This Lenten Season, Episcopal Relief & Development invites you to join us as we meditate on the commandment to love our neighbor and consider the meaning of this fundamental instruction in our daily lives.
The Rev. Robin Denney, a parish priest and former missionary focused on agricultural development in Liberia and South Sudan, wrote this year’s meditations. Robin’s reflections are poignant and personal and challenge the reader to consider the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
Today’s theme: In our Sunday lectionary readings this week, and in the daily reflections, we will consider the theme of Salvation: God With Us.
Fr. Manoruban, in the Diocese of Colombo, Sri Lanka, is a humble man who looks to the gifts God has given his community as tools for transformation, even in the context of preparing for disaster and recovery from conflict and disaster.
Today’s Lectionary Readings
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
— John 12:1-3
Our journey through Holy Week begins with a dinner like so many that Jesus has participated in throughout the gospels. He is back in the home of his dear friends, in the presence of the one he raised from the dead, with Mary at his feet and Martha serving. Mary anoints his feet with expensive perfume and wipes his feet with her hair in an incredible display of intimacy, love and generosity. Jesus explains to those who are scandalized that this is for his burial.
From this place, this intimate dinner among those who love him, the journey will be one of incredible suffering, betrayal, abandonment and violence designed to deny him dignity, humanity and his very life. Yet, at this moment, the foreshadowing of his death is surrounded by the overwhelming scent of the perfume filling the room, a year’s worth of wages poured out, an offering of love.
Mary of Bethany is an exemplary disciple. She gets it right more than the twelve do. She is ready to break social conventions, to show her love for Jesus, to give him all her attention, to learn and to give without counting the cost. Holy Week starts here with Mary’s love and generosity. She reminds us that even in the face of vast movements of tragedy, oppression and violence, our small acts of love make a difference.
Take some time in prayer today to consider your love for Jesus. Put yourself in Mary’s place at Jesus’ feet. If you have scented oil, incense, or perfume, smell it as you pray. What are you ready to give to Jesus today as an offering of love?
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
— John 12:24-25
Seeds respirate ever so slightly if they are alive. A dead seed cannot germinate and grow. Jesus knew this. He farmed like everyone else in his community. Jesus was also a master of metaphor and parables, so the idea that sticks out to us as odd is often the doorway into deeper understanding.
What is it about a seed that dies for it to bear fruit? A seed is living potential. To bear fruit, the seed must cease to be a seed. It must spend the energy reserves it has been saving, give up all its protective coatings, and become an incredibly vulnerable sprout. Seeds are designed for security. Their respiration is so slow that they are able to protect life in incredibly adverse conditions, sometimes for years. Many seeds never germinate because the life within can’t overcome the protective coating.
If we love being a seed, if our lives are about comfort and security and protecting what has been given to us, then we will miss the opportunity to germinate. What God plans to do in us and through us is so much more than our goals and dreams. Be willing. Jesus challenges us to give it all, to use the gifts of ourselves, our time, our resources, our very life.
Spend time in prayer today, asking God to open your eyes to see the gifts you have been given. Make a list of all that you are grateful for. Pray that God shows you opportunities to use your gifts in love and service.
If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
— Lila Watson and the Aboriginal Activists Group
Queensland, Australia, 1970s
Tomorrow, we begin the Triduum, the holy days when we remember the whole story of Jesus’ last supper, betrayal, suffering, death, burial and resurrection. The liturgies invite us not just to observe these stories, but to enter into them, to truly experience Jesus in our hearts. We are far from celebrating a baby in a manger, and yet the incarnation, God becoming flesh, is at the center of this Holy Week. We follow a God who loves us so much that God could not remain separate from us but had to enter into our experience of humanity, to reveal God to us, to show us a better way, and to enter into the experience of our suffering.
We, too, are incarnational beings, a piece of God’s eternity embodied in mortal life. And, as followers of Jesus, we are called to his incarnational ministry, a ministry of presence and relationship instead of charity. We reach out in love and service, not to help or fix others but because, as Lila Watson’s quote reminds us, our liberation is bound up with the liberation of the suffering and oppressed. A ministry of “relief and development” is incarnational as people encounter in one another the presence of God, sacred story, dignity, healing, resilience and hope.
An incarnational ministry of following Jesus is not doing to someone or doing for someone, but rather walking with someone and encountering the living God along that Way of Love.
Think about times in your life when you have walked with someone who was suffering (i.e., sitting with a friend in grief, talking with a homeless person about their life, visiting people in a nursing home). What did you feel? Ask God to help you find opportunities today to walk with others with Jesus as your guide.
And during supper, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
— John 13:3-5
I was sitting under a tree next to St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Bor, South Sudan, hot and grimy after a long and dusty journey, talking with some church leaders about agriculture. Two women approached the group with basins and pitchers of warm water and began quietly to wash the feet of those of us who had just arrived. I was embarrassed at first by my dirty feet and by feeling unworthy of this kind of attention, but as they washed my feet, I felt like a sacred gift was being offered to me. “Wash one another’s feet,” Jesus said. Be willing to be humble, intimate, and self-giving in your relationships and ministry. Be more like these women, Jesus was saying in my heart.
