Becoming What You Already Are

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Have you ever looked in the mirror and been unhappy with what you see?

Most of us have, at some point or other. We’re unhappy with the way we look, or the clothes we wear, or the house we live in, or the life we’re living.

Advertising executives make a fortune by promoting and manipulating that impulse within us. If only we buy this product, they say, our unhappiness and self-doubt will simply fade away. With their help, they say, we can be as happy and beautiful as the people we see in TV commercials.

It’s all lies, of course. We all know that advertisers are really just trying to get us to spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need in order to impress people we don’t like.

But here’s the thing: in order to effectively sell the lie, advertisers are preying upon a very real fear and very real desire that exist within each of us. The fear is that there is something wrong or missing inside of us, something that would make us profoundly happy, if only we had possession of it. The desire is the drive to be something other than who we are.

Want to look young and attractive forever? Buy this cream! Want to be an adventurous tough guy? Smoke the same cigarettes as the Marlboro man!

Religious advertisers have gotten in on this action too. Want to be free of that gnawing sense of guilt and loneliness? Join this church! Read this book! Attend this conference!

What all of the above have in common, from cigarettes to church conferences, is the claim to cure our sense of inner emptiness by way of some outside product. They claim that they can make us into something other than what we are. And it’s all a lie.

Christ, on the other hand, does the opposite. He offers us no quick-fix product or easy 3-step solution to our insecurities. On the contrary, Christ saves us by bringing us more deeply into who we already are.

In today’s gospel, Christ uses two images to describe this process: salt and light.

He begins by telling his followers, “You are the salt of the earth.” Salt, as we know, is a seasoning for food. We don’t typically eat it by itself; we put it on other things. It adds flavor. But what would happen if salt somehow lost its taste? Jesus tells us, “It is no longer good for anything”.

The second thing Christ tells his followers is, “You are the light of the world.” Light adds visibility to a dark room. If we hide it under a basket, we’ve lost the point of having light altogether. It belongs out in the open.

The common ground between salt and light is that they both add something to something else, whether it’s flavor to a meal or visibility to a room. Their presence deepens the experience of life. And they do this, not by becoming something else, but by being precisely what they are. Salt tastes salty by nature; light is bright by nature.

In the same way, Christ’s saving work in our lives is a process by which we gradually discover, embrace, and embody the image of God within us. The Christian saints of the East call this process ‘theosis’ or ‘divinization’.

According to Eastern Orthodox theologians, the ‘Image of God’ is who we really are inside. It is that part of our deepest selves that reflects something unique about God to the world. We humans can tarnish or cover this image by our sin, but we can never fully erase it.

The redemption won for us in Christ removes the dross of our sin, restores the flavor of our saltiness, and removes the basket from over our flame so that our inner light can be more clearly seen by the world. And this inner light is not our own, but only a reflection of God’s light, just as moonlight is a reflection of sunlight.

This is how Christ’s plan of salvation differs from that of advertising executives and Pharisees. The Pharisees were a religious group who promoted the product of biblical law as a way to change people into something other than what they are. The Pharisees said, “Come to us and follow our program, and you will be acceptable to God.”

They had a very public reputation for being very pious and righteous, so it must have been very disconcerting when Jesus said to his followers, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Who was more righteous than a Pharisee? Jesus might as well have said, “You have to be more Catholic than the Pope” or “climb higher than Mount Everest” to enter the kingdom of heaven. Such an order would have seemed hopeless to the average person.

And I think that’s exactly the point that Jesus was trying to get across. It is hopeless. You can’t get there from here. If you’re trying to win your way into God’s good graces by becoming something other than what you already are, the battle is already over and you’ve lost.

Ironically, the path to holiness leads, not farther away from sin, but deeper into it. We exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees by admitting that we can never live up to it. We ascend by descending. The first step toward finding a solution is facing the problem. The fulfillment of the law begins with our failure to uphold it.

This way of thinking runs counter to the logic of our consumer culture, which brainwashes us to run away and hide from our brokenness, fearing that we could never be loved if others knew what we really are.

