Category Archives: Homelessness

“Welcome One Such Child. #WelcomeRefugees. A Call to Radical Hospitality” – Sermon on Mark 9:30-37

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Welcome-Refugees

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” – Mark 9:30-37


Her name is Diana. She is four years old. And she has traveled with her mother and father, who are Christians from Damascus, Syria, for 15 days, mostly by foot to get to Germany. Every night, they sleep on the streets – in the cold and sometimes in the pouring rain. They have made it to Hungary, but the Hungarian police want the families to board a bus and be taken to a detention camp, where refugee families are crammed together behind fences and sometimes even inside cages. One Hungarian detention camp has been known for its police officers to throw food to the families in the cage. One reporter described this scene: it is “like feeding animals in a pen.” Some of the families decide they will try to run away so they can avoid the detention camps and continue their journey toward Germany. But Diana’s mother, Rowa, knows they would likely be chased by police officers and in their condition, they wouldn’t make it very far. Since Diana has become ill and has come down with a terrible fever, her parents decide that while they have come so far and are so close to safety and freedom, they have no other choice than to get on the bus with their daughter, and be placed in a camp. And so now four-year-old Diana, who has not been welcomed in her own home country of Syria, who is not welcomed to make Hungary a place to call home, is now not allowed to move on to a country that would welcome her as one of there own.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

This is what Jesus said to his disciples in today’s Gospel passage in response to one of their many misunderstandings.

At the beginning of our passage, as the disciples are journeying through Galilee on their way to Jerusalem, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection for the second time. But the disciples still don’t understand. And now, after they enter the house in Capernaum, Jesus reveals that the disciples have completely misunderstood Jesus’ values and what it means to follow him as one of his disciples.

“What were you arguing about along the way?” Jesus asks them. But the disciples remain silent, because they had been arguing about who among them was the “greatest.”

Now, I can’t completely blame these disciples. You see, as is the case today, in First Century Palestine, to be deemed the greatest was based on social status: the most successful, the most wealthy, the most popular, the best educated, the most privileged. To be the greatest meant – and still often means today – to have power over others. In such a system both in First Century Palestine and 21st Century North America, it can be quite difficult for any of us not to constantly seek to be the one first in line. And when those we deem as the “others” or as the “strangers” among us enter our territories (and our homelands) and seem to threaten our comfortable lifestyles and our paths to climb the social latter, we are often tempted to demonize them and to turn them away. To deny that they – too – are made in the image of God. To refuse to recognize the face of God in them.

Yet, Jesus has a different way to greatness in mind.

And so he sits down on the floor of the home, calls the twelve to gather around him, and responds: “Who is the greatest of all? Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

For Jesus, the way to greatness is not to BE first, but to put others first. To live as servants, providing love and grace to those around us. To put the well-being and basic needs of others in front of our own wants, our sense of security, and our temptation to get ahead.

For the disciples living in First Century Palestine, this was completely radical. And it is probably pretty radical for many today, as well.

But just as the disciples begin to wrap their minds around this counter-cultural way to greatness Jesus is describing, Jesus does something even more radical.

He picks up a child, places her in the middle of the disciples, embraces her, and says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.”

Now to many of us, this may not sound too off-the-wall. We live in a culture that – for the most part -values children. And we know quite well that throughout his ministry, Jesus loved and embraced and surrounded himself with children. However, in First Century Palestine, children were only valued in their future, when they became adults… if they became adults – for many children never survived past their young years. In their childhood, they were considered more of a burden than an asset to the rest of the family. They were another mouth to feed and body to cloth. They were the silent ones, the least of these, those who were the outcasts of society.

So here we see that Jesus’ way to greatness is extremely radical. His path to greatness in this Kingdom of God he often speaks of is nothing like the path to greatness in the oppressive Roman Empire of his day. Jesus’ path is not about climbing the social latter and befriending and caring for only those who have something to offer us.

Rather, Jesus’ path to greatness is servanthood. It is putting our selves last so that others who’ve been last can be brought into the frontline. It is picking up and embracing those whom the world deems as the last and the least, the others, the strangers, those on the margins of society and bringing them to the center with our loving embrace. It is welcoming one such child, and thus in doing so, welcoming Jesus and the one who sent him.

It is radical hospitality.

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When I first read this text early this week in preparation for this sermon, I immediately thought of our current refugee crisis, which has become the worst refugee crisis since World War II. This recent mass flight (or as some are calling it: this “refugee exodus”) to Europe has especially overwhelmed my thoughts, emotions, and prayers this past month.

It’s been beautiful to see that many around the world are offering radical hospitality to our brothers and sisters who are desperately seeking refuge. I’ve been brought to tears watching thousands of grateful refugees get welcomed by cheering Germans holding signs saying “Welcome to Germany” and while reading posts and stories from people who are urging their home countries to receive and resettle more refugees by making the hashtag #WelcomeRefugees go viral.

And yet, the stories of these families making the dangerous and exhausting trek to and through Europe and the images and videos of children sleeping in the streets, walking for days on end, and crying and pleading with officers who will not let them continue their journey toward safety: these stories and images have touched my core.

And when I saw an image that went viral of the lifeless body of three year old Aylan Kurdi who was swept up on the shores of Turkey during his journey from Syria by boat, I was brought to my knees and wept.

And to know that there are so many more stories of families we don’t hear about and faces of children we don’t see who are displaced and stuck in Syria as well as in other countries around the world – and even at our own border – because of war, violence, and poverty… This overwhelms me with grief.

Because these stories and the faces of these children are the stories and the faces of our children. They are the stories and the faces of our children and youth who are involved in Edgewater-based programs like Refugee One and Centro Romero and who play soccer and music at Edgewater’s International Refugee Day at Foster Beach every June. These are the stories and the faces of the children and youth in our communities: they are our neighbors. They live in our buildings, go to our schools, shop in our grocery stories, eat at our restaurants. And they are the stories and faces of the children and youth who enter our doors here at Immanuel Lutheran Church for worship, VBS, IYO, and ECT youth group.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

As we hear these words of Jesus from Mark, we might also hear his words from Matthew echoing in our ears:

“for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Jesus, our Comforter, our Lord and Savior, who was once himself a refugee, calls us to this radical hospitality of welcoming and embracing the child, the stranger, the one who’s been outcast.

