Whose We Are

Isaiah 43:1-7 | Psalm 29 | Acts 8:14-17 | Luke 3:15-17, 21-22


The words from Isaiah were surely words of comfort and assurance to the weary Israelites. They were weary from being in exile, far from their land, their home, where their God resided. Even upon their return, things were not as they had been, and it was unfamiliar. But these words from God through the voice of the prophet remind the people who they are and whose they are. As people created by God and for God’s glory (as the psalm also reminds), they need not fear.

To be created, formed, redeemed, protected, valued, honored, and loved by God — that alone is enough for us to take as good news. This God in all goodness and glory is on our side. As the favored ones, we have nothing to fear. “Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid” (Canticle 9, First Song of Isaiah 12:2, BCP, p. 86). Strength and blessing are promised to God’s people. All prosperity is ours and ours alone.

Is it, though? Is that the full picture of our inheritance and our future? The fullness of our present moment?

If our strength and peace as children of God were solely about our believing in the Word or even about our baptism in water in the name of the Trinity, then perhaps that would be all we need. But of course there’s more to the story.

We’re told that Samaritans accepted the word of God. In the reading prior to the verses we read in Acts today, the Samaritans saw Philip proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ, healing the sick, raising the lame, casting out demons, and they believed in Jesus Christ, Son of God. They were baptized, but it didn’t end there. Peter and John are sent to them. They lay hands on them, and then they received the Holy Spirit. Now they can continue the good work in the name of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

But there’s even more to the story.

A man named Simon had practiced magic among the Samaritans, and they had been impressed by him, “amazed” (Acts 8:9). Like the Samaritans, Simon found himself being impressed by the works of Philip and realized that he, too, believed and was baptized. Simon stayed by Philip’s side.

When Simon saw what happened with the apostles laying their hands on the Samaritans, he saw something he wanted. He offered money to the apostles. “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may received the Holy spirit” (Acts 8:19). But Peter denied his money, incredulous that Simon thought he could buy God’s gift. Peter proclaims that Simon’s heart is not right before God, implores him to repent that he might be forgiven–if it’s possible at all. Simon does ask that Peter pray for him, that the curses not come to pass. We’re not told how Simon’s story ends.

So if we believe in the word of God, are baptized, and receive the power of the Holy Spirit–with good intentions, of course–then we’re good, right? Then we can rest in our blessedness?

It wasn’t like that for Jesus. It certainly isn’t like that for us.

John the Baptist said he baptized with water, but one more powerful than himself is coming to who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

We like baptism by water. Christendom might not agree on the amount of water, the place, or the age of baptism, but there’s agreement upon water and the invocation of the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to make a baptism valid. We exercise a lot of control and predictability in our baptisms so that they fit nicely within our services and our understanding of our traditions.

But when we start talking about Holy Spirit and fire, people back up really quickly. Trial by fire. Baptized by fire. These phrases don’t necessarily conjure up positive connotations. We’d rather go back to Isaiah and our psalm where we can focus on God loving us and giving us good things; let’s not complicate things.

As soon as we let go to give God the glory, to give God space to work in our lives, we complicate things, and things get out of our control.

Unlike Simon, John the Baptist knew his power would decrease, and gave way to one who is greater. John didn’t seek power or greatness for himself. Not only does he prepare the way for the Lord in his humility, but he also maintains integrity, not bowing down to Herod, calling him out for his cruelty and for taking his brother’s wife. John’s honesty didn’t garner Herod’s favor and actually got him imprisoned and eventually beheaded. John’s simple actions ran contrary to the societal norms. Jesus’s simple Way ran contrary to the norms of the first century. They still do.

Where things run contrary to one another, where there is conflict, there is friction. Friction heats up and can cause fire. Fire can be destructive, but it can also be restorative. Fire can refine things to burn off impurities. Fire gives us heat, energy, and light. Fire is necessary for life. We say our love and our anger burn, and they can burn in destructive or life-giving ways.

When we who are baptized acknowledge that we also have been empowered by the Holy Spirit–gifted in individual and particular ways–and put this power into work in our lives for the glory of God, things are going to get complicated. There’s going to be fire.

The ways of God are simple: Love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love our neighbors as ourselves. The ways of the world are simple, too: look out for Number One to be the best. Until these two ways are reconciled, there will always be friction. We have the clearest case of it right now in the fight about a border wall. Except here, we don’t have friction, we have stand-off, realized in our government shutdown.

Richard Rohr in his book about the Trinity, The Divine Dance, says that it’s divine wisdom to be three in one because where there is simply duality, there is likelihood of either/or, us/them, one way or another. With a trinity, there can be ebb and flow, a third way that maintains the whole, unity in diversity, a divine dance. With a trinitarian mindset, we can view the world not solely as us against them but recall that we and they are in relationship with God. Ultimately this puts all of us in relationship with God, drawing us all into the divine dance of giving glory and praise to the almighty, giving us all the responsibility of manifesting the kingdom of heaven here and now.

Remember that Jesus didn’t just stroll into the temple palace and blast the rulers for their disregard of Almighty God. Jesus walked among the people, igniting their power by healing their dis-ease, crossing social and demographic barriers, manifesting a culture where anyone could come to the table and break bread together. He was reminding them of their value, their belovedness. While this may have given a sense of strength and blessing of peace within, the tensions mounted outside in the communities.

But all who have heard the Word of God, who believe, who are baptized, and are gifted with the Holy Spirit feel the fire within–even if it’s latent or smoldering–and recognize the fire outside in all the battles being waged, small and large–too many for me to name. The only control we have is over our own use of our gifts and the fuel that we have to fulfill the promises that we’ve made in our own baptisms.

“When (we) walk through fire (we) shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume (us)”–if we realize that the fire is of God and see clearly ourselves in right relationship with God and one another. If we know we are God’s as much as the one we name “other”. If we can say to the “other” that they are as precious in God’s sight, as honored and beloved as ourselves, then we show whose we really are in all of our thoughts, words, and deeds.

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Prepare the Way of Love

Baruch 5:1-9 | Philippians 1:3-11 | Luke 3:1-6 | Canticle 16

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee (i.e. King of the Jews), and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” when this was the time of all these people of power, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

John, from the beautiful, verdant hill country, born to the faithful Zechariah and Elizabeth, left the comforts of his home to wander in the wilderness, where the word of God came to him. The wilderness, a scarce and desolate place, is also a place of safety and divine protection. However dark the wilderness, it’s not a place without the presence of God.

In fact, in the 4th century during the reign of Emperor Constantine, when the Christian church transitioned into the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, there were Christians who also fled to the wilderness to stay closer to God. These people became known as the desert fathers and mothers–the abbas and ammas–to whom people would seek for their wisdom, wisdom acquired from their time in prayer and solitude apart from the political/social scene. These people who fled intentionally decided not to practice their beliefs within a system that offered reward for their affiliation. Where there is favor, there’s tendency toward corruption. The folks who fled to the desert weren’t having any part of it.

I don’t think it’s a far stretch to see John the Baptist as someone who wouldn’t have any part of it, either, as we’ll be reminded next week. But he didn’t stay isolated.

John went all around the River Jordan in the midst of everyone he met along the way, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This wasn’t anything new. The Jewish people had a ritual cleansing signifying a return to God with expectation of forgiveness. His methodology might have been unconventional. I don’t think any of us would go up to a roadside preacher or someone wearing a sandwich board (let alone camel hair), telling us to get baptized in a muddy river. Even the synagogues then had their baths for the ritual cleansings.

But John is intent and hearkens to the Prophet Isaiah, as he conveys the traditional hopes for Israel’s restoration into a place of favor as God’s people. These are their hopes; this is what Baruch offers words of encouragement for; even Zechariah’s song places John in a position to proclaim the goodness to come. There is hope for God’s people.

