Gardening Tip: Plant What Will Grow

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It’s my mother’s birthday and that always brings roses to mind. They are not my favorite flower. Given a choice, I prefer wild flowers over cultivated roses any day. Unlike me, my mother loved roses. At one point she had planted many varieties all over her front yard. In later years, there were not traces of most of the hybrid, delicate plants. Yet there was one rose bush that flourished. It had started out as a cutting from a friends’ white dawn rose bush. Over the years it had grown up the six-foot chain link fence, over a makeshift trellis, and down the old stockade fence. The last time I saw it, it was wildly overgrown, enormous, and absolutely beautiful in it’s early spring bloom of pale pink roses.

After my mother sold her house and moved away, I was disappointed when I discovered that the new owners had removed the bush completely. Moreover, I was sad that I had not thought to take a clipping of it to plant in my own yard. In my mind, I would have planted the clipping in my yard and repeated this each time I have moved since. If I had done this, I would now have a rose bush growing in my yard that was connected to the glorious one that had grown in my mother’s yard.

Funny thing, I now know it wouldn’t have worked. Eve if I could have gotten the rose to grow in each place I’ve lived since my mother moved – six places and three states in twelve years – it wouldn’t survive in Minnesota. Climbing roses like the white dawn don’t do well with harsh winters. Not only that, but I’m such an amateur gardener that the original cutting probably wouldn’t have survived its first planting, let alone the five subsequent ones. However, in my mind, that same wild, glorious bush that took over the corner of my mother’s yard after several decades of growth, is thriving in the back corner of my yard. Looking into purchasing a white dawn rose bush has proven to me that it’s time to let this dream go. That bush that was such a beauty simply will not grow where I live. I will choose another variety that is more suitable to Minnesota’s climate. It will still make me think of my mother just as surely as the white dawn would have.

As Pentecost approaches, I find myself having similar thoughts about the church. I grew up in a church that was just coming out of it’s heyday. In the 1970s the large, rambling building was still in full use with a busy Sunday School, active committees, choirs, and two services on Sunday. I went on to work as a youth leader and seminary student at churches of 2000 members and more. The first church I was called to as a pastor was over 800 members. These kinds of crowds inform my understand of what church was supposed to be for a long time. And, if I’m honest, I sometimes have to remind myself that this kind of church is a thing of the past. It was beautiful and glorious when it was in full bloom.2018-05-16 16.27.47

I used to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to cultivate church so it would re-grow into it’s former glory. In affect, I kept trying to solve the problems of membership and budget with tools no longer useful. Everything I had learned about church from childhood, college, and seminary were for a different era, a different climate. It was a time when attending church was the expected norm. People went to church because they were supposed to. It was the place to socialize, to network, to see and be seen. It was how you demonstrated that you were a “good” person. Parents brought their children to church because their parents had brought them. Yes, there were spiritual and religious reasons for church membership, too. Yet, it seems to me that a lot of church attendance had to do with existing social norms. Then, the cultural climate began to shift.

Somewhere along the way, the church stopped meeting the needs for community, for religion, for spirituality, for faith formation. A few generations have been clearly communicating their dissatisfaction with church. Yet, we keep trying to re-grow the old without paying attention to climate. What we cultivate or transplant, might be okay for a while, but a close look might reveal new growth too fragile to withstand the rigors of the seasons. Maybe it’s time to stop pretending that the old growth was always pruned well and remains as healthy and vital as ever.

I don’t suggest ripping these old churches out by the roots, though. They have a place, especially for those with long memories. But nearby, we ought to consider planting and cultivating another variety of church, a kind more suitable to the climate. It won’t look like the enormous, cultivated beauty of yesterday. The new variety is likely to be smaller, durable, and a bit wild. It’s time we admit that we have practically cultivated the Spirit right out of the church. But let’s not worry. As we plant a new variety of church, if we are patient, we will notice blossoms in a familiar shape as she grows her own way.

