronger than fear. Most people don’t remember that, ever. Let down your nets and others will come to help bring in the catch. We have work to do.”

Yes, we have work to do. When a wall is being built in a way that separates loved ones on an arbitrary, human-made border, where is Love? When congressional women wear white and are called defiant rather than powerful and strong, where is Love? When white men in power refuse responsibility for their racism and the racist system that supports it, where is Love? When faithful people of all religions squabble about dogma and doctrine rather than coming together in efforts to raise up humanity and care for the planet, where is Love?

In this time of extraordinary fear and hatred, we must put our trust in that unusual Rabbi who directs us all to venture into deep waters. Then remains with us when we question our value, our ability and wonder if there is any such thing as holy wisdom and guidance, let alone Love. We cannot afford to give in to the fear and hatred that is encouraged by those in power. We need to string together our nets made of Love until acts of resistance topple the current empire and Love has its day. It has to be possible. We cannot give up. Do not be afraid. We are called to catch people with these holy nets tied together with Love.

RCL – Year C – Fifth Sunday after Epiphany – February 10, 2017
Isaiah 6:1–8, (9–13)
Psalm 138
1 Corinthians 15:1–11
Luke 5:1–11

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Life on the Edge

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I am afraid of heights even though I don’t want to be. If I am up high and get the feeling like I could fall, vertigo hits in a big way. I get dizzy and hear buzzing in my ears which increases the feeling that I could fall. It doesn’t matter how safe I am, it happens and I cannot rationalize it away. Truthfully, though, I don’t avoid heights. If need be, I will climb the ladder or the mountain, walk along the bluffs, and peer over the edge. The vertigo will hit and the dizziness will come with its buzzing in my ears and I will wait for it to pass. And it does. Everytime.

I read the passage about the people of Nazareth pushing Jesus to the edge of a cliff because they were angry at him. They were angry that he spoke truth in their midst and challenged the status quo. They were just going to push him over the edge of a cliff so they could resume their life as usual. I would like to think that I wouldn’t have joined in with that crowd that day. I would like to think I was among those who helped Jesus slip through the fear and anger and go on to another town. However, I’m not so sure that would be the case.

Everyday I hear about someone pushing Jesus off a cliff and sometimes it’s me who gives the last push. You know what I mean. When someone claims to be a follower of Jesus and refuses to act with love and compassion. When someone says they are Christian and pretends not to see the person sitting out in the cold asking for help. When someone professes Christ and then engages in politics of hatred. When Christians remain silent while racism governs too much of what passes for justice. When Christians hide behind the law and blame victims for the violence they experience. When Christians think that Jesus was white and endorsed the same supremacist views they hold now. All these things push Jesus to the edge of the cliff. Then my own collusion in the racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and zenophobia push him right off the edge.

The irony here is unmistakable. Those Nazarenes wanted to throw Jesus off the cliff because he challenged them to see beyond the limits of their comfort. He wanted them to see God-in-their-midst, standing right in front of them. He wanted them to take a stance against their oppressors. He wanted them to break free of the status quo and claim their power in love, love of themselves and love of their neighbors. He wanted them to live life without the limits of fear and hatred. He wanted them to claim their place by his side as siblings, neighbors, friends, as God’s beloved. He wanted them to claim their place and leave no one out.

They couldn’t do it. They couldn’t hear what he had to say. They couldn’t see who he was. Their fear and complacency was way too powerful. They believed the lies of their oppressors. They believed they were powerless to change the norms of their day. They chose security and predictability over the unpredictable safety of loving those around them with unconditional love that comes from seeking the Divine in everyone, even the Romans and those in Rome’s employ. They chose the security of the Empire over the intensity of living in God’s love. And they tried to push Jesus off a cliff.

Isn’t it time for us to line up along the edge of that cliff and prevent anyone from throwing Jesus over? It’s scary, I know. When you step close to the edge, there’s nothing at your back. Vertigo might hit hard. Your ears might fill with a buzzing sound. Your knees might grow week. But take a breath and take the hand of the person standing next to you. Life on the edge doesn’t mean life alone. All the people who have been dismissed and dehumanized are right there, too. They’ve been waiting to be seen and heard while trying not to fall over the edge into the abyss.

Maybe we should all take a look around and ask ourselves where we are in terms of that cliff. Are we in the heart of the Empire trying to keep ourselves secure? Have we sentenced others to walk the cliff edge so we can keep our privilege? How many times have we pushed Jesus off the cliff so we can keep ignoring the needs of our neighbors? It’s time we address our fears. Our fear of heights and our fear of Love. It’s not too late. Just reach out a hand and see God-in-our-midst in the eyes of your neighbor. The Empire has no power if we unite with everyone on the margins and refuse to send anyone over the cliff.

