God’s Vineyard

Yesterday we tackled the parable of the landowner who hired workers at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon and dinner time, to work in his vineyard and then he paid them all the same amount (Matthew 20:1-16). Hmm… I’ve heard that this is the most disliked parable in the Gospels, and I can see why.

(For the full video version, click here.)

It is tough because this parable seems innately unfair. It is an unrealistic social story kingdom of heaventhat tries to point out a spiritual truth about each person’s relationship with the Divine, but we get hung up and don’t understand it because we over-identify with that first laborer who toiled all day in the blistering heat and got paid the same as the last guy who started at 5 p.m.

It reminds me of when I was a kid. I had to wait until my brother (who was three-years younger) was old enough to ski before I could learn myself. And I had to wait until I was 12 to get a camera, but then he got one at the same time. It just wasn’t fair. I wanted him to have to wait like I did to receive those opportunities!

Perhaps it would help to know that right before this parable, Peter, Jesus’ top disciple, says to Jesus (basically), “Hey, we all left everything that we have to follow you… what exactly are we getting out of this?” And Jesus reassures him that of course they will all be taken care of and rewarded. But there is something about having to reassure Peter of his “reward” that rubs the author of Matthew the wrong way. It just doesn’t fit the model of laboring in God’s vineyard where all people are treated equally. So, the parable attempts to explain what Peter didn’t quite get.

In our world, we compare ourselves to others to make sure we aren’t being cheated, taken advantage of or treated unfairly. But the parable reminds us that the world of comparative thinking does not work when dealing with spiritual reality. On a spiritual level we need a different thought process that does not put us at the center of the universe…nope, not all about us.

If we remember that this parable says “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…” It is meant to describe the kingdom of heaven. And if we remember that Jesus told us that the kingdom of heaven is within, that it’s a spiritual state of being, then we have to recognize that the landowner represents the qualities and characteristics of the kingdom of heaven. The landowner (aka God) is generous, loved unconditionally, treated people equally with caring, compassion, and grace. The landowner lived with a sense of abundance.

God doesn’t look at each of us to judge who did more, made more of a difference, because we are now in the consciousness of the kingdom of heaven, not, as John Shea says, in the consciousness of “Comparative Status” or “Fear of Not Getting What You Deserve.” Those states of consciousness are of this world, and they are awfully hard to get out of our brains.

Most of the time we’re not even thinking about the fact that there is a larger reality that permeates all parts of our lives (physical, mental, emotional, social).  The Divine continually presents us with opportunities to learn and grow spiritually by volunteering, reaching out to someone, standing for justice, giving of ourselves and what we have, studying or worshiping, etc. Whether we do something huge or something small, it matters not. The reward is the same – a day’s wages, which echoes the concept of our “daily bread.” It is all we need for the day: sustenance, love, caring, abundance, equality, compassion, purpose.

It makes perfect sense to me that the energy of the Divine does not operate on monetary (how silly would that be) rewards, or any other rewards.

This parable is actually an extended answer to Peter, “Really, Peter, I’m grateful for all you’ve done, but in the eyes of the Divine you’re no better than anyone else.” God, being God, will give everyone all that God has. There is no option. God can’t be stingy or judgmental or punishing, those words aren’t anywhere in the definition of God.

The hope would be that we’d chill out on our own competitive spirits, and embrace the concept that God doesn’t have favorites. God’s love encompasses and gives equally to all.

Love & Light!


Spirit of Reconciliation

I don’t think I’ve ever preached on Matthew 18:15-20 because I just didn’t quite know what to do with the procedure of the early Christian community in dealing with conflict.  In some ways the scripture sounded more like it was calling someone out and making an example of them. And if they didn’t change their ways, it sounded like they were shunned. Then I heard a different perspective from theologian John Shea.

(For the full video version, click here.)

In his book, On Earth as it is in Heaven, Shea said that “Jesus teaches and reconciliationexemplifies a relentless drive for reconciliation.” Within the early church community, this imperative spawns a set of procedures to be applied to breakdowns of community relationships. If the process doesn’t work, the person isn’t to be shunned or ostracized (though some commentaries I read suggested this passage helped justify the practice of excommunication), they are to be treated as someone in need of “missionary work to be brought back into community. They are like the Gentile and the tax collector, a special object of the community’s relentless care.”

That made much more sense to me; that and the suggestion that Jesus calls for acts of reconciliation to stem from a spiritual center.