We would do well to remember that the Spirit, whose movement set heads on fire and blew doors open and bubbled up in a myriad of languages, cannot be tamed. If we cultivate and nurture a church suitable for this climate, the Spirit will surprise us with her tenacious, wild, beauty.

RCL – Year B – Pentecost – May 20, 2018
Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Photos CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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Set Apart for Unity

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As the sky darkens with an approaching spring storm, I am looking around my office at the salmagundi (I love this word!) of more than 25 years of ministry. The accumulation of items on my wall cover such a span of years and memories. I have “The Child’s Creed” from my third grade Sunday school class, cards, crosses, and pictures from each place I have served, receipts waiting to be handed in, pictures of my wife, and even my CREDO covenant. If this wall could tell stories, it would tell you of people and places who have touched my life. It might even tell you about those who served here before me and what it held then. It would tell you of sadness and joy, hopes and heartbreaks. Mostly, it would speak of love and service, the core of any ministry.

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Next to the wall with all its tacks and pins, are the shelves. They hold everything from books to palms, duct tape to dolls, and an assortment of other things, like the duck nativity set collected at the last Synod. I’ve read these books and written a few of them. There’s an old picture of Jesus and the children that I have loved since it was given to me in junior high. Memories stack these shelves, too. They whisper of youthful hopes and wisdom’s dreams. Together they tell the story of where I have been, and point toward where I might be heading next. They hold onto the ideas for children’s sermons (some better than others) and leftovers from Pentecost and Christmas celebrations. These shelves hold the possibility and promise born of years of gathering and learning and trying new things, knowing the resources will be needed again.

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Behind me hangs a quilt given to me when I left my first call. The blessings and prayers written on it have faded over the years, but there is joy in it still, and company. This quilt reminds me that I am truly surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. I need that reminder. I need to be reminded that I am not alone in this calling. I need to remember all the places I have served, all the people whose lives are linked with mine. I need to hear that being set apart for sacred purpose means being united to others in love and joy. That’s what this chaotic collection of tangible memories does for me; it reminds me that I am deeply connected to the Body of Christ.

You see, I’ve spent so much of my life feeling apart, different, unwelcome that the idea of being sanctified was not a comfort. I didn’t want to spend more of my life apart from others, even if it meant a life of service. Let’s face it, ministry can be a lonely job. How many times have I told people who express feeling lonely and isolated to go to church to be connected to community? How many times have I suggested that people can find ways to volunteer or find kinship in church? I tell people all the time that church can be a place of healing and a place to claim one’s value. But for a pastor, one’s congregation can’t do these things. And for someone like me who grew up always feeling the outsider, I’ve often felt lonely in ministry.

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As I read Jesus’ prayer for his disciples, assuring them that they are sanctified, something new opened up in me. As followers of Christ we are sanctified in love for the sake of creating unity. We aren’t meant to create unity in thought or practice or creed, but unity of purpose. The purpose is, of course, to make manifest the Realm of God, to incarnate Divine Love for our neighbors. We are sanctified, set apart for sacred purpose. And that purpose is to love others with a godly kind of love. If it were as easy to do as it is to say, then I wouldn’t have this office full of ministry miscellany. We’d all just be out there doing it.

My friends, we are all sanctified in God’s eyes. We are all set apart for the purpose of loving God, loving ourselves, loving our neighbors, and loving Creation. And we are all united as we try to live into God’s vision of and for us. This is the good news of this Easter season. May we all fully claim our identity as God’s sanctified people and have the courage to live this truth out loud.

RCL – Year B – Seventh Sunday of Easter – May 13, 2018
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Psalm 1
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19

Photos CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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To Love as Jesus Loved

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Sometimes things converge in a way that only God can arrange. When the release day for my book, The Lifesaving Church: Faith Communities and Suicide Prevention, was set, I’d forgotten that May is Mental Health Awareness Month. The book was officially released on the first, Mental Health Awareness Month had begun, and my sermon text for this week is, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” These things would be enough to contemplate for any sermon, but there is one more thing. There is an article about some new research that shows evidence that faith communities can be a contributing factor in suicidality for LGBTQ+ young adults.

