Shifting Perspective

The Rich Fool by Rembrandt (1627). Retrieved from Wikipedia.


Grief is an unpredictable thing.  It tends to bring out the best or the worst in people.  Everyone grieves a loss differently, so it’s not up to anyone else to tell another person how they should or shouldn’t cope with a loss.  Some people want to laugh and reminisce about the best and favorite memories of their loved one while others might need to just be sad and have a good cry; some folks need to keep busy while others need to stop and sit down; some might need to be alone while others crave human contact.  All of these are good ways to grieve and the best thing to do whenever someone you care about is grieving is to let that person deal with their loss in whatever way they feel they need to.  You don’t have to say or do anything in particular, just be there for them, hug or give space as needed, and listen when they speak.  After all is said and done, they probably won’t remember what you say, they’ll just remember that you were there for them.

The only exception to this, the only time that grief can go wrong or turn tragic, is when a person allows the pain drive a wedge between those who are left behind.  This can happen in lots of unfortunate ways.  In cases of sudden or early death, someone might start pointing the finger of blame at others, believing that the loss could have been avoided if only the situation had been handled differently.  Even worse, some folks turn really nasty when it comes to dealing with estates and inheritances.  I’ve seen tragic situations where siblings turn against one another over the distribution of property or money in the wake of a parent’s death.  These are the only situations where I, as a pastor, want to intervene and suggest that they find another way to face the pain of loss.

In such situations, the issue at hand is rarely the money or the property itself.  Most of the time, family members are simply overwhelmed with pain and are looking for some place toward which they can direct the energy of their sadness.  In our culture, which glorifies strength and despises weakness, finding something to get angry over feels a lot easier and safer than just admitting that we’re feeling sad or lonely.  So, we hide our grief behind fights over things and never really get to the bottom of what’s really going on in our hearts: the sadness we feel over losing a loved one.  We’ve missed the point entirely and, in the process, damaged or sacrificed our relationships with the ones who might have helped us get through the pain and find our way toward healing together as a family.

The real trick in those moments is to stop, step back, and take stock of what’s really important and what life is really all about.  Is fighting over money or stuff really going to bring back the dead or help us to deal with the pain of loss?  No, not really.  Life is not about getting money or stuff.  In our better moments, we all know that.  But we forget it sometimes when the pain becomes so great that we would rather think about anything other than the fact that we are hurting right now.  I’ve seen this happen more than once and it breaks my heart every time.

In this morning’s gospel reading, the scene opens with just such a situation brewing.  Two brothers have lost their father and a dispute over a contested will has arisen between them.  We don’t know many of the details, but we get the basic outline of the situation as they bring their fight to the rabbi Jesus for a just resolution.

But Jesus, as usual, declines to answer directly the question he’s just been asked.  He says, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”  Once again, Jesus is not conforming to the role that would normally be expected of him as an itinerant rabbi traveling among rural villages.  He continues, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

I hear something deeper in Jesus’ words to these disgruntled siblings.  I hear him saying, in effect, “What you are asking is not what you really need.  You’ve missed the point entirely.”

The key phrase in his response, which is also the central phrase in this entire passage, is, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

That one word, “life,” is super-important.  Jesus isn’t just talking about life in the sense of biological survival, he’s talking about that rich, full, and meaningful (i.e. abundant) life that God intends for us as human beings.  Jesus is talking about really living and not just getting by.

This is a particularly important (and particularly challenging) message for us to hear in 21st century America.  We live in an extremely wealthy and powerful culture.  Capitalism has given rise to consumerism in our post-industrial society.  Our sole purpose on this earth, it seems, is to produce, buy, and consume products that keep our economy going and growing at any cost.  The American dream is an ideal of security through economic prosperity.  We dream of having a white picket fence and a car in every garage.  We are inundated with literally thousands of advertisements every week, each one insisting that their product is the key to achieving true happiness in life.

