Pentecost, Again

Pentecost is sometimes described as the “birthday” of the Church, and in some ways that is true, but for the most part that is too sentimental a view to take because Pentecost isn’t supposed to be a sentimental, comforting story, it’s meant to be a dangerous one. The story opens with that small group of believers isolating themselves from the rest of the world, gathered in fear.  But looking back, had they actually known what the Spirit had planned for the group, they might have fled to the four corners of the world!  It turned out they were in no danger from outsiders, the danger came because they were all together in one place and God was about to crash the party of their limited view of the world and compel them to bring in everyone they had spent their lives trying to avoid.

Things got a little cray-cray then with the wind and the fire and the different languages.  It was very different from our experience of Church in the 21st century: there were no musicians or board meetings or religious education.  There weren’t even any ushers to hand out bulletins to the crowds waiting outside, and there weren’t bake sales or rummage sales either. It all looks so different, unless we look closer at the people, in which case there isn’t much difference at all.

We still have fear and isolation in some branches of the Church, a fierce sectarianism that divides us…so nothing new there.   And those people who did the whole speaking in tongues thing …well, they must have been Pentecostals. And that long list of how many different nationalities showed up must have been added by the first member of the UCC boasting about multiculturalism.  Nothing’s changed there either.  Then there were those who witnessed this powerful act of God…this Pente-chaos and, in an attempt at intellectualizing it, all they said was “What does this mean in the larger economy of God’s grace?
These were the Catholics, of course.

And the ones who said, “Those people are drunk” were perhaps some Evangelicals focused on the personal morality of others. Nothing new there.  Then finally there’s the nice but completely naive Methodist guy who says “O my gosh, there’s no way they can be drunk…it’s only 9 o clock in the morning.”

Nothing’s changed much.  People are people. There are the emotional ones, the judgemental one, the naïve ones, and of course the ones like myself who insist on categorizing and naming everyone as though people can be reduced to a label.  Honestly.

So there we all are even from the beginning.  Flawed, smug, confused, embarrassed and embarrassing…in other words the very perfect people to whom God sends the spirit.

Because, it turns out, God hasn’t changed either. Just like that first Pentecost, God still crashes our parties and invites in the people we would rather avoid. God still says “yes” to all our polite “no thank yous”.  This is what is so crazy dangerous about the whole thing.  This isn’t a sentimental birthday celebration, it’s a revolution. When speaking of the Holy Spirit we have to revert to metaphors: Paraclete, Comforter, wind, dove—but the thing to remember is that the Holy Spirit is NOT a metaphor.  She will mess you up in ways a metaphor cannot.

Even though we call the Holy Spirit the comforter, that doesn’t mean she brings warm cookies and nice bedtime story to help us sleep.  The Spirit brings the comfort of the truth – and if you’ve had any experience of the truth whatsoever you can testify that it’s not exactly cozy. The truth has often set me free from comforting illusions, but I’m here to tell you, I can’t think of a single instance when that felt like a warm cookie or a bedtime story!

So here we are: flawed, smug, confused, embarrassed and embarrassing…in other words the very people to whom God sends the spirit to mess everything up.The very people God loves enough to send that crazy bird with bared talons and a predatory beak to come and snatch out our stony hearts and replace them with the expansive vision of God’s heart.

Because God hasn’t changed. Just like that first Pentecost God still says yes to all our polite no thank yous.  God still crashes our parties and invites in the people we are trying to avoid. That’s the thing about the Pentecost Spirit of truth: it feels like the truth might crush us. And that is right.  The truth will crush us, but the instant it crushes us it put us back together into something real—maybe for the very first time.

The fundamental radical and dangerous thing the Spirit does is always the same: she forms us into the Body of Christ.  Sometimes despite us, sometimes contrary to the way we prefer, but always for us. It’s the only way we can remember that we are not individual human beings having a spiritual experience: we are spiritual beings having the fullness of human experience.

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Who Am I?

