Twenty years ago, I heard such a powerful sermon that it’s still vivid today. Bishop Mark MacDonald, now the Indigenous Anglican Archbishop of Canada, invited us to picture Jesus and his followers through the eyes of an eagle, soaring high above them. Imagine the “great multitude of people” gathered to hear the Sermon on the Plain in Luke’s Gospel (6:17).
An eagle looking down would have seen Jesus right in the center, with “all in the crowd trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.” Peter and the other eleven were right by Jesus’ side, surrounded by “a great crowd of his disciples.” Luke makes it clear that all kinds of people were on the road with Jesus: women and men, elders and kids, folks from every walk of life. Jesus connected with all of them, regardless of their backgrounds.
Surrounding those disciples was “a great multitude” from the nearby towns. They were curious about Jesus, pressing in to see and hear him better. As the crowd thinned out around the edges, there were people who’d just happened to come by and wondered what was going on. In those days, the appearance of a charismatic teacher must have caused quite a stir.
As Jesus began to speak, everyone hushed to hear him better. Eagles have keen hearing, so even from above, the words would have been clear: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Not only was Jesus proclaiming eternal life after death, but he promised that earthly life would be transformed as well. When God’s dreams for us come true, those who are hungry will be filled; those who weep will laugh; those who get no respect will be blessed. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
From the eagle’s vantage point, where are you in this picture? Are you in the midst of the crowd, straining to hear the message? Are you near enough to Jesus to sense his power radiating out? Are you on the edge of the gathering, wondering what they’re all fired up about?
Wherever you find yourself, come closer to Jesus. Feel his healing presence touching your body and soul. Receive his words of blessing in the depths of your heart. Become part of the changes he’s inspiring in the world around us. Come as you are, rejoicing and leaping with joy, for there’s a place for you in the community of God’s love.
Only once in the forty years we’ve been married have I picked out a gift for my wife that she really liked. We were on vacation, walking around a little mountain town on a summer evening. She admired a necklace she saw in a shop window, but they were closed and we were leaving early the next morning. The following week I called the store and arranged for the necklace to be shipped, surprising (and delighting) Marsha on her birthday.
Though we stopped giving each other presents long ago, sharing gifts is really important to us. The gift of making a home together. The gift of raising up wonderful children. The gift of planting gardens wherever we went, surrounding ourselves with beautiful flowers and luscious tomatoes.
Those aren’t exactly the spiritual gifts that Paul described in his Letter to the Corinthians, but they’re working for us. “There are varieties of gifts,” he says, “but the same Spirit... and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them.” (1 Corinthians 12:4) Whether your gift is faith or healing or cooking a great dinner, it comes from God, uniquely shaped by your life and hands.
Here’s the key to all of this: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Whatever gifts God has given you, they’re not intended only for your own enjoyment or satisfaction. Gifts of the Spirit are meant to lift up everyone, to delight the people around us, to make the world a better place.
Whenever you have the privilege of giving or receiving a gift, you can respond with the simplest and most basic prayer: “Thank you.” There’s really nothing else to say at a moment like that...
The checkout lines were long at the department store, and since I was just buying gift cards, Customer Service looked like a better choice. No one was returning anything at that moment, so the two clerks were chatting. As I approached the counter, they were discussing the shortage of coins. “Where have they all gone?” I asked, just to be friendly. “It’s the government,” one woman said. “They’re not making enough new coins.”
Back outside, walking to the car, I was still puzzling over that statement. Dollar bills wear out, but not coins. In fact, I hardly use them at all, making even small purchases with my debit card. Still, the cash economy is widespread, and a lot of coins are piling up somewhere.
The kids at our little church on the Ute reservation have tapped into that resource. They regularly come on Sunday with bags of coins, lots of pennies but silver ones too. They put them in a coffee can at the entrance, and when it fills up, I ask them to bring it up to the altar. Once an elder cleaned out his collection and donated a bag of quarters. The coffee can was heavy that week; two kids could barely carry it.
After it’s presented at the service, I take the Children’s Offering to our local credit union, which has a coin-counting machine in the lobby. Usually there’s about a hundred dollars, but with all those quarters, it was a lot more. Whatever’s brought in is matched by our Bishop’s Committee, and the whole amount is used for outreach.
Though we’ve been doing this for years, the kids are still shy about saying how we should use the money. I try to give them simple choices to make it easier. When one of them said, “Food,” we used their gift to buy turkeys and other ingredients for the Holiday Meal we put on for the community. One summer they chose “kids who are hungry,” and we sent home backpacks of dry food on the last day of camp. When an older couple walked a mile to get to church on Sunday, they contributed to car repairs. And every year at this time, we give gift cards to families who are struggling.