Yet, one needs only look at those who occupy the top spots in the heap of consumption.  Celebrity gossip columns give a regular indication that those who “have it all” are NOT actually any happier than the rest of us.  They keep on spending their millions in the “pursuit of happiness,” only to discover that there are some things that money really just can’t buy.  Or, as Jesus put it, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

For those of us who live in this consumerist society, I think Jesus wants to extract us from the cult of MORE and initiate us into the church of ENOUGH.  And the first step in this process is to step back and really look at who we are and what we’re doing.  The meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn calls this an “orthogonal shift.”  That word, “orthogonal,” comes from geometry, where it refers to a set of lines that run perpendicular to one another.  In the sense that Kabat-Zinn means it, an orthogonal shift is one where we step back and shift perspective in order to get a different point of view on our lives.  Kabat-Zinn says this is like moving from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional point of view: we rise above the flat level of everyday existence, survival, and concern in order to get a clearer view of the whole chessboard on which our lives are laid out.

This, in a general sense, is what we do every week here in church (and hopefully every day in our private devotional lives): we take an hour to remove ourselves from our culture’s rat race of constant production and consumption and we remind ourselves of where it is that true life, abundant life, is really to be found.  We remember that life is so much more than stuff.

The first thing we realize when we step back, make that orthogonal shift and get a three-dimensional perspective on our two-dimensional world is that we live on a planet of tremendous blessing and abundance.  We are all already spilling over the brim with “enough-ness”.  Most scientists believe that Earth has more than enough resources to safely support life for the number of people who live here, so there’s no real reason why anyone should have to experience starvation.  I won’t bore you with the statistics, but I’ll just encourage you to take your spirituality outside with you.

I mean that literally: take a hike, sit by a river, fish, hunt, or even sit on a park bench for a while.  Just get out there and appreciate the free gifts that Earth has to offer.  From what I’ve seen, those who do so come back with a much deeper sense of gratitude and appreciation for just how lush and green life can be.  That’s one way to make that orthogonal shift and get some perspective.

Another way is to keep a financial journal.  This is a great exercise, and it’s an easy one too, if you’re used to keeping good records.  The thing to do is keep track of every single penny that comes in and goes out of your bank account for a month.  And I don’t just mean balancing your checkbook, I mean really take stock of where and how you spend your money.  At the end of the month, add everything up according to category: rent, food, utilities, entertainment, charity, etc.  Where does your money actually go?  And here’s the hard question: how does that match up with the values you claim to hold as a Christian?  Are you meeting your needs before satisfying your wants?  Would a stranger, looking at this record of your earning and spending, be able to tell what your most deeply held beliefs and values really are?

Both of these exercises can be ways in which Jesus is able to lead us to that point of shifting our habitual perspectives and reminding ourselves that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Really living, according to Jesus, is about so much more than that.

One of the interesting things about this gospel passage is that Jesus doesn’t spell out the answer for us.  For example, with those two grieving brothers, Jesus doesn’t explain to them what their problem is or how to fix it.  He simply refuses to get involved in their dispute.  Instead, he challenges them (almost dares them) to make that shift in perspective themselves and see that the real source of their conflict is grief over the loss of their parent that has been misdirected as anger toward each other.

Jesus, in this situation, is drawing the brothers’ attention to the questions they didn’t even think to ask, initially.  He tells a story about a greedy farmer with the same problem.  This farmer had a huge bumper crop one year, but instead of looking to share the wealth, devised ways to build bigger barns to store keep his own massive profits to himself.  This farmer never stops to think about his wider community.  His focus is solely on “my money, my property, and my needs.”  Once again, Jesus doesn’t spell out the answer, but says more in his silence than most people do in a thousand words.

The implication, which would have been crystal clear to Jesus’ audience of hungry peasants and should have been clear to the farmer in the story, is that an abundance of blessing is meant to be shared.  We have a moral and spiritual obligation to care for one another, not just through taxes and donations to social programs, but with our own time, energy, and resources.  That, Jesus implies, is where life, real life, can really be found.

The Big Picture

Do you ever feel like you get “stuck in your head”?

You know what I mean by that: you start thinking about some question or some problem in your life and it just takes over your whole mental process for hours or even days at a time.  Later on, when you look back at the situation with the benefit of hindsight, you can’t understand how in the world you got yourself so worked up over such a little thing!

Personally, this kind of thing happens to me a lot.  For those who don’t know my back story, I have been engaged in a lifelong battle with a particularly severe form of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).  One of the most counter-intuitive symptoms of this disorder is something called hyperfocus.  It sounds weird because ADD is typically associated with an inability to focus on one thing for an extended period of time, but thanks to whatever chemical imbalance causes the disorder, many of us who have ADD also have this involuntary capacity to occasionally hyperfocus or fixate on something past the point where it’s rational or healthy to do so.  In other words, it’s really easy for us to get “stuck in our heads” over some relatively small and insignificant issue.