*****

If you are at all like me, you might be a bit overwhelmed with this huge crisis and wonder how on earth you are to welcome those seeking refuge across the world.

While we may not be able to single-handedly fix what is happening in Europe, in Syria, and across the world, there are many ways we can respond to the international refugee crisis and provide welcome to those in need around us. (And every act is important.) For example, we can donate to organizations like the Lutheran Disaster Response, which directly helps those seeking refuge in Europe and in Syria, and we can voice our support for welcoming more refugees in our city and our country.

We can also extend our welcome here in our own community, a community that is home to so many of our refugee and immigrant brothers and sisters. We – at Immanuel Lutheran Church – already open our doors to children and youth in our community through the multiple programs and ministries we offer, and we are in the process of trying to offer more hospitality to the children, youth, and families in Edgewater – as we currently are working on opening the Immanuel Ministry Center.

And so each one of us has an opportunity to provide radical hospitality to children and youth in Edgewater right here by voicing our support and praying for our ministries and programs, donating our gifts or money to help these ministries, becoming a tutor or a leader at IYO or ECT youth group, or cooking dinner for one of these youth programs.

We can donate to or volunteer with Care for Real, Edgewater’s food and clothing pantry, which serves many new refugees in our community or we can help a new refugee family resettle in our community and help them learn English or write resumes through Refugee One, which is also based in Edgewater. We can take a few minutes to get to know the children and youth who attend Immanuel worship on Sunday mornings or one of our programs throughout the week. And in all things, we can keep the children and youth in our community, in our country, and throughout the world in our prayers and in our hearts.

Because, what Jesus said to his twelve disciples in the house in Capernaum 2000 years ago, he says to us as well:

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

May we welcome the children. May we #welcomerefugees. May we welcome the strangers and those who have been outcast. May we choose to be a people of faith who follow Jesus in this call to offering radical hospitality to our brothers, sisters, and children in need of welcome.

Day 4 of the ELCA Youth Gathering: Proclaiming Story – Heitz-Squad Style

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The theme for day 4 of the ELCA Youth Gathering was Rise Up to Break the Chains that keep us from being reconciled with God and reconciled with our neighbors.  This day was also our Proclaim Story day, where we gathered with the rest of the Metro-Chicago synod to explore how God is in our story and how God is in the stories of others.

Before our Proclaim Story event, the Heitz-Squad began the day with our “first 15” discussion and prayer time and had a little free time in the Cobo Center.  At 10:30am, we met up with Luther Memorial Church from Lincoln Square neighborhood in Chicago and made posters and prepared for a rally.  After posters were made and parts of the rally were assigned and practiced, we headed to Hart Plaza to gather others in our synod for the rally.

At 11:30am, ECT (Edgewater Congregations Together) youth Boyosa and Ngbarazere began gathering the group by playing their djembe drums.

At 11:45am, Ngbarazere (ECT youth) and Noah (Luther Memorial youth) started the rally by leading the group in singing Wade in the Waters.

Then Ngbarazere and Noah continued:

“We come together this afternoon as followers of Jesus and as members of the human race to find, with one another the strength to join our God in bringing reconciliation, peace, and justice in this world.  We come here this afternoon as a response to our call from the prophet Micah to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.  We come here this afternoon because Jesus – our God – who came into this world in the flesh as a brown-skinned refugee, came proclaiming good news to the poor, bringing release to the captives, giving sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free, and he calls ALL of his followers to do so, as well.

Today, the Klu Klux Klan is participating in a rally in South Carolina, protesting the removal of the Confederate flag – a symbol of hate and inequality.  However, while the KKK is brining about a message of hate this afternoon, we are here raising our voices with thousands of others around our country who are participating in counter-rallies today, bringing about a message of love.

And not only are we gathering together today for this rally to counter the hateful message of the KKK, but we are also rallying together because the KKK rally is connected to a greater problem in our country.

From the multiple incidences of racialized police brutality in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, McKinney, Texas, Detroit…. to the high numbers of people of color being imprisoned throughout our country for small offenses, to the horrific shooting of nine of our black brothers and sisters during a prayer meeting at mother Emanuel AME Church because of the color of their skin, to the intentional burning down of at least four black churches since the shooting: we are reminded that the sin of racism still prevails throughout the systems of our country.

On June 23, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in front of almost 30,000 people just a few steps from here at the Cobo Center.  There, he proclaimed: “I have a dream: that one day all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing with the Negroes in the spiritual of old: Free at last!  Free at last!  Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

So today, we come together as the body of Christ to confess of this sin of systemic racism and to confess of our own participation in and benefits from it.  We come here to denounce this evil sin and to repent of it, asking God to help us turn away from it.  We come here mourning the loss of the nine beloved children of God whose lives were taken away from them during a prayer meeting and we come here mourning with ALL of our brothers and sisters of color who live in fear today because racism still exists.

We are rallying together today because what hate burns down, love builds up.  And no matter the message we hear from others around our country, we are here to boldly proclaim that black lives DO matter to God and they DO matter to us.”

They read scripture and led us in confession and prayer, and then we sang “We Shall Overcome,” ending with the verse “We’ll walk hand in hand” as we held hands.

Then everyone processed to the Masonic Temple following the cross. There were at least 200-300 people.  During this 45 minute march, Ngbarazere and Noah led the group in chants and Kalleb (ECT youth) led the group in singing freedom songs.

This was such a powerful action.  People we passed by during our march honked at us, nodded at us, or cheered, and some people even sang along with us.  After the action, a few youth who participated in the march thanked our group for providing them with an opportunity to participate in this march.  They even expressed interest in organizing with our youth around issues of injustice in Chicago.

