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 restoration.
In this video, Episcopal Relief & Development staff read the organization’s Credo, the text of which can be found on their website. After watching the video, take some time to read the text of the Credo at the following link.
But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, …“Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
— Exodus 17:3-7
Thank goodness the Israelites were cranky in the wilderness and lost faith. Just imagine if God saved them from slavery, brought them to the promised land, and they never once doubted or betrayed God. Where could we find ourselves in that story?
I went to a workshop once by the staff of Episcopal Relief & Development about the emotional lifecycle of disasters. The initial phase is traumatic, followed by inspiring heroic effort as people come together to help each other. Time moves on, and disillusionment happens as people experience the reality of their loss and their community’s inability to maintain long-term disaster-level cohesion. The energy of individuals and the community depletes as exhaustion in body, mind and soul begins to grow. The work of recovery then shifts to working through grief and building a new sense of community. It is slow work that happens in the midst of crankiness, doubt and division. But it is also good and real work that can lead to resilience and deeper relationships.
The good news is that God meets us in the wilderness, the very place where it is easy for us to forget all that God has done for us. When we are hot, thirsty, cranky and exhausted by loss, God is there ready to gush living water from the very stones of our grumbling and doubt. The hard truth is that even then, we may not feel refreshed. There is no shortcut to recovery, but God walks with us, a fountain of life in the valley of the shadow of death. God is there, ready to give us what we need to continue the road that leads to restoration.
Does any part of this emotional lifecycle of a disaster sound familiar as you consider your community’s experience over the last three years of the global pandemic? How do you find the patience, hope, inspiration and strength you need on difficult and cranky days in your own life? As you look back at your life, can you see God’s restoration at work in you?
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.
— John 4:27-30
I love how this passage makes it sound like Jesus frequently made the disciples feel awkward and uncomfortable. Jesus’ inner circle was a group of outcasts and misfits themselves, but there were some social rules even they couldn’t overlook. This woman had several strikes against her. First and foremost, she was a woman. There are many other stories of Jesus speaking to, touching, sparing, healing or teaching women in John’s gospel. We forget how truly shocking this behavior was: shocking enough to strike the disciples speechless. She is also a hated Samaritan, an ethnic and religious division Jesus should not have dared to cross. She appears to be an outcast in her community as well: married five times, alone at the well at midday.
Despite all this, she is witty and engaging, asks pointed questions, and does not back down. Jesus does not judge her and instead offers her eternal life. Despite her status as an outcast, she finds her voice and that power working through her surprises the community. They believe her, and they come to see for themselves.
Jesus chooses the broken, rejected, and outcasts to be his messengers. Throughout the gospel, they find themselves restored, not just in body and mind, but in their relationships. He sends them to give witness or thanksgiving for their healing, forcing the community to see them differently, to understand that God is at work doing something new. The restoration of these individuals changes the community, challenged to see that it was wrong in rejecting them in the first place.
Who do you identify with in this story? In what ways might Jesus be calling you to let go of social norms in favor of crossing barriers for love? In what ways might Jesus be calling you to find your voice?
We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
— Romans 5:3-5
There are many unhelpful things that people say to those who are suffering. It sounds like Paul is using a popular one here, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Our streets, prisons and hospitals are full of people who can bear witness to the falsehood of this trope. Suffering, Paul claims, can lead to endurance, character and hope. But how?
I live in a community and region plagued by wildfires in recent years. Everyone has friends who have lost their homes. Almost everyone has had to evacuate, some of us in the middle of the night. In 2020 two wildfires claimed five lives and 40 percent of the land area of our county. We know the difference between haze caused by dust versus smoke and are familiar with the particular sound of propane tanks exploding as homes burn. But we have learned other things, too, in the past few years. As a community, we are better at evacuating now and addressing the needs of vulnerable populations. We are better at sharing information and resources, and working together. We know the giddy joy of the first rain that ends fire season and the unparalleled beauty and hope of new green growth breaking through the blackened landscape.
I do not believe God sends suffering to test, grow or punish us. Rather, God uses everything, even our suffering, to communicate God’s steadfast presence and love. In the presence of suffering, God is reaching out, helping us with every breath to develop endurance, character, and hope.
If you think back on a time in your life when you experienced suffering, was there also, perhaps later, a time that you noticed a strength, hope or resilience you didn’t know you had? What makes your community strong or resilient? What restores your hope when you are feeling down?
