What Time Is It?

Isaiah 2:1-5 | Psalm 122 | Romans 12:11-14 | Matthew 24:36-44

In our house if someone says, “What time is it?” at least a voice or two will call back, “Showtime!” imitating the voices from the Broadway musical Hamilton before they launch into introducing themselves. I don’t think this is the response Paul is looking for when he’s addressing the Romans. We get the message today that both Paul and Matthew are telling us to take heed and be alert, for the second coming of Christ is near. Is that what time it is today? Is it time to prepare since the end is near?

For Advent is a time of preparation, preparing for the coming of Christ. Before we remember the story of the Incarnation and imagine what it was like to be Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, angels, and everything at the time of the nativity, we get this message of wakefulness and the upcoming weeks’ messages of repentance and prophecy.

So what time is it, exactly?

It is safe to say that we are between times. We are, as our collect says, in the “mortal life” which Christ shared with us when he “came to visit us in great humility,” and we are not yet at “the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead,” when “we may rise to the life immortal.” In typical Episcopal fashion, we embrace the both-and. We both look forward to celebrating the birth of Christ and we also prepare ourselves for judgment.

Judgment isn’t something we talk much about in The Episcopal Church, so let’s first be clear about what we mean by judgment. There are probably some here today who view the last day as something like what the Left Behind series portrays: a rapture where some are airlifted away while the unbelievers are literally left behind. Especially those who are studying the Book of Revelation with CB, you might have a more vivid, somewhat horrifying view of what the end times look like. But Jesus doesn’t give us this kind of apocalyptic imagery.

Jesus tells us we–living and dead–will be judged, and as God did for the Israelites in a way they could try to understand, through Jesus God teaches us the Way so that we might walk the path of righteousness. We are given a promise, a covenant, and we are also given the conditions of our contract. Like the Israelites, we try to walk in the light of the Lord. In our collect we pray for the “grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.” We’re not going to battle on a particular day; we work through our struggles on a daily basis.

Rather than focus on an unexpected and unpredictable time of Judgment Day or the Second Coming, we are given our present time to honor the bodies we have, our temples to God and a gift of God’s own image. Aren’t we also given the gift of a discerning heart and mind so that we can be the obedient disciples we are called to be? When we are at our best walking in the light of Christ, putting on the armor of light, don’t we have a sense of when we give glory to God in what we think, say, and do? I mentioned in Christian Ed last week that during the sermon for the folks at the church service in the county jail, I went out on a limb and guessed that none of them were incarcerated because they were proclaiming the name of Christ. There was a murmur of laughter before they awoke to the grave truth of the matter, which is that they knew they weren’t there because of choices they made for Christ, even if their being there was an act of grace that might be saving their life or giving them another chance. We have the ability to make judgments; we just don’t always make good ones. Most of the time, we’d rather judge others than ourselves because turning that lens inward is painful. I literally pulled my sweatshirt up over my face as I stumbled upon my own weaknesses and truths that I didn’t want to face for myself. Sometimes it’s easier to go back to sleep or stay in the darkness. Don’t you sometimes just want to pull the covers back over your head?

But this is where we work together. Now is the time for us to wake up. Wake up from darkness to the reality that we must walk in the light of the Lord and put on the armor of light. It helps to do this together, knowing that we aren’t alone and that there are others not only to hold us accountable but also to help us when we stumble. As much as we have to wake up, we also have to stop putting layers upon layers of judgment on everyone else and just show that we know what it is to live as a believer and as one who abides in Christ. In action it might look something like putting love before our differences so we can sit around the table at Thanksgiving and not talk about politics but revel in the memories we share, how our lives are intertwined with one another and bound to each other in a way only blood and love can bind us. As we look forward together in hope, maybe we get some clarity in hindsight about our own shortcomings and where we personally have room for improvement. We might even gain insight into where the gaps in our mutual understanding are.

Within the past month I’ve had someone talk to me about what “Christians” believe as if I weren’t one of them because we don’t agree on particular platform issues. That one-sided conversation contrasted greatly with another conversation I had that was approached as a dialogue and in relationship. In our time together, I got the sense that Christ was present between us as we listened to one another to comprehend where we are in our understanding of what is affirmed as love. Perhaps as God saw us, we were two children sitting there with light shining through the cracks of our brokenness. Our human understanding will never be enough to comprehend God, so we approach it the best we can, in all humility and obedience. Had Judgment Day come upon us as we sat there over coffee, I trust we both would have been found to be faithful believers.

What if our invitation today is not to wake up and live in fear of the second coming but to wake up to the peace we share in Christ now. The kingdom of heaven is at hand, and we have an active role in bringing it about even if it is only completely fulfilled when Christ comes again. We receive the power of the Holy Spirit at our baptism for a worthwhile cause, not to lie dormant.

In this season of preparation, I know I have work to do. With the light of Christ, I will carefully examine how I fill my time. It’s a good time to review my rule of life and see how I’m measuring up in my needs and expectations. Keeping awake requires being well in mind, body, and spirit.  Parallel to a spring cleaning, I suppose we could have an Advent clearing, a decluttering from all that distracts us or blocks us from living honorably or from fully wearing the light of Christ.

The contemplative practices CB and I will be sharing are another way to step forward in prayerful alertness and preparation. It might reveal how sleepy we actually are if when we close our eyes we find ourselves nodding off, but it also gives us a chance to look into our darkness with a gentle light, much like lighting the candles one by one on the Advent wreath.

The hardest work this Advent will be in being gentle with ourselves. By the grace of God we do the hard work, but we have to set out to do it of our own accord in the first place. Knowing that the rewards are richness of life and life eternal, one would think we have plenty of incentive, but we are easily deceived by trials and temptations. That’s where good self-care and regular prayer practices help us reset and get re-aligned in our work as faithful disciples.

Maybe we could think of this time in Advent as “Showtime!” after all, waking to greet each day as an opportunity to radiate the light of Christ, introducing ourselves and our gifts for the New Kingdom. Navigating how to do that passionately but not obnoxiously exercises another muscle in discernment, but it would speak to our awareness of showing who we truly are by whom we serve and how we serve in love. As Christians, we don’t live in fear of the last days. It’s time now to prepare for and live with the real and present responsibility of serving God faithfully for all time.

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Annotated Confession, November 2016

This morning during Morning Prayer, I heard and said the confession with different ears, as one is prone to do in liminal times such as when one’s heart feels broken or constricted. In light of an election that nominated someone who condones violence, normalizes bigotry, and epitomizes hypocrisy, as an American, I feel the need to repent.* As a middle class person and someone who benefits from white privilege (even as a registered Cherokee), my socio-economic demographic largely voted for Donald Trump. I have heard more than one voice say that if our “group” wants to generalize, say, all Muslims as terrorists or all blacks as thugs, then others can likewise generalize all whites–especially all white Christians–as racist, homophobic, etc., etc. It appears then that I, too, have condoned violence, bigotry, and hypocrisy, among other things; it appears that I, too, have not respected the dignity of all human beings, which is in direct contradiction to my baptismal vows that I re-affirm regularly.

Before I turn to my neighbor to exchange the peace, and certainly before I presume to come to the Lord’s table, I confess my sins against God and my neighbor.

