On some mornings, I step outside and imagine myself among the Galilean hills, standing by the shore, waiting for the sea to brush my soles with its foam, feeling close to Jesus.
At first glance, this early morning looked for all the world like the grayest, dampest, most depressing un-dawning of a day I could remember. I hoped my little dog would get his business over and done with quickly so I could leave the sad state of the world behind and get back inside where it was warm and I could let there be light with the flick of a switch.
If I were looking for a moment by the Sea of Galilee today, it was nowhere in sight.
The World Series was over, which always leaves me melancholy as I bid farewell to my daily summer companionship with baseball. And, of course, that also meant Daylight Savings Time would leave—that night, in fact—an exclamation point to hammer in the return of darkness and the coming coldness of winter.
My annual adaptation to the falling of the year never comes easy. I’d have more success adapting a novel into English from a language I can’t read. For at least two weeks every November, I slog through—mentally and spiritually—making sure I’ve picked out a good novel by P.G. Wodehouse to read as I gain inner traction (which means any of Wodehouse’s 80-plus books).
And then I took a second glance.
What dawn was this?
The sun seemed to be rising up through the trees, stretching out through their limbs and glowing in their leaves of orange, yellow, red and every combination of those colors imaginable.
Literally, the leaves seemed lit up from within to such a degree that the world around me appeared to be filled with light.
Each leaf was a glowing ember that warmed my soul.
Against the grayness of the sky, the autumn leaves were nearly neon. The trees had puddles of light where their leaves had fallen, a reflection-like mirror so that I could see the truth:
The light that really matters doesn’t rise and fall from the east into the west each day and the departure of Daylight Savings Time cannot take it away.
The light that matters most finds a way to shine up through us into the world, as it seemed to be doing through the trees and their leaves on that first Saturday morning in the eleventh month of the passing year.
Just like Jesus said it would.
As our hearts overflow with God’s love and grace we spill over the brim of our own lives toward those around us. Like un-corked champagne from a shaken bottle, it simply cannot be stopped.
God reaches the light of love and grace into the world through our willing hearts even when every clock on the planet is re-set to accommodate a season of darkness.
Sometimes, only surrounding grayness can translate the immortal language of the truest light into words we can understand and share with one another.
Especially sharing with those whose own limbs feel leafless and silhouetted against a sky to which they are praying for light.
The wind suddenly blows my fallen leaves into yours.
And, just now, yours into mine.
They are so mixed up together now I cannot tell whose are which and which are whose.
But, it doesn’t matter.
Together, we shine.
Fall has risen.
Galilee’s tide is high.
Our soles are awash.
And, in this moment, we are not alone.
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I am the last leaf at the bottom of the sky.
Heaven seems to end just where I begin.
The last breath of angels just where I first inhale.
A leaf I am.
And shall always be.
I shall never grow up to become a tree.
Not even a twig.
Leaves don’t do that.
Not a tree. No, not me.
But I am changing colors now.
Just like the sky that seems to end right where I begin.
Just like the sky when the sun comes and goes,
or is it me spinning away from all the light I will ever see
but then—always—spinning back again?
Red, yellow and orange are turning my green inside out.
Just like all the rest.
The leaves that have fallen before me.
Green together at the bottom of the sky
until the sky began to paint us with its colors of dawn and dusk, heaven brush-stroking me in ways I never dreamed possible. The sky always listening.
The sky always there.
Even in the darkness when I cannot see a thing
and I whisper leaf words toward where I believe the sky to be,
￼hoping heaven will hear me
even though I am just one leaf.
Even though I am not a forest.
Not even a sapling’s dream.
Even though I feel my roots clinging fiercely to the earth at the same time the wind seems to give me wings.
I am flying in place.
Being somewhere already.
Right where God put me.
A leaf until I finally leave.
And that is enough for me.
Angels—somehow—all around me.
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Okay, Jesus, but who is my neighbor?
The most common dictionary definition tells me it’s the person who lives next door. That means there is a neighbor to the left and the right of me. Might I somehow love the whole wide world by simply loving my next door neighbors?
