Monday, July 17, 2023

Fertile Ground


It is my great privilege to be Diocesan Missioner of Jubilee Ministry. I am invited to preach and sometimes be deacon at different parishes throughout this diocese. Last Sunday my wife and I were in Lake St. Louis at Transfiguration. Two weeks before that, St. John & St. James in Sullivan. Most of the time, if we are absent from St. Paul’s, it is because I am sharing the good news of Jubilee Ministry with one parish or another. It is amazing to see what all these parishes, from tiny ones to larger ones, are doing in their communities. It is my prayer that I am sowing good seeds on good soil, sharing the message of the Gospel of Jesus – If we Love God most, we will Love all others more. We know that this Gospel is the good seed.

Yet what is fertile ground? The Gospel notes that some seeds are scattered and are eaten by the birds. Well, we know what happens to those seeds, don’t we? Others fall on rocky ground or in the thorns. The seeds/the Word may grow for a little while but are scorched by the sun/fear/hardship because the roots are not deep enough.

What is fertile ground?

Who has not seen a beautiful flowering plant rise up between the cracks in a pavement? Who has not seen the bloom of a thistle along the roadways? Chickweed, wild violets, dandelions, clover are considered weeds by many who strive for green grass to cover their lawns. Yet each one of these is a beneficial plant, offering healing for the body and for the soil.

I am not a good farmer or landscaper, really. All I can say is that I am a front row witness to the wideness and the wildness of God. As a friend of mine recently wrote: Things happen “mostly despite me rather than because of me.” I just try to be aware of what is happening around me. Sometimes that is a gift of its own. Sometimes it feels like less than a gift.

I have tried time and again to compost. It is good for the earth and keeps organic material out of the landfills. A proper compost should be hot enough to turn the seeds, peelings, all non-animal products, even brown paper into a beautiful dark nutrient-rich soil within a short amount of time. Yet. I can never get it right. It is either too wet or too dry, too green or too brown. I end up with yucky muck OR roly poly bugs, spiders, and even once, a little family of mice hunkered down inside the compost all warm, dry, and well-fed. And there are seeds that do not turn into soil; rather, they begin to geminate and are found with yellow leaves reaching up, searching for the sunshine. While that does not make for a successful compost, it does tell me that the soil is fertile even if it is not an ideal place for it to grow. I like to think that these little offerings are seeds planted by God for some good, maybe just for me to notice.

And I think that is the message – for me/us to understand that God can grow goodness in the darkest corners, in the midst of spiders, bugs, in a compost gone wrong. If God can do that, imagine what God can do with this world.

That is the wildness of God. The goodness of God. The power of God. That even when things feel hopeless, when errors are made, in the midst of tragedies in our neighborhood and record-high summer temperatures, when tempers are short and fears are great, God can grow something good. Even as our judges take away our rights, gun and drug violence steal our children, even as our elected officials deny food and healthcare for our neighbors, we know the goodness of God. We, as humans, may need fertile soil and perfect conditions to plant our seeds so that these grow to benefit our eyes, our sense of well being, our need to do something good. Yet, God can take a small thing like a wrongly ordered compost or a bigger thing such as a city in decline, the fears of those living there, the violence, the trauma, the poverty, and turn it into something which is not just surviving but thriving.

Had I not turned aside to see that little plant growing in the compost; had I not noticed that it was a sickly little yellow plant lacking chlorophyll, still struggling for life from half of an avocado seed, what might have happened to it? Did I have anything to do with its survival? I saw it, nurtured it, and watched as it grew. Will it continue to survive, to thrive? Will it be able to overcome the obstacles this world throws at it? God alone knows. But it is my desire to see and to try.

There is so much to fear in this world. There is so much which can make us frustrated and angry. There seems to be so many enemies, people who are actively working to destroy God’s goodness and mercy. Yet, what are we called to do?

Love them. Regardless. Steadfastly. Unconditionally. There are no scriptures that state we are to like our neighbor or even enemies. But there are scriptures that tell us we must – not should or ought to – but that we must love them. It is a commandment. Jesus said so. But how do we do that??

In his book The Growing Edge, Howard Thurman writes about loving those who are declared enemies and how difficult this idea is. (Please excuse the gendered language)

“Can it be that God does not know how terrible my enemy is? No, God knows them as well as he knows himself and much better than I know them. It must be true, then, that there is something in every human that remains intact, inviolate, regardless of what he [or she] does. I wonder! Is this true? Is there an integrity of the person, so intrinsic in its value and significance that no deed, however evil, can ultimately undermine this given thing? If a person is of infinite worth in the sight of God, whether they are saint or sinner, whether they are a good person or a bad person, evil or not, if that is true, then I am never relieved of my responsibility for trying to make contact with this worthy thing in them.”

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, I had a crystal-clear revelation.

It happened at a funeral service for a friend, Bud, who had died. Bud and his wife attended the same parish as Debbie and I did and we loved them. The man offering the homily, Jack, was a man that I did not like because of his condemnation of women and queer people. At that time, he was bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. This was the time when Gene Robinson was a hot topic in the Episcopal Church, and whether or not we would allow an openly gay man in a partnership to be a bishop. Jack and I were regular rivals in any articles or news events reporting on the state of affairs in that diocese. It was easy to feel that we were enemies.