Most merciful God,

Yes, God, you are merciful. There is little, if anything, we have done to deserve your compassion or forgiveness, yet humanity continues to exist.

we confess that we have sinned against you

Me, myself, and I–as a whole, broken person–have sinned. I have turned away from you, in spite of you.

in thought, word, and deed,

I turn away from you in what I think, what I say, and what I do. It may not be obvious to others when I sin; it might be known only between you and me. It is known, though, and these sins are not right intentions, right speech, nor right actions. They are mine, and they are wrong.

by what we have done,

Yes, I take full responsibility for my actions and hold myself accountable to them.

and by what we have left undone.

How many times has my silence and/or inaction kept your mercy and grace from being manifest in the world or allowed hate to have a louder voice?

We have not loved you with our whole heart;

The heart was considered the seat of the will, if I remember my Old Testament studies. The heart is considered the seat of courage. The heart is the seat of our love and compassion. None of these have I wholly given to YOU.

we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

My head hangs heavily, and my heart constricts at the gravity of the truth of this statement. Yet I say it, for it is true. There is no qualifier for who is my neighbor or who should be excluded as my neighbor. It’s not even “others,” because to presume “other” is to exclude from our “group.” Love my neighbors. Love everyone around me. Everyone. I haven’t loved them as myself. I don’t even know if I love myself as you would have me be loved.

We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

I am sorry, and I humbly turn toward you, O God. I cannot simply say that I am sorry; I have to show it. I have to do something about it. It’s what I’ve been taught, and it’s what I teach my children. This repentance isn’t shameful: it is honest. It hurts because it reminds me that I have been wrong in my ways, that I have made bad choices: wrong because I let fear or anger govern my decisions, bad because they send ripples of negative consequences into the world, and I may never know the extent of the damage done. I cannot undo what I have done. With humility I can only move forward. I choose yet again to move toward God first; then I can move into right action.

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,

In the most merciful act imaginable yet never fully conceivable by my finite being, you already showed us how to give our whole heart by giving yours. Let me never forget or take for granted the abundance of your love and grace. For the sake of all that is good and holy, let me not disgrace the worth of your sacrifice.

have mercy on us and forgive us,

I see what I have done. I realize what you have done and what you continue to do for us who turn to you. Mercifully, you grant us life eternal, relentlessly allowing us to return to you when we have fallen away.

that we may delight in your will,

With your mercy and forgiveness, there is joy to be had. That joy is deep and wide when our will is aligned with yours. This joy doesn’t promise riches or ease, but it promises a fullness and richness of heart that is only known by, with, and in YOU. I want that wholeness in my life. I may not even realize that I actually yearn for it.

and walk in your ways,

With your mercy and forgiveness, I will not only feel your joy but also walk in your way, doing the things that are right and good not only for myself but also for all of Creation.

to the glory of your Name.

What I do for you gives YOU the glory. I may be praised for doing good, but we both know that without your mercy and forgiveness, your love and guidance, I’m headed toward destruction and death. All glory is yours, O God. Thank you for sharing it with me, and help me carry it forward with both hands and all of my heart.

Amen.

Again, I say, “Amen,” as I take care of myself and family with love, as I listen intently to as many as I can, and as I stand strong as a woman of God striving to do all that I can in love of God, neighbor, and myself . . . with God’s help.

I am only one voice among many, one heart in the multitude, but I stand with a promise to love.

Love trumps hate.

 

* This list is not all-inclusive, I know. I also know there are those who voted for Donald Trump for many reasons: for a change to shake up the government establishment, for his anti-abortion stance, for his appeal to the common man, for his Republican nomination, for his not being the controversial Hillary Clinton . . . for these and other reasons. What he represented throughout the campaign, however, spoke to fear-mongering and to belittling (and that word seems too kind) much of humanity and creation. From my perspective, our collective voice did not vote for love of God and all of Creation in this election. What seemed to win is a legitimization of exclusion, oppression, and disregard for others, and it is for this which I confess.

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On Conversion and Climbing Trees

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 | Psalm 119:137-144 | 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 | Luke 19:1-10

With faith the size of a mustard seed, with the slightest measure of hope in our heart and desire to see Jesus, we meet Him and our salvation.

I mentioned in the Faith Journey class that in the Episcopal Church we don’t really focus on conversion experiences. We’re not what you call “born-again” Christians. We recognize that when we are baptized in the name of the Trinity, we’re baptized into the Christian church, whether we’re infants or adults. When we’re mature enough to publicly proclaim responsibility for our own life of faith, we’re confirmed by our bishop. If we’re coming from another church where we were already confirmed, we’re received into The Episcopal Church. If we’ve turned away from the church for a good long while, maybe we seek to be reaffirmed. We’re going to celebrate most of these Christian milestones next week when the bishop visits. But don’t let our Episcopal terminology and propriety fool you; we are a saved people.

But I was wrong about something.

Of course we focus on conversion moments. Conversion is change and transformation. We people in the Jesus movement are people transformed by the love of God into disciples equipped by the Holy Spirit to share the Good News. This is fundamentally who we are and what we do. We are changed by Christ and seek to change the world. How could I miss the important process of becoming God’s dream???

It might have something to do with the fact that becoming who God intends us to be isn’t a neat and tidy process, nor is it the same for everybody. It’s not linear or predictable, and sometimes it’s not even rational. The truth of the matter is that as we become what God intends, we loosen our control over the outcomes, and we really don’t like even the perception of vulnerability or weakness on our part. Wouldn’t we rather just keep things as they are, even if they’re a bit restrictive, than turn the whole thing upside down and over to the unknown?

In Christian Ed this morning, we talked about “breaking through,” as in breaking through from one stage to the next. I guess it could be viewed as gradual conversion. We don’t wake up one birthday morning suddenly mature. We don’t take one step to the left or right and immediately change our worldview. We move, learn, grow, and make decisions that form and inform our worldview, and at some point, if we’re truly learning and growing, we reach critical mass and something gives way. It can be painful. Our physical body does this naturally: growth can be excruciating, awkward, and uncomfortable. Spiritually, socially, intellectually, emotionally–in all aspects of our lives–we go through various ages and stages, too.

Maybe you never want to change, and if you have grown into the full stature of Christ in the glory of God, I hope you never change, either. But for most of the rest of us, no matter who we are, we reach a point of being tired. Not tired in a I’ve-had-a-long-week kind of way but in a I-just-can’t-keep-playing-this-same-old-game kind of way. We’re tired of being a scorned tax collector. We’re tired of betraying our people. We’re tired of pretending to be wealthy and happy. We’re tired of acting like one size fits all. We’re tired of deceiving ourselves. We don’t have to be a dealer or hustler or user to be tired. We can even be the upright, pious, outstanding citizen, employee, parent, child, who is doing everything by the book and is completely exhausted by self-righteousness.