While this does not surprise many of us, the church has no business being a contributing factor in suicidality for anyone. Jesus was pretty clear about what his commandment to his disciples was and is:  Love one another. Jesus didn’t say to withhold love from those we consider sinners. Jesus didn’t say to love only those who are like us and keep us feeling comfortable. In fact, Jesus simply told his followers to go out into the world and love as God loves them. And if we’re still unclear, we can add the text from 1 John that clearly states that one cannot love God if one hates their brothers, sisters, friends, or neighbors (1 John 4:20-21). How has the church, the Body of Christ, gotten so off-track as to be a factor in suicidality?

We’ve gotten so far from the imperative of the Gospel – make manifest the Realm of God or, put another way, Love one another – that we are killing ourselves. Yes, that’s right. We aren’t killing “others” with our doctrine and rigidity; we are killing members of the Body of Christ. If one among us is gay, lesbian, bisexual, Trans*, questioning, asexual, pansexual, or queer in any way, then the Body of Christ is LGBTQ+. If one member of the Body of Christ is suicidal, then the Body of Christ is suicidal. The truth is that the Body of Christ is LGBTQ+ and suicidal, whether we admit it or not.

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Our denial, however, is killing us. Our shame is killing us. Our silence is killing us. The stigma we place on those who are suicidal is killing us. The church is supposed to be about saving lives, embodying hope, incarnating resurrection. What are we doing allowing those among us to suffer under the labels we put on them, suffer to the point of believing that they are valueless and unwanted and unloved by the church and by God? We are called to care for the most vulnerable among us. Who is more vulnerable than those who are suicidal?

Faith is supposed to be a protective factor. Being a member of a church and having belief in the saving power of God is supposed to bring healing and life to all of us. Faith that limits who is acceptable to God is faith that contributes to suicidal behavior and death by suicide. Surely, this is not what the Body of Christ ought to be about. This is not how we love one another. Jesus did not reject or shame anyone, let alone to the point of death. Jesus met each person where they were. He saw them. He often touched them. He brought healing into their lives and re-membered them, literally. He rejoined them to the community who had cast them out. It’s not too big a stretch to think that Jesus would reach out to LGBTQ+ people who are feeling unloved and unwanted and assure them that they, too, are God’s beloved. With that assurance, then they can be re-membered into the Body of Christ.

I say all of this because I know it’s true. I am bisexual and the church saved my life by loving me when I was actively suicidal, by ordaining me to ministry, and by calling me to serve the Body of Christ. When I have been rejected by this same church, it was painful and lonely and made me question whether or not God truly loved me. Fortunately for me, by the time I faced rejection when I came out, I had already realized that the church is not God. In understanding this, I also understood that,sometimes, the church lives in fear rather than grace, and fails to incarnate Love. This failure does not mean that God’s love ends. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing. Not church. Not sexual identity, not gender identity, not shame, not fear, not desperation, not pain. God loves all of us and waits for us to love one another with that same steadfast love, the love that saves lives.

During this Mental Health Awareness perhaps we can all take a moment to prayerfully consider where we have failed to embody Love and commit to singing that new song the psalmist spoke of. Perhaps we can make room for the most vulnerable among us to express their fear and pain and be met with unconditional love. We can be lifesavers. There is no shame in feeling unloved and unwanted. However, the Body of Christ has no business dis-membering people and adding to the shame and stigma so many people carry. Let’s be about loving as Jesus loved and ensuring that no one dies because we failed to communicate their status as God’s beloved.

RCL – Year B – Easter 6 – May 6, 2018
Acts 10: 44-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5: 1-6
John 15:9-17

Top PhotoCC-BY-NC image by Erika Sanborne Media

Bottom Photo: CC0 image by NAMI

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Eagles, Spring, Love… and Church

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Since moving to Minnesota a little over three years ago, I miss being near the ocean in ways I wouldn’t have predicted. However, I love living in a place where I can watch eagles and hawks hunt as I drive to and from church. I’ve seen a pair of eagles carrying fish back to their nests. I’ve watched in somewhat horrified awe as a hawk snatches up a young rabbit. There is a wild majesty to these birds that fills my soul with hope. If the eagles and hawks have adapted and found a way to thrive as humanity wreaks havoc on their habitats, perhaps we also can find a way to adapt and thrive… and maybe begin to heal the deep wounds we’ve inflicted on humanity and Creation.