The end of the academic year approaches and my seniors are excited at the prospect of entering “the real world”, but also apprehensive in some cases.  Being in their parents’ home and having their days all planned and scheduled for the past 12 years has them wondering who they are now.  At some point in all our lives, or perhaps at many points, we ask the same question, “Who am I now?”” At times like these, we are looking beyond the superficial, beyond our names and the names of the cities and states we came from, into the layers beneath our surface identities. We feel the need for a deeper sense of purpose in our lives, or we may be ready to accommodate a more complex understanding of the situation in which we find ourselves. Whatever the case, the question of who we are is a seed that can bear much fruit.
This questioning can send us on an exploration of our particular giftedness, of our dreams, of our deep vocation in God’s dream of who He wants us to become.  It can call us to take up new ways of meditating or journaling in order to discover that voice deep within us that seems to know the answers to our multitude of questions. It can draw our attention so deeply inward that we find the spark of Spirit that connects us to every living thing in the universe. One Hindu tradition counsels its practitioners to ask the question over and over, using it as a mantra to lead them inevitably into the heart of the divine.
While there are people who seem to come into this world knowing exactly who they are and why they are here, for the most part the human journey appears to be very much about asking this question and allowing its answers to guide us. So when we find ourselves in the heart of unknowing, we can have faith that we are in a very human place, as well as a very divine one. “”Who am I?” is a timeless mantra, a Zen koan ultimately designed to lead us home, into the part of our minds that finally lets go of questions and answers and finds instead the ability to simply be.

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It’s All About YOU

 

Whether we realize it or not, we spend a lot of our lives looking for role models, mentors, teachers, and spiritual guides to assist us on our journey through life.  Often this is complicated further by the events of our childhood, i.e., if we lacked a strong father figure as a child, we look for that in others when we are adults. There isn’t anything wrong that doing this, and in fact, finding the right person at the right time can really help us grow. However, it is important to realize that in the absence of such a figure, we can very safely rely upon ourselves—or more specifically, the Christ who dwells within us. We carry within us everything we need to get through this life, to know how to make wise choices, and to make progress on our return journey back into God. As I’ve said before, the outer world often serves as a mirror to what is going on within ourselves. To use another metaphor, our inner spiritual connection to God has a magnetic force that draws to us exactly  what we need to grow and evolve to the next level. We already have all we need, so we need to release the mistaken belief that unless we’re frantically searching we will never find what we are looking for.

The path of the Spirit is sometimes seen as searching for something far outside ourselves, almost like Ponce de Leon searching for the fountain of youth.  In this modality, we are searching for something we want but do not possess, and we are convinced that when we find it we can finally be happy and at peace. Think about wanting that Malibu Barbie when you were a young girl, or the video game you just had to have when you were a young boy.  Getting what we think we need only makes us happy for a short while, and then the happiness passes until a new object of desire presents itself. That is the difference between happiness and joy: joy is a permanent aspect of our inner selves and is not separate from us at any point. We do not have to travel to find it or imagine that it resides only in places of people outside ourselves. In fact, this is precisely what Jesus teaches us when he reminds us that the Kingdom of God is within us.

So when we find ourselves on our path, not knowing which way to turn and wishing for guidance, we can turn to the Christ-presence within. This is the enduring gift of our baptism in Christ, to be His body and sacred Presence in this time and place.  We may not know the right answer rationally or intellectually, but if we simply ask, let go, and wait patiently, an answer will come. The more we practice this and trust this process, the less we will look outside ourselves for answers and come to a deep level of peace.

Wishing you a Lent full of sweet surrender,

Fr. Michel

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What About Joy?

People have had a habit of asking me two questions over the years.  “Do you know anyone nice I could date?” and “Considering all the tragedy in your life, how do you maintain your joyful attitude?”  The answer to the former is always the same: “No, I am sorry, I do not.”  The response to the latter is more complicated and challenging to explain, so I generally fall back on simplistic answers like, “I believe in God” or “My faith sustains me”—both of which are true as far as they go, but they don’t really attempt to answer the question.  So, today I’m going to reach deep and try to answer this latter question more honestly.

First, it seems to me that part of the answer is in my DNA and my natural tendency to really love life and living.  I may be a senior citizen with an AARP membership, but I love this life!  The first snowfall makes me giddy, as does the first 75 degree day in May when it’s sunny and beautiful.  I also love to play, whether it’s on a swingset or rollerblading in Foster Park or playing tennis or “turning up” at a rave.  It’s all good and I love it all.