Today, we can take a cue from Zaccheus. Zaccheus was tired of upholding an air of callous authority and of depraving his neighbors of their hard-earned wages. He was tired of playing the game, but Jesus was resetting the rules. Jesus saw the outcasts and made them whole, healed the blind, and proclaimed even a tax collector justified. By the new rules, Zaccheus had a chance . . . not just a chance but a promise at a different life, a new life, one that would truly take him to new heights. The humble would be exalted. It’s like climbing the tree was a trial run. Could he risk running and climbing a tree, suffering the humiliation for doing so? It was better than putting himself directly under the feet of those who hated him. Could he actually be deeply changed? He wouldn’t know until he saw Jesus, but Zaccheus was ready for a change, uncertain yet willing. He was ready to be honest and to turn toward Jesus for help, whatever that looked like. He had to climb the tree. He needed to see Jesus. He needed Jesus to see him.

Early church father Cyril of Alexandria said,

“We all have to climb the sycamore to see Christ.”

How right he was.

In climbing the tree we shed whatever pretense of self-righteousness we thought we had. We rise above the crowd of judgement and the mire of our sins. In a sense, we climb the tree and are perched there in our nakedness, suspended by the branches of God’s creation. We see Jesus below us as man, feel Jesus with us as one crucified, and know Jesus as our resurrected Lord and Savior. How can we have a moment like this and not be transformed? By going through the excruciating motions of vulnerability, we break through the hard and fast rules we set for ourselves, allowing ourselves be changed by Christ.

But it’s not just one tree-climbing experience that brings us to the table with the Lord in a one-and-done salvation experience. (And please know we don’t all literally have to go out and climb actual trees!) Our life in faith is complex, as is our understanding of God. Paul said, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” Paul was speaking about love and our understanding of love in and through Christ. It’s easy for me to imagine Zaccheus as the “wee little man” from my childhood Sunday School songs and story Bibles. A cartoon face with wide, eager eyes, barefoot, and a colorful tunic, Zaccheus sits in a two-dimensional tree with thin but secure branches and bright green leaves, Jesus smiling up at him from below, the crowd blurry in the background. As a child, the important thing to me was that Jesus saw the oh-so-happy Zaccheus and called him down so they could go have supper together. With more mature eyes, I see the scene differently. Zaccheus took a risk to see Jesus who embodied Love in all its patience, kindness, generosity, truth, strength, perseverance, belief, hope, and endurance. Maybe Zaccheus hoped to be whole in a way he had never known before. He didn’t know how it would work exactly, but he was willing quite literally to go out on a limb with everyone watching.

We can be whole in Christ, too, but we still have to climb the tree to see Jesus, as Cyril said. It’s not easy to climb trees, to be vulnerable. We don’t want to climb because as adults, it’s embarrassing. Someone’s going to see a not-so-flattering angle of us or laugh at us. We might not be able to reach that first branch (because we’ve kept the trees perfectly trimmed), so we need help. We need someone to hear our plea, to help us call rehab, to take us to therapy, to make sure we haven’t given up. Accepting the offer to give us a boost, trusting someone to spot us should we lose our balance humbles us and prepares us for following the way of our Savior. Just getting to that first branch can be enough to change our perspective, putting us face to face with Christ.

We’re not able to do this thing called life on our own. We’re not expected to. We are expected to grow in faith. We are expected to trust God who has been faithful to us from the beginning. Any time we get caught up in a way of life that isn’t the way of Christ, we return to our sycamore and struggle to rise above our petty selves, to do the work of converting and transforming, breaking through to deeper understandings of our place in God’s dream, our work for God’s glory. We can thank God for strong trees and good friends, but most importantly, we thank God for meeting us where we are and still holding open the way of salvation.

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From Our Deepest Hurt to Our Greatest Love

 

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 | Psalm 66:1-11 | 2 Timothy 2:8-15 | Luke 17:11-19

The first experience for first year seminarians in Sewanee is to make a pilgrimage to Hayneville, Alabama, in honor of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a young white Episcopal seminarian from New Hampshire. Daniels saw the inequality in the South and believed so strongly in advocating for civil rights that he left the comfort of his home and school and went to join the movement in 1965. After being released from jail and going to get a soda, Daniels was shot in Hayneville in front of a convenience store, shot because he took the bullet aimed at a 17-year-old black girl named Ruby Sales, whom he had pushed out of harm’s way. Daniels became one of our modern day martyrs, and Ruby Sales has since continued advocating for civil rights and has become a public theologian, perhaps living into some of the roles Daniels would have, had his life not been cut short.

In reflecting on her youth, Ruby Sales says* she grew up with black folk religion “that said that people who were considered property and disposable were essential in the eyes of God and even essential in a democracy, although (they) were enslaved. And it was a religion where the language and the symbols were accessible, that the God talk was accessible, to even 7-year-olds.” She describes her parents as “spiritual geniuses who created a world and a language where the notion that (she) was inadequate or inferior or less than never touched (her) consciousness” and a world where “hate was not anything in (their) vocabulary.”  This “black folk religion” was her foundation and was ingrained in her so much that later when she thought she had left the church, she realized that even though she had left God, God had never left her.

Ruby reached this moment of realization, she says, “When I was getting my locks washed, and my locker’s daughter came in one morning, and she had been hustling all night. And she had sores on her body, and she was just in a state, drugs.

“So something said to me, ‘Ask her, “Where does it hurt?”

“And I said, ‘Shelly, where does it hurt?’ And just that simple question unleashed territory in her that she had never shared with her mother.”

Such an honest, open question given to her by “something” that we might call Spirit, opened Ruby to the reality of the person before her, this equally essential child of God. As Shelly shared the source of her pain, a relationship was forged, not only between Ruby and Shelly but also between Ruby and God. Ruby was reminded of her foundation in God and guided to pursue a way to do her work not as a Marxist but as a public theologian. In a moment of intimate relationship, Ruby went back and gave thanks to God maybe not in so many words, but her life work became about fighting to maintain this intimacy in relations, being able to look at matters straight on and ask, “Where does it hurt?” In the midst of this relationship-forging and soul-sharing, God shows up, and despite the pain, healing begins.

In nearly every conversation I’ve had in the past week, whether it’s been asked directly or offered willingly, people are sharing where they hurt. The images we see, the rhetoric we hear, the experiences we are having are chipping away at our resolve to be people of faith, people in relationship with one another and with God. It is so much easier to close our eyes to that which offends us, close our ears to that which assault us, close our minds to that which challenges us, and close our hearts to that which pains us. Perhaps like me you get caught in those moments where your heart physically hurts. Even as an enduring people who remember Jesus Christ, we are tired, and we are hurting. We may not have leprosy, but we know that we are sick, that we need Jesus’s mercy now more than ever, that we have no part of the kingdom of God without God’s grace, our only hope of salvation.

Getting to the kingdom looks like it’s a long way from here, looks pretty impossible, actually, but Jesus has shown us that it doesn’t matter who we are–black, white, or brown, native or foreigner–our faith makes us well.

Our faith saves us. Our faith makes us whole.

Our faith that says when we are baptized and die to ourselves, we live life in Christ; that when we endure all manner of suffering, we reign with Christ; that no matter how faithless we are, God remains faithful to us because God cannot deny God’s self. Our being in relationship with God depends on us, on our faith.

