Pentecost 13

It was Game 2 of the 1977 World Series, played on October 12th at Yankee Stadium.  ABC “cameras covering the game cut to a helicopter shot of the surrounding neighborhood where a large fire was shown raging out of control in Public School 3, a building occupying the block bordered by Melrose and Courtlandt Avenues and 157th and 158th Streets.”  Reacting to that shot, Howard Cosell turned to Keith Jackson and never actually said, “Ladies and Gentleman, the Bronx is burning”. 


If you’ve been watching the news, you’ll know that Portugal has, in fact, been burning.  The Madeira islands are ablaze and mainland Portugal has its own wildfires.  It’s to the point where Portuguese authorities have actually broadcast an S.O.S of sorts, they’ve just ask anyone who can come and help to come and help. 


Fire is like that.  It’s a destroyer of worlds.  It’s the devil’s only friend.  And so it’s okay to be a bit confused by today’s Gospel lesson, to be more than a bit put off.  “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!  Those aren’t the words of Jesus usually written above altars or graphically depicted in stained glass, right?  But Jesus said it, then backed it up with how His presence would separate us, cause division and strife.  It doesn’t sound right, but fire is like that.


Fire, in the hands of an expert, also purifies.  There are probably more references to God being like a metal refiner than we’d like to hear in one sitting, so I chose the one from the prophet Malachi: “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord.”  Or as the Lord told us today on the lips of Jeremiah, “Is not My word like a fire?”


You see, the purifying fire of the Word of the Lord is a thing that the faithful long for but that the world cannot tolerate.  As my father-in-law put it, “That fire (that purifying fire), obliterates the status quo.  It brings conflict and division.  Good cannot be at peace with evil.  Light always drives away darkness.  Anyone who acts and speaks like Jesus will find himself or herself at odds with the world.”


I’ve seen it, and it’s usually not pretty.  I knew a young man who was raised in a wealthy household, the son of a dentist.  A good home, a good family, good schools and a prosperous future all but locked-in, what with dental school on the horizon.  The only thing missing in that household was faith; the man’s father was actually hostile to Christianity, and so things did not go so well when the young man let his father know that not only did he believe in Jesus, but that Jesus had changed his life, made him new, and that he was going to be, of all things, a priest.  That young man was thrown out on his you-know-what; he was separated from his family, erased from his father’s will. 


And so it does happen; maybe it’s happened to you.  Because Jesus touches the roots of the problem, deep in the human heart.  He interrupts our false peace; His holiness can’t help but point out all that is unholy in and around us, and in our blindness we think that He is the source of conflict, when it is really ourselves.  The world wants us to believe that Jesus is the one who separates, when it is the really the world that can’t tolerate His presence in us.


If all of that seems like bad news, it’s really not.  The good news is that the Word of God is like a fire, a fire reveals that which is perishable and that which is everlasting.  That fire enables us to hear the Holy Spirit, to interpret the present time, to burn out what destroys us and set free all that makes us truly live.


Jesus knew that His presence would bring conflict, but He also knew that the only way we would ever know true peace, true solidarity, true love, was to be in His presence, to follow Him wherever He leads, to have our hearts kindled by His fire. 

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Pentecost 12

Not long ago I admitted that I hate the almost universally beloved Wizard of Oz, and today I will admit that I don’t have much interest at all in the also almost universally loved Downton Abbey.  I haven’t seen much of it, to be honest, but I will agree with my friend Fr. Bret Hays when he said that “if you want to understand what it means to be a faithful servant, look no further than the impeccable team of Downton Abbey.  An English country estate in the early twentieth century, Downton can only function with the work of a small army of housemaids, footmen, cooks, valets, ladies’ maids, all under the butler’s watchful eye.  They epitomize the concept of the faithful servant, standing ready to accomplish any necessary task with alacrity, courtesy, competence, and discretion, from preparing and serving elaborate banquets to removing the body of a Turkish diplomat from the eldest daughter’s bedchamber in the middle of the night.

