Archives for February 2014

How can these things be?, 2 Lent (A) – 2014

March 16, 2014

Genesis 12:1-4aPsalm 121Romans 4:1-5, 13-17John 3:1-17

A question that must echo through the centuries is this: Did Nicodemus ever get it? Did this righteous, sober, pious man ever let go of the letter of the law, of seeing and believing only what his eyesight perceived; did he let go of security to plunge into the uncertainty and wonder of mystery?

He was obviously a perceptive man. His first words to Jesus that night show that he understands what his eyes see: The signs of Jesus, known to us as miracles, are proof to Nicodemus that this young rabbi has come from God and acts in the presence of God. “You are a teacher who has come from God,” he says to Jesus, and he continues by admitting that no one can do these signs “apart from the presence of God.” This is a powerful statement, even though a question mark, a “but,” is about to follow. Why doesn’t Jesus accept it as is? What was it that he saw in this pious man that caused him to turn the conversation in another direction?

It is possible that the author omits a great deal; maybe there was quite a bit more said between them before Jesus speaks the words that have been repeated by Christians through countless testimonies, words that have been misused and misunderstood to the exclusion and detriment of many: “to be born again, to be born from above.” How many have gloried in these words, and how many have spoken them in derision in our troubled and divisive time!

Jesus does what he always does. He turns the conversation to what matters and points Nicodemus’ attention to the transforming power of God and to the reality of God’s kingdom.

He sees in Nicodemus the desire to see God’s will, God’s kingdom, this new order that gave the power to Jesus to perform his astounding signs. And Jesus wants Nicodemus to have his heart’s desire; if he would simply let go of what he knows as true, because it is thus written, in order to enter into the Spirit of the One who is not willing to be imprisoned by words.

Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He asks the literal questions: How can the old be born again? How can one reenter the mother’s womb? He is thinking of flesh, not of spirit.

Jesus tries again. He has come to open for us the door to God’s kingdom – to the truth and justice and love of God. He reminds Nicodemus of the baptism of repentance, being born of water; and the baptism of transformation, being born of the Spirit. He gives him the analogy of the wind that is felt but invisible; the origin and destination of the wind is not known. Everything that is real is not perceived by our five senses alone. The effects of God’s Spirit, God’s breath, are all around us and we feel them when we are born of the Spirit.

But Nicodemus again doesn’t get it. “How can these things be?” he asks, and we continue to hear his question phrased in similar ways all around us today.

“How can there be a God?”

“How can you call yourself a Christian when you are not born again?”

“How can you claim that you believe the Bible literally?”

“How can you ignore what the Bible says?”

Together with Nicodemus we cry, “How can these things be?”

We live in an age of astounding technological and scientific advances. We are used to having everything explained. Even religious desire, even the longing for God, we are told by experts, has a biological basis in the brain. Everything depends on the body and on chemical balance or imbalance. We are losing the gift of mystery, the gift of being born of the Spirit.

Everything in today’s remarkable story is surrounded by mystery. This is what has made it so irresistible through the ages. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Given Jesus’ status as a man who had nowhere to lay his head, the meeting probably took place outside, under the stars, beneath a tree, probably shortly after Jesus had lain down to rest and perhaps to sleep.

A man better dressed than Jesus and his companions arrives in the night. He is probably well known to them by sight. He comes to reassure Jesus that he recognizes in him the gifts of God’s presence because of all the visible signs performed by him in the light of day. And Jesus takes the man and plunges him into mystery. Nicodemus, a man who has spent his whole life studying the Law and the prophets, studying the Scriptures, does not get it. He is too committed to what he has known until this point. This talk of being born of the Spirit, of participating in God’s life through eternity, of death on the cross – these are new concepts and he cries out, “How can these things be?”

In sorrow, Jesus says, “You are a teacher and you do not understand these things?”

To paraphrase: Oh, Nicodemus, if you don’t believe me, the one who has come from the Father, whom are you going to believe? God loves you and all these friends around me, yes, even the whole world. God sent me to testify to this love. All you have to do is trust in this love and be saved from despair.

There is much talk of spirituality in our culture. “I am a spiritual person,” we hear friends tell us, “but I don’t believe in God, and I don’t go to church.” Others say, “I am a spiritual person, but I don’t believe in Jesus as the Son of God.” And many other variations of this same theme, the vogue of vague spirituality.