Now, I understand that the concept of reconciliation (the restoration of relationships) is a touchy subject. I am asking you to have an open mind and not just shut down because you believe what I’m talking about is impossible. Stay engaged in this, struggle with this with me, because it is important.

First of all, I recognize that reconciliation is not always possible because it takes two willing parties to work toward repairing the relationship. One can forgive another without being asked for forgiveness, or having any interaction with that person. But restoring a relationship requires both parties to come together. Not everyone is capable of this.

John Shea tells a story about a couple that he had sent to marriage counseling. The counselor came back and told him, “They don’t have the background to make it. They have never learned to work through conflicts. Walking away is what they know best.” Some people simply don’t have the skill set to work through problems in a constructive way. Nor do they have any desire to acquire that skill set – to change, in other words.

The question really is: do we have the skill set? Do we want to acquire it? How do we learn to deal with conflict better? And how do we work on our own spiritual growth to a point that reconciliation becomes our standard goal – not walking away or giving up or shutting out or going into a rage, but reconciling with those around us.

Quaker pastor, Philip Gulley, in his book “If the Church Were Christian,” tells a story about a couple whose estranged daughter was dying of a terminal disease. The parents made several overtures but were turned away when they went to visit their dying daughter. (Several years before, the daughter and her sister had quarreled, the parents had refused to take sides, advising their grown children to work out their differences peaceably. The daughter felt betrayed and resolved never to speak to her parents again.)

Gulley said he thought of bringing the daughter and parents together in hopes of a reconciliation. But the daughter’s bitterness was so deep and sharp that he lacked the nerve to challenge her. In her final months, the daughter spoke often of her Christian faith and how it sustained her, while seemingly blind to one of that faith’s bedrock principles – forgiveness.

Before she died, she left strict instructions that her parents and siblings were forbidden from attending her funeral. The mother and father, mystified and heartbroken by their daughter’s anger, and not wishing to anger her spouse, stayed home to mourn privately.

What causes someone to get stuck in a place like this? Pride, ego, hurt, fear, anger, insecurity, stubbornness.

Gulley points out that traditionally the church has emphasized being “right with God” over reconciling with one another. The sacrament of confession in the Catholic Church, while great perhaps for self-reflection, lets one off the hook after doing penance through prayers. Not a bad deal. Or in earlier times sacrifices of money and perhaps animals and grains were required.

Jesus didn’t ask for sacrifices… at least not of that kind. Jesus asked us to let go of the things that keep us separated from others: pride, ego, judgments, the need to be right, the need to be better than, fear of rejection, etc.

Being truly engaged in our spiritual paths and intent upon doing more than just warming a seat in church on Sunday morning means (I believe at a soul level anyway) we want to respond to the conflicts in our lives in a healthier, more compassionate, caring, concerned way. Why? Because deep down we care more about the relationship than the perceived grievance. We care more about the person than our pride and ego. Yes, it takes working through whatever issues there are, but the goal in the end is to restore the friendship or relationship.

Our spirituality helps us in two ways (if we’re willing to focus on it in times of conflict):

  1. Staying centered. If we’ll look deeper than our hurt to the place in us that is filled with the energy of Love, the compassion of the Divine, the light of hope, it will help guide our attitudes, actions and words. It will help us remember that we are more than our hurt and so are they. Staying centered reminds us that we want not only our own well-being, but the well-being of the other as well.
  2. Staying sensitive to our connection with God and one another. Remember we are one. As such we may be aware of a force that wants to pull us back together, that wants us to apologize or to forgive. There is a force that wants us to make up and make amends. One couple described it like a rubber band… they could only pull so far away before the force became so great it pulled them back together.

At the end of the day, it’s up to us. Will we pay attention to the pull of the Spirit that is there asking us to lay aside our stubborn need to be right? It may not always be possible with certain people. But I believe that if we raise ourselves to the level of the Spirit, come at conflict from a non-judgmental, compassionate place of seeking understanding and resolution, we may just be able to lift the conversation to a place where peace and healing becomes possible. If not, we know we put our best effort forward in love.

Seek reconciliation… relentlessly.

Love & Light!



Here I Am

Twenty-four years ago I knelt in the beautiful Chapel of the Unnamed Faithful at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary. I was alone and the chapel was dark except for the lights streaming in the stained glass windows. I wasn’t particularly happy to be there, or perhaps I was just in shock to find myself there. Me… a religious neophyte, clueless, naïve, overwhelmed… what was I thinking?

(For the full video version, click here.)