Valleys shall be filled. Mountains made low. The crooked made straight, and the rough made smooth. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

John believed it with all his heart and all his life, even if he couldn’t fully comprehend what it meant that such a promise is open to everyone, to all. Still, he lived it. I don’t see John asking a lot of questions at the border of the river. I don’t see him playing favorites with those in positions of power. He does what the word of God guided him to do, and when he comes face to face with Jesus, he continues to do what God tells him to do and baptizes Jesus, then fading into the background, even with his tragic death, knowing that as he decreases, Jesus will increase, even if he doesn’t know exactly how. It will be done. All this in the midst of the people.

We have a president and a governor. We have rule-makers for our regions, counties, cities, and towns. We have priests and pastors of all kinds, who similarly have their systems of governance. We rejoice that we have a system of governance in both our nation and our church that gives voice to many so that decisions aren’t made by a top few or even a top one. But there are powers at play that have fallen prey to corruption in the name of what is right or even Christian. Even as people flock into metropolises to plug into a system of bigger, better, more, there are people simultaneously saying no and moving off the grid or into communities that work together for a common good. It seems that it’s all or nothing.

Those of us who had the honor and privilege of listening to Bryan Stevenson last night at Crystal Bridges heard directly from one who has heard the word of God.

Disillusioned by law school, Stevenson told us he went into government policy. But there he said they were studying how to maximize benefits and cut costs, regardless of whose benefits and costs were affected. As someone who knew it was a privilege to be in college and knew the plight of those who lived in struggle, he returned to law school determined that he could make a difference, even if he didn’t know how. In his book Just Mercy, he details events of his work in the South that one could describe as wilderness experiences but also account for all the difference he has and continues to make.

His lifetime of experiences, starting with his mom and grandma and going on to today with all the people he encounters in his endeavors, teaches and affirms that while we could isolate ourselves or ignore the world around us as we pursue personal gain, that lifestyle won’t change the brokenness that is. And when he really hit the core of his own suffering and grief, typically when sitting in the midst of someone else’s suffering–like the pending death of an inmate whom he had tried to save–he realized that not only had that person’s life been broken, but he himself was a broken person, too. Not only that, but he worked within a broken system. But brokenness revealed makes way for mercy. What are we all called to do but to do justice (what he called the opposite of poverty), love mercy, and walk humbly? (Micah 6:8)

It sounds a lot like filling valleys of poverty, addiction, and despair and lowering mountains of pride, gluttony, and greed. It sounds like clearing a way through the twist and turns of bureaucratic, convoluted systems and calming storms of anger, fear, and distrust to get straight to the heart of matters and work efficiently. Rather than focus on what’s broken and what needs to be done, though, Stevenson provided four characteristics on how to meet the challenges we face when we are preparing the way for the kingdom:

> Get close to those who are marginalized,

> Change false narratives that are out there,

> Stay hopeful, and

> Do things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient.

Oh, Bryan John-the-Baptist Stevenson, you’re gonna get a lot of people beheaded. But for this man who still feels the hugs of his grandmother, speaks truth to those who face death, and won’t back down from his charge from a civil rights veteran to keep beating the drum of justice, he knows what it means to be in proximity to those who are pushed down and beaten back. He hears the stories we tell that some people are worth fighting for or defending while some people–some of our neighbors–are disposable. He has sat in the shadow of the valley of death and wanted to give up, but he learned that we can either be hopeful or be part of the problem. So he does what he’s gotta do. He’s found his vocation, his purpose in life. He’s living out the prophecy.

And I sat in that crowded room of people, and I slouched back in my chair, angry. Angry because I was sad, and I realize it’s a selfish sadness because I’m sure many of these people are doing good and great things in their own time, but I can’t see it and don’t know about it. Maybe someone else was sitting across the room thinking the same thing about me. But for this sold out lecture, I don’t know who is also beating that drum for justice with hope, guiding us toward a future where our neighbors don’t have to worry about being wrongfully imprisoned, profiled, discriminated against for housing or work, fed a story that convinces them that they are the ones who need to apologize and be grateful for the so-called worthless life they have.

Advent is about preparing the way for the Lord to break into our lives. Not just our own blessed life but the lives of all. How willing are we to go into the midst of the oppressed, to speak up when false narratives are told about us or even of strangers, to keep faith and hope alive in the darkness, and to do that which is uncomfortable and inconvenient?

From prison Paul wrote to the Philippians who had disagreement among themselves and doubts and struggles. Paul reminded them of his joy for all of them. When he thought of them all, of sharing in God’s grace with all of them, he was even more inspired to pray for them all. All of them, he keeps repeating. His prayer: “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that come through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” For Paul, faith in Jesus Christ was more important than following the letter of the law. Determining “what is best,” I found, actually translates better as determining “things that matter.”

Paul’s prayer for his companions in faith is that they love one another and have wisdom to discern what matters most. Without love we are but a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal, right? (That’s what he told the Corinthians.) John’s love for God opened him to hear the word of God in the wilderness that called him back into the midst of the people to kindle in them hope in their forgiveness. Bryan Stevenson, fueled for love of justice and mercy, works in the trenches of law and everywhere that takes him to confront the narratives that we’ve misshapen to the detriment and brokenness of one another.

We’re called to wake up. We’re called to heed the voice and voices of those crying out in the wilderness. The Word of God is coming to us all. May we be grounded in Love for God and one another so that we don’t miss what matters most.

 

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Thoughts for the Journey – Advent 1

Jeremiah 33:14-16 | Psalm 25:1-9 | 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 | Luke 21:25-36

Contrary to what my children may think, being Episcopalian at this time of year is not solely about waiting until the last minute to put up Christmas decorations or shaming others who put up decor right after Thanksgiving (if they even wait that long!). As with any culture, there are likely to be particular practices that are different from the norm, and since they’re different they stand out, setting us apart. But all of what we do means something and speaks to who we are and what we believe. We light the candles on the Advent wreath one week at a time, watching the light grow until finally we get to light the Christ candle at Christmas, our anticipation fulfilled. In a society that can get anything right now, intentionally waiting says something. Sitting in the darkness means something. Making the intentional journey through Advent shapes us and forms us year after year.

People of faith commonly refer to our lives as journeys, and we’re no different. Like I said, we “journey” through Advent and also through Lent. We have the Season after Pentecost, which as a “season” implies growth. We have a church calendar that cycles round and round through the years and phases of the moon. We are constantly moving, traveling on a path, walking in the Way. It’s no wonder we can feel exhausted if we keep plowing forward at breakneck speed.

We need time to slow down. We need the darkness reminding us to rest. We need a mother heavy with child to remind us we can’t get anywhere too fast and might need help along the way . . . and patience as we trust in God’s timing, not our own.

Our readings for this first Sunday of Advent spoke to me about this nature of our journey.

In the lesson from Jeremiah, one is foretold who “shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” God’s promise will be fulfilled when there is a way of justice and righteousness. In the Psalm, we recite with the psalmist that we lift up our souls, putting our trust in God, as we try to live faithfully as believers. We trust God to teach us God’s paths, to lead us along God’s path of love and faithfulness. And in the letter to the Thessalonians, there’s a prayer that “our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to” one another. The prayer continues, that the Lord might “make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” As we journey along, there’s genuine compassion for our brothers and sisters along the way but not just family but also neighbors and strangers.

And where are we going with all this journeying?

The Thessalonians heard that we’re anticipating the coming of Jesus with all the saints. We hear today in our gospel reading that redemption is drawing near, that the time is coming when we will have the opportunity “to stand before the Son of Man.”

And how do we know if the time is ripe? If the time is near?

Are all the earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, climate change reports, refugee crises our summer fig leaves telling us the time is nigh? Don’t you know that there were likely signs such as these in the decades and centuries following Jesus’ death. Since the Ascension faithful Christians have been proclaiming the second coming of the Son of Man, anticipating when things would finally change from the nightmare that is, especially if you are one oppressed. With such hope for something radically different, we want to be aware, to be the first to notice that the tide is turning, the tables shifting, the kingdom of God coming near.