RCL – Year C – Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – February 3, 2019
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

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Fear Not

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“You are going to hell.” I was about fourteen the first time someone said this to me. I had attended a youth group meeting with a friend at a conservative church. After the meeting one of the kids asked me if I had been saved. Not having any idea of what was being asked, I said that I didn’t think so. Didn’t I want to be? I wasn’t sure. A little more cajoling followed and I remained uncertain and a little confused; I thought I already was a Christian. No one told me that I needed to be saved. The end result was the certain proclamation that I was going to hell. Since I wasn’t sure that hell existed as a place, I wasn’t overly concerned. However, I did think about it. And I worried that maybe I wasn’t the “right” kind of Christian.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the last time I was informed of my destined date with hell. It has been repeated more times than I can count over the course of my life. Some people were genuinely concerned for the state of my soul. Others were angry that I understood Jesus differently, and in a way that gave me permission to be me. Some just tried to instill the “fear of God” in me. Of all the things to be afraid of, I’m not sure God should be one of them.

Fear is not the best motivator for human behavior. When we do something because we are afraid of what will happen if we don’t do it, that fear narrows our world view. It’s a slow and gradual shutting down or shutting out of options. Fear eventually backs us into the corner where either meets or and we can see nothing else. I know Proverbs says that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” but it doesn’t mean what some people think it does. In this case awe is a better word than fear. Awe implies respect, a recognition of something greater than ourselves. It’s a better to approach God with awe than it is with fear. Fear has a way of narrowing down our lives.

In my teens I was anorexic. I remember the gradual way in which my choices to eat or not eat transformed into something I had no control over. In a matter of months, I was terrified of eating and of gaining weight. I knew what I was doing was unhealthy, wrong even, and I was absolutely powerless. It was a very long time before I could make a choice about my body that was not governed by fear.

This kind of governance by fear has no place in church. God isn’t sitting around waiting for us to mess up so God can pounce on us with wrath and punishment. When we act a certain way because we are afraid of God’s anger or afraid of going to hell, it won’t be long until we find ourselves trapped. We will be trapped into believing that there is only a right way or a wrong way to follow Jesus, to please God. Fear limits our vision and our imaginations. It can leave us spiritually hungry with no way to feed ourselves.

On the other hand, if we act the way we do out of love for God and gratitude for God’s love for us, our options open up. The Spirit isn’t limited to the narrow corridors defined by fear. Instead, the Spirit can flow and inspire us in all kinds of ways; either/or becomes a thing of the past. The more we recognize that God’s primary way of being known is through acts of loving-kindness, the more likely we are to generate those acts. As much as fear can narrow our vision, love is just the opposite.

When Jesus read from scripture in that synagogue in Nazareth, he was not trying to goad people into faith through fear; he was trying to demonstrate just how much God loves them. Motivated by love, Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, release the captives, give sight to the blind, free the oppressed, and proclaim God’s favor. Could it get any better than this? Jesus demonstrated God’s love with words and actions, and invites us to do the same. We are to engage in these same actions, not out of fear of hell if we don’t do them, but in response to or gratitude for God’s love for us. Where fear limits, love frees.

We can let go of our fear of God’s wrath and eternal punishment and take our places within the Body of Christ. We can take up the mantle of Love and get busy bringing good news to the poor, releasing the captives, creating new visions, freeing the oppressed, and shouting God’s favor with our whole lives. This is a lot of work and it takes time and commitment, but it sounds a whole lot more fun than sitting trapped in a corner somewhere trying to make a choice between either and or. A long time ago, God declared an amazing, unending love for the whole of the cosmos. Isn’t it time we stopped being afraid that we won’t or can’t be included or that there somehow wont’ be enough for everyone and start living in the fullness of God’s grace and abundant love?

If you are looking for more sermon help, try here.

RCL – Year C – Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 27, 2019
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

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Who are You?

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What makes us who we are? Is it what we do? Is it what happens to us? Is it our race or gender, gender expression, sexual orientation? Our age or education? Is it the way other people see us or the way we see ourselves? What makes us ordinary or extraordinary? Is it genetics or family relationships? What about environment or economics or opportunities? Mental health or physical health? My mother once told me that my grandmother asked how I could possibly have gotten into Princeton when I didn’t know anyone. Of course, my mother also told me that I had some “artistic skills” but they were learned, and my brother had the “real” talent. I grew up feeling less than ordinary, less than important. It took years to change that.