This leads to the second point, which is that there is no one secret for living a joyful life. Those of us who move through life joyously have not necessarily been blessed with lives of abundance, love, success, and prosperity. We have, however, been blessed with the ability to take the circumstances and storyline we’ve been handed and creatively make them into something great. I’ve often used the line, “Perception is reality” and I say that because our individual realities are colored by perception: delight and despair come from within rather than without. Situations we regard as fortuitous engender positive feelings, while situations we judge inauspicious cause us no end of grief.

Because this is true, we can move to the third layer, which is that if we can step back a bit and look at all we have accomplished in life without dwelling on our perceived misfortune and make each new circumstance, each bump in the road our own, the world as we experience it becomes a grace-filled and graceful place. A simple shift in awareness can help us recognize and unearth the hidden potential for personal and outer world fulfillment in every event, every relationship, every duty, and every setback.

So, now you know the rest of the story! Have a blessed and joyful week.

Fr. Michel

I’m not saying that life is easy: it is not.  Nor is it for the faint-hearted.  The universe is often an unpredictable and chaotic place, and for many the tendency is to focus on the negative and assume the positive will care for itself. This doesn’t work because life can never be more or less than what we make of it. For example, if we are working in a job we dislike or where we feel limited, we can concentrate on the positive aspects of the position and approach our work with positive energy, knowing that we are open to learning whatever it is God needs us to embrace. The job may never become something we “love”, but we can learn to perceive parts of it that we do love.  Likewise, when faced with the prospect of undertaking a task we fear, we might view it as an opportunity to discover how far we can bend to accommodate the new challenge. By choosing to love life no matter what crosses our path, we can create an aura of joy that is truly infectious and serves as a harbinger of fun for all those around us.  A change in perspective is all it takes to change our world, BUT we must be willing to adopt God’s own optimistic, hopeful mind-set.

To make a conscious decision to be “happy” is not enough. We have to learn to observe and embrace life’s complexities through the eyes of our inner child,  seeing everything for the first time. And we have to furthermore divest ourselves of preconceived notions of what is good and what is bad so that we can appreciate the rich insights concealed in each stage of our life’s journey. What we have in this stage of life needs to be embraced joyfully and fully because if there’s one thing we know for certain it’s that life’s circumstances are always shifting. As we gradually shift our perspective, our existence will be imbued with an authentic  joy that will carry us through whatever life gives us.

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Where is God? Advent, Week One