Yet here is Jesus offering us someone visible and recognizable who embodies the Spirit of God, himself! And unless we take the plunge into the mystery of the incarnation, we, like Nicodemus, don’t understand, and reject him. “How can these things be?”

The answer is that these things are real because Christ is real and present. As Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things, and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

This is a question to meditate upon throughout Lent, a daily discipline in the dark of night that can lead us to the light of Easter Sunday.

 

— Katerina Whitley, an author and retreat leader, lives and writes in Louisville, Ky.

 

Choosing to lose paradise, 1 Lent (A) – 2014

March 9, 2014

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

In our Old Testament lesson, we find a test case for free will in the Garden of Eden. We humans usually have good excuses to offer for the bad choices we make. Like Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Misérables” who steals bread to feed his sister’s family. Or we can look to someone who kills in self-defense finding justified an action he or she would usually condemn. But the Garden of Eden is paradise and the only two human occupants have everything they need. All excuses are removed.

They don’t want for food. They don’t need clothes, as they don’t even realize they are naked. No animal will harm them. Adam and Eve were created as perfect companions for each other. The Hebrew describes Eve as equal and corresponding to Adam, the King James Bible translated that the closest by calling her his “Helpmeet,” meaning a helper who was meet, or equivalent to him. God even walks in the Garden with them. What need could they have?

Into this perfect situation comes a single choice. In the middle of the Garden is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve tells us that it is a nice-looking tree, with very tasty-looking fruit. On one level, the only choice in Eden was to decide whether to avoid eating from that one tree or not. But at another level, the real choice in the Garden of Eden was to decide whether or not you can trust God.

Looking more closely at the text, the conversation with the serpent proves interesting. Eve tells the talking serpent that they could eat of any tree in the Garden but one. Then Eve herself expands God’s prohibition. Eve says that not only can they not eat of that tree, they can’t even touch it. This is more than God told Adam. Now in Eve’s words, they can’t even touch the tree or they will die.

The serpent goes on to tell Eve that they won’t die, and we should note here that the snake is right on this point. Neither Eve nor Adam dies. In fact, the snake is right in telling her that what will happen is that they will know the difference between good and evil. The snake says that eating of the tree will make them like God, and on this point God agrees later on, in the section past our reading for today.

The snake uses the truth to lure Eve into checking out the fruit, much as Satan will quote scripture to Jesus in seeking tempt him away from God’s will. Eve gets a nice piece of fruit, examines it closely and finds that it is a delight to the eyes, and, knowing that it can make one wise, she takes the fruit and eats. Then Eve gives some to her husband. Notice that Eve does not go track Adam down to bring him up to speed on everything. Adam was there all along, going along with everything first by not speaking up, then by eating. Adam was together with Eve in desiring the forbidden fruit. They both chose not to trust God.

The fruit did give them knowledge. Now Adam and Eve knew that they were naked. That cheap knowledge is all Adam and Eve got for their disobedience, and they go from eating forbidden fruit to wearing fig leaves in nothing flat. Adam and Eve were given one choice to make. They chose not to trust God and to eat of the fruit of the one tree God said could kill them.

While the fruit did not kill them that day, through disobeying God, Adam and Eve became mortal. They were destined to die for their wrong choice. But that is not the end of the story. When our Old Testament reading for today ends, Adam and Eve are hiding in the Garden, fearful God will find them, cowering behind their fig leaves.

God will make Adam and Eve own up to their wrong choice. They will confess and be punished for their disobedience. The cost is mortality and expulsion from the Garden. But God does not leave them alone. God fashioned clothes for Adam and Eve, and caused them to settle East of Eden. Innocence was gone. Paradise was lost. The way back into the Garden was barred forever, and yet with all that said and done; God did not abandon his first two humans. Even in expelling them from Eden, God provided a future for Adam and Eve.

As a test case, Eve and her quietly consenting husband Adam show that, given everything they could ever need, humans would still choose to disobey. Some claim that this proves that Adam and Eve were teenagers. While funny, that claim is neither fair to teenagers nor honest to adults. All of us can be given every chance in the world and still make bad choices.