In more recent years I’ve been dismissed as just a woman, too young or too old depending on the circumstances. Sometimes it’s just a pastor. Sometimes it’s just queer. I shouldn’t know what I know or be able to do what I do because I’m not something in the eyes of someone who at least thinks they have power or authority over me. I can’t be Christian because I’m bi-sexual. I can’t be a pastor because I’m a woman. I can’t speak to mental health issues because I was educated in seminaries. The list goes on and on. I used to believe these judgments. I used to question myself and my value and my abilities all the time. I had a voice in the back of my head that constantly second guessed nearly everything I said or did.

Not anymore. Maybe it’s the privilege of being over 50, maybe it’s grace, maybe it’s healing, but I’ve come to a place where I know that no one thing defines me. I am more than a sum of all my experiences, education, roles, mistakes, and triumphs. I am decidedly more than anyone’s perception or judgement of who I am, or who I am not. And you know what? I am extraordinary.

And so are you. It’s ridiculous to allow anyone or any one thing to define who we are unless, of course, we’re talking about faith. God tells me I am Beloved and I am Delight. God says the same thing of every human being. Unfortunately, we don’t believe this message of love and value as readily as we believe the people who dismiss, devalue, and demean us.

Maybe more importantly, we believe that our value is determined by all the things society tells us define us. The funny thing is that social values are established and maintained by those with power. Those with power will always seek to disempower and oppress everyone else. They will twist everything to their version of truth and tell us everything else is wrong. How many of us have fallen prey to this power-hungry, greedy nonsense?

How many times and how many ways has God demonstrated God’s love for humanity? How many stories do we have that tell us it is God who makes the ordinary extraordinary? Jesus turned water into wine. The water was in purification jars and Jesus made it into wine. Water for purification rituals wasn’t needed when Divine Love Incarnate was present. Why not take that water and turn it into wine that would allow the wedding host to continue to offer hospitality?

This story also tells us that we become extraordinary when we use our gifts in service to someone else. Who we are and what we are able to do, don’t matter if we don’t use what we have in service to others. We are not meant to deplete ourselves for the sake of others. We are meant to serve others in a way that builds them up, that communicates their value as God’s Beloved or God’s Delight.

Imagine how different the world would be if we all recognized who we are and used the gifts we have in service to others. If everyone did this, not for the purpose of recognition, validation, praise, or payment, but to share the knowledge and power of God’s love? How extraordinary would we all be then?

RCL – Year C – Second Sunday after Epiphany – January 20, 2019
Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

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We are Named and Claimed

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With the recent release of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I hear a lot about Fred Rogers. People tend to go on about how much they loved his show when they were growing up. They watched faithfully and enjoyed his message of love, kindness, and acceptance. With each conversation I’ve been involved in, I try to keep quiet. So far, I’ve been unsuccessful. I always find myself blurting out, “I hated it!” It’s true. I could not stand watching the show as a child. I thought Mr. Rogers was a faker and a liar. He didn’t know me. It was seldom all that “beautiful” in my neighborhood. If confronted with watching his show, I would turn the tv off, leave the room, or read a book so I didn’t have to listen to him talk about how kind and nice the world was. Of course, decades later, I came to understand the power and the importance of the show and the work of Fred Rogers. But as a child, no, I wanted nothing to do with him.

This isn’t really all that surprising if you know anything about my childhood. I did not feel particularly loved or valued at home and in school I was often the victim of bullying. The truth of my young life is that most people weren’t very nice and nobody cared about me in particular. Why would I believe the perfect stranger on television who tried to tell me otherwise? I couldn’t tolerate Mr. Roger’s message of love because I hadn’t experienced it. And, being a child, I didn’t yet know that other families were different from my own.

This may be the problem when it comes to the kind of love Jesus preached and shared. Many people are highly suspicious of God’s love because they have not experienced it in a recognizable form. Today’s church has become so divided by doctrine and dogma, it’s hard to know what’s true or what’s right. Too often fear, anger, hatred, and judgment seem to be the way today’s Christians move in the world. Why would anyone believe in a God who only desires for us to know our value and live in love? It’s hard if you’ve only witnessed division among those who claim to be followers of Christ.

The concept of a loving God is not new to Christianity nor is our inability to claim it and share it. Many stories in the Hebrew Bible speak of God’s steadfast love. No matter how many times the people strayed from God’s ways, forgot to care for the vulnerable among them, and worshiped wealth and power rather than God, God remained. Always, God was present when the people remembered whose they were. Always, God’s steadfast love blanketed the people with forgiveness, grace, and new life. Without fail.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, neither shall the flame kindle upon you.