Our readings today are so powerful, but this Advent I’m resolved to make my Sunday reflections first of all practical, so I want to look more deeply at the reading from Isaiah 64. This reading comes from someone who feels that God has abandoned them, which may not seem like the most inspirational reading for us today—until we watch CNN of course. We see violence and oppression and injustice on every continent, and even though we know that Christ has already won the victory, sometimes we wonder. We feel very much alone.
Sometimes it even feels like that at church, like having faith is a give and take kind of thing with us doing all the giving and the church doing all the taking, and meanwhile God is nowhere to be found. Maybe we feel that God isn’t at all interested in our life? That we’ve been left alone to work through the challenges of child-rearing, job-hunting, caretaking of elderly parents all by ourselves. Not that we haven’t tried to locate this absentee God. We’ve looked up and down I-69 for a gian billboard from God, assuring us that He’s still here, all too happy to look after us and support us, but we’re just not seeing it. God seems very remote and far away.
The one who prays in Isaiah 64 has done the same things: he’s looked high and low for God, and now he is frustrated and angry. Angry that God hasn’t “proved” true in the real world of being a student and a parent and a retired person with increasing physical limitations. Angry that when he needed God most and knocked on the divine door, the sign said, “Gone fishing.” From a historical stance, it’s understandable because at the time Isaiah was written, the entire country had been ransacked and plundered—the memories of watching enemy combattants invade, the sounds of the screaming neighbors as violence ensued. How could any forget the humiliating six hundred mile forced march from their home town to a distant land?? For sixty years this displacement has continued, and the God they once seemed so sure of seems absent. So the person who prays in Isaiah 64, decides one day that he’s done praying the “Our Father who art in heaven” kind of prayer: instead, he’s going to get real with his praying. And it’s going to be brutally honest and it’s going to carry all the pain in his heart.
“God, rip the heavens apart limb by limb and come down and help me!” The imagery is violent: slash the heavens, rupture them open, explode them apart, snap and shatter the clouds. The person praying wants God to come onto the scene in a dramatic way, in a way that everyone will notice.
Wouldn’t it be great if God would do this kind of thing every once in a while for us? All the kids would be talking about it come Monday morning during the homeroom announcements.
“Hey, did you see on CNN what happened at Mr. Holland’s place Friday night?”
“No, what?”
“OMG, dude, God came down and really kicked some butt!”
There was a time when that kind of praying was the norm, when Christians prayed, “Thy will be done” and really meant it because there was no other kind of prayer possible: no vaccination for polio, no dialysis machines, no bypass surgery, no transplants.
I’m not saying those were the ‘good old days’ by any means, but when it came to issues of faith, it was far easier to believe then that God was right there in the fray with us, with his apron on, sleeves rolled up, doing whatever needed to be done to accomplish God’s will. When we felt we couldn’t go any further, when we felt that there was nothing left to live for, suddenly we just knew that God was with us. And we found that we could go on after all. We felt somehow that it all made sense.
Like the Prophet Isaiah, we might at first try to blame God for abandoning us, for being the source of all our problems, but at some point we will come to acknowledge our own responsibility in what the world has become:
WE have sinned
WE have transgressed
WE have all become like one who is unclean, and our high-sounding phrases like “liberty and justice for all” look like little more than a dirty dish rag.
WE have all faded like a leaf on a tree in November because we’ve been swept away by the consequences of our collective and individual choices.
The prophet acknowledges this, too, and wonders if maybe God hasn’t found another chosen people, a people who are better behaved, who make better choices, whose actions are in harmony with their words…And just like that, the prayer changes: gone are the demands for violence and anger. So we come to the deepest truth, the most profound yearnings of the human heart. When we have exhausted every strategy from blaming God to imagining the good old days to having temper tantrums, we come at last to a place of integrity and truth: “God, I guess the most important thing is that no matter what, you are my parent, my mom and dad. Left to myself, I am a lump of unshaped clay; but in your hands I know I am a masterpiece. So whatever I am and wherever life will take me, I now know that you are the sculptor of my life. And I surrender all that I am to you, all that I will ever be.”
We once whispered a prayer to God: “Lord, speak to me, please.” And an early spring robin sang in the tree behind our garage, but we didn’t hear it.
So we got more insistent and yelled: “God, speak to me right now!” And the sunlight caressed our cheek and a gentle breeze moved through our hair. But we weren’t listening.
Then we got frustrated and we demanded, “God, if you exist and are really with me, let me see you!”—not even noticing a universe of bright stars dancing above our heads.
And then we shouted, “God, if you’re out there, show me a miracle!” and all around us new life was being born in abundance—we didn’t notice a thing.
So, we burst into tears and we cried out in despair, “If you love me, touch me, God and let me know your presence!” And God reached down and touched us, but we brushed the butterfly away and kept sobbing.
And in the dark of the darkest night, we cried, “God, I need your help!” as an email from a friend arrived with loving words of encouragement, but we thought it was probably spam, so we deleted it and spent another sleepless night…
Isaiah’s prayer is a reflection of our own Advent yearnings, and these yearnings often take a winding journey toward integrity and responsibility, but first they go through the desert of confession and repentance in order to come to place of trust and renewal. And suddenly we get it.
The fact is, God has been with us all the time. We just forgot to check upstairs in the spare closet. God has touched us on the shoulder as many times as an impatient student’s interruptions. And all the while we were complaining and doubting God’s presence, complaining about God’s absence, God was continually trying to reveal Himself to us in order to show us that we were the ones who were absent, and that He had been there all the time, and in the most surprisingly ordinary places.

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Trimming the Tree

While trimming the trees in the rectory this past weekend, I had another opportunity to review my own personal history as reflected in the various ornaments I placed on the family tree. There is, to be sure, one tree decorated in period-appropriate decorations of a more rustic nature, in keeping with the historic provenance of the house. But there is also another tree that bears in minature, all the phases of my life from childhood to the present. Each year another special ornament is added, with a brief explanation attached to its storage container, so that I never forget the person or story behind the ornament.
Since all of these ornaments are one of a kind and irreplaceable to me, it struck me this year that preparing the house for Christmas can be more than a vehicle for self-expression: it can be a form of meditation on the deepest level. Carefully hanging a bird seed on eggshell ornament can be a prayer. Energetically hanging multi-colored lights is a way of remaking the world into something beautiful. Putting the angel treetop from my childhood is like hitting a high note while singing a song, reminding me to continue to release my fears and keep reaching fornew heights in my life. Each small aspect of decorating for Christmas carries with it the possibility of personal transformation: it only needs awareness and intentionality.