Unlike Adam and Eve, we already have the knowledge of good and evil. With that knowledge, most of our choices, the ones that matter, boil down to either trusting God or not trusting God. God warned you not to murder, steal or commit adultery, among other things. Just look back through the Ten Commandments. God says that if you do those things you will die. Do you trust God or not? If you trust God, you will try to keep his commandments. If you do not trust God, you will ignore them as you go through life.

Know that you have a real choice. You can decide not to trust God. You can live your life as if God does not exist, make your decisions without ever putting God in the picture. However, that choice will come with a cost. Just as Adam and Eve made the wrong choice and found death, you too will one day find death further down the road of not-trusting-God.

But notice that even in your wrong choices, God will not abandon you. The grace in Eden was that even when Adam and Eve did the one thing they were told not to do, God still cared for them. In God’s story, wrong choices have bad consequences, but God still offers us a chance to make the right choice. The way God tells the story, you can go your own way and choose to lose paradise, or you can trust God and live.

During this season of Lent, you are called to examine your life. Do you trust God? Are you willing to live your life as if God’s promises in scripture are true? God offers you a chance to give your whole trust. God is still holding out hope that you will one day come home to the Garden.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He blogs at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

What audience?, Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2014

March 5, 2014

Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103 or Psalm 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Today’s gospel text almost comes as a relief: Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them. It’s a relief because we can be fairly reluctant to show signs of piety before others, especially when we’re outside of our worship service. If you want to get strange looks, read your Bible in public, pray aloud in a restaurant or talk about what Jesus means to you to the person next to you while you’re waiting for a bus. So a gospel lesson in which Jesus says it’s better to practice your religious duties in secret may elicit a sigh of relief.

But it’s odd, isn’t it? Especially when a few weeks ago when we read Matthew 5:15, Jesus talks about letting our “light shine before others, so they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven.” Why the emphasis today on secrecy? And why the emphasis on secrecy today, on the one day of the year when we actually receive a visible mark, the imposition of ashes, that unmistakably says, “Something different is going on here”? Are we trying to show something? If so, to whom?

We have to start by noting that the ashes are not for God. We’re not trying to show God something by wearing ashes on our foreheads. In Isaiah, God says it clearly: What I want from you is not sackcloth and ashes. I don’t want you sitting around looking miserable. I want you to get up and do something. Something good. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. House the homeless. Give to the poor. Change the world. That’s the kind of religious offering I’m looking for.

Does God want to see something? Yes. But it’s not ashes. It’s us getting busy. Doing God’s work in the world.

Jesus wants to see action too. His message today is about practicing our faith, linking our spiritual lives to action, through almsgiving – giving money for the care of people in need, and through prayer and fasting. These were three very important demonstrations of spiritual devotion in the Judaism Jesus practiced. Notice that Jesus assumes his followers do these three things. He says, “when you give alms,” “when you pray,” and “when you fast” – not “if.”

Living our spirituality through action is an important way to respond to God. So why does Jesus say, “Beware of practicing your piety before others”?

Jesus’ words highlight two things that can rule human life, two things that can distract us from having a right relationship with God. Jesus knows we can be motivated and misled by concerns over audience and reward. By audience, we mean, for whom are we acting? For whom are we doing our religious activities? Who is our audience when we give alms or do any charitable act? When we pray? When we deny ourselves anything? For whose benefit do we do these things? Who are we hoping will notice?

Who is our intended audience? The word Jesus uses in his instruction is “hypocrite,” from the Greek word for “actor.” Jesus warns us against being like hypocrites who draw attention to themselves when they put their check in the offering plate or say maybe too loudly as they wave the plate away, “I give online”; who make a show out of praying in public, who clear their throats before taking their Bibles out to read in front of you. The hypocrite acts for others. The hypocrite plays a role, and may not even realize it’s only an act.

The other concern that goes along with audience is reward. When the hypocrites do their religious duty as an act for the benefit of being seen by others, they have received their reward: They have been seen by others. That’s it. They have been noticed by people. Jesus invites us to put our faith into action, not so we can be noticed by people, but so we will receive our reward from God. Three times he says, “and your Father who sees you in secret will reward you.”

Is it wrong to be noticed by others? No. If we let our light shine, if others see the good we do, we can be powerful witnesses to God’s compassion, mercy and love. But Jesus says if we’re motivated by being noticed by people and rewarded by people, that will be our only reward. If all the attention you want is from other people, help yourself. But why settle for less than the reward God wants to give us?