Is this what we’re running toward? Our spiritual marathon is so we can run into the kingdom of God?

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,” Jesus says, and for those of us who are looking for a little more tangible goal, we might be puzzled at his words.

In case you didn’t know this about me, I’m not a runner. 😉 But I know runners, and they train and fuel and know the race courses, like all good athletes. There’s a definite beginning and end. Especially for marathons, the last leg of the journey is gruelling; I’ve heard folks describe out of body–or at least out of mind–experiences. There’s a loss of self, a loss of control–there’s just the movement and the breath and the hope of reaching the goal. Like I said, I’m not a runner, and the closest thing I’ve ever done to running a marathon is birthing my children. In that, too, once you’ve hit transition, there’s no going back. The pain is insurmountable, the control over the body gone, and there’s nothing but complete surrender to the process at hand. If we’re lucky, though, we have people nearby reminding us to be present, to breathe, and to keep going one moment at a time.

We don’t always lose ourselves in the journey in good, productive ways. We can lose ourselves to any number of distractions or temptations, drunkenness or worries and fall to the wayside, veering far off the Way that leads us to God. As much as we want to focus on distant goals, something out there or 24 days away, it’s much more difficult to live with the expectation that this might be the moment I realize Christ has broken into our lives.

All this talk of journeying and how to be along the way and how to be a loving, good neighbor, is really practice for how to live with presence that God’s promise wasn’t exclusively for back then or for them or for some distant time in the future, but God’s promise is fulfilled right now. Advent reminds us that it’s not just the work that we do throughout our lives as we follow the path we believe is leading us toward God. It’s preparing ourselves to meet Christ not only at the feast of his nativity but also at any moment when we’re so deep in the Way of Love that we’ve completely given ourselves over to God’s will that the Word that was present at the beginning and made flesh at Christ’s birth is as present now as it always will be.

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On Being Provocative

1 Samuel 1:4-20 | 1 Samuel 2:1-10 | Hebrews 10:11-25 | Mark 13:1-8

We now draw toward the end of this Season after Pentecost, often called “ordinary time.” Ready or not, Advent is only two weeks away. It is in this “green” Season after Pentecost that we also often call it a “growing time.” Not only is it in the summer months, wrapping up at the harvest, but it is also a time when we hear and learn about Israel and her kings and about the faithful people of God, imperfect as they may be. Any time we engage in scripture, to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest–as our collect says–we are invited to step into the story wholeheartedly to understand how it relates to us now, even though the distance between then and now, let alone between here and there, is so great. Our learning shapes and grows us, too, in our understanding. While we may be growing on the outside, more likely than not there is also growth and formation happening within us.

As much as people seem surprised to encounter women in the Bible, we do so more often than we might realize. Today’s story of Hannah exhibits this internal and external growth quite well. While it is the conception story of the child who would become King Samuel, it’s not told through the lens of his father or even of the high priest of the time, though both make an appearance. It’s the plight of Hannah, Samuel’s mother that draws us into the tale. Hannah, second wife of Elkanah, is faithful yet barren. Even though she’s childless, she has the love of her husband, who makes no effort to hide his favoritism and seems shocked that his love alone doesn’t satisfy her (as if all she should need is a good man to make her happy, right?!?). Not only does her husband not fully understand her distress, but she is also constantly provoked by Penninah, Elkanah’s first wife who has sons and daughters. In case we’ve forgotten, fertility was considered a gift from God, and even though Penninah provokes her severely, irritates her because she hasn’t borne children, Hannah doesn’t rebuke her. Hannah internalizes her grief. She weeps and fasts, and one day she goes to the temple to pray.

It wasn’t the custom, apparently, to whisper one’s prayers or to pray silently. (Remember the scribes who say long prayers? They probably say them just loud enough to be heard over everyone else so people can make sure they are there.) Hannah is saying her prayers much like I say morning prayer, mouthing the words but not making much noise. Some days my prayers are more fervent than others, and I can only imagine the intensity in which Hannah prayed to God.  And Eli, the priest nearby, sees her and accuses her of being drunk, making a spectacle of herself. Hannah fills in the blanks for him. She knows he thinks her a worthless woman. But with the strength of a hemorrhaging woman seeking healing, with the persistence of a woman seeking an exorcism for her dying daughter, with the audacity of the woman at the well to speak out for herself, Hannah confesses her trouble and grief. She has “been pouring out (her) soul before the LORD.” If Eli is anything like most men I know, when faced with a woman pouring out her soul, her truth, he faces his own inadequacy and knows there isn’t a thing he can do aside from get out of the way or empower her in her own strength. Eli, in his blessedness, offers her a blessing, that God might grant her her petition. He doesn’t need to know what it is. When we are agents of God’s work in the world, we often don’t and most of the time can’t know toward what end we are working.  Whether it’s from Eli or God or both, Hannah seeks favor and goes on her way.

“And her countenance was sad no longer.”

A change has occurred in Hannah even before she conceived. Like Job Hannah persists in her faith. Like many who want something so dearly, she bargains with God, promising her would-be child to be a faithful Nazirite. In keeping with tradition, she names the child so that his story, her story, would be remembered: Samuel, meaning “asked of the LORD.” Instead of a psalm today, we get what’s often called “Hannah’s song,” though it was likely written later and put into her story because it has the exaltation of God and the attribution of might to God, the kind that takes what is and makes it what God would have it be. It’s an inner transformation that also had outward signs. It wasn’t just the growth of a baby bump but also the change in Hannah’s countenance that showed a change had taken place, that some kind of grace had been internalized.

As Episcopalians who believe in sacraments, this is not unfamiliar to us. Sacraments by nature are outward and visible signs of inward, invisible grace. Holy Eucharist and Baptism are our two Sacraments, but we have other sacramental rites, like marriage, confirmation, unction, ordination, and reconciliation. I venture that we have sacramental moments in our lives, especially at births and deaths, when we perceive something of grace a little more tangibly than at other times, when we sense that what is holy has made itself known, if not visible. Even if we want to ignore the sacramental experiences of our lives, we can’t unknow them. It’s a hard thing to deny when the holy breaks into our lives, and I venture to say that it’s a beautiful thing when we facilitate that occurrence.

So what if instead of being provocative like Penninah, irritating those who are already drowning in grief and woundedness, we became provocative like Hannah, extolling the greatness of God? What if we become provocative like the preacher in Hebrews suggests: provoking “one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” See, there’s a little tongue-in-cheek there, still the chance to irritate one another in a negative way, but there’s a way to provoke one another to gladness, to laughter, to joy, to companionship, toward Christ.

Bp. Tom Breidenthal from Southern Ohio, who was our speaker at clergy conference this year, spoke about the church reclaiming its role in the center of public life, as being part of the body politic in a Christian way, not in a powers and principalities kind of way. He spoke about the early house churches that became basilicas, how the open space in the middle was where everyone gathered for corporate worship, how the side chapels were like the markets and offices that lined the open space. He mentioned Philander Chase, the first bishop of the Ohio Mission Territory and how he agreed with the importance of having the church at the center of public life. I mention this because Pastor Clint Schnekloth mentioned to me that urban planners often don’t have churches in their master plans any more. It’s not part of the grid. When I brought this up to Bp. Breidenthal, he said it just emphasizes the importance of doing work outside of four walls, or even without walls. (Yeah, he didn’t know our story.)

Well, we still have churches in our town, in our community. We have ours now, too. How provocative are we? Are we irritating, arousing anger in others out of spite or to put others down? Are we Penninah-provocative?

Or are we Hannah-provocative? Through our suffering and prayers, do we seek God’s guidance to transform us into agents of God’s will? Do we do the work necessary to change our outlook on life so that rather than put others down we can lift one another up, challenging each other in good deeds and love? So when we see another church doing good work, maybe we can help them reach even more by joining in on their effort, as we’re doing with the Thanksgiving boxes with Community Church (the Nazarene church downtown).