Decorating or doing arts and crafts, painting, writing, or any creative activity requires us to become fully present during the process of creating. This means we are less obsessive about what the outcome of our project will be and more focused on the “now” of the activity. As we do this, we can release any preconcieved notions or inhibitions or ideas about what needs to happen, and then God’s own creative energy (which is surely the source of all our own creativity) can flow freely through us. Whether we are writing or singing or making Christmas ornaments or trimming the tree, we bring to light a very real reflection of our innermost self in a particular time and place.

This is definitely the season of decorating our homes for the holidays, so if you’re the kind of person who thinks that “regular” meditation is something that doesn’t appeal to you, maybe think about trimming or creating something and allow that process to be your Advent meditation this year. You might even sing the old carols out loud as you bring the beauty of who you are into being as you trim your tree or home.
When I look at the finished Christmas tree that holds all the family ornaments, I see all of my personal history: the glass ornaments brought from Germany by my father’s family at the turn of the previous century; the plastic ornaments from the 1940s that were made using “new” technology that hung on my grandparents’ tree; the shiny snowmen that I purchased when the boys were babies; the American flag ornament Gayle and I bought after 9/11; the numerous Nutcracker ornaments from when I danced with Fort Wayne Ballet; the birdseed and husk ornaments Gayle and I made the first Christmas we lived in the house; the vacation ornaments from Key West,Ocean City, Paris and New Orleans; the numerous ornaments from students I’ve received over the years; the egnraved First Christmas ornament from each of my son’s first Christmas. It’s all there: a Christmas tapestry of triumphs and tragedies, wins and losses, good days and hard times, laughter and tears. The annual act of trimming that tree becomes much more than just one more crazy act of preparing the holiday: it’s a prayerful meditation of gratitude for everyone and everything that has brought me to this place.
Some years I feel more caught up in the holiday spirit, other years less so. But in every case I find the time to put up the trees and after Midnight Mass, when the house is dark and quiet, I sit with a glass of wine in front of the lit tree and I remember everyone and everything. Sometimes there’s a tear or two. Often a smile or two. But there is always an overwhelming sense of peace because, in the light of that Christmas tree, God shows me every year just how blessed I am to be alive.
Wishing you a week of mindful trimming,
Fr. Michel

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Back to Basics: Christ the King Sermon 2014