So why the ashes? If they’re not for God, and they’re not about being noticed by others, why do something so visible and exterior?

Ashes are a reminder of humility and honesty. Sometimes we get confused about what true humility is. It’s not beating ourselves up. It’s not denigrating ourselves and saying bad things about ourselves to bring ourselves down a notch. It is not some strange reverse pride where we say, “Really, no one is as bad as I am, no one is as stupid, foolish or forgetful as me. I have achieved the bottom-most rung of human reality. How can God possibly love someone as lowly as me? God couldn’t possibly love me; I’m just dirt.”

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we will hear as we receive our ashes, reminding us that we are mortal and echoing the creation story where God lovingly made human beings from the dust of the ground. If we are dust, we are beloved dust, and God can do great things with just plain dirt once it’s filled with the very breath and Spirit of God.

Humility is about looking at what is true and real. Humility is about being grounded in the truth of who we are: finite, flawed, dependent on God, and completely, utterly, totally loved by God, nonetheless.

As we begin our Lenten journey, we accept ashes as a sign of penitence and mortality and the truth of who we are. We are invited to spend this Lent learning to trust that God is gracious and kind and forgiving and merciful, and that what humans think of us isn’t as important as our relationship with God and what we do for others because we are loved by God.

We are invited to take on a discipline of doing some action solely for the purpose of pleasing God, or giving something up in order to make room in our lives for God’s Spirit to come in and move around it us.

God wants to be the focus of our attention and longing. God wants to be our audience and our reward. Let’s not settle for anything less.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

Uncomfortable, yet unafraid – Last Sunday After Epiphany / World Mission Sunday (A) – 2014

March 2, 2014

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2 or Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

The Last Sunday After the Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, is also World Mission Sunday. How appropriate.

“Mission” is derived from the Latin word mittere, which means “to send.” It entered the Christian lexicon in the 16th century during the Age of Discovery and the expansion of imperialistic European power to the “New World.” However, the concept of mission – to spread the teaching of Jesus Christ – can be traced back to the first century and Paul of Tarsus. We are all familiar with Paul’s dramatic conversion story on the Damascus road. And it would be safe to say that that transfiguring encounter with God is what compelled Paul “to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory of Jesus and his love” – what compelled him to become a missionary.

Our gospel reading for this Sunday is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Jesus leads Peter, James and John up a mountain where he stands in conversation with Moses and Elijah – a symbol that the ancestors recognize Jesus as the one who has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. And the encounter seems all well and good until the voice of God speaks from a bright cloud, at which the three disciples of Jesus fall “facedown to the ground, terrified.”

Icons of the Transfiguration story show the three disciples on their hands and knees, cowering, crawling away and covering their faces. They are high-up, isolated and vulnerable. And although by this point in Matthew’s gospel at least one of them, Peter, acknowledged that Jesus was “the Messiah, the son of the Living God,” he and his friends quickly forgot about Jesus’ divinity upon realizing that they had no control in the presence of God penetrating their human realm.

They were being changed, and that change frightened them. Yet, ever so gently, Jesus looked upon his friends and said, “Do not be afraid.” And then carried them down the mountain into the midst of human squalor and need. They had seen that God was real, and could now go tell the story to people who needed to know.

Jesus called them to be uncomfortable, and reminded them to be unafraid.

So often, church folks, much like Peter, James and John, are stubbornly adverse to change. Whether the argument is about liturgy, or pew leaflets, or the church’s race and gender politics, there is ample evidence around the Anglican Communion that suggests we have become comfortable in our silos of privilege and tradition. A lot of us do not prefer change.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., described the world’s pervasive evils as racism, militarism and materialism, and to this we can add sexism, heterosexism and ableism, which is the discrimination against people with disabilities. These evils convince some of us that we cannot be too sure of God’s presence. We are persuaded, then, to control our environments as to not become overwhelmed or vulnerable. The limitations of our eyes and ears sometimes make the comprehensibility of God’s goodness impossible. So, routine becomes our god.

Routine, comprehensible and comfortable, becomes a means of protection from a constantly changing life. We erect structures of narcissistic might where we employ rituals to remind God to protect us and show us favor against a common enemy – it helps if the enemy looks different or loves differently, has less or knows less. Sometimes those structures and rituals are cultural, humble externalizations of how we communicate with God. Too often those structures and rituals are seemingly immovable symbols to keep out the “other,” whom we fear will steal our things, or praise God too loudly, or whose stories will force us to face our own brokenness, or remind us of our complicity in oppression.