In our new book A Native Way of Giving, Forrest Cuch describes how the Ute people survived being forced onto the reservation: “They stayed deeply connected with the Creator and always took care of one another. They shared everything from food, to caring for the young and old, to providing lodging and other needs. Possessions were held in common, and if anyone had food, then everyone ate. Sharing wasn’t just something they did; it was who they were, their way of life. Faithfulness and generosity were among their most important survival skills.” (p. 23-24)
So kids, let’s get those coins back into circulation. Let’s invite the grown-ups to help put them to work for the good of everyone. Let’s notice the simple needs of our neighbors and do what we can to help. And let’s take seriously what Forrest wrote: “The Creator’s gifts are abundant, enough for everyone if we’ll just take what we really need and share the rest. And remember to give thanks to God, every minute of every day.” (p. 40)
Can you feel in your bones that winter is coming? It’s not just the colder temperatures. In Utah the leaves are off the trees, the sun is rising and setting father south, and most of the birds have left for warmer places. We don’t know how much snow we’ll get, but these signs make it clear that a new season is coming.
Jesus said we should be watching for signs that the times are changing, like “distress among the nations” and “fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” (Luke 21:25) “Look at the fig tree and all the trees,” he said. “As soon as they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”
The problem is that he said those things two thousand years ago, and signs like “fear and foreboding” have been our constant companions ever since. Long ago the prophet Jeremiah said, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made... I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jer 33:14) The Good News: The Messiah is coming! The Other News: That promise was made hundreds of years before Jesus, and we’re still waiting to see “justice and righteousness in the land.”
In the world around us, the focus is on the Thanksgiving holiday, a weekend of feasting and football and Christmas shopping. Oddly enough, we’re celebrating the beginning of a new church year, the start of the season of Advent (“arrival”). We always begin this new cycle with promises and prayers: the promise that the world will become more like God wants it to be, and the prayer that God’s people will do their part.
The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that will happen to us; we need to be more than passive spectators. Here’s how Paul said it: ‘You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep... the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (Rom 13:11)
Our world is broken and troubled, and we know that changing it won’t be comfortable or easy. The forces of darkness are widespread and powerful; we’ll need to join together to resist them. The Gospel encourages us to “be alert at all times” and pray for strength. With God’s help, united in our Beloved Community, protected by the armor of light, we can do our parts to make God’s kingdom come “on earth, as it is in heaven.”
A few years ago, I had a disagreement with a colleague about the Bible. To him, the most defining moment in the life and ministry of Jesus was when he turned over the tables of the money changers in the Temple. (Mark 11:15) That outpouring of righteous anger and his passion for justice were expressions of the power of Jesus to change the world. No doubt about that.
What speaks most powerfully to me, however, is the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night before his Crucifixion. He’d just enjoyed a last supper with his disciples, saying as he blessed the bread and wine, “this is my Body… this is my Blood.” (Mark 14: 22, 24) He knew that one of his closest friends would betray him to the Roman soldiers. In that last hour before his gruesome fate unfolded, he went off by himself in the garden to pray.
The Gospels make it clear that most of this prayer time was silent. Jesus was a master of what we might call meditation or contemplation, prayer beyond words. When people left him alone, he could immerse himself in communion with the Creator for hours. But on this night, as he drew nearer to the Cross, his spirit was troubled. From the depths of his heart, he cried out, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me…” I find this to be the most deeply human moment of Jesus’ life. Even he could be stretched to the breaking point.
We shouldn’t be surprised that his prayer was answered. Into the silence the Spirit descended, overshadowing Jesus with the Creator’s presence and power. Replenished and renewed, he spoke the words which would propel him forward, “yet, not what I want, but what you want.”
When Jesus asked his disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” (Mark 10:38), the obvious answer was no. James and John had been overcome by delusions of grandeur, imagining themselves sitting at the right hand of Jesus in the kingdom. His reply, “You do not know what you are asking,” was a wild understatement. Though he’d been telling them, “many who are first will be last,” and “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant,” they hadn’t understood.
But wait. Don’t we all sometimes drink from a bitter cup in this earthly life? Though our suffering may be nothing like what Jesus faced, it’s real enough for us. Aren’t we sometimes stretched to the breaking point, ready to run away and hide? Jesus’ moment of despair in the garden is certainly familiar to me.
Won’t our desperate prayers be answered, just as his was? By our own wisdom and worthiness, we cannot drink the cup that Jesus drank. Thanks to his faithfulness, however, we don’t have to face those times alone. He has shown us how the Spirit works within us at our time of need. When life’s challenges become overwhelming, remember what Jesus said to his disciples. “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God. For God all things are possible.”