Can we remember all that we’ve learned through the stories of those who have gone before and remember the words of Jesus who continually shows us the exemplar way to be provocative for the will of God? The disciples marveled at the grandeur of the stones of the temple and surrounding buildings, but Jesus told them it would all be thrown down. The disciples hadn’t internalized what Jesus said about the temple having been built by the money taken from the widows’ houses. Jesus may have had to slip through the crowd to escape capture a few times, but he didn’t shy away from proclaiming truth to all who would listen. He would stand in the temple, in a boat, in a cave, on a hill, in the field, in the marketplace, and he would provoke his listeners, inciting in them an emotional response. If they didn’t like what he said, wasn’t it usually because they had something to lose, some attachment, possession, or power they didn’t want to sacrifice. If they were already weak, oppressed, or downtrodden or maybe even open-hearted and adventurous, the words of Jesus had a way of landing in their heart and mind and drawing them nearer to him, encouraging them to follow him along the Way.

How do the words of God provoke us today? How does the Eucharist speak to us? How are we empowered to go forth and incite the love of God in the world around us? Even if we, like Hannah, offer our prayers in silence, our actions will speak loudly to our faith and hopefully provoke others in a good way, too.

 

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Giving with Meaning

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 | Psalm 127 | Hebrews 9:24-28 | Mark 12:38-44

When presented with text that gives us the story of marginalized people, I love to see where God is in the midst of the struggle and hear what it is that Jesus sees as he encounters those whom others might otherwise not see. Such is the case today the story of Naomi and Ruth and in the story of the poor widow and the treasury.

You know me well enough by now to know that my heart goes out to these poor women in our lectionary today. It is easy for me to have compassion for those who are undergoing extreme suffering and hardship. In the Old Testament and the New, people of God are called to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger–those people who were most at risk in society. We get a sense of how desperate Naomi is when she sends the only one who is left to left to care for her to the tent of a man she is hoping will do right by Ruth. If all goes well for Ruth, Naomi will be cared for, too.

I do struggle with the fact that Ruth is in fact having giving herself to a man in a patriarchal society, obediently giving of herself because her mother-in-law has said she will look out for her and give her a better life. A good life for our children, for future generations is what we all want. But with my 21st-century mindset that hears so much of the evil and horrors in sex trafficking, prostitution, and the #metoo movement, this is a hard story for me to understand. How could the family be in a place where this was their best option, if not their only option? It was a different time a different age, though, and as hard as that is to comprehend, if I had lived that time and if I have been Naomi, this may have been my wish for my daughter-in-law–maybe even for my daughter. Fortunately, it does work out. Boaz marries Ruth, and the LORD sees that they conceive a son, which in turn blesses Naomi with family.

It is easier for me to relate to the poor widow at the treasury who had two coins to rub together but only just. It was all she had to live on, Jesus says, and she’s giving it to the treasury. We don’t know the details of her life, but we know she’s not living without a care in the world. Jesus knows her heart, sees her sacrificial giving, and tells the disciples–without giving the details of her life–that she has given more than everyone else combined. The widows–all three of them–in both of our stories act in great faith. Despite their dire and desperate situations, they can imagine a different way and thus hope for the future. They know there must be something more, and they keep their faith as children of God. Ruth and Naomi didn’t know they would be foremothers of Jesus. The widow at the treasury didn’t know she would be immortalized as a woman who gave all she had that day she went to the treasury, her devotion seen by Jesus even if she didn’t see him.

I want to stay with these women on the margins. My mother was widowed at a young age. I’ve been in a place where I’ve barely had to pennies to rub together. I can’t know what it was like to navigate life as a woman in the first century, but I know something about being a woman in our modern society. As much as I want to go deeper into the stories of our widows, I haven’t been able to shake the tug to look at this from a different perspective.

I am compelled to look at it differently because of the way I feel when Jesus talks about the wealthy giving out of their abundance. The wealthy, giving out of their abundance, come and go, checking of their to-do list for the day. It sounds familiar to me as one who can automate my monthly giving to All Saints’. I can click and give and not really think about it anymore because I live a privileged life. I have freedom to work and travel great distances because I have a care. We actually have two cars in our household. We have a house, too, for that matter–a place where we have our own beds night after night and where we have cabinets and a refrigerator with food to eat. We come to church because we want to, because it does something for us–not because we have to. We can think about spiritual, lofty, and esoteric things because as far as the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are concerned, ours are being met and exceeded. But is my giving out of my abundance really not as meaningful in the eyes of Jesus as the widow who gave everything she had?

I know we’re wrapping up our stewardship season, and you may be thinking, “Um, Mother Sara, shouldn’t you be lifting our spirits about being generous, grateful givers?” The easy answer would be “yes,” but I rarely take the easy road, as much as I may try. What I am more interested in today is how to make our giving truly  valuable, truly meaningful. That’s why we’ve been asking when we talking about giving to All Saints’: “Why All Saints’?” Why do we give to All Saints’? Why do we choose this place as the place we give our time, talent, and treasure to build up the kingdom of God?

I hope that when we give to All Saints’, we are giving in meaningful ways that catch the eye of Jesus through the people in our community. Sure, we may automate our giving, but it doesn’t stop there. We have a vision for the future, too, a hope that we imagine, even if we don’t exactly know how to get there or what it will look like. I know when the dream of a building was being cast, this wasn’t exactly what you had in mind, but here we are. And it is good. There were many All Saints’ folks involved in getting the food pantry and Feast of Grace at Christ the King started, and think of how many lives have been touched. We have neighbors who through the imagination of their daughter started sending art supplies to children who might not otherwise have opportunity for creative expression (I hope we’ll hear more about this in the future!). So many of us give to All Saints’ because we know that there is a sense of welcome in this place that reminds everyone that we are all beloved children of God. Unfortunately, that’s a message most people don’t hear on a regular basis. If you leave this place not feeling that, I’m not doing my job–WE aren’t doing what we’re here to do.

Maybe some of us are giving out of desperation, hoping that by giving to God, the nightmare of our reality will be transformed into God’s dream. Whether or not we’re desperate–and you can certainly be privileged and desperate, don’t get me wrong–we all give for hope of transformation. That whatever material possession we give for the work of God would be transformed into something that conveys the love of God and the presence of Christ at work in the world around us by the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s part of our mission, our work as a church, and it takes all of us. It takes each of us giving with hope and expectation. It takes each of us seeing one another and knowing that we are working together to build something great and good, even if we don’t know exactly what it is God has in store.

God blesses us all with imagination, planting seeds for all the thoughts and ideas that will manifest God’s dream for us. This is our hope for the future, and giving with the hope that we’re nourishing God’s dream makes my giving meaningful enough for me.

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You Are Called . . . Take Heart

Job 42:1-6, 10-17 | Psalm 34:1-8 | Hebrews 7:23-28 | Mark 10:46-52

If thinking about the suffering of Job these past weeks has you feeling more anxious than normal, you can take a deep breath as we conclude his suffering and see his trial over and his fortune restored. Rather than feeling anxious, I find myself more aware of how often I allude to the suffering of Job when I encounter someone with what seems like rotten luck, someone who can’t seem to catch a break. God’s man Job triumphs, remaining blameless and upright, but while we get this lavish description of all that is restored to him–double what he had before in some cases, including his lifetime–we aren’t told–and I don’t see–Job standing triumphant on a pedestal.