Jesus conducted this humble service for his disciples while holding in mind his ultimate power, identity, and mission. This action of choosing to empty his authority before them gives them a visceral feeling of the ministry he calls them to. Then, after he washes their feet, he tells them to go out and love one another.
Today you may have the opportunity at your church to experience foot washing, but even if you do not, as you take in the service, the prayers, the eucharist, the stripping of the altar, hold in your heart the image of Jesus, knelt at your feet, washing them. He looks up into your eyes and says, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
If you are able, go to Maundy Thursday services, or watch them online. Take time in silence to let the experience wash over you in prayer. How is Jesus calling you to love and serve today?
From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.
And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice,
“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” … Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.
— Matthew 27:45-46, 50
I was living in the United States when civil war returned to South Sudan in December of 2013, and I heard only scattered reports of the violence and displacement. More than a thousand people were killed on the streets of Bor in just a couple of days in January of 2014. The most impacted were the elderly and vulnerable who couldn’t flee. A number of people, mostly older women who were church workers and clergy took refuge in St. Andrew’s Cathedral, and more than twenty were murdered there. A mass grave was dug for them next to the church.
What possible answer does God have for such horror? For lives lived in love and service, cut short by unimaginable evil? There is no answer that could satisfy our pain. God does not explain but rather enters into the depth of our suffering. God willingly walks the way of the cross and is betrayed, beaten, humiliated, tortured and killed. God experiences what it feels like to feel utterly forsaken by God, to call out in despair with one’s final breath. Our crucified God meets us in the very depth of our pain so that we may finally see the power of God’s love, and know that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God.
The Archbishop of Canterbury visited Bor only weeks after the atrocities and consecrated the mass grave of the church workers. The martyrs of St. Andrew’s, like so many saints who have gone before, lived their lives in love and hope. The impact of their lives rings far beyond their deaths, in lives transformed by love and service.
Take some time in silence today to sit with the Crucified God. Hold in prayer all the crucified people of the world, victims of oppression and violence wherever they may be. Entrust them, yourself, and all who are in need into the loving arms of God.
Joseph of Arimathea… asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus… also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
— John 19:38-42
There is a stone in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem known as the anointing stone. It was erected in the Middle Ages, part way between the stone of Golgotha and the stone of the empty tomb, both inside the church. The anointing stone memorializes the anointing of Jesus’ body for burial and is a place of great devotion. People bring their own burial shrouds or those for loved ones and anoint them there. The stone is covered in fragrant oil and always surrounded by people in fervent prayer.
I visited Jerusalem after I had spent a summer as a chaplain intern at a trauma hospital. I had difficulty letting go of the patients in my care. I was drawn to the anointing stone and to the prayers of the people who surrounded it. As I took my turn to kneel there, I made the sign of the cross at the head of the stone, just as I had done for so many of my patients as they died. I tried to remember their names as I lifted them with a troubled heart to God. Suddenly, I was aware that in my peripheral vision to my right was Golgotha, and to my left was the Empty Tomb. It felt as though God was encouraging me to see that I encountered these folks at the hardest moment of their lives at Golgotha. I was holding them there in my mind when in reality, they had been set free. They had already experienced the Empty Tomb.
Today is a day of silent expectation, of letting go. Take time with Jesus and think about the anointing stone. Who or what have you been carrying that Jesus might be calling you to set down in his care?
But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet and worshiped him.
— Matthew 28:5-9
Alleluia, Christ is risen!! Death could not hold the author of life. The light of the world could not be extinguished. In him, we see the hope of eternity.
The resurrection is not something that happened just once, long ago. God is constantly bringing new life from death, hope from despair, love from fear. The empty tomb is all around us. God redeems us again and again.
In this journey of Lent, we have considered our lives and our walk with Jesus deeply. We have sought humility, responsibility, forgiveness, relationship and hope. We have prayed for eyes to see as God sees, and we have looked for ways to act in love. The joy we feel this Easter is a profound joy that does not disregard or cover over the pain and suffering in this world, but rather surrounds and transforms it.
The ash of wildfires becomes fertilizer for new plants. Death and decay everywhere in the universe become the building blocks of new life. Matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed but change form again and again. We and all that is around us are made not just of dust, but of stardust, and animated by the very love of God.
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Grace doesn’t just mean forgiveness, but also the “unmerited favor of God". When I look into my dog’s eyes I feel like I understand the unmerited love of God because that is the type of love I receive from my dog and try to give to everyone in return.
I notice God's presence palpably in nature—the sunrise, spring blossoms, mountain vistas, and more. I feel God's grace through people extending kindness, giving me the benefit of the doubt, and being present through difficult times.