Yet, Jesus calls us to be uncomfortable, and reminds us to be unafraid.

Unwillingness to change stands in direct contradiction to the very nature of the universe of which we are a part, and of which God is at the center. And it contradicts who and what we hope to become as followers of a metaphysically and physically transitory Christ.

Unwillingness to change stands in direct contradiction to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19, to go and  “make disciples of all nations.”

Unwillingness to change is ultimately unchristian, because it is a selfish relinquishing of our responsibility as bearers of the Good News, which requires us to get up and get out.

However, in our gospel reading today, Jesus calls us to transgress our comfort zones and be transfigured, to be changed into the very likeness of God.

Jesus calls us to be uncomfortable, and reminds us to be unafraid.

The Episcopal Church has 25 young adults who have answered Jesus’ call to us to be uncomfortable and unafraid. The Young Adult Service Corps, a part of the Global Missions Office of the Episcopal Church, has young adult missionaries in 14 countries – South Africa, the Philippines, China, Italy, Haiti, Panama, Spain, Tanzania, South Korea, Cuba, El Salvador, Japan, Honduras and Brazil. These young adult missionaries give anywhere from a year to two years of their lives to the work of God. Many of these young people have never been to the countries where they now live and work. And many of them have little proficiency in the local languages and no experience with the local cultures and social mores. It is the perfect recipe to be uncomfortable, and thus the perfect place to be transfigured.

In partnership with organizations associated with the Anglican Church in those various countries, some of the work of these Young Adult Service Corps missionaries includes helping victims of domestic violence, teaching children who have been the victims of sexual violence, working in economic relief and development, working as student ministers to university students, and working as spiritual companions to seafarers who spend a majority of their year away from home, at sea.

And while many people think that missionary work is about going to some dark place and Christianizing a desperate people, the missionary often finds that she is the one who is being converted, changed, transfigured.

The missionary finds that she is called to do as God instructed Peter, James and John: to “listen.” And in her listening she learns to become one with the people, to get to the heart of things, to lose herself in love of and in service to the people she now calls her family and friends. And in that very coming together as one, she becomes a witness to the transforming and transfiguring presence of God.

The Young Adult Service Corps of the Episcopal Church is giving a generation of young people the opportunity to fling open the doors to their silos of privilege in order to build bridges and partnerships with God’s church all over the world – to do their small part in joining together the disjointed places of the family of God.

Jesus calls us to be uncomfortable, and reminds us to be unafraid.

Once we have been to the Mount of Transfiguration and blessed with the knowledge that we are one with the entire universe – at one with each other, nature and God – then we can’t help but to tell the story, walking as one constantly being transfigured. Indeed, the transfigured one dedicates her life to bringing about God’s peace on earth.

A Franciscan prayer asks God to bless us “with discomfort at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships … with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people … with tears to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, starvation and war.”

Whether abroad or at home, once we’ve broken open the doors to our silos of privilege and tradition to encounter God’s transfiguring presence, it must become our mission, with God’s help, to descend the mountain and enter into uncomfortable places, to be a transfiguring presence in the lives of others.

Howard Thurman, a 20th century theologian and mystic said it best:

“There must be a matured and maturing sense of Presence … on the social, naturalistic and cosmic levels. … Modern [humans] must know that [they are children] of God and that the God of life in all its parts and the God of the human heart are one and the same. … Thus, we shall look out upon life with quiet eyes and work on our tasks with the conviction and detachment of Eternity.”

 

— Paul Daniels, II is a Young Adult Service Corps (YASC) volunteer serving as the Student and Young Adult Minister at the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George in Grahamstown, South Africa. He is from the Diocese of North Carolina

Stone soup, 7 Epiphany (A) – 2014

February 23, 2014

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-401 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Once upon a time, in a land much like ours, there were some weary travelers who came to a village with nothing but a cooking pot. They found a place to camp near some water, filled up their pot, and put it over a fire. Then they took a large stone and put it in the pot as it simmered.