Could a “relay of love” spread household by household and neighbor-to-neighbor until one day there is nothing left in the world but love?
The whole wide world filled to the bubbling brim with love?
Sure. Right. Anything you say, Lord….
….But seriously, Jesus, that is so much pie-in-the-sky thinking that the clouds will be made of apples, pecans and a golden brown crust before the world ever spreads its lovey-dovey wings like that and flies off to a better place.
But, still, I must admit, kindness can spread kindness. A smile may beget a smile. I’ve seen and felt both happen.
Anger spreads like wildfire into war, so why can’t compassion put those flames out just as quickly? And why not before the first match is even struck?
Jesus knows that the biggest answers to the toughest questions all come from the same place: the human heart.
Every evil. All goodness. All darkness and every light are all born in the human heart before they ever flip a single switch in the world. That is why Jesus took relentless aim at the human heart, even to his dying breath of forgiveness on the cross.
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” he tells us, beseeches us, begs us.
Easier said than done. Which, of course, is why Jesus said it in the first place. It needed saying because it needed—and still needs—doing.
But, how long would Jesus last if he walked down the aisles of Congress preaching that soundbite of neighborly love?
What, are you kidding me?
Even the simplest definition of the word “neighbor” would have no chance at all in that political arena today.
Love the person to the political left of me?
Love the person to my political right?
You are asking me, Lord, to realize that you love them, too, those on my left and those on my right? Republicans and Democrats? And you’re asking me to love them all?
Jesus probably had a pretty sharp sense of humor, especially if it could help make a point, so I imagine him answering this way:
“Yes, because you are very much neighbors. Isn’t it called the House of Representatives?”
Everything Jesus ever said is easier to say than it is to do—until we actually go out and do it, and then we wonder what took us so long.
Washington, D.C. does often seem like a hopeless case—and it is a reflection of the current national divide among the nation’s population—but if you and I simply love those who live to the right and the left of us, well, one day that Relay of Love could reach Congress and then who knows what might happen next.
But before we begin that journey there is something we must do.
The first step, Jesus knows, is loving ourselves. Not in a selfish, egotistical way, but as a child of God—vanity replaced with humble, joyous gratitude. Only then can we recognize, and love, the child of God next door.
And from that moment we will grow to realize that our neighbors fill every nook and cranny of the world.
“The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.”
the sun set
for the very last time
we sat at the edge of the flattened, rubbled world,
dangling our legs over the side,
dipping our toes,
then up to our ankles and knees
until—not thinking—we were waist-deep,
and then over our heads,
wondering how we ever got there
and how long the baptism would last,
amazed that we could breathe while submerged in so much,
blowing bubbles of light
that became stars above a world that refused to be completely broken
by what people had done
to each other after the sun
rose that morning.
We stood on October’s front porch and the door opens without our knocking. Autumn is upon us. Ready or not. The leaves of color begin to fall. They are blown against the bluest skies by breezes that mingle their coolness with the sun’s warmth. Humidity flies southward with the Monarch butterflies and beside the birds that have sung for us since spring nudged last winter out of the way.
There is so much to distract us in pleasant ways, to keep our minds off the coming darkness and cold that brings the inevitable scarves, ice-scrapers and our own frozen breath that hangs like a mist before sticking, frost-like, to windshields.
If you like sports, there’s football, baseball’s postseason, and soccer. There are fall festivals and school fundraisers, open windows and reading under a tree without swatting away gnats.
For those who love the great outdoors, fields, mountains and streams are now accessible in increasing beauty and inviting temperatures.
But always, lurking around the next football quarter and soccer half, is the bottom of Indian Summer’s ninth inning.
We can turn on all of the lights we want but the sun’s going to keep setting earlier and rising later. Soon enough, the landscape is going to take on funereal tones.
Melancholy finds me each year soon after the World Series ends, the sadness deepening when Daylight Savings Time follows the butterflies and birds, returning only when they do next spring.
But the seasons are blessings. All of them. They are different movements to the same symphony, necessary companions that allow the world of plowed fields and fulsome woods to rest and rejuvenate.
Without winter, there could be no spring.
Without darkness, who would recognize the light?