I am so darn proud of these youth for rising up and leading hundreds of their peers in this action of proclaiming justice!  I am so blessed to experience God incarnate through their witness!  They are such an inspiration to me.

During Proclaim Story Day at Masonic Temple, we heard people’s stories and explored and shared our’s with one another.

Then we treated ourselves to a great meal at Rub BBQ Pub.

 After our meal, we went on a walking tour of downtown Detroit led by Kingdom Detroit.

 And then we headed back to Ford Field for our evening mass gathering.  There, we heard inspiring stories about breaking the chains of depression from Rozella White – the ELCA program director for Young Adult ministry, of breaking the chains of homelessness from Veronika Scott – the founder of the Empowerment Plan in Detroit, and of breaking the chains of child poverty from Civil Rights Activist Marian Wright Edelman.


 

Here is an update from Maku, an eighth grader from Unity Lutheran Church:

Our theme of the day is to break chains.
As we entered Saturday of the ELCA youth gathering, we had more of a slow paced day. We did a lot of speaking with God and with one another, and we had loads of great food. Starting in the morning, we left our hotel around 7:55 and gathered in the Cobo center to eat a casual breakfast, such as muffins, orange juice, and breakfast sandwiches.  We then broke off and had a little bit of free time followed by a counter rally to proclaim racial justice and equality. And the rally was great!  There was music, speeches, and loads of marching. We then finished our rally and met with our Chicago synod to gather and do faithful interactive activities. We left the synod around 3:00 PM. Then we went to a restaurant that was famous for their signature slim shady burger. As we finished the meal we headed to the Hart plaza and went on a walking tour of Detroit. We then went to the mass gathering where we worshiped and I witnessed very powerful speakers, mind blowing performances and got to see Skillet perform live!!

So God’s lesson to break chains has been a powerful message because it allows us to go and understand one another and in a sense it reminds me of breaking restrictions from temptations and sins and allow us to be close to each other.

And here is a reflection from Katie, a freshman from Ebenezer Lutheran:

Today we experienced Jesus in our midst through protest. We marched across Detroit; signs, cross and bullhorn in hand, we proclaimed God’s love for every man, woman and child, regardless of the color of their skin or the content of their character. It was a very hot day and some of us marched having forgotten to bring water or not having eaten enough. However, we were paid back for our hard work and dedication after arriving to a well air conditioned mosque and experiencing God through worship. And, for those of us who were hungry, we were rewarded with a nice lunch at a barbecue restaurant where we connected with our friends from Luther Memorial. God rewarded us for proclaiming his love and faith today and I consider that to be the highlight of my day.

“A God Who Shows Up” – (At Bold Cafe: Women of the ELCA)

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Photo taken in downtown Bethlehem on Jan. 6: Celebrating the Orthodox Christmas (Emily Heitzman

I’m blogging “A God Who Shows Up” over at Bold Cafe (Women of the ELCA today). Here is part of what I wrote:

Since I moved away after high school, I always look forward to going back to my parent’s home for the holidays. And since Christmas songs, movies, and holiday TV specials often include themes of magical family “homecomings,” I am guessing I’m not the only one whose focus in December is on getting ready to go home. After all, doesn’t Perry Como say: “If you want to be happy in a million ways, for the holidays, you can’t beat home sweet home?”

And yet, what about those individuals whose family relationships are broken or abusive, those who feel unsafe in their homes, or those who do not have homes to go to? Can they find places during the holidays that “beat home sweet home?”

It seems as though the theme lately in the news has been one of violence, instability, and displacement. The economy continues to leave many people jobless or underemployed, families are losing their homes to foreclosure, and more and more people are moving to transitional housing or becoming homeless. Additionally, the past several months, we have heard about the terrified children at the border who are fleeing violence. We have seen horrific images of the attack on Gaza that killed thousands of civilians and damaged thousands of homes, and we are aware of domestic violence that occurs in households.

So how can our cultural emphasis on “holiday homecoming” be good news when this “homecoming” is not a reality for so many? 

Read the rest at Bold Cafe (Women of the ELCA).

An Advent Call Story (at Bold Cafe: Women of the ELCA)

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Today I’m blogging “An Advent Call Story” over at Bold Cafe (Women of the ELCA).  Here is a part of what I wrote:

As I was getting ready for Advent this year, I realized that our Christmas songs, TV shows, and movies emphasize the importance of going home for the holidays. As I realized this, I thought about the people who cannot relate to this “holiday homecoming.” I could not help but think about those who lack a safe place they can call home.

I know this is not one of our Advent texts, but as we approached Advent, I was reminded of Moses’ call story in Exodus 3:1-12.

For many years, there had been a famine in the land of Canaan, and as a result, the Israelites left their homes in great numbers and traveled to Egypt to make a better life. However, Pharaoh disliked the growing numbers of Israelites who were taking refuge in his land. He did not want them to make Egypt their new home. So Pharaoh took advantage of the situation and turned these refugees into slaves. For centuries, the Hebrew refugees were forced into terrible working conditions and became victims of racism and violence. In their enslavement, they longed for release from their captivity and suffering and cried out to God.

And this is where Exodus 3 comes in.

– Read the rest at: Bold Cafe (Women of the ELCA)

Speak the Truth, Even If Your Voice Shakes – syncroblog 3 on the “Spirit of the Poor”

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{This post is my contribution to the Spirit of the Poor syncroblog with Newell Hendricks and Esther Emery. It is hosted this month by Caris Adel with the theme: Affirming the Humanity.  Click here to find a summary of last month’s syncroblog.}

A few years ago, my grandmother found out she had breast cancer.  At the age of 87, the idea of having to go through surgery left her incredibly anxious. A few days before her surgery, Char – my sister’s mother-in-law – gave my grandma a shawl that she hand-knit for my grandma through the prayer shawl ministry at her church.  For those who are not familiar with this ministry: the prayer shawl ministry gathers people together regularly to knit or crochet a shawl while praying for a particular person in need.  When the shawl is finished, the knitter gives it to the person being prayed for.  The prayer shawls are intended to remind their receivers every time they wear the shawls that they are wrapped in the love and compassion of Jesus Christ.