Job encountered God in the whirlwind last week and received God’s voice as God described the cosmos and all creation as God created it to be. This wasn’t a divine knockdown; this was God stating what is, revealing creation as seen from God’s perspective. In today’s lesson we hear Job’s response and hopefully can sympathize with him as he realizes that he had spoken without understanding. Now . . . now that he has heard the voice of God with his ears, he has a direct knowledge of God. Now his eyes “see” God as God has been revealed to him, and his new understanding leads him not to “despise himself” as it’s translated or even to “repent,” but to “recant and relent” being but dust and ashes. Job, as blameless and upright as he is, is humbled before God. All that he had said prior to his new understanding of God, he recants: he no longer holds onto his old beliefs. His whole worldview has changed as he relents, giving way to God and accepting his mortality and feeble understanding of the world. For all the riches and extended lifetime he receives, the true beauty of this story is not only Job’s faithfulness to God but also God’s faithfulness to those who believe.

Job’s faithfulness seemed to come easy for him, but we’ve seen in the past weeks that that’s not the case for everyone. The rich man, remember, wanted eternal life and asked Jesus how he could obtain it. When Jesus told him, he balked and turned away. Even the disciples, James and John in particular, said they wanted the best seats in glory, but they were speaking without understanding and knew not what they were asking. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, is a different story.

A blind beggar on the roadside isn’t hard for us to imagine. I can picture the flat, dusty road in Jericho with mountains in the distance, and I can also see in my mind’s eye the crowd surrounding Jesus making their way out of town, heading back toward Jerusalem. The poor, blind man of course heard the approaching crowd and caught the name of Jesus, and he knew him. At least, he knew stories of him, enough to call him out as the Son of David. He had heard of all that Jesus had been doing, and that recognition couldn’t be contained. From his position at the side of the road, “he began to shout and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’”

In typical fashion, those in a more favorable position suppressed the voice from the margin. “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet,” and it’s quite possible that those who didn’t say anything that the man could hear were probably casting him disdainful looks or ignoring him altogether, as was their custom. But the man persisted, crying “out even more loudly” for Jesus’s mercy.

We don’t get a whirlwind here. Jesus stands still, and then he turns the tables when he says, “Call him here.” Notice that? Jesus involves those who are keeping the blind man at bay. You want to follow me? You’re going to do what I say? Practice.

And they do! Maybe with a grimace, maybe a little embarrassed, maybe with a fake smile they say to Bartimaeus, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Jesus has a way of helping us see one another on a level field. Just as the disciples have been called, so now is Jesus calling Bartimaeus. Whether they’re telling Bartimaeus to take heart or reminding themselves, I see the phrase as one reminding them all to be courageous. Those come-to-Jesus moments take courage, do they not?

Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and springs up to come to Jesus. I’m not exaggerating; this is what it says! He’s excited and doesn’t take a moment to hesitate. When Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus replied, “My teacher, let me see again.” And Jesus tells him his faith has made him well. Immediately Bartimaeus regains sight and follows Jesus on the way.

I’m reminded of the hemorrhaging woman who had nothing to lose and works her way through the crowd to touch the fringe Jesus’s garment. I’m reminded of the Syrophoenician woman with a possessed daughter who also asked the Son of David for mercy and persisted until she got it. These women, like Bartimaeus, knew where society placed them, how it devalued them, yet in their humility, they were persistent and were healed by their faith. But Bartimaeus asked for sight and is the one who is healed and goes on to follow Jesus on the way. He doesn’t look back. He doesn’t even go back to get his cloak, probably one of the few possessions he had. With his new sight, he sees the way forward through Jesus, even if he doesn’t know for certain where that leads. He probably had no idea he was following Jesus and the crowd toward Jerusalem and toward the Passion. Like Job, he has vision revealed through God, which gives insight that exceeds our human understanding.

Does this kind of revelation or restoration still happen today? Of course. It’s why we read the Bible, why we pray, why we gather in community. Because this doesn’t just happen on its own. There has to be intentional effort to give way to this kind of transformation.

Anne Lamott shares a bit of her journey and struggle in a recent Facebook post. She says she often thinks about writing a book called All The People I Still Hate: A Christian Perspective. She hasn’t written it yet, mind you, and in this post she shares why. Anne speaks from her experience in recovery quite openly–recovery from drugs, alcohol, eating disorders, and I think also codependency. She was reminded of her friends who talk about Step Zero, the step before the 12 Steps, the step when you realize “this s*** has GOT to stop.” She realized that since the election she had let herself go into rage mode and be angry until she was reaching a level of toxicity that was bordering on explosive. Focusing on her self-care, she asked herself about her mortality. If she only had one year left, is this the way she’d want to live? No, she’d want to be a “Love bug,” she says, and “if you want to have loving feelings, you have to do loving things.” A huge part of being a loving person is realizing that everyone, even the person you think you despise the most, is a precious child of God.

So she thinks she’s ruined her chances of writing a book about all the people she hates because her whole perspective, her worldview has changed. Taking wisdom from 8-year olds, she’s okay with leaning into the 80% that believes God is there and is good and is within us all the time. Except she flips it to give herself 20% of that goodness, which she thinks is a miracle. The lens through which she views the world has changed; she has new insight, new vision. Like Job and Bartimaeus, she has been restored in a way that only Love can make happen.

And we need that kind of restoration and transformation happening today. When the news is full of two innocent African American people shot and killed in Kroger by a white supremacist, yet another bomb mailed to critics of the president, and a place of worship becoming a scene of terror, cutting short the lives of 11 faithful Jewish people. A CNN story came across my phone this morning: 72 hours in America: Three hate-filled crimes. Three hate-filled suspects. I’ve heard all these stories, and they’re like background music to our lives these days.

This has got to stop. Step Zero.

We can call out for Jesus to have mercy on us, and he already has. It’s up to us to open our eyes, hearts, and minds to see clearly what is happening and follow Jesus on the way of love–a love that doesn’t make peace with injustice and is greater than hate, fear, and even death, if we have eyes to see.

 

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One Thing

Job 23:1-9, 16-17 | Psalm 22:1-15 | Hebrews 4:12-16 | Mark 10:17-31

This week we continue with the story of Job, a man who is blameless and upright, the epitome of righteousness, and who suffers the unimaginable. The main question posed by Satan, the Adversary in the heavenly court, was “Would Job be so faithful if he had nothing?” Is Job’s faith just because he’s such a richly blessed man? As Job is tested, he remains faithful, neither cursing nor sinning against God. Even this week when we find Job amidst his bitter complaint, he struggles mightily in his depths of suffering, but he remains faithful. Like Dr. Marsh said, the prayer of the believer in times of trouble is a request for the way through, the way forward. Job is sure that if only God would hear his prayer, God would rescue him. Job isn’t giving up. Job knows who he is and whose he is. Even when his friends are offering their unhelpful advice and commentary, Job doesn’t falter, even though we must admit he sounds awfully miserable.

Curiously enough, we encounter a different rich man in today’s gospel lesson. This blessed man runs up to kneel before Jesus in a righteous quest, asking our Lord: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’s response is quick and to the point, reminding the man that no one is good save God alone, and he also tells the man that he knows the commandments. In case he’s forgotten them, Jesus gives him an abbreviated version. The man is probably nodding along, saying “yeah, yeah” until he’s finally saying, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth!” He’s been doing what he’s been taught his whole life, but what does Jesus say he needs to do to inherit eternal life?

“…go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

The man is shocked and goes away grieving, for he has many possessions. We understand his disappointment. There are few of us who would willingly give up everything we have to follow Christ, especially if it meant putting ourselves in way of danger or in especially vulnerable circumstances. But Jesus doesn’t seem terribly surprised or shocked at the man’s response.

Did you catch what Jesus does and says before he gives the man instructions? He looks at him and loved him, and then he tells him that he lacks “one thing.” Only he doesn’t say, as far as I can tell, what that “one thing” is.

If we were to ask the rich man before his encounter with Jesus what he lacks, what might his response have been? He’s rich? He lacks nothing, except maybe the finest wine press, crown jewels, or the latest breed of camel?

But Jesus–in looking at the man and loving him–can easily identify the one thing he lacks.