The promise of Christ, the “double-dog-dare” of grace, is that there is indeed a light within you. A light that was placed there by God and shaped to reflect God’s own light in a way that is utterly unique in the world. This light is our true beauty, and we will not find it by running away from what we are. We find it by grace, which gives us the faith to remove the baskets from over our candles and “let [our] light shine before others, so that they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven.”

Blessed are You

My spouse’s sermon on the Beatitudes this week. I have no qualms about admitting that she is a better preacher than me.

the beautiful changes...

A few weeks ago my spouse went to get a haircut at one of the chains in town that welcomes walk-in customers. His stylist was a woman wearing a headcovering, which he assumed indicated she was Muslim, but when she saw his clergy collar, she shared that she was a member of the Armenian Orthodox church.
And then because my spouse is a geek about churchy stuff, they spent the next 15-20 minutes comparing notes on worship liturgies. This woman took great pride in the beauty of Orthodox worship, and Barrett agreed. He pulled up a video on his phone of an Orthodox cantor and choir reciting a Psalm for Pope Francis–it is a haunting and powerful chant of lament that took my breath away when I first heard it.
When this stylist saw the video, she pointed to the clothes the priest and cantor were wearing and said, “This…

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Beatitudes 2.0

Blessed are the losers, for they are winning.

Blessed are the guys who got caught, for they are free.

Blessed are those whose skin is black, for they are my next-door neighbors.

Blessed are those nasty women who have blood gushing out of their wherever, for they are my mothers, and sisters, and daughters.

Blessed are those who get grabbed by the pussy, for their consent will be sought.

Blessed are those who march in the streets, for they will see justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

Blessed are the lawless, for they have kept my commandments.

Blessed are the gangs, for they will be my disciples.

Blessed are the gays and lesbians, for they are truly married.

Blessed are those who are transgendered, for they know what it means to be a real man or woman.

Blessed are the uninsured, for their pre-existing conditions are covered.

Blessed are the immigrants, for they are the real Americans.

Blessed are the undocumented, for their citizenship is guaranteed.

Blessed are the refugees, for they will receive safe harbor.

Blessed are the Muslims, for they will know the love of Christ.

Blessed are you when presidents revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.


Abbot Andrew’s application of Girardian theory to Shusaku Endo’s novel (and Martin Scorcese’s film) ‘Silence’. Reading this book after college, while the evangelical interpretation of my faith was beginning to deteriorate, was an important moment for me. Spoilers abound in the commentary, so beware. I highly recommend this book and am looking forward to seeing the film.

Imaginary Visions of True Peace

fumie Fumie

Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence has haunted, troubled, and uneasily edified many readers, me among them, since it was written. Scorsese’s film does the same, although the visual effects amplify the haunting, troubling and uneasy edification. The novel follows the book very closely. Very little, perhaps nothing, has been left out of the book by the movie. This review is primarily a response to the movie but it is a review of the book as well.

Certain dimensions of the novel/movie are brought out with the help of the French thinker René Girard. Girard discovered the anthropological trait of what he called “mimetic desire” in the greatest of Western novels, such as Don Quixote and Brothers Karamazov and in the plays of Shakespeare. Mimetic desire is imitating, not the actions of another, but the desires of another. Girard goes on to analyze ways that mimetic desire becomes conflictual and escalates…

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The Purpose of Contemplation

Dating God

alone-in-prayerThe purpose of contemplation is to change who we are by allowing God to shape and influence the way we see reality. This is something that Christians need to embrace and live out every day, not just on this or that occasion or in this or that way. The more we become contemplatives in the Franciscan tradition, the more we we can recognize those special moments of mystical encounter with our Creator. The result of living this way is, to quote a prayer that is so often associated with St. Francis, although he did not write it himself, that we are to become ambassadors of God’s peace. Where there is hatred, we can show love. Where there is injury, pardon; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.

—from Dating God: Live and Love in the Way of St. Francis (2012).