I’d answered “the call” to become a pastor, but it was surreal. Who was I to be in seminary with all these folks who’d grown up in the church? My atheist background left me sorely lacking in the realm of Biblical and church knowledge. Who was I to think I could lead or guide anyone? I was 26 years old, married and with a child on the way, had buried my mother and grandparents, but how much life experience did I really have to help others? And who was I to proclaim a God I didn’t even understand? Or follow a guy named Jesus that I only knew in passing? I’d never taken a Sunday School class, a confirmation class or read much of the Bible.

As I sat there pondering my unworthiness and what now felt like a crazy path, my eyes were drawn to a stained glass window of Jesus with his hands on the head of someone kneeling in front of him. I suddenly had this inexplicable urge to cry. And as tears welled up, a song popped into my head that I’d sung numerous times at Marquette with the man who wrote it:

Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.

By the grace of God I somehow got from “who am I?” to “here I am.” I could not have imagined the crazy, twisted road surrendering to that call would take me on.

It reminds me of the story of Moses. Moses ran away from Egypt because he’d killed another Egyptian for beating a Hebrew man, one of Moses’ kindred (so the scripture says). He settled in the wilderness of Midian, eventually met the priest of Midian,  was invited to settle there and help the priest with his flocks. After some years he married the priest’s daughter, Zipporah and they had two children. Life was pretty good for Moses.

Then one day he was out tending the flock when he saw a bush on fire, but not being consumed.  Here_I_AmThen he heard his name. “I am here,” Moses answers. He’s directed to take off his shoes for he is standing on holy ground. The god Yahweh then tells him that there is something Moses must do… he must go back to Egypt and free the Hebrew people from slavery and oppression there.


Moses isn’t quite on board with this great plan. And I’m sure he felt completely unworthy, like I did. So, he hedges… maybe he can change God’s mind??

Who am I, he wants to know, that I should go to Pharoah and lead the children of Israel out of Egypt??

(Under his breath I imagine him saying: Are you nuts? There’s probably a price on my head. I have a wife and two kids. I have flocks to tend to. And, frankly, while I know the people suffer, but I’m pretty happy here and I’m not convinced I can be helpful. Who am I that you’re asking me to do this thing?)

God doesn’t even answer the question, basically just says, “no worries, mate, I’ll be with you.” (For some reason God sounds a little like Crocodile Dundee in my head right now.)

Moses isn’t giving in so quickly, “But Yahweh, how will they know you sent me? And why would they believe me? And who am I do to this when I am slow of speech and stutter”

Sure enough, Yahweh had an answer for everything and before he knew it Moses was taking a leave of absence and packing up his wife and kids to head to Egypt.

By the grace (or sheer stubbornness) of God, Moses got from “who am I?” to “here I am.” He could not have imagined the crazy, twisted road surrendering to the call would take him on.

Here’s the crux of the matter: how do we get from “who am I?” to “here I am”?  How do we get from “I’m not worthy” to “I’m surrendering to my path”? How do we get from “I’m happy with my life as it is” to “I trust where I’m being led”?

This reading comes up in the lectionary rotation every three years. The last time I used it was six years ago at our first weekly Sacred Journey’s service. Somehow we went from “Who were we to start a new church?” and “Who was I to be pastoring it?” to “Here we are God… use us” and “Here I am God… I’ll try again.”

How do we get from “who am I?” to “here I am”?

Fear is the biggest reason we question the calls and nudges we receive from the Divine.  Fear is why we ask “who am I?” and “why me?”

I know some of you were probably taught by the church you grew up in to fear God. But now that we’re older and wiser, do you truly believe you need to fear the Divine? Or do you believe the Spirit always has our highest good, and the highest good of others, in mind? I hope so, because this is the God I know and believe in.

So, if it is not God we fear, then it must be something else. Maybe we are afraid of change, being uncomfortable, doing something new, giving something up, or not being good enough. Maybe we afraid of failing… or succeeding.

I realize in this blog I’ve only talked about big, life-changing decisions. But I would suggest that the Spirit doesn’t just move in big let’s-start-a-church-become-a-pastor-move-to-Egypt sort of ways. I know when folks think about following the Spirit, or the Divine, or the energy of the Universe, somehow we’re all afraid that if we say yes, surrender, say “here I am,” that we’ll end up a missionary in Africa. If this were the case you’d think there’d be a lot more missionaries in Africa! Doesn’t the Divine nudge us in small ways all the time?

Maybe we’re nudged to call someone, to say you’re sorry, to mend fences, to say thank you,  to apply for a job, to volunteer, to give to a cause, to open a door, to smile, to do something you normally wouldn’t do, to take your umbrella with you, clean out your closets, risk being in a relationship, Look for a new job, go back to school.