I tell my kids when they don’t want me to go somewhere or when they were younger and didn’t want me to leave them alone at night, that I am never separated from them because our heartstrings are connected. I would place one hand over my heart and my other hand over their chest, and they would almost always lay their hands over mine, holding me close. So when my heart hurts over images I see, over the discourse I hear, over the suffering of family, friends, and neighbors near and far, I imagine my heartstring to God being pulled, being strained. Even in the pain, I’m grateful that I still feel this connection to God in my care and love of others. I know that I can invite God into this pain to give me strength, to strengthen my hope and faith. But perhaps our heartstrings can be pulled so much and so often that they become numbed, that we forget we are connected to God from the beginning. Perhaps we can lose our foundation or close ourselves off in isolation, being turned away from God.

When we ask, “Where does it hurt?” we are asking so many things.

Where are our relationships strained or broken with ourselves, with others, and with God? When were we told that we aren’t essential? When was the accessibility of God taken away from us? When were we told that we aren’t valuable, that we aren’t beloved? These are incredibly powerful questions, and answering them honestly makes us vulnerable and weak . . . and yet creates space for God to restore us to wholeness, to restore and strengthen our heartstrings–our relationship–because God is reminding us that God’s still here, has always been here: won’t we just turn toward God, perceive God’s power at work in our lives, offer our thanks and praise, and get on with the work God needs us to do?

God already knows our hurt, feels our pain, and has already laid out the path to our health and salvation. As we are restored to wholeness and affirm the great power of God, we testify to others how our salvation is already accomplished. It’s not cheap grace or easy love. Jonathan Daniels saw what was hurting in our society and was determined to show up in a place that needed a witness of God’s love. Two months before his death, Daniels wrote, “I lost fear … when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I have truly been baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God.” Such is the union of a saint with God and the life of one burning fiercely with compassion for others. Ruby Sales took for granted her foundation in God’s love but witnessed the power of that Love when extending it to others. In asking and answering a simple question that touches on our pain, we open ourselves to receive God’s mercy in our weakness. No matter how undeserving we think we are or how unessential society has marked us to be, salvation in Christ is offered to all who endure with Him and glorify God.

We may not have grown up in black folk religion, The Episcopal Church, or any religion or church at all. But if we are here today, we are plunging into relationship with Christ, because if there’s something we are good at in this place, it is in remembering Jesus Christ and giving thanks and praise to God. We open our ears to hear God’s Word, we open our hearts to forgiveness, we open our mouths to proclaim, and we open our hands to receive. In all this we affirm our lives rooted in God, centered in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and we give our thanks. We have the security of our relationships with one another in Christ to share where we hurt and to see the way forward with hope through God’s grace, through Love, our heartstrings firmly connected.


 

* Krista Tippett’s interviews with folks have a way of speaking to what is true in so many aspects of our lives. I am grateful for this podcast that captures not only Sales’ experience but also the questions of other public theologians. http://www.onbeing.org/program/ruby-sales-where-does-it-hurt/8931 

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Holy Discomfort

 

Lamentations 1:1-6 | Psalm 137 | 2 Timothy 1:1-14 | Luke 17:5-10

“Increase our faith!” the apostles say to the Lord. Is it because they have seen Jesus heal so many times and heard him proclaim that faith has made one well? Is it because they don’t want to end up like the rich man across the chasm from Lazarus, suffering in death? Or is it because in this chapter of Luke, Jesus has just told his apostles not to be a stumbling block to others and to forgive continually those who are repentant? For all of these, YES! We can’t be healed, have eternal life, and empower and forgive others on our own: help us, Lord Jesus. “Increase our faith!”

Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to the mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.’”

The disciples look around at each other. It doesn’t sound like Jesus is granting their request. They have asked their faith to be increased, yet Jesus implies that they have no faith at all. That’s got to be a little awkward, and when things are awkward, the air seems to close in around us, our clothes fit weird, and we start looking for the nearest exit. If we can’t dismiss it or laugh it off, we want find the door.

But Jesus isn’t done.

“Think of your slave,” he tells them (presumably they all either had a slave or at least knew how the system worked). “Don’t you expect them to do their work without reward, without a ‘thank you’? You, also, are to do your work, and nothing is owed to you.”

Now in our minds we hear Jesus telling us we are worthless slaves. We’re not laughing. We’re ready to dismiss him and walk out the door without further thought. Or, we could sit in the discomfort a while.

Courtney Martin, considered “one of (today’s) most insightful culture critics,” emphasized discomfort in an interview I listened to recently. She said that discomfort is important and that it’s most often a “call to get back in relationship.”

So I find it interesting that Jesus goes from making us uncomfortable to talking about a master-slave relationship, which makes us even more uncomfortable. But this is Jesus talking, God incarnate. If God is making us uncomfortable, there’s probably something to it, something “of which our conscience is afraid.”

Our conscience, our inner voice sends us warning sirens that Jesus is telling his apostles, and therefore us, that we don’t have faith . . . because if we did, miraculous things would happen. Our conscience doesn’t like hearing that we are worthless slaves. Our inner voice is screaming to run the other way at the notion that we’re not good enough, worthy enough, or capable of doing enough to please God. And God won’t even give us thanks, anyway, since we don’t deserve it. Our conscience fears that which threatens us.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said many brilliant things during the DuBose lectures in Sewanee last week, some so brilliant they went right over my head! (I blame the lack of coffee during the first lecture.)* In the second lecture, Williams spoke about how we as finite humans encounter God, the infinite Divine. If I followed right, he referred to the philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard who said that the “passion of human reason longs to encounter that which we cannot conquer or control.” Williams emphasized this point that “our mental processes search what we cannot overcome, namely the God, the Divine.” It sounds to me like they’re saying we can’t help ourselves in our yearning for God, who will always be more than we can handle. Most strikingly, however, Williams said, “Humanity seeks death of divine logos because we can’t stand it,” and this, he said, figures significantly in how German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to say that the cost of discipleship is that the disciple “must either die or kill Jesus.”

Lest you think this is completely unrelated, again consider our discomfort at Jesus’ response to the apostles. Is Jesus really threatening us or our ideas of us, our illusions of the world as we create it, even our illusions of ourselves? In the presence of Christ, Williams says we panic; at once we are being asked who we are, and we are being called by Christ. We thought we knew how things worked, who we are and what we’re doing, but in the face of God, we find ourselves being asked, “Who are we to think that faith is ours to possess? What kind of relationship is Christ calling us into?” Everything we think we know can be shattered in the face of God, breaking open to what is really real, to what is true.

In this moment of discomfort, God is calling us into relationship through Christ in God’s own terms. The measure of our faith doesn’t empower us to work miracles: even a little “faith enables God to work in (our lives) in ways that defy ordinary human experience.”** Rather than focusing on increasing our faith, we are called to see ourselves as people of faith, empowered by the Holy Spirit to do God’s work in the world.

And what of our relationship to God as slaves? Maybe this comparison above all inclines us to want to destroy the Jesus before us. Our associations of master-slave relations have generations of stories to tell, most of which are incompatible to a sense of confident thriving in the world. How can one have a positive sense of self in complete subservience and submission to another?

Our associations and understandings of God as master are not the same as God as Master. Jesus reveals to us who God is. Williams said, “Jesus is God communicating. …Jesus makes us know what we didn’t know.” He reveals to us rather than remind us. Williams described it as a great “scandal,” that God “appeared in suffering, failing humanity, without power and in weakness.” But that’s what God had to do to reveal God’s overwhelming power. We couldn’t and can’t be forced into relationship with God; we get to choose it willingly. For God to express powerful, unconditional love, God had to be manifest in nonviolence, be helpless, be entirely for other. The divine is so much for other (for us), that it destroys the power of my illusion of being solely for myself.