Soon we will come to see that money devoid of love is like salt devoid of savor; it is good for nothing but to be trodden under the foot of men. It may buy material bread, but the bread that it buys will soon decay. True neighborliness requires personal concern. The Samaritan not only used his physical hands to bind up the wounds of the robbed man’s body, but he released an overflowing love to bind up the wounds of his broken spirit.
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today, I read a sermon written by a previous rector of my church, Tom, from the third Sunday of Lent 1965. He had just returned from Selma, from marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and had been arrested and detained overnight. He was one of two thousand clergy and religious leaders who came to join Dr. King that week. The way that people supported one another and remained non-violent in the face of terrible evil inspired Tom. His common refrain was that words and letters of support are not enough, that Christ compels us to show up physically.
Dr. King inspired so many people to find in themselves a strength they did not know they had. That strength didn’t just enable acts of courage but also knit together the bonds of a new kind of community. Tom wrote about the crowds of volunteers that met every bus and train coming into Selma to shepherd the incoming volunteers to safety, the local folks who opened their homes and tables to strangers from everywhere. These people, who after living through bloody Sunday on the bridge kept showing up to march again and again. And the volunteers didn’t just march; they staffed phone banks and helped with community projects.
True neighborliness, Dr. King says, binds not only the physical wounds but the wounds of a broken spirit with love. He saw in Christ, and in this new community, he was helping to inspire, a kind of love that restores the body and soul.
When have you been inspired to act in love? When have you been a part of a community that exemplified true neighborliness? How did these experiences make you feel in your body and soul?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself
I will with God’s help.
Will you strive for justice and peace on the earth, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will with God’s help.
— Book of Common Prayer, Baptismal Covenant
In The Episcopal Church, we take the opportunity at every baptism to renew our promises to God. These are promises about what it looks like to follow Jesus. The Baptismal Covenant was new with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The covenant and different trial liturgies were piloted and tested in the 1960s. At first, there were four promises: the first about tradition, the second about turning from sin, the third about sharing the Good News, and the fourth about loving your neighbor. In early trials, these four promises seemed to be a sufficient summary of faith in practice.
Anecdotal evidence (partially corroborated by timing) suggests that following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, many who were using the trial covenant felt that more needed to be said. Perhaps they felt that ending with the fourth promise of the Baptismal Covenant left the church asking, “Who is my neighbor?”
The fifth promise in our Baptismal Covenant seems to echo Jesus’ response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Go, we say, and do likewise. Love on the grand scale and the individual scale. Strive for justice and peace on the earth and respect the dignity of every human being.
Where today is God calling you to see the path of justice and peace? Who have you overlooked or treated as less than a fully autonomous adult, equal to you and to all in worth and dignity? Where are you called today to give up being right in favor of doing what is right?
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
— Amos 9:14
God promises a traumatized, violated, and scattered people that they will experience a restoration that is hard to imagine. From a place of broken relationship, destruction, division, and hopelessness, how can we trust that God is indeed a God of restoration? How can peace, safety, and abundance come to pass?
There are precious few mountaintop experiences of God’s deliverance on the spiritual journey. The journey is a daily struggle to hold onto God’s love. It is the daily grind of trying to choose patience when you are tired and cranky, hope when all you see is things gone wrong, or gratitude when it seems you don’t have enough of what you need.
Restoration is something that doesn’t come all at once. The Spirit is at work in us so that our day-by- day struggle is the very soil in which our restoration grows. We learn to find God in the wilderness. We learn to trust that God is there even in the spiritual drought. And occasionally, our eyes are opened to see the gushing fountain of eternal life in the valley of the shadow of death. God calls us to build a new and beloved community where true neighborliness reigns, but we do not build alone.
As you look back on the times in your life when you experienced disaster, displacement, or despair, did you also experience a restoration that grew slowly over time? What has restoration looked like in your life (restoration of body, mind, soul, relationships, vocation, livelihood)?
Send your own reflection to email@example.com to share with our online community. Please limit your response to two or three sentences.
I always feel restored after church. It is a truly a time when God is able to enter inside my heart and I make time to listen. The smell of incense that I take away from each service also reminds me of God’s love and restoration.
When my spouse died, the grief was almost unbearable at times. But I felt God's love, even in the most difficult moments. I felt it through people who channeled God's love, through prayer and reading passages of scripture. It was still excruciating. But God was there.
This past fall my therapist has made me do some hard healing. During lockdown, I spent a lot of time alone distracting myself. Now that the world has opened up that I have been forced to spend my alone time focused on true rest, restoration and healing. God's love has restored me through Alex.
I feel restored every time I receive communion. It is an encounter each week as I approach the altar. ‘My Lord, My God.’