One of the founders of the Prayer Shawl Ministry, Janet Bristow, explains that the shawls symbolize the “unconditional loving God.  They wrap, enfold, comfort, cover, give solace, mother, hug, shelter, and beautify.  Those who have received these shawls have been uplifted and affirmed, as if given wings to fly about their troubles.”

As my grandmother anticipated her surgery the next few days, she often wrapped her shawl around her shoulders while she sat in her rocking chair and read, and as she did, she felt she was wrapped in the warmth and comfort of the compassion of Christ that Char had shared with her.

 St. Mary's prayer shawl ministry, Sept. 2010 (8)

This ministry that Char participated in and the love she shared with my grandmother reminds me of the kind of compassion and ministry that Tabitha shared with her community of widows in Acts 9.

Tabitha had a special ministry for this community of widows that was extremely necessary.  These widows were in need of a provider and a community… a place to belong and to have a voice.  Because a woman in first century Palestine had no inheritance rights and was defined by the social status of first her father and then her husband, when she lost her husband or her connection with her father or brothers, she also lost her identity, her possessions, her property, and her place of belonging.  Widows were considered outcasts in society and were often taken advantage of and were exposed to abuse and oppression.

Because of this, widows usually had to rely on public charity to provide for them in order to survive.  And, yet, they did not always find such a provider of charity in the early church.  Acts chapter 6 reveals that the Greek-speaking widows were being neglected of the daily distribution of food.  This was such an issue in the early church, that it led to the twelve apostles appointing a committee to make sure all the widows were cared for.

Acts 9 suggests that Tabitha – the only woman in the entire Bible who was called a disciple – was a sort of provider for her community of widows.  In this passage, we see that Tabitha was devoted to good works and charity, and she made tunics and other articles of clothing by hand and had given them to the widows.  These articles of clothing would have been very valuable in the first century, and it would have taken an incredible amount of time for Tabitha to make each item.

And, yet, she sacrificed her time and money to make these pieces of clothing.

She saw the needs of these widows, and out of love and compassion, she made these items for each of the widows in her community.

I can just imagine her as she hand-wove these items.  I can picture her sitting in her chair, weaving or sewing and praying for each of these women who needed so much to be provided for, to find a place of belonging, and to find a sense of worth in their lives.  And I can envision the widows after they received these pieces of clothing from Tabitha.  I imagine that when they felt lonely or anxious or when they were reminded that they had no voice or place in their society, they wrapped their shawls around their shoulders and pulled their tunics over their heads and felt the love and compassion of Jesus wrapped around them.

As we can see, Tabitha was an incredible caregiver and provider for this community as she responded to the needs of these widows.

So it is no wonder that these women mourned so much when she died.

It is no wonder that they called out of desperation for Peter – the man who by the power of the Holy Spirit had been performing great miracles in the name of Jesus Christ – when they heard he was near Joppa.

And it is no wonder that when he arrived, they wept and passed around their tunics and articles of clothing that were made by Tabitha, reminding themselves and one another of the many pieces of clothing she had woven out of love and compassion for them.  These women had lost their dear friend and the one who had clothed them with the love of Jesus Christ, invested in them, and helped them speak their voice, find belonging, and a sense of worth where they had not found such things elsewhere in their society.

These women had lost the one person in their lives who truly affirmed their humanity.

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There are many people around us today – in our schools, in our workplaces, in our churches, and in our communities – who are in need of someone like Tabitha in their lives: someone who will see their needs and respond to them by investing in them and clothing them with the compassion and love of Jesus Christ.  Someone who will take the time to hold them as they grieve the loss of their loved ones, to walk alongside them as they struggle to find a new job, to provide an open home to them when they have no other safe place stay.  Someone who will affirm their humanity and listen to their voices – even when what they have to say might be difficult and uncomfortable to hear.

And many of our neighbors around us – or maybe even some of us – are in some ways like these first century widows: powerless and voiceless.  The outcasts… The last and the least in society, as Jesus put it, and long to find a community in which they find belonging, have a voice, and find some sense of worth in their lives.

I have been the part-time youth and household pastor for three Lutheran churches in the neighborhood of Edgewater in Chicago for the past three years and the part-time youth and children’s pastor for an American Baptist church in the same neighborhood since last summer.  During this time, my youth have shared many stories and feelings they have about the deep issues and struggles they face in Chicago every day.  Several of my youth have shared with me and with our youth group that they often feel they are forgotten about and that they have no voice or place in society.

Many of my kids and youth live in fear every day as they hear about violence that occurs regularly only blocks from their apartments – or even that they, themselves, experience or see on their way to the neighborhood market in the middle of a Sunday afternoon after church.  And they wonder why these acts of violence are not discussed as much as those acts of violence that occur in more white, affluent neighborhoods.

As refugees from Sudan, Zambia, or Burma, immigrants from Mexico or El Salvador, or African American teens, many of my youth face the realities of racism and discrimination.  They feel the pain and shame of being randomly called the “N” word in a coffee shop by a stranger, being called “dirty” by their peers, or told that their parents are “illegal” and should “go back home” by their society.

They lack opportunities for good education and even sometimes have to worry about what they will do if their school is the next one in Chicago to close down because of budget cuts.  And then they wonder why their schools are getting the cut while large for-profit companies and the big banks don’t have to pay their fair share in taxes.

They struggle to find employment or have watched their parents or guardians battle with maintaining jobs that pay fair wages and rarely make enough to support the family.  They even have had to be extra careful to make sure they handle themselves in public so as not to look “suspicious” to police officers and community members – even when that means not wearing a hoodie or taking shortcuts through an alley on their bicycles to the store or to a friend’s house.