For example, there was a time in my life when I was thinking about joining a new church, but I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be Presbyterian, Lutheran, or Episcopal.  For most people, this would not be a big deal.  Most mainline Protestants are pretty similar to each other, but my hyperfocus kicked in and I was up until all hours of the night, reading each tradition’s history and theology.  You could find me at 4am, pacing the floors of my apartment and wringing my hands because I couldn’t figure out which church was the right one for me.  How irrational is that?!  At the time, it felt like the most important decision I would ever make.  In hindsight, it all seems pretty silly.  That’s ADD in action.

If I had been born only a generation earlier, I would have been dismissed as lazy, slow, absent-minded, or scatter-brained.  However, recent advances in medical science combined with the attentive care of my parents and teachers allowed me to rise above my limitations and achieve my full potential as a human being.  These days, I’m on medication that keeps my brain from running away with itself like it used to.  I’m far less prone to fixate on particular problems or get “stuck in my head” over little things.

How about you?  Even if you don’t have ADD, there comes a time in every life when one is liable to get carried away or “stuck in your own head” over some issue or another.  We all have ways of putting up mental filters like horse blinders in moments of crisis.  Sometimes, this is necessary: a particular problem is so big or so important that it needs your full attention for a moment.  However, the trouble comes when we leave those blinders up all the time so that we never see the joys and concerns of the wider world around us.

Personally, I think our whole North American culture has become “stuck in its head” in a number of unhealthy ways.  First of all, we’ve been trained by over 200 years of philosophy since the Enlightenment to prize the life of the individual mind over the life of the body and the community.  This tendency goes back to a very famous philosopher named Rene Descartes.  He was the philosopher who first said, “Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).”  When he said that, he was trying to use his powers of reason to prove one and for all that there is such a thing as a soul.  He was a brilliant person.  We owe a lot to him.  He lived and wrote during the Thirty Years War: a time when religious division fueled political conflicts.  After fighting as a soldier in that war, Rene Descartes became convinced that he could use reason to construct the kind of belief system that both Protestants and Catholics could confirm.  That way, he thought, these bitter religious wars would become unnecessary and naturally fizzle out over time.  It was a noble intention.

Furthermore, Descartes method of reasoning was a major step in the development of individualism, wherein the rights and responsibilities of even a single person matter in the grand scheme of things.  Up to that point in history, the needs of individuals were always subjected to the needs of the group.  Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that all people are “created equal” and possess certain “unalienable rights”: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Jefferson could not have written those words were it not for the groundwork of individualism laid by Rene Descartes.  So, that’s the good part of individualism.  We need it.  We wouldn’t be who we are today without its influence.

However, there is also a downside.  Individualism can lead us to get “stuck in our heads” in an unhealthy way.  Ironically, it can lead us to disregard the rights and needs of other individuals.  Through it, we have learned to justify selfishness over compassion.  We are told that “greed is good” and generosity only encourages laziness.  We have a tendency to get so obsessed with our own “pursuit of Happiness” that we would deny that same “unalienable right” to our equals.  The culture of individualism unfortunately leads people to the hypocritical place where the “unalienable” rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” are only granted to those who can afford them.  Unchecked individualism is damaging to the life of a community.

The second way in which our whole culture has a tendency to get “stuck in its head” has to do with the way in which we value the life of the mind over the life of the body.  This takes us back to Rene Descartes as well.  He believed that a person’s identity could be identified with his or her ability to reason.  Descartes decided that he could doubt every aspect of his existence: his body, his sense perceptions, and his thoughts.  The one thing that a person cannot doubt or deny is the fact that he or she is thinking.  That’s where Descartes got his famous phrase: “I think, therefore I am.”

Once again, this development has had a positive effect.  Through it, we have learned to use the power of reason to improve our lives.  Descartes himself helped to lay the foundation upon which the Scientific Method was later developed.  Much of what we take for granted in science and technology would not have been possible without the way in which he shaped our thinking.