As new life emerges from the long, cold winger, I find myself thinking about the church and how slow we are to claim new life, the heritage that is our birthright. How many millennia have passed since the words written in Leviticus were first uttered – Love your neighbor as yourself? We know how long it’s been since Jesus spoke them. How long will it be before we embrace them, embody them, make them real? Is it possible that we have spent long enough worrying about our entrance into heaven? Can we turn our full attention to bringing about the Kingdom, the Realm, of God here on earth now, before it is too late?

I don’t mean too late in the sense that Armageddon is on the near horizon. I mean that we are reaching the proverbial point of no return as environmental and emotional temperatures rise. We know better but we are not doing better. We know that carbon fuels and plastics are bad for the environment and we have the technology to use sustainable fuels and plastics. Yet, we resist making changes for fear of the monetary price. What of the cost to Creation? Similarly, too many of us are reluctant to examine our racist and xenophobic ways for fear of losing status and privilege. What of the cost to those who are not white, male, wealth, and evangelical Christians? What will it take to turn the tide from destruction to love?

Jesus was very clear that we are called to love one another, love as we are loved, with a fierce love grounded in justice and compassion. I’m not sure when this message was swallowed up in fear, but surely we can work harder to reclaim our identity as the Body of Christ, Divine Love Incarnate. It can’t be too late for us to live into the Evangelist’s invitation: Beloved, let us love one another.

Fear is one of the significant factors in our inability to love as Christ loves. Yet, we are told that “perfect love casts out all fear.” Perfect, whole and complete, love is the gift we inherit as Christians. Fear keeps us looking to the past, creating a false image of when life was good and feeding a desire to recreate what used to be. Fear tells us that unless we hold on to all our Traditions, church will not be church. Fear tells us that unless we keep doing things the way we’ve “always” done them, people won’t come, the endowment can’t be used, and we won’t have enough for tomorrow. This thought and behavior pattern keeps us hunkered down in our pews preoccupied with our own future.

On the other hand, if we can lift our heads and hearts to trust God’s love for us, trust that we (and all others) are God’s beloved people, then we can begin to enter into a life of abundance. Love tells us that transformation is exciting, that the opportunity to try new things fosters new life, and that facing forward with our hands in what God is doing fills us with hope.

Beloved, let us love one another and set the Spirit free to shape us into the Body of Christ that is desperately needed now. Let us love one another with a fierce love, fueled with justice and compassion, until all fear is driven from us. Let us love one another so we can all leave our wounding ways behind and embrace the fullness of Creation – from eagles and hawks soaring and hunting, to oceans filled with power and life (not lifeless plastics). In other words, Beloved, let us claim our place within the Body of Christ that we may all be made whole.

For more sermon help, try here.

RCL – Year B – Fifth Sunday of Easter – April 29, 2018
Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

Photo: CC0 image by Brigitte Werner

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More than Words

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We, as church, have thought our way into an identity crisis. We have spent so much time thinking about what is right, creating right doctrines, and rules for membership, that we have forgotten that we are the Body of Christ. We’ve been distracted by our love affair with “word and speech” (1Jn 3:18) that we have forgotten to incarnate the Word with “truth and action” (1Jn 3:18). When confronted with the physicality of the Resurrection accounts – Jesus holding up his wounds, inviting touch, breaking bread, eating fish, etc. – we respond with a tendency to spiritualize in an intellectual way. We either rationalize those early encounters with the Risen Christ as fabricated encounters that have deep Truth (in the way that all mythology points toward truth), or way say it’s all a mystery beyond our understanding. Either way, we dismiss these accounts and fail to hear the invitation to live in our bodies and allow ourselves to be transformed into the Body of Christ.