“Downton Abbey shows us that while servanthood encompasses many things, boredom is seldom among them.  The fact of servanthood infuses even quiet and ordinary work with dignity, for these smaller tasks are also essential to a very profound enterprise.  By the same token, Holy Scripture and the lives of the Saints show us that being a servant of God is an adventure that demands all we have, gives us direction and purpose, binds us together, and brings out the best in us.

Servanthood seems to be very near the heart of God.  God sent Jesus to be among us as one who serves, and his divinity was revealed in moments of servanthood.  Sometimes Jesus was serving others, feeding crowds and washing feet.  At other times, Jesus was being served as a dinner guest or being anointed with precious ointment.  Through it all, God uses personal interactions to reveal and accomplish cosmic plans.  It seems that God wants us never to forget how profound a power we have in our choices, how every moment of life is full of wonderful possibilities, how much we can glorify God even in small gestures.”[1]

That’s a very comforting thought, and in the Gospel lesson we just heard, Jesus is in full comforting mode.  “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” should be written in the doors of every church in the world.  Too often we worry about our place in the Kingdom of God, as if we have to climb the company ladder to a plusher mansion in heaven.  Back when I was a kid and was surrounded by more Pentecostal Christians than I am now, one of their hot-button issues was if you could lose your salvation; could you be so bad that you could essentially reverse God’s decision to keep your soul.  The inevitable follow-up question is How would you know if you lost your salvation?  How could you tell?  The simple answer to all this is sure, you could probably lose your salvation, but you have to really, really try, over and over and over again, both in this life and the next, to get your baptism renounced and thrown out of the Kingdom.  I’ve found it difficult, even close to impossible, to come up with an example of how to do this.  Why?  Because it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom.

Having this comfort, this assurance of our place in the Kingdom, allows us to then respond, gives us the freedom to respond, to that wonderful gift of God.  How do we respond?  By being faithful servants, in things big and small.  Being in a parish this beautiful and yet this – let’s call it historic -gives us ample opportunities for servanthood.  I take great delight in seeing how many of you regard things big and small as ways to respond to the love of God.  All of the cleaning and mowing and arranging and singing an ironing, the showing of hospitality, the giving of love in outreach, in all those things and more you show each other and the world the joy of being a servant in God’s kingdom.

Even as God prepares a place for us in heaven, we can prepare a place for God within ourselves on Earth.  The only question is, what sort of place will we make for God?  Will we give God the place of honor, the center of our identity and the top priority in all our choices?  That choice is one we must make every day, and we won’t always get it right.  But when we do, we find that being a faithful servant, that always being ready for God is not a burden, but a way of life, the only life worth living.


[1] Fr. Bret Hays, Sermon for Pentecost 12, 2013

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Pentecost 11

Reuben Smith liked his comfort. Reuben lived in Buffalo, N.Y., and like most of the citizens of the snowy north, he probably spent a lot of time indoors, stretched out by the fire. When Reuben sensed that he was headed to the great beyond, he made some plans. He selected a new recliner chair of upholstered russet leather and, when the time came, was interred in a sitting position, with a checkerboard on his lap. A practical man, Reuben also ordered that he be dressed in a hat and warm coat, and that a second key to the tomb be placed in his coat pocket. The other key was to lock the entrance and to be destroyed.

Reuben made the classic mistake of thinking that, whatever it is you have, you can take it with you. He was hardly the first, of course; the Egyptian Pharoahs were and probably still are the world champs when it comes to hoarding by the deceased. It takes either a masterfully constructed (if mistaken) view of the afterlife or a wild type of greed to act this way. This isn’t the meaningful and sometimes even charming practice of being buried with a beloved Bible or trinket or picture of loved ones – I’m reminded of Humphrey Bogart being buried with a whistle in case Lauren Bacall wasn’t easily found in Purgatory – this is mere foolishness.