However, there is a downside to this as well.  Western European and North American cultures have had a tendency to value the mind at the expense of the body.  For example, jobs where people work with their brains tend to be more socially prestigious than jobs where people work with their hands.  A doctor (in this culture) is generally considered to have a “better” job than a nurse.  It’s not a matter of skill or hard work.  There are nurses who have doctoral degrees in their field, yet they are constantly under pressure from some MDs to not use their title, “doctor”, even though they’ve earned it.  “Doctors” are generally thought of as mental laborers while “nurses” are generally thought of as physical laborers.  Never mind that we can’t run a hospital without people to do both jobs.  Our culture has trained us to value the one and take the other for granted.  We’re all “stuck in our heads” when it comes to career prestige.

Likewise, our valuation of the mind over the body has led North Americans to abuse and mistreat the earth in so many ways.  Organisms and ecosystems are our partners on this planet, but many in our culture have come to see them as resources to be exploited.  We’re “stuck in our heads” here as well.  We’ve become so myopic about the survival and prosperity of our own species that we’ve forgotten about the basic state of interdependence in which we already exist.  When we damage the water and the air, we are only hurting ourselves.  We roll our eyes when some activist talks about “the environment” because we forget that we are the environment.  When we recklessly drive species after species into extinction, we are only hastening the moment of our own extinction.  Where the planet itself is concerned, there is no “survival of the fittest”.  There comes a time when competition must give way to cooperation or else everyone loses.

We can’t afford to stay “stuck in our heads” anymore.

A few minutes ago, I mentioned that I am now on medication that prevents me from getting “stuck in my head” because of my ADD.  I wonder, is there some kind of “medicine” for our cultural tendency to get “stuck in our heads” in these ways that I just talked about?  I think there is.

We read a passage this morning from Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.  He addresses his own culture’s tendency to get “stuck in its head”.  He says to his followers, “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”  Like us, Jesus’ listeners are “stuck in their heads” and caught up in their own little worlds where everything revolves around them and their immediate needs and wants.

Jesus is trying to get them to take their blinders off and see the bigger picture of reality.  He’s taking them on a journey from being self-centered people to becoming reality-centered people.  This is a path followed by people from every religious tradition, although they might understand and express it differently.  I don’t say that in order to minimize or disrespect the very real differences between religions, but it’s worth noting that we do share some common elements with each other, not the least of which is this sense that (A) “there is something wrong with the world” and (B) “there is a way out of the wrongness”.  Christians have traditionally called the wrongness, “sin”, and the way out, “salvation”.  Here in this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is showing people a way out of the wrongness.

What is the way out?  How does Jesus propose to take us on that journey from being “stuck in our heads” to seeing the big picture?  What is the medicine that he prescribes for treating our cultural myopia?  The medicine is the universe itself.  He says, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns… Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

Jesus draws his listeners’ attention to the natural balance of life and creation.  In order to liberate people from being stuck inside their own self-centered obsession, he asks them a rhetorical question: “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”  The answer, of course, is yes.  There is more to life than all that.  We ought to lift our vision higher and examine our individual needs in the context of the big picture.  There is more to see, if only we can remove these horse blinders of selfishness and meditate on the sacred harmony we find in the universe around us.

We are part of the big picture.  We are gifted with life in the context of our ecosystem.  Our planet is delicately balanced in its orbit around the sun, not so close that we burn up and not so far away that we freeze.  Our sun is one of several hundred billion stars that make up the beautiful spirals of the Milky Way galaxy.  Our galaxy is one of 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe that got started with a Big Bang approximately 13.75 billion years ago.  This is the big picture.  In the grand scheme of things, our self-centered obsessions are pretty small.  Jesus was right: life is more than food and the body more than clothing.  There is more.  WAY more!  And the amazing thing is that it all flows together so well, without our being able to control or direct the process in any way.  It’s just there.  It’s just happening.  Meditating on that reality can help us to maintain an attitude of humility before the mystery of existence.  It reminds us that we can never know all the answers to the secrets of the universe.  It keeps us from getting “stuck in our heads” with our own petty little problems.  Humanity is told in the book of Genesis, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  We are small, this is true.

But on the other hand, meditation on creation reminds us that we are also big.  We are more than those problems that threaten to keep us “stuck in our heads”.  As Jesus said, our lives are more than food and clothing.  According to legend in the book of Genesis, human beings are dust into which the breath of life has been breathed.  Our bodies are vessels for the Ruach HaKodesh, which is Hebrew for “the Sacred Breath”.  Another way to translate that same phrase is “Holy Spirit”.  We all hold this mysterious gift called Life for the limited time that we are on this earth.  The Sacred Breath (Ruach HaKodesh, “Holy Spirit) flows into and out of us all.  We don’t get to decide where and when we live or what will happen to us while we are here.  The only thing we get to choose is what we will do with the time we have.  Will we stay “stuck in our own heads” or will we lift our vision higher in order to see the big picture?