  • Could it be that he lacks the ability to detach from his possessions? He doesn’t want to let go of his accumulated wealth.
  • Could it be that he doesn’t was to distribute his wealth to the poor, who haven’t worked as hard as he has for his status? Does he lack compassion for their plight?
  • Could it be that he lacks the ability to let go of the security, stability, and sense of control in his life that his wealth and position afford him? I think with this last one we’re getting closer to the heart of the matter.

If we consider the two wealthy men of today–Job and the unnamed rich man–Job represents an ideal, but Job wasn’t given a choice of giving up everything in his life. Everything Job knew and loved were taken from him, and still he remained faithful and righteous. The rich man in our reading today comes seeking–he thinks–to follow Jesus to eternal life, yet when Jesus tells him what’s required, the man turns away, unwilling to do what Jesus says must be done. If only the man had that one thing.

Maybe three years from now when we encounter this lesson again in the lectionary I might have a different inclination, but today I see that what the rich man lacks is belief. The man keeps the law, is obedient, successful, and just knows that there is something to this man Jesus that draws him to him. In the gaze of Jesus, our hearts are known, our strengths and our weaknesses.

Did you notice the commandments that Jesus recites for the rich man? All the ones he mentioned have to do with our duty to our neighbors. As our children who are familiar with the “Ten Best Ways” lesson in Godly Play and our folks who are going to be learning more about The Episcopal Church in our newcomers and confirmation class will soon recall, we can break down the ten commandments into two sections: 1) our duty to God and 2) our duty to our neighbor.

What if in the rich man’s life of comfort, his obeisance to religion had become perfunctory? He was doing all he had to do on the surface, but as he accumulated wealth and possessions, his duty to God might have fallen to the edge as the duty to maintain his wealth, position, and power depended more and more on him accomplishing his worldly tasks. When we become masters of our personal agendas, we are extremely prone to becoming functioning atheists because we know how things need to be done and don’t need any help, thank you very much. Maybe the man’s self-reliance had obscured the need for God in his life and relationships.

Given the choice, maybe Job, too, would have laughed at the option of giving up everything to follow God–we don’t know. But having lost everything, Job doesn’t question God’s existence–God’s whereabouts maybe, but not God’s existence. Job’s belief is steadfast, his faith secure, and we know and will be reminded soon that his faith is rewarded. Peter and the disciples who believe Jesus even if they don’t completely understand him, are reminded that yes, Jesus knows they’ve already given up everything, and they, too, will be rewarded. But the rich man of today lacks that belief in God that in turn fuels the faith, trust, and love of God that would see him through any loss of worldly status.

It’s hard to take that risk, though. As much as we might say, “Awwww, if only he had taken Jesus up on that offer, he would have known the joy of eternal life!” Would we have done differently? Do we know the rewards Jesus has in store for us? Are we certain of the glory of the kingdom of God and what that looks like?

A woman in Conway yesterday spoke to the ECW about a ministry she and her husband helped found called Harbor Home, which is very similar to the Magdalene program. When they were just getting started she said they spoke to a small rural church with about 13 members, all 70 years old or older, to share their ministry with them. It wasn’t very long after she spoke with them that they called her and told her that they wanted to donate their church to the ministry, to be a home for the women seeking safe harbor. Now, she said, a place that saw 13 folks on Wednesday night and Sundays is teeming with life seven days a week, full of kids on the weekend when the little ones come to see their mothers, and there’s still church on Wednesday and Sunday. The original church members, save the one who has since died, have become the grandparents to these women who may have never had such caring, nurturing people in their lives.

Don’t you know it was a huge risk for a church to give up what it’s always been, to take a risk on a new ministry that didn’t even originate in their church, and to even do something different when they’re at a stage of life that is typically resistant to change? Take such a risk, such a leap of faith, illustrates how we can put God first in our lives and trust that whatever outcome arises, God will be there, too.

Certainty isn’t ours to have, and any time we make a choice, we might be taking a risk. But we do know that God alone is good and that the Paschal Mystery–the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ–is ours to ponder and to believe in. Let us do maintain our confession–our belief in God and of God’s son Jesus Christ–so that when we are told to “go,” to follow the way of Christ, it’s not because we lack anything but because we have one thing to gain: eternal life in God.

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Persist

Job 1:1; 2:1-10 | Psalm 26  | Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 | Mark 10:2-16

Knowing Jesus’ perfection, maybe rather than asking ourselves “What would Jesus do?” we should ask ourselves “What would Job do?” We wouldn’t have to change the acronym or anything. WWJD still applies. Job, unlike Jesus, doesn’t have divinity in his being; Job is just–like us–fully human. Yet, in times that tried his soul to his very core, Job persisted as one whose actions mirrored his beliefs. Job remained blameless and upright, full of integrity and obedience to God.

If we aren’t careful, we might miss that while we start with the first verse of the Book of Job, we skip right on over to the second chapter. There’s this meeting of the heavenly beings like in the first chapter, and there’s Satan. Let’s check ourselves here, too, before we get carried away in our imaginations. “Satan” is better translated here as the “Adversary” or the “Accuser.” Notes in the Jewish Study Bible say that it’s more like a heavenly prosecutor, like a prosecuting attorney. That makes sense. Because in the Book of Job, one of the basic questions is: Would Job be so faithful even if he weren’t so blessed? Does he fear God, obey God, for nothing or only because he has something to gain? God grants the Adversary permission to try Job . . . but not take his life. All that’s in the first heavenly court meeting or pre-trial chambers.

The rest of Chapter One continues with the Adversary systematically removing Job’s wealth and possessions and even his children. Truly, it’s a horrific account, even with the lone witness coming to tell Job of his loss, the haunting refrain repeated four times: “I alone have escaped to tell you.” In response to these calamities, Job tore his robe, shaved his head, fell to the ground, and worshipped. He neither sinned nor charged God with wrongdoing. Job remains blameless and upright, even prostrate before the LORD in the midst of his devastation.

What we have in our lesson today, then, is the second heavenly council. God is pleased to confirm that Job still persists in his integrity, and I prefer the Jewish Study Bible translation that reads like God says the Adversary incited God against Job “to destroy him for no good reason.” We agree, don’t we? Job didn’t–doesn’t–deserve to suffer this way or in ways to come. Like the people of Job’s day, we tend to have a worldview where if you do good, you get rewarded: calamity befalls those who are bad. This worldview fuels the question of theodicy: why do bad things happen to good people? It doesn’t make sense. We can’t see the reason for it–at least, no good reason. As we encounter Job over the next few weeks, we’ll go along with him as he struggles to find order in his world, in the events happening to him, and like me, you may marvel at his ability to remain blameless and upright.

But Job isn’t perfect. Job isn’t Jesus. Job’s wife isn’t perfect, either.

Job’s wife, who–keep in mind–has also lost her children, is in despair and cannot believe Job’s faithfulness. She taunts him to curse or blaspheme God and die. We sense her desperation and longing to escape misery. Job’s response?

“You speak as any foolish woman would speak.”

That’s a hard line for me to hear this week, when the voices of many women have been minimized, mocked, ignored, or silence . . . as has been common for millenia. And our translation, again per the Jewish Study Bible, is actually more tame than the original Hebrew in just calling the woman “foolish,” losing the sexual promiscuity associated with the Hebrew word. Basically, Job is telling her–his wife–she speaks as any prostitute would speak.

“Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Job goes on to say to his wife.

In all this, we’re told, Job said nothing sinful. Because Job is blameless and upright, embodying the righteous one before God.

I want to give Job credit for staying with his wife and not casting her aside. By Jewish law, Job could divorce his wife for any cause (Deut 24), releasing her. By Jewish law, she could not do the same. Marital relations in antiquity were no less stressful (and probably were more so) than they are today. But in the time of Jesus, as in some places in our world, women by and large were considered property of their fathers or husbands. Women, unquestionably, were inferior to their male counterparts in society.