Being a fool was not taken lightly in the ancient world. Being a fool could get you dead real fast, and so could calling someone a fool who was, say, carrying a big stick. “In the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament a fool was anyone who fails to notice how the world works, thus adapting himself accordingly. Fools are the ones who spit into the wind, who saw off the branch they’re sitting on, who are constantly trying to row their boat against the current because they simply do not pay attention to how life works. Fools, the old adage has it, are often in error but never in doubt…the more foolish a person is, the more likely it is that he or she will become more and more isolated as time goes by. People give up on fools…the fool becomes an island unto himself.1

And so we turn to the parable we just heard. What does the rich man say? “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’” The rich man is talking to himself; there’s either no one he can talk to or he doesn’t bother with anyone else. But what does God say to him? “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

Contrary to some teaching I’ve heard in the past, what God just said there is not the equivalent of “Live for today,” no matter what the Grass Roots sang. This is not Jesus saying you shouldn’t plan for tomorrow or that you should live in the moment or whatever the last thing Oprah said. This parable is about our relationship with God, each other, and our stuff.

A fool might not notice, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that stuff, our wealth or lack of it, separates us. Rarely does money bring us all together. The young man who prompted the parable we heard, he wanted Jesus to mediate the dividing of an estate between himself and his brother, but that means that their father’s will was not yet legally relevant; that means that their father was still alive, but the stuff meant more to the brothers than either their father or each other. Wealth is not a bad thing, of course, until it preoccupies us, until it makes us feel more important than others; until it makes us feel like there is no god that can touch us, no god good enough for us.

The opposite of all of this is not poverty, of course, but rather wisdom. God has offered us wisdom – it even pleases God when we ask for His wisdom. I’m thinking of the story of when God appeared to Solomon and said to him, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Solomon answered God, “Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?” God said to Solomon, “Since this is your heart’s desire and you have not asked for wealth, possessions or honor, nor for the death of your enemies, and since you have not asked for a long life but for wisdom and knowledge to govern my people over whom I have made you king, therefore wisdom and knowledge will be given you.” Solomon got wealth and all the rest as well.

God’s wisdom is sometimes confounding; the Cross of Christ looks pretty foolish in the eyes of men, right? But that greater wisdom is there and we find it by being in relationship with God and those made in the image of God, never foolishly separating ourselves from either. We too can ask for wisdom, in the confidence that God has already given it too us in Christ, who is the power and wisdom of God.

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Pentecost 10

That Abraham was one gutsy dude.  Bargaining with God doesn’t seem like the wisest course of action, but Abraham made it work.  “Take the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.  God, having heard the outcry against these two towns whose sins were great and grave, was ready to destroy them both.  Appealing to God’s better instincts, Abraham plea-bargains: “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty? Suppose there were fifty innocent people in the city; would you wipe out the place?”  Then the clincher: “Far be it from you to do such a thing.”  It worked!  Not only once, but five times.  In answer to Abraham’s petition, God was willing to preserve the towns for a mere ten innocent people.”[1]


The rest of the story of those two cities is bit grave, but Abraham did manage to bargain for the lives of few righteous to be found there.  Abraham obviously knew how to pray, how to talk to God and how to listen for His answers.  God was rather close to Abraham, obviously; they had a special relationship, the kind of relationship most of us couldn’t even aspire to, if we even had the guts to want it.  To know God like Abraham did is to obey God as Abraham did, and that takes real guts.


Abraham talked to God a lot, but that began with Abraham hearing God when God called Abraham.  Abraham believed God; he didn’t just believe in God, he believed God and believed that God knew what He was doing.  This faith was famously counted as Abraham’s righteousness, and of course he was lavishly rewarded for having the guts to remain in close relationship with God.


Prayer was and is the foundation of our relationship with God, but praying is not always easy; prayer doesn’t come naturally for everybody.  I’ll admit that I’m not the Roy Hobbs of prayer (think The Natural), and that probably makes me a natural Episcopalian.  In her wisdom, the Church, following the example of our Jewish spiritual ancestors, has provided us with common prayer – we even have a Book of Common Prayer – and with specific times and seasons to make certain prayers.  Whenever I’m asked to pray out of the blue, which is often, I usually fall back on the Prayer Book’s greatest hits; the old joke is don’t ask an Episcopal priest to pray without handing him a book to pray out of.  But just like an iPhone has an app for whatever you need, the Episcopal Church has a prayer for just about anything, because most of us don’t always know how or what to pray.