The illusion of myself for myself alone is what dies in the presence of Christ if I accept the outpouring of God for me. That I would do this willingly, endlessly, without reward, and without demand might look and sound like servitude, but the reality in Christ is that it is mutual love grounded in grace. There is no question about who is Master and slave in this relationship, but the relationship is entirely redefined in the person of Jesus. We can give ourselves completely to One who gave of Oneself for humanity. That God is so selflessly for us speaks to the immense value of grace and the worth that imparts to our lives in relationship with God. We can scarcely conceive of such selflessness and grace. We might even fear it enough to kill it, as we did on a Friday so many years ago and as we do each time we turn away from or deny God.

The apostles are rather silent after Jesus speaks to them, but we know they kept following him; we do, too. We keep encountering uncomfortable moments, because if we think about it, we are always encountering God. These moments of discomfort are invitations to pause and discern where God is in the moment and what illusions are being shattered. This act of discernment of our holy discomfort is necessary so that we become accurate assessors of what is real and what is helpful. With practice, we become more adept at seeing whether what we want is aligned with or is in tension with “God’s dream” for the world.

And our vision is clearest when our focus is set on Christ.

 

* Quotes from the lectures are derived from my lecture notes

** R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible, “The Gospel of Luke,” p. 322.

 

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Shrewd Stewards

 

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 | Psalm 79:1-9 | 1 Timothy 2:1-7 | Luke 16:1-13

We all have those teachers or authority figures in our lives who seem so hardheaded and resolute that we just don’t know if we can tow the line they set. We might grumble about them, but we can’t help but learn from them and thus come to respect and maybe even love them. One such professor in seminary (who shall remain nameless) emphatically stated that there is no such thing  as “Stewardship Season.” We have the Season after Pentecost, and we have Advent; we have no distinction or color for “Stewardship.” And that was that. So I guess over the years church leaders have hopped onto the “stewardship season” boat despite the best liturgical advice, undoubtedly at the behest of vestries looking forward to making balanced budgets come January. It probably helped that the lessons coincided with a focus on wealth and money-management, and if they didn’t, there’s plenty in the gospels to choose from to work in a line or two. In fact, there’s actually lots in our tradition about being a good steward, period. We’ve come to realize that it’s not just about managing our pocketbooks but about managing all of our resources: our health, time, relationships, environment, you name it. Everything that we have–all of it, tangible or intangible–has some sort of value.

Today we’re being schooled on how we manage our valuables.

The dishonest manager or unrighteous steward has to provide an account to his master or lord because he’s been accused of squandering his master’s property and is getting fired. He knows he’s too weak to dig and too proud to beg, so he comes up with a way to provide for himself after he gets the boot. I couldn’t help but imagine this manager being a kindred of the former Wells Fargo consumer banking chief Carrie Tolstedt; perhaps you’ve read about her in Fortune or the Washington Post. Some squandering has occurred, but 27 years in the business with a seven-figure income didn’t come about because she’s a fool. Think fast and get out fast. After 27 years, who isn’t ready to retire, especially if it comes with something to the tune of $124.6 million in assets? That’s a lot of olive oil and wheat. It still remains to be seen if she has to give any of the payout back. (I wonder if any of the 5,300 employees who lost their jobs in the past five years because they didn’t meet quotas for opening new/fraudulent accounts have any input.) The CEO of Wells Fargo conveyed praise for Tolstedt, saying she “had been one of the bank’s most important leaders and ‘a standard-bearer of our culture’ and ‘a champion for our customers.’” His words sound an awful lot like a master’s commendation.

Jesus gives us this parable. When Augustine pondered why Jesus gave us this parable, I imagine him imploring with disgust as he preached that Jesus “surely did not approve of that cheat of a servant who cheated his master, stole from him and did not make it up from his own pocket.” Perhaps after a moment of composure, he suggests that the focus isn’t on the servant’s cheating but rather “because he exercised foresight for the future. When even a cheat is praised for his ingenuity,” Augustine says, “Christians who make no such provision blush.”

The cheat of a steward gets praise even from Jesus for exercising his shrewdness and insuring his future. The steward in the parable lowered the bills by getting rid of interest or commission and garners goodwill from the debtors. By the time the master realizes what’s happened, he’s going to honor the accounts as they are or lose honor with his customers. (Even Wells Fargo is paying back its fraudulent charges.) The master is saving face, so to speak, and even the manager gets by with his misdeeds that ended up bringing about goodwill toward himself. It’s like when two villains look at each other and say, “Well played.”

Jesus doesn’t deny the good move.

With this parable, Jesus points out that the corrupt masters and managers are getting away with their misdeeds while the people are suffering under the weight of all our systems and even our best intentions. The words ring a little too true, a little too clearly:

“…the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

It’s like Jesus is challenging his proclaimed “children of light” to up our game. He did this 2,000 years ago, and it’s as true today as ever. “You can serve God and act shrewdly,” he’s telling us. “Think fast and act on my behalf, which is your behalf. We share eternity together.”

That choice to serve God is our first shrewd move, managing our free will by aligning it with God. Rather than promote our own agenda or save our own face, we serve God. As children of the light, we “have seen the kingdom dawning in Jesus’ works and in His calls for a radical commitment to God’s power to deliver people from corruption and oppression.” We stand up for what is good; we love our neighbors; we come to church; we pray. We collaborate with those who differ from us, reconcile with those whom it’s hard to love, and help those whom we are uncertain about. We manage our diversity, hospitality, and generosity knowing that we are merely stewards of God’s creation.

Jesus isn’t necessarily telling his followers they and we aren’t being faithful and serving God alone. He’s showing us how easy it is to fall to the wayside, how significant a little dishonesty can be, how easily we can fool ourselves.

In her book The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist shares her meeting with Mother Teresa, her lifelong role model and inspiration. Upon arriving at the Old Delhi orphanage, Lynne picked up the crumpled newspaper at the door, finding within it a newborn baby girl. She removed the newspaper and wrapped the tiny infant in her shawl before handing her to the nun who greeted her. While waiting for Mtr. Teresa to return from bailing two girls out of jail (because they had turned to prostitution), Lynne worked alongside the nuns in caring for the 51 children under the age of two. She noticed the cooing and singing before turning to her work, and found herself in what she called “a state of grace.”

Finally, Mtr. Teresa emerged from a shadowed hallway with “her familiar figure stooped over. She was smiling and glowing,” accompanied by a devoted black lab. Lynne kissed her hands and “instinctively kissed her sandaled feet” before they sat at the simple table together. Lynne thanked her for being her lifelong inspiration, asked for prayers for her family, and talked about her work with The Hunger Project. “In her presence,” Lynne writes, “I felt an unconditional love and connectedness to the whole world so profound that I could not hold back my tears and so I spoke to her through them.”