Walking through the woods and fields surrounding Appomattox Court House National Historical Park recently, I found a reminder that God is present in all of our seasons. Nature’s. And those within us, as well.
On a late September morning, I rounded a bend in a trail and could not believe my eyes.
Brilliant yellow crocuses in rich profusion!!
How, I wondered, could this possibly be? In all of my life I had never, ever seen crocuses shoot up from the ground and spread wide their sunbeam color in the fall.
The rest of the world, in a voice that was beginning to rise above a whisper, was speaking autumn, but these flowers, dozens of them clustered around the base of a tree, were declaring spring.
The sight felt miraculous and the spiritual message soon blossomed:
God’s love and grace are season-less. The rich bloom of God’s love is endlessly limitless and eternally everlasting. There is no Opening Day, no final Super Bowl. Not for God’s fathomless affection.
Most reassuring of all is that, like those crocuses, God’s love is not a miracle.
The flowers, I learned, are Autumn Crocuses. I’d never heard of them before, never seen them. But all of us can plant them in our own gardens to enjoy every fall.
Just as we can open our hearts to the love God yearns to cultivate inside us, the kind of love that can turn our seasons of the human soul inside out, blooming most brilliantly when it seems most impossible that we could even feel one petal.
Flowers come and go. Leaves fall. The final whistle blows on every season. But God’s love keeps playing beyond the final out of what seems to be our last inning. There is always a bloom for us somewhere around the next bend in our heart’s road.
Before being sworn into office, the president-elect places his or her hand on the bible and swears this oath in public to the people of the United States of America:
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
I fail to see how President Trump kept his commitment to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States when he attacked NFL players for exercising their First Amendment right of free speech by kneeling during the National Anthem. I believe Trump violated that sacred oath when he stated, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘get that son of a bitch off the field now. Out. Out. He’s fired!’”
Any president who encourages the firing of any U.S. citizen for exercising their First Amendment right has clearly committed an impeachable offense by violating their oath of office.
Out, Mr. Trump, you’re fired.
“He said to them, ‘You also go out into the vineyard.”
If Jesus tells us to go out into the vineyard, we can just go. It’s okay. It’s not against any law that matters.
We don’t need anyone else’s permission. We don’t require any bureaucracy’s approval. There is no ring that we must kiss.
We just go out into the vineyard.
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus empowers his disciples to get up, go out and do things.
Feed his sheep. Share the good news. Work for reconciliation and healing. And do this in remembrance of him.
Jesus never said, “but first you are required to…” Jesus never made his disciples get a license. Jesus never said, “Do this in remembrance of me but first spend three years in seminary writing papers and passing tests.”
Jesus never told anyone that they must find a Notary Public to validate the movement of the Holy Spirit through his disciples.
The fact is, Jesus never earned a degree, either, though many Sadducees and Pharisees thought Jesus was breaking some Holy law by what he said and did without their stamp of approval.
So, we, too, can just go out into the vineyard. We can just do the things that Jesus told us to do.
Bear in mind, however, that others may disagree. Some may not believe that we have any right to be in the vineyard with them at all because they’ve passed tests, been given diplomas and have been out in the vineyard for 30 years.
There are Sadducees and Pharisees in our day, too. They are good people. They have done good things for the kingdom of God. But, like those who opposed Jesus, ours also believe that they know best what is right for us all and who needs permission from whom and for what reasons.
Such good people are susceptible, nonetheless, to believing that the vineyard belongs to them, that all of the grapes are theirs and that only they can say who serves the wine.
But, that is their misunderstanding, not ours.
We are simply doing what Jesus told us to do.
“You also go out into the vineyard,” Jesus tells us.
No ifs or buts. No dues to pay. No pre-conditions to be met. No hoops to jump through. Nobody else needs to bless us with their permission.
Because the vineyard belongs to Jesus and he told us to go out into that place of waiting vines and expectant fruit.
Because the grapes are his.
Because the wine is his vintage alone.
Because we are told to do this in remembrance of him.
And because we have the explicit permission of Jesus, how can any human-made power on Earth truly believe it has the moral authority to stop us from doing what Jesus has clearly told us to do?