To make us feel even better, the disciples were less than confident about how to pray.  Apparently, John the Baptist had taught his disciples how to pray (I wish we were party to that), and I find it interesting that the disciples made their petition to Jesus as He was praying – parents, take note of how your example might follow Jesus’ in this case.


Anyway, the disciples approach Jesus and say, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”  Jesus responds with a basic prayer, which is now a classic haha, and then teaches them about the nature of prayer, a nature that’s reflected in the form of the Lord’s Prayer itself.


First, who are we praying to?  God, of course, but we get to address Him as Father, because that is not only how He has identified Himself to us, but how He relates to us, as a gracious and loving Father.  Next, hallowed be thy Name: let the name of God be praised, adored, set apart and not profaned.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven: fairly obvious, right?  Let your rule extend upon us so that righteousness and peace will replace suffering and strife.  Then it shifts a bit, to what we need right now, in our daily lives: bread for sustenance, that we might be physically whole; forgiveness and the willingness to forgive, so that we might be spiritually whole; protection from evil, from the forces bent on dominating us, so that we might live our lives in peace.


Jesus goes on to encourage his disciples, and us, to be persistent in prayer, to ask for what we need, in the confidence that God our Father will give us what we actually need.  Again, we don’t have to always know what’s best for us – prayer is about the relationship.  James echoed this in his epistle when he wrote “You do not have, because you do not ask.  You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”


So how do we pray?  Remember the lessons from Abraham, James, and Jesus today, as well as our Anglican heritage.  Grab your prayer book, go to the greatest hits, use it to lend voice to your praise of God and to your physical, spiritual, and emotional needs.  Next, be in prayer all day, keep the line of communication open, listen for and to God, talk to Him like the loving Father that He is.  Great things are bound to happen if you have the guts to pray like that!




[1] John Kavanaugh, SJ

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Pentecost 9

So the priests of the Burlington Convocation have a weekly breakfast meeting, and so pretty much every Thursday at 7:30am I’m at the Golden Dawn diner down in Burlington with around a dozen of my fellow clerics. One morning a few weeks ago, one priest told us that he had shown up to a meeting a little early, and so he took that time to sit quietly in his car to pray and contemplate. Well, Fr. Salmon and I shared a quick glance, maybe a little shared doubt over the contemplative skills of our fellow priest, but then we both commented that that would be almost impossible for us. It turns out that Fr. Salmon and I are both terrible at sitting still; we need to be moving and doing. It reminded me of the African students at seminary always walking and praying, hence their proverb “When you pray, move your feet.”

The Gospel lesson we just heard, Luke’s telling of Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha in Bethany, often gets used to highlight the difference between doing and being, between being busy and being contemplative. I hate that.

“Few things are easier than taking a portion of Scripture, isolating it from its original context, and then using this now rarified, out-of-context pericope to serve as some universal statement. This brief lection from Luke 10:38-42 is a classic example. How many times hasn’t this gospel snippet been used to prove that hearing the word of God is just generally more important than doing and being busy.”[1]

I hate that.  I also hate when people try to make excuses for Martha, as if she needed them.  I’ve heard and read way too many sermons and articles that say, well, Maybe Martha was already having a long day of cleaning and going to the market, and maybe the cat had a hairball or she had a migraine or the car wouldn’t start or whatever or whatever.  Martha lived in a house with her sister and brother, and anyone who has siblings can imagine that one sibling might get fed up with the other pretty quickly, regardless of what’s happening.  Martha doesn’t need an excuse; sisters get to yell at each other.

Anyway, I don’t like approaching the story of Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha as a lesson about if it’s better to be a worker or a listener, as that’s a false dichotomy.  It’s really a lesson about the Christian life as a whole, a lesson in how to gain strength and how to use that strength.