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Ecclesia Catholica, Semper Reformanda

Article by Fr. John Macquarrie on the Catholicity of the Anglican tradition

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No doubt all Christians participate, in greater or less degree, in Catholicity.  They have all maintained something of the classic form.  Vatican II recognized that Anglicans had done this in a quite distinct way, and we are glad to have this recognition from our Roman brethren—it is a tremendous step forward from the old “all or nothing” position of 1896—and I shall have something to say about this later.  But if we are to take this change of attitude seriously, then I must insist on changing the form of the question which stands at the head of this article.  Because both Romans and Anglicans (as well as some others) have been true to the classical shape of Catholic Christianity, the question for us is not, “What still separates us from the Catholic Church” but hat still separates Anglicans and Romans within the Catholic Church to which they both so visibly and manifestly belong?”

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This Little Light of Mine

Click here to read the service bulletin, including biblical texts.

In the liturgical season between Epiphany and Lent, one of the major themes is Light. Christ is revealed as the Light of the World.

Now, here’s the funny thing about light: you can’t see it. You only know it’s there because it allows you to see everything else when it’s around. Even if you look at a light bulb, you’re not really seeing light; you’re seeing little strips of metal that have been heated up by electricity. The heating process causes the metal strips to emit light into the room. You can see the strips glowing, but that’s not light itself, just the effect.

Today’s readings introduce us to the idea of Christ as Light. Isaiah says it first and Matthew quotes him later:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.”

The psalmist takes up the theme as well:

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”

What does it mean to follow Christ the Light when we cannot see light itself?

My working theory is that we can experience the presence of Christ in the effect Christ has on the lives of people around him.

In today’s gospel, Christ encounters several people who will become his first disciples. We could say that he ‘illumines’ or even ‘enlightens’ them with his presence.

Let’s look at the text:

Where does Jesus first encounter Simon, Andrew, James, and John? On a beach.

And what are they doing as he walks up? Simon and Andrew are “casting a net into the sea.” James and John are “mending their nets.”

This starts off as a rather boring scene. These four people are only going about their daily routine. Christ meets them in the midst of everyday life.

This is important because it gives us a hint about where, when, and how we can expect to encounter Christ in our lives as well: in the mundane, boring, everyday stuff.

If they were construction workers, he would have met them on a job site. If they were doctors, he would be sitting in the waiting room. If they were students, he would be sitting next to them in class. If they were dialysis patients, he would be hooked up to the machine next to them. Wherever we happen to find ourselves is the place where Christ meets us.

This runs counter to the idea that one can only have spiritual experiences in spiritual places, or that one can only meet God in godly places.

If they had been drug dealers, Christ would have met them on the corner where they sell their dope. If they had been strippers, Christ would have met them at the club.

Religious people tend to have a hard time with this reality. We think that Christ only shows up when someone has sufficiently prepared themselves for the encounter, but Scripture plainly and repeatedly shows us that Jesus is not interested in such distinctions. Christ is everywhere. The only thing spirituality does is prepare us to see him whenever and wherever he meets us. In this case, it was on a beach with a bunch of uneducated, working-class fishermen.

The next thing Jesus does is even more interesting: he approaches Simon and Andrew and says:

“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

He doesn’t say, “I will make you stop fishing.” Nor does he say, “What are you doing, wasting your time with this stuff?” He begins by affirming what they already know.

Just like light, Christ does not change the essential nature of the ones he shines upon. They don’t cease to be themselves. They are fishermen now, and so they will remain in God’s plan for their life.

Many people come to the Church because they want to be (or pretend to be) something other than what they are. But Christ doesn’t work that way. He doesn’t take fishermen and make them into saints; he makes them into saintly fishermen.

The light shines on us as we are, but it also helps us to see what we are more clearly. If I wake up before dawn, I can stumble around the room, looking for my clothes. Or I can turn on the light to look for them. Turning on the light doesn’t change the location of my clothes, it just lets me see where they already are.

When Christ the Light shines more brightly in our lives, we remain ourselves, but we come to see ourselves more clearly. Jesus saw something in Simon and Andrew that they had not yet seen in themselves. They were meant for bigger things than what they were already doing. Jesus helped them to see the deeper meaning of their lives and the calling that God had in store for them. They would remain fishermen, but they would be “fishing for people,” according to Jesus.