This beautiful, intimate moment was shattered by a large and flashy couple–wealthy, loud, and demanding–barging in to get their picture with Mtr. Teresa. Lynne was given the camera to take the picture and watched in horror as the rich woman tried to force Mtr. Teresa’s stooped frame upright. They didn’t even say “thank you,” not even to Mtr. Teresa. Lynne says that Mtr. Teresa continued with the conversation after they left as if nothing had happened but that she hardly heard her through her own rage toward the intrusive couple.

Weeks later, Lynne received a letter from Mtr. Teresa, handwritten. In it Lynne is admonished by Mtr. Teresa because while she shows great compassion for the poor, Lynne showed no compassion toward the wealthy couple. She took no heed “of the suffering of the wealthy: the loneliness, the isolation, the hardening of the heart, the hunger and poverty of the soul that can come with the burden of wealth.” From that point on, Lynne vowed to open her heart and have compassion for the wealthy and the poor and hungry alike. Mother Teresa opened Lynne’s eyes to see how she had surrounded the rich couple with her anger and hatred, while Mtr. Teresa showed them as much love and respect as the orphans she tended.

MtrTeresa-and-childIs there a better example of a child of the light than Mother Teresa? Well, she is one of many. She embodies one who is smart/wise/discerning/shrewd enough to tell the difference between what will pass away and what will endure. She shows us how with God’s help we can act decisively, committed to God’s power to end corruption and oppression. No, we won’t all be saints, but we do all have a choice as to whom or what we serve. The most powerful, valuable thing we have is our love and devotion.

Jesus keeps teaching us how to use them well.

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Content Machine?

“Become a content machine.”

(That’s what I remember the ad saying.)

What do they mean? Would a machine ever be content? Can one really manifest contentment on demand?

My train of thought these days often meanders toward thoughts about how to be more efficient and productive while also creating space for deep thought and compassion, allowing time for relationships and creativity. I don’t think that’s what the ad was about, though.

Apparently there are books about content . . . website content. Content. Material. Words that make up the stuff we read on sites–not content as in a state of being. Ah, sweet homographs.

We can mechanize a lot of things, but contentment isn’t one of them. We can be trained and follow procedures and schedules for creating optimized content, but our path toward manifesting contentment involves an ongoing process. Even if we make it our goal to become one heckuva content person, I don’t think it computes to just wake up and churn out contentment.

But if we could . . . perhaps it would look like

  • waking up in the morning, scanning the world and our surroundings and realizing there is enough for us all;

  • living into my vocation, meeting the world’s need with my joy;

  • surviving the journey through pain and sorrow without losing hope;

  • remembering to give thanks, to be grateful, and to pay it forward on occasion;

  • knowing that it’s not always about me but that I always have a choice.

We could be content machines, and maybe we are; only our programming has gotten corrupt. It stretches my imagination and reminds me of conversations with my husband about artificial intelligence, which leads to an endless round of questioning and theorizing (and topics for another day). Thankfully, each day is a kind of reboot to our system, each morning a fresh start, and that is good for us all.

Content, indeed.

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Crisis and Good News

 

Jeremiah 2:4-13 | Psalm 81:1, 10-16 | Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 | Luke 14:1, 7-14

If you were in Christian Ed last week, you heard Jill Johnson from CCMC (Cooperative Christian Ministries & Clinic) talk about the Bridges Out of Poverty program. She pointed out that if we have our sight set on a goal, be it getting out of poverty or simply finding our way on a map, it’s tremendously helpful to have that “You are Here” star pinpointing our location so we have an accurate picture of reality and can establish a sense of direction.

If we know where we are, we have a better chance of getting where we want to go.

So, where are we?

Are we, like Jeremiah’s audience and like the Hebrews, at a time of crisis? Like the house of Jacob, have we defiled our land, transgressed against God, and chased after that which does not profit? Like the Hebrews in the epistle, have we become frustrated with or suffered shame for our faith? If we evaluate where we are right now, maybe it’s not too far of a stretch to say that we are in crisis, too. These past weeks in Christian Ed we’ve intentionally highlighted the poverty crisis, which is closely linked with the homeless crisis, the unemployment crisis, the mental health crisis, and so on. There’s also the refugee crisis, water crisis, and other humanitarian crises worldwide.

You probably realize by now how much I like to know what we really mean by the words that we use and say. So when we say things are a crisis or in crisis, do we mean that they are situations in dire straits, with no simple solution or easy way out? Or when we use or consider the word “crisis,” do we borrow from the medical connotation and see “crisis” as meaning a turning point–as in a disease–that indicates an outcome pointing either toward recovery or toward death? We seem to have blended the two: I understand a crisis to be a situation at a tipping point that could either lead toward that which is life-giving or death-dealing in some way, shape, or form, depending on the next move. If every issue we face is at a point of making or breaking it–“it” being life itself–then we have very important decisions to make.

Jeremiah calls his people out on their crisis. Even though he thought he was just a boy, God empowered Jeremiah to speak out, to be the voice of God among the people. We hear today that two evils are proclaimed: the people of the house of Jacob have forsaken the Almighty, “the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” Their crisis? Do they even recognize it? Without God, they will perish. Without God, their life abundant will devolve into conflict, death, and destruction. Forsaking that which gives them life, the people have sought to provide for themselves, taking it upon themselves to choose and to control their lives, their laws, their loyalties. Their point of crisis hinged on whether or not to live in relationship with God. Jeremiah tells them, speaking for the LORD, that they stand at the precipice and choose death by turning away from God.

I’ve probably told you before that I often tell my children to “make good choices.” I’m thinking that I want them to do what is right and good, but if I’m completely honest with myself, there’s part of me that knows they can reach a crisis moment when they least expect it, and the choice they make will hinge on the cusp of what is life-giving or death-dealing. I could probably rationalize every moment as life-giving or death-dealing: are we relating in the moment in a way that promotes life, especially life in Christ? Or are we turning away from God in the moment, even in how we look at a person? If sin is turning away from God, and sin leads to death, is every moment I turn away from God and toward death a moment of crisis? It would seem so. Maybe I should start telling my kids to “make life-giving choices” in case they lose sight of what is good…because we are so easily lost when left to our own devices.

Our self-made cisterns aren’t enough. We cannot create a holding tank for God’s love or grace or mercy. Our self-interest isn’t enough. We will never have enough, be enough, understand “enough” unless we know in the depth of our being that there is always enough in God. There’s enough water, enough food, enough shelter, enough employment, enough opportunity, enough resources, enough love . . . for all of us.

The crisis of our moment in history hinges on whether or not we are willing to sacrifice our self-sufficiency that we might tip the scale toward that which is truly life-giving and in full relationship with God. Are we willing to evaluate whether our personal agendas, however great or small, are for a greater good or for our personal glory? And, yes, we do so much good in this place and in this world. Yet for all the good we do, why is our society, our world overrun with systemic crises?

There is brokenness in the systems, just as there is brokenness in each of us.