A few of my youth with special needs have experienced painful bullying by peers and exclusivism and discrimination in their communities and schools – and sometimes even within the Church.  They hear messages that they are not as worthy as others – that they are too much of a distraction to the other kids in school or even in Sunday school to be part of the class.  That they don’t belong and need to find somewhere else where they can better fit in.

And many of my youth struggle because they feel they are not taken seriously, they are not listened to, and they just don’t feel like they will ever gain respect by others.

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A few summers ago, I took seven of my Lutheran youth to the ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans.  There, my youth met with 34,000 teens from all over the country and even across the world, who joined together to worship and learn about God, listen to and learn about one another, and practice discipleship, peacemaking, and justice.  Throughout the week, I saw an incredible change and growth in my youth… Many of them were very quiet before the trip, and yet throughout the week, they opened up and began to share experiences that they never had talked about before.  They began to talk to new youth who looked different from them without fear of not fitting in, they began to speak up in larger group discussions about their ideas, and they began to take on leadership roles in the group.

On our long bus ride home from New Orleans, Malesh, one of my youth, started writing a poem that was inspired by this trip.  The poem is called “My Voice.”

“Where is my voice? Lost somewhere deep inside.  Stuck in a corner, that’s my only choice.  No, no more hiding in the shadows.  I have yet won the battles.  I spoke as my voice shook, like a fish caught up in a hook.  Where is my voice?”

We too often forget that so many around us – even within our own communities, churches, or families – have similar experiences to those widows that Tabitha ministered to back in the first century.  They feel like they don’t have a voice… They long to speak it, even if it shakes – and yet, they don’t know who will listen to and hear it.

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Several years ago, I served as a seminary intern at an after-school program in the area.  One of my job responsibilities was to oversee the middle school lunch hour once a week.  If you’ve ever stepped foot in a middle school cafeteria, you can probably imagine what I saw each week…  The cafeteria was completely segregated and it was very clear what each of the defined clicks and groups were.  The kids from different minority groups mostly sat together and did not really interact with others, the kids who read “The Hunger Games” and other young adult fantasy books during lunch hour sat together, a group of kids who did not seem to wear the most trendy clothes stuck together, and then a group of kids with very trendy clothes on proudly sat in their own corner of the room – and sometimes loudly laughed at or glared at the kids at the other tables. Finally, there were a few stragglers who sometimes sat by themselves and clearly did not belong to any of the other groups.  As I watched these kids, I could sense the pain and loneliness the stragglers must have felt as they were excluded from the other groups, and I could tell that they really longed to find a community where they felt they belonged and fit in.

What is amazing to me as I think about this scenario, though, is that this kind of exclusivism does not just happen in middle school cafeterias.  I see this happen in many capacities among teens and college students and particularly among many adults, even – and especially – within the Church…

It will probably not take many of us too long to think about who the individuals are around us who have been marginalized and considered the “last and least,” or the “others.”

They may be the people at work or church who just don’t fit into the “in crowd.”  They may be people from not readily accepted groups based on age, ethnic background, or race…  Or those who speak a different native language, who grew up in a different neighborhood, or who have a unique family situation.  They may be the people we pass by on the train who are heading to the food pantry or the homeless people we pass as we walk to Starbucks who hold up a cup asking for change in order to pay for a meal that day or a motel room to sleep in that night because they have no other options.  They may even be the new people who enter our congregations on Sunday morning for worship and who stand by themselves during fellowship hour.  Or maybe even some of us can identify with those first century widows, trying to find our voice and a community in which we belong, where we feel our humanity is affirmed and where our voice will be cared for and heard.

We all love to be around our friends and people who look, act, and think like us.  And yet, when we don’t reach out of our comfort zones – to the “others” who may not be just like us: to the newcomer at church, to the homeless woman on the train, to the after-school program youth who uses our church facilities, we muffle their voices and we deny them full access to our community – to God’s community of love and compassion.  

Byzantine mosaic of Tabitha being raised from the dead by Saint Peter. Tabitha is adorned with the garments she had woven for some widows and had given to them as charity. The Palatine Chapel, Norman Palace, Sicily travel photos & pictures available as st

The good news is that Acts chapter 9 shows us that this is not the way God intends the world order to be.  God does not intend for there to be oppression, exclusivism, or inequality in the world.  This passage does not only show us an example of a model disciple in which we are to follow – through the life of Tabitha: one who loves and clothes the hurting and the outcasts. But it also shows us that God has begun to break down the walls of injustice and inequality through the miraculous act of Peter raising Tabitha from the dead.

This miracle was pretty significant because it was not a common practice for the apostles to raise people from the dead.  Actually, this act of bringing Tabitha back to life was the first time an apostle performed such a miracle.  And Peter – by the power of the Holy Spirit – performed this miraculous act – not for a community of men with worldly power – but he did it for a community of women.  Widows, might I add… Those who were the epitome of the poor.  The powerless.  The “others.”

While it may have been a shock for people at this time to hear that Peter did something so amazing for such an outcast group, this reversal was not a new concept for the author of Luke and Acts.

Throughout these two books, we see the recurring theme of reversals.  We see that the Good News that Jesus and many of his earliest followers shared was not limited to the Jews or shared with the most powerful men, as would have been most expected.  Rather, we see that the Good News was also extended to the Gentiles and those who had little or no voice in society.

In Luke chapter 4, Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming that the Spirit of the Lord has anointed him to bring good news to the poor, give sight to the blind, proclaim release to the captives, and let the oppressed go free.  And then he continues to live out what he preached by ministering to the marginalized: the lepers, the women, the children, the widows.

After Jesus’ death, Peter begins his ministry in Acts 2 by addressing the crowd in Judea with a quote from the prophet, Joel, that states that in the last days, God will pour out his spirit onto all flesh – including slaves, young and old, male and female.  Then, throughout the book of Acts, we see that the church was called to continue Jesus’ mission, and the theme of reversals continues.