This is how Christ the Light shines in our lives today. We come to church, read the Bible, receive the sacraments, and discover that we are changing from the inside out. We do not cease to be who we have always been, but the deeper nature of our lives is revealed. We are like the elements of the Eucharist, which remain bread and wine in a physical sense, but are transformed spiritually into the Body and Blood of Christ.

I once heard a story about a woman who worked at a post office. When a new acquaintance asked her what she did for a living, she wisely responded, “I am a servant of the living God, cleverly disguised as a postal worker.”

When we look at ourselves in the mirror, or look at our lives, we see the disguise we have built for ourselves (or the disguise that was given to us by society). We see race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, education, employment, or criminal record. We come to falsely identify ourselves with these things because they are obvious and visible.

But the real truth of our lives lies beneath the surface of those accidental qualities. None of them fully captures the essence of who we really are. When Christ the Light shines upon us, our true selves are revealed. We, and others, begin to see more clearly the divine image we bear. Christ met fishermen and revealed the apostles in each of them.

Christ sees you and draws out the saint or mystic that lives just beneath the surface of your life. Maybe you just didn’t see it clearly before now. But that’s okay, because the lights have been turned on over you and the real you can now be seen and loved for who you really are.

So, go out into the world today as your true self, deepened and revealed by the light of Christ. With that light as your guide, see in yourself and others the beauty and dignity of Christ, whose image you bear. Be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today, and “let your light shine before all people, that they may see your good works and praise your Father in heaven.”

By Unknown -, Public Domain,

A God’s-Eye View

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Think about a time when you felt misjudged or misunderstood. How did it feel? Who was involved? What was it that you wanted them to realize about you? What do you wish you had said to make that person understand?

Most of us have memories like that. The pain of the memory can sometimes cause us to seethe with anger at the injustice, even years after the fact.

Less common and less visceral are memories of times when we have discovered ourselves to be the ones misjudging others. Psychologists have discovered a reason for this: they call it “the fundamental attribution error.” What it means is that people tend to name external circumstances as the cause of their own faults, while simultaneously blaming other peoples’ faults on defects of character.

Here’s an example: You are at a stoplight and cut across a lane of traffic to turn right in order to not be late for work, cutting another driver off in the process. You think to yourself, “Sorry about that, but I can’t be late for work!” Now, if you’re the driver in the other car, and you see this happen in front of you, and are forced to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident, you think, “What a jerk! They must not know how to drive!” That’s the fundamental attribution error in action. The first driver chalks the mistake up to circumstances, while the second driver chalks it up to the other person’s character.

People do this. In the story of our own lives, we tend to cast ourselves in the role of the hero or the victim, almost never as the bad guy. The role of villain is given to others. The funny thing is that the “bad guys” in each of our stories also think of themselves as the “good guys,” while we ourselves play the role of the villain in their stories.

The world loves to divide people into categories: us and them, good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains. We pass judgment on one another and react, rather than respond, when circumstances turn inconvenient. In time, we learn how to impose those categories on whole groups of people: black and white, straight and gay, men and women, American and Russian, Republican and Democrat. It’s as though each of us is in the process of writing our own superhero comic book, fighting like mad to ensure that the good guys win in the end.

The problem is that, when we do this, we aren’t relating to each other as whole people, each with their own complex challenges of circumstance and character. Life is complicated. People are complicated. And at the end of the day, there are no good guys or bad guys, just people.


In today’s gospel, we get to see an example of a time when one person was able to look at another and see the truth beneath the surface of that person.

Last week, we looked at the relationship between Jesus and St. John the Baptist as a door that opens us up to the relational nature of reality in the Trinity. Today, we are going to look at that same relationship from the opposite direction: we are going to see how one’s relationship with the Triune God opens a door for us to see our relationships with our neighbors differently.