There’s a beautiful sculpture that I’d love to see in person. It was in one of those videos on Facebook highlighting the most fantastic sculptures in the world. I searched out the artist’s page, where she has more images of it. A naked woman, sitting upright with her head uplifted, is cracked, as if fissures throughout her body just split open. Having been thinking of crises all week, I couldn’t help but think of cracked cisterns and of brokenness. I thought of all the women I hear stories about in the realm of human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking. Women who are trapped in a situation where they may have shelter and something to eat but who are depleted in value, respect, and love. Women who reached that point because at some point in their life, they were violated. Maybe they were molested or raped at a young age or were neglected as children and adolescents and found solace in whatever addiction numbed the pain. Maybe they were trapped in a moment of vulnerability, kidnapped completely, or blackmailed into a situation they couldn’t escape. This broken woman represents to me all victims of crisis–male and female–wounded . . . but not yet dead. In the sculpture, light shines brightly through the cracks. And is it a smile on her face? This woman knows the source of life and the reward at the resurrection of the righteous. Maybe she’s not a victim. Maybe she’s just bursting forth with light, exposed and vulnerable, but so filled with light, she cannot contain it herself; I think this is more what the artist has in mind for the sculpture titled “Expansion.” To me, it is a powerful image of brokenness overcome.

All of our crises point toward what is broken and cracked, and all of our crises present to us a choice on how to proceed. We choose where we are going, either toward death or toward life. Thanks be to God, there is that ever-flowing fount of life that shines forth and pours through our cracks if we allow it.

The letter to the Hebrews was written to a people in crises, a people beginning to lose faith. After addressing the concerns of the community, the writer advises them to “Let mutual love continue,” as if to say, “Remember, church, where you are as a community of faith…whose you are as a community of faith.” Remember hospitality, compassion, fidelity, generosity, contentment, and faith. For the Hebrews as for us, these are fundamentals in our relationship with God, essentials in living in covenant with God, the light that shines through our brokenness. “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Our greatest sacrifice is our willing surrender to live in relationship with God, to show up at a moment of crisis and pray and say, “Here I am, Lord,” even in our uncertainty and imperfection. With the fount of Light pouring through our humanity, we do our best to do what is good, what is life-giving, knowing that the source of our strength and power is not ourself. We do good and share what we have, and this is pleasing to God

We are, each of us, in a crisis. The good news for us is that we know it, and we know where we want to go. We follow that living water to life eternal. We choose life in Christ when we pray, “thy will be done,” and this is part of our daily prayer. Please pray the Lord’s prayer every day, three times a day if you can. This helps keep our personal GPS on track so we can “make life-giving choices,” pleasing not only our mothers but our God.

We know not only where we are but whose we are, so we head in the direction of life, not death.

That’s what we do as a community of faith, as people of faith. We choose to share what we know gives life. We help one another stay connected to our Source. And in our times of crisis, we stay oriented to God and move forward, taking our own steps in the direction God leads but also moving forward together as one body, into the flow of life abundant.

 

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Ask. Search. Knock.

Hosea 1:2-10 | Psalm 85 | Colossians 2:6-19 | Luke 11:1-13


Many years ago, a disciple waited for Jesus to finish praying that he might beg of him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” I wonder if Jesus looked around at his followers, sort of bewildered, and thought, “What have we been doing all this time that they don’t know how to pray?” But Jesus gives a simple yet profound prayer, topped off with a little parable speaking to the payoffs of persistence and a not-so-subtle reminder of how great and gracious the heavenly Father is when it comes to responding to His children. As much as I would like to elaborate on each line of the Lord’s Prayer and swap stories about perseverance and answered prayers, these chairs are only comfortable for so long.

For our time in the Parish Hall, Lynn has very cleverly snuck in not only one of my favorite hymns but also a key to our message today: “Seek ye first.” (Now, for 8 o’clock, we don’t get to sing it, but hopefully you know it well.  Hymn 711, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.”) It’s one of my favorites because it’s one of the first songs in The CampMitchellChapel-evening2016Episcopal Church that got into my heart and mind. I learned it at Camp Mitchell on retreat. No matter where I sing it, I imagine the echo of women’s voices singing it in the round, some voices breaking into parts. It has a Taizé-like quality to it: a simple hymn, easily repeated. The hymn draws from verse 9 of today’s reading, the second verse echoing what Jesus said to the disciples, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Then we sing our refrain of Alleluias.

As far as I can tell, we’re flat-out being told that we’ll get what we ask for and find what we’re looking for, and if we just keep knocking, we’re going to get the door open. According to St. Bede, it’s the door to the Kingdom of God we’re striving to enter. Our asking is our prayer. Our searching is our proper living. Our knocking is our perseverance in our life and prayer. These three things help grant us entrance to the Kingdom of God, alleluia!

I think Bede’s onto something, and I certainly don’t question what Jesus says to his disciples. I do wonder, however, at how we think of asking, seeking, and knocking. We might get so caught up in asking and seeking and making sure we’re knocking at the right door that we get a little preoccupied with our self-righteousness and piety. In such cases, we end up playing the part of the hypocrite, our prayers false and our lives full of pretense but no depth. Or what of the faithful who pray devotedly, live righteously, and persevere mightily and who cannot seem to get a break? Maybe we know a few in that category, too.

As we look to Jesus for guidance in our praying, it’s important to think of how we ask of God.

Here I say “God” so freely, but Jesus instructs us in our prayer that we address the almighty as “Father,” perhaps because the name is so holy and revered, so hallowed, that we dare not presume to address the Most High directly . . . except as the most beloved Father we share through Christ. Before we ask the Father for anything, we acknowledge that it is God’s kingdom we wish to be manifest. Here the Matthean addition of “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mtw 6:10) elaborates on the priority of God’s will over our own. The foundation before we ask for anything is that we acknowledge our God in holiness and our God in relationship to us. We also surrender ourselves as obedient children of God. Our surrender is to a good and loving God of whom we don’t necessarily have to ask, we sort of state to God: “Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” In our petitions, we are asking of God but also reminding ourselves of what God provides. We ask that God’s will be done and that we have the sustenance, forgiveness, and perseverance to be a part of the kingdom. So, how do we ask of God? Humbly and expectantly. No matter how old we are, we are but a child addressing our heavenly Father, and as such we do expect to receive, though we might not understand how the Holy Spirit is at work in God’s will or how God’s will is at work in us.

Our understanding can be improved, however, when we persist in our searching. It’s important to consider how we search for God.

Honestly, I wanted to say that it’s important to consider how we “look” for God, but we “look” for our keys when we’ve lost them. When we have asked something of God and are searching for where Spirit is at work in our lives, we aren’t just looking for signs, though we do hope to see them. In our searching, there is hope and yearning. In our searching, there is commitment. Maybe it plays on the psychology of intention, but when we focus our search on something, we become more aware, more likely to notice whatever it is we are searching for. We needn’t look any farther than ourselves. Rowan Williams says, “Prayer is the life of Jesus coming alive in you, so it is hardly surprising if it is absolutely bound up with a certain way of being human which is about reconciliation, mercy, and freely extending welcome and the love of God to others.” One of the best examples of this kind of Jesus-becoming is told in our book of saints, Holy Women, Holy Men. This past Wednesday, we honored Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman. Reading their incredible bios, Sojourner Truth at one point took to the streets as an evangelist, proclaiming the Word. What she found on the streets, however, were people cold and hungry and homeless and unemployed. No doubt they needed the Word, but they needed daily bread and coats. They needed a place to live, so Sojourner established a home for them. What better way to preach the Gospel? What better way to discover God in the midst of the people? When we are living our lives as prayer, we can find God even when we think we aren’t searching. Finally for this morning,

 it’s important to consider where we think of God.