Pregnancy can be miraculous. When through an act of love a woman and a man join with the Creator in bringing new life into the world, it’s a gift from God. Advances in the science of fertilization, which can extend this process to more people, reinforce the breathtaking wonder of it all.
The manner in which a fertilized egg develops into a living, breathing person draws together a thousand tiny miracles: rapidly dividing cells specializing into fingers and nerves and a beating heart and so much more. Science can document this amazing growth: the first grainy images my wife and I saw of our grandchildren were sonogram photos, taken on their mothers’ bellies. While it wasn’t obvious what we were seeing, the awesome significance was clear.
Sadly, in many cases pregnancy is not the blessing it’s been for our family. The nightmares of rape and incest, the despair arising from longstanding trauma and poverty, the pervasive shame so easily triggered by judgment, and other factors lead to pregnancies being terminated. Besides the social and political dimensions of this controversial subject, passionately-held religious beliefs are involved. Scientific observations are often repeated (“The fetal heartbeat can be detected as early as five to six weeks”) without recognizing that science is not prepared to answer the theological question, When does human life begin?
Instead, Christians should be thoughtfully and faithfully reflecting on Scripture, open to being guided to deeper understanding. Because the Old and New Testaments do not address pre-natal development, I searched for an illuminating passage and was drawn to Ezekiel, chapter 37, verses 1-14, which describes the prophet being placed by the Lord in a valley filled with dry, human bones. The Lord asked, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Awestruck by the experience, Ezekiel replied, “O Lord God, you know.” The Lord instructed Ezekiel to tell the bones that, by God’s will, they would live.
Ezekiel conveyed the Lord’s message, and sure enough, “there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them, but there was no breath in them.” All the pieces had been assembled, but something important was missing. Because the Bible was not written in English, it’s easy to miss the subtleties of the original language. Scholars tell us that “ruach,” the Hebrew word for “breath,” also means “spirit.” So the passage: “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: ‘I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live,’” takes on a broader meaning. To speak of breath is to invoke spirit, and vice versa. Breath and spirit are inseparable, biblically speaking.
This resonates with experiences I’ve had as a pastor, sitting with people who were dying. Their breath often came raggedly, separated by gaps which made us wonder, “Was that it?” Then another labored breath came, and an agonizingly long gap, and another breath followed... until it didn’t. As the minutes went by in silence, we slowly recognized that a profound change had taken place. Life as we know it had ended, with the passing of the breath/spirit.
This process happens in reverse at birth. Consider the old-fashioned cliché of men pacing in the waiting room, helpless to relieve the agony of the birthing mother. Then comes a lusty squall from the newborn, releasing the anxiety. I’m told there’s a similar tension the delivery room until the baby takes its first breath, the cry triggering the mother’s milk and shifting her suffering toward maternal fulfillment. That first breath reveals the spirit’s presence in this new, independent person. “Prophesy to the breath, mortal,” the Lord told Ezekiel. “I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived...”
Birth days really do mean something, theologically speaking. One of the wonders of pregnancy is that the mother’s breath/spirit sustains the developing fetus. The relevant question is not, How early could a newborn survive on its own? Medical science has made remarkable progress in dealing with “premature” births, but these are still perilous situations. The crucial point is that, until birth does take place, the mother and fetus are one body in breath and spirit, which according to Scripture are the cornerstones of human life.
It was a great experience for the youth of St. Elizabeth’s, Whiterocks to go on a road trip. They’d just shared a wonderful week of Summer Camp with the Arts-Kids back home, with some special projects just for the teenagers. They’d worked with visiting artists to make unique and expressive Wrap-Dolls, created personal journals, and wrote their own ‘Zines, narratives illustrated by photos printed from their cell phones.
Two days later the Arts-Teens group (eight young women and three adults) headed for Salt Lake to stay at the Episcopal Church Center for two nights. We gathered twice a day in a Talking Circle to check in and set our intentions, before enjoying a variety of activities. We visited the Native Voices exhibit at the Natural History Museum, after which Facilitator Raycita Quinn tearfully recalled “the pride these girls had at seeing their own people being honored.” We spent an energetic evening at Valley Fair Mall, had breakfast with Bishop Hayashi, walked the labyrinth, and sat silently in the Cathedral writing and drawing in our journals.
Everyone agreed that the high point of the trip came in the last two hours, when we volunteered at Hildegard’s Food Pantry next door to the Cathedral. We raced to keep up with the stream of clients, some of us boxing up the food they chose while the others restocked the shelves. Being able to help people meet such a basic need was transforming for the teenagers. One of the girls summed up their comments: “Going to the food pantry made me thankful for everything I have.” I can’t wait to see what will come next for them on this path of serving others!
Rev. Michael Carney