When St. John the Baptist looked at Jesus, he saw past the categories that other people used to put on him. John saw Jesus for who he truly is: the Son of God and the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

Jesus was no stranger to being categorized by other people. We read about this time and again in the gospels. His hometown neighbors listened to his first sermon and couldn’t get past the mental categories in which they had placed him, as the son of Joseph the carpenter. The clergy and theologians couldn’t get past the fact that Jesus sounded like a heretic to them, calling into question centuries of religious tradition. The political authorities had him pegged as a dangerous radical. Even his own family came to believe that Jesus had lost his mind. All of these made their judgments about Jesus and tucked him away in their mental categories as a way of dismissing him and his message. But John the Baptist doesn’t do that. John sees Jesus with a different set of eyes.

The gospel calls John a “prophet”, who was “sent from God” as “a witness to the light.” Whatever else this may mean, we can at least say that it means this: John the Baptist saw the world at large, and Jesus specifically, from a spiritually-centered point-of-view. He saw Jesus clearly, with spiritual eyes.

John was able to this, most basically, because of the gifts and calling that God had placed on his life. God wanted John to see Jesus in this way. But, along with that, I tend to believe that John was able to sharpen and hone this gift of God by his spiritual practices.

We know that John lived simply, out in the desert. He had few possessions and sustained himself, as the text of the Bible tells us, on “locusts and wild honey.” As far as we can tell, he was unmarried. He was given to prayer and the preaching spiritual renewal in baptism. In many ways, his life resembles that of an Old Testament Nazirite, a holy person dedicated to God and separated from the world. Traditionally, they refrained from alcohol, haircuts, and funerals. Other famous Nazirites from the Old Testament include the prophet Samuel and the hero Samson.

Although John is not specifically named as a Nazirite, his life resembles that of one, being wholly dedicated to the service of God. In modern terms, we might think of him like a hermit or monk.

John’s spiritual practices give him the ability to see the world differently from the way most people see it, and when Jesus arrives on the scene, John is ready to see him differently too. Where some saw just another crazy person or heretic, John saw Jesus as the Son of God, upon whom the Holy Spirit had descended, and the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. John saw Jesus’ true self, beyond the categories imposed on him by the world.


I don’t think this ability is unique to St. John the Baptist himself.

First of all, I think we get a glimpse, in John’s vision, of the way God sees each and every one of us. When we are misunderstood or misjudged, there is another who sees and loves us as we truly are. God looks at us and sees past the shell of worldly categories to the treasure beneath the surface of our lives. That treasure is there in your life because God wants it to be there and placed it there himself. Even better, God wants us to see that treasure too, so that we can share it with others. Whenever our dignity is maligned by our neighbors (or even ourselves), God is working quietly behind the scenes to bring prophets like John into our lives who will see and draw out the divine treasure that is in us.

Second, I believe that John’s gift of spiritual insight is available to all of us, if we choose to make use of it. Like John, we can make use of spiritual practices to sharpen and focus the way we look at the world and people around us. Studying the Word and celebrating the Sacraments keep us connected to the core beliefs and values that tell us there is inherent dignity in every human life, no matter what categories people may try to impose on it. We read in the Bible that our neighbors are reflections of God’s image, members of the Body of Christ, and living stones in the temple of the Holy Spirit. In the Sacraments, we all pass through the waters of Baptism and partake of the bread and cup of the Eucharist as members of the one Body of Christ. We are part of each other, precisely because we are part of Christ. This is how St. Paul is able to say, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” (1 Cor. 12:21)

In prayer and meditation, we connect the joys and concerns of daily living to our divine life in God. Even secular psychologists have come to admit in recent years that the practice of meditation is good for human relationships. When we meditate, we lower our stress levels and become better able to respond to crisis from a place of peace, rather than react out of anger. Meditation helps us develop empathy and detachment, so that we can see past the hard categories we impose on each other. Spiritually centered people don’t see “good guys” and “bad guys,” but instead just see “people.” They don’t think in terms of “us” and “them,” but think instead of “We.”

God sees each of us as beloved sons and daughters. People learning to see the world from God’s point-of-view begin to see their neighbors in that same way.