You are bigger and smaller than you think.  You are a speck of dust into which has been breathed the Holy Spirit, the Sacred Breath of Life.  You were born into a nest of cosmic harmony as part of “the interdependent web of all existence”.  As Jesus taught us to do, use this time you are given to honor that sacred harmony and contribute to it by living a life of service and compassion toward your fellow creatures.




Ten Thousand Places

I don’t have a reason for posting this picture.  I just found online somewhere in recent months and I like it.  It speaks to me of the presence of the divine (Matthew Fox might say “Cosmic Christ”) in all corners of the universe, even in the deepest parts of the Earth.  I see it as a blessing.  May it be so.

As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once said, “Christ plays in ten thousand places”.

Aw, what the heck, I’ll just go ahead and post the whole poem:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Retrieved from on June 3, 2012.

A Tale of Two Strangers

Happy Earth Day!

This week’s sermon from Boonville Pres.

Click here to listen at

Luke 24:13-35

“We had hoped.”

Those were the stinging words that reverberated within the hearts and minds of the disciples in the days following Jesus’ crucifixion.

When John the Baptist first pointed to Jesus and said, “He’s the one we’ve been waiting for, the one whose sandals I’m not worthy to untie: the Lamb of God,” they had hoped.

When Jesus preached his first sermon in his home synagogue in Nazareth, he read those inspirational words from the book of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” they had hoped.

When he then started his sermon with the words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” they had hoped.

When they saw him make good on that promise, bringing sight to the blind, food to the hungry, and good news to those who had never heard anything other than bad news, they had hoped.

When Jesus told them to get ready, because the new reign of heaven-on-earth was at hand, they had hoped.

When he rode triumphantly into Jerusalem and kicked those corrupt money changers out of God’s house, the sacred temple, they had hoped.

But then, the pounding force of a Roman hammer driving twisted spikes of iron through flesh and wood put a sudden and bloody end to their hoping.  They heard Jesus recite lines of ancient poetry about being forsaken by God.  At the bitter end, he had pathetically muttered, “It is finished,” just before giving up his fight for life.  And he was right: it was finished.  It was over.  Three years of their lives wasted on this cult leader who died in disgrace.  Perhaps he would be remembered as the David Koresh or Jim Jones of his day.  They would be lucky to escape with their lives and slink back to their families in shame.  They had hoped.  Look what it got them.

Such was the state of mind of the two disciples who shambled slowly down the road on that Sunday afternoon.  They probably hadn’t eaten or slept much in the few days prior.  What’s the point of eating when all food has lost its taste?  One might as well be eating ashes.  Getting out of bed probably felt like working out with lead weights strapped to your arms, legs, and head.

Emotionally, they probably oscillated between feeling nothing at all and that sickening sensation of a knot in the gut that makes its way up to your throat and finally threatens to burst out through your eyeballs.  These folks were heartbroken.

Most of us will experience real heartbreak at some point in our lives.  It might come with the loss of a relationship or a job.  It might stem from the regret of a missed opportunity.  It might come from a serious diagnosis with a poor prognosis, the death of a parent, spouse, or child, or with what Howie Cosell used to call “the agony of defeat.”  Whenever and however it comes, real heartbreak is undeniable and unforgettable.

For these two disciples of the late Jesus, walking down a lonely road on a hot Sunday afternoon, heartbreak had come with the dashing of their highest aspirations against the concrete of imperial power and religious corruption.  They were probably just beginning to formulate a plan of what to do next when, suddenly, they realized that they were not alone on the road.

A stranger met them as they walked along the road between Jerusalem and a town called Emmaus.  In an attempt to join the conversation, the stranger politely asks about the topic.  The question literally stops the disciples in their tracks.  It’s like they can’t even bring themselves to answer the question directly.  The subject is just too painful.  Finally, one of them answers the original question with another question: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”  I take that to be another way of saying, “Well, y’know…” in hopes that the stranger won’t ask them to finish the sentence.