So when Jesus defends the sanctity of marriage to the Pharisees and then goes on to use the same language for both the husband and wife in his further response to the disciples, he’s just being Jesus, transgressing those social norms, rocking their worldview.

Thanks to Jesus, we recognize that in a healthy marriage, there is strong emphasis on mutuality. A healthy marriage is one of mutual affection, respect, and joy. The marriage is life-giving for each partner and maybe even life-bearing if it works out that way, though that’s not always the case, nor does it have to be. The two are an embodiment of who God created us to be in God’s image, a harmonious union.

And in case we miss what Jesus was doing there regarding elevating the role of the woman, he reaches out to the very least of those in his society, the children. He gathers them in his arms, lays hands upon them, and blesses them, for they have what it takes to receive the blessing, to receive the kingdom of God.

What does a child have?

Until it’s been taught, children have an unobstructed worldview. They exist, and they need. Children are completely dependent upon their care provider(s). Whether that provider does everything perfectly or not, the child is attached to their source of nourishment, of life.

In times of trial, heaven forbid it ever be like Job’s, we are vulnerable–as vulnerable as a child. We might, like Job’s wife, rather die than endure endless suffering. But that we could be like Job, who maybe in his prostration was curled into the fetal position–as we often are in times of distress–returning to a most child-like state, vulnerable and dependent on the mercy and grace of God, yet persisting in our righteousness and obedience.

So when we hear or read a psalm like Psalm 26, which is a prayer for divine justice, we read it not solely with the voice of David or Job in our head. We read it with the voice of the mistreated wife, the mother in despair, the son not living up to society expectations, the child kicked out of their home. We read it with our own voice as we struggle to make sense of our world. Even if we know we’ve sinned and faltered, we’ve returned to God as a faithful child who delights in the glory of God and stands on level ground–blameless and upright. We, too, bless the LORD, persisting in what is good and true.

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“Running to Obtain Your Promises”

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22 | Psalm 124  | James 5:13-20 | Mark 9:38-50

What I love about longer road trips, be it to Little Rock or even farther to Sewanee, is the ability to ponder for greater lengths of time in relative silence. For these trips it’s often the Scripture that provides fuel for thought. First thoughts for this Sunday hovered around a question inspired by our Collect. “Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure.” “Running to obtain your promises.” Well, what “promises” are we running toward? I don’t argue that most of us are “running.” We’re always running somewhere, and more often than I like, I’m often running late. But am I running toward God’s promises?

Am I running toward eternal life and salvation in Christ? Are you? What does that even look like?

I spent time Wednesday and Thursday in the seminary setting for the annual DuBose lectures and alumni gathering. In Sewanee, the skies were characteristically gray, accompanied by rain that went from drizzle to downpour to flash flood warnings (alerting us to those who hadn’t silenced their phones). Dr. Charles Marsh’s lectures began a three-year focus on racial reconciliation for the lecture series. I confess that I marveled that I hadn’t heard of him before, though the work that he does hits all the marks of someone striving for social justice, particularly in the field of race relations and theology. After the final lecture Thursday, I didn’t really know what to ask or say to him, but I felt compelled at least to say hello and to introduce myself. I told him we have a Continuing the Conversation group that meets once a month to talk about racism and white supremacy. He wants to know more and gave me his email address so we can be in touch. I realized I wanted him to know that there are those of us outside academic settings who are doing the field work he enjoys and deems necessary as we heal and build relationships across divides.

While he spoke about Nazi Germany in the time of Dietrich Bonhoeffer or White Southern Christians in the time of Martin Luther King, Jr., I had the story from Esther in the back of my mind. The query of the king, Esther’s petition, Harbona’s advocacy, and the hanging of Haman on the gallows intended for Mordecai, all unfold around a story of a people oppressed and justice sought and served. Mordecai spreads the news, the need for remembrance and celebration. The psalm reiterates the gratitude of a chosen people helped by their God, “maker of heaven and earth.”

The story and the psalm support an us-them dichotomy. The us-them mentality fuels prejudice, oppression, racism. We’re the good ones, the chosen ones, the right ones, and THEY are outsiders. They are wrong, different, bad, unknown, and outside our understanding. Whichever side we’re coming from, we want God on our side. Surely God’s anger is abated like the king’s when the guilty party hangs on the gallows, right? Surely, justice is served. Or is it?

In our gospel lesson today, John righteously tells Jesus that he was standing up for him when there’s this “other” exorcist casting out demons in the name of Jesus. “We told him to stop,” for this “other” person isn’t one of us, a part of the disciple crowd we’re familiar with. Jesus’ response isn’t a question of “why did you do that?” Jesus simply tells him and the others not to do that, not to stop someone who is actually healing in his name. Doing good in the name of Jesus Christ bears its own reward, and that goodness can’t be reversed or gone against. Let it be.

Then our gospel lesson continues with Jesus going on to talk about when things are bad. This is one of those times when I kind of wish I had skipped reading the footnotes so I wouldn’t be reminded of what the meaning is thought to be. I want to skip it because talking about sexual morality tends to make people uncomfortable, but our study Bible calls this section “temptations to sin.” Jesus admonishes sexual misconduct against children specifically and sexual transgressions generally. There were Jewish laws familiar to his contemporaries. Jesus warns them, lest they continue in sin and go to hell, “where your worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”

Dr. Marsh also spoke about sin, of course, in his talk about race relations. He shared one description of sin that was something like “inappropriate relationship with another for personal gain, self-fulfillment, and/or self-satisfaction.” Putting oneself first and foremost, violating the first commandment, is basically the root of sin from this perspective, which aligns with how I usually define sin (along with the way MLK, Jr., and many others do): our separation from God. If our sin is harmful to others and separates us from God and God’s will, then the description of hell being a place where your worm never dies and where the fire is never quenched, makes perfect sense. A “worm” is something that eats away at you, destroying your life, and “fire” . . . well . . .  

Like Dr. Marsh, I grew up hearing sermons of fire and brimstone describing hell. An eternally burning fire as an image of hell is likely seared into the minds of many of us. BUT, “everyone is salted with fire,” Jesus says, and “salt is good.” What do you mean, Jesus?

Salt is good. Salt preserves food and adds flavor. We actually need salt to live. But fire? Fire cooks food and can add flavor. Does fire preserve life? Actually, it does. We need the fire of the sun, the energy it provides. We need heat in the cold and heat to clarify impurities. I dare say that we need the burns from our sins to remind us of our need for God, too. Maybe that’s the salt we get from the fire. Our wounds remind us of where our failings are, what our weaknesses are, but we’re given saltiness to keep us aware of the presence of God in our lives and of our dependence upon God’s mercy to obtain any reward that is life-giving, let alone our salvation.

And when we lose our saltiness? Maybe that’s when we’ve become numb to the burn. Maybe we’ve relied on ourselves for so long that we lose our sense of taste for what is truly good. We let our selfish desires eat away at us unceasingly, and our selfish yearnings burn unquenchably because we’ve turned away from the one relationship that actually gives us life and fulfillment. Is there no hope if this is where we find ourselves? Of course not.

“Have salt in yourself,” Jesus says. Recognize our own sins and shortcoming. We’ve all got them, some of us more than others, perhaps. In the reconciliation work being done to try to build up the kingdom of God, we have to be self-aware and do our own healing before we can build relationships or reconcile relationships with others. Only when we’ve been healed by the mercy and grace of God can we then have peace with one another because then we’ll realize that there is no “other.” We can have peace. Period.

Like James reads, if you’re suffering, pray; if you’re happy, sing; if you’re sick, call for healing and prayer; and if you’ve sinned, confess.