Those who attempt to control and limit who does what in remembrance of Jesus undoubtedly have the best of intentions. But nobody has the words of Jesus to support a belief that any person or organization owns the majority shares of stock in what is holy and sacred. Nor do the words of Jesus give anyone veto power over Christ’s bread and wine.
The communion we share together in the corner of the vineyard where Jesus told us to go is inherently a sacrament.
Jesus makes it so.
Because, as he told us, we do it in remembrance of him.
If permission is required, it has already been given.
Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Peter had wanted to know how many times he must forgive someone who sinned against him. Probably thinking himself extravagantly generous, Peter suggested seven times. Forgiving someone a single time can be a struggle. Sometimes even once can feel like it is one time too many.
But seven times is not enough, Jesus made clear to Peter, and so to us.
Seventy-seven times, Jesus answered.
Seventy-seven times? Turning the other cheek that often could give us whiplash, couldn’t it? But that is what we must do.
It’s instructive to return to a point Jesus made in last Sunday’s Gospel lesson. If a brother sins against you, Jesus said, and refuses all attempts at reconciliation, then treat that individual as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
If Jesus is to be our guide, our Good Shepherd and our Savior, let us ask ourselves how Jesus treated tax collectors. Did he condemn and shun them, make an example out of them as evil and worthy of our disdain?
No, Jesus did not.
Jesus forgave them. Jesus loved them. Jesus opened his heart and God’s grace to them. Jesus, in fact, brought one of them into his inner circle of disciples.
How ironic that the Gospel of Matthew tells this story because Matthew, himself, was a tax collector when he first encountered Jesus.
So, how perfect that Matthew tells us this story because he knew from personal experience how Jesus treated tax collectors.
If we are to treat those who sin against us as pagans and tax collectors, that means we are meant to forgive them. It means forgiveness is for everyone.
Even for us.
Forgiveness is one more example of the narrow gate that opens up to the wide place of God’s love and grace. But how very hard it can be to fit feelings of forgiveness through the small opening in our heart when someone harms us. How difficult to squeeze forgiveness through the shrinking passageway in our wounded feelings.
But how far our hearts can travel when we do because forgiveness is a road with two lanes: forgiveness is for the person being forgiven but it is also for the person offering the forgiveness.
When we offer forgiveness—whether it is accepted or not—we free ourselves of the soul-harming burden of carrying that piece of pain forward day by day, like a heavy and ponderous chain dragging down moments of possible joy.
Seventy-seven times is a lot of repetitions, a whole lot of exercise. If forgiveness were a muscle, seventy-seven repetitions would strengthen it until we could forgive even the heaviest hurt.
By the seventy-seventh time, as we wrestled with the angel of absolution, forgiveness would have become a reflex action in our heart.
Whether seven times or seventy-seven times, forgiveness becomes less difficult when we understand what Jesus understood:
God loves us all and that necessarily includes those who have sinned against us.
We know that to be true because God keeps loving us even when we sin against someone, even when we sin against the love of God, itself.
As he hung dying on the cross, Jesus forgave those who hammered the nails. He set the standard for forgiveness. He walked his talk. But, I wonder if Jesus struggled to speak those words of mercy. If so, how many times did Jesus swallow his pardon into silence before declaring his exoneration for all eternity?
Forgiveness is not always easy but it is always worth the effort because it opens up the wide space where redemption may gather us in its embrace.
And where healing, too, may find us.
Redemption and healing for the forgiven and the forgiver.
“For wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Fellowship of the Ring” makes it very clear: companionship on the journey is important, and can be crucial. I am re-reading Tolkien’s epic masterpiece—I’ve lost track of how often I’ve delved between its covers—and Kim and I are re-watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy on DVD.
The timing was perfect as I contemplated today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew.
In the book, the wizard Gandalf has advised the hobbit, Frodo Baggins, that he must leave his beloved Shire and take the One Ring with him to prevent it from falling into the clutches of the evil Sauron. With that ring, Sauron could destroy all goodness and rule Middle Earth, enslaving all in a great, evil darkness.
