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?”.
‘Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
— Luke 10:36-37
A lawyer comes to Jesus and wants to know what he has to do to get into heaven. Instead of answering, Jesus asks the lawyer what he thinks the answer is. The lawyer is ready with his textbook answer, a quote from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.
There you have it. Jesus agrees. Question answered. Done. But no, instead of being pleased and walking away, the lawyer seems annoyed that Jesus didn’t answer, so he asks a follow-up: Who is my neighbor?
Again, Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly. Jesus could have said, “Your neighbor is your enemy. Your neighbor is the one whom you have overlooked. Your neighbor is the one you call unclean. Your neighbor is that man begging over there, that woman visiting the well alone at high noon, that child with two loaves to share, that hemorrhaging woman, that leper, that paralytic, that blind man, that prostitute, that tax collector…”
Jesus could answer directly, but he does not. Instead, he tells the story of the Good Samaritan and asks the lawyer which one acted as a neighbor to the man who was robbed. The answer is obvious, though uncomfortable on the lips of the lawyer. He cannot admit that the good guy in the story is a hated Samaritan, so he names him by his actions: The one who showed him mercy.
“Go,” Jesus says, “and do likewise.”
Who is my neighbor? There is no list we can memorize, no litmus test we can apply, no loopholes that we can use to leave folks out whom we find particularly difficult. Jesus does not tell us who our neighbor is; he shows us and invites us simply to “Go!” and to find the answer on the road.
Do you dare to take that road this Lent? It is winding and steep. There are surprises around every turn. You are bound to learn things about yourself and about God. You may find that you are carrying too many burdens or have not left enough time for the journey. You may find amazing gifts all around you that you didn’t see before. You may find that the next right step you need to take has been illuminated for you in the darkness. But one thing is for sure; if you seek Jesus while you look for your neighbor, you will find them and yourself transformed.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
— Book of Common Prayer, page 265
You likely heard these words if you began Lent yesterday with a service in person or online. It can seem like a tall order, one we will fail at along the way. I don’t think I usually even get to the end of the Ash Wednesday service before realizing how unattainable my Lenten goals are. But then the service comes to the part where we kneel, and the sign of the cross is made on our foreheads in ash.
As a priest, the most difficult words I am asked to say, as I look into the faces of God’s beloved children, are these: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But when I take my turn, and the ashes are put on my forehead, I am reminded what good news this really is. In all my striving, yearning and failing, I am brought up short by the good news of my mortality. It is not up to me to save the world. God calls us to follow, to love and to serve, but never to forget by whose grace we live and move and have our being. Not only is the outcome of all our efforts in God’s hands, but the very life within us is not ours but a gift from God.
If we know this deeply, that we are creatures of dust and at the same time beloved of God, it changes everything. True humility does not tear us down, it sets us free and brings us joy. True humility opens our eyes to see God in our neighbor and to see the miracles that God is working in us and through us every day. Humility unlocks a fountain of gratitude in our souls.
Did you receive ashes yesterday? What was the experience in your heart? Trace the cross on your forehead that was placed there at your baptism, and remind yourself of the words, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Write a letter to God, or take some time in prayer to respond.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Almost exactly fourteen years ago today, I was reading the sixth chapter of Matthew for my morning devotion, sitting next to a hut built of mud and thatch. I lived in what would become South Sudan, and I was the agricultural consultant for the Episcopal Church of Sudan. I patted myself on the back smugly as I read these words from Matthew. Look at me, I thought. I’m a missionary, living day to day with the support and hospitality of others, volunteering my time. Surely, I’m serving God instead of wealth. I’m storing up treasures in heaven.
Thankfully God has a good sense of humor and a desire to teach us humility. As I was congratulating myself, a thought interrupted me. I had spent the whole previous day furious with God. I was on a trip to visit people who had been displaced by the terrorist group “the Lord’s Resistance Army.” The people had fled for their lives, and all I could see was what they didn’t have, and what I couldn’t do. I was focused on their pain and my lack of resources. I was focused on the treasures of earth after all. I was serving wealth instead of God by what I chose to focus my heart on. My smugness quickly vanished in the face of a new and uncomfortable humility.
That day, I was repeatedly reminded of my own shortcomings to look for what God was doing. It turned out beautiful miracles were happening all around me that I missed by focusing on what was lacking. In the small town of Maridi, ten thousand displaced people had been received, not into a camp, but welcomed to set up shelters between community members’ homes. The bishop there took me to meet people and hear their stories. One family we stopped to pray with was preparing dinner from peanuts that a neighbor had given them and greens they had found in the forest. Thousands of wild mango trees in the forest were just about ripe.
Humility can be uncomfortable; it requires us to let go of something. But letting go also sets us free. Humility helps us to stay in our lane and let God be God. Humility is a path to hope and joy despite the circumstances surrounding us.
When in your life has a realization brought you up short and helped you find humility? Where have you found abundance when at first you saw only scarcity? Look for where God is at work today in your life and the world. What small miracles are all around you?
Humility is the mother of all virtues; purity, charity and obedience. It is in being humble that our love becomes real, devoted and ardent. If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal.
— Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Mother Teresa has become known, not only for her remarkable work among the poor and dying, her founding of the Sisters of Charity and her Nobel Peace prize, but also for her time of spiritual drought, her “dark night of the soul,” which lasted most of her life. In a book of her letters and notes published six years after her death, Mother Teresa expresses her loneliness and pain in not experiencing Jesus’ presence. It seems that the more she succeeded in serving the poor, the more acclaim came her way, the more distant from God she felt.
Spiritual drought is a common experience, part of the spiritual journey. In Mother Teresa’s spiritual darkness, even though consumed by the pain of it, she continued to follow Jesus. She was beset by doubts and carried a pain in her heart that no one could see. She was constantly aware that her faith and abilities were not enough for the work Jesus called her to. But she was also convicted that it was through her weakness that Christ intended to work. Perhaps her spiritual sense of abandonment helped her to understand the suffering of those whom the world had cast aside.
Mother Teresa embodied humility in the face of all she achieved and all she suffered. It was in humility that she found the strength to continue.
Have you experienced a time of spiritual drought? Have you experienced a time when you felt God’s presence? What has God been drawing you toward in your life? What is it that your heart yearns for most deeply?
Each Sunday beginning on February 26, we will share a link to a video and reflection questions that you can use as a resource for journaling or deeper learning during the week.
You can also use the video and notes from this reflection with friends or a church group to reflect on this week’s themes from the daily meditations and the Sunday lectionary readings.