So Jesus shows up at the home of Martha and Mary, also home to Lazarus, their brother, and given the culture of the time and place, a few things have to be done, hospitality had to be offered.  As my friend Fr. Bret Hays points out, “The harsh desert climate of the Near East meant that refusing to offer hospitality to a visitor was tantamount to letting them die, and so a code of hospitality had been a key part of the culture since before the time of Abraham.”[2]  So Martha puts on a roast and Mary sits down with Jesus, a bold move for a woman at the time, but since they most likely had all met before, not totally outrageous.  Mary, though, doesn’t lift a finger to help her sister in the kitchen, and so Martha, driven to distraction, makes the unlikely move of asking Jesus to order Mary into the kitchen.

Jesus doesn’t have any of that, He tells Martha, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.”  That saying has been taken as a rebuke, but I take it more as an invitation, more like “Martha, Martha, you’ve used up your strength and you’ve lost the plot, but I’m here.”  Perhaps in Jesus’ other words, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

We are a people who get things done.  To hear the reports of all our different committees at our vestry meetings is to hear a litany of work planned and completed, of the great work on our parish property and in the community, of the stories of lives changed and souls saved, of Christ being proclaimed in word and deed.  But all that work requires strength, both physical and spiritual, and just as Jesus said to a tired and frazzled Martha, He says it to us: “I am your strength, your rest; I am the better portion.”

So come with me into the presence of the Lord and contemplate what He has done for us, and then leave here with the strength to change the world.

[2] Fr. Bret Hays, from his sermon given on the lessons of Proper 11, 2013.

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Pentecost 8

A Samaritan scholar once said, “We Samaritans and you Jews are both heirs of the ancient Israelite tradition.  We Samaritans carry the authentic tradition, whereas you who have lived to the south of us are the heretics.  The Torah says nothing about a temple in Jerusalem.  Deuteronomy speaks about worshiping in ‘the place where I will cause my name to dwell.’  We know where that is—Shechem and Mt. Gerizim.”[1]


There is nothing particularly shocking about that statement, outside of the fact that it was made only a few years ago and it was made to an audience at the Omaha Jewish Community Center.  No one there was shocked, as this quarrel between Jews and Samaritans is now twenty-six centuries old. 


Just a couple weeks ago we heard about Jesus and His followers traveling through the region of the Samaritans on their way to Jerusalem, and apparently the Samaritans treated them so badly that James and John asked Jesus if they could call fire down from heaven to consume their tormentors.  To the “Samaritans, a group of Jewish Galileans on their way to worship in Jerusalem was a group of heretics acting out their heresy; the Galileans were crossing Samaritan turf for the wrong reason and therefore deserved not hospitality but contempt.”[2]


And so it must have come as quite the surprise when not long after all of this, Jesus told a parable about a good Samaritan.  To His disciples and to any good Jew, such a concept was mind-blowing. 


The parable itself was a response to a question from a Jewish lawyer, but first we have to remember that this wasn’t an innocent question so much as it was a test, and Luke is explicit about that.  The hope of the lawyer isn’t to get a decent answer but to shame Jesus by exposing Him as ignorant, to have the crowd find Jesus wanting.


Jesus, of course, knew the set up and as He so often did, took things much farther than was comfortable for the questioner, and in the end, for us.  The immediate answer we all know and hear at every Mass: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  Easy, if easier said than done. 


Then comes the lawyer’s issue: Who is my neighbor?  Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan, a parable that we have grown perhaps too accustomed to, but actually turned the lawyer’s question and the whole world on its head. 


This is because Jesus didn’t answer the question; Jesus told a story.  The story of a nameless, faceless person, molested and left to die, then ignored by all who pass by.  Did those passersby have good reason to ignore him?  Sure.  Who really wants to touch what might be a dead body?  What if another passerby thinks I’m the one who did this to him?  Do I really want to take responsibility for this guy?  Why do I have to be the one to spend time and money on all this?  It’s not my job.


But then Jesus tells the story we know so well; He took the issue of the passive Who is my neighbor, and returned it in the active: Who do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?


In other words, To whom must you become a neighbor?  That’s our question for today, because Who is my neighbor is too easy of a question, for everyone has been created in the image of God, everyone is our neighbor.  The real question, Jesus points out, is Are you a neighbor?  Are you acting in love as a neighbor ought?