This separation of body and mind and spirit is nothing new, and it’s not unique to Christianity. I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to integrate body, mind, and spirit in my own life. In my youth I prided myself on my “mind over body” capacity. I could eat less than 100 calories a day and still push myself to run several miles, sleep a few hours a night, and go to classes. I didn’t realize how significantly the disconnect between my body and my mind affected my faith formation. Since I viewed my body as an enemy to be conquered and controlled, it’s no surprise that I thought of any relationship with God as being impossible.

My experiences of church widen this gap between mind and body, as well as the one I experience between me and God. This wasn’t done intentionally, of course. Most of my church experience has been in Mainline congregations that have the expectation of quiet, controlled, observance in worship rather than full body expression. There was no wiggling in the pews, no giggling, no clapping, no talking back to the preacher. We were to come and be reverent and respectful. There was little place in worship for one’s body. It was all done with the mind.

Decades later, I inhabit a body that is limited by dysautonomia. It seems all my systems are slow – from digestion to heart rate. The primary effect is that I am tired all the time. So I employ, without even thinking about it, some of my old mind-over-body techniques just to get through the day and do what I want or need to do. It’s not the same now. Now I acknowledge that I’m tired, and do what I need to do anyway (and nap whenever possible.) I don’t see my body as an enemy any longer. I am my body and my body is me. This may sound silly, but it’s an important statement. Once I made peace with my body, tentative though it can be, I became better able to accept that God loves the particularity that is me.

Now, church, we live in a world whose needs are not satisfied by our words and speech. We can continue our squabbles over right theology and right language and right doctrine, or we can get real. We can stop separating our words from our actions. If we have signs on our lawns that read, “All are Welcome,” are these words empty or do we truly welcome everyone, without exception? Think carefully before you say yes. Are LGBTQ+ people welcome into the full life of your congregation, including your pulpit? Are people with serious mental illness welcome and included? Do people with physical disabilities have full access to your whole building and are they able to share fully in worship? Are people who are experiencing homelessness welcome without condition? Are women, men, Trans* folks encouraged and affirmed in their calls to ordained ministry? You get the idea. Who is welcome in practice?

I’ve been repeatedly struck by the physicality of the Easter scripture readings. The Good Shepherd passages are no different. I can practically smell the sheep pasture as I read these texts. Jesus is the Good Shepherd willing to lay down his life and take it up again for his sheep. While we may not particularly enjoy being compared to sheep, there is an implication here that should not be overlooked. If Jesus is the Good Shepherd who is willing to risk his life for his followers, then it stands to reason that the Body of Christ is also supposed to be the Good Shepherd. We are to embody Christ in such a way that takes risk in body, in mind, and in spirit. We are to incarnate the Love of Christ in such a way that the lost are found and the excluded enter in. And we are to do this completely, not just with words. Imagine a church that is inclusive of all the wonderful diversity that exists in human bodies…

I think it’s time the church is bodily resurrected. Let’s be the Body of Christ in truth and action, bearing witness to the power and presence of the Risen Christ with our whole selves. It’s time to step away from the pristine piety of the mind and revel in the incarnation of wholeness that can change the way we think.

RCL – Year B – Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 22,2018
Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

Photo: CC0 image by Stefan Beckmann-Metzner

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Confession: Repentance and Witness

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 in the shadow of the cross
 in the echoes of the empty tomb
 in the busyness of everyday
 in the restlessness of the night
      to what does my life bear witness?