How many times are our wrongdoings swept under the rug to fester in the subconscious or in the shadows of our mind? Consider the harm that does to us who do wrong, carrying the weight of the carnage left by the worm that eats away at our authenticity, our Christ-light and life. Consider the victims of those to whom a wrong or injustice has been done. It’s something outside the victim’s realm of control. Most of the time it’s also nearly inconceivable or so “inappropriate” that they don’t want to risk shame, accusation, disbelief, or social ostracization. The victim, too, might suppress the trauma–be it physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual. The victim might be left to wonder why this happened, and if left all alone might fall into despair, forgetting that God is there–the right relationships waiting to be restored. Dr. Marsh described this as the question of the spectator, asking where God is in times of trial, and the request of the believer, the desire for God to show the way forward.

Maybe that’s what we’re running toward: the life of grace and mercy. We may be running toward life in eternity, but we have our relationships here on this side of the Kingdom tagging along. Lord knows we need grace and mercy, and God can pity us. We’ve created a mess for ourselves. We don’t trust one another to have our best interest at heart because we know we put ourselves first, too. If we truly put God first, we would already be living out the reality of the beloved community, the kingdom of heaven. We don’t need the news to tell us how far from the kingdom we are, but I look forward to a time when the news reflects a people united actually running toward God’s promises, when the news reflects us upholding and protecting those who have been victimized and traumatized, when the news reflects a people who value integrity, when the news–no matter what channel you’re on–shares a vision of a common goal we all share. Call it “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” call it “beloved community;” call it “God’s dream for us” or the “kingdom of heaven”; but call it and name it as one goal for us all to unite in so we can run this race together and practice outdoing one another in goodness, giving everything we have to restore one another and all of creation into wholeness to God through Christ.

We don’t have to go anywhere to figure out what it looks like to run toward God’s promises. We recognize our own sins, realize our need for God, and turn to our neighbor in peace. The kingdom of heaven can be here and now, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

 

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Carrying Our Cross

Proverbs 1:20-33 | Psalm 19 | James 3:1-12 | Mark 8:27-38

Where’s the good news today, my friends, in these words where Jesus speaks sternly, rebukes his disciple and friend, and promises to be ashamed of us if we’ve been ashamed of him? Is this a case of “this is going to hurt you more than it hurts me” or Jesus showing us tough love? It might seem like it at first glance, but think of how much we miss in our lives when we’re too hurried. If we rush through the lessons and the gospel today, we might miss the most important invitation of all, which is to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

The seriousness of Jesus’ words and actions catch our attention. He might not be flipping tables here, but he’s using a tone of voice that can stop us mid-stride. Walking along to Caesarea Philippi, we imagine the crowd around Jesus talking and walking along. Jesus seemingly casually asks, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples answer: “John the Baptist,” “Elijah,” “one of the prophets.” He hears them and shifts the question: “But who do YOU say that I am?” Peter answered him, without hesitation it seems, but maybe because everyone else got really quiet: “You are the Messiah.” Jesus sternly tells them not to tell anyone.

But why not? I mean, Jesus is still walking around doing the amazing things he does, saying the incredible things he says. Why not share that this is the Messiah they’ve all be waiting for? Because he’s not what they’ve been waiting for, as they understand it. Remember, they wanted a militaristic messiah who would overthrow Rome and restore the chosen people to their freedom from oppression. Even as the disciples understood him, they couldn’t grasp who he was and is, really. Their tongues would deceive people at this point in time, not reflecting the full reality of Jesus as Christ.

Jesus goes on to foretell his suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection which is in a way a result of the people’s disappointment that he’s not the messiah they’ve imagined. Mostly, though, this is what will happen. The words that Jesus speaks are the Word of God. He knows this must be the way the salvation of the world unfolds, our great Paschal Mystery. Even hearing this teaching, Peter again steps to the fore, rebuking Jesus, saying things we don’t have recorded. It’s not hard to imagine him telling Jesus he’s off his rocker, that they wouldn’t ever let those things happen to him. Every time I hear this story, I imagine the hurt Peter feels when he’s rebuked by Jesus, something akin to a teacher’s pet being reprimanded by the beloved teacher when he truly thought he was doing what was right. But again, Peter didn’t know, didn’t understand. Jesus is foretelling what is to be. Jesus foretells what makes way for God’s will to be done. Above human understanding, even above human affection and attachment, Jesus places God’s will above all else.

So far it’s been about Jesus and his disciples, right? It’s easy to think about them and their relationship with Jesus, their mistaken understanding because they couldn’t know what was to unfold. We have such a better understanding, right . . . until the words of Jesus turn to a much broader scope as he calls to the crowd and his disciples, and we know as readers of the Word that we’re part of the crowd, too.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” ~ Jesus

First of all, he’s just said that he’s going to suffer, be rejected, and die. Secondly, the cross for them is a symbol of humiliation and torture. Third, our whole life? Isn’t there value in our lives? Don’t our lives need to be here to spread whatever good news we have to share?

As if reading their and our minds, Jesus continues, saying, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation (meaning that they’ve turned toward other gods and away from the one true God), of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Why does Jesus throw in the shaming language? We notice it, don’t we? Think about what he’s saying.

You’re going to be ashamed of me now, be embarrassed or humiliated to be one of my followers or to heed my words, then so I’ll be ashamed of you.  But do we embarrass or humiliate the Son of Man? The meanings of words get complicated here.

In the Greek, the word translated as “ashamed” is “shall be being on viled.” Vile is the strong word there. We associate vile with toxicity, unpleasantness, foulness, but in archaic terms, it also meant “of little worth or value.” If we place little value on Jesus and his Word, Jesus will also put little value on us. We don’t like to talk about judgment in our church, but here is Jesus saying if we are so selfish as not to heed the Son of Man who gave and gives everything to us, then we can expect to be judged accordingly. Our psalm today assures us that the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Okay, I get the tough love. What’s the good news? Where’s that most important invitation?”

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” ~ Jesus

What if instead of all the self-centered worries and fears that Jesus’ followers had when they first heard these words, we hear them today anew. What if we hear Jesus saying to us these same words but know that

  • we keep our reason, our thinking mind and critical skills,
  • we have faith in a tradition that sees through the suffering and death and knows Easter joy in the Resurrection,
  • we often carry or display crosses as a symbol of the mystery that gives us eternal salvation,
  • And, most importantly, we know that in our baptism we die to a self-centered way of living and give our lives over to God’s will.

In our baptism, we are given a cross–the cross marked on our foreheads. I imagine a great heavenly joke where there’s a blacklight of sorts that shines on the foreheads of Christians to make us feel truly special as it picks up the remnants of the oil from the chrism that marked us as Christ’s own forever.

As children of God in the Christian tradition, we need to know what is expected of us, where the boundaries are, what our consequences are. This isn’t when I start putting conditions or qualifiers around God’s unconditional love for us. God’s love for us, the salvation given to us through Christ, and the power given to us by the Holy Spirit is ours to have, just as Wisdom is ever available to us, should we heed it. When we turn away from God, when we deny Christ, when we squander the power given to us by the Holy Spirit or don’t listen to the Wisdom whispering in our heart of hearts, there are consequences. We set up ourselves to struggle in a self-made cycle of suffering and run in our hamster wheel of self-sufficiency.

Maybe it’s not so much that we have to take up a cross but remember that we already have a cross given to us as a symbol of so much more. Or maybe we want to have that cross to help direct us and guide us because our way of doing things isn’t getting us anywhere. Or maybe we want nothing to do with a cross that is a symbol of humanity’s interpretation of power in the name of God that’s led to so much suffering and pain. We have to pause and listen. We can do a lot of discernment on our own, but sometimes we have to say things out loud to know where things get real and when we are more serious than we’ve ever been.

If we’re going to be serious about being Christians, serious about being followers of Christ, we know it’s not all fun and games. There are times for feasts and merry-making. There are also times to pause and listen to what Jesus is saying to us. There are times to have a reality check and evaluate how we’re doing in carrying that cross of ours, even if no one else can see it.

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