Unfortunately for them, the stranger keeps pressing.  He asks them, “What things?”  Eventually, they open up to this stranger about the grief in their broken hearts.  “We had hoped,” they tell him, “that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  The stranger listens, talks back, and engages them in conversation as they walk along.  They talk about Jesus, they talk about faith, and they talk about the Bible.  It seems like this stranger became a real pastor to them in their moment of deepest heartbreak.  He was there for them.  They didn’t know him from Adam’s housecat, but they felt safe (or at least desperate) enough to allow him to take part in their pain and shame.  Later on, those disciples would talk about how their hearts were “burning within [them]” as the stranger walked and talked with them.

Before they knew it, the group had arrived at Emmaus.  The two disciples had reached the place where they were going, but the stranger kept walking.  They looked at the sun going down in the distance.  It would be dark and cold soon.  Traveling at night could be dangerous.  They saw an opportunity to give back to this stranger a little bit of what he had given to them: hospitality.  Maybe they even thought about what Jesus had once taught them: “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.”  They called out to their new friend as he walked away, “Hey!  It’s getting dark outside.  Stay with us tonight.  It’s the least we can do.”  The stranger agrees.

Later that night, at dinner, this mysterious stranger “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.”  And just then, in that moment, something happened.  They couldn’t explain it.  Maybe one of them caught a glimpse of a scar on the stranger’s wrist as he reached for the loaf of bread.  Maybe it was the sound of the stranger’s voice as he blessed and broke the bread, just like their dead friend had done only a few days prior.  Maybe it was something deeper than that.  Whatever it was, something happened.  In that moment, the text of Luke’s gospel tells us that “their eyes were opened.”  They squinted across the table at the stranger in the dim and flickering lamplight and then, just for a split second, they saw something that almost made their broken and burning hearts jump right out of their chests because, in that moment, they could have sworn (as impossible as it sounds) that they were looking into the eyes of Jesus!  And then, just as quickly as it came, it was gone.  The moment was over, but the experience had shaken them to their core.

This startling and disturbing encounter led them to go back to Jerusalem and their fellowship of broken-hearted disciples.  Much to their surprise, others among the group reported having similar experiences.  They didn’t know what to make of it all.  They just shared their stories with one another.  And then, in the while they were doing that, it happened again: that sense of peace and the experience of the presence of Christ in their midst.  He wasn’t dead and gone.  He was alive and with them.  They had seen him in the eyes of a stranger who had walked with them on the road and broken bread with them at home.  With eyes wide open and hearts on fire with passion, they realized that the brutality of the centurion’s hammer had not beaten the hope out of them permanently.  They had hoped.  They were still hoping.  In some way that defies explanation, hope was alive in them: opening their tear-filled eyes and setting their broken hearts on fire.

I believe the power of Christ’s resurrection is available to each of us in this Easter season.  In the midst of our heartbreak, whatever its cause, hope still has the power to open our eyes and set our hearts on fire.  There are many ways in which this can happen.  Taking a hint from today’s New Testament lesson, I want to focus on one way in particular that this might happen: Resurrected hope has the power to reach us through the presence of the stranger.

We meet all kinds of strangers in life: the random strangers we meet on the street or at the store, the strangers we think we know but don’t really (do any of us really understand our spouses, parents, or children?), then there are those strangers we don’t physically meet but whose lives are connected to ours in some way (think about the people who grow our food, make our clothes, or construct our cars), and then there are those strangers who aren’t even human: the plants and animals who share this planet with us.

There are two ways of recognizing the risen Christ in the many strangers who live around us.  First, there are those strangers who help us in some large or small way.  We saw this happening in today’s New Testament lesson as the stranger walks alongside the two disciples and gets them to open up about their broken hearts.  He was there for them in a time when they were at the end of their rope, dangling over a deep, dark chasm of despair.  He brought them back from the brink and set their broken hearts on fire with his words of hope.  The text of Luke’s gospel tells us that this stranger was the risen Christ, coming to meet them on the road.  How many times have you been blessed by a kind word, a listening ear, or a shoulder to cry on?  Have you ever been in a situation where a simple visit, a card, or a casserole, given as a symbol of love, meant the whole world to you?  In such moments, the risen Christ is present with us, igniting a fire in our broken hearts and rekindling hope.

Second, we recognize the risen Christ in those strangers who we get to help.  We saw this happening as well in today’s reading.  As the stranger in the story prepares to wander into the night, the disciples seize their opportunity to offer Christ-like hospitality.  Their eyes were later opened to the truth that it was actually Christ that they were welcoming into their home.  This is eerily similar to what Jesus told them would happen:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… 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.