When the Green Bay Packers’ Vince Lombardi, the eminently successful coach in the 1960s, was asked how he produced winning teams, he explained that any group of football athletes could win more games than they lost if they simply concentrated on the “little things,” the fundamentals of the game. After a narrow victory for the Packers, Lombardi called a special session for Monday morning because he felt his players were losing sight of the small details that guarantee victory. Standing before his players, he held a football above his head and announced: “Men, we need to review the basics of the game. This is a football.”
In the passage we heard from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has gathered his team, his disciples, around him for one of the last teaching sessions of his career. Throughout his ministry he has been trying to get his team to understand the meaning of the Reign of God—what it is, who is part of it, what is expected of those who want to part of it. He returns to fundamentals, and in the process he helps us to understand how the game of life is to be played.
One of the things he says is that discernment is part of the process because there comes a time when our choices and actions will be discerned as either worthy or unworthy. He says that nations and people come before the King, and there is a separating of people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. But this judgment scene actually is taking place in our souls right now because we carry the Divine Presence within and we already know the answer. Engaging in discernment now allows us a chance to see what we’ve done with gthe gifts God has given us, and we can use that to advantage for the Reign of God. One morning in 1888, Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, the man who had spent his lifetime amassing a fortune from the manufacture and sale of weapons of destruction, awoke to read his own obituary. The obituary was an error, of course, because it was actually his brother who had died. But Mr. Nobel was profoundly disturbed to read the headline that said the “Dynamite King,” had died. It was clear that this was how he was going to be remembered, and nothing else he had accomplished was even listed in the obituary. Nobel resolved to make clear to the world the true meaning and purpose of his life. And through the final disposition of his fortune, he established the most valued and prestigious prizes given to those who have done most for the cause of world peace, the arts, and sciences. For him this was the moment of discernment. Jesus reminds us that we must all give an accounting.
Jesus goes on to say that the discernment or judgment process results in surprise for some because some people are told that they had been rendering service to the King himself without even knowing it. Often we are not aware that an act of caring or compassion has any effect beyond our immediate view. We may never meet the family we helped by donating to the food bank. We might never shake hands with the man standing in his new shoes and belt, proud to have gotten his first job after having been incarcerated. We may never even see the woman dying of AIDS who, thanks to our generous giving, was provided with food and personal care items when even her family and friends were nowhere to be found. If you’ve never read the book, “The 5 People You Meet in Heaven”, I suggest you read it because as the book makes clear, one day we will all be surprised to discover whose lives we have impacted.
Jesus assures us that great noble acts aren’t what he’s talking about: it’s the small things. Food, shelter, the gift of our companionship. Our opportunity to please God will not be the result of some benevolent act that impacts all of humankind. It will be a small act of caring directed toward an individual.
Loving service is another part of the Reign of God. “I was sick and in prison,” says the King, “and you came to me.” We are sometimes challenged to do for others what they cannot do for themselves. Henri J. M. Nouwen, noted theologian and author, chose to leave his post at Harvard Divinity School to becoming one of the staff at Daybreak–a residential community for developmentally disabled people. A typical day at Harvard might have included lecturing to packed auditoriums, outside speaking engagements, interviews with magazine editors, and some quality time spent writing another book or magazine article for publication. At Daybreak, the day began by helping others out of bed, bathing, feeding, and clothing them. Tending to their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs as part of a ministry team fills the day. Nouwen shares what led to this change. “Most of my past life has been built around the idea that my value depends on my accomplishments. I made it through grade school, high school, and university. I earned degrees and awards, and I made my career. Yes, with many others, I fought my way up to the lonely top of a little success, a little popularity, and a little power. But as I sit beside the slow and heavy-breathing Adam (a resident of Daybreak), I start seeing how violent that journey was. So filled with desires to be better than others, so marked by rivalry and competition, so pervaded with compulsions and obsessions, and so spotted with moments of suspicion, jealousy, resentment, and revenge.” In serving those who cannot help themselves, Nouwen heard the voice of Christ: “Just as as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”
Jesus has been talking about the Reign of God, and it might sound like he’s saying,”Well, if you do enough good things, then God will let you in.” That’s not what he’s saying at all. He’s not sharing with us a magic formula of how we save ourselves by our own good deeds, rather, he’s giving us a description of how people who have pledged allegiance to God above all else live out their commitment. Acts of caring and compassion toward the least and loneliest demonstrate that people are already living inside the Reign of God, even when they don’t realize the impact their actions have. Small acts of kindness, even when we think they are invisible, are ways the Reign of God becomes more visible.
When Ignatius Loyola and his band of nine followers went to petition Pope Paul III in the 16th century to form the Society of Jesus, the Pope was unimpressed. Although the men arrived in Rome with their degrees, their doctorates in divinity, the Pope was unimpressed Then came the winter of 1538, the most desperate in Rome’s memory. These ten men took upon themselves the burden of the city’s destitute. They put the sick into their own beds, begged straw mattresses and food for the rest, and at times had as many as three or four hundred crowded into a ramshackle residence, which was all they could afford. So spectacular were their efforts that the Pope decided he could no longer ignore them, so 1540 he granted them the right to call themselves a genuine religious brotherhood–the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Their actions indicated to whom they belonged.
Undergoing discernment, being open to surprise, not overlooking small things, involving ourselves in simple acts, serving “the least of these,” acknowledging God’s Rule–these are the fundamental ways we come to recognize God’s Reign and give evidence that we are part of the change. In time, others will notice that the Kingdom has come close to them. They may not know what to call it, but they will know that something has happened that makes life better. To that, Jesus would say “Amen! As you did it to one of the least of these I gave you, you did it to me.”

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