However, as Jack talked about Bud, it became apparent that he too loved Bud. Suddenly, without warning, I clearly saw the Oneness of God’s love. I loved Bud. Jack loved Bud. God loved Bud. God loved all three of us.

Think of a triangle. Bud is at the top. Jack at one corner, me at another. God is the center. If God loves all three of us, and Jack and I both loved Bud, then Jack and I loved one another whether we accepted it or knew it or even wanted it.

This was a profound moment in my life, and I can honestly say that it altered every fiber of my being and understanding. Did I like Jack any more than I had before? Absolutely not. But I respected him as a beloved child of God, and I loved him for that alone. I still love him. I also still do not like him but that is not the point. My dislike is much less and God’s love is bigger than any of my likes or dislikes.

A seed of understanding was planted within my being, inside my heart hardened by disagreement. I would have thought that love was impossible to grow there. Sometimes we do not understand where the fertile soil may be found. Sometimes it is there in front of us, in us, so near as to be invisible. God alone knows.

I was asked if there was a song that I would like today, one that might fit my sermon. My mind went totally blank.

Well, typical of my sermons, it is just as well because this one did not end as it began. Somewhere at some point, I was led from what I would have said to what I heard I should say. And Now, I have a song!

1 There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea.
There’s a kindness in God’s justice,
which is more than liberty.

2 There is welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good.
There is mercy with the Savior,
there is healing in his blood.

3 But we make God’s love too narrow
by false limits of our own,
and we magnify its strictness
with a zeal God will not own.

4 For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind,
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.

5 If our love were but more simple,
we should rest upon God’s word,
and our lives would be illumined
by the presence of our Lord.

Most often in our lives we look at the world from a right-side up viewpoint. That seems a normal way to see things. Yet, Richard Rohr tells us that there is an “upside-downness” at the heart of the message and that it always urges us to look more deeply and widely at things. He goes on to say, “This opens our eyes to recognize God’s self-giving at the far edges where most of us cannot or will not see God.

“But we make God’s love too narrow, by false limits of our own,
and we magnify its strictness with a zeal God will not own.’

God can plant seeds in the darkest of places, in the hardest of hearts, in the leanest of times, in the midst of all that seems wrong and lacking. It is ours to claim the birthright that is our own by being children loved beyond all imagining by God, living out of faith and not into fear, out of our abundance rather than into our scarcity.

We are the fertile ground whether we can see that or not. “For the love of God is broader” than we can imagine. And from that seed in a hard human heart, Love can grow.

Love. Love beyond our imagining or understanding. Love whether we are worthy or not, whether we know it or not. Love because that is why we are here – made to be loved, for love, to love. Love is the seed that can make all things grow for the good. Love can change this world.

It is simple. Love God most. Love our neighbor as ourselves. Love one another as we want to be loved, AS we are loved. Love others as God loves all. Love. Simply Love. Profoundly Love. Always Love.

What might we see and do if we took on the wideness of God’s love and mercy? Where are the seeds being planted in us and around us right now?

May we see our lives are illumined by the presence of our God. May we be the fertile ground from which good things grow. May we bear fruit and yield more time and time again all to the Glory of God.






*Howard Thurman: The Growing Edge (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956), 17–18.

**There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy by Frederick William Faber


Monday, May 01, 2023

Good Shepherds and Midwives


In the work I do, I live for the moments which offer me hope. Thankfully, tiny glimmers of hope are offered frequently. The past month or more, it has been difficult simply because there is so much anxiety. Whether it is caused by food insecurity, violence, drugs, politics – everyone seems to be on a razor-sharp edge.

But then this week, this happened.

A young man came into Pantry. I remembered him because he has an unusual name. The odd thing was that he gave another name to the registrar. He said his name was William Thomas. I called him by his real name and asked him if he needed emergency food because he had just been in a few days before. We worked out the details of what he needed and went our separate ways.

Later, I saw him outside, so I went to talk to him. We started talking about the current drug scene, relapses, chances of recovery or dying. We shared a few sad stories.

Unfortunately, it is a story that many have told.  He is addicted to fentanyl; his life has blown up, and he wants to quit. He asked me to pray for him, so I did. The good news is that he has a May 5th date to enter rehab. The scary news is that between now and May 5th could be a lifetime. It is so easy to die.

It happened that at the next Pantry two days later, Tony, a guy who works with a Harm Reduction group, unexpectedly came in. I told him about the young man and asked if he could offer any help. And because this is just how the Holy Spirit works, in walks the young man. I introduced him to Tony, and they talked for a while and made some plans. As the young man was leaving, he hugged me and said, “I don’t know why you love me, but I know you do.” He then said, “I won’t let you down.” I reminded him that this isn’t about me; rather, this is all about him. He agreed and gave me another big hug and said, “I won’t let ME down.” I don’t know if he will keep the appointment with Tony but the desire to do so is where the hope lives.