Today is the third Sunday in the season of Easter.  We are celebrating today as Compassion Sunday.  We give thanks for the particular ministry of a group in our church: the In His Name Women’s Mission Society.  Among the many other ministries that they support locally and globally, In His Name sponsors a little girl named Gladys, who lives in Guatemala, through an organization called Compassion International.  Compassion International is a faith-based group that provides food, water, medical care, and education to over 1.2 million kids in 26 countries.  In His Name’s sponsorship of Gladys is part of the mission of this church.  In a small but very important way, we get to demonstrate to her the compassion of Christ in our hearts.  But, in an even bigger way, Gladys is Christ to us.  Through Gladys and so many other children in need, Christ calls us to make a difference in this world.  Whatever we do for them, we do for Christ.

Finally, today also happens to be Earth Day, where we give thanks for the abundance of creation and pledge ourselves to work for its healing.  I believe we can celebrate the presence of the risen Christ in these our fellow creatures in the natural world.  In this age of mass pollution and global warming, we can no longer afford to limit our religious and spiritual vision to the well-being of human beings alone.  We are part of an interdependent web of life that connects us to all forms of life on this planet.  We must respect this life and care for it.  But we must also remember to celebrate and enjoy it.  As this spring speeds quickly into summer, get yourself outdoors into God’s green earth.  Let the presence of the risen Christ in nature ignite your heart and open your eyes again.  Relearn what it says in the book of Isaiah: that “heaven and earth are full of [God’s] glory.”  Let this celebration of resurrected glory inspire us to care for our planet and its creatures.  As the preacher Tony Campolo once said, “Every time a species goes extinct, a hymn of praise to God is silenced.”  These strangers (the animals, plants, and the Earth itself) are also members of Christ’s family.  Whatever we do for them, we do for Christ.

Christ is alive and comes to meet us in the guise of strangers: those we help and those who help us.  All of these strangers are connected to us and I believe we have the capacity to see and serve the risen Christ living in each of them.  They are Christ to us and we are Christ to each other.  Whatever we do for each other, we do for Christ.  This Easter, may the risen Christ rekindle hope in you by setting your broken heart on fire and opening your eyes once again.


Old North Bridge, Concord, MA, circa 1900

By Ralph Waldo Emerson

Bulkeley, Hunt, Willard, Hosmer, Meriam, Flint,
Possessed the land which rendered to their toil
Hay, corn, roots, hemp, flax, apples, wool and wood.
Each of these landlords walked amidst his farm,
Saying, “‘Tis mine, my children’s and my name’s.
How sweet the west wind sounds in my own trees!
How graceful climb those shadows on my hill!
I fancy these pure waters and the flags
Know me, as does my dog: we sympathize;
And, I affirm, my actions smack of the soil.’

Where are these men? Asleep beneath their grounds:
And strangers, fond as they, their furrows plough.
Earth laughs in flowers, to see her boastful boys
Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs;
Who steer the plough, but cannot steer their feet
Clear of the grave.
They added ridge to valley, brook to pond,
And sighed for all that bounded their domain;
‘This suits me for a pasture; that’s my park;
We must have clay, lime, gravel, granite-ledge,
And misty lowland, where to go for peat.
The land is well,–lies fairly to the south.
‘Tis good, when you have crossed the sea and back,
To find the sitfast acres where you left them.’
Ah! the hot owner sees not Death, who adds
Him to his land, a lump of mould the more.
Hear what the Earth says:–


‘Mine and yours;
Mine, not yours, Earth endures;
Stars abide–
Shine down in the old sea;
Old are the shores;
But where are old men?
I who have seen much,
Such have I never seen.

‘The lawyer’s deed
Ran sure,
In tail,
To them, and to their heirs
Who shall succeed,
Without fail,

‘Here is the land,
Shaggy with wood,
With its old valley,
Mound and flood.
“But the heritors?–
Fled like the flood’s foam.
The lawyer, and the laws,
And the kingdom,
Clean swept herefrom.

‘They called me theirs,
Who so controlled me;
Yet every one
Wished to stay, and is gone,
How am I theirs,
If they cannot hold me,
But I hold them?’

When I heard the Earth-song,
I was no longer brave;
My avarice cooled
Like lust in the chill of the grave.

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