This ancient promise given through the Prophet Isaiah is still valid. We are still precious in God’s sight. God still calls us by name. We still belong to God. Yet, it’s too easy to forget. There is less evidence in the world of God’s love than there is of human fear.

As a child, I desperately needed the message Mr. Rogers tried to convey. I couldn’t hear it from a stranger. I needed to experience the truth from people I knew and trusted, and it took too many years before I was able to accept it. This is how we are with the message of God’s steadfast love. We don’t often accept it from strangers, even kind-hearted ones. We need to consistently experience God’s love from those we know and trust. It takes time before most of us can live out the truth of it.

Jesus had the benefit of a voice from heaven proclaiming his status as God’s beloved. That isn’t likely to happen to any of us today. We need to have the truth of our status as beloved proclaimed in the words and actions of those who bear Christ’s name. It is up to us to embody God’s love for everyone, most especially those who are vulnerable. It’s time we live what we claim to believe in a way that transforms lives. After all, this is what Jesus did. There’s no reason for people to hate church the way that I hated Mr. Rogers; everyone deserves to know that they are God’s beloved. How is anyone going to know the truth if we don’t live it?

RCL – Year C – First Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

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Fact, Fiction, or Something Else?

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Many times over the last few weeks I’ve had conversations with different people about the difference between truth and fact, particularly when it comes to the Bible. Apparently, the Christmas story – Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph, Gabriel, angels, shepherds, magi, manger – provokes a desire for knowing the difference between fact and fiction. When asked if these stories are true, I say that they are. Every detail in the stories points toward a greater Truth. The next question is whether or not the stories are factual, as in historically accurate. Probably not fully, maybe not even partially. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t Truth. And lack of facts does not diminish their power.

For example, the Epiphany story, Matthew’s telling of the magi, is the Gospel in the proverbial nutshell. If this story is not an invitation or a call for us to move from death to life, then I don’t know what is. The contrast is laid out clearly. If you follow Herod (human ways), the results are ugly. If you seek Jesus (holy ways), the rewards are remarkable. The facts may be sparse in these verses, but the Truth is abundant.

Consider Herod. Herod has been empowered by the Empire to rule over Judea. He enjoyed the privileges of his power. He had palaces and swimming pools. He did as he pleased. He appeased Rome and oppressed the working people and accumulated excessive wealth int he process. Herod served himself, probably more diligently than he served Rome. By the time the news of Jesus’ birth reached his ears, Herod had a lot to lose if the baby was the long-awaited Messiah who would set people free. From this point forward, Herod’s actions are governed by little more than fear – fear of losing his power, position, and possessions.

In contrast, the magi came looking for the baby, guided by the light of a brilliant star. They traveled quite a distance to pay homage, to publicly show their respect and reverence for the newborn child. They were guided by something other than fear. Maybe it was curiosity. Maybe they had some hope of forging an allegiance with the new king. Maybe they came to find out what was under the star. Whatever their motive, it was not fear and it doesn’t appear to have been self-centered.

Herod’s fear guides him to act in secret and with deceit. He does not want to pay homage to anyone. Herod wants to eliminate the threat and ensure he remains in power. When his plans are unsuccessful because the magi are not fooled, Herod’s infuriation turns murderous. The only one who will benefit from Herod’s actions will be Herod. Everyone else stands to lose, especially those with children under the age of two.

Fortunately, the magi are not fooled by Herod’s plans. They seek the child and are rewarded with overwhelming joy. Filled with this joy, they are moved to offer what gifts they have. Their lack of selfishness leads them to kneel before a manger with reverence. Ultimately, they are changed; they return home on a different path. They sought Jesus for Jesus’ sake and were transformed. New life was a gift they took home with them.

It’s a familiar story. If we look for facts, we are likely to be disappointed. But if we look for Truth we will hear the familiar themes of the Gospel message. Live as Herod lived – in service to the empire, thinking only of personal power, position, and possessions – and anger will rob you and those around you of life. Live seeking after Jesus and you will be overwhelmed with joy and that change will cause you to move through the world differently.

Once again we are faced with an invitation to choose holy ways and be gifted with new life or choose human ways and be guided by greed and anger until the life is sucked out of the world around us. May this season of Epiphany be one in which Truth is revealed and we all find ourselves going home by another road.

RCL – Year C – Epiphany – January 6, 2019
Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

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