Later a friend of mine posted a quote on Facebook that resonated with the way I felt about this moment:

“As followers of Christ, we are called to be midwives of the new creation, not gatekeepers of the old one.” To act as a midwife is to be the intermediary that waits and watches as another labors, to hold onto hope as it is born and then to share in the excitement as hope is being realized. I know that this young man has a very hard and dangerous road ahead of him, but I must say, this encounter left me feeling as though I had helped midwife a new birth of hope, both in him and in me.

He trusted me with his story because I listened, because I shared with him my own sacred story, and because he believed my love. He trusted that love.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about trust. Individually and culturally, we are taught not to trust others. We are taught that others must earn our trust and they do this by doing what we believe is the right thing to do. It recently occurred to me that is not the way that Jesus did it.

Trust is a funny thing. I remember too clearly telling one or more of the many children I helped raise that they had broken my rule (aka my trust) and that they would have to earn it back.

How many times have you heard someone say or maybe you even said, “I should never have trusted them.”

When we say that we trust someone, it means that we believe they will not hurt us. If they do hurt us, we withdraw our emotions to protect ourselves from being hurt again. There are moments of broken trust even in good relationships. Recovery of that brokenness is based upon how much we open ourselves to forgiving, to working through the hurt, to being vulnerable, or trusting ourselves not to inflict hurt upon another again.

If we attempt to BE trustworthy rather than thinking we need to trust someone, what difference would that make? If there was no level of reciprocity, that our desire was only to be trusted, what might that change?

I think that being a midwife must be a bit like being a good shepherd. At least, in watching Call the Midwife, the midwives are more concerned for the well-being of their patients, both the mother and the new baby. They are that calm presence.

The sheep hear their shepherd's voice. They know that voice. They trust the shepherd because she takes care of them, being there when they need her, making sure they have food and water, that they are as safe as possible.

The shepherd carries a crook because sheep do not always do as the shepherd wants. The crook is used to help the wayward sheep back into the fold, to rescue a sheep that has fallen, or even to ward off predators. The shepherd cares for them steadfastly, unconditionally with no judgment for the one that strays off.

A shepherd puts the needs of the flock before self. The shepherd’s interest is only for the safety and well being of the sheep.

We do not need to be the Gatekeeper. That job is already taken and it is not ours. Yet, what if we become a good shepherd in our own lives? What if our purpose is the wellbeing and safety of others rather than expecting them to earn our trust or to live up to our expectations of how they should act?

Our world today is packed with thieves and bandits – false leaders – in corporations, in politics, in government, in our churches, all causing us to distrust. Too many are there for profits first and collateral damage does not matter. The collateral damage equals all those whose lives have been altered due to gun or drug violence, environmental injustice, poverty, and all the “isms” used by oppressive factions to control the majority. The whims of a few determine the fate of many.

In the Acts of the Apostles it is written, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

We are called into community, into like minds, with our hearts set on God, caring for all whatever the need.  Just like the Apostles –

– Spending time together praying, breaking bread together, in all things possessing glad and generous hearts, always praising God, and having the goodwill of all the people as our work.

And as they did these things, “ … day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

Jesus “came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” 

Abundant Life is the opposite of society’s status quo. When the status quo supports oppression, the peacemaker is called to challenge it. Jesus challenges the status quo continually as should we as followers of Jesus.

We as a people born into a capitalistic nation have forgotten that we are a part of God’s creation. In this greedy dog eat dog, I-me-mine world where to win is profit and to profit is to win, competition is about being better, smarter, faster than the others in the contest. Theologically, we focus on what we perceive to be another person’s sin or lack more than we do the abundance of God’s love for all, for any who have need.

As a result, we treat the gifts of one another and this earth as less than sacred. We do not trust one another to love the way God loves us. ... For God so loved the world … In fact, most of us are quite certain that the fellow next to us does not care at all about us much less love us. Truth be told, most of us probably feel the same. I doubt that people in Jesus’ time trusted one another anymore than we do. Yet, that has always been Jesus’ message. Love.

Jesus didn’t ask people to trust him. He didn’t tell people that he trusted them. He simply trusted and shared God’s love and continued to talk about that love.

Jesus did not come to set rules and regulations for us to follow or else be thrown into hell fire. Jesus came to show us how to be liberated, how to free ourselves from the oppression, and that to trust in the love and faith of God alone is the only thing necessary. With this, all other things fall into place.

Faith is our spiritual understanding that God exists and is with us always. Faith leads to Trust. It is in God’s love that trust is born. If we believe that God’s love is steadfast, unconditional, always with us, all that matters is that love. It is not something we earn; it is through God’s grace that Love is always there. We don’t earn love and we don’t earn trust. We simply love and we simply trust.

We do not have to know or understand why God loves us. We just need to know that God does love us, each of us, everyone of us, steadfastly, unconditionally, just because that is why we are here. Love. It is all there is.

It is in that love that we become midwives or good shepherds of a new creation born in love to be loved and to love in turn.


Normal does not mean OK

  I often wonder how I live such a normal life. I know they say that “normal” is only a setting on the dryer, but you know what I mean. I ha...