      some days I forget
            for part of the day (or the whole of it)
      some days I forget
            that my life is a living testimony to the One
      some days I forget
            that for some, mine is the face of Christ
            that my words are Christ’s words
            that my hands are Christ’s hands
            that my love is Christ’s love
            for some who know I call myself Christian
                  some days I get it all wrong

                  the lure of vain words and the power of lies
                  can settle in and whisper their own deceitful truth
                  and lead me away from all that I am created to be
                  letting me blend into a crowd of other lost souls
                  easily enticed with illusions and shallow promises

           then there are the moments when I remember
                 I remember that I am God’s beloved
                 I am part of the Body of Christ
                 I embody Love
                 I bring the Realm of God into the here and now
          when I remember
                 I am God’s own heart
          and I breathe deeply filling myself with the Breath of Life

          repentance opens my eyes to see where I have not
                followed Christ
                or loved my neighbor
                    or loved myself
                or been a careful steward of Creation
          again and again

          with each breath I take, forgiveness frees me
               to take a step in a new direction
               to reach out to one who seems other
               to find rest in my weariness
               to see how Creation comes alive again
          in this season of new life
 
in the shadow of the cross
     I lift my eyes to Hope
in the echoes of the empty tomb
     I hear the promise of life renewed
in the busyness of everyday
     I serve in gratitude
in the restlessness of the night
     I remember I am God’s beloved
          and my life is a witness to the glories of Resurection

Thanks be to God.
     Amen.

RCl – Year B – Third Sunday of Easter – April 15, 2018
Acts 3: 12-19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24: 36b-48

Photos CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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Sea Glass and (Un)Certainty

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I’m not an optimist by nature. I tend not to believe anything unless I see it for myself. This isn’t the typical statement made by a pastor, but in my case it’s true. I know that life is hard, people aren’t always honest, and weird things happen. So when I’m told about things that people have seen or heard or experienced, I’m very skeptical. If I were among the early disciples, I’d have been like Thomas. No way was I going to believe in the Risen Christ unless I could see and touch him myself.

I’ve been thinking about this while on vacation this week, and today especially. I spent quite a bit of time on the beach today. I can’t walk a beach anywhere without searching for sea glass. I thought I’d have good luck today because of all the storms that New England has had this season. I found a few pieces here and there, small and mostly brown. Just before leaving the beach, I was picking through piles of small rocks and shells left behind by the receding tide. And I was rewarded for my searching with a large piece of nearly glowing glass. Years ago, it might have been part of a Coke bottle – thick and slightly green. I knew that if I kept looking, I’d find a prized piece. I just had that feeling.

Faith is like that for me. There are days when I’d say with Thomas, “Nope. I don’t believe unless I can put my hands in the wounds.” Then there are other days when I’m absolutely certain that if I keep waiting, keep searching, keep listening, keep watching, the Holy Spirit is going to show up and do her thing. I don’t know what makes the difference exactly, but I suspect it’s me and not God.

Having grown up on Cape Cod and having spent hours on the beach, I know what storms can do to a beach. My belief that I’d find an excellent piece of sea glass was based on previous experience. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for my wavering between faith and disbelief. Previous experience says that I always find God when I am searching, waiting, or seeking. However, there are times when I am certain that God is no where to be found and isn’t going to show up.

God knows me better than I know the ocean, though. God shows up all the time and has the patience to wait for me to notice. And, trust me, sometimes I can keep God waiting for quite some time. Those disciples who witnessed Jesus without Thomas were pretty lucky. If Thomas hadn’t been so adamant that he needed to see Jesus the same way that the others did, he might not have had to wait a week. It’s possible that Jesus was hanging around, waiting for Thomas to recognize his presence. Maybe Jesus waited a week and then decided to give Thomas what Thomas thought he needed.

Just a week ago we were singing Alleluia and believing in the power and presence of the Risen Christ. How long did it take before we all forgot that Christ is with us all the time – in friends and neighbors, family and strangers? We keep thinking that Jesus needs to show up in a certain way and insist on only recognizing Jesus in the way that has been described by others. What if Jesus has been with us all along, waiting for us to recognize him?

I had no trouble persisting in my search for the perfect piece of beach glass. I thought I was looking for red or blue, or even a sizable green. What I found was clear with a hint of green. We might all be looking for the Risen Christ to show up with nail marks and proof that he is who we think he is. What if Christ shows up in the most vulnerable among us and our response is the only proof needed?

RCL – Year B – Second Sunday of Easter – April 8, 2018

Photos CC-BY-NC image by Rachael Keefe

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