That’s how John saw Jesus. That’s how God sees us. My prayer this morning is that we too will learn, day by day, by Word and Sacrament, by prayer and meditation, how to see each other in this way. When we do, we will be seeing one another with the eyes of God.

God is a Relationship

Click here to read the bulletin, including Scripture readings

Whatever else we want to say about God, we can at least say this:

God is all about relationships.

We can see that in the natural universe:

The relationship between our planet and our star is so finely tuned. If the earth were just a little closer to or farther out from the sun, or if it was just tilted a little more on its axis, life as we know it would be impossible.

The biosphere is so delicately balanced, the extinction of just a few species from the food chain can upset an entire ecosystem. A pastor friend tells me that, if bees continue to disappear (as they have been doing), we humans have only two years of life left.

We humans can share a special relationship with each other, when two people can come together in a special, intimate way that actually creates life.

We can see that God is all about relationships by looking at our Scriptures as well.

We can see it in today’s gospel: in the relationship between Christ and St. John the Baptist.

In the very first sentence of this reading, we see that Christ takes the initiative:

“Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan”

And then the text says that John, after a brief conversation, gives his consent. This is very important because real relationships can only exist where consent is freely offered between two parties.

After that, the baptism takes place and something amazing happens:

“just as [Jesus] came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him”

I take this to mean that Christ could see into eternity, into the heart of everything; he could see how it all hangs together. And in that vision, Jesus sees the Spirit descend upon him like a dove and hears a voice say, “This is my Son, the beloved”.

Note the three figures in this vision: First, there is Jesus, the Son of God. Then there is the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit. Finally, there is the voice (presumably God the Father), saying, “This is my Son”. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This is the first place in Scripture where the Holy Trinity appears.

For Christians, the Trinity is our core concept of God. The word itself never appears in Scripture (that was worked out a few centuries later by the Church Fathers and Mothers), but here is where we see the three persons together for the first time. We believe in one God who is three Persons. Not three Gods, not one God known in three ways, but one God in three Persons. The relationship between John and Christ actually opens a window, through which we can see the relational, Triune nature of God.

I know this sounds rather abstract, but let me bring it down to earth: God is a relationship. As St. John the Beloved put it in his first epistle, “God is love”. Relationships matter to God because God is a relationship. God is love itself.

This is good news for us in this world, where our relationships are in such trouble. Our broken relationships, at the personal and political levels, are often characterized by exploitation, manipulation, oppression, poverty, and violence.

There is nothing new about this. We can see it plainly on the news and in many of our families. It didn’t begin with Twitter, or the internet, or television, or the 1960s, or the sexual revolution. It began all the way back at the beginning, when our relational God created us to be in relationship with God and each other. But we withheld our consent. We broke relationship with God, and soon our relationships with each other began to break down as well.

But God never broke relationship with us. God came among us in the person of Jesus Christ to redeem the world and restore us to right relationship with God and each other.

That is why the Church today, as Christ’s Body on earth, calls Christians to tend to our relationships with family, neighbors, strangers, and even enemies. We are called to live the truth that relationships matter because God is a relationship.

God is love. This is why Jesus sums up all the commandments of the Bible in a single word: Love. Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself. Likewise, St. Paul writes, “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).

St. John again:

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16)

In other words, where there is love, there is God.

Whenever we swallow our pride and say “I’m sorry” to the spouse we’ve been fighting with, that is an act of worship to God. Whenever we are at a restaurant, and the waiter comes by with a refill, and we look up to meet that person’s eyes and say “thank you”, that is an act of worship. Whenever we march for justice and listen to the voices of the poor and oppressed, that is an act of worship.

Whenever we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, or visit the sick and incarcerated, we are not just serving our neighbors, but Christ himself. Christ was very explicit about this:

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)

God is a relationship, therefore relationships matter. God is love, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. This is the truth that Christ and St. John the Baptist are driving home to us, through their relationship, in today’s gospel.

May we be the Christians who honor our relationship with God by honoring our relationships with each other in the world.