And this miracle of bringing Tabitha back to life in chapter 9 is also a reversal. 

It’s a message that the Good News of God’s love is extended not just to the powerful and the strong, but it is extended to the weak and the powerless.  To the marginalized.  To those who cannot speak up for and by themselves.  And it is a message that gives a snippet view of God’s intended order for the world: that women would be equal to men, that the captives would be free, that the poor would be rich, and that there would be no “last and least.”

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And this story in Acts chapter 9 speaks to us directly. It reminds us that – like Peter and Tabitha – each of us is called to be a disciple of Jesus Christ: each one of us is called to participate in Jesus’ ministry of bringing good news to the hurting, to those in need of a welcoming community, to the “others.”  

Each one of us is called to affirm the humanity in ALL of God’s children.  

And to those of us who identify with those first century widows – those of us who are longing for our voices to finally be heard – Acts 9 speaks to us, as well.  Tabitha’s story reminds us that we do not walk this journey alone.  That when we wonder where God is in the midst of our dark wilderness periods of life – we are reminded that God is with us as we experience Jesus’ love and compassion wrapped around us through the “Tabithas” in our lives: the people who cry with us in our grief, who open their homes to us when we have no place to go, who invest in us at our congregations, in our workplaces, in our schools… those who listen to our voices and encourage them to be spoken…

Even when they shake.

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After my Lutheran youth and I returned from New Orleans, Malesh reflected more on his experiences during New Orleans and in our youth group: he began to feel like he had a community where he could be listened to and where he could contribute and make a difference in his neighborhood.  During this time, he finished his poem and later read it to our youth group during our Spoken Word night.  He continued:

“Where is my voice?  Hidden inside like a golden treasure.  So great of a treasure that has no measure.  Convinced but not certain, no more do I have such a burden.  Where is my voice?

He sent his Son to be his voice, delivered yet misunderstood.  The voice is in me.  Now it must be delivered with peace, love, and justice.

He is my voice.  I am His words.”

So, let us follow the examples of Peter and Tabitha – as disciples of Jesus Christ –speaking our voices even when they shake, encouraging and listening to the voices that are too often unheard, and wrapping the love and compassion of Jesus Christ around those who need it.

Amen.

 

“The Rich Man and the Man With a Name” – Sermon on Luke 16:19-31

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In the midst of what is being called “Chiberia” – where the weather in Chicago has been colder than the South Pole this week – I cannot help but think about the thousands of Chicagoans who remain homeless and struggle to seek shelter from this bitter cold.  (According to the Chicago Coalition for Homeless, 116,042 Chicagoans were homeless in the course of 2012-2013.)

As many of us are able to seek refuge in our warm apartments, homes, coffee shops, and libraries from this Chiberia without giving much thought to those who are not so privileged, I thought I’d share a sermon I preached at Ebenezer Lutheran Church on Sunday, Sept. 29 (the Festival of St. Michael and All Angels)… “The Rich Man and the Man With A Name.”

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Luke 16:19-31

‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.

In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”

He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’

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(photo courtesy of bohocommunity.org)

A few years ago while I was serving as an intern pastor at a church about a mile from here, I attended a pastor’s conference in Denver.  The conference was held at the Sheraton Hotel and Convention Center, which is quite the hotel: with a gorgeous lobby, beautiful rooms, incredibly comfortable beds, great food served by the hotel staff… you name it. And it is located right downtown on the 16th Street Mall, the main business district of Denver.  If you’ve ever stayed in a really nice hotel like this, you might know what it felt like for me – as a second year seminarian and a pastoral intern, having the opportunity to get away from my studies and messy apartment and stay in this luxurious hotel – I sort of felt like I was royalty for the week.

Our first full day at the conference included several workshops and classes beginning in the early morning and lasting until dinner-time.  So you can imagine how ready we all were to rush out of the convention center to enjoy our hour and a half break on the town. When our last workshop ended, we all quickly met up with our groups of friends and ran outside – everyone hurrying in order to beat the crowd of the 500 other pastors.  We all wanted to ensure that we got a table at our top-choice restaurant, since we knew that the bill was on the house, thanks to our home congregations.

As my new pastor and seminarian friends and I rushed down 16th Street to get to our desired restaurant, a man came up to us holding out his bare hands that were bright red from the cold and asked in a small shaky voice if we could buy him a little something to eat. I only noticed him because he had actually walked up onto the sidewalk next to one of my new friends who was walking directly in front of me. But just as he finished speaking, my friend quickly said: “Sorry, sir.  We are in a hurry.” And she and her friends next to her picked up their pace and scurried on by.  So this man, who was as skinny as a stick – so skinny that his eyes sunk into his skull – with only a stocking cap and an over-sized hoody sweatshirt to shield him from the January cold, was left standing on the sidewalk with his bright red fingers stretched out to me and with a look of complete hunger and desperation in his eyes.

I stopped, looked at him, and considered my options as the rest of my new friends continued to make their way quickly down 16th street without me.  I could stop and get him some food somewhere or I could brush him off, and rush on by to catch up to the rest of my group.   If I stopped, this would interrupt my overly comfortable and luxurious week and it would keep me from experiencing my very short social time that I really was looking forward to.

The easiest thing would be to just brush him off, ignore him, and quickly walk away.  I had a small time frame and a lot on my plate, after all. (Pun intended.)

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I think that this is a somewhat similar situation for the characters in Jesus’ parable in our text for today in Luke.

In Jesus’ parable…

There was a rich man…

And this rich man wore some of the finest, top-of the line clothes of his day – fine linens and articles of clothing that were purple – a color that was favored by the royalty and that only the extremely wealthy could afford.

And this man feasted sumptuously… He consumed large amounts of the finest foods and delicacies that would have been prepared and served to him by his servants – not just on special occasions, as feasts were saved for – but he feasted every single day.