The Shire is something of a paradise. No apples have been eaten off the tree of knowledge there. And Hobbits retain much of the innocence of childhood throughout their lives.
The odyssey Frodo ultimately undertakes—journeying into Sauron’s stronghold of Mordor to try and destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mt. Doom—places him in constant and grave peril.
But, Gandalf makes certain that Frodo does not travel into the wilds alone. A trusted friend, Sam Gamgee, will remain at his side through the thickest thicks and the thinnest of thins.
I believe that Jesus had the same thing in mind when he told his disciples that “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” God doesn’t want us to be wrapped in shrouds of loneliness and Jesus knows that.
It is interesting to observe that by removing the letter L in lonely it becomes “one-ly” and loneliness becomes “one-liness.” But that is what being lonely and loneliness literally are—having nobody but ourselves, being one, alone.
Too much “one-liness” and being too often “one-ly” can have the same effect as the One Ring would have in Sauron’s hands—it can ensnare us in a kind of emotional and spiritual darkness. We fall too easily prey to anxiety, fear and doubt. Obstacles along the way can seem insurmountable and there is nobody with whom we can share our moments of joy.
Jesus is encouraging us to open our hearts to fellowship and companionship as we journey through life. I most definitely believe that the Holy Spirit of Jesus and the love and grace of God come to us in moments of solitude. Prayer, for example, is most often a solitary act and Jesus, remember, would often go off to a lonely—or “one-ly”—place to pray and re-gather his strength.
But Jesus would always return to the fellowship of his disciples.
His example is worth following. Thankfully, none of us has to travel through Mordor to Mt. Doom and save the world by destroying the One Ring. But we each encounter challenges, opportunities, obstacles and joys across our lifetime. How much better it is, in all respects, to have companions by our side on the journey. And to feel our companionship ending the loneliness of others along the way.
“Then Jesus told the disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
So, what are we waiting for? Let’s take up our cross.
You and me.
We each have one.
They are not of equal size or weight. Our cross is unique to us, shaped by the life only we have lived. And only we, truly, know what the burden feels like.
But what does Jesus mean by “take up”?
We can “take up” golf. We can “take up” jogging. And we can “take up” sewing.
Can we also “take up” our cross?
Yes, we can and doing so is far more important than “taking up” a new hobby.
Jesus doesn’t tell us to take up our cross and follow him because he enjoys a parade. Jesus is urging us to take up our cross and make something meaningful of it because he knows that our own pain helps us to understand, and so minister to, the pain of others.
When we take up our cross and use it to lighten the world of some of its darkness, then we are following Jesus in the truest way possible.
Tellingly, from a certain perspective, a cross, in its physical appearance, can resemble a key.
And that is precisely what our cross can become when we take it up.
A key waiting to unlock a particular door because our cross, like our life, is unique to us. There is no other life, and no other cross—and so no other “key”—exactly like ours.
Therefore, our cross is the one and only key that can unlock a door behind which someone in particular waits in prayer, asking God to free them from the darkness of their pain.
We can set them free if we allow God to make that miracle happen.
The choice, as always, is ours. We have the freedom to resign ourselves to the darkness of our own pain, the freedom to remain stuck to our cross, static and going nowhere. But, if we answer ‘Yes, Lord,’ then the miracle may become doubled:
God knows how and where all of us have been broken by life. God also understands how the broken places in you can fit into the broken places in me to bring us both closer to wholeness.
By having faith in Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him, we may find that behind the doors that we unlock with our cross “key” are those waiting to use their own crosses as the keys that also set us free along the way.
No, we may not—probably will not—be completely cured. Miracles can and do happen but most of us will have to wait for heaven to forever free us from the effect of every hammer and all of life’s nails.
But God knows how to fit us to each other in ways that soften the jagged edges of the broken places in each of us and bring moments of healing along the way. The most frequent miracle is God-given loving companionship at key moments in our journey. Some will last a lifetime. And beyond.
Jesus, bearing his cross and asking us to shoulder ours, beseeches us to follow him toward those softer places.
When we do, the world becomes a little softer, too.
And its light a little brighter.