The chances of coming across a burning bush anytime soon are slim. But that doesn’t mean God isn’t looking to get our attention and send us on our own mission, or nudge us to be the hands and arms and voices of love in the world.

What is required of us is to be open, to trust, to watch, to listen, to let go of the “who am I to be doing this?” questions and to respond “here I am God.”

Love & Light!



Sincere Love

In Paul’s letter to the Romans he talks about how, when we unite in Christ – or more generally, when we unite in the spirit – we are all one body, with all of our various skills, and we belong to each other. As such, there is one thing that is essential: “Your love must be sincere.” That phrase caught my eye. What does it mean to love sincerely? Or insincerely, for that matter? As we batted this question around yesterday, we came up with some of the following answers:

  • Unconditionala sincere love
  • Authentic
  • Non-judgmental
  • Put others first
  • Caring
  • Kind
  • Helpful
  • Respectful
  • Vulnerable
  • Not forced
  • Not harmful
  • Accepting

It strikes me that you can have some of these – caring, helpful, respectful – without love. But you can’t have sincere love without including all of them. One person suggested that insincere love is an oxymoron, because if it is truly love, it must be sincere.

(For the full video version, click here.)

One friend of mine has a really hard time talking about this concept. As a child she had been forced to express love when she didn’t feel it. Not only was she was told she had to tell her aunts she loved them, worse yet, she was told, even after her father was mean to her and yelled at her, that she had to go tell him she loved him. Now she limits deep, sincere (“real”) love to people that she is willing to do absolutely anything for. Like if I say I love you, I had better be willing to bail you out of jail, pay for your college tuition, take you into my home, pay your bills and care for you until you’re on your feet again. While it is great to be able to help folks like this, it typically would then limit your field of those you can love sincerely.

But if sincere love is a state of being, we are able to include all creation as receiving parties.

In his book, An Active Life, Parker Palmer believes that God acts in this world, but only “incarnationally through the various forms of embodiment that God takes on earth, including our own human form.” He goes on to say that “the theology that makes Jesus a one-and-only incarnation” of the Divine “tends to excuse the rest of us from responding with everyday actions that incarnate God’s abundance.”

We each have the Divine spark within us, we each are an embodiment, an incarnation of the Divine and the closer we touch this, the more we act with sincere love towards others.

Sadly, on a regular, everyday basis, we tend to forget that our essence is one with God, or one with anyone else, and so we get caught up in the stories of our lives, our society and our families. We look for differences, we make judgments, we risk only so much around people we don’t know,  and we’re afraid of how we’ll be judged and labeled.

My daughter, moved into the dorms at UW-Milwaukee this last Wednesday and her first comment about her roommates was that she felt a “vibe of unwelcomeness.” But that stage of life is the epitome of a time in life when we’re nervous, scared, anxious, and used to being judged for how we look and what we wear.  Hopefully over the course of time they’ll become friends and eventually have that sincere love between them.

The flip side of that are the many stories coming out of Texas this last week. Many folks are being hailed as heroes for their live-saving efforts after Hurricane Harvey, but it seems to me that in life and death situations we let go of some of the things that normally keep up from expressing sincere love. When your community is in danger, it doesn’t seem to matter anymore what religion someone is, or what color, or what political party, or whether they are in the country legally. People band together, without even knowing each other’s names, in an effort to save lives – human and animal alike. All life is sacred. We are all one.

Sincere love sees no color, has no boundaries, no language, or accent, or sexual orientation. Sincere love is an outpouring of the Divine Spirit within. Perhaps sometimes it shows up in small bursts – like in disaster situations – giving us hope once again in a benevolent universe. But the reality is that the capacity is always within us… it doesn’t require any money or any resources… it simply requires awareness.

I have pastored churches that expressed sincere love, but eventually something happened and they started judging and labeling. It didn’t last.

Many of you have expressed to me your amazement at how warm, and welcoming, and genuinely caring Sacred Journeys is. And I agree, and I’m thrilled. I encourage us not to take what we have for granted, but to continue to be intentionally welcoming, open, accepting and caring. To do so respectfully, without judging. To be hopeful, enthusiastic, “rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep” (to quote Paul). To love sincerely, of the Divine Spark that is within us.

Then our challenge is not to just do this within our own community where it feels safe, but to live this love more and more, offering a conduit for the work of the Spirit in our world.

Love & Light!