And he lived in a home: probably with the finest dining hall and most comfortable and warm beds.

And this home was protected by a gate: something that only the most elite urban resident would have owned and that would have kept out the most miserable weather conditions… and not to mention the least “desirable” city folk.

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And then there is another man…

In extreme contrast to the rich man, this man is very ill and extremely poor.

Instead of being clothed with fine linens and purple garments, he is clothed in large sores that covered his body… that were so bad that the hungry wild city dogs would lick them as they impatiently waited for the scraps of the rich man’s food to be thrown outside of the gate.

This man is helpless, lying on the ground at the front of the rich man’s gate – for who knows how many days and nights.

How he got there, we don’t know.  Maybe a compassionate person in town dropped him off at the gate in hopes that the rich man’s scraps would save him from his ultimate destiny of a miserable death caused by hunger.  Or maybe this poor man went to this rich man’s quarters in hopes for just a bit of food to tide him over, and in the long, miserable wait, his body couldn’t take the malnourishment anymore and collapsed.

And we don’t know how or what caused him to be in such a dire situation in the first place: whether it was unemployment, lack of health care, or being taken advantage of by greedy business owners… Depression, lack of good education, family abuse in his early years that left him on the streets to fend for himself since he was a child, or a system that did not help him get back up when he was pushed down.

We just don’t know.

What we do know is that he was so hungry and desperate to satisfy his hunger, that he put himself in such a humiliating situation: lying so helplessly at the foot of the gate of one of the most elite’s living quarters, waiting for the scraps of food from the rich man’s luxurious and abundant daily feasts.  Scraps that would not have been even left-overs from the rich man’s plate, but rather pieces of pita bread that the rich man and any others dining with him would have dipped into a bowl of water, wiped their dirty hands with as a cleaning devise, and would have thrown under the table.  Scraps that after the feast was over, the rich man’s servants would have cleaned up from the dirty floor and thrown out to the trash… to the unclean wild city dogs.

This poor man was desperate, and he was seeking out his last possible chance to survive through the night.

And while we may not know how this man got to this dire and humiliating situation, the audience of Jesus who was listening to the story would have taken a guess.  The scriptures had been misinterpreted for years: the common belief was that such poverty was a consequence of sin and poor choices and that wealth was a consequence of piety and was a sign of God’s blessing.

So to Jesus’ audience, it would have made sense that the rich man would have stepped over the poor man in his condition in order to enter his gate and his home – possibly day in and day out – giving this poor man little notice.

The poor man was not deserving of anything else.  Plus, the rich man had a lot of important things to think about: a household to take care of, feasts and parties to tend to…  Stopping to help or acknowledge this man would interrupt his important agenda.  It’s likely that this rich man didn’t even see this poor man.  He was not his concern and was just one of the many unlucky and undeserving poor folks he walked by every day in the city.  Why would he see or notice THIS one?

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But isn’t this a familiar and common narrative in our capitalistic society today?

Don’t we often praise those who have worked hard for their extravagant paychecks that allow for mass and luxurious consumption and demonize those who can barely make enough to get by?

Don’t we often hear this type of demonization of the poor and homeless – and in many cases even think it ourselves?

It’s their fault that they got themselves into this situation.  We shouldn’t punish the hard-working wealthy class by increasing their taxes.  Why should we stop what we are doing to acknowledge and give to someone who is begging for some change, food, or time, when we have more important things to do and they are obviously lazy?

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I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a friend in college.  I had been talking to Larry, a man I became acquaintances with whose home was a tent on a campsite – when he was lucky and his tent was not stolen – and who hung out at the university union building during the day, hoping to get a meal or a few bucks for a hot coffee and possibly a bit of human socialization.

After I said goodbye to Larry one day, a friend of mine from the Christian campus ministry I was involved in came up to me quickly and said, “Emily, you should not be talking to that homeless man or giving him money or food.  He is just lazy and choosing not to get a job.  You are enabling him to mooch off other people.”

Yet, after getting to know him over the course of my four years in college, I had realized that this guy was not just a homeless man.

He had a name… Larry.

And the stories that Larry shared with me as we would eat a sandwich or drink coffee together – about his past, his losses, and his sufferings that led him to this place in life told me otherwise.  They opened up my eyes to see Larry as a beloved child of God…

As someone who was just like me…

Who was once a kid who wore a backpack and went to school; who had parents and siblings; and who had experienced many joys and celebrations as well as many losses and sufferings in life.

And yet, somehow I was the lucky one – not because I worked harder than he did – but because I had the resources and the opportunities to make it through high school and to go to college…  And to not have to ever live in a tent or worry about putting food – good food, might I add – on my table.

Yet, I am ashamed to admit that it took me a very long time to get to that point where I could truly look at Larry as an acquaintance and as an equal to myself: as someone who I just happened to share my stories with and listened to his while we sat outside the union over a coffee or a sandwich, rather than just seeing him as someone I was doing charity work for.

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This reminds me of a video that has been shared all over facebook this past year.  It is an interview with a man named Ronald Davis who talks about what it is like to be homeless in Chicago.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend that you watch it.

One of the most touching parts of the video is hearing about how he is treated and looked at while on the streets trying to get a few dollars in order to stay in a safe bed at night or to get some food to eat.

He explains:

“It’s really humiliating to be shaking a cup 24 hours a day, and people just look at you like you’re some kind of little bum.” He goes on to tell the interviewer about how passers-by have hollered at him to “get a job, bum.”

“I’m not a bum,” Ronald says, as he breaks down in tears. “I’m a human being.”

Yet, too often, we don’t look at people who are living differently than we are, who have not had the same kind of upbringing, or opportunities or resources, or second or third chances like we have – as human beings, with stories, and with a name.