Because this is what being a neighbor looks like: it looks like looking upon everyone you meet, regardless of faith or tribe, as a person worthy of dignity and compassion; a person you are willing to take risks for, the risk of rejection or humiliation or worse; it looks like regarding those who are different or even repugnant, even your worst enemy, as a member of the family.  It’s literally our job.


That’s no easier now than when Jesus told this parable, but the bar hasn’t been lowered.  So who could we be neighbors to today?

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Pentecost 7

It’s definitely summer now, the signs are everywhere. Not only is it consistently hot, but thunder is heard from the sky and from the fireworks after the Trenton Thunder games. It’s summer because I’ve managed to actually finish a book that I was reading and to finish a couple projects that have been sitting idle for a while. It’s summer because people are traveling; that’s easy to notice when you live in Bordentown, seats in church and in the restaurants are easier to come by. But the fact that it’s summer hit me hard the other day when Doan and I discussed visiting my parents on the shore on a Friday and Doan said, “But we’ll never make it, it’s the weekend.” It’s summer because now it takes forever to move east. Summer is a travelogue.

The Bible is a bit of a travelogue; God is always telling His people to get going. Adam and Eve, get outta my garden. Noah, get ready to sail. Abraham, get walking. Moses, gather up everybody and go for a really, really long walk. Jesus’ earthly ministry was rarely still, and those who followed immediately after the Resurrection followed suit, most notably Paul and those who accompanied him on his missionary journeys.

Today we get an episode in which Jesus sends His people out once again, this time 70 of His closest disciples (or 72, depending on which manuscript you read), sent out as a kind of forward team, to prep the cities Jesus plans on traveling to next.

Jesus gives them some very specific instructions, which on the face of it, seem counter to the advice we would give travelers. “Do not carry a walking staff or traveling bag; wear no sandals (greet no one along the way). No one in their right mind traveled the Palestinian roads staffless, bagless, and unshod.

“Without a staff you are defenseless. Without a bag of some kind, you have no way of carrying a change of clothes or some bread for the road. And no matter how tough your feet are, you can’t run from danger on that rocky terrain without something on your feet.” This is, technically, terrible advice. It’s like telling your friends before their roadtrip to leave the spare tire at home, to leave the cup of coffee and bag of Twizzlers on the kitchen counter, and cancel their AAA membership.

But, of course, this was no ordinary journey. It was a strange trip indeed. “In short, anyone traveling in this strange way would be engaged in a kind of prophetic action, communicating by means of attention-getting behavior. The point of this mode of traveling would seem to be something like this: we are people who trust in God for our defense and who depend on the hospitality of others for our sustenance; we have a vision to share. Greet no one along the way. In the Near Eastern setting, the point here is not avoiding the courtesy of giving or responding to a friendly greeting; it is rather a mandate not to engage in the extended pleasantries and exchanges that were customary in those parts. The point of this travel style is not unfriendliness but moving with an air of urgency. ”1


I’m a member of the diocesan Congregational Development Committee, which is headed up by our Canon for Congregational Development, Fr. Rob Droste, who is excellent at his work. In our last meeting, we were coming up with ways to help Christians be more comfortable in talking about their faith. The idea is that if you or I found ourselves in a conversation with friend or stranger that turned to matters of faith, that we would have the words to describe our faith, our church, to describe what Jesus had done for us. I asked what we could do to help Christians become the type of people others seek out when it comes to matters of faith, to become the obvious Christian in the room (without the practice of wearing Lord’s Gym t-shirt with a picture of bodybuilder Jesus benching 500 pounds). I wonder if this story answers that question.

So “how does this apply to Christians who live in town and hold down a steady job? The missionary charge to the 72 suggests that even followers of Jesus who are registered voters with a permanent address should be people who “travel light,” (who) live a little more trustingly than the culture around them, and exhibit a sense of purpose that clearly goes beyond producing and consuming goods and getting entertained. Even settled Christians can live in a way that invites questions about where such people are coming from and where they think they are going.”2

I admit that this is easy for me, walking around I as do in the habit of priest, but how is it that you invite questions from those seeking Jesus, and how can I help you answer?


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