A villager saw this, became curious, and asked what they were cooking. They explained that they were making a wonderful dish called stone soup that they would be happy to share with the village. They just needed a few small things to make it extra flavorful. The villager decides that he can part with a few carrots and adds them to the pot. Another villager sees them and contributes some potatoes, and so on and so forth until there is a wonderful, nourishing soup to be enjoyed by all.

This folk tale slyly illustrates what the concept of gleaning can look like in a community. By each contributing some, there is always enough for all. In the story, the villagers were sort of tricked into contributing, but they did contribute on their own accord because they believed that the end result would be something great. And it was. But it would not have been if they decided to keep their doors locked and never spoke to the strangers amongst them.

In the story, the stone was the base for the soup, with the villagers building upon that. Similarly, our foundation is Jesus Christ, as Paul reminds us in today’s epistle reading, and we must choose with care how we build on it – individually and as a community. We are the Body of Christ; we belong to Jesus and Jesus belongs to God. All parts of us belong to God: all our hurt, all our joy, all our imperfections. If we believe that God’s Spirit dwells within us, that means that God’s Spirit dwells in others, too, whether we like it or not.

This should matter to us. This should change us.  It should transform us into being perfect as our “heavenly Father is perfect.” Not an ethical or moral perfection, but perfection in the Hebrew sense of the word “tamim,” which mean “wholeness.” To be perfect is to serve God wholeheartedly and to be single-minded in our devotion to God. That is what we are striving for in this lifelong journey with Jesus.

If we are striving for wholeness in God, then our lives as disciples will show it. Our love is not one of vengeful retaliation, as we see in our gospel story today. Instead, our love extends even to our enemies, because that is what God calls us to: actions of faith. The thoughts and feelings that are inside us are acted out with the vehicle of our bodies. Are we God’s dwelling place? If so, how does anyone know?

Jesus calls us to radical hospitality – for ourselves and for others. God loved us first so that we would know what love is, and because of our love of God, we are able to love ourselves and love others.

Jesus constantly challenges us with this. He said:

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. … For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”

Tax collectors were despised in Jewish culture for being unpatriotic and were seen as unclean by coming into contact with gentiles.

Jesus continued: “And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same?” The gentiles were considered unclean and unbelievers in Jewish culture, and to be compared to them was insulting. Jesus calls the disciples – us – to a higher standard than this. God’s love is seen in the world when communities are concerned with compassion, justice, and care of everyone, especially the most vulnerable.

Have you ever walked into a party or a conference where you know only one or two people? Or have you ever been the new person at school, at work, at church? You look around and everyone else is chatting and seems to know each other and you just stand there feeling awkward. It’s hard to know where to begin.

It’s always easier to love the person who already loves us or to talk with the person we already know who likes the same things we do. But Jesus doesn’t call us to the easy life – Jesus calls us to discipleship, and that means not just mingling with, but embracing the other. That means noticing the awkward person in the corner and inviting him or her into our conversations. That means praying for those who wish us ill and respecting the dignity of every human being, as we promise to do in our Baptismal Covenant.

Remember, there will be times when we are the awkward person or when we, believe it or not, are someone else’s enemy. The Christian life is not a passive life, but very active and intentional. It means seeing God in the other, as God sets no bounds in loving. If we stay inside the boundaries of where we feel comfortable, wars, racism, ageism, sexism, and prejudice of all kinds will continue.

Look around you in the pews today, or when you’re at work or school, or on the street. Catch someone’s eye. Hold eye contact for a moment and really look at them. See them as God sees them – precious and holy – a child of God. This may be difficult, especially if you feel someone is your enemy, but as Frederick Buechner wrote in his book “Whistling in the Dark”:

“Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. … You see where they’re vulnerable. You see where they’re scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You’re still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction.”

How would it feel to be beheld like that? What is it like to know that you are loved by God with such utter completeness?

Hopefully, it is life changing. Hopefully, this love reminds us that we are all part of something greater – a community that is larger and more understanding than we know. Hopefully, we will know that we are cared for by a God who really see us and invites us to share what we have for the soup, no matter if we think it’s fitting or not.

This is what it means to be God’s dwelling place in the world – our hearts have changed and our actions of love for one another make the soup what it is: a dish that people want to gather around and be part of.

— The Rev. Danáe Ashley is the rector of St. Edward the Confessor Episcopal Church in Wayzata, Minnesota.