And this is the problem that Jesus is identifying in his parable as Jesus continues the story in our text for today.  The rich man was so focused on his wealth, his possessions, his home… his feasts and parties, his status, his to-do lists, that he was unable to see the poor man who was desperately lying at his front gate.

The rich man’s blindness, his love of his abundant wealth, and his fear of having to give any of it up kept him from seeing and responding to the poor man for who he was: a human being and a beloved child of God… a man with a story and a man with a name.

To Jesus, this is such an offense against God and God’s children that it had major consequences.

In Jesus’ story, after both of the men die, it is the rich man – the one who was considered to have received divine blessings and a high societal status – who remains nameless and who is being tormented with a burning tongue in Hades (the place – according to Jewish thought – where people would go after they died and were buried.)

And it was this poor, desperate, dying man – the one who had been seen as no more worthy than a dirty, city wild dog to the rich man – who was given a name…

Lazarus.

A name that means: “one who is helped by God.”

And it is this Lazarus – not the rich man – who is carried up in the after-life by the angels to sit at a place of honor next to Abraham.

Jesus’ warning from just a few chapters earlier in Luke was likely now ringing in the ears of Jesus’ audience…

The last shall be first and the first shall be last…

And it is not until the rich man is experiencing a bit of the poor man’s earthly plight in Hades, that he somewhat sees Lazarus at Abraham’s side.

And yet, even in this after-life scenario, the rich man’s eyes are still not fully opened to who Lazarus truly is in God’s eyes.  And instead of taking responsibility for his own selfish actions on earth, he begs Abraham to send Lazarus – the one he, himself, refused to see and to help on earth – to now come to him and to cool his burning tongue – giving him relief from his own anguish.  So even as the roles are reversed, in his torment the rich man still does not see and affirm the poor man’s humanity.  And he is given no relief from his agony.

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Now, most of us here are probably not even close to as wealthy as the rich man in our story.  But many of us here do live lives that are full of abundance and comfort: the ability to go out to eat in Andersonville – maybe even once a week or more; to get the new update on our iphone; to sleep in a warm and comfortable bed on a cold January evening; to grab a hot cup of coffee at Starbucks on our way to work because we didn’t have time to make coffee at home; to travel to another city like Denver and go to a conference in an amazing hotel…

Or just to be able to fill our schedules with so many activities, meetings, and social events, that we are too busy to stop and even just acknowledge the existence of a man sitting at our gate – shaking his cup and asking for food.

We may not be as “rich” as the rich man in Jesus’ parable, but we do live rich and abundant lives in so many ways compared to the majority of people around the world.  Hey, we don’t have to go too far from Ebenezer Lutheran Church to pass by many of the individuals and families who could only dream of having a taste of our abundance.

Now it’s not this abundance that we have that Jesus is condemning… Abraham, himself, was a man of earthly wealth – and yet is sitting in a place of honor in the after-life of Jesus’ parable.  But it is the love of this worldly wealth, status, and abundance that Jesus is warning us about.

Such love of abundance keeps us from truly seeing the humanity of others and sharing some of that abundance with others in need.

As St. John Chrysostom put it: “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them.”  And as Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel explained: “The opposite of love is not hate.  It’s indifference.”

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Now some of you might be wondering what happened with the man I encountered in Denver.  While I was so tempted to go with my friends, something tugged on my heart that night to stay with this man and take him out to a sit-down dinner.

And even though it was obvious that other customers in the restaurant we went to didn’t think he belonged there – as we could feel the constant glares and looks and even heard the whispers of a few of the people around us – Richard still told me at the end of the night that for the first time in years he felt like he was a normal human being who was equal to the others who were dining in the restaurant – rather than a piece of dirt.

And he told me that he truly felt that I had been an angel sent to him by God that night.

But what was so amazing to me was that while I had gone into this dinner thinking I was making such a sacrifice and was doing my good deed for the night, in hearing the stories about Richard’s life and his continued faith through so many tragedies and crises: I began to realize that I was the one who finally was experiencing the beauty and joy of true humanity again in that moment.

And I began to realize that it was Richard who was an angel sent to me that night.

The stories of Richard’s life and his love for others touched me and inspired me in ways that I could not have possibly imagined and that I will never forget.

In my time with Richard, God opened my eyes to see the beauty and faith in him that I was so tempted to ignore.

And in allowing myself to see Richard for who he truly is, God also released me from some of my own torment – like the rich man in Hades – that comes with too much focus on the abundance, comfort, and busyness of life.

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So how might we hear what Jesus is speaking to each of us through his parable in our passage in Luke?

Maybe some of us need to first recognize the abundance that we do have and explore how God wants us to share that abundance with others: whether it be our money, possessions, food, time, gifts, resources, or stories.

Or maybe it is figuring out how we might better see, get to know, and respond to the needs of others around us – esp. those who we might otherwise ignore and disregard as fellow human beings and children of God.

And if we don’t know where to start on this process, maybe we need to begin with a daily morning prayer, asking God to help open our eyes each day to the fullness of God’s kingdom and God’s children around us.  In doing this, we might actually be pleasantly surprised at what God might help us see, how God might teach and touch us through our new relationships, and how God might release us from our own torment that comes with focusing on and worshiping our worldly abundance and riches.

I’d like to leave you with a benediction that was posted this week on d365.org, a daily online devotional:

“May God fill your soul with waters of generosity; Taking you to the gate of thirsty neighbors; That you might come to know them and, knowing them; Share from the richness of God’s love.”

Linking with: Hear it on Sunday, Use it on Monday

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Related Websites and Articles:

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless

“What If the Homeless Man on the Bench Was Jesus?” (on eape.org)

“Life of a Homeless Man; Steve Gallagher’s Story” (on lakevoicenews.org)

“20 Things the Poor Really Do Every Day” (on benirwin.wordpress.com)

“Magdalene” (on gottafindahome.wordpress.com)

“It’s So Little” (on gottafindahome.wordpress.com)

“Spirit of the Poor” Link-up (on newellhendricks.wordpress.com)