Where we think of God hinges on a fairly simple premise: is God here or in a great beyond? Are we praying to some far off God whose door to the kingdom is in some nearly mythical “heaven” that we’ll only know in death? Or, do we believe that the Holy One is closer than the air we breathe? Where is the door we need to knock on to let the kingdom come? Maybe it’s no farther than our mind and hearts. We have asked for it and sought it, why wouldn’t it be here for us to enter into? As comforting to us as it might be that the kingdom can be found in the here and now, there is great responsibility in choosing to knock and enter into the graciousness of God’s kingdom. It means returning to prayer again and again, discerning moment to moment. But it also means doing so in fullness of Spirit, as a revealed child of God, and for that glory, we heartily sing our alleluias before we get back to work, asking, seeking, and knocking.

 

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On Listening

Amos 8:1-12 | Psalm 52 | Colossians 1:15-28 | Luke 10:38-42


How grateful I am that we are able to come together this morning. We may have an altered location, but we have set apart a time and place to come together in worship and prayer, no matter what is going on in the world around us. We have set apart a time and a place to engage the Word of God, to offer our thanksgiving, and to receive the body and blood of Christ into our person. All this we do as is our habit, our custom. For most everyone here, it’s just our Sunday morning routine. Many could do it without a prayer book or bulletin. Indeed, you can do it without saying anything at all. You could just go through the motions, literally, but I invite you this morning

to be fully present.

In this holy place where more than two or three are gathered, I assure you that the presence of the Lord is here. I invite you this morning

to open your heart.

As sure as the presence of the Lord is here, so also is the Spirit speaking to us. I invite you this morning

to listen.

If we are present, open, and listening, we will not leave this place the same person as when we first entered. A true encounter with God leaves us a changed person.

Getting to that place of encounter, though, can be difficult. Even now, some of your minds may have already wandered, my voice a blur in the background to the interior monologue of your mind playing your tape of things to do, reminding you of things you might have forgotten. Or maybe you’re still struggling to be present, as I invited you to do just a minute ago. No, it hasn’t been long, but our brains these days are wired to focus for a max of about three minutes. If we were communicating online, our focus would only last about 45 seconds. I’m not making these numbers up. I listened to a program a couple of weeks ago called “Infomagical: BOOTCAMP.” “Infomagical” was about a 5-day challenge to fight information overload, but in this particular podcast bootcamp, they focused on the one thing that was most effective for being productive and anxiety-free: single-tasking. They interviewed a neuroscientist who affirmed that we truly only do one thing at a time, though we can shift quite quickly between our many tasks, cashing in a bit of glucose in exchange each time and increasing our stress levels. It’s no wonder Martha gets frantic. If we continue to follow the pace set by media Martha&MaryWindow-StLukesHSoutlets and social media networks, we’re all on a trajectory leading to burnout and exhaustion.

Then there’s Mary, who has chosen to listen to Jesus, devouring his every word. Mary knew how to single-task. We might say, like Augustine, that she is feasting on the Word before her. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus so transfixed upon him that we don’t hear her speak. Whether her mind is racing with questions or whether she’s struck with awe, we don’t know. But Jesus knew. Jesus knew she chose to stay attentive to his word, completely abandoning her duties as a first century woman. Jesus probably knew the weight of her heart and the truth of her soul.

For when we are present and open-hearted, we tend to reside in truth . . . vulnerable, naked truth.

When we listen in this state, it feels like another dimension opens up. It feels like an alternate reality because the walls that divide us are let down. My armor is cast aside; our barriers disappear. I don’t need a hearing aid or a microphone to hear or be heard because my whole being is attuned to you. Our minds track our thoughts, our eyes speak volumes, our hearts beat in time, and our voice when we speak gives voice to our soul. I hope with all hope that you’ve experienced this kind of listening with another. It is a gift. I can only imagine what Mary experienced listening to Jesus, both in what was said and unsaid.

Reflecting on this act of listening, I am reminded that the invitation to sit and feast on the Word is always available. CB last week reminded us that amidst all the distraction of the media and our own worries and concerns, that it is the Bible to which we should return for our guidance. Even as Jesus last week reminded us of our command to love our neighbors, this week he reminds us, too, to be attentive to Him, to be present and open to Him, and to listen to Him.

If you think that you’ve gone too far away from a life lived in truth or that it’s been too long since last you felt the presence of Christ as the word whispered in your heart, I share this story with you.

There is a practice of holy listening that I’ve experienced. I learned it through Parker Palmer’s work. As a Quaker, Palmer is quite familiar with the art of listening. He explains that often we need a third thing, something between us and Wisdom to invite that suppressed or too quiet voice to be heard. Like a wild fox in the forest, Wisdom waits for us to be very still, waits for us to be ready for the truth so we can hear it with love and without fear.

A poem makes for an excellent third thing because a good poem captures a moment yet reveals a universal truth which can then relate to our lives in myriad ways.

To a few men at the Garland County jail a couple of months ago, I brought a poem. Before I brought the poem, I brought the desire to hear their truths. I brought the belief that each of them is a beloved child of God. I brought the desire to listen to them and to help them listen to God.

With mutual trust we read the poem aloud. We highlighted words or phrases from David Whyte’s poem “Sometimes.” Some of the phrases that stood out were “move carefully,” “frightening requests,” and “questions that have no right to go away.” We shared what the phrases made us think of and what the images might mean to us individually. Each of us entered that sacred dimension of holy listening.

The poem is set in the woods. I invited the men to imagine walking in the woods with a beloved companion, someone they loved, trusted, and truly respected, someone who always had their back. And we asked questions of this beloved companion, honest, open questions that I didn’t know the answers to. We also let the companion respond to our questions. After a period of silence, most shared their responses, and I wish you could have felt the stillness of the room, how even in a cinderblock, windowless space, there was the presence of the holy.

Daring to break the silence, I invited them to regard their companion as their own best self, the child God created them to be. If that was too hard, they could regard their companion as Jesus. Either way, the encounter they had was with the Wisdom within, the Truth that abides in the Word, the Truth in which we are all held together through Christ Jesus.

With an “Amen,” I brought our exercise to a close. One of the guys looked at me directly and said, “I’ve never done anything like that before. That was intense.” Other guys nodded, and I saw in their eyes that some truly had encountered something. It wasn’t necessarily joyful and awesome. It wasn’t something they could necessarily give voice to beyond affirming its intensity. Whether their encounter changed them or not, that’s up to them to choose, but God was there to speak to them, to offer an invitation.

We don’t have to have a third thing to get to the one thing that matters most: opening our heart to Christ. It doesn’t simply mean opening the door to let Jesus in then getting on with our agenda. Opening our hearts to Christ means deeply ingesting the Word of God and receiving the fire of the Holy Spirit.

Opening our hearts to Christ means living in this world with a love so fierce that our hearts break in the suffering and bleed in the violence, trusting that our love in Christ remains steadfast and true and heals us all.

We listen to the Word as it fills our hearts and minds and then . . . and then we rise to do the work we have been given to do.

When we leave this place today after our prayerful encounter with God, we leave changed that we might change the world.

Amen.

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